Thursday, 28 May 2015

"The ping and the pong of America"

Full title: The Making of Zombie Wars. A Novel
Author: Aleksandar Hemon
Genre: Novel
Attributes: 320 pages, hardcover
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2015)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

When you see the title you know straight away that there’s fun to be had from reading this novel. And the fun begins alright, yet slowly, gradually – because nothing can proceed unless we have some good introductory chapters first. So here it goes: Joshua Levin, a young would-be writer based in Chicago, is facing the mother of all creative impasses. He’s tried his hand at various genres, but after a while decided that film scripts are the go-to enterprise. So he proceeds to writing them. No success. Projects die one after another. He’s joined a group of other would-be’s, with whom he shares this destiny of being in an eternal bottleneck. They get together to discuss writing that never takes place and end up, almost invariably, with their minds assaulted by sexual ideation or drowned in cheap oxidized wine.
Case in point, the following dialogue:
“’American movies always have happy ending,’ Bega said. ‘Life is tragedy: you’re born, you live, you die.’
‘This could be like a European art-house movie. Which would be good because you could show tits,’ Graham said, pausing to picture the tits.”
Of course, what Hemon wants to point out here is the cultural break that divides these two cultures he’s concerned with: the Easter-European one (a culture of immigrants who have too many stories to tell and no chance to do it properly) and the American one (where things make sense only if they’re showy, over-the-top, kitsch). In fact, Bega, the Bosnian, doesn’t lose a single opportunity to highlight, in his accent-ridden voice, this division. He does so with the typical air of contempt that behooves respectable immigrants:
“’I was thinking, Josh,’ Bega said. ‘Why America now must have superheroes? Why can’t you just have normal heroes? John Wayne was not good enough, now you must have Batman?’”
And a couple of pages further down, again, because nothing is sweeter than the taste of cultural revenge:
“’Tell me why is that,’ Bega said, ‘last eight presidents have simple names: Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Clinton, two with Bush. You used to have Washington, Roosevelt, and Eisenhower, and then something happened. You can’t elect your president with complicated name anymore. Idiot voters have to be able to spell fucking name.’”
Mocked, Joshua flexes his artistic muscle even harder, trying to achieve the impossible. He keeps a record of all the ideas that cross his mind at various points in time. There are many of them. He has them numbered, neatly catalogued in the memory of his personal computer. He brings them out every now and then as personal reminders that work needs to be done if artistic immortality is desired. But there’s no joy in the exercise, because he never gets to the point of materialization. His writing sucks, to put it bluntly; and he knows it. Nothing has come out yet from under his unconvincing finger tips. Nothing, that is, except this script idea for a film called Zombie Wars.

Aleksandar Hemon. Source: KCET
Steeped in American dullness, Joshua has a life best described as minor. His food is bland, his family is concerned with inconsequential Jewish problems, his whole life’s a sub-product better imagined as part of a low-budget B-series movie. He can’t even enjoy the prospect of dreams.
“Joshua hated sleeping, but waking up was worse. Nightmares were not the problem: he never really had any. Nobody ever bothered to chase him in his dreams; he never plunged from a tall building to wake up just before exploding like a pomegranate, nor did he ever experience even the vaguest presence of death. There was little violence, only occasional vanilla sex, his dreams damp rather than wet, his subconscious a Wilmette where he was forever sleepily immortal.”
Trapped in this dreamless Americanness, it’s a miracle Joshua doesn’t turn into a Norman Bates or some solo-act of Bonnie and Clyde.
Truth is he doesn’t have a chance to become wild, simply because he doesn’t have the guts. He flees conflict, avoids his mad landlord, avoids his family, avoids the happiness that seems likely to catch roots in the company of his near-perfect Japanese girlfriend, avoids – ultimately – writing the script of his own life. Hence the general feeling of his being completely and utterly (excuse the word) fucked: a looser in the most specific sense of the word, eligible to feature in the world’s best galleries of all-time losers.
After a while, though, things get moving and everything that was dull in the beginning turns into a fast-paced Hollywood-like production. There’s drama (Joshua’s father discovering that he has prostate cancer), romance (a lot of it, but of the problematic kind, with the Japanese girlfriend gone from perfect match to utter hater, aided by a Bosnian contender impossible to resist), adventure (featuring the colourful landlord by the name of Stagger, who brandishes a samurai sword and gets his butt kicked big time, and not just once), and even bits of thriller (with a bunch of other Bosnians in close-up, just to make sure we don’t forget who Aleksandar Hemon is).
With action cropping up at superhighway speeds, The Making of Zombie Wars turns hilarious and sad at the same time. A sympathetic reader will surely feel for the protagonist’s sorry ass, but will LOL at the encounter with Stagger, the novel’s best, if not only, truly comic character (“If ever a man was entitled to a cape and light saber, it was Stagger.”)
Then one must admire Hemon’s talent for destroying every cliché that ever comes his way. There are moments when one is reminded of those comedies in which a seemingly melodramatic plot ends with a turntable scratch that makes the audience aware that this ain’t nothing but a joke. Take this, for instance, for a ruined bucolic:
“All across the wide world, spring was landing on its fairy feet. Everywhere, trees were budding and coming into leaves, ground thawing and earthworms stirring, dog shit defrosting and releasing the pungent stink that brought back memories of springs past.”
As per example, Hemon knows irony well, and proves to be a good adept of the new American wave of novelists, who take the Mickey out of everything but do so with intelligence, elegance, and sophistication. (See Chuck Palahniuk, George Saunders, Gary Shteyngart, Junot Diaz etc. etc.) Some of Hemon’s metaphors, let’s admit it, rock. Take “clouds floated like meringue zeppelins” for an example. But metaphors aren’t everything that stands out. Hemon also engages perfectly with the critical vein of the American club, seeing where America is weak and hitting precisely there, for maximum effect:
“Hope sold, of course, and well; it was the corn syrup of existence, fast burning and addictive. On the other hand, it was cheap and everywhere. Hope and war: the ping and the pong of America.”
There would be numberless other occasions to quote Aleksadar Hemon, now at his sixth book, already a victor of American letters. Part of his talent is that he knows how to scatter quotable bits throughout the text. The novel expertly apes the prose of religious sermons, it mimics Spinoza, it offers brilliant philosophical gems, it mixes script excerpts into the novelistic fabric. It does all sorts of novel-writing prestidigitation, and a lot of it comes out well. A multi-voice enterprise, The Making of Zombie Wars is a novel worth keeping in one’s personal library for some time.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Michael Ondaatje: “Images only from memory”

Full title: The Cat's Table
Author: Michael Ondaatje
Genre: Novel
Attributes: 293 pages, hardcover
Publisher: Jonathan Cape (2011)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

Michael Ondaatje’s most recent novel (four years old at this point in time) is a book of passages. It tells the story of three boys travelling between Sri Lanka and England on the transoceanic Oronsay, during the summer of 1954. It tells the story of what went on, during that three-week journey that’s been never forgotten. It tells the story of how the people on board passed from one small island at the end of the Indian subcontinent to a bigger island at the end of Europe.
A sense of a spectacle full of surprises mixed with water and patches of moon permeates through the narrative suppleness and the poetic subtleties of Ondaatje’s prose. The ship itself is a big floating stage, where the passengers play their roles in a space where there is, really, nothing else to do. Once the boys are boarded and the Oronsay starts floating on, they find themselves in a different world, one of freedom but also one of apprehension, where they are “no longer free of the realities of the earth.”
Because of this encounter with the unprecedented (born in Colombo, not far from the sea, they still remember their homes as grounded certainties: territories of earth, not of water), the passengers gather together to construct a universe whose meaning is limited to the time and space of the ship. The narrative gives sufficient hints to inform the reader that nothing of what they are witnessing is the characters’ normal way about things.
The voyage is a game; a game for the boys, who see through events as if they did not matter beyond their immediate happening; a game for the other passengers too, who put on various masks in order to enjoy a short-term life of differences and quasi-anomalies.
The passage, the narrator insists in this story told years later, was not what one might call splendid. Not in its original unfolding. Like all formative events, the formativeness of this passage becomes significant only in hindsight:
“It is only now, years later, having been prompted by my children to describe the voyage, that it becomes an adventure, when seen through their eyes, even something significant in a life.”
It is important that we keep this in mind while reading The Cat’s Table, because this way the question of childhood (inexperience, naivety, and everything else that comes with it) can be brought up again and again. Now, at maturity (the novel’s ‘time zero of narration’), the events are recounted to minds as young as those of the protagonists, participating in the unlikely formation of this generation that grew after the events.
What we’re made to understand from this series of stories remembered as if they were coming from a different world, is that everything – everything – is the product of memory. Impractical, restorative, unreliable memory.
“For us, this was an era without the benefit of photography so the journey escaped any permanent memory. Not even one blurred snapshot of my time on the Oronsay exists in my possession to tell me what Ramadhin really looked like during that journey. A blurred dive into the swimming pool, a white-sheeted body dropping through the air into the sea, a boy searching for himself in a mirror, Miss Lasqueti asleep in a deckchair – these are images only from memory.”
This state beyond documentation lays the ground for fiction. It is, in fact, the perfect incubator for fantasy and for imagination. Without facts, the universe is open to speculations: forms of creative remembering.

Michael Ondaatje. Source: University of North Texas
Autobiographic by default, every writing gesture questions the relevance of memory and its ability to go back to a beginning that is forever fragile. “Whatever we did had no possibility of permanence,” the narrator says at some point. The impermanence of events is the one true theme of The Cat’s Table. Impermanence aided by the fact that this voyage towards an unknown place is recounted as an event in itself: a series of incidents with their own internal logic, held together not by linear biography but by a floating device. That’s why the novel ends at the arrival. In three pages, the episode of Michael’s meeting his mother (who has been waiting for him in London all this time) is done with; without emotional charge, without a mother-son love collision.
That’s because what really matters is not the reunion but the breaking of the party: the fact that the journey ended and, with it, the magic of the show broke up as well. At the arrival, certainty takes front stage again. No more room for fantasy and artifice, no more imagining about. All of that was the ship’s magic, a thing of the past. Now, giving the sea its due, the land puts everybody’s feet to the ground; literally, ordinarily, most prosaically.
But let’s return to the voyage. Given the lack of means to record the events, the narrator’s recollections will have to be regarded as the only accounts of the journey, the only reliable (to an extent) sources of information about a three-week period that was never memorised otherwise.
And so, the boys seem to be under the constant pressure of a duty to witness. Throughout the voyage, they watch and listen. They stand hidden in the darkness of a life boat, covered by the tarpaulin, furtively seeing and listening to events as they unfolded. This sense of witnessing becomes apparent everywhere in the novel. Sometimes, it suggests confusion – like the confusion in the minds of the young protagonists:
“We were never sure of what we were witnessing, so that our minds were half grabbing the rigging of adult possibility.”
At other times, the sense of testimony appears as a necessary training for a future when the events are meant to gain significance:
“Over the years, confusing fragments, lost corners of stories, have a clearer meaning when seen in a new light, a different place.”
This is the core of Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table: the facts of fiction adding memory to existence.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, together (again)

Full title: Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Mexican Modern Art
Author: Helga Prignitz-Poda
Genre: Exhibition catalogue
Attributes: 144 pages, hardcover
Publisher: Skira Rizzoli (2015)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

As we speak, the NSU Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale is hosting (February 26 – May 31, 2015) this almost obligatory exhibition of Mexican Modern Art, at the centre of which stand the works of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Full title: Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera from the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection & 20th Century Mexican Art from the Stanley and Pearl Goodman Collection. The book I’m looking at here is the catalogue of the exhibition, edited by Helga Prignitz-Poda, a Kahlo expert and curator specialized in Mexican art. The book is an object as well as an event. It makes apparent the exhibition’s coherence and its spirit, surveying works by the sonorous representatives of Mexican muralism, José Clemente Orózco and David Alfaro Siqueiros, or by many of the Surrealists who, like Rufino Tamayo or Francisco Toledo, have given modern Mexican art its distinctive flavors, twists and fantasies, as well as its solid Zapotec roots.
But the centre of this vortex is, obviously, the two-headed hybrid Kahlo-Rivera. The book starts with them and somehow, in the readers’ subconscious, ends with them.
Classed, almost against their wish, as Surrealists, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera are doubtless the most famous of Mexican artists of all times. They differed a lot, and the book wastes no opportunity to point this out. The couple, who somehow came down in history as near-archetypes of love, are described here from the point of view of separation. Artistic separation, to be sure, because this is what the catalogue is really interested in; the rest of their story having already become legend.
“When Kahlo painted surrealistically she took the iconography of everyday life and created estrangements in order to describe the surreal quality of her own reality. When Rivera painted in a surrealistic manner, he took found objects in the landscape, contemplated them, and exaggerated their peculiar forms of appearance.”
To illustrate this statement, the author mentions Landscape with cacti (a Rivera of 1931), and also Kahlo’s The Two Fridas (1939), their most iconic canvases. But there are plenty other examples to confirm the story of their divergence.
Yes, the differences between the two are their most apparent artistic feature, but also a feature that appeared just as relevant in life. Rivera, masculine, grand, dominant, worked on a scale that transgressed the human dimension. His choice, later in his career, of mural painting (which is, perhaps, the turn that’s made him really famous) is indicative of this domineering outlook. Big, but also capable of sentiments – of big sentiments, that is –, his work impresses by scale but also by quantity.
“Rivera’s catalog of works comprises several thousand oil paintings and more than forty-three thousand square feet of murals.”
This was, no doubt, a man who painted beyond necessity; a man who painted like there was no tomorrow.
Kahlo, on the other hand, worked diminutively. One finds out from the catalog that only 140 of her works are extant now, and most of them are paintings on a small scale. There’s an explanation for this:
“Kahlo’s oeuvre remained small because the act of painting was physically difficult for her, despite almost thirty operations undertaken to counteract her gradually worsening state of health.”
Because of this, perhaps, Kahlo represented herself more than anything else. Her self-portraits, where she appears and disappears in waves of realism and surrealism, are indicative of an obsession with the self that’s narcissistic, but of a strange kind of narcissism, which is not precisely self-glorifying but rather self-exploring. One can see that in the decorativeness of her poses, in the static (doll-like) qualities of her face, in the flamboyance of her colour schemes.

Source: BBC
With Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera at the centre of everything, the Mexican art of the twentieth century has always found its recognition. And, as the catalogue seems to point out, it will be long before the place of honour is taken by someone else.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

The girl in evening gloves

Full title: The Adventuress
Author: Audrey Niffenegger
Genre: Graphic Novel
Attributes: 144 pages, hardcover
Publisher: Harry N. Abrams (2006)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

A girl wearing only a skirt and a pair of elbow-long gloves: this is the protagonist, the Adventuress. She lives on aquatint plates, courtesy of Audrey Niffenegger (best known for The Time Traveler’s Wife, and  the film, of course), and that’s why she’s such a beautifully monochromatic creature. The whiteness of her skin provides all the contrast needed; she rises on every page not unlike the light of the moon on a dark sky.
In a little blurb at the end of the book, Niffenegger confesses that she started everything in the 1980s, in the form of a scrap book. The plates made then were loosely connected; the protagonist was, then, a creature without a coherent story. Some of that has been preserved in the book version too. The Adventuress (let’s call her that, via the title – otherwise her author doesn’t give us a single clue: she’s “she,” “her,” nothing nominal, pure anonymity) traverses the book – i.e. her own story – as a victim. To start with, she’s not begotten but manufactured. Her father, an alchemist, makes her the way he must have made a philosophical stone or two. Governed, as it seems, by that masculine ambition of creators who create without a single care about the creature’s destiny, the father, contented as only an alchemist can be, clasps his hands in admiration when the girl emerges on the page, as well as in his life. Emergence – would that be a good word to describe the act of coming-to-life that isn’t birth but something else? Why not?
She learns, of course, things of alchemy. There are caterpillars and butterflies that circle her in tight loops. Caterpillars and butterflies which, of course, are creatures of metamorphoses, creature that challenge the logic of coming-to-life.
The father watches while she learns. He’s content once more.
This is the first man in the Adventuress’ life. Soon, though, the second man appears: the powerful Baron von K., a man dipped in shadows and surrounded by servants who do everything for him, while he’s enjoying the necessary invisibility of his authority. The Adventuress fares badly in the castle of this mysterious baron. Like female subjects the world over, she too is surrounded by eyes. Her being is the target of many a gaze.
There’s nothing she can do about those pupils watching her moves. But there’s something else she can do. She can burn the castle down; which is exactly what she does, leaving the Baron to burn inside. When the castle is in flames, the Adventuress fleas, but she’s quickly apprehended, brought back, tried, convicted, imprisoned, shamed, subjected by the patriarchal authority once more.
Given the prison and the promise of an eternity spent there, the alchemist’s daughter finds escape in fantasy. In the barren cell to which she’s been consigned, she fashions a cocoon. A former companion of caterpillars, what’s it to her to turn herself into a chrysalis, just like that? She weaves the cocoon from threads she’d unraveled from her skirt (which makes her, obviously, naked). She spends the winter in the cocoon and then, when spring comes, evades through the rails of her cell – metamorphosed into a moth.
The subsequent episodes see her encountering none other than Napoleon Bonaparte; yet a different Napoleon, who doesn’t go to wage a war but to accomplish another manly feat of infidelity. Meantime, the Adventuress gives birth to Maurice. Maurice – a black cat! Extracted from her uterus like a white rabbit from a magician’s hat. Betrayed, the Adventuress finds consolation only in the presence of Maurice. Maurice, who sees her to the very last moment – to the moment of death. Maurice, who, once the Adventuress is dead, brings her back to Napoleon for an improbable resurrection.

Audrey Niffenegger. Source: Creative Tourist
This is all there is to the book. The story is simple – very simple. Like a montage with abrupt cuts, the episodes are distinctively separated and there seems to be no attempt at hiding the seams.
The same can be said, of course, about language. What stands out is a forthright lack of metaphors. Somewhat, somewhere, the impression has been formed that graphic novels with any modicum of metaphysical background must have layers of meaning, evidenced in a language that requires deciphering (if you don’t put your mind to it, you miss the point). But Niffenegger doesn’t do intricacies. She speaks so plainly, there’s almost nothing quotable in her book. Only the end, perhaps, stands out:
“Her spirit flew out into the night
And the sky reached down
And drew her up,
And she was filled with light…
 And she is happy.”
But even this cannot be quoted unless there’s room for the story to be transported somewhere else. The change in tense indicates that there must be another dimension, an outside where the character keeps leading a life in which she’s finally happy. And that’s, perhaps, where the story must be looked for now.