Friday, 15 January 2016

Muriel Barbery: cats, philosophy, and still life

Full title: The Elegance of the Hedgehog
Author: Muriel Barbery, translated by Alison Anderson
Genre: Novel
Attributes: 325 pages, paperback
Publisher: Europa Editions (2008)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

Read The Elegance of the Hedgehog and you’ll find yourself in the proximity of a writer who’s got a score to settle first with the knowledge industry, and then with life in general.
In the tone of intelligent social satire and with the lexical swipe of a philosophical treatise gone mainstream, the novel has been an enormous success ever since its first French print, in 2006 (Gallimard). Even parts where the prose goes hardcore-existentialist, pondering the likes of Edmund Husserl, appear to have found good acceptance among the cohorts of readers whose diversity can only be vaguely surmised.
The novel has an ease about it in regards to the inclusion of serious, philosophically pertinent, critically astute, commentaries on cultural demeanors of the modern world. Barbery, former teacher of philosophy and so utterly at home with at least the general aspects of twentieth-century critical thinking, leaves numerous clues in the novel as to her inclinations. One might find traces of Jean Baudrillard, for instance, in her treatment of the issue of house pets. Baudrillard, who drew clear lines between tamed animals of the household type and inanimate objects, classified both in his “System of Collecting,” and went as far as to say that “pets are a category midway between persons and objects.”
In Barbery’s novel, where cats feature prominently, the issue of sentimental attachment leaves no doubts as to its role in the creation of the modern pet. Renée Michel, concierge in a Parisian apartment building, has always named her cats after Tolstoy characters. Monsieur Kakuro Ozu, the rich Japanese tenant whose move into the building changes the course of the other characters’ lives, also calls his cats Kitty and Levin – no-brainer references to Anna Karenina. These onomastic sports indicate precisely the sentimental connotations of the modern humans’ relationship to their pets. Renée’s philosophy is, for this reason, very precisely Baudrillard-inspired. Proof:
“The only purpose of cats is that they constitute mobile decorative objects, a concept which I find intellectually interesting,”
says the concierge; and a little further in the text she continues:
“I concede that the difference between the vacuum cleaner and the cats is that a cat can experience pain and pleasure. But does that mean it has a great ability to communicate with humans? Not at all. That should simply incite us to take special precautions with them as we would with very fragile objects.”
The precaution mentioned here is, of course, not unlike that feeling of existential embarrassment discussed by another French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, who found a way of talking about continental philosophy by means of an incident in which his cat watched him emerging naked from the bathroom.
But to get back to The Elegance of the Hedgehog, what is immediately noticeable, I’m sure, is the way the afore-mentioned character (one of the two protagonists sharing the dual-narrative pattern of the novel) speaks. She is intelligent beyond affectation and interested in things of the world only insofar as they serve good, hearty reflection. In other words, Renée does not sound at all like a concierge. And that’s precisely the point. Barbery, with her thinly vailed agenda of satirizing artificially engendered brainpower, has two autodidacts as the main speakers in the novel. A concierge all her life, Renée has found her way of learning freely by hiding behind the social conventions that make her invisible to the bourgeois sycophants. There, she’s always been free to muse about the shortcomings of the world, while at the same time enjoying the pleasures of serious reflection. The other protagonist, the young Paloma Josse, comes from a different class order but shares with Renée the same feeling that the world is not her match. Unlike Renée, she is thinking of suicide. A precocious child, at less than twelve Paloma challenges her French teacher on principial grounds and has well-groomed feelings about everything that surrounds her. Unlike Renée, who appears to militate (if only internally) for an aristocracy of the mind, Paloma is of a seemingly socialist streak. She hates her parents’ well-to-do condition, as well as the pretense of her sister’s and her sister’s boyfriend. She knows how to see the holes in the impeccable armor of those who inhabit her immediate environment and is quick to see the merit of the silent concierge.

Muriel Barbery. Source: Semana
These two characters, though, have a lot in common. First of all this tendency towards transgressing their own milieus. To her family, Paloma appears as a strange child who hides all the time and refuses to participate in “proper” social intercourse. To the same, Renée is an invisible entity: a concierge who cannot be regarded as anything but what her profession indicates. But what truly unites the two protagonists is their love for Japanese simplicity. Renée launches repeated exegeses on Oriental aesthetics and emphasizes the importance of understanding that beauty is an event. She contrasts this to the Western taste for monumentality, for things made to survive, for history as a series of recorded actions. Contrary to this, the Japanese tea ceremony or the simplicity of Japanese art are the definition of what art should be: carpe diem at its purest. This is why she is so surprisingly fascinated by a very European genre: Dutch still life of the seventeenth century. It is there, in the ephemerality of a scene that’s set up for the pleasure of another, that Renée identifies the source of beauty.
Just like Renée’s passion for the ephemeral, Paloma is struck by the thought of procrastination, in fact another way of bringing up the tension of the present moment, a constant problem for European culture:
“If you dread tomorrow, it’s because you don’t know to build the present, you tell yourself you can deal with it tomorrow, and it’s a lost cause anyway because tomorrow always ends up becoming today, don’t you see?”
Kakuro Ozu, who also happens to bear the surname of Renée’s favorite director (Yasujiro Ozu), knows Tolstoy inside-out, understands Paloma’s rebellious tendencies, and shows sympathy towards the destiny of both his French friends. He manages to persuade both of them out of their self-destructive tendencies, so that Paloma ends up convinced that suicide is not the way to go, while Renée agrees to come out of her protective cocoon. Their friendship is cut short by the novel’s unhappy ending but it shines so bright while it lasts: a perfect triangle of French love that’s not sexual but intellectual in nature.
The trio performs against a background which Barbery is very careful to describe as culturally destitute and incompetent but socially patronizing and self-aggrandizing. This is the society made up of the inhabitants of 7, rue de Grenelle, the novel’s only spatial setting, situated at the very center of Paris. The humans that make up this society are invariably dumbed down by the protagonists’ remarkable intelligence. They’re utter biological loss, if we trust the verve of Paloma’s diatribes. Out of reach of good ideas, burdened by social conventions and common tastes more than any wish to gain access to knowledge, the tenants form a small-scale replica of the thing known as humanity. From Paloma’s parents to the deceased food critic Pierre Arthens, the protagonist of Barbery’s first novel, translated into English either as The Gourmet or Gourmet Rapsody, and from them to the entire fauna of simple-minded bourgeois who boast credentials gained for all the wrong reasons, the world described in The Elegance of the Hedgehog is an enclosed ecosystem which allows readers to feel at home.
This is, perhaps, why the book has been such a success. Because – let us admit – don’t we love to partake in criticisms of a world system from which we invariably abstract ourselves? Freed of sin by way of being on the critic’s side, we’re going to love the game that shows us the defects we refuse to acknowledge. And that, in itself, is a perfect recipe for success. Muriel Barbery is a winner. Agreed.

Saturday, 2 January 2016

Guadalupe Nettel (almost) writing herself

Full title: The Body Where I Was Born
Author: Guadalupe Nettel, translated by J.T. Lichtenstein
Genre: Novel
Attributes: 208 pages, paperback
Publisher: Seven Stories Press (2015)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

The Body Where I Was Born (with a title borrowed from Allen Ginsberg) proposes a simple, fairly linear story, but with a complex narrative agenda. (Hence my focus on only a handful of features. Plenty more remain to be discovered, interpreted, or simply invented, as the needs of the reader may be.)
The book is a bildungsroman, and that’s enough said. All there is to it: a young girl, and her life in Mexico, interrupted by a period spent in France, where she and her younger brother have to accompany their mother, enrolled as a doctoral candidate in Aix-en-Provence. Simple, straightforward.
The text is constructed in line with the rules of autobiography, and that tinge of self-writing is quite appealing to a reader whose interests lie in the factual aspects of fiction. The narrator herself is a woman who recounts her younger age growing up in ever-shifting circumstances. She experiences seismic transformations, from uprooting to up-growing, and from being left without a father to being left without a country (an “untouchable,” as she calls herself at some point). That’s why references to the infamous earthquake of 1985, which transformed Mexico City itself, come as no surprise (a real seism from a world overwhelmed by its reality).
Often in the novel events make room for reflections and generalizations. The idea of continuous transformation (an essential feature of any bildungsroman and, therefore, of this one) features prominently among these reflections.
“From what I have been able to observe, it seems that when an event hurts us there are two general tendencies in confronting it: the first being to go over it an infinite number of times, like a video we project again and again on a screen in our minds. The second is to tear apart the filmstrip and forget indefinitely the painful event. Some of us employ both techniques in the editing of our memories.”
The editing of memories is an important issue in this novel. It being a largely autobiographical text, setting the record straight about expurgations is a necessary task.

Guadalupe Nettel. Source: Minima et Moralia
The task is also made necessary by the fact that the novel tells the story of a book about to be written. The narrator, a writer with a bad case of writer’s block, recounts the events of her life to an invisible psychoanalyst addressed sporadically under the name of Doctor Sazlavski. This is important! The sessions with the doctor gather up as only a series of oral confessions. What we are reading (the text of The Body Where I Was Born) is material that hasn’t been written down. What the narrator struggles with is the task of starting work on the novel that will contain all the events she has been reporting to Doctor Sazlavski. You see what a Tristram-Shandyesque enterprise this is: a book telling the story of a book that hasn’t been written and of events that haven’t left the privacy of confession. Reading The Body Where I Was Born is, for this reason, like gaining access to inexistent knowledge.
To tantalize the reader even further, due to the same autobiographical element, the protagonist is conceived among real events and real people. As a writer with certain connections among the writers’ guild, she encounters recognizable figures. She meets Alejandro Zambra in Santiago de Chile, Octavio Paz in Paris, and a host of other Mexican writers and artists. Given this aspect, the question “Who is Doctor Sazlavski?” becomes a red herring that plays on the reader’s nerves. I wonder if there’s any connection between this almost-real doctor and the famous Marcelo Chiriboga, the made-up novelist of the Latin-American Boom, who features in the works of José Donoso, Carlos Fuentes, or Eloy Urroz. In those books, the technique is similar: a fictional character evolves among real persons and so he too takes up the features of a real person. The hint injects a necessary element of doubt in the very midst of autobiography, and thus the novel becomes a territory of exploration where no firm footing can be said to exist.
To give the narrative even more weight, Nettel inserts numerous references to literary texts. To mention just a few:
About the last in the list: the situation described in Eréndira (a girl forced into prostitution by her grandmother tries by various means to kill the evil grannie) matches perfectly the situation of the narrator in The Body. The parallel is pointed out in one of the psychoanalytic sessions:
“Doctor, this discovery, as exaggerated as it sounds, was like meeting a guardian angel, or at least a friend I could trust, which was, in those days, equally unlikely. The book understood me better than anyone in the world and, if that was not enough, made it possible for me to speak about things that were hard to admit to myself, like the undeniable urge to kill someone in my family.”
It’s from the same relationship with this invisible psychoanalyst that other symbolic aspects are revealed throughout the novel. For instance, the narrator suffers from an eye disease which forces her to wear a patch throughout her childhood. Like a Cyclops, or even better – like a spy –, she develops a taste for voyeuristic pleasures.
“Our apartment was in a building complex, and our neighbors’ windows offered an almost limitless menu. The magnification of my binoculars wasn’t very powerful, but it was enough to see close-up what went on in our vicinity. I don’t know if it’s what my parents had in mind, but for me the binoculars were a kind of compensation for all the time they had limited my sight with the patch. Thanks to this marvelous instrument, for years I was able to enter the homes of others and to observe things to which nobody else had access.”
This “entering the homes of others” is the job of a novelist, is it not? It’s either the narrator or Guadalupe Nettel herself who takes advantage of this ability to peer into the lives of others while, at the same time, giving readers a glimpse of what their own lives might be.
All in all, this juggling game, in which certainties and uncertainties take their turns in dominating the front stage, makes the novel more than interesting, the story more than believable.

Friday, 11 December 2015

With Cormac McCarthy you end up admiring the villain

Full title: Child of God
Author: Cormac McCarthy
Genre: Novel
Attributes: 208 pages, paperback
Publisher: Vintage (1993)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

One recognizable feature of Cormac McCarthy’s novels (his trademark, some would say) is graphic, bare-bones violence. Child of God is no exception. The lonely outcast who impersonates justice in a weird, criminal way, occupies pretty much the entire novel. His name is Lester Ballard and he’s a solitary dweller of the nearby forests, a champion of the rifle and a savage to the bone. He’s accused of a rape he’s never committed and, enraged by the injustice, he starts on a rampage, killing, raping, and stealing every step of the way, and thus reserving himself a sure place in hell.
This is, briefly put, the plot line of Child of God, Cormac McCarthy’s third novel (first published in 1973).
But the plot isn’t everything.
There are far more interesting things to be said about the novel’s stylistic matter.
Child of God is written as a series of episodes. Short, cinematic, often independent from each other. These episodes are either third-person narrations from the viewpoint of an omniscient narrator or first-person accounts from various minor characters who recall having met Ballard at different moments in time. While the former are concerned with the progression of the story itself, the latter deal with the issue of character (not as in ‘personage’ but as in ‘psychological profile’).
This episodic structure makes it somewhat hard for the reader to disprove of the protagonist’s outrageously criminal actions. How? Well, if we add to the picture McCarthy’s tendency towards not providing moral relief after the numerous murders, rapes, and break-ins, it becomes difficult for the reader to realize a trajectory for their own appreciation of Ballard’s crimes.
The narration addresses Lester Ballard all the time. He is, in other words, the protagonist. Trained through previous moral protocols likely to have choreographed one’s readerly response into sympathizing with the protagonist, one might find oneself in the strange (certainly un-Christian) situation of takin the side of evil. That, in itself, is worth paying attention to because the general purpose is to elude ethical expectations. If McCarthy’s protagonist lives in an environment where he kills and rapes without being sanctioned by that usual moralistic narrative voice we’re used to, this is because Ballard’s progression doesn’t take place in the realm of social morality but in the realm of story-telling, where the same principles don’t operate in identical ways. In fact, when things are considered from a narrative perspective, it should be ethically sounder to give all characters the chance to behave as points of focalization, without their actions being constantly weighed by an intrusive voice that guarantees the pursuit of morality. This should be the case at least for the sake of equality, knowing that stories are built on anything but that (what with the protagonist-antagonist distinction and the firm lines drawn between minor and major characters).

Cormac McCarthy. Source: Flavorwire
In other words, Cormac McCarthy’s novel is no didactic material. Although I can understand how some readers, used to seeing evil through the lens of what it means rather than what it does, might be upset by McCarthy’s technical relativization of ethics.
The effect of this turn away from moralization is that, no matter how appalling his crimes, we tend to invest our emotions in Ballard the way we invest them in all protagonists of literature. We’re out there with him all the time, we feel the cold he feels when winter or rain overtake the landscapes, we almost burn alive in a fire that consumes his cabin. What’s even more significant, our hearts skip a beat when Ballard is on the verge of being spotted by his victims. I mean – how sick is that? And I’m not talking about McCarthy here but about us! Us, readers. Blinded  by straightforward narrative ideologies, we turn into acolytes of a criminal.
Towards the end of the novel, while trying to shake off the sheriff and his crew, Ballard gets lost in a maze of caves and underground galleries, deep under the thick forest, miles away from any help, teased by the sounds of life he can hear above his head and yet trapped there, in the cave, at the mercy of a greater logic. Ballard starts thinking about his own death. When he does so we’re there with him. It’s only us and him. Not the pursuers, who have lost him and have given up on ever finding him again. Us. We are the only ones apart from Ballard who participate in the ordeal. We feel for him. We share his claustrophobic thoughts. We wish he can get out of there as soon as possible. We wish it, we wish it like we mean it. Otherwise, the prospect of what might happen to him (to us?) is terrifying.
“In the night he heard hounds and called to them but the enormous echo of his voice in the cavern filled him with fear and he would not call again. He heard the mice scurry in the dark. Perhaps they’d nest in his skull, spawn their tiny bald and mewling whelps in the lobed caverns where his brains had been. His bones polished clean as eggshells, centipedes sleeping in their marrowed flutes, his ribs curling slender and whitely like a bone flower in the dark stone bowl. He’d cause to wish and he did wish for some brute midwife to spald him from his rocky keep.”
That’s how graphic McCarthy can be. The prospect of the protagonist’s death drips slowly, drop by drop, onto our own skulls until, as in the infamous Chinese torture, we give in. The narration goes on and on, addictively, adding one more detail here, one more highlight there, one more complication to a situation that was pretty complication to start with. Through these accumulations of details, we are led to forget the evils Ballard has committed and concentrate on what’s in front of us: the current situation.
But wait; there’s more.
McCarthy is capable of incredible metaphors and similes. The paragraph above is a case in point. It shows his favourite technique of accumulation of details, this time at the lexical level, so as to provide a rich texture to the story. A rich texture it is, and one that raises yet another question. How come a text full of adjectives and adverbs can be so cinematic in nature? Any creative-writing tutor would advise complete abstinence from such devices because they are unsuited to narrative progression. Adjectives stop action, adverbs make it uninteresting. And yet, this is precisely where McCarthy goes. He offers a baroque model whereby the reader is suffocated by the abundance of grammatical and stylistic decorations. Take another example, where the central idea is to create a chromatic medley:
“The hardwood trees on the mountain subsided into yellow and flame and to ultimate nakedness. An early winter fell, a cold wind sucked among the black and barren branches. Alone in the empty shell of a house the squatter watches through the moteblown glass a rimshard of bonecolored moon come cradling up over the black balsams on the ridge, ink trees a facile hand had sketched against the paler dark of winter heavens.”
Phew. You need a big breath after this. Not just adjectives but polysyllables of all sorts, neologisms of McCarthy’s own making, contribute to the formation of this solid, thick structure. And yet, if one looks at it carefully, one might be able to notice that the passage goes contrary to description. It narrates. It generates action. The few verbs found here and there have that special evocative power that makes a narrative become narration, unfolding of events. The landscape unreels, as in a cinema theatre. The camera is somehow invited to pan through the clouds, through darkness, through the twisted trees, to discover what lies behind the dramatic scene.
What’s also interesting to see is how McCarthy makes gruesome scenes look beautiful, by shear manipulation of metaphor. Here’s Ballard in his cave, where he’d been hiding the corpses of his victims:
“Here in the bowels of the mountain Ballard turned his light on ledges or pallets of stone where dead people lay like saints.”
One image like that and our preconceptions are shuttered.
Only a few pages further down the track we see Ballard in one of his most intriguing instantiations: dressed in women’s attire, crossing the fields at night like a phantom from an underworld of horror:
“A gothic doll in illfit clothes, its carmine mouth floating detached and bright in the white landscape.”
I need to admit, there’s something attractive in this description. Something that makes me pause for a second, maybe longer, to admire the text that obstructs the sight. And so I want to be where Ballard is for a little while because, in fact, I want to admire the poetry his presence promises to generate.
That’s how I read Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God.

Monday, 23 November 2015

A bridge between times

Full title: Purge
Author: Sofi Oksanen, translated by Lola Rogers
Genre: Novel
Attributes: 320 pages, paperback
Publisher: Grove Press, Black Cat (2010)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

There’s a bridge between times. Something to discard, something to remember. But the funny thing is memories we want forgotten return, in the way Freud must have imagined his Uncanny. And when they come they demand that we take them seriously. Very seriously.
This is, in a few sentences, the gist of Sofi Oksanen’s Purge, the novel that’s made her known to the whole world, translated into at least 25 languages and made into a topic of discussions from book clubs to academic circles. Purge is divided into hemispheres meant to meet each other at various point, repeatedly. The intertwined stories take place in two different times but converge spatially in one and the same Estonian village, where history is written and rewritten at the same time. On the one hand, there’s this story about the Russian occupation after World War Two, and concentrated between the 1940s and the 1960s, which takes roughly half of the book’s length. The other half is occupied by a narrative set in the time after the fall of the Soviet empire, in the 1990s, when the independence of the former Soviet Republic of Estonia comes with the strings that cannot but attach it to its irrevocable past.
Once this aspect of the setting is agreed upon, in come the characters. Two of them stand out, because it is by means of their stories that the big narrative is carried on. They also stand out because they cross paths in significant ways, running into each other in 1992. On the one hand we have Aliide Truu, an old woman with a history of collaboration with the Soviet regime, as well as a secret big as her entire past. On the other hand, there’s Zara. She’s young, beautiful, and terribly scared. She’s come to Aliide’s house in search for sanctuary, after having just escaped from a life of forced prostitution.
Zara’s motives and background are the true engines of the novel. We find out that she used to live in Vladivostok, in a kolkhoz, along with his mother and grandmother. The two older women had been born in Estonia, in the very village where Zara is now forced to seek protection in the house of Aliide Truu. About Aliide she knows one crucial aspect: that she is her grandmother’s sister. But that is the whole extent of Zara’s knowledge. Her head is full of questions. Why had her grandmother been so laconic about Aliide? Why does Aliide say that she’s never had a sister? What is behind this silence that separates the two old sisters, and why has the grandmother never agreed to come back to the Estonian village of her birth?

Sofi Oksanen. Source: Ilta Sanomant
It is the purpose of the rest of the novel to provide answers to all these questions. All veiled in the mystery brought about by the fact that Aliide has absolutely no idea who this young stranger is, and what she’s doing, collapsed, one morning, in the grass at the back of her village house.
In order for the necessary clarifications to come about, the novel uses the impact of a solid realist plot in which suspense leads the way. That makes for a strong narrative cocktail, which keeps the reader with eyes peeled and assures the page-turning effect pursued throughout the novel. Without going into details, suffice it to say that the secret in Aliide’s past is the element towards which the novel moves, so as to bring light to Zara’s current strife. In the process, Sofi Oksanen produces some powerful pages in which she proves her knack for the horrific and the violent. There’s torture involved, there’s forced prostitution, there’s incarceration and interrogation and powerlessness and escape and inhumanity and loss of hope and regaining of the same. The story shocks and at the same time redeems. Aliide, whose unrequited love forces her to turn into a monster, is paired, in a twisted way, with Zara’s pseudo-love. They are both connected, through invisible threads, by means of this relation that’s erotic and impossibly pornographic at the same time.
Aliide, who has the objective distance of her experience of the two worlds, is able to recognize the repeatability of history. She remembers and relives. The uncanny aspect of her story is given by the fact that history returns as painful as ever, as violent as ever:
“Everything was repeating itself. Even if the ruble had changed to the kroon and there were fewer warplanes flying over her head and the officers’ wives had lowered their voices, even if the loudspeakers on the tower at Pika Hermanni were playing independence songs every day, there would always be chrome-tanned boots, some new boots would arrive, the same or different, but a boot on your neck nevertheless. The foxholes had been closed up, the shell casings in the woods had tarnished, the secret dugouts had collapsed, the fallen had rotten away, but certain things repeated themselves.”
This passage sounds like the last, concluding, movement of a symphony centered on the destiny of an entire nation: the kind of story that has emerged abundantly from all the Eastern-European countries formerly quashed under the communist (Soviet or not) iron curtain.
Sofi Oksanen is half Estonian, half Finnish. But more importantly, she is a writer who writes from the aftertime of the communist catastrophe. You can feel all this in the tone of her stories: informed to the point of becoming overly exact, curious with the curiosity of a tourist who’s there for the first time.

This whirlwind of memories that come and go is not only unsettling. For the main characters, memory is the place where they return to find comfort, where the good things of life had taken place and where, therefore, they want to be again. Aliide’s unrequited love, Zara’s boyfriend whom she hasn’t seen for a number of years. Sometimes, this provocation of the past makes it necessary to look for comfort in a deeper form of existence: a form of becoming-mineral, of becoming so small, so invisible, that one’s physical presence turns into molecules (the utmost invisibility, the ultimate bliss of existence). Zara experiences this in a moment when she wants to hide from the danger that keeps following her.
“She had to close her eyes, deep within the room, to think herself to someplace else, she was a star, an ear on Lenin’s head, the hairs of Lenin’s whiskers, pasteboard whiskers on a pasteboard poster, she was a corner of the frame of the picture, a chipped plaster frame, bent, in a corner of the room. She was chalk dust on the surface of a chalkboard, in the safety of the classroom, she was the wooden tip of a pointer…”
The major difference between Zara and Aliide resides in the fact that the former is a defeated person, one who needs to hide away, one who needs protection; while the latter is a conqueror, a woman who’s been through the most unpleasant forms of life and has managed to come out of everything alive (like a Machiavellic cat of nine lives who always falls on her paws and never breaks a bone).
The previous quote outlines pretty well Zara’s destiny. There’s one that defines Aliide’s too:
“If they’re coming, they might as well all come – Mafia thugs, soldiers – Reds and Whites – Russians, Germans, Estonians – let them come. Aliide would survive. She always had.”
The discourse of a winner, this is, albeit one veiled in a sense of resignation. A bitter discourse, for Aliide’s solutions to her troubles have been on the wrong side of morality; and these troubles have made her stone-like, cynical. This is, therefore, the discourse of a survivor. A survivor like Zara who, half a century after Aliide’s tribulations, succeeds in staying alive when life itself is at odds with her.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

On how Valeria Luiselli builds cities of absences

Full title: Sidewalks
Author: Valeria Luiselli, translated by Christina MacSweeney
Genre: Nonfiction
Attributes: 110 pages, paperback
Publisher: Granta (2013)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

Reading Valeria Luiselli after Patrick Modiano is something worth trying. They have one major thing in common: the crucial role played by places in their writing. Sidewalks, a volume released almost simultaneously with Luiselli’s other debut volume, Faces in the Crowd, is a collection of essays in which location is all that matters. She moves from Venice, in search for Joseph Brodsky’s burial place, to Mexico, in search for maps or lost libraries, and then back to Venice, so as to end full-circle. Her wanderings trace peculiar maps, which are based not on solid landmarks but rather on gaps, empty spaces, urban cavities. There is a name for these gaps. A Spanish word. Relingos. A word to the explanation of which Luiselli dedicates an entire essay: “Relingos: The Cartography of Empty Spaces.” The origins are not clear, but the word seems to mean this: urban spaces left unattended. Or better still, absences left in the fabric of a city. This is the kind of no-mans-land in the middle of an urban expanse, with a rondo left for flowers that will never be planted, or a pile of rubbish left to guard the peace (or war) of passers-by.
“A relingo – an emptiness, an absence – is a sort of depository for possibilities, a place that can be seized by imagination and inhabited by our phantom-follies. Citied need those vacant lots, those silent gaps where the mind can wander freely.”
This is what Valeria Luiselli searches for throughout the volume: manifestations of the figure of the relingo, the urban absence par excellence, the hole. That explains why the book starts with an essay about tombs, about a silent argument between the grave of Ezra Pound and that of Joseph Brodsky, two holes in the ground.
In the second essay, “Flying Home,” where the focus advances quickly from airplanes to maps, the most prominent image is that of an enormous book containing a nineteenth-century cartographic representation of the border between Mexico and Guatemala. The scale of the map is so large, the book contains pages upon pages of emptiness, designating spaces between the two countries where no distinctive trace is noticeable. The essay prompts a parallel between the work of a cartographer and that of an anatomist, in the style, perhaps, of Gilles Deleuze, whom Luiselli quotes at some point in relation to language. The work of the two professionals is equally concerned with incisions, with the creation of gaps, of openings. For them, signification is done by means of cutting-through.
“In essence, an anatomist and a cartographer do the same thing: trace vaguely arbitrary frontiers on a body whose nature it is to resist determined borders, definitions and precise limits.”

Valeria Luiselli. Source: The Telegraph
The shortest essay, included almost as an afterthought or maybe as a gap-filler (to keep in line with the profile of the book), is also the most powerful insofar as poetic power is concerned. It is only half page in length and is the story of a crime that took place close to the entrance in the building where Valeria Luiselli once resided in Mexico City. A man is shot. Homicide police takes over, as it must. What’s left, once the investigation is concluded, is the outline of the victim’s body. The outline, a sort of map left on the footpath, a gap of sorts, a delineation of a territory where once there was a body, where now there is an absence.
“The following day his outline appeared in white chalk on the asphalt. Did the hand of the person who skirted the coastline of his body tremble? The city, its sidewalks: an enormous blackboard – instead of numbers, we add up bodies.”
And so, Luiselli seizes the opportunity to bring up the central element of her system every time she finds it ready to be milked.
A neighbour (someone who reminds the reader of a similar character in Faces in the Crowd) digs a hole in the interior garden of the apartment block where the author lives. The hole itself warrants attention because it is a hole. And also because it motivates imagination.
In her childhood, inspired and also saddened by the idea that she could reach China if she kept digging, Luiselli ended up planting several holes in the backyard, which she then filled with aid-memoirs (toys, maps, and so on) for a future that’s uncertain at best. These holes too merit attention.
But gaps are not to be found only in cities. They also exist in language. Silences, like those in music, between sounds. And because these language gaps do exist there’s a sense that a writer herself will have to understand the hole-digging business that writing is. Luiselli has surely understood this already. Otherwise she wouldn’t say:
“Writing: drilling walls, breaking windows, blowing up buildings. Deep excavations to find – to find what? To find nothing.
A writer is a person who distributes silences and empty spaces.
Writing: making relingos.”
There’s yet another memory that stays: that of an earthquake in Mexico City, another episode from the author’s childhood. An earthquake causes chaos. It is, in essence, the force that alters maps. It leaves behind ruins, buildings reduced to rubble, holes, other absences. The reality of the threat that comes after the cataclysm, that the earthquake might return, creates the necessary connections between landscape, language, and anatomy, the three signposts of Luiselli’s concerns, the three stars of a writer’s person:
“We are in the process of losing something. We go round leaving bits of dead skin on the sidewalk, dropping dead words into a conversation. Cities, like our bodies, like language, are destruction under construction. But this constant threat of earthquakes is all that’s left to us. Only that kind of scene – a landscape of rubble piled on rubble – compels us to go out and look for the last remaining thing. Only under that threat does it again become necessary to excavate language, to find the exact word.”
And speaking of signposts, it must be mentioned that all the essays in the collection have this thing in common: they are interrupted by titles. Titles that are sometimes names (“Joseph Brodsky,” “Marcelino Giancarlo”), sometimes traffic sings (“Stop,” “Pedestrian Crossing”), sometimes civic warnings (“Use alternative routes,” “Watch your step”), sometimes business titles and messages (“Open all hours,” “Real Estate”), sometimes GPS-like directions (“Turn left at Durango,” “Continue along Orizaba – ride on sidewalk to avoid traffic”), sometimes just numbers. What’s important about these titles is that they seem arbitrary. They don’t bring about any necessary division.
The texts would work absolutely well without these titles. They aren’t enriched by them or better structured by them. But they play a role, these titles, that brings unity between structure and content: they create holes in the texts, absences where the reader’s imagination, as the author says, can wander freely.

Monday, 21 September 2015

Gradual revelations define the style of Patrick Modiano

Full title: The Night Watch
Author: Patrick Modiano, translated by Patricia Wolf, revised by Frank Wynne
Genre: Novel
Attributes: 130 pages, paperback
Publisher: Bloomsbury (2015)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

The hero of The Night Watch is a young man who has to deal with a fundamental dilemma: to work for the French Gestapo or for the Resistance? He is in a dilemma because he has been offered both options and he’s taken both, each for its separate advantages: on the one hand the pecuniary gains of a life among criminals, on the other hand the chance to become a hero. So he spends a lot of time tossing the options in search for the right answer, and although the right answer doesn’t quite arrive, at least his evolution means something. It means a kind of awakening.
But Modiano doesn’t make things easy. In order to arrive at the conclusion one needs to follow the winding path of the narrator’s own tosses and turns. Modiano’s trademark technique is a slow revealing of essential details. We start off with a narrator in a moral slum. We find no difficulty in not liking him. He’s a textbook petty criminal turned traitor. He’s well aware of his condition but doesn’t seem to be bothered by the nature of his various lucrative, if despicable, jobs. At this stage in the novel he doesn’t even seem resigned. He simply notes down self-observations as if they were notes in a log book:
“Night was drawing in, but my job as informant and blackmailer has accustomed me to darkness.”
Nicknamed ‘The Swing Troubadour’ (after Charles Trenet?) the young man is employed as part of a hoard of former convicts to act as the underground wing of the French Gestapo. It is much later that we find out his motivation: coming from a poor family, he’s been lured by the easy money he could make in the criminal branch. As a result, his morality is simple and aimed exclusively at personal gain.
“It was in the pawnshop on the Rue Pierre Charron (my mother would often go there, but they always refused to take her paste jewellery) that I decide once and for all that poverty was pain in the arse. You might think I have no principles. I started out a poor and innocent soul. But innocence gets lost along the way.”
Here one can already perceive the seeds of self-awareness. But as he grows accustomed to the voice of testimony, ‘The Swing Troubadour’ also gets to the point where he can declare with laudable sincerity the true psychological mechanism behind his actions:
“There is only one emotion of which I have firsthand knowledge, one powerful enough to make me move mountains: FEAR.”
Slowly, slowly, the young man becomes conscious at least of the dubious nature of his profession. Even if he rejects it for a length of time, and even if he cannot find the will to leave the band of bastards who are providing him with the luxury otherwise forever unavailable to him, ‘The Swing Troubadour’ is uncomfortable as a criminal.

Patrick Modiano. Source: The Telegraph
But, as already mentioned above, to reach this stage one needs to read the novel in its peculiar manipulation of chronology. The narrative voice moves back and forth within a relatively tight chronotope, but one generous enough to permit chronological arabesques. Not only does the narrator relate events that didn’t occur in a straight line, he also includes real characters and situations from times that don’t coincide with the narrative’s zero time. Eighteenth and nineteenth-century personages and their deeds (mostly criminal) are mixed with contemporary episodes, in an urban landscape that seems to level all differences and make these cross-chronological encounters possible. All this might sound like an exercise in the universalisation of criminality, maybe in the fashion of Borges’s History of Infamy, although the parallel must not be stretched too far.
Modiano’s narrative oddity appears to be facilitated by the general setting of the novel: Paris. A city with multiple layers of history and mentality, it distributes past and present in ways that make them seem to coincide. Eighteenth and nineteenth-century criminals and WW2 serial killers are brought together, sad apparitions in a tableau of sad colours, described in a future that is outside of the novel’s present-tense narration.
“There are ghosts here, but only those of Monsieur Philibert, the Khedive, and their acolytes. Stepping out of Claridge, arm in arm, come Joanovici and the Count de Cagliostro. They are wearing white suits and platinum signet rings. The shy young man crossing the Rue Lord-Byron is Eugene Weidemann. Standing frozen in front of Pam-Pam is Thérèse de Païva, the most beautiful whore of the Second Empire. From the corner of the Rue Marbeuf, Dr Petiot smiles at me. On the terrace of Le Colisée: a group of black marketeers are cracking open the champagne.”
This passage indicates yet another aspect of the novel: the rapid move between locations. There are numerous moments when the narrator limits the story to a listing of places. As the protagonist moves, the locations too reveal themselves, as if what one is reading were not a novel but the representation of a map of Paris. The progression of the story is thus made to imitate the progression of an urban traveller, a flâneur or picaro who, like Moll Flanders in the eighteenth century, are led forward by the trajectories of their criminal pursuits.
Surrounded by depravity and petty interests, ‘The Swing Troubadour’ has to find his own way through the labyrinth that leads to decency. It takes a different kind of awakening to bring him to the realization that he might have a better role to play in life. And that is the moment when he is employed to infiltrate a Resistance cell. It is now that a profound transformation takes place. As he starts spying on the cell, the protagonist learns to admire their heroic determination, their rectitude, and their friendship. The transformation is substantial. He is given a new name (the curiously feminine ‘Princess of Lamballe’), welcomed, trusted, asked to spy back on the Gestapo. And that’s when the young man seems to crack under the weight of the dilemma.
“Two groups of lunatics were pressuring me to do contradictory things, they would run me down until I dropped dead from exhaustion. I was a scapegoat for these madmen. I was the runt of the litter. I didn’t stand a chance.”
This dilemma keeps him on edge for the rest of the novel. But the end doesn’t bring concrete relief to him. Only reassurance to the reader that the right shape of things is about to be brought to light. The Resistance cell is gunned down and Lamballe’s double game discovered. Then everything ends in a hot pursuit, the young man driving a car towards the Swiss border, with enough cash to start a new life, but weighed down by an apocalyptic tiredness. We never know if he’s made it. Modiano stops his game of slow revelations and leaves everything on a cliff-hanger. To make things more interesting but also, perhaps, to relativise the trope of the converted criminal.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Have you heard of Milan Kundera?

Full title: The Festival of Insignificance
Author: Milan Kundera, translated by Linda Asher
Genre: Novel
Attributes: 115 pages, hardcover
Publisher: Harper (2015)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

Milan Kundera is 86 years old this year. Before publishing The Festival of Insignificance he hadn’t published a single book in 13 years. The communist realities he used to write about have turned into memories so distant you can’t even scare kids with them anymore.
One may or may not ignore these facts. If one doesn’t, one is likely to go on reading this novel so as to enjoy it. If one does, though, one will certainly make the mistake of expecting to find in it the Kundera of a few years back, when he was writing book after book with ease, and most importantly, when what he was writing about mattered to the world.
The first and most important impression I had from reading The Festival of Insignificance was that Kundera wrote it being aware that all of the above were problematic things. And he wrote so as to lay some traps. But traps that have gone, with the occasional exception, largely unnoticed.
The novel is about four friends who get together at a party thrown by a fifth man, who doesn’t quite sit well in their company but who offers them the right pretext for their meeting. In counterbalance, the novel also follows an episode involving Stalin, Khrushchev, and Kalinin. Present and past, France and the Soviet Union, friendship and comradeship, freedom and tyranny – these are trademark things in Kundera literature.
But it’s the question of insignificance that makes the book what it is, from title onward. Stalin lost in the usual (for Kundera) game of memory and forgetting, the queens of France immortalized as statues barely acknowledged in the Luxembourg Gardens; references to Hegel and Kant that lead nowhere; a party that doesn’t acquire anything of note. All these episodes and images form a collection of insignificant things. But this is not the insignificance of daily life, where a lot gets lost in a sea of small significances. On the contrary, we’re in the territory of historical insignificance, where things, when put in perspective, are likely to mean little. That’s why, perhaps, the most important episode of the novel is the party thrown by a man who pretends he’s about to die of cancer. His lie is in itself a question of individual significance. His party, a question of social insignificance. That party is placed against another one, in which Stalin tells an anecdote about some partridges he shot when he was young. This one is even closer to the essential questions regarding significance: when the world was a mess, with the Stalinist regime at a peak, what his acolytes find important is the truthfulness of his anecdote; not reality (the history before their eyes) but fiction (a reality from an uncertain, highly insignificant past). Stalin tells his acolytes how one day in his youth, when out hunting, he saw twenty four partridges perched on a tree. He aimed to shoot but realized he had only twelve bullets. So when he shot, only half of the partridges fell to the ground. He rode back home and came back a few hours later with twelve more rounds, and shot the rest of the birds. His attendants listen to the story and, in the spirit of the Stalinist cult, fake admiration. But when they’re alone, in the toilets built especially for them in the Kremlin, they express their outrage. They are enraged by the story. They find it ridiculous as well as cruel. But all things considered, nobody sees the joke in Stalin’s anecdote. And as Kundera suggests through his novel, one requires historical perspective to be able to see the obvious. It’s only years later, in Paris, when the four friends discuss the Stalin episode, that the essence surfaces:
“After a pause, Caliban says: ‘The one thing I find unbelievable in that whole story is that nobody understood that Stalin was joking.'
‘Of course not,’ said Charles, and he laid the book back on the table. ‘Because nobody around him any longer knew what a joke is. And in my view, that’s the beginning of a whole new period in history.’”
The period Charles is talking about is later described as “the twilight of joking,” or better still, “the post-joke age.”
One needs to read this time-after-the-joke knowing Kundera, because with this book he makes statements about himself. These statements are hidden. They need to be found if one wants to read the book adequately.
The insistence throughout the novel on the fact that the new generations don’t know who Stalin was, that they’ve never heard of Kant or Hegel – all this is self-referential. Behind these suggestions lies the actual question: have you heard of Milan Kundera? It’s like a little piece of bait thrown to the critics. Is it not?
“Time moves on. Because of time, first we’re alive – which is to say: indicted and convicted. Then we die, and for a few more years we live on in the people who knew us, but very soon there’s another change; the dead become the old dead, no one remembers them any longer and they vanish into the void; only a few of them, very, very rare ones, leave their names behind in people’s memories, but, lacking any authentic witness now, any actual recollection, they become marionettes.”
I’m not sure that the critics have seen this. When I first read the passage, as though it were about Stalin, I thought: okay, this must be Kundera being nostalgic (at the end of the day he started his career as an enthusiastic supporter of the communist cause). But reading it again I changed my mind. This is not about Stalin. This is about Kundera himself. Read it again through this filter and you’ll see.

Milan Kundera. Source: RTE
Some reviewers have expressed their discontent. They didn’t like the style of the novel, they didn’t like its lack of newness. But at the same time they didn’t see the joke: Kundera putting himself into the book, one character among the others (not only among the French friends in contemporary Paris, but also as a participant at the Soviet meetings, back in the Stalinist era). As the center of a joke, he becomes the center of the very age when the right allusion (the essence of a punch line) is no longer at hand; when the joke itself needs to be dug out of history, dusted, polished, and told again.
There are other clues in the novel that point in the same direction. One of them is the metanarrative element: the intervention of the narrative voice at random points in the story, and also the characters’ awareness that they are mere characters, that there is a “master” (they use that word a couple of times!) who handles them as if they were marionettes (see above). All this is about Kundera himself, can’t you see it? Arrows pointing back at him, as if in saying I’m here, it’s me you’re reading about. Precisely because he’s used these techniques so many times before it becomes, once more, important to see that The Festival of Insignificance is mostly about something characteristic to his work, something about him.
I don’t know why the reviewers avoid discussing these things. The narrative elements, the games played under the surface of the actual story, the references to things that are not there. Is that because they’re stuck in the insignificance of Kundera’s old age, the insignificance (in 2015) of his past, the insignificance, of course, of his present? Of the fact that this is, perhaps, his last book? And of the other, more significant thing: that maybe he wrote it knowing that this might be his last book? If such is the case then let’s read The Festival of Insignificance again. Let’s read it as if it were a book of ill laughter and of un-forgetting.