Tag Archives: spring 2006

WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS?

Jason
Fantagraphics Books ($12.95)

by Rebecca Porte

I dislike animal comics. It has always seemed unfair to me that we humans insist on imposing our own sloppy, inelegant traumas on the innocent lives of lizards or feral cats. At best, these cartoon critters are cynical, at worst obscene or cute to the point of cloying. However, given that Norwegian comics artist Jason has completely won me over with the anthropomorphic animals of his graphic novel Why Are You Doing This?, I may have to reevaluate my stance on the creature feature entirely.

Why Are You Doing This?, Jason's first full-color work, follows a cat-headed young man named Alex as he tries to discover who has framed him for the murder of his best friend. The piece's atmosphere of stylish claustrophobia has earned it comparisons to the kind of Hitchcock movie where an attractive if dim fall guy goes to ground, usually with the help of a mysterious blonde, to figure out how he has been implicated, why, and for what crime. As in Hitchcock's world, evil is commonplace and authority, a police force staffed by dogs and rabbits, incompetent. Thankfully, in Jason's story the protagonist is more a naive artistic type than thick ladies' man. The femme fatale isn't a fashion plate but a single mother named Geraldine, also feline, with an improbable shock of golden hair.

The seemingly casual dialogue, translated from the Norwegian by Kim Thompson, transforms idle conversation into a resonant play of action and speech. What in another work might be a throwaway remark, "How many amusing or exciting anecdotes have you lived that you'd be able to relate during an evening with friends?" becomes instead one of the central questions of the book. The other is, of course, the interrogative of the title—"why are you doing this?—a question that Alex asks twice, once of the woman who wants to save him, once of the man who wants to kill him. The answers he gets in both instances are, in a way, the same: "Isn't that what people do?"

If Why Are You Doing This? has all the strengths of a Hitchcock thriller—its square-paneled storytelling and clean, iconic lines recall both the best of classical Hollywood camera angles and the simplicity of older European comics—it has most of the weaknesses as well, such as a slight overreliance on coincidence. Although Jason generally negotiates the relationship between dialogue and visual storytelling effectively, the book gets bogged down in an expository central section which, like Hitchcock at his worst, puts all of the artist's considerable resources in service to plot instead of character. However, on the whole, Why Are You Doing This?, a book both stark and warm at once, represents some of the best of Jason's work. It is a short, delicate melodrama that, flaws aside, drives home convincingly the essential pathos of coincidence, guns, and the party anecdote.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006

AN END TO SUFFERING: The Buddha In The World

An End to SufferingPankaj Mishra
Picador ($15)

by Rasoul Sorkhabi

During a recent trip to India, on the flight back from New Delhi to the U.S., I was sitting next to an Indian gentleman, an engineering student in an American university. He came from the Indian state of Bihar. When I asked him, “Is there a famous person from Bihar who I may know of?” he paused for a moment and said: “Do you know the Buddha?” What a nice coincidence! I showed him Pankaj Mishra's book An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World, which I had bought in New Delhi a few days before to read on the plane. The book includes a map of historical places relevant to the Buddha's life. We reviewed the map: Lumbini, where the Buddha was born as Siddhartha Gotama around 563 BC; Bodh Gaya, where he was enlightened at the age of 35; Sarnath, where he first preached the Buddha Dharma; and Kushinagara, where he died at the age of 80.

The story of the Buddha, a prince who left his palace to find the truth of life and death, has been (and will be) told numerous times, and many have fantasized of following “in the Buddha's footsteps.” And yet, fascination with the Buddha's life and geography remains powerful as ever. Pankaj Mishra has tried it for himself and the product is an illuminating book. Back in 1992, Mishra, then a new graduate in English literature from Delhi University, moved to a small Himalayan village in north India to read, observe, travel, and write about the Buddha. For the next couple of years, Mishra journeyed through books, places, and his own life in order to understand the Buddha's life and teachings.

What sets apart Mishra's book is that it recounts how a young intellectual brought up in a middle-class Hindu family in modern India rediscovers the Buddha—whose religion, although it originated in India, is more prominent in other Asian countries from Sri Lanka and Tibet to Korea and Japan. Mishra mentions the Hindu view of the Buddha as an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, but is quick to add that the Daltis (a group of Himalayan Hindus converted to Buddhism to escape the cast restrictions in the Hindu religion) resent this view and that the Buddha himself did not claim it. Mishra then attempts to present a historical Buddha rooted in the Indian geography and extensively researched in modern times by Orientalists, explorers, philosophers, and monks.

Another interesting feature of Mishra's book is that it juxtaposes the Buddha Dharma (teachings) with modern thought, especially with that of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Mishra has managed to weave together a story of the Buddha with implications for an age whose inhabitants are constantly dealing with stresses and nihilism in daily life and with the strife of consumerism, militarism and international conflicts, on a global scale. Mishra finds that the Buddha is as much a contemporary teacher as he was 2500 years ago.

In the end, Mishra does not convert to Buddhism (that is irrelevant for the Buddha), but what is significant is that he finds the Buddha's solution to end suffering to be very much valid and relevant for today: Awakening from our ignorance and delusions, and adopting a compassionate life in place of one with endless selfish desires.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006

BAIT AND SWITCH: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream

Barbara Ehrenreich
Metropolitan Books ($24)

by Robert J. Nebel

No one ever said that finding a job in George W. Bush's America was going to be easy, but veteran liberal author Barbara Ehrenreich set out to prove how hard it really is in Bait and Switch. Released last fall to rave reviews and an appearance on the coveted New York Times bestseller list, Bait and Switch is a reminder to all of us that, with or without a job, a search for one on any level is far from pleasant.

Ehrenreich, has found her niche in recent years by going undercover to report on the job front in America. In Nickel and Dimed, she took a series of low-wage jobs to tell white-collar America that life as a waitress, maid or store clerk is beyond demeaning. With Bait and Switch, Ehrenreich takes on the white-collar world with a job search in the asphalt jungle of Atlanta, Georgia. Assuming the identity of Barbara Alexander, a middle-aged woman in search of a public relations executive position, she does all the right things: attending job fairs, meeting with recruiters, posting her resume with all of the major services, even consulting with career coaches. Her experiences and subsequent observations demonstrate the irony of working with these self-elected professionals: even though you are out of work, you need money to hire them, dress nicely, and travel to where these job fairs and seminars take place.

There is no doubt that Bait and Switch conjures up feelings of frustration and hopelessness, but after reading it, one must come to at least a few reality checks. The economy has tanked for everyone over the past five-plus years. Auto assembly workers are taking it on the chin, with their jobs going to Japan, and their unions have been evaporating for years. Technology positions are going to India and China. Thus, "Barbara Alexander" is pretty much in the same boat as everyone in the rest of the job market.

What makes Bait and Switch meaningful is that Ehrenreich gets the reader to feel everyone's pain. In addition to her own experiences, she meets a number of desperate jobseekers in other fields who have fallen on horrific times. The reader will want to give all of these people in Bait and Switch a good job with benefits. Furthermore, Ehrenreich is a brilliant writer who tells the stories that most of the American press will not. It would be folly to dismiss her as a reactionary liberal agent of the progressive movement. Her undercover work takes the lid off the gratuitous commercial crap that penetrates all aspects of our society and she writes in a clear, concise manner that makes the large pill she has to offer easier to swallow. Bait and Switch is an important historical account of job searching in the Bush years.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006

NEUROSPHERE: The Convergence of Evolution, Group Mind, and the Internet

Neurosphere by Donald P. DulchinosDonald P. Dulchinos
Weiser Books ($17.95)

by Nicole Duclos

Increasingly, various biotechnology breakthroughs seem to enable incorporation of technology directly into the body, including the brain. The integration of the individual mind with the information and telecommunication infrastructure marks the formation of a tangible neurosphere. This is the full manifestation of the new species homo electric.—Donald P. Dulchinos, Neurosphere

If one could say only one thing about Neurosphere: The Convergence of Evolution, Group Mind, and the Internet, it is this: it is exceedingly ambitious. In only 208 pages Donald Dulchinos argues that the World Wide Web is the central nervous system for the world body, a collective or global mind; the next step in the evolution of consciousness. Using the concept of the noosphere (rewording it to a more amicable “neurosphere”) coined by the twentieth-century Jesuit priest and paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin, Dulchinos attempts to show us that what lies in wait for us on our techno-spiritual journey is a unity of mind so complete that machines and men will have—as has been touted or feared by sci-fi writers since the days of old—nothing but the finest of lines, if any at all, separating them.

Teilhard de Chardin provides the most immediate backbone for Dulchino's argument:

The concept of all-pervasive sympathy is what defeats [Teilhard's] critics. Teilhard admits that much wrong action takes place as a result of ignorance. But very few people do evil, he argues, if they have direct knowledge of the inner goodwill of others. If information—timely, accurate, and verifiable information—is available, it becomes more difficult for demagogues to drive action based on ignorance and fear. We are not insane when it comes to environmental degradation. We just haven't been convinced that the negative consequences our there are connected to our own actions. (Denial is, of course, another strong motivator, but usually can't be maintained when reality intrudes).

What makes it difficult to swallow this passage—and Dulchinos' argument as a whole—is that he puts forth ideas that he simply wishes were true, rather than ideas that have significant support. The parenthetical thought above—that denial cannot be maintained in the face of reality—is one that quickly loses its force due to the plain fact that many of us witness its opposite daily. All we need to do is look at the political field and we see that denial is a means by which many create their reality, the means by which they counter the facts that are constantly placed before them.

Similarly, Dulchinos fails to give any significant support for his theory that the Internet is the next step in the evolution of consciousness. In an effort to support his argument, Dulchinos draws from Tibetan Buddhist texts, transpersonal psychologists, the Western thinker and Zen Buddhist Ken Wilber, and even Star Trek: The Next Generation, using the Borg as an illustration of group or hive mind. (For those of you who have watched Star Trek, the Borg may seem an obvious example, but a depressing and frightening one, chanting as they do with one droning voice—while simultaneously attempting to assimilate every being and species into their hive—“Resistance is futile.” Not a pretty picture for our future.) And yet, the support he is reaching for seems to always leave his argument lying flat. The book is painfully scattered and lacks focus, and it isn't until the end of the book that Dulchinos comes around to what, though it may not be a fully supported argument, at least constitutes a coherent and admirable idea:

Perhaps the Web is, at most, only a metaphor of human activity. Yet it is searchable. All that is good or evil in the world, or any subset of the world that it represents, can me “mined” from within it. The Web underscores the interconnectedness that is here now, and growing.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006

ROUSSEAU'S DOG: Two Great Thinkers at War in the Age of Englightenment

David Edmonds & John Eidinow
HarperCollins ($25.95)

by Allan Vorda

Rousseau's Dog, a book with a strange title, is the fascinating reconstruction of an argument between two of the greatest thinkers of the 18th century: Jean-Jacques Rousseau and David Hume. How this argument evolved from a satiric letter mocking Rousseau and snowballed across the intellectual society of Europe is brought to life in shimmering detail by David Edmonds and John Eidinow.

This is a story of two great thinkers who became close friends only to become bitter enemies. It is surprising they could become friends since they were polar opposites in almost every way: Rousseau was combative and paranoid; Hume mild-mannered and decent.

Hume was born in Edinburgh in 1711. Initially a student of law, he was drawn to philosophy and in his mid-twenties wrote A Treatise of Human Nature, a brilliant philosophical work that was not well-received upon publication. Eventually, Hume's Treatise was recognized as a seminal study of the philosophical concept known as empiricism. Due to the magnitude of Hume's Treatise, the authors consider Hume to be one of the five greatest philosophers ever.

Hume would later become famous as a historian (for The History of England) and an essayist. In contemporary terminology, Hume would probably be considered a geek or dork. Or, as 17-year old James Caulfield (later to become Lord Charlemont) wrote of Hume: "His face was broad and fat, his mouth wide, and without any other expression than that of imbecility. His eyes vacant and spiritless, and the corpulence of his whole person was far better fitted to communicate the idea of a turtle-eating alderman than of a refined philosopher."

Nevertheless, Hume was a gentle and likeable person, especially well-received by the intelligentsia of Parisian society during his time as a diplomat in France. He did not believe in God or an afterlife, yet did his best to downplay his religious viewpoints for fear of alienating his audience.

Rousseau was a totally different animal. He was born in 1712 in Geneva, a city-state steeped in Calvinism. At 16, he fled Geneva, eventually ending up in France. Rousseau was a skilled musician who, before he was 30, had begun "to construct a radical new system for musical notation, the fundamental idea being to substitute numbers for visual signs."

Even so, his life was unremarkable until 1749 when he entered and won an essay contest for Discourse on the Sciences and Arts. Overnight, he was a national sensation. He would gain fame (and infamy) with several books covering different genres: Of the Social ContractEmileHeloise, and The Confessions—ostensibly the first autobiography ever written and still considered a classic. To give an example of his autobiographical eloquence: "My birth was the first of my misfortunes."

Whereas Hume was all reason, doubt, and skepticism, "Rousseau was a creature of feeling, alienation, imagination, and certainty." Rousseau's religious beliefs alienated virtually everyone. He thought religions were based on superstition and were unnecessary. Strangely enough, because he was so in tune with Nature, he saw God in mountains, waterfalls, flowers, and trees. For Rousseau, God was to be found through introspection.

Due to writings which challenged the very essence of societal and religious beliefs, Rousseau was literally stoned and forced to flee for his life from Switzerland. He escaped back to his adopted country of France, but before long a warrant was issued for his arrest. It was here that Hume intervened and offered Rousseau safety in England. They arrived in Dover on January 10, 1766. A few weeks later, the lusty James Boswell (the biographer of Samuel Johnson) accompanied Rousseau's life-long mistress (Therese Le Vasseur) to England, during which they had a short-term affair.

Initially, everything was fine. Rousseau was the toast of London and as well-received as Hume had been in Paris. Problems developed, however, due to the extremely independent and finicky nature of Rousseau: he did not want to accept gifts and insisted on finding the perfect place to live. Hume secretly arranged a carriage to transport Rousseau and Le Vasseur to their new home, but Rousseau was upset to receive any charity and admonished Hume.

All of his actions seemed to exacerbate Hume who was simply trying to help. Hume was also maneuvering to get a royal pension for Rousseau so he could have an income, but had to go behind his back since he wouldn't accept any outright gifts. On top of all this, he and Le Vasseur could not communicate in English which further increased Rousseau's paranoia—enflamed, perhaps, during their crossing of the English Channel: they were sleeping in a cabin bed when Rousseau awoke with Hume repeatedly muttering, "I hold Jean-Jacques Rousseau." Aside from the homosexual connotation, Rousseau interpreted these words as part of some great conspiracy against him.

The catalyst for the argument between Rousseau and Hume originated in a satiric letter written by Horace Walpole, but which Walpole signed as Frederick the Great—the King of Prussia and a friend of Rousseau. This mocking letter, which was published in England and France, was the final straw Rousseau saw as a diabolical plot against his character. Even though Walpole admitted to being the author of this Swiftian "letter of levity," Rousseau blamed Hume.

What followed was a litany of letters between both men with various accusations and denials. It must be pointed out that Hume was present when Walpole wrote the letter and likely contributed caustic remarks which Walpole incorporated. Hume was just as concerned about his reputation and honor as Rousseau, and began to write letters to defend himself, often altering the facts to put himself in a better light.

Edmonds and Eidinow have done a splendid job in recreating a significant historical moment which had been generally lost over time. It is their opinion that "with the exception of Nietzsche, probably no philosopher's reputation has fluctuated so dramatically as Rousseau's." While they rate The Confessions as "a literary masterpiece," Rousseau's reputation has indeed fluctuated; Hume's, on the other hand, has "steadily climbed."

These British writers, to their credit, go against the grain of conventional thinking—Rousseau would have loved this—and make the case Hume was not an innocent party to this whole lurid affair as previously construed. If anything, Hume mis-created the facts in various letters to make himself look better because he himself was paranoid about appearing in a bad light in Hume's autobiography. Ironically, Rousseau barely mentioned Hume at all.

The authors of Rousseau's Dog have provided an illuminating account of two of mankind's greatest thinkers; they present a balanced view of both men, which makes the reader contemplate if Edmonds and Eidinow each focused on one particular writer. When I wrote asking them to clarify this, this is the response I received: "We're often asked this question, and the answer is that we both work on all parts of the book: obviously there has to be a starting point—one of us will kick off a particular chapter—but we then send chapters back and forth so often that by the end we're not sure who wrote what."

Naturally, this author's comment was unsigned, and thus just as ambiguous as the authorship I was questioning. What is not ambiguous is that Rousseau's Dog is a book well worth reading.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006

A LITTLE HISTORY OF THE WORLD

E.H. Gombrich
translated by Caroline Mustill
Yale University Press ($25)

by Kelly Everding

"What was he? The man had changed the world, had torn up the past by its thick, gnarled roots and had transmuted it, and they, who knew the truth, remembered it his way—and so did I." —John Gardner, Grendel

Gardner's Grendel is outraged by the lies of the blind harper who extolled Hrothgar in such a stirring way as to change memory and history. Such sly sycophancy would secure the role of the "king of the Shapers" in Hrothgar's hall. Why does our society put such value on truth, when truth is such a malleable thing? One person's truth is another person's heresy. I say truth be damned and tell me a good story. And that's what E. H. Gombrich does with A Little History of the World—he puts the story back into history.

Gombrich, famed Austrian art historian and author of The Story of Art, wrote A Little History of the World in 1935, when he was 26 years old. Like many at that time he was out of work and jumped at a publisher's offer to write this history for a younger audience, finishing it within the six-week deadline. A Little History of the World was a great success and was translated into 18 languages—except English. That was a task Gombrich wanted to take on himself, having transplanted himself in England before World War II started. However, it wasn't until over 40 years later that Gombrich began the task of updating and translating the book into English, when he was well into his 80s, and he died at the age of 92 before the task was complete. Luckily, his assistant and co-translator Caroline Mustill could finish the job and present this splendid treasure of a book. In the preface written by Gombrich's granddaughter, Leonie, we learn that he intended to include more chapters on English history including Shakespeare and the birth of parliamentary democracy. While it is sad not to see how Gombrich would have explained these bits of history in his own entertaining way, it is more interesting to see history through the eyes of a young Austrian in the '30s. What will be left in and what left out? How will history be skewed or does it really matter?

While I am not a historian and cannot attest to the accuracy of Gombrich's history, the sheer beauty of the language and charm in the writing is enough to recommend it to readers of all ages, and begs to be read out loud. The chapters revolve around the more popular stories of history—the artistic Greeks, the birth of major religions, and the unending wars fought back and forth throughout the Middle Ages. The history is Eurasia-centric, so not much is said about Africa or the Americas for that matter, but if you put all umbrage aside and just enjoy the storytelling, it's quite wonderful. Gombrich begins at the beginning, with the innate problems of "once upon a time":

And that's how it is with 'Once upon a time.' We can't see where it ends. Grandfather's grandfather's grandfather's grandfather. . . it makes your head spin. But say it again, slowly, and in the end you'll be able to imagine it. Then add one more. That gets us quickly back into the past, and from there into the distant past. But you will never reach the beginning, because behind every beginning there's always another 'Once upon at time.'

And what do we learn, once Gombrich has set the tone? We learn about the dawn of prehistoric man and the beginnings of civilization along the Nile. "Here—as I promised—History begins. With a when and a where." We learn that the Egyptians worshipped cats as sacred animals, "and if you ask me, I think that in this, at least, the ancient Egyptians were right." We learn about the wonderful gifts of the Greeks. "And now I hear you asking: 'But what exactly did they do that was so great?' And I can only say 'everything.'" And moving on to the Romans we learn that "if you weren't a Christian, a Jew or a close relative of the emperor, life in the Roman empire could be peaceful and pleasant." Gombrich makes history accessible to children, putting it in terms they can understand, but he in no way condescends. He likens the approach of a storm that sweeps through the mountains to the Asiatic and Germanic tribes that swept in from all sides to destroy the Roman empire. ("At first there's nothing to see, but you feel a sort of weariness that tells you something is in the air. . . All of a sudden, the mountains seem strangely near. There isn't a breath of wind, yet dense clouds pile up in the sky.") Gombrich's wit and artistic eye makes history entertaining and tantalizing and scary, battle after battle, empire after empire.

The final chapter, "The Small Part of the History of the World Which I Have Lived Through Myself: Looking Back," was added to bring the book somewhat up to the present, and in it Gombrich confesses to a slight one-sidedness in his chapter "Men and Machines," in which industrialization upturned the economic status-quo leaving millions of people destitute. Growing up during that time made Gombrich especially sensitive to the suffering poor, and in his last chapter he still points to the suffering that exists now, even with all of our progress. "We have no easy remedies, not least because there too, as ever, intolerance and misery go hand in hand." But with the progress in information technology, Gombrich notes, we know immediately what peoples in what parts of the world need help. "Whenever an earthquake, a flood or a drought in a far-off place leaves many victims, thousands of people in wealthier countries put their money and their efforts into providing relief. And that, too, used not to happen. Which proves that we still have the right to go on hoping for a better future."

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006

FAN-TAN

Marlon Brando & Donald Cammell
edited and with an Afterword by David Thomson
Alfred A. Knopf ($23.95)

by Sam Howie

At 51, Annie Doultry is a Scottish-born, American-reared sailor and arms trader much tougher than his name implies. His collaborating creators, in spite of sometimes murky prose and overly convenient plot elements, offer an exciting account of Annie's adventures, beginning in a Hong Kong prison, circa 1927, and culminating with his service to a reckless Chinese pirate known as the Mountain of Wealth.

Annie claims he does not bet on anything except the cockroach races, yet the avowed non-bettor evaluates each of his life's decisions with the inexact pragmatics of a seasoned gambler. Released from prison after a relatively light sentence—Caucasians were treated much more favorably than Asians in the British run jail—Annie quickly settles an old score and then appears to adopt a conservative approach to the risk-versus-return analysis of daily decisions. However, he encounters the tempting Fan-Tan, a delightful game of chance Annie loves partly for its simplicity.

While drunk on the game's charming aura, he meets its corporeal equivalent: Madame Lai Choi San, the notorious Mountain of Wealth. Though the steps that lead to their meeting seem a bit contrived, they are forgivably so. Within the grips of Madame San's charismatic pirating skills—she seems to steal the wills of people as easily as lesser booty—Annie is vulnerable to a combination of greed, mysterious infatuation, and even a tinge of lust; he is compelled to flirt with stakes as great and capricious as the seas he loves to sail. Madame San is a typhoon of unknowns who renders incalculable the odds of success and failure Annie would estimate. She throws the sailor headlong into the riskiest and potentially most rewarding game of his life, with twists along the way, especially near the end, that reveal genuine human character.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006

THINGS IN THE NIGHT

Mati Unt
translated by Eric Dickens
Dalkey Archive Press ($13.95)

by Scott Esposito

In this review of celebrated Estonian author Mati Unt's Things in the Night, I'm not going to attempt anything so foolish as a plot summary—to do so would be contrary to the spirit of Unt's book. But in order to provide some idea of what this book is like, let's just say that it includes the following: a lengthy scene in which a cannibal explains to a street crowd, just before he is dragged off by police, his theories on why eating human brains led to the evolution of humanity; a stream-of-consciousness section that lasts for about 30 pages in which the narrator rants upon getting lost in the woods while searching for mushrooms; and a substantial chapter where the narrator waters (and talks to) his collection of cacti—written from the point of view of the plants.

Or, I could simply let Unt explain his book to us:

There has to be life in a novel. Key scenes writ large and grotesque dreams should alternate with lighter city scenes. This is termed "the atmosphere" of the novel. You soon get bored with too dense a text and begin to read diagonally. You have to give the reader a chance to breathe. . .

And yet:

I can't be bothered doing the description.

Can't be bothered, not because he is above such pedestrian tasks but because the noise of the modern world, the "atmosphere," is not what Unt is interested in. If a book's atmosphere is what lets the reader breathe, then he'll deny us our breath and argue that we're better off without it. "Because at an everyday level, life in this country is simply appalling, and if you start trying to describe the horror of it, you really have to devote yourself to the task, stack up thousands of pages of all kinds of absurdities. . .but I don't want to write about it all, and nobody would want to read it anyway."

Seemingly haphazard movement among a collection of unremarkable yet strange vignettes turns out to be a fitting approach for a novel that takes electricity as a central motif and that attempts to capture the feel—if not the look and sound—of a dying Soviet republic (Things in the Night was originally written just before the fall of Communism). Unt's book does not document absurdities so much as embody them, and always peeking out from behind these absurdities is an ongoing critique of modern society. So even though Things in the Night is intense, episodic, sporadic, and cryptic (good luck figuring out the many references to Estonian society), the book is far from random. Characters emerge, themes develop, and there's even a plot, eventually. It's a testament to this book's nimble inventiveness that although it goes about its business in such an expectation-defying way, it remains, ultimately, engrossing.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006

GATE OF THE SUN

Elias Khoury
translated by Humphrey Davies
Archipelago Books ($26)

by Laird Hunt

Elias Khoury's Gate of the Sun, marvelously translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies, is far from the only fictional or poetic treatment of the events following the 1948 Arab-Israeli war—dubbed "the catastrophe" by the Palestinians—but it is certainly one of the grandest. Two Palestinian men are in a room in a makeshift hospital in a refugee camp outside Beirut in Lebanon. One lies comatose, slowly expiring. The other tells him stories, hoping to talk him back to life. These stories, which begin as anecdotes, grow in length and power until the room overflows with them. They are stories about the life of the dying man, Yunes, a fighter in the Palestinian resistance, who for years crossed into Israel at great risk to visit his wife, Nahilah, in Galilee. They are also the stories of an entire displaced people. One suspects it is not just the dying Yunes that Khalil seeks to keep alive: hope itself is the secret, battered protagonist of this enormous 20th-century reworking of the 1001 Nights.

The stories Khalil tells about Yunes's life are woven into an immense fabric that encompasses many other lives, from Umm Hassan, Palestinian midwife and beloved figure in the Shatila refugee camp, to Ella Dueck, a Jewish woman originally from Beirut now living in Umm Hassan's former home in Galilee, to Nahilah, forced to raise her children alone and to deal with decades of fear and uncertainty in the face of Yunes's long absences, to a host of other characters, including Khalil himself. Indeed, a great deal of Gate of the Sun's power derives from Khoury's placement of his narrator directly in the story. Again and again, we return to Khalil's voice, intimate, labyrinthine and seemingly tireless; again and again, we return to a character fully implicated in the events he describes. "I was seventeen when I saw flares for the first time. At the time, I was a fedayeen fighter, one of the first cadre that came through Irneh in Syria to southern Lebanon to build the first fedayeen base."

Given the seamlessness between Khalil's stories and his own role and/or stake in them, it is perhaps not surprising that he allows himself to speak not just to or of Yunes, but as Yunes and the voices that comprise his psyche. This proliferation of points of view and voices is remarkably seductive; when during one of their meetings Nahilah lays determined siege to Yunes's sense of self-importance, the reader is likely to feel that he or she is being addressed:

"You don't know," Nahilah said. "You don't know anything. You think life is those distances you cross to come to me, carrying the smell of the forest. And you say you're a lone wolf. But my dearest, it's not a matter of the smell of the wolf or the smell of wild thyme or of the Roman olive tree, it's a matter of people who've become strangers to each other. Do you know who we are at least?"

This passage, like so many others, takes place in Bab Al Shams, or the eponymous Gate of the Sun, the cave where the majority of Nahilah and Yunes's life together occurs. It is appropriate that Khoury would choose a cave as one of the central locations for his epic, as this is a novel about the Palestinian situation that deals as much with interiors as with exteriors—as much with the deep complexity of human minds and hearts as with the heartbreaking ravages of loss and exile surrounding them. Stories proliferate and bifurcate and fold in on themselves in Bab Al Shams, as they do in Yunes's hospital room, where Khalil can't stop telling them, even when he wants to:

My eyelids are weighed down with stories.... Stories are for sleep, not for death. Now it's time for us to stop telling stories for a while, because one story leads to another, and night blankets the words.
But first tell me, what is the story of that spirit woman and that man who drowned in the circles of the red sun?

In Khalil's stories, which are also Yunes's, Nahilah's and—through the power of Khoury's magnificent writing—ours, illusions are built up, punctured, and built up again in an inexorable cycle that leaves behind it the kind of searing clarity that is ever-more indispensable as the troubling events in the Middle East continue to unfold.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006

THE HEALING SPIRIT OF HAIKU

David Rosen and Joel Weishaus
North Atlantic Books ($14.95)

by Andrew Redhead

The Healing Spirit of Haiku is a book of reflections and haiku by two writers, accompanied by illustrations by Arthur Okamura that enhance the physical reality of the haiku experience. The authors explain it as "a haibun of the psyche. . .concerning specific themes connected with our own healing journeys." They relate this to Jung's notion of the collective unconscious, saying "Subjects and places aren't as important as the depth of feelings between people who have experienced them in unexpected subtle ways."

Collections of haiku often fail by falling into triviality. This book, however, effortlessly avoids every pitfall of this kind of writing. The dual authorship sets up a dynamic in which every inward movement of the individual writers is balanced by an outward movement between people. That dynamic is then amplified as each writer responds to his specific situations. In this way the Jungian harmony of introversion and extraversion finds clear expression throughout the whole course of the writing.

For example, at one point David Rosen reflects on the impending American war with Iraq while at the hermitage of St. Francis in Assisi, dwelling on the contrast between the planned conflict and the spirit of peace of the place in which he finds himself. This is then responded to by Joel Weishaus, who reflects on the psychological issues in the life of St Francis himself. The result is a situation in which each writer sets up echoes that are reflected in the other person and amplified into the wider world.

This dynamic seems to be the key to the breadth of the book. It's both particular and general, in the best spirit of haiku: particular in the sense of connecting deeply with the immediate situation in its uniqueness, and general in keeping alive the fragile spirit of the moment while relating it to the world of human experience as a whole.

I'm reminded of David Rosen's earlier achievement in his book The Tao of Jung, in which he transcends the particular trappings of historical Taoism and works directly from what Lao Tzu called the uncarved block, the authentic origin of the Tao. In this book, Rosen and Weishaus enter fully into the origins and traditions of haiku, but they then transcend the cultural trappings of the form and create authentic haiku from the original spirit of the form—haiku that are as much at home in Assisi or in Texas or New York as they would be in Kyoto. This is a book to return to, to be experienced in different ways at different times.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006