Saturday, March 30, 2019

He talks about irrelevant bullshit

"I regard psychology as a pseudo science, and psychological profiling of criminals is just a nice name for what a clairvoyant does. If someone repeats ten times that he can see a body in the woods, he must be right three times out of ten — after all, one-third of this country is forest, and it's easier to bury a corpse there than along the highway."

"In that case, why are we meeting with the profiler?"

"He's a smart guy. Weird, but really smart. And he's read more files than you'll ever set your eyes on. He talks about irrelevant bullshit, as they all do, but sometimes he says a thing or two that make sense."

"A thing or two?" Falk was unable to hide his contempt.

Szacki didn't comment. Falk was right, in his way, but there were some things he'd only understand after fifteen years on the job. For example, that an investigation is like a jigsaw puzzle, a really tricky one, a seascape of ocean waves at night, with ten thousand pieces. At some point you have all those pieces lying on the table, but they're damned hard to connect. And that's when you need someone who can take a look at them and say, "Hey that's not the moon, just its reflection in the waves."
Rage, by Zygmunt Miłoszewski, is the third and likely final novel featuring Teodor Szacki as investigator. He's a deeply troubled guy. But also a deeply normal guy, who keeps fucking up in his personal life. And work, well, he doesn't always play by the rules. He fucks up big-time here.

I don't know why I find Szacki so sympathetic. Is it because he's good-looking and a snappy dresser? Is it something to do with his Polishness that I respond to? Do I on some level identify with him? This charismatic man in a midlife crisis is irresistible to me.

Rage is like sitting in traffic, simmering. In fact, several scenes led me to believe the novel would turn toward road rage, but instead it deals with domestic violence and vigilantism. Perhaps "outrage" would've been a more fitting title.

The case at the core of this novel is intriguing enough: what's taken for a decades-old skeleton found in a deserted bunker turns out to have been stripped of flesh just days beforehand. As plots go, it's a serviceable vehicle from which to watch Szacki's personal drama spiral out of control.

Someone is challenging Szacki to redraw the lines between law and justice, between personal and professional, between theoretical and lived experience. Rage colours everything.

[Quite coincidentally, over the last month I've been working on a large jigsaw puzzle of seascape under a blue sky. Sometimes I can't tell which way is up. There's a Polish boat in it.]

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

"Peculiarity is something true rumpling the bedsheets of assumption"

"Forget about forecasting; even nowcasting is near impossible."
The ending made me so sad. Everything just disintegrated. It made me sad for all the relationships I'd ever had where we ended up not understanding each other. That is: all the relationships.

Atmospheric Disturbances, by Rivka Galchen, is full of atmosphere and also full of disturbances. The disturbances range from the small linguistic oddities that our narrator finds so endearing and bothersome about his wife, to cumulative cumulus effects on my psyche, such that I wonder if any person is the same person one moment to the next and all attempts to ever know anyone are doomed.
What was it that poetic charlatan Lacan said, something about how because we only see ourselves in mirrors we come to know ourselves "in the fictional direction"?
This book holds a mirror up to the reader for me to identify my own fictional direction, to know the narrative I call my life. That is, it got under my skin and affected me deeply.

Leo, a psychiatrist, is quite clearly a little bit completely crazy when he proclaims that his wife Rema has disappeared (of her own volition or possibly kidnapped) and that the woman in his apartment, in his bed, who looks like her and talks like her is an imposter, a simulacrum, a doppelganger, who may or may not be aware of her role as a fake. The longer he observes her, the clearer it is that she is displaying learned behaviour in an effort to pass as the original. Leo is an unreliable narrator extraordinaire.

Slowly Leo reveals the backstory of their life together. Rema is much younger than he is and a recent immigrant from Argentina.
I thought about saying something about Borges, but I know that I have a problem with coming off as pretentious, and I was worried that bringing up Borges might appear showy, even though every introverted schoolboy reads Borges, so it's rather ambiguous what such a reference would or should indicate. Another reason I generally don't like to mention Borges is because often a response will be to the effect of he has no emotion, and I hate hearing that said, because it is so wrong, and it's not a discussion that I like to get into. In retrospect I know that Rema would have agreed with me, but back then, I wanted to protect Rema from saying anything that might make me not like her.
There's a lot of second-guessing involved in how he relates to her. And there are a lot of gaps, both in what they know of each other, and what Leo chooses to share with us. Things may or may not be given the importance they deserve.

Meanwhile, one of Leo's patients has gone missing from the hospital. Harvey has a "conflict with the consensus view of reality"; he believes he can control the weather and works as a secret agent for a meteorological society who oppose a group known at the 49 Quantum Fathers who profit from investments based on weather fluctuations across parallel worlds.
And as I spoke — my gaze fixed on the stain on Harvey's shirt — I further estranged myself from myself, so that while one part of me talked to Harvey, another part thought about a certain shade of pale green that happened to be the exact shade of pale green that the newspaper once published as having been calculated by astronomers to be the color of the universe, after which a correction appeared in the following week's paper stating that a math error had been made, and that the astronomers now realized the universe, if you could stand outside of it and see it, was actually a shade of beige. (Willed depersonalization is entirely normal, a valid, even laudable, coping technique. Only unwilled depersonalization would be a cause for concern.)
Rema had encouraged Leo to encourage Harvey in his "delusions"as a way of controlling his behaviour. (Maybe she's gone off in search of Harvey on her own.)

It's all a bit mind-bendy. Leo goes to Argentina and discovers things about Rema's past from her mother. He encounters another Rema — but is it the original, or the copy, or a different copy? Leo goes to Patagonia to help Harvey with his work.

Two details jumped out at me, to which I can't find any reference in the published reviews. First, a child's jack under the fridge. Second, the fact, learned in passing and mentioned only the one time, that Rema had had an ectopic pregnancy, about which she'd been very calm. Both these things point to a child that never was, or was and then wasn't. The kind of thing that could break a marriage, or colour it.

There's something else going on in this novel about everyone's relationship to their father, how they forgot to mention that they did or didn't have one.

We don't tell people everything. Not even those closest to us. Maybe we would be crazy to do so.

And yet we blame each other for failing to see each other as we are.
I hate that feeling, of having a feeling within me that just vibrates but that has nowhere to go, like sound in a vacuum, never being received.
NPR: 1. On a temperate stormy night
Tablet: 3. What may be highly relevant
Guernica: 13. We exchange words, not pleasures


Sunday, March 24, 2019

The stunted but monstrous creature

Bari was considered a quiet place in the Eighties. A place where he could further his career, be promoted to captain, and so on.

It hadn't taken him long to realise that things were different.

Not only were there plenty of routine crimes — possession of drugs, bag snatching, burglaries — there were also major robberies, extortion, dynamite attacks, murders.

Something not unlike the Mafia lurked beneath the surface. Something opaque, like the stunted but monstrous creature you glimpse through the transparent shell of a reptiles' egg.
The Past Is a Foreign Country, by Gianrico Carofiglio, is a character study. It's a study of multiple characters and miraculously brings to life many people who appear on the page for even only a few paragraphs.

The main characters in question are Francesco — a card hustler, a Mr Ripley type — and Giorgio, who falls under Francesco's spell and the narrator through whose eyes their story unfolds. He jeopardizes his studies, his family relationships, and his entire moral centre of being.

Minor characters include Giorgio's sister; Francesco's mother; an Italian expat waiting tables in Spain; and several of the marks that the boys conduct business with.

Among the police officers, the lead is Lieutenant Chiti, literate and artistically inclined, plagued by migraines and a troubled childhood; his colleagues are no less colourful.

While the novel is ostensibly about a police investigation into a series of sexual assaults occurring in Bari, this is a surprisingly minor aspect of the book. Chapters concerning the progress of the case are few and far between, breaking up the story of Francesco and Giorgio. It is not certain till the very end how these two threads relate to each other. The mystery is less who is behind the crimes than how do these stories fit together, and this is less pressing than the reader's concern for how things turn out for our narrator.
"Manipulating cards, like manipulating objects, is more that just a matter of simple dexterity. The real skill of a magician is the ability to influence minds. Performing a magic trick successfully means creating a reality. An alternative reality where you're the one who makes the rules."
This is a very easy-to-read novel. What gives Francesco his power? What motivates him? Is it the thrill of a win, or is it watching someone lose? And even when we see the darkness behind someone's charm, why do we let ourselves be carried along by it? How far will Giorgio follow Francesco? How easy is it to give up everything you ever strove for? Why do we take the risks we do?

Carofiglio draws a very clear line between right and wrong, but shows us how murky the human heart is, how easily a person can slip across that line.


Monday, March 11, 2019

Desperate, detestable, and unhappy

I never could grasp why Polish literature had such bad luck. Looking at it logically, there are few nations who have so many chances for good literature as we, the Poles, do. We've got everything: misfortune, political assassinations, eternal occupation, informers, mystery, despair, drunkenness. By God, what else could you ask for? When I was Israel, I lived with the scum of the earth, but still I never met people as desperate, detestable, and unhappy as in Poland.
— from Beautiful Twentysomethings, by Marek Hłasko.

I was a beautiful twentysomething myself when I first heard of Marek Hłasko. I had stumbled across The Eighth Day of the Week while trying to reclaim my Polishness, but amid literature and memoirs that were more wartime (say, Gombrowicz and Herling) and thus more relatable to my own family's experience, Hłasko failed to make an impression.

And then I met a whole klatch of Polish beautiful twentysomethings down at the pub, for whom Hłasko was a hero. Poland's angry young man. For them, Hłasko was the epitome of Polishness: he forsook communism for the American dream, even if accidentally, to die tragically young and mysteriously, without having accomplished much of anything. His persona, I think, was greater than his talent, the legend larger than his life. He drank a lot. He played with the gods. His claim to fame: writing a novel censored by the authorities. His greatest trick was looking like James Dean, and exuding that rebel attitude.

Perhaps that's a harsh assessment. Perhaps it's because I don't understand him. (How could I ever hope to understand those beautiful twentysomethings!?) But that's precisely the problem, with him, and the whole of Polish literature. An outsider can never understand, and the Polish ego is such that it dismisses the outsider as incapable of understanding.

One of the more interesting chapters of book tackles the subject of "the unrequited love of Polish people for Americans," though it fails to reach any satisfactory conclusions.

This memoir amounts to not much more than a curiosity, and I don't see it having wide appeal. Hłasko recounts tales of looking for work and circumventing red tape. There's a lot of name-dropping of names I've never heard of. It has no particular style or humour or grace such as would substantiate a literary giant.

In its way, it is entirely representative of the people of a certain era. Like all the beautiful twentysomethings: suffering delusions of grandeur.

There are only occasional glimpses into the problem of art, creation, and critical thought in an oppressed society. But they are beautiful.
All the fellows I started out with, they knew it was fatal, but they waited all those years just to be able to write one poem, one story, just to be able to paint one surrealist painting or make a sculpture that didn't resemble anything. There were people — despite the facts and despite everything going on around them — these were people who kept faith that the moment would come when it would be possible to say: "No."

We — losing our hair, no longer beautiful, twentysomethings not more — we had our moment of glory. Some of us turned out better for it, some worse. There weren't any masterpieces made in those days, but maybe the works will be useful as a chronicle of the past, as proof of misery and lack of talent, as evidence of the powerlessness of a person living in a nightmare who doesn't have the inner strength to recognize it as such. But like I said, there were people who believed they'd one day be free to say the single most important word in every individual's life: "No."

When I meet beautiful twentysomethings today and I talk with them, one thing scares me: they all know things are bad in Poland. Nobody has any illusions about the occupation of Poland. On the other had, nobody's really concerned about it. One of the most beautiful girls I've met recently wants to become a computer engineer. Another handsome twentysomething is studying the archaeology of the Mediterranean Sea. There's one who's a metals engineer. Not a single one of them wants to be writer, painter, or sculptor. None of them are holding their breath for the day when they'll be free to say, "No." If a painter, writer, or director defects to the West, years of anguish and sporadic work are waiting for him. Nights spent in fleabag hotels, women who pay the bills, and personally I don't know of a case besides Miłosz where the artists who fled from behind the Iron Curtain didn't get bumped down a social class. These new beautiful twentysomethings won't have those problems. After seeking asylum, they'll work as doctors, engineers, God knows what else. They won't be tormented by boredom or hunger or by a longing for the homeland they've left behind and which never caused them any suffering. And these are the new beautiful twentysomethings.