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.

Monday, 7 September 2015

The curious complications of Manuel Gonzales

Full title: The Miniature Wife and Other Stories
Author: Manuel Gonzales
Genre: Short stories
Attributes: 304 pages, paperback
Publisher: Riverhead (2013)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

It’s pretty hard to find a word able to satisfactorily define the kind of prose Manuel Gonzales writes. One might be tempted to say fantasy, because there’s a lot of out-of-this-world stuff in the volume (zombies, werewolves, swamp monsters, unicorns etc.), but the term wouldn’t do justice to anything in its proximity. Fantasy is about Lala-lands (I’m sure there are better words than these to name them, but what the heck), with no connections to the one we’re in. Well, that definition wouldn’t even scratch the surface, because most of Gonzales’s style relies precisely in the realistic effect they deliver, in spite of all the crazy things he makes up. Then how about magical realism? That would explain pretty well the mix of reality and less-than-reality that scream at you from every single story. But wait. Magical realism goes about doing things so as to avoid drawing anybody’s attention to the artificial nature of the ‘magic’ involved. A magical realist who writes short stories (let’s say in the tradition of Julio Cortázar and/or Gabriel García Márquez) would have butterflies filling a room just like that, or an inundation in an apartment overflowing into the street – and there would be no wink addressed to the reader. But with the stories in Gonzales’s collection the reader is constantly given that friendly nudge in the ribcage: the got-it? kind of jolt that indicates that hey, don’t forget, this is a work of fiction.
Here’s how a story by Manuel Gonzales takes place. We’ve got a situation. A crazy situation. I mean a crazy-crazy situation. Like a music composer speaking through his ears. That’s just to bring a simple example to the table. Then, once the reader has rolled his/her eyes, the party starts. Everything that follows is a series of reinforcements to the framework of this outlandish situation. In most cases, the situation is so out of touch with reality (I was going to say so schizophrenic) that the reader’s attention is almost guaranteed. And once you’re in, Gonzales can work on further complications. They are pretty good pieces of narrative work, these complications. And they manage to build a universe of Gozalesque atmosphere, where everything is possible and everything is likely to turn really bad.
Ok, now. My favorite. We’re talking about a story only six pages in length, but an excellent example of a narrative complication that would look great in a film. “Cash to a Killing” is about these two guys, professional hitmen by the sound of it, who are observed while burying their latest victim. That’s the gist. One can see it with ease. But things get complicated. And more complicated. And more complicated. So everything evolves from bad to worse to disastrous, only to finish in a comic twist so sad that it’s actually tragic. Summarizing the story would be cruel and an unpardonable spoiler to boot. So I guess I can only recommend it. Anybody interested, remember: “Cash to a Killing.” Luckily, it’s been published in 2007 in the Esquire, so available online.

Manuel Gonzales. Source: The Daily Beast
Now, to speak of the title story, let’s say it’s a modern version of Gulliver’s adventures in Lilliput. As the title indicates, though, the little men have been replaced by the narrator’s wife, who’s turned small because the narrator himself, a mad scientist of sorts, has done it to her. Complications appear here too. The wife doesn’t like being belittled so. Literal diminution wouldn’t sit well with anybody, male or female, would it? So she sets up traps for the husband, he isolates her in a miniature house, she cheats on him with a colleague who’s miniaturized himself to do the job, he wants to kill her, she wants to kill him, and the story goes on and on. It doesn’t even reach a clear conclusion, if that helps. But that’s exactly what makes it interesting: the whole infrastructure of events and incidents that seem absolutely okay once we have accepted the idea that there’s a character turned into a mini-person.
What’s also noticeable in the volume is the series of so-called “Meritorious Lives.” Five of them. They are short pieces that outline the life of fictional characters but in ways that mimic the tone of biographies. Hence their titles, of course. Take this one for an example: “Juan Manuel Gonzales: A Meritorious Life.” Could the character mentioned in the title be the author? No it cannot be. Not only because of the extra Juan in the appellation but also because the character is said to have lived a couple of centuries ago (1804-1848). An innkeeper and a forger of letters, this Juan Manuel Gonzales participates in a comedy of situations that, in the spirit of the collection’s many twists, turns out to be a hard-to-distinguish conundrum between humor and tragedy. Once again, complications upon complications, in a story whose central event is an epistolary exchange between two young lovers whose love is interdicted by the boy’s tyrannical father. Juan Manuel Gonzales is not the protagonist of the story. And yet, he gets caught up in the tangle and becomes important; although his importance is somehow put under a question mark by the surprise in the end. With a story line that emulates the classic narrative of eighteenth and nineteenth-century romances, this piece brings about mistakes and misunderstandings to levels similar to say, some of Borges’s twists. And all in no more than three pages.
With all this, in nine cases out of ten, it looks as thought the author had a helluva lot of fun writing. You get this feeling that he enjoyed adding layers and incidents to a text so much that he just couldn’t stop. That’s why stories rarely end where the reader expects. There’s often one more thing to say, one more detail to add. And so, as it sits, the collection might very well be unfinished. At the end of the day, there’s so much more a story can contain.