Thursday, April 19, 2018

The war and the revolution are inseparable

I have no particular love for the idealized "worker" as he appears in the bourgeois Communist's mind, but when I see an actual flesh-and-blood worker in conflict with his natural enemy, the policeman, I do not have to ask myself which side I am on.
I read George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia on my return from Barcelona. I would've liked to read it beforehand, but I realize that no matter how much time I would have given myself to process Orwell's explanations, I would be no closer to understanding the politics of that time and place. He admits that he didn't understand it himself. "The war and the revolution are inseparable," he writes, and that is as much clarity as one can hope for.

The book recounts Orwell's experience fighting fascism in the Spanish Civil War. While the politics is confusing, the account of his time in Spain — of life in the trenches, of hospital condition near the front line, of being shot at and being shot, of being under surveillance — is starkly vivid and insightful. It's also often funny, even in grim circumstances.
The days grew hotter and even the nights grew tolerably warm. On a bullet-chipped tree in front of our parapet thick clusters of cherries were forming. Bathing in the river ceased to be an agony and became almost a pleasure. Wild roses with pink blooms the size of saucers straggled over the shell-holes round Torre Fabián. Behind the line you met peasants wearing wild roses over their ears. In the evening they used to go out with green nets, hunting quails. You spread the net over the tops of the grasses and then lay down and made a noise like a female quail. Any male quail that was within hearing then came running towards you, and when he was underneath the net you threw a stone to scare him, whereupon he sprang into the air and was entangled in the net. Apparently only male quails were caught, which struck me as unfair.
I suspect Orwell's text if read deeply would shed light on current Catalonian struggles for independence.

It's interesting to note, also, how Orwell's experience must've informed Nineteen Eighty-Four in terms of the dissemination of information, disinformation, and propaganda, how one party could be an ally in the cause one day but an enemy the next, and the dread that anyone might be an informant ready to report you for anything.

The book ends with a poignant ode to England:
And then England — southern England, probably the sleekest landscape in the world. It is difficult when you pass that way, especially when you are peacefully recovering from sea-sickness with the plush cushions of a boat-train carriage underneath you, to believe that anything is really happening anywhere. Earthquakes in Japan, famines in China, revolutions in Mexico? Don’t worry, the milk will be on the doorstep tomorrow morning, the New Statesman will come out on Friday. The industrial towns were far away, a smudge of smoke and misery hidden by the curve of the earth's surface. Down here it was still the England I had known in my childhood: the railway-cuttings smothered in wild flowers, the deep meadows where the great shining horses browse and meditate, the slow-moving streams bordered by willows, the green bosoms of the elms, the larkspurs in the cottage gardens; and then the huge peaceful wilderness of outer London, the barges on the miry river, the familiar streets, the posters telling of cricket matches and Royal weddings, the men in bowler hats, the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, the red buses, the blue policemen — all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.
Prescient, no? Yet we keep falling asleep.

Etext: Homage to Catalonia

See also:
Christopher Hitchens: Why Orwell Matters
George Orwell's Prelude in Spain
George Orwell's Spanish civil war memoir is a classic, but is it bad history?

Saturday, April 07, 2018

This is the kind of place to linger in

I notice that my reading and viewing material over the last week is full of suicide. This concerns me a little: Is the universe trying to tell me something? Has the universe always been trying to tell me this thing and I'm just now noticing?

About behaviour completely incomprehensible to me.

[I don't mean to suggest anything in common among these works apart from this broad subject, but 2 novels (Hotel Silence and The Zero and the One) and 2 films (The Sense of an Ending and The Child in Time) have circled round each other and brought me here.]

Hotel Silence, by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, is a slight novel, about a man in the grips of midlife crisis. Perhaps "grips" is too strong a word. More like he's nudged up against some uncomfortable emptiness. Maybe this is crisis for some people. [I'd've thought that the Icelandic disposition had an affinity for emptiness.]

Though Jónas is not sensitive to it, his friend Svanur is also in crisis.
I hear him say that he suspects Aurora has started to read poetry.

"When I slipped past her through the bathroom door last night, she said that I was eclipsing her horizon."

He shakes his head.

"Sometimes I feel it's better to think about Aurora than have her beside me. She'd never understand that."
(As if poetry were some kind of disease!)

Jónas buys a one-way ticket to an unnamed country in the aftermath of war, the perfect setting for the act he intends to commit, ostensibly to spare his daughter the trouble of finding his body. But Jónas unexpectedly finds himself outside his own head.
"Will you be gone? In ten days' time?" she asks with feigned nonchalance.

I reflect on this. In the land of death there isn't the same urgency to die.

"No, I don't expect to be gone," I say. And I think, this is the kind of place to linger in.
He doesn't exactly find purpose, but he gains perspective on his troubles and on those of others, perspective on what matters (spoiler: kindness!). (This plays into the question of whether depression is a first-world problem, but doesn't explore, or exploit, the issue — to the novel's credit, I think.)

Favourite sentence:
She slides against me and I feel her closeness grow like a full moon.
I'm somewhat surprised that this novel should have received the accolades it has. Thank goodness it steers clear of sentimentality; its stillness saves it. It's quiet, somewhat unfocused, ultimately tragic in a totally unexpected way. Perhaps like most of our lives.

Sunday, April 01, 2018

Triumphs of artifice

The Zero and the One, by Ryan Ruby, is imperfect, but I loved it. It's a college novel, and a pursuit of a rare book, with a heavy dose of philosophizing. The novel starts with a suicide and the rest of the book uncovers how we got to this point, through flashbacks on the school year at Oxford and muddling through the funeral aftermath in New York City.

Obvious comparisons for The Zero and the One are Donna Tartt's The Secret History and Patricia Highsmith's Talented Mr Ripley. I'd add a dose of Patrick Hamilton's Rope. It doesn't have the emotional or moral heft of these, but I was perfectly satisfied to be immersed for a couple days in student life in Oxford and NYC, with a side trip to Berlin.

Owen (like "one") is on scholarship and is consumed by his studies, until Zach (like "zero") zooms in from America and enlists Owen's help in getting a girl. Zach gets the girl, Owen gets her friend. Zach develops an obsession with philosopher Hans Abendroth. Everyone revels in academia. Until they don't. Then Owen meets Zach's twin sister.

My favourite sentence:
A typical late winter sky, dull and grey as an oyster shell, hung like a Rothko in the window frame.
Structurally, each chapter is headed with a passage from Abendroth, who turns out to be entirely fictional. His rare collection of aphorisms, Null und Eins, is at the centre of this novel, which could be described as an investigation into the ethics of suicide. The sensibilities expressed in The Zero and the One borrow heavily from Dostoevsky.
Stupidity is not just the result of false consciousness and organized oppression. It's the natural condition of the vast majority of mankind. It's the one thing that is equally distributed among the rich and the poor. Solving our political and economic problems will do nothing to answer the question, Why bother? In fact, all evidence suggests that it will only make that question more difficult to answer.
The Paris Review gives us a biography of Hans Abendroth with an extensive extract of his work.

Some aphorisms from Abendroth:
  • Never and nowhere is man truly at home. In order to experience this all he needs to do is to return, after even a short absence, to the city of his birth.
  • Happiness, when ill timed, can maim a life just as thoroughly as sorrow.
  • The difference between being in the world and reading the world breaks down and woe to the man who does not recognise which story he is living in!
  • The use people make of their freedom is the best argument against allowing them to have any.
I'd be quite happy to spend many more meditative hours with this book within a book.

Review at The Rumpus: The Story Is the Concepts: Philosophizing with Ryan Ruby.

Abendroth thought parks and gardens belonged in the same conversation as novels and paintings. They are all, he writes, triumphs of artifice.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

The clitoral look of raspberries

The Angst-Ridden Executive, by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, is a madcap romp of a mystery, Catalan-style. (Is that a great cover design or what?)

The story bounces from LA and Vegas to Barcelona and its Catalonian environs. Pepe Carvalho met a fellow Spaniard, a bigshot executive, on a flight in the States. Years later, the executive's wife asks Carvalho, ex-communist ex-CIA private investigator, to solve the mystery of his murder.

I wanted to like this novel more than I did, if for no other reason than to set the mood for my visit to Barcelona in a couple weeks. I would not say the streets of the gothic quarter line this novel — that is, the city is not a character in her own right. But there's a (distinctly Catalonian?) lusty grab-life-by-the-balls spirit that envelops the book.
When Gracian wrote that "a good experience is doubly enjoyable when it's short-lived", he can't have been thinking of food. Or, if he was, then he must have been one of those intellectuals who are happy living on alphabet soup and eggs that are as hard and egg-like as their own dull heads.
This book has breasts and blowjobs (in a strangely matter-of-fact and completely incidental way), cigars, drink, and food, glorious food. Also poetry (meet Luis Cernuda) and politics. Often all these things in the same breath. It has a frenetic energy that I associate with things Spanish. It's smart and it's funny.
He enjoyed the clitoral look of raspberries, and their fleshy texture and acidity, which was less gritty on the teeth than the mulberry, and with more of a physical consistency than the strawberry.
There's the ex-con who works for Carvalho (they once shared a prison cell) — a kind of office manager sidekick. There's the friend obsessed with the idea of setting up an anti-fascist resistance movement in the mountains who acts as research assistant. The boot-black with his ear to the street.
Wide awake and relaxed, he contemplated the bookcase in the corridor, where an irregular array of books was taking up space, sometimes upright and tightly packed, and sometimes falling all over the place, or with their titles the wrong way up. He hunted out Sartre's Critique of Dialectical Reason, Sholokov's Quietly Flows the Don and Sacristan's Essays on Heine. He went over to the fireplace, tearing up the books with the relaxed expertise of one who is well practised, and arranged the dismembered tomes in a little pile, on top of which he placed dry twigs and kindling wood. The flames caught at once and spread rapidly, and as the printed matter burned it fulfilled its historical mission of fuelling fires that were more real than itself.
What this book doesn't have a lot of is easy-to-follow plot. But I'll take the blame for this one — maybe it's there, I'm just too distracted of late to find it. I have no idea whodunit. Despite this, I really enjoyed my time with this book. There are some great set pieces — even if I couldn't get the thing to hang as a whole in my currently fuzzy reader brain.

I'm completely open to trying more Montalbán; I just need to find the right headspace for it.
"Poetry isn't progressive. Or raspberry-coloured. Or anything at all. It's just poetry, or it's nothing," the poet said, without anger, but with all the dignity of a Flemish burgher.
Crimespree: Review.
The Guardian: Notes from Barcelona's dark side.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The words are here


This line is the present.

That line you just read is the past
(It fell behind after you read it)
The rest of the poem is the future,
existing outside your

The words
are here, whether you read them
or not. And no power on earth
can change that.

Joan Brossa (translated from Catalan by A.Z. Foreman)

Thursday, March 15, 2018

To live in Barcelona is to live in Europe!

"To arrive at a bar where the principal spectacle is the clientele..."

Reading The Angst-Ridden Executive, by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, and getting in the mood for an upcoming trip to Barcelona...

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Fight the peace with stories

Hopelessness was no impediment to hope.
American War, by Omar El Akkad, is not my kind of book. Or maybe it is.

That is, I would not have picked it up on the basis of its synopsis alone. But on top of various best-of-2017 accolades, it was longlisted for the 2018 Tournament of Books and is a current Canada Reads contender, two distinctions I can really get behind.

So I reserved the library ebook and it was checked out to me before I was ready for it. I started reading it in a stressed and resentful way, but was determined to at least skim it. For this reason, maybe I missed some important bits in the early going.

The war is between the North and the South. I wasn't entirely clear on the reasons for the war or the general conditions of the state of war, but it was something to do with continuing use of fossil fuels (which apparently are still available in 2074).

In 2074, the world is a different place. Climate has changed. As a result, geography has changed. Entire ways of life have changed.

The Middle East has extended its boundaries and is now the Bouazizi Empire. That doesn't affect Sarat on a day-to-day basis, but it's a fact of the world.

This novel isn't really about the war. It's about Sarat Chestnut and her family and the hardships they endure. It is about how Sarat becomes the person she ends up being.
"The first thing they try to take from you is your history."
It is about living as a refugee, and about recruitment and indoctrination to extremist ideologies.

Says Sarat's mentor:
"I sided with the Red because when a Southerner tells you what they're fighting for — be it tradition, pride, or just mule-headed stubbornness — you can agree or disagree, but you can't call it a lie. When a Northerner tells you what they're fight for, they'll use words like democracy and freedom and equality and the whole time both you and they know that the meaning of those words changes by the day, changes like the weather. I'd had enough of all that. You pick up a gun and fight for something, you best never change your mind. Right or wrong, you own your cause and you never, ever change your mind."
Much in the early portion of the novel is made of the protagonist Sarat being a tomboy. This struck a wrong chord with me. I'd like to believe that we live in gender-enlightened times, and that in 2018 the concept of "tomboy" is already outmoded. I'd like to believe that by 2074 the concept would be meaningless. Sarat is contrasted with her fraternal twin, who wears pretty dresses and fusses over her hair. This might make sense if in wartime the only viable means of survival for a woman meant relying on her womanly wiles. But the author never builds a case for that. In fact, most of the women are no-nonsense, and do whatever it takes. So this characterization of Sarat didn't work for me and pulled me out of the story. I don't think it's necessary in order to make the rest of the story work.

Yeah, I have some petty gripes about this book, and I was grumpy about reading it.
There existed no soldier as efficient, as coldly unburdened by fear, as a child broken early.
It's a much subtler, smarter, more accomplished book than I initially gave it credit for. I think this book came at the wrong time for me to fully appreciate it.
You fight the war with guns, you fight the peace with stories.
Listen to Omar El Akkad in conversation with Shelagh Rogers on The Next Chapter.