Monday, June 22, 2009

Exposing the tyrant while writing a beautiful book

(from left to right: Young Huber Matos just before Castro threw him in prison for 20 years; Guillermo Cabrera Infante in his prime; Carlos Franqui, an elderly exile in Italy)

Family Portrait with Fidel by Carlos Franqui
Mea Cuba by Guilermo Cabrera Infante
Como Llego la Noche (How night arrived by Huber Matos; not sure if the English translation is out yet.)

Franqui and Infante were both artist intellectuals who held official posts in the early Castro government; by 1965 both were disillusioned and planning their escapes. Their books are by turns fascinating witty brutal and tragic. Matos is a man with truth for a backbone; he was sentenced in 1959 and served out a 20 year sentence, obtaining release from prison in 1979; he was on to Castro early on and paid a steep price.

These books are not hard to get hold of. When you hear pretty-faced Hollywood/and TV reporters praise Castro you realize that these people do not read. How many talking heads have given a stern look over the last couple days and said, "we don't know much about Raul Castro but..."

This is nonsense. It common knowledge that Raul is a bigger thug and murderer than Fidel and it is well documented. In the early days of the Revolution Fidel would purposefully humiliate Raul in large meetings to the point that fellow revolutionaries, hardened murderers, would turn their faces away so as not to have to share in Raul's utter abasement.

Anyway, these books are loaded with fascinating and sometimes funny but always tragic detail of life under the tyrant.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

If All Seattle Read A Different Book

It is a measure of Seattle’s endemic middlebrow infantilism that Nancy Pearl, author of the Booklust series, holds such sway over the Seattle reading public. About a decade ago she started Seattle off on the If All Seattle Read The Same Book kick. For someone who knows writers and the world of writing she, and her reading publicity stunts, shows a real callousness towards them. Why not encourage the reading public this way: IF ALL SEATTLE READ A DIFFERENT BOOK. There are thousands of writers published in English each year; encourage the discriminating Seattle reader to look into them. Forget the childish rule of One Book. I don't see how this dotty little bookmaven can get a large, supposedly well-educated, gentrified city to go along with If All Seattle Read the Same Book. What writers want is for everybody in a city to be reading a different book. Pearl promotes a slightly fascist, pajama-party view of reading culture and literature.

To be fair Pearl does present a wide variety of books in her frequent radio and TV interviews. Even so something rankles about her literary enthusiasms. She misses the hallmark of literary masterpiece: excellent books savage you and drive all other books off the shelf, for a time anyway. A masterpiece enfolds you and takes you over and shoves out of the way all the other books floating in your brain. When I hear Pearl bubbling with delight over the latest detective thriller then moving on to a pre-teen novel I suspect I could never trust her to recognize a true masterpiece. She can go from breathily praising the latest trash detective novel to some new young adult fiction and then onto Toni Morrison’s latest novel and then over to the latest ethnic cookbook without pause. Pearl for all her admirable reading misses the point that a good book drives out all before it. I believe Pearl represents a librarians' view of books: bring ‘em on, that’s what we’re here for…a Dewey Decimal reading list. For Pearl it doesn’t seem to matter as long as there are words on the page and glue in the bindings. Again, great books drive everything before them: criticism, book clubs, social fashion. Excellent books rage and turn readers inward to pause and then hate all other books, even if only for an hour. Pearl's multitudinous book enthusiasms are really declarations of Seattle’s hopeless middlebrowness; she has bubbled for too many books.

Every good book carries seeds of criticism within it. Seattle reading culture represents another manifestation of Seattle’s colonial, past twice removed: once a colony of England and now a colony of east coast intellectual fashion. Never though, will Seattle have the confidence to recognize something beautiful and homegrown. Seattle media doesn’t have enough confidence to trust its own reactions to things artistic. It needs the swell of millions of other opinions before it can weigh in with its own non-entity opinion.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Garcia Lorca and thoughts...

I really love the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca (1898-1936). His poems sneak up on you like sunshine slipping from under a cloud. They are full of taste and smell and color processed by a loving sensibility. Garcia Lorca was a poet, an artist, a playwright and a musician and he was also an amateur folklorist, gathering folk-nursery songs from all corners of Spain. He celebrated without shame Spain's southern/Arab-influenced region at a time when it wasn't fashionable to do so. He formed part of Spain's generation of 1927 which gave the world a great burst of unique scholarship and artistic achievement.

When I think of the various generations of Spanish writers (generation of ’98--that would be 189--of 1927, etc) and looking at photos of Garcia Lorca, arm in arm with Vicente Aleixandre, Luis Cernuda, Damaso Alonso, etc…I really have to admire those guys. Those Spanish poets and writers saw, before their politicians, that Spain, in the first part of the 20th century, was headed for the sewer culturally and politically; these bold men (and women) rallied as artists and writers and thinkers; they overcame their jealousies and competition and they really did something for their country and their mother tongue. You can see them taking off from the powerful 19th century influences (American: Poe, Whitman, French: Hugo, Mallarme, Baudelaire) and committing themselves to making something of their own. It is tremendously affecting to see how cross-fertilized they were in all the arts: music, painting, sculpture, theater, poetry, fiction.

Maybe I am dreaming but I think Seattle will forever be muddled in provincialism as long as none of our cultural leaders take a stand on anything. Until they stop taking their cue from the New York Times or the National Librarians Guild or National Bookclubs or whatever. The first step away from provincialism is to commit yourself to something you love and trust with your own reactions. Having an opinion that doesn’t have to be shored up by 1000 or a million other consenting opinions. Until then Seattle will be mired in provinciality and maintain its backwater status.

Back to Garcia Lorca; how can you not love a poet who writes poems to the guitar? (My translations)

When I die,
bury me with my guitar
beneath the sand.

When I die,
among the orange groves
and the heirbabuena.

When I die,
bury me if you please
in a wheathervane.

When I die!

To the Ear of a Girl
I didn't want to.
I didn't want to tell you anything.

I saw in your eyes
two crazy trees.

How they wriggled.

I didn't want to.
I didn't want to tell you anything.

If You...
The sky will get lost:
country girl,
under the cherry trees,
full of red cries,
I want you.

The sky will disappear...
if you understand this,
just walking by the tree
you give me your kisses.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Anthony Burgess and spring sundry

1985 by Anthony Burgess.
A pastiche of essay and story telling and futuristic projection based on George Orwell's 1984. Written in the late 1970s it is interesting to see what Burgess got right. He predicted accurately the rise of Islam in London, with active construction of mosques funded by oil-rich gulf princes (a telling line from the book: With the death of institutional Christianity will come the spread of Islam). More: the wide screen TV, tighter airport security, search for fuel substitutes, women in trousers men in kilts, more and more newspapers closing down, microbombs of immense destructiveness placed in public buildings, a German coup breaks down the Berlin Wall.

He got a few things wrong. Burgess thought labor unions would excercise an overwhelming power over daily life in the future, that porn would overtake violence in the movies and he missed the computer/telecommunications revolution in daily life (though he does portray the union enforcement officials capable of a Google-like effiency in capturing personal details on a computer system). A wonderful overlooked book.

The Private Life of Chairman Mao by Dr. Li Zhisui.
A 625 page nightmare. Mao's private doctor lived in nervous terror of the various cabals surrounding China's maximum leader. Fascinating but in the end repetitive; Dr. Zhisui is mainly concerned with keeping Mao alive. Mao unleashed insanity on a mass scale during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1975), but Dr. Zhisui, it appears, was not privy to the political machinations that constantly flowed from Mao's brainpan. We read mostly of the difficulties of getting Mao to take his medicine. Mao was a megalo-maniac and often quite ill during the last 20 years of his life. What comes through is his heartlessness and cruelty. His policies led to the death of millions. You can't help thinking that there is a bill come due in China - despite her current power and prosperity.

Before the Sabbath by Eric Hoffer.
This book is a half year's worth of diary entries from the mid-1970s by this fine and original thinker. Hoffer extrapolates the future just looking around and commenting. For example let me quote a few entries at random:

If the present fuel debacle brings about a decline of Western Europe, France wants to make sure that it ends up sitting on top of the heap. To solve the fuel problem by force would result in a situation in which France could not play a paramount role. Hence France will urge submission to Arab dictates. It will also be for the abandonment of Israel and the cold-shouldering of the United States.

I have long assumed that the stagnation of the Arab world is due to the congeniality of the religion of Islam - its lack of the inner contradictions and tensions which stretch souls. But it seems that hashish is also a factor. The Mongol invasion in the thirteenth century which put an end to Arab supremacy also introduced hashish. Egyptian doctors have blamed this drug for the sluggishness of Egyptian workers. Will the use of marijuana have a similar effect on American workers?

Backward countries are crying about the maldistribution of the world's wealth: one quarter of the world's population has threee quarters of the wealth. Not a word is said about how wealth comes into being; the toil, sweat and self denial which make an accumulation of wealth possible. This is how a once poor and backward Japan became an affluent country. It is curious how in both domestic and international affairs there is at present a stubborn refusal to see a connection between effort and income. It is widely assumed that individuals or countries are poor because they are exploited or discriminated against.

The danger inherent in reform is that the cure may be worse than the disease. Reform is an operation on the social body; but unlike medical surgeons reformers are not on guard against unpredictable side effects which may divert the course of reform toward unwanted results. Moreover, quite often the social doctors become part of the disease.

It needs an effort to realize how offended Europe's cultivated, aristocratic minds were by the spectacle of common people eloping with history to a vast, new continent and essaying to do there all the things - build cities, found states, lead armies - which from the beginning of time were reserved for the privileged orders.

Hoffer thought a special line of cultural demarcation occurred in the Sputnik launch by the Russians in 1957. As a result, back in America, Hoffer proposed that many traditional business types got washed into academia during the early 60s (and conversely, many creative or scholar-types washed into the business world). The new academics Hoffer wrote, "felt superior to the trivial businessmen and politicians who were running the country. They were going to create a new society in which every act was pregnant with meaning and destiny..."

Maybe. Hoffer puts forth interesting models-as-tools to help think about the various antagonistic-worlds that bump against each other in modern America: businessman vs artist, politician vs professor/theorist, ancients vs moderns. His thoughts often carry a counter-intuitive streak that give them a pugnacious or challenging effect. Even so, Hoffer presents his ideas in vivid, musclular prose worth reading for its own sake.