As summer begins, I pay more attention to book reviews, dreaming of a few August days in the mountains with a sack of books and no deadlines to prevent me from reading them from cover to cover. This is the season when I look for books that can’t be simply browsed through, or read from time to time without losing the thread of their argument. Two very different books by two very different writers have recently caught my eye for their authors’ wordplay. They just might make this year’s list.
Witz, described by Christian Lorenzten in The New York Observer as “A nice Jewish boy’s naughty big novel” is New Yorker Joshua Cohen’s fifth novel. Weighing in at eight hundred pages, Lorenzten is making an understatement when he describes this novel as simply “big”, but Cohen had a hefty mission in mind when he started writing Witz: to exorcise a Jewish tradition of writing Holocaust novels with a happy ending, a category that the author refers to as “Jewish kitsch”. In his interview with Lorenzten, Cohen states his belief that “Kitsch needs to have its own built-in critique. Anything that’s nostalgic ought to also be tragic and disquieting at the same time.” Previewing Witz in Google books, Cohen’s inventiveness with the word “kitsch” caught my attention:
Understand, what we’re confronting here is a reversal, peripeteia:
call it the evil of banality, the protocol by which we enkitsch
the lives of the no longer living…
I grew up hearing the verbs “kitschify” or “to make kitsch out of” something, but I liked Cohen’s streamlined enkitsch the minute I saw it.
Another play on words that recently caught my eye was the title of José Bada’s new book, PeNsadillas Ciudadanas. “PeNsadillas” is a literary hybrid of the words meaning “thoughts” and “nightmares” in Spanish.
PeNsadillas is a compilation of what come close to being aphorisms. It begins with an invitation to the reader and thirty-three thoughts about the genre the author has invented. As to the nature of a “pensadilla”, Bada writes:La pensadilla es como una fórmula mistral, artesana, como receta de boticario cuando boticarios no ejercían de tenderos —
The “pensadilla” is like a magistral formula, handmade, like a
pharmacist’s recipe in the times before pharmacists all became
The pensadillas that Bada offers his readers are not rigid prescriptions , but rather invitations to the reader to contemplate the labyrinth of dilemmas that every citizen in an increasingly complex and globalized world must navigate in search of a greater understanding of self and a more harmonious coexistence with the other. He shares his thoughts on a wide spectrum of these dilemmas, from the impact of immigrants upon the country that receives them to the need for a more sustainable model for development, always emphasizing that the contemplation of every question should naturally lead to another. I especially liked pensadilla five, chapter twenty “Todos Somos extranjeros” (We are all foreigners):Todos somos extranjeros, ciudadanos de una patria futura en el exilio—
We are all foreigners, citizens of some future
country waiting in exile
José Bada served as Aragon’s Minister of Culture in the autonomous community’s first freely elected government after the fall of the fascist regime and many of his proposals as Minister were too visionary for the times, even for his own political party. The “pensadillas” of the title of his latest book may have roots in his battles to transform society through political channels bogged down by petty bureaucracy and personal interests. As utopia couldn’t wait, Bada moved on from politics to social activism. He was a founding member of la Asociación Española de Investigación para la Paz (The Spanish Association for Peace Research) and has continued to write, teach social anthropology, and serve international organizations such as the United Nations Public Information Department. An informed and activist public is a holy grail for Bada. Much of his writing concerns the role of individual awareness in social responsibility and change. PeNsadillas Cuidadanas covers a wide territory of personal reflection and experience with both a scholarly profundity and the sense of sardonic humor that characterizes the people of Aragon. Its brief 207 pages make it just the right size to take along on a hike in the mountains.
The biographies of José Bada and Joshua Cohen are starkly different. At an age when Bada was studying Philosophy in Valencia, Cohen was a rather bohemian correspondent for the Jewish Daily Forward in Eastern Europe; while Cohen was busy writing the be-all and end-all of Jewish literature, Bada was founding and guiding the The Spanish Association for Peace Research.What the two authors have in common is a rigor of thought that rejects the facile and the banal and an impressive talent for expressing the infinite details of the bigger picture of our world. Writers like Cohen and Bada, as different as they are, have a public because very special publishers have had the courage and vision to print and distribute their books. Witz was published by Dalkey Archive Press based in Champaign, Illinois and PeNsadillas Cuidadanas is distributed by Prames, based in Zaragoza, Spain. Their catalogs offer many interesting options for serious book lovers looking for an intelligent summer read.