Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Ice storms always melt

If I had your undivided attention, even for five minutes, I would tell you to stop panicking. I would tell you that you have no idea how amazing freedom feels and that you should stop giving a fuck about all those things you are supposed to give a fuck a bout, even if it is just for five minutes. For one thing, you'd realize that ice storms always melt, eventually.

If I had ten minutes alone with you, I'd tell you that I love you. I'd tell you not to be scared, because it's the kind of love that doesn't want anything or need anything. It's the kind of love that just sits there and envelops whoever you are or whoever you want to be. It doesn't demand. It isn't a commodity. It doesn't threaten all the other people you love. It doesn't fuck up and it doesn't fuck things up. It's loyal. It's willing to feel hurt. It's willing to exist on shifting terms. It's willing to stay anyway. It doesn't want. It's just there. It's just there and good and given freely, sewing up the holes unassumingly because it's the only thing to do. There is so much space around it and the space shimmers.
— from "Seeing Through the End of the World" in This Accident of Being Lost, by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Ruled by a network of intricate and powerful relations

The Queue, by Basma Abdel Aziz, despite being set in an unnamed city, is clearly an allegory of revolutionary events occurring in Egypt in recent years. However, beyond that, it's difficult to pin down any sense of truth or justice or clear delineation of right and wrong, as the ambiguity of novel drives home.

The story centres on Yehya, who was injured during the Disgraceful Events, and his quest to have the bullet removed from his stomach. Bureaucratic complications arise because bullets "may be the property of security units, and thus cannot be removed from the body without special authorization." Dr. Tarek is reluctant to perform the operation Yehya needs. It's this special authorization that brings Yehya to queue up at the Gate. Others come to the Gate to file a complaint, get a certificate notarized, obtain a Certificate of True Citizenship, etc. But the Gate never opens.

Days pass. Weeks. A whole society springs up around the queue. The sales rep mingles with the teacher, the cleaning woman, the journalist. Prayer meetings, refreshments, phone service. Bus routes are modified to accommodate the queue.
Yehya wasn't like them. He was a different kind of man, steadfast and stubborn, and must have realized that day in Zephyr Hospital how important his injury was; he was carrying a government bullet inside his body. He possessed tangible evidence of what had really happened during the Disgraceful Events, and was perhaps the only person still alive who was willing to prove what the authorities had done.
Why do people keep queuing up? Don't they know the Gate isn't going to open?! How can they not realize it? Why don't they rise up, do something?!

Their access to news is being controlled. They're being surveilled via the cell network. People are disappeared. Dr. Tarek's file on Yehya all the while mysteriously is being updated.

Yehya's character is called into question, the nature of the Disgraceful Events is called into question. And so it goes.
Nagy had failed to convince them that everything in the world was interconnected, and that their lives were ruled by a network of intricate and powerful relations. Even things that seemed random operated according to this invisible system, even if the connections couldn't be seen. Yehya laughed whenever they discussed it seriously, teasing him that the philosophy department had corrupted his mind and destroyed his faith in human nature. Amani would laugh, too — she could never be convinced that the independence she believed she possessed was in truth no more than an accepted illusion, part of a web of relations and contradictions. The Gate itself was an integral part of the system, too, even if from the outside it appeared to pull all the strings.
What will we not normalize? What does it take to drive people to action?

While Basma Abdel Aziz's new work starts with a bullet to the gut it is also relevant to those of us stuck on hold with an insurance agent.
Roundtable including the translator, which approximates a decent bookclub experience.
Getting the tone of the ending right was one of the more challenging parts of translating the novel: working to approximate the same amount of vagueness, to not make it more concrete or more open-ended than the Arabic suggested.
Excerpt 1.
Excerpt 2.

The more I think about The Queue, the more I like it.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

It's not about advertising, you idiot. It's about power.

"Why should you care? he shouts. Why should you fucking care? We're talking about intelligence gathering on an unprecedented scale. Forget data mining. This is mind rape. The end of privacy as we know it. It's not about advertising, you idiot. It's about power. Control. Sure, the marketing men might be the first to come knocking, but sooner or later this information is going to end up in the hands of agencies whose only interest is the total suppression of your freedom. In the whole of history, no system of mass surveillance had ever existed that hasn't ended up being hijacked by malevolent forces."
In Broadcast, by Liam Brown, a star vlogger is given an opportunity to test-drive a new technology. A small chip is implanted in the base of David's skull, which essentially live-streams his thoughts over the internet 24-7.

While reality TV gives us the passively reassuring and relatable everyman, and books offer a more immersive experience of empathy, MindCast then is poised to be the ultimate entertainment.

Interesting things start to happen once the implanted program starts to learn the patterns behind David's thoughts. His thoughts start to take shapes other than splotches of colour. As a vlogger, David thrived on feedback; as a MindCaster, he confronts a different kind of feedback loop when watching his own channel, that feeds and strengthens thoughts he didn't know he had. And it turns out that chip can upload in both directions.

Broadcast has the difficult task of discussing very current social and technological phenomena without making it seem dated. It wants to issue warnings regarding our social media-infused, reality TV-obsessed culture, but it's tough to do without coming off as trite or irrelevant. Or simply too late.

Unfortunately, the novel reads a little like someone of my generation trying to document the ways of my daughter's generation for the benefit of people who have spent the last decade in a technology-free zone. Vlogging had come into its stride by 2005. Reality TV for the internet. Vlogging is so commonplace these days that the book puts me at a remove when it explains it to me rather than weaving it seamlessly into the world it's trying to build.

While the technology that's core to the book is of the imagined near future, this book may have been written years ago. Apart from vlogging culture, references to Uber, mood rings, and "the static between channels on an old television set" had me puzzling to fix this story in time. Given the age of the characters, the tone and the historical timeframe all felt a little off.
"You need to understand that you're going to be a character in a book. Every character needs context. The reader has to know where they've come from, what they've been through. I'm not saying you have to be likeable. But you do have to be believable. You need substance. Dreams and desires. Hopes and fears. Emotional heft. You have feel like a real person rather than some two-dimensional cypher — otherwise why would they possibly care what happens to you?"
So says Alice, who's tasked with writing David's biography. But it's also a problem for Broadcast. So how is it that the character of David is believable even while he lacks emotional heft? Paradoxically, maybe his two-dimensionality is what makes him seem real in this day and age.

Broadcast is short novel that is fairly predictable once the main premise is established. I think it could be a good introduction to speculative fiction for those people who are wary of the genre as well as those interested in getting a glimpse of one aspect of youth culture.

The tagline on the cover is "Black Mirror meets Inception in the YouTube Age." If you've ever seen an episode of Black Mirror, this book won't hold any surprises for you. It doesn't bring anything new to the conversation we should be having about the implications of technology, but Broadcast might yet invite a few people in.

While I may sound overly critical here, I found Broadcast to be an enjoyably entertaining, non-demanding palate cleanser of a book.


Sunday, November 19, 2017

The whole of human life is contained in books

"The whole of human life is contained in books" and that's especially true of The Master Key, by Masako Togawa. It's a cross-section of the lives inhabiting a ladies-only apartment building, more like a series of interconnected stories than a novel.
At the age of twenty-five, instead of marrying a young man, she settled down as receptionist manageress of an apartment block full of young women. Day in and day out she sat at the front desk, dreaming her dreams, and determined to better herself. She would watch the young ladies of her own age going out to their work, and she would secretly read and read — several books a day, sometimes, keeping them hidden on her knee under the desk. Well, the whole of human life is contained in books. Love, desire, success and failure, death and grief... they're all there, in the world of books.

So she went on sitting at that desk, and her straight little back gradually began to bend a bit, but still she went on reading books and fed and nourished her mind in that way. And one day, before she had time to notice what had happened, she woke up to find that she was forty years old. Suddenly the shadow of tragedy passed over her at that moment — she didn't know why it was so, but she felt it, and that's what matters.
This is a quiet book of small and forgotten mysteries, the secrets of women's pasts.

The Master Key was originally published in Japan in 1962, and it has justly survived as a classic, to be reissued by Pushkin Press. Apart from a very few details (like the very fact of a ladies-only apartment building), it remains timeless and universal.

This is not a conventional mystery, with a detective investigating a clear criminal situation, and it may not be for everyone. You will not get a linear narrative and complete resolution. But there is an unsolved kidnapping, a stolen violin, a hoarder, a cross-dresser, a cult, a séance, and a missing master key. And a prowling cat.

As engineers prepare to shift the building about four metres along rails to make way for a widened road, the foundations are laid bare and the building's secretes begin to come to light. More a character study of a building's inhabitants than action-driven, The Master Key is smart and elegant and demure like its residents.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Multiple and contradictory ways of being faithful

My breathing had grown regular again. But it was not nothing. I didn't know that it would ever be nothing — what person contemplates the details of her betrayal without feeling some combination of regret and humiliation, however far in the past?
I first heard about A Separation, by Katie Kitamura, during the Rooster Summer Reading Challenge (mostly weeks one and two). I learned that there was very little story to it, it was told by an unreliable narrator who's also cold and distant, it transpires in Greece, and it's a meditative look at the dissolution of a marriage and its minutiae. Kind of. Opinion was very divided. Sounded right up my alley.

At the start of the novel, the unnamed narrator receives a phone call from her mother-in-law, worried about Christopher. She obviously doesn't know they've been separated for six months, and rather than tell her so, the narrator agrees to go to Greece to check up on him.

So the narrator's a little passive, possibly emotionless — I'd say she's slow and careful about how she processes things. I think she's very relatable, in a "my god, how did I get here?!" kind of way. I mean, who hasn't been married for five years to a guy you may or may not love and felt intimidated by a mother-in-law you don't like, and you spend so much time with them, do you even really know these people, and one day you wake up and you're separated and you're not sure you even care?! Totally relatable. You do your work, you live your life, death is an inconvenience.

I hesitate to say the narrator is unreliable, because nothing she surmises is ever proven false, I don't feel she lied to me, I never felt she was hiding anything from me. On the contrary, she's very forthcoming in her opinions of others and theories of their goings-on. What stands out about her as a narrator is that we know next to nothing about her; we spend time in her head, processing her world, but without access to her history. Quite possibly she doesn't know herself very well.

In my reading, it's key to note that she works as a translator. She has occasion to be reminded of her work on Balzac's Colonel Chabert.
Although the story favors the colonel — the countess is the villain of the story, insofar as there is one, she is portrayed as callow, manipulative and superficial — as I worked on the translation, I found myself increasingly sympathetic to the countess, to the extent that I began to wonder if this feeling showed in the translation, if I had weighted the words without realizing it. Of course, this sympathy might not have been so errant, it might have been Balzac's intention, the very effect he wished to cause in the reader: after all, what a terrible fate, to be faithless, to commit bigamy without being aware of it, it was all in the text itself.

Perhaps because of this concern — one that is in the end a question of fidelity, translators are always worried about being faithful to the original, an impossible task because there are multiple and often contradictory ways of being faithful, there is literal fidelity and there is in the spirit of,a phrase without concrete meaning — I thought about Chabert now.
Clearly she doesn't just work as a translator, she lives as one: filtering everything, distilling it to its essence, weighing it and weighting it, considering its intention and its effect. She translates the whole world for us.

Also in many ways she remains faithful to the original — her first marriage.

There are some great "pieces" in this book: on the expression "he's dead to me"; on modern technology facilitating a different kind of pornography; on the personal ads in the London Review of Books; on professional mourners.
You need to have a great deal of sadness inside you in order to mourn for other people, and not only yourself.
The mood of A Separation is quite meditative, on several subjects: how we never really know anyone else, what we choose to believe about others, how we maintain appearances, the disconnect between what we say and do and feel, how we lie about stupid things, for stupid reasons.

Not much happens. I found a stillness in this novel that suited my state of mind well.


Tuesday, November 14, 2017

It stripped them of everything

He wondered what made people so attached to their new lives of spinning in orbit around the queue, unable to venture beyond it. People hadn't been idiots before they came to the Gate with their paperwork. There were women and men, young and old people, professionals and the working class. No section of society was missing, even the poorest of the poor were there, not separated from the rich by any means. Everyone was on equal ground. But they all had the same look about them, the same lethargy. Now they were even all starting to think the same way.

He had expected there to be exceptions, that someone among them would come out in support of the Riffraff, or even sympathize with their call to resist this absurd and ceaseless situation — but no one did. The queue was like a magnet. It drew people toward it, then held them captive as individuals and in their little groups, and it stripped them of everything, even the sense that their previous lives had been stolen from them. He, too, had been affected — he knew it in his heart. Otherwise, he would have still had his rebellious streak, and would have told everyone in the queue to advance, promising them that if everyone took just a single step, that single step alone could destroy the Gate's walls and shake off this stagnation. But the queue's magnet held him captive. Maybe he'd convinced himself that he was helping Yehya by staying in the queue, but the truth was he couldn't leave it; his body came and went, but his will was trapped here.
— from The Queue, by Basma Abdel Aziz.

What makes people idiots? What traps people's souls?

For Reading Across Borders Book Club, Wednesday, November 22, at 7, at Librairie Drawn & Quarterly.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Your skin will crawl with pleasure from reading

What sold me on Salki, by Wojciech Nowicki, was a review in the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the comparisons it draws to other writers I admire.
Nowicki travels like Svetlana Alexievich. He wants to understand the emotional history of his family, and how memories are formed. Like Georges Perec, whom he admires and cites, he accumulates impressions, images. "Another moment of beauty in Perec," he writes, "is his endless calculations, lists of objects, people, facts, and occurrences […] like smoke over a meadow."
So it's no wonder my impressions both of Alexievich and Perec hover over my reading of Salki, and I'm attuned to the similarities.

Nowicki also writes in lists. It's at times almost trance-like, a way to access memory, whereas with Perec, perhaps it's a way to order the chaotic external world.

But it's striking also to see this edition of Salki side by side with Perec's classic, Life: A User's Manual, how they both show cross-sections of a living space — the intersection of individual lives and the attics of the mind. The archeological, and psychological, layers of identity.

The cover of the original Polish edition features an elephant on the roof of a nondescript building. I was so struck by the review I linked to above, that not only did I promptly order myself a copy, I convinced my sister to attend in my stead a reading and discussion with the author, Wojciech Nowicki, and the translator, Jan Pytalski (there was an event near her, but not one in my town). There was some discussion of the different tone in covers for the different language editions, but both are appropriate to the content; ultimately, cover art is a marketing decision.

One other element on the English cover: the endorsement from Andrzej Stasiuk. "Your skin will crawl with pleasure from reading." Which is just a little bit weird and sets me a-tingle.

This book is not fiction. These are essays and anecdotes. Salki is a memoir, a travelogue, an inquiry, a meditation. I am reading it slowly, for that skin-crawling pleasure.