Archives: August 2017

An Extract: Companions

From Christina Hesselholdt's book published today
Companions

An extract from Christina Hesselholdt’s book Companions, translated from the Danish by Paul Russell Garrett, published today:

CAMILLA’S GPS

[Camilla]

I had to go to Belgrade to give a couple of lectures, and Charles was unable to travel with me. I am a literary figure, but might have preferred to be an architect. I have a strong sense of space, I am touching my heart at this very moment. My hotel was red on the inside, Twin Peaks red; the receptionist was a legal practitioner. His life had not turned out as he had imagined. Unlike mine, he commented, referring to my visit to the institute as evidence. Though his current position, working as a receptionist for his younger brother – this was his brother’s hotel – did give him the opportunity to put his law degree to use on occasion. For instance when he had to communicate with and show around the supervisory health authorities, ‘because it demands an understanding of the law’. I wondered what it might be comparable to. Perhaps, for example, if a qualified house painter only used his qualification to buy paint for his own house, no, consider the opposite instead, how when her daughter lay dying in hospital, the author Joan Didion purchased surgical clothing and walked around the hospital ward wearing it, all the while offering sound advice to the doctors, until finally they told her that if she did not stop interfering with their treatment, they would have nothing more to do with her case, she would have to take over herself. That would be equivalent to a person, while a painter is working on their home, wearing white paint-stained clothes and standing on a ladder next to him. Welcome to my labyrinth.

 

I had no desire to commit my usual blunder of isolating myself in the hotel room. At one time I enjoyed staying in hotels; staying in a room that was not mine and which I had no responsibility for, where I could quickly make my peace with any possible aesthetic qualms, and where unseen hands swept away the dust. Now I regard them as waiting rooms where it is impossible to sleep, all night long the unfamiliar objects change shape every time I blink; everything solid becomes fluid. During the day I am lightheaded and dizzy, it’s like I’m breathing thin air. My feet are heavy. I drag myself along. The minibar. No, no alcohol. Chocolate. Salted nuts. Lonely, a veritable waste of my life, munching in bed, albeit in safety. And exempt from having to find my way home-out-and-home-again. I mean: find my way around the city and attempt to find my hotel again. My sense of direction is terrible. Non-existent. Better to stay home. (Of course I did not neglect my lectures, that was the entire reason I had come, but I allowed myself to be picked up and dropped off so as not to disappear somewhere in between the two destinations, I’m talking about the rest of the time, my spare time.) But as Eliot has taught us:

We shall not cease from exploration
and the end of all our exploring
will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time.

(Which does sound reassuring: as though you can be confident of returning home, automatically, so to speak.)

As a compromise, I spent quite a lot of time in the reception (not out, not entirely in) hovering on a barstool, I drank one espresso after the other. It was a small hotel, with only six rooms. And at one point I was the only guest. The staff, on the other hand – if anything they were overrepresented. I have no idea how many thin,dark chambermaids in red dresses walked aimlessly around, blending in with the walls. They weren’t prostitutes, were they? If that were the case, they might just as well have been leaning against the sunset in a deserted landscape. Nevertheless when breakfast was served in the basement, all six tables were laid. To keep up the illusion. It was called Hotel City Code, a name I was not quite sure how to interpret. Was this hotel the code to the city? When I said the name, code quickly became coat.

Before leaving, I had decided to spend every waking hour exploring the city. I wanted to be a tourist. I wanted to get to know Belgrade. And then I lost my courage. The reception, as mentioned, was my compromise.

 

But the receptionist talked incessantly. In a rather mumbling and unintelligible English that meant I had to strain every nerve to understand him. He had plenty of time for his only guest. As soon as I stepped out of my room, he moved towards me as though carried by a gust of wind. He was dark, slender, nimble, indefatigable, with surprisingly kind eyes hidden behind his glasses, but he kept going on and on until my mouth went dry, the room blurred and I nearly fainted. I knew the names of his siblings, I knew his cholesterol level and I knew his doctor’s instructions: ‘fifty grams of almonds, four squares of dark chocolate and a glass of red wine every day,’ he said, his small friendly face beaming, ‘and obviously eat plenty of fruit and vegetables and walk at least three kilometres.’ He bent forward and drew a curve in the air to indicate the progress of his blood pressure. I also knew that his grandfather had written an account of his experiences in World War Two, but unfortunately the manuscript had gone missing. I knew more or less what it contained. And I was starting to get the ideathat it was hidden in a barn somewhere in Croatia. I was also starting to suspect that he was encouraging me to go in search of it. He considered me to be an unusually kind person – with a lot of spare time. Ear, vagina, a mirror that makes you look twice as big; you little devil, I suddenly thought, not a chance in hell. And with that I grabbed my coat and left the reception with barely a nod. I had chosen a good time to leave. He had just stated that no matter how much money society poured into the Roma community, all they did was spend it on beer and cigarettes, and on chocolate for their many children. That was what drove me out into the world. Though I was afraid of encountering a Roma who behaved like the one I met in St Petersburg. I had given her what corresponds to a hundred kroner, and in gratitude she lay down in the middle of the street and started to kiss my shoe. ‘No, no,’ I said, ‘please get up.’ ‘Not until you give me another hundred,’ she said, and only then did she release my shoe, allowing me to continue walking towards the Spilled Blood Church, the one with the candy-coloured cupolas, which even up close did not look real.

 

As soon as I walked out the door, a sense of loss swept over me. With absolutely no desire to do so, I took my first steps in Belgrade. Like I was learning to walk. I knew nobody, nobody knew me. I was nobody. I did not understand the language. I understood nothing. I might as well have stopped looking where I was going, because when it came down to finding my way back, maybe I would have a vague recollection of what met my gaze, but I would not be able to remember where on my journey it had occurred. The order of the elements is not arbitrary when it comes to finding your way. Instead of trying to find my way back to the hotel later,I should have checked out and taken my luggage with me. Then, exhausted from exploring and lugging everything about, when I could manage no more, I could have dragged myself to some new, unknown hotel – and then when I absolutely had to, I could set off again. I am not that helpless. I had the address of the hotel in my pocket, and when I grew tired of walking, I hailed a taxi and rode back. An unfortunate experience in my youth had taught me to always carry the address of the hotel or guest house on my person. Greece, half a lifetime ago. Me, young, wearing a gauze Iphigenia dress, light as a feather, so white that I had had to cover my nipples with toothpaste. It was before the time of strapless bras. In any case, I had been out dancing, night-time, the flowers falling from the flowering trees. Alma, my faithless friend, continued to dance with her Greek. I could not find our pension. The longer I searched, the smaller I became. A man had been observing me for some time. In the end he cut across the street and kindly asked me what I was looking for. He had a hard time believing that I could not so much as remember the name of the pension. That which you do not understand, you simply have to accept. So at the first hotel we came across he rented a room for me and promised to return the next morning to help me. He left. He had a moustache, but he was not without some charm. Had he been less chivalrous, it might have led to a slightly lengthier encounter. The next morning he returned, paid the bill, swung onto the saddle of his moped, and with me behind him, headed for the local office of the Tourist Police. There they had a copy of my passport, which the owner of the pension had dutifully submitted upon check-in – with the name and address of my temporary residence attached! Such efficiency, and in Greece, at that. Back at the pension, I found my beloved friend Alma wringing her hands, half-dead from dread, certain that I (my head) was lying somewhere, detached from my body, under a sprinkling of browning flowers, even though we were used to ditching each other whenever some handsome mutt crossed our path. Ah, adolescence, one long mating season, a parade of brilliant memories, an entire repository of bright young passion for tougher times – did I really have a piece of red glass (grenade-like) attached to my navel and did I really display it to my temporary chosen one in a tunnel by simply lifting my dress? Yes, you bet I did! It was me, to give one final little toot. Now I use the word ‘toot’, which is Beckett’s expression for drawing out the text as much as possible, not to tie bows, but to make curls, and earlier today, duly escorted by a lecturer from the institute, on my way back from a lecture, I came across some graffiti. Sprayed on the wall were the words:

Books, brothers, books
Not bells

The lecturer translated for me and said something about bells and Santa Claus – when he arrived in his sleigh. ‘Santa Claus, you know, on a creaking carpet of cotton wool, jingle bells jingle bells, until we all hygge our arses off. Even his beard is creaking.’ Bells probably referred to church bells. So neither church nor kitsch, no thank you. Moral graffiti. Lovely to see graffiti that encourages reading, the lecturer said. ‘Exactly,’ I answered and hoped he would offer to carry my bag. Because it was heavy. With books.

(…)

Pursuing the Artfully Naked “I”: The Myth-making of Kathy Acker

Chris Kraus for LitHub
kathy-acker2

An extract from Chris Kraus’s new book After Kathy Acker appears in LitHub:

The trauma of the disappeared father is a theme Kathy Acker pursued throughout her writing, from The Childlike Life to her last published novel, Pussy, King of the Pirates. In The Childlike Life,

My mother tells me my “father” isn’t my real father: my real father left her when she was three months pregnant and wanted nothing to do with me, ever. This husband has adopted me. That’s all she tells me.

The story is told exclusively from the daughter’s point of view in all its many iterations. But then again, perhaps the greatest strength and weakness in all of Acker’s writing lies in its exclusion of all viewpoints except for that of the narrator. As William Burroughs wrote, with great precision, in his blurb for Grove Press’s 1983 publication of Great Expectations, “Acker gives her work the power to mirror the reader’s soul.”

How does she do this? Acker had no shortage of female contemporary writers throughout the 1970s. Outside the downtown New York scene, Jayne Anne Phillips, Margaret Atwood, Ann Beattie, Alice Munro, Janet Frame, and dozens of others published semiautobiographical novels with strong female narrators. But, shaped by their interactions with others in naturalistically described situations, the presence of their narrators was wholly relational. While these women were widely respected for their achievements as writers, they never sought or attained the iconic status of Great Writer as Countercultural Hero that Acker desperately craved. Until she achieved it, no woman had.

In Great Expectations, Acker worked deeply under the influence of such Beat-era icons as William S. Burroughs and Alexander Trocchi and the French modernist writers and thinkers Georges Bataille and Pierre Guyotat. Sometimes described as “philosopher-artists,” these writers conveyed their narrators’ internal lives with startling primacy. And so, by extension, whatever pain and emotion they felt was not theirs alone. They offered themselves as receivers for cosmological information transmitted via their works. “In my writing I am acting as a map-maker, an explorer of psychic areas,” William S. Burroughs wrote.

Defending his work at the 1962 Edinburgh Writers’ Conference, Trocchi proclaimed himself “a cosmonaut of inner space.” Written against history and time, Trocchi’s 1960 novel Cain’s Book dispassionately records a few months in his life as a remorseless heroin addict. His narrator states, “When I write I have trouble with my tenses. Where I was tomorrow is where I am today, where I would be yesterday. I have a horror of committing fraud.”

A special issue of Sylvère Lotringer’s journal Semiotext(e) devoted to Georges Bataille appeared in 1976, and Harry Mathews’s translation of Batailles’s 1928 classic Blue of Noon came out with Urizen Books the following year. Acker and Lotringer were close friends and lovers between 1977 and 1980. Years later, she would credit him widely for introducing her to French theory and “giving her a new language” through which to explain her existential and literary sense of fragmentation, multiplicity, and disjunction. Lotringer taught Georges Bataille in his Columbia University “Sex and Literature” graduate seminar; no doubt he and Acker discussed Bataille’s work and thought.

The first line of Bataille’s Story of the Eye could easily have been written by Acker herself: “I grew up very much alone, and as far as I recall I was frightened of anything sexual.” I don’t write to express anything, she’d write in a 1979 self-interview in the French literary magazine Dirty, named after the “Dirty” character in Bataille’s Blue of NoonEverything is material. . . culture is more and more a rag-bag. . . I use material that is commonly described as “autobiography.” There are lots of emotions to draw from, and I love working with emotion because I love shock. Acker was the first female writer to so relentlessly pursue the artfully naked “I” of French modernism. In fact, she’d go on to “plagarize” Bataille in Great Expectations:

I never wanted you, my mother told me often. It was the war. She hadn’t known poverty or hardship: her family had been very wealthy. . . My father, a wealthier man than my mother, walked out on her when he found out she was pregnant. . .

(…)

I Love You So Much I Would Drink Your Blood

Charlie Fox for the Paris Review
Jim Goldberg - Megan

Charlie Fox looks at Jim Goldberg’s book Raised by Wolves for the Paris Review:

Friday?
Dad,
I’m really sorry about
losing control of myself
+ hurting you (+ the, “ahem”,
bathroom mirror).
I know + understand
that talk doesn’t mean a
damn thing to you by
now. (Especially from my mouth.) …

Some facts before things get messy. This unattributed note—handwritten as neatly as one’s science homework, its margin decorated with a ghostly heart—appears in Jim Goldberg’s mammoth book of photographs Raised by Wolves (1995), juxtaposed with a fuzzy snap of a scarecrow-like boy tilting forward as if hit by a windstorm. I think that boy is Tweeky Dave, a cadaverous teenage drug addict who died from liver disease circa 1993; he was, for a few years before his death, something of a celebrity urchin on the Los Angeles streets he used to haunt in search of opiates. He’s also the hero of Goldberg’s epic book, which chronicles the lives of various homeless kids in LA and its environs (shout-out to Echo, Marcos with the wonky eye, Wolfette, Vampchild—“this cute boy who says he’s a real vampire”—and Blade) and comes stuffed with transcripts of their conversations, faxes from Social Services, Polaroids, and other grungy ephemera testifying to the decade Goldberg spent shadowing his subjects. Tracking them through the book—on drugs, out of school, and running away from ogreish parents—also means confronting some of the gnarliest fallout from the Reagan-Bush years: the rapacious mutilation of education programs and social services, not to mention the, ahem, decline of the “family values” they claimed to protect. Tweeky Dave is just the most wretched embodiment of the trouble all those acts can cause. 

“I’m really sorry about losing control of myself … ” Raised by Wolves is about what happens when the self gets lost amid all the drugs and dereliction as economics turn savage and parents disappear. Meanwhile, the kids are too spaced out to know what day it is.

Before Dave died, he liked to call Jim Goldberg “Dad,” too. Check that picture of a scar snaking up Dave’s stomach and it’s obvious that his real father, “a biker from hell,” shot him …

Or maybe he stabbed him?

Maybe he did neither: it depends how much you believe the stories coming from that junkie mouth, which, as Dave acknowledges, is famous for telling tall tales. Three hundred pages later, he’s on his deathbed playfully telling “Dad” to invite James Brown, “Trent from Nine Inch Nails,” Stephen King, and “Cher (what the fuck)” to his funeral. This sad event happens on a sunny day outside a Salvation Army Youth Center. Cher doesn’t make it. At its conclusion, the kids release balloons into the sky.

*

The, uh, “establishing shot” that opens the book shows a handsome pinewood house, hazy, shrouded by flowers, sleepy trees, and seen through some creep’s binoculars. When we talk on the phone, Goldberg tells me he was thinking about Buffalo Bill in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991), the toad-voiced sociopath who abducts and kills innocent women after tracking their movements through his night-vision goggles. Lycanthropic vibes: we could be experiencing the perspective of the Big Bad Wolf lurking outside the house of a succulent little pig. There’s something storybook-like, upstate idyllic, about the picture, too, which may not actually show Echo’s mother’s real house at all but a weirdly familiar dream home liberated from elsewhere, giving extra resonance to her claim that what’s happened to her family could strike “any home in America.”

What Goldberg assembled in Raised by Wolves isn’t a real history, which wouldn’t be a fitting tribute to the kids since they never told the whole truth anyway, but something lyrical and a little feverish. Facts get high or vanish on their way through the night. “Some of the names,” Goldberg tells me, “have been changed to protect the innocent.” Verification is difficult when it’s tested against the kids’ habits of compulsive mythmaking, which is also a strategy for survival: I can’t be hurt if I’m not the real me.

(…)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Enforced Freedom

Derek Matravers for The TLS
Rousseau

Derek Matravers examines the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s ideas for The TLS:

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–78) is, perhaps more than any other philosopher, a contradictory figure. He is a predecessor of liberalism and a theorist of fascism; a champion of the Enlightenment and its most severe critic; a Classicist critic of Romanticism and vice versa; and an advocate of humane, child-centred education, despite giving up his own five children to an orphanage and almost certain death. His reputation these days rests primarily on his political philosophy (in particular, On the Social Contract), his autobiography (The Confessions), and a part novel, part philosophical treatise, and part syllabus for progressive education (Émile).

Rousseau is very quotable – never more so than at the beginning of Book One, Chapter One of the Social Contract: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”. This appears to capture the view with which he is most famously associated: that man is born naturally good only to be corrupted by society. Another quotable opening sentence, this time from Émile, seems to support this: “God makes all things good; man meddles with them and they become evil”. This phrase is misleading on two accounts. First, Rousseau is clear that the situation of humankind in its pre-societal state is not to be envied. Second, he did not think it our inevitable fate to be corrupted by society; indeed, the point of the Social Contract is to provide a blueprint for a society in which people are able to flourish.

It was fairly standard in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to compare humankind before societies formed (the “state of nature”) to our condition in society. This was not an attempt to write history from the armchair, but rather a thought experiment; a comparison between things then with how they are now, to shine a light on the advantages of states. Rousseau had a weakness for the rhetorical flourish – and his powers of eloquence sometimes served to highlight the notion that leaving the state of nature had been a catastrophe.

The first person who, having enclosed a plot of land, took it into his head to say this is mine and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society. What crimes, wars, murders, what miseries and horrors would the human race have been spared, had someone pulled up the stakes and filled in the ditch and cried out to his fellow men: “Do not listen to this imposter. You are lost if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to all and the earth to no one!”

Nonetheless, further flourishes pull in a different direction:

The passage from the state of nature to the civil state produces quite a remarkable change in man, for it substitutes justice for instinct in his behaviour and gives his actions a moral quality that they previously lacked. Only then, when the voice of duty replaces physical impulse and the right replaces appetite, does man, who had hitherto taken only himself into account, find himself forced to act upon other principles and to consult his reason before listening to his inclinations. Although in this state he deprives himself of several advantages belonging to him in the state of nature, but he regains such great ones. His faculties are exercised and ennobled, his entire soul is elevated to such a height that, if the abuse of this new condition did not often lower his status to beneath the level he left, he ought constantly to bless the happy moment that pulled him away from it forever and which transformed him from a stupid, limited animal and a man.

Rousseau had identified the fundamental flaw in the state of nature argument; we are not comparing like with like. The change from the state of nature to the civil state transforms us altogether – it changes us psychologically, and hence morally and politically, from “stupid limited creatures” to those governed by justice, morality, duty, right and reason. Furthermore (a point stressed more recently by Bernard Williams) there is no route back – attempts to turn the clock back to an earlier politics, or even to a pre-politics, by romantics of both the Left and Right are doomed not only to failure but to catastrophe.

(…)

Camilla Grudova at Burley Fisher Books: A Belated Book Launch

On 12 September 2017
tda-green-3

Please join us to celebrate The Doll’s Alphabet, published in February 2017 by Fitzcarraldo Editions, on the occasion of a rare visit by Camilla Grudova from Canada, at Burley Fisher Books, 400 Kingsland Rd, London E8 4AA, from 7-9pm on 12 September 2017. There will be a short reading. There will be drinks. The event is free to attend.

From the Left Bank of the Flu

Misumi Kubo for Granta
3223066216_1a4e48ebe7_z

A short story by Misumi Kubo for Granta, translated from the Japanese by Polly Barton:

It was the evening of the 28th of December. Just as I had got out of the bath, and was thinking that the air seemed especially chilly, I felt a creaking pain pipe up from the joints of my knees and elbows. I picked up the thermometer, still lying on the circular bedside table from the last time I’d used it, and stuck it in my mouth. Sure enough, it read 38.3 degrees. I decided to take some of the cold medicine I had in the cabinet and get into bed. But I couldn’t stop shivering, and though I managed to doze off for a bit, the tremors eventually woke me. The blankets I had on clearly weren’t enough, so I dragged out the feather duvet I kept rolled up in the wardrobe, stacked it on top of the pile and coiled the whole thing around my body.

When I wake up tomorrow, I told myself as I shut my eyes, I’ll go to the hospital. The hospital was only a three minute walk from my flat.

The following morning, the thermometer read 39.8 degrees, the highest temperature I’d had since I was a child. That’s it, I thought to myself. I’m dying. I swapped the jogging bottoms I was wearing for a pair of jeans, picked up the down jacket which was lying in the place I’d thrown it off the day before, put on a woollen hat to cover my sleep-ruffled hair and cold mask to hide my stubble, and staggered down to the hospital which lay by the Loop Route No. 8, the furthest out of Tokyo’s concentric expressways.

The sunlight was painfully bright, which I figured was probably a result of the fever. The big road looked to me like a river, the cars rushing by as if carried along on its current. I resented anyone who had the energy to drive at such a blistering speed. As luck would have it, there weren’t too many people waiting at the hospital, and I was called up almost immediately. It was my first flu test, and it struck me as pure torture. The doctor stuck a long cotton bud-like thing right up my nose and proceeded to jab and jiggle it around. It was humiliating – enough, in fact, to call the phrase ‘human dignity’ to mind. You can’t stick foreign objects so far inside other people’s bodies like that, not with that degree of force. It’s not okay. This is supposed to be the twenty-first century.

I was told to sit back down in the waiting room. When I was called up again, the doctor announced merrily that it looked like a case of Hong Kong Type A.

‘Which would you prefer?’ he asked. ‘Tamiflu, Relenza or Rapiacta?’

Damned if I know, I thought. I had no idea what any of those things were, and even if I’d been given a halfway decent explanation, my fever had rendered my powers of judgement null and void.

‘Would you prefer oral medication or a drip?’

I opted for the drip. Somehow I had the feeling it would kick in faster.

‘Now, you’re not allowed any human contact for five days, all right?’ the nurse said, as the needle of the drip slid into my arm, in the sort of voice one might use to soothe a child. There goes my New Year’s holiday, I thought.

A holiday stamped out by the flu. Not that I had anything planned for it, but still.

 

It was right before lunch on the 18th of December when I got the call saying my dad had died. I was in the van at the time, having just installed my third copier of the day. The call was from someone at the old folks’ home where my dad had lived.

‘Can you come now?’ they asked at first, but must have noticed my hesitation, explaining that if I could just come to the funeral on Saturday, the day after tomorrow, that would also be fine. They gave me a quick run-through of the arrangements, and put the phone down.

‘What’s up?’ Yoshioka, the van driver, asked, peering at me.

‘Oh, it’s, um, my dad’s dead.’

‘How old?’

‘Seventyish. Seventy-two or three,’ I said. In truth I didn’t know my dad’s exact age.

‘What’s happening with the funeral?’

‘He was in an old folks’ home, it looks like they’re going to take care of it all there.’

‘In that case, you’ve gotten off lightly,’ Yoshioka said as he steered the van into the parking lot of a ramen restaurant.

Half-choking on my hot and sour noodles (‘sour, spicy and soup-er good!’ said the menu), I sent a LINE message to my brother, Takashi.

‘So Dad’s dead.’

Takashi was probably on his lunch break too, because the word ‘Read’ flashed up immediately next to my message.

‘For real?’

‘Yup.’

‘What about the funeral?’

‘Day after tomorrow. Looks like they’re gonna take care of it all there. Can you come?’

‘Kanako’s got work so she won’t be able to.’

‘Just you and me will do. There’s no point inviting the whole family. We’ll only end up getting a kicking from everyone who’s had to put up with all his crap.’

(…)

Staring into the Void

Hirsh Sawhney for The TLS
Partition

In the 70th year since Partition, Hirsh Sawhney reflects on how it has been depicted in Indian and Pakistani literature, for The TLS:

In 2013 Google released an advertisement featuring an elderly Hindu man in Delhi, Baldev, who is reminiscing about a Muslim playmate, Yusuf, from his childhood in Lahore. Baldev hasn’t seen Yusuf in many decades, having migrated from Pakistan to India during Partition, and he misses him. Baldev’s attentive granddaughter, Suman, uses Google to search for Yusuf and manages to track down his Pakistani grandson, Ali. The pair arrange for Yusuf to travel from Lahore to Delhi. With the help of Google, Ali easily figures out how to attain a visa for Yusuf, who is soon standing at Baldev’s doorstep. The long-lost friends embrace; the Google logo flashes. Soon the old men are getting blissfully drenched together beneath a rainy sky. Thanks to technological progress, they have been able to overcome decades of trauma, geopolitical strife and communal discord.

Various commentators in India, the United States, Canada and Malaysia have showered praise on this advert, and it has been viewed more than 13 million times. But despite its laudable message of cross-border religious harmony, it is perhaps more notable for its lacunae, which reveal a great deal about the way in which Partition is remembered today. For example, the advert centres on two men, though Partition disproportionately affected the lives of women. Furthermore, it doesn’t contain the slightest trace of the British Empire, even though it was Britain, in conjunction with the Indian leaders it favoured at various points during colonial rule, who imposed Partition on the country without adequately preparing it. Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs sometimes experienced tension before colonialism, but Britain deliberately engineered policies that fomented strife between these groups in order to manage its imperial holdings more effectively. It pitted the Muslim League of Muhammad Ali Jinnah and the Congress Party of Mohandas Gandhi against one another, putting India on a crash course towards division and destruction.

The elisions in the advert aren’t surprising. The diminishment of imperial responsibility for the woes of Partition has a long history. In an article about Indian independence in 1947, Time magazine praised the justness of a British legal system in the Raj that denied basic human rights to ordinary Indians. It claimed that “by the time the British reached India, both Hindu and Moslem were deeply immersed in hate”. The Atlantic, in 1958, asserted that “long before the British conquered India, the Hindus had resented their Muslim Mogul masters”. Around the same time, Anglo-American readers were delighting in Khushwant Singh’s finely constructed Partition novel Train to Pakistan (1956) – a book that contains not a single British character. The fact that Singh’s family made a fortune collaborating with the Raj perhaps explains this omission.

In recent decades, scholars such as Gyanendra Pandey and Yasmin Khan have helped to unravel the complex role the British played in encouraging the religious discord that still beleaguers South Asia today, and yet the tendency to downplay the role of the colonizer in Partition persists in many English-language texts. Even seemingly nuanced accounts can’t seem to shake off this habit. Take Nisid Hajari’s book Midnight’s Furies (2015), which received thunderous acclaim in the US, UK and India. It presents provocative evidence of British imperialists actively fanning the flames of communal discord by paying off Muslim clerics to preach against the Congress Party, and yet the author seems reluctant to rigorously scrutinize British actions and attitudes leading up to Partition. He often makes light of the role of imperial actors, such as Viceroy Mountbatten; he rehashes old tropes about the “deep roots” of divisions between Hindus and Muslims, mentioning age-old “frictions” stemming from the destruction of “flower-strewn temples” by “Muslim conquerors”. Various scholars, including Audrey Truschke and Romila Thapar, have demonstrated the tenuousness of such claims. Thapar, for example, has pointed out that alleged Hindu grievances about the eleventh-century destruction of the Somnath temple were first aired in Britain’s Parliament; only after this point do records begin to reference “the Hindu trauma”.

It is true, as many critics have pointed out, that South Asian thinkers and politicians would do well to reckon with the culpability of their own leaders and citizens in carrying out Partition and perpetuating religious violence. As the legacy of twentieth-century imperialism continues to inform our current moment of global instability, it is similarly imperative for Anglo-American audiences to see through the simplicities epitomized by Google’s Partition commercial.

(…)

Interview with Ottessa Moshfegh

Yen Pham interviews for the White Review
For-Otessa-2

(…)

Q
THE WHITE REVIEW

— You’ve talked about very specific historical anxieties you’ve inherited from your parents (who are Croatian and Iranian immigrants). They fled fascism and were divested of wealth but raised you to be very rich in culture. What was it like growing up in Newton and how did your family fit in there?

A
OTTESSA MOSHFEGH

—  Well, my parents are both violin teachers, and in a sense, that was how I think my parents related to the culture – as musicians and educators. But I’m in the middle of three siblings and I learned a lot from my big sister, who was my hero growing up – very rebellious and sort of counter-culture. So I did not grow up in mainstream America, I guess. I didn’t play sports, although I wish I did, it probably would have been good for me. I always felt estranged from the place I grew up, but part of something less nationalistic and more human – my family culture, which was primarily art-based.

Q
THE WHITE REVIEW
— It comes to mind because many of your characters – or, McGlue and Johnson and Eileen – are characters that are deeply imprinted by but also alienated from New England and its culture. Is there a connection for you between the sort of openness in your writing about ‘grotesque’ exterior functions of the body and socially unacceptable interior functions of the mind?

A
OTTESSA MOSHFEGH

— Well, yes, because I think both are things that aren’t openly acceptable in quote-unquote civilised society. At least in the culture that I’ve known, we’re meant to feel like there’s something really wrong with us if we don’t look healthy and beautiful all the time, and if we’re having negative thoughts, then we’re not good people and that has to be corrected. And there are industries that work on both sides of that to make people look young and beautiful all the time and to make people feel right and think right and act right all the time. But you know, other cultures aren’t like that. Like, other cultures embrace things that we might think of as evil, or a power that might scare us, or something transgressive or more mysterious. But I think, at least in America… I mean, we come from Puritans, who were totally psycho and stole the country really violently from a Native culture that was probably pretty violent too. Americans don’t really live in lily-white cookie-cutter societies, but I think the way that Christianity has worked in the government has instilled a sense of God as the authority that spies on you and controls the world, more Big Brother than anything else. Growing up, I didn’t totally understand where the sense of the terrifying authority that was always watching me came from, and it was probably a brainwashed conception of God. You know, like, do the right thing, ’cause you’re gonna get in trouble, and what’s the consequence, you’ll go to hell. I’m not a Christian but that entered me through osmosis and it took 36 years for that concept to dissipate. Actually, I’m still working on that.

Q
THE WHITE REVIEW

— That’s an extensive period of unbrainwashing.

A
OTTESSA MOSHFEGH

— And the way that that manifested for me was in the ways that it manifests for my characters quite often. Feeling ashamed of having a mortal body, and feeling like, ‘I must be crazy.’ Like, either I’m crazy, or everybody else is crazy, because what the fuck is going on here, you know? Just as simple as walking down the street and seeing someone suffering and begging for help, and people walking by on their cell phones. How are we doing that? How are we so shut off that this is the way that things work? And this is the way it’s worked for thousands of years, I’m sure. It’s not like we’re all benevolent creatures, but we pride ourselves on being good, and, I don’t know, I question that in my work.

Q
THE WHITE REVIEW

— Do you think that people in general are as weird as the people in your stories?

A
OTTESSA MOSHFEGH

—  I think that there are some people who are boring by nature and maybe placid. You know, people vibrate at all different frequencies. I vibrate at a – I would say – a high and neurotic but spiritual frequency, with a lot of anxiety but a lot of passion. And I think my characters do that too, sometimes. I think that there are also some people who were never given the freedom to individuate as children so they didn’t really develop personalities or strategies for coping with the world which would make them interesting. So I don’t blame people for being boring, but I don’t want to write about boring people. Sometimes I attempt to and what I uncover is that they’re boring because they’re really repressed.

(…)

The South African Parables of Ivan Vladislavic

Hermione Hoby interviews for the New Yorker
Hoby-The-South-African-Parables-of-Ivan-Vladislavic

For the New Yorker, Hermione Hoby talks with the South African writer Ivan Vladislavic about his fiction and the current state of South Africa:

In “Villa Toscana,” the first story in “The Exploded View,” a startling collection by the South African writer Ivan Vladislavic, a statistician named Budlender has helped redraft questionnaires for the South African national census of 1996. Apartheid was abolished in 1991; this is the first nonracial headcount in the country’s history. As Budlender, whom we understand to be white, drives to the homes of respondents to test this questionnaire, he interrogates the visual data of the road. It occurs to him that “people were always saying” that the city’s roads were filled with brand-new BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes. Then again, he thinks, people were also always saying that “every second car in Joburg is falling apart.” So, he asks, “Were the roads full of new cars or old cars? There was a lesson in this, which only a statistician seemed capable of learning: as soon as you took into account what people were saying, you lost track of what was actually happening.”

Budlender’s “lesson” reminded me of questions I have asked my own South African relatives. My father left the country for Britain in 1973, after being advised that his anti-apartheid activism would see him “accidentally” killed. Since then, the country has gone through many convolutions, including the transformative Presidency of Nelson Mandela, and yet Budlender’s questions are the same ones that I have been asking my father—the same ones the country has been asking itself—with ebbing energy, for twenty years. Has crime declined? Yes and no. Has reconciliation succeeded? Depends on whom you ask. There remain counterfacts for every fact. This highly equivocal world challenges even a statistician; as Budlender himself concedes, “there were no reliable statistics.”

The novelist André Brink once called Vladislavic “one of the most imaginative minds at work in South African literature,” and the Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole has rhapsodized that his language is “as scintillating and fine-grained as a silver gelatin print.” Despite such endorsements, and despite winning a Windham-Campbell Prize for Literature in 2015, Vladislavic has not been widely read outside his country. Now, with the ascendancy of far-right regimes around the world, there is a new, anxious interest in South Africa’s political model—or, rather, in its cautionary exemplum. Optimism, never easy to measure, has surely faded since the hopeful upheaval of the nineties. President Jacob Zuma, who assumed office in 2009, has for months been facing calls to resign over what the normally neutral Nelson Mandela Foundation called “political meddling for private interests.” When living in a degraded political system, both monitoring and processing degeneration becomes hard. If the former is more the job of a statistician, the latter task might fall to the novelist.

When I met him a few months ago, in Johannesburg, Vladislavic, who is fifty-nine, commanding and soft-spoken, agreed that there might be some advantage to living where he does. “In a way, living here is a gift if you’re a thinking person, because you’re challenged constantly,” he said. “Even driving around in the leafy suburbs, you’re challenged to think about your own position.” Vladislavic had offered to take me for a drive in his Toyota Corolla (“the default setting of cars,” he called it) around the city, which is mostly flat and seems uncentered and inscrutable in the way of Los Angeles. He continued, “Our whole history has been about imposing order on things that cannot be controlled. Where people live, who they fall in love with, what they think.” His work, he suggested, could be understood, at least in part, as a reckoning with this way of understanding society—“between trying to control and letting things go, between order and chaos.” Part of the chaos is the lack of distinction between what can be measured and what cannot. “Villa Toscana” ends with Budlender in a kind of reverie among the perfume bottles at the home of one of his census respondents, around whom he has woven his own private fictions.

Vladislavic was born in central Pretoria, the son of a Croat motor mechanic and a housewife, into a predominantly Afrikaans environment. When he was nine or ten, his family moved out of the city and into the suburbs, where he first encountered the enmity between white Afrikaners and white English speakers. In 1978, he graduated from Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand (“Wits”) and has lived in Johannesburg ever since. His first novel, “The Folly,” an absurdist allegory, was published in 1993, two years after apartheid ended. In the book, an inhabitant of “the old South Africa” becomes engrossed by a new neighbor who, he notices, has begun to precisely demarcate with string the contours of a phantom building in the vacant plot beside his home. As the project billows to fantastical and unstable proportions, the novel’s social realism swells into magical realism. The house becomes a literal castle in the air—evidence that neither messy reality nor imagination can be accounted for by blueprints.

(…)

Luljeta Lleshanaku: Words Are Delicate Instruments

Lucia Duero interviews for Guernica
luljeta-lleshanaku-the-last-version-800x532

Albanian poet Luljeta Lleshanaku is interviewed by her translator Lucia Duero for Guernica:

(…)

Guernica: You grew up in communist Albania, under a dictatorship led by Enver Hoxha, who was in power from 1944 until his death in 1985. It was a climate characterized by oppression and isolation; religion was outlawed. In an already isolated country, your family’s political background—which included an uncle’s attempt to assassinate Hoxha—isolated you even further. What do you remember about that time?

Luljeta Lleshanaku: When I was three years old, my family moved to my mother’s hometown, Kruje. That is where I spent my childhood. The town had a beautiful landscape, set on mountains with a view of the Adriatic Sea. It was a conservative place, well-known for having done business with Italy before World War II. That’s why the people there were pragmatic, reserved, and skeptical. In my family there was no small talk, only talk about serious things like global politics—trying to interpret the distant political signs, looking desperately for some hope things would change. Religion was forbidden beginning in 1968, when I was born. So my communication with them was limited to issues of everyday life, which were issues of survival.

When I was in kindergarten, not quite six years old, I was part of a group of children who were being prepared to give a concert on television—then I was separated from them, without explanation. When I went home, sad and angry, my mother had to explain me that we were “different.” Our family had what she called a “bad biography”—as an anti-communist family, we were condemned. Later I had to face this kind of situation all the time. Our family was like a quarantine: No one could escape, and no one could get in. We were rejected. So I was prepared for a difficult life, as were my parents and grandparents.

Albania was a very isolated country, politically, economically, and culturally. Our only connection to the world was through a radio program called Voice of America, and through the Italian television waves, which we caught illegally through primitive, improvised antennas. The only way to escape from reality was reading books. When I was twelve years old, I had already read all the books for children in the library. Confused, the librarian gave me some novels for adults and asked, “Are you sure you will not misunderstand them?” I smile when I remember that now. I think she hesitated because she was afraid love stories might influence me in a negative way. So my books were hidden everywhere—as “love letters,” as I call them in one of my poems. I had to hide those books from my mother; the last thing she wished for me was to be a daydreamer. And in such circumstances, she was right to worry.

Guernica: In one of your poems you write, “a childhood without promises / is bread without yeast / still sweet yet tough and dry.” How did you reconcile the idea of future with such a hopeless situation?

Luljeta Lleshanaku: Childhood is usually identified with fantasy, adventure, and dreaming. But mine didn’t offer a lot of hope. I could read my future in my palm. Everything foretold: “You have no future!” A person must be very strong to keep going without hope.

My early books, especially the Child of Nature, are my attempt to understand and explain the essence of morality in that kind of situation. My people were persecuted, hopeless, abandoned by the world and by God (“at the edge of sadness,” as they used to say), but they never gave up. They never betrayed themselves; they were a great moral model. Amid such challenges, you have to wonder: What gives meaning to human life?

Guernica: You’ve lived under two very different political regimes: communist Albania with its lack of freedom, scarcity, and lack of possibilities, and capitalist Albania, with so-called freedom, abundance, and opportunity. What has been your experience of those two regimes, and how did they impact your writing?

Luljeta Lleshanaku: Totalitarian regimes produce a culture and a moral code that is totally different from what happens in a democracy. There are two moral categories in a communist society: honest men and bad men. The “honest” ones resist compromising or collaborating with the regime, while the “bad” are the persecutors and collaborators. You can choose to be on one side or the other, but there is nothing in between. In a normal society, other factors can define who you are. You can be a good worker, sociable, tough, generous, tolerant, collaborative, friendly, and so on.

Jean-Paul Sartre said that France was freer than ever during the German occupation, when people had no choices but one: to collaborate or to resist. I’m not saying there was something good about that system. But the freest people I’ve ever met, or knew about, belonged to that period. For example, Musine Kokalari, an Albanian writer who dared to fight for political pluralism and free elections. She created the first social democratic party, despite knowing the high price she would have to pay. We usually understand freedom as meaning that there are many choices—but does having more choices, or believing we do, actually make us more free?

Guernica: Your writing grapples with ideas of femininity and masculinity, and you yourself often write from a perspective of a man. How do you think about that binary?

Luljeta Lleshanaku: Very often I hear talk about female literature, or femininity in literature. It’s a categorization I am not sure about. Maybe there are a few elements that distinguish women’s observations from men’s, like the ability to notice some fine details. But if you hide the author’s name, in most cases you would have difficulty identifying their gender. The same is true of the subjects of men and women’s writing: women’s literature is often considered sentimental. But if depth and brains are thought to be masculine characteristics, what we can say about women writers like Wisława Szymborska or Emily Dickinson?

Every time I find myself writing from the perspective of a man, a male character, I don’t have a clear explanation why. It might be because through a male voice I can satisfy my curiosity about what it would be like to be of the opposite gender. Or it might be even more subconscious than that—perhaps I feel less exposed under the “skin” of a man, less prejudged and more protected.

(…)

Fitz Carraldo Editions