Intro to the Long Awaited Translation of Roberto Arlt’s The Flamethrowers

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[The translation, by Larry Riley, has just been finished, and the search for a publisher will begin this Spring.]

THE FLAMETHROWERS Intro

  1. The Flamethrowers, by Roberto Art, originally published in Buenos Aires in 1931, is without question the most important Spanish language novel unavailable in English translation.
  2. The Seven Madmen, considered by English language literary critics the most important novel written by Roberto Arlt (published originally in 1929 in Buenos Aires), has been translated twice.
  3. Neither book is a novel.
  4. The Seven Madmen is the first half of a novel and The Flamethrowers is its second half.
  5. Roberto Arlt knew this. And I have no doubt that Julio Cortazar and every other Spanish language reader inspired by Arlt knew this as well. And since Arlt is considered a precursor to the ‘Magic Realist’ boom in Latin American literature, some would say its godfather, this strange fact of its botched delivery into English is an obscenity not without charm.
  6. In fact, Arlt likely published the book in two acts as he did for financial reasons. And of course it is for financial reasons that no one has bothered to publish The Flamethrowers. (Our translator, Larry Riley, knows more about this, for in addition to the difficulty of selling obscure translations, it seems there was a difficult heir in the Arlt family.)
  7. Certainly the two translators of The Seven Madmen—Naomi Lindstrom and Nick Caistor—knew that they were not really translating a whole novel. Arlt said so at the end of The Seven Madmen. Lindstrom and Caistor had to translate this: ‘*Commentator’s note: The story of the characters in this novel will continue in a second volume, The Flamethrowers.’ If that seems ambiguous it is because the commentator is unfamiliar to you as a voice who is telling this singular and, if multi-splenetic, single novel. And then there is that most benignly adamantine voice among Arlt’s nephews, Cortazar’s, in his introduction to the latest publication of The Seven Madmen (in English), referring with casual authority to ‘…what is in truth one novel with two titles.’
  8. Arlt’s novel is unusual in that it is imbedded in time from which he deracinates his characters.
  9. The Great War provided urgent impetus to Arlt’s characters; they viewed the horrific episodes of World War Two with wry, sating curiosity despite Arlt’s grave.
  10. Born in 1900, Arlt died in 1942.
  11. The Enigmatic Visitor of The Flamethrowers was not surprised that atomic bombs did the work that a few dedicated madmen with phosgene could easily have accomplished.
  12. Early in The Mad Toy, Arlt’s first novel, a group of visionary urchins forms a club, at which the following, among other, proposals is made: “The club should have a library of scientific works in order for its associates to be certain that they are robbing and killing according to the most modern industrial procedures.” This proposal is made directly after a discussion regarding replacing a chicken egg’s natural contents with nitroglycerin.
  13. Circuitous routes are pioneered by admirers of Arlt to reach the point where they feel it is safe, finally, to say that his writing was, after all, human. Yet what separates Arlt from all writers of his time is his anguish that the human is finished, finishing, knocked off, an anguish that is expressed like no other anguish has ever been expressed in literature, in the character of Remo Erdosain, whose essential phenomenological disturbance is an obsessive leitmotif of The Seven Madmen, quicksand for the tender readers like myself who recognize the tin skies, cubical rooms, geometric incursions of light and thought, and, anguished, Arlt compelled again and again to describe Erdosain’s anguish, perhaps already knowing that one impending horror was the inevitable scrutiny of the actions of Erdosain by Giacommetti figures picking Beckettian through ruined literary landscapes.
  14. It is difficult to argue seminality, particularly in fiction, which lacks the immediacy of painting, and more—it assumes a lack of transfer between the arts. So when Roberto Arlt is credited with being the originator of magical realism, not only is the issue absurd, it serves to deflect the meaning of Arlt’s great work, The Seven Madmen and The Flamethowers. He may have preceded Guernica, but not Tzara, and not the city scapes and madmonsters of Grosz. What makes Arlt’s work great is to some degree indeed its originality, his private cubysmal canvass that combined the abysmal industrial architecture and working conditions of the most modern of human creatures with the existential madness this engendered, and awareness of historical defeat, and the other side of that, what lurked temporally beyond, the advanced cannibalism of technological weaponry and worse, the acceptance of it. The chapter The Enigmatic Visitor in The Flamethrowers in which a jaundiced, fully uniformed (gasmasked!) soldier appears to Erdosain at night, their subsequent, almost blase conversation about gasses, including the support for Erdosain’s belief in the efficacy of phosgene as a mass murdering agent, and worse, the final declaration of the visitor, places Arlt beyond the future in which he is accursed with being labeled progenitor. For Arlt, civilization is over. As he writes, it is dying a slow death, and still is. Witness the writer who perhaps best reflects the influence of Arlt, intentionally or not, Rodolfo Walsh, who in his astonishing work of investigative writing, Operation Massacre, refers to ‘…this cannibalistic time that we are living in…’, in a book that in retrospect seems to have ushered in a regime much like that of the United States, in which the faces change, but the cannibalism gathers strength, so much so for Argentina that some 20 years after the publication of that book Walsh published an open letter to the regime and left his home with a pistol knowing he was going to need it that very day—and indeed was murdered at five in the afternoon. This is Arlt’s greatness, a diagnosis not a prophecy, and an accurate diagnosis at that. In Arlt there is absurdity, surreality, some Kafka, some Beckett, some Joyce, but mostly there is what may be called hyper-reality, an umbrella term, which to Arlt was merely the horror of reality.

 

  1. In his own introduction to The Seven Madmen, Julio Cortazar, not a man to be trifled with, refers as if to a historical fact, to ‘The lack of a sense of humor in Arlt’s work’, attributing this to resentment regarding his circumstances in life (too much work to write freely, one gathers). Perhaps—I have no wish to quarrel with the master, Cortazar—it is something to do with the glimpses of optimism afforded Cortazar in the early 1980s when he wrote the introduction, but he is utterly mistaken. Arlt is extremely funny, even as he delivers the worst of all messages. Again Beckett comes up, and Kafka, both very funny men with very dark visions.
  2. Earlier in that same introduction, Cortazar referred to Arlt’s resentment—and again he got it wrong. Arlt was said to be a part of a cirlce, the more proletarian Boedos as opposed to Borges’ Floridans, each representing a part of town. To know Arlt, to know Erdosain, is to know that neither would have sought comfort in Florida (a neighborhood in Buenos Aires). And, further, to know Arlt is to know the themes that ran like wires through his life and work, his inventions, his very proletarian nature, his resentment, yes, but resentment at the state of the city, the state of the US, the condition of doomed humanity. Sure this is related to his working life—in such a condemned state, the wise man wishes to frolic.
  3. Cortazar’s errors are Argentine. He was born in Belgium, raised mostly in Buenos Aires in rather privileged settings. He is speculating. Besides, he shares a correspondence with Arlt that rises to rarefied spaces of affinity, that perhaps all readers find in a few authors, and he shares that affinity with me. I almost claim such affinity with Cortazar. I began his Hopscotch in 1984, read 70 some pages, leaving the bookmark in, returned to the same page ten years later and found myself immediately back in Paris with his lovers and their game of serendipity deferred. What is this affinity? Difficult to define, it is best rendered by example. I recently met a cultural and film critic living in Moscow by the name of Giuliano Vivaldi who read Arlt about the same time I first did, in the early 1990s. He was so taken with Arlt that he decided to try to translate him from the Italian, but needed to procure a copy of the rare book, so took the train from Trieste to Rome and photocopied it at the national library. Such fidelity and ambition has only been exceeded to my knowledge by Larry Riley, the translator of this copy of The Flamethrowers. Both Arlt and Cortazar would appreciate the story of Mr. Riley’s work. Not content to stop with reading The Seven Madmen, this veteran of the coast guard, at the time a postal worker, determined to translate this book from a language he did not know at all into English. He was advised by close literary friends that it was hopeless, that it would only lead to disappointment. Arlt could have told them otherwise. For such passion succeeds. And this translation is indeed a success. Mr. Riley finished the translation about 13 years ago, was told by a kind and indulgent Naomi Lindstrom, that it was good but ‘not quite there.’ Mr. Riley sat on it, put it away, one hopes with a feeling of great satisfaction, until recently I learned of his old project and asked to see his work. It arrived typed out with many errors, but was miraculously, unmistakably Arlt: I could feel that in the first two pages. I would finally be able to read The Flamethrowers. Subsequently, Mr. Riley and I decided to get the book typed on computer, which was not the first idea—wouldn’t Arlt have loved the story had we published the copy that was not quite there, that was riddled with typos…Yes, but as it turns out, the process of putting the book on computer revivified Mr. Riley, who dove back into the book and what was not quite there reached what is here, a fine translation of Roberto Arlt’s Flamethrowers.
  1. So who am I to write about Roberto Arlt? I plead that surfeitous affinity, combined with my own literary connection with Arlt. In my first three published novels I paid homage to Arlt by naming my characters as he so often did, by their descriptions. He had his Lame Whore, I had my Sneering Brunette; he had his Melancholy Ruffian, I had my Spleen (both I and II). Of course, Arlt is unreasonably obscure in the English speaking world and though my books received a number of perceptive reviews, none noticed the homage to Arlt. So who am I to write about Arlt? Someone with a second chance to pay him homage, someone with spleen.
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Rick Harsch publishes Arjun and the Good Snake (again and cheaper e-style)

Rick Harsch publishes Arjun and the Good Snake

Snake300First of all, let me get the following out of the way: yes, I count the writer Rick Harsch among “real-life” friends (i.e., not one of those you only “talk” to via one of the antisocial networking sites), so my review of his first e-book (but hardly Rick’s first book – he has previously published a heap of those… what were they… oh, paper artefacts!) might not be entirely objective (as if any review is). The thing is, Rick’s relentlessly critical outlook but nevertheless remarkably positive opinion of my own debut novel was what I desperately needed at a time when my confidence in my scribbling ability was faltering on a daily basis, and he has also been invaluable in his efforts to help me polish my own books and get them in front of readers. This was, as far as my own previous experience had indicated, rather unusual for “old-school” writers such as Rick.

As it happens, Harsch is not (yet?) a member of the modern, agreeable, happy-go-lucky gang of “indie authors”: he hails from the “olden” days when the stereotypical image of writers was still – with good reason, I suppose – that of obstinate, loopy, unsociable, disgruntled old geezers who most likely hate all other writers, but especially any who might materialise in their vicinity. After all, Rick was, once upon a time, on his way to becoming quite renowned for his traditionally-published and widely acclaimed “Driftless Trilogy” (The Driftless Zone, Billy Verite, and The Sleep of Aborigines), which has also been translated into French and made its way into the curriculum of the somewhat obscure University of Tasmania (as Rick defines it in Snake, “the intellectual center of the only block of land to exterminate allits aboriginals“). However – rather unsurprisingly, if you know what an onerous conundrum of uncalled-for incidents tends to surround Rick most of the time – due to an extremely unfortunate sequence of events, including but not limited to the vastly premature death of his Hollywood agent, a bitter though hilarious (to an external observer) dispute with his subsequent literary agent, the bankruptcy of his French publisher and other similarly torturous circumstances, Rick Harsch’s tenacious infiltration of the world literary canon has been on a rather involuntary and undeserved hiatus of late. The infamous downward spiral of the traditional publishing industry that has got out of control after the advent of e-readers has only further complicated Rick’s theretofore cunning world-domination scheme.

In light of all of the above (as well as because I practically forced him to), Rick has recently decided to join the indie author tribe. Arjun and the Good Snake is the first book of his to be re-released as an e-book, hopefully in a series of others that should follow. I’ve had the honour of formatting it for e-readers, and it should look good – I certainly hope so, and if it doesn’t, feel free to complain to me and hold me personally responsible, and I mean that! This I did most happily, for Snake has been, to date, my favourite book of Rick’s (with the possible exception of an upcoming “paper” one, which is still in the works); though I, unfortunately, haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading the Driftless Trilogy, because it is, sadly, out of print. (Rick is currently looking at the possibility of resurrecting it, but the fact that he doesn’t have the manuscripts in the electronic form will make this “project” difficult and, above all, long-winded.)

Reading Arjun and the Good Snake for the first time a few years back was the perfect way of getting to know Rick better, along with all of his numerous remarkable qualities as well as considerable faults. As he puts it himself in the introduction to Snake, “No character, especially that of the author, is safe” (from assassination, I guess). The (sort of) journal supposedly focuses on the six weeks in India (without alcohol, woe was Rick!) that the author spent on a quest to track down a cobra and hopefully also a Russell’s viper, the ophidian preference of his son. However, the “diary” is interspersed with the author’s intimate musings and ruminations: on his own failings, particularly the harrowing alcohol addiction (paradoxically, simultaneously soul-sucking and soul-giving, as anyone who has ever struggled with their share of problems with alcoholism will surely know); on his family, especially his relationship with his wife Sasikala and son Arjun; on India and all her unknowable depths; on philosophical, existentialist, even suicidal enigmas; as well as on the various goings-on back at the Slovenian coast, where the author had emigrated from the United States, primarily, as far as I know, to escape oppressive idiocy… Only to witness, to his dismay, the quickening of rabid, unhinged capitalism in a former socialist country, with all the savagery that has entailed.

Arjun and the Good Snake is not an “easy” book. If you’re an ardent believer in the magnificent contemporary Western world and appreciate the constant pursuit of instant gratification, ravenous consumption as well as instantaneous excretion – then this might not be a book for you. However, if you’re willing to put a bit of effort in a literary work rather than just be “entertained” by it, you’ll doubtlessly unearth and come to appreciate many a touching contemplative passage such as, for example, the following:

We arrived to the sea – and this is where if I were ever to commit suicide, the time would be as appropriate as it would get, a wretched man standing apart from the alienated cluster representing all he’s got, unable to enjoy himself alone, alienated even from a circumstance too familiar to generate true despair; the waves relentlessly formed and reformed with their concealed force, spent themselves falsely, the sea sucking in with greed: There is much to be learned standing with pants rolled above the knees and feet planted on damp sand as the lace of water passes ankle high, and then the sand around the feet is stripped away with a surprising, even sinister, force that badly wants to take me under, too…

Montefiore’s “The Court of the Red Tsar”

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If Cheney would be Stalin, who would be Beria? Ok, so Cheney would be Stalin and Beria. Or let Wolfowitz be Stalin. Bolton as Molotov? Close enough. Obama? Let’s say Bulganin. This regime unleashed a terror the likes of which have only been seen in previous regimes with different Stalin/Berias. Only they did it outside their own country. What is remarkable in the case of Stalin is that he did it to his own people (and to a lesser extent those in his sphere of control to the west). Is it justifiable to compare this ‘Monster’ to our monsters? I think so. Our comparisons are effective and sometimes necessary, particularly when we begin to make the mistake of looking at politics in terms of good versus evil. Stalin and gang’s crude and massively murderous rapid industrialization is certainly ugly to read about, but what was it if not a compression of the Industrialization that took place in England, which certainly exceeded Stalin’s efforts in terms of vicitms, coming as it did along with colonial rapine and the complete gutting of India, where the British orchestrated famines as bad as that in the Ukraine in the early 30s.

Simon Sebag Montefiore’s The Court of the Red Tsar has little new to say in broad terms about Stalin and his crew, because Stalin has been written about repeatedly, from the early and percipient biography by the all but forgotten Isaac Deutscher to the perhaps definitive biographer Robert Service. But Montefiore has more information at his disposal than any writer has yet had and he made the decision to write a rather gossipy book that reads like a South American novel of a despot. Even his language is that of a novelist at times, freely using the word dwarf, mostly to describe the sadistic (the book is filled with sadists, but it has to be said here anyway) shorty Yezhov, who headed the inquisitions after Yagoda and before Beria. So the book is highly entertaining, more so than any other biography of Stalin, giving specific inside story after inside story, quote after quote, so that a bland statement like ‘Stalin was merciless even in his closest circles, ordering the executions of…’ is given horrific life by closely acquainting the reader with these people, what they said, and how they subsequently suffered: there are many accounts of specific tortures (One thing I learned was that I have been wrong all these years to believe that a paranoid Stalin was quite practical about offing his enemies, simply sending them to the Lubyanka to be shot; given the extraordinary numbers of political murders [millions] this had to be to some extent true, but he often requested various tortures be applied and in many personal cases took an interest in the reactions of the victims.)

Since so little of the general story was new to me, I didn’t begin marking the book until late, around page 500 or so. Here are some of these bits:

Stalin: ‘Leave them in peace. We can always shoot them later.’

‘The film star Zoya Fyodorovna was picked up by these Chekists at a time when she was still breastfeeding her baby. Taken to a party where there were no other guests, she was joined by Beria whom she begged to let her go as her breasts were painful. »Beria was furious.« The officer who was taking her home mistakenly handed her a bouquet at the door. When Beria saw, he shouted: »It’s a wreath not a bouquet. May they rot on your grave!« She was arrested afterwards.

‘The film actress Tatiana Okunevskaya was even less lucky: at the end of the war, Beria invited her to perform for the Politburo. Instead they went to a dacha. Beria plied her with drink, »virtually pouring the wine into my lap. He ate greedily, tearing at the food with his hands, chattering away.« Then »he undresses, rolls around, eyes ogling, an ugly, shapeless toad. »’Scream or not, doesn’t matter’,« he said. »’Think and behave accordingly.’« Beria softened her up by promising to releaase her beloved father and grandfather from prison and then raped her. He knew very well that both had already been executed. She too was arrested soon afterwards and sentenced to solitary confinement. Felling trees in the Siberian taiga, she was saved, like so many others, by the kindness of ordinary people.’

Like I say, the book fleshes out novelistically what we for the most part already new. One of the most astonishing things we knew was how Stalin refused to accept the fact that Germany was going to attack his country and refused to make any efforts to prepare, in fact did the opposite so as not to offend Hitler, who might take troop movements and such as a provocation. This book does not bore on the topic, for instance Montefiore finds a quote from Stalin who is told less than a week before Operation Barbarossa that a spy in the Luftwaffe confirms the impending attack, and Stalin replies ‘Tell the »source« in the Staff of the German Air Force to fuck his mother!«

Other matters of particular interest to me are Churchill’s calling his agreement to divide post-war Europe into states controlled by East and West, using percentages (Greece 90% west, 10% East…) a ‘naughty document’; And, moreso, I was pleased that an anecdote I have been telling for years regarding attempted assassinations of Tito was factual. Some letters were found on Stalin’s Kremlin desk, apparently the contents unknown to any but Stalin. In my old version there were three, two from Lenin, one from Tito. In this version there were five, but only three could be recalled by witnesses. One was indeed from Lenin, scolding Stalin for speaking ill of Krupskaya, one from Bukharin asking why he needed to die, and the third was from Tito that read ‘Stop sending assassins to muder me…If this doesn’t stop, I will send a man to Moscow and there’ll be no need to send any more.’

Finally, grading this book. The effort, the travels, the inexhaustible reading and travelling the author undertook…this alone suggests five of five stars. The writing itself, weaving the personal and the enormous historic without jarring the reader, managing to tell readers what they quite likely already know without boring them, that too suggests five of five stars. And, more difficult than anything probably, telling much the same personal tales of victims, endless victims close to Stalin, their stories not significantly different from all the others for the most part, without either appealing to the basest instincts of the reader (I, for one, could have used more specifics) or boring us—that deserves a five as well.

 

Book Recommendation: A Fabulous Opera

My favorite anthologies up to now have been collected film reviews by Pauline Kael, but those have been superseded by A Fabulous Opera (title from Rimbaud), by an internet community called The Tropic of Ideas of which I am a part. I joined the group because the posters were disparate, funny, intellectual, humble, serious at only the right times, and far more concerned with books than with themselves. The site we came together on is called LibraryThing, which I joined because someone on there reviewed a novel of mine and so I looked into it and joined out of curiosity. What I found in one  of the groups now called Tropic of Ideas amazed me. Autodidacts, disgruntled academics, lurkers of brilliance, all one breed of clochard or another–in a word, my first cyber home (and probably, hopefully, my last). On this site people often post reviews. One of them, MeditationesMartini, whose real persona, from Canada, has visited me twice in Slovenia, reviews every book he reads and to date has posted 1,746 reviews. Several of his are in the book, all of them are brilliant, one is worth the price of the book–a verse review of Melville’s Clarel.

Something odd happens when you get to know people, they become distorted into the familiar, and we forget various of their characteristics. When I received my copy of A Fabulous Opera in the mail, I realized that I had forgotten that, for instance Anna_in_ pdx, and Enrique Freeque are geniuses, true geniuses, whose words are by turns tantalizingly exotic and stolidly penetrating (I won’t say which is which, but I will say that EF’s distaste for Ulysses is obviously misplaced as he is one of Joyce’s progeny.) There is Korrick, too, a mystery to me, with whom I have overlapping tastes but whose ability to review vastly exceeds my own. And TCMurr, who unfortunately only has three reviews in the book, all long, all worthy of the New York Review of Books. And Macumbeira, who I know to be some sort of Belgian–we have only met once–but who has a range of intellect unchartable. And we were lucky, to pick up a couple others, the poet Scott Coffel, the best poet in the US if Sesshu Foster isn’t, allowed us to use a poem of his, and he helped me to revive Joyce’s reputation after an attempted assassination by EF; and lucky to get a Michael Welch movie review (Last Train From Gun Hill), rambling and insightful. I want to name every reviewer, but instead I will mention those reviewed: George Eliot and Victor Hugo have multiple reviews as do others, but now I will open the book at random:  Melville, Bolano, Thomas Mann, Halldor Laxness, Clarice Lispector, Djuna Barnes, Wilkie Collins, Irene Nemirovsky, Zamyatin, Frisch, Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse, Dostoevsky, Pushkin, St. Augustine, Geroge Grosz, Flann O’Brien, Andre Breton, Robert Burton, William Golding…There are nearly 120 book reviews, one movie review, two haikus, one poem packed into 376 small print pages.

It sells for $10, and is available here: https://www.createspace.com/5760004  Just copy this site and you get to the book.

Reviews of Arjun and the Good Snake posted on Amazon regarding the Kindle versio

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
4.0 out of 5 stars Demanding, poignant and hardbitten.,June 1, 2011
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This review is from: Arjun and the Good Snake (Kindle Edition)

In his latest book, Arjun and the Good Snake, author Rick Harsch takes off the gloves and gives himself a good pounding. In equal parts a memoir, a confession, and an ophidiological dissertation, the book is an unsparing account of a man (Harsch) struggling to come to grips with his fragmented mind, his excesses, and his humanity, as he and his son wander the wilds of India on a holy grail snake quest.
This is not a book for the casual reader or the considerably unlearned, but you should definitely take up the challenge and give it a read. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll cringe, you’ll shake your head sadly, you may even want to crawl on your belly backward, but you won’t soon forget Arjun and the Good Snake.

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating, moving book,May 18, 2011
This review is from: Arjun and the Good Snake (Kindle Edition)

This is an ultimately moving story, a powerful and affecting exploration of a troubled man’s love for his little boy, but it’s also replete with riveting scenes and sub-stories about people’s (including the author’s) encounters with deadly snakes. Along the way, Harsch offers up an abundance of fascinating personal, psychological, cultural, and historical observations and insights – often disturbing, often hilarious, often challenging, always pulsing with a staggering, one-of-a-kind intelligence. Reminiscent of William T. Vollman in its brilliant, eccentric probings into both brain and underbelly, this is a richly rewarding book. Highly recommended.

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
5.0 out of 5 stars can’t explain, just read it,June 9, 2011
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This review is from: Arjun and the Good Snake (Kindle Edition)

Arjun happens to be a recovery memoir and self-discovery travelogue, and yet it’s so much better than what usually oozes out under the banner of those once-noble genres that I’m reluctant to even mention that. It’s real and bravely revealing without being cloying, packed with an obsessive’s intensive research on snakes and Indian mythology, and cigarette- and Slovenian wine-fueled philosophizing on fatherhood, politics, The Meaning of Life, and a lot of other things, the interesting guy in the bar you keep buying drinks for even though you shouldn’t (for his sake) just because you don’t want him to leave or stop talking, or punch you. Yes, I know this makes no sense, and Arjun shouldn’t but it does, beautifully.