Monday, July 30, 2007

Dilletantism And Blogging

A question that so called literary blogger's must continually ask themselves is the worth of their opinions expressed about the things that they write, this writer not excluded. Under the garb of criticism, a whole host of senseless twaddle finds its way in this medium, which though superficially alluring, is eventually jarring to the senses. Because one must write, one finds oneself getting immune to the superficiality of opinions expressed and even carried away occasionally by praise expressed herein, praise that sometimes helps flagging literary self esteem.

I found an interesting post on this subject, quite randomly I must admit, on the internet recently about this subject. Racquel Recuero has questioned whether blogging is actually literature? For every Swift and Johnson writing in the 18th century, a host of other writers wrote junk, he tells us. The new technology of blogging, he reminds us, has unleashed a geyser of sludge. And in the future, he warns, no one will read this sludge, written by drunken college students and ex-spouses. He describes the blog's mostly as rants, meanderings, neurotic, chaotic, lacking purpose and structure. He does not deplore blogging, only that he finds it is necessary to understand what worth it will have in the future. He is aware of why people might want to write but is sensitive to what they should be writing.

It is only bad literature that has made good literature great. Whether people burden us with weekend parties or the movies they rant about or whether it is some other reason to write, blog writing, mute and inglorious, can still support more ambitious efforts. Mercifully, he recognizes blog's as literature, but that is besides the point. I think he raises serious questions that blogger's need to address.

I find some literature blog's, read randomly on the internet, actually raving conversations rather than serious writing. The purpose, if these blog's have a purpose, must be to understand rather than to sermonize, to attempt to do so rather than base one's opinions on pre-conceived prejudices. It is exceedingly difficult for Europeans to actually understand the nuances in an Asian or South American literary genre and vice versa. To claim to actually get between the sentences would be a foolish thing to do. One must let the snow fall on one's shoulders, feel the icy winds of winter before one can call snow romantic, deserts beautiful and dusty plains dusty.However, language gives us a kind of unwritten license, poets have fancy, they imagine about countries not seen, faces not touched, loves not loved and out of that imagination we get true literature sometimes.

What matters is earnestness in writing and not expressing half-baked opinions about things not seen, without evidence, without knowledge. One must fall in love to understand the pain of this emotion. I do not exclude myself from these faults and sometimes wonder at my own temerity to write, but write we must, even if these blog's exist in an artificial nether no-world, at the crossing of true literature and chaotic mumbling.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Season Of Migration To The North

It has been a while since I have wanted to write about this fantastic novel by the Sudanese writer Tayeb Saleh. Two years and two readings apart, this novel can be described as seminal, a kind of a post colonial answer or a response to Heart Of Darkness, only that this novel is not an apology but a re-examination of exile and migration.

Born in Sudan, Saleh moved to London and wrote this short novel in the sixties, a work that has been translated into numerous languages. Saleh is a novelist and a poet too. This novel has for long remained a classic and has in the past been declared as the most important Arabic novel of the last hundred years. Since I can only read the translated novel, which is written so beautifully, one wonders as always at the original magic of Arabic. And surprisingly enough, the novel is written in a modern language, devoid of pretensions and unlike other Arabic novels that somehow do not follow the structure of the novel in the Western European sense.

The story, told by a narrator in flashbacks from his own life mixed with following the fortunes of Mustafa Saeed, who having returned back from England to Sudan previously, finds parallels between his and Mustafa's life. Whilst in England, Mustafa, having become Moozie, uses his exotic charm to seduce women in England and driving some to despair. He gets married and in a scene of sexual imagery and violent tension, he kills his wife and, and later when back in Sudan, Mustafa disappears mysteriously in the Nile following a flood, having been in and out finally of an unhappy marriage. The narrator too has returned to Sudan from England and his own reflections and experiences are revealed in spasms of emotions, in surreptitious and enigmatic ways.

This is a novel about migration, of self imposed exiles, of clashes of culture, of thought, language and feelings and the language of feelings. But the clashes are not just external, they are internal too, forcing one to question one's place in a new culture, and the place one has left behind or only thought to have done. One cannot belong anywhere because the battles are fought inside, the doubts are within, the pain of dislocation is inside. The narrator's grief is in not being accepted on his return and his not accepting and his inability to reject his new past, that of an ex-colonial country, wherein he remained an outsider too, always. The dialogue is between the colonized and the coloniser, only the tragedy of discourse is within the same person, now no longer a subject but newly subjugated by his own fears.

There is politics here but then even a love poem has its politics and we expect Saleh to exhume this colonial stuff but the exhumation is a subtle one, going on inside the narrator torn between his pasts. The murder of the English woman has been interpreted as a revenge against colonialism and I think it is a kind of response if not revenge, though Saleh has denied it. The style is hauntingly lyrical, calling it only poetry is an injustice. Says the narrator about his lover in England.............. when she saw me, she saw a dark twilight like a false dawn. Unlike me she yearned for tropical climes, cruel suns, purple horizons. In her eyes I was a symbol of all hankerings. I am south that yearns for the north and the ice. There is a sense of belonging always, of his torn identity between the North and South, and Mustafa's return to the North is an affirmation of new found confidence and freedom, of reversing the flow of people Southwards, of the joys of freedom and the restrictions of life in the North. It is the narration of what has been called counter flows to colonialism, a reversal of Conradian journeys into the Congo, a return back.

To say that this novel is important is only to undermine it. The debates it evokes are as vital now as when it was written. We have been warned these days of clashes of religions and civilizations, colour and sex and languages and of course power. Yet , the most subtle clashes and the only important ones are those that take place inside our minds, where all battles and clashes are decided.
The narrator is towards the end waking from his nightmare, and he decides, he chooses. I quote this final, beautiful paragraph from this beautiful novel......

All my life I had not chosen, had not decided. now I am making a decision. I choose life. I shall live because there are a few people I want to stay with for the the longest possible time and because I have duties to discharge. It is not my concern whether or not life has meaning. If I am unable to forgive, then I shall forget.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007


Stalker, to put it simply, is the best movie ever made. It sounds like a tall claim, I know. However, if we look at it dispassionately, we realize that Stalker is more than a movie, it is a minefield of cinematic excellence, exploding when we least expect and rewarding on every new viewing.
Andrei Tarkovsky needs no introduction. Son of the Poet Arseni Tarkovsky, Tarkovsky made immortal movies in a mortal world, though amusingly this movie was shot twice, as the first original prints were lost in a mysterious fire. The second effort drained everyone, and it is a tribute to his grit, imagination and his entire cast.
What do we expect from a movie? Entertainment, passing a vacant hour or so, debate on crime, politics, social imagery? How relevant is an environmental issue to a man in spiritual torment or to people who have chosen to choose and oppose? What use drama, stories, immaterial plots of suburban housewives, infedility, war angst, remorse after killing people, emotional tripe for holocausts when new holocausts are being perpetrated every day? What use watching absurdism and existentialism on a screen, why allow ourselves to be sermonized, to be prepared, to be made malleable for propagandist emotional nonsense?

We need the stalker, in every sense, in every measure for cinema to flourish in our minds, for real spiritual metaphysics to bloom in our lives, for cinema to enhance and not impinge on our sensibilities, not drag us into the morass of cinematic illusions. Stalker brings into our ken not just technical excellence but spiritual cinema, food for lesser Gods and tormented mortals.
In a setting described as tranquil and desolate and peaceful and isolated, I watched Stalker again for perhaps the sixth time. Each new viewing of stalker rewards one with fresh insights into the complex imagery of this movie, and leaves one feeling emboldened to face one's demons.

Two men, a writer searching for inspiration and a physicist searching for empirical truth, employ a man, simply called the Stalker to lead them into an area called the Zone, where there is a room that grants one any conceivable wish. After reaching there, he shows and guides them to this room, with restrictions on how to actually get there, following certain rituals that the two men find baffling. They reach the room and the writer decides against wishing anything leaving the physicist wanting to blow up the entire zone and the Stalker aghast, dumbfounded and broken at their empty eyes and lack of faith. This is the bare story and seems quite simple. However, into this tapestry is woven an intricate pattern of illusions, allusions, religious imagery, symbolism, and metaphysical allegory.

Throwing the nuts
The stalker allows the two men to look for the room in the zone only by following a certain path that is free from danger, for one cannot offend the zone. The zone, the stalker warns is not for casual strolls, for it can punish if offended. The path is made safe by the nut throwing ritual, tied to a bandage, signifying safety. The procedure seems so medieval, so bizarre that from the point of view of the two men, the stalker could be insane. However, his warnings ring true for their is surreptitious fear in the zone where flowers don't smell, where damaged tanks and armoured cars lie broken covered with overgrown vegetation.
Tunnel scene
The tunnel scene is a heart-stopper, a cinematic rarity, a sequence that leaves one rattled and dumb, in mortal terror, but then all quest is uncertain, all search is madness. The tunnel has to be traversed for there is no easy path to the room, no short cuts. The harder the path, the reward is more, the benefits better. There is no scene in any cinema like the tunnel scene and I am not being flippant. The tunnel seemingly too long and narrow, goes more than into the room, it goes into our psyche's where fear lurks, where unfaith and faith jostle.

Stalker is a movie about the quest for hope and God, the most important question in all ages, about the absence of faith, about spiritual cogitations, about mental fatigue, about not knowing and believing. Mercifully it does not elevate faith or atheism into a glorious ideal but elevates search, the hunt, the quest for faith into a cinematic discourse as never sen before. Bergman's The Seventh Seal seems a child's attempt in a similar vein, though Bergman was a great director.

Stalker could only have been made in Russian by a Russian for Russia is in the East and the intense religious nature of this movie cannot be replicated in Western Europe and will never be achieved by Hollywood. The discourses, soliliquies, debates between the principal characters are a joy to watch and Arseni Tarkovsky's poems add and enhance the fervour and the aura of this movie. Alexander Kajdanovsky, who played the Stalker has succeeded in portraying the mystic fervour of a religious guide, not zealous prejudice or fanatic fascism but a spiritual torment, such as is commonly reported to be the experience of Muslim Sufi's or hermetic Sadhus. His performance elevates the art of acting to heights that can be achieved by only a few.

Stalker stays with you, with its iconic imagery, its haunting performances, its poetry, its drama, its fear, its beauty. Regarding the dog in this movie, I don't know why but I have a hunch.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Book Of Franza: Ingeborg Bachmann

I must acknowledge that this post is not an attempt to write a critique of this short novella but an attempt to understand it, and in the process perhaps experience the poetry of words.
This is the first Bachmann novel that I have read and I am yet to decide where to classify it, for the style is neither excessively poetic nor mundanely dull, but a mixture of what I now feel are thoughts, fragments written on paper, elements of existence, without a a priori reflection. Just like how thoughts occur to us everyday, every single moment of our existence. The fascinating mix of memory and desire, regret and pain.

It is not possible for a reader without tools to understand any writer, any language without knowing the dominant, the consensual reality of that or any culture or any reality. Thus, perhaps after reading this novel or while reading it, I was wondering whether it is realistic to read a translation of Bachmann or any other writer? However, because we must, I feel there will be a permanent gap in my approach towards translated literature and this book is no exception.

Since there are different undercurrents running around the story of Franza, we must try to seek the answers from them. There is the large shadow of Nazi persecution, the haplessness of its victims to which, in a way that seems natural and logical to Bachmann, the supposed persecution of Franza is weaved. The narrator , alternating between what I thought was Franza and the other, equates the same persecution with the atrocities suffered by the Egyptians at the hands of the Whites, including the oppression of the Mummies by the whites too. There are references to historical events like the Suez Canal war, as if these are important elements to understand Franza's sickness. The events in Franza's childhood are clues to her mental state later on, her first love with whom she calls the Sire, perhaps her love for Martin, her brother, love incestuous.

There are heart warming times for me in this novel, things that happen that we don't even mention, out of fear. The young Franza kisses the sire as he drives away and then we have this beautiful passage........With that, Franza's first love came to an end, and she remained behind, with no afterglow, only dazed, the glow flickering out within her, as she stood amid the dust cloud that floated behind.......... And years later when she meets her sire and he doesn't recognize her, Franza remembers........ And no one stood anymore at the edge of a road, somewhere in Europe, feeling as if she would collapse while trembling, or simply stand there forever in a cloud of dust, as the four tanks rolled on- which could not be seen.

I am a prime example of post traumatic stress, Franza tells us, for there is no summer day upon which a noxious shower of rain does not fall, no night during which I am not obsessed, no forgetfulness that is not buried in freudian slips and meaningless babble. And later on, suddenly, Franza asks..........Why does one only refer to fascism when it has to do with opinions or blatant acts? The middle portion of the book finds Franza attempting to explain her married life with the Professor in disjointed fragments, images, words, hints. This is a difficult read as we are in and out of her past, present, her desires, her willingness to die, allusions, memories, desires, memories. Franza feels that she is a Papuan, robbed.

And then Bachmann writes.........The puzzle of my days is more important than the puzzle of my dreams, for you should understand that there is no dream puzzle, but rather the puzzle itself, the puzzle of days, the undetectable chaos of reality........ Then she writes about fear, how it cannot be charted, measured by a cardiogram. We reach the final denouement near the pyramids and then Franza dies, which one expects or even suspects. The book ends as if you expect it to tell you more, for we have just seen Franza only from the outside, without understanding her. But is not that what franza Fells us in the beginning, that it is not possible to understand anything, anyone?

The book of Franza is a difficult novel to understand and even read in one attempt, for there are techniques that the writer uses which surprise us and come upon us suddenly. How are we expected to know about Franza anyway? How can we actually even consider this attempt at understanding? I felt that there is a suppressed poetry inside this book, a poetry that sometimes seems broken, disjointed, I guess deliberately...........There is talk of fascism in relations but perhaps one must understand this from the point of view of both men and women, for fascism is not the prerogative of men alone.

This is a well written, sometimes beautifully written novel that is possible to understand only if we allow ourselves no mercy, for there are images in here that are universal, parting and heartbreak, treachery, sexual jealousy and the inability to express, to understand, to convey, to communicate, to reflect maybe but an inability to convey that reflection, that understanding. There is sufficient politics too, hints of oppression, of colonial sadism, sadistic oppression of the dead too, interwoven perhaps with Bachmann's vision of a world dominated by sadistic men, cruel husbands, loss and failure of love, misery in togetherness or just a pure impossibility in existing together.

I will end by these beautiful few lines from The Book of Franza.

You have to come down to the Nile with me some night. An enigma. During a night on the Nile, which I shall never experience, during a night on the Nile when there are no village lamps but rather the stars. On the Nile, the upper Nile. Far away from the shadowy years during which no stars hung in my mouth.....

Friday, July 20, 2007

This Night

This familiar night is here again,
after many days and many nights,
after many rains in midsummer wetness,
after another summer that just finished
even before it began.

I must say, I must say how I had waited
for that hour of infinite meeting, besides a dusty road
under a dark sky, in a place that was my own.
Where summers and winters were equally welcome,
equally romantic, equal peace.

And this music, Fingal's Cave, alien to my unmusical ears,
like a town bereft of rain, some old unsheltered woman
disowned by all, counting the stars against a stony sky
and losing it all, all again. This unmusic is my night,
and I hear it despite all this rain.

This is a different night, I must admit, night of poison,
of slow sleep. This pain, not pain is only memory,
only surmise, only regret, only deep regret.
This is the pain of having waited for and having lost,
a moment to rub deep into my eyes the faces of love.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

On Owning Books

Buying and reading books are different activities but might seem similar. Buying and owning books are however entirely different. To buy a book, leaf through it, think and then buy it is one of the most pleasurable things to do. And perhaps not buying one, the lingering doubts that remain, the nagging images of the book covers in one's mind, what delights.... ...However, I must admit that I am a cover fetishist and I look unfavourably at a book that doesn't inspire thought, that doesn't seem odd or mysterious. A proven masterpiece fails to impress me if the cover is dull. An example being The Man Without Qualities, by Picador, front cover dull. One of my all time favourite front covers is Pale Fire, by Penguin amongst so many others. I know it sounds ridiculous but then some obsessions are.

Owning books, keeping them, treasuring them is a jealous activity. All reading is jealous, frantic and obsessional. I look at my books, these novels and poems, these unread philosophies as somewhat as my own peripheral existence, a kind of out of body, detached essence of my own being, and that is not being superfluous. Over the years, I have got out of the habit of borrowing books from a library. I forget to return the books in time, it is embarrassing, besides paying needless fines. I cannot read a book now if it is not mine. I must own it, it should be mine. It lingers in my hands as I touch it, I touch it for the effect of owning it, knowing that it is mine. This is not a book fetish, I must reassure.

Reading books is an aesthetic activity as well. It is nocturnal, and pleasurable usually in winter, when it rains, when my childhood snows accumulate. Outside the fresh hush of fallen snow, the hesitant crepitus of trodding feet on snow, or the wind at night, during long winter nights, pages transformed and reflected outside, panthers and monsters leaping out, some Dostyevsky, some other story. Summertime reading is not my forte but I try. I have never been able to read Dostyevsky in summer. I have read Genet, but it seems winter then.

Owning books is a kind of paranoia, a deep sense of disaffection, a helpless feeling in a transitory world. One can go back and think of times when a particular novel or philosophy meant so much. It brings back visceral memories sometimes, of people and times, of seasons and nights, for reading is generally a nocturnal activity. There are names and loves etched on familiar books, people associated who only visit us now in bizarre dreams. Old books, on shelves, near and in distant familiarities, even if dusty have an aura of memory and desire, my usual memory, my usual thwarted desire.

One can only, I can only give away my books to people who really care for the indiscreet and secret charm of the written word, to people who share this awful desire to read, to feed on ideas, the black white love of the written page. I don't usually share books out of miserliness, but when I do, I pray for the well being of these pages, usually paperbound. There are some crafty readers who are well read but don't ever buy a book. How can one savour a passage, a poem and not actually have it nearby? Does one have to part with all loves? Is seperation needed?

I can see my Pasolini Poems now, out in the corner, stacked amongst my other afflictions. I know there is a poem inside called Prayer To My Mother that I can read again, next to The Conference Of Birds by Attar that I must read. These stones don't sleep at night or rest during the day. They wait for me, when I am tired, unsure and not sure of anything.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Thomas Bernhard's Yes : Study In Antistudy

Thomas Bernhard's short novel Yes is another example of his ability to write the same story, recounted in a narrative that is neither less rhetorical nor less repititive as some of the previous works I have read so far. If this narration is to be considered a case study in depression, then it is well documented. At the same time, the over riding concerns of his tirades are as usual well written and sometimes too well.

The narrator , like his usual one, lives in isolation, forced on himself in a remote village. We are told that he is working on a scientific study, on antibodies. Here he comes into contact, after self imposed isolation of some months with a Swiss man and his Persian woman friend at the house of his friend Moritz. The meeting causes a refreshment of my hearing and of my whole mental state, by the manner of her speaking and thinking, which logically, gave rise to speech from thought and thought from speech. The preceding contactlessness, he tells us had progressively developed into a mental sickness. Meeting the Persian woman is just the right thing the narrator wants. He attempts to meet her at the local inn. He finds she is not ready. Women, no matter what kind, are never ready at any definite agreed time. They go out later for a walk in the nearby larch-wood. He realizes instantly that she is a person of intellect.

We are then told in some detail about the narrator's mental sickness, as he calls it, initially sporadic symptoms of illness and then finally as an illness and indeed as a severe illness. The arrival of the couple causes an attenuation of my state of sickness, naturally not a cure but a suspension....He tells us then that with each passing attack the illness had become worse causing him to feel powerless and helpless, partially with an inability to work, caused by my sickness and the frightful political conditions in our country and Europe had triggered this catastrophe as political conditions had deteriorated. He finds everything dictatorial, brutal and vile. We are then told of his abiding admiration for The world as will and idea and for Schumann and how he finds the Persian woman also admiring schumann.

So long as we have but a single person near us with whomwe can talk ultimately about everything we can hold out, otherwise we cannot. Meeting the Persian woman liberates him, as he suddenly decides to get outside and run away. It causes a clearing of my mind and head. Existence seems possible again. I was compelled not to reflect on myself. This is all atrributed to the Persian woman, as he informs us that he had missed a foreign language person all his life. For with the Persian it was possible to have a philosophical conversation. The present being no age for philosophy and there being no contemporary philosopher, he finds the Persian as philosophizing. On the second walk with her, he describes it as musical, philosophy being music, music philosophy.

The story ends in tragedy though usually Bernhard's stories start with one. We are briefly told of the possible reasons or there are hints here and there. There is a house to be built, there always is in Bernhard, and there is this woman, this time exotic, foreign language and Persian. There is no obvious incest, I am not sure if two walks in the larch wood constitute adultery. The woman has made a sacrifice for her Swiss friend and in fact given up everything. However, Bernhard says.....for the asian female it is no more than natural that she subordinates and sacrifices to the male totally and in the most unreserved manner. that sacrifice ensures to her a meaning to her life. I am not sure how Bernhard comes up with such a sweeping statement and how many Asian women he knew. There is somewhat a slight prejudging attitude here, even though he talks of her as regenerating.

I find Yes as funny as his other novels. The themes are depressing and yet we find them strangely funny. I think the narrator is not only depressed but also paranoid but then most of Bernhard's narrators are. The novel is well written, giving us expressions like work-prison and existential prison, and the quality of his ranting, which I find strangely musical is relentless. The fact that there are no philosophers left might reflect his admiration for Wittgenstein and we find the same obsessive rants against Austria which perhaps as a defense, might serve as his hidden love for his country. The narrator has political views and whether he is more ill than he actually lets us know is anybody's guess. The strangeness of this music grows on one, and I don't regret reading him.