Johanna Sinisalo, The Blood of Angels (2011; 2014 English translation)

November 24th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

The queen is dead.

She’s lying in the entrance hole, delicate, fragile, her limbs curled up against her body.

I would recognize it as the queen just by the elongated lower body and clearly larger size compared to the worker bees, but there is also a little spot of colour on her back – I marked this female with yellow last year when I placed her in the nest.

Much too young to die.

And why had she left the nest to begin with?

I squeeze a puff from the smoker into the hive, but the bees don’t come crawling out.  They should be languid, of course, fat and heavy with honey to protect from this imagined forest fire, but there’s no movement at all at the entrance.

My heart is racing now.  I put down the smoker and pry the roof off the nest with a hive tool.  I put the roof on the ground and start lifting the honeycombs out of the box one by one and stacking them on top of it.

The workers are gone.

Every one of them. (p. 13)

After a while, post-apocalyptic stories can become rather wearisome to read.  There’s a perfunctory explanation, usually some virus or super-pathogen or maybe a deliberate bio-chemical attack by some human group, followed by blah-blah-blah about the fragility of human civilization or how resilient humans truly are in a dire situation.  Even in the cases of a viral/microbe attack, the focus is not so much on how humans are just another animal species in an incredibly complex and interdependent ecosystem, but rather on human agency and how humans can overcome even their own proclivities for destruction.  It’s just a bit too much to presume that any future collapse of human civilizations is going to be the central part of any biological calamity.

Therefore, it was with great interest that I ordered a copy of Finnish writer Johanna Sinisalo’s The Blood of Angels.  Recently translated into English by Lola Rogers, it was my first time reading this acclaimed writer’s fiction in novel format.  The Blood of Angels actively works against several of the presumptions I listed above that are found in other stories of collapse and disorder.  Set in contemporary Finland, it begins with an amateur beekeeper, Orvo, discovering that two of his hives have been abandoned inexplicably, with queens dead and the brood still encased in their protective layers.  Immediately, he think of three dread words that have been uttered more and more frequently by beekeepers worldwide:  Colony Collapse Disorder.

This, coupled with his grieving for the recent death of his eco-warrior son, Eero, leads Orvo to investigate matters further.  In an attic in a nearby barn, he makes a surprising discovery:  a pathway to a parallel world, one in which the slowly spreading ecological disaster caused by the near-total extinction of European honeybees and the resulting lack of pollination of thousands of plant species vital for vast swathes of human and animal food supply systems may have been checked.  As he explores this parallel world and its connection with bees, he discovers that in most societies, bees at one point or another have been viewed as half-mystical, half-divine messenger animals who had come to represent beliefs in an afterworld and in resurrection.

Sinisalo takes some bold chances here with how she structures the narrative.  Orvo’s discoveries, taking place over roughly half a month, are interspersed with blog and journal entries from Eero that detail the important roles that bees play in life, both literally and metaphorically.  At times, Orvo’s own narrative arc could have been disrupted or overshadowed by these fascinating recreations of actual research into bee life, but she carefully structures these interludes in a fashion that makes their contents serve as deepening echos of Orvo’s chapters.  The result is a very scary look at a very possible near-future reality:  one in which mass malnutrition arises due to the inability to find a replacement for these rapidly dying off bee colonies.  Sinisalo’s narrative, especially its blog entries, echoes almost too vividly the warnings in recent years about the actual spread of Colony Collapse Disorder and, in the short asides provided throughout Orvo’s chapters, the calamities this causes for all creatures great and small.

The Blood of Angels is one of the best tales of Collapse that I have read this year.  It manages to avoid the egregious mistakes that most post-apocalyptic tales make in focusing overmuch on human agency as a cause and effect of these type of global disasters.  Through its well-constructed mixture of a grieving man’s search through a parallel world for clues as to what happened to both his son and to the bees, as well as detailed yet never wearisome scientifically-based blog entries written by the now-dead son, Sinisalo invokes a creeping sense of disorder, one in which the collapse of the orderly bee colonies presages much more than a collapse of human societies.  She manages to maintain this atmosphere throughout The Blood of Angels, making this one of the best written and constructed narratives of Collapse published in English this year.

2014 National Book Award winner for Fiction: Phil Klay, Redeployment

November 18th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

We shot dogs.  Not by accident.  We did it on purpose, and we called it Operation Scooby.  I’m a dog person, so I thought about that a lot.

First time was instinct.  I hear O’Leary go, “Jesus,” and there’s a skinny brown dog lapping up blood the same way he’d lap up water from a bowl.  It wasn’t American blood, but still, there’s that dog, lapping it up.   And that’s the last straw, I guess, and then it’s open season on dogs.

At the time, you don’t think about it.  You’re thinking about who’s in that house, what’s he armed with, how’s he gonna kill you, your buddies.  You’re going block by block, fighting with rifles good to 550 meters, and you’re killing people at five in a concrete box. (“Redeployment,” p. 1)

For as long as the United States has existed as a nation, nearly two hundred and forty years, its wars and literature have been inextricably intertwined.  From Thomas Paine’s “The Crisis” to Francis Scott Key’s “The Star-Spangled Banner” to the soldier letters and memoirs from the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, and the Civil War; to the accounts of the Spanish-American War and the searing novels by the likes of John Dos Passos and Dalton Trumbo on World War I, soldier voices have been heard in one form or another.  Kilroy was there in World War II; before Apocalypse Now, so many found madness in the killing fields of Vietnam and somehow managed to express it in letters, memoirs, and novels.  It is little surprise that eleven years after “Mission Accomplished” was declared, that veteran voices of the plains of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan are now clamoring to be heard.

The Iraq-Afghanistan postwar/war novels have grown in number and popularity over the past five years, ever since troops began to be withdrawn from Iraq.  Some, like Kevin Powers’ 2012 National Book Award-nominated novel The Yellow Birds, were written by Iraq War veterans.  One of the latest to emerge (itself a 2014 finalist for the National Book Award) is Phil Klay’s debut collection, Redeployment.  In the twelve stories that comprise this collection, Klay manages to explore various facets of the war experience in Iraq and postwar life in ways that shine more insight on soldier experiences in this war.  It is a powerful collection, one that easily holds its own with Three Soldiers and The Naked and the Dead in regards to the power of the narrative and Catch-22 for exploring the ridiculousness of it all.

The eponymous opening story begins with soldiers shooting dogs.  Told in terse prose, the reader is immediately jolted from her comfort zone.  Why dogs?  Why shoot creatures often valued as much (if not more) than many human beings?  There is a purpose behind this, one beyond showing stereotypical desensitization of the soldiers.  If anything, there is a greater sensitization that is transpiring, as seen in this passage:

So I’m thinking about that.  And I’m seeing the retard, and the girl, and the wall Eicholtz died on.  But here’s the thing.  I’m thinking a lot, and I mean a lot, about those fucking dogs.

And I’m thinking about my dog.  Vicar.  About the shelter we’d got him from, where Cheryl said we had to get an older dog because nobody takes older dogs.  How we could never teach him anything.  How he’d throw up shit he shouldn’t have eaten in the first place.  How he’d slink away all guilty, tail down and head low and back legs crouched.  How his fur started turning gray two years after we got him, and he so many white hairs on his face that it looked like a mustache.

So there it was.  Vicar and Operation Scooby, all the way home. (p. 3)

“Redeployment” is a somber tale, one of readjusting to home life after returning from a deployment, but it is also a merging of the war with one of the toughest things any pet owner has faced, that of their pet suffering from terminal disease and choosing to end that life there instead of paying another to do it.  In re-reading it just now, I remember when I was 8 and our dog of roughly a year, Bo, came down with an illness that even today I don’t know if it was rabies or a paralyzing sort of distemper.  What I remember is my dad, himself a Vietnam War vet, taking out his shotgun that he rarely used and telling us not to look outside.  I didn’t.  But even tonight, I remember the shotgun blast.  It still reverberates within me, as I can imagine it doing in the narrator’s mind after the story’s end.  The responsibility for a life, even a dog’s life, weighs heavily on those forced to choose to end it.

Yet not all the stories in Redeployment are as somber as the first one.  Some, like “In Vietnam They Had Whores,” are full of the type of baudy humor one might expect from young soldiers full of lust and life.  Others, like “Psychological Operations,” contain a sort of macabre humor alongside a tale of cultural misunderstandings that underscore so much of what transpired in Iraq during the war and its bloody aftermath.  “War Stories” takes some of the motifs of Vietnam war stories and warp them, make them into something more applicable to the situation in Iraq a generation later.  When I read part of this aloud to my dad on Friday when we were on our way to the urology clinic for my kidney stone surgery, he grunted a bit at some of the biting humor, something that I partially got and I suspect he understood more than he let on.  Some things, after all, do transcend specific wars and are shared grounds for veterans, I suppose.

By the time that I finished reading the final story, “Ten Kliks South,” I felt as though I had read something both familiar and strange at once.  The twelve stories in this collection showed a wide range of soldier experiences, from horror to dazed bemusement to a callous attitude toward civilians to something hard to define, and each were presented in such a way that civilians such as myself could understand much of what was transpiring.  Yet there was enough of a sense of something being left unstated, something whose silence was even louder than the powerful passages contained within, that I suspect would say even more to those who were there, those who do not need to put voice to what they experienced.  Even more, there are elements in common with the wartime classics that I mentioned above that I suspect will make Redeployment not just one of the best Iraq-Afghanistan war fictions, but also will enshrine it in a rich national history of war of literature.  Redeployment is my favorite out of a strong 2014 National Book Award for Fiction finalist slate.

Frankétienne, Ready to Burst/Mûr à crever (1968; English translation 2014)

November 16th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

My bitterness was even greater when I realized that I also needed money to be treated by a doctor.  To acquire a much-needed pair of shoes.  Or in order for Santa Claus to come.  Moreover, I was enraged by all these privations.  Source of my first revolts against the adult world.  My rage against the system.  My refusal to obey laws I didn’t understand.  My taking a stand against social injustice.  My dissidence.  My revenge.  I resolved to protest in every way.  The one who had to deal most often with my bad behavior and my rebellions was Uncle Bernard.  Owner of a big boutique, he was the Croesus of the family.  Exceptionally stingy, he never forgave a cent of debt among family members.  He hated the poor.  His heart was made of neither flesh nor wood.  For the flesh is weak, and wood heats up when it burns.  Truth was, he had no heart.  Completely ungenerous.  He loved no one.  He was harsh.  Inflexible with everyone.  Cruel.  Indifferent to human suffering to the point where he’d refuse to offer the slightest help to my despairing mother, overwhelmed by the weight of her poverty.  One day when we had nothing to put on the fire, we went to him, only to be treated like vile parasites.  In front of people we didn’t even know.  That’s when I decided to act in my own best interest.  I initiated a veritable impoverishment campaign against him, stealing whatever I could from him… I went to his grocery store more frequently just so as to advance my plan for meting out justice.  Not a day went by that I didn’t pilfer some can of something or other, or some money even.  My lifestyle improved.  I drank milk three times a day.  At night I started smoking cigarettes in the toilets.  As time went on, I increased my take to up to ten dollars a day, money I spent recklessly with boys from the neighborhood. (22% Kindle on iPad e-edition)

Frankétienne is one of Haiti’s most famous 20th century writers and poets.  His 1968 novel, Mûr à crever (translated this year into English as Ready to Burst by Kaiama L. Glover), is one of a very few works of his to be translated into English.  Written during the days of Papa Doc Duvalier’s dictatorship, Ready to Burst nevertheless possesses a timeless quality to it, perhaps due to the social injustices Haitians have battled against ever since winning independence from France in 1804.  Certainly, the political repression of Papa Doc’s rule finds resonance with those who have paid attention to the recent political climate.  The street violence, often led by henchmen associated with the government, has never quite gone away since Baby Doc was driven out of power over a quarter century ago.

Ready to Burst is in one sense a tour of Duvalier’s Port-au-Prince, as the two main protagonists, Raynaud and his near-twin, the writer Paulin, commence upon a series of adventures in its streets after Paulin rescues Raynaud from a despondency caused by a romantic affair fizzling out suddenly.  The two are complementary characters:  Raynaud, more of an idealistic dreamer, seeks out hope even beyond hope as the twain travel through a sometimes dirty and dangerous city; Paulin, who seeks to capture in verse and prose what is transpiring, is more a man of action grounded in the stark daily realities that confront them.  Much of Ready to Burst is taken up with presenting Paulin’s writings, such as the lengthy autobiography above and this description of a life crisis after being injured at a political rally below:

Why me personally and not someone else?  I didn’t find any convincing explanation.  I also looked for what I might have done wrong, but couldn’t point to anything.  So it was that I began thinking about chance.  Religion offered no decent explanation.  Only scientific data came to my rescue and, just like that, I understood the laws of ballistics:  understood, that is, the fact that I’d been walking in line, in step with the rhythm of my column; that the rock had been thrown clumsily, in accordance with its own speed; and, finally, that at one point I’d very logically become a specific target on the trajectory of the projectile.  Sudden clarity.  I’d seen the light.  My heart beat more quickly.  I forgot the pain in my head.  Chance no longer existed for me.  My thoughts extended outward to consider the sufferings of all those who seemed to be victims of some dreadful fate.  Those who lived in slavery or misery.  Peoples oppressed by wealthy nations.  I began to understand it all.  Underdevelopment.  The appearance of political leaders, artists, scientists, geniuses.  Beauty.  Ugliness.  Natural epidemics.  Progress.  Vices.  Births.  Wars.  Victories.  Defeats.  Scientific discoveries.  Works of art.  From one thing to the next, the world unfolded before me, clear like water from a stone.  Nothing stopped me anymore, since I’d found an explanation for all cosmic phenomena.  I was now equipped to perform an autopsy on both happiness and sorrow. (37-38%)

Ready to Burst is punctuated with these frequent staccato bursts of description.  This minimalist language, however, serves as a counterpoint to the occasionally wild imagery, often expressed through Raynaud’s thoughts as he travels with his new companion.  Descriptions of his “secret joy, the conquest of dawn,” or the “rebellious stars fight[ing] not to disappear into the greedy mouth of the invading light in which the day sets up house.” (60%)  These more fanciful metaphors not only serve as a counterpoint to Paulin’s more politically-charged thoughts, but they also represent two of the many facets of Haitian society.  The horrors of the neck tire burnings gives ways to wild hopes for something different, something better in the course of quotidian life.

Although based on these descriptions one might presume that Ready to Burst is less concerned with plot than with character and scene, there is indeed a solid plot that underlies Raynaud and Paulin’s travels:  finding a name for Paulin’s novel.  Raynaud stumbles and starts to come up with an appropriate title, but it isn’t until the final scene, in which the experiences and thoughts that the two have done and pondered about come together in a violent clash that provides not only the source of the novel’s name, but it also summarizes in its violence so many of the national contradictions that Frankétienne explores through his two protagonists.

Frankétienne’s style might not appeal to everyone; the prose is perhaps a bit stilted in places, at least for those used to fewer stop-start thought fragments.  There are times where Paulin feels too earnest, too wrapped up in thoughts of revolution and change, to see all that is really transpiring; sometimes, “realists” miss the forest for the trees.  Although ultimately his blindness to this is part of novel’s central theme regarding the clash of Haitian ideals and political repression, at times this voice is too strong, rendering Raynaud’s thoughts and actions ancillary to Paulin’s.  These, however, only weaken the power of the book’s final scene slightly.  On the whole, Ready to Burst is a moving work from one of Haiti’s most renowned writers.

2011 National Book Award winner for Fiction: Jesmyn Ward, Salvage the Bones

November 15th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

“Kilo!” Rico yells.  He grabs Kilo by the back legs and drags the dog toward him.  Kilo smacks open his lips as if he has just eaten something he likes, and China’s leg comes free.  She is bounding toward Skeetah, her smile red like smudged lipstick.  The blood on her leg is a crimson garter.

“Fuck!  He don’t even have to drag her,” Jerome says.

Rico wipes at Kilo’s neck until the blood looks less like a scarf and more like a necklace.  He studies his dog, who breathes so hard he sprays the ground with spit and blood, his nose to the earth.  Manny kneels next to Rico, whispers.  I know that whatever Manny is saying is showing the meanness in him, that he is Jason betraying Medea and asking for the hand of the daughter of the king of Corinth in marriage after Medea has killed her brother for him, betrayed her father.  Manny’s mouth moves and I read, She ain’t shit, ain’t got no heart.  He looks at China when he murmurs, but it feels like he looks at me.

Late August 2005, with the impending arrival of Hurricane Katrina, portended doom for many millions of Americans who lived near the Gulf of Mexico, particularly in the Louisiana and Mississippi coastal plains.  In the days before landfall, Katrina swelled up in size until it seemed as though it would wrack the entire South with torrential downpours and devastating winds.  Although it died down in strength somewhat before making landfall near New Orleans, Katrina was so powerful that my native Middle Tennessee was under a Tropical Storm Warning for parts of two days.  The devastation left behind was horrific:  much of New Orleans under several feet of water after the levees protecting the below-sea level city collapsed; houses flattened or torn off foundations for around a hundred miles inland; millions left without homes, potable water, electricity, or belongings.  In some senses, it was akin to a Greek tragedy, with the gods gone crazy on those intrepid people who stayed for “the fun” of the storm and experienced a calamity.

Jesmyn Ward’s second novel, Salvage the Bones, is set in coastal plain Mississippi those last days before Katrina tore up the land similar to what Camille did in 1969.  The ghost of Camille and the looming menace of Katrina lurk in the background of Ward’s story until its final, devastating conclusion.  Salvage the Bones revolves around two African-American Mississippi teens, the first-person narrator, Esch, and her pitbull-raising brothe Jason, or “Skeeter” as he is known to most.  In the week leading up to Katrina’s landfall (an event we are reminded of with small, passing comments throughout the narrative), we get a slice-of-life portrayal of their lives, filtered through Esch’s frequent comparisons to Greco-Roman tragedies such as that of Jason and Medea and Psyche and Cupid.

Esch is a teenage girl, not the most popular or the prettiest, but intelligent and attractive enough to draw some attention.  She searches for love, only to discover that she is pregnant by someone who just so happens to have a girlfriend who is very jealous of any who might draw attention from him.  Her recounting of impoverished southern Mississippi life, replete with attempts at developing a strong social identity, the endemic fights (the somewhat graphic depiction of pitbull fighting might make some squeamish, but Ward provides unflinching insight into why such animal fighting traditions have lingered into the present in parts of the South), and the relationships between herself, her brothers, and their handicapped (and possibly alcoholic) father creates a vivid, memorable narrative tapestry.  Unlike several first-person narratives where only the narrator is fleshed out, several characters here, from Skeeter to Manny to Rico and even Esch’s father, are well-developed.  Skeeter and his attachment to his pitbull bitch, China, forms a powerful secondary subplot to Esch’s conflicted feelings about her pregnancy.

The narrative unfolds neatly and eloquently all the way to the devastating conclusion.  The reader comes to understand better the world which Esch and Skeeter inhabit.  One may not like certain particulars about this social milieu, but Ward sets up a vivid, poignant tale through her use of Esch’s narrative to recast coastal Mississippian life through the lens of an impending (and ongoing) social tragedy.  Despite knowing the general conclusion and having images already burned into my mind from seeing Katrina disaster footage, Ward’s build up to this seemingly inevitable end made this tragedy all the more devastating because of the anticipation and growing dread over what surely must come.  Yet despite knowing this, the particulars were brutal, precisely because the characters were so well-drawn, and yet there was surprising hope as well.

There are few weaknesses.  One element that might be jarring for certain readers is the idiosyncrasy of Ward’s narrative.  Esch at times sounds too removed from the here-and-now of the immediate narrative, as if she were attempting to make her life into something else, something grander than what would be found in hardscrabble country fields and forests.  It does take some getting used to seeing a pregnant teen recasting her world in such a fashion, yet after a while, it does work, albeit after some effort at acclimating to this narrative style.  At times, the narrative focus seemed to be fuzzy, as Skeeter is such a fascinating character (and at the heart of it is his love and concern for China) that his plight threatens to overwhelm Esch’s own.  Ultimately, however, the two threads do become more attuned to one another and each creates a powerful denouement.

Salvage the Bones on the whole was a cathartic reading experience.  The emotional buildup and release were steady and gradual at first, before the sudden emotional release and rebuilding occurred.  Ward’s characters are half-realistic and half-tragic personages and although at times this division seemed a bit off, by the story’s end the characters emerged as some of the strongest, most memorable that I have read this year.  Although I wouldn’t rank Salvage the Bones higher than Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife or Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha in the Attic, it certainly is worthy to be considered with each of these fine novels as worthy contenders for the 2011 National Book Award fiction prize.

Ferenc Karinthy, Metropole (1970; 2008 English translation)

November 15th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Looking back on it later it could only have happened because Budai had gone through the wrong door in the confusion at the transit lounge and, having mistaken an exit sign, found himself on a plane bound elsewhere without the airport staff having noticed the change.  After that it was impossible to say how far or for how long he had flown, for as soon as the engine purred into life he reclined his seat and fell asleep.  He was quite exhausted, hardly having rested the last few days, working himself to a standstill, and apart from anything else there was the speech for the linguistic conference in Helsinki for which he had just now been preparing.  He was woken only once during the flight when they brought him his meal, then he promptly fell asleep again, it might have been for ten minutes or for ten hours.  He didn’t even have his wristwatch with him since he intended buying one out there and didn’t want to have to present two watches at customs back home, so he didn’t have the least clue how far he was from home.  It was only later, once he was in town, that he discovered it wasn’t Helsinki and was shocked that he didn’t know where he actually was. (p. 5)

Ever felt you were removed from familiar, comfortable environs, confronted suddenly with a thronging Babel that gives you a sense of vertigo?  In his 1970 novel, Epepe (published in English translation in 2008 as Metropole), Hungarian writer Ferenc Karinthy (son of the famous Hungarian humorist Frigyes Karinthy) plumbs the depths of despair, longing, and desire that can occur when a familiar touchstone (in this case, intelligible language) is suddenly removed from us.  What would we do in Budai’s place?  Would we manage to cope even half as well as he does when he is unable to converse with anyone in this strange city in which he has suddenly found (and lost) himself?

Metropole follows the linguist Budai’s tortured search for a common ground in an utterly foreign city.  In some ways, his quest can be read as a metaphor for a Hell in which one is alone, surrounded by others who are distinctly other in idiomatic expression.  There is much to be said for that viewpoint:

Even if he had known the language he would probably have made little sense of it:  it was a private matter, hopeless and infinitely complex, completely alien as far as he was concerned.  It was nothing to do with him and he felt no desire to know more.  Thinking this, he picked himself up, broke through the people crowding at the entrance and left. (p. 104)

But there is something else at play beside a potential metaphor for a linguistic Hell:

Budai liked children and was generally touched by them but he had never seen so many all together and the sight confused and terrified him.  He looked to escape, seeking an exit from the clinic.  He was losing patience, wanting to see no more babies, worrying what would happen when the present batch grew up and joined the already teeming hordes in the streets. (p. 158)

Several times Karinthy’s narrator refers to “hordes,” or to the masses of people who move through the nameless, foreign city.  Are these masses benign or is there something driving them?

    The people in the street moved aside but not very far, remaining close to the tank, chanting slogans at its invisible crew, raising their arms in oaths of allegiance.  Then they sand their anthem again:

Tchetety top debette
Etek glö tchri fefé… (p. 213)

As the story progresses, hints emerge as to what is truly happening, possible foretellings that might support an interpretation that some made in the past quarter-century that Metropole might be a disguised critique of the Hungarian Communist regime after the failed 1956 uprising (and its Czechoslovakian echo in 1968), but this is too facile of an argument.  Certainly, the alienation reflected within Budai’s story could be read in that fashion, but with the sense of the character’s futility as he continually butts his head up against an impenetrable linguistic barrier (his prior role as linguist proving to be ironic on several levels), some readers might find closer parallels with Kafka’s work than with that of an Orwell or London:

It was as though the combatants themselves had changed:  he couldn’t see anyone he had fought with.  On the other hand, there were ever more mysterious, suspicious-looking figures, some of them demagogues of the first order.  That that dissolute, bearded man with the pockmarked face who looked strangely familiar:  he was halfway through directing the hanging of one of the prisoners. (p. 226)

By this time, simple explanations or metaphors have to be eschewed.  The confusion, the true babbling sense of the other people around Budai, these find their echo in the larger, more violent outpouring of the latter stages of the novel.  One cannot these two elements; each is a reflection of the other.  Overlaying this is a sense of irreality, where this might possibly be a very unsettling dream, although one (and Budai) certainly fears it will prove to be otherwise.  Metropole’s unnerving atmosphere defies easy categorizations.  Its narrative can rattle unwary readers who are not prepared for the twists contained within the story.  When the story “ends,” one might wonder if one is “escaping” or merely going into the next stage.  Metropole certainly is a tale that cannot be forgotten easily, as it lingers in the subconscious, spawning dreams in its wake.  Highly recommended.

Italo Calvino, Le città invisibili/Invisible Cities (1972; English translation 1974)

November 13th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Kublai Khan does not necessarily believe everything Marco Polo says when he describes the cities visited on his expeditions, but the emperor of the Tartars does continue listening to the young Venetian with greater attention and curiosity than he shows any other messenger or explorer of his. In the lives of emperors there is a moment which follows pride in the boundless extension of the territories we have conquered, and the melancholy and relief of knowing we shall soon give up any thought of knowing and understanding them. (p. 5)

Italo Calvino is one of my favorite 20th century writers and one of a rare few whose works I have in three different languages (Italian, English, and Serbian). Along with Jorge Luis Borges, Calvino displayed a rare talent for constructing imagined vistas populated with interesting people, resting on sometimes unsettling thematic foundations. Calvino did not have to use expansive vocabularies or extremely detailed descriptions to create these vivid settings; a few words placed just so conveyed more wealth of ideas and images than most writers can do with pages of prose.

In his 1972 novel, Invisible Cities (later nominated for the 1975 Hugo Award for Best Novel), Calvino perhaps created his most multilayered work. Using the historical backdrop of Marco Polo and his relationship with the Emperor Kublai Khan, Calvino explores not just how we imagine strange settings, but also why we have such a need for such created realms in the first place. Moreover, the framing story of Polo and the Emperor serves to highlight not just these fictional creations, but also how our own desires and fears can be reflected in our imaginations.

The framing story has Kublai Khan ask Marco Polo about his travels within the Emperor’s vast realm and what he witnesses there. Polo proceeds to describe strange cities, cities of memory, desire, signs; cities that are thin, cities with eyes, cities of trade and cities of names and eyes; sky and city and the dead and city are also touched upon in these tales. Below is one such description:

Cities & Memory 1:

Leaving there and proceeding for three days toward the east, you reach Diomira, a city with sixty silver domes, bronze statues of all the gods, streets paved with lead, a crystal theater, a golden cock that crows each morning on a tower. All these beauties will already be familiar to the visitor, who has seen them also in other cities. But the special quality of this city for the man who arrives there on a September evening, when the days are growing shorter and the multicolored lamps are lighted all at once at the doors of the food stalls and from a terrace a woman’s voice cries ooh!, is that he feels envy toward those who now believe they have once before lived an evening identical to this and who think they were happy, that time. (p. 7)

In this passage, not only is Diomira described as a physical form, but that there is a personal quality attached to it, one in which a visitor newly arrived would find him/herself reminded not just of the concrete present, but also of a memory of something that resides within the soul of that traveler. This entry, the first of over 50, serves to show the reader that Polo’s descriptions are far more than just simple narrative exercises. But there is another quality on display in these tales and in how the Emperor receives them. Here, in the second part of the framing story, the nature of Polo’s early storytelling is shown:

Newly arrived and totally ignorant of the Levantine languages, Marco Polo could express himself only with gestures, leaps, cries of wonder and of horror, animal barkings or hootings, or with objects he took from his knapsacks – ostrich plumes, pea-shooters, quartzes – which he arranged in front of him like chessmen. Returning from the missions on which Kublai sent him, the ingenious foreigner improvised pantomimes that the sovereign had to interpret: one city was depicted by the leap of a fish escaping the cormorant’s beak to fall into a net; another city by a naked man running through fire unscorched; a third by a skull, its teeth green with mold, clenching a round, white pearl. The Great Khan deciphered the signs, but the connection between them and the places visited remained uncertain; he never knew whether Marco wished to enact an adventure that had befallen him on his journey, an exploit of the city’s founder, the prophecy of an astrologer, a rebus or a charade to indicate a name. But, obscure or obvious as it might be, everything Marco displayed had the power of emblems, which, once seen, cannot be forgotten or confused. In the Khan’s mind the empire was reflected in a desert of labile and interchangeable data, like grains of sand, from which there appeared, for each city and province, the figures evoked by the Venetian’s logogriphs. (pp. 21-22)

It is here where the stories told begin to transform, their meanings deepening and becoming more complex, even though Calvino rarely has a tale go past three pages. It is this idea that words and places represent still greater values and truths, perhaps ultimately ending in Truth being expressed through the emblematic nature of these stories of places, that makes Invisible Cities a work that has to be sampled, considered, put aside, and then read anew regularly.

For myself, this book is like a multifaceted prism that casts off various colors of light, each representing just one tiny perceived part of the whole. As Polo continues to tell his stories about the fantastical cities that he may or may not have seen, as the Emperor continues to probe and to test Polo’s veracity, one can begin to recognize so many elements in common that unite these tales. There is something universal about describing human beings, even when showing them and their customs (as reflected in the physical nature of the cities Polo describes) as being so diverse. It is that realization that in all the strangeness, in all the diversity of customs and traditions, in the growing doubts even of the Emperor, that a reader can begin to be sucked into the tale. After all, if you were to pick five people from any given city to describe that city to someone who had never heard of that place, much less seen it, wouldn’t it stand to reason that each tale would reflect different facets of that city, real as it should be?

This re-read of Calvino’s work is my second time total, with the first being read in early 2007. In this re-read, I discovered that Calvino’s prose sparkled even more, that my imagination was running a bit more, trying to picture cities such as Diomira. I found myself wandering in thought, wondering about the power that cities often have on the human imagination. I became lost in reflective ruminations, before I came to realize that this perhaps was just what Calvino was aiming to do with this work. Many people read fantasies to experience another’s imagination; here I found myself creating my own imaginative settings while reading a few words from the author. For this alone, even above Calvino’s prose and economy with words, I would have rated Invisible Cities as one of my favorite fictions. Since these other elements are also present, it is a work that I would strongly encourage readers to read, reflect, and then to re-read multiple times over the years, just to see how deep Calvino’s work sinks into your own imagination.

Blake Butler, 300,000,000 (2014)

November 10th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

He who brought me brightest in the image of the human toward god was a series of shapes I knew as Darrel, though quickly I would come to see that’s not his name.  His name had squirmed as any word, appearing burned into the pages of the unholy books composed alone in pens and tongues by men before we were we, beneath a sky propped up with our lunchmeat flab asleep and praying.  Each syllable in how anyone would say his name would deform itself depending on whose mouth was being used, and so the name could lace within all language.  His name appeared inside all ageless rails of light, invoked malformed in the mouths of all as corporations, entertainments, narcotics, art.  But with my human mouth I called him Darrel, after the son I’d never have.  I lived with Darrel in the black house for more than thirteen billion years before I ever had a body, years in which the flood of ideas we would erect from incubated and formed blood inside our brains.  The ground beneath the dirt of our whole future pressed against everything we wanted, became so thin with all the scraping of the nails and all the one-day-buried no ones and all the nothing waking up in our new bodies in the night, that what was left of the foundation underneath us was something so clear and timeless and deranged we couldn’t feel it, and so wanted it again then even more, and in that wanting wanted every inch of now to produce further lengths to lust for, new skin to seethe inside of.  I mean we began again like night again like night again every time we spoke or saw or felt anything.  We were not us as we became us but someone else inside of someone else already all once again enslaved to live again as if we never had or known we could. (p. 4)

It is tempting, as other reviewers of Blake Butler’s latest novel, 300,000,000, to begin this review with a warning about the grisly subject of this book, or perhaps to make thematic comparisons to works by authors like Roberto Bolaño (since purportedly 300,000,000 was written as a response to 2666, which Butler apparently found to be dull) or to Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves (after all, there are entries written by other hands at the foot of most of these journal entries).  After all, these things serve to provide a context, an anchor if you will, for a text that challenges its readers at not just the syntactical level, but also the semantic.  However, that is too easy and while I do acknowledge that there is some validity for these approaches to the novel, I think it would be best to consider the work as it is presented to the reader.

300,000,000 begins with excerpts from the journal of a 45 year-old man, Gretch Gravey, an accused serial killer who has, with the help of teen boys, has dismembered the bodies of hundreds of women over a period of years and has harvested some of their flesh for wall decor for his basement.  In entries such as the one quoted from near the beginning, he alludes to a guiding spirit, who he has named Darrel.  His mission, if such a word could be applied here, is to depopulate the United States, to reduce its roughly 300 million.  The detective who investigated and captured Gravey in his house, Flood, increasingly becomes enmeshed in what we encounters in Gravey’s journal.  At first, Flood’s comments are seemingly innocuous, such as his retort to the journal entry excerpted above:

FLOOD:  Whether Gravey is using this opening disorientation voice as a way of disclaiming his own actions I am unsure.  He seems sometimes to be speaking directly to the reader, while at other times at you or through you or around you; perhaps, forgive me, inside you.  Frequently one gets the sense of several of these modes in play at once.  There are as well perhaps still other modes I’ve yet to consider, though I hope that in my exploration of his words I can begin to draw out what lies underneath.  Unfortunately, my transcription here removes the context of Gretch Gravey’s particularly mangled/child-eyed/dogshit handwriting, which even after just minutes of staring at gives me a fever. (p. 5)

However, later on, as Flood recounts the sickening discovery of the bodies in the house, he describes the experience in an unsettling, surprising fashion:

FLOOD:  The smell was – I hate to say it – sweet.  It reminded me of waking up in a graddfield having slept all through the night without coverage against the night sky.  I mean, I don’t want to sound morbid, it was revolting.  The sweetness was revolting.  But it was also – I breathed it in. (p. 124)

As the reader advances through the first two parts, “The Part About Gravey” and “The Part About the Killing,” into the middle part, “The Part About Flood (In the City of Sod),” she will encounter an initially subtle yet key departure in tone and tenor, as the passages begin to show a merger of personalities, as other detectives begin to comment on the passages, sometimes excising parts of Flood’s commentaries, as Flood himself begins to become disassociated from himself, perhaps due to becoming too involved in the case.  There is a palpable sense of entrapment, as though the very foundations of world-view/understanding are undergoing a semantic collapse:

Worse than knowing I needed out, I didn’t know what I needed back out into.  Even when I could feel there was something else beyond the edges of any color in the street or window where no one waited even to just totally ignore me, I couldn’t recognize it enough to know how to want it harder.  Along each street it was as if I were waiting for some hole to swallow my face.  Each moment it didn’t made the going into the next step that much less worth doing.  This is what life had always felt like.  In my mind, expecting the absence of something or someone there before me made the presence in its place feel like the punch line to a routine no one was performing.  And where I couldn’t find a way to laugh, I became my own stand-in, over and over, like painting white over a window from the inside. (p. 251)

It is nearly pointless to discuss characterization or plot here, as Butler’s focus is not as much on a linear development of each, but rather on the breakdown of place and personality, ripping apart the layers of comfort and sanity that insulate readers from the potential horrors of the world.  As Flood’s character breakdowns, as we begin to see Gravey’s “Darrel” emerge, the story becomes more and more a revelation, of insanity for some part, but also of something more sinister feeling.  If an adjective had to be employed to describe the general mood of the final two sections, “The Part About America” and “The Part About Darrel,” it would be dread.  There is just that sense of things collapsing into something that is beyond nothingness, something that is never absent yet neither is truly present.  It is this creeping no-character that creates a partial (if never total) definition of what is transpiring.  The success or failure of 300,000,000 depends largely on how a reader reacts to this quasi-entity.  For myself, my sense of this no-character helped provide some semblance of chaotic non-order that despite its occasionally baffling descriptions and thematic scene shifts made an odd sort of sense.  By novel’s end, I was almost spooked by the seemingly “normal” world around me, in part because Butler’s twisting of language to create this estranged environment made it difficult at first to return to the “normality” of the waking world.  This is perhaps the greatest compliment I can give to a work that demands (and takes) a lot of its readers.

David Cronenberg, Consumed (2014)

November 10th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Naomi sat on the floor, her back against the foot of the bed.  “Are you taking your clothes off?” she asked.

“Yes,” said Hervé.

“You want me to shoot pictures of you naked?”


“I’m not going to have sex with you.  Really.  I’m not.”

Hervé had taken off his tie, jacket, and shirt, and was working on his belt, a fussy alligator-patterned thing with the dual-pronged buckle and a double row of holes which seemed to be giving him trouble.  He was hairless and thin through the chest, just as Naomi thought he would be.  All those New Wave movies.  “If you have sex with me, I will show you something special that Célestine liked very much.  It’s unusual what she liked.”

Naomi lifted her camera and casually began to snap away. (p. 29, iPad iBooks e-edition)

Veteran filmmaker David Cronenberg’s first novel, Consumed, is one of the creepiest novels I’ve read in years.  It is a very visually-oriented novel in which the “closeup” is used to make the novel’s themes of voyeuristic consumerism visible in often visceral, unsettling ways.  Its intense exploration of fetishes and desires is very well done, almost too much in places, making it one of the more unforgettable stories I have ever read.

Consumed revolves around a couple, Naomi and Nathan, and their melding of avant garde photojournalist techniques with some rather kinky sexual fetishes.  Nathan becomes involved with a Slovenian cancer patient, Dunja, after arranging to photographing her immediately post-op at the clinic of a shady Hungarian doctor, Dr. Molnár.  From her, he contracts a rare and previously-considered eradicated STD, Roiphe’s Disease.  This leads him to contact the namesake scientist who discovered it.  Meanwhile, Naomi has become involved, through a fleeting relationship with a man named Hervé, with a French philosopher couple, Aristide and Celestine Arosteguy, and it is in this tangled relationship where things begin to become disturbingly fascinating:  Aristide disappears, after seemingly have “consumed” parts of the now-dead Celestine along the way.  Yet what could have led to this?  There are some clues in the dialogues the couple had with Naomi about philosophy, sexual mores, and transgressions.  Later, as Nathan’s own inquiries lead to a convergence with Naomi’s own queries into the Aristide-Celestine relationship, there is a further muddying of the narrative waters, as their investigations delve into matters such as madness and consumerism, as though the world of objects were melding into the world of ideals and insanity.

Consumed is at its strongest when Cronenberg devotes time to exploring connections between sexual depravity and consumerist behavior.  He peppers his narrative with technical discussions of certain objects, especially cameras, and their functions, before juxtapositioning them with almost clinical details of certain sexual acts.  In addition, he mixes the near-nihilistic philosophy of the Arosteguys with their fetishes (the question of Celestine’s volition in her death looms large here) to create a truly unsettling set of circumstances for the reader to consider.

Yet there are several structural weaknesses that dampen the effect.  In creating characters “consumed” by their desires for answers and for desires’ satiation, at times the narrative is too focused on them; the peripheral, in which certain key events occur, is left too unfocused for the reader to follow what is transpiring until very late in the novel.  It does not help that certain key events and players are introduced with only a relatively few pages remaining in the novel; there is little time to develop depth and breadth of character or scene import here.

Ultimately, Consumed is a novel more about effect than cause.  Cronenberg’s characters and their actions and desires exist more to create a reaction in the reader than to explore the causes of these events.  This is not necessarily a good or bad thing, but it certainly reads as a flawed, occasionally perplexing first novelistic effort that contains enough unsettling moments to justify reading it.  Yet there is this sense that it could make for a more disturbing, powerful cinema, or rather that the cinema medium might be an even more fit storytelling medium for this haunting tale.

Ismail Kadare, Twilight of the Eastern Gods (1978; 2014 English translation)

November 9th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

We played table-tennis outdoors, not far from the beach, until after midnight because even though the white lights had passed it still didn’t get very dark.  Those with the best eyes played last; the rest of us lounged against the wooden railing watching the game and correcting the score.  After midnight, when everyone had gone to bed, leaving their bats on the table to get drenched by a shower before dawn, I didn’t know what to do with myself – I didn’t feel like sleeping.  I would wander for a while around the gardens of the Writers’ Retreat (it used to be the estate of a Latvian baron), go as far as the fountain, which spurted from a group of stone dolphins, then track back to the ‘Swedish House’ and on down to the Baltic shore.  The nights were very cold and quickly chilled you to the bone.

I did much the same thing almost every evening.  On fine days, the mornings and afternoons went by quickly, with swimming and sunbathing, but evenings were dreary, and most of the residents were quite old.  Almost all of them were VIPs, with titles galore, but that didn’t stop evenings being dull, especially as I happened to be the only foreigner staying there. (Ch. 1)

Nearly 40 years after its initial publication, Albanian writer Ismail Kadare’s 1978 novel, Twilight of the Eastern Gods, is finally published in English translation (translation from the French translation by David Bellos).  Written around the same time as several of Kadare’s most famous novels (Broken April and The Three-Arched Bridge were also published in 1978) and containing some themes in common with them, Twilight of the Eastern Gods may be one of Kadare’s most autobiographical novels.  In some respects, the line between fiction and reality has been blurred to the point where it is difficult to see where the fictional Kadare ends and the real-life Kadare begins.

Twilight of the Eastern Gods is set in the Soviet Union in 1958.  Kadare was one of a few Communist bloc writers invited to study at the Maxim Gorky Institute for World Literature and his experiences there shape the descriptions found within the novel.  It was not a happy time for the young Kadare and his fictional counterpart illustrates this with passages such as the one quoted above at the beginning of Chapter 1.  There is a dreadful monotony to his life at the institute and the entire first chapter is devoted to exploring this soul-draining tedium in detail.

The first half of the book pretty much follows the pattern established in the first chapter, detailing the minutiae of Kadare’s life at the institute, the fleeting romantic relationships he establishes, and the sometimes-contentious interactions he has with fellow students.  It is well-written, but nothing that is terribly exciting or even mildly interesting enough to justify more than a handful of pages.  The parade of shallow, politically-mindful personalities would barely be worth mentioning if it were not for the fact that these characters serve as sharp contrasts to the literary-political controversy that takes up the majority of the second half of the novel.

It is during Kadare’s time at the institute that the controversy over Boris Pasternak’s selection for the 1958 Nobel Prize for Literature broke out in Soviet literary circles.  His Doctor Zhivago had been rejected for publication in the Soviet Union, but a smuggled copy was published in Italy and shortly in all the major European languages.  When word broke that he had won the Nobel, the reaction was swift and severe, with virtually all Soviet writers and critics denouncing Pasternak and demanding that he either reject the award or go into political exile.  Kadare’s reaction to the controversy is shown both directly and obliquely through his use of an Albanian legend of Kostandin and Doruntine to illustrate his commitment to the fidelity of the given word.  Although Pasternak ultimately rejected the award, his dilemma resounded for Kadare, as he too had a choice, years later, of going into exile or trying to make some accommodation with Enver Hoxha’s isolationist dictatorship.  In a sense, Kadare’s use of Albanian folk tales to make certain arguments that could not be stated clearly due to the threat of exile or execution is manifested best here in this autobiographical novel.

There are some structural weaknesses.  As noted above, the first half of the novel, while illustrative of the experiences of the young Kadare, feels less vital than the more incendiary chapters dealing with the Pasternak controversy.  The other student characters, even though most are based so closely on real-life fellow students that many bore their names, rarely have any depth of character; they serve more as caricatures than developed characters.  These elements make Twilight of the Eastern Gods one of Kadare’s weaker novels, although as a curio it certainly has enough appealing elements to make it a worthwhile read for readers curious about Kadare’s entire literary output.

Robert Darnton, Censors at Work: How States Shaped Literature (2014)

November 8th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

What is censorship?  Like pornography, it seems to be a field that is hard to define, yet people feel confident that they can identify examples of it without worrying overmuch about the precision of their definition of the term.  If anything, the term “censorship” has become so broad that it could (and has been) be applied to almost any and every form of supposed information suppression, whether or not the entity or entities doing this presumed suppression are affiliated with any official government body.  Yet this increasingly diffused use of the term does little to explain the mechanics of censorship and how states, past and present, have used it to further their goals.  Beyond this, however, lurks the question of how power relationships are created and utilized in order to shape and control the dissemination of information, particularly literary works.  Are censors cogs in a monolithic machine, dispassionately stamping out works that might be a challenge to the ruling government, regardless of actual content?  Or is censorship itself but another area of socio-political discourse, in which there are frequent negotiations, implicit and explicit each, between artists and government representatives?

In his latest book, Censors at Work:  How States Shaped Literature, American cultural historian Robert Darnton tackles this tricky topic.  As he notes in his introduction, frequently in Western history there are periods in which the bounds of the permissible and the forbidden have been blurred.  All of our imagined “Wild Wests,” past and present, have been “tamed” to some extent, often with at least the partial blessing of those who were once participants in less-regulated domains such as today’s cyberspace, which has seen an increase of governmental regulation over the past two decades.  The main question, Darnton seems to posit, is not one of whether or not the state should be involved in the regulation of the internet, but to what degree it should have sway over the content posted there.  Furthermore, Darnton notes that the latest round of discourse on the state’s role in regulating communication is not new to the 21st century, but that by analyzing past attempts by states to control communication and the means by which this was achieved, we can gain greater perspective on what is transpiring today (p. 13).

The history of censorship, therefore, is not one of aloof, monolithic governmental bodies, but instead is, as Darnton puts it, an “inside history,” one that is full of back room negotiations and secret missions, where the agents of the state were as much curators of the written word as they were suppressors of seditious speech (pp. 13-14).  By delving into the available archives (which due to the spottiness of human record keeping, often limits such explorations to the past few centuries of Western states and even more recent for most non-Western states), a light can finally be shined on the players in these complex negotiations.  Just who were these censors and how did they make their decisions?  Were there times in which an individual censor’s decision might purposely run counter to the implicit, if not express, desire of the state?  What differences and similarities can be found in states separated by time, space, and cultural history?  These are just some of the questions that Darnton explores in Censors at Work.

Censors at Work is divided into three main sections, each the subject of separate lectures that Darnton presented as part of the Panizzi Lectures in January 2014 at the British Library.  The first, “Bourbon France:  Privilege and Repression,” concretes on peculiarities of mid-eighteenth century Bourbon policies regarding the approval of printed works.  At first glance, the ancien régime would seem to be a perfect example of the more Manichean concept of censorship/freedom of speech that many people have when they consider the effects of censorship.  As Darnton notes:

France offers the most dramatic examples:  the burning of books, the imprisonment of authors, and the outlawing of the most important works of literature – particularly those of Voltaire and Rousseau and the Encyclopédie, whose publishing history epitomizes the struggle of knowledge to free itself from the fetters imposed by the state and the church. (p. 23)

But these actions, damning as they seem to be, are perhaps only the most sensationalist examples of Bourbon censorship.  Just who were its censors and how do their activities fit into the espirit du temps?  The answers to this are far murkier and yet somehow are more illuminating than a simplistic presumption that the censors were opposed to the leading writers of the French Enlightenment.

It must be made clear that in pre-Revolutionary France, it wasn’t as much the authors of works (fictional and political tracts alike) who were responsible for the contents of printed materials as it was the responsibility of the printers who agreed to publish these works and to help disseminate them.  Since 1275, these booksellers/printers had been under the authority of the University of Paris and, by extension, under that of the king. (p. 24)  Each officially-sanctioned publication bore on its title page this line:  “Avec Approbation & Privilege du Roy” (“With the approbation and privilege of the king”).  Here is an interesting example of censorship in a positive fashion:  the work published has been approved and found free of questionable material, therefore it can be sold in public.  In one sense, it is literally a “seal of approval” that lets readers know that the work in question is fully legit.  In another, this approbation, or rather approbations, as many pages bear the names of those who ultimately approved the work, served as a sort of book blurb, in which the censors, often with their names printed, gave their reasons for why the work in question was approved for publication.  Instead of these censors acting as deniers of the flow of information, here in Bourbon France they often acted as curators of the arts.  Occasionally, these approbations read more like works of literary criticism (not surprising, since many of the censors were fellow writers and university professors) than something that might be expected from a government functionary.

Tied into this is the concept of “privilege,” which is fundamentally different from today’s conceptualization of matters of press and speech.  Darnton notes that privilege (which in turn is derived from a compound word for “private law”) was the organizing principle of eighteenth century society (p. 29).  Laws did not apply equally to all; hierarchies determined the applicability of certain legal concepts.  Laws thus were not societal legal guidelines, but instead were special dispensations that proceeded from a monarch’s inherent power and which were accorded to certain groups or individuals.  Printed literature, far from being a means of mass cultural dissemination of ideas, were instead understood to be artifacts of privilege, granted to an express few.  In one sense, the privileges of the book trade (who could produce it, print it, and sell it) epitomized the ancien régime‘s system of granting approval and withholding it from others.

Yet the official book trade had its own series of pitfalls.  Works sometimes appeared in official quarters that were critical of the king.  Sometimes the censors found themselves in trouble for this, while at other times, they took great pains in order to communicate to certain writers what had to be changed in order for the work to be published.  Other times, a submitted work could be fully orthodox and rejected on the grounds that its literary qualities were not on the level of those to be expected for the reception of the king’s official approval. (p. 31)  Then there are cases in which patronage came into play, especially as the royal bureaucracy expanded in the eighteenth century.  Often the censors had to negotiate with the director of the book trade administration.  Darnton cites several examples from the 1750s and 1760s of the critical role that this director, C.G. de Lamoignon de Malesherbes, played in the negotiations between writers, censors, and their superiors in determining whether or not a work would receive royal approbation and be published by an officially licensed printer.  Sometimes these discussions were informal in nature, often conducted through a series of letters, some of which were of considerable length. (p. 40)

Censors, themselves doing this mostly for future patronage and not for the nearly-non-existent pay, often acted more as editors than as agents of the government.  They accepted assignments from Malesherbes, most tailored to their specific academic specialties.  Occasionally, they would correspond with authors, usually via anonymous means, and even met with them, despite the pains many went to keep knowledge of their role as approbators secret from the writers with whom they were communicating. (p. 46).  These correspondences often influenced their perception of works, as sometimes works of questionable literary quality were approved due to the censors being aware of the writer’s financial straits. (p. 46).  Sometimes these discussions with authors became contentious, but on the whole, Darnton argues that this form of censorship served to bring censors and authors closer together.  Far from being sworn enemies, in Bourbon France authors and censors could be seen as parts of a collaborative exercise, in which the censors served as a sort of quasi-editor whose commentaries served to improve the considered works.

But what about those works which were not sent to the censors for approbation?  In these cases of unlicensed works, the matter is more dire.  If otherwise non-offensive, works published outside France could be brought in, provided that another part of the state apparatus, the police, did not perceive them to be threats to state or national morality.  But for those works judged to be obscene, the punishments could be severe.  The case of Mlle. Bonafon and the scandalous Tanastès, concerned with the sex life of Louis XV, is emblematic of how the regime reacted when a work outside the official book privilege system was made available for sale.  Her imprisonment for over thirteen years indicates that the French system was not as cordial as might be expected after reading prior tales of chummy censors and writers.

Although Darnton devoted roughly a third of Censors at Work to Bourbon France, this review has spent a disproportionate amount of space on it due to the similarities found between it and the other two case studies.  While there is much of interest in the other two sections, much of the conclusions are similar to those found for Bourbon French censorship policies.  Yet there are some key differences.  For example, in the second section, “British India:  Liberalism and Imperialism,” the focus is more on how the conflicts between the ruling British aristocracy and the native Indian constituencies are rooted in a complex understanding of British legal beliefs and Indian political reality.  Censorship did not exist as a standard system on the British Isles in the nineteenth century, but in the aftermath of the 1857-1858 Sepoy mutinies, the Raj had to develop a way of understanding their native subjects better.  Indian publications were scrutinized more, especially as there was an explosion of printed material available in the various Indian languages in the mid-nineteenth century.  Since there were very few British officials conversant in all of the subcontinent’s languages, native speakers had to be recruited to play the role of censors.

As in Bourbon France, these censors often struck up relationships with the writers they were examining.  However, there were some interesting differences, particularly in the way that texts were analyzed.  In Great Britain, copyright laws had replaced the system of royal privilege long before the conquest of India.  In addition, the censors were more concerned with matters of libel, especially as comments critical of the Raj, even obliquely, could threaten the fragile post-mutiny peace.  Frequently, the Raj utilized the legal system to prosecute questionable writers for libel for things as picayune as talking about particular planters or the suffering that many Indians experienced in their everyday lives.  While the literary censors were not as complicit here, it is worth noting that in the Raj, the courts served as the silencers of those who wrote texts that could be construed as attacks on the government.  It is here where the more traditional views of censorship come closest to actual reality.  Yet there is a curious contradiction, in that in bringing these often-ruinous libel cases to court, the Raj went to great pains to appear to be preserving British ideals of free press while in reality denying full freedom to its Indian subjects. (p. 142)  And yet even within this elaborate charade, there were negotiations between the government and writers, with more give-and-take taking place on both sides than what otherwise might be expected from a foreign-dominated government.

The third section, “Communist East Germany:  Planning and Persecution,” is perhaps the most illuminating of the three cases because it is the closest to our modern conceptions of state and literature.  Darnton bases much of his essay here on interviews he did with two East German censors during that period between the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the re-unification of the two Germanies in October 1990.  He discusses how integrated the East German censors were within the governmental structure and how certainly literary “plans” were developed for the publication of literary works for a given year.  For the East German government, literature grounded in socialist reality was esteemed and the role of the censors was to cultivate relationships with writers, to use a carrot-and-stick approach to get them to conform to governmental expectations.  While there were certainly times that the government arrested dissident writers, on the whole, the censors’ task was to persuade writers to conform their works to government expectations.  As in the case of Bourbon France, this led to cozy relationships between the censors and writers, with certain writers receiving partial protection from other elements of the East German government.

This is not to say that conditions were ideal for East German writers.  Frequently they had to negotiate with their censors just to get certain elements included.  Christa Wolf managed to negotiate for ellipses to be left in the text of her most famous work, Kassandra, to denote the excised parts the censors had removed (these sections were later filled in with samizdat typewritten fragments to be inserted within the book).  Others would beg and sometimes even cajole the censors for passages to be preserved.  Sometimes the censors faced criticism from within the government (East German leader Erich Honecker played a personal role in many cases) for allowing certain works critical of the government to be published.  Darnton does an excellent job in outlining not just the negotiations that took place, but also their implications for the East German government.

In his conclusion, Darnton justifies the ethnographical approach toward censorship that he took.  By using archival evidence and allowing the principal actors to “speak” through their recorded thoughts and writings, he argues that a larger, more composite image of censorship emerges.  In particular, authors, far from being helpless victims, could sometimes play a strong role in determining the discourse being established between writer and state (p. 233).  They could negotiate with the government’s censors in order for certain passages to be preserved, but they could also appeal to powerful political patrons.  In all three cases, the works in question could be published abroad, although there were specific consequences that could have a negative impact on the writers.  It is in these interplays between complicity, collaboration, and negotiation that the literatures of these three places, France, India, and East Germany, were shaped.

Darnton does an outstanding job in developing his approach toward the topic and exploring the comparisons and contrasts between his three chosen locales.  Through extensive citing of archival evidence, he builds a strong case for censorship being not an uniformly negative, oppressive entity, but instead a complex, nuanced field in which the concerns of the government and the artistic desires of writers converged and which produced a broad discourse through which negotiations took place.  Although there were times that it felt as though too much emphasis was placed on the literary responsibilities of these censors and not enough to the various roles, implicit and explicit alike, that other governmental bodies played in controlling written communication, on the whole Censors at Work is one of the best cultural studies of government-literary interactions that I have read since I finished grad school in 1997.  Highly recommended.

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