Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Wish list


If someone would like to translate these books for me as a personal favor I'd be really quite grateful. Thanks.


Ivan Klíma, My Mad Century, Vols. I and II. Edice Paměť, Prague.

Update: An English translation of My Crazy Century will be published by Grove Press in November 2013.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Notes for a Commonplace Book (7)


Tony Judt:

We often find ourselves asserting or assuming that the distinctive feature of modernity is the individual: the unreducible subject, the freestanding person, the unbound self, the unbeholden citizen. This modern individual is commonly and favorably contrasted with the dependent, deferential, unfree subject of the pre-modern world. There is something in this version of things, of course; just as there is something in the accompanying idea that modernity is also a story of the modern state, with its assets, its capacities, and its ambitions. But taken all in all, it is, nevertheless, a mistake—and a dangerous mistake. The truly distinctive feature of modern life—the one with which we lose touch at our peril—is neither the unattached individual nor the unconstrained state. It is what comes in between them: society. More precisely civil—or (as the nineteenth century had it) bourgeois—society.

The railways were and remain the necessary and natural accompaniment to the emergence of civil society. They are a collective project for individual benefit. They cannot exist without common accord (and, in recent times, common expenditure), and by design they offer a practical benefit to individual and collectivity alike. This is something the market cannot accomplish—except, on its own account of itself, by happy inadvertence. Railways were not always environmentally sensitive—though in overall pollution costs it is not clear that the steam engine did more harm than its internally combusted competitor—but they were and had to be socially responsive. That is one reason why they were not very profitable.

If we lose the railways we shall not just have lost a valuable practical asset whose replacement or recovery would be intolerably expensive. We shall have acknowledged that we have forgotten how to live collectively. If we throw away the railway stations and the lines leading to them—as we began to do in the 1950s and 1960s—we shall be throwing away our memory of how to live the confident civic life. It is not by chance that Margaret Thatcher—who famously declared that “there is no such thing as Society. There are individual men and women, and there are families”—made a point of never traveling by train. If we cannot spend our collective resources on trains and travel contentedly in them it is not because we have joined gated communities and need nothing but private cars to move between them. It will be because we have become gated individuals who don’t know how to share public space to common advantage. The implications of such a loss would far transcend the demise of one system of transport among others. It would mean we had done with modern life.

From "Bring Back the Rails!," in The New York Review of Books

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Out with the Old (2010)


The second annual retrospective of the year's postings at this address.

The Frogs' Discovery


When the Money Was Gone


The Assault of the Roly-Rogues


Up in the Downs


Written & Printed And Bound


Corinne West & Kelly Joe Phelps: "Amelia"


Found in translation (Mark Strand)


Bad Guys


Conrad at Anchor


Things Gone & Things Still Here


Aventura


Cortázar: All Fires the Fire


From a Green World (Kayano Shigeru)


Abocurragh


Of empires and dreams


December

Looking back, I wish I had been able to do more with ephemera and manuscript materials this year, or at least with printed books that aren't readily obtainable, but I seem to have picked all the low-hanging fruit in that regard and must venture further afield (i.e., out of the house). There is, of course, a virtually inexhaustible amount of material to be mined on the web now, some of which could benefit from fresh attention and presentation, but the fact is that there are people out there who have more time and energy to devote to it, and who are already doing a better job of sifting it than I could do.

As to the tales, sketches, and other original writing in which I've indulged in the last twelve months, I'm in general happier with the shorter pieces than the longer, but I'm content to set the latter down as experiments that, while perhaps not ultimately successful, served their purpose at the time and at least provided me some amusement while I was writing them.

If all goes according to plan I'll be taking a breather for the rest of December and will be back, hopefully with fresh inspiration, after the first of the year.

Friday, December 03, 2010

The boatmen of Venice (The Passion)



Rumour has it that the inhabitants of this city walk on water. That, more bizarre still, their feet are webbed. Not all feet, but the feet of the boatmen whose trade is hereditary.

This is the legend.

When a boatman’s wife finds herself pregnant she waits until the moon is full and the night empty of idlers. Then she takes her husband’s boat and rows to a terrible island where the dead are buried. She leaves her boat with rosemary in the bows so that the limbless ones cannot return with her and hurries to the grave of the most recently dead in her family. She has brought her offerings: a flask of wine, a lock of hair from her husband and a silver coin. She must leave the offerings on the grave and beg for a clean heart if her child be a girl and boatman’s feet if her child be a boy. There is no time to lose. She must be home before dawn and the boat must be left for a day and a night covered in salt. In this way, the boatmen keep their secrets and their trade. No newcomer can compete. And no boatman will take off his boots, no matter how you bribe him. I have seen tourists throw diamonds to the fish, but I have never seen a boatman take off his boots. -- Jeanette Winterson

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

December



Katazome (stencil-dyed) calendar page by Keisuke Serizawa (1895-1984). (Scanned from a commercially issued reproduction.)

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The telegraphist (conclusion)


All was quiet the next morning. There were a few heavy clouds along the horizon that he thought might portend a storm, but the next time he looked in that direction, a few moments later, they had vanished without a trace and the air around him was as searing as ever. He didn't even bother to look in on the mule, of whose existence he had by now in any case forgotten. He had lost track of time and only occasionally remembered how he had come to be stranded in such an isolated, godforsaken place. The thought occurred to him that he might in fact be dead, but after trying to get his head around that notion for some time he decided that he couldn't form a conclusion one way or another and so put the matter out of his mind. He opened a fresh can of beans -- there weren't many left but he wasn't eating very much anymore -- mouthed a few spoonfuls, and set it aside. The telegraph bell rang now and then, but he paid no attention to it.

He passed two or three days in a state of intermittent delirium, shaking with fever and too weak to get up, until in a brief lucid moment he realized that he must soon drink something or die. Filling a bucket from the wooden barrel, he drank steadily for several minutes until he felt himself about to retch. He returned to his cot and almost immediately fell asleep.

When he awoke -- it could have been the next morning, or the day after, he wouldn't have been able to say -- he felt much better and his appetite had revived. He grabbed the same can of beans, brushing away the flies that had congregated around it, and sat up at his desk. As he was pushing the first spoonful through his cracked and blistering lips he heard the alarm ring. Seconds later the message came down:
Nesabap alaba barababaranap mana ba STOP Palaba banabarep arefep ber erabet geret nasefaterabat gret bara basarep
He carefully wrote the words down, then examined them at length. Their significance was as inscrutable as ever, and yet the longer he looked the more there seemed to be something in them -- some delicate gesture, some faint hint of tenderness -- that desperately longed to be conveyed. He read them backwards and forwards and out of order, anagrammatized them and spent at least an hour simply staring at the forms of the letters as if the shapes alone bore some critical message that had nothing to do with any language known to man, a message that arose from some other realm where nothing was arbitrary symbol, where every communication was a direct encounter with some truth so profound and absolute that it couldn't be expressed in anything as insignificant and arbitrary as language but only as itself. Before he even knew he was doing it, he began to tap out a response:
Qa balaqa STOP Barabasabaraq qaraq ablababap STOP Balap rabelaba perap salap balarepareb na nabap
The reply was almost instantaneous:
Gasap beragera aramerabap STOP Beragabaragap blagap gasa berarqaraba basaraba berap asanta nabep rebasapar raba berabasep
He sat back, contemplating the words. At that moment they seemed to him as soothing as the freshest spring rain, as deep as a desert well, as tender as a mother's love for the infant at her breast. Weeping with gratitude at their beauty, he stood up and spoke the message aloud, chanting it over and over as he circled the room, kissing the paper on which he had written it out. Trembling with joy, he leaned over the key and tapped out a response that he knew, with complete certainty, would be received and understood as his irreversible declaration of utter and undivided submission:
Garaqasap abamaba maserab berasseraber STOP Asarabageram merasapa aba basapa mergaraga berasaperaba STOP Meragerabarap birab qaru nagraba barasabar
With one motion he swept everything off the desk -- his books, his water jug, and his lamp, which shattered onto the floor -- and awaited the answer that he knew would soon be forthcoming.

*****

When the relief party arrived at the oasis they found the mule still barely clinging to life in its stall. Out of mercy they shot it. The body of the telegraph operator was slumped over his desk, surrounded by page after page of incomprehensible scribbling. At the orders of the officer in command of the party they buried him just beyond the edge of town; then they gathered all of his papers in a pile and set them ablaze. After that they cut the telegraph wires and stripped them off the poles; the copper, at least, could be used again. When they were done, right before they left, they dynamited the command post, just to be sure.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Of empires and dreams



At first glance, the life of Roger Casement, the British diplomat turned Irish nationalist who was executed for treason in 1916, might not seem an obvious subject for a Peruvian novelist, even one as cosmopolitan as the winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature. But after narrating, in the first third of what is at times as much a novelized biography as a biographical novel, how Casement's investigations of atrocities in the Congo led to the unraveling of Leopold II of Belgium's empire in Africa, Mario Vargas Llosa begins a new chapter and a likely explanation emerges:
When, on the last day of August 1910, Roger Casement arrived in Iquitos after some seven weeks of exhausting travel...
Iquitos, where Casement, after the conclusion of his mission to the Congo, was dispatched by the Crown to investigate similar abuses and atrocities on the part of a British-incorporated rubber company, is of course familiar territory for Vargas Llosa, who set parts of several of his earlier novels in that hub of the Peruvian Amazon. But though the chapters devoted to Casement's activities in Peru make up the longest section of the book, they don't overshadow the rest. Tying the novel together, and alternating with the narration of Casement's activities, in the Congo, South America, and Europe, are scenes from Casement's last days, as he awaits execution in a cell in a British prison and reflects on the events of his life.

Born to an Irish Protestant family (his mother retained Catholic sympathies and secretly baptized Roger in the faith), Casement shipped out to Africa as a young man and worked for a time alongside the famous explorer Henry Morton Stanley. Over the course of the twenty years he spent in the Congo he became increasingly disturbed by the ruthlessness with which Leopold's colonial enterprise was being conducted. Ostensibly in the name of civilization and Christianity -- but in fact almost entirely in the service of greed -- the African inhabitants of the Congo Free State were subjected to a pattern of kidnappings, forced labor, savage whippings, amputations, and outright murder, all to ensure that the flow of rubber continued unabated. The number of victims, directly or indirectly, of Leopold's reign is reckoned in the millions. Casement's report to the British government, published in 1904, was instrumental to the successful international campaign to wrest the Congo from the king's control.

Subsequently posted on routine consular duties to Brazil, Casement was soon sent to Iquitos to verify reports of atrocities committed by the Peruvian Amazon Company. During his mission he traveled to remote areas of the Amazon basin that lay well beyond the reach of the government in Lima. His investigations revealed not only abuses at times more horrific than those in the Congo, but also a pattern of official collusion and of persecution of those few journalists and officials who were brave enough or foolhardy enough to try to document the atrocities. As Casement began to name names his own life began to be at risk, and during his second visit to Peru he was dissuaded from venturing into areas that were effectively under the Company's control.

If Casement had withdrawn from public life after presenting the findings of his Peruvian report to the Crown, he would probably be universally regarded as a hero of the anti-colonialist and human rights movements. But there was one more chapter in his eventful life. Increasingly identifying himself with his heritage, he retired from the British Foreign Office and was drawn into the Irish nationalist movement, becoming a friend and ally of militant leaders like Patrick Pearse and Eoin MacNeill, and when war broke out in 1914 he was dispatched by the nationalists as an emissary to the Kaiser's Germany. After attempting with little success to organize a corps of pro-independence soldiers from among the ranks of Irish POWs, he arranged for the delivery by Germany of a shipload of guns and ammunition intended for use during the Easter Uprising of 1916. Infiltrated into Ireland by a U-boat just before the uprising, Casement was quickly captured by the British and subsequently convicted of treason and hanged. His remains were buried in an unmarked grave within the prison grounds, and only repatriated to Ireland in 1965.

Any novelist or biographer depicting Casement's life must deal with the vexed question of the "Black Diaries," ostensibly in Casement's hand, portions of which were revealed by the British government as he awaited execution. The diaries, which describe a series of furtive sexual encounters with other men, were used to help discredit Casement at a time when a number of British and Irish intellectuals (among them George Bernard Shaw, but not Casement's old friend Joseph Conrad) were urging clemency. The controversy over whether or not the diaries are genuine has never been fully settled; Vargas Llosa takes a compromise position, suggesting in an Epilogue -- and perhaps not entirely convincingly -- that though the diaries are genuine some of the events that they narrate may not be.
My own impression -- that of a novelist, to be sure -- is that Roger Casement wrote the famous diaries but that he didn't live them, at least not entirely, that in them there is much exaggeration and invention, that he wrote certain things because he wanted to but could not live them.
El sueño del celta ("The Dream of the Celt," "the Celt" being a nickname given by some of Casement's friends because of the passion he came to develop for Irish history and culture) has just been published by Alfaguara. As the novel would seem to pose no major obstacles to translation (unlike some of the author's earlier works), an English-language version can probably be expected in a year or so.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Thanksgiving in the Five Points (1852)



In the 1850s, the Five Points area in lower Manhattan, a now obliterated slum occupying the area adjoining what are now the Foley Square district and Chinatown, had the reputation -- no doubt to some extent exaggerated -- as the most squalid and depraved neighborhood in New York. The missionary ladies of the Five Points Mission, when not inveighing against drinking, Roman Catholicism, and other perils, organized an annual feast for the children of the mission school and as many of the other local denizens as they could feed. The following description is from The Old Brewery and the New Mission House, by the Ladies of the Mission; New York, Stringer & Townsend, 1854. The feast was held in a large tent in a park called Paradise Square.

The morning of Thanksgiving dawned in cloudless beauty, and as the day advanced, not a shadow dimmed the horizon. The cool, pure atmosphere, and the glowing sunshine, seemed to inspire every heart with courage.

We met in the office of the Old Brewery, formerly the liquor store of the establishment. This was a low, long room, with cracked and stained walls, its only furniture, besides the Missionary's bookcase, being some benches, and the boxes of clothing supplied by our kind friends from abroad. Provisions began to arrive and soon it presented a most ludicrous aspect. Turkeys, chickens, and meats of every kind mingled in sweet confusion with cakes, pies, fruits, &c. — evergreens on the floor, crockery on the window-sills and benches, huge piles of clothing waiting for distribution, visitors pouring in, childish faces peeping through every window and open door — commands, opinions, directions issuing from every quarter.

The tent is sixty feet in diameter, and very lofty. It is circular in form, and around it were tiers of seats, meeting at a small platform, where the speakers stood, at the temperance meetings, and on the Sabbath, to preach.

Eleven o'clock arrived, and notice was given that the tables in the tent were ready for the ladies. The seats had all been removed, and four tables, nearly the length of the tent, and about three feet wide, had been arranged, two on either side of the furnace, leaving wide passages between for the visitors. Soon the evergreens were festooned around by the gentlemen, then the floor was strewed with clean straw, and table-cloths of white muslin laid over the tables. By this time, hundreds of ragged, dirty children, had collected around the tent and Brewery. The food, all gathered in the Brewery, had to be removed to the tent. A door-keeper was stationed at each place, a passage-way cleared, and then ladies and gentlemen were transformed into carriers and waiters, (we could not trust any of the little rebels to help, though we had plenty of offers.) As they passed through rank and file of the hungry watchers, loud cheers were given for each successive turkey, and three long and loud for a whole pig with a lemon in his mouth, and it was difficult to conclude whether it was most appropriate to cry over the want displayed, or laugh over the temporary plenty provided.

During the time of these preparations, others of a different character were transpiring. The ladies were trying to select, first our Sunday school children, and next any who seemed hopeful. These were washed and dressed, and then each received a ticket which admitted them to the Mission-room, where friends received and entertained them. In the tent was a scene of activity — gentlemen carving the meats, ladies cutting the pies and cakes, and forming them in towering pyramids, the younger girls filling paper bags with candies and fruit, workmen hanging the lamps, others filling a large wicker-stand with dolls and toys of various kinds. At half past four all was ready. On our tables were sixty turkeys, with beef, ham and tongue, in proportion, and sundry chickens, geese, &c. Pies, cakes, bread, and biscuit, celery and fruit, and candy pyramids filled the slight intervals, and the whole presented an appearance inviting to the most fastidious appetites. Plates and cups were arranged around for more than three hundred; the lamps were lighted, and the signal given. Hundreds of visitors stood in silent expectation, and in a moment the sound of childish voices was heard, and they entered in regular procession singing —
"The morn of hope is breaking,
All doubt now disappears,
For the Five Points are waking
To penitential tears; [..]"
They took the circuit of the tent, and were then arranged, standing around the tables. They stood, with folded hands, while all sang the doxology, and the Missionary asked a blessing upon the occasion. Not a hand was raised, not a voice was heard, until the ladies and gentlemen who had charge of the tables supplied their hungry visitors with food. Then all was glad commotion, and then was the time for joyous tears. Three hundred and seventy poor, neglected, hapless children, placed for an hour in an atmosphere of love and gladness, practically taught the meaning of Christian kindness, wooed and won to cling to those whose inmost hearts were struggling in earnest prayer for grace and wisdom to lead them unto God. [...] They ate and drank without restraint until all were satisfied, then again formed and commenced singing. In the central aisle was placed the stand containing the toys and cornucopias of candy, and another filled with oranges and apples. By these, two ladies were seated. The children marched by them, in as much order as the dense crowd would permit, singing as they went, "We belong to this band, hallelujah," and in each hand the ladies placed a gift as they passed, until all were supplied. Then all the children left the tent.

There was now an interval of a few moments. The tables were hastily replenished, and then notice was given to the visitors, that the company now about to assemble were the "outsiders," about whom we knew nothing, save that they were poor and wretched, and all were warned to take care of their watches and pocket-books.

They came in scores, nay in hundreds; they rushed in and surrounded the tables, men, women, children, ragged, dirty, forlorn. [...] And the children who accompanied them, miniature likenesses, both physically and morally. Alas! alas!
"It needed no prophetic eye to see
How many yet must the same ruin share."
And we could scarcely hope to snatch these from the vortex. We spoke to them words of kindness and encouragement, and they partook until not a fragment was left, and then quietly left the tent.

More than a half-century later, in 1904, the Five Points Mission was still organizing Thanksgiving dinners, by then for more than a thousand children of the Lower East Side.

Update (2013): Below is a solicitation for donations for the mission's 1867 Thanksgiving Dinner. The return mail envelope is addressed to the Rev. James Newton Shaffer (1811-1901), who served for thirteen years as the organization's superintendent.


Dear Friend : —

We are making arrangements for our usual
THANKSGIVING DINNER
for the Children of this well-known poor neighborhood.

May we ask you to enclose to us in the directed envelope a contribution to this object? If more than enough for the Dinner is received, it shall be faithfully used in providing for the sick and poor as far as it will go, through the winter.

You are cordially invited to visit the Mission, and acquaint yourself with its work and its success.

Respectfully,
J. N. Shaffer,
Superintendent.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The telegraphist (II)


At the beginning of the seventh week all communication with Z---- was broken off again, this time for three days. It resumed promptly and without explanation on the fourth morning at 0600 hours, but two days later it ceased and did not resume. A slave to protocol, he submitted no daily reports, since none had been requested. To break the monotony he began to make his morning rounds in a counter-clockwise direction. He was struck by how different an aspect the oasis revealed when examined in this fashion, but after a few days the novelty wore off. He began to alternate, walking clockwise one day and counter-clockwise the next, and this seemed to be the most tolerable arrangement.

After the second full week of silence he caught himself softening his steps, listening for the engines of the relief party that by now was overdue. He heard none, nor were there any unexpected visitors, suspicious or otherwise. The worst of the heat of the dry season, suffocating and blinding, lay upon the desert, and he spent as much time as he could asleep with wet rags over his eyes. Scarcely animate, the lethargic mule stared at him from its stall with unblinking and (he half suspected) unseeing eyes, and barely summoned the energy to eat.

He was writhing on his cot in a semi-delirious state, somewhere between night and morning and between sleep and waking, when the alarm rang. He leapt up and rushed to the telegraph. It wasn't the operator at Z---- but the outward post, and the message, as ever, was incomprehensible:
Ba bara sabara rebapara azera ba STOP Sarabara berisa seribisarabisa serata bezera razara ra STOP Berisol sorisoriso bazara sarisarasarisab STOP
He transcribed this seeming gibberish into his logbook, returned an acknowledgement, then relayed the message to the operator at Z----. There was no response.

The following day, at around the same hazy hour of dawn, another message came down:
Saraba barisaserisab azarasaraza bazirazep STOP Azirasora sarizap borisoq qrabba oraseraborisep prebanamarasarasap STOP Azapep STOP
Again he acknowledged, transcribed and forwarded the message, and received no response from Z----. To his surprise, however, an hour later an identical message arrived. Perplexed, he carefully compared it with the previous one and acknowledged it, but almost immediately a third came, and then a fourth. He duly forwarded each transmission, but when the fifth and sixth arrived he held back. Clearly the operator in the hinterlands was not receiving his acknowledgments and was repeating himself in the mistaken belief that his messages were not getting through. There was no point in annoying the authorities at Z----, if they were indeed listening, with obvious repetitions. For several hours the wires carried message after identical message, dozens, scores, eventually hundreds. He transcribed each one, for a while, then simply gave up, walking away and returning every hour or so to see if the incoming transmission was the same as the others. It always was.

The messages trailed off in late evening, then sputtered to a halt. He was awakened once during the night, then again around 0500, and after that the pace began to pick up again until the incoming transmissions had become a virtually continuous stream of characters. He walked away from his desk and went outside. The wind had gathered and a sandstorm was obscuring the horizon, but the heat was as relentless as ever. The mule stood motionless and he wondered whether it had died standing up during the night and had simply neglected to fall. He threw it some hay regardless.

When he went back inside the telegraph was still chattering. He recorded a few lines, then threw his chair back in a huff and started to walk away, rage rising within him. On the verge of losing control completely, he was about to smash the instrument and put an end to his torment once and for all when he caught himself, finding that a greater fury was welling up inside him, and coldly and meticulously typed out a message to the operator on the other end:
Raberaparabep barabap parabarabagarap garap baregatarat top barop roparaoparop bererep qrabab STOP Garep arepabap gop STOP
These syllables, though they meant nothing to him, he transmitted without a single pause. To his surprise, the machine did not pick up where it had left off. Instead there was silence for a few moments, then a brief acknowledgment, and then it lay still.

No further transmissions arrived until late that evening. He was dozing in the cot, his spoon rattling in the empty can of beans beside him with every labored breath, when the alarm woke him and a message trickled out:
Garabarep farabara barana marabap amar raba raba barabaramop STOP Garabananana badarap badar badar badarap bada STOP
He wrote out the message, then tore it roughly out of the logbook and paced the room, reading it over and over. He had been instructed in the making and cracking of basic ciphers during his initial training, but this fit the pattern of nothing he had ever seen. He leafed through his logbook, carefully examining old entries. There seemed to be too few unique letters, too much obvious repeated filler, for the messages to contain any but the most rudimentary communication. No doubt there was a key, known to the operator on the other end and also at Z----, or maybe not even there, maybe the transcriptions were referred to another operator at some distant headquarters, perhaps even all the way to the home country, to some intelligence officer in the national palace, who perhaps decoded them for the eyes of M. le Président himself. One way or another it was clearly beyond his ken.

While he was considering this the alarm sounded again, and another string came through, this one identical to the last:
Garabarep farabara barana marabap amar raba raba barabaramop STOP Garabananana badarap badar badar badarap bada STOP
And then it seemed to wait, patiently, expecting an answer. He put his hand on the key and tapped, hesitantly at first, then fluently:
Morarerabap aramara marabeparepamar berererapap STOP Beraqraba garab megaraba babap babap babap ma garabarap STOP Serabep arbaraba barapep a pep perapebabep merera baramabap STOP
A brief acknowledgment followed, and then nothing for the rest of the night.

(To be continued.)

Monday, November 15, 2010

The telegraphist (I)


He was the last one left. Just before decamping the legionnaires loaded up the barrels of gunpowder that remained onto carts, piled on all the old carbines and anything else that was portable, and blew it all up at the edge of the desert. The shock wave whipped the overhead wires that hung slack between the weatherbeaten poles and blew out two windows of the command post, but the adobe walls held firm. The little generator in the next room, after skipping a single beat at the initial concussion, resumed its steady chugging, brushing off the aftershocks that echoed, ever more faintly, for the better part of an hour.

They left him a mule and some fodder, a rifle and cartridges, and enough fuel and food and water for two months, three if he was careful with it, and not very much rum at all. By the time his provisions ran out, if he was lucky, he would be relieved; in the meantime his presence would be essential to communication along the line, sporadic though it might be. In the absence of the lieutenant, who had never returned from a reconnoitering expedition the year before and was assumed to be among the casualties of war, the sergeant formally transferred his authority in a brief ceremony several times interrupted by boisterous outbursts on the part of his subordinates, all of whom were in varying states of drunkenness and immune to the sergeant's halfhearted rebukes. They wished him good luck, embraced him one by one in turn, and clambered into the back of the hulking, wheezing truck just as the driver, who perched alongside the sergeant was by no means the soberest of the lot, ground on the gears until he managed to cajole the reluctant vehicle into lurching forward, blowing up clouds of dust and sand as it lumbered haltingly to the edge of the oasis. He watched them drive off for a moment, waved his cap three times over his head, and returned to his desk.

During the first few weeks his duties kept to their normal routines. He slept in a cot in the office within earshot of the alarm. Each morning, at precisely 0600 hours, the office at Z---- would transmit an identical message inquiring for his report. He would respond that all was well and await instructions. A few moments later the machine would jigger into life again, with a one-line order to expect a further communication at 1800 hours. After breakfast and coffee he would make a brief circuit of the immediate environs of the command post in order to stretch the kinks out of his legs, he would feed and water the mule, and then go back to sleep until evening, when there would be a similarly terse exchange with the operator on the other end. He would warm up a few more spoonfuls of canned rice and beans, knock back a single precisely measured shot of spirits, and call it a night. On rare occasions and at unpredictable hours a brief message came down from further up the line, transmitted by an operator in some even more isolated and woebegone outpost. When that happened he tapped out an acknowledgment and promptly relayed the information; as these messages were usually encrypted and he had not been entrusted with the key this entailed the careful replication of a string of apparently meaningless syllables, a task for which, he decided, he was particularly suited.

Only twice did he see any sign of life other than the vacant and imperturbable mule. One morning, during his constitutional, he discovered the faint traces of hoof prints across his path. That the marks were visible at all, considering the incessant drifting of sand over every square inch of the oasis, proved that they had been made the previous night, perhaps just before dawn. He traced their origin back as far as the last palms, but no further, then reversed course and followed them to the point at which they trailed off into the desert. He determined that there had been three camels, that their riders had never dismounted, and that they had found nothing of interest to detain them or even to cause them to veer from their course. A week later, by chance, on one of the few relatively windless days, he spied a small caravan -- twenty riders or so, from the look of it -- very far off, but it never approached and he lost sight of it, even with his binoculars, after an hour. His report of each incident was duly noted and acknowledged, but nothing more was said of either one.

It was somewhere near the end of the fourth week, or perhaps the beginning of the fifth -- he had become increasingly indifferent to the calendar -- that his orders failed to arrive on schedule for the first time. He wasn't alarmed by this. Interruptions along the line, due to downed poles or balky generators, weren't particularly unusual or unexpected. The lack of communication posed no imminent danger, as the front lines -- to the extent that those could be defined in a guerrilla conflict in inhospitable and poorly charted terrain -- lay hundreds of miles off, and even the odd raiding party, should it by chance happen to break through, would have no reason to venture into a region that offered little in the way of opportunities for pillage. The telegraph remained dormant through the evening, but when at 0600 the next morning the alarm sounded and the operator at Z----, making no reference to his silence of the previous day, inquired for an update on local conditions, the telegraphist neither sought an explanation nor gave it a second thought.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Night piece (North)


Possibly it's the end of the world, she's not the one to say, but if so as luck would have it the end of the world finds her in a city far from where she was born, where they speak a different language she never quite masters though no one seems to mind, where it's lovely along the lake in summer but winter comes hard and fast. She meets a man who has many friends but no ties and before long they find they are bound by love and she moves her things into his apartment three flights up and two blocks down a crooked alley from the center of town. In the evenings, when they come home from their jobs, he browns stew meat and onions on an old gas stove and she settles into a chair in a corner underneath a lamp where she can continue to draw after the sun goes down. He leaves the radio on while he cooks, too low for her to decipher the words but she likes the music, the strains of accordion and fiddle that bend around the singers' voices. After dinner they disconnect the phone, sometimes they put a record on and dance slowly and silently for a while but mostly they just sit by the window. In the beautiful chill night, above the muffled sounds of the city, the vault of heaven is filled with uncountable stars.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Abocurragh



Until about ten days ago I had no idea that Andy Irvine had a new record in the works, and now here it is, whisked over the seas from Ireland to drive away the oncoming November chill. Andy jokingly refers to Abocurragh as "the album of the century," meaning it's his first solo album since Way Out Yonder, which was recorded in 1999. Old friends are on board -- Dónal Lunny and Liam O'Flynn from Planxty, Bruce Molsky, Nikola Parov, and Rens van der Zalm from Mozaik -- but there are some new sounds in the mix this time (new to me at least), including Hardanger fiddler Annbjørg Lien and guitarist Lillebjørn Nilsen from Norway.

Andy's in fine mettle and voice and the selection of songs is a strong one, maybe his best solo set except the wonderful Rain on the Roof. There are no strictly instrumental tracks this time (three of the ballads segue into instrumentals), but as you would expect there's some great mandola and bouzouki playing by Andy and plenty of support from his mates on accordion, uilleann pipes, fiddle, and guitar, not to mention Nikola Parov on more exotic instruments like the nyckelharpa and kaval. No record from Andy would be complete without a couple of rousing songs about the Wobblies of the IWW, and this one has two, of which "The Spirit of Mother Jones" is more successful than the Balkan-flavored "Victory at Lawrence" (though the latter piqued my curiosity enough to induce me to dig out my copy of Bruce Watson's Bread and Roses). The heart of the album, though, is in the ballads, both original and traditional. Andy's got a wry sense of humor, so it's no surprise if the lyrics here stray a bit into unexpected territory, whether the eventual outcome is tragic or comic. (In both cases, there seems to be a common cautionary theme about the dangers of picking up strange women!)

The final cut, "Oslo / Norwegian Mazurka," is one of Abocurragh's best, with some delicious Hardanger fiddle by Annbjørg Lien and some earthy, off-kilter humor. The song narrates the events of an excursion through Norway some years back, after which, Andy says:
I was completely knackered when I got home to Ireland and decided to write a song about it. Unfortunately I could remember nothing, so this may or may not be true! No one will ever know.
True or not, the story is hilarious and provides Andy with a chance to spin some of his best lyrics:
In the Dubliner we played a gig, though we were all a bit hungover
A man got up and tried to dance a jig it looked more like a Bossa Nova
I had some beers and I began to flirt
And very soon I was on blonde alert
You're too late you know, thirty years or so,
she laughed and went home to her mammy
The song's best lines come later on, and concern the origin of clouds, but for that you'll have to buy the record.

Abocurragh, which is expertly produced by Dónal Lunny, is probably not available in stores in the US but can be ordered directly from Andy through his website or through various online sources.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Entre Julios


The copyright page of this little book, which consists of fifteen paintings by Julio Silva accompanied by texts by Julio Cortázar, suggests that it was first published in the 1970s, though the Alfaguara edition shown is from 1996.


Cortázar's brief one- or two-page prose sketches, reminiscent of his earlier Cronopios and Famas, tease whimsical vignettes out of Silva's gently surrealistic artwork, describing a world whose endearing though sometimes cantankerous creatures dwell in the perpetual childhood we all secretly long for, whether we admit it or not. I can't get scans of the interior art, so these images are lifted from Patria Grande, which also has some of Cortázar's texts for the book (in Spanish). As far as I know no selections from the book have appeared in English to date, though it's been translated into Polish and other languages. Where are ye now when we need ye, Paul Blackburn?


What good would it do to get angry at the creatures of Silvalandia? They are shapes, colors, and movements; at times they speak, but above all they allow themselves to be looked at and they enjoy themselves. They are blue and white and they enjoy themselves. They accept without protest the names and deeds that we imagine for them, but they live for themselves a life that is yellow, violet, green, and secret. And they enjoy themselves.




Silvalandia's two creators, Cortázar who died in 1984 and Silva is who still with us, were longtime friends and fairly regular collaborators. Among other things, Silva was responsible for the cover of the original Spanish-language edition of Rayuela (Hopscotch). He was also the designer of Cortázar's wonderful collage-books La vuelta al día en ochenta mundos and Último round, neither of which has appeared in its entirety in English, although a nice selection of their contents was translated by Thomas Christensen and published by North Point Press some years ago as Around the Day in Eighty Worlds. Unfortunately Christensen's translation is now out of print.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Sakhalin Rock


A couple of footnotes to my last post, on Kayano Shigeru's Our Land Was A Forest.

Kayano devotes one chapter of his memoir to his work with an older scholar named Kindaichi Kyōsuke, with whom he collaborated for several years on the transcription of Ainu yukar (epic poems). Although I didn't at first make the connection, this Kindaichi must be the same as the Kyōsuke Kindaiti who contributed the volume on Ainu Life and Legends to the Japanese Government Railways Tourist Library series. (The Tourist Library volumes use an alternate system of Romanization for Japanese names, which is why the spelling of his name is different.)


While some of Kindaichi's comments in that 1941 volume may now seem condescending towards the Ainu (whom he reported were rapidly striving to assimilate into Japanese culture) there's no question of his importance as a scholar, and Kayano remembered him fondly. Here, from Our Land Was a Forest, is a picture of the two of them together.


Below is an interesting video, "Sakhalin Rock," from a group called the Oki Dub Ainu Band.



Although I don't understand the lyrics (other than the few snippets that are in English), it's fairly clear what this is about. Now part of Russia (though it has also been at various times under Japanese control), Sakhalin Island was once part of the Ainu world, but the remaining Sakhalin Ainu were forcibly deported to Japan by the Soviets after the end of World War II. The video includes snippets of a map of the island, archival photographs, Ainu artifacts and designs, as well as, towards the end, images of what appear to be Russian women. It serves as a useful reminder that cultural memory is not always passed on in the ways that outsiders and preservationists might choose.

The traditional instrument Oki is playing is called a tonkori, no doubt the same instrument illustrated in the woodcut below from Ainu Life and Legends, where it is described as "a kind of harp."

Friday, October 15, 2010

From a Green World (Kayano Shigeru)



About all I knew about this book when I bought it was what was implied in the title: Our Land Was a Forest: An Ainu Memoir. The author, Kayano Shigeru, turns out to have been an extraordinary individual, and his modest autobiography, written in Japanese and translated by Kyoko and Lili Selden, is well worth reading.

Born in 1926 in the tiny village of Nibutani on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaidō, Kayano grew up amid dire poverty and severe social discrimination, left school at 15, and supported himself for many years by felling trees in the island's forests, yet somehow, inspired by a tireless passion to preserve the artifacts and culture of his people, before his death in 2006 he wrote or compiled scores of books, founded a number of schools and at least one museum, and became the first member of his nation to serve in the Japanese Diet. Throughout his life, as both an amateur scholar and an activist, he struggled to defend the rights and and record the traditions of the people who once held sway over the whole extent of the island they call Ainu Mosir as well as in the Kurile Islands and Sakhalin to the north.

Kayano's memoir beautifully evokes the pride, the sadness, and the occasional bitterness of an ancient people struggling to survive.
The Ainu have not intentionally forgotten their culture and their language. It is the modern Japanese state that, from the Meiji era on, usurped our land, destroyed our culture, and deprived us of our language under the euphemism of assimilation. In the space of a mere 100 years, they nearly decimated the Ainu culture and language that had taken tens of thousands of years to come into being on this earth.
Though the count of the remaining Ainu population is disputed, the number of speakers of the language has dwindled to the point that its continued existence as a living tongue is unlikely. Kayano's efforts, and those of his fellow Ainu and a handful of scholars from outside, came not a moment too soon.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Cortázar: A Manual for Manuel



Cortázar's last novel, assuming one doesn't count A Certain Lucas, and his last book for Pantheon, appeared in the US in 1978. The wording of the title (the original being simply Libro de Manuel) was Gregory Rabassa's idea, Manuel's Book and The Screwery having been considered and discarded. The book, Cortázar's only overtly political novel, presented some special publishing difficulties, as the text includes newspaper clippings and other documents in Spanish that had to be translated and mocked up into authentic-looking English versions. I haven't read the book in nearly thirty years (it's on my list), and it may read very differently now when the images evoked by the idea of secretive cells of urban guerrillas have shifted considerably.


The jacket design is by Bob Cuevas, the author photo above by Anne de Brunhoff. As far as I know there was never a paperback edition in the US, and as of this writing the translation is out of print.

As early as 1975 Cortázar had broached the subject of changing publishers with Rabassa, who was by now his agent as well as his chief translator. He complained that he had never really been happy with the house, although his positive relationships with editors Sara Blackburn, Paula McGuire, and Jean Strouse had made the situation tolerable. He specifically mentioned Knopf, who in fact became his primary American publisher after A Manual for Manuel. Rather than continue exhaustively with the remainder of his output, including posthumously published editions (he died in February 1984), I think I'll consider that a logical endpoint for this series of posts, and maybe add a couple of sidenotes at my leisure another time.

Cortázar: All Fires the Fire



I think this is the best of the Pantheon Cortázar jackets. The designer is again Kenneth Miyamoto, who had created the jacket for 62: A Model Kit, but the painting on the cover is Paul Klee's The North Sea. The way the central swath vanishes in the distance always makes me think of "The Southern Thruway," one of the eight stories included inside, even though it's an empty beach rather than a superhighway jammed with vacationers returning to Paris.

The back cover features that wonderfully over-the-top Neruda quote:
Anyone who doesn’t read Cortázar is doomed. Not to read him is a grave invisible disease which in time can have terrible consequences. Something similar to a man who had never tasted peaches. He would be quietly getting sadder, noticeably paler, and probably little by little, he would lose his hair. I don’t want those things to happen to me, and so I greedily devour all the fabrications, myths, contradictions, and mortal games of the great Julio Cortázar.
Gregory Rabassa was once again the translator. This edition was published in September 1973, the same month that Salvador Allende was overthrown in Chile and the same month that Neruda died.

Cortázar: 62: A Model Kit



This dust jacket is so similar in style and lettering to the one used for Hopscotch that you'd think it would have to be by George Salter as well, but Salter was long dead and this dazzling design was in fact by Kenneth Miyamoto. If you didn't look closely you might miss the suggestion of a cityscape with mountains in the distance. The superimposed geometrical forms below the title are actually appropriate, since the novel is set in several real European cities but also takes place in overlapping dimensions ("the City" and "the zone") that are organized more by systems of affinities than by geography.

This is Cortázar's strangest novel, and it took me a couple of tries to penetrate its mysteries. The first thirty pages or so are slow going the first time out, but once you get past that it's a book like no other, aptly described by Carlos Fuentes as "an ironic, sentimental journey through a city plan drawn up by the Marx Brothers with an assist from Bela Lugosi." The reference to Lugosi isn't gratuitous; there's vampirism in the book, among many other things. The title alludes to Chapter Sixty-Two of Hopscotch, in which a prospectus for a novel -- or rather an approach to the writing of a novel -- is set forth. Almost everyone in the book is in love with someone, usually someone who's interested in another person entirely, who in turn... It all ends, sweetly and sadly, with dead leaves (actually a character named Feuille Morte, who has a pet snail) and insects circling a streetlight.

The American edition, from 1972, is jointly dedicated by Cortázar and translator Gregory Rabassa to "Cronopio Paul Blackburn," who had died the year before, and bears these lines from Jorge Manrique's "Coplas por la muerte de su padre":
y aunque la vida murio,
nos dexo harto consuelo
su memoria

Cortázar: Cronopios and Famas



Paul Blackburn and Cortázar were exchanging correspondence about the translation of this book of whimsical stories and fables as early as 1959, three years before the book appeared in Spanish.
Paul, your translation is formidable. I've read it twice, making note in passing of the observations that I have to make to you, and they're minor details. You've managed the spirit of the thing, that way of writing that I used with the cronopios and that comes out beautifully in English (at times it makes me think a little of Damon Runyon, whom I've always admired a great deal). I congratulate you, and I give you a big hug (with one arm only, because the other one is still all messed up).
A subsequent letter refers to a reading Blackburn gave in New York City that included several of the pieces, apparently with great success.
You don't know how happy this makes me. Did you make a tape recording? How I would have liked to hear your voice reading your translations, it would be fabulous. Many thanks for scattering my cronopios in the cafés of 9th Avenue. They must have eaten all the hamburgers, I imagine, and then left without paying. Deplorable conduct of the cronopios in New York.
Blackburn did eventually send Cortázar a tape, whether from that reading or another.

As it turned out, the cronopios, famas, and esperanzas had to wait their turn until 1969, after Pantheon's publication of two novels and one book of short stories. Dave Holzman did the artwork for this jacket. My copy is a paperback reprint. A Journey Round My Skull has the hardcover version.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Cortázar: End of the Game



The idea of translating selections from Cortázar's work must have been in Paul Blackburn's mind at least from April 1958, when the Argentinian wrote him a friendly letter, in the course of which he outlined the books he had published to date and mentioned that he had just completed a long story, "El perseguidor" ("The Pursuer") based on Charlie Parker. Blackburn seems to have turned his hand first to Cronopios and Famas, although that book wouldn't appear in its entirety until 1969. By 1962, Cortázar was writing to Sara Blackburn (Paul's wife, and Cortázar's US editor) about a translation of "Las armas secretas" (apparently just the title story, not the entire volume) by Hardie St. Martin:
It seems formidable to me. It's very faithful, very precise, and it has all of the atmosphere of the original. I marked two or three little things that can be corrected without great effort... I would be delighted if someone would be moved to translate "The Pursuer" and the other stories in the book, but above all "The Pursuer."
I'm not sure what became of St. Martin's translation, but in 1967, after Pantheon had already published The Winners and Hopscotch, End of the Game appeared, containing Blackburn's translations of most of the contents of Bestiario, Las Armas Secretas, and Final del Juego, including the Parker story, "Axolotl," "The Idol of the Cyclades," and twelve other pieces. By then Antonioni's film Blow-Up, which is loosely based on Cortázar's "Las babas del diablo," was about to appear, and so the story was retitled "Blow-Up," a felicitous change as the original title translates to something like "the devil's spittle." When the Collier Books edition appeared a year later the title of the entire volume was changed and a still from the movie became the cover art.


In the late '70s or early '80s a Harper paperback edition restored the original title, but the subsequent Vintage edition that remains in print is once again Blow-Up.

The original surrealist-derived cover art from the hardcover edition is credited to one Hoot von Zitzewitz, whose identity appears to be a bit mysterious. In a letter to Paul Blackburn and his wife Sara (who was his editor at Pantheon), Cortázar wrote:
Dear Sarita, many thanks for the copy of End of the Game, which is very nice. I have the impression that we have chosen the sequence of stories well, and that some critics will say some interesting things about them.
The same letter also alludes with regret to Sara's decision to leave Pantheon. By 1969 she and Paul Blackburn had divorced and Paul had married for a third time.

(Translations are mine, from the three-volume Alfaguara edition of Cortázar's Cartas.)

Cortázar: Hopscotch



In the final paragraph of a letter to Paul Blackburn written from Vienna in September 1961, Cortázar shared a bit of news with his agent and friend. "Last week I finished La Rayuela (Hopscotch, you know). It is, I humbly believe, a very beautiful thing." Blackburn must have expressed puzzlement, because two weeks later the author explained: "La Rayuela is a novel, Mr. Agent. Of about 650 pages." And so it was. It was published in Buenos Aires in June 1963, although the American edition would not appear for another three years. During that time Pantheon's chosen translator, Gregory Rabassa, then a novice at the craft, worked closely with the author, struggling to devise creative solutions to the sometimes nightmarish obstacles the book posed. Years later, Rabassa recalled:
Hopscotch was for me what the hydrographic cliché calls a watershed moment as my life took the direction it was to follow from then on. I hadn't read the book but I skimmed some pages and did two sample chapters, the first and one further along, I can't remember which. Editor Sara Blackburn and Julio both liked my version and I was off and away.
When not busy translating One Hundred Years of Solitude, Paradiso, Conversation in the Cathedral, and dozens of other books, Rabassa went on translate five more of Cortázar's, the last being A Certain Lucas in 1984. His memoir, If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents, was published by New Directions in 2005.

Cortázar, who was himself an experienced multilingual translator, was delighted with everything about the American edition -- except for this colorful jacket by George Salter, which he claimed to have removed and thrown in the wastebasket as soon as his author's copy arrived.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Cortázar: The Winners



The first of Cortázar's books to appear in English, The Winners (Los premios) was published by Pantheon in 1965 in a translation by Elaine Kerrigan. The jacket is by Muriel Nasser.
I really like the JACKET, Sara. Say so to Muriel Nasser, who I hope is not related to that other Nasser. Or is it the same Nasser who works for you under a feminine pseudonym? You never can tell.
I put the jacket on another book, and it looked wonderful. I like it very much, you know. I've never seen such a large photo of me. How young I was when it was taken! In this last three years I've aged a lot; now I can't read for more than two hours in one sitting, and at times I have rheumatism. But the heart is still young, as the bishop said to the actress.
Excerpts from a letter to Sara and Paul Blackburn, December 17, 1964, from Cartas 2: 1964-1968, published in 2000 by Alfaguara. Sara Blackburn was Cortázar's editor at Pantheon; her husband, the poet Paul Blackburn, translated several of his works as well as being his American agent and good friend. The translation of the excerpts is my own, but the portions in italics are in English in the original.

Monday, September 27, 2010

We can figure this out


Damn, he thinks, what a firetrap this place is. They must have paid somebody off for sure to let this club open at all, a flight of narrow iron stairs below street level with a crowded restaurant above. He's sitting in a corridor offstage, leaning his back against a stack of wooden crates full of empty, sour-smelling bottles of beer, waiting to go on, trying to keep his feet and his guitar case out of the way of the waitresses who have to step past him on their way back and forth from the kitchen. He's keeping half an eye on the emergency exit at the end of the hall, wondering if he could make it out in time if a pot on the stove suddenly went up in flames. The floor, which isn't level to begin with, is covered in some kind of sticky black rubberized mat, specked with cigarette ash and smears of food and beer and ripped to shreds in a couple of places, so the waitresses have to step carefully to avoid tripping as they pass by heaving trays. He comforts himself with the thought that if he got to his feet quickly at least he'd have one good shot at the door before the panicked crowd tried to rush through to safety.

The act he opened for is back for the last night of a three-night stand. He knows them by now, a little; they gave him a nice shout-out when he finished his set, an obligatory courtesy for musicians to be sure but appreciated all the same, better than he deserved, really, but what the heck. They're a real band, with tour support from an actual label and reviews in the Village Voice, not just some guy with a few songs and a crap guitar with pickups. They have cassettes laid out on the table by the door, they've been driving up and down the east coast for two months in a van parked around the corner. Right now they've paused for a minute, they're adjusting mics and retuning while the leader banters with the crowd a bit to gain time. He'll go back on later, to give them a break, then he'll hang around and just listen for a while, maybe make it home by one. They'll slide him a beer or two on the house at the bar, and if the guy who owns the club is in a good mood he'll slip him a couple of bills on the way out, a little grocery money for the week ahead, better than nothing.

One of the waitresses comes by and gives him a quick smile as he catches her eye. She's pretty -- he thinks she must be a student, about his age, maybe a year or two less -- short dark hair, dark eyes, she's got a trace of an accent, maybe, like she's from Eastern Europe but maybe not, he hasn't really heard her say that much but she seems friendly enough. She's been working there for a few weeks; he heard them call her name once -- Laura or Lori or maybe it was Lauren, he's not sure. He wonders if she's got a boyfriend, and decides she probably does. He thinks maybe he ought to hang around a bit later and start a conversation, nothing to lose, right?, but on the other hand lurking around a club in the small hours when nobody gives a damn that you're there can get old pretty fast and a good night's sleep would do him good, though it'll be lucky if he can fall asleep at all with the sound of the band still ringing in his brain.

They're starting up now, the music reverberating through the concrete wall between him and the stage. What they're doing is so simple, why can't I do it?, he wonders. It's just one guitar lick, repeated hypnotically for a few bars, then the singer jumps in with some lyrics that are rudimentary but at the same time dead-on perfect. A verse or two, no solos, no real chorus even, just a one-line refrain, then it circles back to the same lick, the percussion pounds and the singer chants

We can figure this out
We can figure this out


but he can't figure it out, no matter how he tries. It isn't craft, exactly, though clearly these guys are pros; he doesn't know where it comes from. You either have it or you don't and he knows he doesn't, won't ever have it, not that he doesn't maybe have something of his own, some little fleck of a gift maybe, but still, not this, this he doesn't have and he never will. He'll have to find something else -- but he has no idea what that something else will be or how to find it. Anyhow he's definitely not going to find it tonight. The band on the other side of the wall is playing a song in the real world, but somehow where he is, just a few feet away, is someplace else entirely, though he's not sure exactly where it is or even if it's a real place at all.

The song throbs to a close. The dark-eyed girl steps in from the crowd. She stands in the opening for a minute and looks back inside, wiping the sweat off her hands on her apron, peering through the cigarette haze and the dust and the glare of the spotlights. Bottles are clinking around the tables but everyone's set for the moment, nobody tries to catch her eye, they're clapping and laughing and talking loudly as the guitarist and the bass player fuss with the tuning yet again. A couple more songs and he'll unpack his own instrument and step outside, away from the noise, to tune it up the best he can. As he's thinking to himself that probably nobody will notice in any case even if he's not in tune he notices that the girl is standing next to him, and when he looks up she smiles and leans down in her white blouse and asks him if he wants a beer and he says sure, that'd be great, thanks.

(Apologies to the Vulgar Boatmen.)

Monday, September 20, 2010

Mary


Her father was an immigrant from Austria and never shook his accent, though he would never speak or read German again from the day he set foot in Iowa. Her mother's people had been in the country longer, moving further west every other generation or so, until finally they crossed the Mississippi and stayed put. There wasn't much to the town except farms, but her father was no tiller of the soil. He opens a general store, starts a newspaper (which fails after a year), then a car dealership (which thrives), but he dies at forty and the depression wipes almost all of it away.

When she is twenty, in a moment of weakness, she allows a man in his thirties to love her. By the time her son is born he has gone elsewhere, never to return; as the years go by she decides that his departure, in sparing her the prospect of marrying him, is the best thing that ever happened to her. After two long years of cold stares from neighbors and uneasy silences from her family she packs a suitcase, bundles up the boy, and buys a train ticket to New York City, because she's always liked the pictures of the skyscrapers in the magazines and because it's the farthest place she can think of. Factories are hiring women and she finds a job in the Brooklyn Navy Yard within a week, soldering wires into radios and switches, and putting the boy into day care nearby. Some of her co-workers are the first black people she has ever spoken to, though she never comes to know them socially.

When the war ends and many of the women leave the factory she moves instead into a secretarial position. She's good at her job and is well-liked; her boss is meticulous and hard-driving but respects her conscientiousness and intelligence. On the job she becomes friendly with one of the foreman, an electrical engineer demobbed from the Navy, a wiry, quick-witted man of thirty-five whose wild years are behind him. When he learns she has a child he at first assumes that she's a war widow. She explains the truth but he doesn't mind; he says that everyone is allowed to make one really bad mistake in their lives and that he's made at least that many. After they marry he adopts the boy and two years later they have another son. She stops working for good and they move into a row-house on the edge of the city. It has a little yard in the back and it suits them until the boys start needing more room to roam. They take a drive into the suburbs -- he can afford it now -- but in the middle of the ride she starts to cry, she can't explain it but somehow she feels intimidated, exposed. Instead they find a more comfortable house closer to home.

He works for twenty years and then retires. The Yard is shutting down soon but it's his health, and a two-pack a day nicotine habit, that have let him down. After two heart attacks he never really gets his strength back and a third one, a year later, kills him. Her older son, who is now in the Navy himself, comes back from California and stays a week. The younger boy finishes high school, tries a year at City College, then joins his brother on the West Coast. Both will settle there permanently.

She takes a part-time job as a secretary again -- not because she needs to, just to have something to do -- but her heart isn't in it and she quits after a few months. Not long afterward she puts the house on the market and when it sells moves her things back to Iowa, deciding that the one thing she has missed during all the happy years in the city was the silence. She takes one ride through her old town -- she recognizes some of the names on the mailboxes, but mostly not -- and then rents a small house a safe hour's drive away. In a town where the definition of a stranger is someone who doesn't go to the same church as yourself she remains, to the end, steadfastly unaffiliated. Her one regret is that she knows she won't be buried next to her husband, but she decides he would understand.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Aventura



At first sight these selections from the Aventura series ("the Vintage Library of Contemporary World Literature") may just seem like particularly nice examples of 1980s paperback cover designs. They certainly were that -- the designer was Keith Sheridan, with various artists supplying the artwork -- but there's a bit more than that going on here.


These books were published during the waning years of the Cold War, when much of Europe and Latin America languished under one variety or another of tyranny, and six of the seven writers represented here are from countries in which it would have been risky or impossible to write and publish freely at the time they were written. (Timothy Mo, born in British-ruled Hong Kong, is the exception.) These images are not a completely representative sampling -- the Aventura list also included authors from Italy, France, Japan, and elsewhere -- nor were all of the books political in nature, but on the whole the titles reflect the values of the Western intelligentsia at a time when its political position was defined largely in opposition to Communism on the one hand and right-wing military dictatorships on the other. (Another notable example, from a few years earlier, was Mark Strand and Charles Simic's anthology Another Republic: Seventeen European and Latin American Writers.



There are still many places where writers are censored or persecuted for their work or their opinions, but the end of the Cold War has shifted the terrain and on the whole appears to have pushed literature to the sidelines. The day when writers could seem emblematic figures in a global struggle for democracy appears to be over, at least for now. How many times in the last decade has the New York Times Book Review -- or for that matter the New York Review of Books or the Nation -- reviewed a novel by a current political exile?




Most of the Aventura titles were reprints of books that had been published earlier in hardcover. One Day of Life, an exception, was a paperback original. Some of my copies have French flaps and others don't; I suspect this feature was abandoned to cut costs. The Aventura imprint seems to have been allowed to lapse at some point in the '80s. Here's the most complete list of titles I've been able to find:

Vassily Aksyonov, The Island of Crimea
Manlio Argueta, One Day of Life
Thomas Bernhard, Correction
Julio Cortázar, We Love Glenda So Much and A Change of Light
Maria Dermoût, The Ten Thousand Things
José Donoso, A House in the Country
Ariel Dorfman, Widows
Fumiko Enchi, Masks
Shusaku Endo, The Samurai
Jiří Gruša, The Questionnaire
Jamaica Kincaid, At the Bottom of the River
Tadeusz Konwicki, A Minor Apocalypse
Camara Laye, The Guardian of the Word
Earl Lovelace, The Wine of Astonshment
Timothy Mo, Sour Sweet
Elsa Morante, History: A Novel
Goffredo Parise, Solitudes
Manuel Puig, Blood of Requited Love
Darcy Ribeiro, Maíra
Samana Rushdie, Shame
Wole Soyinka, Aké: The Years of Childhood
Michel Tournier, The Four Wise Men

I read and enjoyed five of the books pictured, though the only one I've ever returned to is the Cortázar. I bogged down halfway through Widows (the briefest of the bunch) and I'm not sure I ever really started A Minor Apocalypse.

Update: here are two more cover scans: