Every once in a while you need to spend some time in the nuthouse, or in jail, to understand what this country is all about.
Ricardo Piglia’s Target in the Night takes place in a small rural town in Argentina about 1972, toward the end of the long exile of Juan Perón. Target in the Night is a tale of betrayal and corruption, written loosely in the form of a police procedural. Here’s the obligatory summary of the plot: A mysterious American of Puerto Rican heritage moves into town at the invitation of the two daughters of the town’s richest industrialist. When the American is murdered in his hotel room and a rumored $100,000 seems to have gone missing, witnesses point to the night porter, Yoshio Dazai, an Argentine of Japanese descent. (Piglia loves to remind the reader that Argentina is a nation of immigrants.) Police Inspector Croce is skeptical, though he has no choice but to arrest the hapless Dazai. Croce ultimately becomes convinced of Dazai’s innocence but is out-maneuvered by the Chief Prosecutor, a devious man by the name of Cueto, who forces Croce into retirement. Emilio Renzi, a reporter who has arrived from Buenos Aires to cover the story, begins to collaborate with Croce to solve the mystery.
Croce is a wonderful character who “loved everyone like a son” – because, the narrator quickly adds, “he didn’t really know what that feeling was like.” He’s an eccentric, intuitive detective who “sees things that others didn’t” and continues the lineage of Poe’s Auguste Dupin and Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Read more
Artificial Respiration, the 1981 novel by Argentinian Ricardo Piglia, is a dense, challenging book about the problem of history and the role that literature plays in trying to decipher “the secret message of history.” Should we write history backwards, as one character (Marcelo Maggi) tries to?
I am sure, besides, that the only way of capturing the sense that defies his destiny is to alter the chronology, to go backwards from the final madness to the moment when Ossario takes part with the rest of the generation of Argentinian romantics in founding the principles and bases of what we call the national culture.
Or is it better to write forward, to write the history of the future, as another character named Enrique Ossorio decides to do when he announces that “I am writing this first letter from the future” from exile from New York City in 1850?
I have thought of writing a utopia: there I will narrate what I imagine the country’s future to be. I am in the best possible position to do so: removed from everything, outside of time, a foreigner, caught up in the webs of exile. What will the country be like in a hundred years? Who will remember us? Those of us now – who will remember us? I am writing about those dreams.
Thus, I will write of the future, not wanting to remember the past. One thinks about what will happen when one thinks to oneself: How can it be that I wasn’t able to see then what seems so obvious now? And what can I do to see in the present the signs that announce the course of the future? I have begin reflecting on all of that and also upon my life and that is why I am writing to you.
In Heike Polster’s book The Aesthetics of Passage: The Imag(in)ed Experience of Time in Thomas Lehr, W.G. Sebald, and Peter Handke, which I wrote about recently, Polster reproduces a painting that I had never seen before by Sebald’s close friend Jan Peter Tripp, which he created in 2003 as a memorial portrait of Sebald. Titled “L’Oeil oder die weisse Zeit” (“The Eye or the White Time”) the acrylic on canvas painting is divided into five sections, four of which represent Sebald seen from different angles. Looked at sequentially, the four portraits depict Sebald gradually disappearing and a bright light coming into view over his head, while the bottom section represents a mysterious still life comprised of pencil stubs and other objects, some of which appear to be small, polished stones. According to Polster, the painting was made on the second anniversary of Sebald’s death and is currently owned by Sebald’s widow, Ute Sebald.
The reproduction below is more or less how the painting appears in Polster’s book.
Now, as the edges of my field of vision are beginning to darken, I sometimes wonder if I will ever finish the Temple and whether all I have done so far has not been a wretched waste of time. But on other days, when the evening light streams in through the window and I allow myself to be taken in by the overall view, then I see for a moment the Temple with its antechambers and the living quarters for the priesthood, the Roman garrison, the bath-houses, the market stalls, the sacrificial altars, covered walkways and the booths of the moneylenders, the great gateways and staircases, the forecourts and outer provinces and the mountains in the background, as if everything were already completed and as if I were gazing into eternity.
This is W.G. Sebald’s narrator summarizing for the reader the statements made to the narrator by “Thomas Abrams” in The Rings of Saturn. Abrams, a pseudonym for Alec Garrard, spent some thirty years making an archeologically-correct model of the Temple of Jerusalem from 1980 until his death in 2010. To scholar Heike Polster, a professor of German at the University of Memphis, “the parallels between Abrams’ model building and Sebald’s poetics warrant a comparison.”
In her 2009 book The Aesthetics of Passage: The Imag(in)ed Experience of Time in Thomas Lehr, W.G. Sebald, and Peter Handke (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann), Polster “investigates how we came to image time and space in the first place, and how specific narratives and aesthetic images can probe philosophical concepts of temporality and spatiality.”
The point of this book is to map an alternative to the concept of simultaneity, one which is oriented toward Deleuzian models of the imaging of time. This innovative concept, which I call “heterochronicity,” denotes visual strategies that seek to parallelize temporally non-identical acts of visual reception…It builds on recent work in anthropology and social geography that has emphasized the evocative potential of space….Hence, this book develops a nuanced vocabulary able to determine the narrative and aesthetic strategies of images and texts which attempt to show past times, and unfolding times without changing the frame of observation. Read more
Based in Brooklyn, The Deconstructive Theatre Project has announced that its upcoming project is Searching for Sebald. Here’s the description of the project from their website:
Suggested by the life and writings of “memory’s Einstein” W.G. “Max” Sebald, The Deconstructive Theatre Project’s newest hybrid media experience, Searching for Sebald, is a fractured ghost story that excavates the hidden spaces lurking between geography and time, the imagined and the real, and the language in a book and the cinema in your mind. An innovative and striking collision of live movie making, analogue film reels, live Foley soundscapes, and animation, Searching for Sebald is the second in the company’s series of projects exploring the neuroscience of creativity through the construction of vivid and emotional theatrical events.
The group describes itself as an “ensemble creative laboratory that exists to devise and premiere new multidisciplinary work… at the intersection of live performance, neuroscience, and interactive technology.” Two preview performances showing Searching for Sebald as a work in progress are scheduled for October 21 & 22, 2015, with the world premiere scheduled for the spring of 2016. The previews will be held at . More details here. They have posted a very brief trailer on Vimeo.
In 2012, Enrique Vila-Matas was among a small number of writers invited to participate in thirteenth version of the massive quinquennial art exhibition Documenta held in Kassel, Germany. Vila-Matas was asked to serve as “writer-in-residence” at a local Chinese restaurant called Dschingis Khan and to deliver a lecture. In the novelized version of his time in Kassel, The Illogic of Kassel (New Directions, 2015), the entire experience was a blow to his self-esteem, a humiliation that Vila-Matas seemed to fully enjoy. All in all, he writes, he spent a few miserable half days in the restaurant where he was only visited by a couple of unpleasant characters, while his lecture was attended by two to three dozen largely uninterested people. And yet, Vila-Matas, much to his surprise, finds that he was utterly euphoric in Kassel, instead of being his usual anguished and melancholic self.
The Illogic of Kassel has all of the trappings of being an ephemeral, let’s-make-something-out-of-this-lousy-experience book. And yet, to my mind, it’s Vila-Matas’ best book to date for several important reasons. First, he has finally nailed his own character. In previous books, we are usually meant to see the main characters as versions of the author himself – a cranky, often miserable, writer deeply enmeshed in literature but struggling with his own writing. In Illogic, Vila-Matas has retouched the outline of his character to be marvelously endearing Chaplinesque writer who is bumbling and canny and honest to a fault. His character has a mercurial temperament that can shift instantaneously from suspicion to guilt, from deviousness to feeling wounded, from being petty to displaying inordinate pride, all in the space of a few sentences. Stuck for a week amongst the international art set of Documenta, Vila-Matas portrays himself as an inarticulate amateur in the art-speak that is their lingua franca. And yet his character gives us, his readers, a highly sensitized and affecting response to the many works of contemporary art he encounters. Read more
Between 1977 and 2000, I traveled to Mexico City a dozen times or more, exploring the neighborhoods and suburbs of this bewildering megalopolis which often feels more like an endless series of villages than one giant city. After an absence of nearly two decades I began to read Francisco Goldman’s recent book The Interior Circuit (Grove Press, 2014) and immediately felt that I had been plunged back into the heart of Mexico City. The book’s title refers both to the expressway that rings the interior of the city as well as a poem by Efraín Huerta. But it also serves as a trope for Goldman himself as he restlessly tries to define the power that his adopted city holds over him.
On the fifth anniversary of the death of his wife Aura from a bodysurfing accident, Goldman, at nearly sixty years of age, decides to take driving lessons as a way of conquering his fear of Mexico City’s notorious traffic. It’s a way of pretending to take control over an uncontrollable situation. By the end of the book, Goldman has successfully navigated his rental car to a site chosen by chance on a map of the city, and his journey has led the reader through his ongoing grief for Aura, the dismaying 2012 election of Enrique Peña Nieto, and the disturbing expansion of violence brought down on the country by its infamous drug cartels. Read more
Today, two very different books by Mexican writers: Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd (Coffee House Press, 2013) and Sergio Pitol’s The Journey (Deep Vellum, 2015).
The subway, its multiple stops, its breakdowns, its sudden accelerations, its dark zones, could function as the space-time schema for this other novel.
Valeria Luiselli’s unnamed narrator is a young Mexican woman struggling to become a writer. There are three strands to her narrative: her years as a single woman working for a small publishing company in New York City, the succeeding years as a young mother in a dissolving marriage in Mexico City, and her ongoing research (which quickly becomes an obsession) on the Mexican writer Gilberto Owen (1904-1952). In rather formulaic fashion, the three narrative strands blend into one. Faces in the Crowd comes highly hyped: “fearless…precociously masterful” (Francisco Goldman) and “the best of all possible debuts’ (Enrique Vila-Matas), but I was underwhelmed. Here is Luiselli’s narrator in a subway car as she imagines seeing the face of Gilberto Owen in the window:
When there was once again darkness outside the window, I saw my own blurred image on the glass. But it wasn’t my face; it was my face superimposed on his – as if his reflection had been stamped onto the glass and now I was reflected inside that double trapped on my carriage window.
OK. Got it. Read more
If there is a Hell on earth, the Austrian novelist Josef Winkler seems to be nominating his own country for that honor. Winkler’s When the Time Comes is set in a small village in Carinthia in the south of Austria and the central figure in this novel is the bone burner, a man who fills “his satchel up with bones, especially in winter, when the farmers slaughtered their pigs and cows…”
All winter he kept the bones hidden from his dog in a niche in his goat pen. In spring, with the first thaw, before the draught horses were driven over the fields hitched to plows, the bone burner would rebuild his bone furnace. He would place the bone-filled clay vessel in a hole in the ground atop glowing coals, cover it with dirt and grass and let the bones simmer until they secreted the viscous pandapigl.
The pandapigl is then smeared with a crow’s feather onto the bodies of the field horses to protect them from biting insects. In the mind of the anonymous narrator of When the Time Comes, the bone burner also adds the bones of the deceased members of the village into his pandapigl.
As the title implies, the abiding motif of the book is death – violent death, suicide, and, occasionally, death by “natural” causes. We read of death from drinking bleach, drowning, amputation, insanity, cancer, tuberculosis, heart attack, lung cancer, tractor accident, carbon monoxide poisoning, traffic accident, hanging, freezing, battle, and undoubtedly a few more ways that I failed to note. Read more
W.G. Sebald greatly admired the writing of Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682) perhaps above all others. The two men, separated by three centuries, were in many ways kindred spirits. Here is Sebald reflecting on Browne (and, by extension, himself) in The Rings of Saturn:
The invisibility and intangibility of that which moves us remained an unfathomable mystery for Thomas Browne, too, who saw our world as no more than a shadow image of another one far beyond. In his thinking and writing he therefore sought to look upon earthly existence, from the things that were closest to him to the spheres of the universe, with the eye of an outsider, one might even say of the creator. His only means of achieving the sublime heights that this endeavor required was a parlous loftiness in his language. On common with other English writers of the seventeenth century, Browne wrote out of the fullness of his erudition, deploying a vast repertoire of quotations and the names of authorities who had gone before, creating complex metaphors and analogies, and constructing labyrinthine sentences that sometimes extend over one or two pages, sentences that resemble processions or a funeral cortège in their sheer ceremonial lavishness. It is true that, because of the immense weight of the impediments he is carrying, Browne’s writing can be held back by the force of gravitation, but when he does succeed in rising higher and higher through the circles of his spiralling prose, borne aloft like a glider on warm currents of air, even today the reader is overcome by a sense of levitation. The greater the distance, the clearer the view: one sees the tiniest of details with the utmost clarity. It is as if one were looking through a reversed opera glass and through a microscope at the same time. And yet, says Browne, all knowledge is enveloped in darkness. What we perceive are no more than isolated lights in the abyss of ignorance, in the shadow-filled edifice of the world. We study the order of things, says Browne, but we cannot grasp their innermost essence.
In his compelling and entertaining new book The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne in the 21st Century (Granta, 2015) Hugh Aldersey-Williams does his best to locate the innermost essence of Browne. The book opens as Browne sets off on a journey from Bury St Edmunds to his home in Norwich (where Aldersey-Williams also lives). “What was he thinking?” Aldersey-Williams wonders. Browne, a physician by trade, but also “a philosopher and writer, a coiner of words, a Christian moralist, a naturalist, an antiquarian, an experimenter and a myth-buster,” had just testified at the trial of two women accused of being witches. Browne’s testimony suggested that their actions reflected the subtlety of the devil. They were found guilty and were hanged. Aldersey-Williams, who clearly wished Browne had testified differently by exposing the unscientific thinking behind the charges of witchcraft, decides to retrace Browne’s journey home from the trial. And he was going to make the trip slowly, on a bicycle. “I want time to think about what was going through Browne’s head.” The portrait of Browne that emerges is at once thoughtful and impassioned. His complexities and contradictions are carefully weighed and examined. Read more