Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Wallander - the troubled detective



Kurt Wallander is a grim man. Whether you meet him in books, or in the TV series, you will seldom see him (or read about him) smile. Both Branagh & Henriksson, who have played him in the English & the Swedish series, know this well. In fact, Branagh has even admitted to visiting flower shows to cheer himself up from the starkness of his screen life.
The hero of Henning Mankell's several mystery novels is a police inspector in the Swedish town of Ystad. He is a fictional detective, yes, but if you are thinking of the cocky Sherlock Holmes, then you are way off. For starters, Wallander doesn't jump from windows like Sherlock (as Mr. Downing or Cumberbatch have lead us to believe). If you are now thinking of the smiling, more laid back Poirot,  then cut the mustache, the smile and add a lot of severity and self-doubt instead.

I have only read two Wallander books, so my impression of him is largely from what I have seen on the tv series. I have come to like this detective who has doubts, who is not perfect, who is stubborn, and labors through investigation (instead of having some elementary interventions). He is a very good police officer, but he gets into each difficult case with a reluctance, as if dragging himself to the gym, hoping he will find it closed when he reaches there. But once he is there, he goes all in, forgetting everything else - sleep, personal commitments, food. 
Wallander brings detection face to face with existentialism. He is confused with the world around him, always trying to make sense of himself, and struggling to be a good policeman in the ever-changing Sweden. Having failed as a husband,, he is also constantly worried about being a good father, which is difficult with a rebellious daughter like Linda. He is anxious that he forgets to keep appointments with his father and does not spend enough time with him. In essence, Wallander brings to front all the angst of the modern man - is he doing enough? Is he capable? What should he be doing to fulfill his responsibilities better?
I have also seen in him some puzzling contrasts. For instance, he has driven his wife away by being too immersed in work. Yet, when he meets the widow of a Latvian Major, he takes leave from work, and crosses borders illegally to help her. I wonder if its the same person being talked about, and the only rational explanation seems to be is that he has a strong desire to be needed. So as long as it is a damsel in distress, he can expend his energies and time saving her, but cannot work on a relationship with a woman who is safe and needs him only for emotional support.
I also find it interesting that since Wallander, a few troubled detectives have found their way on screen. (Detective Hardy from Broadchurch being one from recent times). Even those who love the dazzling Sherlock Holmes, are happy to see these real people struggle through detection and grapple with their personal demons.

Friday, July 12, 2013

This way for the gas, Ladies and Gentlemen


I am sometimes embarassed of my interest in holocaust literature. There is something morbid about wanting to read the tales of death chambers, of cattle cars, of people being pulled out of their homes in middle of the night.
And yet, it is such a bizarre side of reality - something so humongous and beyond understanding, that I feel compelled to know more, to understand what happened. The many books and many films on the topic mostly share the survivor tales, or tales of tragedy - the after-effects of the holocaust (or more appropriately "Shoah"). These tales, the most beautifully written ones, like from Sebald, or Kertesz - bring to fore the sense of loss, the disorientation, which goes far beyond the actual physical act of mass-murder. But there is little written or said to explain the perpetration, what went on in the minds of the tormentor and the tortured when the physical act was being carried out. How did a whole machinery get convinced to participate in the barbarism? What went on in the minds of people in the camps, seeing the fumes from the chimney?

Borowski's collection of short stories touches upon something of the latter - but his reality is so harsh and inhuman, that I almost want to scratch it out as cynical rant. He himself spent 2-3 years in Auschwitz, and the stories seem autobiographical. So you would assume that they would have some truth in them. But if there is, it is a disturbing truth.

"Weakness needs to vent itself on the weaker". This seems to be a theme of Borowski's stories, and also the centre of life in Auschwitz. The prisoners, enslaved by the Germans, have more respect for their guards than they have for their fellow slaves, whom they often spy on, tell on, beat-up, steal from. There is little sympathy for the person who is in the same boat.

In the title story, slaves help to unload the cattle trains. There is a selection process - those unfortunate, are being sent to the gas chamber directly. The slaves are doing their own sorting - of the belongings of the new arrivals -  they collect gold and valuables for the regime, food and utilities for themselves. They deceive the people being led to the 'evil eye', sometimes even laugh at them, but most of all, treat them with contempt.
The tone of this story, and most of the others that follow is cold and sharp. There is little emotion - only a very animal-like awareness of senses - hunger, lust. The narrator sounds nihilist, but his bitterness sometimes escapes into the text.

The most compelling story, which is also beautiful, is written as a letter (or rather collection of letters strewn together) called Auschwitz, our home. It is beautiful for the shimmer of humanity it offers. The writer of the letters writes to his girlfriend (these are, in all likelihood from the letters written by Borowski himself to his girlfriend whom he had followed into the slave camps). He writes about the absurdity that is going on around them.
He tells her:
If I had said to you as we danced together in my room in the light of the paraffin lamp: listen, take a million people, or two million, or three, kill them in such a way that no one knows about it, not even they themselves, enslave several hundred thousand more, destroy their mutual loyalty, put man against man, and...surely you would have thought me mad. Except that I probably would not have said these things to you, even if I had known what I know today. I would not have wanted to spoil our mood.

He writes about how hope and God have weakened the people, who, imagining justice, and looking to a better future, are not tearing down the death camp. He also talks of his own hopes of surviving the camp.

It is difficult to accept Borowski's account as objective truth. He wrote most of these stories after coming out of the camp. He mentions somewhere that the slaves were only surviving on hope - but it is impossible that the world outside of the camp walls could match up to the enormous Eden these hopes must have built. 
There will be no borders after the war, I know, and there will be no countries, no concentration camps, and people will not kill one another. This is our last fight.
Any unfairness, any punishment, any harshness in the post-Auschwitz life would have seemed like a much bigger failure to the survivors, who had come to expect a heaven outside Auschwitz. Disappointment and bitterness were bound to follow - therefore I think Borowski's account is tinged brightly with his disappointments of the Poland after war. The fact that he committed suicide within a few years of freedom, highlights this disappointment.
Besides, his letter, which seems to have been actually written while in Auschwitz, is less brutal, more human and looks out with some hope, however feeble, makes me think that a lot of steeliness must have come post-Auschwitz.

In one of the stories, the narrator calls the Chimneys to be the great eye - it made me wonder if Tolkein's mordor was indeed the death camp? Where else could he have drawn inspiration for a world so bleak.

Borowski and his work has been described in Czeslaw Milosz' work The Captive Mind which I had read sometime ago. There, he had referred to Borowski as Beta - and it is thanks to one of the comments on the blog post that I could find out who Beta was.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Jagten (The Hunt)

Does a misunderstanding or misconception ever correct itself? In stories, misconceptions often place themselves at the center, sometimes spinning the entire tale around. Mostly, in the end, people speak up, and miraculously the fog lifts.
Not so in the crisp and stony reality from Thomas Vinterberg. In his movie, he marks out how it is not enough to be acquitted from a court trial, and certainly not enough to have done nothing wrong. Long after being cleared, doubts persist and hunt the accused - may be in reality or may be in his own mind.
Lucas, a nursery teacher at the center of this drama, is wrongfully accused of sexual conduct in front of a child. A child who is his best friend's daughter and who he is very fond of. The small town discounts the many years in which it has know Lucas to be a charming, lovable person in face of a child's thoughtless accusation. The paranoia of parents at the thought of sending their child to a potential predator everyday spirals out of control. Suddenly, all parents begin to see signs of molestation in their own children. The children work themselves up in a hysteria where they begin to remember an evening in Lucas' basement alone with him. 
The image remarks how immaterial it is that the basement does not exist. There are moments when, as a viewer I began to wonder if indeed it lies hidden elsewhere, even when I had been privy to the wrongfulness of the accusation from the very beginning. Mass perception has a way of becoming reality. Aided by the insecurity people have for their children, and in the unshakable (but really quite questionable) faith that children are always honest and innocent, this perception becomes wildly accepted, even by the band of brothers Lucas has grown up with.
This remarkable hold on rumor and the hazard it poses - this is what makes The hunt the best film I have watched this year. Mads Mikkelsen's performance and the mood-landscape is a treat on top. Even though this film goes against the severe principles of Dogme, somehow the use of editing and cinematography adds to the stark reality and therefore appears to follow the Dogme in spirit.

Monday, June 10, 2013

And so they are ever returning to us, the dead


 
Sebald's characters live in memories and the past - this is perhaps the least kept secret about his books. Their dead keep returning to them, the possibilities of their own deaths continue to haunt them - until they can bear it no more and often embrace that death which has been following them.
In Emigrants, which I am now re-reading after a few years, four stories follow four people who escape (or are forced to leave) the places where they were born. The places where (in a now archaic worldview) they were supposed to spend their lives. In the face of evil which reaches these places in the form of racism, nationalism or other forms of vile hatred, they abandon their fate and chose different paths. For some it is merely a different country, for others it is a completely different life. However, they continue to be haunted by the memory of their past. It is as if they should have stayed back and faced the consequences of being born in a place. In a bizarre link between fate and birthplace, these people believe that the persecution their birthplace offered will pursue them no matter where they go.
So these emigrants spend restless hours climbing mountains, or walking the countryside, or catching butterflies - either whiling away time in wait for that destiny they escaped or trying to listlessly walk away from this persistent destiny.
I have, so far, read only two sections. The first one, on Dr. Henry Selwyn struck me as a little odd. What strikes me in Dr. Selwyn's story is that his homesickness is not something he has carried around him since his emigration. It is in the later stages of his life, as estrangement with his wife grows is when he begins to think about home. This is uncharacteristic of Sebald's tragic heroes, who, displaced at a very early stage, seem to carry the burden of exile throughout their lives. In Dr. Selwyn's case, homesickness seems more a romanticism of past in the face of an unhappy present. In Dr. Selwyn's life are enclosed many possibilities - the possibility of a happy country life in Lithuania, the possibility of persecution in the holocaust, the perils of an immigrant's life in America, a happy life with his wife in England. Dr. Selwyn has escaped all these possibilities, to end with the most banal of all maladies - an unhappy marriage. Perhaps he is tormented by the banality of his misery, and yearns for a more dramatic tragedy (of being buried under snow like his friend, or living the holocaust). May be this is what lies behind his melancholy - not the memory of home, but what home seemed poised to bring when he left it. Is Sebald trying to say that even those who completely avoided the holocaust are victims of it because all other miseries look embarassingly small in comparison?

Monday, September 24, 2012

Herland

 
Incidentally, all of my last few posts have been based on the readings from SF and Fantasy course on Coursera. Things are a little hectic in work and in life otherwise, that I am reading little outside of the course syllabus. The course is coming to a close, and as insightful as it has been, I am also eager to resume my regular reading.
A couple of weeks back, we were reading Charlotte Gilman's Herland and Burroughs' Princess of Mars. The two books could not be more different, and yet there were some common threads running between them. While Princess of Mars was a dominantly 'masculine' book - with heroes, fights and men saving damsels, Herland was feminine, even if not in the traditional sense of the world.
It is about the second book, Herland, that I felt more strongly. (The first was a little over the top - you would know what I mean if you see the movie John Carter which is based on Princess of Mars). In Herland, four men accidentally discover a land where only women live. These women run an efficient and apparently a highly developed nation. They reproduce on their own, and the basis of society is a strong maternal instinct for providing a better life and future for their children. 
Gilman was a woman way ahead of her times, who recognized that she was not an ideal mother and hence gave up the bringing up of her child to her husband and her best friend. She also recognized that she was not compatible with her husband and therefore actively encouraged a relationship between her husband and the above mentioned best friend. These acts might seem less revolutionary now, but in her times (1860-1935), it would have been very difficult to gain acceptance with such actions.
Her ideas in Herland depict that women achieve much if they can live outside the boundaries defined for them in a masochist world.  She also advocates that motherhood is not a right but a great responsibility and only the worthy should be allowed to bring up a child. It is a developed thinking, but in aiming for higher ideals, Gilman seems to have sacrificed the femininity of her characters. 
Stereotyping of Women in Herland In Herland, Gilman imagines a world in which women exist independent of the burden of 'femininity' placed on them by men. Mostly through the voice of Terry, sometimes through Van, she highlights how men stereotype women: jealous, incapable of invention, weak, long-haired, shy, maternal, etc. In a largely male dominated world, women fall in accordance with these expectations and get defined by this 'femininity'. What Gilman shows through her story is, that in the absence of these expectations (denoted by the Utopian Herland), women can explore their true potential. They can build highly civilized societies; rise above personal feelings and take knowledge and learning to unprecedented levels. However it is curious that the only suitably defined characters in her story are the three men. The women exist as abstraction, part of a collective whole. They all have short hair and able-bodies; they are all 'fair ladies'. They show little human emotion and have almost no drama ("The drama of the country was—to our taste—rather flat"). They are also asexual beings, repelled or uncomfortable with the idea of physical proximity. In other words, Gilman has stepped away from giving any emotional depth or individuality to these women. The only time some personality differences are mentioned are when the girls align themselves to the three men - even there the individuality is centered on the men. It seems that Gilman has replaced one idea of femininity with another, and is still looking at women to confirm to some norms/ stereotypes. The only difference is that these norms mostly stand in opposition to those defined by men, and therefore are a rebellion to the male dominance. This rebellion still falls short for not recognizing women as separate individuals with emotional depth.

I strongly dislike the idea of feminist movements where women run ahead to stand at the opposite end of how they have been 'defined' (by burning bras, or adopting unflattering attires, or choosing not to marry to proclaim 'freedom') It still keeps you defined by someone else, and you are still an abstraction. While I feel very strongly against the secondary status of women in many societies, particularly India - where even liberal men congratulate themselves on 'allowing' their wives to work, I desist these caricatures of feminists which discredit the different and individualistic nature of women. So, I did not like what Gilman wrote - I don't intend to be a superwoman, nor assert that one has to be brilliant to be recognized as an individual. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Wells and Freud


I have very little exposure to psychology and even lesser understanding of the various theories/advancements in the field. However, even in this limited knowledge it is difficult to not come across Freud and his structural model. There is a certain fascination in the idea of the psyche having three distinct identities fighting for control.
While reading Wells' story The island of Dr. Moreau, as part of the SF and Fantasy course on Coursera, I sensed that Wells was elucidating Freud's theories. On some research I found that they did have an acquaintance, a mutual respect for each other's ideas and exchanged some of their thoughts/ideas through letters. For the course I wrote this essay. Luckily, one of my reviewers was a psychologist who pointed out that I had missed one essential point, which follows the essay:

Super-ego versus Id
 In The Island of Dr. Moreau, H.G. Wells touches on many interesting themes in few words. One theme that we have repeatedly seen in our readings is the danger of man trying to play God or interfering with nature. In this story, Wells adds another dimension to the man versus nature conflict, which is whether a code of moral values is more powerful than natural instinct.
In his structural model, Freud identified Id as the uncoordinated instinct and Super-ego as the critical and moralizing aspect of the psyche. The third element, Ego, tries to find a balance between the two. Wells' story depicts the conflict of Super-ego and Id without the presence of a strong ego. On the island, the beast folk are shown as instinctual creatures(Id) who are controlled by the law or Dr. Moreau (Super-ego). 
In the initial part of the story, it is the super-ego which is stronger. Dr. Moreau, banishes all natural instincts (not to suck up drink, eat fish or flesh, etc.), and uses punishment to silence the Id. The beast folk are scared and curb most natural instincts. This creates an imbalance, which Prendick as an outsider is able to perceive as threat. It is interesting that in this phase Prendick is more scared of Dr. Moreau than the beasts. 
In the second part, the Id takes over when the beast (Puma) escapes and attacks the super-ego. In the Reversion, beast folks begin protesting against decency and monogamy and fall back into disorganization and chaos. In this environment too, Prendick feels threatened, though this time it is the bestiality which scares him. In both cases, the absence of Ego can be seen as a destabilising factor. It seems that Wells concurs with the views of his contemporary Freud that for a psyche to function well, Ego should be its strongest element.

This is what my reviewer pointed out: "The only point I think you've missed is rationalizing the absence of the Ego. The Ego is based on the reality principle and it's absence could signify a suspension of reality denoted by an isolated island." 
I cannot claim that I fully understand the critique as I dont understand the relationship between Ego and Reality principal very well, but I am working on it.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The old monsters



As part of the SF and fantasy course I mentioned in my last post,  the last few weeks I have been reading Dracula, Frankenstein and some stories from Nathaniel Hawthorne and Poe. It is difficult to say if I am enjoying these reads. Dracula was interesting, but having read that story a few times, the last part seemed like a dull load. Frankenstein was unappetizing from the very beginning - the romanticism of the writing, the flowery language, the grandiose descriptions - they all seemed like monsters of their own.
I could not help thinking how uni-dimensional the characters in these books were - take Dracula for example. The black and white characters in it are clearly marked. Except for the mad-man, everyone is singularly good or evil. The story seemed like a preaching sometimes, extolling Victorian virtues.  Here is the little essay I wrote for the reading
The atmospheric work from Bram Stroker reads like a Biblical tale in a modern setting. With use of modern symbols and interesting art forms (journals, multiple narratives, mystery), Stroker attempts to deliver key themes of Christanity to a modern audience who might feel disconnected from the ancient stories.
The strongest Biblical symbol is Dracula, shown as a metaphor for Satan and described both as tempter and deceiver who uses people's weakness in order to deflect them from the path of good. This can be seen in how he entices Renfield by falsely promising him eternal life, convincing him to let him enter the hospital. He (with other vampires) fosters sinful desires: Jonathan Harker is tempted by the three women in Dracula's castle, while Lucy calls out to Arthur in a voluptuous voice to kiss her, before her fall.
Like in the Bible, Bram Stroker illustrates that Dracula's temptations can be resisted by being alert, by prayer and by relying on God's faithfulness. In the story, characters struggle to stay awake; many a tragedies occur while they are asleep or in trance. Dr Van Helsing strongly advocates keeping a crucifix on person when in proximity of Dracula. This crucifix, a symbol of God, saves the party from harm. Mina constantly resorts to prayer, never wavers in her faith, and is thus saved from the influence of Satan.
Stroker's technique is very similar to the technique of Biblical story-telling in modern theatre - perhaps an influence from his theatre background. He tries to internalize the story for his audience by keeping the script simple, breaking up the story into scenes or chapters, keeping fixed locations (the castle, Whitby, hospital), and tracking the emotional journey of the characters. This keeps the reader interested and imprints the Biblical teaching of virtue over desire very vividly in his mind.
Reading Frankenstein was even more difficult, but there was a singular anxiety that is reflected in that writing - the anxiety of being alone. Perhaps it stemmed from the isolated environment Mary Shelly was when she first wrote the story. My somewhat formed thoughts on this which I presented as an essay:
Alienation appears as a dominant theme in Mary Shelly's novel. The three narrators- Walton, Frankenstein and the monster, are all disconnected from the society around them and experience angst on account of this alienation. This alienation mirrors the feelings of the 19th century European society which was witnessing rapid industrialization.
Before Industrialization, people produced for self-subsistence and therefore had a direct relationship to their labour's fruit. However, in Industrial era, because the product would belong to capitalists, workers felt alienated from their work and therefore not in control of their lives. Frankenstein's labour, though frenzied, is still dissociated from its final outcome (He never thinks about the life he is creating). Upon completion, he runs away from it. Mary Shelly has captured the worker's estrangement with his work very succinctly through this analogy. Frankenstein, like Walton and like the modern man, spends a lot of time away from his family and natural surroundings to pursue secondary relationships with his work. They all work in alien environments (a cottage, aboard a ship, a factory). Their isolation causes them anxiety and dissatisfaction with life.
The monster's alienation is of a different nature, but still relates to the working man. He feels powerless to do what he would like to do: find friends and lead a peaceful life. He finds "human senses as insurmountable barriers" to achieving his natural state. He struggles against this powerlessness and seeks revenge. The working man similarly feels powerless to determine his fate, which is increasingly dependent on the decisions of the capitalist. He either submits to this power and feels unhappy, or adopts unlawful means (robbery, thieving, murder) to protest and regain his lost power.
With her theme, Mary Shelly seems to endorse the Romantic view that Science, Modernization and Industrialization have created antagonism in human nature.

Friday, August 10, 2012

A new look at the old


A few days ago, in one of the Ted talks, I came to know about an initiative which provides Online education through a collaboration of elite institutes: Coursera. I was quite impressed with the idea, and decided to look through some of the courses offered. These courses are offered for free (at least for now, but there is a possibility of them becoming paid in the future, albeit affordable). Having come from an Engineering institute and being interested in Humanities, I decided to hunt for a few courses based on Literature/Art. I found one which looked interesting: Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World, a course offered by Prof Eric Rabkin at University of Michigan. The course aims to explore both these genres as insights and art forms. Unfortunately I was already 10 days late into the course (and hence missed one assignment), the reading seems to be a lot given my current pace with books, and the overall workload looked daunting. Nevertheless, I registered last week, and went through with the reading of Grimm's Fairy tales (I needn't have as I could not submit that assignment anyway) and then Lewis Caroll's Alice in Wonderland and Through the looking Glass.

My first readings of these books were in childhood, and those must have been abridged versions adapted for classroom reading. I have had a sort of refresher into these stories with Tim Burton's Alice and the latest HBO series Once upon a time which revisits the fairy-tales with seemingly dark shades. Both screen adaptations are made for a mature audience and I thought they took much liberty with their base material. However, when I revisited the readings, I discovered that the books themselves contained so many dark themes, and encompassed ideas far beyond the reach of children. For instance, Alice's story is rich with themes of death, cultural misinterpretations, teenage angst - concepts alien to me on my first readings. The Grimm's fairytales had more witches than fairies in them and constantly re-emphasized rebellion, cunning and the Universal truths that if you are beautiful, your lies are not necessarily evil and that beauty is a marker of moral superiority.
Of course it is not a new discovery or a complete surprise - leitmotifs from these stories keep cropping in many readings and therefore you learn to acknowledge them as more than just children stories, but re-reading them with this sensitization is a new experience - something I am enjoying so far.
Here is the little note I wrote on Alice (there were word limits of course, which helps me be in check and chose words more carefully, unlike this blog!)

While creating a fantastical world which serves to amuse, Alice's story centers around the theme of growing-up and the angst associated with it. In the beginning of the story, Alice follows after a rabbit, seen as a sign of fertility, and goes into a long tunnel. Both these symbols indicate puberty and developing sexuality, as does her fascination with gardens (an allusion to Eden). At this stage, interacting with world always seems most difficult, as the individual constantly double-guesses herself, which can be seen in Alice's reference to being two different people . Alice's constant need to re-adjust her size is an effort to fit into this new world, not very different from young people constantly trying to adopt new styles, ideologies to feel in place with their peers.
Lewis Caroll attributes this growing-up anxiety to the many rules which children are suddenly exposed to and are expected to follow. While as children they spend most of their time in a homogenous environment, in the outer world they meet people of different status. They are expected to show concerns over the feelings of those weaker, and defer to the stronger. Alice is constantly worried that she would slip up on these rules and say something hurtful; her encounter with the mouse in the beginning shows her constant struggle to remember this. But as time goes forward, she gets more comfortable in these rules and is more careful of what she says to the mock turtle.
The simpler anxiety of forgetting rules is replaced with more complicated ones like political ideas, power games and unfairness, which cause more angst. The young deal with it either through rejection (Alice waking up from a dream) or alternatively with playing by the rules to become more powerful themselves (playing the chess game to become queen). In each case, they lose their blissful ignorance.

This week, its a read of Dracula, and despite the fact that I had done a second reading just 5 years back, I am still finding myself hooked to the book as if it was some new thriller.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Open City - Teju Cole


That I embarked on this book was hardly serendipitous - ever since it came out, critics have been hailing it as a Sebaldian work, and it has found its way on all magazines, blogs which even remotely address Sebald and his fans.
I picked it up, hoping it was not an attempt to follow Sebald's footsteps - there could be nothing exciting about sounding like someone else. In the initial pages itself, Teju Cole is quick to show us that though his narrator goes on long walks, it is in his own city (New York); his meditations on this walk do not transcend the border of time and are often impersonal observations of surrounding life. Contrast that to Sebald's journeys through space and time - he rarely lived in the present, almost always wrote about some unknown village or coastal town far away, and his every reflection seemed to emerge from  or be part of his personal melancholia.
Standing outside of this shadow then, Open City is a great work. The narrator, Julius is a half Nigerian-half German man who is in his final year of Psychiatry fellowship. For a psychiatry student, he is a very detached observer, one who almost never tries to enter a person's head or understand her motives. He instead has experiences which he narrates (mostly without adding his own judgement). The title Open City could as much apply to the city of New York which sees so many amalgamations in it, as it could to the narrator's mind, which allows experiences to drop in one over another, without ever forming decisive opinions.

Some of these observations take place in Brussels: a large part of his Brussels experiences are with a young guy called Farooq who takes care of an internet cafe. During his interactions with Farooq, you can often see Julius swinging between sometimes feeling sympathetic towards him, and at other times feeling annoyed with Farooq's unjust, rhetoric anger. He is impressed with Farroq's reading, knowledge, and soon becomes bored of the excessive bookishness.
At several points the idea of racial identity enters these observations. Julius seems especially averse to belong to a 'group', and seems to hold his African past at bay. He avoids people who begin a kinship with him only because he is African, and yet when he sees a couple of Africans young guys in a deserted park, his reaction is one of relief. This response seems to be borne out of the same kinship which he shrugs off.
In the entire narrative, one place where Julius comes face to face with his own bestiality has been handled with most poise -  something so momentous handled with so little drama. (The ensuing parts give out some details of the plot - so if you have not read the book, you may want to skip this) Here a woman tells Julius how he had raped her long ago, when they were both in Nigeria. How the incident was so insignificant for him that he did not even remember it, and yet how much it had changed her life. She describes the evening with some details, describes how she still finds him the same careless, insensitive man.
Julius offers no thoughts on this encounter - he does not even admit to being ashamed or feeling belittled. You turn the page and he has already moved on to talking about something else. It almost feels like it was another story which he had been told, where he was only an impassioned observer like everything else that went before. He displays more emotion for forgetting his ATM pin. It looks Cole is trying to push the envelope on the level of alienation modern cities instill.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Emergence of Memory: conversations with WG Sebald

Sebald's voice is unmistakable in all his works. All his narrators, the reliable and unreliable ones, speak in his voice. The characters narrated by those narrators speak in his voice. To me, these works are as intimate as you could get with him. And yet, somehow these conversations have been able to achieve a slightly higher degree of intimacy, and I think most of its due to the understanding between the two people conversing.

the emergence of memory is an anthology which was published after Sebald's death. It is a collection of five conversations and four articles/essays which have previously appeared in various publications. They make a good collection, particularly the conversations, tied together by Lynne Schwartz's introduction which touches upon each of Sebald's works available in English, a little bit on his life, and his fascination for death and destruction. Some of the recurrent motifs in Sebald's works are explored here, and the editor has explained that some of these interviews/essays have been chosen to emphasize those motifs, but also to bring forth facets of all of Sebald's works. She also excuses herself for selecting Michael Hoffmann's essay on Sebald as 'one dissenting voice' as a 'skeptical corrective to what otherwise might be a gush of nearly unqualified enthusiasm.'

The two best conversations from this collection are 'Who is WG Sebald?' with Carole Angier which originally appeared in the Jewish Quarterly in 1997, and 'A poem of an invisible subject' with Michael Silverblatt of KCRW which was originally a voice broadcast in 2001 (it can be found here). In his conversation with Carole Angier, Sebald talks primarily about Emigrants, but also somewhat of his disappointments with growing up in Germany, about being shown a film about concentration camps, but hurriedly, without explanations. Carole Angier seems to say little during the conversation, but offers some of her perceptions as she recollects the interview (He can tell me this. I think, because his mother will never read the Jeweish Quarterly). She tries to understand the stories of the real people behind the Emigrants, and whether Sebald felt any discomfort in changing the stories of his models. Sebald evades answering this, and his discomfort becomes evident in this evasion. He has mentioned in a few places his unease with 'the questionable business of writing'.
Silverblatt's conversation has already been much discussed and praised for its perceptiveness. It is very perceptive ofcourse, and probes Sebald on his writing influences. The influence of 19th century German prose, or Thomas Bernhard. But this interview also brings out in the open the fact that Sebald kept circling the theme of holocaust without dealing with it directly in the prose. Sebald agreed:
I've always felt that it was necessary above all to write about the history of persecution, of vilification of minorities, the attempt, well nigh achieved, to eradicate a whole people. And I was, in pursuing these ideas, at the same time conscious that its practically impossible to do this; to write about concentration camps in my view is practically impossible. So you need to find ways of convincing the reader that this is something on your mind but that you do not necessarily roll out on every other page.
....there is no point in exaggerating that which is already horrific.
In the conversation with Joseph Cuomo, Sebald discusses lot more about writing, about the conflict between conjuring lies and giving liberty to imagination. It is a must-read to understand some of his conflicts. Sebald has been most expansive here. Some of the excerpts of this interview can be found here.
Amongst the essays, there is only Ruth Franklin's Rings of Smoke (Link) worth talking of. She has discussed each of Sebald's work, sieving through them, quoting the most essentials parts of them and connecting them together. And despite her enthusiasm for Sebald, she offers a counterpoint to his essays in On the natural history of destruction.
I do not even want to credit Michael Hoffmann's essay - it is an insult to counter-balance. There is unabashed criticism, but no critique and the reasons for his dissatisfaction in Sebald are altogether unclear.
Overall a good collection, though i think the essays could have been sacrificed for more interviews.