30 May 2010

Ōe, Murakami, and self-censorship

"… No War and Peace, no Kenzaburo Oe’s Homo Sexualis, no Catcher in the Rye. That’s your Kobayashi Book Shop. I mean, who in their right mind’s going [to] be envious of that? Would you be?"
– Norwegian Wood, Murakami Haruki (translated by Alfred Birnbaum)

For the month of May, the Flips Flipping Pages Shelfari group goes for a reading of art-themed books. I've read Two Novels: J ; Seventeen by Ōe Kenzaburo, translated by Luk Van Haute. The painting referred to in J is "The Inferno" by the Belgian painter Paul Delvaux. Seven characters go to a vacation house to make a film based on this painting. Unfortunately, I can’t find a painting of that title online. It's described in the book as “a reproduction of a work by the surrealist Delvaux, in which several women with lovely pubic hair and an air of abstraction are walking through an eternally quiet landscape in the style of de Chirico.... Their pubic hair was an incomparably beautiful chestnut brown, like a shade of bronze.” To be sure, several paintings by Delvaux feature several nude women walking in an urban landscape. It’s just that no one of them is called “The Inferno” or “Hell,” for that matter.

Anyway, both novels (novellas, really) are great reads, but only J is art-related. According to the introduction to the book by Masao Miyoshi, the original Japanese title of J is “nearly untranslatable” though it can be roughly approximated as Sexual Humans. Well, I find that to be a better and more apt title than J. (It must have been what Alfred Birnbaum, in the above epigraph, was referring to as Homo Sexualis. Curiously the second translation of Norwegian Wood, by Jay Rubin, did not mention a title for Ōe’s book in the same quoted passage.)

“J” is the name of the main protagonist, the husband of the film director who was to shoot her art film. With a limited number of characters (J, his wife-director, his sister, the cameraman, the actor, the poet-screenwriter, and the jazz singer/actress), all of them confined in one setting, complete with alcohol and promiscuity and sexual issues, it’s a staging of Murphy’s Law. What happened in the set, even before filming began, are a combination of decadence, trysts, betrayals, and a hair-raising cultural clash with some conservative people living in the neighborhood.

One can read a sort of edginess and sexual rebelliousness in both novels. In the second part of J, sexual promiscuity takes on a new form. It’s now the realm of chikan (which the translator explained in a footnote to literally mean "an oversexed idiot, used to refer to subway molesters"). There’s a band of chikans, sexual predators plying on trains to molest women. The surprising thing is that Ōe managed to somehow humanize his characters. For all their perversity and immorality, there was an underlying complexity in the depiction of the sexual perverts’ irrational behavior, which did not excuse them, but however made them all too human. "Sexual humans," in fact.

The second novella, Seventeen, is a psychological and political novel, but more political really. It was so controversial in Japan that Ōe suppressed the appearance of its sequel in any translation. In it, Ōe managed to delineate the complex character of a troubled teenager prone to sexual-existential angst. Essentially the book cannot be removed from the political as it was based on true events of a 17-year old who flirted with an extreme right-wing group, stabbed a leftist leader to death, and later hanged himself in jail. The latter two events were the plot of “A Political Youth Dies,” the sequel to Seventeen. ( I don’t think I’m spoiling the story as the sequel is censored anyway.) The actual assassination which happened in 1960 was caught on video. It captured the imagination of the nation and served as a reminder of how extreme the politics of the right can be – the youth was labeled a terrorist.

Ōe certainly had an interesting take on the interplay of sex/politics and private/public life. The two novels deal with sexual perverts and how they become entangled with politics of the day. Somehow, they still maintain their shock value in terms of graphic descriptions. It’s hard to imagine how they were received by the Japanese when they were first published in the 1960s. They were said to cause a sensation.

I'm hoping that Ōe will allow the publication of "A Political Youth Dies", the sequel to Seventeen, which he apparently suppressed because it angered extreme right-wingers and he was uncertain about the style and content of the book. He was like Murakami Haruki in the self-censorship aspect, but they have different motivations for censoring their own works. Murakami's motivation was aesthetic (he thinks his two early novels were juvenile works) while Ōe's were aesthetic and political (right-wingers threw stones at his house and harassed him with death threats, leftists constantly sent him letters accusing him of betrayal and cowardice when he withdrew publication of his books). These writers are being too harsh on themselves.

I’m actually sympathetic to Ōe's case. He will not please both sides, the right or the left, and his decision to suppress the translation to any language of the sequel to his novel was as much based on his uncertainty of his work as on his and his family's personal security. I think that despite the literary merit of his politically charged novel, his decision to censor it based on personal security may be valid, although some readers, like me, feel deprived of the continuity of the story. In that sense, even if the novels are of high literary value, it failed the imagination of its "immediate" readers who saw in it a distortion of their political beliefs.

The ideal case is for a political novel to be judged by readers based on literary and artistic filters. As to whether it contains non-progressive politics or not … but who is to know if it contains one or the other? I say let the reader be the judge. Whether the reader wants to subscribe to a critical reading of the book’s politics, is up to him. But how readers in the immediate society of the writer (the Japanese in 1960s Japan, in Ōe's case) will react to overtly political themed novels is another matter. This may be the quandary of a writer born in a milieu hostile to political and sexual expressions.

On the surface of it, several factors seem to weigh down Ōe’s books. First, he based his story on a true story of a troubled teenager and his assassination of a leftist leader. Second, the assassination was captured on tape, shown on national television, and thus entered the national consciousness and left a stain on the doctrines and methods of extreme rightists. Third, Ōe’s imagining of the teenage assassin as a disturbed masturbator did not meet the approval of some readers. The protests came from the sexualization of the character of the assassin in Seventeen and, perhaps, in its sequel. I believe that in the first part of the story (Seventeen), Ōe has sensitively imagined the character as a troubled teenager and has given an authentic, albeit sexually-oriented, edge to his inner conflicts. True, the story exhibited the usual trappings of a young, impressionable teenager, and Ōe’s interpretation of the turbulence of the political climate of the times (1960s Japan) was made at the expense of a polite, conventional, or moderate fictional representation. The shock value was disagreeable to some but, in his own way, he just told it how it was.

It is partly the shock value itself that Ōe seemed to regret later, as he wrote something of an apology for his "careless way of writing," blaming himself that he "should have handled Seventeen and A Political Youth Dies with greater skill," that he "could have written without provoking the right wing and yet making [his] message more forthright." But again, I think Ōe was being too harsh on himself.

On the other hand, Murakami suppressed the publication outside Japan of his first two novels, Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973, as well as the first English translation of Norwegian Wood, all books translated by Alfred Birnbaum. Murakami has mentioned in interviews that his estimation of the first two books is not so high, thus he wanted to limit their distribution. Which is a puzzling decision since international sellers (eBay, Amazon) can still get hold of them and retail them outside, albeit sometimes at steep prices. Typed versions of Pinball, 1973 even appeared on the web and access to the books are not entirely prohibitive. Since the first two books are part of a trilogy (or tetralogy if Dance Dance Dance, which also shared characters with these books, is included), there is really something to be gained by reading them prior to A Wild Sheep Chase, the third novel. The books provide some back stories on the main characters, and tell of their early friendships and relationships which can have a bearing on appreciation of the third book. These books are indeed less mature works; it shows. They are self-conscious novels, though moments of beauty, tenderness, and surrealism sometimes flicker in them that make them worthwhile reads.

What drives a certain writer to suppress his early works? When the first novels were usually written at such a precocious age, the writer was unsure of his technique. The trajectory of his career depends in part on the first impressions he makes even if the latter books prove to be the more enduring and the ones that actually spell his success.

The case of Ōe Kenzaburo and his trilogy of novels about sexual deviants in the early 1960s demonstrate a "careless way of writing" that is not up to the moral/ethical/political/whatever scruples of his immediate reading audience. It demonstrates further that the reflection of political reality in books, or the entanglement of characters with the politics of the day, can endanger the life of a writer to the extent that he will censor his own works. As pointed out to me by a member from LibraryThing reading site, Ōe has had his share of crossing the right-wing scholars and politicians in issues related to Japanese involvement in wartime mass suicides.

The case of Murakami Haruki is a more puzzling one. Partly I think it revolves around the "fame complex" that a writer catapulted to popularity falls prey to. Vanity? It may not be as simple as that. It may be something related to the legacy a writer wants to leave. But I don't want to speculate or dwell too much on Murakami. I just think his self-censorship is not justified at all, even if his assessment of his own books tell otherwise.

Going back to Ōe: We want a writer’s politics not to be indebted to any alternative (centrist) perspective other than his own. To avoid offending the right or the left is never an option. It is not a question of whether they ought to be consistent in their leftist/rightist ideas or they should stick to being harmless and just depict human nature in neutral tones. I prefer if they stick to risqué positions. Their works become interesting even if one doesn’t share their politics, e.g., José Saramago and his outdated ideology. (Saramago, I think, is another novelist who doesn’t want to publish his early novels). There is an ethical dimension to novels of politics that should bolster the right of writers to expression and publication.

It would have been better if these writers allow readers to judge for themselves the value of their works, whether the claims that these novels are inferior or they promote some kind of non-progressive/destructive/irresponsible/whatever politics are warranted and so must really be disowned. But then we will never know.

So to reiterate: Mr Ōe, I'm hoping that when the political climate finally permits (which hopefully is not as near as never), you will allow the publication of A Political Youth Dies in translation. You owe it to readers who want to know how the story ended the way you tell it and to see for their own eyes the uncertainties you attribute to it.

Reading list: Gregory Rabassa

Translation is always a treason, and as a Ming author observes, can at its best be only the reverse side of a brocade—all threads are there, but not the subtlety of colour or design. But, after all, what great doctrine is there which is easy to expound? The ancient sages never put their teachings in systematic form. They spoke in paradoxes, for they were afraid of uttering half-truths. They began by talking like fools and ended by making their hearers wise. Laotse himself, with his quaint humour, says, “If people of inferior intelligence hear of the Tao, they laugh immensely. It would not be the Tao unless they laughed at it.”
–Okakura Kakuzo, The Book of Tea (1906)

The following is a list of the translations done by the inimitable translator Gregory Rabassa, as contained in his memoir If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents (New Directions, 2005). His best known works are of course the much-loved translations of Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch and Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.

He introduced his discussion of these works in his memoir, under the section “The Bill of Particulars” (pp. 49-50):

Excluding shorter pieces I have done … the writers I have translated thus far number twenty-seven, with some awaiting publication …. The works are largely fiction, with one small poetry chapbook, a literary study, and a social history. This varying array of personalities, styles, languages (Portuguese and Spanish), and nationalities, all funneled into the work of one translator reveals how this last must in some way undergo a kind of controlled schizophrenia as he marshals his skills at immutability. My own experience in this matter has not been all that complex or worrisome. As I have said before, I follow the text, I let it lead me along, and a different and it is to be hoped proper style will emerge for each author. This bears out my thesis that a good translation is essentially a good reading; if we know how to read as we should we will be able to put down what we are reading in another language into our own. I might have said into our own words, but these, even in English, belong to the author who indirectly thought them up.

Rabassa’s memoir then went on to describe each of the books listed below. (I've updated the list to reflect those that were published since the memoir came out. The titles of plays, some five of them, are excluded from this list.) His “rap sheet” mentions not only the nature of the books and his estimation of them, but also his relationship with the authors in question. It can be said that Rabassa not only produced a version of these works in English. In many creative ways, he also “co-authored” them.

English translations by Gregory Rabassa (updated Oct. 5, 2013)

Julio Cortázar

Hopscotch, 1966 (Rayuela, 1963)
62: A Model Kit, 1972 (62: Modelo para armar, 1968)
A Manual for Manuel, 1978 (Libro de Manuel, 1973)
A Change of Light and Other Stories, 1980 (Octaedro, 1974; Alguien que anda por ahí, 1978)
We Love Glenda So Much and Other Tales, 1983 (Queremos tanto a Glenda y otros relatos, 1981)
A Certain Lucas, 1984 (Un tal Lucas, 1979)

Miguel Ángel Asturias

Mulata, 1967 (Mulata de tal, 1963)
Strong Wind, 1969 (Viento fuerte, 1950)
The Green Pope, 1971 (El papa verde, 1954)
The Eyes of the Interred, 1973 (Los ojos de los enterrados, 1960)

Clarice Lispector

The Apple in the Dark, 1967 (A Maçã no Escuro, 1961)

Mario Vargas Llosa

The Green House, 1968 (La casa verde, 1965)
Conversation in The Cathedral, 1975 (Conversación en la Catedral, 1969)

Afrânio Coutinho

An Introduction to Literature in Brazil, 1969 (Introdução à Literatura no Brasil, 1966)

Juan Goytisolo

Marks of Identity, 1969 (Señas de identidad, 1966)

Manuel Mujica-Láinez

Bomarzo, 1969 (Bomarzo, 1967)

Gabriel García Márquez

One Hundred Years of Solitude, 1970 (Cien años de soledad, 1967)
Leaf Storm and Other Stories, 1972 (La hojarasca, 1969)
The Autumn of the Patriarch, 1976 (El otoño del patriarca, 1975)
Innocent Eréndira and Other Stories, 1978 (La increíble y triste historia de la cándida Eréndira y de su abuela desalmada. Siete cuentos, 1972)
In Evil Hour, 1979 (La mala hora, 1968)
Chronicle of a Death Foretold, 1983 (Crónica de una muerte anunciada, 1981)

Dalton Trevisan

The Vampire of Curitiba and Other Stories, 1972 (Novelas Nada Exemplares. Cemiterio de Elefantes, O Vampiro de Curitiba, A Guerra Conjugal. 2nd eds., 1970)

José Lezama Lima

Paradiso, 1974 (Paradiso, 1968)

Demetrio Aguilera-Malta

Seven Serpents and Seven Moons, 1979 (Siete lunas y siete serpientes, 1970)

Osman Lins

Avalovara, 1979 (Avalovara, 1973)

Luis Rafael Sánchez

Macho Camacho’s Beat, 1980 (La guaracha del Macho Camacho, 1976)

Juan Benet

A Meditation, 1982 (Una meditación, 1969)
Return to Región, 1985 (Volveras a Región, 1967)

Vinícius de Moraes

The Girl from Ipanêma, 1982 (A Garôta de Ipanêma)

Luisa Valenzuela

The Lizard’s Tail, 1983 (Cola de lagartija, 1983)

Jorge Amado

Sea of Death, 1984 (Mar Morto, 1936)
Captains of the Sands, 1988 (Capitães da Areia, 1937)
Showdown, 1988 (Tocaia Grande, 1984)
The War of the Saints, 1993 (O Sumiço da Santa, 1988)
The Double Death of Quincas Water-Bray, 2012 (A morte e a morte de Quincas Derro Dagua, 1961)
The Discovery of America by the Turks, 2013 (A descoberta da America pelos Turcos, 1994)

Oswaldo França, Júnior

The Man in the Monkey Suit, 1986 (O Homem de Macacão, 1972)

António Lobo Antunes

Fado Alexandrino, 1990 (Fado Alexandrino, 1983)
The Return of the Caravels, 2002 (As Naus, 1988)
What Can I Do When Everything’s on Fire?, 2008 (Que Farei Quando Tudo Arde?, 2001)

José Donoso

Taratuta—Still Life with Pipe, 1993 (Taratuta—Naturaleza muerta con cachimba, 1990)

Irene Vilar

A Message from God in the Atomic Age [rereleased in paperback as The Ladies’ Gallery (“The Sirens, Too, Sang that Way”)], 1996.

Mario de Carvalho

A God Strolling in the Cool of the Evening, 1997 (Um Deus Passeando pela Brisa de Tarde, 1994)

Joachim Maria Machado de Assis

The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, 1997 (Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas, 1881)
Quincas Borba, 1998 (Quincas Borba, 1891)

Ana Teresa Torres

Doña Inés vs. Oblivion, 1999 (Doña Inés contra el olvido, 1992)

Darcy Ribeiro

The Brazilian People, 2000 (O povo brasileiro, 1995)

João de Melo

My World Is Not of This Kingdom, 2003 (O Meu Mundo Não É Deste Reino, 1983)

Jesús Zárate

Jail, 2003 (La cárcel, 1972)

Jorge Franco

Rosario Tijeras, 2004 (Rosario Tijeras, 1999)

Volodia Teitelboim

Internal War, awaiting a publisher (La guerra interna, 1979)

José Sarney

Master of the Sea, 2005 (O Dono do Mar, 1995)
Saraminda: Black Desire in a Field of Gold, 2007 (Saraminda, 2000)

José Maria de Eça de Queirós

The Correspondence of Fradique Mendes, 2011 (Correspondência de Fradique Mendes)

António Vieira
The Sermon of Saint Anthony to the Fish and Other Texts, 2009

Bernardim Ribeiro
Maiden and Modest: A Renaissance Pastoral Romance, 2012

29 May 2010

Rise's reading diary, 2010

The rap sheet.

Click on the month for quick reviews.


1. Ghosts by César Aira, tr. Chris Andrews

2. Better by Atul Gawande

3. Pinball, 1973 by Murakami Haruki, tr. Alfred Birnbaum

4. A Wild Sheep Chase by Murakami Haruki, tr. Alfred Birnbaum

5. Loving Sabotage by Amélie Nothomb, tr. Andrew Wilson

6. Mon by Natsume Sōseki, tr. Francis Mathy

7. Seven Nights by Jorge Luis Borges, tr. Eliot Weinberger


8. 69 by Murakami Ryū, tr. Ralph F. McCarthy

9. City Gates by Elias Khoury, tr. Paula Haydar

10. Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview by Mónica Maristain, tr. Sybil Perez

11. War by Candlelight by Daniel Alarcón

12. The Wild Geese by Mori Ōgai, tr. Kingo Ochiai and Sanford Goldstein

13. The Engagement by Georges Simenon, tr. Anna Moschovakis

14. Homage to the Lame Wolf by Vasko Popa, tr. Charles Simic


15. The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzo

16. If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents by Gregory Rabassa

17. Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Murakami Haruki, tr. Alfred Birnbaum

18. Nazi Literature in the Americas by Roberto Bolaño, tr. Chris Andrews -- reread


19. Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes, tr. Richard Howard

20. Piercing by Murakami Ryū, tr. Ralph McCarthy

21. Paris Trance by Geoff Dyer

22. An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter by César Aira, tr. Chris Andrews

23. Your Face Tomorrow 1: Fever and Spear by Javier Marías, tr. Margaret Jull Costa


24. Two Novels: J ; Seventeen by Ōe Kenzaburo, tr. Luk Van Haute

25. The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald, tr. Michael Hulse -- reread

26. Maigret and the Madwoman by Georges Simenon, tr. Eileen Ellenbogen

27. The Mirror of Ink by Jorge Luis Borges, tr. Andrew Hurley

28. The Lost Painting by Jonathan Harr

29. Poem Strip by Dino Buzzati, tr. Marina Harss

30. Therefore Repent! by Jim Munroe and Salgood Sam

31. The Burning Plain and Other Stories by Juan Rulfo, tr. George D. Schade

32. Dreamtigers by Jorge Luis Borges, tr. Mildred Boyer and Harold Morland

33. Monsieur Pain by Roberto Bolaño, tr. Chris Andrews

34. The Stream of Life by Clarice Lispector, tr. Elizabeth Lowe and Earl Fitz


35. Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám of Naishapur by Edward FitzGerald

36. The Double Helix by James D. Watson

37. The Art of Fiction by David Lodge

38. Yes by Thomas Bernhard, tr. Ewald Osers


39. A Universal History of Infamy by Jorge Luis Borges, tr. Norman Thomas di Giovanni

40. Some Prefer Nettles by Tanizaki Junichirō, tr. Edward G. Seidensticker

41. Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco

42. Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond

43. Soldiers of Salamis by Javier Cercas, tr. Anne McLean

44. Norwegian Wood I by Murakami Haruki, tr. Alfred Birnbaum

45. Death in Midsummer by Mishima Yukio, tr. Edward G. Seidensticker, Ivan Morris, Donald Keene, and Geoffrey W. Sargent


46. On the Natural History of Destruction by W. G. Sebald, tr. Anthea Bell -- reread

47. The Devil to Pay in the Backlands by João Guimarães Rosa, tr. James L. Taylor and Harriet de Onís -- reread

48. Six Easy Pieces by Richard P. Feynman -- reread

49. Numb by Sean Ferrell

50. Grass on the Wayside by Natsume Sōseki, tr. Edwin McClellan


51. Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico by Javier Marías, tr. Esther Allen

52. Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair by Pablo Neruda, tr. W. S. Merwin

53. Norwegian Wood II by Murakami Haruki, tr. Alfred Birnbaum

54. The Speed of Light by Javier Cercas, tr. Anne McLean

55. The Makioka Sisters by Tanizaki Junichirō, tr. Edward G. Seidensticker

56. Antwerp by Roberto Bolaño, tr. Natasha Wimmer


57. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

58. The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

59. The Literary Conference by César Aira, tr. Katherine Silver

60. How I Became a Nun by César Aira, tr. Chris Andrews

61. Dance Dance Dance by Murakami Haruki, tr. Alfred Birnbaum

62. Poems of Akhmatova by Anna Akhmatova, tr. Stanley Kunitz and Max Hayward

63. Sounds, Feelings, Thoughts by Wisława Szymborska, tr. Magnus J. Krynski and Robert A. Maguire

64. The Jaguar by João Guimarães Rosa, tr. David Treece

65. The Fixer by Joe Sacco

66. The Hare by César Aira, tr. Nick Caistor

67. Managing Online Forums by Patrick O'Keefe

68. Exploits and Opinions of Doctor Faustroll, Pataphysician by Alfred Jarry, tr. Simon Watson Taylor


69. Your Face Tomorrow 2: Dance and Dream by Javier Marías, tr. Margaret Jull Costa

70. The Stalin Front by Gert Ledig, tr. Michael Hofmann

71. Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo, tr. Margaret Sayers Peden

72. The Mystery Guest by Grégoire Bouillier, tr. Lorin Stein -- reread

73. The Insufferable Gaucho by Roberto Bolaño, tr. Chris Andrews


74. Clandestine in Chile by Gabriel García Márquez, tr. Asa Zatz

75. The Trial by Franz Kafka, tr. Breon Mitchell

76. Patikim by Mark Angeles

77. Blow-Up and Other Stories by Julio Cortázar, tr. Paul Blackburn

78. Tres by Roberto Bolaño, tr. Erica Mena, unpublished translation

79. Cave and Shadows by Nick Joaquín

80. Mondo Marcos: Mga Panulat sa Batas Militar at ng Marcos Babies, ed. Frank Cimatu and Rolando B. Tolentino

22 May 2010

"The South" (Jorge Luis Borges)

from A Personal Anthology by Jorge Luis Borges, edited by Anthony Kerrigan, story translated by Anthony Kerrigan (Grove Press, 1967)

A man named Juan Dahlmann suddenly took ill, was hospitalized, almost died, was cured, and then journeyed by train to the South, to his property ranch. After he came down from the train, Dahlmann walked into a store to eat and there encountered some bystanders who provoked him to a fight. Dahlmann stood up and confronted them. A knife suddenly materialized.

That's the bare bones of the story, told in just a few pages, ending with a duel to the death. What was interesting here was that Borges fashioned the existential pains of a convalescent man into an inquiry on the nature of time and violence: Time had never erased the desire to fight, always in the guise of upholding one's pride. Thus, what one sometimes ascribe to fate's decisions was but one's own flirtation with self-destruction, the seeming inevitability of violence when confronted with the other.

"Time" can mean here, in this place, in the South, an onward movement toward blood and dust. Time is biding its time. As we are all marked for death at the beginning, the entrance of (random) chance that seizes us without warning, forgets to apprise us of its malign intents. Time is the natural forward motion of existence. The seeming randomness or purposelessness of living is more than a matter of chance; rather, it is just a matter of time.

One seems to be presented with a conventional story, something with more of an actual plot than "Pierre Menard" or "The Library of Babel." The narrative at least appears to move linearly, the fantastical speculations held at bay. Or maybe not? Time suddenly shifted from 1871 to 1939. Time expanded such that eight interminable days seemed like eight centuries of bondage. Pure chance, aided by the beastly genetic makeup of men, gradually made its way to the temporal axis, finally reached its victim to strangle his throat.

"The South" was permeated with the images of time's passing: the sun changing its colors from one moment to the next, Dahlmann’s line of descent from a Johaness Dahlmann who arrived in Buenos Aires in 1871, sudden time shifts, sudden events that changed the climate of a situation from amiable to perilous. Even an edition of The Thousand and One Nights that Dahlmann acquired was trying to undermine time’s infinite regression: "To travel with this book, which was so much a part of the history of his ill-fortune, was a kind of affirmation that his ill-fortune had been annulled; it was a joyous and secret defiance of the frustrated forces of evil." Oh, if only he knew!

Dire events terminate into inevitability. The onus is on anyone found vulnerable. Twice in the story Dahlmann felt something brush his face, and in both occasions fate did not augur well. "Brushing cheeks with death," as Roberto Bolaño* would have it. In the first instance, a brush of bat (or bird) wings(?) on his cheeks, the appearance of blood, altogether harmless but which nonetheless signaled the start of a feverish lapse into sickness (septicemia, said the doctor), just a thin thread away from death. Sometimes time passes by as swift as a bat or bird brushing the face. This first premonition of death produced in Dahlmann a hypersensitivity of the senses. Sensations to external stimuli (colors, smell) were intensified. As much as it can, the body fought the disease to the last. Dahlmann recovered from this first brush, and lived another, just another, day.

The second time something brushed his cheek was when a gang of tough guys threw breadcrumbs at him. After recuperating from a near-death experience, he was dead set (no pun intended) to come down his ranch at the South to fully recover, only to fall again by the wayside. With an insult, a sneer in his direction. His life, just given a new lease, was again on the brink of extinction. Borges never told us how the knife duel ended.** Maybe it doesn’t matter. When mortals are already going down south, one escapes and survives, only to fall down the next trap.

Note: This is the third story discussed in the May reading of three Borges pieces.

*  I just learned from Nonsuch Book that Roberto Bolaño paid homage to "The South" in his own story, "The Insufferable Gaucho." How exciting! Reading Borges pays in itself, but recognizing his influences on Roberto, now that's value-adding. In 2666, Professor Amalfitano’s questions to Chucho Flores seemed to be inspired by "The Library of Babel": "That night Amalfitano asked the Mexican three questions. The first was what he thought of hexagons. The second was whether he knew how to construct a hexagon. The third was what he thought about the killings of women in Santa Teresa." Chucho didn't give satisfactory answers. The answers were perhaps locked away in one of the (infinite) hexagonal rooms.

**  In Dreamtigers, Borges sketched in "Martín Fierro" a possible ending to this short story: "...a man dreamed about a fight. A gaucho lifts a Negro off his feet with his knife, throws him down like a sack of bones, sees him agonize and die, crouches down to clean his blade, unties his horse, and mounts slowly so he will not be thought to be running away."

15 May 2010

"The Library of Babel" (Jorge Luis Borges)

Books in themselves have no meaning.
– Jorge Luis Borges. "The Library of Babel." In The Mirror of Ink. (Pocket Penguin, 2005). Selections from Collected Fictions. (Viking Penguin, 1998).

The books signify nothing in themselves.
– Jorge Luis Borges. "The Library of Babel." In Labyrinths. Edited by Donald A. Yates & James E. Irby. Story translated by James E. Irby. (New Directions, 1964 augmented edition).

Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine a Rubik's Cube – a cube whose faces are made up of 3 x 3 colored squares, six colors in all distributed equally among the six faces of the cube. Imagine a solved Rubik's cube; that is, a cube where the 9 squares in one face are of the same color. Now let us add dimension to this cube and transform it into a tesseract, a geometrical figure where all the faces of the cube are laid out in a four-dimensional hypercube. (One of its orthogonal projections is shaped like a solid cross.) Imagine a Sudoku. Have you ever played one? It's one of those number games that you solve mentally. The game is composed of a grid of 9 by 9 empty square cells, some of them filled with numbers, some of them empty. Sudoku has specific rules; like for example, no number must be repeated in one horizontal series of boxes. Now imagine that each of the faces of the hypercube, unraveled from a Rubik's cube, is a game of Sudoku. That means there are 9 by 9 colored squares instead of 3 by 3. Think of Borges's Library of Babel as a Sudoku then. At least in terms of cellular architecture. And think of the dimensions as infinite instead of 9 by 9. There is thus an infinite solution to the problem. Now think of the square pixel as a hexagon. That is, cut out the tesseract faces into squares and line up the squares upright like bookshelves?

So much for thought experiments. Now on to the story, the second of three Borges pieces this May. Here is fiction, speculation. The construction of a Total Library whose smallest unit is hexagon, and whose spatial dimension is infinite. Its outer shape is a sphere. The hexagonal rooms are interlinked with each other by staircases and doors. At one time librarians manned the hexagons by threes. Now the librarians are becoming extinct. There is an ongoing war inside the Library of Babel. There is an invisible hierarchy and constant power play. It is its own world, a beehive, a colony of bibliophiles, complete with history, replete with heroes and villains. There is the Crimson Hexagon, The Vindications, the Purifiers, the latrines, the unending ladders, the Book-Man, the Total Book, and so on. It is an illustrious repository of books in all languages, with its own alphabet and writing system (orthographic symbols), 25 symbols in all.

This puzzle-story is concerned with the architecture of the library just as much as with its contents. Not unlike Sudoku with infinite solutions, the library is a condominium of conceit, a monolithic edifice. As much concerned with the layout of the library as with its internal philosophy, this story can be seen as Borges’s homage to the unlimited possibilities of imagination, imagination derived from knowledge, knowledge derived from meanings, meanings from books, books shelved in libraries, libraries encased in hexagons. An imaginary construct then, whose totality is infinite and whose solutions to any conceivable problems of the world can be found. The location of the fountain of youth, the history of Atlantis, the art and architecture of El Dorado.

The Library of Babel is a learned city with its own particularities, its own rules of the game. The story called "The Library of Babel" is a thought experiment, speculative fiction, an artist’s rendering of what is possible, the staggering diversity of information, its past history (a tautology*), its implications for the future (another tautology). Censorship, for example, is futile because all the books are replicated in one way or another. The Library of Babel celebrates the security and encryption of data storage. Think of encyclopedia, storehouse of knowledge, in a book of six faces, coded in a new language with 25 orthographic symbols. Think of Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, housed in an ultra-secure physical dormitory. The Library of Babel and the story called "The Library of Babel" exist to be unraveled by the reader in his cubicle, to be searched and re-searched.

Books in themselves have no meaning – that is one of the dicta of the Total Library, in Andrew Hurley’s translation**. I agree. We must read them first, assiduously. To create meaning is not for the sake of books, nor for the writer of books. Come visit a library, rummage through the shelves, pick out a book, read. That may be the only way to stumble upon intermittent truths, find the clue to solve a mathematical conjecture, or learn about the lifestyle of a hidden god. 

"To speak is to commit tautologies. This pointless verbose epistle already exists … in one of the countless hexagons – as does its refutation." (p. 27, The Mirror of Ink)

** It is interesting to read this story in two translations by Irby and Hurley. One notes for example that the editor’s footnote is fictitious, written by Borges or whoever the designated editor of the story is. The identity of the narrator, who sounds like a prophet, is a mystery as well.

09 May 2010

"Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote" (Jorge Luis Borges)

from Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges, edited by Donald A. Yates & James E. Irby, story translated by James E. Irby (New Directions, 1964 augmented edition)

My interest in Borges I pick up from the interest in Borges of my favorite contemporary writers. Roberto Bolaño, in an interview, called him “the center of the Latin American canon.” Borges animates most of Bolaño’s writings, notably in Nazi Literature in the Americas and 2666 (two books I’ve been recently rereading) where Borges’s literary patterns are evident. His influence also makes his way into The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald, through references to The Book of Imaginary Beings and the story “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” I was also surprised to find Borges name-checked by Murakami Haruki (not my favorite writer yet) in Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.

So when I got wind of a weekly reading of three stories of our Argentine writer in Richard’s great blog, Caravana de Recuerdos, I couldn’t let pass the chance. Besides, I have Labyrinths languishing for more than a year now.

This week’s story is the much-anthologized, much-celebrated story of Pierre Menard and how he came to “rewrite” chapters of the epic Don Quixote. I do think that my appreciation of this story will be enhanced by a reading of the epic, but I don’t think I can cram the tome in the span of a few days, unless I get the unrealistic idea from Menard that a reading of a book consists of the “will” to reproduce its ghost in the realm of imagination-illusion-delusion. But Menard does more than will it, he actually suffered for it.

The story starts with a kind of catalog of Menard’s “visible” literary outputs, before turning to the other “unfinished” work—“the subterranean, the interminably heroic, the peerless.” Reading as a form of writing is what I see the story is about. That the readers write their own version of the story as they go along. Menard has this dream of replicating sections of the Quixote verbatim, and so he willed himself to this endeavor and, from the convenient point of view of the fanboy-narrator, Menard succeeded. Does this mean that everyone who reads the Quixote can be a Pierre Menard, just like everyone who reads “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” can be a Jorge Luis Borges? Perhaps we’ll know only if the real Pierre Menard stand up. But what if I say that I can match Borges’s story word for word? :)

If I can borrow Gregory Rabassa’s idea (in his memoir If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents) that a good translation is essentially a good reading, then another reading of this story pertains not only to the “reading” of a book, but to “translating” it:

[Menard] did not want to compose another Quixote—which is easy—but the Quixote itself. Needless to say, he never contemplated a mechanical transcription of the original; he did not propose to copy it. His admirable intention was to produce a few pages which would coincide—word for word and line for line—with those of Miguel de Cervantes.

Is that not the same as saying that Menard may be (just may be) translating the Quixote? If so, Borges may really be ahead of his time, as is often declared. When he published the story, there are already several versions of the epic in the English language alone. With the latest developments in Cervantes scholarship, the years saw the appearance of multiple translations of the Spanish novel by, among others, Samuel Putnam and Burton Raffel, and in the past decade alone, by John Rutherford, Edith Grossman, and Tom Lathrop. Do these translators, by their close readings of the text, form a band of Pierre Menards themselves? Do we not regard them as “co-creators” of the Quixote, if not literally (word-for-word, sentence-by-sentence translation) then contextually (context-by-context) through their interpretation of the epic’s Spanish into their own language, the coinciding of one language into another? In the same way that there are always individual (unique) readings of a book from different readers, then the individual efforts of the translators create a new book that is the same book and also not the same book. The only difference with Menard is that they have something, a concrete product, to show for it: the published translations. Menard apparently destroyed the manuscript of his “translation” in a bonfire.

There is no definitive reading; there is no definitive translation. Individual readings will not arrive at the same feeling, the feeling of completeness or incompleteness, of closure or open-endedness. Every reading is a new reading, just as there is no definitive writing. The author himself, Cervantes himself, does not fully know his own work because it created for itself a life of its own the moment he put down pen and paper, and the moment the presses printed the pages and bound the epic between the spine and covers. Writing may have given breath to books, but it is reading through the ages that gives life to books through the ages. That enables for it to survive oblivion, become a classic. The narrator of Borges’s Menard did the reverse: he elevated a translated version of a classic that only exists in oblivion, or in any case, that is consigned to it.

06 May 2010

The Rings of Saturn: Silk


The final chapter of The Rings of Saturn began with our narrator describing the various subjects that Sir Thomas Browne wrote about in his papers. They included the "Musæum Clausum," a catalog of curiosities that were likely products of Browne’s imagination. Sebald proceeded to itemize some of the objects mentioned in this "register of marvels." The last item he mentioned was a bamboo cane containing silkworm eggs that two Persian friars smuggled from China during the reign of Emperor Justinianus in Byzantium.

From this moment on, Sebald began to describe the science of sericulture: the anatomical and biological traits of Bombyx mori, the species of moth responsible for spinning the fine silk thread; the white mulberry tree that harbors the silkworm; the propagation of silkworms and the art of silk-making in China during the time of Emperor Huang Ti; the spread of silkworm culture from Greece, the Aegean islands, Sicily, Naples, Piedmont, Savoy, and Lombardy. It later spread to France through the initiative of Olivier de Serres who became the counsellor of Henry IV.

Sully, Henry IV’s prime minister, saw a competition in ascendancy from de Serres, so he opposed the idea of silk worm cultivation in France and published his arguments in his memoirs of 1788, a volume of which was acquired by Sebald at an auction. Sully’s objections were ignored and silk cultivation progressed in France, in part because of the Edict of Nantes (1598), which promoted tolerance of Huguenots, the people mainly responsible for the cultivation of silkworms.

England copied France’s example. James I began to establish the rearing of silkworms by planting mulberry trees in Buckingham Palace. The silkworm industry in England reached it peak following Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes, when Huguenots fled France and settled in England to continue their work on silk-making. Sebald reflected on how silk weavers, with their backbreaking work over the complex patterns they create, resembled scholars and writers in that they are all prone to melancholy and the evils associated with it. He also observed that, notwithstanding the despair and mental illnesses of the weavers, the beauty and variety of materials that they produce were truly incredible, "like the plumage of birds."

The Germans also attempted their hand at silk husbandry. By 1822, however, Seybolt(!) – a master dyer and employed as "Keeper of the Silkworms and Superintendent of Carding and Filature") – told the Director of the Royal Gardens that in spite of the thousands of mulberry trees planted, only two survived, the reason being the "despotic manner in which German rulers attempted to force [silk cultivation] along." The compulsory measures and stiff penalties of the silk laws were eventually revoked upon the death of the duke of Bavaria, Karl Theodor.

In 1811, silkworm cultivation in the German borders also failed due to environmental conditions. Despite this discouraging state of the industry, the Bavarian Counsellor of State Joseph von Hazzi campaigned for the continuation of sericulture. In his book (1826) he emphasized the lessons learned from past mistakes, the inculcation of "virtues of order and cleanliness" to the lower classes by way of silk cultivation, and thus the imperative to continue sericulture as the thing that would eventually lead to the "moral transformation of the nation."

It will be one hundred years more before German fascists put into effect Hazzi’s vision. Sebald knew this from a film on German silk industry: "In contrast to the dark, almost midnight tonalities of the herring [fisheries] film, the film on sericulture was of a truly dazzling brightness. Men and women in white coats, in whitewashed rooms flooded with light, were busy at snow-white spinning frames, snow-white sheets of paper, snow-white protective gauze, snow-white cocoons and snow-white canvas mailing sacks. The whole film promised the best and cleanest of all possible worlds." According to a pamphlet on the film, Hitler announced at a party rally that the nation must strive for self-sufficiency in all material aspects. Thus, silk cultivation was taken as a matter of policy for economic reasons and also to usher in the "dawning era of aerial warfare."

The pamphlet further contained several strategies to involve young students with silk cultivation. It outlined the steps involved in planting mulberry trees and the rearing of silkworms. According to the pamphlet: The silkworms "could be used to illustrate the structure and distinctive features of insect anatomy, insect domestication, retrogressive mutations, and essential measures … to monitor productivity and selection, including extermination to pre-empt racial degeneration."

The film demonstrated the systematic hatching and feeding of caterpillars, the cleaning of frames, the spinning of silk, and lastly the killing by suspending cocoons over boiling cauldron: "The cocoons, spread out in shallow baskets, have to be kept in the rising steam for upwards of three hours, and when a batch is done, it is the next one’s turn, and so on until the entire killing business is complete."

The book ended on Maundy Thursday, April 13, 1995, with Sebald contemplating the events that coincided on that day from previous years. It was the day, for example, that the Edict of Nantes was approved by Henry IV, 397 years ago. On the same day, 253 years ago, was the first performance of Handel’s Messiah. It was also the very same day that the father of Clara, Sebald’s companion, died in hospital. It occurred to him that black silk was previously worn by the upper classes to mourn for the dead. And there was once a practice in Holland, according to Sir Thomas Browne, of draping black ribbons over mirrors and canvases to enable the soul to travel peacefully on its final journey.

04 May 2010

The Rings of Saturn: Very the last stop

In the penultimate chapter of The Rings of Saturn, our traveller is at the last stop of his journey.


After Orford, Sebald travelled by bus to Yoxford and then walked along a Roman road until he arrived at Chestnut Tree Farm. This is the residence of Thomas Abrams, a farmer and lay preacher who had been working for twenty years on a scale model of the Temple of Jerusalem. Abrams became obsessed with recreating a Jerusalem as it had looked at the beginning of time. His endless work on the replica, which was nowhere near completion, was later acknowledged when he received visitors from all over the world, including historians, archaeologists, religious men, and even Lord Rothschild. This acknowledgement assuaged his neighbor’s, and even his own family’s doubts, about the sanity of his mind since he became immersed in his work. After their conversation Abrams drove Sebald to his next destination, Harleston, where he stayed in Saracen’s Head.

In the morning Sebald walked from Saracen’s Head to some hamlets in 'The Saints' – so-called because they were named after patron saints of churches. He arrived at a cemetery of the parish church of Ilketshall St Margaret, where in the Middle Ages a certain Reverend Ives was vicar living with his wife and daughter in Bungay. In 1795 they were visited daily by an exiled French nobleman, the Vicomte François-René Chateaubriand. The Vicomte became the tutor of the daughter, Charlotte. (The narrative Sebald was recounting at this point mostly came from the memoirs of Chateaubriand, which he began writing in 1807.) Charlotte became very close to Chateaubriand so much so that during his farewell dinner with the family, the mother asked him to marry Charlotte. It turned out that Chateaubriand was already married and so cannot accept the offer. He left the house immediately.

Twenty-seven years later, when Chateaubriand was now ambassador of the French king, he was visited by one Lady Sutton, accompanied by her two sons. This was actually Charlotte Ives, who married Admiral Sutton three years after Chateaubriand left her. After this encounter, Chateaubriand visited her in Kensington four times; during his last visit Charlotte asked her to put in a good word with the Governor-General of India, for her elder son who planned to serve in Bombay.

After Charlotte left, Chateaubriand relived and wrote about their "unhappy story," questioning himself whether in writing he would not again betray and lose Charlotte. But no, for him writing is the only way he can cope with the overwhelming memories that beset him. Later he asked in his memoir: "What would we be without memory?"

At this point, Sebald shared several events in Chateaubriand’s life: momentous wars and conflicts, military spectacles, "the highlights of history which staggers blindly from one disaster to the next," his death in 1848, his childhood in Combourg, and the day he left his family at age 17 to strike into the world.

Sebald’s walk took him to Ditchingham Lodge where Charlotte Sutton lived with her husband. From there he went to the last stop of his travels, to the Ditchingham churchyard where Charlotte’s elder son, the one who went to Bombay, is buried. Beside his tomb is another monument of heavy stone which had an urn on top of it and had several air-holes on the upper edges. Sebald presumed that the woman buried on it was an acquaintance of Charlotte Sutton.

Sebald then went to the Mermaid in Hedenham to phone and wait for Clara (Sebald’s wife?) who will pick him up and drive him home. Contemplating the surrounding Ditchingham Park, Sebald assumed that it must have been built at the time Chateaubriand was in Suffolk. (Sebald noted that the building of park landscapes in England must sometimes have led to class conflicts owing to the displacement of entire villages at the pleasure of the ruling elite.) Chateaubriand himself undertook the planting of trees in a summer house he brought in 1807. Sebald’s identification with Chateaubriand is evident from a reproduction of his photograph where he posed under a large Lebanese cedar, more like demonstrating Chateaubriand's close affinity to trees.

Much like in the collapse of herring fisheries, Sebald enumerated several causes of decline in the population of trees in England beginning in the mid-1970s. These include the spread of Dutch elm disease, mutations, old age, and long droughts. The devastation culminated in the autumn of 1987 when a powerful hurricane landed and felled 14 million mature hard-leaf trees, turning literally everything "upside down."