Orgasms are Cries for Help, a review of Sesshu Foster’s City of the Future

Orgasms are Cries for Help, a review of Sesshu Foster’s City of the Future

 

 

The ticket of the cockroaches and the ticket of the rats

—-

The avant-garde poets, those academic experimentalist poets, most of them white, would

Rather you not use the word motherfucker…

Sadly, this use of repetition shall not be construed as poetic by those well-fed motherfuckers

The reddened subjunctive is a ball-peen hammer on the tin of peppercorns unnoticed by the sheriff’s dept. SWAT team.

Accessorize your Buddha

1.beach umbrella & cooler

2.cell phone

3.shotgun

4.cap

5.porcelain commode ashtray

6.Marlboros & pistol lighter

7.motorcycle jacket

8.tats (yakuza)

  1. Ray Bans

10.iPhone

In the movie version, the cold beer was played by country music nasal twang, and Jeffrey Hunter was played by slight nausea and nostril flare. His headache was played by the 20th century.

 

Sesshu Foster’s new book of poetry, City of the Future, is dada returning in giant crab fitted out Humvee come to flatten you out, you and your vegetables and sauna, your socket wrenches and Terrain Hauteur, your indifference and your feigned difference, your acceptance and your diddler, your frank and your explank, and believe me, you don’t read this kind of book in a day—it’s the kind of book you put next to your bed and dip into like a chip into brains of guacamole. I should know, because I got mine around noon today and between this and that finished it around 7 tonight.  Don’t do as I do, and definitely not what I say, which is doo doo. And thank Sesshu for dada.

Which is not to say the book is a mess of fernacular sintaxing jackanapes, bounding cross the deserts of L.A., for that is just a part of this montage, this aged man’s mount of his own bones—he kills himself many times in the book, at many different ages—arroyos fill with bones, of Mexicans, manifold arroyos and many festas, even two stark plain manifests, for dada does not shrink from the direct:

 

ghost prayer

 

shoot Dick Cheney through the eye if I am tortured to death in a corner of bagram air force base, in abu ghraib, in a black site tonight

 

so says the ghost flickering off an on like a midnight street lamp over a Mexicali school yard

 

shoot Henry Kissinger through the right eye if I am to die with my children in a field, with my children in the desert, with my children in a ditch

 

so says the ghost flickering off and on like a parking lot light at a midnight sunset boulevard motel

 

shoot Donald Rumsfeld and donald trump through the teeth of i am to die in the worst possible way, bones dissolved in a barrel of acid, ashes swirling away at the dump

 

so says the ghost flickering off and on like the little lights in the heels of the toddler’s sneakers skipping down the sidewalk

 

Nor the fun of it all, like the fun of seeing folk, as he sees them in the hearty Another Portrait of Dad, in which he sees his dad and his brother (both now dead), Harry Gamboa, Mario Ybarra, Lawrence Felinghetti, Ernesto Cardenal, Karen Yamashita, Carlo Pedace, a blue whale, Willie Herron and:

I saw Rick Harsch sitting on my balcony, smoking and drinking a beer. He emitted anxious smoke like my brother. (He means Paul, the one who was around my age and died a couple years back.)

 

Foster’s poems don’t flinch from the intrusion of beauty, like the branch bending in the wind, nor does he fear to exclaim Whitmanly that he is happy like a little bird in a high wind you may find dead on the ground like the stone among the stones in the gravel wash—no, he does not shrink aback from the happiness emitted as a stench of carbon monoxide particulate fumes and engine coolant.

And he asks pertinent questions, as in Walking East Manifesto:

 

4.Brain damage hurt your feelings?

 

If so, burn ahead a few dozen pages and hair sheen taken in hand or ends flicked back, call it thudding of the earth or several short pencils, but that’s just my homeopathology of his book of wonders, post cards, book reviews of neverbeforeskinned precision: YOU’LL THINK YOU READ THE WHOLE BOOK!, more post cards, advice to the writer, and diagnostic after diagnostic:

The city cooked the night. The ocean breathed. Little fish died like eyelids. They swam through your dreams, fishes and eyelids, desiccated, hanging in salty bags all the way from the South Pacific to Ranch 99 Market…

And the sausage factory security guard on his tricycle.

You’ll never read another book like this, but you ought to try, like Foster’s World Ball Notebook. And for you baseball fans out there, guess what? Dodger dogs are made from pigs! As Sesshu Foster would say: I’ve awoken in gentrified white hipster America and I can’t find my pants

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Letters From Uzbekistan: Sex Tourism, a literature of misunderstanding

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This brief conversation really occurred this past weekend:
Stranger
Lives in XXXXXXX, Asia

S: Hey, can you guide me to having sex in Tashkent?

Rick: You have to find out whether Arslan Levantinov is minister of tourism first.
S: Umm why?

Rick: He’s my only connection in Uzbekistan and I am unsure whether he is still in charge or in prison.

S: Ohkay
Can you just give an address of some adult place?

Rick: No, sorry, I only have accounts from people who have been there, with names that are often clearly false…The best thing would be to consult a taxi driver. Despite what you might hear, taxi drivers throughout the world are for the most part quite honest.

S: Okay thank you
Chat Conversation End

 

 

 

Letters from Uzbekistan Googling Dick Cheney from Jaslyk Prison

in today’s mailbox, this letter from my friend in the tourist ministry of Uzbekistan (until I hear different)

 

HI Rick

 

Longg time but I think it was your turn not that it matters. brief note make of it what you will…True fact

TREU FACT:

If you ‘google’ ‘Dick Cheney’ from any computer in the grounds of Jaslyk Prison (remember I pointed it out, over by where the sea is fleeing to the desert?) this is all that comes up:

bear-bile-in-cage

On the entire screen I mean. THe computer locks and this is what you call desk backdrop.

don’t forgtet

your old pal,

 

Arslan Levantinov

 

Sestina for the Sorrow of the Apes

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The year was probably 1993, maybe 1994. I was at the Iowa Writers Workshop, and about to go out with poet Pat and literatto Larry, two people who lived in the same house. Generally nice fellas, they had a twinning brainwarp before my very eyes, a situation so odd as to be beyond my powers of description, as I lack the psychological background to consider it anything but a very temporary cousin of folie a deux. The set up is quite simple: Pat and I, while waiting for Larry, somehow got on the subject of the poetic form called the Sestina, which I had never heard of. Pat began explaining it, then dashed up to his place to get a famoust one to show me. By then Larry had arrived. I was curious enough to want to understand the form before we set off, but rather felt rather hurried and got to making the mistake of speaking what I was thinking, which was on the order of, Let’s see, so the first line of the second stanza has to end with the same word as the last word of the last line of the first…That’s not so hard…To which they bleated in unison as if Swiss guardians of the form for life: Oh yeah! You try it! It was truly bizarre, for I had no desire whatsoever to be a poet, to be known as a poet, to be thought of as capable or incapable of poetizing…I asked that they calm themselves, I was only saying…And then again I noticed some technical necessity and reacted more or less the same way (a limerick is technically simple, of course, but YOU TRY IT!!!), as did they yet with greater taunt and disdain. So I asked Pat, the more legitimately poet of the two, whether the author of the Sestina chose the key sentence ending words before the poem or after the first stanza was finished. First stanza, he said. So I said Ape, Crap, Swine, Divine, Desquamate, and Pat, in about the time it took me to type that, just to have a little fun, and quickly dashed off the first two stanzas below, minus a couple corrections for, rather than laughing at my simian antics and hustling out for beer, they sneered and jeered–the first line wasn’t even in iambic pentameter! So I prevailed upon them to teach me what iambic pentameter is and set about re-writing. That was too much for them. Disgusted they left for the bar, having made clear that I was mired in bad taste and no longer welcome in their new order. Whence the triumphant “Oh planet come revolve around the swine!”, marking my decision to finish the fucking thing.

To wit:

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(this guy may have invented the form)

Aping the Crap of Swine Divine, Desquamations for Pat

Whenever I must stop to take a crap
to signify my canon of divine
beliefs, I swipe and wipe before the swine
and bow deliberately before the apes.
If for no other reason than for Pat,
whose can or cant or canons desquamate

the same way apes’ and monkeys’ desquamate.
But see, the chimps when they must take a crap
would like, but cannot place their faith in Pat,
a man of whom it said there’s less divine
except on filthy planets mad with apes
and tepid, turgid, febrile troughs of swine.

Oh planet come revolve around the swine!
It’s not too late to stop and desquamate!
(Or defecate a season for the apes.)
Oh planet come devolve and take a crap
on those mad preeners pruning thoughts divine:
create a world that’s somewhat safe for Pat,

or simulacrum of safety for Pat–
so dangerously cast with priests of swine
so feverishly drunk with pigs divine
inordinately steeped with desquamat-
ing beasts and fowl whose foul beaks eat the crap
of all the low and lowliest of apes.

Or can a planet stop, remove the apes,
in hopes the swine will bow before their Pat,
and still survive without the monkeys crap?
Or will the tinny whining of the swine
bring down with squall a pall or desquamate
a fate more evil even than the most divine?

Considerations of the said divine
remove the burden from the foresaid apes;
they drip and dry and drop–they desquamate–
and slip and slide off umbrage-covered Pat
(who knows salvation breeds along with swine
who slaver in the troughs of monkey crap).

Oh help my friend, help Pat to take a crap.
To desquamate itself may be divine,
but one must dine with swine, not only apes

{file this under studies in artistic motivation}

 

A NEW PRESS STEAMS TO THE FORE: River Boat Books

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I ought to begin with a book coming out from River Boat Books, but as you’ll see there is some sense to promoting the above volume first. It’s still, miraculously, available from Amazon, after about three years, I think, and if you’re smart and not utterly broke you should go order it right now. It’s ten dollars, very heavy, about 400 pages of sheer literary engagement, fun, serious, light, dark, densely made, densely made, written by a group of volunteer readers–never mind; here is what two writers thought of the book:

“Here is a book that makes you feel like you’ve stumbled into exactly the right party for a change, where the guests are all interesting, and some are obviously brilliant, and some are hilarious, and they’re all talking enthusiastically about books they love, from classic novels to edgy work by writers you didn’t know about. It will make you like people you’ve never met, love books you’ve never read. The concept alone is so heartening, people who care about literature should be glad that this book exists-even more so that it’s this great.” -Trenton Lee Stewart, author of the novel Flood Summer and the Mysterious Benedict Society series

“Realizing that one is of an age when one cannot possibly read all the “must-reads” in the years left is a disappointment-every novel given up, a little death-and so I was delighted to see this handy guide to many of the classics that still languish, alas, on my bedside bucket list. I can now cheerfully knock off the 2666 that squats fatly on my bookshelf. Pffft, Mr. Bolaño. Thank you, Rick Harsch. Conversely, reading the three reviews of Middlemarch convinces me to move it to the top of my list. Thank you, Korrick, Medellia, and ChocolateMuse. And that’s the genius of this Fabulous Opera: multiple viewpoints allow you to triangulate a book’s fitness for your reading regimen. Better yet, the reviews are by readers-for-pleasure: little or no academese or critspeak here, thank you very much. A fine democracy, this, treating the gods as fully equal to themselves.” -Prasenjit Gupta, author of A Brown Man; award-winning translator of Indian Errant, stories by Nirmal Verma

 

Right, so Tropic of Ideas is a group of folk on something like Goodreads that is called LibraryThing, who somehow got the idea that had they material available for a brilliant and entertaining book. And they were right.

It so happens I am part of that group, and though a couple of my own reviews were included I am absolutely not among the best of the reviewers in that book. I also take exception to Mr. Gupta’s insinuation that I do not want him to read Roberto Bolano’s 2666. I don’t, not now, not if he’s going to be that way about it, though I did give the book a fairly positive review…but now I think if he’s going to read a fat Latin American novel, it should be The Mad Patagonian by Javier Pedro Zabala. And you’ll see why in a moment. (one reason is that 2666 was meant by the author to be five novels, while The Mad Patagonian was envisioned as is, one 1208 page beast, a friendly beast, but a beast nonetheless) That happens to be River Boat Books‘ BIG book of its roaring return to active publication. A bit of mystery I will let a reviewer describe surrounds the authorship of the book, which is neither here nor there in Mexico, it’s in Cuba, where the book was written, and this book is going to be known as well as any Latin American book ever published. There’s no point in comparing it to my favorites–someone will, and some will consider it better. But I refuse to compare it to my favorite, particularly because an absolute guarantee of an historical publishing event is this same River Boat Books‘ publication of Roberto Arlt’s The Seven Madmen, which was my favorite until I read its second half, finally, nearly 90 years after it was published in Buenos Aires, The Flamethrowers, which ratchets Arltonianisme up a few notches, so that now my favorite book by a Latin American writer is now the real Arlt, The Seven Madmen plus The Flamethrowers.

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This is truly publishing history. And even with relatively little publicity thus far, Altonians are coming out of the woodwork–they became termites in order to survive. One of them I met in Trieste–he had traveled to the national library in Rome to find a copy of The Flamethrowers in Spanish (I don’t think Arlt has been translated into Italian).

The story of this translation is a beautiful Artlonian episode. A poorly educated up-state New Yorker, Larry Riley, formerly of the Coast Guard, then with the US Postal Service, probably a quiet anarchist, somehow became a great reader of great fiction. I’ll have to ask him how that came about some time. He’s an autodidact, we can assume that much. And like many an autodidact, he probably quite often does things because he is free enough not to know better. But moving beyond speculation, what I know is that about 14 years ago Larry read and loved The Seven Madmen, possibly at the same time I did, and like me he saw that at the end of the book, reference was made to its continuation in Los lanzallamos (forty words before the end of The Seven Madmen an asterisk directs the reader to the bottom of the page, where Naomi Lindstrom, the first to translate that first half of a novel into English rendered: “The story of the characters in this novel will continue in another volume entitled The Flamethrowers.“). Like me, Larry looked high and low for the presumably extant translation, became frustrated and, like any monolingual anarchic autodidact would consider, upon finally finding it had never, in fact, been translated, gave some thought to translating it simply so he could read it. And like any neophyte translator would do, he picked up some Spanish language dictionaries, some Spanish-English dictionaries, and a couple years later had read the book in his own translation. What a maniac. During that time, Larry had some contact with Naomi Lindstrom, who proved generous with her time, but when Larry was finished, pretty much told him his effort was commendable but the thing wasn’t good enough. She was right. It wasn’t good enough to be published. And so the manuscript–typewritten, of course–was shelved for Arltonian termites. And they did their job. For after ten or twelve years had passed, somehow or other I became aware of Larry’s translation, and somehow eventually convinced him to show it to me, to send a copy from New York to Slovenia, not such an odd trip for Arlt, as his mother was from Trieste and I live a mere 20 minutes from her old city. I had read into the second page of The Flamethrowers when I realized that I was reading Arlt. I hadn’t read The Seven Madmen for over a decade, but he was immediately back inside me. I was quick to tell Larry that what he had in his hands was a successful translation that merely needed some polishing. I was wrong. I was going to be the polisher, but it turned out the book need to have the mines aired out and some tunnels re-dug, at the risk of explosion some new shafts were necessary, and once Larry got down in there, like any good autodidact, he worked like a fiend to improve the book and as it turned out it needed nearly no polishing at all. The book was ready. The book is ready. Rest easy, Julio Cortazar: someone else has written an introduction this time–Julio wrote the introduction to the second English translation of The Seven Madmen, by Nicholas Caistor, a good enough translation, but hindered by the fact that Lindstrom got there first and took all the best epithets of the characters. NYRB publishes that version, and Larry’s translation of The Flamethrowers quickly got their attention, and from what I know of the correspondence between Larry Riley and the NYRB interlocutor, had he wanted it badly enough, he could have gotten NYRB to take it on. But there was a certain undertone to the correspondence that seemed to require that Larry dismiss the efforts of Lindstrom as second rate–the very real problem would have arisen that Larry chose, for instance, Lindstrom’s translation for the character Arlt named The Melancholy Ruffian, whereas Caistor chose The Melancholy Thug. Poor Caistor. He couldn’t keep all Lindstrom’s names for his own translation…But Larry could. But how to break it to Robert that Larry’s names would be different? Well, they wouldn’t have to because Larry would be broken. But you don’t break anarcho-autodidact translators–you end up like Yossarian punching Aarfy in a dream. And anyway, maybe this other guy, this Mad Patagonian pusher…

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So we come to Peter Damian Bellis, author of The Conjure Man, which disappointed its first potential publishers by having been written by a white man–some of the novel is first person white, some first person black. They really should have asked for a photo before inviting him to the big meeting. Let Mr. Bellis expand on that. In the meantime, while writing a multi-genre African epic that is not yet quite done, Bellis came across, apparently through his father, a literary man himself, a book by a dead Cuban, whose wife, a doctor, had disappeared in Africa a decade or more before he himself died, so that he sat in a small Cuban seaside town, living with his daughter, and wrote one epic book that, amazingly, could not attract the attention of a Spanish language press–the truth is she actually gave it one faint-heated try. The daughter of a melancholy semi-recluse is simply not trained in such matters. At any rate, the book came to Bellis, or his father, I have forgotten, and a translator was found, and I would not say the book killed him but he has in the meantime died, as has Peter’s father, and so, there remains, a doggedly determined, not to say fanatical, Peter Damain Bellis, publisher of River Boat Books, conceived by his father, revamping the press, steaming his press back from Kurtzville, at first for no other reason than to bring Javier Pedro Zabala’s masterpiece to the reading public. It must have been through LibraryThing that we, me and Larry, first met Peter Bellis, but the process began with all of us saying sure, Mr. Bellis, that does sound like a great book, and buying advance copies of The Mad Patagonian and reading it (let me just…here: Middlemarch, 889 pages…next to it Musil…depends on how much you want to read but more than The Mad Patagonian‘s 1208), Larry and I becoming the first two of now at least six LibraryThing reviewers of The Mad Patagonian.

So here’s where it begins to make sense that I hype the collection of reviews A Fabulous Opera, for though the ruffians of Tropic of Ideas have broken out, their escape facilitated in a manner prefigured in The Mad Patagonian, the books will be spreading across the literary landscape, and they will include one of mine that I won’t say much about here because Peter is at least his own madman to the same degree as Larry. I have  a novel coming out as the inaugural book of the the Midwestern press Maintenance Ends, a novel called Voices after Evelyn, a boisterous tale of life in a river city in Wisconsin in the 1950s when the babysitters began to disappear. But a more recently finished novel, The Manifold Destiny of Eddie Vegas, was begging for an outlet, and somehow the whirlpool in which I found myself and Larry and Peter threw this deal out there: River Boat Books would publsih Eddie Vegas…and come to think of it, to hell with NYRB, and no offense at all to Mr. Caistor, Peter’s enthusiasm for Zabala and now his appreciation of Larry’s efforts and my own…why not all three! And while we were all at it, why not do the unthinkable, see if Naomi Lindstrom is still around and get her involved and publish The Seven Madmen and The Flamethrowers together, in one volume, as Arlt would have had he not been in a hurry to get money for The Seven Madmen? Well, I’m not sure what happened, but close enough, Ms. Lindstrom was happy to have her book re-issued, Peter managed to nab it fair and square, and, well, one good thing I can think of with them published separately is that plenty of people have The Seven Madmen already–but NO ONE ON THIS EARTH has Los lanzallamos in English, yet, not until early June…unless advance copies emerge…And me, where in this historic venture will I fit? Yes, The Manifold Destiny of Eddie Vegas is coming, and we can be assured at least that it will have a great cover, but meanwhile, I sent a potential cover for the book to Peter Bellis, and he immediately wrote back, ‘That would work for Skulls, Skulls was great, I think I’ll publish that first if you don’t mind.’ If I don’t mind? This is a publisher? Sure, but a writer first. I hadn’t even recalled that he had Skulls, a copy of it. So the good readers, the great reviewers of LibraryThing‘s Tropic of Ideas, have all given the maximum five stars to both The Mad Patagonian and Skulls of Istria, and though that may seem a small thing, these can be some hard folk–a very nice review of my Arjun and the Good Snake by one of the most esteemed of the Tropic reviewers, one TC Murr, rewarded me a mediocre three stars. Anyway, here and now it’s our measurement. The Maltese translator and literary philosopher who wrote the introduction to Skulls didn’t give me any stars, she just wrote nice things. In LibraryThing stars are the crpytocurrency–five means a lot, but we don’t know what.

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Now this–the publicaton of these four books–is all happening soon, late April to early June. And I don’t know what it compares to, maybe one of the great seasons of New Directions paperbacks, and this isn’t the end–the list for September looks like a pretty spectacular array of books from writers around the world, including the Slavic heir to Douglas Adams and an unknown–really this time, not just some lippy proto-Naipaul–Indian novelist (enjoy the photos provided in the other books, there won’t be one in that volume).

For more material, I will provide some links and one copy/pasted introduction:

Reviews of The Mad Patagonian: https://www.librarything.com/work/19405243/reviews

Reviews of Skulls of Istria: https://www.librarything.com/work/17985579

River Boats Books (including, if you scroll down, most of the introduction to The Flamethrowers that may further elucidate that extraordinary literary situation:  http://www.riverboatbooks.com/our-books

 

Intro to Skulls:

Skulls of Istria,

River Boat Books (2018)

Rick Harsch

 

It begins as a seemingly aimless chat between two men in a bar taking shelter from the burja (bora) wind. One disgraced American historian with an overwhelming need to talk driven by bottle after bottle of Viljamovka, and the other, presumably a Slovene, simply taking in the stream of booze and words and keeping his uncomprehending silence through the swells and sweeps of both the recent horrors of the Balkan atrocities as well as the ancient terrors whose evidence continues to be encountered in the skulls and debris that will not disappear. This movement, this apparent unburdening of guilt, love, passion, more guilt and self-loathing, unfolds through the telling of one betrayed friendship and two connected love-affairs, through escape and death, to the final pages which reveal the underlying structure of a work that was deceptively free-moving and associative at its surface level.

It is in his associative use of language, echoes of assonance that seem too good to ignore, puns as self-indulgent as a drunken confessor in their reach for connections whether semantic or phonetic, that the spirit of Joyce appears in Harsch’s style. The playfulness in the language draws the reader into following signifiers and associations into labyrinthine pleasures, through ancient myth, historical warfare, sexual passion – and the pure pleasure of the chase.

Of course, Harsch’s geographical positioning in Istria, the Adriatic peninsula shared by the three countries of Slovenia, Croatia and Italy, and within spitting distance of Trieste and Venice, places him within the same linguistic hunting ground as James Joyce which makes the connection between the writers even more evident. Umberto Eco in his fascination with Joyce described him as the true modernist, as the remover of the rational mental structures derived from the medieval summae, and also of the eradication of the ‘well-made plot’ which maintains that each action in a novel is either meaningful with respect to the final denouement, or else is “stupid”. But, as Eco said, “with Joyce we have the full acceptance of all the stupid acts of daily life as narrative material” (39) – and with Harsch also.

We are swept along with these ‘stupid’ acts of daily life driven by sexual attraction, emotional attachment, guilt and pain – as well as the even more stupid and senseless acts of power and domination, destruction and shame that shaped the lives and deaths of too many in the Balkans – and as the short novel seems to be carried forward with an almost burja-driven force, seemingly with no deeper plan, aim or structure than the chase of passion and language – the novel in a few short pages in the final chapter, draws all strings together, all points of view into one overwhelming understanding that there was a point, a direction, a structure and the underlying decision of all story-tellers in love with language and the patterns of memory –  to ‘tell a tale’. And to go back to Eco’s description of Finnegan’s Wake that “to create the impression of a complete lack of structure, a work of art must possess a strong underlying structure” and “a cunningly organized network of mutual relationships.” (67)

Harsch’s Joycean inability to ignore the underpull of words, together with the location of his tale, clearly invite parallels. However, there is also a strong undercurrent in the rhythm of the prose and the subdued music of the language that recall another of his modernist compatriots fled to Europe, T.S. Eliot and his persistent vision of a dry wasteland on the borders of a river. Those souls of the dead, undone, and moving to the unseeing and uncaring bells of St Mary Woolnoth calling to all in a Dantesque nightmare of soulessness. The rivers of blood, the heads on pikes, the senseless slaughter in the wake of nationalist politics, and the highest disregard for human life at the core of the very essence of this Balkan journey unfolding through three bottles of potent pear brandy create another wasteland of human barbarity. The historian-narrator takes the tale deep into the underworld of depravity to re-emerge from the depths of Hades, Orpheus-like, telling his tale and unable to keep entirely within the rules of the game.

Clearly this journey, this short novel with its dense surface associations of sounds, rhythms and signifiers could either be a translator’s nightmare – or else a fascinating game of re-creation and re-writing pushing the rules of literary translation to the edge.

 

 

 

Clare Vassallo, Translator and

Professor of Semiotics and Translation Studies, University of Malta.

February 2018.

 

Quotations from:

The Middle Ages of James Joyce: The Aesthetics of Chaosmos, trans. Ellen Esrock, London: Hutchinson Radius, 1989.

 

To Ignore James Joyce’s Visit to Piran is to Fail to Get to the Heart of Jimmy

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To Ignore James Joyce’s visit to Piran is to Fail to Get to the Heart of Jimmy

James Joyce was an Irishman, there’s no getting around it, but his comfort in Trieste as well as his love for drink and song and multilingualism suggest he was more Istrian than Irishman in spirit. If you don’t believe me, read The Years of Bloom: James Joyce in Trieste, or go to Trieste and count the plaques and statues regarding Joyce. Right there on the Canale Rosso he is captured in stride; in the giardino pubblico his bust is expertly presented—near to Italo Svevo’s, Svevo, the Triestine writer Joyce made famous, and whose bust has been stolen three times while Joyce’s, one would think in reverence, has been left alone. Oh people from around the world descend on Trieste to soak in Joyceana, to drink where Jimmy drank, to, well, try to see the city Jimmy saw. But they don’t see it, not there, not in a Trieste denuded of multifarious splenetic life by the loss of its hinterland since Jimmy left.

Ah, but there is a place for them to go to find what Jimmy saw when Jimmy was there. I remember a book event I held in Piran on the punta some three years ago that went on all night, precisely what Joyce would have experienced in the same Piran a hundred years ago. And, lo and behold, we know that Joyce WAS there, he was in Piran in 1910, and he did stay all night, he got drunk and slept on the marlstone, yes, we know this for a fact because his life is well documented—and this particular night was especially significant because Jimmy awoke with an eye infection that never ceased bothering him, that eventually led to his famous blindness, that gave him the famous patch over his eye. Yes, Joyce likely took the Parenzana up and down the coast numerous times, one time too many, one time to his misfortune. There is no doubt that he drank great wine, that part of his night must have been swell, there is no doubt he sang before he passed out—he had quite a tenor—but he did pass out and he did awaken with an eye infection in 1910. And nothing in Piran marks this event. The best writer in the world in the 20th century suffered a seminal difficulty in Piran, visited Piran, in 1910 and the town does not recognize this event.

This is an astonishing lack of imagination or energy, I don’t know which. I alerted the vice mayor 12 years ago and wrote in Primorske novice about the event 12 years ago. If Piran were to build a simple statue of a drunken Joyce somewhere in Piran, hundreds if not thousands of literary pilgrims would visit every year, many of them hard drinkers, most of them big spenders. Conferences could be held. Money would be made. Most importantly, a significant event in Joyce’s life would be on the map. This is your last chance, Piran. If you do nothing, we build the statue in Izola and attach an arrow pointing to Piran.

As with all empty threats this was full to the overflow of Moolarky, and there remains no stature of Jimmy in Izola, nor is there one in Piran. But as Jimmy would say: “Nansense, you snorsted? he was haltid considerable agenst all religions overtrow so hworefore the thokkurs pokkur the bigbug miklamnaded storstore exploder would he be whulesalesolde daadooped…?”

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David Vardeman Reviews Skulls of Istria

Skulls cover shot

 

Skulls of Istria, review by David Vardeman

 

“Skulls of Istria” is the spoken account of a disgraced historian in search of redemption, which comes to mean, in any sense that matters to him, an appropriate subject.  He tells an uncomprehending drinking companion (the companion doesn’t speak the language, but drinks are free) how he stole his deceased mentor’s work, improved it, and passed it off as his own, to his financial gain but ultimate humiliation when the plagiarism is detected.  A fugitive from the law and the bloodhounds of academic and publishing standards, the narrator escapes with his lover Rosa to Venice, a city that he loathes for its opportunistic role in history, and from there to the Istrian peninsula where he stumbles upon his subject:  one Giordano Viezzoli from Piran.  Viezzoli fought with the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War.  “So this man, this 26 year old man, had left his home, gone directly to Spain and almost immediately been killed.”  He would use the meaninglessness of this young man’s sacrifice on principle to an anti-fascist cause, his freedom to choose, as an arrow “aimed straight into the skull of the Fascists.”  He sees Viezzoli’s “commitment against powerful forces” as “enough to bring down the moral scaffolding upholding Western Civilization” depriving “Western empires of their right to govern.”  In the course of doing footwork research, the narrator literally falls into the underworld.  He meets the dead, skeletal remains in a mass burial site, presumed by him to be Uskok victims of Venetian reprisals in the 17th century.  Despite a strong identification with death, world- and history-weary, hunger drives him back to the world of the living where he learns that an act of charity on behalf of a new lover’s “brother” has allowed this man, whose real identity he subsequently learns is that of a war criminal hunted by Interpol, to elude capture.  His principles betrayed, having ignorantly aided The Enemy, his rage turns back on himself.

For someone whose passion is for the truth, or for a fidelity to truth, which might not be the same thing, the narrator has a checkered past, given his propensity for the theft of intellectual property.  But now he is nothing if not unsparing in his judgment of himself, his fellow students and historians, the empires that have laid waste their conquered provinces, preyed on, betrayed decency, fair and honest interchanges since the historians first sang their accounts of what they’d witnessed or heard.  He has always been not merely suspicious of romantic love but actually contemptuous of it while enjoying the benefits that accrue to him from indulgent Rosa who supports him through the lean years that run into decades and then flees the country with him in his disgrace.

Stripped of nearly all illusions by his close reading of history and observation of his fellows, the narrator spares no one his clear-eyed assessment.  Clear-eyed, yes, except that he allows his passion for “gypsy” lover Maja finally, fatally to cloud his vision.  He doesn’t see what’s coming.  What’s that about knowing history so that you won’t repeat it?  He is being used and betrayed for his resources as surely as any of the empires he loathes betray and steal from whom they will.  Though he has “witnessed” indecency (mild term) countless times in reading history, in reading newspapers, none of that prepares him to encounter something similar on a personal level.  He is a man of thought, not action, as he admits, and when given the opportunity to act, he makes all the wrong choices.  He does not know with whom or what he is dealing.

“Skulls of Istria” is a tour de force of compact rage that is brilliant in every sentence, in every description and nuance of character and movement.  Everything is noticed, and everything means something beyond what it appears to mean.  Whom can he trust in this volatile region of the world?  Everyone plays his or her cards close to the chest.  This novel contains some of the wittiest and most incisive observations of human behavior and human foibles one is likely to find between the covers of a book.  The author is a playful linguist but rarely allows his playfulness to become an end in itself.  Harsch masterfully describes thought life as beautifully and clearly as he does lived life, to the extent that I found myself reading slower and slower and marking sentence after sentence that leapt out at me for sheer rightness and poetry.  No one describes a landscape, topography and the difficulty of traversing it better than Harsch.  No one can write a funnier sex scene than Harsch.  It should give one pause to be able to say, these days, that he or she has run across an original sex scene, given the overabundance of the same in daily life.  But search these pages for just that.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough.  It is short but profound, angry but funny, truthful as only the fallen one can speak the truth.