Tuesday, August 26, 2014


"The circumstances of my birth weren't extraordinary at all but they were a bit colorful, because it was a birth that took place in Brussels that might have taken place in Helsinki or Guatemala; it all hung on the assignment they had given my father at the time. The fact that he had just gotten married and that he arrived in Belgium virtually on his honeymoon led to my being born in Brussels at the same moment that the Kaiser and his troops launched upon the conquest of Belgium, which they carried out in the days of my birth. So the story that my mother tells me is absolutely true: my birth was an extremely warlike one, the outcome of which was one of the most pacifistic men on the planet."

— Julio Cortázar, from a television interview with Joaquín Soler Serrano for A fondo, 1977.

The exact nature of Cortázar's father's employment in Brussels in 1914 seems to be uncertain; family accounts that made him out to be some kind of minor diplomat or trade official attached to the Argentine embassy are said to be unconfirmed. The family spent the war years in Europe, and when the young Julio Florencio Cortázar eventually arrived in Argentina, he carried with him, according to some sources (but this point is also in dispute), a detectable French accent that would remain with him through the rest of his life. His father — Julio José Cortázar — eventually deserted the family, and it was young Julio's mother and maternal grandmother who would dominate his childhood, but the accident of his parents' sojourn in Europe made him, along with such contemporaries as Alejo Carpentier (born in Switzerland) and Elena Poniatowska (born in France), part of a generation of Latin American intellectuals who moved easily between continents but remained firmly rooted as citizens of the twentieth century and its disruptions.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Walking Around

Every morning for the past few weeks I've been taking advantage of near-perfect weather and my early-rising habits to go for a long walk before I start the day, and to get better acquainted with the town I've known all my life and have lived in for twenty-five years, something that, no matter how many times one drives through the streets, really has to be done on foot. I get up when the cat wakes me up — generally around six — read the newspapers, eat a couple of eggs, and set out, joining the early-morning joggers and the Central American immigrants already on their way to work at an hour when most of the town is just beginning to stir in their beds. I walk for forty-five minutes or so, sometimes an hour, and whatever route I take I eventually always wind up downtown, where the little stream that runs right through the center of town widens into a slow-moving pool where on some mornings a great blue heron watches for small fish or frogs and turtles climb up on the mud banks, ever alert to retreat into the water at the first sign of commotion.

I walk through the vast silent necropolis on the edge of town, following its circuitous drives and watching crows harass a hawk. In some sections the headstones are mostly those of Italian immigrants of a generation or two go, some with surprisingly evocative names: Manna, Eraclito, Astrologo. In the backstreets live new immigrants, some with carefully tended front gardens lush with sunflowers and vegetables just coming into maturity. Two neighbors greet, in English, discussing one of these little plots. "Y maíz," he says, and regards the developing ear; "soon," he says, in English again. These plantings are too small to be of any economic importance, even to one family's budget; their value is symbolic, a reminder of the milpas back home, a little connection to a distant world and another life.

By eight o'clock or so the town is waking up, the whoosh of traffic beside me is steadier now, and I turn for home. It's time to get to work.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Dark End of the Street

There are countless covers of this Dan Penn / Chips Moman tune, some of them very good ones, but to me this live performance by Richard and Linda Thompson is on a different plane from all the rest. The directness and intensity of the vocals, the stark one-guitar arrangement, and the quicker tempo set it apart from the smoother, bluesier versions, and when you listen to it in the context of some of the songs that Richard Thompson was writing during roughly the same period when it was recorded, songs like "Wall of Death," "Walking on a Wire," "When I Get to the Border," or "Just the Motion," it suddenly ceases to be a song about an illicit love affair and is transformed into something much more haunting: a song about the way life relentlessly exposes the vanity of our passions and dreams but can't quite extinguish the defiant longing for something transcendent, call it spirit, call it love, call it God, call it what you will (as if anybody could explain what it is or where it comes from). The real fire is in the bridge, which in this rendition is so stirring it is sung twice:
They're going to find us
They're going to find us
They're going to find us someday
We'll steal away
To the dark end of the street
There's something here akin to the Borges story "The Secret Miracle," in which a writer is arrested by the Nazis and sentenced to die, but in the single instant before the order is given to the firing squad — an instant that, in his mind and perhaps (who is to say?) in reality as well, lasts for an entire year — is able to complete his unfinished masterpiece in his mind, though it will be known to no one but himself. It's not external circumstances that matter; it's the secrets, the dark interior that no one can see, that provide a final promise of redemption:
If you take a walk downtown
And you take the time to look around
If you should see me and I walk on by
Oh, darling, please don't cry
Tonight we'll meet
At the dark end of the street
Call it a love song if you will (and a love song it is), but there's something else here few love songs can aspire to: at once an acknowledgment of death and a furious rebellion against it.
We'll steal away
To the dark end of the street
You and me
To the dark end of the street

Thursday, August 07, 2014


Our species: an interesting idea, but poorly executed.

Given the inescapable fact of our propensity for cruelty, how is anything else not trivia? It's not just our well-established willingness to ignore the suffering of others; our darkest secret is that given the slightest breakdown in the façade of social customs that keep us more or less on peaceful terms with each other we quickly degenerate into torturers and killers. And once the habit of cruelty begins nothing is harder to break, all the more so when we have, as inevitably we do, our own sufferings that cry for vengeance. No flag is unstained. Blood for oil, blood for land, blood for blood, blood, blood, blood.

Our tragedy is that our technological ingenuity has far outstripped our ability to manage the tools at our disposal in a manner that benefits our own species. How could it be otherwise? How could seven billion individuals with conflicting histories, destinies, and needs ever hope to find common purpose? Where is the will? If we can't find a way of destroying ourselves and much of the natural world around us, we will try harder.

Our overfull boat steams ahead
in the darkness with the pilot fled
and the captain mad
and though we huddle cold and numb
day may not come.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Chase

Having read this short novel by Alejo Carpentier in Alfred Mac Adam's translation many years ago, I cockily told myself that I would be able to whip through it now in Spanish in a couple of nights. As it turned out, I made it about thirty pages in, then bogged down and decided to re-read the translation instead first before giving the original another stab.

Why the difficulty? I've plowed steadily through much longer books in Spanish than this one, which is barely over a hundred pages. Though the author was Cuban there's no Afro-Caribbean dialect issue to speak of; there's nothing comparable to the exuberance of Mexican regionalisms found in Elena Poniatowska's brilliant Hasta no verte Jesús mío, for example, or to the elaborate twists and turns of narrative perspective in Cortázar's novels and some of Vargas Llosa's. Maybe I just had too many distractions; in any case, the novel does present some obstacles to the reader, not insuperable ones to a native speaker, perhaps, but enough to make reading it a bit of a challenge. In Spanish or in translation (and Mac Adam's seems to be good), it repays persistence, though.

Carpentier told the critic Luis Harss that he had composed El acoso in imitation of sonata form, "with an introductory section, an exposition, three themes, seventeen variations, and a conclusion or coda." I tend to be skeptical of such claims (Milan Kundera has made similar statements) but in fact the narrative, the bulk of which consists of one long flashback, is framed within an evening's performance of Beethoven's "Eroica" symphony in a Havana concert hall, and probably should be read with that piece of music in mind.

The first character to whom we are introduced is an impecunious classical music buff who is employed as a ticket seller in the concert hall. As he sits in his booth a patron rushes in, flings down a bill many times more than sufficient for even the most expensive seat, and hurries into the hall, closely pursued by two other men. Pocketing the bill (which may or not be genuine), the ticket seller goes for a stroll, calls on a prostitute of his acquaintance, and returns, at the end of the book, in time for the final notes of the performance — and for the brief, violent aftermath of the opening incident. It is the figure he sees fleeing into the hall who will dominate the long central section of the novel. A native of the provinces, this man has incorporated himself into some kind of vaguely outlined revolutionary cell, but ideological purity has degenerated into betrayal and murder-for-hire and he is now a marked man. As we follow the series of steps that lead him to the concert hall events that were narrated in the book's first pages take on new significance.

Carpentier's vocabulary is rich ("baroque" was a word he himself used to define the character of his writing), but the greater challenge is posed by the fact that the reader often doesn't know — and isn't yet supposed to know — exactly what is happening. One section, for instance, begins, in Mac Adam's version, as follows; the ellipses and parenthesis are in the original:
(... this pounding that elbows its way right through me; this bubbling stomach; this heart above that stops beating, piercing me with a cold needle; muffled punches that seem to well up from my very core and smash on my temples, my arms, my thighs; I breathe in gasps; my mouth can't do it; my nose can't do it; the air only comes in tiny sips, fills me, stays inside me, suffocates me, only to depart in dry mouthfuls, leaving me wrenched, doubled over, empty; and then my bones straighten, grind, shudder; I stand above myself, as if hung from myself, until my heart, in a frozen surge, lets go of my ribs so that it can strike me from the front, below my chest; I have no control over this dry sobbing; then breathe, concentrating on it; first, breathe in the air that remains; then breathe out, now breathe in, more slowly; one, two, one, two, one, two ... The hammering comes back; I am shaking from side to side; now sliding down, through all my veins; I am smashing at the thing holding me in place; the floor is shaking with me; the back of the hair is shaking; the seat is shaking, giving a dull push with each shudder; the entire row must feel the tremor;
And so on and so on. It's only gradually that we realize that this passage is being told from the point-of-view of the man who has fled into the concert hall; we won't understand why he is there, or why his thoughts are frantically racing, for many more pages. Carpentier professed a disdain for "the little psychological novel" and a preference for the "big themes" of historical and social processes; perhaps the fracturing of perspective here is conducive to that more analytical, even didactic approach. El acoso was first published in 1956; since then its technical innovations have been widely borrowed and extended by other writers, but it still retains its nervy intensity.

Alejo Carpentier's description of the musical structure of The Chase, as well as his comments on the psychological novel, are quoted in Harss and Dohmann's landmark Into the Mainstream: Conversations with Latin-American Writers, which includes a respectful but sharply critical evaluation of the Cuban novelist's work.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

HWY 62

Peter Case is kicking off a Kickstarter campaign for his next CD, HWY 62, which is scheduled to be released in 2015. Details here.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

The living

These two faded and stained studio portraits of African-American couples were taken sometime in the early decades of the twentieth century and printed on postcard stock. The one above, which is probably the earlier of the two, is the work of the Flett Studio in Atlantic City, which operated for at least fifteen years or so and must have produced countless similar images. "Mr. & Mrs...," followed by a family name, has been written on the back, but I can't make out the surname. The third figure, standing in the center, may have been the best man at the couple's wedding, or just a relative or friend.

There's even less we can say about the couple below, except that they're dressed to the nines. The studio is unidentified, but the Azo postcard stock used was manufactured from 1904-1918. Like the first postcard, this one was never mailed.

When an artifact is removed from its context without adequate documentation some of its potential for bearing information is lost; we no longer know as much about how it relates to the world that created it. The orphaned photographs above would be much more potent if we knew anything at all about the sitters' identities, life stories, occupations, and families, but people die childless or separated from their families, children have their own lives to lead and can't be bothered, any number of things can sever the thread. Things drift off and go their own ways.

The Dead in Frock Coats

In the corner of the living room was an an album of unbearable photos,
many meters high and infinite minutes old,
over which everyone leaned
making fun of the dead in frock coats.

Then a worm began to chew the indifferent coats,
the pages, the inscriptions, and even the dust on the pictures.
The only thing it did not chew was the everlasting sob of life that broke
and broke from those pages.

— Carlos Drummond de Andrade; translation by Mark Strand