Thursday, March 27, 2008

Koka Briansky

Below an Incidence from Incidences, by the great Russian absurdist writer Daniil Kharms.

Koka : I am getting married today.
Mother: What?
Koka: I said I am getting married today.
Mother: What did you say?
Mother: Ma? What is ma?
Koka: ma-rr-iage.
Mother: Idge? What is this idge?
Koka: Not idge but ma-rr-iage.
Mother: What do you mean, not idge?
Koka: Yes, not idge, that's all!
Mother: What?
Koka: Yes, not idge. Do you understand! Not idge!
Mother: You are on about that idge again. I don't know
what idge's got to do with it.
Koka: Oh blow you! ma and idge! What's up with you?
Don't you realize yourself that saying just ma is senseless.
Mother: What did you say?
Koka: Ma, I said, is senseless!!
Mother: sle?
Koka: What on earth is all this! How can you possibly
manage to catch only bits of words, and only the most absurd bits at that:
Why sle in particular?
Mother: There you go again.....sle.

Koka Briansky throttles his mother. Enter his fiance Marusia.

I will, hopefully, write in detail about this collection of incidents, stories and other assorted fantastic bits called Incidences in the future.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Every time

Every time I kiss you
after a long separation
I feel
I am putting a hurried love letter
in a red mail box.

Nizar Kabbani, From Love Poems

Monday, March 24, 2008


Imagination and in short everything is possible in the world of Gombrowicz. This collection of short stories, called Bacacay for no reason, is the great writer at his most macabre, best. Described variously as fresh, vigorous, weird, wonderful, seductive, repulsive, alarming and amusing, as you can see, the adjectives that describe this collection convey something that one could expect on reading them. And yet, they do not really describe these stories altogether, for these stories or tales or sketches are actually quite bizarre, outre and to a great degree disconcerting, producing in the reader a certain feeling of being in the vicinity of danger, of having been near something odd, unusual, strange and yet unnameable, indescribable.

Bacacay and Bakakaj in polish is named after a side street where Gombrowicz lived in Buenos Aires, whilst in exile. Thus the stories could be named after anything, after his dog or cat. The carelessly named or so it seems name conveys intrinsically the inner theme of these stories, which is actually nothing. The stories are at once absurd and surreal, impossible and remotely possible at first reading. But, on second thought, it is actually, to myself, quite possible to be in the presence of this malice. One is usually just a few seconds or a few veils away from an absurd thing or a surreal encounter. That it does not usually happen is incomprehensible to me, for I believe that this is not the prerogative of fiction alone. Any absurd encounter or a fantastic narration is not impossible in reality and then, what is reality anyway?

Apart from two stories which are taken from Ferdydurke, the collection contains previously unknown material, this a collection that Gombrowicz burst with on the Polish scene. And he says,
"From the beginning the nonsensical and the absurd were very much to my liking, and I was never more satisfied than when my pen gave birth to some scene that was truly crazy, removed from the healthy expectation of mediocre logic, and yet firmly rooted in its own separate logic. A writer can apply a different method in which reality is reduced to its component parts, after which these parts are used like bricks to construct a new edifice, a new world or microcosm........which ought to be different from the regular world, and yet correspond with it in some way........different but, as the physicists say, adequate".............

Mark the words.........healthy expectation, separate logic and regular world. In fiction, we always want a regularity, a kind of the real world transferred to the pages we read. Yet, it does in no way detract from reality if the absurd or illogical is also part of the reality we encounter, for, in real life, it is only the illogical that abounds. And then, different fictional narratives increase the richness of literature and present to the discerning reader, a confusion of colours. The craziness of these stories or the comicality is in no way different from what all Gombrowicz wrote. In the last year or so, I found the same method in his novels like Cosmos and Pornographia. In fact, strangely, I did not find them strange. Oddly, there is a certain gothic undertone or a detective shade that lurks in his tales, which has always been a certain fondness in my own literary hunts.

One of these stories here concerns a man invited to a vegetarian dinner, with the question of actually having soup made up of a disappeared man in the background. It is at Countess Pavahoke's who later misspells her name as Havapoke. The comical is always near the sinister, while having cauliflower soup, they learn of the disappearance of Valentine Cauliflower, a stable hand! I found all the stories brilliant, with A premeditated crime, Adventures ( a man imprisoned inside a bubble on the floors of seas, later floating in a basket over Chinese faces) and On the kitchen steps outstanding. Of course, you could read the afterword by the brilliant translator Bill Johnston first, but that is not necessary in my opinion. To find out what the stories really mean is a naive exercise, for in their reading alone lies the refuge of those smitten by a certain fever.( Gombrowicz explained what the stories mean)

I would add this book to the collection of strange fictions, written by Borges and to some written by Cortazar. Gombrowicz writes in a prose that is mostly poetry, and the poetry is quite obvious and so easily discernible and has come to him so easy; the poetry is filled with a menace, of the shadow of some old memory, as he says. These stories reflect the encounter of the normal with the the layer just underneath the normal. These stories are the trembling notes of that encounter. I am, against my own will, starting to read a certain kind of strange literature, that written by Alfred Jarry, Cendrars and Schulz. I will, hopefully, in the coming months write about these strange, enticing and miraculous works of literature. All life and all literature is a miracle. The absurd and the macabre are as real as the regular and the simple. And as common.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The same poem, always

Hasn't he tried to write the same poem always?
hasn't he ended up writing the same poem,
Of those dull looking bars and shrill songs
outside dirty fast food joints, of love that sometimes
hangs outside cheap cafes, boys smoking, girls
hanging out till sunset merges into pain.
Always the same refrain, the same words really,
of loneliness, night, exile, the moon, the same
stuff you see, till he runs out of sad words
and usually out of cigarettes, usually.
And never running away, from poetry, from
a certain palpitation, but useless, these poems.
Of course, he does wonder about distances
and the certain melancholy of faded sepia photographs,
and realize that there could have been time
that brings a kind of rhythm, a kind of meeting,
or rather some time that should have,
and yet the incessant love for the song
which she used to hum, and this new hatred too.
And inside the deserted cemetery outside town,
where fugitive lovers used to meet after dark,
he found the same poem, always, after promises
and sunsets were exchanged, and never has he reached
yet the farthest point of poetry, but always the same,
the same poem.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Lean back now

Lean back,
let cigarette ash fall on the dim carpet,
let your eyes roam into the estranged blackness outside.
You can hear violet noises,
the zoom of a speeding car
on the main road outside, perhaps a lover late for a date
or a fugitive from town.
Let not these vague simmerings scatter your thoughts
of love or hate or about those
who die or get killed without justice.
These humane thoughts too are evaporated discontent,
thoughts that will leave you soon
like so many before.
Lean back and read some love poems,
lines written under moonlight, of flowers
in a flowery language, disregard any coercion,
any attempt to be subdued into neoreality,
into the human condition.
These are lies, only words,
and what use are they to people under occupation
under permanent assault, humiliated and ignored?
Go back to your self, release your senses to
some mezcal, throw and shatter that glass later
and ignore the mess that shards leave.

Monday, March 17, 2008

A poem from "Stalker"

Arseni Tarkovsky's Poem from Stalker

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant

Petra Von Kant lives on an island, the island of her apartment, the claustrophobic spaces of her bedroom, in her bed. She is surrounded by herself, she has a huge Angelo like painting on a wall, depicting a nude man among other things and she orders and rules Marlene, her helper, her servant girl, her whipping post. We meet her when she asks Marlene to be considerate, as Petra lies in bed, as Marlene draws the curtain. Each of Petra's moves and actions are slow, deliberate, artistic, dream-like. And Marlene, the worshipper, the sufferer. This is the first act of Fassbinder's great movie, a movie that is not only a celebration of a certain kind of tragedy, but a relentless description of the same. This movie is also a virtuoso act, shot entirely in one room, with long almost real time scenes, mis-en-scene and a fabulous attention to a certain kind of interior decor.

It is soon obvious that Petra and Marlene are locked, with Petra commanding Marlene into anything, Marlene the submissive. Petra's friend Sidonie then drops in. What follows is Petra's relentless deconstruction of her marriages, as she goes into all the sordid details of her two marriages, ending in divorce. Petra looks at the past from her point of view, while Sidonie wants her to look anew. Petra, it seems has been used and abused herself, as there follow descriptions of being mounted by a bull, ending in pain. however, the characteristic definition of those relations is in the desire to control, the interface of relations, the daily tugs of war and the need of lovers to dominate, to own, to possess. Petra has lost effectively what she wanted to own, from her point of view, with herself as the centre. however, she has decided to be free, after loving and losing. This scene later introduces us to Karin, played by Hanna Schygulla. Karin is Sidonie's friend and Petra falls in love with her.

Petra Von Kant has surrendered herself, now she is surrounded by Karin. Karin, it is obvious, reluctantly likes Petra, does not love her. However, Petra obstinately refuses to accept this, and Karin refuses to give in. Karin describes a night of passion with a "black man with a European face" and Petra simmers in jealousy, unable to accept that love can also live with infidelity, only there is no love here. Karin leaves Petra, having used her to climb socially, leaving Karin in a haze of gin, shouting and screaming at Marlene, her young daughter and her mother who have come to celebrate her birthday. The scene is rapt with tragic poetry, Petra lying on the shag carpet, a phone in front, gin besides, waiting like lovers do, disconsolate, unhopeful, hopeful, for that one call, one hello from Karin.

Petra has a final conversion, she "longs for sleep, wants to sleep, for death is quiet". She acknowledges that love can only be love "without demanding". She had hoped for "beautiful" love, with lovers sharing everything, the inner and outer lives, not merely obeying certain codes of behaviour. But, this is not possible, everything is lost. In the last act of this "case history", Petra wants reconciliation with Marlene, a relation on equal terms. Marlene, who has not spoken throughout the movie, refuses that, packs her bags and leaves. Petra gets in bed, turns the lights off, the credits roll.

The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant is a sublime movie, a kind of approach that squeezes the hypocrisy out, that leaves little scope for affectation. It is so relentless in its dissection of relations and love, so minute in its observations of struggle between people, power issues and yes, class distinctions too. Petra's sadomasochistic relation with Marlene, her weak position with Karin, her rejection of her daughter, her disdain for her mother are ample demonstrations of power schemes, affectations, so-called love and so much hate between people. The final act, when Marlene rejects an equal relation with Petra is her final rejection, leaving her completely marooned in her bed, surrounded by nothing.

From a pure cinematic perspective, I thought this movie is ravishing, ravishing because it makes out of her bed, from her shag carpet, ash-tray, gin, Marlene and her idiosyncratic dresses, and her nude man on the wall, a possibility, a world that other directors would have struggled with in a thousand different sets. There being only one room, the claustrophobic court room style deposition of Petra, her constant melancholy, Marlene's silence, Karin's greed enhance the ardour, the passion of those walls and the space limiting narrowness of those relations.
When Petra is lying on her bed, listening to a song and Karin, eyes closed dances nimbly with Marlene typing away, that scene, that image is truly one that is unforgettable and depicts the utter isolation of everyone there.

Petra Von Kant is a true tragic figure, for she suffers the real classical tragedy and this movie portrays what love can mean, what sexual power is and how it can be manipulated. It doesn't just depict lesbian love but bi-sexual love and there are no men in this movie. They have been left behind or they are in the periphery. Importantly, while Petra has loved, she has had no emotional resonance with her lovers. That is the most important issue Fassbinder conveys.
It is not just a great movie, it is an astonishing movie, with visuals on a grand scale. It is epic and colossal and the performances of Karin, Marlene (Irm Hermann) and Petra ( Margaret Carstensen, in a performance of sustained brilliance) are all brilliant. Marlene with her quiet menace, Karin with her naked need and Petra, the tragic woman, lying, sitting, standing, wax like, human, and not ever detestable, crying occasionally, tears visible and bitter.

Friday, March 14, 2008

To say I Love you

To say I love you
to a dark stranger with hair nonchalantly messed,
stranger with trembling lips and with aching hands,
aching hands that hold an invisible arrow,
to see and lie in the shade, in the shade of her shadow,
to see your shadow fall near her shadow,
trespass with stealth with the discreet brown of her eyes
the pale white of her eyes, sometimes with the ache of her hands,
to see her shine and multiply in mirrors,
and throw away the tearing resolve of your poem,
the uncertain beat of your poem,
the uncorrected rhythm of your poem,
to recite it against all odds,
to let this poem fly, fly against the poem in her eyes,
the famous steel in her eyes,
to hope then for calm, for a forced approval
from her lips, from the night of her lips,
the unending dream of those lips,
to recede away and melt then, and invite her into
your dreams, the fugitive scream of your dreams,
the unending poem in your dreams,
to wake up then unclouded, into the azure of
your room, into the torn page from the book,
the scribbled poem from the book.
Stranger of a certain fame, I only wanted to say,
I love you.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

On Despair

"You can't talk about the meaning of life without using phony words. Imprecise ones. But there aren't any others. If there is anything, it's movement. At some point a solar system got established, which doesn't move anymore because it moves according to laws. To get it moving, something has to come along and smash things. That's why human beings were invented. But that wasn't part of a plan. We are no longer allowed to say: We are here to..........The plan of the powerful takes part of our causal thinking, which is always intent on setting up value systems, creating meaning. All history, all mythologies grow out of this notion of planned chains of causality...........But we just stand around, the creator of values. That's what we are here for. We are not capable of accepting the opposite of things as they are. So we are nowhere near freedom. We won't become free unless we accept destruction the same way we accept the ordered solar system, which makes for our paralysis...........I am not talking about intellectual knowledge, but about the physical certainty in everything the individual does. The possibility of understanding this is withheld from him for a long time, and he experiences it physically only much later.If the certainty that he had to die became physically palpable for the individual early on, he would lose the existential pains.........hatred, envy, jealousy. No more fears. Our relations are cruel games we play with each other because we don't recognize our end as something positive. It's positive because it's real. The end is life in concrete form. The body must understand death..............
Destruction isn't the opposite of what exists. Destruction is when this concept no longer exists, when it doesn't have any meaning anymore, when it has a reality that makes it disappear. What people invent then.........that would be exciting".

Fassbinder, 1977

Monday, March 10, 2008

What music is

Music is what exists at the margins of the desert and the sky, near fires that burn alongside melancholy and a few hazy stars; music that exists just where midnight begins and the dust of the previous day gets heavy; music, the kind that you hear surreptitiously, outside well and badly lit bars, near the city's edge, where badly dressed students merge with sharp faced girls, that sort of music, that sort of night, that is music.

Music, the kind that is neither well known nor nameable, that shapes how childhood passes into agitated youth, when all that unrequited love brought was clamouring heartache and all that requited nights gave was an impassable yearning for the past; music, the sort that existed when rebellious soldiers ran away with willing horses and damsels in tears, at the last remaining margins of a few pitched tents in a desert strewn with youth and love; that sort of music, that kind of memory.

Music, the kind that obliterates all colour, leaving a few people with empty glasses and clouds of smoke amidst the fading embers of a few nights trespassed; music that has a bit of anger and some weariness, a bit of love and mostly heartbreak, sad and beautiful words; music that somehow ventures into the impossible after all possible has been shaken, when promises and lies seem the same, when only melancholy seems worthwhile, that hope, that kind of feeling, that is music.

Music is a kind of attitude, a kind of emotion. After the most awesome love and the least regarded nightfall have merged and gone, defeated and packed away into the list of oblivious nights; in the shimmering solitude of that moment, in the blistering haze of that hour, what you hear, what I just said, is music.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

On thinking Contrapuntally

No one today is purely one thing. Labels like Indian, or woman, or Muslim, or American are no more than starting points, which if followed into actual experience for only a moment are quickly left behind. Imperialism consolidated the mixture of cultures and identities on a global scale. But its worst and most paradoxical gift was to allow people to believe that they were only, mainly, exclusively, white or black, or Western, or Oriental. Yet just as human beings make their own history, they also make their own cultures and ethnic identities. No one can deny the persisting continuities of long traditions, sustained habitations, national languages, and cultural geographies, but there seems no reason except fear and prejudice to keep insisting on their separation and distinctiveness, as if that was all human life was about. Survival in fact is about the connection between things; in Eliot's phrase, reality cannot be deprived of the "other echoes that inhabit the garden". It is more rewarding....and more think concretely and sympathetically, contrapuntally, about others than only about "us". But this also means not trying to rule others, not trying to classify them or put them in hierarchies, above all, not constantly reiterating how "our" culture or country is number one( or not number one, for that matter). For the intellectual there is quite enough of value to do without that.

Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism

Friday, March 07, 2008

Brodsky's Flight from Byzantium

Brodsky's essay Flight from Byzantium is the record of a double flight, the flight of Western Christianity towards Rome and his own from Istanbul towards Greece, towards the west. However, he wrote this essay in Greece, after he his flight and I am attempting here to read quite critically this essay, quoting when needed from him, an essay that is an example of lurid polemics but well written, very slick, as his prose usually is but flawed, given in to the same cliched generalisations, that polemical orientalism, a fascinating myopia, a self- love bordering on narcissism.

Brodsky suggests that his essay be read with "a measure of skepticism, if not with total disbelief". With his method, he has tried to achieve "a semblance of objectivity" towards his subject, a description of his planned journey to Istanbul. However, the "desire" to get there was "never genuine". He gives a few flimsy reasons to go there, one quite ludicrous, one funny and the chief reason being to witness that city, that place which Constantine had captured and established, with a cross that bore the legend, "In this sign conquer". Brodsky writes in his hotel room in Greece, feeling "feverish from what I have seen". He blames his subsequent incoherence on what he has seen, not on himself. He has a nightmare, which naturally follows his visit to Istanbul. Then the usual lament about "crooked, filthy streets, piled with refuse, reminding him of "Astrakhan and Samarkand". Istanbul has "polluted one's subconscious" ( I daresay one that he has acquired from Freud)

Then follows a vivid but somehow uncertain thesis about Constantine's real reasons in annexing Constantinople, whether he was really a "good christian or a zealous believer" or conquered only for the sake of doing so. He reminds us of Constantine's genetic code and the fact that his nephew, Julian was an apostate. However, Constantine was a man of action but his drive Eastwards was guided by the East's political its despotism without any experience of democracy". Constantine "wasn't a westerner, except in his adminstrative designation". With new emperors, they got further away from Rome, and called themselves Roman, "like the varied dominions of the British empire might call themselves".

Brodsky the typical traveller eastwards, witnessing "the delirium and horror of the east". In the next few sentences, he goes in for total demolition, calling the whole of Asia "a dusty catastrophe, green only on the banner of the prophet. Nothing grows here except mustaches, bonfire embers doused with urine. No, this is not racism", he says. He points out only the facts. "The local population is in a state of total stupor. Dust in Istanbul is no ordinary dust". Brodsky finds it "agitated dirt, incapable of finding its own place". So too with rain. Then he goes on to compare the "boxes of shoe-shiners with mosques without minarets", and says that "everywhere in the east, there are a vast number of shoe shiners of all ages. Istanbul is a place where traffic lights have gone haywire, not red-amber-green but white-amber-brown. Everything is dated here, the drivers rarely speak English. He adds later that in the east, "the nearer you get to your goal, the more obscure becomes the means of its attainment". In Topkapi, on seeing the impress of the prophet's footprint, he "shudders: yeti!"

Christianity succeeded in Byzantium because it "provided an end that justified the means, absolving man of individual responsibilty, with its metastasis in the psychology of man the settler". Brodsky concedes that Christianity came from the east. But he is "alarmed and amused" as he realizes that the east is the metaphysical centre of the world, with Christianity only one of the numerous faiths. "The west offered nothing but was a consumer and thus it must be approached with tenderness as it has offered excessive rationality". Then follows an incomprehensible assessment about polytheism ending in the assertion that "the modern democratic state is the historical triumph of idolatry over Christianity". By divorcing Byzantium, "Western Christianity consigned the east to nonexistence".

Brodsky assesses Byzantium, declaring it to be "remote from the western ideals of neoplatonism, lack of platonic dialogues". Socrates would have been "impaled on the spot in Isfahan or Baghdad". "The east was only capable of the monologue of the Koran". Byzantine Christianity was Orientalized, and all is Christian practices and theology came out of an "inferiority complex". Then comes Islam, with its" anti-individualism", that is welcome to Byzantine soil. Byzantine soil was "favourable to Islam"not because of any inherent merit in Islam but because of Byzantine "ethnic texture", without any coherent tradition of individualism. "East means obedience, trade, profit and adaptability, alien to moral absolutes, driven on by the idea of kinship, of family. the east is incapable of a semblance of democracy". And he speaks of the Byzantium before the Turkish domination, of Constantine, Justinian, Theodora, of Christian Byzantium "anyway".

Anti-individualism, he argues lamely," is only eastern". A man who kills others in a frenzied fit in the west will be treated in a mental institution but his behaviour is no different from that of Byzantine murderers or of the "Iranian Imam butchering tens of thousands of his subjects in order to confirm his version of the will of the prophet". This is a result of the "common denominator" being an anti-individualism that is Eastern. Which Imam does Brodsky refer to? But Brodsky calmly ignores every other massacre in his own land that wasn't specifically aimed at the Russians but at the hapless inheritors of Byzantine ethnicity.

Brodsky praises the mosques of Samarkand and Khiva, declaring them as "masterpieces of scale and color, witness to the lyricism of Islam" but Byzantine or Istanbul mosques are "Islam triumphant", comparing them to "toads in frozen stone, unable to stir". The thin minarets are like "hands reaching for a camera, a spy spotting a military installation. they are menacing, galactic, hermetic, shell-like, eerie". He blames this architecture on the Hagia Sophia, as that cathedral turned mosque set the tone for further architectural wonders. Thus, the menace of the mosques owes not only to the victorious Turks but to byzantine architecture itself. Brodsky laments the conversion of "our hagia sophia" into a mosque though he had earlier felt no compunction in consigning Byzantium to Islam. By converting it into a mosque, the Turks have "reaffirmed that everything in this life intertwines......and everything is a pattern in a carpet".

In a passage of blindness, Brodsky says that "the unit of eastern ornamentation is the sentence, the word, the letter". He goes on to prove the superiority of the Grecian urn, "superior than a pattern in a carpet". He quickly retracts what he had said earlier, "now the carpet and one's own foot included are left behind".But wait, he has foreseen objections, he is aware of Indian and Chinese vases as natty as the Greek, but even if these predated Islamic figurative culture, the Grecian urn is the product of solitary activity, of individualism, of rationality and it is this that, "Constantine walked away from. To the carpet."

This essay is an adjectival insistence on arrogant un-understanding, lumping together civilizations of the East, all in one mix, a mix of ignorance and unending masses. Brodsky's East is just one lump and Islam sadly seems to represent all things eastern in his mind. Everything unimaginative is eastern, from thought to thinking, from dust to great rain, from dark skin and long locks to fatalism and melancholy. One does not need to be a great literary critic to see the inherent prejudice veiled behind a few melancholic observations, a few unassuming lines on time and climate and weather. The arrogant dismissal of any subjectivity is made quite clear in the beginning of this essay, an essay that essays all the dust and rain of the east to the ethnic texture of the soil. There is politics here which I admire but no philosophy because the facts are jumbled, based on some civilizational supremacist argument, one that lacks coherence.

Brodsky's Iranian Imam is mentioned but no mention is made of the pillage and plunder of central Asian lands, their demographic destruction. Even though the russian state is not spared, but it is only because of the sickle and hammer, not because there are some byzantine coils in the russian genetic code, though Katorga ( forced labour) is a turkish word too, not just Russian and perhaps this too has crept in from the East. Brodsky does not denounce or mention the holocaust or attribute it to any remaining Byzantine influence in the West ( Brodsky was Jewish) but surely any real individualism should have prevented 60 million people from being displaced or killed or wounded during the second war.

Against anti-individualism, Brodsky opines rightly, neither wall nor sea offer protection. Russia witnessed what is known to all, state terror and totalitarianism but which was born out of a specific Western debate, atmosphere and environment and not because of the dust in Brodsky's nostrils. Dirty filthy streets everywhere in the east.....I haven't been but Astrakhan and Stalinabad are not the same, the former subdued, the latter subduing, Samarkand mosques are melancholic because of their stranglehold and Istanbul mosques are triumphant! Brodsky ends his essay on a note of defiance, initially having said that he too had a whiff of the Eastern in his attitude towards people, as he had lumbered them all. But, "if you cannot show your detestation of the past or present, you can at least smile in contempt".

This essay is so readable like all Brodsky. I chose this to illustrate a point, which is that no civilizational or ethnic predisposition can be made responsible for the ills we face, either historically or at present. Our history is made up of tides but our should mean the whole of humanity and not just certain areas or people. Brodsky seems to be the forerunner of those modern embedded intellectuals who are building a paranoia against Byzantine ethnicity or Eastern carpets, clamouring for wars on the basis of religion and colour and languages. He is clearly not wanting war but there are gleams of lesser writers like Hitchens and Amiss here, those polemical mouthpieces of neo conservative desperation, those that bind native soil to ignorance. Such writing usually stems from ignorance ( consider Brodsky's ignorance of philosophical concepts, exaggerated realism and neoplatonism in Islam once) but this is a reminder of our own prejudices too. My dismay is at his total dismissal of the East, as if his arrogant disregard for Byzantium and Islam was not enough. His reactions are knee jerk at times but the east is far superior than Byzantium on the whole and anti-individualism is not born of any exclusive Eastern malady.

All in all, an essay worth reading from a collection that includes some great essays, including one on Akhmatova.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

A Life full of Holes

Since there are many ways of reading a novel or into one and since no one way is superior to the other but contingent on one's dominant mood, Larbi Layachi's ( Driss Ben Hamed Charhadi), A life full of Holes is one of those novels that is open and closed at the same time and yet, since it is so simple and well written, it too is open to multiple readings. However, from the point of reading a straight forward story, it has few equals. And that is being honest. Translated by Paul Bowles, dictated into a tape recorder and thus invented by both, this novel is an example of a story par excellence, narrated with patience and that in born art of a true story teller and translated from classical Arabic into an English prose of sublime simplicity, perhaps matching the humility of the narrator and the oblivion of the protagonist.

This novel happened while Bowles lived in Tangier's. Layachi used to meet him quite often and as Bowles tells us, he had the naive or wise understanding that cinema or novels are basically lies told or shown in a stylish manner. Layachi decided to narrate his story ( is it autobiographical?) and as Bowles says, "he never hesitated; he never varied the intensity of his eloquence......Nothing needed to be added, deleted, or altered". In many ways, this is an unusual novel, for while it is so apparently simple, narrating only a tale or story, I thought it is actually quite complex. I did not go in search of complexity in this novel, I thought the story in itself should be enough ( I was in the mood to read a yarn, a story but I ended up reading more than that, and I discovered it through this marvellous blog here ) to convey something beyond a tape recorder, transcription and translation.

Ahmed is an orphan and his mother has remarried, a man Ahmed describes as my mother's husband. They are quite poor and have moved to the Tetuoan-Tangier area. Ahmed is only eight years old when the novel begins. From then on, in the first person, Ahmed tells us the story of his life. It is basically a narration that involves Ahmed trying to find, in one way or another, a job or a way to earn something. His step dad is harsh seemingly and does not like his laziness, and each job that Ahmed takes ends in one way or the other.......he is thus a shepherd and a sheep gets lost or a baker's boy or a waiter in a cafe in tangier. He changes one job after the other, he is forced to and each time he returns home, miserable and tired. The next day sees him off again, in search of something new. These travails find him smuggling kif and Ahmed ends up in prison. from prison to his favourite cafe, back to prison, Ahmed never finds his vocation. At last, Mustapha, a friend, employs him as a watchman on his beach side cafe.

Ahmed is seemingly content for a while till he falls in love with Zohra, a local girl. Rejected by her parents and rejected again the next time, Ahmed vows celibacy. The cafe work draws to an end and he finds suitable employment as a handyman with a young gay couple. They treat him well but soon one of them takes an Arab lover, who starts abusing their trust. Business suffers and one of them returns home and the other devotes himself entirely to his lover Omar. Ahmed finds the new arrangement unfair to his employer, unsettling to himself and thus disillusioned, makes his way to Mustapha's cafe in the city. The novel ends where it began, Ahmed is jobless and penniless, only he is older now, has served two prison spells, has smoked a lot of kif, has loved and lost and as he says, "the stork has to wait for a long time for the locusts to come. Then he eats".

I think this is a marvellous novel, told with compassion and wit, with an eye on economy and with the natural story tellers flair of the unimportant and the needed. the story flows, it has its own inner dynamic, it resolves of its own, it settles down smoothly, we need a little adjustment to its tone and once done, we sail with Ahmed or rather, we walk with him. the translation has an equal genius, it has a cadence rooted in economy again, it matches the Maghrebi Arabic of Layachi, it scores on every point. Most of this novel is brilliantly written and there is hardly any bit that is boring. It has a hypnotizing hold on the reader and a compulsive need to see it right through takes over oneself.

Ahmed is a young man who is always hungry and always disappointed. He grows up in poverty, he only knows poverty. He wants something different and yet he lacks the educational skills to be different. He is aware of his limitations, his class, his upbringing and the inherent backwardness of his people. this is the time of transition in morocco and it is going to be free soon. There are Spanish and French soldiers on the move, there is no rule of law and Ahmed is yearning for his own security. Each new venture brings him sorrow, his experiences in the prison are horrific, he drinks water from the latrines, he is humiliated and abused, beaten and tortured and yet each reprieve finds him optimistic. He never complains, he does not think of complaining, it is not a part of his nature. it was unheard of for a colonized man then to have had the temerity to complain for a just treatment. It seems the beach and the sun were enough gifts within themselves, they were free.

Within this narrative, Ahmed tells us that he must celebrate his country's freedom by smoking kif for three days. He visits whorehouses, he borrows his stepbrother's clothes, he drinks tea, he has coffee with milk. Ahmed is not inherently concerned with the political situation around him. He is worried about his own situation, about Zohra, about wearing new clothes, about tomorrow. Ahmed is not an anti-hero, he always submits. He is grateful for whatever happens. Allah- ihhenik, he says. Inc ha- Allah, maybe tomorrow I find a job. Ahmed is quite fatalistic, he believes in written destinies, incontrovertible truths and yet, he never prays outwardly. He lives solo, he loves in secret, his inner life is thus inherently richer than his outward one. He talks with his employers, Francois and Marcel, about life, the world. He has seen a few things, he is not altogether uncouth.

Ahmed's situation must also be analyzed from his situation. Thus, this story can only be that of a Maghrebi man, a place that for the Arabs and the original Berbers, is still the farthest corner of the Arab world, the most western. It is also understandable as to how so many artists found refuge in Morocco, particularly Tangier's in the last fifty years or so, in the transitional period from colonised countries to relatively free ones. The Maghreb has, to some extent, had its own inherent response to Arabization and then colonisation, and the blatant homosexuality of its devotees, like Jean Genet or at present, Juan Goytisolo has never raised an eyebrow, in what is still predominantly a conservative culture. Ahmed, the poor boy and aspiring man is moving in the fringes of this society. When he discovers Francois sleeping with Omar, he is neither shocked nor puzzled nor even bothered. It is not my life, he thinks.

The reality of the encounter between the colonised-coloniser can be gleaned from this novel. Ahmed has no illusions about his own worth, he knows the apparent superiority of the coloniser, he does not grudge him, he wants equal treatment though. He pleads for his money when Francois is himself broke, but he never begs. Ahmed has inborn Sisyphean qualities, he struggles and then departs, keeping faith in a better tomorrow. And a similiar encounter takes place everywhere in this world, between the weak and the strong, only there are some people strong enough to remember and transcribe the stories of those weak people who cannot remember, because they are destined for total oblivion. Bowles has translated Layachi, he also translated Mrabet and Choukri, he is the sympathetic foreigner turned somehow native.

"I went along, walking, walking", Ahmed says and towards the end, "today and tomorrow, today and tomorrow ," Ahmed keeps on walking and walking. Says Ahmed, "Even a life full of holes, a life of nothing but waiting, is better than no life at all. An empty sack is better than no sack at all". Told with simplicity and honesty, this story and this novel is truly a classic and representative of a people and life that was marginalized by colonization. Whether such lives have actually changed in the post colonial era or have become better is open to all. In North African fiction, particularly of Tahar Ben Jelloun, the evidence is otherwise. But one can only hope, today and tomorrow.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Nazi literature in the Americas

Published as an English translation by New Directions just a few weeks ago, Roberto Bolano's Nazi literature in the Americas ( translated by the effervescent Chris Andrews) can only be described as a tour de force, a feat of imagination. It stands alone as one of its kind. It will remain so. The pace of this novel and the guttural thrust of its prose forces the reader to read it as quickly as the words dart off the pages, sinking later, virtually, into our skin, leaving one exhausted by the brilliant sheen of its virtuosity. This novel is a magical literary exercise and for those already familiar with Bolano, a reminder of his genius, flair and verve.

Published as Historia de la literatura Nazi en America, this is actually a breezy history of fascist writers and their literary works, exclusively of the American continents. However, all of the writers are imaginary and all works mentioned fictional. All the writers mentioned including their works are constructed, brought to us with a style and panache that blurs the line between the real and the virtual. Divided into various sections on the basis of genre, it traces the desperate lives of those mentioned, lives of aspiring novelists, poets, philosophers and essayists, entries ranging from a few pages to a para to just a few lines. Most of the writers have espoused deviant and notorious paths to personal and literary fame, some with extreme right wing ideologies, ranging from the outright messianic to racist to futuristic extravaganzas of imagination. Nowhere does the holocaust come into consideration nor is it the main aim. Some writers have been personally cuddled by Hitler, but the title of the novel is misleading.

As is often the case in his previous works, Bolano maintains a distance from the writers, sketching their lives with an ease that seems nonchalant. But, this is only an outer veneer. The intention is to parody or satirize these tiny literary people, lost now to the world but in the process, even though their weak and sometimes shallow romanticism is exposed along with their changing political and literary affiliations, the dominant feeling is that we are reading elegies, a series of them, a train of restlessness, for that is in essence what these short biographies are. Bolano paints a picture of desperation, for life is always desperate and these lives more so. They might have been supremacist or wicked, for that too is constructed on myths and rumour, but the emotions they had were mostly open and sometimes clandestine. As John Brenkman writes "The reductive force of summary after summary starts to have an effect that transcends the satire; the book begins to convey a sense of the vanity of human endeavor and the ease with which a lifetime's work might be flicked into oblivion by a witty remark".

One can see clearly that this work is a forerunner of The savage detectives, in which an incredible number of writers and poets danced macabre. As was the case there, the lives of the writers here are, as we see them, burning and bright with funereal flares, are mostly lived at the edges, in anonymity or in chase of glory, and after a few luminous and brief flickers, they disappear into anonymity. These writers might be strange and psychopathic, deviant and chained to strange fantasies, yet they latch on to their world with words and books, armed with poems, publishing often extravagant and sometimes bizarre works, and rarely that one exquisite poem, that one knife that plunges home. And their lives are brought to an end with the force of violence, like something crashing in front of us, abruptly, ending disconsolately, without tears, sometimes rebellious, often without defiance, sad, haunting and melancholic.

The contents of this novel are divided into various sections, named variously as Itinerant heroes or the fragility of mirrors; Magicians, mercenaries and miserable characters; The Aryan brotherhood being one of the many. The book ends with a fabulous section called Epilogue for monsters......devoted to secondary literary figures, publishing houses and with a complete bibliography of the various works mentioned. Each chapter ends rather abruptly, like the writers themselves dying suddenly or having taken their own lives, or growing old in obscure towns and now devoted to odd jobs, selling odd things or working at garages. I will mention a few vivid examples:

"Death took him by surprise seven years later in his comfortable apartment, as he listened to a record by the Argentinian composer Tito Vasquez, and looked out of the window at night falling over the city, passing cars, people chatting on the sidewalks, lights coming on and going out, and windows being closed". Or this:

"In Africa he found what he had been looking for: the fitting repository for his soul. He never returned to Chile. He spent the rest of his life working as a photographer and as a guide for German tourists".

Humour is a device that runs throughout these pages. It is mostly dark and often macabre and conveys a sense of decay and ennui. It mocks and derides and as the writers sometimes cry and whimper, we are rushed into their secret fantasies, amazed at their lack of fatigue. The section called Epilogue to monsters is an example of vivid invention but not entirely unique. However, the uniqueness is in the poetic brevity of these entries, with death and oblivion conveyed in a few lines only. Some examples:

Duchess of Bahamontes. Cordoba, 1893-1957. "Duchess and Cordoban. Her platonic lovers numbered in the hundreds. Urinary problems and anorgasmia. A fine gardener in her old age.
Arthur Crane. New Orleans, 1947-Los Angeles 1989. Poet. Author of a number of important books, including Homosexual Heaven and Disciplining Children. He indulged in suicidal tendencies by frequenting the underworld and hanging out with lowlifes. Others smoke three packs of cigarettes a day".
Otto Haushofer, 1871-Berlin, 1945."Nazi philosopher. Godfather of Lux Mendiluce and father of various harebrained theories: hollow earth, solid universe, original civilizations, the interplanetary Aryan tribe. He committed suicide after being raped by three drunk Uzbek soldiers".
Augusto Zamora. San Luis Potosi, 1919-Mexico City, 1969. "Known as a social-realist author, although he wrote surrealist poems in secret. For more than twenty years he fooled his colleagues into believing that he could speak Russian. He saw the light in 1968, in a cell in the Lecumberri prison. He died in the street of a heart attack a month after being released".

Two chapters, one called The Fabulous Schiaffino Boys ( here) and the Infamous Ramirez Hoffman are mini masterpieces in themselves. The former traces the lives of two infamous soccer fanatics, and the latter that of a pilot, in whose death Bolano is complicit. This is Bolano speaking of the hypocrisy that he so well depicted in By night in Chile. As Ramirez's killer tells Bolano, to find a poet, "I need the help of another poet. How much are you going to pay me?" and when the man is dispatched, the killer says, "look after yourself Bolano". The narrator of By night in Chile was complicit and guilty, part establishment, priest, writer and yet deaf to the tortures of a military dictatorship. As Bolano clearly pointed out, how can one even write when people are being murdered, disappearing and yet, even if one writes, how can one endure the hypocrisy of being silent...............

The life of Irma Carrasco, described as a woman of letters, inclined to mysticism and tormented phraseology, is Bolano of the savage detectives. After many vicissitudes, even after being a devoted wife, her husband Barreda has left her for a younger woman. He is back for a last hello and Irma receives him in her lounge. The scene and their last conversation is literally brilliant, with pathos and sentiment keenly balanced and an eye for dialogue without letting us forget the occasional melodrama of the situation, as Barreda drinks Tequila and Irma drinks rompope. The end is a disaster, he walks out, Irma cries, "deaf to everything but her own voice softly repeating an invitation or an exorcism or a poem, the flayed part of a poem, shorter than any of Tablada's haikus, her only experimental poem, in a manner of speaking". We are reminded that "there were to be no more poems or little glasses of rompope, nothing but a religious, sepulchral silence until her death".

Quite often, the enthusiastic reader goes overboard in praise and exaggerates the merit of the written word. We often get embroiled in cliches, claiming so and so as masterpieces. Nazi literature is a genuine masterpiece, dazzling fireworks, literary acrobatics, concise mastery, prose poetry sublime, a hell, a literary heaven. The lives littering the pages of this book might look outwardly strange and their written works deliriously titled, yet they are all possible or plausible. Bolano lived, by his own account, a savage life. Did he know he would become famous one day? The lives he has documented in book after book are in many ways the story of not one generation but many, not one nation but so many and not of one language alone but of each one perhaps. As I said earlier, the title of this novel is misleading, for the lives and writers and their books are as he writes rhapsodized in bars, on streets, in dungeons, in prisons, across borders, in exile, perfected inside hearts and sung on lips, and then lost in that transit from pen to paper.

Maybe, for the uninitiated, this might be the wrong Bolano to begin with. That said, it should be read by everyone, for whom literature and literary lives hold an enigmatic and tight hold. In fictive fugitive fiction of this kind, poetry leaps like a moth before the very flames that will eventually singe it to death. Oblivion in death, poetry before oblivion, what more do we want?

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Umberto D.

"Is one a romantic to like neorealism?"
The polizia have driven a crowd of old agitating pensioners away from a Roman square into the nearby streets and alleys. One of the agitators is Umberto Domenico Ferrari and his dog, and we are thus introduced to Umberto, a dignified but tired looked elderly man, who it is apparent, is poor, is struggling and wants a hike in pension in the boom of post war Italy. These are the first images of Umberto D, Vittorio De Sica's generally regarded classic, a masterpiece of neorealismo.

Umberto and Flike return to his rented room, but things are getting ugly. He owes money to the buxom and loud and socially conscious landlady, who threatens eviction. He must do something, he must sell his watch, his books. And yet, the landlady won't relent, she wants everything or nothing. A minor illness allows him refuge in a hospital for a few days to save rent and when he is back, the room is no longer his. Flike too has wandered off and he must be saved. Flike is safe in a pound, but now desperate measures must be taken. Umberto is too soft to abandon Flike, he loves the dog. he contemplates suicide but thinks of his dog. And when Umberto contemplates jumping along with Flike in front of a train, Flike runs away. After persuasion, Flike's faith in his master is restored and we watch them running away from us, Flike gallivanting, happy and the end credits roll on.

That is just a brief precis. This movie is not the usual form of social protest, a kind of umbrage against class differences but a moving portrayal of the systematic degradation of a dignified and a lonely man. Thus, the movie is in consonance with its primary aim, which is to show the decent into quiet and then impulsive desperation of this man, who perhaps might also be proud. But pride or an inability to beg must not take anything away from Umberto, for after all, some people are not capable of begging. Umberto is hounded into thinking of suicide, driven to desperation, forced into abandoning Flike just because he cannot pay his rent and because he does not have enough pension. he is not alone, there are many like him. He represents the many though he is alone. However, we do not know enough about him after watching the movie, who is he, does he have a family, has he been abandoned himself, why is he so alone?

Yet, there are class distinctions here. Umberto is close in a peculiar way to Maria, the landlady's maid. She allows him to borrow a thermometer and sneaks in a piece of cake. Maria is pregnant, she is young, she is affectionate, she too is poor but is sympathetic towards Umberto and takes care of Flike. But the landlady's visitors look stiff, his fiance haughty, they are conscious of something, of their superiority, which, it is apparent is not intellectual. they are part of that bourgeois nausea, that ungainly disease. In such circumstances, like follows like and yet, Umberto seems to be in a different class than maria, but both are wretched in their own ways. Umberto is willing to give his all for Flike's upkeep, he does not lose dignity at all, he suffers but does not lose the will to try.

This movie has been criticised by critics for sentimentality, for chaplineseque characterisation though some have praised it just for those reasons. in other words, if a tear jerker in the realist tradition is maudlin to an extent, then it is no good at all! In his great essay on this movie, Stuart Klawans, quotes I.A. Richards who once remarked that "you could characterize an era of history according to a certain choice between anxieties: Were people more worried about being thought sentimental, or stupid?" There are differences between sentimentality and sentiments, between kitsch Hollywood nausea and a bare realistic picture and then, it is the viewer's choice to cry or weep or come out unhurt. As for chaplinesque, most Chaplin characters are extremely stubborn, and as Dan schneider points out, very resilient. Umberto is too tired, old, defeated and lost. The rage has softened, poverty has dragged him into a hospital to feign illness, he thinks of begging, he must think of suicide.

There is a certain kind of melodrama or sentimentality that makes the viewer forget the origins or the real causes of that state but not here. Here, the sentiments are not in motion but in confusion, in constant contemplation, for the artist, here De Sica, has not aimed to jerk our tears but to show us realistically, how it is possible to be demeaned, to be dehumanised and yet, even in the end, retain a bit of farcical dignity. This is not possible in Hollywood, where lumps of nausea are thrown at the viewer, till everything drowns in the cacophony of unholy tears. But I say this only to allude to the realistic portrayal of a situation, which, if contemplated realistically, is horrendous because it is incurable. The movie ends on a good note, Umberto and flick reconciled but where are they going? As they fade away and children run into the park and hide them, one must surely think of the uncertainty of uncertainty.

The performances by the unprofessional cast are first rate and I think there are many parallels to Ikiru though I liked this movie more. There are so many Umberto's and I presume to think of many Flike's. The situation will never change, Umberto will, under the moonlight and against the screeching wail of the commuter train think of suicide. I hope he will change his mind again and I hope Flike will not forget his master.

In answer to the question posed by a friend at the top, I say, yes, only romanticism can lead to any sense of realism, and from there, justice and then poetry.