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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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.

 

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.

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.

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.