Thursday, July 21, 2016

Lost threads

The trumpet announced that life was beautiful, while the violin, barely keeping up, wept drunkenly that it was too fleeting.
In Red, by Magdalena Tulli, is one of the most difficult and peculiar books I've read in recent memory. I recall hearing about it upon the publication of the English translation — it's been on my list for a few years — I was sold on the promise of its poetic and fabular qualities. And this short book has plenty of that.

But I read it without really understanding it; I enjoyed parts of it thoroughly, but other parts simply mystified me. For a synopsis of the story, such as it is, you would be best served by reading the review at KGB Bar Lit Magazine.

In Stitchings it is always winter. It is a town with a port (and therefore northern). But it has salt mines (of which southern Poland has a few).

The jacket copy says it's set in an imaginary fourth partition of Poland, that it "retraces the turbulent history of the twentieth century." The third partition of Poland had divided its land among the Austrian, Prussian, and Russian empires, effectively wiping Poland off the map for 123 years, until the Treaty of Versailles restored Poland. This is the nonexistent Poland my grandparents grew up in.

In Red begins just before Archduke Ferdinand is assassinated in 1914, and war sets the town into motion, if you can call it motion. It's perpetual motion, without direction. The town's affairs, we're told, are interwoven with those of the Swedish garrison,
Its very existence should be regarded as an especially favorable sign, bearing in the mind that a Swedish garrison is better than any Russian, Prussian, or Austrian one, just as a Swedish partition is better than any other possible partition.
It's to Stockholm that the necessary documents are sent. So this then is an imaginary third partition, one that unfolded differently than the history books would have it. The third partition dissolved Poland, there was no territory left to partition; presumably the fourth partition happens after the country is re-established: But there is no Second Republic of Poland in this fiction. The hussars were dealt with by the Germans, and then the Austrian military police. The proclamation announcing the creation of the Kingdom of Poland was read by a German lieutenant.

This "new" country is not partitioned (it is not shared) so much as occupied, overrun, subsumed.
No one noticed exactly when the snowflake that appeared on Strobbel & Slotzki's products changed its shape. From that time on, each of its four arms was bent at a right angle, like the wooden rulers with which Slotzki was so prodigal.
In Red is not tracing the history of the twentieth century so much as recounting the Weimar years and the Holocaust.

According to the preview of an academic article in Translation Review
The story told here is the history of the imaginary town of Stitchings. The town's name in Polish, "Ściegi," meaning, literally, "stitches," is implausible as a place name and thus begs to be translated. While "Ściegi" has no particular cultural resonance, it is unfortunate that for the Anglophone reader "Stitchings" conjures up images of an English country town. Stitchings/Ściegi, chimerical though it is, experiences historical events that place it squarely in northern Poland, albeit in an imaginary fourth, Swedish, partition. This is clear in the Polish edition; the translation omits a specific reference to the historical partitioning powers...
All this to say: I have trouble piecing together the fictional history and fail to understand why Tulli felt it necessary to shift the historical context to include Swedish governance at all. (Can anyone offer me any insight?)

That said, In Red has several charmingly fantastical — and symbolic — elements.

The young lady whose heart stops beating but who refuses to die. The end of her hereditary line, does she represent Poland? Jeszcze Polska nie zginęła... Poland will not die.

The forgotten intended who unpicks her embroidery, the red silk threads scattered by the wind to mark those who would die. Are these the stitches that held the town together, the stitches that were pulled apart, partition after partition? The reality of the Polish spirit was strong enough for the country to regenerate after three partitions, but the fiction shows us that the failure to preserve the essence of Poland at this crucial time would be its downfall.

The magical reality slides into darkness. The tale of the diva who disappears. The typhoid, the starvation, the death, the living dead for whom there is no salvation. Denying the existence of the sea, of a port, of any exit.

Elsewhere
KGB Bar Lit Magazine:
The book is divided into three sections, each delving into the psyche of Stitchings and its attempts to deal with the chaos that befalls it. It reads like some sort of perverse fairytale, and whether through war and confrontation, through greed, or through drunkenness and debauchery, the citizens of Stitchings ultimately cannot stave off the literal and figurative winter that enshrouds them.
LA Review of Books, Politics and the Postmodern in Magdalena Tulli:
For all its immense charm, In Red is embedded in a vicious slice of Polish history, the period between World War I and World War II. The novel's political and social resonances should be abundantly clear. For whoever would visit Magdalena Tulli's shimmering cities must visit as well those forlorn cities of the dead, where strange traces — shoes, hair — are preserved in eerie effusion.
NPR (Jessa Crispin):
Magdalena Tulli is one of Poland's most celebrated writers, and with In Red there is much to treasure. She plays with the line between unexpected and quirky very well. Despite the more fantastical elements, there is nothing twee about Tulli. A gritty darkness shadows Stitchings, as the occupying German army marches in, or as the Hussars disappear in the night, or as drunken soldiers freeze to death in the snow banks on the way home from the brothel. There is desperation and poverty and starvation. She creates an atmosphere reminiscent of the dark Polish forests of older fairy tales, the ones with the high body counts.
The Quarterly Conversation
In Red is Tulli’s most conventional novel — which is not to say it could finally be described as a conventional work of fiction.
Excerpt.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Consciousness is a tragedy

"Consciousness is a tragedy. It leads the whole race away from perfection, causes it to fritter its efforts on individual and wasteful effort. Our lives as Consu are spent learning to free our race from the tyranny of self, to move beyond ourselves and in doing so move our race forward. It is why we help you lesser races along, so you may also free yourselves in time."
— from Zoe's Tale, by John Scalzi.

Zoe's Tale was a delightful, easy read, and it's not my intent to diminish it by calling it easy. Easy, like the living is easy. Reading with ease. A breath of fresh air after the darkness I've been lately immersed in reading.

A colleague recommended it (and loaned me her copy). I know Scalzi by reputation, and I can now say his reputation is well deserved. It's a good story with adventure and young love. I laughed and cried, and wondered how a middle-aged man can write a teenage girl so well; I barely recall being one, and times have changed, but I have a freshly teen-aged daughter who will have turned into Zoe within the year, I can tell.

Apparently this novel is part of a larger universe of stories, but it stands on its own. I would totally read more. (Did I just say "totally"?)

Sunday, July 10, 2016

An unspace

This Census-Taker, by China Miéville, is short and creepy, and hints at a much larger narrative. Something small and intense that makes you ache for childhood and innocence. And truth.

I found no truth. Only vague impressions, vague questions.

Who is this census-taker? Is it the census-taker who comes asking questions? Or is the narrator referring to himself, the way this reader might speculate about the possible interpretations?

The epigraph, from Jane Gaskell. Houses built not for something, but against — the sea, the elements, the world, etc. Built with hatred. I think it makes this story one of social commentary. It's the father against the community, the community against him. Us and them. To which side does the census-taker belong? He is from the father's city, but maybe he kills him. He is bureaucrat, claiming authority, but one senses that the community would be against him. Where does the hatred come from?

I believe the father killed the mother. But I cannot know this.

What are his father's keys? His customers asked for "love, money, to open things, to know the future, to fix animals, to fix things, to be stronger, to hurt someone or save someone, to fly." He would sketch the keys, correcting the lines as his customers spoke. Is this magic or metaphor? A key that changes the weather.

What is the nature of the hole? This is where they tip their rubbish, but no one else disposes of their garbage this way. Is their rubbish different? Does this serve a sacrificial purpose?

As an adult, as he writes, now, he is an honoured guest. But I believe he's in prison. It must be prison. Why is he in prison? Could it be a hospital ward? There is a chandelier and a wasp and a typewriter. Could he truly be a visiting dignitary afforded the usual honours?
The manager of my line told me, You never put anything down except to be read. Every word ever written is written to be read and if some go unread that's only chance, failure, they're like grubs that die without changing. He said, you'll keep three books.
Is that an order for the boy, now a grown-up? Do others also keep three books? Is this a rule for census-takers? The first book is numbers, for everyone; this one sounds official. The third book is for its writer alone, the book of secrets. The second book is for readers; it is performance. Although it too may tell secrets cryptically. The second book is chronologically the third that he writes. Why is it called the second book? This story is that book. What secrets does it tell? It is a conversation with a previous book, that of his predecessor. Where is the place with the raised neglected rails where outcasts live? The hope became the hate.

His second book begins:
In
Keying, No Obstacle Withstands.
What does he know? In keying the keys of the typewriter. The magic of writing? The magic of his father's keys?

Just what is his mother's business in town? Is it really just trade? I believe it to be something more nefarious. Why does she trust the boy to the derelict children?
The bridge had been inhabited once but some ordinance had forbidden that practice, broken though it was by the parentless children who squatted collapsing derelicts between the shops.

Houses built on bridges are scandals. A bridge wants to not be. If it could choose its shape, a bridge would be no shape, an unspace to link One-place-town to Another-place-town over a river or a road or a tangle of railway tracks or a quarry, or to attach an island to another island or to the continent from which it strains. The dream of a bridge is of a woman standing at one side of a gorge and stepping out as if her job is to die, but when her foot falls it meets the ground right on the other side. A bridge is just better than no bridge but its horizon is gaplessness, and the fact of itself should still shame it. But someone had built on this bridge, drawn attention to its matter and failure. An arrogance that thrilled me. Where else could those children live?
What was it the mother used to do? In an office, they were training her, she was doing papers for them.

Where is the father from? The visitor wanting a key calls him councilman. Why does the father want a silver flower, "something you give someone for running away"? For helping them run away, or as a reward for the thing accomplished?

The traveller who stays at the picture-house. Things went wrong with her boss, when finally she could read all the paperwork and realized things were off. What repeal is she asking after?

What are the mother's papers? "A description of a carved box that was supposed to contain a person's soul."

What happened to the orphan boy Drobe? Did he really leave? Or did the father kill him too? Was he victim of some authority?

What does the census-taker see at the bottom of the hole? I believe he kills the father. Who used to work for him? She took off with the records. The traveller? Could it be the mother? Who is the agent following him? Is that the traveller? Issuing forgeries of what? What is this census-taker's authority?

This second book is only a prologue. This census-taker is rogue.

Some Theories

The Critical Flame: The Mastery of Absences: China Miéville’s This Census-Taker
The missing pieces in his story are organically missing and are of are two basic types. The first is what adults refuse to tell children and they cannot find out for themselves. The second is what children do not think to ask, because they don’t have an adult’s understanding of people and the world. From the perspective of adulthood, the book’s chain of logic is painfully deformed; yet from the perspective of the boy narrator, the gaps seem rather infrequent. His world is full of effects for which he does not instinctively seek causes. Effects without causes are called miracles. The book shimmers with miracles, as childhood does.
Strange Horizons: This Census-Taker by China Miéville
Filled with mystery, suspense, and magic—and, above all, secrets—This Census-Taker is a lot more than you'd think at first glance. It contains many stories, and storyworlds, nestled inside each other. A lizard that spends its whole life imprisoned in a bottle is not just a powerful symbol, but also echoes a recurring motive from China Miéville's novel Kraken (2010). There are descriptions of trains and of people who have never seen the sea that remind us of Railsea (2012), and a derelict cinema much like the one inspired by London's Gaumont State building in "Looking for Jake." There are children's games like the one at the beginning of Embassytown, and there are many other recurring motives and personal favourites of the author's: Gaskell, banyan trees, sending lamps down sinkholes, angry birds, bats, trains, the sea.
Out There Books: Is This Census-Taker Set in Bas-Lag?
The city where the narrator’s father is from is a mystery in itself. [...] The next stage of the mysterious city’s history is the great census-taking, which we only hear about in very vague terms in this book. For some reason the city decides that it needs to send agents out into the world to find out where all of its citizens are. Sounds like the kind of paranoid reaction New Crobuzon’s government might have.
Seven Circumstance: Imprecision with purpose — This Census-Taker, by China Miéville
The book has a sub-theme of hatred which runs end to end — the boy for his father, his mother for his father, his father for his clients and for the foreign census-taker, the townspeople for his parents and for the wild beggar children. What the census does is to neutralize hatred-filled situations in the town, and in the country, and even in the neighbouring countries, by being a record of the situation stated as neutral, objective numbers and facts. By simply interrogating and documenting the world, the foreign census-taker allays the boy’s fear, and is himself immune to the town’s hatred and quite powerful. Of all the characters, he is the calm, considered, fearless one.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

A dark tangle

It was as if dawn had been told to come quicker on that side, as if the greater emptiness of the streets sucked the light in. What watchers you noticed may as well have been dispassionate observers from some austere alternative, so opaque were their regards. Destitutes lying but not asleep under leaves in a graveyard, marking you from their locations, cosied up to the railings as if to give the dead their room. In a chair by her open doorway a woman waited for the sun and nodded as your escorts took you past. You cried out because something terrible clawed from her mouth, a dark tangle, as if something hook-footed was emerging from her and she didn't care.

"Hush," Drobe said. "We have to be quick and quiet."

To the east there are beetles the size of hands and their shells tell fortunes. If you boil them you can chew their dead legs, as did the woman, and suck out narcotic blood. But you didn't know that then.
— from This Census-Taker, by China Miéville.

It's a short book, 140 pages, I'm just past halfway. It's bloody terrifying. Not for any really tangible horror. It's slow, dense passages like the above, and suddenly their implications set in.

Monday, July 04, 2016

Goofball advice

"When you're worried about something," said Henry abruptly, "have you ever tried thinking in a different language?"

"What?"

"It slows you down. Keeps your thoughts from running wild. A good discipline in any circumstance. Or you might try doing what the Buddhists do."

"What?"

"In the practice of Zen there is an exercise called zazen — similar, I think, to the Theravedic practice of vipassana. One sits facing a blank wall. No matter the emotion one feels, no matter how strong or violent, one remains motionless. Facing the wall. The discipline, of course, is in continuing to sit."

There was a silence, during which I struggled for language to adequately express what I thought of this goofball advice.
— from The Secret History, by Donna Tartt.

Anything in it?

Thinking in a different language slows you down, keeps your thoughts from running wild. I tend to think it's true; however, I tend to invoke this ability only when my mind is already in a leisurely state, not pressed.

Sunday, July 03, 2016

Library woes

A few months ago I rediscovered the library. I had in general thought the English-language selection of fiction pretty paltry. I mean, I'd always check if I was looking for something in particular, but it was often easier and more efficient to purchase a book online.

But then suddenly they had e-books.

Maybe they'd had them for a while. But suddenly they had selection. And I've been taking advantage regularly.

I decided I'd finally try out Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels, and I placed a hold, and I waited and waited and waited, and meanwhile I decided to check out another novel, and wouldn't you know, the very next day My Brilliant Friend became available and was automatically checked out to me. So two novels, neither of them exactly slight. One at a time. I finished one, so started the other, the Ferrante, but felt I was running out of time. No problem, I'll renew the loan.

Not so fast.
Renewing digital titles works a little differently than renewing physical books from the library. When you renew a digital title, it doesn't extend your lending period. Instead, it lets you borrow the title again immediately after your current checkout expires (if there are no existing holds) or it places you on the wait list to borrow the title again as soon as possible (if there are existing holds).
And I realized: back into the queue I would go. I might be granted access to book 2 in the series before I could renew, and finish, book 1.

This put me in the position of rushing home from work, racing to the final 60-70 pages in just a couple hours, instead of spending a leisurely holiday weekend with it.

I did it. I finished it, just under the wire. A short while later, wanting to review a scene, the book was locked to me. Imagine if a physical book would just, poof, disappear, when the lending time was up.

I feel a little bereft. I didn't get to finish the book in my own time, on my own terms. I don't have full and proper closure on it.

I love the instantaneity of the digital library, and I love the interface that allows to me to keep lists and ratings. I hate just a little that I can't choose to return a book a day late.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Leading me by circumlocution

I was charmed by his conversation, and despite its illusion of being rather modern and digressive (to me, the hallmark of the modern mind is that it loves to wander from its subject) I now see that he was leading me by circumlocution to the same points again and again. For if the modern mind is whimsical and discursive, the classical mind is narrow, unhesitating, relentless. It is not a quality of intelligence that one encounters frequently these days. But though I can digress with the best of them, I am nothing in my soul if not obsessive.
The Secret History, by Donna Tartt, reminds me hugely of my dead cousin Peter. Everything about it. Well, not everything. I mean, it's not the dead body at the beginning of book that reminds me of the deadness of Peter. But Peter's world was academic — and we connected. He was my favourite cousin, my closest — we were just a year apart.

We would talk for hours in theoretical terms about politics and the law, about literature and philosophy, about music and film, about artificial intelligence and the possibility of extraterrestrial life. We talked about how theory could be implemented in practice.

I wonder if he read The Secret History before he died.
It was funny, but people never seemed to notice at first glance how big Henry was. Maybe it was because of his clothes, which were like one of those lame but curiously impenetrable disguises from a comic book (why does no one ever see that "bookish" Clark Kent, without his glasses, is Superman?). Or maybe it was a questions of his making people see. He had the far more remarkable talent of making himself invisible — in a room, in a car, a virtual ability to dematerialize at will — and perhaps this gift was only the converse of that one: the sudden concentration of his wandering molecules rendering his shadowy form solid, all at once, a metamorphosis startling to the viewer.
Peter had that gift too.

His air of being moneyed. His cultivated persona, in how he wore his clothes and his hair, whom he was seen with and where, what he was seen to be reading and studying, what he was seen to be drinking, the drugs he did. How he would deem you with a glance for inclusion or exclusion. Yet he was charming. I wanted to be in his club — when I was 9 and visiting his family's cottage, hen I was 19 and hanging out in downtown Toronto. We all wanted into his club.
Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally believed to be, and this hermetic, overheated, atmosphere made it a thriving black petrie dish of melodrama and distortion.
Peter claimed his mother was prone to hysterics. I knew our grandmother had "episodes," but bloody hell, two world wars, a philandering husband, and exile from her homeland... hysterics seems like a perfectly reasonable response. So it seems reasonable too that one of the daughters might've learned that behaviour (my own mother tended toward melancholic). And I never figured out if any of it was true, or if his perception was the product of male entitlement, dismissal of the feminine, mommy issues, or simply drug-addled revisionist personal history. But then, I kind of think he inherited the hysteria gene himself.
I could say that the secret of Julian's charm was that he latched onto young people who wanted to feel better than everybody else; that he had a strange gift for twisting feelings of inferiority into superiority and arrogance. I could also say that he did this not through altruistic motives but selfish ones, in order to fulfill some egotistic impulse of his own. And I could elaborate on this at some length and with, I believe, a fair degree of accuracy. But still that would not explain the fundamental magic of his personality of — even in the light of subsequent events — I still have an overwhelming wish to see him the way that I first saw him: as the wise old man who appeared to me out of nowhere on a desolate strip of road, with a bewitching offer to make all my dreams come true.
Julian is a suspicious character. Well, they all are really. But him maybe more so. The professor. Because we don't know anything about him, yet he's an older authority figure — we have the sense he should know better.

This whole book is very Hitchcockian, I find. It's not about the crime; it's about the psychology of the people involved. Specifically Rope. But also Strangers on a Train and Shadow of a Doubt and others. In Hitchcock, it's about the idea of a perfect crime. In The Secret History it's that too, but it starts as something purer: simply, putting theory into practice.

The Secret History reminds me of the classes I never took, at the college I never went to, with the people I never knew.

I think I'm a modern mind, Peter was classical.

Ten reasons why we love Donna Tartt's The Secret History