Tag Archives: winter 2009

THE POSSIBLE LIFE OF CHRISTIAN BOLTANSKI

Christian Boltanski and Catherine Grenier
translated by Marc Lowenthal
Museum of Fine Arts Boston ($35)

by Mason Riddle

When Christian Boltanski describes his 2004 interview sessions with art historian Catherine Grenier as “psychoanalysis” or “confessions,” the French conceptual artist is spot-on. Translated into a 200-plus-page Q & A memoir, The Possible Life of Christian Boltanski reads as part sober rumination and part look-at-me exposé covering all manner of topics, including the artist’s childhood, family, career, marriage, friendships, successes, failures, and ongoing cogitation on death. The roughly chronological, oral autobiography is divided into seventeen chapters with titles as straightforward as “Beautiful Photographs” and as evasive as “Tell the Truth?” According to Grenier, the weekly interviews “followed a strict guiding principle: to narrate his life as well as his work, and to avoid modifying or censoring anything that was said.”

The first chapter, “Childhood,” starts before Boltanski was born, and revealingly sets the stage for his later artistic explorations of childhood, memory, identity, absence, and death. We learn that the artist was the youngest of three boys born to a Jewish physician father and a Catholic writer-intellectual mother. Boltanski deftly constructs, often with humor, a portrait of an idiosyncratic family whose members never went outside alone, rarely bathed, and all slept in the same bedroom, even though they lived a bourgeois life in a large apartment in Paris. For instance, he says his father “was so detached from the world—no desires, no friends, nothing . . . I never knew him to have a friend, I never saw him go into a café. It just didn’t happen.”1 During the war his mother feigned divorce and hid her husband under the floorboards—although the artist concedes his father must have come up for air occasionally, as he was conceived in 1944—and Boltanski comments frequently how the Shoah was like a shroud over his youth.

At age thirteen Boltanski decided to be an artist. He had made a little object from modeling clay that his brother Luc told him was beautiful, and that was that. His career of mixed-media installations, photographs, films, and performances had been launched by a lump of clay, even though he never went out alone until age eighteen, lived at home into his late twenties, and played with toy soldiers until he was thirty-five. He believes his “real work” began in 1969; by the mid-1980s Boltanski was an artist of international acclaim. Speaking of his career in the context of his family, Boltanski states, “I was really incredibly lucky to become an artist, because we lived in a general atmosphere of danger, a fear of life.” The Possible Life, in fact, riffs on the title of Boltanski’s first film, La vie impossible de Christian Boltanski, made in 1968.

In addition to getting a bead on his formative years, Boltanski provides a quirky, bird’s-eye view of the Parisian and New York art scenes; he also discusses his many projects and their raisons d’être, candidly speaking about his successes and failures with both gallery and museum exhibitions. We are informed that his work draws on experiences of communism, Nazism, and Christianity, as well as the terrors of war and evil, and that Boltanski sees himself firmly lodged in the twentieth century. “My forms change, but my preoccupations remain Existentialist, even if I was unaware of those ideas that the time. I’ve still read very little Camus . . . yet I belong to that current of thought.” He also labels himself an expressionist and is interested in investing his work with “emotion.” The book provides valuable insight about his perceived aesthetic relationship to such artists as Gilbert & George, Beuys, Warhol, Fellini, Giacometti, Duchamp, Félix González-Torres, and Pina Bausch.

It may provoke art aficionados to learn that Boltanski feels his truly creative period began when he exhibited at the 1972 Documenta and ended in 1994, even though he continued to create and exhibit art. He now considers himself an “artist of space” and claims the notion of space is central to his work. Boltanski also views himself at odds with much of the contemporary art world. In the chapter “Artistic Affinities” he comments,

One thing that really irritates me is that a large portion of art today doesn’t talk about life, but instead talks about art . . . today, art that’s concerned with reflecting on art just goes in circles; it’s like kicking yourself. Moreover, I loathe the whole “little play on words” thing. Turning quotations into conceptual jokes seems rather rude to the artists who get looked down on, and I don’t see the point to it.

The Possible Life is a meandering but fascinating memoir that at times doubles back on itself—but then, perhaps, that’s the beauty of an endless, uncensored interview. There are also numerous contradictions. For example, early on Boltanski reflects on his happy childhood saying, “My parents would take me to school and come to pick me up.” Just a few pages later he describes his childhood as “one with lots of freedom: for instance, I didn’t have to go to school. Deep down, I think they [parents] were delighted that I didn’t go.”

Marc Lowenthal’s translation reads well except for some questionable word choices, such as when Boltanski says, “for an artist to do something, he or she must be surrounded by a whole compost of people.” The only real flaw in the book is the relative dearth of images. Even those familiar with Boltanski’s oeuvre can become lost in the in-depth discussion of his various series of works; for the uninitiated, the lack of visual reference might be cause to stop reading. At the very least, a chronology and an index would have helped the reader trace certain works, themes, and exhibitions across the text.

These minor flaws aside, The Possible Life is an inspired book that prompts the reader to ponder one’s own childhood and mortality. Boltanski’s thoughts on these topics are often unexpectedly enlightening, but in the end, it is important to keep a bit of “distance”—a quality Boltanski believes is critical to his art. On the first page he states, “What I love about memories is the mix of clarity and confusion. But as everybody knows, early memories are almost always invented . . . I think very early memories always correspond to a feeling: they’re visions.” On the final page Boltanski admits, “I am an incredible liar. I think lying is a positive thing . . . . and since no one knows what the truth is, it isn’t very important.” So Christian, is it or isn’t it? The Possible Life may very well be impossible, but it is still a provocative read embedded in the real.

1 Ironically, in spite of Boltanski’s father’s solitary behavior, as a youth he had been friends with the Dadaists Theódore Frankel and André Breton. Later, his father and Breton had both studied medicine but lost track of each other during the war. When Boltanski began to paint as a teenager, his father wrote to Breton asking him to visit his son. Breton’s response to Boltanski’s paintings? “I advise you not to become a painter. It’s a very difficult trade, and a rotten milieu. You seem like a nice young man, you should do something else.”

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2009/2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009/2010

ROBERTO BOLAÑO: THE LAST INTERVIEW & Other Conversations


translated by Sybil Perez
Melville House Publishing ($14.95)

by Mark Terrill

Much has been written about the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño since his death from liver failure at age fifty in July 2003, mostly about his last two novels, The Savage Detectives and the posthumously published 2666. Some of this writing has been of a denigrating nature, devoted to debunking the “Bolañomania” that has been created in the wake of his death. Granted, fuel for the mythmakers was provided by the many autobiographical aspects of The Savage Detectives, in which Roberto Bolaño and Mario Santiago, who together started the Infrarealist movement in Mexico in the 1970s, appear as Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima, founders of the “Visceral Realist” movement. Their symbiotic relationship and itinerant search for the poetic grail conjured up images of a modern-day Rimbaud/Verlaine or Kerouac/Cassady correlation, paving the way for the spin doctors.

But despite the various myths, legends, rumors, and facts, one should bear in mind that it wasn’t Bolaño who created the hype emphasizing the romantic myth of the rebellious, vagabond, drug-taking poet but rather the publishers and champions of his otherwise difficult to market oeuvre. The fact that Bolaño, an autodidact and obsessive reader and lover of books, spent the last years of his life as a loving father living a quiet life in a small town on the Spanish coast is not the sort of thing that makes tantalizing book jacket copy. But for those readers of Bolaño who are looking for the roots and sources of his hugely amorphous and fantastically spun tales, laden with references to obscure writers and poets (real and fictional) that weave their way through the fractured history and cultural detritus of the twentieth century and beyond, it gradually becomes apparent that it was not Bolaño’s gregarious and wayward youth but rather his voracious reading and insatiable appetite for the written word that provided the material for his work.

Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview collects four interviews conducted between 1999 and 2003, the last just shortly before his death. Bolaño speaks frankly and candidly with his various interviewers, revealing his vastly erudite intelligence and knowledge as well as his skewed humor. When asked by Mónica Maristain (who interviewed Bolaño for the Mexican edition of Playboy in what was to be truly the last interview), “Have you ever shed one tear about the widespread criticism you’ve drawn from your enemies?” Bolaño’s answer was:

Lots and lots. Every time I read that someone has spoken badly of me I begin to cry, I drag myself across the floor, I scratch myself, I stop writing indefinitely, I lose my appetite, I smoke less, I engage in sport, I go for walks along the edge of the sea, which is by the way less than 30 meters from my house, and I ask the seagulls, whose ancestors ate the fish who ate Ulysses: Why me? Why? I’ve done you no harm.

Continuously throughout these interviews, Bolaño makes reference to countless writers and poets, from the ancient Greeks to Cervantes, from Melville to Whitman, from Edgar Allan Poe to Emily Dickinson, from Jacques Vaché to Kafka, from Philip K. Dick to Wittgenstein, all the way up to James Ellroy and beyond. He also references a whole host of Spanish and Latin American writers and poets, most of whose names would remain obscure to the uninitiated reader if not for an excellent editorial feature of this collection of interviews. On each page where Bolaño or his interviewer mentions a writer or poet, their names are printed in bold type in the main text, and a brief biographical summary and list of published works, both in original and translation, appear in the extra-wide margins. This makes The Last Interview an incredibly valuable sourcebook for those interested in tracking down all the various influences that are such an important part of Bolaño’s oeuvre.

Thus we learn the importance for Bolaño of such writers and poets as Julio Cortázar, Nicanor Parra, Rodrigo Rey Rosa, Jorge Luis Borges, Juan Carlos Onetti, and many others. In an interview with Héctor Soto and Matías Bravo for the Chilean magazine Capital, Bolaño talked about inspiration and the importance or reading versus that of actual experience:

HS/MB: Writers are always asked for their inspiration and today will not be an exception. Some are inspired more from life, while others more from literature.

RB: In what concerns me, both.

HS/MB: Notwithstanding that, you are an extremely literary writer—to put it one way.

RB: Well, if I had to choose one of two things, and God pray that I never have to choose, I would choose literature. If I were offered a great library or an Inter-Rail ticket to Vladivostok, I would keep the library, without the slightest doubt. Besides, with the library, my trip would be much longer.

HS/MB: Like Borges, you have lived through your reading.

RB: In one way or another, we’re all anchored to the book. A library is a metaphor for human beings or what’s best about human beings, the same way a concentration camp can be a metaphor for what is worst about them. A library is total generosity.

A continuous theme that runs through Bolaño’s work is that of the writer in repressive regimes, the dialectic between creativity and totalitarianism. Another recurring motif is revolution, which he talks about in his conversation with Héctor Soto and Matías Bravo:

HS/MB: Your books are distinct approximations of a particular world, a world of writers and rather marginal people who are in between being obsessives and losers. Your stories and novels also center around the same situations or the same characters.

RB: Also around the same arguments.

HS/MB: Exactly. Your characters are crusaders for revolutionizing art and changing the world, which is the project of your generation.

RB: Revolutionizing art and changing life were the objects of Rimbaud’s project. And reinventing love. At heart, to make life a work of art.

HS/MB: But you are a part of the world that you describe, and you look affectionately toward it.

RB: Perhaps I’ve been attempting to forgive myself.

HS/MB: You’re not an apologist for the project or rhapsodic about it, but you’re not a gravedigger, or a critic.

RB: I’m a survivor. I feel enormous affection toward this project, notwithstanding its excesses, immoderations, and deviations. The project is hopelessly romantic, essentially revolutionary, and it has seen the failure of many groups and generations of artists. Though, even now, our conception of art in the West is indebted to this vision.

Bolaño and his interviewers also discuss the endangered nature of this revolutionary project, as well as the high price of commitment to its ideals:

HS/MB: If there is a concept that has been devalued in this era, it is that of revolution.

RB: The truth for me—and I want to be very sincere—is that the idea of revolution had already been devalued by the time I was twenty years old. At that age, I was a Trotskyite and what I saw in the Soviet Union was a counterrevolution. I never felt I had the support of the movement of history. To the contrary, I felt quite crushed. I think that’s noticeable in the characters in The Savage Detectives.

HB/MS: At some point in your life, we imagined that you were animated by great revolutionary ardor.

RB: You imagined it correctly. I was against everything. Against New York and Moscow, against London and Havana, against Paris and Beijing. I even felt scared by the solitude entailed in radicalism.

In her lengthy and well-written introduction, Marcela Valdes writes about the gigantic project that eventually became 2666, discussing Bolaño’s meticulous way of working and his obsessive attention to detail. Evidently he worked for many, many years, gathering information, corresponding with other writers and journalists, gradually accumulating the mountains of information that he would eventually rework into the multifaceted 900-page narrative about the so-called “femicides” of hundreds of women in Juarez in northern Mexico in the 1990s. In Bolaño’s acceptance speech for the prestigious Rómulo Gallegos Prize in 1998, he said that in one way or another, everything he wrote was “a letter of love or goodbye” to the young people who gave their lives in the “dirty wars” of Latin America. As Valdes says in her introduction, “His ambitions for 2666 were greater: to write a postmortem for the dead of the past, the present, and the future.”

The work that went into the writing of this vast and convoluted postmortem resembled in its nature the work of a detective, which put Bolaño in the center of his element. When asked by Mónica Maristain what he would have liked to be had he not been a writer, Bolaño answered:

I should like to have been a homicide detective much better than being a writer. I am absolutely sure of that. A string of homicides. I’d have been someone who could come back to the scene of the crime alone, by night, and not be afraid of ghosts. Perhaps then I might really have become crazy. But that could easily be resolved with a bullet to the mouth.

Bolaño managed to steer clear of insanity and suicide (although he was apparently close to both at one time or another), but was not able to escape the clutches of his fatal liver disease. And although a liver transplant which might have saved his life was suggested by his doctor, Bolaño repeatedly postponed the operation in order to finish 2666, a further sign of his extreme commitment to his art.

The hype and “Bolañomania” notwithstanding, it is this very commitment to art and the revolutionary project that seems to hold so many dangers; whether one is on a reckless poetic quest through Mexico and Europe or sitting in a library surrounded by books, the creation of art or revolution is not without its inherent risks. As Marcia Valdes says in her introduction, “Being a writer in this world is as dangerous as being a detective, walking through a graveyard, looking at ghosts.”

The dust kicked up by Bolaño’s critics and champions has yet to settle, but his place in the literary canon is already secured. Like Julio Cortázar, Gilbert Sorrentino, José Saramago, W. G. Sebald, and other writers, Bolaño has radically challenged our notion of the novel and upended many literary conventions, opening up the way for the generations to follow. Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview provides many valuable insights into the mind of this truly revolutionary writer.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2009/2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009/2010

LEARNING FROM LANGUAGE: Symmetry, Asymmetry, and Literary Humanism

Walter H. Beale
University of Pittsburgh Press ($24.95)

by W. C. Bamberger

For centuries men have asked whether language has a direct relation (that is, a symmetrical relation) with reality, or whether it is entirely arbitrary and so of no real help in working our way toward real truths and to a better society. Walter H. Beale asks these questions once again and further shows us how these questions lead to even larger ones, such as that of whether there are any stable realities “out there” for us to know. Whether we believe there is an actual reality with which language engages or things constructed from language exist only as conventions, the implications lead beyond simple questions of naming into existential matters, and even to the realms of government, religion, and law.

Learning from Language is in part a survey of how these questions have been addressed, from Plato and Cicero to the rigidly logical thinkers of the medieval period, up to deconstructionism. Beale has a mastery of the entire history of his subject and offers connections that few of us might have made on our own. In discussing the somehow surprising fact that Augustine held with the asymmetry position, he points out that “the rather desolate landscape of a human society without much confidence in either reason or language is one that Augustine shares with some of the most notorious asymmetrists of the modern age, Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan.”

Beale rightfully asserts that modern linguistic thinkers generally hold with asymmetry, but he himself chooses to look at the valuable aspects of each position rather than simply hold to one or the other. In the final pages, Beale makes a convincing case for an understanding of language as displaying elements of both symmetry and asymmetry, existing in a state of constant dialectical adjustment: “Specific attributions of symmetry are often mistaken, but the intuition of symmetry is never wholly wrong. The corollary of course is that, while intuitions are never wholly mistaken, specific attributions are rather often wrong.”

Beale’s analyses of ideas—even ones as slippery as the above—are for the most part sharp and interesting. Unfortunately, the clarity of his logic and even his voice are largely lost in the confusion created by the book attempting to be a historical survey, an informational primer, a contribution to the philosophy of language, and more—a progression of jarring transitions and dissonant forms. In some instances ideas are set off like study blocks, with Beale’s discussion following it in a discrete section. Chapters end with “suggested reading” lists. There are charts and diagrams that do little to make the explications clearer and seem fated to become PowerPoint slides.

A professor of English (at the University of North Carolina), Beale asserts more than once that the ideas he looks at here will be valuable to upper-level English teachers, and these seem to be this book’s intended audience. But in the parts where Beale seems to forget that he is supposed to be writing a textbook, it is all too obvious that he clips his wings in order to stay at this arbitrary height.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2009/2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009/2010

EXODUS AND ZENITH

Julie Bertagna
Walker ($16.95 each)

by Kelly Everding

The recent climate summit in Copenhagen last December gathered the world’s leaders to address the impending calamity our planet faces, yet they couldn’t reach any real agreement on how to address the deleterious effects of our industrial progress. Global warming will not slow down and wait for bickering nations to catch up, and there is a real pressure to act now before we cannot reverse the damage that has already been done—or that is yet to happen. Julie Bertagna imagines a worst-case scenario in her young-adult books Exodus and Zenith, which follow the survivalist adventures of a ragtag group of people from all walks of life after most inhabited land has been swallowed up by the rising oceans. Her story is a wake-up call to perhaps the one growing group of activists that can maybe make a difference—the world’s young people.

Exodus follows the story of Mara in this not-too-distant possible future of Earth. The year is 2099; she, her family, and fellow villagers live on a tip of land called Wing in the Atlantic Ocean, the last bit of land (as far as they know) not engulfed by the ever-rising ocean water. The few breaks in the constant deluge of storms give them little time to repair damage done and meet collectively to discuss their dire situation, although few want to face the facts. Their memory of the past is vague, with little idea how they ended up this way—100 years can wipe out the advancements of the biggest civilizations, leaving tiny encampments of people living as farmers without any technology, except for what’s washed up on the shores of Wing. Mara escapes into one vestige of the pre-diluvian world, a cyberwizz: a globe-shaped computer fueled by solar power that connects her to the Weave, a vestige of the virtual world of the internet, “an electronic gravesite.” With her halo glasses and cyberwand, she can surf the dumping ground of knowledge left behind by the old society. While zooming around in the Weave, she meets another traveler, a fox who tells her he is from New Mungo in the New World, a city of impossibly high towers built upon an old drowned city in Eurosea. If Mara can trust the fox, and if the villagers of Wing can trust Mara, she may have found a way to escape their fate.

When Mara and the survivors of her village make it to New Mungo, they are confronted with the harsh realities brought on by a destroyed planet with dwindling resources. The “haves” live richly in the gleaming towers oblivious to the “have-nots” struggling to persevere in haphazard boat camps outside the gates of the city. As Mara ventures further into this alien world outside of her now-idyllic Wing, she sees the worst of humankind, but there are small pockets of hope. Groups of people have carved out livelihoods in the shadows of the towers: the nearly feral sea urchins, children who have lost their ability to speak but whose survival skills keep them one step ahead of the New Mungo sea police, and the Treenesters, who, as their name implies, live in the branches of ancient trees that somehow survive in the shadows of New Mungo. With the help of these groups she infiltrates New Mungo to save her kidnapped friends and escape the uncharitable and oblivious people of the city. Once again Mara leads more survivors to an uncertain future toward a possibility of salvation in the shape of new land.

As Mara makes sense of what her cyberwizz reveals and the information in forgotten piles of books in the library of the old city below New Mungo, she pieces together what happened to her world. Even though the urchins, Treenesters, and, in Zenith, the sea-hardy "gypseas" of the floating city (hundreds of boats tied together with makeshift bridges) and the treacherous cave-dwellers of Ilira have renounced most technology (since little of it works, and most of it is foreign to them) and knowledge of the past, Mara realizes that knowing what got them where they are is crucial to their survival. But it is a hard sell, because the earth has forsaken these people. The gypseas curse with the word, “urth!” as they forget and reject the world of their “Landcestors.” Fear, distrust, and greed for any sort of comfort win out over careful thought and consideration about the future. It’s every person for him or herself. But despite missteps and great tragedy, Mara prevails as she leads her people toward a new future that she discovered in a book, Greenland, whose mountains, she theorizes, would rise above the waters buoyed by the melting glaciers. And her desire to survive draws strength from the people who believe in her and the people she loves, especially her love for Fox, who turns out to be a boy her age who she must leave behind in New Mungo. “I don’t know if there’s any happiness left in the world, thinks Mara. But there’s love. Maybe it’s strong enough to bridge an ocean.”

Both Exodus and its sequel Zenith are page-turners, filled with relentless adventure, hard decisions, and great sorrow. Bertagna keeps her characters moving, never allowing them to rest, even to the bittersweet end of the story. It is easy to fall for these well-written inhabitants of a doomed planet, sympathize with setbacks and losses, and cheer the very few successes they have in the ever-increasing struggle to find a place to live, to find some acceptance. Ultimately, the communities of people who band together and help each other are the ones who have the richer experience and connection to a world that tried its best to shrug them off. And Mara’s determination to understand the past helps them to forge a future—an uncertain future with no guarantees, but a future nonetheless. This entertaining but fierce story will hopefully serve as a cautionary tale to young readers and encourage them to take seriously the ever-increasing predicament of global climate change.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2009/2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009/2010

THE BRIDGE OF THE GOLDEN HORN

Emine Sevgi Özdamar
translated by Martin Chalmers
Serpent’s Tail ($15.95)

by Jeff Bursey

At once tiresome and tiring, Emine Sevgi Özdamar’s The Bridge of the Golden Horn has occasional stirrings of life, humor, and interest that keep one hoping things will improve. The unnamed narrator is a young Turkish teenager whom we follow from age sixteen to twenty-five, beginning in the turbulent late 1960s. She starts off as a worker in West Germany, where she is introduced to socialism and sexual desire. As the novel continues, she desires sex more and more, has an abortion, and reads Jack London, Engels, Gorky, and Brecht, while addressing everyone from a newfound Marxist point of view.

It could be that this character is a stand-in for the state of Turkish affairs at this time in history, yet it’s hard to believe that is Özdamar’s goal. Rather, we watch as the unnamed narrator moves through a few stages of life, shy at first, making friends in her new women's hostel while working in a factory, open to poetic thoughts, interested in the theater as an actress, repeating words and ideas over and over, and giving motivations to objects and occurrences:

Angel had a soft voice and spoke very slowly. So we also began to speak more slowly. I saw my slowed-down arm and hand movements as if in a slow-motion film, my feet rose slowly, came down on the street again, the snow fell slowly, our hair floated slowly, the cigarette ends moved slowly in front of our feet, the dry grass between the disused tracks . . . moved slowly . . . . Even the clock in the hostel lounge ticked more slowly and made the evening long. The evening sat down slowly on the chairs against the walls.

In this set of projections, suitable for a sheltered teenager, and one of many found throughout the novel, we see that for the narrator, all life is imbued with her own feelings. This technique doesn’t create a character so much as assemble an egoist.

After men come on the scene, the narrator shows some development. As the world widens, her legs open more often, which makes for dull reading if it’s not part of something larger. What the narrator does, in the area of sex, is itch to lose her “diamond,” then say yes to any man who finds her attractive (and all men do). She does this at some risk, it would seem, to her own person, such as having her back burned by a cigarette when alone with four men.

With nothing in the narrator to scorn or admire, we may legitimately ask what we’re to take from this novel that is of literary interest. The plot is simple, but not rendered in a way that makes it memorable. Attempts at characterization fail, and what results are occasional blurry puppets bearing male or female names. Once the action returns to Turkey, the civil unrest there in the late 1960s and early 1970s consume the narrative. The last fifty or so pages present a one-sided perspective of certain aspects of Turkish history, as in this passage:

The trade unions organized more strikes, the workers occupied factories, bombs exploded at the generals’ doors. For days people in Istanbul ate sharks, and as they put the fish in their mouths, they heard the bombs exploding, left the fish on the plate, and ran to the window or into the street. As a result many fish ended up in the bin, at night I saw cats everywhere, which gathered around the rubbish bins and ate the sharks. The people were banned from the streets. The military banned all films and plays in which topics like theft and kidnapping occurred. They banned trade unions and meetings. If more than three people went into a house together, they were suspect. The police arrested and tortured. The cries were not heard, the walls behind which the torture took place were thick, but weeping mothers and fathers could be heard from many houses. The police searched houses for left-wing books, one of the policemen told the paper: “I’ve injured my back from carrying all the communist books.”

What are we to make of subjective history that doesn’t have the virtue of being set down with style, or with special insight? There’s little differentiation in tone from people eating sharks to cats eating sharks, so that neither is more significant than the other. The breathless sentences—a feature throughout, signaled by comma placement—are meant to lure us into the narrator’s state of mind, but there is no depth there. Of the unrest that filled Turkey at this time, Özdamar presents only the surface. We’re meant to accept as a given that this or that oppressive measure is brutal, but when these measures are presented without any distinctiveness or liveliness, what comes across is one long, uniform wave that never shatters against a headland or wipes out a shore.

It should be noted that in parts of the earlier sections, Özdamar does write well. If she had worked harder on the rest, and not stuffed The Bridge of the Golden Horn with sequences equivalent to "then we did this, then we did that" as well as filler, this novel would have been much richer.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2009/2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009/2010

LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, THE BIBLE!

Jonathan Goldstein
Riverhead ($15)

by Jesse Tangen-Mills

Call it the second coming: the Bible is back. From Slate editor David Plotz’s blogs on the topic, to the success of Marilynne Robinson’s religious novels, the books some believe to be written by God are being rewritten by everybody else. But literary fascination with the Bible is nothing new. Most nineteenth-century writers, religious or not, reverently read the King James Version, particularly the Book of Psalms; as recently as 2007, critic James Wood has labeled these verses among the greatest works of poetry in the English language. Regardless of its hot or not status, Jonathan Goldstein joins the holy hullabaloo by focusing on what the good book most lacks: humor.

More than a modernization, Goldstein’s stories satirize and estrange, and yet remain clearly recognizable as the stories we all know, or thought we did. In fact, to the religious zealot some of these tales may seem obstinate. Joseph is jealous of his son Jesus. Adam is an idiot. Moses is a grimacing pedant. David is a jokester. Samson wants to be an angel because they can “kick ass in the name of peace.” Though these tales josh, however, they also examine with utmost honesty. The many heart-drawn details—such as David recognizing the birth of Absalom as “one of the few occasions in which [he] believed his heart had not stabbed his back,” or Cain’s final realization that after his punishment he no longer desires anything, and in a case of poetic justice has become like Abel—convert plain sardonicism into something less didactic and more profound.

“King David,” the longest story in the collection, likewise begins with mockery but leads to real emotion. Goldstein portrays David as a kid who wants to be funny at any cost; when he takes down Goliath it comes as the result of a joke —“laugh-out-loud funny.” As absurd as this might sound, it is convincing. Hoping to please everyone, David resembles in many ways a comedian courting an audience. In part of the David story, David is married to Saul´s daughter, Michal, a woman he can’t make laugh, who finds him bothersome rather than charismatic, which in turn leads to his tumultuous affair with Bathsheba and Absalom’s tragic patriarchal revolt. David concludes: “God, because he has always loved and supported me, will take me up to Heaven where I will sit around for thousands and thousands of years. Then a million years. And will keep going. Then one day I will go before God and beg him to kill me . . . . And I will say, ‘With all due respect, I don’t think you get it. I’m sick of all this. I’m full. I’ve had enough.’”

Certainly we have left the cushy realm of parody. In fact, Goldstein’s humor and hyperbole often reveal new ways of understanding that can be jarring. For example, Noah’s divinity comes with an old-school work ethic as well as abusive behavior toward his sons, who help him in his daily toil as a contractor. Strikingly similar to the God that chooses him as his earthly servant, Noah calls his sons “good-for-nothing[s],” and feels as confident in his decisions as God might. His sons, however, are not so sure of his plan. When it begins to rain, as Noah and his sons wait on the ark with two of every kind, Ham hears the condemned human race “banging at the outside walls . . . Then there were more hands. Pounding. Punching. Scratching.” He asks his father if they can empty some of the animal cages to let people in, but Noah once again scolds him and calls him a dummy for disobeying God. The sons of Noah generally are left out of the flood story or converted into symbols of do-and-don’t piety, but in Goldstein’s hands they are as human as perhaps they were to the Bible’s first audience.

“Samson and Delilah,” a story still shedding its hippie interpretation of forbidden love, in Goldstein’s hands reads more like a Hulk comic book. An enamored Samson practices confessing his love by wrapping his arms around a tree trunk until it snaps. He tries to impress Delilah by performing feats of strength in the market. His father, “an intellectual who referred to himself as a ‘man of peace,’” disapproves of Samson’s belligerent muscle-flexing, which leaves Samson dreaming of killing Philistines despite his honest intentions to be a pacifist. In the end, Samson is duped by his wife, and God tells him, “You have spent your life making an ass of yourself . . . but you have done so in a most interesting way.” Despite Delilah’s hatred of him, Samson’s last wish is to feel her touch again.

Over the past few years, Goldstein has been reading his biblical fragments on NPR´s This American Life, as well as on his own CBC radio show WireTap, which generated the buzz that sent this collection to print. If you have already heard Goldstein on the radio, you will have trouble not hearing his pregnant pauses and omnisciently playful tone when reading this book.

Just as the text it is based on, Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bible! takes place in a small world where everyone is either related or neighbors, so much that they are bound to each other. The greatest difference between the original and Goldstein’s zany interpretations are the laughs, as David categorizes them: “laughter at your own expense, laughter at the expense of others, laughter at the human predicament, and laugher at small animals falling off tables.” Life in the Bible, often hardscrabble or tragically cut short, hardly provokes a smile, let alone a laugh. That’s exactly why many of these humorous protagonists come to sobering moments of anagnorisis, as when Joseph thinks just before the birth of Jesus, “For the first time in a long time, it felt like things were going to be okay.” The book’s real punch line seems to be that the Bible can still pack a punch, even for the weak of faith.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2009/2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009/2010

Two by Horacio Castellanos Moya

 DANCE WITH SNAKES

Horacio Castellanos Moya
translated by Lee Paula Springer
Biblioasis ($15.95)

 THE SHE-DEVIL IN THE MIRROR

Horacio Castellanos Moya
translated by Katherine Silver
New Directions ($14.95)

by Scott Bryan Wilson

Senselessness, Horacio Castellanos Moya’s first book translated into English, appeared last year to seemingly universal and effusive acclaim. Now two more of this acclaimed Salvadoran writer’s works have appeared on our shores. Both are quite different from Senselessness, which was a bleak, Bernhard-influenced tale of a man hired by the Catholic Church to proofread a 1,100-page document containing the testimonies of villagers who survived government-sanctioned torture and slaughter.

Originally published in Spanish in 2000—four years before SenselessnessThe She-Devil in the Mirror is a less refined warm-up for that novel. Like Senselessness, it’s told in monologue, only the narrator here is an upper-class woman named Laura Rivera whose friend, Olga Maria, has been murdered. Laura narrates in almost real time, bouncing from opinion to conjecture to remembrance in the space of a few sentences:

Life is a catastrophe. How could this have happened to her? You went to her last birthday party, remember? She was so happy to be turning thirty—she said the best part of life was just beginning, always so optimistic, so vivacious. Those sons of bitches, those cowards, they should all be killed. Doesn’t her hair look great?

As Laura begins to investigate the murder in her chatty way, she learns that she is a suspect and begins to weave together the strands of a major conspiracy involving police corruption, prison escapes, and illicit affairs—only to find herself succumbing to paranoia as “Robocop,” as she calls the main suspect, comes after her.

Though it’s a full-fledged mystery story, the mystery itself is less central than her narration. Whether giving her political opinions:

He’s so different from that idiot we have for president now, that stupid fat old man, his own mother doesn’t even like him, I voted for him just so the communists wouldn’t win. Imagine what a terrible situation, my dear: we had to choose between that moron and the communists.

her thoughts on the sexual prowess of her ex-husband Alberto:

I like being on top, but not all the time. I’m telling you, I was always the one who had to be in charge: he just lay there in bed, with his undershirt and shorts on, like a plank of wood. Of course: he claimed that he’d catch cold if he took off his underpants and T-shirt. What a calamity.

her opinions on fashion:

Jesus Christ: look how those people are dressed. God save me. And that frightful-looking creature, where did she come from? Look at that one with the miniskirt: she looks like she’s a cellulite saleswoman. People no longer have any sense of the ridiculous, my dear; vulgar is as vulgar does.

or complaining about a friend (though it sounds like she could be describing herself):

What bothers me most about her is that she never stops talking; I swear I’ve never known someone who talks as much as Kati. She thinks everyone else needs to listen to all her nonsense. She just won’t stop: talk talk talk.

Laura’s nonstop, insistent voice becomes the novel’s driving force, revealing a contradictory and unreliable woman who is hard to label: she reviles most aspects of religion, yet people who are anti-torture are “human rights communists.” She refers to everyone as “my dear” in a way that is both charming and insulting. Through it all, Laura’s really talking about—even though she most likely does not know it—the corrupting nature of power and money, the downward spiral of society, and all the layers of pettiness that often define who we are.

At one point in She-Devil, Laura mentions her friend “Rita Mena, the reporter . . . she’s a compulsive liar, ever since she covered that story about the snakes; do you remember that huge scandal, about that maniac in a yellow Chevrolet full of snakes who went around terrorizing the population a few years ago?” She’s actually recalling the plot of Dance with Snakes, a novel that is, in the very best spirit of the phrase, batshit insane. In it, we find an unemployed sociologist who is unhappy; when a homeless man living in a yellow Chevrolet begins parking in front of his apartment building, he sees a chance to change his life. He switches identities with the man and begins living in the car, only to find that the man keeps four snakes as pets—snakes that talk to him and do his bidding. He then goes on a spree of murder and destruction, commanding the snakes to kill anyone in their way.

Dance with Snakes is essentially a thriller, and Moya uses the conventions of the genre to create a terrific amount of suspense and terror. But once we get to what is easily one of the most bizarre and discomforting sex scenes in all of literature, it becomes clear that—as with his later She-Devil in the Mirror—Moya is only constructing a traditional thriller on the surface. As opposed to She-Devil, however, the narration here is very straightforward; we have no reason to doubt the veracity of anyone’s claims despite the fantastic nature of many of them, as when the sociologist describes his interactions with his adopted snakes, which he calls “the ladies”:

The din outside was tremendous. The ladies were in a kind of orgy, biting everything in sight. I had closed the door and window to block out the screaming, but I could still feel the terror of the fleeing crowds beating in my eardrums. In just a few seconds the street had been destroyed. There were dozens of bodies lying twisted on the ground between the vendors’ stalls, as though there’d been a machine gun attack or an earthquake. I thought we shouldn’t call too much attention to ourselves. I opened the car door and yelled for them to come back. They came in excited and out of breath. I started the car while they gossiped like maidens in a tearoom, which was unlike them.

Dance with Snakes is the more “pulse-pounding” of the two novels, for sure, but both offer up incredible characterizations and Moya’s takes on the political situation in Latin America, with plenty of barbs directed at religion and the police. Hopefully we will see more of his fiction translated in the coming years.

Click here to purchase The She-Devil in the Mirror at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.
Click here to purchase Dance with Snakes at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2009/2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009/2010

OLD GIRLFRIENDS

David Updike
St. Martin’s Press ($24.99)

by Daniel Picker

David Updike’s aptly titled Old Girlfriends fans the embers of old flames. The second story, “In the Age of Convertibles,” brightly paints the milieu of 1960s youthful romance—“the beautiful, inaccessible girls we would see on the beach . . . the pantheon of goddesses of our high school, tanned and bikinied”—before the protagonist focuses on one less ethereal, a girl with “a beautiful constellation of freckles that spread across her upper chest, just above the top of her floral bathing suit, and the pale, intoxicating edge of untanness.” Updike’s painterly gift with description carries through the collection, making the reader wish there were more stories to savor.

Old Girlfriends is Updike’s first collection since Out on the Marsh two decades ago. The stories are set in the Northeast, in New York City, and in England, Africa, and the Caribbean. They cross both geographical lines and lifelines, moving from adolescence to old age while touching on the lives of young sons, graduate students, a middle-aged couple, and a widowed grandmother, among others. Updike effectively moves across various times of his characters’ lives while exploring the inner life of his male protagonists, who both mature and age.

To the author’s credit, judgment is reserved even as the characters sometimes make questionable decisions. In “Geranium,” the narrator observes the compromises of an older couple who coast through society’s stop signs; the title brings to mind Matisse’s still life while the story captures a calming French ethos. “Still Shining Brightly in the Sun,” in which a grandmother struggles for independence while proving an essential landmark for her university student grandson, also presents rough roads. But it is difficult to state when Updike’s driving is best, or what time of life he travels most brilliantly, for the stories all shine.

Both “Love Songs from America” and “A Word with the Boy” are set on foreign soil, and both stories powerfully embark on the path of the father-son relationship—the latter so strongly that it reads like autobiography. While all the stories are rife with brilliant description and laced with shades of subtle irony, the title story (also the longest story) drops off an old girlfriend before driving through a blizzard in a Volkswagen Beetle to return home with a new girlfriend. This Bildungsroman exemplifies Updike’s generosity as an author, and his protagonist’s gradual journey to commitment.

The final story, “Adjunct,” begins uncharacteristically with more streamlined narration; pages fly by, but as events and details accumulate, the story deepens. The single professor is left with the departure of his crush: “His face was still flushed and the ends of his fingers tingled where they had touched her hair. Beside him, the seat where she had been sitting was still warm. He pressed it with his hand.” With its window to a night’s lost chance, and to life’s and love’s near misses, it is a fine end to the journey of Old Girlfriends.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2009/2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009/2010

HOUND

Vincent McCaffrey
Small Beer Press ($24)

by Kristin Thiel

Although longtime Boston bookseller Vincent McCaffrey’s first novel is debuting in the fall, it’s much more of a winter book—and for more reason than that it’s set in and around the crisp Beacon Hill neighborhood from late fall through Christmas. A young Jimmy Stewart could play protagonist Henry Sullivan, also an online bookseller, as he shuffles through beers with best friend Albert and barkeep Tim, awkward encounters with his recently deceased landlady’s daughter, calls for appraisals of dust-gathering books, and lots of death. What begins as just a strange period of time when several acquaintances die soon solidifies into two book-related mysteries.

Albert, who runs a trash removal business, includes Henry in one of his more unique finds, a sealed-off attic apartment whose interior indicates it has been untouched for a hundred years. Henry falls in love with the room’s pristine collection of early twentieth-century bestsellers and with the letters inhabitant Helen Mawson had kept. His fantasies about Helen’s life easily accompany his cataloging of the find, and supposition becomes truth, adding sturdy texture to the rest of the novel and skillfully shedding light on some long-forgotten literary history.

Henry’s week is already busy, but even the two-day notice his new landlady has given him becomes a brief aside when he receives a call from a former lover. Meeting with Morgan Johnson again, Henry’s life progresses from appraising her personal library to investigating a murder and dealing with multiple branches of her family, friend, and professional trees. McCaffrey, however, never crosses into Murder, She Wrote- or Miss Marple-type categories, in that Henry doesn’t become an earnest amateur sleuth, nor does he add “detective” to his business cards in hopes of Hound becoming the first in a series.

One of the strengths of this book is McCaffrey’s droll description throughout. He writes about Henry’s phone:

It was a fifty-year-old black rotary which still had better sound than any new one he had tried . . . . One thing he did not like was that strangers could call him . . . and enter his small universe without permission . . . . But then, he had often admitted to himself that he liked the unexpected quality of lifting a receiver and not knowing what he was going to get . . . . Then again, he did not like to be suddenly presented with problems he could not take the proper time to consider.

And about one of Morgan’s well-known friends:

In warmer weather, he famously wore a navy blue blazer jacket with no shirt and shorts and sneakers with no socks . . . he disdained underwear. Though his body seemed to grow a sufficient mat of red-black hair to keep him warm in cool weather, he did alter his wardrobe in winter to a Harris tweed . . . but still avoided shirts. He was known to strip naked at parties and swim in whatever pool of water was near at hand. Though he was a professed vegetarian, he had established a reputation for biting photographers, reporters, and presumed girlfriends.

As quick as McCaffrey’s wit is, so is his un-saccharine sentimentality. In response to a client’s demand that he tell her about the most valuable thing he ever found in a book, Henry answers, “A poem.” His father, a gruff man of action and not of contemplation, once surprised Henry by reciting a poem “as if in answer to some hidden question” before turning back without explanation “to his chore in the kitchen.” A black-and-white photograph of “long-dead film stars captured in their candy-colored prime beneath glass made Henry think of the butterflies” at the natural history museum. And about books in general, Henry is a re-reader, and for that reason, “there had never been anything more than fitful curiosity at a library. There was no sense in getting involved with books there.”

In the end, that careful attention is what makes Hound evoke such a Jimmy Stewart–movie atmosphere. It wraps up completely like a, yes, package—but an honest one, skillfully wrapped and artfully offered.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2009/2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009/2010

SPOON

Robert Greer
Fulcrum Publishing ($24.95)

by Jaspar Lepak

Set near Hardin, Montana, in 1991, Spoon is a modern-day Western, complete with good guys, bad guys, and inclement weather. This time, the battle of good and evil takes place at Willow Creek Ranch, and the good guys are the Darley family, who have owned and farmed the land for generations. Threatening their way of life is Acota, a money-hungry energy company greedy for the coal that lies underneath the ranch’s land. The Darleys are strong fighters, but they wouldn’t stand a chance against Acota without the timely arrival of Arcus Witherspoon (nicknamed Spoon), a part-black, part-Indian, clairvoyant drifter who can do just about anything.

When T. J. Darley picks up the hitchhiking Spoon, he gets the sense right away that Spoon is something special. The Darleys can use the extra help at the ranch, but when T. J. brings Spoon back to Willow Creek, his do-it-yourself father needs convincing. With the help of an outrageous bet and some prodding from T. J.’s mother—a spitfire with a heart as sweet as her homemade pies—Spoon is hired on, and from that moment, the reader knows there isn’t a better man for the Darleys to have at their side.

Spoon comes to Hardin County seeking his roots, but T. J. Darley is also on a quest. Freshly graduated from high school, T. J. has put his college scholarship on hold because while he knows better than most people where he comes from, he doesn’t know who he is well enough to decide his next step in life. Spoon’s opposite problem—knowing who he is but not where he comes from—acts as a guide to help bring T. J. to his answer: “I found myself wondering what it was that drove a man like Spoon, and then wondering even more what it was that drove me.”

On Acota’s side lies money and power, while the Darleys have only their love for the land, a gumshoe lawyer, and Spoon. It’s a close battle all the way to the finish, including foul play so audacious that threats, manipulation, and violence nearly leave the Darleys helpless to protect what is rightfully theirs. Ultimately though, Spoon comes into their lives not to save the ranch, but to help T. J. realize who he is and what is most important to him. If only everyone could have an Arcus Witherspoon enter so heroically at the right time. In Spoon, Robert Greer has created a character sure to win a place in readers’ hearts.

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

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2009/2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009/2010

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