March 6, 2016

84, Charing Cross Road

84, Charing Cross Road (1970) by Helene Hanff (Penguin Books, 1990)

The movie adaptation of 84, Charing Cross Road, which starred Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins, came out in 1987. Writing in 2002/2003, in a mini-essay collected in Between Parentheses (translated by Natasha Wimmer), Roberto Bolaño recounted his partial viewing of the movie "not many years ago". According to him, "its main virtue ... was its open-endedness, a sketch-like quality that encouraged the viewer to fill in the blanks with two or three or ten imaginary movies that had nothing (seemingly nothing) to do with what was happening on screen." He was fortunate to have encountered the book in 2002, published by Anagrama. He did not know then that it was based on real life.

The book was epistolary. It contained an exchange of letters mainly between a bookish lady who will become a writer and a dealer of rare books. (I can picture the feisty letter-writer of Anne Bancroft going head to head with the properly English and "butler-like" reserve of an Anthony Hopkins.)

This was the only book, in my recollection of his writings, that Bolaño came close to admitting he shed tears on. Telling about the exchange not only of book merchandise between the reader and the book dealer but also of generous in-kind gifts of meat and eggs from Ms Helene Hanff (1918-1997) to Mr Frank Doel and his bookshop co-workers who suffered from food shortage and food rationing during the postwar British economic hardship, Bolaño confessed that "by this point, the reader, so as not to be left out, starts to cry, and if one wants to waste time examining one's own tears, which isn't advisable, one may discover a mysterious mechanism that also drives certain works by Dickens: the best tears are those that make us better and at the same time come closest to laughter."

The book was remarkable for giving many a glimpse of the good practices employed by MARKS & CO., Booksellers, the now-defunct and now legendary shop (on account of this book) at Charing Cross Road. The written reports of successes of Mr Doel the book dealer in finding the requested items by Ms Hanff from private English library collections were always a delight for readers looking for happy endings in the rarefied field of book dealing that was far from the "fingertip book-buying culture" of, The Book Depository, Abe Books, Kindle, and the Amazonia. Here was a guilt-free celebration of the physicality of books, books gilded with gold along its edges, handsomely bound hard covers, first editions, and books with marginalia and names of previous owners on the first pages. The book had given the reader the succinct flavor and whiff of the trade in used, rare books.

Perhaps the intimate form of the letter gave this correspondence the authenticity that book lovers derive from the riches of literature. The letter exchange lasted for two decades during which time the readers were privileged to gain some knowledge not only of the personal things recounted in the letters but "the blanks to be filled", as Bolaño would have it. What was not mentioned in the compressed letters could not only be inferred as happening in the background; the reader lived them too. There was a dynamic of life (and history) there that was beating and ticking. There was Ms Hanff's unquenchable and constant curiosity for books and her evolving taste in writers. On the other side of the Atlantic, the domestic life and difficulties faced by the employees in the London bookshop. For both, intimations of change in status and career, and intimations of mortality as time passes.

By the end of the book the reader was enriched by something related to the human spirit as reflected in the urgent, energetic, and friendly voice of the correspondents. Their letters were alive with a generous dose of wit, humor, and affability; their gestures, full of kindness, sympathy, and sincerity. The heartrending Dickensian moment came for me near the end, with the accumulation of life events and experiences. Like Ms Hanff who said she owe 84 Charing Cross Road "so much", perhaps for a life (or a lifetime) of reading, readers owe themselves an invaluable treat (books about books!) every now and then.

See seraillon's take on this book here.

February 21, 2016

In the penal colony

"In the Penal Colony", from The Metamorphosis, In the Penal Colony, and Other Stories by Franz Kafka, tr. Joachim Neugroschel (Scribner, 1993)

At the Mind's Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor of Auschwitz and Its Realities by Jean Améry, tr. Sidney Rosenfeld and Stella P. Rosenfeld (Indiana University Press, 1980)

In Kafka's "In the Penal Colony", a foreign diplomat visited the machine used for torturing and executing all criminals. There was no distinction among the crimes being punished. Whether the offense be petty or serious, the offenders would be uniformly subjected to the penal system and would have to suffer the precise mechanism and motions of the death machine, "the apparatus".  

Does the condemned man know his judgment? the diplomat asked of the executioner. No. He doesn't know his own judgment. The diplomat again asked, But he does know that he has been condemned? The reply was again a no. Then the man doesn't yet know how his defense was received? And again the reply: He had no opportunity to defend himself. The diplomat rises to his chair. He must have had an opportunity to defend himself.

"This is how things stand," said the officer. "I have been appointed judge here in the penal colony. Despite my youth. For I assisted the former commander in all criminal matters and I am also the person most familiar with the apparatus. The principle on which I base my decision is: guilt is always beyond doubt.
A man is guilty and he cannot be proven innocent. The observation was later made that "the injustice of the procedure and the inhumanity of the execution were beyond all doubt." The detailed description of the apparatus and the mechanical procedure of execution was some of Kafka's most graphic writing.

Both the bed and the draftsman have an electric battery each; the bed needs one for itself, the draftsman needs one for the harrow. Once the man is strapped tight, the bed is set in motion. It quivers in tiny, very rapid twitches, both sideways and up and down. You must have seen similar apparatuses in sanitariums; except that in our bed all the movements are precisely calculated. You see, they have to be meticulously geared to the motions of the harrow. But this harrow has the job of actually carrying out the judgment.

The harrow, the harrow. Among Kafka's corpus "In the Penal Colony" explicitly revealed one abiding subject of his fiction: systematic violation of human rights. If in his other novels and stories an invisible tormentor or aggressor, maybe an absentee landlord, circled around the protagonist, in this long story we were in direct contact with the torturer, explaining his wares and his violent procedures. The systematic reduction of a human being, physically and psychologically, was through the slow process of dying. It would take approximately 12 hours for the condemned to expire under the harrow. The harrowing harrow was the horrifying image of man's inhumanity to man.

* * *

I don't recall the word "dignity" being used in this story. But alongside human life, human dignity was the casualty of this inhumane penal system. Dignity was a slippery concept, but it was traditionally seen as the articulation of inalienable human rights. "To die with dignity" was a contradiction in state justice systems that execute its own kind.

In his encyclical of last year, Pope Francis talked at length about dignity in the context of climate change and inequality. The challenge for the disenfranchised and the poor was how to (in the pope's words) be "able to live in a way worthy of their human dignity." Disenfranchisement of access to basic resources lowers the quality of life and robs one of human dignity.

Jean Améry (1912-1978), the German writer imprisoned and tortured during the Nazi occupation, sought to personally define human dignity. What is dignity, really? he asked in At the Mind's Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor of Auschwitz and Its Realities. He came to equate it with life, or with the antithesis of destruction and degradation and death. "I believed to recognize that dignity is the right to live", he wrote. But it is a right "granted by society."

If I was correct that the deprivation of dignity was nothing other than the potential deprivation of life, then dignity would have to be the right to live. If it was also correct when I said that the granting and depriving of dignity are acts of social agreement, sentences against which there is no appeal on the grounds of one's "self-understanding," so that it would be senseless to argue against the social body that deprives us of our dignity with the claim that we do indeed "feel" worthy—if all of this were valid, then every effort to regain our dignity would have been of no value, and it would still be so today. Degradation, that is, living under the threat of death, would be an inescapable fate. But luckily, things are not entirely the way this logic claims. It is certainly true that dignity can be bestowed only by society, whether it be the dignity of some office, a professional or, very generally speaking, civil dignity; and the merely individual, subjective claim ("I am a human being and as such I have my dignity, no matter what you may do or say!") is an empty academic game, or madness. Still, the degraded person, threatened with death, is able—and here we break through the logic of the final sentencing—to convince society of his dignity by taking his fate upon himself and at the same time rising in revolt against it.

While being detained for posting anti-Nazi propaganda and receiving the first blow from the Gestapo, Améry had lost trust in the world. Disillusioned, he had come to renounce his citizenship and his German name. Born Hanns Chaim Mayer, he opted to use a pseudonym in his writing, choosing a French-sounding name that is an anagram of his last name. Améry was a post-national writer adrift in "memory and cruelty" of history.

In describing his harrowing experience of torture, the victim was limited by the capacity of words to describe his condition. It was both a limitation imposed by language and the mind. In reaching beyond the "mind's limits", one was constrained to go back to the sources of language. Torture, from Latin torquere, to twist. What visual instruction in etymology! he wrote after describing a painful twisting and dislocation of his arms and shoulders while being suspended on an "apparatus".

In the bunker there hung from the vaulted ceiling a chain that above ran into a roll. At its bottom end it bore a heavy, broadly curved iron hook. I was led to the instrument. The hook gripped into the shackle that held my hands together behind my back. Then I was raised with the chain until I hung about a meter over the floor. In such a position, or rather, when hanging this way, with your hands behind your back, for a short time you can hold at a half-oblique through muscular force.

To twist. There was no redeeming wordplay or pun but the original word. The writer's fallback was the gratuitous qualities of words in their original intent. (In describing a scene from Poison, Shadow and Farewell, the protagonist of Javier Marías had also to recognize a Latin root word to described his helpless situation: "A poison was entering me, and when I use that word 'poison', I'm not doing so lightly or purely metaphorically, but because something entered my consciousness that had not been there before and provoked in me an immediate feeling of creeping sickness, of something alien to my body and to my sight and to my mind, like an inoculation, and that last term is spot on etymologically, for it contains at its root the Latin 'oculus', from which it comes, and it was through my eyes that this new and unexpected illness entered, through my eyes which were absorbing images and registering them and retaining them, and which could no longer erase them as one might erase a bloodstain on the floor, still less not have seen them.")

The reminiscences of Améry had affected W. G. Sebald to the extent that he had wrote about him in an essay in On the Natural History of Destruction and in the novel Austerlitz, both translated by Anthea Bell. In the novel, the narrator Austerlitz visited the same Breendonk fortress where Améry was imprisoned and tortured.

It was only a few years later that I read Jean Améry's description of the dreadful physical closeness between torturers and their victims, and of the tortures he suffered in Breendonk when he was hoisted aloft by his hands, tied behind his back, so that with a crack and a splintering sound which, as he says, he had not yet forgotten when he came to write this account [At the Mind's Limits], his arms dislocated from the sockets in his shoulder joints, and he was left dangling as they were wrenched up behind him and twisted together above his head.

The torture chambers in Kafka and in Améry were there to discredit the right to live, hence to dignity. Améry had to borrow Kafka's terms for his tortured condition: Those who had tortured me and turned me into a bug, as dark powers had once done to the protagonist of Kafka's The Metamorphosis, were themselves an abomination to the victorious camp. Améry was turned into a monstrous insect by the Gestapo, something non-human.

Josef K in The Trial was forever denied due process. K in The Castle and Gregor in The Metamorphosis were denied the right to work with dignity intact. Kafka had documented the various labyrinthine ways in which humans were marginalized, deprived of their rights and physically and mentally tortured by being kept in the dark about their condition and judgment. Torture was an offense against the body and mind, bringing one to immediate shame and indignity. For Améry, torture has an indelible character: "Whoever was tortured, stays tortured. Torture is ineradicably burned into him, even when no clinically objective traces can be detected. The permanence of torture gives the one who underwent it the right to speculative flights, which need not be lofty ones and still may claim a certain validity. [emphasis added]"

Whoever has succumbed to torture can no longer feel at home in the world. The shame of destruction cannot be erased. Trust in the world, which already collapsed in part at the first blow, but in the end, under torture, fully, will not be regained. That one's fellow man was experienced as the antiman remains in the tortured person as accumulated horror. It blocks the view into a world in which the principle of hope rules. One who was martyred is a defenseless prisoner of fear. It is fear that henceforth reigns over him. Fear—and also what is called resentments. They remain, and have scarcely a chance to concentrate into a seething, purifying thirst for revenge.

Because the tortured had learned of the human capacity to inflict pain and suffering, the tortured had also come to acquire the character of the torturer because he had the imagination to relive his torture and the acts of the torturer.

Kafka had inverted this sense in "In the Penal Colony". The torturer, who was arguably a madman, upon learning that his "justice system" might be abolished in case the travelling diplomat hand in a negative report, decided to become the tortured. He had come to accept the normalcy of his system. He would rather succumb to his harrow and be robbed of dignity than to face a life without the pleasure of seeing offenders suffer under his apparatus. The torturer and the tortured were one.

February 8, 2016

As with rice grains

Art of poetry

As with
husked rice, a poem
is pounded and polished,
and then winnowed, and then
offered to the public.

As with
rice grains, a poem
is picked and washed
and then put to the fire.

The rice washing was
mixed with bran for the pigs, rice
pickings are feed for the chickens,
chaff and pebbles
are scattered on earth.
What's served on the table
is smoking hot rice.

As with rice grains,
it's not ideal for a poem
to be well-milled and polished.
White rice is delicious,
but brown rice
is rich in nutrients.

(Translation of "Sining ng pagtula", from Kung Baga sa Bigas: Mga Piling Tula by Jose F. Lacaba.)

January 21, 2016

How I Became a Nun

How I Became a Nun (1993) by César Aira, tr. Chris Andrews (New Directions, 2006)

In my second reading of How I Became a Nun I suggested how, borrowing from Pessoa in The Book of Disquiet, gender identification may be a strategy to break grammatical rules and assert freedom of choice in spite of the restrictions of usage. In subverting the conventions of language, where 'he' must refer only to a male person, the novelist was flouting style guides. 'Free radicals' were not always welcome in the body of literature. They were operating outside the system, outside the norm. The heresy was already prefigured in the novel's first paragraph.

My story, the story of "how I became a nun," began very early in my life; I had just turned six. The beginning is marked by a vivid memory, which I can reconstruct down to the last detail. Before, there is nothing, and after, everything is an extension of the same vivid memory, continuous and unbroken, including the intervals of sleep, up to the point where I took the veil.

The self-referential nod to the title was a programmatic approach to metafiction. Yes, this was the story of the narrator turning into a nun, right down to the moment when she took the veil. These are gendered nouns. Somehow, this story (my story) was also the story of the writing of this novel (called "how I became a nun"). The story could be reconstructed to the last detail. There's reliability for you.

It was as if Bernardo Soares was intoning: Today, during a break from feeling, I reflected on the style of my prose. It was a fluid telling of the child César who identified (insisted) on the feminine gender every step of the way. In twenty-three instances* César viewed herself as a girl.

From the point of view of others, from five viewpoints** actually, dear little César was all of a boy. This "boy" had a militant streak. He got into some thorny situations and miraculous experiences.

Was the child's gender preference only a deep-seated stubbornness? Was the novelist's gender preference a deliberate violation of grammar? Was it not an innocent compositional choice? Or a mock display of freedom from the constraints of gender and rules?

* Pages in the book and the exact feminine gender identification.
2 devoted daughter
23 little girl
25 girl
28 difficult girl
32 daughter
42 little girl
46 girl
54 fourteen-year old Argentinean girl
59 daughter
61 daughter
63 girl
64 girl
67 daughter
72 daughter
82 girl
92 normal little girl
94 girl in the crowd
96 supreme mistress
100 girl
107 idiotic daughter
111 little girl
113 another girl
116 six-year old girl

** Pages in the book, the masculine gender perception, and the person speaking.
6 "Everyone except you, son, because you're a moron." (father)
16 "Is it my fault if the boy didn't like it?" (ice cream vendor)
34 "And how are we today, young Master César?" (doctor)
56 "That Aira boy ... He's here among you, and he doesn't seem any different. Maybe you haven't noticed him, he's so insignificant. But he's here. Don't be fooled. I always tell you the true, the theck, the trove. You are good, clever, sweet children. Even the ones who are naughty, or have to repeat, or get into fights all the time. You're normal, you're all the same, because you have a second mother. Aira is a moron. He might seem the same as you, but he's a moron all the same. He's a monster. He doesn't have a second mother. He's wicked. He wants to see me dead. He wants to kill me. But he's not going to succeed!" (Miss Rodríguez, the teacher)
57-58 "He want's to kill you too. Not me. You. But don't be afraid, teacher will protect you. You have to watch out for vipers, tarantulas and rabid dogs. And especially for Aira. Aira is a thousand times worse. Watch out for Aira! Don't go near him! Don't talk to him! Don't look at him! Pretend he doesn't exist. I always thought he was a moron, but I had nnno idea ... I dddidn't realize ... Now I do! Don't let him dirty you! Don't let him infect you! Don't even give him the time of day! Don't breathe when he's near. Die of asphyxiation if you have to, just so long as you freeze him out. He's a monster, a killer! And your mothers will cry if you die. They'll try and blame me, I know them. But if you watch out for the monster nothing will happen. Pretend he doesn't exist, pretend he's not there. If you don't talk to him or look at him, he can't harm you." (Miss Rodríguez, the teacher)
67 "César Aira ... a boy by the name of César Aira." (voices from loudspeakers)

December 16, 2015

The Seven Madmen

The Seven Madmen (1929) by Roberto Arlt, translated by Nick Caistor, afterwords by Nick Caistor and Roberto Bolaño (Serpent's Tail, 2015)

I didn't think I shall ever finish The Seven Madmen, Roberto Arlt's infamous novel, in time for the end of the world. I tried to pace myself, reading a few pages at a time, but the virus of desolation spread rapidly to contaminate my buoyant spirit. I'm far from the finish line on this one. I'm hardly halfway through the novel. Definitely not your average picker-upper read.

Remo Erdosain, the protagonist, might as well be frolicking in purgatory. At the start of the novel we found him down and hard on his luck, having been accused of stealing money from his company and being given an ultimatum to settle the money he stole. As he walked the streets of Buenos Aires, trying to find a way out of his sticky situation, he encountered a gallery of characters, in various states of derangement. How bleak the outlook for Erdosain. The very air he breathed seemed saturated with depression and desperation. Erdosain was fucked. The novel was packed with an emotional wallop.

Let us say, for the sole purpose of comparison, that Erdosain is a citizen under the regime of Kim Jong-un. In this case, of course, Buenos Aires is Pyongyang, and Argentina is North Korea. That was an unoriginal approach. But you get the drift.

What's being paraded were hollow, cartoon characters, defined only by their anguish and revulsion. Characters wallowing in monotony and boredom. Even their flashes of paranoia and distrust were predictable. Wretchedness piled on top of wretchedness. What's worse than a damned soul?

He felt as though blood was pouring from every cranny of his soul – as if it was being torn by a drill. With his powers of reasoning numbed, stunned with anguish, he set out on a wild search for a brothel. It was then he experienced the horror of empty nothingness, that luminous horror like the dazzling brilliance of the sun as it bounces off the curved surface of a salt-flat.

The novel was full of these brilliant metaphors of light and darkness. The same light that blinded Meursault in Camus's L'Étranger or Tajomaru in Akutagawa's "In a Grove". In fact the novel was swimming in perverse metaphors.

Here's another example: "It seemed to Erdosain that each worry was an owl that flitted from one branch of his suffering to the next." That was the formulation of translator Nick Caistor who said he tried to avoid straightening the repetitions, lack of grammatical accuracy, and wayward logic of Arlt.

Los sietes locos was in fact translated twice in English, the first one in 1984 by Naomi Lindstrom, published by Godine. She translated the same sentence snappily as: "He felt each spasm of grief hopping like an owl from branch to branch in his misery." That sounded more wayward to me.

Another sentence comparison:

Like a horse with its guts torn out by a bull, mucking around in its own viscera, every step he took drained his lungs of their lifeblood.

Just as horses who have had their guts ripped out by a bull slither about in their own intestines, so every step that Erdosain took left him with a little less lifeblood in his lungs.

The violence in that sentence was palpable and exact and scientific. At the level of a sentence, Arlt conjured the devil in the details. One's life was at stake in each Arlt sentence. A bullet fired into the chest, close to the heart, gave a life or death sentence: "His life was saved only due to the fact that this organ contracted at the precise moment the bullet whizzed by." Whew!

What Erdosain was longing for was redemption for his soul, but we were almost sure he would not get it in this life.

"What am I doing with my life?" he would ask himself, trying with that question to shed light on the origins of this anxiety which led him to long for an existence where the next day would not be merely time measured out in a repetition of today, but something different and totally unexpected, like in the plots of North American films, where yesterdays tramp suddenly becomes today's secret society boss, and the gold-digging secretary turns out to be multimillionairess in disguise.

Let us say, it was a fictional fulfillment of desire. Erdosain was longing for fiction, for something unpredictable, "something different and totally unexpected". Wasn't that an existentialist objective?

Arlt's world was a beehive of lowlifes in the entrails of Buenos Aires. Whores and gangsters and tormented souls rubbed shoulders with pseudo-anarchists and terrorists. There's a fuzzy destabilization plot to rid the world of the bourgeois army. Society was a sewer connected to the latrines of emo individuals. Still, the perplexity and the questioning mode of Erdosain made for a novel of pathetic grandeur.

Lindstrom (81):
“I’m nothing in everyone’s eyes. But still, if tomorrow I throw a bomb or murder Barsut, suddenly I’m everything, the man who exists, the man for whom generations of criminologists have prepared punishments, jails, and theories… That’s really weird! And yet, only crime can affirm my existence, just as evil is all that affirms the presence of man on earth.. Really, this is all so weird. Still, despite everything, there is darkness and mankind’s soul is sad. Infinitely sad. But that can’t be how life is. If tomorrow I figured out why that can’t be how life is, I’d pinch myself and disinflate like a balloon spewing out all these lies I’m filled with.”

Caistor (88-89):
I'm nothing to anyone. And yet, if tomorrow I throw a bomb or kill Barsut, then I become everything, a man who exists, a man who generations of legal experts have prepared punishments, gaols, and theories for. ... That's so strange! And yet it is only thanks to crime that I can affirm my existence, just as it is only evil which affirms man's presence on earth. ... All this is very strange. And yet despite everything, darkness does exist, and man's soul is full of sorrow. Infinite sorrow. But that cannot be all there is to life. Something inside me tells me life cannot be like that. If I could only discover the precise reason why life cannot be that way, I could stick a pin in myself, and all this hot air of lies would be deflated like a balloon.

Roberto Bolaño (the poor Chilean) supplied a back cover blurb and afterword to the 2015 UK edition. The latter was the infamous essay, or speech, from Between Parentheses where Bolaño described three strains of doom-virus infecting the Argentinean literary canon. The essay was hardly a flattering portrait of Arlt's novelistic enterprise. Read properly (i.e., literally), Bolaño was saying Arlt could not be a basis for an Argentinean literary school or movement because of his pure fatalism. For him, Arlt's art was infected. He compared Arlt to Onetti. Both "[opted] for the parched and silent abyss." Arlt's writing represented a desertification of literature that guaranteed the destruction of literature. That may or may not be exactly a damning judgement, but it was an ambivalent assessment of Arlt's fiction. And yet he considered Arlt one of the "exceptional writers and literary giants" in Argentina. It was a love-hate judgement.

I think Bolaño was more irked by Ricardo Piglia's championing of Arlt's flavor of fiction than by Arlt himself, whom he called blameless. In fact, he was wary of (false) prophets or literary apostles or disciples. He could not bear César Aira trumpeting Osvaldo Lamborghini's legacy. The literature of doom as represented by the two Osvaldos (Soriano and Lamborghini) and Arlt (to some extent) is a self-destructive enterprise. The language of novels in this mold devours itself.

Bolaño delivered the speech "The Vagaries of the Literature of Doom" in December 2002 in Barcelona at the Kósmopolis International Festival of Literature. He prefaced his reading as follows:

Argentine literature is so rich, so powerful, that in the end it seemed more fitting to focus [my piece] exclusively on it; on Argentine fiction basically. ... The piece is ... limited to the drift of Argentine literature since Borges's death, basically. Sadly, this gangster literature, or literature of doom is the most vital, the richest. Personally, it doesn't excite me much, mostly because I'm sick of the literature of doom, but there's no doubt it's the most vital, and that it has the most influence on the rest of Latin American literature. The literature of doom, as I've said, is a kin of sub-world or infra-world outside the law.

The self-contradictions in those opening statements were glaring. Who needs a self-help book if one is sick of the literature of doom?

P.S. Mad covers of English translations

1. The 1984 Lindstrom translation. Talk about literalism in depicting seven mad persons. Almost cool, if only for the rapacious swimmers in the background.

2. The first edition from UK publisher Serpent's Tail. The glum look.

3. The 2015 edition of Serpent's Tail. Nothing remarkable here.

4. The US edition from NYRB (2015). The cover is more apt for Melville's Moby-Dick.

Passages from Naomi Lindstrom's translation of The Seven Madmen quoted above are taken from Never Stop Reading. All Bolaño quotes are from Between Parentheses, translated by Natasha Wimmer.

Caravana de recuerdos hosts The 2015 Argentinean (& Algerian) Literature(s) of Doom until the end of the month.