Thursday, 25 December 2014

A Christmas unsuitable for kids

Full title: The Twelve Terrors of Christmas
Author: John Updike (Drawings by Edward Gorey)
Genre: Short stories
Attributes: 32 pages, hardcover
Publisher: Pomegranate Communications (2006)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

In the month of compulsory gratification all responsibilities are heavy. We live on the dividing line between giving and taking, precariously playing both roles with affliction, buying more than we can carry and seeing/witnessing/watching more than it's humanly acceptable to the ocular apparatus and the mind that comes with it.
With the corporatized, profit-driven Christmas growing around us like the dark force in some B-class horror movie, we hope for a breath of fresh air, which would shake the hell out of this too-familiar spectacle and bring to light something we can learn to appreciate with joy.
What would do? A book, perhaps; a booklet, a series of sentences, a package of quotable quotes. Anything, no matter how small, only bring us something able to spell out the very thoughts we've never given ourselves enough courage to utter.
That book, that booklet, that series of sentences  could be, why not, John Updike's tiny little The Twelve Terrors of Christmas.
To make things clear from the get-go, Updike doesn't dismiss the fiction in the picture. He wouldn't. Why would he, since the fiction is good, the fiction is heart-warming? If he has something to say against anything, it's not the story that takes the brunt of his satire. He deals with the other fictions, the ones we find on the other side of celebration: the wrongly understood idea of merry-making, the mercantilism vows of ever-buying, the programmed blindness to the ideology of mirth.
The text of The Twelve Terrors of Christmas is already over two decades old. It was first published in The New Yorker, in 1992. Its structure poses no problem. Twelve vignette-sized pieces of satire, all easy to swallow, like pills prescribed against seasonal nausea, after having binged on everything that's bad for you. Every one of these tiny writings asks one rhetorical question or more, and with them Updike seems to instate something I'd happily call the Season of Rhetorical Questions. It's a season in which we are invited to bring out some of our best hidden doubts: the doubts we have learnt to overcome, in the name of the consumerist glory rolling like a tsunami over us every year. Some of these questions are funny, asked for the sake of a joke. In the case of "Santa: The Man" (the first vignette in the booklet), Updike has this to say/ask/interrogate:
"Loose-fitting nylon beard, fake optical twinkle, cheap red suit, funny rummy smell when you sit on his lap. If he's such a big shot, why is he drawing unemployment for eleven months of the year?"
Remark the double-adjectives in the first sentence. Then, once you've swallowed them whole, you can ask the relevant question. How often have you inserted the word "unemployment" in a sentence about Christmas? How many times have you doubted the beauty of the season in order to make light around its shoddy premises?
So you're getting the point.
These funny rhetorical questions are at their funniest and most rhetorical in the next text, the one entitled (with so much more promise, I would say), "Santa: The Concept." Once again, the point is apparent from the very title. And if it wasn't (damn the abstraction!), then here are the questions, rhetorical as ever, calling for the recognition of what has always been lurking in the back of your mind, only, perhaps, less jokingly:
"Why would anybody halfway normal want to live at the North Pole on a bunch of shifting ice floes? Or stay up all night flying around the sky distributing presents to children of doubtful deservingness?"
These are, obviously, questions best kept out of reach of your children, if what you're after is the preservation of an essentially beautiful fiction. But better be ready for the time, not too far away from the present moment, when you will have to give them this book and tell them, 'Read on, my darling victim of the grown-up lore, and laugh at your happy moments of yesteryear.' BTY, this ain't an Updike line, but how I wish I'd find it in his booklet! At least for the balancing effect of its tragic tone.

Source: From Shopping to Saving
But do not think the aim has gone amiss. Updike too wants to make apparent the tragic twist of the event of Christmas. In order to do so, he goes for our emotional jugular: our memories. And there he comes across carols. "The Carols," the booklet's vignette number seven, makes sad appeal to the withered power of those seasonal songs we used to sing in angelic voices, but which we're now sending toward different skies: the heights of shopping-mall ceilings. The statements and the questions on this page go as follows (in full quotation):
"They boom and chime from the vaulted ceilings of supermarkets and discount malls - and yet the spirits keep sinking. Have our hearts grown so terribly heavy, since childhood? What has happened to us? Why don't they ever play our favorites? What were our favorites? Tum-de-tum-tum, angels on high, something, something, sky."
And with the pondering of Christmas's grey area comes the confidence to dive into the darker matters, the real worries, the truly ridiculous anxieties, the awful truths of our Christmas debilitation. They grow out of the latter half of the dozen texts, as in "The Specials" ("Isn't there something else on, like wrestling or Easter Parade?"), in "Fear of Not Giving Enough," in "Fear of Not Receiving Enough" ("Three dull neckties and a pair of flannel-lined work gloves - is this really how they see you?"), in "Fear of Returns" ("The humiliating descent into mercantilism's boiler room"), and culminating with the most tenebrous of all Christmas moments, the moment when it is all over, when all lights are off, when everything has turned, indeed, pitch black, and when the mercantile world appears scary in its offensive nudity: "Is this Hell, or just an upturn in consumer confidence?"
Here it is, dear former boys and girls, dear current ladies and gentlemen: the drama of our having grown out of childhood. One strong-enough reason I have, like Updike, to say, again: 'Don't allow your kids to read this book.' Not yet...

Thursday, 18 December 2014

The freedom and the pain

Full title: Broken Nest and Other Stories
Author: Rabindranath Tagore (Translated by Sharmistha Mohanti)
Genre: Short stories
Attributes: 129 pages, paperback
Publisher: Westland (2009)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

The four stories in the volume have many things in common. They are stories about women, but not just that. They are stories about women caught in the whirlwind of a fundamental change. They are stories about women gaining access. Not to social or political recognition, but to a special kind of spiritual enlightenment, an awakening that puts their former subjecthood into sharp perspective.
The rise to spiritual freedom is always celebrated in Tagore's bucolic way: the characters are inscribed in a circuit of natural happiness, a sort of poetic ecology where the human being finds a gentler, more manageable form of the Sublime than the one that overwhelmed European readers in the nineteenth century.
"Every day, while listening to his voice the sky on the east became blood- red, next to the clouds there appeared streaks of sunlight, the darkness would fall away like the burst calyx of a blossoming bud, and the red flower of the morning would bloom little by little in the lake of the sky."
So goes a description in "The Ghat's Tale." But this is only one example. Hundreds of others can be found throughout the texts. One needs to read them to see.

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). Source: Voices, Compassion, Education
What's also common in all four stories is the significance of writing. When the rise of the heroines is measured, their progress takes the shape of the distinction between orality and literacy. The written form seems to always win. When looked at with a cold, critical eye, this may seem to be akin to playing the winning card of the empire. At the end of the day, the entire ideology of expansion has been built on this promise of acculturation, where writing was equated with enlightenment. But Tagore doesn't speak of English literacy. By writing he means Bengali writing. And by it he means a system of inscription that brings the spiritual out of its hiding place, into a world where it has to antagonise the transitory standards of public discourse.
When he does make reference to English, as, for instance, in the title story, Tagore does it in the tone of satire. Bhupati, the Chekhovian tragic character who sees in the Empire an unfulfillable (for him) promise, fails precisely there: in replicating the very writing standards he's decided to emulate.
"Ever since childhood he had liked writing and delivering speeches in English. Even when there was no need, he would write letters to English language newspapers, and even if he had nothing to express he would always say a word or two at formal gatherings."
The fact that Bhupati has trained himself in the journalistic discipline is significant: he deals in politics, where the Empire dominates with vindictiveness, as all empires do. In such a context, there's little room for him to grow. His wife, however, Charu, is of a different cut. Living in the shadow of her husband's poorly understood patriarchalism, she finds escape (Bovaric creature that she is) in literature. Her pleasures may be simple; at the end of the day, the literature she reads is hopelessly pathetic, lachrymose, melodramatic. But what she gets from the books she reads is precisely this respite from the political illusions of Bhupati. Out of an illusion and into another  this is how Tagore traces the trajectory of Charu's liberation-cum-tragedy. She learns the craft of writing from a man (her brother-in-law) who seems different but proves otherwise.
The story of Charu's education is complex. It is not a mere impregnation with knowledge, but rather a form of exchange. Charu and Amal learn from each other; or rather, they push each other into the world of writing. But the woman is bound to find the limits of her destiny. The bliss of writing is short-lived. While Amal rises to prominence as a consequence of his mastering of writing (a crooked public recognition for a talent that consists of mere reproductions of traditional models), Charu remains a domestic miracle. Her work, published in a prominent periodical, is innovative. It receives recognition from a critic who has a knack for originality. But this is not what she's after: not public recognition (which had defeated her husband and had driven Amal away from India, into the heart of the Empire), but private, spiritual growth. This growth means pain (not unlike, perhaps, the maturation of a body that grows unnaturally), and Tagore takes the opportunity to elaborate a lot on the subject.
The same growth is apparent in "The Ghat's Tale." In this story, where the narrative voice belongs, very peculiarly, to that most Indian of aquatic edifices, the ghat, a widowed woman finds spiritual rebirth when she meets a sannyasi. Here too, departure is necessary. Like Amal in "Broken Nest," the stronger male character is obliged to leave (in a way European readers might find, again, melodramatic) because their grander projects make a mundane relationship impossible.
And again, in "The Postmaster," an illiterate girl who learns writing from her master, has to part with the object of her adoration as soon as her enlightenment is accomplished. As observed by the editor/translator of the volume, Sharmistha Mohanty, water is an element of separation in Tagore's stories. In "Broken Nest," Amal leaves for England, travelling by a cruise ship. In "The Ghat's Tale," the widowed Kusum ends up offering herself as a sacrifice to the river Ganga. In "The Postmaster," the master becomes conscious of this separation while the boat he has boarded is slowly departing, leaving the recently enlightened girl to cry silently her disappointment.
So it can be agreed that, in each of these stories, enlightenment comes at a cost. It is the price of liberation that these characters are paying. And because of that, the human element is mostly sad, despondent. Hope and celebration only come about in the passages where Tagore goes about describing nature. Nature which, to him, appears to be the truly luminous face of the world.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Fast prose, prompt delivery

Full title: Tenth of December
Author: George Saunders
Genre: Short stories
Attributes: 288 pages, paperback
Publisher: Random House (2013)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

As usual, George Saunders' talent for writing rapid, concise, essentialised prose doesn't take long to shine bright. Sentences run like this:
"I flew down the hill, pushed Ma inside, sat her on the stairs, grabbed Harris by the shirt, put my foot behind him, dropped him to the floor. Then held a match to the carpet on the stairs and, once it started burning, raised a finger, like, Quiet, through me runs the power of recent dark experience." (“Home”)
A lot is happening in this one swipe, let's admit it. To cut to the chase, the chief technique here is the list: narrative bits get strung together in the fashion of bullet points. But there is also this unique ability of Saunders' to work out his sentences so as to communicate maximum of information by minimum of means. He drops adjectives (99% of the possible ones, I would guess – a true Hemingwayan that he is), avoids exaggerations, and bets everything on montage. Montage, of course, wins. Every time.
Saunders is also very good at capturing the false quips of Americana – that spirit, that mixture of heroism and dull indifference, of exaltation mixed implacably with ignorance. Take for example the dialogue (or should we call it trialogue, judging from the number of characters involved in this discussion?) in the same story, “Home,” about the American foreign wars: a casual conversation that raises one the essential questions of military bravery: Whose heroism? Or even more brutally: Who cares about it?
“I've been away a long time,” I said.
“Welcome back,” the first kid said.
“Where were you?” the second one said.
“At the war?” I said, in the most insulting voice I could muster.
“Maybe you've heard of it?”
“I have,” the first one said respectfully.
“Thank you for your service.”
“Which one?” the second one said.
“Aren't there two?”
“Didn't they just call one off?” the first one said.
“My cousin’s there,” the second said.
“At one of them. At least I think he is. I know he was supposed to go. We were never that close."
“Anyway, thanks,” the first one said, and put out his hand, and I shook it.
“I wasn't for it,” the second one said.
“But I know it wasn't your deal.” “Well,” I said.
“It kind of was.”
“You weren’t for it or aren’t for it?” the first said to the second.
“Both,” the second one said.
“Although is it still going?”
“Which one?” the first one said.
“Is the one you were at still going?” the second one asked me.
“Yes,” I said.
“Better or worse, do you think?” the first one said. “Like, in your view, are we winning? Oh, what am I doing? I don’t actually care, that’s what’s so funny about it!”
Saunders being Saunders, there's no shortage of characterisation in the volume. As per usual script, everything consists of brevity and efficiency. Characters are nothing if they don't behave as if some cataclysm was threatening the world and they had this single shot at telling everyone, with breathless haste, the story of their lives. As per the same script, there are often two or more characters in the same tableau, every one of them having their entire life summed up in a phrase or even (true narrative valor!) crammed into a word.
"I was currently the only working person in our family. Mom being sick, Beth being shy, Dad having sadly cracked his spine recently when a car he was fixing fell on him."
Not to understand from this that characters are built hastily, though. Not at all. In fact, many of them are capable of incredible complexities, as is the case, for instance, with the young characters in the opening story, “Victory Lap,” who reach maturity in the most tragic of ways: after killing and narrowly escaping rape, respectively.
Saunders' big advantage is that he knows the environments of his character very, very well. He uses this talent to build environments, so that the people he describes make sense because of the places they inhabit, whether these are a testing lab in a futuristic correction facility, the backyard of a house owned by a pair of obsessive-compulsive parents, a suburban setting where high social-capital needs fly dangerously low, etc. No matter what environment he chooses, Saunders shines in the art of describing the most trivial of details in terms that could be likened to field notes: scribbling down aspects of the quotidian and making it the play field of his characters. Then, based on these series of crude observations, truths come to the surface like water squirted out of a wet towel when you squeeze it like you mean it.

Source: Wicked Web
As already said in the beginning, from an ideological perspective, Saunders is very much invested in a critique of the American Illusion. He operates in an area for which there seems to be little precedent, and which I would call Institutional Realism. There is almost always an institution behind the scene of his short stories (if not a corporation, then the Army; if not the Army, then School). Following a trend he established as early as his first collection, back in 1996, Saunders takes a swipe at hierarchies, policies, corporate slavery, corporate bullying, high and/or middle-class consumerist tantrums, and things of similar import. Pharmaceutical companies are treated in the same ways as small family businesses. Never mind the differences in scale. What matters is the critique. What bothers is the logic of gain. What hurts is the cheap narcissism of the upstart. What's pitiful is the wasting of so many destinies. The list comprises the usual tropes of critical action. So Saunders is, after all, a proud member of the American satirists' elite of the Philip Roth kind, somewhere in the same boat with Junot Diaz, Gary Shteyngart, Ben Marcus, and a host of others – writers who can't help it when it comes to taking the piss, but at the same time take a deep breath to sigh with disappointment.

Thursday, 4 December 2014


Full title: CivilWarLand in Bad Decline
Author: George Saunders
Genre: Short stories and a novella
Attributes: 180 pages, paperback
Publisher: Riverhead (1997)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

I'd hate to be a character in George Saunders' stories, coz he would make me work my butt off and would throw me into the narrative bin as soon as I'm done with the labor.
By saying this I am touching (part of) the essence. The stories in the collection make full use of the characterological component and deal with almost everything through the agency of these poor (I mean mostly minor) characters met along the story line.
Saunders populates his texts with significantly large crowds of characters. Under normal circumstances, that would lead to organizational problems (chaos, to be more precise): how to manage these actors, how to send them off doing things, how to make sure you're not mixing them up, how to handle their crowd without seeming teacherly – that kind of organizational problems. But Saunders is a smart storyteller. He is well organized and he’s got a plan. He revels in the picaresque mode. In the picaresque (take Tom Jones for a good example), characters roam freely. They engage in actions without much interest in the outcome. They walk and drive and ride and hike and when they do so there's hardly ever a destination across the horizon – only the accidents that befall them, and for which they are forever grateful. When they meet other characters they look at them as nothing more than accidental encounters: no sweat, no piss, no hard sentiments.
So these are characters who, as I said, have a helluva lot to do. And they do it all in half a page or less. When they don't have things to do they have things to look at. When there are no things to look at they have a lot to talk about. Oh, yes, they talk. A. Lot. Especially the minor characters, who jump into discussions as if they didn't want to miss their only chance of self-affirmation. Which is very much the only shot they get (so – they’re actually right to be so jumpy after all).
Of course, these (and especially the narrators) are not mad characters. They are just overly perceptive. There's nothing escapes their wandering eyes. Nothing in the landscape, nothing in the demeanor of others. And they pepper their observations with considerable dozes of political analyses (mind you, well veiled behind narrative stunts).

George Saunders. Source: Slow Muse
There's one big thing everyone will tell you, in case I haven't said it already: George Saunders is a goddamn good storyteller. With this volume (his debut, no less, first published in 1996), you can see his favorite tools at work. The disengagement of the narratorial voice is one of them. Saunders builds his narration in such a way that he leaves you wondering if those things you've just seen unfolding on the page are the thoughts of the character, of the author, or (gee, now that's a thought!) perhaps your very own.
And then the way characters speak, as if they were all storytellers. Their ability to make a point in a jiffy is exquisite. Although sometimes they go overboard, saying, perhaps much more than a real person would say, or (if they're on the other side of the dialogue) waiting, patiently like hell, without interrupting, for the vociferous other to finish whatever it is they've got to say.
But this one aspect, about the speaking of Saunders' characters, is easy to justify, since every nut and bolt of his stories is put there with a single purpose in mind: to sing the narrative ode that puts the story together. I believe George Saunders has experimented, here as well as in his other volumes of fiction, with just about everything in his authorial sight that could aid the progression of a story.
So yes again, some of the techniques are easy to spot and they become a kind of trademark. As, for instance, the way new characters are introduced. It goes like this: the narrator bumps into a complete stranger. He knows nothing about the stranger: no name, no place, no space, no anecdotal detail. And with the narrator, we’re in the same blur. But luckily enough, through some kind of lucky coincidence, the narrator hears the stranger's name. And now (almost always starting from the sentence right next to the revelation), the new character is mentioned by the name we have just found out. We become intimate with the complete stranger, and the complete stranger starts telling their own story. With confidence. A very detailed story every time. We find out about their past, their present, their future, a thing or two about the relationships they are entertaining, and so the characters grow to life-size in no time.
But then, just as quickly as they appeared they disappear as well, and we're somehow left with the feeling that we've lost touch with a close acquaintance. We are, in other words, emotionally invested. And damn if we know how it's happened. It was maybe the familiarity of the landscape (names of places poured into the story until you have no choice but believe it's true); maybe the familiarity of the speech lines (they talk like Americans, breathe like Americans, drive cars, use furniture, dream about burgers like Americans – because, well, they are Americans); or maybe the familiarity of many situations (no way you'll find something over-the-top here, not even when you're in a post-apocalyptic setting). With all these options you never know what's hit you. But you're left with a good taste in your mouth after all. The taste of good stories. And that’s fine, because that’s what you've been looking for. So tick.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

The man who grew behind a beard

Full title: The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil
Author: Stephen Collins
Genre: Graphic novel
Attributes: NP, hard cover
Publisher: Jonathan Cape (2013)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

This book of comic strips is based on a narrative that grows. In a town where everything is tidy, where manners rule supreme, and where happily subjected citizens function like cogwheels in a well-greased mechanism, something unexpected brings the universe to the point of collapse. Dave (the name should say it all), a decent employee with mornings full of capitalist meticulousness, is horrified to see a beard growing on his face. Horrified? By a beard? Yes. Because in town beards are forbidden. They represent everything that's unwanted: untidiness, degradation, barbarity. So Dave, with the facial bush growing larger and larger, finds himself excluded from every civic setting that he used to care about. First the workplace, then his favorite eatery, then the neighbourhood, and finally the town, his very habitation.
In itself, the book rings certain familiar bells. The beginning of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet is the first one that springs to mind.

It sits well with the book’s beginning on several levels: the ordered universe, the linear urban architecture, the fences and the flowers breathing a bourgeois air of sweet laissez-faire. And then, of course, the fact that this empire of perfection and habit is shaken by a truth that lies hidden:
“Beneath the skin of everything is something nobody can know. The job of the skin is to keep it all in and never let anything show.”
The metaphor of the crawlers and worms employed by David Lynch to convey the same message is here invested solely in the person of the protagonist, whose appearance is an outrage and a simulacrum: not only because of the unexpected facial hair, but also because of his complete baldness, which he covers with a wig (a make-believe, an artifice, a fiction).
Dave’s presence is very, very important. He features in extreme close-ups repeated a dizzying amount of times, for emphasis; his individuality made obvious, so as to counteract the collective invisibility of the other townspeople, who resemble each other like mechanical reproductions of the same prototype.
“Soon enough Dave, who had for so long lived on the edge of things, became the centre of attention.”
This individuality, this singularity from behind appearances, is what’s required to shatter the uniform unfolding of the town’s repetitive life. The beard grown on Dave’s face takes apocalyptical dimensions. It grows and grows (like the story itself), it stretches beyond his face, beyond his room, beyond his house, overflowing into the street, into the neighborhood, into the world at large.
Another reference that pops up involves, perhaps, George Saunders’ witty novella, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil. There, the world is divided between two countries: Inner Horner and Outer Horner, one small (the country of one person), the other one terrifically large. There too, a character of an overly mundane name (Phil) puts the narrative machinery in motion and conquers the center-stage.

This reference to Saunders’ text is called for by the minimal geography featuring in The Gigantic Beard. As simple as the opposition between Inner and Outer Horner, the world in Stephen Collins’ graphic novel depends on a drastic contrast. The town is called, simply, Here, and it exists under the constant threat of There, the land beyond the sea, the dark side of a deeply alarmed collective unconscious. There is not even a presence – only a legend, a fantasy never confirmed. What’s really terrifying is the sea itself, the separation between Here and There, a contact zone and a menace at the same time.
“For much as [Dave] loved the street in front of his house, he hated what was behind it. The sea. All around the coast of Here, the houses were rock-bottom cheap and showed windowless walls to the great dark deep for a very good reason. Because Here, the sea… was a thing to fear. The sea led to There. There was disorder. There was chaos. There was evil. In fact, There was a place to which nobody has ever even been. No one alive, anyway. The stories were enough for most people, including Dave.”
Notice how Dave’s beard and the place called There share fundamental attributes: disorder, chaos, evil. It’s because of this resemblance that Dave ends up floating towards that place of incertitude, putting a hopeful end to the story, and leaving the scene shrouded in an aura of legend (just like the legend of There). When he disappears from town (after the officials decide to attach balloons to the ends of his beard), Dave leaves a gap in the orderliness of the place; a gap eventually re-filled, but a gap that returns to haunt the collective consciousness, with the undermining insistence of things once thought impossible.
The book thrives on these critical approaches. A sense of standing out of the crowd, of overturning rigidity, of refusing uniform citizenship, dominates the discourse of The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil. Language itself is called into question. Take the example of the toponyms mentioned above. Take also the example of the language of sense:
“’Because’ is a word used by ordered, order-loving beings about a world which they think is ordered. ‘Because’ is for storybooks. This is… Well, I know this is difficult to understand, Dave, but what we see here is becauselessness itself.”
Everything is turned upside-down this way. And all, because of a mere thread of hair.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Sound poetry (in both senses)

Full title: Inspired Notes
Author: Tomas Tranströmer; translated by John F. Deane
Genre: Poetry
Attributes: 80p, paperback
Publisher: Dedalus Press (2011)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

The poems in this collection grow out of something like a struggle with silence. They intensify their rhythms gently, they don’t disrupt, don’t do violence to the world. And yet, they do cast lights that renew the reader’s view of the same world. As if, through some mystery of language, they wake up with their eyes inverted, or with their ears replaced by other organs of sense.
What’s really worth pointing out is that Tomas Tranströmer is set to do poetry without shying away from the big things of his art. Life and death, for instance:
“In the midst of life it happens that death will come
taking the measurements of man. The visit
is forgotten, life goes on. But the costume gets
sewn in the silence.”

(“Black Picture Postcards”)
Many of his poems carry with them this shadow of ancient wisdom, like hieroglyphs from a pyramid or like runes on stones up north. Some of them sound like chants, others sound like riddles, others still like aphorisms. What unifies them is a massive presence of the narratorial “I,” which dominates almost all the poems in this collection. Autobiography grows out of this pronoun intersecting close-up observations and anecdotes. In the latter, the self of the poet is spotted living in corners, where it can safely enjoy its own powers of observation.
At times, the world is so great it becomes impossible to handle.
“I drag like a grapnel over the bottom of the world.
Everything that I don’t need gets caught.”
At other times, however, the “I” grows strong. Very strong. It does so with the help of the poet’s tools: language, words, verses, sounds. Mostly sounds. Tranströmer has a hunger for sounds and for their uttering – a poet who comes out of silence to produce poems whose utterances are exact, sharp, almost scientific, almost capable of generating a science of signs. I say almost, because there’s something that keeps these poems from becoming scientific specimens: the fact that they don’t stand examination. They are too concerned with parallelisms and comparisons to pay any lip service to a rigid science. When they handle measurements they do so in order to create reference points for the metaphors that will follow. As for instance here:
“Four billion people on the earth.
And they all sleep, they all dream.
In every dream faces crowd in, and bodies –
the people dreamed of more numerous than us.
But they take up no space…”
(“Dream Seminar”)
Wondering at the number of inhabitants of the earth is only a poetic trick here, of course: through the mimicking of surprise, a channel is built, through which the readers are drawn inside a familiar territory. And there, in that territory, they are left to ponder, while the rest of the poem unfolds, like armies on battlefields or like shoals of fish in deep waters. In the case of “Dream Seminars,” these shoals move direction with every instance of dreaming and with every reflection on the “perpetual new rehearsals.” These – competent specimens of oneirology – make reality fly at the first opening of an eyelid (or, to keep close to the poet’s words, of “the eyelids’ monastery walls”).

Tomas Tranströmer. Source: The Drift Records
Sometimes (quite often), Tranströmer’s poems take the rhythms of prose. There is a sense of narration going on. Take the example of the very first poem in the collection, “Short Pause in the Organ Recital.” The verses tell a story. They tell it with the breadth of long-winding lines and the breath of proper story-telling.
“The organ stops playing and is deadly silent of the church but only for a few seconds.So the faint humming passes through from the traffic outside, the greatest organ.”
The first line and a half put into words the motions of the world and the silence of the church. But they do nothing poetic. They resound like a glass ball in an empty glass: tautological, if you like, scene-setting at best. It’s with the arrival of the second half of the last line that poetry creeps in; it’s the metaphor that awakens us to this fact of poetry. And once that’s established, poetry comes in waves; it comes with thunders and seisms, with more metaphors:
“There glides the outside world like a transparent film and with shadows struggling in pianissimo.”
And so the two worlds (the outside and the inside) get mixed up and confused, as it should happen under the spell of poetry; memory hops on stage – but only to place the individual even deeper inside history:
“and as near to me as my blood, and as far away as a memory from a four-year-oldI hear the long-distance truck go by, causing the six-hundred-year-old walls to tremble.”
One could talk forever about these lines, because they inspire chatter in the reader, a sort of questioning of the grounds of the real, and an inspiration to look for similar anecdotes in one’s own life. That’s why Tranströmer’s poetry is captivating. Captivating as its discrete sounds.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

The scandal of an imagined murder

Full title: The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher
Author: Hilary Mantel
Genre: Fiction, short stories
Attributes: 242p, hard cover
Publisher: Fourth Estate (2014)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

It’s kind of hard to talk about Hilary Mantel’s latest collection of short fictions, after the rave and the anger created by the title story. Declaring that at one point in life she’d imagined assassinating Margaret Thatcher is, in some minds, almost equivalent to Mantel’s being guilty of the former PM’s death. Although the story I am talking about is straightforwardly fictional, it has managed to bring significant sensitivities to the surface, and thus turn all attention away from the obvious facts of the volume’s narrative significance.
Narratively put, therefore, “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher” depicts an old killer-meets-narrator situation. It’s about a radicalised sniper of Irish descent who enters the strategically situated apartment of a seemingly incautious woman, where he knows he can get the view for a perfect shoot. He’s determined to pursue his plan. At the same time, though, he is pursued by old habits, patriotic discourses, conventions of political martyrism, which seem, at times, to burden his conscience. One sentence describes him beautifully:
“He carried his own tea in his left hand and his gun in the right.”
The story is also about the inhabitant of the said apartment, a woman who gradually finds within herself the seeds for a similar radicalisation. Under the pressure of similar motivations, she grows steadily fond of the sentiment of wanting to kill the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Her reasons are commonly found, and because of this they are also merciless and acid-like:
“You can’t force pity from a government like hers. Why would she negotiate? Why would you expect it? What’s a dozen Irishmen to them? What’s a hundred? All those people, they’re capital punishers. They pretend to be modern, but leave them to themselves and they’d gouge eyes out in the public square.”
Here, in Mantel’s story, the demonization of Margaret Thatcher is performed to an extent where her becoming a target is no longer a moral problem but a statement of political retaliation.
“I thought there’s not a tear in her. Not for the mother in the rain at the bust stop, or the sailor burning in the sea. She sleeps four hours a night. She lives on the fumes of whisky and the iron in the blood of her prey.”
The story carries with it this constant moral tone of radicalism, mixed with the sarcasm and rhetoric of good old militant speeches. And that, indeed, makes it an interesting narrative. But “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher” is not the only story in the collection. Things can be said about the other fictions too, because they have aspects in common. As is the case with the issues of place and space, for instance.

Hilary Mantel. Source: The Guardian
Un-settled characters roam Hilary Mantel’s stories. They advance into their destinies with a sense that the places they inhabit are too unpleasant to be liked. They seem to cherish the idea of being somewhere else. Some other place, maybe some other story too. The protagonists of “Sorry to Disturb” find it difficult to live in the city of Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia (“this crazy city,” as one of them calls it). The narrator in “Harley Street” has the same problem of inadaptation to an urban setting that’s not quite up her alley:
“One day I’ll get further out of town. Somewhere just big enough for me. Somewhere small and quiet.”
Another thing these stories have in common is the theme of memory. Here, memory too (concerned not with space but with time) is a faulty mechanism. Throughout the volume there are plenty of occasions to prove it. In “Terminus,” the narrator struggles to remember a significant event in her relation to her dead father.
“My mind tried to provide occasions to which it could go back, but none occurred. I coveted something sweet, a glass of hot chocolate to warm my hands, an Italian wafer dusted with cocoa powder. But my mind was cold and my intention urgent.”
It is this urgency that produces the effect of anxiety at the thought of not being able to recollect what was meant to be meaningful; and Hilary Mantel’s protagonists (most of whom bear the burden of the narrator’s role as well) bump into events as if they had appeared there in an out-of-space-out-of-time fashion, or as if they were meant to stay hidden, like untold stories.
“Even after all this time it’s hard to grasp exactly what happened. I try to write it as it occurred but I find myself changing the names to protect the guilty.”
(“Sorry to Disturb”)
And speaking of memory, in “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher” it’s highly significant that memory is of an event that never happened. So significant, it makes for a good reflection on the nature of chance; chance which, in essence, is a narrative matter – a matter of combinations:
“History could be otherwise. For there is the time, the place, the black opportunity; the day, the hour, the slant of the light, the ice-cream van chiming from a distant road near the bypass.”

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Hygiene porn: a new genre?

Full title: Wetlands
Author: Charlotte Roche; translated by Tim Mohr
Genre: Fiction, novel, erotica
Attributes: 230 pages, hard cover
Publisher: Grove Press (2009)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

What’s interesting about this book that pretends to be pornographic is that it sheds its layers of porn gradually, like an onion. Charlotte Roche is a clever young writer in this regard. The novel starts off abruptly, shockingly, attention-grabingly, and she acquires the desired effect from page one.

“As far back as I can remember, I’ve had hemorrhoids. For many , many years I thought I couldn’t tell anyone. After all, only grandfathers get hemorrhoids. I always thought they were very unladylike.”

What novels start this way? Where else have you seen (apart from Etgar Keret who, with his dedication to storytelling, would make a subject for a ‘short’ out of almost anything) a piece of fiction concerned with hemorrhoids? An entire novel, no less? When has literature indicated that there may be room in it for such subjects?
This is the point, at the very beginning, when the first clarifications are being made, when the reader decides: is this for me, or is it not? The ones who decide to go on will go on. Some will find awful things in the novel, the way ugly things are expected to be found in forbidden lands. Some will cover their mouths in disgust. Others will rejoice at the encounters with the human body like they've never seen before. Since it keeps in line with the genre of pornographic literature, Wetlands is a book full of bodily exposures and descriptions of intimate organs, functions, fluids, solids, smells, tastes, touches, sounds, sights, ejaculations, masturbations, excitations, orgasms.

A book said to have sold more than one million copies was very likely
to inspire some film adaptation, Set to be released in 2015, Wetlands,
the film, has big boots to fill. At least in terms of popularity.

Simply put, this is a narrative about a young woman who goes through a surgical procedure for the removal of her hemorrhoids. Given the topic, there must be no surprise. You've been worn, dear reader, from the very first page! You’ll have to put up with a protagonist who calls herself an “ass patient,” and who gives it her all to describe every single detail that can make a puritan’s reading experience a nightmare: not only things of sexuality but also things of religion (yes, she’s an atheist, and one with a very strong disgust for religious symbolism) or things of risky adulterous inclinations (there’s an Oedipal complex alright – how could there not be one?).

And so, along with a seemingly compromised narrator, the story advances. Little they know, though, the puritans and the handkerchiefed, how much more there is to be found in Wetlands. There is, for instance, a sense of claustrophobia, whose strong cultural roots are easily made apparent. The action takes place exclusively is an urban setting, in the enclosure of a hospital room, where lives are dictated by functions rather than proper relations. Helen, the protagonist, leaves the room for the first time at page 139. Her real task is not to come out of the operation rejuvenated, but to fix a problem: to reunite her separated parents. The theme may sound familiar. It has been used millions of times in fiction. But there’s something that stands out in this type of porn whose justifications are moral: the text poses questions; the reader is invited to ponder. Wetlands speaks of false idols. It speaks, for instance, of hygiene in order to expose the fabricated symbols of the discourse:
“This idiotic notion of washing pesticides off fruit and vegetables is the biggest joke there is. My dad taught me. These days you learn it in schools too. In chemistry. The chemicals that are sprayed on produce to keep away vermin and fungus are so strong that they penetrate the skin of tomatoes and grapes. You can wash them until your fingers shrivel. Nothing comes off. If you don’t want to eat pesticides with your fruit and vegetables, you shouldn’t buy them at all.”

With a passage like this the entire discourse of public hygiene, with its civic connotations and its educational strongholds, is placed under an enormous question mark. The point is highly significant in a novel that claims its descent from good old pornographic literature. Cleanliness opposed to filth, obedience opposed to revolt, language opposed to bodily fluids, a hospital opposed to the patient, a family opposed to its own unity – all these things come to the surface one by one; a series of binary oppositions that cannot go unnoticed. And as they do so, the glaring pornography in the text loses ground. Wetlands becomes a moral novel, a text calling for ethical readjustments in the name of a protagonist that’s so individualizes she cannot possibly fit into standards. I like to think about this novel like this: not by pointing out the unceremonious treatments of the human body, but by seeing in it a text where a little emancipation takes place with every single irreverence.

With a little bit of philosophy and attention to similar details,
Slavoj Zizek touches on something very much present in Wetlands:
the suspicion that beyond hygiene there must be something else.

Of course, there are pleasures to be gained by the reader who expects to enjoy a text from the species Erotica. Of course, there are taboos, banned topics, prohibited body parts. It would be unfair not to have them at all. But what’s more important is that Wetlands manages to call into question even its proper genre. At the end of the day, let’s be honest: what respectable pornographic novel has ever discussed hemorrhoids?

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Stories about stories about stories

Full title: Suddenly, A Knock on the Door
Author: Etgar Keret; tr: Miriam Shlesinger, Sondra Silverston, Nathan Englander
Genre: Fiction, shorts
Attributes: 190p, paperback
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2012)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

Etgar Keret's fiction has a flavour of its own. It tastes of good storytelling, and leaves in the reader's mind important questions such as these: Where the hell does he get them? How long before one plot starts catching roots inside his mind? How on earth does he generate the sparks that get the engine rumbling, the wheels spinning, the narrative machines rolling forth? Is he for real? Is he on something?
The flavour of Etgar Keret's stories also develops from their structural homogeneity. There is almost always a beginning that poses a problem or calls attention to a strange fact or other (one, let's say, that didn't seem to have a place in fiction): "Have you ever wondered what word is most frequently uttered by people about to die a violent death?" ("Cheesus Christ"); "I know a guy who fantasizes all the time" ("Shut"); "This is the story of a man who suffered from a hemorrhoid" ("Hemorrhoid").
Then there are beginnings that simply can't go unnoticed. They make you read the rest with the curiosity and fascination of an addict: "My son wants me to kill her" ("Teamwork"); "The whole incident with Avishai Abudi should, in my opinion, set a red light flashing for us all" ("Pudding"); "Three of the guys she dated tried to commit suicide" ("Not Completely Alone").
There's a load of potential in these first sentences. They blow the air of life into each story and enable them to lead a life of healthy fantasy. But let's set the record straight: these first sentences are no tricks; they don't pretend to deliver without actually delivering. The promise they make is always fulfilled. If these beginnings are outstanding, the "bodies" of the stories that follow are equally gratifying. "It began with a kiss," says the first sentence of "Unzipping," and then in the story that follows we encounter people provided with zippers like stuffed toys, who change their appearance in order to plunge into new love affairs. "Healthy Start," which opens with a sorry protagonist who finds himself unbearably lonely after conjugal separation, develops into a narrative in which we find the man engaging in conversations with strangers and pretending he was the person the strangers had come to meet.

Source: ECYC
So you see how everything in Etgar Keret's stories hinges on originality. There's always a twist, always a treat for the reader, always a fantastic world bringing itself to light.
Readers have no chance of waxing disinterested. Their engagement is continuous. Before they even recover from the punch of the beginning and the surprise of the development, they are left with their mouth agape when the story ends abruptly. And when I say this I don't mean to say Etgar Keret's stories end in full stops. Rather, they end in something that looks like commas. No end-of-road in sight, only the promise of a further journey. Indeed, the general feeling, after having read any of the texts in the collection, is that there's more to be found outside the given story.
And so, these endings slash the horizon open in order to reveal, beyond the vanishing point, the fantasy of a world always happy to show its artificial essence.
There's, obviously, a major point to all of this. Etgar Keret cares not only about his stories but about Story. He experiments with form as well as with content. He orders his texts in such a way as to make them work together. And if this is not immediately apparent, wait till you reach "The Story, Victorious":
"This story is the best story in the book. More than that, this story is the best story in the world. [...] This story is a unique Israeli innovation. [...] Just as our army is the best army in the world - same with this story. We're talking here about an opening so innovative that it's protected by registered patent. And where is this patent registered? That's the thing, it's registered in the story itself!"
This, right here, is not only a story. It is the story of the entire collection, and a story about storytelling; in it, the simplest truth that can be uttered is that narratives need no support: they legitimate themselves and give themselves the right to shine. A truth so simple, it sounds like an experiment in telling (of stories, if not of other things as well). But to be honest, Keret's experimental attitude was apparent from the very first text: the one that gives the collection its title, "Suddenly, a Knock on the Door." Here, already, the story is a meta-story, featuring characters who ask the protagonist to tell them a story and threaten to kill him if he shows any signs of fatigue or failure. With such a set-up, it comes as little surprise that the rest of the volume (and the rest of Keret's oeuvre, for that matter) behaves so eccentrically, always avoiding, with precision and excitement, the docile core of traditional storytelling.
Reaching the end of these stories, after having journeyed through their eccentricity, feels like a hurt of some sort. Perhaps the kind you got when you were a kid and the grown-ups gave you sweets: you wanted more because you loved the rush, but they kept insisting that you should be content with this only one they were willing to give. You didn't know they were tantalising your imagination. You didn't know they were giving you a story to chew.