January 2011 Archives

The Bread Givers


If you are American, and probably even if you are not, you have heard this story before: determined immigrant leaves the Old World behind to seek their fortune in the New; working their way out of a life of crushing poverty, they encounter the prejudices of those better-established than they are, and struggle to find a balance between honoring the traditions of their family while at the same time becoming acculturated to their new, adopted country. Anzia Yezierska's The Bread Givers presents this archetypal plot-line with little to no variation: the specifics of the Smolinsky family's Polish, Orthodox Jewish background and their life on Hester street in New York City's Lower East Side tenements, let alone the characterization of individual family members, often seem secondary to the overwhelming familiarity of the plot. I found this to be particularly true due to Yezierska's simplistic, episodic style of narration, which skips from event to event, sometimes encapsulating whole years in two or three pages, and allowing most characters to remain mere sketches rather than rounded individuals.

Given these initial reactions, though, there are a few things that distinguish The Bread Givers from other versions of the "immigrant experience novel." Surprisingly unusual, especially given its 1925 publication date, is the simple fact that Yezierska's narrator protagonist, Sara Smolinsky, is a woman. Reading of Sara's clashes with her Orthodox rabbi father, I was reminded of such modern immigration tales as Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior and Edwidge Danticat's Breath, Eyes, Memory—in both of which, as in The Bread Givers, the female protagonist's primary point of conflict is with the traditions and assumptions of her family or culture of origin, rather than with the dominant American culture. Sara, for example, manages to win over her initially aloof professors and college classmates, but making peace with her own father is much more challenging. This is, of course, also true of many immigrant tales with male protagonists (Chaim Potok's The Chosen leaps to mind), but I wonder if it's a more common theme in those centering around women. Even in The Chosen, Danny has only to fight against his father's prescriptiveness, which stems from a cultural assumption that he is too precious, too valuable to make his own decisions. Sara Smolinsky, on the other hand, struggles against cultural assumptions that she is worth nothing, has no value of her own outside of serving men:

"God put people on earth to get married and have children yet. It says in the Torah, Breed and multiply. A woman's highest happiness is to be a man's wife, the mother of a man's children. You're not a person at all. What do you make from yourself? Why do you hold yourself better than the whole world?"

Indeed, this concept of "a person" is one of the more interesting linguistic specifics in The Bread Givers, and forms a thematic thread outlining Sara's attempts to clarify her own goals in life. She wants to be "a person" in her own eyes and the eyes of the world, and perceives her home of origin—a cramped tenement on Hester Street—to be below the "bottom starting point" on the road to this goal. In some contexts, "a person" seems to mean simple humanity, as in Reb Smolinksy's quote above. In this sense, Sara's comment about her family's living quarters is strictly true: they are living in de-humanizing conditions. But "a person" or "a person among people" can also mean more than this. When little Sara goes in search of herring to re-sell cheaply, she insists on paying for them: "I want to go into business like a person. I must buy what I got to sell." Likewise, upon leasing her first flat away from her family, she thinks of the closing door as "the bottom starting point of becoming a person." After her graduation from college, she muses "How grand it felt to lean back in my chair, a person among people, and order anything I wanted from the menu." Being a "person," then, relates to economic and lived independence—the ability to assert one's own selfhood. It also relates to self-respect; "a person among people" doesn't make money or secure lodgings any way she can, but does it in a manner that lets her respect herself. A real "person" is also respected by those around her, accepted and valued by others who also live up to the standard of person-hood. To Reb Smolinsky, this means allying his family with others further up the social ladder:

"The impudence of that long-haired beggar—wanting to push himself into my family! I'm a person among people. How would I look before the world if I introduced such a hunger-squeezed nobody for a son-in-law?"

For Sara, on the other hand, it means self-actualization, and finding a community that values the same things she does, that shares her estimation of her own value:

"Don't worry. I'll even get married some day. But to marry myself to a man that's a person, I must first make myself for a person.

Fully "being a person," I suppose, means at the most basic level that one matters, that one asserts one's own value, and that one has succeeded in finding a community that agrees with that assertion.

Another thought-provoking element of The Bread Givers was its depiction of Rabbi Smolinsky's self-justification for living off the labors of his wife and daughters. Despite my utter secularism, I must say that the value placed on textual study and reasoned, informed argument is something I find pretty inspirational about the tradition of Judaism. I may not restrict my own textual analysis to scripture (or even, I may as well admit, include scripture in the texts I study), but I do feel strongly the spiritual importance, in my own life, of keeping sacred some time to study, to think and reason, to engage with texts, to discuss and interpret. In order for that activity to remain sacred, however, I feel it must either be self-supported, or supported consensually by one's whole community (a congregational ministry model, in which the rabbi or minister is presumably giving something of value BACK to the community supporting him or her—and let me just acknowledge that in my limited experience of modern-day rabbis and ministers, many are radically underpaid for the value they offer their congregations). Reb Smolinsky's self-satisfied assumption that he deserves to live off the sweat of his wife and daughters, while only contributing to their spiritual well-being through berating them with self-serving aphorisms, is therefore undeniably horrifying to me, as it becomes to Sara herself.

And I wonder if the mixture of "traditional" American values with Smolinsky's Orthodox background, make for a particularly violent collision. After all, the United States is known for fetishizing individualism, particularly male individualism, and particularly male individualism that manifests itself in monetary earnings. Americans, collectively, are obsessed with the notion of the "self-made man." When Americans come into contact with a culture or an individual that values knowledge, education, or artistic expression over self-earned income, we are often at a loss. Reb Smolinsky's case is more complex than this: he obviously does value wealth, and uses it as a yardstick to measure the worth of his daughter's suitors and others, but one gets the sense that this kind of value exists, for him, on one level, whereas he himself exists on a more rarefied plane. Whether this is a genuine belief of his or a mere self-justification for his hypocrisy, it's severely problematic, especially since he is unwilling or unable to acknowledge that others may not share his own priorities. Sara, for example, has moments of admiration for her father's dedication to his Torah studies, but he is largely incapable of admiration for her own drive to educate herself, let alone of respecting her on her own terms.

So um, not sure how long I'm going to keep this up, but...


Hibbledy hobbledy
Sara Smolinsky, she
Worked her way up from the
Lower East Side;

Fighting her patriarch's
Hellfire and brimstone helped
Toughen her hide.


The Bread Givers was the Wolves selection for January; join us the last weekend of February for Rosalind Belben's Our Horses in Egypt!

And with the internet as my witness, y'all, that is my first and last New York City novel of 2011. As long as you don't count Paterson, New Jersey as NYC.

Palace of Desire


Warning: Contains spoilers for Naguib Mahfouz's Palace Walk and Palace of Desire.

It's always difficult to sum up one's reactions to the middle book in a trilogy; one's first impressions are long past, but one doesn't yet have the perspective to look back over the whole series and draw out common themes and larger narrative trends. With that limitation in mind, let me just say:

Holy sexual complexes, Batman!

Yes, my friends, those are my basic thoughts on Palace of Desire, the second installment of Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy. Because if there is a theme running through the pages of this novel, it's the bizarrely and consistently distorted sexual dynamics displayed by almost all its characters, most of them in some way instilled by their relationship to family patriarch Al-Sayyid Ahmad al-Jawad. Not since the middle portion of In Search of Lost Time, for example, have I read such over-the-top passages of obsessive unrequited love as Mahfouz gives us in the sections about the youngest al-Jawad sibling Kamal:

       How he wished he could see her in this role, that of a woman in love. He had never imagined it in his wildest dreams. What did the glow of passion and affection look like in her dark eyes, which cast him patronizing glances? Although fatal to his heart, it would be a vision to light up the mind with a firebrand of sacred truth justifying an eternal curse on any skeptic.
       "Your spirit flutters like a trapped bird wishing to fly free. The world is a crossroads of ruins. It would be pleasant to leave it. But even if you're certain their lips have met in a rose-red kiss, you can look forward to the pleasure of absolute freedom in the whirlpool of madness."

Well, that's good then. At least he has the whirlpool of madness to fall back on.

Such oddly purple prose brings to the fore Mahfouz's caginess as a narrator: how seriously are we supposed to take Kamal here? Is his seventeen-year-old crush being taken seriously as a madness-inducing "firebrand of sacred truth"? Or are we readers intended to laugh at him for his outsized, extremist idealism? Perhaps we're merely supposed to sigh and shake our heads at his overheatedness? Or, as Valerie suggested last month, is the stiff and overwrought quality in passages like these (and there are many of them) down to a sub-par translation job?

There were times when nearly all the characters in Palace of Desire were so entirely lacking in perspective, and so bratty and overwrought, that I had trouble taking any of them seriously as humans living in the world, much less adult humans. Kamal's seventeen years provide him with some excuse, but what of his brother Yasin, in his thirties and still getting so swept up in his sexual passions that he marries a woman with whom he knows he will soon be bored, but not until he has conducted a brief and passionate fling with her mother? Or the al-Jawad matriarch Amina, who, though she disconcerts the whole family by showing a modicum of backbone for the first time in living memory, stubbornly insists on imagining that a neighboring family is rejoicing in her son's death, and like a grumpy fourth-grader forbids any of her children from having any further association with them? And all this is not to mention Al-Sayyid Ahmad himself, whose pathetic late-life infatuation with a lute player is overcome only by his social snobbery. The extremism and perversity of the characters' sexual obsessions reminded me, as I mentioned, of In Search of Lost Time, but without Proust's humor and patient explication of mental processes I was often at a loss to interpret the author's own attitude toward his over-the-top characters.

Yet, at other times, it seems Mahfouz is doing something deliberate with all this epic drama. Kamal himself, toward the end of the novel, comes to a tentative realization that he has been conditioned by his father's authoritarianism to seek out oppressive relationships in the rest of his life (note that despite the quotation marks Kamal is not actually saying this aloud, but only thinking it to himself):

"Do you know what other consequences there were to loving you despite your tyranny? I loved another tyrant who was unfair to me for a long time, both to my face and behind my back. She oppressed me without ever loving me. In spite of all that, I worshipped her from the depths of my heart and still do. You're as responsible for my love and torment as anyone else. I wonder if there's any truth to this idea. I'm not satisfied with it or overly enthusiastic about it. [...] In any case, Father, you're the one who made it easy for me to accept oppression through your continual tyranny."

It's true that everyone in the al-Jawad household has been accustomed to the role of either a perpetual child, or a tyrant, or a tyrant-to-be. And it's understandable that this would have a warping effect on their ability to grow into rational, well-adjusted adults. Khadija, one of the al-Jawad daughters, suffers so from the lack of an authoritarian father figure in her married life, that she herself becomes a brat and a harpy, picking fights with her mother-in-law and screeching at her husband that he will never compare to her father. As for the eldest son Yasin, having only his father as a model means that he has never learned to walk a middle ground between total repression and complete bacchanalian self-indulgence. Amina, too, has learned no communication style other than extreme passive-aggression, and is unable to confront her neighbors or her philandering husband, or even her lingering grief over her son's death.

And indeed, Mahfouz's strange technique of presenting a character's silent thoughts in quotation marks as if the character were speaking aloud, followed by their actual speech, also in quotation marks, reinforces this unstable boundary between the inexpressible internal life and the external façade (a façade which, often as not, fools no one). The need for that barrier between the spoken and the silent worlds, and the lack of honest exchange among family members and others, would go some distance towards explaining the over-dramatic terms in which they narrate their own lives. (Not to mention their need for an external release valve, be it alcohol, whoring, or petty squabbling.)

So too, Mahfouz explores the brittleness, the fragility that results from Al-Sayyid Ahmad's authoritarianism. For the patriarch himself, the tremendous amount of effort needed to keep up both his public life of jovial debauchery and his private life of stern respectability, becomes too much to maintain as he gets older. For his son Kamal, who has taken his father's impossibly high religious and ethical standards to heart as Al-Sayyid Ahmad himself never did, it means a zealous religious faith that nonetheless crumbles at his first exposure to the world of science; a literalist conception of "truth" that leaves no margin for compromise or metaphor. And yet nothing in Kamal's mindset has really changed: he flees to science expecting it to provide him with the same kind of absolutist dictates that religion has failed to do; he is still hoping to find another tyrant he can agree both to love and respect.

I can think of no better way to sum up than with a double dactyl:


Flibberty gibbert the
Al-Jawad family's
Tyrannous father trains
Children and wives

Not to remark when his
Drunken compulsions wreck
all of their lives.


Palace of Desire was the second installment in the Cairo Trilogy Readalong; thanks to Richard for organizing!

Jiggery Pokery


I had intended to post on Naguib Mahfouz's Palace of Desire today, but it sometimes seems that we live in a brilliant, unpredictable universe. And one support for that impression is that David and I received in the mail from a friend of ours who is a big proponent of doggerel verse, a package containing Anthony Hecht's and John Hollander's Jiggery Pokery: a Compendium of Double Dactyls. Previously familiar with Hecht only as the author of the Matthew Arnold satire "Dover Bitch," I was pleasantly and hilariously surprised to make his acquaintance and that of Hollander in such verses as the following (by Hollander):


Benjamin Harrison,
Twenty-third President,
Was, and, as such,

Served between Clevelands, and
Save for this trivial
Didn't do much.

Or this one (by Hecht):


Mme. de Maintenon
Shouted, "Up yours!" when ap-
Proached for the rent,

And, in her anger, pro-
Ceeded to demonstrate,
Just what she meant.

Double dactyls have the following rules, as outlined by Hecht and Hollander (a dactyl, for those who don't know, is a three-syllable poetic foot with the first syllable stressed and the second two unstressed):

  • The poem is composed of two stanzas, each with three lines of two dactyls each followed by a fourth, four-syllable line that begins with a dactyl;
  • The first line must be a double dactyl of nonsense language;
  • The second line must be the name of the subject;
  • The final lines of the two stanzas must rhyme;
  • Somewhere in the second stanza there must be a line made up entirely of a single, double-dactylic word ("iconographically," for example).

Hecht and Hollander also argue that any six-syllable word, once used in a double dactyl, can never be used in a different one, although Wikipedia maintains that only hardcore double-dactyl purists still hold to this requirement. This seems like a lot of rules, but once you start reading these little gems your brain begins to incorporate them almost unconsciously; the double-dactyl line is extremely catchy.

And in fact, between the uproarious Introduction, the delightfully tongue-in-cheek footnotes, and the addictive poems themselves, Jiggery Pokery unexpectedly comandeered my entire afternoon. Of course, the side effect of reading sing-song dactylic verse for hours at a time is that the meter gets horribly stuck in one's head, and one starts noticing double dactyls all over the house and in one's normal speech. In the shower I found myself chanting "Birch bark and chammomile, / Deep Cleansing Wash," and both David and I keep bursting out with examples of promising six-syllable words apropos of nothing in particular. ("Sesquicentennial!" "Homogeneity!") Needless to say, the next stage was to begin composing our own examples; also needless to say, mine were all about books.


Fletteridge metteridge
Gabriel Betteridge
tells a romance with the
aid of Defoe;

The diamond's locational
somewhat assuaged by his
pipe and Bordeaux.

I imagine "discontinuity" has already been used, by someone somewhere in a double dactyl, but I don't specifically remember it from the book. Here's one on my recent reading:


Hop-a-lide, pop-a-lide,
Mike of the Mountainside
'way from his wife, to his
tower confined,

Erstwhile Bordelais
Aired his opinions, and
then changed his mind.

They are very addictive! And also surprisingly difficult. It's hard to find a good use for that single-word line when you have so few syllables to work with. Very fun, though. This last one is just about the dorkiest joke ever; the first time my friend Alan started talking about Austrian educational and agricultural innovator Rudolph Steiner (which Alan went through a phase of doing quite frequently), I mis-heard him with funny results.


Old Donji Kraljevec,
Kingdom of Hungary,
Offers a breakfast that's
truly advanced:

All of the produce grown
Waldorf school day care on
hand for the staff.

Une si longue lettre


It is fitting to follow a reading of Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman with Mariama Bâ's 1980 novella Une si longue lettre, because one thing that struck me about both works is the interrelation of feminism/female roles and the larger political scene in the country at large. In this regard the two works could also form a parallel with Naguib Mahfouz's Palace Walk: in all three pieces, whether they treat of the French Revolution or Senegal's independence from France, the struggle for greater freedom on a national scale is reflected and complicated by the oppression of women within the struggling culture. In Une si longue lettre, Bâ sketches a portrait of two female friends at the dawn of Senegalese independence, for whom the heady days of idealism and progress in the 1960s are disrupted forever when their husbands both decide to take second wives.

Whereas Vindication feels more like a snapshot, though—the product of a particular six-week period in its author's life—Une si longue lettre manages to encompass near thirty years in its brief span. The kind of youthful, idealistic exuberance that fills the pages of Wollstonecraft's treatise reaches us here filtered through the melancholy lens of time and the knowledge of compromise; Ramatoulaye and Aîssatou's youthful debates about equality for women and for all Senegalese are tempered by the events of their later lives. In this way, for example, Ramatoulaye has managed to have a career outside the home, but she has also been required to do everything that a stay-at-home housewife would have had to as well, in addition to raising her twelve children—which understandably leaves her exhausted and with little time or energy to spare. Likewise there are, twenty years after independence, a few women in the Senegalese parliament, but nothing like the equal representation or vast paradigm shift Ramatoulaye had once hoped for. Not only that, but when she brings up the issue with her friend and suitor the parliamentarian, he expresses the opinion that equal gender representation is hardly the most vital Senegalese dream that has failed to materialize:

Ce n'est pas simple de développer un pays. Plus on est responsable, plus on le sent; la misère vous serre le coeur et vous n'avez pas prise sur elle. Il s'agit de toutes les misères matérielles et morales. Un mieux-être nécessite routes, maisons décentes, puits, dispensaires, médicaments, semences. [...] Il faut de l'argent, une montagne d'argent, qu'il faut trouver chez les autres en acquérant leur confiance. Avec notre seule saison d'eau et notre unique plante de culture, le Sénégal n'irait pas bien loin, même si le courage l'anime.
It's not easy to develop a country. The more responsibility you have, the more you feel it; the misery closes your heart and you can't take it on your own shoulders. This is about all misery, material and moral. Better living requires roads, decent houses, wells, dispensaries, medicine, seed. [...] We need money, a mountain of money, that we must persuade out of others' pockets even while gaining their confidence. With our one rainy season and our single export crop Senegal won't go far, despite all our initiative.

Daouda Dieng, the speaker of these words, is written as an honest man, and one who genuinely cares about both his country and Ramatoulaye. He's not being glib with her; indeed, he himself has argued for the greater representation of women in the parliament. His points, therefore, are heartfelt, and one can sympathize with them: in a country working so hard just to establish its national identity, combating the worst kinds of poverty while simultaneously attempting to garner respect (and funding) on the international stage, is it realistic to prioritize changing the status of women, either in politics or in everyday life? On the other hand, these are exactly the arguments that have been used to squelch so many other feminist struggles worldwide; I'm reminded of the American suffragettes who participated in the abolition movement as part of a wide-reaching conception of civil rights for all, only to be told after the Civil War that the political landscape was too chaotic and Reconstruction too new for most of their male cohorts to aid in their own struggle for the vote. There is never an "ideal time" to work on gender or racial equality; however, for those in socially privileged positions, these problems often seem less pressing than those affecting them as well.

And indeed, even for progressive Senegalese women who desire to take their lives into their own hands, balancing tradition and progress is a difficult task. Even in their days of energetic youthful idealism, the two friends realize intellectually this difficulty, but the full emotional understanding doesn't come until they have experienced the desertion of their collaborators and the sustained difficulty of living their lives with one foot in the past and the other in the future. In this passage, adult Ramatoulaye remembers those early debates:

Fallait-il nous réjouir de la désertion des forges, ateliers, cordonneries? Fallait-il nous en réjouir sans ombrage? Ne commençions-nous pas à assister à la disparition d'une élite de travailleurs manuels traditionnels?
       Eternelles interrogations de nos éternels débats. Nous étions tous d'accord q'il fallait bien des craquements pour asseoir la modernité dans les traditions. Ecartelés entre le passé et le présent, nous déplorions les «suintements» qui ne manqueraient pas... Nous dénombrions les pertes possibles. Mais nous sentions que plus rien ne serait comme avant. Nous étions pleins de nostalgie, mas résolument progressistes.
Did we have to rejoice in the desertion of the forges, workshops, cobblers? Should our rejoicing have been so unshadowed? Were we not beginning to witness the disappearance of an elite class of traditional manual craftspeople?
       Eternal questions in our eternal debates. We were all in agreement that a good deal would need to be broken down in order to incorporate modernity in our traditions. Torn between the past and the present, we deplored the "sweats" that would be sure to come... We numbered the possible losses. But we felt that nothing would be as before. We were full of nostalgia, but resolutely progressive.

A little language note: I don't know how "suintements" is used in colloquial Senegalese French, but it's an interesting choice of word in this context given that it can mean "sweats" (suggesting the hard work involved in building the new Senegal) or "weeping" (connoting the heartbreak that will be involved), as well as "seeping" or "oozing," which both suggest the contamination of the future by the past and vice versa. Sweats and oozing also suggest an illness or fever, which makes sense as a metaphor for the crucible through which the country will have to pass. I think it's interesting how, in this construction, there is no clear equation of, for example, past equaling good and future equaling bad (or the other way around); both contaminate each other and each makes the other more complex. Ramatoulaye celebrates education, for example, as a force that brings disparate peers together, promotes tolerance and allows people greater flexibility in choosing their own destinies; at the same time, however, she points out that nobody with any book-learning wants to work as a manual craftsman anymore, which creates huge unemployment and a loss of traditional crafts, not to mention a lack of practical necessities like shoes and iron parts in the marketplace. The unemployment, in turn, increases poverty and crime, adding to the difficulties of establishing the new country.

I've written almost nothing about the central plot of the novella, the two friends' disparate reactions to their husbands' decisions to take second wives, but it too involves this same kind of nuance regarding past and present, tradition and progress. Aîssatou's husband, for example, is egged on to marry again by his mother, who is offended that Aîssatou is of such low birth. Even though the book is in many ways a celebration of female friendship, Bâ doesn't shy away from depicting the ways in which women participate in each others' oppression.

There was one point on which I would have liked more clarification: in Ramatoulaye's own marriage, her husband's "second marriage" functions more like a total abandonment of her and her children. I know the Qur'an instructs that men should consider marrying multiple women only if they are capable of "dealing justly" with all of them, including providing for them financially, which Ramatoulaye's husband certainly doesn't do. What I don't know is whether there was ever a time in Senegal when this Quranic injunction was enforced; in other words, are Ramatoulaye's husband's actions another example of cross-contamination between the future and the past, in which he uses a bastardized version of a traditional custom in order to justify his shoddy treatment of his first wife? Or has this particularly shoddy custom always existed in Senegal, and would he have been able to get away with it equally well fifty or a hundred years previously? I just don't know enough about Senegalese history to say, but it's an interesting question.


Une si longue lettre is my second January readalong with the fine folks over at A Year of Feminist Classics; thanks again to Amy for organizing this month's discussions.

All English translations here are mine, but this book is available in English (as So Long a Letter) in a translation by Modupé Bodé-Thomas.

On Friendship


It's fitting that the folks at Penguin chose the theme of friendship for their mini-collection of Montaigne essays (the sixth in their Great Ideas series), because at this point, after spending an academic year writing about the French essayist in a tight-knit group of collegiate buddies, and revisiting him with my blogging pals as part of my Essay Mondays project last year, I do indeed feel as if the man were an old friend of mine—warm and witty, occasionally exasperating but always a fascinating companion for a bit of conversation. Even if these particular selections aren't (in my opinion) the best of his oeuvre or the most representative of his unique intellectual contributions to the Western canon, I always enjoy watching his mind pursue its curious labyrinth, doubling back on itself exuberantly in the process of self-discovery.

As Montaigne's recent biographer Sarah Bakewell notes, he philosophizes more or less "by accident," as a by-product of writing about himself and his own experience. As such, his philosophy tends to be about as far from the abstract Platonic notion of timeless capital-T-Truth, as one could hope to get: highly idiosyncratic and often contradictory from one essay to the next—sometimes even within a single essay. He himself is totally frank about this, and about the very likely possibility that he will find himself to have been mistaken:

So contradictory judgments neither offend me nor irritate me: they merely wake me up and provide me with exercise. We avoid being corrected; we ought to come forward and accept it, especially when it comes from conversation not a lecture. [...] My thought so often contradicts and condemns itself that it is all one to me if someone else does so, seeing that I give to his refutation only such authority as I please.

Personally, this is what I love about Montaigne: the combination within him of warm opinions, passionate curiosity to discuss them with others and interrogate them himself, and complete acceptance of the human contradictions and imperfections that will unavoidably ensue. He believes it is important to mull over and draw conclusions from his own experience,

It is not enough to relate our experiences; we must weigh them and group them; we must also have digested them and distilled them so as to draw out the reasons and conclusions they comport

and he believes in the importance of this activity even though he fully expects that many of his conclusions along the way will be incomplete or downright wrong. Therefore, even when his personal and literary sources mean his arguments are completely illogical or in direct opposition to my own, I still find him inspirational. His complete openness to investigating his own mind, body, and experience means that he follows many odd paths; the point for me is not that they are "wrong" or "right," but that the process itself is intrinsically worthwhile, not to mention fascinating to watch.

The title essay of this collection, "On friendship," is an interesting example of the beauty and oddity of Montaigne's project. Friendship is a subject particularly relevant to Montaigne's life and the existence of the Essays themselves: he began writing them after the death of his very dear friend Étienne de la Boétie, and some critics have suggested that the essays were an attempt to fill the void left by the frank conversations the two friends shared. As such, "Of friendship" is doubly freighted, since it deals with the subject of the lost friend, in the medium adopted to replace him. Those who associate the word "friends" with the adjectives "just" and "only" will need to revise their assumptions: Montaigne is describing the passion of his life.

In the friendship which I am talking about, souls are mingled and confounded in so universal a blending that the efface the seam which joins them together so that it cannot be found. If you press me to say why I loved him, I feel that it cannot be expressed except by replying: 'Because it was him: because it was me.' [...] This friendship has had no ideal to follow other than itself; no comparison but with itself. There is no one particular consideration—nor two nor three nor four nor a thousand of them—but rather some inexplicable quintessence of them all mixed up together which, having captured my will, brought it to plunge into his and lose itself, and which, having captured his will, brought it to plunge and lose itself in mine with an equal hunger and emulation.

This kind of language sounds very freighted to a modern ear, and indeed the Essays bring up some interesting questions about the best and/or most realistic ways to divide up one's needs and passions among the different figures in one's life. Drawing on his own experiences in a passionate, deeply meaningful same-sex friendship and a less-than-satisfactory arranged marriage, Montaigne becomes an advocate for the separation of sexual satisfaction from deep intellectual bonds, so that the memory of his friendship with Boétie seems much more important to him than his marriage. At the same time, he expresses his "abhorrence" of the ancient Greek model of sexual relationship between an older male teacher and younger male disciple. Based on his own divided experiences and the ingrained misogyny of his time, he writes bittersweetly that

[W]omen are in truth not normally capable of responding to such familiarity and mutual confidence as sustain that holy bond of friendship, nor do their souls seem firm enough to withstand the clasp of a knot so lasting and so tightly drawn. And indeed if it were not for that, if it were possible to fashion such a relationship, willing and free, in which not only the souls had this full enjoyment but in which the bodies too shared in the union—where the whole human being was involved—it is certain that the loving-friendship would be more full and more abundant. But there is no example yet of woman attaining to it and by the common agreement of the Ancient schools of philosophy she is excluded from it.

This passage always tears at my heart because it is simultaneously such an eloquent expression of a relational ideal ("a relationship, willing and free, in which not only the souls had this full enjoyment but in which the bodies too shared in the union—where the whole human being was involved") and a harsh dismissal of that ideal's very possibility. Whether Montaigne was a misogynist extrapolating from his lackluster wife onto the souls of all women, or a man repressing his sexual desire for his male friend, or simply a human who longed to combine sexual and intellectual passion into a single relationship and found it impossible (as surely many modern people have as well), my heart goes out to him even as part of me recoils from his blunt dismissals of my soul's attainments.

Here, though, as in so much of his work, the intriguing (il)logic at play and the very human motivations behind the writing speak more eloquently, to me, than those points with which I disagree. Not least because reading the products of this flexible and curious mind makes me ever more aware that I myself am full of the same kinds of blind spots and contradictions that Montaigne uncovers in himself—and he reminds me that, despite this, examining and expressing my own mind is an endlessly rewarding activity.


There may be more Montaigne around here before long; David and I are planning to visit his former home when we're in France later this year, and I received Bakewell's biography for Christmas. Can't wait to dive in!

Into the Beautiful North


After the density of Mary Wollstonecraft and the heaviness of Mariama Bâ (to be reviewed shortly), I was in the mood for something a little light, a little frothy, with a decided sense of humor. I've seen some reviews around the blogosphere critiquing Luis Alberto Urrea's Into the Beautiful North—a quest story about three teenage Mexican girls and their gay male friend who sneak across the US/Mexican border in order to fetch back some Mexican men to repopulate their threatened town—for being lighter than expected, so I thought it might be a good match with my current mood. And indeed, I gobbled it up in three sittings, leaving not even enough time to substitute a real bookmark for the miniature subway map I grabbed hastily to mark my place. This is a novel that verges on many traps that annoy me: the quirky (overly quirky?) cast of characters, the topical references and subject matter, the heartwarming (unrealistically heartwarming?) themes and emphasis on romantic coupling toward the end—and yet, I thought it did a remarkably good job of steering clear of schmaltz and delivering a solid, entertaining tale with some thoughtful political observations thrown in for good measure.

Some reviewers have likened Into the Beautiful North to a fairy-tale, and the comparison is apt. This is no gritty portrait of hardship at the Mexican/American border, but a modern-day version of the romantic quest narrative: a fact several characters within the novel explicitly acknowledge. So, although the world depicted is not without danger, and the characters certainly feel real fear, the overall vibe is that sneaking across the border is a rollicking adventure, rather than an act of economic desperation. Protagonist Nayeli and her friends entertain passing fears of rapists in Tijuana, for example, but nobody actually comes close to injuring them—in part because of Nayeli's skills in self-defense, but also because most of the people they meet are genuinely good folks. They stay with some people who live in a garbage dump, but the dump-dwellers actually seem quite happy and comfortable. The coyote who leads them across the border is perhaps a bit shady, but only enough to provide atmosphere, not in a seriously threatening way. Nayeli and her friends fear the US Immigration agents, but those guys turn out to be basically good sorts as well. They do have to navigate racism and anti-immigration vitriol, but the narrative mitigates the harshness of these things by allowing the characters the refuge of each others' giddy, empowered camaraderie. It allows them, for example, to stand up for themselves and each other very effectively against white aggressors, without then being punished by the entrenched racism of the justice and economic systems the way they would be in, for example, a Richard Wright or Ralph Ellison novel.

I think Urrea succeeds in this perhaps unrealistically sunny worldview because his book never takes itself too seriously. Whereas the quirk and topicality factors in Middlesex hit all my annoyance buttons because I felt like it was trying too hard, Into the Beautiful North acted on me like that goofy friend at whom I just can't get mad, even at his most ridiculous. In addition to the semi-allegorical framework surrounding the book's events, there was also Urrea's delightful sense of humor, which really was the highlight of the novel, and coincidentally exactly what was missing from my reading life at the moment.

       The ZZs were her favorites, and even when Matt had gone missionary on her, run off to Mexico to save the Mexicans, the ZZ Twins had hung around her house, keeping her company in his absence, keeping the bad guys at bay. They spoke that weird surfer talk that she had never quite translated. Once, when she'd asked Zemaski how he was feeling, he said, "I'm creachin' the bouf."
       She had laughed for weeks about that one.
       Two years later, she'd been hunting through the library's cast-off $1.00 sale table when she glanced at their computers and ventured to access the Internet. The librarian helped her search the phrase "creachin' the bouf." The best translation they could come up with was "I am a fool for the light comedic opera." She liked to think that's what Zemaski meant, though she knew it wasn't.

I quite like this little anecdote: I like her observant amusement, even in the midst of the tinge of melancholy surrounding the departure of her son and in that final "though she knew it wasn't." (Like Ma Johnston, I attempted to Google "creachin' the bouf," but couldn't figure out what it means either.)

Another unexpected pleasure about Into the Beautiful North lies in its politics: because it's so light-hearted, I think, it can get away with a level of political topicality that would feel unpleasantly preachy in a different context. In particular, Urrea includes multiple scenes underlining the fact that as the United States is to Mexico (economic oppressor, supposed land of opportunity), so is Mexico to many South- and Central-American countries. The same kind of familiar race-based vitriol thus exists on both sides of the border:

       "These beans are grown here in Sinaloa," he said proudly. "The best frijoles in the world! Right near Culiacán. Then they're sold to the United States. Then they sell them back to us." He shrugged. "It gets expensive."
       Tía Irma took a long time to replace the glasses in the purse.
       "That," she finally proclaimed, "is the stupidest thing anyone has ever said to me."
       He smiled, hoping she would not strike him with that purse.
       "NAFTA," he said.
       Irma stormed out of the stall and spied a Guatemalan woman picking through the spoiled fruit.
       "What are you doing? she snapped.
       "Provisions. For the journey north," the woman replied. She made the mistake of extending her hand and saying, "I have come so far, but I have so far to go. Alms, señora. Have mercy."
       "Go back where you came from!" Irma bellowed. "Mexico is for Mexicans."

Similarly, when Mexican border agents board a bus traveling from Sinaloa to Tijuana (toward the US/Mexican border), the Mexicans joke freely about being "wetbacks when we get to the border," but a pair of illegal Colombian immigrants are manhandled off the bus and deported. Urrea takes the consistent line that the immigration hardships of the inter-Americas are caused by a broken system, and that the vast majority of individuals from any of the countries involved are decent people doing their best. Even when Nayeli and her friends are genuinely hurt by people calling them out on their illegal status (such as a pair of legal Mexican immigrants who run a diner), those people are usually presented as coming from a place of decency and honesty themselves. I appreciated this stance and agree with it in general, even if I felt the book did skate over some of the uglier, more insidious results of this kind of discrimination. This is particularly easy to do since Nayeli and company are on a transitory journey, not attempting to live long-term in the US. Ugly encounters may be scary or sad for them in the short term, but the little band never sticks around long enough to be worn down by the experience of living on the outskirts of an unwelcoming society.

But more than a political treatise, Into the Beautiful North is just a funny, effervescent little book, and one that lightened up my otherwise rather heavy January reading schedule.

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman


As convenient as it can sometimes be, a disadvantage of reading from anthologies is that one can graduate from college with the vague notion that one has read a work in its entirety, only to discover later that in fact one has read only a page and a half of it in a long-forgotten Eighteenth-Century British Literature class. Which, as you may have guessed, is exactly what happened to me with Mary Wollstonecraft's seminal 1792 treatise A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. I'm happy to have rectified my mistake at last and read Vindication from cover to cover. Unsurprisingly, Wollstonecraft's arguments assume a significant degree more complexity and idiosyncrasy on what I had, until recently, been thinking of as my "second time through."

And in fact, as much as she would probably have disapproved of the comment, it was Wollstonecraft's own character that particularly appealed to me throughout this reading. I agreed with her on some points and disagreed with her on others, but throughout I enjoyed her forthrightness, her willingness, to use a modern phrase, to call bullshit on all the male arguments used to claim that women's natural state is one of gentle, slavish devotion, and that women should not be allowed physical or mental exertion. In her impatience with sickly-sweet yet fundamentally condescending verbiage about the "angelic innocence" of women, and with male writers' self-serving insistence that women are formed for the sole purpose of pleasing men, I spied a kindred spirit and was cheering (and sometimes, out of recognition) chuckling along with her outrage. I love how, for example, halfway through a passage quoted from Rousseau on his proposed method of educating women, she can't stand to wait until the end to comment and appends a footnote reading only, "What nonsense!" Neither is she afraid of the exclamation point: "Without knowledge there can be no morality!" she exclaims, and "Ignorance is a frail base for virtue!" I felt throughout, however, that she earned those exclamation points: these are infuriatingly simple and logical conclusions that are nonetheless STILL often disregarded when we educate girls to be sexy rather than smart, charming and flighty rather than honest and self-respecting.

I particularly object to the lover-like phrases of pumped up passion, which are every where interspersed [in Fordyce's sermons]. If women be ever allowed to walk without leading-strings, why must they be cajoled into virtue by artful flattery and sexual compliments? Speak to them the language of truth and soberness, and away with the lullaby strains of condescending endearment! Let them be taught to respect themselves as rational creatures, and not led to have a passion for their own insipid persons. It moves my gall to hear a preacher descanting on dress and needle-work; and still more, to hear him address the British fair, the fairest of the fair, as if they had only feelings.

I'm reminded of the men who yell at me as I walk down the street lost in thought: "You'd be prettier if you smiled!" As if being eye candy for random men is somehow supposed to be my top priority. Oh sorry! I forgot to think about PLEASING STRANGE MEN while I was cogitating on existential literature! And again:

To carry the remark still further, if fear in girls, instead of being cherished, perhaps, created, were treated in the same manner as cowardice in boys, we should quickly see women with more dignified aspects. It is true, they could not then with equal propriety be termed the sweet flowers that smile in the walk of man; but they would be more respectable members of society, and discharge the important duties of life by the light of their own reason. 'Educate women like men,' says Rousseau, 'and the more they resemble our sex the less power will they have over us.' This is the very point I aim at. I do not wish them to have power over men; but over themselves.

THANK YOU, MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT. Her discussions of what has come to be called "the male gaze"—the way in which girls and women are taught to think always of how their conduct will appear to men, and act accordingly, rather than acting to please themselves or in accordance with what is most appropriate to the situation—struck me as particularly insightful. In the paragraph following the one I quoted on Fordyce, for example, she points out that he (a preacher) tries to lure women into religious piety by arguing that men find it sexually attractive when women are lost in pious contemplation. Seriously, how insulting! I'm not even religious, and I understand how disrespectful that argument is to the deeply-held beliefs of people engaged with their faith. And yet, have things really changed? I'm reminded of so-called "womens' magazines" and the arguments they use to convince women to go to the gym: it's all about appearing more sexually attractive to a potential partner; and only lip-service is paid to the idea that a woman would value herself enough to want to make her body stronger and healthier for her own sake.

Not that there weren't areas where Wollstonecraft and I diverge. She shares, for example, the common Enlightenment belief in humankind's ability to approach perfection through rational discourse, to achieve a state closer to God through the application of reason. Although I agree with her that men and women both benefit by the frequent exercise of their physical and mental faculties, I'm skeptical about how perfectible or rational the human race, or any individual, really is. Moreover, either because or in spite of my religious atheism/agnosticism, I tend to find Enlightenment arguments about the human ability to know God through logic a bit silly:

The only solid foundation for morality appears to be the character of the supreme Being; the harmony of which arises from a balance of attributes;—and, to speak with reverence, one attribute seems to imply the necessity of another. He must be just, because he is wise, he must be good, because he is omnipotent.

I mean, what? Judeo-Christian friends: is that sound theology? Why does one quality necessarily imply the others? I can easily imagine omnipotence without goodness, for example, just like every day I experience perfectly robust morality with no particular basis in divinity. Arguments like this always strike me as simply a human being imagining all the good things he can think of, combining them in his imagination into one Being, and then claiming that because he can conceptualize this Being, it must exist. And when I say "he," I mean Descartes. But apparently Mary Wollstonecraft as well. It's as if I made a drawing of my dream house, and then claimed that because I drew it, it must be available for purchase. My drawing doesn't prove that the house isn't available; but neither is it proof that it is.

Not only that, but in her quest to agitate for the education of women as strong, rational creatures, Wollstonecraft veers so far in favor of strength and reason that she leaves little room for human vulnerability. Take the passage quoted above, for example, on the treatment of fear in girls and boys. While I agree that kids shouldn't be encouraged to be shrieking and cowering away from every little thing when they wouldn't be doing that naturally, I can hardly agree that their fear should be treated like that of boys in the sense of being sternly reprimanded, shamed, told that "boys don't cry," and so on. My personal ideal for both genders is a happy medium between the affected over-sensitivity that has historically been associated with women, and the repressive, uncommunicative stoicism that has often been expected of men. Humans feel fear, tenderness, anger, and so on for reasons, and it's illogical and unwise, in my opinion, to teach children to distort or disregard their true feelings rather than acknowledging those feelings and taking them into account when deciding how to act. (Not, of course, that a passing emotion should be the ONLY criterion for action; just that it should be, ideally, one piece of valid data among others.) Moreover, there's a difference between "fear" and "cowardice"; in equating the two, it seems to me Wollstonecraft is removing the possibility of courage, which I'd define as following through on a difficult action despite feeling afraid.

(And in passing, Wollstonecraft's aversion to instinct struck me as one of the strangest facets of the book. She denigrates it even to the point of arguing that animal instinct somehow doesn't reflect her God: "Thus [sensibility] is defined by Dr. Johnson, and the definition gives me no other idea than of the most exquisitely polished instinct. I discern not a trace of the image of God in either sensation or matter." Yet where else would it come from, given her own belief in an all-powerful creator Being? I realize that, for Enlightenment thinkers, the gift of reason is what elevates humans above animals, but surely a benevolent God wouldn't endow the animals with an outright malevolent quality? A very odd, if minor, point.)

Like most philosophers, then, Wollstonecraft takes certain positions with which I personally disagree; her feminism is, unsurprisingly, neither so radical nor so inclusive as that of certain more recent writers. Still, as an early, passionate step toward female equality, not to mention as a document of the tumultuous times (Wollstonecraft's argument is very tied up with the Republican rhetoric of democracy and equality which were giving rise to the American and French revolutions), Vindication of the Rights of Woman is an important and thought-provoking read, and one I'm glad to have in my repertoire.


I read A Vindication of the Rights of Woman as part of the discussion over at A Year of Feminist Classics; thanks to Amy for leading this month's discussions. My timing may be off on some of my readalong posts in January because I have so many of them and they're all scheduled for month's end!

Suite française


The plots and characterization of highly episodic novels often strike me as somehow "thin," and I often have trouble appreciating them as a result. So I was surprised, partway through Irène Némirovsky's Suite française (a tapestry of vignettes set during the German invasion of Paris and occupation of rural France), to find that I was not only liking but loving it. What differentiated this, then, from other episodic novels? For me, it was Némirovsky's unerring ability to pinpoint the tactile quality of a moment in time, suspended motionless but with all its past baggage and future uncertainty still intact, rendering her vignettes eloquent enough to stand on their own or as part of a larger narrative. Tempête en juin, in particular—the first section of this projected five-part novel, of which only two parts were ever completed—was constantly surprising me with the unexpectedness of its emotional insight. Take, for example, the Michaud couple, husband and wife, middle-class bank employees preparing to flee the city with the rest of the Parisians as the Germans advance. Némirovsky describes the process of lovingly cleaning and cleaning the flat, even in the full knowledge that it will likely be bombed or otherwise destroyed before they ever see it again:

Les Michaud s'étaient levés à cinq heures du matin pour avoir le temps de faire l'appartement à fond avant de le quitter. Il était évidemment étrange de prendre tant de soin de choses sans valeur et condamnées, selon toutes probabilités, à disparaître dès que les premières bombes tomberaient sur Paris. Mais, pensait Mme Michaud, on habille et on pare bien les morts qui sont destinés à pourrir dans la terre. C'est un denier homage, une preuve suprème d'amour à ce qui fut cher.
[The Michauds got up at five o'clock in the morning so that they would have time to put the apartment to rights before leaving it. It was undoubtedly strange to take such care of objects without value, and condemned, in all probability, to disappear as soon as the first bombs fell on Paris. But, thought Mme Michaud, one clothes and arrays the dead who are destined to rot in the ground. It's one last homage, a supreme proof of love for that which was dear.

It's the psychology of small moments such as this one, when people act in unexpected ways, or continue to act in expected ways even when that behavior has ceased to make sense, that struck me so forcibly about Némirovsky's writing. Particularly in the sentence about clothing and arraying the dead, her substance as well as her style reminds me of the way Virginia Woolf intermingles outer activity with inner psychological portraits—pretty much the best compliment I could offer.

But whereas novels like Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse take place on ordinary days, reflecting the grand events of the outside world only obliquely, the characters of Suite française are in the midst of a direct collision with the forces of history. The actions required of them—fleeing en masse from their homes in Paris; accommodating themselves to German troops living in their homes and their village—are cataclysmic, and yet these people more or less continue in their accustomed mental and emotional habits as long as they can. The bourgeois Péricand family, for example, is delayed in leaving their house by the servants' insistence on ironing all the handkerchiefs like they always do before anyone leaves on vacation; the writer Gabriel Corte, accustomed to thinking of himself as the absolute center of the universe, is incensed that the war would dare to encroach on his home. Occasionally the characters change and learn over the course of the novel; most often, they really don't. I like that about Suite française: there are no pat epiphanies tied up for the reader with a bow at the end of either section.

Which is not to say that the characters do not journey. Némirovsky portrays the mental and emotional lives of her characters with a quiet precision that offsets perfectly her chaotic, upsetting subject matter, and her characterizations struck me as absolutely believable—even, despite never having been through anything remotely like a foreign invasion of my home, familiar. The way in which one often finds oneself reacting in the "wrong" way to a traumatic experience: thinking odd, disconnected thoughts, experiencing and even expressing inappropriate emotions. It's a quiet portrait of a whole country in violent shock, whose individuals are often unable or unwilling to make the effort involved in donning the customary cloak of civilization and politesse.

I've read quite a few reviews of this book that dwell on how unlikeable the characters are, and there are indeed a few that are totally despicable. Most are what I would consider average people: often selfish; bad under pressure; with their pettinesses and their loyalties that percolate through their lives in predictable and unpredictable ways. Perhaps it speaks to my own worldview (I am sometimes accused of being a cynic), but I found Némirovsky's characterizations accurate and insightful, rather than overly dark. True, there are few real "heroes," but I found almost everyone in the book somewhat likable, if only by virtue of recognizing myself in their actions. Even in the case of Gabriel Corte, surely one of the least sympathetic characters in the novel, I often found myself smiling or grimacing in recognition, as in this scene when he explodes with frustration at having to share the roads with the unwashed masses:

— Si des épisodes aussi douloureux qu'une défaite et un exode ne sont pas rehaussees de quelque noblesse, de quelque grandeur, ils ne méritent pas d'être! Je n'admets pas que ces boutiquiers, ces concierges, ces mal-lavés avec leurs pleurnicheries, leurs ragots, leur grossièreté, avilissent un climat de tragédie. Mais regarde-les! regarde-les!
"If events as painful as a defeat and an exodus are not set off by some nobility, by some grandeur, they don't deserve to exist! I will not accept these shop-keepers, these janitors, these unwashed with their whining, their gossip, their rudeness, debasing the climate of tragedy. Just look at them! look at them!"

What he's saying is obviously despicable—would he have the roads guarded, allowing only those of sufficient "nobility" to save their own lives? And yet he's also so ridiculous as to be darkly funny: does he believe that he himself is acting nobly by complaining that the poor people are messing up his tragic atmosphere? Does he really believe that the universe owes him some kind of meaning in the way it unfolds its events? OF COURSE military defeats and exoduses don't deserve to exist! And yet, can you honestly guarantee that thoughts like these would never pass through your own mind, if you were similarly bored, terrified and grief-stricken, stuck on a hot, dusty road with a huge crowd of panicky people you neither knew nor cared about, but who were impeding your progress toward a place of safety? I certainly can't guarantee they wouldn't pass through mine—or even, if I were exhausted and scared enough, that I wouldn't say them out loud.

Furthermore, to crown this whole complex little episode, a couple of pages later we see one of the despised band of shopkeepers and janitors delivering a grief-stricken little speech of true pathos and nobility. And indeed, I'm eager to seek out Némirovsky's short stories, because she does such an excellent job of creating, in each chapter, a miniature, self-contained journey for the reader, often one whose final paragraphs cause a shift of perspective. Not what I would call a "twist" exactly; more like a turning, as if one were pelting forward on a path only to stop and turn around, glimpsing a different view of the way one had come. She has a developed sense of the irony of life (one character, for example, survives all the dangers of the Paris exodus only to be run down by a car on his safe return), but it never feels gimmicky or overly pat; on the contrary, this is a complex, deeply felt, yet unsentimental portrait, and one I won't soon forget.


All above translations are mine, but there are probably better versions of them available in Sandra Smith's English translation of this book.

Clandestine in Chile


Just a shallow note before we get started: isn't this NYRB cover witty? With the text box covering the man's face, because he's "clandestine"? In "Chile"? Maybe I'm easy to amuse, but it makes me smile. And now, onto the post.


In the introduction to the NYRB edition of Gabriel Garcia Márquez's Clandestine in Chile, Francesco Goldman makes the claim that the book is most rewarding when read, not as the tale of adventure and political intrigue it seems at first glance, but instead as a study of the times (1985), the place (Chile), and the specific person: Miguel Littín, exiled middle-aged film-director who returns to his native country disguised as a Uruguayan businessman, to film a documentary about life under the Pinochet dictatorship. I tend to agree with Goldman's claim. As a gripping tale of resistance fighters battling a frightening adversary, and equally as an exposé of the horrible living conditions resulting from the Pinochet regime, the piece is undeniably lacking. As Goldman writes,

[Even] Littín briefly finds himself reflecting that he could easily live in this country. He and the teams of filmmakers he deploys like a spymaster throughout the country never seem to be in any real danger. There is some suspense over Littín's being unmasked, but one senses it would lead to nothing graver than his expulsion from the country; the reign of terror in this locked-up Chile seems to have subsided. There is little in this book that might disturb the tranquility of those who argue that, on balance, the coup and the Pinochet dictatorship were worth enduring because of the relative prosperity and stability, and the return to democratic rule that was its undeniable result.

Nothing, that is, unless you count Littín's subjective disagreement with such an argument, based on his memories and the stories he's heard about life in Chile since 1973. The filmmaker enters the country convinced of what he will find there, awash with nostalgia and traumatized by the time, twelve years before, when he and his wife and children were forced to flee the country under real pain of death. Almost from the opening pages, though, the Chile Littín actually discovers is a severe anticlimax. He expects to find Santiago devastated and depressing; instead, he is disappointed to find, at least on the surface, a "radiant city":

The new Pudahuel airport, however, lies on an expressway with a modern lighting system and that was a bad start for someone like me who, convinced of the evil of the dictatorship, needed to see clear evidence of its failures in the streets, in daily life, and in people's behavior, all of which could be filmed and shown to the world. But now my disquiet gave way to frank disappointment. [...]
         Contrary to what we had heard in exile, Santiago was a radiant city, its venerable monuments spendidly illuminated, its streets spotlessly clean and orderly. If anything, armed policemen were more in evidence on the streets of Paris or New York than here.

Of course, the true test of a city's quality of life is not measured by the illumination of its monuments or the cleanliness of its streets, and Clandestine in Chile does not make the argument that life in Chile under Pinochet was devoid of repression. Neither, however, does it come up with first-hand accounts that prove very condemnatory. Littín has a stable of second-hand or twelve-year-old horror stories about repressions under the regime (professors arrested in front of their children and later killed, a father setting himself on fire so that his children be released from torture), but the actual events that occur within the book prove, at the most surreal, and more often merely routine. Littín and his crew, for example, are convinced it's a trap when they are granted permission to film inside Moneda Palace (Pinochet's headquarters), and they collaborate with their undercover contacts to make sure of several contingency plans before entering, but the filming proceeds in an uneventful, non-threatening way. Similarly, reports of one of his crews getting arrested turn out to be false; ticket inspectors on the airplane turn out not to be looking for him; even the carabineros (policemen) of whom he is so obsessively paranoid in the beginning of his trip turn out much more often helpful and sincere than sinister.

Indeed, on the few occasions when Littín does seem in real trouble, he has invariably brought the problem on himself, through his almost comical compulsion to test the boundaries of his own cover. And in fact, this ties in nicely with the quality that, ironically, I found to be Clandestine in Chile's saving grace: Littín's irresponsible and (there is no other word for it) dickish behavior is so odd, and the rest of his character so contradictory, that the reader can easily remain engaged throughout the book's 116 pages solely in trying to figure him out. What to make, for example, of his decision to seek out and provoke two carabineros working on his film site during one of the first shoots in Santiago, therefore making it more likely that they would examine the very false documents about which he was endlessly anxious? How to react to his claim that he "accidentally" ended up out after curfew with a crew member in the neighborhood of his childhood home and "unknowingly" directed the car to his mother's house, thereby enabling himself to visit his mother and uncle despite previous strict warnings not to go near them for fear of blowing his cover? There is the odd compulsion he feels to carry a huge number of packs of Gitanes cigarettes into the country, and his paranoid inability to get rid of any of the used-up packets. One of his most asinine moments comes shortly after his entrance into Chile, when he is beset by a sudden wave of nostalgia and jumps out of the taxi—ignoring the imminent curfew, abandoning his ostensible wife and generally calling both their cover into question; when she gets angry at him upon his return and then the female head of the Italian film crew requires him to go through all their pre-arranged passwords rather than just letting him in because she recognizes his voice, he seems to think her thoroughness threatens his manhood:

         But with the same rigorousness she was to display every moment of the days to follow, she would not open the door until the password game was complete.
         "Goddammit! I muttered to myself, thinking not just of Elena but of Ely [his real wife] too. "They're all alike." And I continued to reply to the interrogation in the manner I most detest in life, that of the housebroken husband.

Bizarre, right? I mean, if you didn't think so many passwords were necessary, why agree to them in the first place? It reflects very little on gender roles that one partner in a collaboration would expect to go through the full password exchange as rehearsed, rather than abandoning the plan just because the other person says "Stop screwing around and let me in." Throughout the book, Littín displays this odd mix of petrification at relatively innocuous setbacks, and a cavalier dismissal of the safeguards his collaborators think necessary.

Not that Littín is entirely unsympathetic; there were many scenes when I found him to be quite likeable. But this behavioral discrepancy reinforces the impression that Littín himself is unsure how seriously he takes his political work in Chile—it often seems that, although genuinely critical of the Pinochet regime, his true motivation stems more from a desire to explore his personal nostalgia than to criticize his political opponents from the inside. Paragraphs about the film's political raison d'être sometimes collapse at key points to give way to sentences like "I had lost the image of my country in a fog of nostalgia" and "now, for the first time, I had to question whether this harvesting of my nostalgia was worth the trouble." It is characteristic of the Littín character as crafted by García Márquez, that he would refer to a political exposé as a harvesting of nostalgia.

And indeed, the authorship of the book—Littín as filtered, or crafted, by García Márquez—is one of the most interesting things about it. After Littín's real-life trip to Chile, he was interviewed by García Márquez about his experiences; García Márquez then whittled the long interview down to a novella-length piece of reportage, claiming to use only Littín's own words. To me this brings up quite interesting questions about what it means to "author" a work, since what García Márquez did would more often be referred to as "editing." At the same time, sampling, cutting, and rearranging preexisting interview footage into a cohesive narrative is an approach to nonfiction that mirrors some of the cut-and-paste methods of the Beat poets—a cool application that would certainly not have occurred to me.

All in all, a curiosity, and one that I found compelling albeit for different reasons than I originally assumed.


Clandestine in Chile was the December pick for the Wolves reading group. Join us at the end of January for a discussion of Anzia Yezierska's The Bread Givers.

June 2012

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography