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.