Angélica Gorodischer, Kalpa Imperial (1983, 1984)

November 23rd, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Dijo el narrador:  – Ahora que soplan buenos vientos, ahora que se han terminado los días de incertidumbre y las noches de terror, ahora que no hay delaciones ni persecuciones ni ejecuciones secretas, ahora que el capricho y la locura han desaparecido del corazón del Imperio, ahora que no vivimos nosotros y nuestros hijos sujetos a la ceguera del poder; ahora que un hombre justo se sienta en el trono de oro y las gentes se asoman tranquilamente a las puertas de sus casas para ver si hace buen tiempo y se dedican a sus asuntos y planean sus vacaciones y los niños van a la escuela y los actores recitan con el corazón puesto en lo que dicen y las muchachas se enamoran y los viejos mueren en sus camas y los poetas cantan y los joyeros pesan el oro detrás de sus vidrieras pequeñas y los jardineros riegan los parques y los jóvenes discuten y los posaderos le echan agua al vino y los maestros enseñan lo que saben y los contadores de cuentos contamos viejas historias y los archivistas archivan y los pesacadores pescan y cada uno de nosotros puede decidir según sus virtudes y sus defectos lo que ha de hacer de su vida, ahora cualquiera puede entrar en el palacio del Emperador, por necesidad o por curiosidad; cualquiera puede vistar esa gran casa que fue durante tantos años velada, prohibida, defendida por las armas, cerrada y oscura como lo fueron las almas de los Emperadores Guerreros de la dinastía de los Ellydróvides.  Ahora cualquiera puede caminar por los anchos corredores tapizados, sentarse en los patios a escuchar el agua de las fuentes, acercarse a las cocinas y recibir un buñuelo de manos de un ayundante gordo y sonriente, cortar una flor en los jardines, mirarse en los espejos de las galerías, ver pasar a las camareras que llevan vestos con ropa limpia, tocar con un dedo irreverente la pierna de una estatua de mármol, saludar a los preceptores del príncipe heredero, reírse con las princesas que juegan a la pelota en el prado; y puede también pararse a la puerta de la sala del trono y esperar su turno simplemente, para acercarse al Emperador y decirle, por ejemplo: (pp. 15-16)

The narrator said:  “Now that the good winds blow, now that the days of uncertainty and the nights of terror have ended, now that there are no accusations nor persecutions nor secret executions, now that caprice and madness have disappeared from the heart of the Empire, now that we and our children do not live subject to the blindness of power; now that a just man is seated on the gold throne and the people quietly look out from the doors of their homes to see if the weather is nice and they dedicate themselves to their affairs and they plan their vacations and the children go to school and the actors recite from the heart what they are to say and the girls are enamored and the old die in their beds and the poets sing and the jewelers weigh the gold behind their little windows and the gardeners water the parks and the young discuss and the innkeepers add water to wine and the teachers teach what they know and the storytellers tell old stories and the archivists archive and the fishermen fish and each one of us can decide according to their virtues and defects how to live their lives, now anyone can enter the Imperial palace, by necessity or through curiosity; anyone can visit that great house that was for so many years veiled, prohibited, defended by arms, close and dark as were the souls of the Warrior Emperors of the Ellydróvides Dynasty.  Now anyone can walk along the wide tapestried corridors, seat themselves on the patios to hear the fountain water, near to the kitchens and receive a doughnut from the hands of a fat and smiling assistant, cut a flower in the gardens, look at yourself in the gallery mirrors, see the maids passing by dressed in clean clothes, touch with an irreverent finger the leg of a marble statue, salute the tutors of the hereditary prince, laugh with the princesses that play ball in the meadow; and also can stand at the door of the throne room and take turns just to approach the Emperor and say, for example:

This first paragraph, all two sentences of it, from Argentine writer Angélica Gorodischer’s 1983 novel, Kalpa Imperial, contains a lot within it.  As the narrator proceeds to narrate the golden age that has dawned upon the Most Vast Empire That Never Existed, there is the sense of a darker past, one in which the false accusations and secret executions did occur, where the emperors were not open and forthright with their subjects but instead shuttered their doors and ruled by the force of arms.  Through the course of eleven linked stories, Gorodischer traces the lineages of this empire, which over the course of dynasties rose and fell precipitously, only to re-emerge with a new dynasty or golden era.  Kalpa Imperial feels simultaneously like an idealized empire similar to that of Calvino’s Kublai Khan in Invisible Cities and a fable of humanity’s short-sightedness and capacity for greatness adulterated with petty vices.

There is a rhythm to Gorodischer’s prose, as the purposely distant tone of the storytelling narrator provides the sense that what is unfolding has transpired long in the past (and will yet occur).  There are few characters, per se, however there are character types that appear frequently over the course of the stories.  These characters can be venial or magnanimous, seeking to draw power into themselves or to take it back from a corrupt imperial government that has lost sight of its purpose.  The peoples of the mountainous north and the southern jungles exist on the periphery of imperial power; sometimes they invade, other times they are conquered and their peoples chafe under repressive governments (the east and west are not really mentioned).

Kalpa Imperial‘s deals with power and its use, as well as historical/cultural inheritance.  While it is easy to say that the Most Vast Empire That Never Existed is an analogue of sorts to dynastic China, that would be reducing the scope of Gorodischer’s thematic ambitions.  Instead, one may argue that in presenting such a familiar historical model for the fictional empire, Gorodischer is opening the door for a discussion of power/state relationships that contain more contemporary applications.  After all, when the book was first published, the brutal junta that ruled Argentina from 1976-1983 and who precipitated the disastrous Malvinas/Falkland Islands War with Great Britain was collapsing.  With that in mind, the opening paragraph takes on a very different perspective than if it were just simply a fictional parallel to Imperial China.  Yet there are warnings that current peace may fade, as story after story notes the decline of the “good” dynasties and the rise of the more militant, power-hungry ones who end up sapping the Empire of its resources and its subjects’ good wills.

Gorodischer’s writing is outstanding throughout this 256 page book (which originally constituted two volumes; the second was published a year after the first).  Although I no longer have the English translation that Ursula Le Guin did a few years ago, I did read it and I seem to recall that she captures the essence of Gorodischer’s writing quite well in her translation.  This is fitting, considering that at times when first reading the book back in 2003 that I thought of how the “little details” in Gorodischer’s writing resembled some of Le Guin’s best work:  the characteristics of different societies, the power relationships shown through brief interactions, the feeling that it were a historian or a cultural anthropologist who were narrating these tales.  Yet despite these similarities, Gorodischer’s writing does not feel like a pastiche of Le Guin’s best work, nor does it, beyond the surface similarities that Gorodischer herself has noted in the past, resemble those of her primary literary influences, J.R.R. Tolkien and Italo Calvino.

Kalpa Imperial is a mosaic novel whose entirety is stronger than the sum of its parts.  While there are very few “weak” stories within the eleven, when viewed as a whole, each story builds upon its predecessors and creates a stronger, more nuanced narrative arc than the eleven stories do by themselves.  Having re-read this book about a half-dozen times over the past nine years (twice in English, four times in Spanish), Kalpa Imperial is one of those rare books where a re-read improves the reader’s overall impressions.  It truly is a modern classic of Latin American literature and by it being perched between realist and speculative spheres of fiction writing, it should appeal to a broad spectrum of readers.  Very highly recommended.

Lincoln (2012 film)

November 22nd, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

Abraham Lincoln has fascinated historians and the American populace for over 150 years.  He has been condemned as the person whose anti-slavery rhetoric became a direct cause of the American Civil War; his ideals forged a truer, more united states of America.  He was a wartime tyrant to many, suspending the writ of habeas corpus; he personally corresponded with and pardoned hundreds of deserters.  He could not show the depths of his grief when one of his sons died; he wrote a letter to a grieving mother that is immortalized as one of the finest examples of English-language letters.  He was in origin a Southerner whose name, even today, stirs up some resentment among certain Southerners.  He was a leader who was known as much for his indecision as for his monumental decisions.  In short, Lincoln embodied a host of contradictions that when encased in one human soul, became somehow larger than life and even more important after his death than during the crucial 49 months of his Presidency.

These qualities have led to hundreds of biographies and a few cinema treatments over the intervening years.  In the just-released Lincoln, director Steven Spielberg tackles a defining moment of his Presidency, yet one that 147 years later is largely whitewashed in high school and college US History coursebooks.  Many have long presumed that the Civil War was largely fought over slavery (an issue that to this date stirs up fierce arguments among Southerners; see the comments to this post I made in April) and that the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment (which abolished chattel slavery and non-criminal involuntary servitude) was a foregone conclusion.  If anything, that amendment perhaps stirred as much fierce debate and controversy than any other amendment outside of later civil rights-related amendments (14th, 15th, 19th, 24th).  It actually failed on numerous occasions during the course of the war to get the requisite two-thirds vote in both chambers of Congress before it could even be submitted to the states for ratification.  Lincoln focuses on the pivotal month of January 1865, where after the 1864 elections the Republicans had gained more seats in Congress and the lame duck session was debating the bill before the March turnover, in which the Thirteenth Amendment is finally passed.

It is an interesting decision to focus on a relatively neglected moment in Lincoln’s life/Presidency, but Spielberg and the screenwriter Tony Kushner do an outstanding job of portraying the many faces of Lincoln during this time.  The movie opens with Lincoln outside, greeting troops, black and white alike, after they are being deployed for the winter campaign.  This scene, in which soldiers from both of the segregated regiments recite parts of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address to him, serves as a foreshadowing of events late in the movie, when the final vote is to be held and those who have the most at stake for the amendment’s passage show up.  It also serves to show Lincoln as the folksy yet pensive leader, one who mingled at times with the troops in order to remind himself of the war’s brutality.

The majority of the film focuses on the negotiations that take place during the three weeks leading up to the amendment’s vote.  We see the bribes, the offers of patronage that were a common feature of pre-1880s federal government employment.  The factions within Lincoln’s government, the aptly-named Team of Rivals, are on full display, although it is rather telling that the new Vice President-elect, Andrew Johnson, plays no visible role in the movie (perhaps because he had yet to establish himself back in Washington after serving as military governor of Tennessee).  The splits within the Republican party, between the old Whig Party members and the Radicals (led in the House of Representatives by Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens), foreshadow the break of 1866-1867 with Johnson’s administration.  There is a lot covered here (not to mention the conflict between Lincoln, his wife, and their son Robert over Robert’s desire to become a commissioned officer) that more than justifies the movie’s nearly 2.5 hour length.

For such a long movie, there are very few dull moments.  Too often when it comes to war-related films, directors/producers feel the pressure to include “action” scenes, full of explosions and carnage.  Wisely, Spielberg eschews this, outside of a few moments here and there, instead focusing on the greater story of the tensions between Lincoln’s cabinet members (in particular between Secretary of State Seward and Secretary of War Stanton) over the issue of whether it is better to achieve a quicker, negotiated peace with the Confederacy that would allow for them to rejoin/resume membership in the Union (even the terminology for readmission is a semantic mess, which Lincoln references at a key point roughly one-third into the film), even if it meant that slavery would not be abolished and that there existed the strong possibility that the Supreme Court might rule that Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation might be unconstitutional after the military exigencies that justified it had ended.

Yet even with all of these historical events providing the necessary narrative tension to sustain a movie of this length, it is the acting that makes Lincoln an outstanding biopic.  Daniel Day Lewis does a superb job in showing Lincoln wearing all of his masks, even the ones that are perhaps a bit distasteful for those who wish to write hagiographies on him.  The voice, a high tenor that sounds wry, weak, conflicted, angry, and weary as the mood dictates,  fits not just the historical accounts of Lincoln but it also fits within the movie’s constraints.  What was surprising, however, was the sympathetic treatment given to Stevens (portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones).  Long reviled (at least in the South) as being an uncompromising firebrand who believed that full racial equality should be achieved immediately rather than in stages, not to mention being opposed to any sort of amnesty to Confederate leaders, Stevens is portrayed as dour and occasionally malicious, yet also with the zealot’s love for justice that transcends personal failings.  Jones does an outstanding job of capturing these elements of Stevens’ personality, while also illustrating the often-overlooked capacity to compromise when the greater good is threatened to be outdone by the Democratic-led, racist-tinged opposition to the amendment.  Although she receives much less screentime than either Lewis or Jones, Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln provides a nice counter to Lincoln’s carefully-crafted public mask of stoicism.  Her outburst regarding her son’s desire to join the Union Army references her earlier grief and her near complete mental breakdown when another son, Willie, died of typhoid fever (after the war, she was committed for a time).

There were remarkably few changes for dramatic effect, as even Steven’s paramour is a matter of historical record.  Instead, Lincoln may be one of those rare biopics where the historical record is itself so dramatic and lending itself to being portrayed as a battle of strong wills that the conflicts that occurred in the House chamber in January 1865 provide most, if not all, of the desired dramatic content.  Lincoln‘s close-up examination of this momentous time in Lincoln’s Presidency captures almost perfectly the breadth and depth of his life and character and it perhaps may be one of the best biopics to be released by a major American studio in years.  Highly recommended.

Cloud Atlas (2012 film)

November 22nd, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

I first read David Mitchell’s 2004 novel Cloud Atlas almost three years ago.  At the time, I read it rapidly (if I recall, I was at a walk-in clinic, waiting to get treatment for a sinus infection) and only the vaguest of impressions stuck with me at the time; I did not choose to review it, despite recalling that I was impressed with how Mitchell structured his six tales to create something that was much more powerful than the sum of its parts.

So when I learned that there was a movie version coming out this past weekend (I am not much of a cinephile), I was intrigued, more by wondering how in the world the Wachowskis could take a story that was comprised of an intricate series of chronological “first halves” (ranging from the mid-19th century through the early and mid 20th century on to contemporary, 22nd century, and post-apocalyptic times) that then reverse their course until the first story is completed last and make a coherent movie out of it.  The only solution that I could conceive of before attending a showing this afternoon is to utilize a series of cut-ins that tell a series of parallel thematic/plot events similar to that employed in D.W. Griffith’s 1916 masterpiece, Intolerance.  More or less, my guess was correct for how the Wachowskis chose to adapt the book.

Cloud Atlas was a very ambitious book, striving to tell through the medium of parallel, reincarnated lives humanity’s struggles to define itself between the poles of order and freedom; equality amidst deprivation and inhumane treatment of others; and love versus hatred and fear.  The novel’s six stories contain echoes of the other tales, yet each has the time and space to create its own haunting melody that underpins the others.  This works well for a tale from which the reader can take a few minutes (hours, days, weeks…) to pause and to consider the connections.  A movie is much more immediate, requiring sharper transitions and more clear parallels for it to work for those who are not familiar with the source novel.  In this regard, the movie stumbles at times, as in order to preserve a thematic unity between the tales (as the lovers encounter and re-encounter each other; their fight against the repressive social order of the times; the ways of fight or flight embodied in action; and the resolutions), much is left unsaid until near the end, confusing many audience members (including my father and uncle, among others in the audience with whom I saw the movie) who are not used to such rapid-fire transitions without bridging dialogue.

Yet this is a quibble; the movie certainly is not for those who are not willing to invest a lot of time puzzling out the various connections beyond the easy ones such as the comet-shaped birthmarks.  The decision to have a core cast of characters (including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon, among others) is not strictly necessary from the perspective of those who have read the book, yet it does provide a grounding point for those who are new to Mitchell’s original story.  The actors, for the most part, provide subtle connections between the eras/tales through their varied responses to events that resemble those of their prior “lives.”  Hanks in particular shows this sense of interlife moral development in his role as Zachry, yet most of the others also possess these moments of personal crisis in their scenes.

The novel focuses much more on the issue of collective humanity than does the movie, which at times relies too heavily on standard Hollywood tropes such as romantic love interests, shoot-em-up action scenes, and other “action-oriented” scenes in an attempt to appeal to viewers who favor such elements in their films.  This fixation on these tropes occasionally weakens the impact of individual scenes, as the car-chase in the Luisa Rey era felt too much like a pastiche of other such scenes and a bit gratuitous in light of the unfolding stories.  Despite moments such as this, there were virtually no longeurs during this nearly three hour-long film, as the cut-ins, especially toward the climactic final 40 minutes, serve to augment the power of each individual scene.

It is hard to imagine this film finding universal appeal; familiarity with the novel is a major plus (as the stories, despite the constraints of cinematic technique and audience expectations for “action,” are very faithful in spirit, if not always in word, to the novel) and multiple viewings may be required for the full effect to be achieved.  Cloud Atlas is perhaps the most ambitious movie that I have seen ever since I watched Intolerance on Netflix earlier this year.  Its use of parallel stories that interrupt each other until the final crescendo of resolutions does resemble Griffith’s classic favorably, not to mention that its themes will resonate with most readers once the initial confusion is dispersed.  Cloud Atlas may not be the sort of movie that many viewers will “like,” but it certainly will be one that several may “admire” for its adroit presentation of a complex story and for the lingering thoughts that may persist long after the final credits roll.

Angela Carter, The Passion of New Eve

November 21st, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

The last night I spent in London, I took some girl or other to the movies and, through her mediation, I paid you a little tribute of spermatozoa, Tristessa.

Published in 1977, her seventh novel, The Passion of Ne w Eve is undoubtedly a modern masterwork. Carter’s prose as always is wonderfully rich and her use of varying symbolism, religious, mythical and alchemic is multilayered and at times profound. She skilfully deconstructs and then reconstructs the mythology and iconology of modern society, New York becomes a dystopia on the edge of primal chaos, California a warzone and gender roles are dissembled, dissected and then put back together as male becomes female and female becomes male. In this essay, I feel I haven’t even begun to mine the depths of that symbolism and it will continue to be on my mind long after today.

The protagonist, Evelyn, is a young English man who we are told has from a young age felt a strong connection to the female movie star Tristessa D’Auge, who he believes is the perfect woman. Evelyn’s odyssey begins with his arrival in New York, which he finds is caught in the middle of some kind of upheaval. Tension runs high with militant African-Americans armed on the streets and random attacks upon men by some kind of new feminist resistance, bearing the symbol of Venus enclosing a fist. Moving into a modest apartment downstairs beneath an old, Russian alchemist, he finds that the University that he had arranged to teach in has been taken over by the African-American movement and as a result he has no job. Attracted to the terror and the fear it evokes in him, Evelyn stays in the city despite this, learning about alchemy from the old man who turns lead to gold and gives it to him, while the city continues to decay and the rats roam the street. As Carter writes:

It was, then, an alchemical city. It was chaos, dissolution, nigredo, night. Built on a grid like the harmonious cities of the Chinese Empire, planned, like those cities, in strict accord with the dictates of a doctrine of reason, the streets had been given numbers and not names out of a respect for pure function, had been designed in clean, abstract lines, discrete blocks, geometric intersections, to avoid just those vile repositories of the past, sewers of history, that poisoned the lives of European cities. A city of visible reason – that had been the intention. And this city, built to a specification that precluded the notion of the Old Adam, had hence become uniquely vulnerable to that which the streamlined spires conspired to ignore, for the darkness had lain, unacknowledged, within the builders.

The fact his only friend is an alchemist and the use of the term nigredo foreshadow the change that is about to occur in Evelyn as the tension in the city reaches boiling point with the black population walling up Harlem and the alchemist being beaten to death while waiting for him outside a convenience store. Now completely alone, one night at the store he encounters a beautiful, scantily clad, African-American girl who he decides that he must possess and follows her in a kind of sexual game where she leads her through the darkness of the city, past robberies and rapes, until the end of the pretensions and the pair have intercourse. I believe his relationship with the girl, Leilah, represents his own nigredo, represented by the darkness of her skin. It is purely sexual in nature, his desire for her is almost inexhaustible, but he also takes a dominant role and enjoys abusing her, tying her to the bed and sometimes beating her with a belt. This symbolizes, as in the alchemical process, Evelyn at his lowest point, at his basest level in a sense through his debauchery and his degradation of her. Eventually he grows tired of her and when Leilah becomes pregnant he refuses to marry her and forces her to have an abortion, which she gets from a Haiti Voodoo lady, that becomes infected and leads to the loss of her womb. Now uninterested in her and with her mother on the way, he pays for her hospital bills and buys a car and leaves the city wanting to visit the desert.

When he arrives in the desert he finds himself both out of fuel and lost. His reasons for wanting to be in the desert are quite explicitly stated by Carter though, who writes:

 I am lost, quite lost in the middle of the desert.
I have abandoned the temperate parts of the earth. The sun burned out the eyes of the man in the service station; the dry air etched his face full of fine lines. He did not speak. That was yesterday, or the day before. The day before, or else yesterday, the wind blew my map away. The air dries out my lungs, I gasp.
There is no-one, no-one.
I am helplessly lost in the middle of the desert, without map or guide or compass. The landscape unfurls around me like an old fan that has lost all its painted silk and left only the bare, yellowed sticks of antique ivory in a world in which, since I am alive, have no business. The earth has been scalped, flayed; it is peopled only with echoes. The world shines and glistens, reeks and swelters till its skin peels, flakes, cracks, blisters.
I have found a landscape that matches the landscape of my heart.

When he leaves his car in search of gasoline, he hears a gunshot and finds a bleeding white bird which is significant because of its alchemical and mythological connotations. It is, as Evelyn notes, the messenger of Hermes, himself a hermaphrodite, but it also symbolises mercury which forms of a part of the alchemical symbol of the hermaphrodite. The fact it is white also symbolises albedo, the second part of the process, in purification following from nigredo. Evelyn himself associates it as an ill omen, as its large size convinces him that it is an albatross and as The Rime of the Ancient Marinerteaches us (Instead of the cross, the albatross / About my neck was hung” – Ed.), dead albatrosses are bad luck. He is then captured by one of the militant feminists, although her insignia is slightly different, a broken pillar instead (which he later discovers to be a broken phallus), and is marched across the desert scorched by the sun. The yellowness of this act signifies citrinitas or xanthosis, the third stage of the process in the dawning of the solar light. Eventually they arrive at the central headquarters of the feminist group, the underground city of Beulah.

There, Evelyn is imprisoned before being taken to see their leader, Mother, a scientist and surgeon who has sculpted herself into a godhead. In his cell the walls glow red, like a womb as he is here to be reborn, but also symbolizing the last stage of the alchemical process, rubedo, preceding his soon to be “wholeness”. Taken further underground, he meets Mother:

The great, black, self-anointed, self-appointed prophetess, the self-created godhead that had assumed the flesh of its own prophecy was the destination to which her unknowing acolyte had no option but to lead me; one woman is all women… Her head, with its handsome and austere mask teetering ponderously on the bull-like pillar of her neck, was as big and as black as Marx’ head in Highgate Cemetery; her face had the stern, democratic beauty of a figure on a pediment in the provincial square of a people’s republic and she wore a false beard of crisp, black curls like the false beard Queen Hatshepsut of the Two Kingdoms had worn. She was fully clothed in obscene nakedness; she was breasted like a sow – she possessed two tiers of nipples, the result (Sophia would tell me, to my squeamish horror) of a strenuous process of grafting, so that, in theory, she could suckle four babies at one time. And how gigantic her limbs were! Her ponderous feet were heavy enough to serve as illustrations of gravity, her hands, the shape of giant fig leaves, lay at rest on the bolsters of her knees. Her skin, wrinkled like the skin of a black olive, rucked like a Greek peasant’s goatskin bottle, looked as rich as though it might contain within itself the source of a marvellous, dark, revivifying river, as if she herself were the only oasis in this desert and her crack the source of all the life giving water in the world.

It is here what that Evelyn learns what the women have planned for him. They believe that Oedipus had the right idea in that through his sexual intercourse with his mother he wanted to be reborn, but because of what he inherited from his father, his phallus, he went forward through the world instead of backwards. They intend to rectify this by giving Evelyn a new birth, but this time as a woman through surgery and subliminal re-education. He is to be their Tiresias. Mother believes that men represent time and women space, so through this act she will be able to kill time. He is forced to copulate with Mother and afterwards his sperm is collected to impregnate him with after the operation to create a child born of one person as mother and father. They perform the operation on him under local anaesthetic, showing him his castrated member and shape him into the perfect woman by the standards of society. In order to make his mind female, they show him a number of things during his recover: movies starring “the perfect woman” Tristessa, images by different artists of the Madonna and Child, as well as non-phallic images such as caves. This is overseen by his captor from the desert Sophia, her name purposely recalling the Greek “wisdom”, one of Mother’s servants who like the Amazons and the priests of Cybele have cut off one of their breasts in supplication. Through this process he is no longer Evelyn and becomes their new Eve.

The problem is the re-education does not take and Eve still does not feel completely like a woman as we see:

I know nothing. I am tabula erasa, a blank sheet of paper, an unhatched egg. I have not yet become a woman, although I possess a woman’s shape. Not a woman, no; both more than less than a real woman. Now I am a being as mythic and monstrous as Mother herself; but I cannot bring myself to think that. Eve remains wilfully in the state of innocence that precedes the fall.

In a sense, Evelyn/Eve has become a true hermaphrodite, not because she has two sets of genitals, but because she is inhabited by both the anima and the animus. In alchemical symbolism, the hermaphrodite represents the chemical marriage of mercury and sulphur, activity married to passivity, perfect wholeness. Through the dual nature of her being, Eve transcends both sexes to become something more and less than both combined. Afraid of the impregnation that is to follow, she flees the city and is captured by the sadistic Zero the poet and taken to the ghost town where he lives. A one eyed, one legged misogynist who keeps a harem of subjugated wives and believes that the primary material of the soul of a woman is something less than that of a man’s. He beats and rapes Eve brutally, forcing her to marry him. His wives are treated both as slaves and lower than animals, as is shown by the way that his pigs and his dog Cain are treated as being of greater importance as his wives are beaten if they mistreat them. His wives are not afforded even cutlery, are not allowed to speak English in front of him unless asked so as a result speak some kind of made up guttural language and must serve his every whim, practical or sexual. All women with histories of abuse, they are subservient and even believe that his semen is what keeps them healthy. Here Eve learns what it is like to be other the other side of the dominant/submissive dichotomy and what it is like to suffer abuse. Zero is quite mad; he has a poster of Tristessa in his room that he uses for target practice, as he believes his impotence is a result of a hallucinatory episode that occurred while he was watching one of her movies in the theatre. He spends all his spare time in his helicopter scouring the desert for her secret retreat, believing that if he rapes his virility will return.

Eve lives this way as one of Zero’s wives until one day he returns having finally found the secret retreat of Tristressa. He takes all his wives there to discover that it is a house made of glass, and breaks in, killing the man-servant, but not before he can operate some sort of apparatus that makes the entire house spin. Eve realises that Tristessa has constructed this place to be her living mausoleum and within, a waxwork museum to those who have lost their life because of fame: Valentino, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Jean Harlow, and more. They find Tristessa there also, at a conservative guess, old enough to be Eve’s mother. She is only pretending to be dead as a ploy though and Cain, through his keen canine sense of smell, is able to see through the illusion. Zero forcefully removes her underwear in order to rape her only to discover than cinema’s “perfect woman” has a penis and is an aborted earlier attempt of Mother’s because he was too psychologically damaged. Tristessa represents the way in which femininity is commercialized as while he is the perfect woman on screen, he has turned himself into this because it is what he desired. He also has false memories that seem to be caused by implied tragedy that is expected of him because of his role as a lady of great sorrow in movies, but also false memories of degradation as a result of the way in which men would desire him in their fantasies. Both the Madonna and the Whore and as a result therefore he is the perfect commodity. In the same sense he is not real though as he exists as an illusion of something that he is not and can never be.  Zero and his wives, excepting Eve, humiliate and abuse him, and force him to be the bride in a mock wedding ceremony to Eve where she is dressed in drag, after which they force the pair to have intercourse. Afterwards they manage to escape, and Tristessa sets the controls to full speed, the house spinning so fast that neither Zero nor his wives can hold on and are thrown great distances, in all likely hood to their deaths. Taking the helicopter, Eve takes them back into the desert in search of Beulah.

Out in the desert, the pair makes love on a towel bearing the stars and stripes and the child is conceived with both two mother and two fathers. Eve is happy, having finally been united with Tristessa, who he has in a sense loved since he was a boy and he first saw her on the silver screen. That happiness does not last though, as the pair are captured by a children’s crusade, an army of buzz cut Christian Right youths lead by an over privileged rich kid who believes he is the second coming of Christ. California has seceded and they have come to fight the rebels in the name of America and the name of Christ. They kill Tristessa and keep the heartbroken Eve captive, but she is able to escape by stealing a jeep and finds herself in an eerily quiet California, stumbling across a man who kills himself after killing all of his family as a civil war in now taking place within a civil war between warring factions. Eventually she finds life in a mall where a fire fighting is taking place and once again finds Leilah wearing the uniform of Mother’s soldiers, having travelling all the way across America to be back where she started. She reveals that her name is Lilith, like that of Adam’s first wife who in Rabbinic Literature precedes Eve, and Eve realises that everything had been set in motion in New York,  and that the identity of the mother on her way to visit Leilah/Lilith in the hospital was the Mother. She takes Eve to Mother who has retired to a cave after her plan to kill time was unsuccessful while the rest of the women fight the war for California. When Eve enters the cave she learns that Mother has retreated on a higher level as well, as she no longer has a physical form and has become the cave, as Carter describes it as having “meatwalls”, either like a womb or a vagina, where time is able to go backwards to the beginning and forwards to the end at the same time. Perhaps instead of killing time, Mother has come to understand it. Eve knows that Lilith intends to abandon her there by the sea as she no longer has any purpose, so she buys a small boat from a homeless woman with the gold given to her by the alchemist at the beginning of her journey (which he had given to Lilith, who returned it when they met again) and climbs in it hoping to traverse the sea and return home. Having survived America, but forever changed by it.

Originally posted on Empty Your Heart Of  Its Mortal Dream on June 23, 2010.

Viscount Lascano Tegui, On Elegance While Sleeping (1925; 2010 translation)

November 20th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

I write out of pure voluptuousness, I confess.  I write for myself and for friends.  I don’t have a large audience or fame and don’t receive awards.  I know all the literary strategies intimately and despise them.  The naiveté of my contemporaries pains me, but I respect it.  I’m also conceited enough to believe I never repeat myself or steal from other writers, to believe I never repeat myself or steal from other writers, to believe I’ll always remain a virgin, and this narcissism doesn’t come cheap.  I have to suffer the indifference of those around me.  But, as I said, I write out of pure voluptuousness.  And so, like a courtesan, I’ll take my sweet time, and begin by kicking off my shoe.

This epigraph to Argentine writer Viscount Lascano Tegui’s 1925 short novel, On Elegance While Sleeping, written by the author himself, sets the stage nicely for what follows.  It is a pseudo-personal diary; it is a macabre novel.  It has similarities with fellow South American Comte de Lautréamont; it may have some with Oscar Wilde.  Yet it ultimately is little like any of these and it is in that tension between the apparent and the actual where the adventuresome reader might discover some discomforting truths which might excite them even as they might feel repelled.  That is the genius on display here and it is long past time that this contemporary of Oliverio Girondo, Roberto Arlt, and Jorge Luis Borges receives his own translation into English.

On Elegance While Sleeping is a short novel; it is under 200 pages.  Yet its contents belie its brevity; it is full of digressions that slowly, purposely build up to tell a story that is much more than the sum of its thoughts.  Take for instance the introduction to the narrator’s pseudo-diary:

The first time I entrusted my hands to a manicurist was the evening I headed to the Moulin Rouge.  The woman trimmed back my cuticles and polished my nails with an emery board.  Then she filed them to points and finished up with some polish.  My hands no longer looked like they belonged to me.  I put them on my table, in front of my mirror, and changed their positions in the light.  With the same sense of self-consciousness one feels when posing for a photographer, I picked up a pen and began to write.

That’s how I started this book.

At the Moulin Rouge that night I heard a woman standing nearby say in Spanish:  “That man’s taken such good care of his hands, the only thing left is to murder someone with them.” (p. 3)

Underneath the banal descriptions of a dandy getting his nails filed and polished, with its near eidetic recall detailed at laborious length, there is a hint of something monstrous that is being planned.  With each entry, most rarely being more than a few pages long, Tegui develops this fascinating narrator.  Is this narrator what he appears to be?  Is he hiding something out in plain sight?  Just why does he keep engaging in digressions?

Tegui does a masterful job throughout this novel of playing off these tensions found in juxtaposing mundane details (such as the Seine river flowing through the narrator’s 19th century birthplace of Bougival) with the horrific (detailed discussions of things such as “it [the river] jammed the millwheel with the bodies of drowning victims, bashful beneath its surface.” (p. 4)).  The reader perhaps will find herself just wondering more about this narrator.  Is he sane at all?  Just what is he telling us that’s so important that he interrupts his descriptions of depravities with trivialities and his depictions of everyday life with brutalities?

One possible approach toward reading On Elegance While Sleeping is to pay closer attention to those seemingly trivial details.  A closer examination of these dozens of entries reveals a life that is fascinating in its frustrations as much as in what has been accomplished.  The narrator is a former soldier and in those descriptions of his sensitivities and his impending dissolution (both moral and physical alike), Tegui slowly constructs a fascinating portrait of a person at the edge, both in terms of his real and imagined conflicts such as his statements on homosexuality, which are intriguing in how denial and implied acceptance of it are conmingled in such a fashion as to accentuate the divisions within the narrator’s own mind.  The result is a mosaic image of a person whose desires and conflicts are not as much baldly stated but rather elements that are constructed from inferences and strengthened by seeming digressions into the quotidian, mundane world surrounding him.

Idra Novey’s translation appears to contain few faults.  Having read it in both Spanish and English translation, her prose is elegant and there rarely is the sense that I was reading a translation.  The psychological depths of Tegui’s writings are brought out here in full splendor and despite the sometimes graphic, lurid recounting of certain desires (the “sleeping” desire being foremost here), the narrative contains a force to it that almost compels the reader to continue onward.  The diary concludes abruptly, realizing the full impact of the gradual buildup prior to its sudden conclusion.  That conclusion strengthens what Tegui has developed all along, as the narrator’s proclivities, his anguish, his quest for “rest” flow into a murderous crescendo that reverberates back through the narrative, creating a desire on the reader’s part to re-read and reconsider just what has transpired and how Tegui relates this momentous event.

Published a generation after the Symbolists and Decadents made their mark on European and American literary scenes, On Elegance While Sleeping is a worthy successor to such memorable works as Maldoror, Là-Bas, or The Picture of Dorian Gray.  Tegui’s work contains the layers of psychological depth and conflict found in the works mentioned above and the sometimes surreal-like alternation between the “real” and the narrator’s feverish views of himself and the world around him creates a narrative tension that adds power to a potent tale.  On Elegance While Sleeping is quite simply one of the best successors to the literary worlds of the Symbolists and Decadents and 85 years after its initial release, it still possesses the power to captivate audiences.

2012 National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 author: Claire Vaye Watkins, Battleborn (2012)

November 19th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

The day my mom checked out, Razor Blade Baby moved in.  At the end, I can’t stop thinking about beginnings.

The city of Reno, Nevada, was founded in 1859 when Charles Fuller built a log toll bridge across the Truckee River and charged prospectors to haul their Comstock silver across the narrow but swift-moving current.  Two years later, Fuller sold the bridge to the ambitious Myron Lake.  Lake, swift himself, added a gristmill, kiln and livery stable to his Silver Queen Hotel and Eating House.  Not a bashful man, he named the community Lake’s Crossing, had the name painted on Fuller’s bridge, bright blue as the sky.

The 1860s were boom times in the western Utah Territory:  Americans still had the brackish taste of Sutter’s soil on their tongues, ten-year-old gold still glinting in their eyes.  The curse of the Comstock Lode had not yet leaked from the silver vein, not seeped into the water table.  The silver itself had not yet been stripped from the mountains, and steaming water had not yet flooded the mine shafts.  Henry T.P. Comstock – most opportune of the opportunists, snatcher of land, greatest claim jumper of all time – had not yet lost his love Adelaide, his first cousin, who drowned in Lake Tahoe.  He had not yet traded his share of the lode for a bottle of whiskey and an old, blind mare, not yet blown his brains out with a borrowed revolver near Bozeman, Montana.

Boom Times. (pp. 1-2)


Claire Vaye Watkins is one of two writers on the 2012 National Book Foundation’s list of 5 Under 35 authors who has yet to publish a novel.  Her debut collection, Battleborn (2012), however, is one of the more impressive collections of short fiction released this year.  In stories such as the opening “Ghosts, Cowboys,” Watkins is in full command of the stories she desires to tell, often intermingling stark and sometimes violent histories with the personal (for example, her own father, who once was associated with Charles Manson before the Manson Family turned violent) to create vividly-told stories replete with memorable settings and a cast of rogues and would-be saints and heroes.

Watkins’ ten stories reflect the clash of dreams and harsh realities.  From the silver-poisoned lands polluted by the miners of the Comstock Lode and other such mines in Nevada to the sometimes brutal desert sun, the landscape is the antithesis of verdant pastures and pastoral dreams.  Consider the passage quoted above from “Ghosts, Cowboys.”  The “curse” of the Comstock Lode, the image of silver being “stripped” from the mountains – these are precursors to suicides after the dreams fail, the suffering of those who strive to change their worlds.  Watkins’ prose here and in many other scenes in the other stories is sharp, cutting with its parallels to nature and its pollution.

The characters are reminiscent of those found in Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy or Blood Meridian without being direct copies.  There is the woman who tries to assuage her guilt over leading her friend years before to a brothel and a sexual assault.  There is the daughter who gets stoned while trying to remember an important person in her life, before deciding to smoke more, to smoke until a temporary oblivion overcomes her.  There is the sense, such as this little passage from “The Past Perfect, The Past Continuous” that civilization itself is but a veneer that is slowly being rubbed off, as proprieties dissolve into desires and needs:


She babbles on like that, and the boy seems to like it.  That’s the difference between the ranch and a strip club.  Here, some men come in just to talk.  Sure, they want a piece of ass so bad that they’re coming out of their skin to pay for it.  But there’s something that brings out the lonesomeness in them.  Maybe it’s being so far from civilization.  Manny’s heard them afterward, over the intercom.  Old men, young men, men with wives or steady girlfriends, men who’ve never had anybody in their whole pathetic lives.  They listen to their date chatter until the hour is up, and when she reaches for her clothes or the white wedge of towel on the nightstand to wipe herself, they hold her tightly and say, so softly it might be mistaken for a blip of static over the wires, Wait. (pp. 84-85)


Although several of these situations might seem at first glance to be bleak, there are signs of life blooming, or at least transforming itself, under the surface.  The “West” (and Nevada in particular, over the course of its most recent 164 years) has long been in the literature of the Westerns been a place of futures, of people setting out to obliterate their old lives and to forge new ones.  In Watkins’ stories, which span the period between Nevada’s creation as a state in 1864 to the present day, there certainly is that sense of characters creating something new out of an apparent wasteland of nature and of humanity.  Violence often is used as a metaphor for these changes as well as being a commentary on the depravities of humanity.  Watkins utilizes violent imagery and actions sparingly but almost always to great affect, crafting tales that feel as though they could have existed for decades, if not two centuries, while almost feeling fresh and original.  It is an impressive balancing act that she pulls off with virtually no missteps.

Battleborn is a collection that should appeal to those who have enjoyed Cormac McCarthy’s take on Westerns, although it should be noted that the thrust of Watkins’ lyrical prose differs in certain key elements from McCarthy’s.  There is as much discussion of the deserts of our hearts and our desires to make them bloom as there are on the more traditional Western tropes of man versus nature or man versus man.  Battleborn simply is a series of battles that unfold within and outside the characters’ ken and the result is one of the strongest debut collections released in years.


2012 National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 author: Justin Torres, We the Animals (2011)

November 18th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

In December 2011, I wrote the following short review of Justin Torres’ debut novel, We the Animals, which I selected as my Most Notable 2011 Release:

At 128 pages the shortest book on this list, We the Animals belies its brevity with its ability to pack an emotional punch.  It is an autobiographical novel featuring three boys of a mixed-race marriage of two working class individuals who struggle with their situations.  Told from the perspective of the youngest child, the novel unfolds as a series of short, sharp vignettes (rarely more than three or four pages) that show the casual brutality of their lives.  Take for instance this passage devoted to the narrator’s seventh birthday:

In the morning, we stood side by side in the doorway and looked in on Ma, who slept open-mouthed, and we listened to the air struggle to get past the saliva in her throat.  Three days ago she had arrived home with both cheeks swollen purple.  Paps had carried her into the house and brought her to the bed, where he stroked her hair and whispered in her ear.  He told us the dentist had been punching on her after she went under; he said that’s how they loosen up the teeth before they rip them out.  Ma had been in bed every day since – plastic vials of pain pills, glasses of water, half-drunk mugs of tea, and bloody tissues cluttered the floor around her bed.  Paps had forbidden us to set foot in the bedroom, and for three mornings we had heeded, monitoring her breath from the doorway, but today we would not wait any longer. (p. 12)

So much is contained within this paragraph.  We see the lies that parents will tell to cover up their abuses, the mystery surrounding what could have led to it (the actions of both parents continually puzzle the children throughout the novel), the combination of curiosity and quick acceptance of what the father says – an entire other story laying beneath what is outlined here.  Torres does not linger upon the many events of this childhood; we see the traumas and the brutalities and the humiliations that parents and children alike endure and we may paint for ourselves according to the numbers embedded within the plot.  Torres’ decision to pare We the Animals down to its narrative bones allows readers to develop their own conclusions.  For myself, being a teacher of emotionally and behaviorally disturbed children, what he describes resembles what so many of my former students have told or hinted to me over the past three years.

We the Animals is a searing reading experience.  We see the heartaches, the confusion, the outburst of tempers.  We see children neglected for most of their lives.  We see the struggles that the narrator has with his own sexual identity as he ages and how that impacts the family.  Torres easily could have provided a nice, pat ending where either everyone comes together or some other emotional/developmental milestone is reached.  Instead, he purposely concludes at the point where the narrator begins a new stage in his life as a young adult.  These lingering questions about how casual violence can be, how neglect occurs, and how children deal with traumas have no easy answers; sometimes, there are no answers at all.  We the Animals is one of those rare novels that captures the darker sides of families without becoming mawkish.  It simply is the most brilliantly executed novel published this year that I’ve read and therefore the most notable 2011 release.


Re-reading this book nearly a year later, there is little that I would change about my opinions regarding the novel, but there are a few things that I would like to note.  The first is that the use of the first-person plural for most of the novel is a powerful device, as it is meant to show how the narrator and his two older brothers, Manny and Joel,  are so very tightly close-knit for most of their childhood and early adolescence before the narrator (presumably a fictional stand-in for Torres himself, as many of the details late in the novel appear to resemble those that he had experienced in his young adulthood) marks the widening gap between them in the short chapter “Late Night,” in which the narrator goes off away from his brothers after a fight and “is made,” with consequences that tear the family asunder for a bit.

The second addition would be noting Torres’ portrayal of relationships, those of his brothers and himself and well as between the three and their parents (and briefly, those of other families that the narrator encounters late in the novel) tread a fine middle ground between happiness and tragedy; many families experience moments of division and reunion over the course of the members’ lives and while We the Animals concentrates on narrating the widening split between the narrator and his family over matters of education, mannerisms, and sexuality, there is a glimmer of hope present at the very end that there will be a reconciliation of sorts afterward.  The novel ends just when it seems that the narrator’s adult story is about to begin, but sometimes (and that is certainly the case here) that provides a “hook” of a different sort, one that makes the reader consider carefully what has transpired and to imagine what followed after.  Having re-read the book for the third time in 14 months, We the Animals is one of those rare books that seems to “grow” with each passing re-read.  Torres certainly is deserving here of his selection to the 2012 National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 author list.

Danilo Kiš, Early Sorrows (1969); Psalm 44 (1962)

November 17th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

What’s that?  There isn’t any such street?  Oh, but there must be, sir.  Memories can’t possibly be so misleading.

Yes, before the war… There was a school on the corner and an artesian well in front of the school.  I hope you don’t think I’m making it all up.  I started out in that school; I went to kindergarten there.  The teacher’s name was Miss Fanny.  I can show you a picture of the whole class:  that’s Miss Fanny, our teacher, and yes, the boy sitting next to her is me, Andreas Sam; then my sister Anna and Freddy Fuchs, the leader of our gang… Yes, it all comes back to me now, sir.  The street must have been called Bem Street, because I was a member of the famous Bem Boys gang led by Freddy Fuchs (also known as Beanpole), a German or Volksdeutscher, as they were called in those days… Fantastic!  Without our little talk I’d never have remembered the street’s name.  Bem was a famous Polish general.  From the forties.  Does that ring a bell?  Bem?  Bem Street?… Oh, I see.  How could you remember if you didn’t live here before the war.  Though you might at least know if there’s a street lined with chestnut trees.  They would bloom in spring and make the whole street smell a bit sickly, heavy, except after a rain, when the scent of the chestnut blossoms merged with the ozone and drifted all over the neighborhood.

But I have been going on, haven’t I?  I’ll have to ask someone else who remembers it from before the war, when it was called Bem Street and lined with chestnut trees. (p. 15-16, Early Sorrows)

For tens of millions of European youth, World War II created a discontinuity point; there was before the war and after the war, with the during being understood more by its apparent breaks with either than by anything in common with either period.  In several of Serbian writer Danilo Kiš’s fictions, “before the war” carries the sense of foreboding that goes far beyond the inconveniences that most of his age cohort suffered.  For him, the war was a calamity that he revisited in two of his earlier fictions, 1962’s Psalm 44 and 1969’s Early Sorrows.

Psalm 44, one of Kiš’s two earliest novels (the other being The Attic, also published in 1962), is the more direct of the books reviewed here.  Kiš utilizes some of the imagery from the titular psalm, such as the references to the mocking of nations, the pitiful byword by which the Jews became known, as like the psalm’s sheep they were led to the slaughter.  Psalm 44 was a deeply autobiographical novel, as the events narrated resemble closely what Kiš experienced as a child:  the massacre at Novi Sad, the forced expulsion of the Jews and those who had married Jews, the 1944 rounding up of his Jewish father (while Kiš’s own life was saved by his baptism into the Eastern Orthodox faith) and subsequent death at Auschwitz.  In his later fictions, “the war” came to symbolize the real and metaphorical separation of the youth Kiš from the older, more troubled adult version.

In Psalm 44, these troubles are much more transparent.  The images are raw, visceral, as the author pours so much of his own experiences into this short novel.  But as the story of Jakob and Marija (based on Kiš’s parents) unfolds, Kiš’s narrative struggles at times to capture the full-borne intensity of their time at Auschwitz.  No, that actually is not correct.  If anything, in passages such as the one quoted below, the intensity becomes overwhelming, making it difficult to perceive the other themes that Kiš wants to explore:  the faith in the midst of deceit; love surrounded by hate; kindness that is almost suffocated by cruelty.  Here is part of Marija’s experiences as she tries to navigate through one of the camps and encounters another:

…in a gesture of despair he simply took the short pipe out of his mouth and she saw the way his austere gaze grew blurry and faded under his spectacles in their steel frame and then focused onto a painful, desperate decision (precisely, by the way, in the way she had foreseen this happening) until a speech burst out of him all at once flowing like water so that even now she was still wondering why he had spoken with so much intensity which had ensured that despite everything she remembered all of it, and which also meant that she must have really understood it all long beforehand: – “It is not the hatred of Negroes of Irish or of Jews that is at issue here, and it’s thus not an ethnic or racial or national collective or group that is at issue but rather it is simply human intolerance that is searching for a pretext in skin color or in customs or in anything else that is different from what is generally found in a given setting; it is the inherent and deeply rooted human passion (if not nature, which would perhaps be more exact and which is perhaps the most accurate means of description but I will not concede that to anyone not even to myself and least of all to you), the passion, that is, for mistreating and humiliating the person who otherwise is happily referred to as your neighbor; or else (most precisely of all perhaps):  it is the atavism of the horde and of the animal that seeks to overpower and annihilate all other species and all other creatures and to establish dominion and that triumphs for the most ordinary and egotistical reasons (but not the reason you probably thought of right away I mean the so-called survival of the fittest) (that they also teach in schools supported by examples from biology and zoology) and to which one can give no other name than refined atavism, and it is something completely different and more beastly than any natural selection that is incidentally to be found to the same degree in humans as among animals; because if the struggle for the survival of our species were the only thing at stake here then injustice crime and violence would not be tolerated or would at least no be tolerated in the name of specific racist national principles and prejudices and people wouldn’t say A Negro or A Jewish child was killed but instead would say only A CHILD WAS KILLED and idiotic questions would not be posed about skin color or religion which help people reduce culpability or shed it altogether;… (p. 81-82)

 By itself, this passage captures the heartache, anger, and even the breakdown of normal “rules” within its labyrinthine, pages-long sentence.  Yet it is strangely unfocused when viewed within the context of the story itself.  This is not the outpouring of Marija or Jakob, but instead the venting of another.  While it eloquently captures a certain mood, it does so at the expense of the greater story.  Psalm 44 is a brilliantly flawed novel.  It foreshadows several of Kiš’s later themes regarding human life and their fallible societies and governments, but the prose here is too scattershot to distill these into more potent forms.

Yet by the time that Kiš wrote Early Sorrows, he had learned how to create simple yet effective scenes that did not distract readers from the themes he wanted to explore.  Over the course of the interconnected stories, we see young Andreas Sam go from the carefree boy who is hired out to look after a rich neighbor’s cattle to a youth devastated by the war.  We see this change, not just in Andreas, but also in companions such as Anna and Andy and Júlia, among others.  The stories are short yet contain a bitterly-sharp edge.  “Seranade for Anna” is barely two pages in length, but notice the juxtaposition of words and images in its first paragraphs:

I heard some noise under the window and thought they’d come to kill my father.

But then a violin called everything into question and calmed my fears.  The person playing the violin under our window was no virtuoso, but he was clearly taken with my sister Anna.  The violin had an all but human voice.  Someone head over heels in love with the stars and my sister was singing shyly, but trying to make his voice sound as deep and virile as possible.

There is the impending horror of possible murder, but also the presence of adolescent love, with its attendant expressions through violin and masked voice.  Scenes/stories such as this do not detract from Early Sorrows‘ devastating conclusion, but they instead enhance it because we are made more sensitive to the characters’ lives and travails.  The horror of World War II and the Holocaust is not just the deaths and tortures of millions; taken by themselves, the numbers (5 million?  6 million?  9 million?) become as impersonal as the widely-imagined mass killings.  Yet a deeper look shows the conflicted passions of youth, of the denied dreams and the horror of realizing that those with whom you had grown up were the ones carrying out the orders of expulsion, transportation, or even execution.  This book works much better than its predecessor because Kiš utilizes a deceptively simpler voice to convey the profundity of the horrors that unfolded “during the war.”  The callowness of the earlier chapters/stories has given way to something that is troubling and by us seeing this change through the points of views of the youth, we feel more involved in the story and thus ultimately we have invested so much that by the book’s end, we are devastated to see how “The Boy and the Dog” concludes.  It captures in miniature a universality of emotion and response that it helps those who did not directly experience the horrors that Kiš did to understand just a bit more how childhood can represent our innocence and our fall from it.  That perhaps sums up not just Early Sorrows, but much of Psalms 44 as well.

2012 Booker Prize finalist: Jeet Thayil, Narcopolis

November 17th, 2012 § 1 comment § permalink

SHE’S RIGHT, Xavier said.  Only the rich can afford surprise and/or irony.  The rich crave meaning.  The first thing they ask when faced with eternity, and in the fact the last thing, is:  excuse me, what does this mean?  The poor don’t ask questions, or they don’t ask irrelevant questions.  They can’t afford to.  All they can afford is laughter and ghosts.  Then there are the addicts, the hunger addicts and rage addicts and poverty addicts and power addicts, and the pure addicts who are addicted not to substances but to the oblivion and tenderness that substances engender.  An addict, if you don’t mind me saying so, is like a saint.  What is a saint, but someone who has cut himself off, voluntarily, voluntarily, from the world’s traffic and currency?  The saint talks to flowers, a daffodil, say, and he sees the yellow of it.  He receives its scent through his eyes.  Yes, he thinks, you are my muse, I take heart from your stubbornness, a drop of water, a dab of sunshine, and there you are with your gorgeous blooms.  He enjoys flowers but he worships trees.  He wants to be the banyan’s slave.  He wants to think of time the way a tree does, a decade as nothing more than some slight addition to his girth.  He connives with birds, and gets his daily news from the sound the wind makes in the leaves.  When he’s hungry he stands in the forest waiting for the fall of a mango.  His ambition is the opposite of ambition.  Most of all, like all addicts, he wants to obliterate time.  He wants to die, or, at the very least, to not live.

Dimple said, “I need a translator to understand you.” (Ch. 3)

Cities are comprised of layers upon layers of people.  For many of us who are native to a particular city, it is all too easy to wander through its labyrinths and think we know it.  Yet there are those places that many of us know to avoid.  What resides there in the metaphorical bowels of the metropolis?  Is it danger?  Or is it something else that disturbs us so?  “The seedy underbelly” we often call such locales.  We presume to understand, usually without giving a voice to our thoughts, just what “it” is that resides there.  To question this would be foolhardy; how could we ever hope to understand?

Yet there is a vibrant life that exists within those layers of city life that so many of us dismiss without a second (or sometimes, a first) thought.  There, one can find perhaps that hooker with a heart of gold, or maybe it is better to say a soul who is in search of a life raft.  Or maybe one can encounter that most unnerving of souls, an addict.  In some regards, an addict is an “other” who exists beyond race, class, gender, or caste:  s/he is viewed frequently with a sort of horrified wonderment.  What makes someone an addict?  What tales can they tale beyond the clichéd story of redemption from the depths of despair?  Does one ever choose to be an addict, knowing what it entails?

These are the existential questions that Indian writer Jeet Thayil explores in his debut novel, Narcopolis.  Set in late 20th century Bombay (before its name changed to Mumbai), Narcopolis revolves around the “dead city” of the denizens of Rashid’s opium den.  Over the course of nearly 300 pages, Thayil explores the lives, dreams, and fears of several addicts in order to get closer to the heart of addiction itself.  Narcopolis is neither a tale of survival nor a Bildungsroman.  Its characters may strive to better their lives (one such example being the hijra Dimple), but the main focus is on narrating the possibilities of addiction itself.

It is too easy for a writer, whether or not s/he is writing from personal experience, to slip off the razor’s edge into either a maudlin tale or a condemnatory fable.  Addicts are not simple constructions; they are a host of possibilities within a single human body.  Thayil’s own past with heroin during his time living in New York and Bombay/Mumbai perhaps helps him avoid the potential pitfalls, but what really stands out is how he utilizes a rapid, almost breathless narrative that switches limited third-person PoVs frequently to create this sense of communal experience.  Whether it is the main narrator, the hijra Dimple, or a couple other of the opium den’s regulars, Thayil’s narrative feels vital, alive, and fully aware of the contradictions present within its characters.  He rarely strikes a wrong note, whether in character voice or in the prose itself, and much is packed into its 284 e-book pages.

Too easily a reader may find herself trying to focus on the “exotic” qualities of urban life different from what s/he has experienced.  Thayil manages to avoid this through acknowledging the existence of poverty-stricken slums, but without that sort of “poverty porn” that titillates at the expense of a larger human narrative.  Rashid and his customers are not window dressing for others to gawk at:  they are humans whose concerns, while perhaps somewhat foreign to those alien to contemporary Indian urban societies, are real and intriguing because they are valued much higher than the setting around which their lives unfold.  Narcopolis in many regards reminds me favorably of Cuban writer Pedro Juan Gutiérrez’s excellent Dirty Havana Trilogy in its unflinching dedication to narrating the lives and experiences of those too often dismissed by their own fellow citizens.

Thayil’s prose is sharp and eloquent without feeling affected.  Perhaps due to his experiences as a poet, Thayil can sum up complexity of emotion in just a few well-placed paragraphs, such as this excerpt from a reflection from a Chinese ex-soldier, Lee, in regards to his mother:

She didn’t believe in culture.  She didn’t believe in books.  She didn’t believe in knowledge that die not benefit society as a whole.  She believed that indiscriminate individual reading was detrimental to progress because it filled the populace with yearnings that were impossible to identify, much less satisfy.  Societies with the highest literacy rates also had the highest suicide rates, she said.  Some kinds of knowledge were not meant to be freely available, she said, because all men and women were not equipped to receive such knowledge in an equal and equally useful way.  She did not believe in art for art’s sake; she did not believe in freedom of expression; she did not believe in her husband, whose stature as a novelist she regarded with suspicion mixed with shame.  Despite her lifelong aversion to culture she would go to university because she wanted to be a teacher.  Teaching was the noblest profession in the world, she said.  It was selfless, revolutionary, and critical to the nation’s well-being.  It concerned itself not with money, which was irredeemably dirty, but with the future of the mind.  (Book Two, Ch. 2)

Yes, there is contradiction here between the love of learning and the dismissal of knowledge.  Yet we are full of such inconsistencies.  Thayil’s characters, whether they are reminiscing under the haze of opium or are lucid dreaming, contain such conflicts within themselves.  We might find ourselves empathizing with them, feeling similar regrets and dreams.  It is here, in that sympathetic bond that the reader may form with these characters, that Thayil’s narrative is its most effective.  Few readers may have experienced the pangs of chemical addiction, but most of us have known at some point that tug-of-war between emotional states and our desire to free ourselves from the restraints placed upon us by society.  Some times, it seems the freest people are those who realize this and choose to take a path that may liberate themselves at the expense of their own selves.  Narcopolis is a brilliantly-realized novel because it takes that unsettling concept and plays it out in front of the reader, allowing that reader to make his or her own conclusions about it.  Very few novelists could have written such a tale and to see a debut novelist accomplish this is all the more marvelous.  Certainly a very deserving candidate for this year’s Booker Prize.

2012 Booker Prize winner: Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies

November 17th, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

The forest stretched ahead for days.  Sometimes antique weapons are unearthed:  axes that, wielded with double fist, could cut down horse and rider.  Think of the great limbs of those dead men, stirring under the soil.  War was their nature, and war is always keen to come again.  It’s not just the past you think of, as you ride these fields.  It’s what’s latent in the soil, what’s breeding; it’s the days to come, the wars unfought, the injuries and deaths that, like seeds, the soil of England is keeping warm.  You would think, to look at Henry laughing, to look at Henry praying, to look at him leading his men through the forest path, that he sits as secure on his throne as he does on his horse.  Looks can deceive.  By night, he lies awake; he stares at the carved roof beams; he numbers his days.  He says, ‘Cromwell, Cromwell, what shall I do?’  Cromwell, save me from the Emperor.  Cromwell, save me from the Pope.  Then he calls in his Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, and demands to know, ‘Is my soul damned?’

For nearly five centuries now, the passion play that is the life and times of Henry VIII’s court and king has fascinated historians and laypeople alike.  With the exception of relatively minor antecedents such as Wycliffe and the Lollards, England in the 16th century did not seem to be as ripe for rebellion against papal authority/church traditions as were several of the German states; it was more of a top-down phenomenon there than in the Holy Roman Empire.  Yet what caused Henry VIII to first divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, and then proceed through that infamous litany of “divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived?”  Who were the masterminds, if any such Faustian ministers could be said to be thus, that shepherded the king to divorce England from the Catholic faith?  For centuries, these questions have bedeviled contemporaries and their descendents alike and the literary works that have touched upon this, ranging from Shakespeare to Robert Bolt to hagiographies of St./Sir Thomas More and others such as Thomas Cranmer, have populated bookshops for centuries.

The latest entry into this realm of historical speculative fiction is a planned trilogy by Hilary Mantel that focuses (at first) on the life and career of Thomas Cromwell, who rose from the lower classes to become one of the chief architects of Henry VIII’s annulment of his marriage to Catherine and the subsequent declaration of the King of England being head of the Catholic dioceses there.  These events Mantel covered deftly and with aplomb in her 2009 Booker Prize-winning opening volume, Wolf Hall.  While that novel was well-written and added excellent moments of narrative tension, it pales in comparison to the second volume, Bring Up the Bodies, which covers events from after the execution of More in 1534 to the execution of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife, in 1536.

Historical novels are very difficult to write convincingly.  Too often, novelists find themselves constricted by the known facts to create interesting characters out of historical people, especially when these characters are famous.  It is often easier to create a fictional character who manages to summarize the chaotic or exciting events of a time while s/he only intersects fittingly with the “real” people.  Or perhaps, as Alexandre Dumas was wont to do with his Musketeer novels, a minor historical person has their role expanded and fictionalized to an extent to create a narrative that is both “real” and exciting.  Mantel in both Wolf Hall and here in Bring Up the Bodies, has chosen a third, more difficult path, that of using major historical figures to reconstruct a tumultuous and sometimes mysterious epoch in English history.  Too easily the characters and situation could have devolved into a shallow mystery/thriller-type novel; one only has to look at Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time to see a historical reconstruction that takes on too many aspects of the murder-mystery for it to be viewed as anything beyond just that.

No, what Mantel’s representations of not just Cromwell, but also Boleyn, the ambassador from the court of Emperor Charles V, Cranmer, and the divorced Catherine show is a complex weaving of character and situation to create a narrative tension that slowly builds through the first half of the novel before it explodes in the novel’s final chapters.  For centuries, the events leading up to Boleyn being charged with adultery and treason were shrouded with mystery.  The extant evidence is contradictory in places and there are hints that political machinations involving the family of Jane Seymour (Henry VIII’s soon-to-be third wife, who later died giving birth to the sickly future King Edward VI) did lie, if not quite at the center of the charges against Boleyn, at least somewhat more than just a peripheral role in the matter.  Mantel judiciously notes this without overplaying this possible angle.

If anything, what makes Bring Up the Bodies‘ second half so strong is that Mantel has created several plausible possibilities for the charges against Boleyn that the reader may find herself trying to anticipate which may be the strongest clue to the eventual denouement.  Yet the novel is more than the presentation of evidence regarding a historical political intrigue.  It also excels at being a great character-driven novel.  Whereas Wolf Hall centered around Cromwell to the near-exclusion of other PoVs, here in Bring Up the Bodies the perspectives of other characters adds to the building drama.  The fate of Boleyn feels as foreordained and morbidly fascinating as that of Santiago Nasar’s murder as outlined in Gabriel García Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold.  This creation of tension within a fictionalization of an event already well-known is impressive and Mantel’s opulent descriptions contrasted with the shifts in perspective is nothing short of brilliant.

Bring Up the Bodies certainly is a deserving winner of the 2012 Booker Prize.  Its prose is excellent, the characterizations are top-notch, and the narrative construction not only is ambitious but it also manages to achieve its lofty goals.  In a year filled with excellent contenders, it stands out due to the difficulties (noted above) that it managed to overcome.  Mantel joins the rare company of those authors who have won the Booker Prize twice and she is the first writer to have a sequel win this prestigious award.  Simply put, it is the best out of a group of books that is much stronger than last year’s weak shortlist.

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