lunes, 23 de marzo de 2015

Después del invierno

Después del invierno (Anagrama, 2014)
por Guadalupe Nettel
México, 2014

Claudio es un cubano egocéntrico que vive en Nueva York.  Cecilia es una mexicana tímida que vive en París.  Cuando su breve aventura amorosa estalla en llamas, los ex novios siguen caminos separados para restablecerse y para prepararse para las próximas decepciones en la vida.  A pesar del aparente convencionalismo del argumento, me gustó Después del invierno.  En vez de ser una novela dedicada a personajes cerrados y punto, la obra trata de la carga de la aflicción con perspicacia más que de costumbre y también versa sobre lo que significa ser "un ser fronterizo" (Loc 944 en la edición Kindle) al encontrarse vivir en el extranjero.  Como es de suponer en una obra en que Cecilia está escribiendo una tesina sobre "escritores latinoamericanos enterrados en París" (Loc 2239), en que un vecino suyo dice que los libros "encierran los pensamientos y las voces de otras personas que viven o han vivido en este mundo.  Todos estos autores tienen en común el hecho de estar enterrados aquí, frente a nosotros" antes de prestar Lo infraordinario, la "publicación póstuma" de Georges Perec (Loc 1003), y en que un par de personajes sufren de la depresión y/o contemplan el suicidio en medio de hablar de su afición a César Vallejo y Nick Drake, Nettel alude al hecho de que París "es un inmenso cementerio" (Loc 1845) para llamar la atención a otra frontera significativa: la tierra de nadie entre los vivos y los muertos.  Si, de acuerdo con el conocido ensayo autobiográfico de Roberto Bolaño, podamos todavía afirmar que Literatura + enfermedad = enfermedad, eso no le quita valor del memento mori angustiado que es el libro estimable de Nettel.  Conmovedor.

Guadalupe Nettel

domingo, 15 de marzo de 2015

Una excursión a los indios ranqueles: Captivity Narratives I

Una excursión a los indios ranqueles (EDICOL, 2006)
by Lucio V. Mansilla
Argentina, 1870

Towards the very end of Una excursión a los indios ranqueles--a book first published as a series of letters in the Buenos Aires newspaper La Tribuna and, as previously mentioned, now translated into English by Eva Gillies as A Visit to the Ranquel Indians [Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997]--Colonel Lucio V. Mansilla shares two captivity narratives that probably weighed on the minds of many of his readers back home seeing as how they had to do with the abduction of white women by Indian raiding parties along the Cordoban frontier.  Although I'm not going to take the time to comment on the second captive's story right now, in the first of the two stories Mansilla describes his meeting with a captive by the name of Doña Fermina Zárate, seized at about the age of 20 and now one of the longtime wives of a Ranquel cacique or chieftain known as Ramón.  Chief Ramón, one of the Ranqueles whom Mansilla most admires, has just told his visitor that "la señora es muy buena, me ha acompañado muchos años, yo le estoy muy agradecido, por eso le he dicho ya que puede salir cuando quiera volverse a su tierra, donde está su familia" ["the señora is very good, she has kept me company many years, I am very grateful to her; so I've told her she may go if she wishes and return to her own country where her family lives"] (492 in the Spanish, 360 in Gillies' English translation).  However, to Mansilla's surprise, the captive greets the news of her liberation not with tears of joy but with torrents of tears.  To give you a close-up of Mansilla's personality as a writer, his struggles to overcome his racism, and a dramatic indication of his work's value as a primary source,  here's the rest of the vignette-like scene in Mansilla's own words beginning with the moment when the colonel and the captive are left alone by the Ranquel husband Ramón (493 in the Spanish, 360-361 in the English):

-¿Y por qué no se viene usted conmigo, señora? -la dije.
-¡Ah!, señor -me contestó con amargura-, ¿y qué voy a hacer yo entre los cristianos?
-Para reunirse con su familia.  Ya la conozco, está en la Carlota, todos se acuerdan de usted con gran cariño y la lloran mucho.
-¿Y mis hijos, señor?
-Sus hijos...
-Ramón me deja salir a mí porque realmente no es mal hombre; a mí al menos me ha tratado bien, después que fui madre.  Pero mis hijos, mis hijos no quiere que los lleve.
No me resolví a decirle: Déjelos usted, son el fruto de la violencia.
¡Eran sus hijos!
Ella prosiguió:
-Además, señor, ¿qué vida sería la mía entre los cristianos después de tantos años que falto de mi pueblo?  Yo era joven y buena moza cuando me cautivaron.  Y ahora ya ve, estoy vieja.  Parezco cristiana, porque Ramón me permite vestirme como ellas, pero vivo como india; y francamente, me parece que soy más india que cristiana, aunque creo en Dios, como que todos los días le encomiendo mis hijos y mi familia.
-¿A pesar de estar usted cautiva cree en Dios?
-¿Y Él qué culpa tiene de que me agarraran los indios?  La culpa la tendrán los cristianos que no saben cuidar sus mujeres ni sus hijos.
No contesté; tan alta filosofía en boca de aquella mujer, la concubina jubilada de aquél bárbaro, me humilló....

["So why don't you come away with me, señora?"
"Ah, Sir!" replied she with bitterness, "and what am I to do among the Christians?"
"Come and join your family!  I know them, they're at La Carlota, they all remember you with the greatest affection and mourn for you."
"And what about my children, Sir?"
"Your children?"
"Ramón's letting me go myself--because really he's not a bad man; me at least he's always treated well, after I became a mother.  But my children--he doesn't want me to take away my children."
I could not make up my mind to say to her, "Leave them behind, they are the offspring of violence."  They were her children!
She went on, "Besides, Sir--what sort of a life would I have among Christians, after being away from my hometown for so many years?  I was young and pretty when they took me captive.  And now, as you can see, I've grown old.  I look like a Christian, because Ramón allows me to dress as they do; but I live like an Indian woman and, honestly, I think I'm more more Indian than Christian--though I do believe in God and indeed commend my children and family to Him every day."
"Despite being a captive, you believe in God?"
"And what fault of His is it that the Indians grabbed me?  The fault lies with the Christians, who don't know how to look after their women or their children."
I made no answer: such high philosophy from the lips of that woman--the pensioned-off concubine of that barbarian--humbled me....]

Mansilla's obvious struggle to make sense of the complexity of the situation--"I could not make up my mind to say to her, 'Leave them behind, they are the offspring of violence.'  They were her children!"--and Doña Fermina's description of the Christians as "they" rather than "we" are the sort of things that make Mansilla an excellent and "authentic" tour guide.  And even though Mansilla doesn't hesitate to call his Indian host "that barbarian," he often tries to understand the barbarians and their "more Indian than Christian" captives from their points of view.  Is that enough to justify his frequent racism?  You be the judge.  Next up: a captivity narrative from Mansilla about a Ranquel Indian abducted by whites.  Below: two 19th century paintings dedicated to the trauma or propaganda value of Indian raids: Argentinean Ángel della Valle's La vuelta del malón [The Return of the Raiders], a detail of which figures on the cover of my EDICOL edition of Una excursión a los indios ranqueles, and German Johann Moritz Rugendas' El malón [The Indian Raid], a canvas concerning a Mapuche raid in Chile.  People who have read César Aira's 2000 novel Un episodio en la vida del pintor viajero [An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter], a work having to do with the "landscape painter" Rugendas' multiple and exotic misfortunes in Argentina including being struck by lightning and witnessing Indian raids, can now start debating whether the surrealistic scene in which an Indian raider grabs an uncommonly large salmon as if to steal it for a mate is actually an inside joke inspired by the lady captive's salmon steak-colored dress in the center of El malón below.  Mansilla-della Valle-Rugendas-Aira.  That sure seems to be the case to me!

 La vuelta del malón
(Ángel della Valle, 1892)

El malón
(Johann Moritz Rugendas, 1836)

jueves, 12 de marzo de 2015

Una excursión a los indios ranqueles

Una excursión a los indios ranqueles (EDICOL, 2006)
por Lucio V. Mansilla
Argentina, 1870

Criticado por ser un dandy, por ser un egotista (Adolfo Prieto: "Junto con Sarmiento, Mansilla es tal vez el hombre que ha hablado más de sí mismo en nuestro país" [13]) y, de forma irónicamente reveladora, por ser un gran admirador de Du contrat social de Rousseau en la época del dictador Juan Manuel de Rosas (quien, dicho sea de paso, era el tío del joven lector), Lucio V. Mansilla (1831-1913) tomó venganza de casi todos sus críticos con la publicación de Una excursión a los indios ranqueles, un libro que, además de ser reteinteresante por ambos su contenido y su mera estructura (es decir, un mezcla de géneros como el diario de campaña, el relato de viaje, y la etnografía entre otras cosas), también propone una suerte de desafiante respuesta al problema de "civilización y barbarie" como formulado por Domingo Faustino Sarmiento en su polémico FacundoEn resumen, lo siento esperé tanto tiempo para leerlo.  En todo caso, empecemos con el asunto del estilo del autor.  En primer lugar, se puede decir sin miedo a equivocarse que Mansilla escribió su Excursión para el lector culto y el hombre de la calle a la vez.  Por ejemplo, él describe el cacique de los ranqueles, Mariano Rosas, como "el Talleyrand del desierto" en algún momento (35) y dice que un orador indio es "un Cicerón de la Pampa" en otro (176).  Estas dos plumadas retóricas son típicas del estilo elevado de Mansilla, y éste no vacila en revelarse como un lector voraz al mencionar Brillat-Savarin, Emerson, Goethe, Manzoni, Schiller, Shakespeare y varias otras superestrellas de la blogosfera del siglo XIX en el curso de su relato.  En otra parte, el buen coronel Mansilla dedica tres capítulos a la espeluznante historia de la muerte y la "resurección" de un tal cabo Gómez, dirigiéndose al "lector paciente" para hacer hincapié en el hecho que "el único mérito que tiene este cuento de fogón" sobre un soldado de la guerra del Paraguay "es ser cierto.  No todas las historias pueden reivindicar ese crédito" (78).  Basta decir que ésta no será la última vez que Mansilla se muestra preocupado por su relación con el lector.  Habiendo ya dicho que el deseo de celebrar un tratado de paz con los ranqueles junto con "el deseo de ver con mis propios ojos ese mundo que llaman Tierra Adentro, para estudiar sus usos y costumbres, sus necesidades, sus ideas, su religión, su lengua, e inspeccionar yo mismo el terreno por donde alguna vez quizá tendrán que marchar las fuerzas que están bajo mis órdenes" (31) fueron las razones para iniciar el viaje de 18 días que él, dos padres franciscanos y un puñado de sus tropas pasaron viajando más allá de la frontera cordobesa, Mansilla pasa las más que 500 páginas que siguen informándonos de lo que observó en gran y frecuentemente memorable detalle.  Hay escenas divertidas donde él enumera las formalidades para saludos de los ranqueles ("Que cómo me había ido de viaje.  Que si no había perdido algunos caballos.  Que cómo estaba yo y todos mis jefes, oficiales y soldados"), preguntas seguidas por abrazos y apretones y varios "hurras y vítores" (177).  Hay himnos al campo argentino: "Lo digo ingenuamente, prefiero el aire libre del desierto, su cielo, su sublime y poética soledad a estas calles encajonadas, a este hormigueo de gente atareada, a estos horizontes circunscritos que no me permiten ver el firmamento cubierto de estrellas, sin levantar la cabeza, ni gozar del espectáculo imponente de la tempestad cuando serpentean los relámpagos luminosos y ruge el trueno.  Hacía un día hermoso" (320).  Hay debates diplomáticos como en Tucídides en que el cacique Mariano Rosas le pregunta a su contrincante el coronel Mansilla "con qué derecho habíamos ocupado el Río Quinto; dijo que esas tierras habían sido siempre de los indios; que sus padres y sus abuelos habían vivido por las lagunas de Chemecó, la Brava y Tarapendá por el cerillo de la Plata y Langhelo; agregó que no contentos con eso todavía los cristianos querían acopiar (fue la palabra de que se valió) más tierra".  Mansilla: "Que la tierra no era de los indios, sino de los que la hacían productiva trabajando".  Rosas: "¿Cómo no ha de ser nuestra cuando hemos nacido en ella?" (413).  También hay reflexiones sobre los gauchos buenos y los gauchos malos, historias dedicadas a los desertores y los bandidos que elijen vivir entre los ranqueles, y más de una anécdota triste sobre el destino de los cautivos cristianos que viven entre los indios como familia y/o esclavos.  Sorprendentemente, a pesar de varios comentarios suyos en el que llama a los tribus "bárbaros" y cosas por el estilo, Mansilla concluye su informe con una medida de respeto para los ranqueles que se diferencia de la dicotomía de civilización y barbarie propuesta por Sarmiento 25 años antes.  Les dejo con un par de citas: 1) "Mientras tanto, el bárbaro, el salvaje, el indio ese, que rechazamos y despreciamos, como si todos no derivásemos de un tronco común, como si la planta hombre no fuese única en su especie, el día menos pensado nos prueba que somos muy altaneros, que vivimos en la ignorancia, de una vanidad descomunal, irritante, que ha penetrado en la oscuridad nebulosa de los cielos con el telescopio, que ha suprimido las distancias por medio de la electricidad y del vapor, que volará mañana, quizá, convenido; pero que no destruirá jamás, hasta aniquilarla una simple partícula de la materia, ni le arrancará al hombre los secretos recónditos del corazón" (500-501).  2)  "¿No tuvieron los conquistadores que casarse con mujeres indígenas, entroncando recién entre sí, pasada la primera generación?  Y entonces, si es así, todos los americanos tenemos sangre de indio en las venas, ¿por qué ese grito constante de exterminio contra los bárbaros?  Los hechos que se han observado sobre la constitución física y las facultades intelectuales y morales de ciertas razas, son demasiado aislados para sacar de ellos consecuencias generales, cuando se trata de condenar poblaciones enteras a la muerte o la barbarie" (523).  Un librazo.

A Visit to the Ranquel Indians (University of Nebraska Press, 1997)
by Lucio V. Mansilla [translated from the Spanish by Eva Gillies]
Argentina, 1870

Criticized for being a dandy, for being an egotist (Adolfo Prieto: "Junto con Sarmiento, Mansilla es tal vez el hombre que ha hablado más de sí mismo en nuestro país" ["Together with Sarmiento, Mansilla is perhaps the man who has most talked about himself in all our country"]) (13 in the Spanish language edition of the work) and, tellingly, for being a great admirer of Rousseau's The Social Contract in the age of the dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas (the young reader was, in fact, the nephew of the caudillo), Lucio V. Mansilla (1831-1913) no doubt exacted revenge on almost all his critics with the publication of A Visit to the Ranquel Indians, a book which, in addition to being super interesting on account of both its subject matter and its stucture itself (a freewheeling blend of the campaign diary, the travel chronicle, and amateur ethnography among other things), proposes a sort of defiant response to the problem of "civilization and barbarism" as formulated by Domingo Faustino Sarmiento in the polemical Facundo.  In short, I'm sorry I waited so long to read the damn thing.  In any case, let's begin with a look at the author's style.  First off, it's clear that Mansilla wrote his Visit with both the learned reader and the man in the street in mind.  For example, he describes the chief of the Ranqueles, Mariano Rosas, as "this Talleyrand of the wilderness" at one point (6) and says that an Indian orator is "a veritable Cicero of the Pampas" at another (116).  These two rhetorical flourishes are typical of Mansilla's elevated style, and he doesn't hesitate to reveal himself as a voracious reader by namedropping Brillat-Savarin, Emerson, Goethe, Manzoni, Schiller, Shakespeare and various other superstars of the 19th century blogosphere during the course of his work.  Elsewhere, the good Colonel Mansilla dedicates three chapters to the hair-raising story of the death and "resurrection" of a certain Corporal Gómez, directing himself to the "patient reader" to stress that "the only merit of this campfire tale" about a soldier from the Paraguayan war "is that it is true.  The same cannot be said of all stories" (38-39).  Suffice it to say that this won't be the last time that Mansilla shows concern about where he stands in the reader's favor.  Having declared at the outset that the desire to conclude a peace treaty with the Ranqueles along with "the desire to see with my own eyes that world they call Up Country, in order to study its habits and customs, its needs, ideas, religion, and language, and myself view the terrain over which some day the forces under my command might have to march" (2) were the principal reasons for undertaking the 18-day long journey which he, two Franciscan priests, and a handful of troops spent traveling beyond the Córdoba frontier, Mansilla spends the nearly 400 pages that follow filling us in on all he observed with minute and often memorable detail.  There are humorous scenes where he enumerates the formulaic salutations the Ranquel emissaries would repeatedly use to greet him--"That he was very glad that I was gradually reaching his country (first reason).  That he wished to know how I had fared on my journey (second reason).  Whether I had not lost any horses on the way (third reason).  How was I, together with all my senior officers and subalterns (fourth reason)"--questions followed by ritual embraces and handshakes and various "hurrahs and vivas" (116-117).  There are hymns to the Argentinean countryside: "I say it in all simplicity: I prefer the free air of the wilderness, its skies, its sublime and poetic solitude to these boxed-in streets, this anthill of busy people, these narrow horizons that do not allow me, unless I raise my head, to see the star-studded firmament or to enjoy the imposing spectacle of a storm, when the luminous lightning darts snakelike and the thunder roars.  It was a beautiful day" (226).  There are diplomatic debates as in Thucydides in which Chief Mariano Rosas asks his opponent Colonel Mansilla "by what right we had occupied the Río Quinto; said that those lands had always belonged to the Indians, that his parents and grandparents had lived around the lagoons of Chemecó, Brava, and Tarapendá, around the hillock of La Plata and around Langhelo; he added that, not content with this, the Christians wanted to 'collect' (that was the word he used) more land."  Mansilla: "The land did not belong to the Indians but to those whose work made it productive."  Rosas: "How can the land not belong to us, if we were born in it?" (300).  There are also reflections on the differences between good and bad gauchos, stories dedicated to the white deserters and bandits who chose to live among the Ranqueles, and a few harrowing anecdotes concerning the Christian captives forced to live among the Indians as family members or slaves.  Surprisingly, in spite of numerous comments in which he refers to the natives as "barbarians" and things of that nature, Mansilla concludes his report with a measure of respect for and understanding of the Ranqueles that differs from the civilization and barbarism dichotomy proposed by Sarmiento 25 years earlier.  I'll leave you with a pair of quotes on the matter: 1) "Meanwhile that barbarian, that savage, that Indian we reject and despise--as if we were not all branches of the same tree, as if the "man-plant" were not a single species--shows us one fine day that we are very arrogant, that we live in ignorance, that ours is an inordinate itching vanity that has indeed pierced the nebulous darkness of the skies with its telescope, has done away with distance by electricity and steam, will perhaps fly tomorrow--granted--but that will never destroy to annihilation one simple particle of matter nor wrest from man the deepest secrets of his heart" (366).  2) "Did the conquerors not have to take native wives, mating among their own kind only after the first generation?  So, if all of us in the Americas [sic] have Indian blood in our veins, why this constant cry for the extermination of the barbarians?  The facts that have been observed concerning the physical constitution and the intellectual and moral faculties of certain races are too sparse to enable us to draw general consequences from them when it is a matter of condemning entire races to death or to barbarism" (384).  Great stuff.

lunes, 2 de marzo de 2015

The Secret Agent

The Secret Agent (Penguin Classics, 2007)
by Joseph Conrad
England, 1907

"Exterminate, exterminate!  That is the only way of progress."
(The Secret Agent, 240)

Joseph Conrad's 1907 cover of "Anarchy in the U.K." isn't as rousing or anthemic as the Sex Pistols' debut single--even if, at its best, it's sometimes its equal in ironic malevolence--but I'm willing to overlook that for r-r-right now-w-w on account of the well-known greater availability of cheap speed and antisocial power chords in the "don't know what I want/but I know how to get it" 1970s.  In any case, what concerns us here is that the title character of the bomb-throwing satirical thriller The Secret Agent is a part-time pornographer, part-time family man, and full-time employee of the Russian embassy by the name of Adolf Verloc whose involvement in a bungled plot to blow up the Greenwich Observatory in order to cast suspicion on London's anarchist community will make him rethink the age old adage that "Ⓐ is the only way to be!" when his wife, the cops, and of course those dirty rotten anarchists themselves all line up to fight over who wants Verloc out of the way the most by the end of the squalid tale.  Not having read any other Conrad novels since Heart of Darkness back in the Apocalypse Now/early Thatcher days, what was easily the least gratifying thing about the resumption of my reading relationship with the guy was seeing how inauthentic the Verloc character became after the bombing mishap at the center of the story.  That was almost a deal-breaker for me, in fact.  Fortunately, what was probably the most gratifying thing about the resumption of my reading relationship with the guy was seeing what a full-on, mean-spirited loon he could be re: the art of description--saying, for example, that a good housewife turned murderess "had put all the inheritance of her immemorial and obscure descent, the simple ferocity of the age of caverns, and the unbalanced nervous fury of the age of bar-rooms" (208) into the stabbing of her victim is probably Darwinian evidence enough, but that example positively pales in comparison to the "outrage" of an earlier one in which a certain Chief Inspector Heat examines the remains of a bombing victim on an exam room table as the reader is told "And meantime the Chief Inspector went on peering at the table with a calm face and the slightly anxious attention of an indigent customer bending over what may be called the by-products of a butcher's shop with a view to an inexpensive Sunday dinner" (70).  Pre-punk punk, punk!

Joseph Conrad (1857-1924)

lunes, 23 de febrero de 2015

La petite communiste qui ne souriait jamais

La petite communiste qui ne souriait jamais (Actes Sud, 2014)
by Lola Lafon
France, 2014

If you have any doubts at all about whether dreaming up a fictitious biography of all-world Romanian gymnast Nadia Comăneci really could have been the smartest career move to make for someone with aspirations of writing a great, thought-provoking novel in the year 2014, then imagine my pleasure and surprise at discovering that new to me French novelist Lola Lafon not only pulled off the high degree of difficulty feat of genre acrobatics but nailed the landing as well...explaining why I was so taken by La petite communiste qui ne souriait jamais [The Little Communist Who Never Smiled], a seemingly very personal book which Lafon (b. 1975), a Frenchwoman who herself grew up in Romania, has dedicated to the "petites filles de l'été 1976" ["little girls of the summer of 1976"] (318), is easy enough b/c in addition to the vitality of the prose grabbing you from the get-go with its punchy no-nonsense style, this part factual/part fictional faux-reportorial profile dedicated to the "adorable," "insupportablement mignonne" ["unbearably tiny"] (81) but supposedly über-taciturn teen Comăneci's celebrity rise and fall audaciously profits from imagined interviews between the narrator and the former child star in which reflections on the nature of girlhood/womanhood and relations between Ceaușescu's Romania and the '70s and '80s West are all dealt with insightfully and sans the usual simplifying clichés...for those maybe a little taken aback by the torrent of ironic scorn with which Lafon rains down on the idealization of adolescent gymnasts and models at the expense of their future grown-up and grown-out selves as something attributable to "le malheureux destin biologique féminin" ["the unfortunate biological destiny of the female sex"] (278), rest assured that the romancière's sardonic sense of humor also includes slightly more gender-neutral nuggets such as the description of the gold medal winning Romanian Olympic girls gymnastics team--whom coach Béla Károlyi, at least in the novel, proudly refers to as his "fillettes missiles" ["little girl missiles"] (115) at the height of the Cold War!--as "un amas d'araignées exsangues, des mini-vampires des Carpates, une armée d'enfants livides et affamées" ["a mass of anemic spiders, of mini-vampires from the Carpathians, an army of livid and starving children"] (171) in homage to the sacrifices that the perfect 10 Comăneci and her wan cohorts accepted as the price of success in exchange for giving up any semblance of a normal teen life.  Fascinating.

Lola Lafon

viernes, 20 de febrero de 2015

"Petersburg": Antipoetry and Panic

Petersburg (Penguin Classics, 2011)
by Andrei Bely [translated from the Russian by David McDuff]
Russia, 1916

Petersburg was such a fun book to read and write about that I changed my mind after Monday's usual overview/taxonomy post and decided to spend a little more time with the great novel after all before calling it revolutionary quits.  And although I probably couldn't have gone wrong taking a look at either some of the narrator's Lautréamont-like elbows to the reader's rib cage ("And even if Apollon Apollonovich is woven from our brains, he will none the less be able to frighten with another, stupendous existence that attacks by night...the aged senator will pursue you, he will pursue you, too, reader, in his black carriage: and from this day forth you will never forget him!" [67-68, ellipses added]) or to the three exclamation point ejaculatory narrative coitus interruptus of the direct address to "we the author"'s unrest-riddled homeland ("Rus, Rus!  He saw - you, you!  It was you who raised a howl with winds, with blizzards, with snow, with rain, with black ice - you raised a howl with millions of living, conjuring voices!" [99]) or, maybe best of all, to the oddball observations of the Nevsky Prospect crowds enlivened by the unexpected experimentation with comic strip POV ("The swarms of bowler hats grew dark; vengefully the top hats began to gleam; from all sides the nose of the ordinary man in the street began once more to hop: noses flowed by in great numbers: acquiline, cockerel-like, hen-like, greenish, grey; and - a nose with a wart on it: absurd, hurried, enormous" [442]), what I'd like to do today instead is just to share two of the more, cough, lyrical examples of the cracked antipoetry and panic strains present in Bely's prose.  Here, let's start here, shall we?

The days were foggy, strange: over the north of Russia poisonous October walked with frozen tread; and in the south he spread muggy mists.  Poisonous October blew a golden sylvine whisper, and humbly that whisper lay down on the earth, - and humbly a rustling aspen crimson lay down on the earth, in order to twine and chase at the feet of the passing pedestrian, and to whisper, weaving from the leaves the yellow-red alluvial deposits of words.  That sweet peeping of the blue tit, which in September bathes in a leafy wave, had not bathed in a leafy wave for a long time: and the blue tit itself now hopped lonely in a black mesh of branches, which like the mumbling of a toothless old man all autumn sends its whistle out of woodlands, leafless groves, front gardens and parks.

When I first read this passage from page 94, I remember being pretty amused by the "poetic" personification of "poisonous October" walking with a frozen tread and by the explosion of colors--golden, crimson, yellow-red, etc.--pressed into service galley slave style for what appears to be a prose send-up of pastoral poetry.  Bely, you're so urban doom!  The simile having to do with "the mumbling of a toothless old man all autumn" also amused me for its novelty value and semi-meanness.  However, I really began to get geeked up over this Russian antipoetry when I realized that what I'd taken to be an archaic or variant spelling of "sylvan" was in fact the correct spelling of the previously unknown to me mineral sylvine or sylvite, the salt of which is said to be used in lethal injections and fertilizers.  Suddenly, the idea of "a golden sylvine whisper" or fertilizer air kiss sounded a little too bucolic for this city boy!  Before moving on, I should probably point out that the next paragraph begins "the days were foggy, strange" and yet another paragraph three pages later begins "The days were foggy, strange: poisonous October walked with frozen tread"--repetition being a hallmark of Bely's poetic and/or antipoetic style--and that a more sinister reading of the color symbolism cloaked in the "aspen crimson" and "yellow-red alluivial deposits of words" descriptions is suggested by the title of the segment: "Arguments in the Street Became More Frequent."

Having antipoetically foregrounded the idea that those ill-omened October 1905 days were foggy, strange and poisonous all over the land, the enthusiastically Pushkin-spouting narrator later takes to us a working class tavern in Petersburg where, in a segment titled "I Annihilate Irrevocably," self-proclaimed party member and "official of the secret police" Pavel Yakovlevich Morkovin drunkenly tries to bully Nikolai Apollonovich into honoring his terrorist commitment to murder his own father over seven glasses of vodka (285).  Although the panic-stricken Nikolai's resistance is mostly of the passive sort during the build-up to the scene, there's nothing passive about Bely's phantasmagoric writing as you'll see when you read about the strange transformation that follows (286):

Then from behind the edge of the table Pavel Yakovlevich, bending over the notebook, thrust forward his head, which looked as though it were attached not to his neck, but to his two hands; for a single moment he became quite simply a monster: at that moment Nikolai Apollonovich saw: a foul head, blinking little eyes, with hair that looked like doghair groomed with a comb, snapping in a repulsive laugh, with yellow folds of skin, ran above the table on ten twitching fingers, looking like an enormous insect: a ten-legged spider, rustling over the paper with its feet.
But it was all a comedy...

For me, the most charming part of the comedy in what the narrator will assure us was "a charming little joke!" isn't the monstrosity of it all per se but rather the Mad magazine-like gleefulness of the allusion to "hair that looked like doghair groomed with a comb."  A nice touch, no?  In any event, even though the reader is told that Pavel Yakovlevich merely "wanted to frighten Ableukhov with the pretence of this investigation," it's perhaps worth noting that a mere twenty pages later, even the sun, "the golden, thousand-armed Titan of old," also appears to Nikolai as an insectoid harbinger of doom or what is more precisely characterized as "a most enormous thousand-legged tarantula, attacking the earth with insane passion..." (307).  Other than the fact that senator Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov now appears in household mirrors looking like "death in a frock-coat" (305), is it any wonder that his conflicted wannabe terrorist son is such a troubled lad?  I thought not--fun stuff!

lunes, 16 de febrero de 2015

Petersburg

Petersburg (Penguin Classics, 2011)
by Andrei Bely [translated from the Russian by David McDuff]
Russia, 1916

A spiritual ancestor of Musil's The Man Without Qualities in terms of its coupling of a disarmingly playful narrative voice with an idiosyncratic but irresistible storytelling style all wrapped up in the guise of a lurid thriller, Petersburg--hailed by everybody from Nabokov to Obooki and now little old me--is, if anything, somehow even better and more unhinged than I'd been told it was.  Fucking fantastic stuff.  In the Russian Literature of Doom year of 1905, a jittery stranger hands sleepyheaded St. Petersburg student, ladies man, and would be revolutionary Nikolai Apollonovich Ableukhov "a most inoffensive little bundle" ("It's literature, I expect?..."  "Well, no...") in order to blow up--as it turns out--a well known enemy of the people (100-101).  But as fate would have it, the ticking time bomb of a terror target is none other than Nikolai's elderly father, the distinguished senator Apollon Apollonovich Ableukhov, last seen depicted on the cover "of a humorous little street journal" with "completely green ears, enlarged to massive dimensions, against the blood-red background of a burning Russia" (8).  As that last little descriptive bit might indicate, one of the things I loved about this novel was Bely's elaborate exploitation of colors--both in the way that the senator's green ears, a running gag the length of the story, seem to parallel Petersburg's poisonous "green waters, seething with bacilli" (66) and in the way that the establishment politician Apollon Apollonovich himself feels the color red to be "an emblem of the chaos that was leading Russia to ruin" (217).  Similarly, in addition to the tome's prole art threat-style appeal to the visual senses, there's also a corresponding lush audio element to Bely's prose as in the apostrophe to "Petersburg, Petersburg!" in which the narrator addresses the Romanov city as a "a cruel-hearted tormentor" and "an unquiet ghost" pursuing and even attacking his thoughts over the years (66) and in the Homeric epithet-like descriptions scattered throughout the novel such as this one reverse-poeticizing a suburb of Petersburg as the "many-chimneyed, many smoke-columned Kolpino!" (130).  One of the great novels and a surprisingly mischievous one at that--not least because a good chunk of the way into Petersburg and beginning to wonder whether the once loving but now dysfunctional father-son relationship between the two Ableukhovs would ultimately deter young Nikolai from his revolutionary resolve to turn his autocratic senator father into "blood-red slush" (315), I looked at one of translator David McDuff's many helpful footnotes and learned that the snippet of mad, utopian "political" dialogue that had just made me laugh whilst hearing it come out of one of the more crackpot characters' mouths--"The bourgeoisie, sensing its end, has seized upon mysticism: we shall leave the sky to the sparrows and from the kingdom of necessity create the kingdom of freedom" (146)--was actually lifted from that dry Teutonic theoretician Engels.  Too funny!

Andrei Bely (1880-1934)

Dwight of A Common Reader, one of the trio of bloggers along with Obooki and Tom whose pro-Petersburg comments were almost 100% responsible for my purchase of the novel over a year ago (thanks, I should have listened to you all a lot sooner!), has written eleven posts on the work.  You can check out Dwight's summary here.  Also, Kaggsy of Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings has a Petersburg review here; [P] of books, yo has a Petersburg piece here; Steve of languagehat has three posts on Petersburg here, here and here; and Tony of Tony's Reading List has his own Petersburg post here.