About VOICES AFTER EVELYN and its Author, including how to pre-order the novel, and some reviews of his SKULLS OF ISTRIA

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Voices after Evelyn by Rick Harsch

An unsolved crime that jaundiced the way a town saw itself and its relationship to the outside world is rendered into a polyphonic, farcical, yet accurate visitation to the 1950s Midwest, where banality and inspired caprice make for an odd mix of the hilarious and terrifying.

“Rick Harsch is America’s lost Midwest noir genius, an heir to the more lurid Faulkner, an ex-pat living in Slovenia, a master of dialogue. “Voices after Evelyn” is a fictional take on true crime, and its bloody heart in the real, still-unsolved 1953 disappearance of teenage Evelyn Hartley in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Through that victimization, Harsch makes us look at other victims, survivors too, and throughout the novel, a Greek-style chorus sings songs of rage and loss and puzzlement. Voices after Evelyn is taut and funny, smart and haunting, enraging and true.”
— Daniel A. Hoyt

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In Rovigo, Italy

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Here are the two presses involved in publishing the book. You can pre-order from Ice Cube, but take some time to read about their imprint, Maintenance Ends…

http://www.icecubepress.com/

https://www.facebook.com/maintenanceendspress/

From Harsch’s other publisher, River Boat Books:

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A Conversation with Rick Harsch, the author of Skulls of Istria
When I asked Peter Damian Bellis what I could do for River Boat Books right now, he asked how far Stuttgart was from Slovenia, wondering if I wouldn’t mind interviewing Rick Harsch, who lives there in the coastal town of Izola. I said sure, so he put me in touch with Harsch, who insisted that if I were to do this I must agree to stay at least three nights at his apartment. That made me nervous, so I agreed to two, which turned into five, and a great vacation, as Harsch and his family are wonderful hosts, and the region both beautiful and rife with mixes of culture and history.
I arrived Sunday night, June 24th, after about 13 hours on buses from Stuttgart through Munich and Ljubljana and finally to Izola. He met me at the bus, where I was pulling my luggage from the side bottom, rushing up to me and telling me to grab a few other suitcases while I had the opportunity. It doesn’t take long to get to know such a man.
But he had another surprise. Apparently all the Germans he knows live in Stuttgart as I do, as well as one of his Slovene friends and his family.
 The Germans are in the band Kaufmann Frust, and he said the final condition for the interview—remember, commissioned by his own publisher—was that I present myself as a former member of the band, which I have done in my introductory piece for the press. So let me correct that here and now: I am not, nor have I ever been, a member of the band Kaufmann Frust, though it is true I can play a lot of American cover songs and make small change in big cities throughout Europe doing so.
I read Harsch’s currently published book Skulls of Istria on the bus—it’s a short, what he calls ‘tavern-confession’ novel, and so I was able to not only read it but give it a thorough going over—but the first night he dodged all questions about the book. Our talk was more general. Here’s one exchange:
KH: Who do you think the most important living writer in the world is?
RH: Antonio Lobo Antunes  [he answered without hesitation]. If you want the most important writer in English it’s Sesshu Foster. Sesshu Foster is a Los Angeles writer, author of Atomik Azteks, most recently a book of poems called The City of the Future, and several other books, poetry and prose poetry. I’ll get to him soon.
KH: Why?
RH: Besides various requisites such as talent, inventiveness, disinclination to acceptance of prescribed order, revolutionary sense down to the marrow, which I think any writer I mention in answer would have to have, Foster is an adamant small press writer, or if adamant isn’t the right word, he’s fully aware that the best writing is generally out of the view of the main writing culture and he makes every effort to advance the cause of small presses, while at the same time absolutely refusing to let himself get worn down by the near total lack of concrete award for doing what he does, what he does via tireless promotion and tireless work, writing work.
KH: I’ve never heard of him, which probably doesn’t surprise you… But I feel I have to ask the awkward question: How can he be the most important writer if, as I am guessing, most even modernist writers, most writers who read Gaddis and Barth, for instance, probably have never heard of him either?
RH: All I can say is that that is a fair question and at the same time underscores Sesshu Foster’s importance. To take one shortcut: if it were not for Sesshu Foster, proto-Sesshu Foster’s, Barth and Gaddis would be unknown as well. There must be someone throughout the continuum if the continuum persists. You might know that William Gass might have had a lot to do with the recognition of William Gaddis; yet still, the holy New York Times mistook the two in a review of one of Gaddis’ most important books, actually publishing a review that had Gass as the author. In such a literary world you surely must imagine that the most talent on the continuum is at that part not shoved up the ass of wealth, fame and propriety.
It’s not surprising to find that a writer has himself surrounded by books. Harsch has most of his books in a large bedroom where he also has his work table and computer. The children’s room (he has a 14-year-old son, Arjun, and a 13-year-old named Bhariavi) is filled with books. The bathroom has a small shelf on the floor with books piled to waist height. There are two cases in the dining room, and his seat on the balcony is surrounded by books. These are the ones he is currently reading. I noticed a biography of Pasolini, Thomas Wolfe’s Of Time and the River, and two books pertaining to Malta.
KH: So what are you reading now?
RH: Sesshu Foster’s World Ball Notebook.
KH: Come on, you said the books in there [I point to a shelf] are books you’re in the middle of.
RH: Foster’s in the bathroom. I am also nearly finished with a manuscript by my publisher, your boss Bellis, called Gods and Gazelles. I could look around if you want and come up with at least 30 books I’m reading with some urgency.
KH: Then why say Foster?
RH: It’s the most important one to mention…For reasons stated.
KH: Okay…Well, then, what are you working on now? Are you writing?
RH: Like a madman. I’m writing a book on little league baseball in Italy. I started in early March, intending to follow my son’s 12 game season, you know, a book for baseball fans and travel fans, and it turns out I have a lot more to write about than I realized. There are three games left and it’ll end up being more than 500 pages. Maybe 600. I don’t know because I’m using single space and small font, but I did some calculations and it’s nearing the length of my longest novel.
KH: The Manifold Destiny of Eddie Vegas?
RH: Peter told you about that?
KH: I do my homework. It’s coming out in January, right?
RH: Approximately.
KH: What can you tell me about it?
RH: Ah, shit…it’s best to have a fly leaf or something. When I think of one of my books, especially one that long, something over 500 pages I would guess, in book form…I think of various sections. Like for instance this one has a truer version of the bear story of that film Dicaprio was in, the Hugh Glass story. I moved the location a thousand miles or more, but the actual description of the event even presented somewhat comically is closer than what the film depicted. So I think of that. It’s a book about the ancestors of one of the few main modern characters, and it alternately follows the modern characters and covers a great portion of US history covering this family’s generations. The first is a mountain man, who speaks some authentic mountain man as do others, and…and then there’s the mining in Nevada, the atomic testing…some Indian lore…And there are a lot of Rabelaisian lists.
KH: Does it have a distinctive style?
RH: What doesn’t?
KH: I mean, how would you describe the book, you know, stylistically?
RH: Harschian.
KH: Right, so you aren’t much on labels then. Neither am I, frankly.
RH: They don’t bother me, really—it’s just that the more you say generally, the more misleading is the description. I can say it’s dark and funny and plays with language a lot, that it makes fun of itself sometimes, that it’s rather scathing towards US history…but what would that make it? Postmodern? Hyper-real is good. I don’t mind if someone calls something of mine hyper-real.
KH: Is that accurate?
RH: No.
KH: But you don’t mind.
RH: No…Look, at the Iowa Writers Workshop, I was there over, what? I started there almost 25 years ago. That’s where someone first called my writing meta-fiction. So some guy read something in a university class and it was called meta-fiction, and when he encountered mine, which was probably similar only in that it refuses to obey standard literary notions in whatever ways, he called mine meta-fiction, too. Probably Joyce and Beckett are both meta-fictional, but…
KH: I thought Skulls was great, I really did. But I didn’t think of it categorically. I was trying to think of it like a literary guy would and what I came up with was a kind of mix of Camus and Conrad, the Marlowe books, Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness.
RH: That makes sense, though, because you’re just describing the storytelling technique. But I hope you liked it more than The Fall—I couldn’t stop laughing when I read The Fall. All that ‘Here we are again today my friend’ bullshit.
KH: I read it ten years ago.
RH: Go for twenty.
KH: You’re right, though, in that sense, Skulls of Istria is a very realistic work, which is not something I would ever have thought of your books. [We had already talked about how I came to know his work.]
RH: The story is surreal enough, particularly the one that never really gets told but is the center of the book, Viezzoli’s story. A man, a 26-year-old man, goes off to join the International Brigades and gets killed in Madrid in his first encounter. Gets his name engraved on a plaque.
KH: The engraved! That’s what the dedication means. I didn’t think of that…I thought about graves.
RH: Right. Both.
KH: What about your other book?
RH: Which one?
KH: Voices after Evelyn.
RH: You do do your homework. That should be coming out in November as the inaugural book from Maintenance Press, a new Midwestern press, sort of the avant-garde wing of Ice Cube Press, a well-established Midwestern press based in Iowa. Back to Sesshu Foster, this press began with a fundraising, you know, one of those crowdfunding things, and shot for 10,000$ and got to their goal in about two months, which suggests that there is awareness and interest in less commercial literary ventures.
KH: What’s the book about and how is it avant-garde?
RH: Finally an easy question about one of my books. Avant-garde is sometimes essentially the failure to concede. For instance in the ‘realistic’ Skulls of Istria, the most dramatic action is presented in a page—I’m talking about the war crimes in Mostar—most novels that contain the same basic elements would make that central in an obvious way, the action would be presented in lengthy scenes, characters made of victims and perpetrators. Imagine the film: bad guy required. Evelyn is a historical novel accurately depicting the pivotal moment in a town when a babysitter disappeared, was almost certainly murdered, her body never found. Every expectation given that scenario is rejected. The book is comic, lively, and playfully dark, in fact slipped in to the novel is the murderer played by Peter Lorre in M as a means of conveying a modern chiaroscuro to this colorized event that is researched in blacks and whites. My agent of the time I wrote the book did not get it, and was even, believe it or not, confused by the narration, which is by a series of characters, something twice done by Faulkner and not at all meant to be modern or unmodern or anything but the way the tale needed to be presented. The novel also focuses far less on the victim—in fact, does not focus really at all on the victim—the novel focuses on people living in a 1950s Wisconsin river city who would have lived similarly whether the crime happened there or elsewhere…yet at the same time it is in its way a tip of the hat to the bizarre, the mysterious, the perverse, which is sometimes misunderstood as a characteristic of the Midwest, which is all that but only in its most extravagantly subtle lineaments different from the same excretions in other geographies.
[Given a limit to what I can present to the press, I cut much of the interview and focused on selections I felt were important. I will end with an exchange on River Boat Books.]
KH: Are you happy with River Boat Books? By that I mean many things, but at least address the financial aspect, as it is not a known press that afforded you a large advance.
RH: [Laughing] I need money because I have a family, so if a large press offered me substantial money I would have to take it, for my children. But more important in real terms is the proximity of a press to the essence of its books. Maintenance Ends perfectly matches its first book. Perfectly…right, stupid word because what I need to say is that in the end River Boat Books may be an even, no, I won’t say better fit, but they are more or less the same in regard to my sense of what is—shit, I’m babbling. Look, I am being published at the same time as an enormous masterpiece that came from out of nowhere, The Mad Patagonian, and at the same time along with the historic publication of one of my literary uncles, Roberto Arlt, his great book The Flamethrowers published in English translation for the first time. Now, after reading my publishers novel Gods and Gazelles, I know with certainty the press is run by a mad genius. I am extremely happy, yes, and if River Boat Books survives the coming year, you and I will both be even happier, for there is much more to come that—recall Mr. Foster now—would otherwise be preserved by bark-ravenous insects.
Klaus Hauser, Literary critic (for lack of a better label) and Book Connoisseur (because there are 1,759 books in his Stuttgart apartment)
When I asked Peter Damian Bellis what I could do for River Boat Books right now, he asked how far Stuttgart was from Slovenia, wondering if I wouldn’t mind interviewing Rick Harsch, who lives there in the coastal town of Izola. I said sure, so he put me in touch with Harsch, who insisted that if I were to do this I must agree to stay at least three nights at his apartment. That made me nervous, so I agreed to two, which turned into five, and a great vacation, as Harsch and his family are wonderful hosts, and the region both beautiful and rife with mixes of culture and history.
I arrived Sunday night, June 24th, after about 13 hours on buses from Stuttgart through Munich and Ljubljana and finally to Izola. He met me at the bus, where I was pulling my luggage from the side bottom, rushing up to me and telling me to grab a few other suitcases while I had the opportunity. It doesn’t take long to get to know such a man.
But he had another surprise. Apparently all the Germans he knows live in Stuttgart as I do, as well as one of his Slovene friends and his family.
 The Germans are in the band Kaufmann Frust, and he said the final condition for the interview—remember, commissioned by his own publisher—was that I present

 Rick Harsch  on his Izola balcony with Sesshu Foster’s World Ball Notebook and The City of the Future.

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REVIEWS OF SKULLS OF ISTRIA:
1

The last book I read in the English language was over four months ago and the first book I picked up after this sojourn was Skulls of Istria by Rick Harsch and the second book I picked up was Skulls of Istria by Rick Harsch, thats right I read Harsch’s novel and was so impressed I immediately re-read it. Being a little out of touch with the English language in novel form, may have helped because Harsch bends and twists his words in ways that gets the most out of them, for example:

“How many secret stercoricolous tribes of coprophagi have lived and died unknown”

Perhaps the most disgusting sentence in the whole novel, but at the end of the day I am glad that those tribes lived and died unknown.

Weighing in at 144 pages the novel is not one to exhaust the reader or lead him to regret that time may have been misspent, because the curious thing is that it is also very readable and because I was so fascinated by the word play on that first reading I imagined I might have missed some fundamental themes and a good story and so when I re-read it I found I this to be absolutely correct.

Novel writers live by the art of their story telling and this novel opens with the Speaker/Author inviting a customer at a waterside taverna to sit at his table while he plies him with drinks and proceeds to spin his tales of loves lost and won, plagiarism, intrigue and murder with dollops of Balkan history and a background of a rugged terrain. The speaker/author is an historian (perhaps the best story tellers) with particular knowledge of the coastal towns of Croatia where much of the action takes place, but the speaker/author is also an American and he brings with him the persona of a life time battle with “Uncle Sam”. This is not a two way conversation as the author/speaker says to his guest:

“ But lets not talk politics, you and I, In fact I’d rather you not talk at all, you just listen, I’ll talk.

And talk he does; about the Burja wind, about the history of the peoples living along the coastline laced with passing references to the story he really wants to tell: how he became victim to the machinations of people still trying to escape from the aftermath of yet another vicious war in the Balkans. He tells of his academic career in America his fascination with the war torn region, his attempts to write a masterpiece, the plagiarism that led to his fleeing the country and landing up in Croatia with his partner Rosa. In Croatia he finds a subject on which to hang his chief d’oeuvre, but he is seduced by the gypsy-like Maja who involves him in a Balkan intrigue all of his own.

So what better way than to spend an afternoon sitting at a table opposite this voluble American while he plies you with drinks and tells stories that will shock and awe you, that will drip with the harshness of a people and their surroundings and the history that no one can escape, but underneath there is also a human story of love and lust and that age old conundrum that concerns so many writers: the search for a subject that will satisfy the serious artist. Mr Harsch is well on the way to finding that with this novel whose individual voice will fascinate and entertain the reader in equal measure. Highly recommended and a five star read.  )

11voteflagbaswood | Jul 3, 2018 | 
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2

[Skulls of Istria] churns in a fever pitch, soaked in liquor and crusted in dusty grit kicked up by the Slovene burja swirling through the pages. Rick Harsch, himself an American ex-pat residing in the regions highlighted in the book, has created a jolting contemplation on history and culture and violence. Sometimes it is bloody, genocidal violence but, more often in this frenzied, confessional tirade, the self-immolating variety.

As the book opens, we find an unidentified American, on the lam for sins not yet revealed, plying a local bar sot with endless buckets of local swill as he decompensates through his own checkered history. His story is accompanied by a burja – a feral wind roiling through the region that matches our man’s own discord. Early in his account, the mysterious narrator tells the story of Marjan, whose Greek fishing cap was lifted from his head by a similar burja to be blown away to a faraway inland landing spot. The hat’s improbable journey is an omen for the Odyssian voyage about to be described.

Like all epic journeys, [Skulls of Istria] is dissonant and abrasive at the outset, defying understanding; like a discordant jazz piece. But there are secret melodies to which the nattering storyteller returns, until the dissonance is synchrony.

As the harmony begins to resolve, the narrator announces a singular distaste for his home – America:
“Anyway in America the formative vary from one to one with little degree of significance. … America is the great fusion of classes by culture, the fusion of very little into nothing, a clear refutation of the more important laws of thermodynamics: there are many classes but a single caste, and money simply describes specific modalities of inertia.”
The declaration gives the reader some of the first clues about the speaker’s reliability. For, in the explanation, he sheds light on the origins of his exile, and they are self-driven.

The reader is left to wonder – and wander – with him, whether his undoing will have anything to do with a woman. Will it be Rosa? Will it be Maja? Rosa lazily fades into his life during his days in American academia. But she just as lazily fades out of it when he decamps. Maja, the schemer, blows into his life like the burja from which he is constantly on the run. Manipulating him out of his passport, she appears the likely seed of his destruction. But as he accounts for himself, he ultimately blames Kronos, his history professor mentor. Here, the narrator’s earlier disdain for American mediocrity and homogeneity begins to make sense. Kronos was unable to ever write the historical treatise which would deliver on his promise. When Kronos dies, our unidentified Ulysses finds several chapters his mentor’s writing. He takes it for his own, rewrites and completes it, and has it published. When the plagiarism is discovered, he flees. Though he isn’t able to write his own book, he still mocks and derides his mentor’s failings. All the while, he uses his mentor’s unfinished book to complete a task he isn’t capable of himself. The incongruity sets him on a journey worthy of Homer.

In the last chapters – the tale is unclear enough even to the teller that he can’t decide on the chapter’s numbering – he follows a map in search of a subject for an original work; Giordano Viezzoli a Piranian soldier from the Spanish Civil War. With the map folded into his kit, it’s uncertain whether he can actually read the map and readers are wandering (wondering) again. Is redemption the quarry rather than Viezzoli? Redemption in the spiritual since, for his sins? Or intellectual redemption? During this odyssey, he falls into a pit of skulls. And, with all his knowledge, he isn’t even able to distinguish the origin of the remains – which historical genocide produced the mass grave. All the historical violence is indistinguishable, just as his own plight’s origins are indistinguishable to him.

Within site of the saga’s end, the narrator crawls from the pit of skulls as the burja blows its last exhale. Does this mark a self-realization? An understanding? Harsch puckishly refuses to engage in that sort of ending, resolving the tale with a coin flip that always comes up heads.

This is not a book to be nibbled at, but to be swallowed whole, chewed and mashed through. The poetic word-play and sardonic humor throughout will alone keep you busy. But the real value is in the constantly shifting flavors as you masticate long after the final bite.

Bottom Line: A feverish account of one man’s odyssey through the Balkans, and through the detritus of his own life.

5 bones!!!!!  )

10voteflagblackdogbooks | Apr 21, 2018 | 
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3

Towards the end of Rick Harsch’s new novel the protagonist – an American historian on the lam in Europe, on the Croatian coast to be precise – falls into an underground crypt filled with skulls, a depository from the long wars of Venice against Turks and Uskoks? Or a more recent ossuary of the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans of the 90s? He emerges from this premature brush with death with all his illusions shattered, his plan for a history of the region as told though the biography of a certain Giordano Viezzoli abandoned, and with a new understanding of reality, of who the people around him really are, and the role that he has played in their lives, how he has been a victim of deception.

I looked out at the world from that skull and saw first myself inert, wounded, and worst of all, a mock historian – an historian to be mocked.

Told in the form of a tavern confessional, Harsch’s novel explores issues of deception and truth, and the fraught history of the Balkans. In Vino Veritas, as the saying goes. The problem with being accosted by the local drunk, as Harsch must know full well, is that it can either be a revelatory experience, if the man can talk (and, boy, how the narrator of this novel can talk!); or it can be an evening of utter boredom for the listener and maudlin self obsessed justification for the tale teller, in which how-it happened is (in)judiciously mixed up with how-it-should-have-happened. Harsch’s tale explores the ambiguities of fiction versus non-fiction, memoir versus history, truth versus lies in prose of sizzling energy, linguistic invention, and confidence, completely at odds with the anodyne beige prose of most contemporary American authors. Harsch is a novelist whose work deserves to be better known, a writer with a style of great originality, power and vision.  )

10voteflagtomcatMurr | Apr 13, 2018 | 
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4

“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.  )

13voteflagdavidvardeman | Feb 15, 2018 | 
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5

Rick Harsch’s truly excellent “Skulls of Istria” is a book that deserves to be read. This thin novel with less than 150 pages and only 6 or 7 chapters demands but a minimal effort and time investment, say an afternoon read, a few hours on the plane, for what I consider a huge return.

The story too is very readable. I mean by that, that from the first page, the author grabs your attention, you are sucked into the narrative and before you know it, captivated, you keep on reading. Or listening…, for that is what you actually do, you listen to a narrator babbling away while he drinks glass after glass of a local spirit.

The narrator, a self – exiled American academic, a mock historian he calls himself, speaks to the reader from his regular watering hole, a sea front bar in the Slovanian city of Piran. He has taken refuge from the terrible Burja, a legendary storm-wind that rages outside over the Adriatic Sea.

As his voice drones away, occasionally interrupted by his regular trip to the bar’s toilet to relieve himself, you install yourself in comfortable passive listening. But that may be a dangerous lapse of attention for you should listen carefully; close reading is required. The story the historian tells might after all not be as innocent as it is narrated and the steady downing of brandy might not only help the narrator to find his words but maybe also give him the necessary courage to proceed.

The American is basically and safely speaking to himself, for the other person at his table appears to be dead drunk and the other people present in the bar mind their own business playing cards. Anyway, nobody is eavesdropping, and we start following the narrative…

From innocent and funny anecdotes about the excesses of the Burja wind, the storyteller comes to tell us bits of the very violent history of the area, mingling it with his own confessional story of how he washed up in this coastal Istrian town. The man’s story consists of different threads that loop and snake around each other : the reason of his self inflicted exile, his relationship with his traveling companion, his passion for a gypsy women and his desperate search for a historic topic for a book he wants to write.

All this is recounted in a succulent flow of words, full of puns, clever wordplays, literary trouvailles and newly chiseled porte-manteau words. Not only does the narrator’s story turn out to be more than just interesting, it is darkly sarcastic and funny too.

As the reader starts to unravel the separate threads of the narrative yarn, a Hitchcockian structure appears that increases the worrisome mood permeating the pages of the book. The historian seems to have forgotten that what is the past today was the actuality of yesterday. In an area with a history of violent ethnic war, this is a warning not to miss.

Hell under one’s feet, might be but just a drop away.

A must read.  )

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12voteflagMacumbeira | Jan 2, 2018 | 

Skulls of Istria takes us from a midwestern academia to the Adriatic coast of Slovenia…where an on the lam would be American historian after some nefarious doings on his part having washed up with his girlfriend like two bits of flotsam and with vague notions of starting over. And so the historian sits in a bar in Piran (a smallish Slovenian town on the Adriatic coast) plying a stranger who doesn’t speak a word of English with drink while regaling this stranger with the trials, the vicissitudes of his past and how he came to be where he is–abandoned and adrift in a foreign land and among strangers who for the greater part he has some difficulty communicating with and/or understanding is also part of the confession he feels compelled to dump on his uncomprehending (and probably could give a shit less) drinking buddy. His burdens need to be unburdened out loud and what better place than a tavern? Language, politics, culture, love blending into each other as the burja blows sometimes so powerfully that it can lift a truck off the ground…all the while that the historian’s sardonic black humor pricks away at his own conscience.

While a comparison could be made to the prose device Camus creates in The Fall–one does get the sense that Albert’s hearer is at least sympathetic. And then Camus was always kind of dry to me….which is why he will alway be best to me with large sandy landscapes looking off towards infinite vistas rather than in Amsterdam bars or any bars for that matter. Skulls of Istria works better–much better in fact because Rick Harsch’s prose style breathes life and humor into it. I mean really to me you need atmosphere to carry this off right. That the listener is only interested in drinking himself into oblivion while the historian rattles on and the burja blows as background noise is just one ironic twist but it welds the book from beginning to end.

IMO there are very few really great American fiction writers writing today and Mr. Harsch (a longstanding member of the LT community) is one of them. His stories are replete with intricate plots, interesting characters, modernistic twists in both action and language. I’ve read several of his works and Skulls shows a great writer at the top of his game–at least until he tops it again–which I suspect will happen. This book would be a great place for someone new to his fiction to start.  )

13voteflaglriley | Nov 8, 2017 | 

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Introduction to The Flamethrowers

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Introduction

Rick Harsch

  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 circle, 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.

 

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.

This Review Is Not For Amazon: Dan Hoyt’s This Book is Not For You

 

This Review Is Not For Amazon

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Dan Hoyt’s This Book Is Not For You

It’s time to stop talking about fiction categorically, time to shut the fuck up about metafiction, postmodernism, experimentalism. It’s time to remember Rabelais and Petronius, Burton, Arlt and that other guy (women? I suspect they are in the vanguard—I wish I could experience the genderrific thrill of having a lady named George enter the man’s world just to show them how easy it can be if you take your genitalia just a little less seriously). The history of fiction is a very long one, a history of free prose winnowed suddenly into a conformism commodified into an embarrassing self-regard—mirrors previously used to perform tricks became instruments of judgment. How it happened is not my concern, other than to say it took a great deal of cowardice, collaboration—in the shave their heads sort of way—and competition. Okay, yes, I AM disgruntled, but as things stand I am far happier that I am me and not Dan Brown, not Frank Conroy. I’m glad I’m not Dan Hoyt, too, but that’s because we never enjoy our own books the way we delight in the inspired works of others. And Hoyt is inspired, red hot, boiling—he’s a mad phalanx of lobsters with felt-once tip claws; and I’m going to let other reviews discuss his innovative moves—I’m going to tell you that I can’t remember the last time I came across so many memorable lines with such frequency, especially from a young first person narrator. It’s not only the descriptions, but the wisecracks, the attitude, the violently ambivalent truths of a man in the contracting idiocy of his time. Hoyt’s Neptune is an amazing literary creature, a narrative drive unto himself. And this is where I recall an obscure writer like Desani and his mad Hatterr and slide him into the review like an asshole, but I wouldn’t do that to Hoyt. I would do it to you, but not Dan Hoyt. The very notion is absurd—we need to shut the fuck up about other writers when we’re reviewing the current victim (every review is a violence done to the work of the author, every review). This may seem odd, but it is even about time we review the photos authors let their puppeteers attach to their books: and I’m damn glad a bald Hoyt with sleeves rolled up is looking at me, telling me he absolutely does not care what I think of his book. No sweater. No dog. No living room floor. Back to the book, the word choice is unparalleled, deft, but that goes without saying—if it wasn’t deft I wouldn’t be reviewing because I leave the reviewing of shitty books to others; no the word choice is consistently inspired: ‘burlap crackers’! See if you can top that. See if Joyce Carol Franzen can top that. It’s a work of literature and it has a plot, too, and you actually read it as fast as the narrator tells you to, tells you are, and unless you’re an asshole you will take your first origami lesson. As for the content of the book, I mean otherwise—the cover is great but for the five blurbs, all of which are right in praising the book, all of which fall short of sufficient praise, and each of which has at least one remarkable idiotic aspect (Listen to this shit: ‘A page-turner experimental novel.’ I would rip the head off anyone I caught putting that on my novel.)—the content of the book doesn’t matter in the least because the narrator is the book and it wouldn’t matter what he was going on about in his way. I probably should tip one of my Midwestern hats to Dan Hoyt, a lesser Pacino, phelt you can afford: the environment of his novel is up to date and survives, the characters what has been done to them, wires and everything…
Maybe one reason I like this book so much is that the narrator directly tells the reader a lot of what I think, but that passes because I have to get on with what I am writing—I like directly telling readers uncomfortable things and I don’t get to do it often enough. This book revels in it. I have spent far too much time writing for the one or two or three people who pop into mind as I write—P will like this, B will laugh at this, T will get this. The fact is, however, that we could not possibly have the detrital bloat of commodified cornholery that passes for literature without a plethora of morons not getting our books, not caring to get books, not advancing their selves through art, surrendering their selves lest art, merely paying lip service to art without even swallowing. Which brings me to my only problem with the book, not an uncomfortable one for me. I love great literature, and I read a lot of it, and I’m damn grateful for the current writers of it…But this is the first time I’ve ever read a book and felt that it might change my writing in some way in the future. It has an urgency that may finally lead to a necessary coherence in literature given the world that Arlt described is in its late menopausal stage. I might have to learn from Hoyt to maintain my relevance to myself. I might have to speed up to keep the urgency in sight.

Katabasis, a Theme for Trieste II

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KATABASIS, a THEME for TRIESTE11

 

By Rick Harsch

 

With Photographs by Jan Skomand

 

 

 

KATABASIS: a Theme for Trieste

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Humans are evanescent; cities are an attenuation of that being-tainted evanescence, a smart ape-group’s struggle against disappearance. Cities outlast us, and that is by nature mystifying, and we know that nothing about the city is humanly known on that very level which is the only one where what it is exists. So we haunt them with their own pasts, pasts of which they are well rid, as cities are the best humans did at approximating nature, which abhors an eternity. Cities are born to die, are ready to die, and they do—all—eventually die. Yet it is no paradox that in their dying cities produce great bursts of life–the metaphor brought to mind is rats taking torches to the armories—the humans in the cities have no urge to measure their currents against the crepuscular flex of the city. Mirrors don’t reflect honest decadence. And if humans be the strangest of earth’s creatures, and they certainly are, and if each city harbors tortoise-like lunatics (always men, for some reason) who persist in splendorous pigeon-cursing pique, insistent that the city must die first, the simple truth is the city will survive them all.

Nature perhaps as well coerces writers into anthropomorphicizing cities, as I have just done. The worst and most often inaccurate example is to call a city less vigorous than it once was a dying city. I need no other example than the subject of this book, Tergeste, Trieste, Trst, a city that has been associated famously with nowhere, and is considered internationally to be a dying city, if not a dead city. This should come as a surprise to the quarter of a million residents of Trieste—a number, after all, great enough to succumb to holocaust—but it is a cliché they live with; or live beside, for in their quotidian it is doubtful Triestini give much thought to the morbidity of their city. I am not a Triestini, but as a New Istrian living nearby in Izola, Slovenia, working in Trieste, visiting often, I am truly sick of the lack of inspiration behind the common misperception of Trieste. I would go so far as to call it inhuman.

The reason for the persistence of an insipid human myth is the lack of a vibrant newer myth. That, simply, is my diagnosis of the problem of humans and Trieste. Once the fevered, international port lost its hinterland—political economy turning a cold shoulder to geography–the city naturally changed dramatically. That it had also become something has been strangely overlooked by outsiders. Every city has its character, every neighborhood its character, and so every city its mischaracterizations. Thus I will make no attempt to determine the character of Trieste. I intend only to posit a theme for a city visited famously, and inarguably, by a unique and violent wind, the bora, a katabatic wind, Alpine air sucked down to replace languid Mediterranean vapors, knocking over old ladies and bicyclists, occasionally flinging a roof tile through a neck (Prague has its defenestrations, surely exaggerated; Trieste its decapitations). This wind is yet more powerful in metaphoric state, as witness the case of James Joyce, the most internationally famous historical Triestine, whose Trieste Katabasis is legendary and was of such force he put the protagonists of his final two books through much the same—Bloom, of course, as Ulysses had no choice whatsoever; and nor did Finnegan, the legendary drinker who went so far as to die so as to get himself a decent splash of whiskey.

I must immediately take a sword to that last paragraph. Off with Joyce’s head—that, too, is katabasis. The finest book on the phenomenon is The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller, who leaves the reader deceived into a state of static euphoria, mopping the forehead with a handkerchief, the journey having gone well. It wasn’t his fault, for Miller knew that katabasis was very much like a carnival ride assembled by the drunk, blind and demonic. For some descent was arduous and rewarding, of course: for others it was a headfirst plunge into a karstic hole, a foiba…And we will indeed get to that perpetual katabasis in time, smrt fascismu! and pace nel mondo.

Meantime I cast ahead of myself, having heard from Mac, the gent from Ghent, who inadvertently warned me off the ratlines to the buried magazines. ‘I have been re-reading the text you sent me more carefully,’ he wrote, referring to just the first three paragraphs; ‘Katabasis was for me, monomaniac mariner, only a wind, a dangerous one, but predictable in its unpredictability, like a Venturi. But that was too easy…I suspected. And suspicious I looked up Katabasis and found that it firstly meant going down (to the underworld) or toward the coast…as opposed to the Anabasis of Xenophon’s fame…’ Naturally, all that Mac suspects of my intentions is true enough…true enough: strong words for modern man. Yet there is also simply Trieste mundane, tramontane, adamantine: within the shell of the turtle, one might say…particularly as my photographer and I began this venture with the intention of violating a minor law for luck (Mac: ‘Chronos castrated his father with an adamantine sickle.’). This involved transporting an invasive species across national lines and releasing the animals in the pond of the Giardino Pubblico at the end of Via Battisti, a park featuring the finest chapter in Claudio Magris’ Microcosmos, in which not only did I learn of the turtles in the pond but also the many busts of writers in particular, Italo Svevo in magnificence, his head having been stolen several times. I read the book more than a decade ago, probably about the time I bought the first turtle, Captain Michalis, for my son. At the time the creature was about the size of my thumb, the shape it would be if it were pounded with a mallet. A year later I bought Bouboulina for my daughter. Gradually the turtles outgrew my capacity to make for them a paradise; though the children did their part by losing interest in them within weeks, one assumes that peace and food security comes to less than that which nature invests within desires of the testudinatal race. A fair amount of swimming, the hunt…But Captain and Bouboulina ‘swam’ eventually in the largest plastic tub I could find, the fresh waters of which began turning green within a day of changing, turbid within a week, and too often were again changed only when a stranger to our balcony noted the smell. It could have been worse: Izola was until recently a fishing town, a tin cannery town, a place that smelled like fish. There’s little doubt that a degree of nostalgia drifted off my balcony as the turtles lived on as we presume reptiles do, they and their odd limb-tips half flipper/half claw, unseen under the muck layer more often than not. I know I know nothing, yet assume that the smaller-brained creatures express stress by dying: and these two always harbored great vigor. Perhaps I merely lack the culture to grow a proper disease. So I cleaned them in the shower, put them in a cloth bag, put the bag in a fittingly plastic shoulder bag, and my photographer and I drove to Trieste and made our way to the public garden. The busts stood in still heft amid more jungly verdance than I recalled, and the pond itself was fed by a spring and narrow falls surrounded by bamboo. This was going to be easy, I thought. Just above the falls was a rounded clearing over-filled with benches, where two Serbian bums were passing the day. The first asked my photographer for a smoke and disappeared once he got it. I decided not to wait for the other to disappear, particularly as he seemed to be taking some kind of interest in what I was doing, having clambered into the bamboo and down a couple stages of rocky aquadescent. I quickly removed Captain and placed him on a stone over which water ran rapidly. He remained withdrawn and the flow did not carry him to his better life. Still the second Serb observed. I took out Bouboulina. What was he looking at, really? The last thing you want when doing something wrong is to appear to be doing something wrong, so I held up Bouboulina for him to see, a gesture he mistook for an offering—‘Ne, hvala’—and I put Bouboulina in the falls, she emerged spry, and was soon out of sight. I nudged Captain a couple times with my foot as if across asphalt, and he, too, was relocated…within the safe confines of Trieste, safely apart from native species.

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Goodbye, Captain.

In his prescient classic The Folk from the Earth (my translation), in the chapter “Katabasis Monterno”, the early 19th century Freiburg philosopher von Schlag (sic?) argued that prison had become the one true church of modern man, the last refuge of hope for redemptive process. As I understand the fragment (as presented by a Danish philosopher of minor repute whose name I no longer recall), von Schlag (sic?) meant to suggest that the lurch of modernity toward industrialization, away from nature, was a permanent shift, and that among the manifest changes in the totality of the life of humans was a deterioration in all aspects of the incorporeal, a degradation of myth, an interment of lore along with banishment of all mysterious in lives of the night. Yet the surpassing need for this incorporeal required that some sort of maladaptation was necessary, and so as regards katabasis, we would have prison. Sparking through intellectual history, with matted coats and corded ruddering tails, ideas provoke an excitement akin to that of the finest poetry, even if their application is a slippery matter. I’m reminded of Spengler’s unforgettable line: you can take the man out of the city, but you cannot take the city out of the man. The very sighting of a truth in that line excites me in precisely the same way I’m uplifted upon sudden glimpse of a hedgehog, or a nutria. And there is no doubt that indeed a prison sentence is an invitation to an exploration of katabasis, even on the mundane level of rehabilitation.

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The Coroneo Perp Walk, Trieste Central, or where a passaggio connects the justice building with the jail.

The resonance was not accidental, for the very process of making this book began as a visit to Coroneo, Trieste’s prison, as an act of homage by my photographer and I to a forgotten wreck of a man, dead three years, likely having committed suicide by mixing heroin with an enormous litrage of alcohol. Štranzo was much despised and more feared, having a penchant and talent for fighting, a dark spirit, a drug habit, and a sensitivity to slight keener than an albino’s to desert sun. He was all the more hated socially for having squandered talents bestowed upon a very few in life: he was a rare artist, the kind of whom it is said perhaps one in a generation passes this way, with an incisive, comprehensive mind. He was invited from his home in Capodistria (Koper) to study fine arts in Ljubljana, where his impact was felt immediately, remaining even as he himself quickly vanished into a life of wandering, heroin, and brutal assaults. By the time I met him he was a new man; his time in Coroneo was enough to prevent him from beating strangers to a pulp for having the nerve to turn their eyes from him as they passed in the street. His sentences often ended with ‘…don’t want to end up back in jail.’ His attraction to me is of no importance, as my whole life I have been singled out by the odd, the lame, the demonic, the deranged, the needy (I could provide example after example: the one guy on that plane, that train…the oddity places me in a class of some sort with a speculative Jesus: For instance, over the span of my 58 years, at least 20 people have had me touch their head injuries, most recently a former Yugoslav reporter who had been shot in Prague by Russians in 1968. That was not yet two weeks ago.). Importantly, I did not fear Štranzo; that was surely one pre-requisite. Another was an interest in literature. My photographer shares these, and he, quite separately, had been a friend to Štranzo. In my apartment, Štranzo was gentle with my children, physically loving to my dogs, and could not help but exude the atomized stigmata of one often forced to leave. He never wanted to be unwelcome in my apartment, and even if he was not one to yield to anything at all he could not prevent my knowing that. Perhaps that has nothing to do with his scattershot tendency to bear gifts—often spectacles of nature like giant donkey ear seashells that washed up one day, impossible plants that, like him no longer could manage an effort to take root. And one night, it was past three in the morning, he buzzed me awake and arrived up the stairs with a holiday display size Italian flag and these words I will never forget, ‘I thought you might want this.’ Humans disguise an incomprehensible nature by a surface complexity, yet when it comes down to it we are no different from dogs sniffing each other’s asses.  On the great dogwalk of life, Štranzo and I sniffed each other and found a short couple years of simpatico available. But he was never happy, and he spoke to me too often of suicide. He was off heroin but hooked on morphine and the last year of his life he kicked morphine but needed all the more alcohol. Suffice to say what would have been required for him to live as an artist was beyond his means. For Štranzo, katabasis was welcome torture from which he emerged with terrifying eyes he covered with sunglasses. Coroneo was easy by comparison. He simply did not want to return and so only engaged in violence far from crowds. He described one of these fights, at a house out in the foothills inland—a butcher knife and another two appliances were involved and he had to restrain himself from killing the man. I am not certain, but I think a woman who didn’t much care who lived through the battle was in the bedroom in a state of low alert at the time, and I think Štranzo intentionally provoked the other guy by having sex with her, that in fact he had sex with her entirely for that reason. He wasn’t a saint. So when he died not many people cared and too many were simply glad of it. A detail from his life that was surely more important than any other was that when he was 21 his twin brother, Branimir, by all accounts a talented and kind young man, leapt from the bells of the campanile in Capodistria in Tito Square. That, too, is katabasis.

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The people will decide if this is a hall of justice or not.

My photographer and I visited Štranzo’s favorite spots in Izola and Koper, but also felt that no day of homage would be complete without also seeing Coroneo. Our directions were vague enough to bring us to the intersection from where this photograph of the hall of justice was snapped. We asked for directions, unaware that were actually at our destination—the prison connected to the building at its rear. The grandeur of the building was lost on me, putting me off only so that I wished to hurry on, and we did, finding ourselves on the other side, where the ‘entrance’ to the prison is hidden behind a row of trees. We found a guard, and as my photographer speaks Italian, ‘we’ asked about Štranzo, who had been out for at least seven or eight years by then. Describing Štranzo’s loose-limbed build began the process of remembrance, but it was the combination of his wild nature and loud voice that finally did it. The guard smiled. Sure, he’d had to club Štranzo a few times. There was genuine affection in his recollection.

I got to thinking and we got to talking. Trieste had been of interest to me since I had seen the last page of Ulysses at a time when the city had far more poetic meaning to me than locational precision; but it was that building, its grandiosity not grandeur, the conceit of any building allowed to label itself justice, it was that more than anything that was the final lure to writing another book about a place. And of course I had never been comfortable with the title of the Morris book, the tendency of Trieste to be known so little for so little and still gotten so wrong, and…I have no wish to be immune from the charms of urban history. Yet the incipient fascination of a naïve writer, in that last exalted stage of any author of profane books, remains an immeasurable lure, a powerful if mundane loci, a bottom toward which to plunge having found myself living on the Gulf of Trieste for reasons having nothing to do with this city that had taken on a mystique particular to my inchoate yearning. Earthly connections are available as stars, and it was a simple constellation for me to label: Joyce, upon landing in Trieste, was arrested within two hours having inserted himself somehow into a melee in Piazza Unita. He did not find himself held in the Coroneo, but neither are the stars of Orion actually neighbors. Another way to express what I am trying to suggest is that nothing arose to prevent the momentum that was gathering toward my writing about Trieste.

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Why did I forget about Zurich and Paris?

 

Last night my daughter, Bhairavi, and I took one of our dogs, Sultan Suleiman, for a swim, on the way running into an adolescent rat just in front of our apartment that our hound had trouble focusing on as he is a creature of habit. The rat was running along the curb of an island of flora where Suleiman tends to relieve himself, and though the creature was scooting along with elaborate ratleggery, Suleiman missed it. Only when the rat sensed my vigilance did it begin to consider the need to escape, and, being a rat, it made a maze of the matter, turning abruptly and running back the way it had come. Only then, at excessive urging, did I get Suleiman to notice. He chased the rat from the labyrinth of its eventual demise, the creature leaping the curb and disappearing into undergrowth. At the beach I found the usual beached-home shell and bit of sea-polished glass with which to decorate the photo, which includes the type of book that I have no desire to write simply because so many already exist. Which is the reason that I asked Juan Vladilo, astrophysicist working in Trieste, if he would give some thought to places in the city that are of some interest yet generally not already covered in books. He promised to do so, and maybe feeling a measure of gratitude, I finally, after knowing him nearly ten years, asked him where his observatory was located. ‘Near San Giusto.’ ‘Where’s that?’ I asked in all my innocence. His eyes widened, which probably came naturally to him as one learns early not to squint when looking through binoculars and telescopes. ‘You’re going to write a book on Trieste and you don’t know where San Giusto is?’

His words had the effect of a sudden flaring match light in a darkened warehouse. Oh yes! Absolutely. Thank you, Juan, thank you, went my silent exuberant writer brain. Yes, that is precisely the way to write about San Giusto. Every book about Trieste includes San Giusto—they must—for San Giusto is indeed among the most important locales in the city, historic, palimpcestual, enduring! Central! Yet this city I love and with which I have now been by degrees intimate for seventeen years has kept San Giusto hidden from me. Certainly Morris wrote of it, though it would not be odd if my intermittent disgust with Morris’ love of empires had me yawning just at that point. And my extensive reading about and around Trieste would have been more focused on questions like why this armpit and not the other (Genoa)?, antipathies from Guelph and Ghibelline to Brit and Yugoslav, motifs like Trieste as serendipitous non-island in Venezian sea and bandits and banditry awash in bandit sea, not to mention the city as one flashpoint of horrors in the 20th century.

With extra attention I proceeded to read all three of Italo Svevo’s novels. What did San Giusto mean to Trieste’s greatest novelist? I had prepared myself for the answer without realizing it, for after six years outside a classroom as a result of a modern drought, what the world of cities calls an economic crash, I had just last year been hired to teach mariners English in a Habsburgh structure on Piazza Hortis, where a full body statue of Svevo presides, and every time I passed him I patted him on the shoulder. The man of the city is as fond as the preceding agrarians of speaking of fate and arguing whether coincidence exists or not. I weigh in here only to mention my luck: teaching in the same square that was chosen for Svevo’s statue! Oddly, I think, in three novels Italo Svevo never mentioned San Giusto. In fact, if Svevo were one’s guide, Trieste was the Corso—and no one seems to know where that now is—the public gardens, and the bourse, not to mention the boudoirs…This, of course, was the answer I sought, which is not to say that Giovanni Vladilo was wrong.

5

Dear Italo.

4

The acrobat of impermanent emotion given the illusion of permanence is appreciated by the author.

Particularly as there are other explanations. Consider this: when reading about the 4th Crusade one is likely to recall the image of the blind 90 year old doge, Enrico Dandolo, stepping ashore onto a bloody Constantinople rock to the deafening (he was not yet deaf) noise of thousands of men clashing, screaming, heaving, swiping, swearing, dying, bemoaning, of women screaming in terror, or future explosions the battle insistently beckoned, or immediately look up at the wily, acrobatic Venezians, there masts makeshift boarding planks, or mathematically oriented, determine the number of dead required to successfully storm and take a certain tower…What you will not read of is the goings on in the Hagia Sophia. And so when Dandolo began this bizarre, revolting venture by calling on subjects of the Istrian peninsula and citizens of Trieste and Muggia in a panic sought to pacify the old murderer with elaborate shows of humble adoration, one is not likely to imagine the scenes so far as to include San Giusto, even if there is actually some chance that, if the doge were indeed invited ashore to be feted, San Giusto may have been the chosen site for a banquet and obsequies.

And unlike Hagia Sophia, San Giusto does not stand out to most self-sufficient visitors to Trieste. If it did, I would have seen it and asked after it. It is an old castle near shore after all. Quite likely when it was built, this problem was not foreseen. But over time, especially concentrated Hapsburgher time, numerous buildings of bulk and height came to line the shore of the port and move towards the hills, surrounding San Giusto entirely, so that by now the castle is far closer to the sea (where the riva runs a line sw to ne) than to the eastern boundaries of the city. I’ll illustrate this in a moment, but first, to supplement the nature of such oddities I offer this photo for consideration:

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Trieste seen from the first Servola off-ramp.

Cities of broad shoulders and industry, cities of industrial birth and skyscraping adolescence, even premature sulfuric old age, suffer little aesthetic damage from incongruity. After admiring the finest skyscapers of Chicago, one does not find the related conglomeration of plants built to convert raw materials into gold turning the skies of Gary, Indiana, death-greened colors that mirror Lake Erie’s cast just before the fire breaks out. Old cities don’t have that luxury. The modern stands out as in the above picture of the back of a grocery store, a plain brick building, sports stadia with their lights, apartment blocks, a relatively modern hospital in the back ground. It is by no means a pretty picture. (Fear not entirely for the vagaries of the sea plump for the ghosts of their land structures, imbue them with ghostly wonder.) Yet ugly that picture may be, Servola is integral to Trieste, as I found when I began driving there three or four times a week to meet people whose son and my own engage in an obscure rite I am not at liberty to reveal.  But that particular picture is here in relation to San Giusto for it includes a remarkable structure I only recently identified. That brick building is the Risiera di San Sabba, the only operative crematorium in Italy during World War II. This is upsetting to many Triestini, quite naturally. In fact, one necessary acquaintance, Normanno, became highly agitated when I explained that I had procured the photo, taken by my photographer. ‘I will invite you and your entire family to dinner and then take you to San Giusto…’ he objected. He did not understand, he claimed, why this building had a place in my book. Interestingly, two days later I just happened to discover that he had once taken his daughter to Risiera di San Sabba as an object lesson of some sort. (You think your life is bad…) Of course, I had read much about Risiera di San Sabba, and knew it was somewhere within a couple miles of where it is and had intended to visit at some point, when this book dictated. After all, the worst sort of katabasis may be either dying in such a place or surviving confinement there. Yet I found out it was part of my routine in a sense during the whole time I was meditating on San Giusto and what it meant that I had never focused on the place. Normanno argued that Risiera di San Sabba may as well not have been there at all. ‘The Germans did that, not the Italians.’ Now this is sensitive topical territory we will negotiate often in this book. For now, I will say that yes, Germans did, predominantly, ‘do’ that; but they did that with their own SS, Ukrainian SS, Austrian SS, and Italian SS. Why so disturbed so nationalistically? The gauleiter of the littoral at the time was Odilon Globocnik, a murderous swine who was half-Slovene and half-Hungarian. I can’t speak for Hungarians, but I know that no Slovene feels shame or complicity because of the involvement of the bloodthirsty Globocnik’s paternity. The engineer in charge of building the crematorium at the old rice husking plant was German, a serious man known for his many human-killing ovens, chiefly in Polish territories, Erwin Lambert. I suggest that for Normanno a walk through the Risiera di San Sabba would serve as a healthy katabatic experience, and given the torments endured at the risiera, the child’s skull kicked in, the elderly man beaten to death, the slaughtered, gassed, humiliated, rat-bitten, burned alive, the permanently traumatized,

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A necessary pause for beauty that survived all the monstrosities visited upon Trieste and those people in, out and throughout the town.

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the raped, stabbed, shot, beaten to death with shovels, gun butts, bricks, the cremated, partially cremated, the gassed, Normanno might come to distantly if perhaps only subconsciously understand what the Dante he certainly has memorized once endured.

Clearly, then, cities all have their secrets, multitudinous, and selective in the subjects who will receive their revelations. I showed the photo of the Risiera to a French Triestine who had somehow, despite a restless and exploratory nature, not yet been to see it in nearly ten years residence in Trieste. ‘That is the Risiera?’ he exclaimed. He had seen it more often than I had and yet had never seen it. This is a very simple explanation for my own ignorance of San Giusto, as you can see. I was told that on Molo Audace, the nearest pier to Piazza Unita, you can see San Giusto, but even there lies a problem.

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The Ugliest Building on the Riva.                                                                                                    I have yet to decide whether to expose the hideous frontage of the building seen above facing the sea. The orange and brown monstrosity is so ugly that it has become for me the most recognizable lump of Trieste. The Audace pier lies off the riva perpendicular to that building, and it is between that building and its neighbor that one can spy sections of the castle of San Giusto. Yet such is the hideous nature of that building, its dull brown haircut and bland, not to say uninspired, façade, that the eye is either drawn to it perversely—directly–as the stomach churns or seeks desperately a sight far off in any other direction. This is perhaps the only time when one such as I could appreciate Mussolini’s victory phallus to my left, or, the other direction, the more humble lighthouse near the old train station. The last possibility is that my eyes would linger on the building, retaining their sensitivity, their desire, in order to alight on some wonder beyond.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Letter from Uzbekistan: Sex Tourism

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Stockhom Terror

Dear Rick,

Iv’e been anxiously waiting your letter fixing my letter to President Donald Trump about the centerpiece of our vamp (vamp is right?) tourism. And I have to admit to you Ricky that I was maybe a little angry because you were so slow. Then this horrible truck driving in Stockholm. I tell myself maybe Mr. Harsch knows more than he tells me or maybe Rick is right to wait, to move slowly. You are very wise. Please if you could make the letter bigger enough that you can expose yourself to Mister President Trump that this terrorist is a bad actor. He was a pimp who overbeat girls and one even could have died (his name is in other registered envelope–youse your own discreet). Yes, boiling alive is bad. But is it better to beat alive to death? Mr. Trump should know two things: one, that in concordat with his policy of exluding bad actors this perp (is good, no?) was only recently shown Ubekistan door, denied visa from United States (Bravo Mr. Trump), and now look what is happening to liberal country with open door policy? Of course you see how very much we are in alinement with Trump policies and ideas and desires.

Thank you and looking forward to your letter,

Arslan Levantinov

                                                          Minister of the Interior,                                                                Uzbekistan