Friday, December 11, 2009

SUM


It’s almost over.


And thank Time.

Prior to 12/12/2000, who among us would have predicted this round of scarring events – 9/11, Abu Ghraib, Katrina? That we would be governed, eight years long, by folks who were -- described at its most charitable -- blinded by ideology or stuck, groundhog-day-style, in a massive Operation Enduring Incompetence? (One could also, less charitably, but perhaps more truthfully, venture they were Just a Bunch of Revengeful Fucks with Itchy Trigger fingers.)

Thankfully, by the end of 2008, they had lost all credit. Unfortunately, immediately afterward – in the astroglided financial aftermath of Operation Enduring Incompetence -- we all did.

My fear. That this finally is going to be the legacy of this Lost Decade – that we elected and re-elected and tolerated and in retrospect still tolerate a government of Enduring Criminal and Criminally Incompetents, and that we never demanded that they answer for what they did – answer, say, to the families of the hundreds of thousands of civilians killed in Iraq or to the families of the fewer thousands of American soldiers dead in a war we’d pretend still has a cause if we could only be quick enough on our feet to think of one.

It’s the simple law of karma.

To state it plainly: If we tolerated and still tolerate this, what levels of cluelessness, heinousness, or both, will we deserve from those who rule us in the future?


Our poor, poor brains: so freedom-fried.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

GOSH, YEAH, WHAT DID THAT DARWIN DUDE, YOU KNOW, LIKE, DO?

Time magazine apparently has bloggers on the payroll just for comic relief.

Today saw the webplication of a piece in which a nobody political journalist was interviewed on Darwin's legacy, because, you know, political journalists are experts re:biology*. (The same principle, I presume, that makes Jim Carey an expert on vaccinations, Suzanne Sommers the person to go to for cancer cures, and Christopher Hitchens a, you know, REALLY DEEP thinker.)

Here's the money quote from the interview:

All things considered, do you believe Darwin was a great luminary in the path of human progress?
What has the theory of evolution done for the practical benefit of humanity? It's helped our understanding of ourselves, yet compared to, say, the discovery of penicillin or the invention of the World Wide Web, I wonder why Darwin occupies this position at the pinnacle of esteem. I can only imagine he has been put there by a vast public relations exercise.

On a related note: Einstein? What did he ever do for mankind? Relativity -- good and well, but it's all just a theory, but compare that to, say, the invention of the combustion engine and omig*d does Albert-dear turn out to be quite the slacker! And that Newton guy -- gravity, ha! The laws of motion, yeah-yeah-yeah, as if we weren't able to hit fly balls waaaaaaaay before that uppity don was even born!

In related news: The Texas Superconducting Super Collider project canceled for lack of practical relevance. (Oh wait, that was 1993.)

Plus also: I click around on the web incarnation of a popular magazine and a bucket of stupid is emptied over my head and I am surprised exactly why?



---
* I know the comparison is unfair, but blaming Darwin for eugenics and social 'darwinism' (his half-cousin Galton -- now that's a different story) is like claiming that Jesus Christ was a terrorist just because a few of his disciples firebomb Planned Parenthood buildings.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

A CIRCLE



It sounds like the beginning of a joke – the other day, we walked into our local head shop and come home with a kitten. Except that it’s no joke.

Last Tuesday, we stood at the stainless steel table in the vet’s office, watching Dokusan’s flame extinguish. Except that it didn’t. There was no defining moment, no noticeable point of transition, no gap, no chasm. There was breathing, then a needle, then there was breathing no more – a simple, pure descent, no last gasp, no final spasm, no breaking of the eye, no markable transition. The vet needed her stethoscope to assert death.

Well. Life leads to death. So it is and so it has been. And so it shall be. Unremarkable.

Dokusan had been in cancer treatment. She had survived. Then some opportunistic infection got to her. Then she became all skin and bones. To feed her a teaspoon of tuna was a triumph. To see her take a step was a delight. Her oncologist – a cat with an oncologist! – kept pushing, and we took his lead and kept hoping. (Who knows why, I was going to write. But we all know why.) She was down to less than four pounds, and much of that was caked-on baby food – the very last thing she was willing to try, Gerber’s beef. We didn’t have the heart to bathe her or to wipe her face too vigorously -- she was that brittle. The vet laid her out in an Egyptian pose, we kissed that lil’ pink nose (putrid food be damned) and held her as she returned to a state of sky-high entropy.

As we came home, the oncologist called – he had good news: According to his lab results, the infection was treatable, just bring her in for a blood transfusion. Indeed, good sir, indeed.

The simplest way to reconcile the all too easily observed finitude of individual identity with the assumed eternity of the soul is to drop the assumption and err on the side of observation. There I stand, at the side of a dusty road in Varanasi, holding out a banana peel. A cow will snap it from my hand if a monkey doesn’t get it first. That is indeed a vulture perching on yonder telephone pole, a myriad messages zooming through its teeth.

Whenever I retreated for a serious bout of writing, Dokusan would drape herself around my neck. She would knead my shoulders with sharp claws whenever she considered my narratives bloodless. Often, she would sit on my stack of notes, calling the shots on what could be used and what was out of reach. I blame the hopscotch structure of my novel on her choices – my cat was the modernist in me.

It is a circle. It is a wheel.
Yet it goes nowhere.

So we walked into our local head shop, dead set on expanding our collection of rubber duckies. And there he was, a chimera of a cat, the color of the West-Texas desert, young and brash and sinewy, with a swagger in his hips and an utter disdain for the legs of any passerby. Or that is what we thought we saw, in that brief glimpse before he disappeared under a rack of tacky gothicalia, no doubt – we now know – to wreak havoc on the garments’ fringes.

We weren’t looking for a new cat. Not so soon. But there he was. So, too, is life. It’s always too soon and always too late and it’s all perfectly on time.

Careful observation of the little fellah led us to believe his true name was Enso. So Enso he became. As a consequence of his provenance, his fur smells like incense; a lightening bolt of quiet meditation zipping by at breakneck speed.

We get the cats we deserve.

I dread and hope. Enso, I note, has more tooth and claw than Doku had. More mischief on his mind. A scorn for convention that borders on the insane. Zero aloofness. He’s all bluster, all balls, all goofy jumps gracefully miscalculated, all purring machine turning into explosive kitty bonkers in half a second flat. Walk through the door, and he rains down on you. He’ll pummel you with his love until your heart’s a bloody pulp.

Let’s see what havoc he shall wreak on the gothic fringes of my imagination.


Saturday, November 7, 2009

THE TYRANNY OF GRAMMAR

For all of my adult life, I considered the early Beatles daring pioneers in matters erotick, mainly due to their 1964 song If I Fell.

The other night we were taking A Hard Day's Night for a spin, and I mentioned my admiration for the song to sultry S. After she picked herself up off the floor (laughing), she pointed out that only an immigrant like me (for "immigrant" read: "dork") would interpret a lyric such as:
If I give my heart to you
I must be sure
From the very start
That you would love me more than her
as a depiction of a steamy bisexual love triangle, solely on the basis of McCartney's faulty use of prescriptive grammar.

Friday, October 30, 2009

THE UNIBROW OF BOOK REVIEWING

Heaven knows there little love lost between me and Jessa Crispin (something having to do with my having to endure the much-dreaded double whammy of penile frostbite and financial penury in order to read to --really!-- five folks --really, five folks!-- at a Bookslut reading), but this time she hit a nerve of a particularly raw variety. Probably because this past year I have been carrying around a big blistering lump of dis-ease about the state of the art (the art being lit), and Jessa, so it seems, wields just the lance to pierce that boil.

More later, I hope, on her plea for independence, but let me concentrate for now on one aspect of her heartfelt piece:
But the reason I have a hard time with these conversations about the decline of the review, and the death of authority, is because so many of the contemporary authors I love are often the ones being kept out of the conversation. They're rarely, if ever, reviewed in the New York Times, they don't get splashy features written about them and their night out with their friends. It's hard for me to get worked up about the decline of reviews when I didn't care much for them to begin with.
Being an empirically inclined sort of fellah, I decided to apply what I shall from now on call Crispin's Razor to the NYT's middle-unibrow to determine whether that statement holds any truth for me. Faithful readers of this blog know there is little love lost between me and the NYT too, having something to do with that whole WMD fiasco from a few years and a few hundred-thousand dead folks back, plus also no doubt some lingering ego-related resentment over never having made it into their pages, and also the strangely rigged game they play of having novelists review other novelists to admittedly hilarious yet stunningly uninformative results (recent reviews of Korean and Norwegian authors come to mind -- you know: folks who live too far away to actually come within real spitting range of Sam Tanenhaus) (can't wait, btw, to see Steve Jobs grace the NYT's pages with his review of Windows 7; and isn't it time the Merryl-Lynch CEO is given free rein to report on all that is wrong with the Bank of America?) -- but Jessa's is an empirical question: Surely my most beloved novel of 2009 -- it's about religion and death and it's funny as hell and it's dark as hell and it's entirely unexpected yet it feels as if it's always been here right with us, it's creepy, it's crawly, it hits you over the head with a bludgeon and offers no salve, it has an amputee a minute, it's dry as a bone and it'll make you chew your tongue off and it's limpid and simple as the glass of water you'll drown yourself in and it's unlike anything I've ever read and it's dedicated to me and it's Brian Evenson's Last Days and --horror!-- if I had to go by the NYT's Book section the whole genius book might indeed just never have been written: Their search engine returns nada-zip and poof. (Because not published by Random House? Because the author lives somewhere in between Manhattan and the next continent over? Because obvious precedence had to be given to a book called Eating: A Memoir?)

Well, I shall be kicked in the shin by a tiny leprechaun carrying a fleeting resemblance to Dick Cheney: Jessa is right.

Which means, perhaps, that it is time for independence, and we should all, why not, self-cauterize?

Monday, October 26, 2009

MEET MY GERMAN PUBLISHER: THEY TORTURE FLIES IN THE NAME OF PUBLICITY


I am very good (too good for my own good) at yelling at my publishers (search this blog, man), but this stunt from my German publisher, Eichborn, is a bit much. Their slogan is: "The publishing house with the fly". (Yeah, I know. They could have chosen any kind of badass animal for their logo, but they went with the humble fly: The one animal that truly relishes dung.) And so, to garner respect and draw attention to the mighty abomination of their booth, they released a few hundred (?) flies with little Eichborn banners attached to their legs into the big hall at the Frankfurter Book Fair.

Cute, some say.

I personally see little cuteness.

Attaching a banner the weight of a fly to a fly's hind legs and then setting it "free", to flutter in a stutter, to panic, perchance to die -- not my idea of cute. More my idea of cruel. At the end of the video, we are told that the banners were attached with wax and came off spontaneously "after a few hours". What a relief! I'm sure they told all the lil' fellahs: Don't worry, it'll come off!

Here is my proposal for the next book fair: Maybe we could pierce the nipples of all Eichborn employees and hang copies of Omega Minor from them (OM no doubt being their heaviest tome). (Only for a few hours, of course. The holes, after all, will close.) Hey, who doesn't like nipples? That'll make it onto Youtube million-count heaven no prob!

A little pox, therefore, on Eichborn. I wish I could take my book back from them. Given that the novel did diddle-do-squat in Germany (perhaps, one now wonders, due to the fly-brained efficiency of Eichborn PR team?), I am sure they'd just as happy be rid of me.

Here is my real proposal: If you're German and you want to read my book -- go to the library. If you want to buy it: Go get the English version. Either way: Don't give the Eichborn assclowns your money.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

WE'RE ALL LUDDITES AGAIN


The New York Times has another one of their inane "articles" on e-readers. This one has a title that just oozes inanity: "Does the brain like E-Books?"

(Reading, as some of us know, involves some high-falutingly named cognitive processes, all having to do with translating high-(one may hope)contrast squiggles into what eventually should be a world. This process is abstract and independent of how the squiggles are embodied. Embodiment just jiggles the parameters; things like the speed of reading. [My advice: Better read fast if it's written on water!])

(Point two. The brain doesn't "like" anything. The brain doesn't contain a homonculus/a that injects pleasure -- or any other form of evaluate judgment -- into the brain's processing modules, any more than the gut feels disgust about all the shit it has to deal with.) (Of course, a mind can feel disgust about all the shit it has to deal with. Hence, par example, this post.)

Sandra Aamodt points out the blindingly (half-pun intended) obvious: It's not about the squibbles themselves, but the implementation. Computer screens fatigue you with their luminance; computer screens also have pnicely inbuilt additional distractions (they tend to contain the whole of the Known Internet, for starters, as well as all of your iTunes). David Gelernter (what's in a name!) points out another blindingly obvious fact: You can search e-books. Like: OMG! OMFG!

So, yeah, I'd have just loved to have heard the town criers on that new invention, the wax tablet (it deadens your memory!); papyrus (your records will rot before your very eyes!); the book (what? no scrolling?); loose type (scribes out of work! scribes out of work!); and the illustration (kills the imagination! kills the imagination!).

Implementation, that's all it is*. As long as the squiggles are the same, the world conjured up will be the same. (The reading mind being the same. Which it never is. Hence the joy of rereading.) No need to spill that much ink (ha!) or pixels over it. Relax. It's all good. It's only about words, and nobody cares about those. (Certainly not the NYT, who now routinely has its book reviews done by novelists. Can't wait for Jay-Z's thorough review of the next Lil' Wayne! 'D love to see Aaron Spelling's take on Thirty Rock! Glenn Beck's -- and no-one else's -- insights on Jon Stewart! Wonder why you become irrelevanter by the minute?)

Still, now that Kindles turn out to be beloved by middle-aged folks rather than hipster young-uns, it's nice to be for once see the pot-bellied and bald crowd ROFLing on their hi-pile carpets.

--
* And so, indeed, if I pay about the same amount to get Dawkins's new one on Kindle as I were to pay for the hardcover, can I please get a black and white version of the color illustrations he refers to, and readable black and whites? And while we're at it, if you handicap the book by kindling it, couldn't you tell me this before I shelled out my hard-earned money, unaptly-named Free Press?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

CITY LIT BERLIN

Oh, to be anthologized! It has never happened to me*, but now it will. It appears the City-Lit Berlin compilation book is ready to, uh, appear. Judging from the Table of Contents, yours truly provides the kick-off. Or, rather, being the humble first act in a roster of amazing folks, your slightly nagging wake-up call.

--
*I once was interviewed, back in the Belgian day, by some guy who mentioned all the weirdness, sexual and otherwise, in the ever-untranslated Lichtenberg. To which I replied that said weirdness was deliberate, intended to discourage compilers of high-school lit class readers to ever include an excerpt. Turned out the guy was one such compiler, on the Catholic end of the spectrum no less, and needless to say I indeed proudly never made it into such readers.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

MOVIES THAT NEED TO BE MADE


Movies that need to be made.

(AKA: what the fuck *else* am I gonna do while working on this more-or-less scientific paper that is making my fucking eyes fucking BLEED with my former postdoc's brilliance right now than have a round of ole'-fashion' ego-surf -- read Huffpost, uh? Uh?)

Omega Minor by Tony Kaye. A few funny (but not ha-ha) connotations to that, like (a) a woman I was once quite unrequitedly bonkers about once told me I looked like Ed Norton (which quite satisfactorily explains the unrequited part, I s'poz); and (b) yes, yes, I know, I did steal Omega's Bordsteintreten scene from American History X, but it's a fucking brilliant scene, 'kay?; and (c) how did this JC Simpson dude/dudess get her/his hands on my well-encrypted notes for Babylon Blues, which will, of course, be all up in American History's face, and eager to headbutt too?; and, finally, (d): Sultry S and I were discussing books and movies the other day which, given that I own a t-shirt that reads Movies: Ruining the book since 1920, you know where this was going, but she mentioned, now, if anybody would want to make a movie out of one of your books, you wouldn't say no, would you?, and I said yes I would, but then I am a bitter, self-loathing, misunderstood and certainly undervalued genius, so my refusal would be purely out of bilious spite, but actually, you know, buying some time to get that sodding new novel off the effing ground would be so swell -- so on that off-chance: sure, Tony bro, gimme a call.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

PYNCHON MIDNIGHT PARTY IN THE ATL

The incomparable Frank Reiss (he keeps his extra copies of J. Joyce in the store loo) is having a midnight party in honor of the dropping of the new Pynchon (yes, holding a new Pynchon, it's like getting a brand new pair of testicles handed to ya!), in his store, A Capella Books, in Little Five Points, this Monday. In clear contradiction to the store's name, a band apparently will perform, no doubt a quaternion fronted by the immortal (or at least seriously cranky) Pig Bodine himself! Oh, I will take that trip down the Van Iseghemlaan, moz def, incongruously yet cleverly disguised as Wanda Tinasky, handing out flemish mayo and snausage sandwiches to all and sunder, re-enacting in postmodern dance each and every page of Gravity's Rainbow, and will those bottles of Solange St.-Emilion in those plastic bags slosh ever so eruditely, enliving our sleepless night -- my friends -- of a little light reading!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

ORE OR GENE

On Salon, in a piece by Scott Rosenberg (whoever he is), this sentence, sweet and unchecked, caught my eye:

“It's a mistake to think of human creativity as a kind of limited natural resource, like an ore waiting for society to mine; it is more like a gene that will turn on given the right cues.”*

I am always amazed at how easily we do exempt the mind from fetters.

No American in her right mind would dare to ascribe athletic prowess to each and every one of us, yet there we go: Inside each of us lurks an untapped Picasso; if given just the right mix of Cabernet and Pinot Noir, our pens would flow with abundantly touching visions of our inner Macondos; yes, inside every Sarah Palin hides the ghost of Thomas Jefferson; in every humdrum architect sings Sir Christopher Wren.

Is the reality so hard to swallow, then? The plain, humble acceptance of the fact that most of us – present company most certainly included – are simply not that great?

--
* It would be interesting to see this point argued rather than posited. I cannot think of any study that shows this, but then I perhaps haven't worked in the field of creativity research long enough.

Monday, May 18, 2009

WHAT FICKLE GOD

(This piece appeared in slightly modified form and with a different title -- what's up with that, dear Editor? -- in Issue 13 of The Drawbridge, Summer 2009)


The ice was already melting when Specialist Sabrina Harman posed for snapshots. She hunches low in the frame, her gloved right hand raised in a glorious thumbs-up, a radiant smile lights up her face. Inches from that beaming face: the mouth of a man, agape, stopped in mid-rattle, bandages over his eyes, coagulated blood streaking his cheeks. This man, she was told, had died of a heart attack. There was no way, she knew, this man had died of a heart attack. Still: her fabulous thumbs-up and her radiant smile. After the pictures were taken, Specialist Harman zipped up the body bag. And walked away.
Manadel al-Jamadi had been arrested at his house in Baghdad early in the morning of November 4, 2003. According to eyewitnesses, Jamadi was conscious – walking, talking -- when he was led into a shower room at Abu Ghraib for interrogation. Forty-five minutes later, Jamadi was dead. His interrogator had the prisoner hooded, his hands tied high behind his back, shackled to a window bar. This position is known as Palestinian hanging, or strappado. It crushes the ribs; the lungs and the diaphragm have only little room to expand. Put simply: Manadel al-Jamadi was crucified. He died within thirty minutes. On his way home, the interrogator threw Jamadi’s bloodied hood in the trash; the hood was never found.
When questioned about the photographs, Specialist Harman said: “I guess we weren’t really thinking: Hey, this guy was just murdered. I know it looks bad. But it was just -- Hey, it’s a dead guy, it’d be cool to get a photo.”
We only know of Jamadi through these photographs. His arrest and transfer were never recorded, let alone his death. Jamadi simply did not exist. His corpse was smuggled out of the prison on a stretcher, an I.V. in its arm; a local taxi-driver was paid to dispose of the body; the body was never found.
When questioned, his interrogator confirmed that no information was obtained from the prisoner.

* * *

In the Pathologie -- the mortuary – of the concentration camp Sachsenhausen, half an hour north of Berlin, a skull stands on the windowsill of the small shared doctors’ office. Tibetan monks use the skulls of their masters as bowls to drink milk from, but this is nothing like that. An electrical cord runs through a bullet hole in the back – one or the other handy surgeon had converted the skull to a lamp, light streaming out of the eyes and nostrils, light seeping from between clenched teeth. Likely the owner of the skull was one of the thousands of Soviet POWs that passed through the camp during 1942. It was cheaper to kill the Soviet prisoners-of-war than to feed them. They entered the camp through Turm A; then they were marched directly to the crematory -- Station Z. In the antechamber, an SS doctor told them to disrobe and took their vital signs. Then he showed them into the next room, where their height was to be measured. This room was double-walled; a gramophone blasted military marches. The prisoners put their heads against a set of slats with measurement marks; there were holes between the slats and behind the holes stood soldiers with their guns. No last words for these prisoners, no last look at their loved ones. Extinguished ,just like that: a bullet through the brain stem and down they went. You could just picture some young internist marveling at the neatness of the hole in this particular skull – dead center and just the right diameter. Later, in 1943, a gas chamber was installed in Station Z. Much more efficient. Much cleaner. In case of attempted escape, there would be a public hanging in front of the assembled prisoners; strappado was the method of choice.

* * *

Sometime in March or April 1943, Stella Goldschlag stood at her window in the Sammellager – the former Jewish nursing home in the Grosse Hamburgerstrasse. It was the early evening of a gorgeous Spring day, and heaven knows those are rare in Berlin. From her window, she had a good view of the Jewish cemetery -- right underneath was the grave of Moses Mendelssohn, the great scholar and philosopher from the time of Frederick the Great. Mendelssohn had been a big proponent of the integration of Jews and Germans; he had done the first Hebrew-to-German translation of the Torah, as a service to the gentiles. On an open space in that venerable cemetery with its picturesquely sunken monuments, Stella noted much laughter and merriment. A few of the guards had taken off their uniform jackets; they were playing soccer. Four jackets marked the goal posts. The ball they were using must be flat, Stella thought, it refuses to bounce. Then she looked more closely. The object that the guards kicked back and forth was not a soccer ball. It was a human skull.
Stella had a secret of her own. Stella was a Greifer, a catcher: Each day she went into town and made her living pointing out fellow Jews to the Gestapo. For every person she brought in, the Gestapo paid her 20 Reichsmark. More importantly, for every person she brought in she could point out a prisoner – a friend, a family member – and that person would be spared. Except that they wouldn’t. When Stella found out, she did keep up her gruesome business, if just to save her own life and that of her fellow-catcher boyfriend.
The very first person Stella ever denounced was her husband.

* * *

These stories add up. Because they are true – in many senses of the word. Because the world is not the same without them. These stories tell us who we are. Terror, torture, wanton executions -- this is what humans do. Sure, we love. Sure, we paint and write and dance and sing. But this cavalcade of horror is not an aberration. We paint and write and dance and sing. We are built to play. And players like their toys. Need their toys. All you need to do is convince yourself that this human being is not at all like you, and he becomes -- your toy.
Holding another life in your hand is the ultimate possession. You carve a person’s flesh. His mind, his identity, his future, his fate rests in your hand, and yours alone. You can twist his very soul until it breaks and – oh yes – you will. For he is — wholly — yours, and how could you resist? Yours to toy with, yours to maim, yours to kill. This human being is now your literal slave; he has no recourse, no mercy, no law, than the recourse, the mercy, the law that is you.
You may try to deny it. You may grab into your bag of many selves, to pull out cunning masks and sly disguises. You may invent reasons; you may invent reason. But deep down you know – you know you have now become a god, and that gods are destroyers of worlds, for what else is left to do after you first made it all?
Shock. Horrify. Appall. Move on. Repeat. Let humanity’s inevitable inhumanity intersect with humanity’s equally inevitable insistence on humanity at some vanishing point way beyond any rational horizon.

* * *

Josef Mengele, the doctor who oversaw the triage on the arrival platform at Auschwitz-Birkenau – the inmates called the arm-flapping physician der weisse Engel – was also the chief medical officer of the Zigeunerlager – the Gypsy camp. Twenty thousand Roma and Sinti in total. Families were allowed to be together; more than 300 children were born there. Whenever Mengele walked through the camp, the men would play their fiddles, delighting him with waltzes and mazurkas and polonaises, and the women would hit their tambourines and dance—they all knew how much the Herr Doktor loved music. “Uncle Mengele!” the children cried. “Uncle Mengele!” And he gently stroked their little heads and softly squeezed their wasted cheeks, and he put sticky chocolates in their eager little fists. The story goes that on the day the last remaining three thousand Gypsies were to be killed – August 2, 1944 – Mengele sought out his very favorite child. He took him by the hand and stuffed his mouth with candy and then he walked the boy all the way to door of the gas chamber.
Holding hands.
Just like when, against a backdrop of the bluest of skies on the most luminous of Tuesday mornings in lower Manhattan, people -– random strangers -- joined hands to jump –- together -- from the 102nd floor of the North Tower, not knowing by what decree of what fickle god they were dying, but knowing they wanted to do it together.

* * *

I have this feeling that when humanity will finally have managed to get the planet rid of its presence, the one god still remaining will watch the plumes of smoke with detached neutrality.
Then she will sit back, relax, and at last enjoy the silence.
Our biggest fear is this: That we live for the same reason Jamadi, the nameless Soviet prisoner, Stella’s victims, Mengele’s little Gypsy friend, and some 3,000 Manhattan office workers died.
For no reason at all.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

PEN 2009 VS MONTEREY 1969 -- THE MASH-UP

(I wrote this earlier in a comment on Chad Post's blog piece where he respectfully submits some suggestions for future PEN World Voices festivals, and perhaps it fits here as well. I realize posting this will never get me re-invited, but that's fine.)

For a festival about literature, there was achingly little literature on display. We had writers reading other writers, or writers being interviewed, or writers orating on panels. The only writers allowed to read from their own work where the ones we’ve heard before. Younger/unknown folk (like me) need a showcase, and we don’t get it at PEN. Hugely disappointing, may I say. For Pete(the-g*d-of-literature)‘s sake: Have a series of readings, somewhere. Let us hear those weird Hungarians, give them (oh dear) a VOICE.

To me this festival was a bit like Monterey 1969, except that instead of hearing Jimi Hendrix play, we got to hear him debate Pete Townsend in a panel on alternative tunings, and then he had a five minute deejay spot.

Monday, May 4, 2009

DEFIANCE

Photos from the rather odd PEN World Voices Defiance event are online. Audio would have been nice too, but well, words/words/words, right? (Odd: Because there is something slightly out of whack about asking writers to read only other writers' words. The oddity of that became absurdness when Sergio Ramirez's introduction -- about his own experiences with death and near-death in the student protests in Nicaragua under Somoza -- managed to eclipse even the Neruda poem he went on to read.)

IN WALKS THE TRANSLATOR

Allow me to open with a simple statement of fact.
We do not know what planet writers come from, but we do know the precise place of origin of their translators: They all, without exception, hail from the planet Tralfamadore.

Allow me to elaborate.

But before I do that, I’d like to take you on a trip to Upstate New York first.
There’s a Zen Buddhist Center there that I once visited with a friend who was so much into that kind of thing he had his head shaved and took vows, or whatever they call it. The head monk of the Center was a nice Jewish lady with a decidedly military haircut; she went by a Japanese name. If you wanted to speak to her, you needed to prostrate before her, thrice. You didn’t call it a talk either, you called it doing dokusan. In the meditation hall, we bowed before a small imported statue of the Buddha, my friend and his companions slipped into black robes -- the nice Jewish lady’s was a gold-embroidered monstrosity that was all sleeves and pleats -- we all bowed some more, sat down cross-legged on Japanese cushions, and then we chanted – in no language known to man.
“What on earth was that?” I inquired about the chanting.
Turns out the chant was an ancient pronouncement of the Buddha’s, originally delivered in the Pali language, but written down in Sanskrit, then translated and transliterated into Chinese, picked up about 1,200 years ago by some Japanese monks who brought it to their island, where it is chanted using the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese characters. It is this American approximation of the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese version that is chanted in Zen groups across the continent.
Everything, my patient friend explained – the robes, the funny names, the bows, the lotus position, the chanting – was to make sure that no essential part of the teachings got lost in translation. We do not know, after all, what can be safely changed, and what needs to stay exactly so.
Still intrigued by the sound of twenty or so earnest Americans chanting Japanese mispronunciations of Chinese phonetic attempts at Sanskrit that should have been Pali, I asked: “And what is that that you chant?”
“It’s the Heart Sutra”, he replied. “You know, the one that states that Emptiness is Form, and Form is Emptiness?”
When I remarked that this was a rather elaborate but quite splendid way to get this simple point across, his smile suddenly seemed somewhat strained.

There is the opposite side of the argument too, of course – the argument that all writing is in essence translation. A writer has a vision, so the argument goes, and that vision is put into words, which invariably soils it somewhat. Groovy little gyrations you’ve got going on there, son, but, woah, wait a minute: They’re totally incidental and totally irreproducible. Case in point: If we had actually read your work and therefore locked you up in a cell for subordinate activities, and you would try to recreate your masterpiece on squares of toilet paper with charcoal obtained from burning matches, the words would come out quite differently now, wouldn’t they? (And please leave the latrine as tidy as you found it.)
The answer here, I think, is that writers and translators have different loyalties. Translation is, after all, a business of rigid motion, with an allegiance to accuracy; writers are wedded to – and I apologize to use this word in polite company – the truth. Now, the truth is not some funnelform procession of ideas, neatly marching down the mind’s broad boulevards to come to some inevitable conclusion – no, the truth is a momentary thing, crawling and hiding inside the cool fissures of what is otherwise a sizzling brain, making the cortex tremble oh so slightly with meager resonances that are simply too hard to pick up on any given rainy day. To know the truth, you have to get up early, forego your shower, don a bathrobe or (better still) stay in your boxers, and bang away at the keyboard until your fingers are numb – twelve hours of work done in a single instant, with a single sentence to show for it. Where was I? I thought I was quietly watching a rerun of the Simpsons in my head and now I am staring at the ceiling of an ambulance? Where is this taking me? Do I even want to know?
-- When you write, in other words, the world shifts and moves. You are, emphatically, certainly, positively driven, but you are not the driver. If it works, at the end of the day you may sink into your warm puddle of words, the song that cannot be unsung, blisters of joy on your lips; otherwise you’ll find yourself at midnight weeping into the open fridge, your tears freezing in their ducts. Yes, writers, like all lovers thrown into a fling, are tempted by the illusion of destiny, reaching for a heaven that exists only in their carefully rearranged memories, all the while trying to figure out if reality is more a wilderness of mirrors or a pillar of smoke. If you know where you are going, if the vision is clear, if you know the exact note that will come out when you open your mouth to sing, you are not a writer. Give up on the idea that writers are gods. They have no overview, the mere thought of their omnipotence is laughable, they are most ungracious, and certainly not in the possession of any mercy whatsoever. (Watch them kill their characters!)
In walks the translator. Doesn’t he look a bit like a plumber’s friend, with his suction cup neatly planted on the ground, so eager to teach the writing Earthling many wonderful things about time? Linear or non-linear, it doesn’t matter, because the text is there and the translator ploughs through it at will, and from every angle. The translator is an honest-to-god liar, pretending to believe in a truth that is entirely somebody else’s – yours -- cross-wiring his dreams with the wind that whipped some other fellah’s plains -- yours. The irksome paradox is that in his command of the fourth dimension, the translator becomes shallower, not deeper. He sobs over the death of every character, but not inconsolably so – it’s only a book, and the character lives on, forever on the page. True, the translator is powerless to prevent your mistakes, but he is gracious and merciful towards them. So it goes, he says, and he either shrugs his shoulders or tries to smooth it out. Did you notice that he is stylishly two weeks overdue for a haircut, while your hair gets brutally trimmed every six months by your lover, in your sleep, with very blunt scissors? Did you notice he’s wearing a full set of clothes while he translates, and never skips a meal? He is extraordinarily precise, your translator, he wants to render each and every one of your puns, he wants to bring each of your clever nuances to light – the best of translators are so good, you can’t believe it’s not writing.
This, obviously, is why the Italians call the translator a traitor: He is completely unlike you; he is a smooth-talking interplanetary god. Your translator is unforgiveable: Your wonderful Pali translated in Sanskrit, rewritten in Chinese, butchered into Japanese with an Upstate accent -- and it’s still all there: Emptiness is Form, and Form is Emptiness.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

BURNING BOOKS AND BURNING ANGELS

Find a link here to an excerpt of OM (about burning books and burning angels) at the PEN World Voices web site.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

NOBODY BUYS OMEGA MINOR, BUT IT'S WORTH 113 BUCKS?

I was happily trolling Abebooks in between meetings, looking to see if someone had a galley of Inherent Vice available (quod non).

Then I ego-surfed and found the blurb below.

So: You go give a reading in far-off lands, someone buys one of your books and has you sign it, and then sells it on Abebooks with a 900% mark-up. (So, that was what was up with the one dude who didn't want his name in it.) Cojones with a nicely reduced sauce of gall. Well, given the complete and utter lack of attention for my book in the States: Good luck, my friend!

(But if that copy sells, I'm-a-gonna get me an Abebooks seller account. Like pronto.)

Anyway, and also: My final public appearance as a writer ever (I'm sick and tired of flying for hours and plunking down hundreds of dollars to meet 5 folk -- honestly) will be at PEN World Voices at the end of this month. Something in a bar, something on a panel. Nothing major. Stay away, in droves, and go see Nadeem Aslam instead. Or Lou Reed -- a fellow member of the Syracuse-loathers club -- if you must.


Omega Minor - SIGNED

Verhaeghen, Paul
Bookseller: Mungobooks
(Bournemouth, ., United Kingdom)
Bookseller Rating: 5-star rating
Price: US$ 113.79
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Book Description: Dalkey Archive, NY, 2007. Trade Paperback. Book Condition: Near Fine. First Edition. 1st Australian and true 1st edition 1st impression paperback original. Book in near fine condition with no inscriptions apart from author's signature. SIGNED on his visit to the UK at Jewish Book Week. Not a book club edition, ex library or a remainder. Please request a scan if required. Signed by Author. Bookseller Inventory # 004677

Friday, April 3, 2009

3 FABLES ON WORDS WITHOUT BORDERS

The online magazine for literature in translation (because, well, it obviously ain't the same as literature in English and ain't that a bitch) Words Without Borders has my 'Three Fables' up. Which you read here first, and which I'll repost when the April run of WWB has ran its course.

Friday, March 20, 2009

WORDS HURT

My current light bed-time fare is Alberto Manguel's rather fun historical romp The Library at Night. He re-reminded me of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger's 2003 comment to a writer of an anti-Harry Potter book (Herr R. currently occupies a post a tiny step up from cardinal n the hierarchy of the Catholic Church) :
"It is good, that you enlighten people about Harry Potter, because those are subtle seductions, which act unnoticed and by this deeply distort Christianity in the soul, before it can grow properly."
First point: the Harry Potter series deal with magic, or so it is claimed. The idea that magic exists and works is not just "opposed" to the Christian faith, it is also opposed -- more directly so, I would venture -- to the idea of science. Yet I don't think I've heard any academic or engineer or researcher exclaim, a propos these books: "Those are subtle seductions and by this deeply distort the sense of logic and the thirst for experimentation in the mind, before it can grow properly." I kinda think we scientists simply assume that the young mind outgrows childish stuff and that by the time the prefrontal cortex kicks in comfortably, said mind turns its sense of wonder to the natural world, and applies thought to it. And neatly shelves HP as neat and wondrous entertainment.

Put differently: If the very foundations of your worldview can be shaken by mere words and thought (and therefore you have to ban such words and thought), maybe you should reconsider those very foundations. (Or at least give 'm some thought. He-he.)

Second point: unthinking Holocaust denial, dear Herr-Mister-Pontiff-Sir: Not as vile, dangerous, and distorting as Harry Potter, it seems, hm?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

ON THE BEAUTY OF LANGUAGE (2)


Yesterday, George W. Bush gave his first post-presidency speech (you apparently had to pay more than 3,000$ for the privilige). In Calgary, that hotbed of, uh, uh, that center of, uh, uh, that wellspring of whatchamacallit. Right: petroleum industry!

The big news is: Bush is going to write his memoirs. Here is a press account:

Bush said that he doesn't know what he will do in the long term but that he will write a book that will ask people to consider what they would do if they had to protect the United States as president.

He said it will be fun to write and that "it's going to be (about) the 12 toughest decisions I had to make."

"I'm going to put people in my place, so when the history of this administration is written at least there's an authoritarian voice saying exactly what happened," Bush said.

Did you catch that? An authoritarian voice.

And then we cog psych types claim the Freudian slip is dead.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

ON THE BEAUTY OF LANGUAGE

Today, in the aptly named Pharr, Texas, a man used a drive-through bank lane to stick up the Lone Star National Bank.

Me, I got stuck at the semantic implications and phonological resonance of the AP headline: "Bank drive-thru hold-up".


A drive-through hold-up! If that ain't cowboy poetics, I don't know what is.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

PV PODCAST

Jewish Book Week (shout-out to the wonderful and amazing Geraldine D'Amico!) has their 2009 audio/video clips up.

Are they freakishly fast, or what?

You could listen to the clever and alert Boyd Tonkin interviewing clueless and winding me, if you must, by clicking here.

Friday, February 20, 2009

DOING WRITE BY HISTORY


[This essay appeared earlier in The Jewish Quartely, Dec 2008.]

‘Nothing to see here,’ said the cameraman. And before I could even object — ‘But that’s the point!’ — the crew had started their long slog back to the U-Bahn station. Their patience had been overextended one time too many.

They were right.
There was nothing to see.
And I was right too.
That was exactly the point.

The camera crew was there to tape a three-minute segment to be aired on Belgian television on the occasion of my nomination for a literary award (which I didn’t win). I had just finished this big brick of a novel, a web of interweaving stories set largely in Berlin in the 1930s and 1940s (and in Los Alamos and in a barely post-GDR Potsdam). The Flemish Broadcasting Corporation had dispatched a crew to Berlin, the city that forever sings and sighs, and I had schlepped them to the Scheunenviertel, the old and former Jewish quarter, to the spot at the Grosse Hamburger Strasse where the Jewish cemetery used to be. Since its conception in 1672, some 12,000 people had been buried there; in 1943 the Gestapo decided that the presence of these dead Jews in the heart of the city was too offensive to be tolerated – they dug up the remains and threw them out, and reused the gravestones as trench supports. The twenty-eight stones that somehow survived are now set in the wall, and in 1990 a new monument was erected on the site where Moses Mendelssohn’s grave was presumed to be. The rest is an unnamed park, a sorry expanse of grass and mud. Next to the cemetery stood the Jewish nursing home, which became the collection point for the deportation of the Berlin Jews — from here 55,696 left for the flames.

Nothing to see there.
Which was exactly my point.

What I saw, was this. Or at least, this is what I had written in Omega Minor:

Stella and I stand by the window. She tells me about the old Sammellager in the nursing home at the Grosse Hamburger Strasse in the heart of the Scheunenviertel — in the shadows of the golden dome of the Great Synagogue. You could see the oldest Jewish cemetery of Berlin from her window. She had a good view of the grave of Moses Mendelssohn, the great scholar and philosopher from the time of Frederick the Great. Mendelssohn was a big proponent of integration of Jews and Germans. As a service to the gentiles, he had translated the Torah into German.

Her very first night there Stella stood at the window. On an open space in that venerable cemetery with its picturesquely sunken monuments there was much laughter and merriment. A few of the guards had taken off their uniform jackets; they were playing soccer. Four jackets marked the goal posts. ‘The ball they were using must be flat, I thought, it refuses to bounce. Then I had a closer look. The object that they hit and kicked back and forth was not a ball. It was a human skull.’ Stella wipes her eyelids with her thumbs. That window, with its view of her captors toying with death while the fruit trees bloomed, all that was long past — way back in the springtime of 1943.

This happened. That is, somebody witnessed this scene and remembered it long after the war and wrote it down and when I was working on my novel I read that account and reimagining the scene I wrote it down again. And you, dear reader, have now read this scene as well and now you too have a vivid image and you too will see this in your mind’s eye when you visit Grosse Hamburger Strasse in Berlin. When you go there you will be, like me, surrounded by ghosts. Or, more accurately, by ghosts of ghosts.

When the three-minute segment aired on Flemish TV, there was a lot of voice-over; the footage was of the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag and Alexander Platz.

Something to see there, I suppose, something to catch the camera’s eye.

* * *

One of the enduring mysteries of humankind is this: Why are we addicted to art?

Addictions tend to be opportunistic artifacts of evolution. Heroin usurps the μ-opioid receptors of our painkilling system and does a much better job at curing life’s aches than our home-made endorphins do. Nicotine tickles the reward centre of the brain and then snubs it, acting just like the fickle lover we cannot leave. And art (music, literature, sculpture, painting, ballet, architecture), it seems, is a byproduct of humanity’s most urgent social need, the need for gossip.

Or so the story goes.

Apes have this grooming habit: they stroke one another’s fur, and so they build their social circle. Make a new friend? Groom. Want to get something done? Groom. Need to apologize? Groom. Humans tend to gather in groups of 150, way too big for grooming. That is, claims Dunbar, why we grew a large forebrain and that is why we grew the joys of language. Instead of cementing our ties of friendship hands on scalp, we say it with words.

It turns out that evolution’s invention of the word was pure genius.

We live by gossip; dish is the preferred food of the human mind. The Daily Mail fulfils a much more ancient need than the Times; without Paris Hilton or Britney Spears there would be no Shakespeare; slap the sobriquet ‘Based on a True Story’ on any book or movie and folks will flock.

A well-groomed chimp’s brain is soaked in opiates. So is yours when a fellow human being engages you in banter — any banter. You will get positively giddy when that person shares the utmost gift with you: the gift of gossip.

The gift of story, in other words.

Or put still differently: our need for gossip is primal, the world of ideas and chiseled prose and Freudian analysis is a freebie, a side effect, the dust of cocoa on the morning latte.

* * *

Words, sentences, stories. String enough of them together, and you have the world. Read all of them, and you know the world.

Many of us are embarking on that project right now. To read. Because we cannot experience everything. Reading is not a substitute. Reading is experience.

Omega Minor started exactly that way. With a stutter of unknowing, a craving for the story. On a cold February day in 1995, when I, much younger, emerged from a subway station in Berlin on to a vast expanse of neo-classical square — the Mitte station, because Mitte means ‘centre’ or ‘heart’, and the heart of the matter seemed as meaty a place to start my explorations from as any — and was greeted by a faint glow emanating from the pavement. When I approached, I found a small underground chamber, lined with empty white bookshelves. Next to the hole a plaque with a Heine quote: ‘That was only the beginning. It starts by burning books, soon human flesh will burn.’

Of course I knew the history; of course I had heard of the book burning of 1933. I knew the history — I did not know the stories, and at my feet now lay a well of them. The void underneath that glass pane was never merely an absence of books. Again, from Omega Minor:

Righteous Jews so respect the name of God that they do not dare pronounce it or write it down without at least censoring the vowels, and they never throw away even the smallest slip of paper for fear it might carry the Lord’s name and that they thereby are destroying a piece of YHVH Himself. In the Jewish archive in Cairo everything gets saved: marriage contracts, love poems, bookseller’s catalogues, everything, including shopping lists. In the shtetl, in the eastern lands, every synagogue has a big wooden vat in the back where the faithful deposit their old books and newspapers. The vat is emptied from time to time but the paper is stored indefinitely in the temple’s basement. Read all those old stories from the Talmud and the kabala and the folktales from Poland and Russia: long-lost books reappear in hidden caves, letters rise up from the page, names are etched into foreheads. The correct pronunciation of a word can make the difference between heaven and hell. Burning a book means more than giving up a part of one’s possessions: it means selling one’s soul to an evil spirit. From now on, all personal quests into the roots of the world and all free research into the limits of morality will be illegal pursuits.

The void in the heart of Berlin is not just the absence of books, or even of their owners or their writers. It is the chilling absence of God Himself.

* * *

Young writers are often told to write about what they know.
That advice is solid.
Except that it is often read as: write about what you already know.
Nine times out of ten, that leads to something utterly dead.
I say: if you want to write, go out in the world and get to know something.Then write, with wonder, about your fresh discovery.

Nothing trumps the need to know.

Or rather: the need to remember.

History is the memory of a society and memory equates identity. We are not what we’ve lived through; we are what we remember we have lived through — there’s a difference. Alzheimer’s disease is a prime example: every Alzheimer’s patient has her past intact; what is happening is that the memories of that past fade away until the patient is awash in an interminable present. That present makes no sense, for there is nothing that precedes it. There is still a temperament, a personality; there are motor memories and gestures, the end results of lifelong conditioning: a frame if you will, but the portrait that once hung inside it is irretrievably lost.

The memories that make us are not the facts of our lives. They are not lists, not words, not even sentences. They are a tangle of episodes, a mess of hyperlinks, the self-perceived arc to our human years. Our memories are stories.

So too it is with societies.

I am not speaking here of the oft-proclaimed requirement to keep the past alive so we can learn from it. (Or, more sinister, the powerful attempts by totalitarian regimes to bury it so that the regime can feel exempt of history’s rules.) One of the lessons from the past is that we never heed the lessons of the past – Rwanda, Darfur, the invasion of Iraq: it’s all déjà vu.

When Primo Levi wrote the first instalment of his Holocaust memoirs in 1946, no serious publisher wanted to have anything to do with them. Nobody wanted to read that depressing stuff, they said. They were right, for a while. The first edition sold a mere 1,500 copies. Levi’s was a tale we were not ready to face, back in 1946. It finally reached us — like Wiesel’s and those of countless others. Because it had to.

There are many such artists. Kurt Vonnegut forced America to deal with the massacre of Dresden. He had to, he felt: he had lived through it. But living was not enough, the detailed description insufficient. Vonnegut refused to write about the fire bombing until he got the form just right; it took him almost 25 years. He needed to invent time travel first, and a planet where everything happens simultaneously so that there are no unknowns but only inevitables, and so that his book was as little anti-war as it was anti-glacier. So it goes, he famously wrote on almost every page. In other words: this is who we humans are — there is no nobility in us, and no learning. Our time is up. Now go and deal with it. Francis Ford Coppola reincarnated Conrad’s Congo story in the mad chaos of the Vietnam War where America was fighting for the ‘biggest nothing in history’. The ease of transposition should have warned us that the story was more timeless than its setting suggested. Toni Morrison insisted on keeping slavery alive in her nation’s awareness; she did so with the simple story of a single woman killing her child. Solzhenitsyn showed the world what the Whiskered One was really up to. And so on. Each of these writers and artists managed to take a breathtaking subject and do something even more breathtaking with it, something that could not have been conveyed through however many newspaper clippings or however many stacks of professorial treatises. When I want to learn about, say, America in the 1920s, I turn to F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Dos Passos first. Berlin at that time period? Alfred Döblin. Like newspaper journalists, writers squeeze the juice of details out of life, but they pour it into a wider river; like historians, they insist on the overview, but they also follow each individual leaf of grass as it tumbles down the stream. And then it all meets the ocean. Evaporates. Condenses. Precipitates. Repeat.

Here is another metaphor: storytellers spin their tales; inside those silk cocoons lie the biting worms of truth.

Take Stella — you met her in the opening paragraphs. I based her on a ‘real’ woman, Stella Goldschlag, who although Jewish worked as a ‘catcher’ for the Nazis: she made her living pointing out fellow Jews to the Gestapo. For every person she brought in, the Gestapo paid her 20 Deutschmark. More importantly they promised her that for every catch they would not kill one person of her choice. That was a lie. When Stella found out, she decided to keep up her gruesome business, if just to save her own life and that of her fellow-catcher boyfriend.

Clearly, Stella is not a person any of us would want to be. But her story haunted me all the years I carried my novel around in my mind and in my heart. Stella kept asking me the same question, over and over again: what would I have done? Would I have betrayed countless nameless strangers to save my mother? And when my mother was gone, would I have done the right thing and placed those handfuls of nameless lives above my own? Then it hit me that I would never know. We cannot fully know a fellow human being unless we are them, unless we are placed in the exact same circumstances. A trite lesson, but a lesson nevertheless. In my book, I let her be. I had to. She appears, she plays her part, she is who she is. I left the worm gnawing.

* * *

When I sank on my knees to peer down into the glass pane on what used to be Opernplatz, I did not know what I was going to see. Empty bookshelves and my own reflection, darkly, those were to be expected — but there also appeared an unknown host of folks behind me. Stella, it turned out, was one of those coinciding with my mirror image on the milky glass. She came unbidden and unwanted, but her story became one I needed to tell. Her ghostly presence and that of so many others — 55,696 and more — did not make Berlin a more beautiful or a more inhabitable place to me. But it did make the Berlin in my mind truer to itself.

That is the magic of writing: to make, by creating, the world more like itself.

* * *

The Grosse Hamburger Strasse has many authors, Josef Goebbels among them. His fever to make Berlin Judenfrei extended even to the cemetery; even dead Jews were an affront to the Aryan nation. Maybe he took a walk there in the early snow of November 1943, hands folded behind his back, murmuring both happily and sadly to himself: ‘Nothing to see here’.

I see his hunched back in the retreating back of the cameraman.

Friday, February 6, 2009

AN ANTHOLOGY OF OPTIMISM


While the USA is in the grips of the extremly urgent debate whether or not presidents should be allowed to work in shirtsleeves while in the Oval Office, Europe is -- uh -- hopeful.

Or in need of hope, rather, one would think.

We over here dragged you Europe-folk down with us, this century isn't exactly shaping up the way we envisioned it, and if looking back at the 20th century is any indication of what is to come, a world war will break out in the next decade or so.

Time, then, for an Anthology of Optimism!

The Flemish theater group Campo thought so too, and they are traveling a small part of the world (Linz, Vienna, Copenhagen, Brussels, and perhaps next year NYC) with exactly such a thing. It's a snowball of a piece, picking up new texts as it rolls across the continent. Yours truly donated Awake to the performance -- a piece now so obviously entrenched in the dark damp days of the Bush regime that rereading it only shows how far we've traveled [politically and societally, if not economically] in the past few weeks. Pieter, 1/2 of Campo, emailed me to tell me that the premiere in Linz went exceedingly well: People were 'moved' and 'intrigued'. Move you, intrigue you, by chance make you shake a little in your boots -- that's what we artists are after.

I hope to see the performance when/if it travels across the Atlantic, but some of you might live closer by the action and be able to witness it all sooner.

Optimism! It's the new naivite.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

BITCH-SLAPPED BY THE JURY WHO GAVE YOU A LIT AWARD

So, Sebastian Barry won the Costa Award.

Hurray for Sebastian! and all that.

Turns out some of the members of that jury are very willing to talk about the flaws in the book. Very willing. We didn't like the ending, this or that character wasn't believable, etcetera. Bitching, basically. But then they gave him the award anyway and had a long good therapeutic talk with the newspaper.

Presumably, that made them feel better.

But what about Mr. Barry? Will he slap the bitches back? Ask, for instance, what a frigging comedian is doing on the jury of a lit award? Inquire, sweetly, which of the members of said jury has, indeed, produced an undisputed masterpiece? Or will he simply go for the fastest revenge -- go the ceremony and sit and grin until the 25,000 pounds get firmly ensconced in some inner pocket of his tweeds?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

I WRITE TOO OFTEN AND TOO MUCH ABOUT SEX...


...or so critics/reviewers/readers of the English version of Omega Minor (oh, gimme a break, you don't want actual links here, do you?) have told me.

To which I have replied: (...)

That is, I am too lazy, too tired, and too g*ddamn blasé to actually take the trouble to defend my literary choices, to stand up for the carnal incarnations of my imagination. Plus, you know, postmodern guy and all that: The text, my friends, nothing but the text, and @#$& the author! @#$&! I say! (And hang the DJ while you're at it.)

Still. It nags. Can they not read, those self-declared Friends of Letters, those self-assured Pruners in the Gardens of the Word, those perilous potentates of semi-porous poetics, those gaudy groundhogs grinding their teeth underneath my bed? The writer tries to shrug it off, but oh -- the gnashing and gnawing at his feet!

Well. One reader, so it seems, can. And did. And wrote about it.

Lazy I still am, so read, if you must, Mr. Lambert's blog entry, wasted on my ever-shrinking novel. (Mr. Lambert is not lazy: He wastes a whole damn blog entry on my frigging no-good death-of-me broke-my-back brick of a book.)

An excerpt (including an excerpt):

The novel opens with a description of a sexual encounter that sets the tone for most of the sex in the novel. There isn’t that much of it in terms of pages, but what there is shares a relentless, near-pornographic quality that might have something to do with Verhaeghen’s not being a native speaker. It’s a strange amalgam of the poetic, the urological and the simply weird, as in this extract from the second page:

Behold the purple head that sways so swiftly on its heavy stalk; see how it glistens with her spit and juices; watch the little crater at the top spit out its zigzag line—out shoots the slime, the whirling weathervane, the drunken comet that climbs past the stars: In the moist cloud chamber of Donatella’s room, a signal lights up in silvery white, an almost perfect circle described by the tumbling ribbon of spunk, an acrobatic snake snapping at—but missing—its own tail: an ancient Greek symbol, the latter Omega, capitalized—Ω.

This opening scene does more than establish the tone and central elements of the novel’s theme. Crucially, the sexual act is being described not by a protagonist, but by someone who observes, himself unobserved. The novel is deeply concerned with what it means to be a witness, and with the kind of power, and lack of power, this involves. It goes beyond this to question the nature and permeability of the boundaries we draw between those who act and those who watch, and how historical and personal blame should be apportioned between these two groups, taking into account the extent to which any distinction made between them might be facile, or false. Dangerous ambiguities are evoked as the novel progresses – through confession and dissimulation - and even the aphoristic moral certainty of such a sentence as “There is a world of difference between an act that is permitted and an act that is permissible” is undermined by what the novel does.
What the man says, man.

Why do the readers who, the writer feels, understand always have to live too far away to simply buy them an honest beer?

Sunday, January 18, 2009

MUSICAL UMAMI

Here was my Sunday homework for next week's class, in case you want to emulate:

a. The first 10 seconds of Stevie Wonder's Superstition, on repeat, over headphones. Close your eyes and concentrate on those hi-hats -- those hi-hats! I said: THOSE HI-HATS!

b. The Adagio Cantabile from the Beethoven's "Pathetique" Sonata. How to make a yearning melody by starting a third above the root, tease the listener by going down, but then go up, and generally postpone the appearance of the root until measure 8. Then cursorily skip&hop away, of course. Beethov': you tease!

c. Burial's Near Dark. Beats done and undone, shells clattering, surf breaking, heart aching -- After which sure-fire remedy had to be applied:

d. Feed the Animals, by Girl Talk, at full volume, fingers pointing disco-stAAAHl, while fixing some chiles anchos rellenos con picadillo de tofu. (A man's got to eat.)

So, thank you, Daniel Levitin and Jonah Lehrer, for a corticofugal afternoon the neighbors will never forget.

Friday, January 16, 2009

WAT IS EEN WARANDE, EIGENLIJK?

Na lang aandringen heeft DWB eindelijk haar ding gekregen: Drie van mijn flash-ficties -- u las ze eerder al hier -- verschijnen, in Nederlandse vertaling, in het eerste nummer van dit jaar.

(Eigenlijk waren die ondingen deel van mijn dankwoord bij het dan-toch overhandigen van de Prijs van de Vlaamse Provincies aan uw dienaar, zomaar op de avond van de verkiezingen in de VS. Hadden ze die overhandiging nu 1 dag uitgesteld, dan had ik de 4,954 euro toch mee naar huis kunnen nemen, verdorie.)

In Nederlandse vertaling -- daar moet ik nu even over gaan nadenken, zie.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

ROYAL SCREW-UP

You know things are bad when a single day brings two relatively independent stories about Guantanamo Bay and the perversion of justice there.

The WP reports a former military prosecutor's claim that detainee Jawad's case:
has been riddled with problems, including alleged physical and psychological abuse of Jawad by Afghan police and the U.S. military, as well as reliance on evidence that was later found to be missing, false or unreliable.
Some of those problems include Jawad's thumbprint under a confession written in Farsi -- a language he does neither speak nor understand -- and an alleged confession to US authorities for which the videotape went missing. Or perhaps "missing".

The article uses the word 'chaos', in part to avoid, one feels, the T-word.

The T-word does appear in a Reuters piece about the alleged 20th hijacker.

"We tortured Qahtani," Susan Crawford said in an interview with the newspaper [the WP again]. "His treatment met the legal definition of torture. And that's why I did not refer the case" for prosecution.
Crawford is labeled as "the Pentagon official overseeing the tribunals for Guantanamo Bay". No small fish. Or: As close to an official confession of government-sanctioned torture we will ever get.

Note that this use of torture -- apart from violating the Geneva Convention and the UN resolution against torture, both of which the US, in the name of its citizens, signed -- is now effectively making evidence against terror suspects non-admissible in court. Which means that these two folks -- guilty or innocent -- can simply walk. (Or would, if we lived by the legal consequences of our legal actions.)

Which is not the way it's supposed to work. Some official dodo claims you did something illegal, you claim you did not, both sides present their case in front of an independent party -- a jury or a judge -- after which said party deliberates and hands you down a verdict. You know, uh, like: justice?

Locking up an innocent man -- that ain't right. Letting a terrorist go free -- that ain't right. Playing the game so that either, and perhaps both outcomes are highly likely -- if that ain't downright criminal, then at least it's criminally negligent.

In the meantime, in his open letter to our new president (in the latest issue of friggin' Rolling Stone, can-you-believe-it?), Paul Krugman calls for a national committee on Truth and Reconciliation, much like South-Africa's during the transition from Apartheid to democracy. No witch hunt, but a fair hearing, a fact-finding mission, a few well-placed prosecutions. Not that my opinion matters and not that Krugman's proposal is rocket science, but I agree.

Deeper than the reality of torture itself is the disturbing sense that we, as a nation, have been tainted by its reality as well as by our creeping acceptance of said reality. Like a dog that has once killed, its nostrils filled with the scent of human blood, we have had our little taste of the forbidden, its effects slowly building its memory synapses in the pinkish wrinkles of our brains. An atavistic taste of the forbidden and a dawning knowledge that we got away with it -- such is the legacy of the Bush regime. The dog don't know it, but he's from here on down forever untrustworthy, forever to be watched.

We need to wipe that smell away, people, we need to wipe that veil of hazy red from our eyes. We need to cut those synapses, chase those damn neurotransmitters from our skulls.

Because.

We are better than that.


Justice may be blind -- but that don't mean that all blindness is just.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

THE WORLD: EYELESS OUTSIDE GAZA
















Journalists are still not allowed inside Gaza. Always a sure sign something rotten is going on. Like, you know, throwing bombs on top of schoolchildren and not even being apologetic about it. (War-reporter history has shown that journalists' safety is never an issue, unless you're hell-bent on killing some civilians.)


In the meantime, let me present you with two screenshots -- both frontpages of newspapers of note. One is from the NYT, the so-called liberal newspaper in the USA, the other from De Standaard, Belgian's center-democrat newspaper.

Clearly, someone is getting less (and/or more filtered) information than somebody else. Those bloody body bags are not a figment of somebody's imagination. Except Mr. Olmert's, of course: He dreamed it all up.