Alberto Fuguet - Beltrán, a Chilean seismologist, uses a list of fifty favorite films to narrate his émigré childhood in California and his return to Santiago as a ten-year-old during the turmoil of the nineteen-seventies
Alberto Fuguet, The Movies of My Life, Trans. by Ezra E. Fitz,
Read a chapter excerpt from The Movies of My Life
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Beltrán Soler is from Chile, a land in constant movement. A seismologist who knows more about the science of tectonic plate movement than about life, he is cocooned in a world of seismic data, scientific articles, and natural disasters. Beltrán believes he can protect himself from the world around him by losing himself to theoretical pursuits, but thousands of feet above the ground he so meticulously analyzes, on a flight to L.A. -- the capital of film and the city in which he was raised -- he has a conversation that sparks in him a firestorm of nostalgia. Suddenly, Beltrán finds himself recalling the fifty most important movies of his life -- films both precious and absurd that affected him during his childhood and adolescence in the 1960s and '70s.
From Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory to Close Encounters of the Third Kind to kitschy disaster films such as Earthquake!, as well as cult classics of '70s sci-fi such as Logan's Run, Beltrán connects with his past by remembering the films he saw, the people with whom he saw them, and even the theaters in which they were shown. Recalling one movie after another, he reconstructs the unusual history of his eccentric and dysfunctional family, coming to terms with his obsession with the movies that helped define him -- often whether he wanted them to or not.
Set in the oddly parallel worlds of Nixon's suburban California and Pinochet's Santiago de Chile, this ingenious novel throws us into the claustrophobic world of an adolescent who tries to escape from a tumultuous and fragmented existence, one caught between two languages, two cultures, and two families that watch the same movies. Written in the eloquent, compelling, and often hilarious style that has brought Alberto Fuguet world renown, The Movies of My Life is a book about film and about how movies embed themselves in our souls, helping us all share a blinding fondness for the magic of make-believe.
Fuguet is the central figure of a loose group of young Latin American writers-a movement known as McOndo-who identify themselves in opposition to magical realism. In the author's second pop-culture saturated novel to be published in English (after Bad Vibes), seismologist Beltran Soler tells the story of his childhood via a catalogue of movies that influenced him at pivotal moments. The setup is stiff-the adult Beltran is on his way to a conference in Tokyo when he is inspired to hole up in a hotel room in L.A. and begin writing his film-linked memoirs-but once Fuguet begins piecing together Beltran's lopsided, bicultural life, the novel speeds along, overflowing with ironic insight. Born in 1964, Beltran lives in Encino, Calif., until he is 10, when his family (father, mother and younger sister Manuela) move back to Santiago. Bourgeois in Chile, but barely middle class in the U.S., the family inhabits a weird in-between world. In Encino, Beltran reenacts The Poseidon Adventure with his friends; in Santiago, the family across the street (dubbed the Chilean Waltons by Beltran) wins a family singing contest with its Sound of Music medleys. The ongoing political upheaval in Chile feels like another Technicolor drama, with a few alarming incursions into reality. But the novel's true turmoil is personal: Beltran's difficult adjustment to life in Chile, his adolescence and his family's collapse (his father leaves his mother the night Saturday Night Fever opens). The movie titles heading each chapter serve as subtle triggers for reminiscence, but never become a structural straitjacket, and Fuguet's pop archness is tempered with honest feeling. Despite the rocky start, this is a fresh, notable effort. - Publishers Weekly
The Movies of My Life has an appealing conceit: the narrator, Beltrán Soler, recounts his life in fifty movies, describing when he first saw specific films as well as the surrounding circumstances as a way of recounting his childhood and youth. There's obviously a good deal of potential in this sort of presentation of a life-in-films, but Fuguet doesn't go all out with it. For one, it takes almost a quarter of a book before he begins with the film-chapters. And even then his character seems unsure about the approach, e-mailing the list to someone he just met on a plane ("maybe I don't have anyone else in the world to send my list to") and offering coy warnings you never want to read in a novel ("I've never written a thing in my life").
Beltrán is a seismologist -- a lot to burden a protagonist with too: hey ! you can never be sure you're standing on firm ground ! your world can get shaken up and come crumbling down at a moment's notice ! etc., etc. He's on his way to Japan, but extends his layover in Los Angeles -- a return to his youth, of sorts as he -- like author Fuguet --, spent his early childhood there before moving back to Chile. His family is frayed and flung apart, which he describes in greater detail over the course of his film-accounts, and the book begins with him receiving word of the death of one family member. The phone call with his sister informing him of the death ends with an exchange that suggests at least some of what will be dredged up in his reminiscences:
"When did everything get so fucked up ?"
"I don't know. Things weren't always so bad, Beltán. For a while we were just what we wanted to be."
"Things were good for a while, yes."
"Then it all went downhill."
"And we're still feeling the aftershocks."
Subtlety, you may have guessed, is not one of Fuguet's strong points.
When he finally gets around to the film-chapters -- a few pages, at most, on each film, in chronological order -- the book becomes even more pedestrian. While the present-day Beltrán was of some interest, his childhood-account is, by and large, too unexceptional to be of much interest. If Fuguet had really built the memories up entirely around the films it may have worked better, but instead the films are often barely more than a memory-aid to bring him back to a certain time or event. (It doesn't help that the American first edition of the book confusingly misprints the date seen of the very first film (as 1996, instead of 1966), a bit of uncertainty that makes it even harder to trust the gimmick.)
The movie-chapters are divided into two sections, of twenty-five films/chapters each, the first from when the family lived in California, the second from when they moved back to Chile, after the fall of Allende. Like the author, Beltrán was born in 1964, and his film-watching tracks those years; it's unclear how readers from other generations will react to what he saw, since what the descriptions evoke obviously hinges also in large part on the reader's own recollection of films such as the Disney-productions of those years (including the Kurt Russell-as-Dexter Riley films ...), Jan-Michael Vincent and Bonnie Bedelia in Sandcastles, and, of course, all the disaster movies of the day -- Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure, and, of course, Earthquake.
There are a few inspired moments, such as when he sees that Soylent Green is playing in Santiago shortly after they move there, and he notes:
I didn't know New York, but 1974 Santiago seemed a lot like the decrepit Manhattan of 2022.
But Fuguet doesn't seem to trust his premise very much, going so far as to undermine it by writing early in the Chile-section that:
There was so much to see in Santiago that going to the movies quickly became unnecessary. Life in California was so uneventful that we turned to movies to give us everything we couldn't find in the neighborhood; in Chile, however, everything was so intense -- so completely strange and inexplicable -- that people went to the movies only when they wanted to kick back and relax.
Unfortunately that doesn't come across in his account, as life in Chile isn't much less uneventful than the family's life in California was ..... But it does serve to leave the reader wondering what the point of recounting his film-viewing-experiences is.
The Movies of My Life is very much a novel about Beltrán's extended family and how it barely holds together (and ultimately falls very much apart). There are some enjoyable earthquake-ideas tied in (as his grandfather was also a noted seismologist), but that whole strain of the novel also feels a bit forced and artificial. There's a decent story here somewhere, but most of it is -- as presented -- unexceptional, and Fuguet is too unsuccessful in tieing it together with his film-accounts.
This feels like a very carefully planned and outlined novel, based on a clever idea, where the filling simply can't sustain structure. Fuguet is certainly competent, but for the most part he tries far too hard, leading also to awful attempts to be deep and meaningful, as when he writes:
It's best to arrive in Los Angeles at night.
If you get there during the day, it's too easy to see the truth: the city doesn't have angels, dreams, or stars. But if you arrive at night, the idea of sleeping vanishes, no matter how tired you are, and you feel -- if only for a moment -- privileged. You feel that it's not just by chance that you're here, where movies are born.
There are enough interesting snippets -- especially about life both in California and in Chile in those years -- throughout to make the book readable, and the film-name-dropping can be fun to follow (especially for those of us of Fuguet's generation) but the book falls far short of any of its ambitions. - http://www.complete-review.com/reviews/chile/fugueta.htm
This unusual novel skillfully blends a young man’s memories of early childhood years in California and his native Chile, chronicling the most memorable incidents of his formative years through the fifty most important movies of his life, each a vehicle into his past. Now a grown man and a seismologist of note in Chile, Beltran Soler has buried himself in years of scientific studies, enabling a solitary existence, one with few family ties or sustained personal relationships.
On a flight from Chile to Japan, Beltran has a stopover in Los Angeles. There, ensconced in a valley hotel room, he begins a painful journey through the minefield of his childhood. His earliest memories are filled with the warmth of family relationships as many relatives immigrate to California, settling outside L.A. in the San Fernando Valley so reminiscent of their beloved Chilean landscape. Beltran’s parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents are his touchstones, even when his father distances himself from wife and children. The extended family is as culturally rich and diverse as any in recent fiction, providing important childhood connections and emotional security.
Yet the bi-cultural lives of the Solers take a toll on the family identity. Fleeing Pinochet’s Chile for Nixon’s United States, the family acclimates to California, their cultural identity blending with their new lives. They don’t want to be viewed as displaced South Americans, “relying on nothing but their foundations of supposedly being white” in denial of their Latino roots, yet they are not accepted as white. Once moved back to Chile, Beltran moves through his adolescence with the awkward grace of any young boy on the path to manhood, filled with confusion and vague longings.
Both grandfathers have a profound influence on Beltran’s development: one is a frivolous poseur, the other a demanding, if respected, patriarch. Along with his father, these role models are emotionally distant and unengaged. Although Chile is in constant political upheaval, the family is safely cocooned in their scientific pursuits. It isn’t surprising when Beltran looks back over those early critical years and is as far removed from passion as a moviegoer watching the drama unfold on the screen.
Beltran has reached a seminal moment in his life and writes compulsively day after day, confronting long-suppressed memories, the secrets and anguish of a past never acknowledged. The evolution of childhood innocence has left him far removed from loved ones; purging the past, Beltran faces the pain of abandonment that he has so successfully avoided. Clearly, the need to bond, to establish sustaining personal connections, is not constricted by place or culture; there is no passport required for crossing into the state of emotional availability.
With an elegant simplicity, author Alberto Fuguet paints in The Movies of My Life a portrait of loss, the importance of family and the reality of cultural identification. No longer willing to live in isolation, Beltran reaches across the miles to those he loves, returning to the affection of time and place that so defines him. - Luan Gaines
The incredibly creative plot device that steers Alberto Fuguet's novel The Movies of My Life centers around a list-a list of 50 movies that forms a brilliant vehicle to explore a lonely childhood.
Beltrán Soler, a young seismologist from Chile, is on his way to Tokyo for a conference when he strikes up small talk with a fellow passenger who shares Beltrán's interest in the movies. When Lindsay, the fellow passenger, mentions a young director who came up with a list of 50 movies that influenced his life, Beltrán is intrigued. His precise, clinical mind is enticed by the idea of a systematic list; one of his favorite books as a child, after all, was The Book of Lists by David Wallechinsky. As Beltrán manufactures his own list, he peppers the descriptions with details remembered from his childhood and in the process, writes a touching memoir of sorts.
One doesn't have to be a movie buff to appreciate the beauty of Fuguet's writing (and his list) or to understand the role movies play in our lives often even without our knowing. One of the great strengths of The Movies Of My Life is in reminding us of the role movies have as placeholders in marking our most important moments. True to life, the memories that some of the movies provoke in Beltrán are often very tangentially related to the actual essence of the movies themselves. For example, the movie Trapped (starring James Brolin and Susan Clark) always reminds Beltrán about the "dog incident" that his sister had when she was a child. The movie features ferocious Dobermans chasing after Brolin, and all it takes is this trigger to remind Beltrán of the time when his sister's cheek was bitten off by a Great Dane: "at the end of that summer, something dog-related happened that made me think immediately of Trapped."
Young Beltrán, we learn, was somewhat of a loner. Having been born in Chile, Beltrán spent much of his early years in California, specifically in LA in a neighborhood called Inglewood. "Inglewood was a run-down, semi-industrial neighborhood, stacked with bodegas and Laundromats," remembers Beltrán, "an inexpensive, itinerant area that attracted immigrants fresh off the plane." Beltrán's own family was one such set of immigrants-his mother came knowing no English and had "neither friends nor money." Beltrán remembers his father as a hard-working bread deliveryman forever enticed by the charms of the Golden State. Beltran likens him to the actor Steve McQueen: "McQueen smiled little and knew his limitations: he was no great actor, but he chose his roles well. Similarly, my father chose his location well: California. Outside of the Golden State, he was intimidated, out of context, as if he didn't know his lines, the language, the strange local customs. Chile managed to give him very little, and eventually he cast it off entirely."
Soon enough, many from the Soler clan migrate to California, all looking for a new place to call home and desperately trying to make their way in a gringo society. The pressures of the new world eventually take their toll on Beltrán's uncles and the family slowly but surely falls apart. Beltrán beautifully observes:
"Not having anyone besides family will end up breaking up that very family. If you put all your strength on a single plate, it will have to give way. And that's just what happened: the family cracked, and eventually the crack became a fault. Being left without a social class, without a circle of friends, the Solers had to invent new hatreds, angers, and fears to mitigate the fact that they had found themselves so far removed from the place that they once belonged to. The solution was as simple as it was drastic: stop being Latino. This, ultimately, condemned them doubly: it alienated them from those with whom they had a natural bond while at the same time precluding them from ever truly assimilating into the world of the gringos, who never considered them as equals."
Unfortunately for Beltrán, his mother can never "cast off Chile" like his father does. On one vacation visit back to the country, his mother decides that moving the kids back to Chile, to a place where they would be "safe," was the best thing to do. So Beltrán is uprooted from all that he holds dear in California, and brought back to Chile. His peripheral status in both societies (not quite a gringo, not quite Latino) makes him feel like the perpetual foreigner. As in California, movies continue to pepper Beltrán's life in Chile, and in them he seeks refuge, even enjoying visiting the movies alone. "Life in California was so uneventful that we turned to movies to give us everything we couldn't find in the neighborhood," says Beltrán, contrasting California to his new home, "in Chile, however, everything was so intense-so completely strange and inexplicable-that people went to the movies only when they wanted to kick back and relax."
Eventually the young Beltran grows up and becomes a seismologist in his grandfather's footsteps. The family slowly disintegrates-there are no violent upheavals, but gradual falling away of relationships. Beltran's father is forever restless upon his return to Chile and finds that the lure of California is so strong that he is willing to abandon his family to return to the Golden State.
Alberto Fuguet is one of the leaders of the McOndo movement, a literary taskforce of sorts that works hard to dispel the notion that most South American literature is "magical realism." Instead, the McOndo writers belong to the global village-their thoughts and works are very urban and are painted on vast modern canvases. The Movies of my Life is one such example.
Young Beltrán might be at sea in his real world, forever the outsider, but in movies, he finds refuge. The movies speak one language. Once the lights are dimmed, it doesn't matter if you are in Cine Providencia in Santiago, Chile, or the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood, CA. The magic the movies weave is the same. It is this one constancy that becomes an anchor in an otherwise erratic childhood.
"My father left-abandoned us-on August 5, 1978," says Beltrán, "the same night that Saturday Night Fever opened." The touching sentence captures beautifully the essence of Fuguet's delightful novel. It paints a picture of a young boy whose only way out of a miserable childhood was to mark its biggest upheaval with one of his favorite movies. - Poornima Apte
I’ve been thinking too much about reality entertainment lately. It was inevitable that I would find myself reading Alberto Fuguet’s The Movies of My Life (Rayo) this summer—this summer of House of Cards-like congressional hearings and plotlines, this summer of Russian spies and the Paris Climate agreement debacle, and the fact that there’s an actual reality TV star in the middle of it all. In short, I’ve been wondering: how does a country cope with disillusion? Or rather, how does a person deal with its dissolution?
To be accurate, these questions are not at the crux of Fuguet’s The Movies of My Life, though the tropes surrounding them are prominent within the book. The novel centers on the protagonist, Beltran Soler, a seismologist and misanthrope who has largely shielded himself from the trauma of the world by losing himself in theoretical seismology. But everything changes when a chance encounter with a woman on a flight from Santiago, Chile, to Los Angeles, California, (en route to a seismology conference in Tokyo) triggers an unpacking of memories from his largely unexamined life through fifty films that expound upon everything from Beltran’s émigré life in California to his return to his birthplace of Santiago to Salvador Allende’s death to life under Pinochet’s Chile.
At the head of each chapter are headings that detail the movie seen, the director, and the place and time in which Beltran had seen it. Beltran writes these essays with the intention of, presumably, sending them to the woman he met on his flight from Santiago. Instead of flying on to Tokyo, he bunkers down in a Los Angeles hotel and within short distance from his childhood home of Encino. What ensues is a character study in fifty memories—some banal, some traumatic, but all of them resonating with the texture of life as lived through a child’s eye, even those memories associated with late adolescence or adulthood.
One of the more poignant essays is associated with the movie Soylent Green directed by Richard Fleischer. The film takes place in New York in the year 2022. The city is devastated, and nine-year-old Beltran makes the link upon his landing between the fictional New York of 2022 and the Santiago that he finds in front of him.
Beltran recalls the image of his grandfather buying the paper on their way home from the airport. He remembers the headline reading, “PINOCHET: WHOEVER DOESN’T APPRECIATE THE HEAVY HAND, GET OUT.” He then segues into the great reveal of the film: “It’s assumed that Soylent is a combination of lentils and soy beans but, ultimately, Heston discovers Soylent Green is made out of surplus human beings.”
Of course, Chile’s dirty war is only vaguely alluded to here. But it’s this kind of interplay between entertainment, personal memory, and political context that’s increasingly intriguing to me the further we move into 2017 where our reality TV has quite actually (and suddenly) become the mainstream political and the personal—all of it one and the same indivisible reality. One can’t help but wonder what led up to this? And existentially how do we, as citizens, cope with disillusion when echoes of it ring out everywhere? In the news, in our sports, in reality TV. Is there refuge? And if so, what does that look like?
If Beltran, the protagonist, teaches us anything it’s that it might just look like the texture of our own extant lives, our own personal dramas infinitely more interesting and formative than the context (sometimes) in which we find ourselves, though also derived from that context as well. There’s something reassuring about that—the idea that I can only live this moment I’m living in and that’s it. I can only change what I can change. In effect, it’s only in memory that we can gain the larger gravity and value of the moments that have formed us.
There’s one problem in 2017 though: everything feels formative, everything feels significant. And to disconnect from that would be to disconnect from the very social fabric itself. I think Beltran feels this, too. It’s part of what drives him into his theoretical pursuits in Chile. But somehow 2017 feels different.
It feels like every day we’re unpacking some new trauma, some new earth-shattering legislation or event that’s forever altering not only the reality we live in but the people we’re becoming if we dare to examine the undercurrents in our own lives.
Americans might find less sympathy from countries who have lived through similar trauma before, Chile being one of them. But then I wonder, is it fair to say anyone has lived through anything quite like this before? Like what Americans—and really the world—are living through in the present? Not to say lived through the macro elements of what we’re seeing—the strongmen, the consolidation of power, the war on the American free press, etc.—but the way in which the misfortune we might be experiencing is, in part, brought on by the very entertainment that distracted us from looking too closely at this kind of trauma in the first place. Specifically, I’m talking about our American cravings for reality TV and how that’s shaped everything: our insatiable desire for disaster porn news cycles, our hypercurated social media, our continual refreshing of Twitter feeds in the doctor’s office, and underwriting all of that, our incredible human desire to stay connected to one another.
Was it our seemingly innocuous American cravings that led to this? Or was it the more tragic and simple desire for human connection that built our echo chambers and pushed us further away from some collective truth? Perhaps some combination of both (and more). But then, maybe not knowing, or striving to know, is the whole point.
As Beltran had a moment of reckoning, maybe 2017 is ours. Our time to turn off the TV, look dissolution in the eye, and then feel that transformative discomfort. - Daniel Peña
The New York Times Book Review
Alberto Fuguet and Gonzalo Martinez, Road Story, Trans. by Samantha Schnee: excerpt
Simon feels like his life is in parenthesis-he got divorced, he embezzled from the company he worked for, he said he'd come back but didn't. Now, he tours the southern states of the US in a rental car. On the road he meets Adriana, a woman from Bolivia who shares the feelings of loss and insanity that have taken a hold of him. Road Story, part of a larger volume of short stories, is the critically acclaimed story of a Chilean trying to find himself in the middle of the barren landscapes of the border between the us and Mexico.