Monday, February 11, 2019

The Memory Man



These three slender books by the Guatemalan Jewish writer Eduardo Halfon are published by Libros del Asteroide, a Barcelona-based company that publishes a wide range of modern literature, all in the same attractive format. Two of the three, or more accurately two and a half of the three, have been published in English translations by Bellevue Literary Press, along with another Halfon book (which I haven't read) entitled The Polish Boxer.


Each book succeeds as an individual work, but they're also part of a larger whole in which characters and events may be alluded to in one but more fully developed in another. Halfon, who spent part of his childhood in the US and is bilingual (though he doesn't do his own translations), has underlined the fluidity of his project by lifting sections of Signor Hoffman and combining them with the contents of Duelo for the US translation.


All three are narrated by someone named Eduard Halfon who is a Jewish-Guatemalan writer exploring the details and consequences of his personal and family history (but who should nevertheless not be confused with the author). Imagined events aren't necessarily deprecated in favor of real ones; thus Duelo (a title that can mean both "mourning" and "duel") centers around a half-remembered story about an uncle who drowned as a child in Lake Amatitlán. The fact that the drowning never happened both is and isn't less important than the ways it is (mis)remembered. The narrative begins in Guatemala but eventually travels to Florida and Germany (and to Italy in Poland in the English version).

The books have an understated force that becomes cumulative when they are read together (in whatever arrangement or order). Halfon doesn't bludgeon the reader, even when he deals with weighty matters (the Holocaust is a shadow over the entire enterprise), but instead prefers to work by indirection. His books echo each other but they also reverberate across entire fields of history.

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Roma: Words Unspoken



I had been looking forward to seeing Alfonso Cuarón's Roma as soon as it made it to a local theatre, and it didn't disappoint. I'm not a movie critic and won't attempt a synopsis or analysis of the film*, but in a very quick summation it's about a few months in the lives of a well-to-do (but perhaps downwardly-mobile) Mexico City household around 1971. (Cuarón drew on his own family memories, and he has meticulously — even obsessively — recreated the texture of the world he grew up in.) At one crucial point the family's story intersects dramatically with the tumultuous course of the broader history of twentieth-century Mexico. The film is beautifully designed, acted, and shot (in black and white), and has the sweep and richness of a great novel. I'll be watching it again.

Pictured above is Cleodegaria (played by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio), one of the family's Oaxacan servants and the film's emotional center. One criticism that has been leveled at the film is that we don't really get to learn much about what she thinks and feels, but I think that apparent silence is itself the point. (As it happens, I think we can get a fair idea of what she thinks and feels, but to do so requires attention to more than words.) Roma isn't your typical Hollywood have-it-both-ways movie in which all conflicts are resolved and all the characters overcome the limits of their personal histories, their class or racial backgrounds, and are at last fully revealed as equal agents. Being constrained and unheard is part of the social reality of Cleo's life (as it is, in different ways and degrees, of the lives of the family she serves); for a director to pretend otherwise would be a betrayal.

* For a full and thoughtful review, Alma Guillermoprieto's NYRB review, "The Twisting Nature of Love" is a good place to start.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Owl



Winter can be a frustrating time for the saunterer, but now and then you get a lucky break. On a mild Sunday afternoon in January I put the dog in the car and drove a few miles to a park where there are four thousand or so acres of woodlands and fields. The park road up the hill I wanted to visit was closed, so I left the car at the bottom and took a trail that hooked around to the top. The trail was deserted and the woods silent except for the occasional sound of a jet passing overhead. At the summit, stone camping shelters stood empty and alone among unmown fields and scattered oaks, their fires cold, but solitary electric lights burned, even in daylight, to mark the entrances to the rest rooms. On our way back down I heard an owl hoot several times in quick succession not far off in a stand of pines, but I never spotted it. As we drove out a hawk crossed in front of us and alit in a tree. I pulled over but I knew it would fly off if I opened the car door and so made no attempt to get a better look.

On the way home I decided to turn onto a back road I don't usually take. I saw a jogger up ahead of me on the left, and as I slowed I noticed something in the neglected field on my right: a barred owl, perched on a dead tree. I pulled over, turned on the four-way flashers, reached for my camera, and rolled down the window.


I see owls with some regularity, sometimes by accident and sometimes by intention, but most often by having the intention of seeing them by accident. Contrary to the assumptions many people have, they're not necessarily exclusively nocturnal, and barred owls, which are frequently active by day, aren't particularly skittish. Still, I've never had one pose so cooperatively, at eye level just a few yards off and in decent light.


Fortunately, the dog, who barks or howls at anything from squirrels to Canada geese, either didn't see it or didn't register it as potential prey. He no doubt wondered why we had stopped. I took pictures for several minutes, while the owl kept an eye on the field and now and then swiveled its head to regard me with apparent neutrality. I kept expecting it to fly off but it never did. Eventually it was I who drove away instead.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Measureless Nights


Winter mornings, waiting for dawn. (But then with the streetlight right outside the window it's never truly dark.)

John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts: "An ocean without its unnamed monsters would be like a completely dreamless sleep." They had mariners in mind but they could easily have reversed the simile. A dreamless, utilitarian sleep is like a disenchanted sea. Nothing emerges from it that we don't already know.

Or we dream but remember nothing, our dream-selves wandering off through rooms we will never see. Borges, on the philosophers of Tlön, who held that "While we sleep here, we are awake elsewhere and in this way every man is two men." He might have added, "or none."

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Thaw



A scene from Paweł Pawlikowski's Cold War, the follow-up to his Oscar-winning Ida from five years ago, which was one of my favorite movies of the last twenty years. I'd rate Cold War one notch below the earlier film, mostly for some choppiness in the latter half and an ending I didn't much care for, but it's still a very consequential movie (and with some of the same cast members, notably Joanna Kulig, who had a cameo in Ida but utterly dominates here). And of course it's in black and white, as all films worth watching should be. (I'm exaggerating, of course, a little.)

Cold War is about various things but the action principally concerns music makers making various kinds of music, and there's an almost programmatic sequence, from a bagpiper at the film's opening who's playing sounds that could be a thousand years old to more recent folk and classical music to jazz and kitsch and Bill Haley and the Comets (heard above). All of the music, as far as I could tell, is diagetic (that is, it's either being performed as part of the action or is listened to by the characters) except for the Goldberg Variations accompanying the credits.

Claire Messud has a thoughtful appraisal in the New York Review and Lisa Liebman at Vulture has a good article on the music in the film.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Out with the Old Year



The committee for 2018 has officially concluded its final report. And good-bye to all that.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Season's Greetings



Art by Tom Gauld. Hat tip to Tororo.

Update: A memorial notice published in the New York Times on December 23, 2018, may contain a reference to Beckett's Endgame. Addressing herself to "My darling Alvin," the writer declares, "I celebrate the years of our connection and all that you taught me about life, on and off the stage. No one with whom I'd rather have shared a trash can."