First Paragraphs & Autobiographical Novels

Alex Waterhouse-Hayward- Buenos Aires, September 2013 — Photograph — Nora Patrich

El aspecto del cielo sobre el puerto era el de un televisor sintonizado en un canal muerto.

Neuromante, William Gibson

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

Neuromancer, William Gibson

As first paragraphs go that one is pretty good. Many times when I am about to select a book at a bookstore or a library I look for that first paragraph. If it is not a mystery novel, I sometimes go to the last page.

One of my favorite first lines is from the Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. When I read it in the volume given to me by a librarian at the main branch of the Vancouver Public Library I realized why I had wanted to read the memoirs for such a long time.

My family is American, and has been for generations, in all its branches, direct and collateral.

Sometimes I read a first line in a book and Spanish, I am wowed and then I wonder how it would translate.

This happened recently when I read Tomás Eloy Martínez’s fantastic 1995, Santa Evita which I located in the Spanish section of the VPL. I soon read the English translation as I found Santa Evita in English at the McGill Branch of the Burnaby Public Library. Here are the two in Spanish and, in English as translated by Helen Lane:

Al despertar de un desmayo que duró más de tres días, Evita tuvo al fin la certeza de que iba a morir. Se le habían disipado ya las atroces punzadas en el vientre y el cuerpo estaba de nuevo limpio, a solas consigo mismo, en una beatitud sin tiempo y sin lugar. Sólo la idea de la muerte no le dejaba de doler. Lo peor de la muerte era la blancura, el vacío, la soledad del otro lado: el cuerpo huyendo como un caballo a galope.

On coming out of a faint that lasted more than three days, Evita was certain at last that she was going to die. The terrible pains in her abdomen had gone away, and her body was clean again, alone with itself, in a bliss without time or place. Only the idea of death still hurt her. The worst part about death was not that it occurred. The worst part about death was the whiteness, the emptiness, the loneliness of the other side: one body racing off like a galloping steed.

The above first paragraphs are from what I see as a curious, new and most interesting trend. This is to write a novel in the first person that reads as an autobiography even if it is not. Tomás Eloy Martínez magically intrudes on Evita’s words in the second chapter:

In this novel peopled by real characters, the only ones I never met, were Evita and the Colonel [not Perón but a very Prussian like Colonel Moori Koenig of the Argentine Intelligence Service]. I saw Evita from a distance, in Tucumán, one morning on a national holiday. as for Colonel Moori Koenig, I found a couple of photos and a few traces of him. The newspapers of the period mention him openly and, often, disparagingly. It took me months to meet his widow, who lived in an austere apartment on the calle Arenales and who agreed to see me only after putting me off time and time again.

This trend now includes Jerome Charyn’s lovely (in first person) The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson — A Novel.

Joyce Carol Oates in a review of Charyn’s novel in the New York Review of Books writes of this trend:

Of literary sleights of hand none is more exhilarating for the writer, as none is likely to be riskier, than the appropriation of another — classic — writer’s voice. In recent years there has emerged a company of remarkably imaginative, sympathetic, and diverse fictional portraits of literary predecessors: Michael Cunningham’s The Hours (Virginia Woolf); Colm Tóibín’s The Master (Henry James); Jay Parini’s The Last Station (Tolstoy); Edmund White’s Hotel de Dream (Stephen Crane, with appearances by Henry James and Joseph Conrad); Sheila Kohler’s Becoming Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë, with sisters Emily and Anne).

Jerome Charyn’s introduction to The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson — A Novel is most interesting and inspiring:

She was the first poet I had ever read, and I was hooked and hypnotized from the start, because in her writing she broke every rule. Words had their own chain reaction, their own fire. She could stun, delight, and kill “with Dirks of Melody.” I never quite recovered from reading her. I, too, wanted to create “ [a]perfect — paralyzing Bliss,” to have my sentences explode “ like a Maelstrom, with a notch.”

Because of Charyn’s enthusiasm and skill I am looking forward to reading shortly his new novel, a first person “autobiography’ on Lincoln, I Am Abraham.

The first paragraph of another first person “autobiography” on Evita by the well regarded Argentine novelist Marcos Aguinis, La Furia de Evita, 2013 reads as follows (I will have to translate it into English)

Ya no temo decir lo que quiera. Tampoco hablar en contra de mí. Sacar la cabeza de las aguas limpias y las aguas sucias en las que nadé, rodeada de peces de colores y cocodrilos hambrientos. Necesito compartir una montaña de dulces y basura. Es lo que voy a hacer con este libro.

La Furia De Evita, Marcos Aguinis, 2013

I am no longer afraid of saying anything I may want to say. Nor to speak against myself. To come to the surface of the clean waters and the dirty waters in which I swam, surrounded by multicoloured fish and hungry crocodiles. I need to share a mountain of sweets and garbage. That is what I am going to do with this book.

La Furia de Evita, Marcos Aguinis, 2013

My translation

I think I could go on and on with this. I will not but I will linger with one of my favourite Cuban novelists that I read in Spanish and or in English, depending what I can find at our VPL. Carlos Padilla (formerly in some books, Carlos Padilla Fuentes) writes of a contemporary Havana in which he masks in a most subtle way the shortages of Castro’s regime. His protagonist in the novels that most interest me is a police detective called Mario Conde. I would describe the man as a Cuban Marlowe, not a private dectective, but a policeman who suffers that existential angst that Chandler injected into his novels. Conde is a sort of tropical Marlowe. His novels have different titles to those in Spanish. Four of them are listed as the Havana Quartet, Havana Black, Havana Blue, Havana Red and Havana Gold. The latter is Spanish is Vientos de Cuaresma which would translate as Lenten Winds. I find the first paragraph interesting as it mimics Chandler’s Santa Ana wind.

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.

Raymond Chandler, Red Wind

Here is Padura’s first paragraph from Havana Gold:

It was Ash Wednesday and, eternally punctual, a parched choking wind swept through the barrio stirring up filth and sorrow, as if sent straight from the desert to recall the Messiah’s sacrifice. Sand from quarries and ancient hatreds stuck to rancour and fear and the rubbish overflowing from bins; the last dry leaves of winter scattered, coated with the stench of the tannery, and the birds of spring vanished as if anticipating an earthquake. The dust cloud smothered the evening light and each act of breathing required a conscious, painful effort.

Havana Gold, Leonardo Padura

Translated by Peter Bush

I would like to point out here that whatever merit you might see or not see in the above it is all possible thanks to our well stocked Lower Mainland libraries.

Link to: First Paragraphs & Autobiographical Novels

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Into Bunny Watson. I am a Vancouver-based magazine photographer/writer. I have a popular daily blog which can be found at: