Tag Archives: fall 2009


edited by Cecilia Vicuña
and Ernesto Livon-Grosman
Oxford University Press ($49.95)

by John Herbert Cunningham

Indebted to the pioneering work of Jerome Rothenberg in ethnopoetics, this anthology should usher in a new era of translation of Latin American poetry, one that is long overdue. Its uniqueness is evident from the Preface, in which editors Cecilia Vicuña and Ernesto Livon-Grosman state:

The continual clash of cultures and languages in Latin America, brought about by the European conquest, created a “verba criolla,” in José Lezama Lima’s words—a verbal mix, a mestizo poetics resplendent with contradictions and linguistic experimentation. To present this dynamic mestizaje, or hybridity, as well as the continuity of the experimental tradition, became our goal in selecting work. To this end, we included a great number of poets not yet well known in the English language


Following the Preface, each of the editors presents their own introduction. Vicuña’s “An Introduction to Mestizo Poetics” attributes the beginning of Latin American poetry to “Malintzin, the Nahua slave girl who became the ‘lengua’, the interpreter and concubine of Hernán Cortés. Forced to speak in the language of the conquerors, she invented a way of speaking Spanish with a native intonation that, within a few generations, became the matrix of mestizo poetics.” Livon-Grosman’s “A Historical Introduction to Latin American Poetry” informs us that the book seeks to present “a series of connected themes that make available to readers the many dialogues, past and present, that have engendered Latin American poetics as we know it today,” then proceeds to set out and explicate the various philosophies and movements that have shaped this discourse.

We are prepared now for the anthology itself, which opens unlike any other anthology of Latin American poetry. The first thing we encounter are images of Mayan hieroglyphs as they appear on preserved pre-Columbian vases. The first poem is an English translation from a Spanish translation of the original Nahuatl poem describing the indigenous response to Cortes and his band of Conquistadors:

We saw it, we marvelled at them.
We saw ourselves anguished with a mournful fate.
Broken arrows lie upon the roads,
hair is scattered everywhere.
The houses are roofless,
their walls run red.
Maggots swarm along the streets and plazas,
and on the walls brains are splattered.

From there we move to excerpts from Mayan painted books, to a “khipu” (an Andean notation system using knots and colored threads), to the Comentarios reales de los incas from 1609 by Garcilaso de la Vega, “the first author who called himself a mestizo,” and finally to an excerpt from the Popul Vuh:

Wait now! Bless this day,
thou Hurricane, thou heart of sky and earth,
thou giver of ripeness and freshness,
giver, too, of daughters and sons,
spread thy stain, spill thy drops
of green and yellow . . .

It is only then that we arrive at Spanish New World writings, beginning with The Arauncaniad by Alonso de Ercilla y Zúñiga. We are provided with the first two cantos. In the first, he writes of the “customs and methods of warfare that the natives observe”:

Not of ladies, love, or graces
Do I sing, nor knights enamored,
Nor of gifts and shows of feeling,
Cares of love, or love’s affections;
But the valiant acts and prowess
Of those never-daunted Spaniards
Who with swords placed yokes of bondage
On the necks of untamed Indians.

The contrast between the indigenous and the Spanish perspective of the Conquest is stark, and yet each views it as fate, as preordained—one seeing it as delivering the infidel to God, the other as having been abandoned by their gods.

Vicuña and Livon-Grosman move us quickly through the early period, uncovering some surprises along the way. For example, there is the 17th-century Mexican writer Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, whose life recalls that of Hildegard von Bingen; she became a nun in order to pursue her intellectual development, advocating for women’s entitlement to education, only to be censored by the Catholic Church. In “This Coloured Counterfeit That Thou Beholdest,” translated by Samuel Beckett, she appears to characterize the Church: “is an empty artifice of care / is a fragile flower in the wind / is a paltry sanctuary from fate.” We also discover several translations of the Cholam Balam, “a series of books written in alphabetic script in Yucatec Mayan by native priests in defense of their culture,” and early 18th-century visual poetry.

The poetry of the 19th century is dealt with just as quickly. Beginning with Francisco Acuña de Figueroa (1790-1862, Uruguay) whose “visual poetry and his Mosaico poético were ignored until later critics saw their theoretical and aesthetic value,” we soon arrive at Rubén Darío (1867-1916, Nicaragua), one of the founders of modernismo. In between, we discover poets such as José Martí (1853-1895), who fought for Cuba’s independence from Spain. A couple of his poems are translated, including “Love in the City”:

Love happens in the street, standing in the dust
of saloons and public squares; the flower
dies the day it’s born. The trembling
virgin who would rather death
have her than some unknown youth . . .

Darío, and several others presented, are transition figures between the 19th and the 20th centuries. Entering the 20th century, we encounter many names with which the English-speaking world is already familiar—Gabriela Mistral, César Vallejo, Vicente Huidobro, Jorge Luis Borges, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, etc. What is impressive, however, is that these names do not dominate the selection of the poetry. They may be given a little more space than, say, the obscure Olga Orozco (1920-1999, Argentina), but it is the inclusion of these more obscure poets that makes this anthology superlative. Take Orozco’s “Variations on Time”:

you’ve dressed in the moth-eaten skin
of the last prophet
you’ve worn down your face to its last pallor;
you’ve put on a crown of shattered mirrors
and tatters of rain;
and now you chant babble about the future
with melodies dug up from the past,
while you wander in the shadows through your starving rubbish,
like a mad king.

Even more exciting to encounter are the concrete poetic works of Décio Pignatari and Haroldo and Augusto de Campos, who together founded the Brazilian group Noigandres. Other South and Latin American poets who applied their creativity to visual poetry are also represented, and the book is replete with photographs and drawings to illustrate the physicality of this work.

What finally sets this anthology of Latin American poetry above any other is the inclusion of transliterations of oral poetry; the volume ends with such works by contemporary Tzoltzil Mayan oral poets such as Xunka Utz’utz’ Ni’, Loxa Jiménes Lópes, and Maria Ernándes Kokov. The latter’s “The Talking Box Speaks” is a transcript, “a commercialized version of an ancient Mayan oracle from which a saint speaks to her”:

“Are you there?”
I’m from the Universe.
I want bread
and half a crate of soda pop.

Certainly, this book is not perfect. For example, although it is hailed as a bilingual edition, the Spanish and Portuguese originals are not set out in lines. One could also wish for more examples of individual poets’ writings; often, only one poem is included, hardly a fair representation of that poet’s range of work. Of course, these choices reflect the need to keep the anthology a manageable size, and these flaws are minor. If one were forced to choose only one volume of Latin American poetry to take to a desert island, this would be the one.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009


Gerald Martin
Knopf ($37.50)

by W. C. Bamberger

Many readers know Gabriel García Márquez only as the author of the classic One Hundred Years of Solitude, but there is, of course, much more to him, both as man and artist. Many of his books are as good as or even better than One Hundred Years—there is the unrelenting linguistic force of The Autumn of the Patriarch, the bare-bones suspense of Chronicle of a Death Foretold, and the dark romantic tendrils of Love in the Time of Cholera. And then there are the political stances—the long-enduring friendship with Fidel Castro, his conflicts with the U.S., and much more. Gerald Martin’s nearly 700-page biography goes a long way toward uncovering and weaving all these threads into a coherent design. Here we learn that the young Gabito, as he was known, had almost no contact with his mother when he was very young; how his grandparents and aunts raised him; how he struggled to find the confidence and courage to be a reporter in his dangerous and divided country, Columbia; we learn what town inspired the fabled Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude and what incident inspired Chronicle of a Death Foretold; about his travels in Europe, the U.S. and Latin America, his feud with Mario Vargas Llosa, and much, much more. There is a wealth of fact here, even if sometimes Martin attempts to tie all these facts too tightly together, as if a life might be made into a neat package with no loose ends.

Martin is not just García Márquez’s biographer, but also a dedicated fan of the author’s literary works and a supporter of his subject’s early and middle-years political stances. Martin continually offers examples of how Marquez’s personal life and political experiences shaped his fiction. At times these examples seem a bit strained: García Márquez was an illegitimate child, and Martin does a good job of explaining the complicated degrees of illegitimacy in the multi-layered society into which the future Nobel laureate was born. But in analyzing some early stories Martin comes down a little too hard on the role of legitimacy—even after he details how common it was to be and to have illegitimate children—and the examples he quotes more clearly show the young writer’s literary influences overriding any personal ones. Whenever Martin chooses to offer such relatively simple analyses of García Márquez’s life and writing, the book falters. But he excels at laying out complicated circumstances and the human failings involved, as when he writes that the budding author “could not bring himself to confess either to his impoverished family or to his future wife that he was willfully abandoning them for a significant period of time. . . His sense of responsibility was strong but the lure of Europe and the unknown was even stronger.”

García Márquez struggled to come into his own. Even with the best of instincts and an early sensitivity to the injustices in his country, he was no literary or political prodigy. In 1948, for example, 21-year-old García Márquez was a student in Bogotá. He and Fidel Castro—then a participant in a student conference to oppose the formation of a conference that would set up the Organization of American States—were both in the city when an important liberal leader was murdered in the street. Castro, the future revolutionary, took to the streets but the aspiring author and his friends “heard [the] call to arms on thepensión radio but they did not answer the appeal.” Castro tried to rally the rioters for a revolution; García Márquez only mourned the loss of his typewriter when the shop where he had pawned it was looted. Martin’s conclusion to his telling of this episode is characteristic of his insistence on finding a positive angle and lasting significance in even the most equivocal incidents in his subject’s life:

Slow as he was to develop a mature political consciousness, there were significant lessons that García Márquez had now assimilated about the nature of his country; as he had lost or abandoned most of his material possessions, these new lessons were perhaps the most important things the young man took with him on the plane to Barranquilla and Cartagena.

Martin identifies the emergence of García Márquez as a mature storyteller with a 1954 newspaper article he wrote about a landslide where a hillside community had collapsed with heavy loss of life. He was sent by his editor to discover whether this could be attributed to government corruption and shoddy building practices. On arriving in a nearby town, “he felt sick with nerves and totally intimidated by the physical challenge and the moral responsibility; he almost resigned from the newspaper on his first day in Medellín.” He gathered his courage and the end result was a piece that, in Martin’s words, converted his “world-view into a set of journalistic ‘angles.’ . . . [The] great story-teller ‘Gabriel García Márquez’ had finally appeared on the scene.”

While Martin strives to describe how García Márquez has combined autobiography, myth, language, and literary traditions into the singular style of his works, the literary analysis portions of this biography never quite touch the heart of the writing. His commentary is much more convincing when he describes personal relationships and speculates on emotional triggers for actions. But Martin’s real strength—and, clearly, his main interest—lies in his eye for the political dynamics, particularly the place of socialism and communism, that have influenced García Márquez’s life and works. Throughout his writing life, García Márquez has self-consciously kept in mind a responsibility to engage with the political. When his novel Leaf Storm was published in 1955, he “would confess. . . that he had developed a guilt complex because Leaf Storm was a novel that didn’t ‘condemn or expose anything.’”

The political aspect would grow over time, at times dominating García Márquez’s thoughts and work, and even his movements. He traveled to Poland and Czechoslovakia (where he was disturbed by the inhabitants’ disinterest in politics), to Auschwitz and even to Moscow—for the latter, oddly, as a singer and drummer in a musical troupe. He has been an unwavering advocate for Castro’s revolution. He invited the Sandanistas to meet in his living room in Mexico City. Martin is very strong on how such alliances came about, and how García Márquez has rationalized the unsavory aspects of some of the regimes with which he’s allied himself. When the Hungarian Communist leader had a prominent opponent executed, he wrote of the execution as “an act of political stupidity” while blaming Kruschev’s influence:

It should perhaps not surprise us that the man who wrote it, who at this time clearly believes that there are “right” and “wrong” men for particular situations, and who cold-bloodedly puts politics before morality, should eventually support an “irreplaceable” leader like Fidel Castro through thick and thin.

But Martin has enough detachment to ask the question of whether García Márquez been “writing about men of power, to men of power, or for them?”

As the acclaimed author has moved into old age, struggling with lymphoma and Alzheimer’s, politics has become less important to him. Of what is likely to be García Márquez’s last novel (translated in 2005 asMemories of my Melancholy Whores) Martin writes that the novel “has both an unashamed and unattenuated flirtation with fantasy and a conventional moral dimension that most of the others quite deliberately lack,” and that, “the ending takes García Márquez to the end of his literary and philosophical journey through life.” Martin, who clearly has great affection for both the man and his works, details this journey, recognizes its inevitability, and yet implicitly criticizes it. In the last third of this book, as he describes the aging author’s turn toward more personal subjects and a more comfortable relationship with capitalism, Martin’s own strong political positions intrude more insistently on the narrative. (He seems to have a particular dislike for President Jimmy Carter, at one point comparing him to Pontius Pilate.) At times the narrative language grows a bit shrill: “He decided to make not a clean breast of it but the best fist of it.”

Martin is surely correct when he writes that One Hundred Years of Solitude “tapped the DNA of Latin American culture,” but this and many other of García Márquez’s works pulled free of any narrow regional identity by capturing the emotional and intellectual DNA we all share. While at times all the detail here narrows rather than opens up García Márquez, Martin gives us great insight into the author’s complex life of struggles with others and with himself as he created some of the most unforgettable fiction of the last fifty years.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009

CAPTURE THE FLAG: A Political History of American Patriotism

Woden Teachout
Basic Books ($26.95)

by Bob Sommer

In the years between the terrible events of 9/11 and the last presidential election, displaying the American flag descended from a proud and mournful gesture of solidarity to an expression of vitriol. Car magnets and lapel pins with the flag’s image became symbolic chips on the shoulder. Hours of radio and cable TV airtime were devoted to the question of whether candidate Barack Obama would wear a flag lapel pin. His very patriotism—as well as that of Democratic congressmen, to say nothing of antiwar protesters—was continually questioned by conservatives, who virulently laid claim to the flag as their own.

Woden Teachout’s Capture the Flag is a timely reminder that such tactics did not originate in recent history. The book’s purpose, she writes, is to tell “the story of the flag’s political history: the ways in which it has been pulled back and forth, from one political party to another, from one social movement to another.” To this end, she has selected events from the post-Revolutionary period through the Vietnam era that illustrate the flag’s varying uses as a symbol: of defiance by American sailors held in British prisons; of nativism during the Philadelphia Riots of 1844; of oppression, as secessionists viewed it at the outset of the Civil War; of loyalty during the Populist era; of freedom during the civil rights era; and of social and economic disparity during the Vietnam War.

By linking these historical moments with a view to exploring how patriotism and the flag became tools for defending ethnic, political, and social turf, Teachout raises questions about the nature—and dangers—of the excesses that followed, when loyalty to one’s country evolved into chauvinism or national pride became xenophobia. She describes two kinds of patriotism: humanitarian patriotism, by which she means “an ideological commitment to democracy as a political and social system,” in which government is “the source of civil liberties”; and nationalist patriotism, which “presupposed a citizenry defined not only by a political covenant but also by a shared cultural, social, economic, ethnic, and geographic heritage.”

The distinction is semantically fragile—as well as politically charged—and not made clearer by the absence of a working definition of patriotism itself, the history, etymology, and uses of which would seem essential to a study like this. At times, the meaning of patriotism is treated as self-evident, which leads to further vagueness, as in this sentence: “The story of the American flag is the story of a country in search of itself, a country led sometimes by one sort of patriot and at other times by another, both kinds laying claim to the same American values and both claiming the flag as a powerful symbol.” What is meant here by “patriot” and by “American values”? Neither are defined, while the cliché “a country in search of itself” drains the sentence of meaning altogether.

Unfortunately such clichés recur. Here, for example, is Teachout’s romantic take on the life of a commercial sailor: “Any self-respecting young man of the eighteenth century looking for fortune and adventure found himself down at the waterfront. The waves knocking on the wooden wharves promised a magical world of adventure and fortune.” And here she opens her chapter on the election of 1896: “The 1890s marked a watershed decade in American history.”

One might be willing to skid past a few such phrases, but more troubling is Teachout’s tendency to rely heavily on secondary sources and to follow them at uncomfortably close range. Her chapter on the Ku Klux Klan, for example, makes extensive use of Wyn Craig Wade’s The Fiery Cross: The Ku Klux Klan in America (Simon and Schuster, 1987), citing it no fewer than twenty-one times in the chapter’s thirty-five footnotes. While Teachout’s narrative often moves closely in sync with Wade’s, a number of passages veer even closer. Consider this series of passages, alternately by Wade and then Teachout:


On April 27, 1915, Mary Phagan, a fourteen-year-old employee of a Marietta, Georgia, pencil company, was found raped and murdered in the basement of the building where she worked.


In the Atlanta suburb of Marietta, the body of fourteen-year-old Mary Phagan was found raped and murdered in the basement of the pencil factory where she had worked.


. . . Simmons turned his Klansmen into junior G-men who promptly began harassing prostitutes around military base . . .


The Klansmen harassed the prostitutes who gathered around military bases.


On September 19, it published a detailed account of 152 Klan outrages, including four murders, forty-one floggings, and twenty-seven tar-and-featherings.


By September 1921, Klansmen had been responsible for at least 150 instances of intimidation, including four murders, forty-one whippings, and twenty-seven tar-and-featherings.

And such borrowings are not limited to Wade. Here is an example from John Dittmer’s Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (University of Illinois Press, 1994):


Between 1880 and 1940, nearly 600 Mississippi blacks were lynched, and no jury would convict a white man for killing a Negro.


In the years between 1880 and 1940, white Mississippians had lynched nearly six hundred black men, a rate of ten lynchings per year.

Teachout credits her sources, but the above passages appear to be instances in which paraphrasing has bled into using the source’s very language and sentence structure.

Given its limitations, Capture the Flag is disappointing; the flag’s symbolic value and the question of what patriotism means are issues that deserve more care and thoroughness. Meanwhile, to those readers, librarians, and scholars who may be tempted to shell out $27 for this book, a time-honored warning seems appropriate: Caveat emptor.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009

YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN?: Words, Contexts and Communication

Ruth Wajnryb
Cambridge ($19.99)

by Abby Travis

Words are supposed to be solid and reliable, the basic building blocks with which we create structures like sentences, paragraphs, books—and, through these, meaning. This hardly seems like a revelatory thought, but as with many structures, a great deal occurred over time to create the meaning that these very words contain. Ruth Wajnryb’s latest book, You Know What I Mean?, attempts to tackle the oddities of meaning: how certain words and phrases have developed over time, how they behave, what forces dictate the changes in language today, and why we choose the words we do.

Although Wajnryb is generally successful, readers looking for a cohesive whole may be disappointed. Her book comprises ten chapters, each of which tackle a different subject like “Gender,” “Text-types,” or “Word Biographies”; these are divided into even shorter essays that are usually under two pages. For a book 225 pages long, this results in over 100 essays, and in order to tie these essays together, each chapter’s half-page introduction invariably unleashes some variation of the dreaded “This section contains…” Wajnryb’s goal is to demystify various aspects of an often-confusing language, so one can’t really blame her for taking the most direct approach; unfortunately, the elementary introduction doesn’t always set up a flawless demystification, and the brief nature of her essays rarely offers enough space to explain fully the “why” factor she claims to resolve. While sometimes the essays merely end on some witty note or pun, in some instances she actually concedes that there is no explanation—, for example, in terms of reduplicative words (such as “fuddy-duddy,” “heebie-jeebies,” or even “reduplicative” itself) she writes, “I’ve searched but haven’t yet unearthed an explanation. Sometimes, illogically, we just repeat ourselves. Repeat ourselves.” At least she gets the point across.

What Wajnryb does quite well is pique her reader’s interest, maintaining it through contemporary references and the occasional tangent, all with the added bonus of her keen, snarky humor. The American reader will learn a little something about Australian politics and what the Collins Australian Dictionary has to say about the contained definition or origins of a word (she uses the Oxford English Dictionary quite frequently as well). Topics vary from grammar basics (“you” and “me” do not simply refer to me and you), to the linguist’s cringe at poorly worded signs (we’ve all been there), to war words. “Vietnam,” for example, is no longer just a place, it has morphed into an entire concept. She refers to Saddam Hussein on multiple occasions, but also returns to “Dogese” (the conversational tone and level of informality that occurs when dog owners meet and converse briefly while out for a walk with their companions) several times as well. The ephemeral nature of Wajnryb’s plethora of topics is probably best suited for the ephemeral reader (if you can figure that out, you’re ready for the book).

Wajnryb’s readers acquire the ability to think like a linguistic detective, especially after the biographical breakdown (semantic, etymological, grammatical, and pragmatic) of various words in the chapter “Word Biographies.” Her most successful example, exploring “get” in all its applications, is pleasurably enlightening: while some consider the use of “get” as sloppy or lazy (e.g., “get home” or “get dinner” instead of “arrive” and “cook”), Wajnryb praises it for its slippery, infinitely flexible qualities. Think about it: “get the milk,” “get the joke,” “I’ll get you for this,” “get old,” “get to know,” “get going,” “get up,” “get warm,” “get with,” “a good get,” “get to dance,” “get stoned,” and a favorite: “get your elbow out of my face.” There’s no way that “get” has one containable, comprehensive definition. Furthermore, the critic of using “get” assumes that “get dinner” and “cook” are synonymous, but to “go get dinner from the store” is not cooking. It may be as lazy as using “get” in certain situations, but that’s not a matter of linguistics.

Things start to coalesce, ironically of course, in the final chapter, “World Englishes,” in which Wajnryb explores the seemingly infinite varieties and dialects of what she calls EIL—English as an International Language. She tackles the “migrant headache” that one student of English suffers, and how various aspects of other languages continue to permeate and shape English as it evolves, resulting in even more disparate dialects and word variations (thank you, globalization). She even discusses the dissonance encountered between communicative competence and linguistic competence—the difference between “as long as you know what I mean” and that which is grammatically, linguistically correct. Unfortunately she spends little time on this, only pondering it in terms of her Chinese dry-cleaner who also takes care of clothing repair and alteration, who one day told Wajnryb of her black pants, “’He no good. He no work. Zipper kaput.’” What is missing is the increasingly large number of native English speakers who insist that communicative competence is all they need and that things like grammar, punctuation, and anything above a bare-minimum vocabulary is excessive. The more informal the text-types become (blogging, email, SMS messaging), the less space, time, and assumed need there is for such formalities. Whether this creates mere indolence or worse is a fascinating debate—so why does the linguist shy away from this subject?

The best explanation Wajnryb provides in You Know What I Mean?, although it comes in short bits and pieces, lies in why we choose the words we do. Whether through subtlety or directness, brevity or garrulity, the language we use is intentional, even if it has become habitual. This is, of course, not uncomplicated. It is an equation full of variables that include the speaker, audience/receiver(s), mode (face-to-face, formal letter, text message, bumper sticker, obituary, etc.), the topic and its context (including the culture), tone, as well as the receiver’s expectations of what the speaker says and how they say it (including the assumed grammatical rules or deviation from them, expected use or avoidance of clichés, etc.) and the intended purpose/message. No wonder Wajnryb didn’t attempt to spell it out—it’s nearly impossible to do logically. Even a master of the language can’t always explain the mystery behind words.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009

IN DEFENSE OF FOOD: An Eater’s Manifesto

Michael Pollan
Penguin ($15)

by Alexander Deley

Michael Pollan’s most recent book, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto is largely a polemic directed against what Pollan calls “nutritionism.” Pollan convincingly argues that much of what we eat is not indeed food at all; rather it is imitation food-like substances that have been altered by the processed food industries. These substances are then enriched with vitamins and sold as somehow healthier than “real” food. Pollan argues in accessible language that this paradigm shift in what he calls the Western diet is damaging to our health, and that we need to reassess our relationship with food as a whole.

Pollan charts shifting and often contradictory trends in nutritional science, which is often funded by the processed food industry as a means of bringing new products to market. Indeed, the shifts in what was considered nutritious— specifically the substitution in our diet of more traditional meats and fats with complex carbohydrates in the form of processed corn and soy products, Pollan argues— has been one of the fundamental causes of worsening of chronic diseases in the United States over the past 50 years. Statistically, Pollan points to the huge number of new products that are brought to market every year, the majority of which are merely recalibrations of the same basic processed ingredients. By altering these products such that they can make health claims, we have entered an era in which specious or highly suspect evidence is being used to market “health foods” that are not actually good for us.

Indeed, the trans-fats that once were pushed upon American consumers as a healthier alternative to more traditional fats have been shown to have severe negative health consequences. Omega-3 fats have now been identified as the new healthy fat, and the industry has been working to include them within normally unhealthy products. Indeed, we have stopped listening to the traditional arbiter of what is healthy for us to eat (“mom” to Pollan), and have begun to rely upon science, much of which has been manipulated by the processed food industry to misrepresent the health benefits of their products. Pollan argues that this process has been exploitative of both consumers and farmers, who have altered their eating, in the case of the former, and production, in the case of the latter, in response to these heavily marketed pseudo-scientific claims.

This process of food engineering, Pollan notes, poses other problems as well. While it makes logical sense to introduce vitamins and nutrients to unhealthy foods to make them healthier, our bodies are not evolutionarily suited to dealing with these floods of nutrients in this way. Smells and tastes act as triggers for our body to manufacture enzymes and the like that allow us to break down incoming proteins, carbohydrates, sugars, etc. In artificially altering and flavoring processed foods, our bodies may respond falsely to the nutrients we are taking in and deal with them improperly or simply store them. We are biologically ill-equipped to keep up with the changes within the industrialized food industry.

Corn and soy dominate processed foods (and as a result, U.S. agriculture) because they are among the “most efficient natural transformers of sunlight and chemical fertilizer into carbohydrate energy (in the case of corn) and fat and protein (in the case of soy)—if you want to extract the maximum amount of macronutrients from the American farm belt, corn and soy are the crops to plant.” This has dramatically increased the number of cheap calories that farms can generate, and is responsive to public outrage at escalating food prices throughout the 1970s. However, the nutritional value of the calories we are getting through these crops is significantly less than through a more traditional mixed diet of vegetables, meats, dairy products, etc. The United States now boasts some of the cheapest food on earth, and as Pollan notes both in the book and in a recent New York Times editorial, we now spend only 9-10% of our income on food, down from 17-18% percent 50 years ago; as a corollary, we now spend around 16% of our income on healthcare, where we previously spent only 5%. Even when the rising costs of health insurance are taken into account, there still appears to be a cost to cheap calories. Comparatively also are Western European countries such as France, which spend closer to 18% of their income on food and are overall much healthier, despite a perceived high-fat, high alcohol diet. A particularly chilling statistic Pollan draws attention to is that of soy consumption in America versus that in Asia (where soy is a traditional part of the diet): Americans are eating significantly more soy than most Asians, but instead of doing so in traditional healthy ways (i.e. tofu, etc), they are doing it through added ingredients in processed foods.

Pollan asserts that we need to change our eating habits dramatically, to return to a more traditional diet and away from the heavily processed foods that have been injected with nutrients. To this end, Pollan recommends a three-part rule of thumb: eat food, not too much, and mostly vegetables. The shift in what we eat has been, in Pollan’s words, “more seeds, less leaves,” and has resulted in calorie rich, nutrient poor diets. How we eat has also caused problems. Pollan notes that cheaply available processed and microwaveable foods have dramatically altered our relationship with what we eat, such that we no longer have a clear idea of food preparation and food production as a whole. We also take dramatically less time to enjoy our meals. While many European societies will take an hour or longer to sit down and fully enjoy a meal, Americans have a tendency to eat alone, at the office, or while watching television. We are also increasingly eating in our cars, leading Pollan to recommend that we stop thinking of food as simply fuel for our bodies, and focus on the wider sensory process of eating, rather than “getting your food from the same place your car does.” Overeating is in itself a problem. Many Americans have a hard time determining when they full and rely on external factors, such as the end of a television program or a plate being empty, to determine when to stop eating.

Pollan’s recommendations for how to alter our relationship towards food are largely common sense. The growing obesity epidemic in the United States provides more than sufficient evidence that Americans largely eat too many calories, even if they are “nutritious.” Pollan’s conclusions on “nutritionism,” while more controversial, have the ring of truth to them, and he does much to demonstrate the long history of conflicting recommendations by various nutritional studies as well as examples of the food industry’s tendency to exploit these findings. The failure of the Food and Drug administration to regulate processed food is in many ways shocking, however, Pollan makes it clear that the FDA’s hands are tied by the lobbying efforts of the processed food industry. What is surprising is the lack of public outrage directed at the FDA, as the status quo has prevented the FDA from effectively doing its job in protecting American consumers and encouraging better nutrition. While Pollan advocates for locally produced agriculture (and somewhat for organic agriculture), he is careful not to say that we should do away with the industrial food system altogether; rather he makes the case that we need be more mindful of what we eat, and to limit the amount of processed food we eat, specifically food that includes soy and corn derivatives.

Likely because it was one of the topics of his previous book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, Pollan doesn’t fully address the environmental impacts of the industrial food system; some discussion of the environmental benefit of eating locally, for example, would have strengthened Pollan’s overall argument. Also lacking is a sufficient analysis of the social equity component of Pollan’s recommended diet. While he briefly pays lip service to the problem of nutritious natural foods not being cheaply available to economically disadvantaged communities, he fails to indicate realistic mechanisms by which these communities can access better, healthier, unprocessed foods. This problem is among the most difficult to solve, for it is the working (and non-working) poor who are likely to remain attached to the industrial food system that Pollan criticizes, as they are the primary beneficiaries of reduced prices. They are also the most likely to be afflicted by the various diseases, from diabetes to heart problems, that Pollan associates with the cheap food calories supplied by agribusiness. While community gardens and urban agriculture programs exist within many municipalities, not enough of them are actively geared towards providing affordable fruits and vegetables to disadvantaged communities. Indeed, many farmer’s markets are more expensive than their grocery store equivalents, and are geared towards middle class consumers who can afford, and even like to make a point of, spending a little bit more on food. Pollan’s conclusion in both In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma that we need to pay more for healthier food makes sense, but it can create a problem for those that already struggle to afford to feed themselves under the current food system paradigm.

One solution to this may be in reconsidering how agricultural subsidies are distributed in this country. While the primary benefits of these subsidies are afforded almost exclusively to large-scale corporate producers, the general perception is that these subsidies are going to protect the American family farm. They should be geared more towards protecting small and medium-scale producers to insure that they can remain competitive with big farms. Many of the small hobby farms are able to find niche markets and be profitable, however it is the medium-sized farms, who must compete with large-scale agribusiness, that are most in need of improved remuneration. A shift in subsidy policy could go far to remedy this; Pollan himself discusses the tendency of large-scale producers to abuse medium-scale producers in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Additionally, the ability of the processed food industry to devalue the cost of raw goods, often at the expense of farmers, such as the lowering of milk prices (a process also tied to federal agricultural regulation and subsidy), needs to be addressed.

Another potential solution could be to provide economic incentives to agricultural producers to sell their goods locally. Introducing quotas for state institutions such as prisons and public schools that certain percentages of meals must be derived from locally grown agriculture is but one potential prescriptive policy mechanism to strengthen local small and medium agricultural producers. This would give these producers a way to compete with large-scale agribusiness, and could serve as a mechanism to promote more healthy eating choices within communities, especially the disadvantaged who are most often the recipients of school lunch programs and the like. In targeting school lunch programs, school children could also be given an education in healthier eating practices at an early age, which could go far in informing their eating choices later in life. Social equity within the food system remains a crucial consideration, and is important that the nutritional benefits of Pollan’s prescribed methodology for eating be accessible to all of the population.

With In Defense of Food, Pollan has produced a nuanced, funny, and intelligent sequel to his excellentThe Omnivore’s Dilemma, which was in itself monumental in sparking the current debate over food and food systems— but also one that serves as an excellent critique of the current industrial food system and as a good prescriptive device for deciding what to eat. Even if one can quibble with some of his conclusions and bemoan his oversights, Pollan’s work remains important in stressing that much of the relationship we have with food currently is detrimental to our health and destructive to our communities. In rethinking that relationship on many levels, we can make better food choices.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009


In Which a Forty-Eight-Year-Old Father
of Three Returns to Kindergarten,
Summer Camp, the Prom,
and Other Embarrassments

Robin Hemley
Little, Brown and Company ($23.99)

by Virginia Konchan

With a humility many adults admire in children but can’t quite muster in adulthood, author Robin Hemley returns to ten unsavory disappointments of his youth, from a year spent in Japan as an exchange student (truncated early due to homesickness) to a flubbed line as the Heavenly Messenger in a grade-school play. The entertaining premise of Do-Over!, fortunately, sustains itself throughout the entire book, and provides a bevy of cultural insights and non-didactic “teaching” moments along the way.

The joy Hemley exudes in the presence of his daughters, who appear throughout the book to offer “tips” on how to be more authentically kid-like, is a good example of Hemley’s unique sensibility: “No, don’t get the SpongeBob jammies . . . They’ll hate you and never speak to you! I know kids!” advises 15-year-old Olivia. In response, Hemley creates a hypothetical business card:

Olivia Hemley
Childhood Consultant
Avoid Embarrassment as you Relive Your Misspent Youth
“I know kids!”

Hemley likens the “regressive pull” of entering a childlike mindset to riding a bike: “Somewhere deep inside, I’ve memorized the patterns and behaviors of childhood, both good and bad, and when I put my feet back on the pedals, off I fly.” Do-Over! creates a tension between the spontaneous self-organization of children, with their sixth sense for fairness and the importance of punishments that fit the crime, with the violent chaos that is modern society. Though many of Hemley’s do-overs bring attention to his Jewishness, and how this fed into his feeling of isolation in certain contexts growing up, a reader can’t help but remember Jesus’ main criteria for entering Heaven: becoming as guileless as a child. The seriousness—and seamlessness—with which Hemley undergoes this transformation, albeit for the purposes of a book, is striking. The book’s most moving chapter is “Mama’s Boy: House Do-Over,” wherein he relives the painful and recent death of his mother and the orthodox funeral held in her honor, during which the presiding rabbi began ripping Hemley’s shirt: “I had forgotten about that part of the ceremony. Ripping shirts at funerals, breaking a glass at a wedding. Cutting off the foreskin at birth. There’s a certain amount of breakage involved in being a Jew.”

Some of Hemley’s do-overs are, naturally, more “successful” than others, but throughout the book, Hemley strives to maintain a balance between gleeful abandon and the genuine anxiety he feels upon returning to these sites of disappointment. Do-Over!’s most pleasurable reward for the reader is the opportunity to watch Hemley navigate between wide-eyed astonishment and self-consciousness—not of his gawky teenage-self, but of his position as an adult trying to be accepted as “one of the gang”: when Hemley is “found out,” whether among kindergartners or high-schoolers, hilarity erupts. Out on an evening walk with teens from his former boarding school, he experiences confusion regarding which rules apply to him: “Is it okay if I stop for a beer?” he asks the chaperone, who says “I don’t think I’m in the position to give that permission.” Hemley has his beer, only to be teased the following morning by the director of the school: “I heard you had a little knee crawl in Chattanooga” (knee-crawl being Southern-speak for “bender”).

Do-Over! is a must-read for the literary elite (see how fun not taking yourself so seriously can be?), parents (it’s an incisive treatise on child psychology), and world leaders everywhere. Intimidation, Immaturity, Sadism, Indifference and Tough Luck: these are the “values” Hemley remembers as having been the “writing on the wall” at his original summer camp experiences, and most likely in other institutional spheres as well; these non-values sound cannily familiar in today’s international political climate. Hemley is to be applauded for taking an unorthodox approach to reintroducing humanism to our rarefied literary sector—and for surviving to tell the tale.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009

THE MONSTROSITY OF CHRIST: Paradox or Dialectic?

Slavoj Žižek and John Milbank
edited by Creston Davis
MIT Press ($27.95)

by Jeremy Biles

Long marginalized by secular modernity, religion has “returned with a vengeance,” editor Creston Davis declares in his introduction to The Monstrosity of Christ—a book clearly intended as a major contribution to this “religious turn” in contemporary philosophy. While important thinkers such as John Caputo, Luce Irigaray, Richard Kearney, and Jacques Derrida (particularly in his later work) have each sponsored this return of the theological, much attention has recently been paid to a trinity of superstar philosophers—Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, and Slavoj Žižek —engaged in conversation around the possibilities that religious models present for politico-economic revolution.

In fact, Davis cites “the collapse of communism . . . and the subsequent global expansion of capitalism under the flag of the American Global Empire” as the key development accounting for the return of religion in philosophical discourse; theology may provide a means to “transcend” the “self-enclosed structure” of capitalism. Toward this end, the present volume pits Žižek , a militant pseudo-Marxist and Lacanian philosopher, against the Catholic “radical orthodoxy” theologian John Milbank; the two engage in a dialogue focused on developing a “materialist theology” that would “recover or reconnect transcendence with a militant materialism” in resistance to global capitalist nihilism.

This dialogue is really more of an “interaction of two monologues,” as Žižek puts it. The essays—two by Žižek , one by Milbank—are dense but frequently heady, though in Milbank’s case inclined toward ornately convoluted prose. The book is framed by the thinkers’ respective idiosyncratic readings of Hegel, and assumes a working understanding of psychoanalytic theory (especially its Lacanian formulations) as well as familiarity with the theology of Meister Eckhart (among others). Even intrepid philosophy and theology enthusiasts may therefore find this book as daunting as it is stimulating.

But Žižek is nothing if not stimulating. Perhaps today’s most rousing interpreter of Hegel, Žižek elaborates his conception of materialist theology (already adumbrated in his books The Puppet and the Dwarf and The Parallax View) through a version of Hegel meant to counter the “ridiculous image” of the German philosopher “as the absurd ‘Absolute Idealist’ who ‘pretended to know everything.’” Hegel’s formulation of the dialectical passage from abstract to concrete universality in the form of Christ is key to Žižek’s materialist theology. In a manner that contradicts the idea of an omnipotent, otherworldly God, Hegel provides the groundwork for a “Christian atheism” that recognizes that “what dies on the cross is not only the earthly-finite representative of God, but God himself, the very transcendent God of beyond.”

For Žižek as for Hegel, Christ’s incarnation—his fall into materiality—is the death of God: the becoming-flesh of the Word renounces the transcendence of God, even as the crucifixion announces God’s death. Thus, when the deific Christ, hanging from the cross, utters, “Father, why have you forsaken me,” this amounts to “the ultimate sin”; Christ wavers in his faith, denying God, thereby inscribing atheism into the very heart of Christianity.

This sin, according to Hegel, paradoxically reconciles God and human. But why does reconciliation have “to appear in a single individual, in the guise of an external, contingent, flesh-and-blood person”? It is with this question that Žižek turns to the “monstrosity” of Christ, so called by Hegel because of the sheer “inappropriateness” represented by God in fleshly form. Christ’s monstrosity consists in the fact that “the entire edifice of reality hinges on a contingent singularity through which alone it actualizes itself. . . . It is only in this monstrosity of Christ that human freedom is grounded.” The political import of this freedom is linked to the emergence of the Holy Spirit as a community of believers, a matter Žižek develops further in his final essay.

Before that, however, Milbank replies to Žižek’s opening 100-page salvo. Readers will likely find Milbank’s response either laudably erudite and intricately argued or tiresomely pedantic and egregiously tortuous. Milbank possesses a deep knowledge of historical theology, and displays formidable philosophical chops in formulating his concept of “paradox” in critical divergence from Žižek’s Hegelian dialectics. While applauding Žižek’s “theological witness,” he rejects Žižek’s Christian atheism on several key points, seeking to “endorse a belief in a transcendent deity” as part of a “radically Catholic humanist” vision deriving from and committed to incarnational paradox.

This paradox, as Milbank admits, is a “misty conceit,” and his elaboration of it verges (aptly?) on mystifying: he wants to develop “not an impossible contradiction that must be overcome (dialectics) but rather an outright impossible coincidence of opposites that can (somehow, but we know not how) be persisted with.” Pursuing this paradoxicality requires Milbank to indulge in dizzying, almost perverse, intellectual contortions. Whether or not one finds Milbank’s argument persuasive will depend partly on one’s tolerance for persisting with his rhetorical opacity and one’s willingness to accept the “impossible” more on faith than by force of argument.

That said, Milbank’s argument proceeds through readings of Eckhart, Kierkegaard, Chesterton, and William Desmond, aiming to demonstrate that Žižek’s atheism promotes a disenchanted materialism, while his own Catholic theology, mediated through beauty, “achieves a materialism in a joyful, positive sense.” On a political level, recognition of a genuinely paradoxical theology, in which God is both transcendent and immanent, allows for a non-fetishistic version of love that avoids complicity with the “illusions of desire” that drive free-market capitalism.

Ultimately, the ethical and political stakes of Milbank’s theology have to do with promoting a love that expresses itself in “never being satisfied with existing practices of charity, and remaining constantly open to further helping those to whom one is close, and endlessly extending one’s own circle of proximity.” But it is the “personal” stakes that seem to drive this essay: in countering Hegelian dialectics and its “tediously mysterious abolition of mystery,” he seeks to install a “hyperorthodox” ontology in which “we have the fascinatingly mysterious exposition of mystery in all its simplicity.”

Žižek will have none of this, and he enjoys the third and final word in this volume. The tripartite structure of the book recalls the Hegelian dialectic, in which thesis and antithesis clash (and converge) in a “negation of negation”—the Aufhebung. In Hegelian spirit, then, Žižek begins with a cordial but resounding negation of Milbank’s negations, in which he affirms the “authentic spirituality” of Milbank while also emphasizing that his own brand of materialism does not disenchant the universe but in fact opens us up to the bizarre wonder of empirical reality—as demonstrated, for example, in the “breathtakingly surprising and paradoxical” findings of quantum physics.

Having refuted Milbank’s refutations, Žižek sets out to demonstrate that “in my atheism, I am more Christian than Milbank.” For Žižek, this means recovering the genuinely “subversive core” of Christianity by repeating the “traumatic” gesture introduced by radical theologians in the 1960s. In fact, Žižek in his recent work has provided a philosophical framework for Altizer’s death-of-God theology, itself informed by Hegelian dialectics. Altizer’s vision, he affirms, “retains a properly apocalyptic shattering power” in its conveyance of divine kenosis, or emptying. Žižek argues that this emptying entails a revision of Christian love, or Agape, understood here as liberation from the vicious cycle of law and sin, realized in the community of the Holy Spirit.

In Žižek’s hands, Agape is a strange force, lending support to a disturbing ethical vision. Those possessing the fortitude to read to the book’s end (or the willingness to skip to it) will thus be treated to a characteristically startling closing flourish from Žižek. Subverting postmodern difference, he propounds an ethics and politics of distance, impelled by “love on account of which . . . I am ready to kill my neighbor.” He refers here to a pair of amoral young twins depicted in Agota Kristof’s novel The Notebook. Exemplifying an “authentic ethical naivety” that is nonetheless compatible with reflexivity, the twins attempt to meet the demands of their neighbors, “no matter now weird.” (They are called upon to piss on the face of one, for example.) But this “cold serving of others extends to killing them when asked,” as when the twins’ grandmother requests they poison her milk.

While this ethic may be compatible with Žižek’s materialist theology, it is not clear that it follows necessarily upon it. Perhaps this is why Žižek concludes not with philosophical argumentation, but with a quasi-Lutheran proclamation: “This is where I stand—how I would love to be: an ethical monster without empathy, doing what is to be done in a weird coincidence of blind spontaneity and reflexive distance, helping others while avoiding their disgusting proximity. With more people like this, the world would be a pleasant place in which sentimentality would be replaced by a cold and cruel passion.” A monstrous spirit moves through Žižek —a spirit proffering at once a remedy and a poison.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009


Janni Lee Simmer
Random House ($16.99)

by William Alexander

Janni Lee Simmer’s debut young adult novel gives us the story of Liza, a fifteen-year-old girl forced to navigate through the wreckage of a post-apocalyptic world—and through the broken remains of her basic assumptions about this world, and how it works.

Liza has grown up in the aftermath of a devastating, and magical, war. She knows to avoid glowing stones, as deadly and indiscriminate as the merely mechanical explosives in a minefield. She knows that mockingbirds still mimic car alarms because her elders told her so, though Liza has never heard a car alarm, or seen a moving car. She understands plants to be both aware and malevolent. The trees surrounding her village can devour people, and frequently try. Cornfields do not enjoy being harvested, and resist in any way they can. Most plants have thorns, now, and all of them are angry.

Liza’s world is artfully presented by Simner, who draws us far enough into her protagonist’s point of view that we accept Liza’s sense of what is familiar and ordinary—as when a butterfly bursts into flame, just like they usually do. We also understand and accept what Liza knows about magic, or thinks that she knows: that all magic is as deadly as unexploded ordinance, half-buried in the ground, and that it must be destroyed whenever possible. This is brutally demonstrated by Liza's father in the very first pages of the novel; when Liza's little sister is born with glass-clear hair, faerie-marked, the child doesn't live through her first hour. “Cast out the magic born among you.” Liza believes in this harsh necessity, and considers her father “ a sensible man,” so it throws her into an emotionally nuanced and believable crisis when she starts to exhibit uncanny abilities of her own.

This crisis is similar to the one faced by Chris, the teen protagonist of M.T. Anderson's Thirsty, who lives in a world where vampires exist—and are summarily lynched once discovered. Chris realizes that he is becoming a vampire himself, and that there is pretty much nothing he can do about it. Both the vampiric and magical transformations are excellent metaphors for adolescence in general, with all of its unstoppable changes and shame-soaked taboos, but these are richer stories than a merely allegorical reading would suggest. Liza's struggle is not simply to accept herself as someone new and different. She must confront her most basic assumptions about the rules that have, until now, fully governed her understanding of the world. This is an extremely difficult task for anyone to face, and the slow shifts in Liza's perspective are painfully and beautifully drawn.

Meanwhile, Liza also has to contend with a missing mother, the sobbing ghost of a dead sister, a friend who sometimes turns into a wolf, a forest of trees intent on devouring her, and myriad other difficulties. All of this makes for a grand adventure, but it is Liza's struggle with her own prejudices that forms the core of this moving novel.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009


Andrei Rubanov
translated by Andrew Bromfield
Old Street Publishing ($16.95)

by Matthew Thrasher

If the buzzword of Soviet thought was party-line materialism, then the crux of the post-Soviet ’90s was its insidious opposite: immaterialism. Things, the once-proud raison d’être of Soviet ideology, disappeared at an alarming rate. Russia, the former economic backbone of a world superpower, was now a fledgling nation, rife with internal unrest and kept on life-support only through a massive influx of international loans.

Instead of mending the pitfalls of a defunct planned economy, Yeltsin-brand capitalism exacerbated the situation, transforming the administrative hierarchies of the communist bureaucracy into an astoundingly unequal distribution of wealth that divided Russia's nouveau riche from its nouveau pauvre. (The leader of the Communist Youth Corps became the owner of an oil field; the party secretary in Siberia became the chairman of a bank, etc.). Mazes of informal exchange—née the Soviet black market—became the near-official modus operandi of the Russian Federation: in order to get a piece of the post-Soviet pie, you not only had to know the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker; you had to trust them, bribe them, and make them “business associates” as well.

No one understood this better than Andrei Rubanov. Do Time Get Time, Rubanov's debut novel/semi-autobiography, is a handbook-of-the-revolution for Russia's post-1991 entrepreneurs, and an exemplary piece of fiction from one of the more interesting periods in recent Russian history. Young and provincial, Andrei enters Moscow’s seamy world of underground banking, embezzlement, stolen passports, and forged documents. His naiveté lands him as the fall man in an illegal banking operation; when the tax-man comes, it is Rubanov, not the firm’s operator, who ends up behind bars.

While the crime novel may be a hackneyed trope of Russia's would-be Dostoevskys, Rubanov's approach is unique: no one in the novel is murdered, no object illegally touched. Blue-collar steel is a faux pas, white-collar stealing is trés chic; the corporal is passé, the ephemeral is cutting-edge; hands are outdated, handwriting is la mode. Andrei's wealth is fleeting, passing from rubles to dollars, from dollars to trusts, and from trusts to bankruptcy: a pricy cash counting machine, in his words, is more important than a flashy car. Evanescent cash networks and one-click transactions, rather than noir gangsters or ironclad proletarians, fuel Rubanov's dark vision of a squalid and corrupt Moscow.

Far from a ruthlessly edacious glutton for wealth, however, Rubanov is a darling defalcator, a burgeoning banker who, in trying to make a (dis)honest ruble, has to cut a few commonly-clipped corners —think Russian Bernie Madoff, but likeable. With that in mind, the publication of the novel is—to say the least—timely. Available in English for the first time since its 2006 Russian release, the novel confronts an audience whose sympathy for so-called economic robber barons has been sapped by Ponzi schemes and CEO bonuses. But this is hardly the end of the story. Rubanov spent three years behind bars without once being called to trial, and he is not afraid to flaunt it. At a time when human rights activism is one of the most dangerous jobs in Russia, a sordid portrayal of post-Soviet prisons is an audacious, strident gesture. Like everyone’s favorite Russian crime novel, Do Time Get Time elicits meditations on crime, particularly financial, and its consequent relation to punishment, unfair or not. The connection between the two is vexing, and Rubanov will not let that go.

But Rubanov has more on his mind than highbrow ponderings of the nature of things.

Like the Pelevins, Tolstayas, and Petrushevskayas of his generation, Rubanov is a strikingly complex amalgamation of two warring world-views. His insatiable avarice for wealth collides with a warm nostalgia for a childhood spent in the oneiric “Land of the Soviets.” Adrift somewhere in the interplanetary gap, Rubanov’s narrator meanders between the two celestial bodies, at times touting a semblance of Soviet-era heroism and self-discipline, at others castigating the ancién regime for its antediluvian restrictions on individual economic initiative. In many ways the novel is a literary spreadsheet on which Rubanov measures out the bulls and bears of a nation stuck between capitalism and communism, West and East.

Rubanov’s balancing act, unfortunately, sometimes falls flat, appearing too eager to dissolve the potentially rich ambiguity between the past and the present, and torpidly flattening his narrator with capitalist maxims such as “my clothes are more expensive than yours” or “I want $$$ now now now.” While the prison scenes dominate the girth of the book, they become familiar and tedious; meditations on the meaning of life are more intriguing, but seem forced and disjointed—like Raskolnikov on twitter. If a “New Russian Psyche” exists, Rubanov certainly displays it; if you are looking for a New Russian Prose, this is not the place.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009


José Manuel Prieto
translated by Esther Allen
Grove Press ($24)

by Gray Kochhar-Lindgren

José Manuel Prieto’s Rex opens with the epigraph “Esse is percipi. /To be is to be perceived,” Bishop Berkeley’s famous dictum related to the sound trees make or don’t make when they fall in the forest. By the time we get deeply into the novel and are headed for its conclusion, we encounter the phrase again: “And in the same flash of insight that accompanied my recovered dignity I knew what heraldic device would best suit our House. A frank and pithy vindication of imposture: Esse est percipi.” Sharp readers will notice the misspelling of the epigraph, which includes Latin and English, along with the emphasis provided by italics.

Berkeley’s insight is related to the main plot line of Rex, in which the narrator has decided to re-invent his boss as the lost Czar of the Russians in order to help him and his family escape from the presumed revenge of the Russian mob—revenge for having duped them out of millions of dollars that were exchanged for fake diamonds. Rex, then, is a philosophical fiction that comes to us in the genre of the thriller, a noir novel mixed with questions of language, fabrication, and perception.

Prieto’s novel is narrated by Psellus, a young man who has been hired by Vasily and Nelly, expatriate Russians, to tutor their son Petya, who is the addressee of the entire book. We also encounter Batyk, a nefarious scientist and collaborator in the scheme to sell synthesized diamonds; the muscle of the Russian mob; and the beautiful people of Marbella, Spain, where the family has moved to exhibit their wealth but which also acts a kind of prison for them, since they are frightened of being murdered by those they have tricked.

Formally, Rex is divided into numbered “Commentaries,” and the first page opens with a reflection on language: “I’ve been reading it for years, the one Book. . . . Language, an aqueous thing, foundationless, a river of words. Yet how rapidly I sail along it, the mass of that river flowing beneath me: no mere suspension of sediment washed along by chance but the immense briny depths of a living liquid.” The “one Book,” with its scriptural echo, is here primarily Proust’s, but as Psellus narrates he includes a prodigious variety of other writers in his commentary. These include, but are not limited to, Flaubert, Faust, Nabokov, Kafka, Bernhard, Confucius, Diogenes, De Quincey, Chuang Tzu, Homer, and Cervantes.

The story progresses through a slowly unfolding baroque style of citation. Psellus, speaking to Petya, describes his life with the family, his falling in love with Nelly, the disturbing histories of his employers, and the life of Marbella just outside the gates of the house. But since the entire tale occurs within quotation marks, the plot never becomes gripping in and of itself—it’s always a self-conscious narrative about how language concocts the world and its meanings. Speaking of the functions of the library, whether of a scriptural or a Borgesian style, Psellus remarks that he has “come up with something entirely different: a circumference whose radius is infinite, a spherical construction, a bibliosphere that has its Ptolemaic center in every reader and makes room between its thin walls (no thicker than a page of the Bible) for all books, including this one, and all commentaries upon them.”

In the author’s note, Prieto notes that Rex is a non-realist autobiography “whose primary human theme is the strategies used to overcome the terrible experience of totalitarianism. Like me, my characters are survivors of the totalitarian catastrophe. Therefore, Rex can be considered a post-totalitarian novel, whose characters are all profoundly disturbed.” That may be, but even beyond the autobiographical and historical themes at work, there is always the question of whether esse is, actually, percipi, and how this formulation relates to all the truths of the czars, the revolutionaries, the murders, the mobs, the accumulation of ill-gotten gains, and the history of literature.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009