Saturday, November 28, 2009

Dance with Snakes


Horacio Castellanos Moya's Senselessness brought him to the attention of the English reading world last year. Senselessness was easily the best novel I read last year, and this year two more novels are available in English, namely, The She Devil in the Mirror and Dance with Snakes. Moya has tried to re frame the context of the political novel and has spoken of the need to revisit the current trend of misreading Bolano, to whom he is usually compared. In fact, he has spoken about and written about the so-called Bolano myth, with the current adulation for the latter narrated as another example of US cultural imperialism in Latin America.

Dance with Snakes reads like a taut thriller and demands that it be read in one sitting. It is a mix of the tragic, the comic, the macabre and the most farcical of situations. Moya once said in a fit of hyperbole that El Salvador did not exist; the events in this short novel take place over the course of three days in the El Salvadorean capital. The war has ended and an unemployed sociologist gets interested in the occupant of a beat-up Chevrolet parked across his sister's apartment where he lives. The sociologist, Eduardo Sosa, who only watches TV and smokes cigarettes, feels piqued by the car. He tries to befriend the occupant, a middle-aged dishevelled looking man, who initially resistant, takes him along his nocturnal travels. He reveals some details of his past life and after a night of drunken revelry, quite suddenly, Sosa slits his throat. Sosa then decides to occupy the dead man's car and assume the dead man's identity.

It turns out that Sosa is not the only occupant but has to share it with four poisonous snakes, who initially wary, accept him as their friend and master. He decides to name them: "The plump one with the cunning eyes would be Beti; the slender one who moved timidly, almost delicately, would be Loli; Valentina exuded sexuality with her iridescent skin; and Carmela had an air of mystery about her." Sosa thus becomes Don Bustillo, the previous occupant, now dead. Sosa then decides to move away from his neighbourhood and launches at first accidentally and later on a series of macabre, highly bizarre and random attacks on his fellow citizens that claims the lives of scores of people, lead to dread, fear and even the fear of an impending revolution in the city. The snakes seem to relish this, attacking their victims with ferocious impunity and deriving pleasure from this blood bath.

Without intent, one of the victims is a presidential candidate, another his niece, another the police commissioner's niece; this leads the government to believe that the president himself is at risk, which leads to them hastily evacuating the president, declaring a state of emergency, with the media involved in a frenzied state of speculations about these senseless crimes. The second and third parts of the novel focus on the police hunt for Bustillo ( the police think he is alive) and the newspaper frenzy for a write-up, with the police and the media trying to outmaneuver each other. The fourth part focuses again on the first person narrative of Sosa. He prepares for the final encounter with the authorities in a scrap yard, where, naked, he makes a concoction of marijuana, cocaine, one of his dead snakes, and after he and his ladies, as he calls them are high, he dances with them in what can be only be described as a macabre piece of writing. He has sex with his snakes and dances to the tune of Dear Prudence,Walking on the moon and ending with Riders on the storm.

Sosa, before this highly energized scene, calls the main newspaper journalist and tells her that, "There’s no plan and there’s no conspiracy, the way they’re saying on the radio. Only chance and logic have allowed me to complete my mutation. But you wouldn’t understand.” At the same time, the journalist is trying to, "Feverishly, almost furiously, to formulate the story she’d like to write … An intimate story, the one she’d like to tell herself in order to understand how, in twenty-four hours, life can suddenly take on a whole new meaning, and what you once thought was solid and secure can be exposed as incredibly vulnerable." The novel ends with the police firebombing the scrap yard, with Sosa escaping to his former existence but the snakes perishing in the scrap yard blaze.

The style of this novel is racy, taut, without any intention of any lyricism. It is unlike that of Senselessness; the novel conveys the anarchic intensity, the senseless ferocity of these random attacks with a prose that borders on the sparse, the anarchic itself. The prose is sometimes slangy and a matter of factness that conveys the mind state of Sosa himself. In fact, when he spaeks to the newspaper office in a few sentences, he tells us that this is the first time he has been able to convey himself clearly. The snakes, his dialogues with them, the intensely farcical sex scenes seem over the top. And yet, nothing can convey more the sense of paralyzing helplessness that pervades of and during violence, in that the most violated and the most depraved resume their senseless existences again.

People can say that this novel reflects urban paranoia, the marginalized and their relationships with each other and the other; personally I feel that while that may be true, it is the very act of the political that is called in question here. It is easy to blame everything on a so-called paranoia but it is important to understand the constant re framing and reshuffling of social orders once anarchic forces or mutations seem to jeopardize this artificial construct of order. Last year, on this blog, while reflecting on Senselessness, I wistfully questioned the act of reading after knowledge imparted from Senselessness. Dance With Snakes made me uneasy throughout and finishing it was an act of relief. That is the highest praise I have for this novel. It is my intention to read The She Devil in the Mirror and like last year, it is quite clear that one of the two will end up as the best novels of the year. That I read 2666 this year and think I will not include it in the same breath speaks of the pulverizing intensity and the mesmerizing menace of Moya's urban nightmarish, almost messianic vision of the tip of the iceberg of our lives.

Friday, November 27, 2009

On the Last Evening on This Earth

On the last evening on this earth, we cut off our days
From our shrubs, and we count the ribs that we will carry with us
And the ribs that we will leave behind, there.......on the last evening
We bid farewell to nothing, and we do not find the time for our end
Everything remains as it is, the place changes our dreams
And changes its visitors. Suddenly, we are no longer capable of irony
And the place is ready to host nothingness..........here on the last evening
We fill ourselves with mountains surrounded by the clouds: conquest
and reconquest
An ancient time grants to this new time the keys of our doors
Come on in, O conquerors, enter our homes, and drink the wine
Of our complacent muwassaha. For we are the night when it splits
in two,
No horse rider arriving from the last prayer call to deliver the dawn....
Our green hot tea....drink it! Our fresh pistachio nuts.....eat them!
These beds are green made of cedar wood.....surrender to drowsiness!
After this lengthy siege, sleep on the feathers of our dreams
The sheets are ready, the scents are at the door, and the mirrors are many
Enter them so that we can come out! Soon we will seek what
Has been our history around your history in the distant lands
And we will seek ourselves in the end: was al-Andalus
Here or there? On the earth......or in the poem?

Mahmoud Darwish, Translated by Gil Anidjar

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Herzog on Herzog

I must admit that I thoroughly liked reading Herzog on Herzog, a collection of interviews that chronologically traces the life and career of Werner Herzog. I was also amused at some of the things that Herzog is so passionate about and the way he articulates himself. The answers are long, some run over two pages but that has been modified by the editor to do away with the pauses, which to some extent feels as if Herzog has written his answers down.

Herzog talks about ecstatic truth in contradiction to facts or plain truth. In his funny The Minnesota Declaration, he speaks about cinema verite and how that leads to norms, not illumination. To those who have seen Herzog's movies,they will understand the importance of space, of landscapes in his oeuvre. However, to the director himself, these landscapes, this physicality is just a reflection of the more important internal landscape, a state of mind. The terrain is just a visible symptom, a screen metaphor so to say, of that inner agitation or turmoil that lead to the creation of ecstatic truth, that illumination.

Herzog is a great film maker and his fame rests as much on his movies as it does on his so called documentaries. But no mention of him will be complete without Kinski, his best fiend. The five movies with Kinski are more representative of that ecstatic truth or vision that Herzog reminds us on every page. Be it Fitzcarraldo and the ship moving over a mountain or be it the wrath of God himself, Aguirre, surrounded by demons and monkeys, his collaboration with Kinski is the sublimation of what Herzog calls the cinema of athletics over aesthetics. Herzog is at pains to remind us that this is no cinema of poetry or reality per se; this is the vision of a far deeper visualization of a deeper truth, a vision of ecstatic illumination. Herzog denies that any of his movies like Cobra Verde has a political message; far from it, he wants us to realize, if not understand the mechanism of a state of mind that can lead to bravery, desperation, a holocaust, slavery, ambition, suicidality and so on.

Most, if not all of the protagonists of Herzog are loners, desperate, raving, ambitious, emotionally unstable, bound for missions of a suicidal grandeur, leading others to such suicidal extremes that any association with such men is fraught with danger. Only men figure in Herzog's world, women are secondary in this vision of truth. The cinematic truth of Herzog is never internal; what I mean to say is that his characters inhabit the edges of an external landscape that is driven by an inner exigency. Contrast this with Fassbinder, where say in Petra Von kant, the entire two hours are spent in her boudoir; this is what Herzog perhaps means by his athletics over aesthetics. And the flavour we get is that of Herzog himself, a loner, desperate to scale a mountain, desperate to produce his movies, walking, walking, through forest and desert, in search of that inner landscape.

Some anecdotes that Herzog mentions are incredible, some humorous, some funny, some dark and yet all carry with them his own whiff of truth, his vision of ecstatic illumination. It is true, he says, that he was planning to fire bomb Kinski once, also true that he would have shot him with his Winchester rifle if Kinski had carried out his threat of leaving the sets in Peru. All this sounds a step too far but his cinema is really one step further from many. The examples are so many, like Kaspar Hauser, like the entire cast of Heart of Glass being hypnotized, his encounter with Reinhold Messner in the Himalayas and so on. Herzog comes across as too confident at times, too opinionated, too aware of everything. And yet, none of it sounds too dull, too over valued, for it sits nicely with his creations, his concept, his visually stunning landscapes, his charting of those frontiers that only a self-annihilating vision can lead to.

Travel on foot, says Herzog, it is a virtue. The movies he has carefully crafted are are as much flights of fancy and vision as much as of a certain kind of mental and physical travel, a mental and physical truth. And this book of interviews goes a step further in allowing us to have a glimpse of that vision, of that ecstatic truth, that illumination.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Landscape with impassable mountains

For a time, the high valley was shrouded in cloud, and for the length of an afternoon they gazed out of the huge panoramic windows, set on two sides of an equilateral triangle, looking out over a milky lake. Having determined to clarify their relationship, after eight hours of talk, their thoughts were already enormously preoccupied with getting through time, with such practical approaches as dining, putting on walking gear, taking an excursion, anything of a straightforward nature.

-Shall we order coffee?
-Yes, please, she replied.

She was grateful to him. The essential thing, he said, is to get back to simple things. If they were both single-celled creatures, say, or oysters, they would know what to do in the rhythm of ebb and flow, that is to say they would open up during high tide so that suspended particles could flow into them, and close up at low tide in order to dry out.She is not an oyster, though, and he is not the sea.

During the course of their afternoon conversation, in which they had planned to analyze their situation and the murky swamplands of their sexual habits, their emotions underwent a change. The mere fact that they were now hungry changed things; having being occupied with each other for eight hours, even in this imperfect manner, they felt that they would surely find a way out before long, some solution as uncomplicated as' let's have dinner now'. In the long run, this was a source of trust, even if matters between them went unresolved. They proposed to talk to each other in this way, a mountain retreat, every year. It may have no purpose, they said, but it's warming.

Everyone has his own magic words
They seem to have no meaning
Let them but flit through memory, though,
And the heart rejoices and weeps........

from The Devil's Blind Spot: Tales from the New Century, Alexander Kluge

Friday, November 20, 2009

Love is colder than death

Lessons of Darkness

3. Cinema verite confounds fact and truth, and thus plows only stones. And yet, facts sometimes have a strange and bizarre power that makes their inherent truth seem unbearable.
4. Fact creates norms and truth illumination.
5. There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and their is such a truth as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can only be reached through fabrication and imagination and stylization.
6. Filmmakers of cinema verite resemble tourists who take pictures amid ancient ruins of facts.
7. Tourism is sin, and travel on foot virtue.
10. The moon is dull. Mother nature doesn't call, doesn't speak to you, although a glacier eventually farts. And don't you listen to the song of life.
11. We ought to be grateful that the universe out there knows no smile.
12. Life in the oceans must be sheer hell. A vast merciless hell of permanent and immediate danger. So much of a hell that during evolution some species- including man- crawled, fled onto some small continents of solid land, where the Lessons of Darkness continue.

from Herzog on Herzog

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Artur Aristakisyan's Ladoni


Finally, a few words about Aristakisyan. I mean, I overcome my reserve, I give in to the blogging way, of talking about Artur Aristakisyan, about Ladoni, about Palms, about a certain hallucination, a certain dream, a kind of metaphor, of politics, of movie or film or dream or idea or everything alltogether, about Aristakisyan, of the fringes, about fringes, of certain mirrors shown to certain authorities, of confrontation, about confrontation.

A film or documentary, a poetic mirage, an anarchic offering, a messianic message? To the roots of cinema, pure cinema or to another illusion? To make a statement of rhetorical intent ( all statements ending in a full stop are rhetorical and most are banal), to persuade through image and dream and memory, to innovate and to suffer through that innovation.

Ladoni is the movie to end all movies. That is a statement of extreme rhetoric. But are not all images and all odours in any movie constructs? Then we have beggars here, no actors and why should this seem like an invasion, as some think of Ladoni? For to portray those at the fringes, that needs a relaying of reality, and here we have the tortured bodies themselves, in all their muted isolation, their silence, their reticent terror. The beggars who populate this movie, the 'reality' that is shown is actually 'real', for these people lie outside the known networks of our social realities, outside the thin ice of our anarchic lives.

Ladoni says that everyone is blind, the blind boy begging in a blind world from blind people. That is confronatation? Aristakisyan addresses his unborn son. What can you see, achieve? Go into the world, outside the mechanisms of power, go beg. Don't say a word, words are meaningless. There is no escape, no saviour in the end. What you see is the beginning and the end, the terminal is forever. The bodies and the beggars, the litter and the waste are forever. There is no crisis. There are many stories within Ladoni, many terrors. "This is a dangerous film", says Aristakisyan.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Exile

Walser on ash

"Indeed", Walser writes about ash, "if one goes into this apparently uninteresting subject in any depth there is quite a lot to be said about it which is not at all uninteresting;if, for example, one blows on ash it displays not the least reluctance to fly off instantly in all directions. Ash is submissiveness, worthlessness, irrelevance itself, and best of all, it is itself pervaded by the belief that it is fit for nothing. Is it possible to be more helpless, more impotent, and more wretched than ash? Not very easily. Could anything be more compliant and more tolerant? Hardly. Ash has no notion of character and is further from any kind of wood than dejection is from exhiliration. Where there is ash there is actually nothing at all. Tread on ash, and you will barely notice that your foot has stepped on something."

from Selected Stories, Walser

Friday, November 13, 2009

Those words or that Time

The relentless alliance between sadness and the search for time lost is surely a recipe for disaster. For who knows where these dark ramblings may lead one to?
One starts from a familiar corner of a ....street and then, having lost control, finds oneself in lands so distinctly different, flowers so poisonous that the very search seems an affair of extravagance.

One remembers nights, when preparations are made for parting, when the heart refuses, stolidly , to beat slowly and when, insomnia is considered a gift. It is in these dark fields, before sunrise where sadness, now forever born, decides to spread a contagion of regrets.
When the moment to part comes, from homes and hearts , from those windows and doors where childhood has passed into a raging kind of shallow dilettantism, from these hedges and shrubs, whose green mosaic still perhaps holds the touch of fingers and shouts, when the time comes, to perpetrate these crimes, then the multitude of emotions suddenly ceases in selfish unease.

One looks at last for those words, letters, signs, sighs, tremors of the lips or mist in the eyes that have felt the mostly sad drama of life.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Walser: The Tanners

We can say that the The Tanners does not have a plot; it does not follow the conventionalities of a novel, we meander through it, we read it, the main protagonist is dissatisfied throughout, so are we, the moment of revelation does not come but to expect it would be a mistake, that much is evident. And yet, Simon Tanner endears himself to us, we like him, he is a bit crazy, a likeable craziness, we love him for that, we like his prolixity, we who like prolixity. There is a hidden movement, one feels we move too as the seasons pass with their own regularity, and yet somehow, there is anxiety too, there is something left unfinished.

The Tanners is not really a saga of the Tanners family, for the three brothers and sisters exist in relation to the main character Simon, whose relationship, if at all, exists with the reader. Simon Tanner does not want to be fixed, he hates fixity, he flows like a stormy river, at times as placid as a pond in midsummer, like snow that melts he melts too and then his sudden bloom, in spring, he springs too. The Tanners does not explore the relationship that exists between the Tanners siblings but puts them in perspective, there is attachment and distance between the characters, that bond of childhood has somehow snapped. Simon moves on from one establishment to another, drifts from one job to another, without finding his metier. However, the crucial point is: he does not find a vocation because he does not want one.

Compare this to The Assistant or to Jakon Von Gunten who enrol into a job, into a decided course. Here Simon just drifts, he allows himself to drift. However, he does not actually hate money, for he knows its uses. Compare this to the concerns that Joseph Marti has in The Assistant where there is a very clear sense of dissatisfaction between bourgeoisie values and the actuality that those entail. Marti is aware of the gulf that exists between his employer and himself; Simon does not care, he simply resigns from the numerous positions he gets into because he has moved a step ahead. He drifts from country to city and is fully aware of the dichotomy that the two places bring. He lectures us about the religious dimensions of life in the country versus the city and his sympathies lie entirely with the countryside.

Simon Tanner does not express his love for the ladies he meets during the course of his life, which is alike with Marti in The Assistant. Marti and Von Gunten feel that they are worthless to be loved; Simon feels that he is worthy but must sacrifice himself for others' sake. Simon is cleverer than the other predecessors in that he knows to rebel, the first two are quieter and perhaps unsure. Simon suffers the melancholic pain of unexpressed love; but being a curious person, the lady who befriends him towards the end offers some hope. We do not know what happens eventually, but that is entirely in keeping with the nature of this novel. The creator Walser himself does not know.

The Tanners is a beautifully written novel and the translation I hope will have done justice to the original. Simon is not a philosopher yet, but he has moved from the reclusive thinker, or from the self meditating monk to an employment in the city. He philosophizes, he lectures on everything, he is aware of the politics and the social dynamics of his place, he does not favour immigration, he wants to live and die in his country. He settles to be on the side of the lost and the defeated but we do not know if he gets completely lost in the end.

The Tanners leaves you with many great aches; there are some fabulous passages and some great images. Walser predated Kafka and as I mentioned in my previous posts on Walser, I prefer Kafka but like Walser. Musil described Kafka as a curious case of the Walser type. There could be no more different writers than Musil and Walser. And as Sebald writes in the introductory essay, the sentences are so long, so dreamy that each preceding sentence seems to make us lose the thread of the one we are reading. I did not remember whether it was summer or winter. I wanted to just follow Simon Tanner and his banter, his sadness, his melancholy heart.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

You died young, you who died in autumn

You died young, you who died in autumn,
a silent sudden death, leaving a sudden silence.
I search for your face in my collection of
memories, I search for the last time we met,
when our eyes did not betray the finality
of fate and parting.

I see your clear face, the long nose,
the receding line of your hair,
your acrimonious wit, your smile above all
and the acceptance of fate and your
listless destiny.

I remember too the days of sunshine,
of snow and afternoon laziness,
in the playgrounds of our unbecoming,
of youth and what now is only death.

And now my friend, you lie buried,
covered with dew and rain and snow,
with damp, dead and fallen autumn leaves,
wet leaves and tears on your grave.
you left far too abruptly, too soon
and too suddenly.

The above lines are written in the memory of a dear friend who died recently in a road accident.