August 28, 2013

Evil and the Mask (Nakamura Fuminori)


Evil and the Mask by Nakamura Fuminori, translated by Satoko Izumo and Stephen Coates (Soho Press, 2013)


How does one unleash maximum evil? The novel by the young Japanese writer Nakamura Fuminori, 36, provides many avenues to explore the filthy black nature of murder, impersonation, wars, more wars, terrorism, copycat terrorism. It features an antihero (Fumihiro Kuki) who was chosen by his father to succeed him as a "cancer" in the world, as the embodiment of pure evil. The family business is in fact the very instrument of evil as it built upon destructive, anarchic aims through the trade of war materiel and ammunition. Here's the long-term plan of Fumihiro's elder brother, also destined to be another malignant tumor in society.

Most of the companies of which I'm the major shareholder deal with war in one form or another, from brokering arms deals overseas to rebuilding after the wars are over.... I'm putting all of my efforts into abolishing the article in the constitution that says that Japan can't export weapons. If we can repeal that we'll be able to sell locally produced weapons to other countries, then whenever a war breaks out we can reap vast profits. The arms business is a gold mine, because weapons are consumables. The longer the war drags on—in other words, the more people are killed—the more money we make. Japan's superior technology will take the world by storm. Imagine we develop a fighter plane. We can include the maintenance in the contract, the whole works. It's a gravy train with no end. Obviously it's not the money I'm interested in. What I'm looking at, as an end in itself, is hundreds of thousands of people dying in those economic currents.

War as the modern industrial complex of evil—an efficient machine ran by capitalists, workers, and soldiers of atrocities, fed by the sustainable energy of constant warmongering. War as the ubiquitous laboratory for inhumanity. 
 
This is a topical novel, inevitably invoking the two world wars, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, the War on Terror, the many wars we seem to never tire of making. It is a novel of its time, particularly relevant given the recent pronouncement of Japanese officials bent on amending the country's pacifist constitution (embodied in Article 9 of Japanese constitution).

Fumihiro, shaken by his father's plans for him, set into motion a sequence of events that give readers a peek into the twisted minds of warlords and terrorists. Billed as a Japanese noir detective story, this novel avoids the excesses of the genre by being restrained in its presentation of violence. Sometimes it's too restrained, too understated, as to become more and more creepy with its creeping resolution of the plot. All the celebrated murders and wars in the novel are not described as they happen but only indirectly, either told in conversation by the characters or reported on television and newspapers. The reader may be privy to the planning of a murder or terrorist act but he does not witness its full execution. All we get are accounts of the crimes.

"There's this group doing strange things recently, isn't there? Like simultaneous explosions in different places. The ones calling themselves JL? They’re on the news all the time. The media are condemning them, calling them 'The Invisible Terrorists,' but that's just spurring them on. It looks like there have already been copycats as well."



"And now they’ve made a threat. 'We're going to assassinate all the politicians, starting with the baldest. If you want to stop us, the Prime Minister has to hold a press conference and do a perfect impression of the singer Hiromi Go.' Wouldn’t that be hysterical?"

...

"Really? That's crazy."

The Prime Minister channeling Hiromi Go? How bad can that be? See Goldfinger 99 for reference.

The deadpan tone of the novel sometimes breaks into contained hilarity, unintended or not. Here's one upstart terrorist describing the ambitious plans of the terror group.

"We're attacking all accepted values. Authority, class differences, shared perceptions. We don't care what happens to the social structure—revolutions are for suckers. Our target is people's collective consciousness. It's like throwing a cream pie in their face."

By now it was raining quite heavily.

"Come see me again, and I'll give you some specific examples. You're not the type to tell the cops. You're not a loser. You hate people, don't you? And you don't give a damn about society. I can see it in your face. I've got a gift for spotting kindred spirits. But I'll tell you one thing. If we move right away from ethics and morality and common sense, a completely different world will emerge. Sort of as a bonus. Okay, see you."

A completely different world will emerge. He's not kidding at all, that terrorist.

The noir detective aspect of Evil and the Mask is apparent from various devices: brooding, angsty protagonist, bleak atmosphere, femme fatale figure, and, well, a detective. The novel opens with an extract from the diary of a detective who accidentally got involved in the case. This, however, turns out to be not so much about detection and problem-solving as about the timeless superhero story of good versus evil. Is evil encoded in genes, embedded in tissues like a cancer? Where is the place of personal/private transactions of evil within the larger context of public/wholesale wars?
 
Evil and the Mask turns out to be a novel of ideas, with the evildoing characters speaking in the dialectical manner of Plato. By the end of the book, philosophical exchanges with cold-blooded murderers, corrupt businessmen, and budding terrorists lead to some plausible ideas about how evil spreads like a happy virus. No talking cats or leeches falling from the sky in this book. The novel turns out be well-grounded in reality. That probably makes it more uncanny.
 
In his preface to The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares—via Alain Robbe-Grillet's Paris Review interview—Borges said that all great novels of the twentieth century are detective novels. His examples: The Turn of the Screw, William Faulkner's Sanctuary, The Castle. Unlike the traditional detective novel, the specific detective novel he had in mind are those that are not concerned about the solution to the crime but to the investigation itself. [Here I'm reminded of the modern species of the novel called the 'novel of inquiry' (nobela ng pagsisiyasat) by the Filipino novelist Edgar Calabia Samar, who expounded on this in an essay in Halos Isang Buhay (Almost a Life).] Robbe-Grillet continues his reading of Borges:

Detective novels are consumer products, sold by millions, and are made in the following way: there are clues to an event, say a murder, and someone comes along and puts the pieces together in order that truth may be revealed. Then it all makes sense. In our novels what is missing is “sense.” There is a constant appeal to sense, but it remains unfulfilled, because the pieces keep moving and shifting and when “sense” appears it is transitory. Therefore, what is important is not to discover the truth at the end of the investigation, but the process itself.

The process is all that matters. The process is the novel itself. Roberto Bolaño faithfully borrows this method in The Savage Detectives. But he makes certain concessions in 2666. After the interminable length of the latter novel, Bolaño is forced to explain some of the mystery but still manages to keep a good deal undisclosed.

Given the definition of Borges, I would say that Evil and the Mask can be considered a traditional detective novel. The truth is discovered in the end; all clues are accounted for. Still, the novelist Nakamura defies some expectations of the detective novel through an unusual approach to the determination of crime. The crime is already determined from the start. What the rest of the novel does is unfold the investigation process of the criminals' investigation into their own selves, how they determine the extent of their guilt and punishment. To some extent, it is an investigation not of the crimes which are transparently presented but of the criminal intents. If that makes sense. In addition, the detection in the novel is not really undertaken by the detective ("someone [who] comes along and puts the pieces together in order that truth may be revealed") in the book. The detection is made by the criminals themselves. In the end, the detective scratches his head, just as puzzled as he was when he entered the picture halfway through the story. He may have a theory about the crime but he is as clueless as ever.

This is only Nakamura's second novel to appear in English translation. He is a prolific writer and appears to be a critical favorite, having won prestigious prizes in Japan like the Akutagawa Prize and the Kenzaburō Ōe Prize, the latter for a novel which appeared as The Thief.

In Evil and the Mask, it’s not only terrorists and detectives who appear to be almost invisible. The book's translators, Satoko Izumo and Stephen Coates, seem to be peripheral too as they have produced a version that is almost invisible, save for some cultural references, in the target language. It captures what must have been Nakamura’s clean and spare diction and his appeal to universal and timeless themes. However, the translators themselves literally disappear in the book. Their names can't be found in the dust jacket, book flaps, or title pages. Their names only appear on the copyright page, in tiny lettering.



I received a review copy from the publisher.



August 20, 2013

An exercise in destruction


PORTRAIT OF JULIA (1992) by FRANK AUERBACH



This wraps up my posting on W. G. Sebald's The Emigrants, a haunting prose work on memory, falsification, and amnesia. The poet Michael Hulse has to be acknowledged for his sterling version of Sebald's language and idioms. As in the case of Javier Marías's masterful exploration of memory and guilt in Your Face Tomorrow (2002-2007, trans. Margaret Jull Costa), I am reminded of the philosopher Paul Ricoeur's appropriation of Freud's idea of work in On Translation (2004, trans. Eileen Brennan): The work of translation is a work of remembering and a work of mourning. In Hulse's writing, these two kinds of work are not mutually exclusive.

In "translating" the story of his fourth and last subject (Max Ferber), Sebald might as well describe the quandary of all translators. This can be gleaned from his narrator's despair after thoroughly investigating the life of the painter Ferber. It is a metafictional moment of self-consciousness and inadequacy.

During the winter of 1990/91, in the little free time I had ... I was working on the account of Max Ferber given above [the foregoing text]. It was an arduous task. Often I could not get on for hours or days at a time, and not infrequently I unravelled what I had done, continuously tormented by scruples that were taking hold and steadily paralysing me. These scruples concerned not only the subject of my narrative, which I felt I could not do justice to, no matter what approach I tried, but also the entire questionable business of writing. I had covered hundreds of pages with my scribble, in pencil and ballpoint. By far the greater part had been crossed out, discarded, or obliterated by additions. Even what I ultimately salvaged as a "final" version seemed to me a thing of shreds and patches, utterly botched.

Capturing memory is hard work. It can be likened to producing early drafts of translation – "crossed out, discarded, or obliterated by additions" – or at least revising and rewriting several thoughts (passages) and fine-tuning one's perception of events (language). This passage comes right after describing a natural template of perpetual destruction, that of the production of salt through the "ceaseless flow" of water: "that theatre of water ... the long term and (I believe) impenetrable process which, as the concentration of salts increases in the water, produces the very strangest of petrified or crystallized forms, imitating the growth patterns of Nature even as it is being dissolved."

It is not that different from Ferber's unusual approach to portrait painting, described as "an exercise in destruction". It is a combination of successive erasures of paint off the canvas and the continuous reconstruction and application of paint over the surface: "The moment the model had sat down and he had taken a look at him or her, he would erase the portrait yet again, and once more set about excavating the features of his model, who by now was distinctly wearied by this manner of working, from a surface already badly damaged by the continual destruction." For the narrator, it all "amounted to nothing but a steady production of dust." Dust is the constant material hovering all around Ferber's work.

The routine of remembering is a form of work; it can be physically and mentally taxing. It can be unsettling, literally backbreaking and extremely painful, especially if it requires unearthing memory within a memory within a memory.

The flood of memory, little of which remains with me now, began with my recalling a Friday morning some years ago when I was suddenly struck by the paroxysm of pain that a slipped disc can occasion, pain of a kind I had never experienced before. I had simply bent down to the cat, and as I straightened up the tissue tore and the nucleus pulposus jammed into the nerves. At that moment, all I knew was that I mustn't move a fraction of an inch, that my whole life had shrunk to that one tiny point of absolute pain, and that even breathing in made everything go black.... I also remember that the crooked position I was forced to stand in reminded me, even in my pain, of a photograph my father had taken of me in the second form at school, bent over my writing. In Colmar, at any rate, said Ferber after a lengthy pause, I began to remember, and it was probably those recollections that prompted me to go on to Lake Geneva after eight days, to retrace another old memory that had long been buried and which I had never dared disturb.... On my train journey through Switzerland, which truly is amazingly beautiful, I was already remembering these scenes and images of thirty years before, said Ferber.

This extended remembrance within a remembrance is not without its side effect of forgetting. There are gaps in the narrative of remembrance, stretches of unaccounted for events – "memory block", we might call them. The work of remembering may induce not only vertigo but physical infirmity. In the case of Ferber, it seems to confirm even his "inner constitution" at a young age, an apparent scoliosis or propensity to be bent while concentrating at work. The one who remembers, voluntarily or accidentally, with such "painful clarity" (as if the events happened only yesterday), carries the load of memory on his back like a sack or baggage, sometimes so heavy he is forced to stoop and become crooked and bent. It is a handicap experienced by those who spent their lives doing the same things over and over. How memory can bring physical infirmity is prefigured early on in the second section of the book when the narrator encounters the aged porter of an inn: "He was so doubled over that he cannot have been able to see more than the lower half of anyone standing in front of him. Because of this handicap, no doubt, he had already taken a quick glance at the latecomer outside the glazed door before he crossed the hall, a glance that was the more penetrating for being brief."

The "business of writing" is questionable in the first place because the writer exercises his creative license in selecting and falsifying some details and elements of his "historical" narrative. Ethics and aesthetics collide in the process. In order to get his ideas across, the writer is forced to invent connections in the narrative, connections that may not be there in the first place. There is inherent contradiction in the reliance on memory to tell a story and in acknowledging the unreliable turns memory sometimes make. Between memory and forgetting, however, the writer has already made his choice. The path of least resistance is not for him. The balance of truth and fiction must remain precarious and suspect. In interviews, Sebald has expressed his personal reservations on his appropriating the lives of real people (like the painter Frank Auerbach) in his narratives. Yet the aesthetic choices he makes in the service of his art brings to the forefront the function of fiction to produce not a tidy reality but untidy composites of that reality.

In consciously altering historical, reality-based narratives and in bringing to the surface the falsifications of memory, Sebald treads the line between moral and aesthetic scruples. What makes for great art – or what makes for a strong potential for greatness in certain art – seems to be its capacity to exercise the memory of those who read, view, hear, or see it. Great art must prick the conscience, let loose the sympathetic imagination. Thus, pictures of great suffering like Grünewald's "Entombment of Christ" or Tiepolo's fresco or breathtaking natural landscapes (as opposed to man-made art) seen up close, occasioned in Max Ferber a flood of remembrances – "one thing had led to another" – of his childhood and youth. And thus, his mother Luisa, facing an imminent threat, suddenly takes the task of remembering to articulate her childhood memories. Resisting death through memory and mourning. It seems the most natural thing to do.

From the top, the road runs down, along the edge of the woods, to Höhn, where the fields open out and the hills of the Rhön can be seen in the distance. The Saale meadows spread before you, the Windheim woods nestle in a gentle curve, and there are the top of the church tower and the old castle – Steinach! Now the road crosses the stream and enters the village, up to the square by the inn, then down to the right to the lower part of the village, which Luisa calls her real home.

Luisa's first person memoir occupies a large part of Ferber's story. It continues to describe the minutiae of life in her village, the rise and fall of her family fortunes, the impending danger from Nazism. The obvious model for Luisa's clean and clear prose style is Adalbert Stifter in Rock Crystal (1843, trans. Elizabeth Mayer and Marianne Moore): "Among the high mountains of our country there is a little village with a small but needle-fine church spire. Conspicuous above the green of abundant fruit-trees, this spire—because the slates are painted vermilion—can be seen far and wide against the faint blue of the mountains. The hamlet nestles in the very center of a fairly wide valley that is an almost perfect ellipse...."

In her restrained and devastating memoir, Luisa lists the names of her neighbors and their occupations: the Lions who supply oil for the lamps, Meier Frei the merchant, Gessner the baker, Liebmann the slaughterer, Salomon Stern the flour merchant, Fröhlich the plumber, and so on. It is not now surprising to observe how in this work of fiction, Sebald's subjects and their relatives and acquaintances are portrayed as dedicated to their work, some of them to the point of obsession: Paul Bereyter as tutor and schoolteacher, Ferber as painter, the narrator's uncle Kasimir as a construction worker atop skyscrapers, his great-uncle Adelwarth as majordomo and butler, Dr. Selwyn's father as proprietor of emporium, etc. They are emigrants who work for a living, braving the wear and tear of life and its accompanying experiences and memories. To work and remember is to postpone dying.

It is thus fitting that the book ends with a series of photographs (described, not shown) of ghetto workers in Polish production sites – women sitting making baskets, child apprentices in metalwork shop, men making bullets, men in the nail factory or rag depot, three young women behind a loom. The narrator sees in the workers a resigned engagement in the daily grind of production. They, the dutiful workers, are not entirely voiceless in the photographs. They proclaim in a silent chorus the assumption of their work, the source of their salvation and destruction.

... faces, countless faces, who looked up from their work (and were permitted to do so) purposely and solely for the fraction of a second that it took to take the photograph. Work is our only course, they said.





August 14, 2013

Notes on a journal of subculture


BAKA NG INA MO!: O bakit hindi palaging mother knows best ... by Ronaldo Vivo Jr., Erwin Dayrit, Danell Arquero, Earl Palma, Ronnel Vivo, and Christian De Jesus (UngazPress, 2013)


Desiring your well-being, which is our own, and searching for the best cure, I will do with you as the ancients of old did with their afflicted: expose them on the steps of the temple so that each one who would come to invoke the Divine, would propose a cure for them.

And to this end, I will attempt to faithfully reproduce your condition without much ado. I will lift part of the shroud that conceals your illness, sacrificing to the truth everything, even my own self-respect, for, as your son, I also suffer your defects and failings.

– J. R.


Sir, confirm ko lang, dalawang baka po ba? O isang pak u journal at isang baka?

– UngazPress


1 Shrapnel

UngazPress detonated its second bomb a couple of months ago. But the aftershocks were still being felt. The victims were still reeling from pain and suffering. The shrapnel was still embedded in the mutilated bodies of readers. There's no surgical operation which can remove its traces in the living tissues. The blast leveled the whole establishment. It has colonized the comfortable and sleazy mindset. The scars were here to stay, tattooed in the consciousness of readers. The bomb's label was a literal bombshell: YOUR MOTHER'S COW!: Or why it's not always mother knows best ... Its covers were still blatant eyesores. In front: a defiant fetus inhaling some noxious substance inside a giant cow's udder. At the back: a naked man having congress with a cow. The same terrorists as those in the previous exercise in literary anarchy were to blame in this latest state of emergency. The five authors collectively known as Ungaz Boys, plus an additional co-conspirator. One was hardly ever prepared for the invasion of mind snatchers.

2 Axiom

"Mother knows best." Our instincts tell us to respect this time-tested axiom. The figure of the mother has always been associated with compassion, kindness, unconditional love. Anyone who dared question the idea ... But precisely it is this very notion of "mother knows best" that the authors interrogate, albeit beyond its literal rendering. To question the absolutes. Things we take for granted as true and those that appeared or are accepted as so obvious we don't even pause, take notice, take stock, and assess these givens. Things we swallow whole like imperishable religions and superstitions. Things like "Practice makes perfect" or "Better late than never", etc. Things like "etc."

3 Cower

At the level of language and humor, there's a lot to admire in this sophomore-that-really-was-like-junior-or-senior effort. It presents a trap for the reader in every page. Readers trapped by their own class trappings and prejudices. BAKA is a pun in Filipino. It means the livestock "cow" and also: "doubt", "perhaps", "maybe", "hesitation", "uncertainty", "unknown", "unknowingness", "unknowability", "uncharted territory", "terra incognita". Your mother's cow might as well be your mother's cowed. Cowed by cowardice, cowering, coward acts, cowardly actions. A mother cowed by apprehensions. A mother's love cowed by worries for her prodigal children. The journal's foreword once again gives ample warning to unsuspecting readers as it poses and then answers the central question, Bakit hindi palaging mother knows best?

Simple lang. Dahil hindi naman lahat ng bata ay may Ina, hindi naman lahat ng bata ay may bahay, marami ang palaboy at lumaki sa kalsada. Kalsadang nagturo sakanila kung ano ang reyalidad ng buhay, mga batang hindi inaruga mg  mga BAKA ni Ina kundi binuhay ng kanilang mga araw-araw na BAKA-sakali at pakikipagsapalaran. Tulad sa dyornal na ito na may turing na anak(ng diyos) sa labas, walang kinikilalang mga pyudal na magulang at lumaki-nabuo ang mga kwento rito sa marahas at malagim na kalsada. Oo, kalsada ang nagluwal at nagturo sa dyornal na ito kung paano tumindig at mabuhay. Ang  panulat namin ay tulad sa mga batang laman ng kalsada na hindi giniya ng mga values at manners ng isang ama o ina sa loob ng bahay, hindi rin ng mga aral ng akademya at simbahan. Wala ring t.v. o internet sa kalsada para mauto sila ng mass media. BAKA trip mo silang pakinggan. BAKA lang naman. 

Simple. Because not all kids have Mothers, not all kids have homes, a lot were strays wandering the streets. The streets taughtthem what's real and not, kids not weaned i in Mother's COUCH but sustained by their daily COW-ering and tribulations. Like this journal which considers itself a bastard child(of god), who doesn't recognize any feudal parents, the stories here gestated-formed in the violent and terrifying streets. Yes, streets bore out and instructed this journal how to stand on its own and survive. Our writing is like the street kids who weren't guided by the values and manners of a house father or mother, not by sacred lessons in the academe and church. No t.v. or internet in the streets, no mass media to trick them. COUGH, you might want to hear them out. COUGH.


4 Foreskin

Take the first story, "Saklob" (Foreskin) by Erwin Dayrit. One could overanalyze the premise and consider the fact of being circumcised or uncircumcised as a satire or allegory on masculinity. One can see it as a representation of an alternative/altered reality. In Philippine society, men who remain uncircumcised were often made fun of. Mocked. It is a taboo, a shame to retain the foreskin. In the story, it's the reverse. The circumcised became the butt of jokes. As a rite of passage, circumcision of young Filipino men is usually associated with his sexual awakening. But the story seems to reject this arbitrary standard of manhood. It doesn't matter if one is uncut or not. The foreskin is here a symbolic covering of labels. Labels like uncut/cut, black/white, male/female, Christian/Muslim. We have to circumcise these extraneous labels.

5 Gamin: Sub(Cult)ure

At the risk of being simplistic, one may consider the journals of UngazPress as an expression of a subculture. This is a subculture who proudly identifies with those who are far from the center of power. Side by side with the dregs of society, the common tao, batang hamog (street urchins), les misérables, Victor Hugo's gamin, God's bastards. The cult of the subculture wants to overturn the larger culture that is inherently hostile to equality and equal opportunity for all individuals of society. It aligns itself with social justice and proletarian movement, but with a more cynical and acid-tongue vociferation. The "high society" ignores the homeless and the urban poor, is particularly hostile to persons with disabilities and children, and as such is soulless and without depth. Those refined people who populate this high society are called "sellouts". Ken Gelder (via wiki) provides the markers for the identification of subculture. It includes: negative relations to work; negative or ambivalent relation to class; association with territory (i.e., kalsada, the 'street'); movement out of the home and into non-domestic forms of belonging (i.e. social groups other than the family); stylistic ties to excess and exaggeration; and refusal of the banalities of ordinary life and massification. While several aspects of subculture are satisfied, there is a novel variation in Ungaz in terms of class consciousness. Because the Ungaz subculture delineates power imbalance, a Marxist reading is inevitable. While some stories may depress readers as characters wallow in utter dejectedness ("poverty porn", a friend of mine called them), the "stylistic excess", lexical richness, and over-the-top comedy of subculture lifts them up to liberating heights. I may be guilty of boxing up an idea with this talk of subculture. But I acknowledge the limitations of the term; it is only used for convenience (I can't think of a more appropriate conceptual framework at this point). But then even genre labels like transgressive fiction also delimit the ambit of a work.

6 Fractured

"Nowadays, art that does not use a procedure is not truly art." I'm quoting César Aira on conceptual art. "This radicality is precisely what distinguishes authentic art from mere language use." I want to make an argument that the stories in BAKA constitute a procedural and schematic investigation into the psyche of a subculture. And it is radical because it employs no procedure. The lack of procedure is its own procedure. The stories of BAKA are the living, breathing drafts of an untidy reality. The style of this reality must be uncompromising. Hence, capitalization of proper nouns is ignored 90% of the time. (In his final novel Cain, José Saramago has put all proper names in small caps. The Ungaz collective is too inconsistent for that trick. But what S. and the Ungaz probably have in common: nonconformism and atheism.) Proper punctuations are not a concern. Typo errors litter the text. Spell check and grammar are foundation myths. Style guidelines are encrypted in undeciphered Dead Sea Scroll. Editorial interventions must have been downplayed, save for assembling and arranging the order of stories, inserting drawings, and deciding on the text font and cover art. This (hap)hazard(ous) practice of un-proofread publication promotes a kind of hyperrealism in the stories. Because 100% raw reality is unclean, unpolished, unedited, and irreverent. Because this is pseudo-pop reality, absurd and capricious, headbanging in protest. The stories are episodic, almost to a fault. They are fractured (e.g., "DSC", "Tagtuyot sa Buhay ng Isang Agwador", "Iisa lang ba ang putahe ng Jollibee aurora at mga jolibee sa'n mang dako ng bansa?", "Nata ni Coco", "Mga kwentong gusto kong ikwento sa kin ni mom tuwing bedtime"), a pastiche of wordplays and sectioned heartbreaks, silly Sisyphean cyber/virtual struggles. Shattered fragments of a vase, the criminal intents assembled in the mind. Shards that form a whole, with the cracks and glue proudly showing.

7 Motherland

The first epigraph above is from "To My Motherland" (1886), José Rizal's dedication to his novel. It has nothing to do with this post.

8 LBC

The second quote is a text message from UngazPress confirming my order. Copies of the two journals, BAKA and PAK U, are not available in major bookstores, only in one independent book seller in Manila. To reserve the goods, one needed to contact the writer-publishers through a mobile number or a message in Facebook. Copies are either given through personal meet-ups or sent via courier. It is an emerging publishing model for Manila-based indie writers and publishers of printed works that may or may not have ISBNs. Eschew traditional publishing practices. The vanity press Ungaz brings the books directly into the hands of readers. The form is the content is the means of production and consumption is the base and superstructure. A PDF copy of the first journal was recently made available for free download. Facebook was the main base of operations and dedicated platform for advertising, book reservation, and Bernhardian rants and polemics. And yet the transaction will not end with the buying and receiving. The UngazPress deems their readers completely responsible for the way they approach the book. This is indeed a peculiar publishing venture. Let me mention that there's a sorry incident involving an online group of readers (where I belong) and the writers. The discussion of the book became heated; strong views and opinions were exchanged. On the upside, everyone learns he is a passionate reader. Long live arts and letters! After the gladiators took rest and the dust settled, a modus vivendi was (I think) reached.

9 Noir

Nagpapatuloy ang Ungaz Boys sa kanilang malupit na pagkatha ng mga kuwentong sumasalunga sa agos ng kumbensyon at sigwa ng panahon. Pinupuntirya nito ang bestyal na supot na kultura na nagpapalawig sa kapangyarihan ng mga mapang-api, mapang-abuso, at mga evil na puwersa. Di natin yon want. Kung kaya ang BAKA NG INA MO! ay dapat na maging required reading sa mga nakatira sa loob at labas ng Malacañang. Ang BAKA ang tunay na estado ng bansa. Ang BAKA ang tunay na Manila Noir.

10 (Sub)Culture

Because the alternate reality is the reality. And the subculture is the culture.







August 13, 2013

An outsize toyland



The third section of W. G. Sebald's The Emigrants (trans. Michale Hulse) was about the narrator's great-uncle Ambros Adelwarth and his ward Cosmo Solomon, a scion of a rich American businessman. Ambros's story began with the narrator's early memory of his great-uncle during a family reunion in Germany and later, when the narrator traveled to America, it was picked up by the reminiscences of Ambros's relatives and fellow emigrants there. The narrator also interviewed a doctor's assistant his great-uncle came into contact with during his last days in the sanatorium.

After leaving his home as a teenager, Ambros took jobs in Germany, Switzerland, England, Japan, and America before finally hired as a personal assistant of Cosmo Solomon and later as a butler in the Solomon household. Despite the suggested emotional conflict and loneliness brewing inside Ambros, he was a portrait of decorum, according to the narrator's aunt.

Uncle Adelwarth had more than half a dozen servants under him, not counting the gardeners and chauffeurs. His work took all his time and energy. Looking back, you might say that Ambros Adelwarth the private man had ceased to exist, that nothing was left but his shell of decorum. I could not possibly have imagined him in his shirtsleeves, or in stocking feet without his half-boots, which were unfailingly polished till they shone, and it was always a mystery to me when, or if, he ever slept, or simply rested a little. At that time he had no interest in talking about the past at all. All that mattered to him was that the hours and days in the Solomon's household should pass without any disruption.

This was after the death of his close friend and ward Cosmo, who wasted away in a sanatorium. The image of Stevens the elegant, dedicated, but ultimately pathetic and stiff butler in Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day came to mind here. At least in terms of repression of memory and apparent unreliability, these two characters shared some affinity. By the end of the story, the words of Ambros himself was transcribed from a notebook diary where the whole tricky exercise of excavating events from traitorous memory was encapsulated in a postcript.
 
Memory, he added in a postscript, often strikes me as a kind of dumbness. It makes one's head heavy and giddy, as if one were not looking back down the receding perspectives of time but rather down on the earth from a great height, from one of those towers whose tops are lost to view in the clouds.

It seemed like an elaboration of the pun of the German title of Sebald's previous novel Schwindel. Gefühle (Vertigo). Like the previous two subjects, Dr. Henry Selwyn and Paul Bereyter, Ambros was at first hesitant to talk about the past. It was only when he was old and felt the intimations of death did he begin to share stories to a relative.

Even the least of his reminiscences, which he fetched up very slowly from depths that were evidently unfathomable, was of astounding precision, so that, listening to him, I gradually became convinced that Uncle Adelwarth had an infallible memory, but that, at the same time, he scarcely allowed himself access to it. For that reason, telling stories was as much a torment to him as an attempt at self-liberation. He was at once saving himself, in some way, and mercilessly destroying himself. [emphasis added]

Compare "astounding precision" with Paul Bereyter's "greatest clarity" ("He said that he could see things then with the greatest clarity, as one sees them in dreams.") or Dr. Selwyn's memory ("returning once again") of his family's exodus ("all of it ... I can now live through again, as if it were only yesterday"). So, reconstruction of the past for these men was a kind of necessity and salvation; at the same time it also seemed to hasten their undoing. Where previously they were not open to talk of their past lives, there was now somehow a compulsion for them to do so, as if the last shreds of meaning in their lives were incumbent upon uncovering their untold stories. Stories which were, however, marked not only by lasting friendships but by bitterness and anguish.

The narrator's journalistic investigation into these sad lives added a hyper-real dimension to the increasingly dream-like quality of the writing. The concept of dreams was alluded to in so many ways. Reading the profusion of remembered or recorded past events in the book was like watching an unrestored black and white film. The photographs and references to old films in the book only seemed to reinforce the grainy texture of its reality.

The interlocking motifs, devices, and concerns within The Emigrants and among the other prose fiction made me rethink Sebald's deliberate and careful selection of details as opposed to free association of images and ideas. The whole intertextual tapestry governed by a balance of spontaneous delivery of memories and perfectly timed deployment and repetition of images.

I still remember, said Aunt Fini, standing with Uncle Adelwarth by his window one crystal-clear Indian Summer morning. The air was coming in from outside and we were looking over the almost motionless trees towards a meadow that reminded me of the Altach marsh when a middle-aged man appeared, holding a white net on a pile in front of him and occasionally taking curious jumps. Uncle Adelwarth stared straight ahead, but he registered my bewilderment all the same, and said: It's the butterfly man, you know.

A lot had been said about the figure of the butterfly man, the book's resident literary angel or spirit, the same way Kafka's spirit presided over the previous novel and Borges's over the next one. Let me just note how the passage was here characteristic of Sebald's clean and transparent prose, accessible in spite of the profusion of prepositions. Crystal-clear like the Indian Summer morning being described, like the prose of Adalbert Stifter (incidentally the author of a book translated as Indian Summer).
  
The continuity of vision was also apparent in the powerful scene of Ambros's electroshock therapy in the sanatorium which reminded one of Rembrandt's painting of the violation of the subject in "The Anatomy Lesson" in The Rings of Saturn. It seemed again like a critique of the "progress" of science (and civilization): the vicious assault on the helpless human body standing for the assault on humanism. The insensitivity to the afflictions of the body, the fanatical zeal of the doctor who administered the shock treatment and who believed he had discovered a "psychiatric miracle cure" with his cruel method. These tendencies were symptomatic, as one character put it, of "our appalling ignorance and corruptibility", perhaps of our fallibility to unthinkable, single-minded ideologies and prejudices.

More ominous lines in this passage: "I felt as if I and the car I sat in were being guided by remote control through an outsize toyland where the place names had been picked at random by some invisible giant child, from the ruins of another world long since abandoned. It was as if the car had a will of its own on the broad highway." An extraordinary passage, with a hint of darkness and lightness to it, but also unsettling, given the tragic circumstances of the author's death.


August 2, 2013

An indication of the cause




W. G. Sebald mutes Thomas Bernhard's suicidal clamour, writes James Wood in The Guardian. Indeed, in contrast to Bernhard's, Sebald's were tempered rants, but rants no less effective for giving voice to the muted anger, desperation, and madness of exiles. In The Emigrants (trans. Michael Hulse), memory seems the only stable nationality of its eponymous characters and its narrator. The narrator particularly weaves his story in an anachronistic voice, closely identifying with his subjects who are all uprooted from their homes. Only in the compass of memory can the peripatetic narrator and his subjects seem to find their moorings. Like Dr. Henry Selwyn in the first section of The Emigrants, the narrator of the second section and his subject (his former teacher Paul Bereyter) are both physically and spiritually displaced, exiled not to some nearby place but much farther, "halfway round the world":

In December 1952 my family moved from the village of W to the small town of S, 19 kilometres away. The journey – during which I [the narrator] gazed out of the cab of Alpenvogel's wine-red furniture van at the endless lines of trees along the roadsides, thickly frosted over and appearing before us out of the lightless morning mist – seemed like a voyage halfway round the world, though it will have lasted an hour at the very most.

...

He was in Poland, Belgium, France, the Balkans, Russia and the Mediterranean, and doubtless saw more than any heart or eye can bear. The seasons and the years came and went. A Walloon autumn was followed by an unending white winter near Berdichev, spring in the Departement Haute-Saône, summer on the coast of Dalmatia or in Romania, and always, as Paul wrote under this photograph [a photograph of a man was included in the text], one was, as the crow flies, about 2,000 km away – but from where? – and day by day, hour by hour, with every beat of the pulse, one lost more and more of one's qualities, became less comprehensible to oneself, increasingly abstract.

Paul Bereyter was increasingly losing his qualities because his race (a quarter Jewish or "only three quarters an Aryan") is an issue to some people around him. As he came face to face with the cruelty of these people, he preferred to live in a dream instead, a form of exile but a bearable one in any case. People like Paul Bereyter chose to forget, an act akin to dying.

Do you know, she said on one of my visits to Yverdon, the systematic thoroughness with which these people kept silent in the years after the war, kept their secrets, and even, I sometimes think, really did forget, is nothing more than the other side of the perfidious way in which Schöferle, who ran a coffee house in S., informed Paul's mother Thekla, who had been on stage for some time in Nuremberg, that the presence of a lady who was married to a half Jew might be embarrassing to his respectable clientele, and begged to request her, with respect of course, not to take her afternoon coffee at his house anymore.

With respect of course!!! (Sebald chose to be restrained about it. But telling the same story, Bernhard's characters would have gone on for many pages to register their outrage.)

Paul Bereyter's fallback was the memory of his childhood, although it was already darkened by history. The story of Paul's life was filtered through Lucy Landau, Paul's friend and the one who arranged for his burial after he ended his life. So we hear the story of Paul as he tells it to Mme Landau who tells it to the narrator – a familiar Bernhardian device of narrative attribution where the narrator is at one or several removes from his tale.

Paul once described that wonderful emporium to her in detail, said Mme Landau, when he was in hospital in Berne in 1975, his eyes bandaged after an operation for cataracts. He said that he could see things then with the greatest clarity, as one sees them in dreams, things he had not thought he still had within him. In his childhood, everything in the emporium seemed far too high up for him, doubtless because he himself was small, but also because the shelves reached all the four metres up to the ceiling. The light in the emporium. coming through the small transom windonws let into the tops of the display window backboards, was dim even on the brightest of days, and it must have seemed all the murkier to him as a child, Paul had said, as he moved on his tricycle, mostly on the lowest level, through the ravines between tables, boxes and counters, amidst a variety of smells ... [emphases added]

And then Paul, through Mme Landau, went on to enumerate the various smells and the magical contents and the proprietor (Paul's father) and staff of the emporium. The inventory of memory was so precise and detailed it could bring out the murky quality of light as it struck the surface of the emporium. Common objects were recalled with "the greatest clarity". The novelist was here a kind of historian (or proprietor) of memory, the emporium being a representative image of object collection which Sebald used in other forms: like the Antwerp Nocturama and Antikos Bazar in Austerlitz.

Near the end of his life Paul, like Dr. Selwyn, is ready to come to terms with history, to make "endless notes" about it. What eats him so much, more than the systematic abuse the Jews suffered in Gunzenhausen, on Palm Sunday 1934, is the involvement of children in that notorious event.

For this reason, Mme Landau explained, Paul for a long time had only a partial grasp of what had happened in S in 1935 and 1936, and did not care to correct his patchy knowledge of the past. It was only in the last decade of his life, which he largely spent in Yverdon, that reconstructing those events became important to him, indeed vital, said Mme Landau. Although he was losing his sight, he spent many days in archives, making endless notes – on the events in Gunzenhausen, for instance, on that Palm Sunday of 1934, years before what became known as the Kristallnacht, when the windows of Jewish homes were smashed and the Jews themselves were hauled out of their hiding places in cellars and dragged through the streets. What horrified Paul was not only the coarse offences and the violence of those Palm Sunday incidents in Guzenhausenm ... but also, nearly as deeply, a newspaper article he came across, reporting with Schadenfreude that the schoolchildren of Gunzenhausen had helped themselves to a free bazaar in the town the following morning, taking several weeks' supply of hair slides, chocolate cigarettes, coloured pencils, fizz powder and many other things from the wrecked shops.

I would bet that there really exists such newspaper article. Real news items have a way of finding themselves in Sebald's prose. In The Rings of Saturn, the writer appropriated in the text an article in The Independent about the Balkan war crimes. These articles are part of the "endless notes" and documentary materials that strengthen the historical basis of the story. They are also part of the evidence that Sebald's characters collect in order to make sense of the violent era they lived in. The evidence confirms Paul's suspicion of the capacity of humans for cruelty and violence. Suicide – death, annihilation of memories, termination of possibilities – appears on the horizon as a possible response to "the logic of the whole wretched sequence of events".

He read and read – Altenberg, Trakl, Wittgenstein, Friedell, Hasenclever, Toller, Tucholsky, Klaus Mann, Ossietzky, Benjamin, Koestler and Zweig: almost all of them writers who had taken their own lives or had been close to doing so. He copied out passages into notebooks [two facing photographs of cursive writing accompany this quoted passage] which give a good idea of how much the lives of these particular authors interested him. Paul copied out hundreds of pages, mostly in Gabelsberg shorthand because otherwise he would not have been able to write fast enough, and time and again one comes across stories of suicide. It seemed to me, said Mme Landau, handing me the black oilcloth books, as if Paul had been gathering evidence, the mounting weight of which, as his investigations proceeded, finally convinced him that he belong to the exiles and not to the people of S. [emphasis added]

"Gathering evidence" is of course the title of Bernhard's five-part childhood memoirs which appeared individually in German from 1975 to 1982 and in English as a collected volume in 1985. The first volume ("An Indication of the Cause") appeared as the second part of Gathering Evidence (trans. David McLintock) and contained this epigraph:
 

Two thousand people every year attempt to put an end to their lives in the
province of Salzburg. A tenth of these suicide attempts are successful. This
means that in Austria, which together with Hungary and Sweden has the
highest suicide rate in the world, Salzburg holds the national record.

SALZBURGER NACHRICHTEN, 6 May 1975


Obsession with suicides and the suicidals characterizes the novels of Bernhard. His treatment of the subject, however, is not deadly serious. He can be mordantly funny about it. Whereas Sebald's humor is rare and dry and his treatment of suicide quite proper, Bernhard's is poker-faced hysterical and radical. An excerpt from Gathering Evidence:

Many boys actually did commit suicide at the boarding house in the Schrannengasse, though, curiously enough, none of them did so in the shoe closet, which would have been the ideal place: they all threw themselves out of windows in the dormitory or the lavatories or hanged themselves from the showers in the washroom. They were able to summon up the necessary courage, but he never had the strength, the decisiveness, or firmness of character required for suicide. During the short time he spent there during the Nazi period—between his arrival in autumn 1943 and his departure in autumn 1944—four pupils at the boarding house actually killed themselves by jumping out of windows or hanging themselves (how many others must have done so before and since!), and many others living in the city, having set off for school, were driven by unendurable despair to deviate from their usual route and throw themselves down from one of the hills, usually the Mönchsberg, onto the asphalt of the Müllner Hauptstrasse—the suicide street, as I used to call it. I often saw shattered bodies lying in this street, the bodies of schoolchildren and others, though mainly schoolchildren, lumps of flesh wrapped in bright-coloured clothes appropriate to the time of year. Today, thirty years later, I read reports at regular intervals (though more frequently in spring and autumn) about schoolchildren and others who have committed suicide. Every year there are dozens of such reports, though the real number of suicides runs into hundreds, as I have reason to know. It is probably true that in boarding establishments, especially those with exceedingly sadistic régimes and exceedingly bad climatic conditions, like the one in Schrannengasse, the subject which preoccupies the minds of the pupils is suicide—in other words, a completely unscientific subject, not one of the mass of subjects on the syllabus but one with which they are all intensely concerned. Of course the truth is that suicide and the idea of suicide are pre-eminently scientific subjects, though this is a fact which our hypocritical society cannot comprehend. Living with one's fellow pupils has always meant living with the idea of suicide: the idea of suicide comes first, the subjects of the syllabus second. I was by no means the only pupil who was obliged to spend the greater part of his time contemplating suicide. This was forced on me on the one hand by the brutality, ruthlessness, and utter viciousness that surrounded me, on the other by the extreme sensibility and vulnerability that is inherent in all young people. The time of one's life spent in learning and study is above all a time for thinking about suicide—whoever denies this has forgotten everything. The times I walked through the city thinking only of suicide, of blotting out my existence, wondering where and how I should do it, whether alone or in compact with others! There must have been hundreds of times. But these thoughts and speculations, prompted by everything I experienced in the city, led me back time and again to the prison of the boarding house. Every boy privately harboured the thought of suicide; it was the only thought that was both enduring and potent. Some were immediately destroyed by it, others merely broken, broken for the rest of their lives. The idea of suicide and the phenomenon of suicide were continually debated, but always in silence. And again and again we had a real suicide in our midst. I will not mention their names, most of which I have forgotten anyway; but I saw all of them hanging or lying shattered on the ground, the ultimate proof of the terrible suffering they had endured. I know of a number of burials at the Communal Cemetery and Maxglan Cemetery where boys of thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, or sixteen, having been done to death by society, were unceremoniously dumped in the ground, not properly buried, for in this strictly Catholic city suicides were naturally not given a proper burial but simply dumped in a hole and covered with earth in utterly depressing circumstances, which shed a most revealing light on humanity. These two cemeteries are full of evidence to prove my recollections correct. I am thankful to say that these recollections are in no way distorted, but here I must confine myself to giving simply an indication of what I remember.

Despite the marked difference in their temperaments, Sebald and Bernhard both gathered evidence of personal griefs to produce layered and resonant images of horrific events. The images of peoples persecuted beyond belief, those who experienced things "more than any heart or eye can bear" – these images pile up and their cumulative value amounts to experiences fully lived and remembered. Reading the prose works of these writers is an attempt to understand the indications of their causes. Reading as a radical act of gathering evidence itself.




Winstonsdad's Thomas Bernhard Reading Week
1-7 July 2013