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.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

A screw loose and tough as nails

Happy International Women's Day!
Portrait of a Woman

She must be a variety.
Change so that nothing will change.
It's easy, impossible, tough going, worth a shot.
Her eyes are, as required, deep blue, gray,
dark, merry, full of pointless tears.
She sleeps with him as if she's first in line or the only one on earth.
She'll bear him four children, no children, one.
Naive, but gives the best advice.
Weak, but takes on anything.
A screw loose and tough as nails.
Curls up with Jaspers or Ladies' Home Journal.
Can't figure out this bolt and builds a bridge.
Young, young as ever, still looking young.
Holds in her hands a baby sparrow with a broken wing,
her own money for some trip far away,
a meat cleaver, a compress, a glass of vodka.
Where's she running, isn't she exhausted.
Not a bit, a little, to death, it doesn't matter.
She must love him, or she's just plain stubborn.
For better, for worse, for heaven's sake.

— Wisława Szymborska (tr. Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh)
I spend months believing the poetry gene came from my father's side. Yesterday my mother recalls how her mother would recite epic poems by heart at bedtime.

So the poetry gene skipped a generation.

She was tough as nails.

[But that line, "A screw loose and tough as nails." In Polish, "Nie ma głowy na karku, to będzie ją miała." More literally, She has no head on her shoulders, so will have one. So maybe, An airhead, with a real head on her shoulders. Or, Where is her head, her head's on straight. Or, She loses her head, but headstrong.]

Monday, March 05, 2018

I might have read this foreign city like a text

Often it sickened me to hear people speak their native tongues fluently. It was as if they were unable to think and feel anything but what their language so readily served up to them.
— from "Canned Foreign," in Where Europe Begins, by Yoko Tawada.

"Canned Foreign" is a brilliant little story (well, it's not really a story; vignette?). I love this idea, that too-easy language is simple, inadequate, wrong. It reaffirms me in my shortcomings, my own inadequately communicative behaviour, grounding me in a comprehensive philosophy of language and theory of communication.

Clearly my reading this year is proving the inadequacy of language:
Clearly we need to read to learn to read the world. But then what? My reading is also leading me to attempt to articulate . . . something inexpressible.
Once, in the supermarket, I bought a little can that had a Japanese woman painted on the side. Later, at home, I opened the can and saw inside it a piece of tuna fish. The woman seemed to have changed into a piece of fish during her long voyage. This surprise came on a Sunday: I had decided not to read any writing on Sundays. Instead I observed the people I saw on the street as though they were isolated letters. Sometimes two people sat down next to each other in a café, and thus, briefly, formed a word. Then they separated, in order to go off and form other words. There must have been a moment in which the combinations of these words formed, quite by chance, several sentences in which I might have read this foreign city like a text. But I never discovered a single sentence in this city, only letters and sometimes a few words that had no direct connection to any "cultural content."

Saturday, March 03, 2018

How else will we read the world?

Hello, he said. What you reading?

Elisabeth showed him her empty hands.

Does it look like I'm reading anything? she said.

Always be reading something, he said. Even when we're not physically reading. How else will we read the world? Think of it as a constant.
Autumn, by Ali Smith, is a joy.

There's so much joy in this book, despite some heavy matters throughout, like Brexit and dying and the inability to effect change and the absurdity of our day-to-day and how feminist icons have been dismissed by the establishment and how we forget, but Smith's writing is so light and gentle and funny, and there's hope and love and joy. And wordplay. It's about how we tell our stories. There's fear and awe (and love and joy) in discovering that people have lives quite apart from the narrow contexts in which we know them.

The novel follows Elisabeth, a lecturer in art history, and traces her relationship with Daniel, an old songwriter and art collector, her next-door neighbour when she was a little girl, who is sleeping away his final days at a care facility in the town her mother has moved to. Because Elisabeth visits Daniel regularly, she sees more of her mother too. The United Kingdom has just voted to leave the European union, and there's something in the air.

I read Winter, the second book in Smith's seasonal cycle, first. I don't think that matters — they're set more or less contemporaneously, with a small bit of character overlap. Both books brush up against Shakespearean tales. Both books describe acts of protest and resistance.

Both feature long-forgotten women artists, in Autumn's case, Pauline Boty. Many readers see the discursions on art as incidental, but I suspect they're quite central to this cycle. I think Smith is reminding us to listen to what women say through art, that it could be quite different than what you think it is, and it is important.
A great many men don't understand a woman full of joy, even more don't understand paintings full of joy by a woman.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

I'm tired

I'm tired, she says.

It's only two miles, Elisabeth says.

That's not what I mean, she says. I'm tired of the news. I'm tired of the way it makes things spectacular that aren't, and deals so simplistically with what's truly appalling. I'm tired of the vitriol. I'm tired of anger. I'm tired of the meanness. I'm tired of the selfishness. I'm tired of how we're doing nothing to stop it. I'm tired of how we're encouraging it. I'm tired of the violence that's on its way, that's coming, that hasn't happened yet. I'm tired of liars. I'm tired of sanctified liars. I'm tired of how those liars have let this happen. I'm tired of having to wonder whether they did it out of stupidity or did it on purpose. I'm tired of lying governments. I'm tired of people not caring whether they're being lied to anymore. I'm tired of being made to feel this fearful. I'm tired of animosity. I'm tired of pusillanimosity.

I don't think that's actually a word, Elisabeth says.

I'm tired of not knowing the right words, her mother says.
—from Autumn, by Ali Smith.

Post-Brexit novel, indeed.