Sunday, August 31, 2008

Happened at Al-Amriyya

Naseer Shamma, the Iraqi oud maestro composed this piece ( it has a long version) as a tribute to the victims of a bomb shelter after US missiles killed hundreds of civilians including women and children in 1991 at Al-amriyya. This is from his album called The Moon Fades.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Hamid Dabashi

Hamid Dabashi is no stranger to controversy, especially after the visit of the present Iranian president to Columbia university, where the President of that university called the Iranian president as a "petty, cruel dictator". Dabashi is Professor of Iranian studies at Columbia university, a cultural and literary theorist, and like one of his mentors Edward Said, represents one of those voices in the American academic space that still insists for not ignoring the weak and the dispossessed, and keeping alive in the mainstream debates about American and European imperialism and thus creating that unique space which in itself is foreign to the very environment that creates it.

Dabashi's scholarship is unique and extensive and is not limited to social and cultural criticism or to the standard role of an exiled intellectual from the Middle East criticising his own country or its rulers. Dabashi is not an embedded intellectual or a Comprador but is quite strident in speaking and taking a specific stance. In that way, after post-colonialism, Dabashi has, like Said before him, produced work that allows the protagonist and the present spectator to understand that simply denouncing imperialism is not enough, for in countering the devastating and dismembering effects of servitude, a certain kind of mentality that arises in those who gain power, a certain love for revenge or nationalism leads to regimes of over-powering cruelty whose first victims are their own populations. Dabashi is quite critical of the present Iranian regime as he was of the President of Columbia University whose affront to Ahmadinejad was described simply as "the most ridiculous clich├ęs of the neocon propaganda machinery, wrapped in the missionary position of a white racist supremacist carrying the heavy burden of civilizing the world, propaganda warfare waged by the self-proclaimed moral authority of the United States.Only Lee Bollinger's mind-numbing racism when introducing Ahmadinejad could have made the demagogue look like the innocent bystander in a self-promotional circus."

Dabasi has produced works of differing variety, interest and magnitude. From his important work on Iran's road to revolution to his work on Islamic resistance movements as liberation theology to his great love for Palestinian cinema and his interest in Makhmalbaf's work or Kiarostami, Dabashi has also written significantly on Islamic history. I have read with great pleasure and attention and have been impressed with his work on ascertaining narration in Islamic history called Truth and narration. Set against the background of the life of one of Persia's great sufi mystics and legalists, Ayn-ul-Qudat, Dabashi deconstructs his life and at the same time deconstructs the main forces within Islamic history or narration. He allows us to see that there has not been just one force or party at sway.....that there has always been a battle between the legalists, the mystics and those basing it on reason or power alone.

The above forces are still battling for the mainstream of Islam and the ones vying for power are the ones who are at present ineffectually fighting against European and American cultural imperialism. The present Iranian regime or similar regimes are thus to be seen in the context of the after effects of a liberation theology, where the spirit of Islam is used to give moral authority to an ideology that wants to fight imperialism and often exaggerates the very discontent it wants to resist. It eventually ends in more repression and pain. Besides his political, cultural and other philosophical works, Dabashi has written extensively on Shiite theology, including papers on Taaziyeh, Shiite passion plays and their sociological causes and manifestations and on Ali Shariati, the Marxist-Islamist ideologue of the Iranian revolution.

Dabashi's forceful writings have been about Palestine and Palestinian people and apart from cinema, his articles and papers on Palestine are extensively being quoted now. A tribute to Edward Said by Dabashi and a fine essay called For a fistful of dust on his journey to Palestine. About Israel he once wrote,

"What they call "Israel" is no mere military state. A subsumed militarism, a systemic mendacity with an ingrained violence constitutional to the very fusion of its fabric, has penetrated the deepest corners of what these people have to call their "soul." What the Israelis are doing to Palestinians has a mirror reflection on their own soul -- sullied, vacated, exiled, now occupied by a military machinery no longer plugged to any electrical outlet. It is not just the Palestinian land that they have occupied; their own soul is an occupied territory, occupied by a mechanical force geared on self-destruction. They are on automatic piloting. This is they. No one is controlling anything. Half a century of systematic maiming and murdering of another people has left its deep marks on the faces of these people, the way they talk, the way they walk, the way they handle objects, the way they greet each other, the way they look at the world. There is an endemic prevarication to this machinery, a vulgarity of character that is bone-deep and structural to the skeletal vertebrae of its culture. No people can perpetrate what these people and their parents and grandparents have perpetrated on Palestinians and remain immune to the cruelty of their own deeds".

There is a certain flavour to his writing, which is not good because it criticises the establishment but because it represents the aesthetics of that resistance which speaks for lonely and defeated causes. Professor Dabashi is a voice of that corner, that corner which is doomed for oblivion. But at least, it has found a new voice.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Room in New York


The above painting by Edward Hopper, the great American realist of the inter-war era is certainly not his best but certainly symptomatic of the vital concerns of his art, which as I am getting acquainted with, are as important now as they were decades ago. In fact, while his influence was on the wane in America after the second war ended, he began to get more resurgent towards the end of the sixties, near his death. The social, political and existential cultural interpretations of his paintings are equally important now as they were before.

The painting above called Room in New York was the first painting of Hopper's that struck me quite recently and in my slightly disquiet manner, I decided to read it on my own, without recourse to any formal or informal intro to his work. I decided to do thematic apperception with the above picture, a pastime of mine from the past. The picture above is actually quite open and not that difficult to read. Hopper's use of muted colours in the background seems distinct to me. The couple seem to be alienated not only from each other but from their surroundings. The room seems as oppressive as the alienation that is evident from this scene.

The man seems lost in the paper, as if deliberately, self-consciously and the woman is actually making a concerted effort to shield herself. She is reading or holding a book, a book that holds no interest for her, I think. However, there is a muted restraint between the two, a restrain born of respectable indifference. It may however be that the two are not in any relationship past or present but are simply waiting for someone else though in that case, the two seem to be representative of that class which is busy with itself alone, keeping in march with the relentless march of ruthless alienating capitalism.

What I find interesting is the table between the two, bereft of anything, clean and harmless and yet enabling the two to share a certain proximity, with his paper and her elbow in proximity to the table. The man leans towards the table, she turns away from it, as if in repulsion. It also suggests a certain familiarity with the furniture, thus the room could be theirs or it could be a familiar hotel room. The bareness is evident in the room, the muted colours, lack of inessential things in the room and the stern formal dress of the man and the conservative dress of the lady.

Scenes of urban ennui, alienation and a kind of despair are recurring themes in Hopper's work and are not uncommon concerns in the art of that era. However, with the advent of so called post-modernism, these concerns have not faded away. Instead, instead of fading away, the sense of desolation in the face of one technological onslaught after another, reducing ethical and other social concerns to just a chimera, have made the urban architecture ferociously anti reflective. Hopper's scenes and paintings convey the sense of being surrounded, the space as it is suggests enclosure, thus the loss of perspective perhaps and in other places as of urban spaces that are too endless but lonely, dull and morose.

It is not enough to just convey or portray an image of existential ennui but to do it convincingly in an aesthetic manner and which appears naturally melancholic and not affected in any way. This is admirably done by Hopper in his many paintings including his drawings of urban city cafes, shops, drug stores, lonely spinsters, old and forgotten houses near lighthouses and more famously his painting called Nighthawks where he conveys his vision of a city diner, empty stools, vacant expressionless faces, after work despair and a very un-nameable melancholic city grief.

However, this art is not just urban but encompasses and revivifies that very state that it so vividly shows in all its sordid candidness and in that effort, in that plunge, becomes great and timeless art.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

To write a perfect poem

To write "that" perfect poem, he decided to sit near his open window. Needless to say, it was raining a wet rain, not harsh or insistent but sullen and miserable, making him feel the wetness of rain and the timidity of his world. He lit a cigarette thinking that it might help him write, as he was looking for a great beginning. The beginning was what mattered, what always matters, he thought. But what could he write about? He could write about the West Bank or the Gaza strip or the poor of Africa. However, it seemed too tame and besides Palestine has its own poets and some great too. There are poor everywhere, so why Africa? He could write about unrequited love, one of his favourite themes but it seemed too common to pursue. He could write about his obscure and unique position in the world but somehow he was afraid that it would drift into an existential poem and it would make no difference to the sea of existentialism anyway.

A surreal poem would only increase his suffering and besides he was not fond of surrealism anyway. Reality, wasn't that surreal enough? He remembered reminding himself in the past that one could never force a poem for the waters of poetry must be allowed to rise like a fever, degree by degree till the blank white page of poetry was filled. No, that was not even his but belonged to Neruda, the refuge of all amateur poets and hopeless lovers. These days, he thought, lighting another cigarette and watching the rain, he had forgotten about the poetry he liked in the past. He preferred Pessoa to Plath and Lorca to Eliot though Eliot's April is the cruelest line still held its tremors. Anglo-Saxon poetry had lost its charm for him for even when free, those verses seemed emotionally remote, un-natural and too Hellenic. He wanted to write a Borges poem, elegiac and unresentful, simple and sad or one of those loosely melancholic Arabic poems.

True, there are many poets and he hasn't even heard the names of most of them and it was simply impossible to do so. And translated poetry was not the real thing anyway. So amongst those un-read poems was one such great and perfect poem which would remain hidden and lost. Yet, what difference would one more poem, if he really wrote it, make to either himself or others? He wasn't even sure whether he could call himself a poet though that was a matter of debate, he thought with relief. The blank page on his desk was glittering with unease as the rain fell and everything real seemed elusive and fugitive. He closed the window, stubbed the cigarette and got up. He picked the Selected Poems of Vasko Popa, his latest find and returned to his own night. He would never realize that in remaining silent and blank, he had come quite near to that elusive poem, only that it had remained hidden in the silence of his room, lost somewhere between his fingers and the blank page.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Tarkovsky's Mirror


Perhaps one should not think of labels like a movie or a film for Tarkovsky's Mirror. It would be an injustice to do so. Mirror is like a tapestry to life or a way of looking at it and the looseness of its structure resembles the unstructured, sudden and patternless winds of life or at least most lives. Since life is generally lived simultaneously in the past and present, Mirror is able to achieve the same resonance, encapsulating within its space, the ardour and pain of previous lives.

There is not just one life that we can live on our own but multiple intertwined existences take hold of us. I has always been so, there is nothing else otherwise and we cannot recognize any other way. Each life has multiple facets and its own set of memories and casting an eye on events past is an automatic process in itself. In Mirror, the sweep includes the canvas of childhood, where everything starts and then the back and forth movement is ceaseless, within each scene there are numerous reverberations from the moments that are present seen as they are from every point of view, be they conscious or otherwise. The movements within a scene are multiple, the turning of a head in one direction leads to the childhood that was lost, the child walks to the woman who is his wife and then to somebody who is his mother.

It is raining outside, the window pane drips with rain, the wind blows the curtains, the bottle of glass falls, the lamplight tremors, the wind outside haunts the overgrown grass, we have returned to a melancholic corner, our memories jostle for space. The most melancholic woman with the saddest eyes who was my mother, the most beautiful woman who could have been my wife, razor sharp these memories, razor like their edges, you tell me, the wind comes, I, that man we do not see, he opens his fist and the bird flies away.

These are the movements of this cinema of poetry, each wave of memories engulfs the previous one. The cycles within the frames shift bringing only emotional isolation, interpersed with newsreel footage. Each moment that affords to give a vista dissolves into another one that is more obscure. The life that has gone by, any one's for that matter, how cannot it be a melancholy pursuit of lost time? The camera movements of Tarkovsky's Mirror are the scratchings of memory and the din of these movements is quite loud.

I think it is quite possible to watch Mirror without searching for symbols, as I think allegorical references would be a waste of time. There is no allegory except for each object that enhances its own place for us, for instance the milk jug that falls might have different resonance for individual viewers or none at all. There are these clear winds of memory that bring us face to face with loss which gives us pain that is only pain but in the present. It is thus quite possible to see the past in the light of events that have subsequently happened for the present now has become more painful. In Mirror, everything reminds of that dual reality.

Thus everything is seen through the mirror of time. The narrator's voice is only heard but he is not seen. His wife has beautiful and sad eyes, she grasps her melancholia with pained anguish. The son has grown up, the wife has grown old, identities merge, life has moved on, the man who was the barefoot boy is waiting to die. The narrator whose face we cannot see holds a bird that he releases suddenly, the bird flies out of the frame returning us to a washed out landscape that resembles the overgrown green grass, to the melancholic beautiful woman smoking in the beginning on the wooden fence rail. Everything is memory.

The glory and the most disconcerting aspect of Mirror is that each object has given us the focus to think of our memories so that with the characters, we too roll ahead and fall back on to what has happened to us. Or that what has happened to them has happened to us or is happening to us now. The winds and the nights are ours, the shattering glass mine, the broken window pane, the wind, the over grown grass.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Give me back my rags

I have wiped my face off your face
ripped your shadow off my shadow

leveled the hills in you
turned your plains into hills

set your season quarreling
turned all the ends of the world from you

wrapped the path of my life around you
my impossible my impenetrable path

just try to meet me now

Enough chattering violets enough sweet trash
I won't hear anything know anything
enough enough of all

I will say the last enough
fill my mouth with earth grit my teeth

to break off you skull guzzler
to break off you once for all

I will be just what I am
without branch without root without crown
I will lean on myself
on my bumps and bruises

I will be the hawthorn stake through you
that's all I can be in you
in you spoilsport in you muddle head

Get lost

Get off my walled infinity
of the star circle round my heart
of my mouthful of sun

Get out of the comic sea of my blood
of my flow my ebb
Get out of my stranded silence

Get out I said Get out

Get out of my living abyss
of the bare father tree within me

Get out how long must I cry Get out

Get out of my bursting head

Get out just Get out

Vasko Popa

Friday, August 15, 2008

Vasko Popa

A poem below that I have much admire. More about his poems someday.

Give me back my rags (Two parts)

Just come to my mind
My thoughts will scratch out your face

Just come into my sight
My eyes will start snarling at you

Just open your mouth
My silence will smash your jaws

Just remind me of you
My remembering will paw up the ground under your feet

That's what it's come to between us

My rags of pure dreaming
Of silk smiling of striped foreboding
Of my cloth of lace

My rags of spotted hope
Of burnished desire of chequered glances
Of skin from my face

Give me back my rags
Give me when I ask you nicely

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Senselessness

If the world of literature needs an affirmative text or work of fiction, if after barren days and nights the written word is asked to leap out from a dull page, look no more, for in Senselessness, written by Horacio Castellanos Moya, everything is achieved if everything can be achieved, fiction meets reality, politics and art, poetry and pain, and in the end the ever pervasive senselessness, the waste.

Senselessness is definitely the best novel I have read this year and this is an opinion shared with others. Translated by Katherine Silver and published in English just a few months ago, senselessness is the kind of novel for which the art of reading has been created, for whose pages all the inks of the world have waited before any fear of drying. It is the kind of novel that one should also avoid, for it is not for the fainthearted nor for those who think that fiction and politics are different issues. As the inside jacket says, "senselessness catches you by the throat" and I would say, it shakes you like a rag doll and after reading it, you are further away from any further desire for any further reading of anything like this or anything else.

The novel opens with a brilliant declaration, "I am not complete in the mind", but these are not the words of the narrator.The narrator, a writer in exile naturally and now living in a neighbouring country in Central America, has been employed by his friend Erick through the Catholic Church to copy edit one thousand one hundred pages of testimonies, declarations and evidences of native Indians who were massacred years ago at the hands of competing government and other right or left wing forces. The narrator must preserve the essential and delete what is un-necessary but as the narrative progresses, we find that the narrator is distressed at what he has read or reads and that what he finds is not just frightening but part of a feeling that grows inside him which then filters on to the pages of his narration. The narrator finds melancholy in the sentences that he quotes for us and finds them moving and poetic. To remember these strange broken voices, he notes them down in his private notebook from time to time.

However, while his reading progresses, his paranoia grows as he starts suspecting everyone, including his very friend Erick and the apparatuses of the military and the Catholic establishment. He suspects shadows on the street and in the end reads the narration in a spiritual retreat. As his narrative progresses, we find his dead pan humour directed everywhere and his almost single minded aim, even when he thinks of girls for sex with his imagination running wild. He is however very conscious of being conscious and in a funny passage reminds us about the revolting smell of the girl he friends to seduce. He then imagines being a target of sexually transmitted diseases through the establishment and the church. "Imagination", as he memorably says, "is a bitch in heat".

The end is extremely memorable in itself though I won't mention it here. As a novel, it grows on the reader right from the first page. The atrocities that he enumerates are described with pitiless detail and in the Bernhardian fashion are repeated again and again till the reader cringes.( while the Bernhardian repitition is humorous, this one is viscerally penetrating) The essence of this novel is not only that you see the horror but that many times, one turns away from the pages, wondering at the un-manliness of so many men, making you feel indescribably guilty for uncommitted sins. The lines that he snatches from the testimonies, the ones he gives us are lines he reminds us are of broken syntax but unparalleled music of the most remote melancholy but the nearest pain. Page after page of assault and page after page of relentless graphic unease surrounds the reader. You read it in one painful surge, in a convulsion of unease and as I read somewhere, it seems as if the novel has been written in one breath.

Some of the testimonies like "their clothes stayed sad", or "our houses they burned, our animals they ate, our children they killed, the women, the men", or "because for me the sorrow is to not bury him myself........."The narrator runs away from his shadowy fears or real ones and inside him rises the chant of........ "the dead......wounded, yes, is hard to be left, but dead is ever peaceful"......As he reads how babies were blown to bits, as the brains are sprayed all over the pages, as the dead and the living merge, the narrator is indistinguishable from the assailants who committed the crimes, he is on the run and is running after someone as well. In the end all merge together, victim and torturer, murdered and the killers, writers and judges of testimonies, and when the narrator flees, he gets a note. "Everbody's fucked. BE grateful you left".

Although the whole novel can be quoted in its entirety ( an extract in the previous post), this passage is quite striking.....

"this guy with a shaved head who very cunningly segued from this remarks about Vallejo’s poetry and its relationship to indigenous languages to a subtle interrogation about my work at the archdiocese and my friendship with Erick, all packaged neatly into his conversation with me at the kitchen table, not paying any attention to calls to join the group in the living room, where things were picking up, as if the guy had known ahead of time about the psychological problems that afflicated me and that consisted of wanting to tell everything once I’d been encouraged to start talking, down to the hairs and the smells, spill it all out to a point of satiety, compulsively, in a kind of verbal spasm, as if it were an orgiastic race that would culminate in my total abandon, until I was left without secrets, until my interlocutor knew all he wanted to know, in an exhaustive confession after which I would suffer the worst possible backlash".

This novel, with Bolano saying its "will to style" is an achievement of the kind that for a writer is a rarity in itself. It asks the questions that Bolano asks in Nazi literature in the Americas and in a stylistically fantastic manner that makes you ask questions of yourselves. Is it enough to be morally wounded after reading this text and where does the line need to be drawn? For me the most important question after reading this novel is this..........Is it enough just to read this horror and then carry on and what then is the ultimate purpose of reading?

Senselessness: An extract

An extract from the first chapter of Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya, translated by Katherine Silver.

I AM NOT COMPLETE IN THE MIND, said the sentence I highlighted with the yellow marker and even copied into my personal notebook, because this wasn't just any old sentence, much less some wisecrack, not by any means, but rather the sentence that astonished me more than any other sentence I read that first day on the job, the sentence that most dumbfounded me during my first incursion into those one thousand one hundred almost single-spaced printed pages placed on what would be my desk by my friend Erick so I could get some idea of the task that awaited me. lam not complete in the mind, I repeated to myself, stunned by the extent of mental perturbation experienced by this Cakchiquel man who had witnessed his family's murder, by the fact that this indigenous man was aware of the breakdown of his own psychic apparatus as a result of having watched, albeit wounded and powerless, as soldiers of his country's army scornfully and in cold blood chopped each of his four small children to pieces with machetes, then turned on his wife, the poor woman already in shock because she too had been forced to watch as the soldiers turned her small children into palpitating pieces of human flesh. Nobody can be complete in the mind after having survived such an ordeal, I said to myself, morbidly mulling it over, trying to imagine what waking up must have been like for this indigenous man, whom they had left for dead among chunks of the flesh of his wife and children and who then, many years later, had the opportunity to give his testimony so that I could read it and make stylistic corrections, a testimony that began, in fact, with the sentence I am not complete in the mind that so moved me because it summed up in the most concise manner possible the mental state tens of thousands of people who have suffered experiences similar to the ones recounted by this Cakchiquel man found themselves in, and also summed up the mental state of thousands of soldiers and paramilitary men who had with relish cut to pieces their so-called compatriots, though I must admit that it's not the same to be incomplete in the mind after watching your own children drawn and quartered as after drawing and quartering other peoples' children, I told myself before reaching the overwhelming conclusion that it was the entire population of this country that was not complete in the mind, which led me to an even worse conclusion, even more perturbing, and this was that only somebody completely out of his mind would be willing to move to a foreign country whose population was not complete in the mind to perform a task that consisted precisely of copyediting an extensive report of one thousand one hundred pages that documents the hundreds of massacres and proves the general perturbation. I am also not complete in the mind, I then told myself on that, my first day of work, sitting at what would be my desk for the duration, my eyes wandering aimlessly over the tall almost bare white walls of that office I would be using for the next three months-its only furnishings were the desk, the computer, the chair I was digressing in, and a crucifix behind my back, thanks to which the walls were not completely bare. I must be much less complete in the mind than all of them, I managed to think as I threw my head back without knocking myself off balance in the chair, wondering how long it would take me to get used to the presence of the crucifix, which I couldn't even consider taking down because this wasn't my office but rather the bishop's, as my friend Erick had explained to me a few hours earlier as he was leading me toward it, even though the bishop almost never used it, preferring the one in the parish church, where he also lived, so I could use this office as long as I wanted, but I wouldn't be able to get rid of the crucifix and replace it with something else, something to hang on the wall that would lighten my spirits, something that would have been as far removed from any and all religions as I was myself, even though at that moment and for the coming weeks I would find myself working there in the archbishop's palace, situated precisely behind the cathedral, another sign that I am not complete in the mind, I said to myself with real concern, because that was the only way to explain the fact that a depraved atheist like myself had agreed to work for the perfidious Catholic Church, the onlyway to explain that in spite of the hearty revulsion I felt toward the Catholic Church and all other churches, no matter how small, I found myself now precisely in the archbishop's palace facing one thousand one hundred pages of almost single-spaced text that contained the horrific stories of how the armed forces had decimated dozens of villages and their inhabitants. I am the least complete in the mind! I thought with alarm as I stood up and began to pace like a caged animal around that office whose only window facing the street was walled up so that neither the passersby nor anybody inside would succumb to temptation, I began to pace around as I would frequently do each and every one of the days I spent within those four walls, but at that moment, on the verge of going mad after realizing that I was so not complete in the mind that I had accepted and was starting a job with the church, a job that had already put me in the sights of the armed forces of this country, as if I didn't already have enough problems with the armed forces of my own country, as if the enemies in my own country weren't enough for me, I was about to stick my snout into somebody else's wasps' nest, make sure that the Catholic hands about to touch the balls of the military tiger were clean and had even gotten a manicure, because that was what my work was all about, cleaning up and giving a manicure to the Catholic hands that were piously getting ready to squeeze the tiger's balls, I thought as I fixed my gaze on the bulky stack of one thousand one hundred pages that lay on the desk, and, momentarily stopping my pacing, increasingly in a stupor, I understood that it was not going to be easy to read, organize, and copyedit those one thousand one hundred pages in the three months my friend Erick and I had agreed on: Shit! Having agreed to edit that report in just three months proved that my problem wasn't that I was not complete in the mind but that I was completely unhinged. All of a sudden I felt trapped in that office with those high bare walls, a victim of a conspiracy between the Church and the armed forces in aforeign country, a lamb being led to the slaughter thanks to a stupid and dangerous bout of enthusiasm that made me trust my friend Erick when, one month earlier-as we sipped Rioja in an old Spanish bar near police headquarters-he asked me if I would be interested in copyediting the final report of the project he was involved in, a project that consisted of recovering the memories of the hundreds of survivors of and witnesses to the massacres perpetrated in the throes of the so-called armed conflict between the army and the guerrillas, if I would be interested in earning five thousand dollars for spending three months editing about five hundred pages written by well-known journalists and academics, who were turning in a text that was almost finished, I would only have to look it over, a final proofing, it was really a great gig, five thousand dollars just to put the final touches on a project that dozens and dozens of people had participated in, beginning with the group of missionaries who had managed to record the oral testimonies of the Indians, witnesses and survivors, most of whom didn't even speak Spanish very well and who were afraid above all else of anything that had to do with the events they had been victims of, followed by those in charge of transcribing the tapes, and ending with teams of distinguished professionals, who would classify and analyze the testimonies and who would then also write up the report, my friend Erick explained to me in detail, not very emphatically, very calmly in fact, in that conspiratorial tone so typical of him, knowing that I would never refuse such an offer, not because of the enthusiasm a good Rioja might awaken in my spirit but rather because he perceived that I was so not complete in the mind that I would accept his offer and even get excited about the idea of being involved in such a project without weighing the pros and cons or negotiating, which is just what happened.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Horacio Castellanos Moya

"The return flight took off without me. I preferred uncertainty to the same old nightmare".
Horacio Castellanos Moya, now living in the USA, has become familiar to the English speaking world of late after the English translation of his 8th novel called Senselessness, Insentasez in Spanish. Born in Honduras, he started living in El Salvador which he left for Canada. Before that he witnessed many civil convulsions in Central America which has to a great extent informed his personal and other experiences.

He resides in Pittsburgh as writer in residence, part of the asylum for writers project which was initiated by the literary community for writers facing persecution. "An international organization, Cities of Asylum provide sanctuary to writers exiled under threat of death, imprisonment, or persecution in their native countries. In Pittsburgh--just one of three Asylum cities in the US--that safe harbor is a home-of-their-own on Sampsonia Way in Pittsburgh’s North Side".

Insensatez
is the only novel translated into English. He wrote a novel called El asco as a tribute to Thomas Bernhard, whose influences are evident in his style. It seems that New Directions have done a great favour indeed by publishing him, for not reading him is more horrible than gouging one's eyes out.( I am not exaggerating) He is a stylist, a master of the kind of fiction that makes you feel unholy and unmanly, weaving you in webs of melancholy and as Bolano says:
"Moya's vertices are horror, corruption, an an ordinariness that trembles on every single page that makes the reader tremble as well. He writes as if he lives in the depths of the many volcanoes in his country. This sentence sounds like magic realism.Nevertheless, there is nothing magical about his books except perhaps his will to style. His sharp humour, not unlike a time bomb threatens the fragile instability of imbeciles who, when they read his books, have an uncontrollable desire to hang the author in the town square. I can't think of any higher honor for a writer".

As the best novel of the year, Senselessness is miles apart from any novel I have read recently. He has been called the voice of Central America but aside that, he is one of those writers that make you jump and one of those without which life is suddenly unbearable. Another of his novel' is being translated into English. A good link to some of his quotes here. An interview with the author that I found here.

I will write a post on Senselessness soon and you can find numerous reviews everywhere on the Internet. I am also posting an extract from Senselessness.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Rita and the rifle

For Alok, a translation and a related link here and another here.

Between Rita and my eyes
There is a rifle
And whoever knows Rita
Kneels and pray
To the divinity in those honey-colored eyes

And I kissed Rita
When she was young
And I remember how she approached
And how my arm covered the loveliest of braids
And I remember Rita
The way a sparrow remembers its stream
Ah, Rita
Between us there are a million sparrows and images
And many a rendezvous
Fired at by a rifle

Rita’s name was a feast in my mouth
Rita’s body was a wedding in my blood
And I was lost in Rita for two years
And for two years she slept on my arm
And we made promises
Over the most beautiful of cups
And we burned in the wine of our lips
And we were born again

Ah, Rita!
What before this rifle could have turned my eyes from yours
Except a nap or two or honey-colored clouds?
Once upon a time
Oh, the silence of dusk
In the morning my moon migrated to a far place
Towards those honey-colored eyes

And the city swept away all the singers
And Rita

Between Rita and my eyes--
A rifle


Mahmoud Darwish


Sunday, August 10, 2008

Darwish and Khalife's Rita

Mahmoud Darwish

Mahmoud Darwish died during the previous night and another Palestinian voice dies out, yet Darwish was not just a "national poet" for the Palestinians but truly a poet's poet, a poet unique and so familiar, whose voice hopefully will continue to inspire and attract people to a certain kind of poetry which falls outside the mainstream and is also sometimes called the poetry of resistance.

Darwish's poems are now widely read in some quarters with good and sometimes really good translations and at numerous sites on the Internet you can hear him read his poems in a sonorous and majestic tone. Many of his poems have been sung by the Lebanese singer Marcel Khalife including the famous Rita and the Rifle, passport and Mother. A link here to a few poems of Darwish that I have copied on this blog in the past.

Darwish wrote that.........

"I will dream
A poem cannot change a passing, yet still present-past,
nor prevent an earthquake.
But I will dream........."

With Darwish's death, a certain kind of a voice has died much like Said before him, and the Palestinians are the poorer with this loss. Yet as he wrote....

"Vanity, vanity of vanities........vanity!
All that lives on earth is bound to pass.
I lived as never a poet has. A king and a sage.
...............................................................................
Is this why the more I know, the louder I lament?
What use is Jerusalem?
What use is the throne to me?"

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Negation of negation


"One of the minimal definitions of a modernist painting concerns the function of its frame. The frame of the painting in front of us is not its true frame; there is another, invisible, frame, the frame implied by the structure of the painting, the frame that enframes our perception of the painting, and these two frames by definition never overlap.....an invisible gap separates them. The pivotal content of the painting is not communicated in its visible part, but located in this dis-location of the two frames, in the gap that separates them. This dimension in-between-the-frames is obvious in Kazimir Malevich ( Black square on white background), in Edward Hopper, and again in Edvard Munch's Madonna..........The frame is always redoubled: the frame within reality is always linked to another frame enframing reality itself. Once introduced, the gap between reality and appearance is thus immediately complicated, reflected-into-itself: once we get a glimpse, through the Frame, of the other dimension, reality itself turns into appearance. In other words, things do not simply appear, they appear to appear. That is why the negation of negation does not bring us to a simple flat affirmation: once things start to appear as what they are not, creating an illusion; they can also appear to just appear, concealing the fact that they are what they appear to be".

Slavoj Zizek, The Parallax View

Friday, August 08, 2008

Literary despotism

If statistical analysis was applied to literary works, a certain amount of literary works would be found missing from the annals of the common ground, from what is generally accepted and what is usually read. There is only a certain kind of literature that eventually finds acceptance, gets toasted, finds its author slipping into celebrity and the usual trappings that such things bring. I am not talking of censorship at all but the generally regarded good and great literary benchmarks that are set by invisible forces, those who have decided to represent the claims of good literature. And interestingly these makers of opinion can occasionally be literary figures themselves.

I was surprised at the review that Horacio Castellanos Moya's superb novel Senselessness received at Ready Steady Blog, in which the reviewer immediately sets about comparing this novella with Bernhard's Gargoyles, an act at once impudent and incorrect. Moya's novel has a different terrain, a different sensibility and the sentence structure has a different cadence from Gargoyles. Set in an all together complex world, Moya's novel, which many are claiming to be this year's best is described by the reviewer as brave and important but not great. However, we are not told what the criteria for a great novel are. Immediately the review begins and senselessness is described as a pastiche of gargoyles and umbrage is taken at Moya's tale being compared to a Kafka fable by another reviewer as if that comparison if valid is blasphemous!

The review then goes on to say that this novel is an alternative over Allende's House of the spirits which novel is described as a pinnacle of Latin American literature. ( Obviously the reviewer is not well acquainted with Latin American fiction or this book w'd not be mentioned) And that "what Senselessness adds to the Bernhardian form -- its terrible subject matter and the relatively conventional persona of the narrator -- perhaps doesn't go far enough". There are further allusions to Bernhard and then the review ends with a declaration of this novel as being only brave. The review, meant to be for senselessness ends in being a lecture on Bernhard's sentence structuring and the concerns of his fiction while Moya's novel simmers and boils down away in the dirt. So much for a review!

The above example illustrates the almost concrete and jungle monstrosity with which a book is received and then splintered away. Maybe the book is not for everyone and might not be the best but it shows how with a certain missionary zeal, a writer's foray into an alien language, through translation, can be stopped dead on its tracks. It has become customary to say the Bolano too used to approve of Moya while before it was.......Can Bolano be read or should he be read? In many American literary Publications over the last year or so, some people have been aghast at the so-called Bolano mania, expressing reservations about a literature of the outside. And now, Bolano approval is required for Moya.

English and Spanish are both imperial languages and languages of conquest and the fate of their writers is better than those of other languages, those that are exotic and underdeveloped and belong to the marginalized. I am surprised at this cultural and literary exclusion of certain writers on the basis of even the merit of their writings even if they must be ignored because of the shape of their noses. This is a form of despotism that takes on various manifestations, from popular representations to more serious dialectic. This difference must not be ignored but its ramifications pointed out. It is only after a few moons that writers as gifted as Moya appear and for those who do not like cultural barriers or even feel that talking about this is unfashionable or not even chic, this review as cited above is a case lesson. And for the unbiased, senselessness is a dream of a novel.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

There are many winds

There are all kinds of winds, some sweet and harsh, winds of change, of unchange, those that take us to places we had not dreamed of in our previous manifestations, if we had previous existence. And some winds, they just begin blowing when you least expect them to, pulling the very fabric that one is made of from oneself, such torture, what misery. But for all their inconstant nature, certain people, those who have suffered and seen, those who have seen vast empires and vain fantasies crumble and vanish, some of these people have given their winds an identity, names, with which they blow, for which they blow.

Winds they say have changed the surface of the earth many times, a phenomenon described as aeolian. Winds have influenced the mind as much as its surface, and like the moon have been celebrated and mythologized, for what are we without myth and story?
There are some names that are extremely poetic like the Simoom or Simoon, a wind that blows across the Middle East and has been doing so for ages. You must prostate yourself when it blows or it will suffocate you with its poison, its unsparing heat is quite deadly. It is red, it rains red blood and blows as far as the south of England though I have never seen rain red there. Herodotus wrote of it, and even for its metaphorical colour, this wind has enough death. Or there is the Khamsin, from Egypt into Israel and nearby and blows away for fifty days they say.

Have you heard of the Ghibli, hot and dry across Libya, elsewhere called Sirocco? It moans harshly when it blows and it weaves itself onto the casual unprepared sufferer, at once hot and harsh. The Harmattan, across African west makes men go crazy, a kind of brain fog sets in, a kind of psychosis, and after it releases you, it makes up for what it has taken, a thing that might also be one's sanity. It is much like running amok or the fever that grips people in the arctic because of extreme cold. Some people take off their clothes and run naked, for something is after them. These are dark matters. Who hasn't heard of the Mausim or Monsoon, a wind that has an entire season named after it, a season that is so welcome in Northern and Central India. It has been known to flower love and romance and generally a romantic wet period.

And then there is the Haboob, sounds like habib ( lover in Arabic) which is short and intense. I have heard from a Sudanese that it sets in so quickly everything turns black. You end up like a hostage, transfixed and frozen, waiting sometimes for Gabriel's trumpet or some evil to claim you, take you on its wing. Kaali aandhi or black wind sounds similar, only it blows somewhere in India where it later brings on rain. Then there is the Aejej in Morocco which is a whirlwind in the desert and the Tebbad in Turkestan that gives you fever. Winds are such mysterious beings. Take the barber for instance, it freezes when it touches your hair or beard. The Bora is fierce and blows in eastern Europe and there is the Austru in Romania and the Chubasco and the Cordanazo in South America. The Greeks called their gentle wind Zephyros and you have the dust devil, the favonius, the elephanta and the foehn.

The wind called maria does not exist but the wind called mistral does. The Gods have gifted winds to nations like the kamikaze to Japan or the Protestant wind that saved England. There are easterly and westerly winds, winds on mountains and on oceans and there is the Ode to the west wind too. Don't go out, we say, it is too windy and he went out, we are told because it was too windy. Each temperament has its own wind and each person blows either either hot or cold depending upon circumstances and the surrounding wind speed. Some winds carry messages from one lover to another and some are known to reunite people. Some harsh winds force people to migrate and live alone and some winds light and extinguish memories, depending on your mood.

The loveforsaken is waiting for a message and we pray the bearer of glad tidings is not stalled by the Aejej or suffocated by the Simoon. We would like the parted to meet under a cold and benign moon, trace the external elements of this earth with the collective effusions of their hearts, to trace their names on sand, to link together what will eventually separate, to create for the space of a moment the aura of infallibility, to give to words of love the subtlety of power and the warmth of bodies. We hope that the gentle wind Rabi will carry them home.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Nezhdanov: The idealist of realism

Nezhdanov dies, he kills himself, his lover marries, the plotters or so-called revolutionaries are arrested and some jailed, life moves on, the revolution is stalled, the rich coat of Petersburg attracts its most powerful citizens again. In Nezhdanov, Turgenev has created the quintessential tragic revolutionary, one who refuses to bargain, for whom any doubt in the cause itself is not worth the trouble, a slight hesitation, a difference of opinion or temperament is enough to foment doubt. Nezhdanov has doubts right from the beginning, the cause seems vague to him, he is not ready to jump himself blindly or let others do so and yet carry on does he, in spite of himself, everyone else even the very conditions he finds himself in.

Nezhdanov's suicide is an act of mercy. To languish in Siberia would have been a terrible injustice for he not only mistrusts the mission and its ultimate aims but is not sure all along what its aims actually are. he loves life but does not hate its seedier manifestations, he loves his country but cannot understand how the peasants can drink vodka and leer in oblivion, he is not a slavophile, he is a figure of moderation though he carries a gun only to set it on himself. Even in love, the slightest of doubts in affections returned makes him wonder a hundred times, he is zealously unselfish, polite and considerate, and his act of suicide is not an act of selfishness but an acknowledgement of the haste of others and a saving grace for them. His death is an act of compassion.

Can Nezhdanov, from Virgin Soil be compared to Stavrogin from The Devils? The answer is a resolute No. I am aware that any comparison of these two novels, which I cannot help comparing will not be totally out of place, and that (all comparisons are so odious and usually tasteless) but the quality of virgin soil sets it apart for not only are the revolutionaries treated with compassion, their very notions set forth clearly, they are treated with dignity.

Dostoevsky makes fun of these pamphleteers, these revolutionaries. I remember in one episode in The Devils, they all meet to discuss something and yet no one can set about the agenda for discussion. They are treated with no dignity, it seems they are just well read criminals, whose only aim is greedy crime and the hasty dissolution of a state that has no justification to exist. The aristocratic class, the governor of the city and his wife are actually soul-less characters and yet their very base ideas and actions are covered with a slime of hypocrisy and the veneer of good breeding, coated with the profusion of French sayings with which the devils abounds. The character of Stepan Verkhovensky is one that I have no sympathy with and yet the narrator of that story wastes literally a few hundred pages on resurrecting a character that has no moral fibre.

The notion of mental illness, of greed and alcoholic abuse, of any form of ill-health or physical defect does not arise in Turgenev's fiction. The men and women are perfectly healthy, the only differences we see are the ones of class, of opinion and education over which there are no controlling factors. in fact in virgin soil, there are no lectures around fires burning all night, we know they are talking but we do not know what, there is an ongoing cause but we are privy to their innermost thoughts. We move with them, we think we know them, in fact we know when Nezhdanov falls in and out of love, but in the devils we do not know what Pyotr Verkhovensky is up to, what Stavrogin wants? The Sipyagins of virgin soil are shown as to what they really are, condescending, greedy, hypocrites and all idle talk and no class really. Contrast this usually with Dostoevsky's treatment of the aristocrats, to whom , I suspect he was slightly impartial. His treatment of the lower classes and the poor is a mixture of condescension and a sort of christian love and misguided mysticism, in which lending an ear but not shaking the hand is the epitome of charity.

Turgenev's virgin soil, his longest novel is a brilliant portrait of not just so called revolutionary action but the preceding account and post- mortem of revolutionary ideals and the pungent distaste of defeat. The last chapter when Mashurina meets the lame Paklin, when old memories are exchanged is perhaps the best in the novel, where Turgenev shows not only his humanity but his sympathy too, sympathy for the characters he has created. It is evident from his tone that his is a voice of moderation and even though he is not a man of violence, he knows that only a certain amount of activity will lead to change and change there must be. In that sense, virgin soil is a prophetic novel for within forty years, the revolutionary activities were in full swing.

Nezhdanov, young and poetic burns his verses before killing himself. He gives his lover's hand away to the person he sees his rival in love at the very moment of death. He is aware of his humiliating past but does not resent it at all. He leaves his affairs in order, he is the only member of the group who is ready. He is ready to begin, to start change. He is true and loyal, he is not a hypocrite, he gives what is not asked, his very life.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Clara

If there is any more proof needed of the singularly vital thread that runs through all of Roberto Bolano's fiction, a thread that is symbolic of his entire oeuvre, then this short story Clara, published here is representative of that. This very short story, translated by perhaps his best translator Chris Andrews, conveys the same now so familiar Bolanesque theme of loss, the loss not only of innocence but of youth, not only of ambition but the certain loss of hope and the bitter realization of the impending certainty of death and the helpless surrender to that.

This is certainly not the best Bolano short story but not the worst too. Here, in this short piece, the concerns of his fiction and feeling find expression for in this microcosmic world we find love and betrayal, youth and disease, happiness and madness, travel and desperation and the ever hanging shadow of the realities of daily life, which are coincidences, lies, love and shame. Travel and immigration, solitude and exile, poetry, fact and fiction all merge together. The essential quality of this story lies in the narrator's brutal honesty but most of his narrators do not usually present themselves favourably, a vital feature of his fiction.

Clara has the usual qualities of the Bolano female, beautiful or pretty to begin with, adventurous and funny, idealistic and a little reckless, artistic without talent, a pseudo-poet and a bad painter, a reader of poetry or philosophy or classics ( depending on taste) usually though not always in love, romantic, sometimes penniless, usually jobless, strained and pained, haunted by dreams, betrayed sometimes, occasionally used. The Bolano woman steeps down and down quickly, loses beauty and wit, turns fat and bulimic, writes long love letters ( "Clara and I were writing to each other. Her letters were brief. Hi, how are you, it’s raining, I love you, bye. At first, those letters scared me. It’s all over, I thought. Nevertheless, after inspecting them more carefully, I reached the conclusion that her epistolary concision was motivated by a desire to avoid grammatical errors") when she is not in love and sometimes takes her own life. She either marries a pscychopathic poet or a poet who becomes a fascist. The end is usually alone.

Almost all the characters (with the usual exceptions) in Bolano's world are dilettantes, some good, shady, innocent and romantic, melancholic and funny, hopeless and a little crazed. Some of them travel savagely and some are savaged by travel. Occasionally during these travels, one of them meets a Clara.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

When they met last

For now, after the space of so many years, he did not remember whether he had actually looked at her eyes when he had parted from her, when they had met last, apart from the scraping sound of a goodbye. It seemed to matter now, incomprehensibly though, whether he had looked at her face at all, at that final moment of departure, the only time he knew he was meant to know how a soul can leave a body, a moment that was far superior to his ever knowing what death could be like, what death can be like, for who has had any memory of death?

Perhaps he thought he had looked at her eyes, but this was now only a shimmering memory, a false belief, a kind of persuasive idea that one forces on to oneself, a kind of happening that does not actually ever happen for it had the shattering impact of a blow, a sudden sharp blow to the head, a kind of impact that makes the heart flutter. This lapse into unintentional emotionality was embarrassing, to say the least, for the passage of years had taught him a kind of torrid unlove in which the stickiness of emotions was a tarnish for the clear gaze of seeing.

However, this assurance, this knowledge that he had not looked away but had dared to look into the un-expressive irises of her eyes was important to him, suddenly so important and vital that it needed more than symbolic acceptance, more than any forced confession from a heart. It would let him accept with a certain kind of ease the knowledge of having lived through a moment and not having died at the essential meeting of those torpid moments when dying is far more acceptable than living, when fading into oblivion, into silent speechlessness is superior than any living.

For had he not wondered through many speechless days at that culminating moment, when he knew with a rocky certainty that they would never meet again, never get the chance to even meet in the haze of the same desert, never look at the same sun but be imprisoned like he was in the unending ungiving of that aggressive solitude, tied to the flippant unknowing of that vital question, namely the state of his knowing and the direction of certain mild light brown eyes, shaded by the neutral sunlight of that July afternoon, amidst the blowing apart of countless little cells in his heart, unknown unknown to everyone else, unknown to the world?

Even after many years, he could not come to terms with what seemed like an inconsequential question but which had now assumed such proportions for him that any other thought meant only like an obscene distraction, for isn't it really vital to know, he asked himself sullenly, what happens when we finally leave someone forever? Isn't the distant sound that seems like a flute playing mournfully only an interrogating glare, the merciless sun that shines so brazenly that it leaves no space for shade? But these questions still haunt him, unsure as he is, and so unknowing of what happened when they met last, what happens when people part for ever.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Hangover

This beautiful poem below has been translated by the poet Guadalupe Campos herself and you can read the original at her blog here.

dispersion, dissolution
loosing your pretty head around a corner
full of black doves

maybe there, in your space
unknown as a landscape in New Zealand
you laugh at me —who cares

if I don't remember the shape of your eyes
if they took it on their wings with the sun
if there's silence behind your name —who cares

a charm to turn
the living-machine on for tonight
maybe tomorrow night —that might do.