Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Women whose real-life roles I was unable to determine

Between emerging from the métro and disappearing again into the darkness of a movie theater, I would see women whose real-life roles I was unable to determine. They made a point of giving off an air of eroticism, for the very possibility of appearing prudish would have been enough to render them suspect, even antisocial. The length of their skirts was chosen with diplomatic precision: two centimeters longer than might count as indecent, and two centimeters too short to risk the stigma of prudishness. When the evening sun chanced to shined down on a round white table in a café, turning it into a dazzling mirror, even one of these upstanding bourgeois ladies might get swallowed up by the mirror, never to return. In this looking-glass world, such a lady might eat pears with legs and hairy skin, gigantic Adam's apples and calluses on their heels. In return, she would receive payment from her customers in a currency that no longer existed. While the bill was being settled, her labia would flush as red as the flag that used to stand on the podium during Party meetings. Neither her husband nor her lover would have the slightest idea.
— from The Naked Eye, by Yoko Tawada.

I want to watch all of Catherine Deneuve's movies. I've see only very few of them. Repulsion. Belle de Jour. 8 Women. So many others I think I've seen, but I may not have seen. (Did I or did I not see Indochine?)

[Look at that. That's Catherine Deneuve in the pupil of the eye!]

The book is often noted for being something of a linguistic curiosity, having been written in two languages — German and Japanese — and translated back and forth between each other to develop a full text in each language (it's not clear to me how faithful they are to each other, or whether they are in any way distinct). The English version was translated from German.

There's something beautifully naïve about Tawada's writing; that is, the naïveté of her characters (she's pulled this off before). It takes a sophisticated mastery of language to convey this simplicity so effortlessly.

We see everything through the eyes of a young communist-raised Vietnamese woman, whose name may or may not be Anh. When she arrives at a youth conference in East Berlin, understandably everything feels foreign — German and at least Occidental — but slightly familiar — Russian and communist.
I always got good grades in Russian, but there was one grammatical rule to which I had a physical aversion: the genitive of negation. A person who was absent was no longer allowed to exist in the nominative case, as though he were no longer a subject.
As she moves west, and forward in time (the Wall falls), the sense of alienation increases and she belongs nowhere.

The language, the politics, the economic system, womanhood, a western way of thinking, basic human codes of conduct are all foreign to her.
This is a study in identity, of infiltrating humanity, to try to pass as human.

It's funny and tragic when Anh is trying to figure out how to get herself a room for the night. She observes someone conduct such a transaction, she thinks, but we know it's a john negotiating with a prostitute.

Then there's this description of an interview in a magazine:
Between the pages of photographs there were other pages with a text in two voices. The voice printed in boldface said little, and almost always ended with a question mark, so this person must have been filled with despair during the conversations. The other voice never asked a a question and spoke in larger blocks of text.
Not much has been written about this slim novel, but this review in Transit sums up the themes:
"The gaze of the nameless lens licks the floor like a detective without grammar." The first paragraph of Yōko Tawada's The Naked Eye is a blueprint for the novel's itinerancy, mapping out the difficulties of constructing a story that is caught in flux, between countries, between media, between languages, between political systems, between adolescence and adulthood, and between sexualities.
Anh is mesemerized by Catherine Deneuve. She's seen all her movies. She lives to see her movies. They are the highlight of her life. Much of the novel is addressed directly to Catherine, as Anh feels she knows her, despite them speaking different languages. The chapters are named for key works, progressing chronologically, and reference many of the films. Anh views Deneuve's filmography as a continuous story, populated by disparate ensembles of bit players in the story of her life, with Deneueve deftly changing names and identities. (Such is Anh's disjointed life!) Anh wonders, for example, how the Deneuve of Les Voleurs doesn't recognize the bathtub where the Deneuve of Repulsion lay the corpse of the man she murdered.
Every time we went to a movie together, he would take me out for coffee afterward and would tirelessly ask me questions that I didn't understand right away. He wouldn't give up until I'd answered them. Sometimes he was completely satisfied with my reply even though I hadn't understood his question and had just blurted something out. Perhaps not understanding or misunderstanding a question is something that often happens to other people. No one notices, though, since the answers one gives generally happen to fit the questions anyhow.

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