Sunday, April 29, 2018

Sinking into a tapioca hammock

For people who've never shot up or snorted or smoked heroin, it can be hard to understand the allure. Catch sight of a man or woman whose arms are purple from old needle bites, look at the sunken face of a long-time user, how could anyone want to end up that way? But that's like passing a car accident and wondering why anyone, anywhere, drives. Don't focus on the mishaps; consider the pleasures instead. Taking heroin is like sinking into a tapioca hammock. If that doesn't sound good, then congratulations, you will not enjoy heroin.
— from Big Machine, by Victor Lavalle.

I'm lucky, my expensive mattress gives me that delicious tapioca hammock feeling.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

A stone like a misplaced comma

I had always found it unpleasant to have guests in my apartment. They filled up my rooms with strange sentences I would never have formulated in such a way. Today I found the sound of these sentences particularly unbearable. Sometimes I tried to follow only the sense of the conversation so as not to hear the sounds of the language. But they penetrated my body as though they were inseparable from the sense.


At midnight the guests began to dance to disco music. I couldn't hear the music, but saw the wine glasses vibrating. Apparently it was very loud. No one was allowed to miss a beat. The guests weren't dancing at all, they were speaking to one another. When someone stuttered, the other spoke more quickly so the interruption wouldn't be noticed. The rhythm was set by a computerized drum set, just like in disco music. The people breathed, as it were, mechanically, rather than taking irregular breaths whenever they felt like it. My heartbeat and my sighs were ridiculously soft, no match for the powerful speakers. In these black refrigerators, the mass of sounds is frozen. There weren't any speakers in my apartment, and there wasn't any music playing. People were talking. I wanted to transform myself into a stone. Wanted to become a stone like a misplaced comma, to interrupt the clatter of conversation.
— from "A Guest," in Where Europe Begins, by Yoko Tawada.

Where Europe Begins, by Yoko Tawada, is short enough that one could ride along the dream narrative to the end in just a few hours. I feel rather lucky that I rather accidentally chose to read this over a couple months, extending the experience, embodying it.

It's a meditative, highly surreal text that grapples with the intersection of language and reality.

Language as a physical thing, our tongue in our mouth, sound waves.

Language with a physical representation, scratches on paper.
I asked the man who was standing there hawking his wares in what language the book was written, since I don't know of any language whose letters are arranged in a circle. He shrugged his shoulders and said it wasn't a book, it was a mirror. I refused to look at the thing he was calling a mirror.

Maybe it isn't a book, I conceded, but I would still like to know what's going on with this writing.

The man grinned and replied: To our eyes, you look exactly like this writing. That's why I said it was a mirror.

I rubbed my forehead from left to right, as if rewriting my face.

Everything is translation, and all translation is interpretation.

I previously responded to a couple of the pieces in this book:
The Bath
Canned Foreign [text]

To date, this is my favourite of Tawada's books and I see myself returning to it.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

We sparkled like mica in granite

Maybe because I feel twenty again, maybe because I'm in love, maybe because we are old, maybe because I hear music ringing, I'm so happy to have discovered this poem.

It's not that the old are wise
But that we thirst for the wisdom

we had at twenty
when we understood everything

when our brains bubbled
with tingling insights

percolating up from
our brilliant genitals

when our music rang like a global siege
shooting down all the lies in the world

oh then we knew the truth
then we sparkled like mica in granite

and now we stand on the shore
of an ocean that rises and rises

but is too salt to drink

— Alicia Ostriker
Our brilliant genitals! We're sparkling!

Saturday, April 21, 2018

A new species of human being

On tree day maybe the cherry tree in the schoolyard will fall on top of me and crush me. Almost all trees are sick these days, even if they look healthy their trunks are hollow, so all it takes to make them fall over is a sight from someone standing next to them. That's why all those signs say "Do not sigh near this tree." I can see it now — a whole row of cherry tree falling like dominoes, starting with the one farthest away. I run away.
The Emissary, by Yoko Tawada, is a slight novella that poetically hovers over many interesting themes without ever touching down.

I'm hard-pressed to explain what The Emissary is about. It takes place in a future, post-disaster Japan, where children are helpless and frail and wheelchair-bound and elders are robust. (Is this not the way the world is? Or is it upside down? Is it the elders or the children who have wisdom?)
Assuming he had knowledge and wealth to leave to his descendants was mere arrogance, Yoshiro now thought. This life with his great-grandson was all he could manage. For that he needed to be flexible, in mind and body, with the courage to doubt what he had believed for over a century. He'd have to slough off his pride like an old jacket and go around in his shirt sleeves. If he was cold, rather than buying a new jacket it would be better to think of ways to change his body so that it would grow a thick coat of fur like a bear's. He was not really an "old man," but a man who, after living for a century had become a new species of human being, he thought, clenching his fists again and again.
Japan has quarantined itself from the rest of the world.
Having been among the first countries to withdraw from the global rat-race in which huge corporations turned underground resources into anything they could sell at inhuman speeds while ruthlessly competing to keep production costs lower than anyone else's, South Africa and India now kept to a policy of supporting their economies by exporting language alone, discontinuing all other imports and exports. The two nations had formed what they called "The Gandhi Alliance," which was gaining world-wide popularity. They got along so well that other countries were beginning to envy them. South Africa and India fought about soccer and nothing else, their positions on humanity, the sun, and language being perfectly matched. Contrary to the predictions of foreign experts, the economies of both were growing steadily. Like these two nations, the Japanese government had also stopped importing underground resources and exporting manufactured goods, but with no language it could export, Japan had come to an impasse. The government hired a linguist to write a paper proving that the language Okinawans spoke was linguistically unrelated to Japanese, to promote its plan to sell the Okinawan language to China for a good price, but Okinawa refused to let this underhanded scheme go through. They came back with an ultimatum: If Japan insisted on selling their language to China, then Okinawa would stop all shipment of fruit to the main island of Japan.
Old man Yoshiro had once written a novel, Ken-to-shi, Emissary to China, which manuscript he'd buried because there were too many foreign place names.

Meanwhile, Yonatani, the teacher, is tasked with selecting the child most suitable to be an emissary. (Emissary to where?) "All he could teach them was how to cultivate language. He was hoping they themselves would plant, harvest, consume, and grow fat on words." He has his eye on Yoshiro's great-grandson, Mumei.

The Emissary imagines a future where the past (our now) doesn't make any sense. Tawada is as playful and surreal as ever. The story, such as it is, is grounded in the intergenerational interplay, but I lost my bearings when trying to understand the big picture, Japan's place in the world, or the new human's role.
"So in another hundred thousand years we'll all be octopi?"

"Maybe so. A long time ago people would have thought of that as devolution, but it might just be evolution after all."

"In high school I used to envy people with bodies like Greek statues. I was trying to get into art school, you see. Don't know when I developed a liking for entirely different bodies — birds, say or octopi. I'd like to see everything from an optical point of view."


"No, I meant octopus. I want see through the eyes of an octopus."
Hyperallergic: A Dystopian Fairy Tale Reflects Challenges of the Present
New York Times: After Disaster, Japan Seals Itself Off From the World in "The Emissary"
Words without Borders: Yoko Tawada’s Dystopian Novel "The Emissary" Delivers a Bitingly Smart Satire of Present-Day Japan


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.