29 April 2010

"Los Neochilenos" (Roberto Bolaño)

Los Neochilenos” (“The Neochileans”) is the second of three poems in Tres. Tres is Roberto Bolaño’s second collection of poetry in Spanish and what he considered to be one of his two best books, that is to say his best writing. It will be brought to English soon in a translation by Laura Healy, who also did The Romantic Dogs.

We also know that Erica Mena had completed her English version of the entire Tres sequence. (An excerpt of the first poem in Tres, “Tales of the Autumn in Gerona”, was published last month in Words Without Borders.) However, according to Erica herself, she wasn’t allowed to bring out her version in book form. This elicited strong reactions from critics.

Published in the latest issue (Issue 25 - Winter/Spring 2010) of the literary journal Washington Square was perhaps another translation of this poem. The translation was by Mariela Griffor. Maybe this is again only an excerpt as it was titled "de los Neochilenos" in the archive.

Back in 2008, the magazine n+1 also published "Los Neochilenos" (issue no. 7: Correction). The translator was not credited online and only a very short fragment of the poem was available online. I’m not sure if the magazine published the whole poem. (EDIT: They did publish it in full. But the full-text poem is one of the most highly valued pieces of the magazine. It would cost some $75,000 for it to appear online.) Here is the fragment:

Los Neochilenos [excerpt]
by Roberto Bolaño

And the only thing
Truly pleasant
That we saw in Arica
Was the sun of Arica:
A sun like a cloud of
A sun like sand
Subtly displacing
The motionless air.
The rest: routine.
Killers and converts
Mixed in the same discussion
Of deaf-mutes,
Of idiots undone
By purgatory.
And the lawyer Vivanco
A friend of Don Luis Sanchez
Asked what kind of crap we were trying to pull
With this Neochilenos bullshit.

So there may be 3 or 4 English translations of this poem alone while there are two extant versions (by Healy and Mena) of the entire book Tres. Only one English Tres, however, was authorized to come out. Which is a pity. I think the more translations available of a single work, the more exciting the situation will be for readers who are only able to access the works of a writer in translation.

Multiple translations will sharpen our perception of how literature sounded in the original. I find it exciting to compare several versions of a single work. Right now I’m reading side by side two translations of Norwegian Wood by Murakami Haruki – Jay Rubin’s authorized version (2000) and Alfred Birnbaum’s earlier translation (1989) for Kodansha – and enjoying both versions so far. A few months ago, I’ve finished Noli Me Tangere by José Rizal, in a supple translation by Ma. Soledad Lacson-Locsin. I first encountered it in the spare version of Leon Ma. Guerrero. I wouldn’t mind rereading it again in the first translation (in a supposedly baroque style) done at the turn of 20th century by Charles Derbyshire and in the latest rendering by Harold Augenbraum. Of course, I also won't let pass Lacson-Locsin's rendition of El Filibusterismo, the sequel to Rizal’s book (my favorite of the two based on my readings of Ma. Guerrero). Reading multiple translations is a great way to increase understanding of the work of fantastic writers one would not have any other way to read.

In an interview, translator par excellence Edith Grossman was asked a hypothetical question: Assuming that a reader or reviewer is trying to choose between two translations of a book, how can she judge which of the two is the better? Grossman’s reply was instructive:

In a way it’s like asking, how do you choose between two pianists who perform a Beethoven sonata? Well, maybe you listen to both. The fact that you like one doesn’t mean the other is inadequate. In the case of a book that’s been translated more than once, if you have several translations, how terrific for you. That means you have a very, very broad range of interpretation.

I find Erica’s excerpt in Words Without Borders to be a revelation. It's a side of Bolaño the poet I haven't encountered before. It is disappointing that her complete version of Tres is not to be allowed to see print. As what I’ve said before, I’d like Laura Healy and Erica Mena to bring out their separate interpretations of this trilogy of poems so that we will have a chance to experience two unique readings of it. Certainly not to decide which version is superior but to detect correspondences and deviations between the two translations which is a way for us readers to closely read a poem or, in Grossman’s terms, to listen to a performance of a great symphony. This poetry collection is what Bolaño personally considered one of his best works. Maybe we owe it to him that we must make an attempt to listen to his lines and learn his art as it was created before our very own eyes, in as many interpretations as the concert hall can produce.

25 April 2010

The Rings of Saturn: Heart of darkness

I am interested in the way Sebald appropriated certain non-fictional devices, such as memoir, travel writing, essay, and biography (of Roger Casement and Joseph Conrad, in chapter V alone) into a work of fiction. This blurring of boundaries between fact and fiction is a constant in Sebald’s writings and even the photographs he included seem to validate or "authenticate" his text. I recently came across an interview with Eliot Weinberger, who translated works by Borges, among others. In the interview he said something about "authenticity" as an academic invention.

Here are some excerpts from the interview:

"… it’s hard to draw the line these days between the academy and actual artists. In the academy, identity politics has replaced any kind of politics known to the rest of the world. So they’ve invented this idea of authenticity: that one can only talk about where one is personally coming from, and only the people coming from a culture are able to talk with any authority about that culture at all. This strikes me as totally deadening in terms of imaginative literature, and also utterly unrealistic …"

"There had been that big anthology of witness poetry, and the idea that you had to actually have been in World War II to write about World War II. This whole question of authenticity, which is a denial of the imagination. I mean, Dante didn’t go to Hell."

"… all memoir writing is ultimately fictional anyway. So then it becomes a question of: Are you creating an entirely fictional persona, who you claim to be yourself? And … are you marketing yourself as such?"

I think the effectiveness of Sebald’s fiction is due in part to his authentic engagement to the subjects he explores. This may have something autobiographical about it. Although The Rings of Saturn appears deeply personal in a lot of places, Sebald chose to label it as fiction and used certain elements of his research in a fictional (imaginative) way. Even if he talks about past events (the anatomy lesson, air wars, naval wars, ethnic cleansing in WWII, slavery and imperialism in the Congo in the 19th century), it is as if he was an actual witness or observer to said events. I find Sebald’s sensitivity to these 'forgotten' topics to be a very humane and sympathetic one. His excavation of memories seems to me like an inquiry on and a critique of human nature, particularly the human capacity for destruction. The Rings may be 'fiction' in terms of the literary devices he put into it but it doesn’t ring false to me.

21 April 2010

"Isang Dipang Langit" (Amado V. Hernandez)

An Arm’s Length of Heaven

I was incarcerated by a cruel leader,
asking for the price of my crushed spirit,
the body is weak, so I must surrender,
if spirit is defeated it embraced defeat

I was cornered in a fortress of brute gallows:
stone, steel, bullet, guard’s enmity, the constant knife;
I was spewed out from the entire world of sorrows
And taken for dead when life has not escaped life

In a tiny window, all one can penetrate
is an arm’s length of heaven full of bitter tears,
selfish panorama or a wounded heart’s gate,
flag of my wantonness, kerchief of sneers.

As knife the thunder of guardsman’s rolling eyes,
Fixed on locked door no body dares the length;
A prisoner’s yell in the adjacent sty
Was as a cavern animal’s trapped in its strength.

The entire day was chained to the entire structure,
Dragged as steel ball by shod foot pulped and bloody;
The entire night is a tent of grief and injure,
by the casket which was the only sanctuary.

Once, simple steps trace the cordoned blockade,
The hooks of steel chains are scraping concrete;
under pale sun put out to dry and to degrade,
a thousand shadows spat out by darkest pit

Once the night was suddenly brought to a scare
by an alarm – an escape! – gunshots were flying;
Once the old bell was pealing out in black despair,
in the death chamber, someone’s breath is escaping.

And now this is my only constant universe -
Interred in prison, graveyard of the living;
a decade, or two, or all of the coming scores
of all of my life here consumed while I’m fading.

But my spirit shall conquer fear, ordeal
My blood veins shall still run, my blood flow’s still a stream:
A prison is but part of dealing with evil,
To be imprisoned is to crush surrender’s dream.

Gods and men are not forever asleep
the oppressed shall not be the oppressed of every chance,
this grave injustice has a battle cry to keep,
As long as there’s Bastille, a country exacts vengeance.

And tomorrow, in the same window, I shall see
from the arm’s length of heaven without a single tear,
the provident sun shall rise a shining victory ...
my freed self shall come down to greet my self free!

Muntinlupa Prison - April 22, 1952

(translated from Filipino)

16 April 2010

The Rings of Saturn: Theater of war

In chapter IV, Sebald tackled the casualties and consequences of the “theatre of war.”

• Sitting on a bench in Gunhill, Sebald imagined the maritime war of May 28, 1672, a war between the Dutch and English fleets in Sole Bay. He mentioned the unreliable depiction of the war in several accounts and how paintings made to represent it “fail to convey any true impression of how it must have been to be on board one of these ships…” “At that date there can have been only a few cities on earth that numbered as many souls as were annihilated in sea-battles of this kind. The agony that was endured and the enormity of the havoc wrought defeat our powers of comprehension, just as we cannot conceive the vastness of the effort that must have been required … to build and equip vessels that were almost all predestined for destruction.”

• The “earth’s slow turning in the dark” reminded him of a quote from Thomas Browne: The huntsmen are up in America, and they are already past their first sleep in Persia (The Garden of Cyprus). He pictured how the earth’s turning on its axis became the signal for human bodies to lie in sleep – “prone bodies, row upon row, as if levelled by the scythe of Saturn.”

• As he gazed at the dark horizon of the sea, the aftermath of a storm, and at the summit of a “massif,” Sebald remembered a dream from years before. The dream is about walking along a mountain range, passing along the jagged peaks. This familiar scene was in fact the same Vallüla massif that Sebald saw from a bus when he was a child. He then supposed that “it is submerged memories that give to dreams their curious air of hyper-reality.”

• Sebald also remembered that just a year earlier he had been in the opposite situation: he was in a beach in Holland looking across to England. He then recalled his travel to The Hague, his checking in at “one of the less salubrious hotels,” and his strolls through the city.

• “No longer able to decide on a place to eat, I bought a carton of chips at McDonald’s, where I felt like a criminal wanted worldwide as I stood at the brightly lit counter, and ate them as I walked back to my hotel.” Is there a commentary here on globalization or Sebald just appears to be feeling jittery and paranoid in his travels to The Hague?

• Going back to his hotel, Sebald encountered a man running toward him and his pursuer “holding a long, glinting knife” which he imagined as piercing his own ribs. He didn’t sleep well that night.

• The next day, he viewed Rembrandt’s portrait of The Anatomy Lesson at the Mauritshuis. Looking at the dissection of the body in the painting affected him deeply and he was only to recover an hour later in front of another painting, Jacob van Ruisdael’s View of Haarlem with Bleaching Fields. The perspective of this painting (“an imaginary position some distance above the earth”) he described in detail.

• Outside the gallery, he sat on the steps of the palais and contemplated the structure built, according to his guidebook, by Governor Johann Maurits. During the opening of the house in May 1644, it is said that eleven dancers that the governor brought from Brazil performed in front the building. Nothing else was known about these performers, they have “long since disappeared, as soundless as shadows…”

• Sebald mentioned how Diderot, in his travel journals, described Holland as the Egypt of Europe. Whereas Diderot described The Hague as the loveliest village on earth, Sebald was not able to say the same thing as he walked its streets.

• He spent the evening in Amsterdam, taking notes on the “stations” of his journey prior to arriving at The Hague: in Switzerland, where he had a panic attack in Baden, in Munich, and in Nuremberg where he visited the grave of St. Sebolt, his patron saint. He recounted the life story of his namesake, from St. Sebolt’s short-lived wedding night to the miracles he performed. In 1519 an intricate sarcophagus which took 12 years to complete, was installed in honor of the saint in the chancel of the church in Nuremberg. The sarcophagus is made up of different figures, including “fabulous creatures and animals” (cf. Chapter I) and mythical figures. On top of it is the sculpture of Jerusalem.

• During the night spent at Vondel Park Hotel, a storm came and Sebald watched it from his window. Through the flash of a lightning, he saw for a fraction of a second a solitary mallard in the garden. In that briefest of time, and with the eyes of a poet, he was able to see the anatomical details of the mallard, down to microscopic “pores in the lid closed over its eye.”

• Sebald’s description of Schiphol airport the morning after was no less than otherworldly. He felt as if the airport was like an anteroom of Campos Elyseos, a street in São Paulo that he read about in Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques. Campos Elyseos was a place of villas and residences for the wealthy. It was built at the turn of the century and was now crumbling to pieces.

• A small detail: While waiting for his name to be called at the airport boarding area, Sebald noticed a man reading newspaper opposite him. The front page of the newspaper showed “a photograph of a vast pall of smoke, boiling up like an atomic mushroom cloud above an atoll.” The headline read: “De aswolk boven de Vulkaan Pinatubo.” Sebald was reading about the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines. This happened on June 1991, a little more than a year before Sebald travelled through Suffolk county. Mt. Pinatubo’s eruption claimed the lives of over 800 people, caused the spewing of large amounts of aerosols into the stratosphere, and brought ashfall to a wide swath of area, as far as Vietnam and Malaysia. The significant amount of sulphuric acid haze was enough to lower global temperature and to produce a short-term global cooling.

• The view from the plane allowed Sebald to meditate upon the land use and structures humans built over the centuries. He pointed out that at this top view of the world, one sees not a single human being, only the tracks he made on the face of the earth. Our hidden presence behind the “honeycombs of towering buildings” and “networks of complexity” led Sebald to conclude, “If we view ourselves from a great height, it is frightening to realize how little we know about our species, our purpose and our end.”

• This ended Sebald’s long recollection of Holland while sitting on Gunhill. At this point Sebald went to Sailors’ Reading Room which serves as a maritime museum. This is his favourite place in Southwold. Whenever he leafed through the log book of Southwold and deciphered the entries, he is “astounded that a trail that has long since vanished from the air or the water remains visible” on paper. On that “morning” (it’s puzzling how the time suddenly shifted here from evening in Gunhill to morning in Southwold), he noticed a book – a photographic history of World War I (Daily Express, 1933). The book contained pictures of “all conceivable forms of violent death,” all with ironic captions. There are also pictures of people trying to escape the War in the Balkans. Sebald also gave background to a “notorious snapshot from Sarajevo” (June 28, 1914), naming the personalities behind this picture, the assassin Gavrilo Princip and his victim Archduke Franz Ferdinand. This snapshot captured the event which “lighted the fuse” of World War I.

• While sitting in a hotel restaurant in the afternoon, Sebald came upon an article in Independent on Sunday that was related to the Balkan pictures he saw in the Reading Room. The article described the ethnic cleansing operations in 1941-45 in which 700,000 people were killed by violent ways – execution by saws, sabres, axes, hammers, blades, and by cross-bar gallows on which Serbs, Jews, and Bosnians were hanged in rows. The crimes were perpetrated by Croats, Austrians, and Germans. The killings happened in Jasenovac and in other camps surrounding it.

• Similar mass killings happened in Kozara where some 60 to 90 thousand people lost their lives by execution, deportation, working in slave-labor, disease, exhaustion, and fear.

• As an afterword, Sebald mentioned (what was in fact written in the article) that one of the intelligence officers in Heeresgruppe E was a Viennese lawyer tasked to oversee “resettlements” of the surviving victims of the “war.” This person was later to hold post as UN Secretary General and in that capacity (this fact was not in the article) spoke on tape (Wiki says the message was "printed"), a greeting for any extra-terrestrials out there, that was carried aboard the space probe Voyager II. Sebald did not name this person but he was named (as Kurt Waldheim) in the penultimate paragraph of the Independent article. It is interesting to see how Sebald appropriate a news article on the Balkan war crimes in this work of fiction.

• “What manner of theatre is it, in which we are at once playwright, actor, stage manager, scene painter and audience?” – Sebald posed this question about the paradoxical clarity of dreams earlier in this chapter. Readers may as well try to think through an answer.

Some observations on style:

• Sebald (or the narrator of the book, at least) must have been a compulsive note-taker or he has such a perfectly clear memory of his past travels.

• Sebald intentionally produces disorientation. In the Sebaldian world really, the frame of time is “stretched and expanded.” This produces a dreamlike effect and a heightened sense of detail.

• Multiple time shifts between past and present, with the past usually going back to the time of Sebald’s childhood, as if he perpetually wanted to recover his innocence.

• Travel recollections of the past year are sandwiched in the narrative of “the present” while the recollections branch out into remembered dreams or something read in a book or newspaper or something seen in the past.

Some relevant links:

• Article in Independent on Sunday by Robert Fisk (Aug. 15, 1992):


• On Gavrilo Princip and the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand


• On Mount Pinatubo eruption


• On Kurt Walheim and his message on Voyager spacecraft


10 April 2010

The Rings of Saturn: Herring, swine herd, sand martins

1. Chapter III finds Sebald contemplating the coastlines to the south of Lowestoft. He saw tent-like shelters lining the beach, occupied by fishermen from the immediate neighborhood. Sebald introduced here an ecological theme to his travels.

Among the environmental issues mentioned were the dwindling catches of fishes (possibly due to overfishing or destruction of coastal fish habitats), pollution of rivers and seas by heavy metals and agricultural run-offs, algal blooms resulting to the death of marine species or their mutations.

Sebald then recalled a short film about the catching of herring fishes that he saw as a child in the fifties. From the various sources he consulted (this 1936 short film, a booklet accompanying it, a natural history of the North Sea, traditional knowledge, etc.), he assembled a brief biology and ecology of the herring species.

The narrative took the shape of the natural history of the herring. The physical characteristics, habitat, life cycle, spawning aggregations of the fish were described, as well as their mysterious quality of a phosphorescent glow after death. Myths about the herring were also described, including their remaining alive even after being fished out of the water for some time. The previous abundance (a “catastrophic glut”) in the population of herring was a far cry from the presently declining state of the fisheries.

My favourite sentence in this chapter – “But the truth is that we do not know what the herring feels.”

Is Sebald sounding a deep form of animal rights activism? Has Sebald gone eco-activist here?

2. Sebald’s walk took him to Benacre Broad, a lake encircled by a woodland which is “dying” due to the steady erosion of the beach. The darkening of this coastal landscape called to his mind a news clipping about the death of a certain Major George Wyndham Le Strange, whose manor house stood beyond the lake. Major Le Strange was an eccentric recluse who left his sizeable fortune to his housekeeper. The actual news clipping was reproduced in the book.

Later in his walk, Sebald encountered dead trees fallen from the Covehithe cliffs, saw a sailing boat out on the sea, and chanced upon a herd of about a hundred swine. The scene of the darkening land and the herd of swine reminded Sebald of the parable of the swines of Gadarene in the gospel of St. Mark. Sebald asked himself three questions on the possible meaning of this parable:

- Is this terrible story the report of a credible witness?
- If so, does that not mean that in healing the Gadarene our Lord committed a serious error of judgment?
- Or was this parable made up by the evangelist, I wondered, to explain the supposed uncleanliness of swine; which would imply that human reasoning, diseased as it is, needs to seize on some other kind that it can take to be inferior and thus deserving of annihilation?

3. The sand martins flying over the sea reminded him of his childhood when he watched swallows circling the valleys, “still in great numbers in those days.” He imagined then that the world was held together by the courses the swallows traced in the air. This triggered another memory, that of reading about birds in the story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.

Here’s the passage from the Borges story:

Things become duplicated in Tlön; they also tend to become effaced and lose their details when they are forgotten. A classic example is the doorway which survived so long as it was visited by a beggar and disappeared at his death. At times some birds, a horse, have saved the ruins of an amphitheatre.1

Looking at the birds over the cliffs made Sebald dizzy. Down the cliff he saw a couple having sex on the beach which he associated with the image of a two-headed sea monster.

Sebald came back again to the Borges story, summarizing the story’s first part in fact. The story is about a narrator’s dinner conversation with a friend, Adolfo Bioy Casares (Borges’s friend in real life). They were talking “about writing a novel that would fly in the face of palpable facts.” An oval mirror at the end of the passage to their room caught their interest. Contemplating the mirror led them to conclude that “there is something sinister about mirrors.” Bioy mentioned to Borges a reference about the disturbing quality of mirrors, about the act of copulation, and how both multiply the number of human beings. This reference, attributed to the “heresiarchs of Uqbar,” was supposedly an entry in an encyclopaedia owned by Bioy Casares:

As the story goes on, however, it is revealed that this entry is nowhere to be found in the encyclopaedia in question [Anglo-American Cyclopaedia], or rather, it appears uniquely in the copy bought years earlier by Bioy Casares, the twenty-sixth volume2 of which contains four pages that are not in any other copy of the edition in question, that of 1917.

What began with an apparent discourse on the natural history of the herring in the North Sea progressed into a précis of an Argentinean short story. This chapter of The Rings ended with Borges’s final words in the story3 saying that he is working, at his leisure, on a translation of Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial.

From what he saw or found in his travels or from what appeared to him by chance, Sebald constantly branched out by association with some things remembered or recalled (stories, films, news articles, or books). His focal points of reference were from the immediate (things seen a year before) or from his childhood.

It’s not so much a method of digression but of free association, stitching a pastiche of stories and anecdotes and literary musings and nature history, of stories arising from consciousness but nonetheless sharpened by an idiosyncratic philosophical view of the world.

This fragmentary yet disturbingly unified style seemed to characterize The Rings of Saturn. There is a sort of progression in the narrative through free association so that the images align themselves like planetary rings. The gravity holding them together is the voice of the travel writer: a singular and persistent voice of curious and fatalistic bent.

It’s impressive the way Sebald traversed from one idea to the next effortlessly, indirectly, invisibly like a thread of silk in a fabric of the same color. The almost-hidden stitching showed Sebald to be a master at connecting dots and identifying transparent patterns in an otherwise opaque framework of memory, death, and destruction.


1 The passage about the birds saving the ruins of the amphitheatre occurs at the end of part II of the story. The story consists of two parts, apart from a postcript.

2 In the short story the questionable entry was contained in the 46th volume (Volume XLVI) of the encyclopaedia (1917 edition), not the 26th volume:

The following day, Bioy called me [Borges] from Buenos Aires. He told me he had before him the article on Uqbar, in volume XLVI of the encyclopedia…. I told him, in all truthfulness, that I should like to see that article. A few days later he brought it....

The tome Bioy brought was, in fact, Volume XLVI of the Anglo-American Cyclopaedia. On the half-title page and the spine, the alphabetical marking (Tor-Ups) was that of our copy, but, instead of 917, it contained 921 pages. These four additional pages made up the article on Uqbar, which (as the reader will have noticed) was not indicated by the alphabetical marking. We later determined that there was no other difference between the volumes. Both of them (as I believe I have indicated) are reprints of the tenth Encyclopaedia Britannica. Bioy had acquired his copy at some sale or other.”

Does anyone have access to Die ringe des Saturn? Kindly let us know what volume number was mentioned in the original German. Was there a mistranslation by Michael Hulse here? If not, was the mistake made by Sebald a deliberate one? If it was, why? what’s the purpose? Sebald, or Hulse, or the proofreader, misattributed the entry to another volume, and thereby “created” another book with an appended four-page entry on Uqbar. In the process, they may have created another universe parallel to the Uqbar in Bioy’s volume 46. Sebald wrote that Borges’s tale “deals with our attempts to invent secondary or tertiary worlds.” He was making, or may have already made, another world in this book.

3 The end of Part I of the short story, in fact.

Image: Stunning vistas, NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute, 2006.

06 April 2010

The Rings of Saturn: Somerleyton Hall


The second part of W. G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn (translated by Michael Hulse) started like this:

It was on a grey, overcast day in August 1992 that I travelled down to the coast in one of the old diesel trains, grimed with oil and soot up to the windows, which ran from Norwich to Lowestoft at that time. The few passengers that there were sat in the half-light on the threadbare seats, all of them facing the engine as far away from each other as they could be, and so silent, that not a word might have passed their lips in the whole of their lives.

I don’t know but I find this very funny. The descriptions here ("grey, overcast day" and trains "grimed with oil and soot up to the windows") and the stripped details ("few passengers" ... "half-light" ... "threadbare seats" ... "so silent") are intense. The passengers seated "as far away from each other" as possible (why would they do that?) gives way to an exaggeration of the passengers' death-like state that "not a word might have passed their lips in the whole of their lives." It’s not enough to suppose that not a word is uttered or exchanged in the whole of the train journey, but that the silence must be extended to the entirety of their lives!

Surprising turns of phrase were brought to bear upon the bare English landscape during the dog days of August. Passing through abandoned wind pumps and windmills and a skeletal landscape, Sebald eventually arrived at Somerleyton Hall. He was shocked to see no one, not a single soul was waiting for him in the station platform. Where'd they go?

Sebald proceeded to tell us about the history of the manor of Somerleyton estate which dates back to the middles ages. It changed owners several times, mainly through inheritance. The old mansion was described in extravagant details; its architecture was such that one could not tell "where the natural ended and the man-made began." The society pages of newspapers in 1850s were full of praise and admiration for the visual pleasures afforded by the place.

Sebald was contrasting the glorious appearance of the Somerleyton Hall of the old with the present wherein it was no longer maintained and practically abandoned. His description of a bygone era was very vivid, as if he was part of or had just entered the past and was giving witness of it.

Sebald's fine writing was a constant, yet certain passages gave surprise. Consider this "bygone paraphernalia" in Somerleyton Hall which struck our narrator's fancy:

A camphorwood chest which may once have accompanied a former occupant of the house on a tour of duty to Nigeria or Singapore now contains old croquet mallets and wooden balls, golf clubs, billiard cues and tennis racquets, most of them so small they might have been intended for children, or have shrunk in the course of the years.

Honey, I shrunk the sporting goods?! The reader wonders at this suggestion of a magical shrinkage. Not because it is insisted – it is not. But because the silly idea was entertained at all. What mechanism could have enabled this shrinking of objects? How the passage of time belittles everything?

Yes, the parade of quirky descriptions, handed down matter-of-fact, never ends:

However, on emerging into the open air again, I was saddened to see, in one of the otherwise deserted aviaries, a solitary Chinese quail, evidently in a state of dementia, running to and fro along the edge of cage and shaking its head every time it was about to turn, as if it could not comprehend how it had got into this hopeless fix.

And as if to prove the point, a still picture of this (demented) quail (in a hopeless fix, maybe) appeared on the facing page of the text...

In the grounds of Somerleyton, Sebald met William Hazel, a gardener who works in the mansion grounds. Upon learning of Sebald's German origin, Hazel spoke to him on how he developed an interest in the bombing of German cities during World War II. He constantly wondered about the destruction wrought on those cities by the aircraft bombers he saw passing through Somerleyton. One couldn’t help but to think of William Hazel as a stand-in for Sebald himself because the ideas he told Sebald were the same impassioned arguments the author gave in his lecture "Air War and Literature," collected in On the Natural History of Destruction. Hazel himself seemed to share Sebald’s thesis on the collective amnesia that descended upon the German literary establishment who was not able to publish something that dealt with the massive air strikes in their cities:

I [Hazel] have tried to find out everything I could that was in any way connected with the war in the air.... I even learnt German, after a fashion, so that I could read what the Germans themselves had said about the bombings and their lives in the ruined cities. To my astonishment, however, I soon found the search for such accounts invariably proved fruitless. No one at the time seemed to have written about their experiences or afterward recorded their memories. Even if you asked people directly, it was as if everything had been erased from their minds.

(This was the very thing decried by Sebald in his nonfiction and literary criticism and, indirectly, in fiction. In On the Natural History of Destruction, Sebald blasted the selective memory of Germans who suppressed in their minds the atrocities committed by the Allied bombers in the mid-1940s. This protest appeared to be confined only in Germany as the lack of writing on the subject was not absolute. The Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard was able to give a moving account of the air bombing. Bernhard's eyewitness account was contained in one of the volumes of his outstanding memoirs collected in Gathering Evidence.)

From Somerleyton, Sebald came upon Lowestoft, a depressed area hard hit by economic crises. Once again we read some bleak description of the landscape and its run-down establishments, a bleakness animated only by Sebald’s black humor. I cannot, for example, forget the hilarious scene with the sorry fish Sebald ate for dinner.

As with Somerleyton, Sebald provided contrasting descriptions of Lowestoft as a lively tourist destination during its heyday and the ruined Lowestoft of the present that is slowly crumbling into oblivion. Sebald’s travel notes of August '92 undermined previous accounts of Lowestoft as a wealthy resort in the latter half of nineteenth century.

Sebald then shared anecdotes about Lowestoft told by his friend Frederick Farrar, a conversation that took place a few months before the latter died. As with the gardener William Hazel before, Sebald now yielded the narrative to Frederick Farrar whose reminiscences on Lowestoft closed this second ring of Sebald’s saturnine book. Sebald was very like a tourist of ruined landscapes giving voice to his own observations and to those other "tour guides" of the past he encountered along the way. The tour guides tell their own stories as witnesses of history, seemingly innocent narratives in which horrors of death and destruction couldn't resist to bubble to the surface.

Notwithstanding the horror, there is in this chapter a well-calibrated humor, a smile that is always on the brink of escaping and being laughed away. The parade of details went on and on, of observed quietness of the landscapes, of crumbling built structures, of a hallucinatory loneliness. The reader is frozen and helpless in an agony of mirth.

Image: Locating the propellers, NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute, 2004

03 April 2010

The Rings of Saturn: The anatomy lesson


In the opening chapter an unnamed narrator talked about a certain journey he undertook alone in Suffolk county in 1992. A year later he was admitted in a hospital for an unspecified reason, something like a mental breakdown or exhaustion, though later he mentioned undergoing a "surgery" in the hospital. The narrator only described his ailment as "a state of almost total immobility."

The narrator (let’s call him Sebald, from now on) began composing this book (The Rings of Saturn, translated by Michael Hulse) about his travels to Suffolk in his mind while in the hospital and set to write it a year after being discharged. Two things he felt in his travels: a sense of freedom and a paralysing horror. The latter from the "traces of destruction" he saw in the countryside.

Then he proceeded to recount how after coming out of the hospital two Oxford lecturers died one after another. One is Michael Parkinson (who was researching on Charles Ramuz) and Janine Dakyns (a specialist on Gustave Flaubert). They were both single and appeared to be close colleagues of Sebald.

Sebald then recalled his search for Thomas Browne’s skull which, according to an encyclopedia, was stored in the very same hospital where he was previously admitted. He was able to contact someone who knows the history of Browne (1605-1682) and his skull. We learned that Browne was a son of a silk merchant, studied in Oxford, attended several universities, and became a medical doctor. Sebald speculated on Browne’s possible presence in an "anatomy lesson" conducted in Amsterdam in 1632. In fact, Sebald speculated on the presence of three men in that lesson: Browne, Descartes, and Rembrandt.

The anatomy lesson was a public viewing of the dissection of a corpse of a criminal. The said event was depicted in a painting by Rembrandt to which Sebald gave a kind of extended art interpretation, contrasting Descartes’s view on the value of body and flesh with that of the painter Rembrandt’s.

Sebald’s description of the painting betrayed his sympathy for Aris Kindt, the criminal whose body was being dissected. Sebald thought of the anatomy lesson as an extension of the corporal punishment on earth of a man hanged just a moment before. He seemed to be giving something of a critique of the scientific enlightenment that the lesson was providing its onlookers. In any case, it was hard not to detect an aversion on the part of Sebald while viewing the painting as if he himself was present during the entire operation, watching the Guild of Surgeons surrounding the body on the table, each surgeon fixated on the "open anatomical atlas in which the appalling physical facts are reduced to a diagram, a schematic plan of the human being."

It was likely that Sebald identified with the body prostrate on the table as he returned to his recollections of his time in the hospital after his own surgery. A contemplation of an aircraft and its trail of smoke bought him back to Browne and a consideration of his writing style. Sebald’s description of Browne’s prose and themes, a truly beautiful long passage, mirrored his own elegant prose fiction.

At this point until the end of the chapter Sebald shared the range of Browne's preoccupations from the structure of the quincunx present in Nature (with a capital N) to human fascination on the grotesque, bizarre, and fantastical beasts/monsters, whether real or imaginary. This was by no means a simple listing of themes, however. Sebald gave a prose-poetic riff on Browne’s philosophical ideas on nature, piling up details and images one after the other. As if tracing the structure of the quincunx himself. It was beautiful.

References to art (literature and painting) abound in the book. In Part I alone, we encounter the following:

Gregor Samsa – character in "The Metamorphosis" by Kafka

Charles Ramuz

Madame Bovary by Flaubert

angel in Dürer’s Melancholia

Thomas Browne; Urn Burial; The Garden of Cyprus containing the drawing of a quincunx; Pseudodoxia Epidemica dealing with real and imaginary beings; Hydriotaphia

Encyclopaedia Britannica (1911 edition )

Rembrandt painting The Anatomy Lesson - reproduced in the book

amateur anatomist Rene Descartes – allegedly present also in the anatomy lesson

Hippocrates and his notes on sleeplessness

Brehm’s Thierleben – "a popular nineteenth century zoological compendium"

Jorge Luis Borges’s Libro de los seres imaginarios (The Book of Imaginary Beings)

6th book of Grimmelshausen’s narrative in which Simplicius Simplicissimus encounter an imaginary creature

Image: Saturn's auroras, NASA/Hubble/Z. Levay and J. Clarke, 2005