Tšiili nokturn

Kirjutasin paar kuud tagasi Ekspressile ühe nupu Loomingu Raamatukogus värskelt ilmunud Bolaño kohta. Tundub, et see siiski lehte ei jõudnud, nii et olgu siis siia üles riputatud.

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Roberto Bolaño on ühes oma intervjuus öelnud, et romaan on olemuslikult ebatäiuslik žanr – ning mida pikem see on, seda suurem on ka võimalus neil vormile omastel puudustel ilmsiks tulla. Nii on Loomingu Raamatukogu sarjas värskelt eestikeelsena ilmunud “Tšiili nokturn” oma napilt alla saja leheküljega ideaalseks võimaluseks teha tutvust ühe tähtsaima kaasaegse romaanikirjanikuga, kes juba kümme aastat tagasi meie hulgast lahkus.

“Tšiili nokturn” on surmaga vastamisi seisva vana mehe tagasivaade elatud elule. Isa Urrutia elu on olnud väärikas ja mõistlik, ta on olnud jumalakartlik vaimulik, hinnatud intellektuaal ja luuletaja ning lugupeetud kriitik, teda tunti kui “suurepärast tšiillast”. Tema sõnad on alati olnud kaalutletud ja ta vaikimised laitmatud. Meenutades oma elu liigub isa Urrutia justkui läbi suure maja, avades järjest uksi, mis viivad aina uutesse tubadesse. Ta kulgeb läbi vaimulikeseminari, läbi sõpruse Tšiili kõige tuntuma kirjanduskriitiku Farewelliga, läbi tutvuse Pablo Neruda ja lugematu hulga väiksemate Tšiili kirjanike ja luuletajatega. Ta astub Opus Deisse, tema teele satuvad härrad Mrih ja Ahiv (vihjeks: neid nimesid tasub tagurpidi lugeda), kes lähetavad ta Euroopasse, uurima sealseid kirikute säilitamise meetodeid. Seejärel võidab Allende valimised ja Pinochet korraldab riigipöörde ning sealt edasi viib isa Urrutia eluteekond läbi Santiago sumedate ööde, Maria Canalese juurde äärelinna majja, kus Tšiili literaadid kogunevad ühiselt meeldiva vestluse saatel õhtuid ja öid veetma, ja kuhu vaatamata läbi komandanditunni kestvale melule kunagi politsei ei saabu.

Oma mälestuste lossis toast tuppa liikudes jõuab isa Urrutia lõpuks aga vääramatult trepile, mis viib alla pimedusse. Ja seal, keldri kõige kitsama koridori lõpus olevas viimases ruumis, kus valgust näitab vilets pirn ja kus keset tuba on raudvoodi, lebab kinniseotud silmadega isa Urritia südametunnistus.

Bolaño on lõpuks eesti keeles kohal. Oli ka aeg.

What makes the world go round?

Well, it ain’t love, that’s for sure. That much physicists and economists agree upon.

When I entered Tartu University in my young and tender years to be taught the intricacies of finance it was the first fundamental point to learn and remember that without money the world would grind to a halt. The whole world, as we were supposed to see, was a giant market, brimming with proverbial hungry cobblers and barefoot bakers who would be reduced to barter their way around lest there be a wonderful invention known as money. For us future bankers, investors and other assorted financiers, this was an undisputed and universal fact about the world, it was the way how the world is, a fundamental category like “energy” must be for students of physics. And indeed, in finance — and perhaps in economics at large — the universal existence of money is something most people simply assume. If pressed, they would probably concede that there must have been times and places where money did not exist, but this was only because it was not yet discovered. This way money is seen much like electricity (which is a fundamental, primordial form of energy, waiting to be harnessed), rather than, say, an internet (which is a particular human creation).

This view of affairs has gone nowhere from the economics departments of the universities and is well alive and kicking also in the public discourse, as exemplified by books such as Niall Ferguson’s 2008 book The Ascent of Money. Suffice to say that I am personally less than convinced about Ferguson’s bold claim that “the ascent of money has been essential to the ascent of man,” at least in the rather narrow sense of money as a medium, measure, standard and store of the underlying financial value of everything. In fact I have now already for a few years thought of teaching a sort of deconstructivist and comparative course on money as a broad social phenomenon, but recently a book came out that appears to have pretty much beat me to it. There’s a teaser interview with David Graeber on nakedcapitalism.com where he discusses some of the principal points of Debt: The First 5,000 Years. I think I can now just skip the idea of course and point people towards the book.

As an interesting follow-up note on this — the above interview apparently caught the attention of Robert P. Murphy at the von Mises Institute who, quite predictably, felt inclined to rush in all guns blazing, and this in turn elicited this highly amusing response by Graeber. It is not short, but very much worth it even for the ethnographic material alone.

Short and sweet

By Austin Kleon: http://www.austinkleon.com/2006/05/17/concentrate/

Recently I have been reading lots of short fiction — books like The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz, David Foster Wallace’s collection Oblivion, the latest issue of Granta (titled The Best of Young Spanish Language Novelists), Andrei Ivanov’s two wonderful short stories by Estonian Loomingu Raamatukogu, I.B. Singer’s The Spinoza of Market Street, pieces from Dalkey Archive’s The Best European Fiction 2010 and so on. Indeed, to think of it, many of my favourite writers are very well versed in the short form: Babel, Borges, Kawabata, Kiš, Cortázar, Dahl, Nabokov, Pessoa, Rushdie are all recognized masters of short story, so I am probably rather inclined to like this particular genre.

Not everything that I’ve come across has been uniformly strong, but this is one of the beauties of short fiction that it is much less of a commitment in terms of time and effort and therefore if something doesn’t quite live up to my expectations it is relatively easy to brush aside the disappointment and simply take the next story, while if a book lets me down after I’ve slugged through four or five hundred pages, I tend to get rather seriously pissed. At the same time, if a story is really good, it can be pure bliss in a very concentrated way — and the form plays no small part in this particular effect.

For me, the essence of this is beautifully captured in a post by Marisa Silver (a writer of short stories herself) at the Elegant Variation, worth quoting at length:

To me, the short story differs from the novel in the way that, say, a watercolor differs from an oil, or a concerto differs from a symphony. Each form is telling a story, but the medium chosen by the artist informs  (thank you, Mcluhan) the message. Obviously, an author doesn’t choose to write a short story instead of a novel because it’s shorter. She writes it because the shorter form suggests something different about the objectives of the narrative than does the longer form.  For me, the short story generally conveys an existential situation, rather than a fully-fledged narrative plot. Of course things happen within the pages of a compelling short story, sometimes startling things, reversals of character, of fortune. But for me, the plot serves to explore a state of being. When I read a great short story, I don’t imagine that by the story’s end I will have been delivered to some wholly new place in a character’s life. Instead, I revel in the experience that the story’s author has delivered what a story can deliver: she has stopped time and expanded a moment so that I am able to witness the myriad elements that make up any brief experience of human interaction. With the best short story, you come to the end but your mind races forward, propelled by all the story has expertly suggested but not overtly stated. It’s magic.

Although not every short story will neatly fit this mold of “expanding the moment” and there are indeed also stories that do take their reader to a different place in characters life, in general I am very much in agreement with above. It absolutely nails the experience that I have had with some of the best experiences of my recent reading — stories such as DF Wallace’s Incarnations of Burned Children, Bruno Schulz’s Mr. Charles or Georgi Gospodinov’s Peonies and Forget-Me-Nots are all just a couple of pages each, but have lingered with me for weeks after I read them.

Oh, the picture above is by Austin Kleon of the Newspaper Blackout Poems fame.. for some reason, WordPress wouldn’t let me link the image to his site – but go and check him out.

Edi, Oravi, Amavi

My having read Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love” has recently been a source of numerous incredulous stares among my acquaintances, and when I finally manage to dispel the disbelief over the fact that I really did read the book, it tends to get replaced with a deep suspicion over my motives of having done so. Of course, I stand by my initial comment that we’re not talking about immortal work of the future literary canon here, but I have to say that “Eat, Pray, Love” has given me a lot to think about — and while the book itself may indeed be trivial, the wider implications of its popularity and reception are anything but.

There is a whole range of different contexts, both literary as well as more broadly cultural, that the book falls into — quite conceivably perhaps unbeknownst to its author. Yes, it is chick-lit, travelogue and self-help, but that’s not all there is to it by far. When I was reading another scene of Gilbert crying her heart out on a bathroom floor and then reaching for her pen and notebook, I was reminded of “Confessions”, written in fifth century by St. Augustine, who was having very similar deeply personal written conversations with his God and who came to see his life as a mysterious pilgrimage of faith in search of grace. This means, however, both for St. Augustine as well as St. Elizabeth, that their spiritual journeys are not simply personal, but stem from a universal and transcendent yearning for the contact with divine, without which we remain incomplete. But there is more.

“Eat, Pray, Love” can be read as a contemporary take on a particular mode of travel — a journey of self-discovery (a confessional genre of its own) — that has a long tradition both in the West as well as East. Structurally, the book is a triptych, with it’s three parts being divided between Italy, India and Indonesia, each of which is meant to reflect one aspect of Gilbert’s contemporary take on the tripartite motto of Kinder, Küche, Kirche (children, kitchen, church) that was supposed to define a woman in 19th century Germany. Gilbert’s own hendiatris (that replaces kids with love, kitchen with eating and church with whatever is her idiosyncratic idea of the personal relationship to the divine through prayer) in fact works within precisely the same categories, inverting them from the original social and institutionalized contexts to frame the model of modern, empancipated western woman of the 21st century.

While the year-long trip narrated in the book nominally takes Elizabeth Gilbert half across the world, in fact her journey is an entirely internalized one. Whereever she goes, Gilbert doesn’t really visit a place, which is always almost completely bracketed off. The experience of the whole subcontinent of India in the novel is distilled into two nightime taxi rides (back and fro between the Mumbai airport and an ashram in a “rural village”) and a daring dash into the gentle night, where Gilbert runs from ashram gates to the valley below, to hug a tree (I kid you not). So instead of three places she goes to, Gilbert explores three aspects of the self, defined by the hendiatris. Although there is an implied sense of adventure and perhaps even danger, the real fear — or even simply a confusion at the face of alterity — never shines through, because in truth, there isn’t any. Gilbert finds all the places the way she expects them to be, there is zero surprise, and, in a rather Coelhoesque manner, the world often seems to conspire on her behalf. This stands in sharp contrast with the train wreck of her spiritual state and personal life — which, as readers are being constantly assured, is the real issue. This is where the real dangers lurk and it is by confronting the inner daemons that a true test of character is passed, as is hinted at when Gilbert speaks of the courage of the group of people, arriving at her ashram for a week-long solitary meditation.

This would lead one to ask: why then travel at all, why not have the spiritual journey from the comfort of one’s home? Perhaps the answer would be that it is by traveling away from home that Gilbert is able to break free, to establish control over her social environs that she cannot do back home. Back home, one needs to fit in, to be considerate of other people’s expectations, to conform with the norms of one’s own culture. The East, however, provides Gilbert a culturally blank canvas to project her “true self”, whatever that is, onto. The only real expectations to live up to are those of being filthy rich and having no obligations, or, as Gilbert points out herself in case of her co-expats in Ubud, basically not being expected anything of. Trying to escape the world of Kinder, Küche and Kirche, Elizabeth Gilbert journeys into another world, where the rules (that no doubt do exist locally) do not apply for her, so that she can suspend them and recreate herself. She can cherry-pick not only her religious views (discussed in chapter 70), but also her anxieties. She can agonize in clear conscience over the dangers of losing her libido or creativity, or not being perceived as young or attractive enough by cream-puff-eating Italian hunks, but not to worry about the social pressure to stay married, settle down and have children.

And ultimately, in its 7 million (and counting) paper copies, “Eat, Pray, Love” allows countless women to travel along, although for a vast majority of them it no doubt remains a travel of the armchair variety, both literally as well as metaphorically.

Reading is sexy

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As a once subscriber to the London Review of Books I remember the consistently amusing  (if sometimes a bit overly self-consciously so), personals section in their classifieds, where a lot of overeducated and mildly frustrated people try to be witty enough to catch the interest of their potential soul-mates within what is roughly the character limit of Twitter. I’ve always wondered if all of this quirkiness is working out though. I mean, of course, I too would much rather go on a blind date with someone who can at least come up with a couple of lines wittier than “SWF looking for a serious man”, but this is obviously no guarantee or even an indication for a good personal match — and there is precious little to be found in terms of personal details in LRB dating column. Supposedly this is taken care by a filter of where the ad appears — as being a subscriber of LRB is already an indication of a certain kind of predisposition, if not social class and character.

This line has recently been taken a step forward with a new online dating service, Alikewise, which lets you search for a potential date by books or authors that s/he likes. It’s a nice idea and at the very least you can be sure that there is something to fill those awkward moments of silence with upon your first face-to-face meeting. I suppose it also works the other way — I am myself a member of a Facebook group with a title of “Liking Paulo Coelho Is Grounds For Divorce” — which, now to think of it, could well run a dating service of its own, as is testified by a recent post over there:

Seeing that there are female fans of this group is such a relief. To all the ladies out there who are NOT waiting for the universe to conspire to make their personal legends come true in order to unlock their inner treasures whilst dreaming beneath the ever-flowering tree of destiny energy…I thank you.

Anyway, back to our bookworms’ dating site. I did run a fast search to see if it nets a would-be match for me, and I must say that the pickings were rather slim. Witold Gombrowicz, Milorad Pavić, Danilo Kiš, all no hits. There was one person who liked Kawabata but was promptly disqualified by names such as Paolo Coelho and Dan Brown alongside with it. Perec and Thomas Bernhard gave one hit each. Okay, I thought, let’s try with poetry. Lorca, Amichai, Creeley — nothing. When I figured that I’d go mainstream and search for Borges, it resulted in 19 matches, while Bulgakov netted seven. So it would seem that if it came down to picking a mate based on books, it would seem that my genes wouldn’t have too good prospects to make it.

From Homer to Homer

Being a regular contributor to a literary blog myself I have noticed a great deal of pessimism and assorted doom-saying all over different online journals in what concerns reading and publishing of books, appreciating great literature and the supposedly gloomy future of our culture in general. Peoples’ opinions differ on exactly what are the reasons for this decline, ranging from twitter-induced shortening of the attention span and the emergence of e-readers to the global squeeze of newspaper budgets that has led to axing of book and culture columns.

One recurring lament is that of a disastrous decline in the standards of literary merit in what gets published these days, as internet has made it possible for pretty much everyone to broadcast whatever they have in their minds at any given moment (a.k.a. does-the-internet-make-us-stupid-question). According to the followers of this particular line of argument, there is simply so much garbage around that it drowns whatever little good stuff there is out there, numbing our minds and clogging our ability to read and appreciate Proust and Pessoa.

While I do agree that it is certainly easier than ever to tell the whole world what you thought of the Sex & the City 2 or what did you have for breakfast, I see nothing particularly sinister about it. People have always had trivial thoughts about their trivial experiences, and they have also always written about them. And likewise, there have always been those who have found this to be detrimental to the intellectual well-being of the society at large.

In order to put this into perspective, let me bring you some quotes from the last two millennia. First in our line of concerned voices is that of Edgar Allan Poe, who strikes a distinctively contemporary chord in his observation that could as well be addressed at the popularity of Wikipedia:

The enormous multiplication of books in every branch of knowledge is one of the greatest evils of this age; since it presents one of the most serious obstacles to the acquisition of correct information.

Apparently Poe thought that things had been much better in the past. However, in early 16th century, we find Martin Luther complaining along the same lines that

The multitude of books is a great evil. There is no measure of limit to this fever for writing.

It was of course precisely thanks to the printing press that Luther’s ideas spread so rapidly all across the Europe — and subsequently this is what made the Reformation possible. The endless proliferation of mindless ephemera was also a great concern to Niccolò Perotti, a learned Italian classicist, who wrote to his friend Francesco Guarnerio in 1471:

Now that anyone is free to print whatever they wish, they often disregard that which is best and instead write, merely for the sake of entertainment, what would best be forgotten, or, better still be erased from all books.

However, it would be a mistake to regard Perotti’s concern as something new that only got sparked by Gütenberg’s innovation some twenty years prior. Fourteen centuries before him we find Seneca writing to Serenius:

What is the good of having  innumerable books and libraries, whose owner can scarcely read through their titles in his whole lifetime?  A great number of books overwhelms  the learner instead of instructing him; and it is much better to devote yourself to few authors than to skim through many.

It would thus seem that if the plentitude of sub-par writing were to make us stupid, it probably would have happened already a long long time ago — and while it is certainly possible that iPad or Facebook is the last straw, I personally find at least some solace in the fact that we have made it thus far quite all right.

Empire writes back

I have always liked to spot obscure literary references and easter eggs in books or movies, but It would seem that I am now developing a serious sweet tooth for a full-blown pastiche. Today I went through of The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes by Jamyang Norbu pretty much in one sitting (bar a couple of naps) and I must say that it was a thoroughly enjoyable read.

The premise of the book lies in what is known among the many fans of Sherlockiana as the Great Hiatus — a period between 1891, when Arthur Conan Doyle decided to kill off his intrepid detective along with his arch-nemesis Professor Moriarty in The Adventure of the Final Problem to 1894, when the author finally caved in to the persistent requests by his readers as well as publishers and brought Sherlock Holmes back in The Adventure of the Empty House. Upon his return from what turned out a faked death and while explaining the ever baffled Dr. Watson what had happened, Sherlock Holmes gave a brief mention of having

… travelled for two years in Tibet, therefore, and amused myself by visiting Lhassa , and spending some days with head Lama. You may have read of the remarkable exploration of a Norwegian named Sigerson, but I am sure it never occurred to you that you were receiving news from your friend.

Just like another fine example of literary pastiche that I have reviewed here, The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes is actually a homage to two writers — Arthur Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling (with some additional traces of H. Rider Haggard). The book is a treasure trove of references to and direct quotes from both authors — literally dozens of them — and I am no expert on either, so there must be plenty that I missed. But before we get to Kipling, it would be a good idea to take a bit closer look at the body of 56 stories that form the canon of Sherlock Holmes.

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As anyone who has read any of them no doubt remembers, the stories (with only four exceptions) are narrated in first person by Dr. Watson. This is of course a very deliberate choice that has a profound effect on the way how the stories read. For one thing, it establishes a distance between the reader and the famous detective. Sherlock Holmes remains opaque, which of course is helpful in terms of maintaing the suspense — but this is not all there is to it. Dr. Watson, the unwary and innocently oblivious protagonist of the series, is a stand-in for the late 19th century British citizenry that, for all their goodnatured trust in the greatness of their increasingly frail-looking empire were beset by uncomfortable questions, a general sense of decay and perhaps outright dangers that came in many different guises. The institutions of the state, such as aristocracy or Scotland Yard, were very much caught in the same predicament and therefore could offer little comfort. The fight that Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson are caught up in is not just that of catching nefarious villains by the incredible powers of deduction and skills of observation of the famous detective — it is a cosmic conflict between the good and evil, where we, along with Dr. Watson, are being kept safe by a kind of Victorian version of Batman.

But there is another peculiar thing about Sherlock Holmes and his loyal companion. Despite of them being close friends, they in fact represent two conflicting views of the world. Fearless Mr. Holmes, a living example of enlightenment ideals, is rational to the boot and shuns idle speculation and emotions. Dr. Watson, however, is clearly a romantic. At one point, Watson’s emotional depiction of events leads his friend to lecture him:

Detection is, or ought to be, an exact science and should be treated in the same cold and unemotional manner. You have attempted to tinge it with romanticism, which produces much the same effect as if you worked a love-story…Some facts should be suppressed, or, at least, a just sense of proportion should be observed in treating them. The only point in the case which deserved mention was the curious analytical reasoning from effects to causes, by which I succeeded in unravelling it.

This is a tension that underpins not only their relationship but in fact the whole narrative structure of Sherlockiana — and has, by the way, carried on all the way to Mulder and Scully in X-Files. There could be a lot more said on this particular topic, but by now it is enough to have established that Dr. Watson is much more than simply a narrator. He is one half of the composite character — and the half that we can and should relate to. And this leads us back to Kipling.

Norbu’s story of Sherlock Holmes is told by words of Huree Chunder Mookerjee, a Bengali spy and scholar out of a well-regarded novel Kim by Rudyard Kipling. It is Kipling’s character that assumes the place of Watson for the rest of the story — and this turns out it is an ingenious move, as it also alters the perspective. The Mandala that begins as a skillful and honest homage to Sherlock Holmes slowly turns into something else. Despite of both of his sources being Victorian and colonial, Norbu’s novel manages to put a very interesting twist to them. The Empire that in Concan Doyle and Kipling is either an exotic backdrop or source of a threatening menace acquires a voice of its own as our access to the narrative and the point of association is provided through a babu of Indian origin rather than a British doctor. This has some far-reaching ramifications, all of which might not be to the best liking to the fans of original Sherlock Holmes — but as I said, this is not simply a story of what Mr. Holmes did in Tibet during his “missing years”. It is a case of the Empire writing back and appropriating the two most famous and well-loved colonial writers to serve the ends of the colonized, and as such it is truly well executed.