31 maio 2006

30 maio 2006

Not my fault, honest

Rock in Río se celebrará en 2007 en Madrid

LISBOA.- Madrid acogerá en 2007 la próxima edición del festival de música Rock in Río, según una fuente próxima al empresario brasileño organizador del certamen, Roberto Medina, citada por la agencia Efe.

La fuente explicó que el festival tendrá cinco días de conciertos y la misma "dimensión y dinámica semejante" a las ediciones de Lisboa, que lo acoge desde el pasado día 26 por segunda ocasión, después de que la cita en 2004 tuviese cerca de 385.000 espectadores.

La fuente indicó que ya tienen firmado un protocolo con las autoridades de la Comunidad de Madrid y del Ayuntamiento de la capital de España y que "sólo resta cerrar algunos detalles".

25 maio 2006

Man With a Hook

This man I
know (about a year
ago, when he was young) blew
his arm off in the cellar
making bombs
to explode the robins
on the lawns.

Now he has a hook
instead of a hand;

It is an ingenious
gadget, and comes
with various attachments:
knife for meals,
pink plastic hand for everyday
handshakes, black stuffed leather glove
for social functions

I attempt pity

But, Look, he says, glittering
like a fanatic, My hook
is an improvement:
and to demonstrate
lowers his arm: the steel question-
mark turns and opens,
and from his burning cigarette
and holds the delicate
ash: a thing
my clumsy tender-
skinned pink fingers
couldn't do.

- Margaret Atwood

24 maio 2006

Kimchi Adulation, With a Side of Skepticism

For years, Koreans have clung to the notion that kimchi, the pungent fermented cabbage that is synonymous with their culture, has mystical properties that ward off disease. But what was once little more than an old wives' tale has become the subject of serious research, as South Korean scientists put kimchi under their microscopes.

Last month, scientists at the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute unveiled a kimchi especially developed for astronauts to prevent them from getting constipated in space. A researcher at Ewha Woman's University in Seoul reported that kimchi lowered the stress levels of caged mice by 30%.

At the Kimchi Research Institute in Busan, hairless mice fed kimchi were reported to develop fewer wrinkles. With a government grant of $500,000, the institute is developing a special anti-aging kimchi that will be marketed this year. Other new products are anti-cancer and anti-obesity kimchi.

"We are proud that we can use scientific methods to confirm the health benefits of our traditional food," said Park Kun-young, who heads the institute.

Kimchi specialists abound here. The library of a kimchi museum in Seoul holds more than 2,000 books about kimchi and thousands more dissertations. ("A Kinetic Model for Lactic Acid Production in Kimchi" was among the recent titles.) New theses are being added at the rate of 300 per year.

Kimchi is a matter of great national pride, and much of the research has been government-funded.

"I think kimchi practically defines Korean-ness," said Park Chae-lin, curator of the museum.

Understandably, perhaps, dissenters on the topic of its healing power are circumspect.

"I'm sorry. I can't talk about the health risks of kimchi in the media. Kimchi is our national food," said a researcher at Seoul National University, who begged not to be quoted by name.

Among the papers not to be found in the vast library of the kimchi museum is one published in June 2005 in the Beijing-based World Journal of Gastroenterology titled "Kimchi and Soybean Pastes Are Risk Factors of Gastric Cancer."

The researchers, all South Korean, report that kimchi and other spicy and fermented foods could be linked to the most common cancer among Koreans. Rates of gastric cancer among Koreans and Japanese are 10 times higher than in the United States.

"We found that if you were a very, very heavy eater of kimchi, you had a 50% higher risk of getting stomach cancer," said Kim Heon of the department of preventive medicine at Chungbuk National University and one of the authors. "It is not that kimchi is not a healthy food — it is a healthy food, but in excessive quantities there are risk factors."

Kim said he tried to publicize the study but a friend who is a science reporter, told him, "This will never be published in Korea."

Other studies have suggested that the heavy concentration of salt in some kimchi and the fish sauce used for flavoring could be problematic, but they too have received comparatively little attention.

Even the most ardent proponents say that at times, kimchi might be too much of a good thing.

Nutritionist Park, who in addition to the Kimchi Research Institute heads the Korea Kimchi Assn. and the Korean Society for Cancer Prevention, said that traditionally, kimchi contained a great deal of salt, which could combine with red pepper to form a carcinogen.

Nowadays, with refrigeration, less salt is needed, Park said. Instead of preserving kimchi by burying it in earthenware jars in the garden, many Koreans own specially designed refrigerators to keep it at ideal temperatures.

The beneficial power of kimchi comes from the lactic acid bacteria (also found in yogurt and other fermented foods) that helps in digestion and, according to some researchers, boosts immunity. In addition, the vegetables are excellent sources of vitamin C and antioxidants, which are believed to protect cells from carcinogens. The high fiber content aids bowel function.

Although the most recognizable kind of kimchi is made with Chinese cabbage, other variants are made with radish, garlic stalks, eggplant and mustard leaf, among other ingredients. In all, there are about 200 types of kimchi — plastic models of which are on display at the kimchi museum in Seoul.

Korean pride swelled when the U.S. magazine Health listed kimchi in its March issue as one of the world's five most healthful foods. (The others are yogurt, olive oil, lentils and soy.)

In fact, interest in kimchi's curative properties has risen proportionally with fears related to diseases such as severe acute respiratory syndrome and avian flu.

During the 2003 panic over SARS, people started remarking that Korea seemed curiously immune, and speculation revolved around kimchi.

In March, LG Electronics put out a new line of air conditioners that have an enzyme extracted from kimchi (called leuconostoc) in the filters.

Healthful or not, the kimchi industry is booming, abroad and at home. South Koreans consume 77 pounds of it per capita annually, and many people eat it with every meal, according to industry statistics. Koreans traveling abroad seem to take it with them everywhere.

And that will soon include outer space.

"Koreans can't go anywhere without kimchi," said Byun Myung-woo, head of a team of scientists who developed a specially sterilized form of kimchi for astronauts.

The idea came about because taste and smell are greatly diminished in low-gravity conditions, giving astronauts a preference for strongly spiced foods. And astronauts often suffer from digestive problems.

"The kimchi will prevent constipation and enhance their digestive functions," Byun said.

Space kimchi is expected to make its debut in 2008, when the first South Korean astronauts are scheduled to travel on the Russian spacecraft Soyuz.

Memorable Quotes of the Day

From High Fidelity which has been recently revisited:

Laura: Listen, Rob, would you have sex with me? Because I want to feel something else than this. It either that, or I go home and put my hand in the fire. Unless you want to stub cigarettes out on my arm.
Rob: No. I only have a few left, I've been saving them for later.
Laura: Right. It'll have to be sex, then.
Rob: Right. Right.

Rob: I can see now I never really committed to Laura. I always had one foot out the door, and that prevented me from doing a lot of things, like thinking about my future and... I guess it made more sense to commit to nothing, keep my options open. And that's suicide. By tiny, tiny increments.

Barry: OK, buddy, uh, I was just tryin' to cheer us up so go ahead. Put on some old sad bastard music, see if I care.
Rob: I don't wanna hear old sad bastard music, Barry, I just want something I can ignore.


23 maio 2006

Been there... in Lisbon :)

Input your tips about Lisbon :)
Registration required, but one of the most no-fuss I've ever encountered, thank heavens|

Guy (Lad) Lit — Whatever

"What I like best is a book that's at least funny once in a while. ... What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn't happen much, though." So noted Holden Caulfield, the sardonic prep-school dropout in The Catcher in the Rye (1951), who, by age 16, had already had his fill of phonies.

From the fanfare that recently greeted Benjamin Kunkel's debut novel, Indecision (2005), you'd think that Holden's creator, the famously reclusive J.D. Salinger, had come out of seclusion. Jay McInerney raved about the book on the cover of The New York Times Book Review, and the paper's usually implacably tough daily reviewer, Michiko Kakutani, went so far as to channel Holden's voice in her laudatory review.

Kunkel's is the latest in a spate of books that have collectively been dubbed "lad lit," the male riposte to "chick lit" — that juggernaut spearheaded by Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary in 1996, which sold two million copies and spawned both a sequel and a companion book, two films, and countless imitators. Each of the recent lad novels is a sort of anti-bildungsroman, in which a sardonic, clever, unapologetic slacker refuses to grow up, get a meaningful job, commit to relationships, or find any meaning in life.

Like chick lit, lad lit has a British pedigree, with Nick Hornby providing the touchstone texts of the genre. Rob, the protagonist in High Fidelity (1995), is a 35-year-old London slacker who works at a record store and organizes his life by Top 5 lists; the well-named Will Lightman in About a Boy (1998) drifts along on inherited family money (his father composed a horrific but massively successful Christmas jingle). Worldly wise and wisecracking, both are temperamentally unable to commit to relationships or a sense of purpose in their own lives. But then something happens, and they actually do get a life.

The genre's American ancestry is rooted in the "brat pack" fiction of the 1980s, most notably McInerney's own Bright Lights, Big City (1984). Like Hornby's protagonists, McInerney's unnamed 24-year-old narrator, adrift in the big city — bored with his job, suffering writer's block, left by his wife, coked and clubbing every night — eventually finds a modicum of redemption, repudiating the corruption of the city and starting over. In Britain the term "lad lit" evokes a certain type of urban male — part slacker, part metrosexual; here in the States, there's no corresponding notion of laddism. What the Brits call lads, we call simply guys. Guys play poker and video games, drink, ogle women, and lounge around their grungy apartments.

Here, then, is a summary of guy-lit novels:

I may be 30, but I act 15. I am adrift in New York. I'm too clever by half for my own good. I live on puns and snide, sarcastic asides. I don't look too deeply into myself or anyone else — everyone else is boring or a phony anyway. I may be a New Yorker, but I am not in therapy. I have a boring job, for which I am overeducated and underqualified, but I lack the ambition to commit to a serious career. (Usually I have family money.) I hang out with my equally disconnected friends in many of the city's bars. I drink a lot, take recreational drugs, don't care about much except being clever. I recently broke up with my girlfriend, and while I am eager to have sex, which I do often given the zillions of available women in New York, the sex is not especially fulfilling, and emotions rarely enter the picture. I am deeply shallow. And I know it.

Oh, and then something happens. I go on a journey, get inside the media machinery, sort-of fall for a new girl. Or 9/11 happens, but that doesn't really affect me much either. And though I might now mouth some bland platitudes about change, anyone can see that I'm still the same guy I was before. Only different. But not really.

Virtually every writer of guy lit is an almost-thirtysomething graduate of an elite college or university. Their college pedigrees read like the college rankings at a certain national magazine: Brown (Sam Lipsyte), Harvard (Benjamin Kunkel), Stanford (Erik Barmack), Wesleyan (Scott Mebus), Yale (Kyle Smith). Each writer, and their characters, lives in New York City. Each work is written in the first person, by a destabilized, unreliable narrator; these books are like one long run-on sentence of self-justification and rationalization. "I don't want your wholesome values, your reasonably good judgment," says Jeb Braun, protagonist in Erik Barmack's The Virgin. "My goal isn't to please you. So if you're expecting the whole handshake and nod routine, you can stop reading right now." (Several authors refer to "the book you hold in your hand," as if to distance themselves even further from their own sad story.)

Back in the 60s, we probably would have cheered wildly for these characters' iconoclastic brio. Forty years later, though, their "whatevers" have a more callow ring. (McInerney's novel, written in the second person, is as much admonishing as admiring.)

"I don't have a girlfriend now: I played the field and the field won," Tom Farrell, from Kyle Smith's Love Monkey, informs us. When one of his girlfriends says she'd like to keep things platonic, he asks, "Who was Plato anyway? A guy who didn't need to get laid? This makes him a hero?" Scott Mebus's antihero in Booty Nomad can't even bring himself to remember his girlfriends' names; instead, he gives them sexual nicknames like "Totem Pole" and "Bendy Girl."

Despite being obsessed with getting laid, the characters, oddly, seem unconcerned about sex itself. Perhaps it is too demanding. Tom Farrell's most emotionally intimate conversations are with his penis.

Nor does anyone seem especially ambitious professionally. "I don't like work, for one thing," declares Jeb Braun in The Virgin, ever so matter-of-factly. "I don't enjoy it. And also I'm not very good at it." The characters drift from job to job; some are fired, some quit. Sam Lipsyte's Teabag, in Home Land, punctures the veneer of those who believe "that we are all of us blessed with talents, skill sets, and if we just stay the course, apply a little elbow grease, ride out the bumps and grinds of decreasing economic indicators, life will shine like our new 'professional' kitchens."

"Dream on, worm bait," he hastens to add.

Political commitment also is scorned, seen as a naïve symptom of actually caring about something. Two books cynically pivot on 9/11, but even that disaster is hardly the jolt required for transformation. Kunkel's main character, Dwight Wilmerding — high on Ecstasy and having just had sex with his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend — completely misses the tragedy unfolding before his eyes. And Farrell watches the World Trade Center fall and immediately thinks it's a good time to score with one of his exes. But the first girl he calls already has other plans: She's trying to catch up on work. "Sigh. Is everyone in New York thinking this way? Major terrorist attack = a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for extra credit?" His would-be girlfriend can't bear to watch it on TV, not because it's so horrific, but because she "got bored." "Exactly how I felt," says Tom.

While the characters of Smith and Mebus are weak-willed and wan, Barmack and Kunkel make an effort to move their characters beyond sarcastic wisecracks into something resembling transformation. Not that we exactly trust Dwight Wilmerding's sort-of political transformation to slogan-spouting socialism lite, especially since his revelation is inspired by copious amounts of a mystical drug from the Ecuadorean highlands; a sexual encounter with a mysterious Belgian anthropologist; and his prescription for Abulinix, a new, untried prescription medication that may relieve symptoms of indecisiveness.

Instead of spouting self-promoting justifications, Barmack's Jeb is mostly tongue-tied, never knowing quite what to say, what he feels, or even if he feels anything at all. He tries to navigate the world of phonies as the contestant on a reality TV show called The Virgin, a sort of sexually explicit Dating Game, in which a gorgeous virgin gets to choose the man who will deflower her. When the producer directs Jeb to show some emotion on the air when it is disclosed that he is the "winner," Jeb basically shrugs his shoulders and asks exactly what he should feel, so that he can then try to feel it. But Jeb's insights come cheap: Barmack's brilliant satire of the world of television descends to flaccid gender-bending at the novel's anticlimax.

The characters in these books are as unmemorable and faceless as the men in the gray flannel suits they hold in such contempt. None will hold up like Holden Caulfield because what makes him so endearing, and The Catcher in the Rye so enduring, is that he actually believes his own hype. Holden believes that he and he alone is morally superior to all the phonies he sees around him. The purveyors of guy lit implicate themselves. They know how inauthentic they are. Salinger is at heart a romantic; Kunkel et al. are cynics. Holden feels too much; Dwight and the others feel too little, if anything at all.

And that may be guy lit's biggest problem: Its readers are unlikely to resemble the guys the books are ostensibly about. As long as the antiheroes stay stuck, and the transformative trajectory is either insincere, as in Kunkel's Indecision, or nonexistent, as in Smith's Love Monkey, these writers will miss their largest potential audience. For it is women who buy the most books, and what women seem to want is for men to be capable of changing (and to know that a woman's love can change them).

Sales of these books have been even more sluggish than the novels' protagonists. (Only Kunkel has achieved a modicum of commercial success, appearing briefly on a couple of regional best-seller lists.) In fact, the genre was declared dead a year before Kunkel's book was even published. The critic Laura Miller wrote the genre's obituary in 2004, in The New York Times Book Review. "If female readers allowed themselves to believe that most straight men spend their time holding conversations with their penises, watching the Cartoon Network, fiddling with their rotisserie baseball teams, and contemplating the fine art of passing gas on subway trains, romance — and perhaps even human reproduction itself — would grind to a halt," wrote Miller.

Women won't read these books unless there is some hope of redemption, some effort these guys make to change. And men won't read them because, well, real men don't read.

The characters in guy lit are stuck in boyhood. Their creators may use up every clever undergraduate phrase they've ever jotted down during a boring literature class, but stringing together such back-of-the-class witticisms does not make a novel, and feckless indifference is a posture hard to sustain. Yeah, sure, Kunkel and the others are funny once in a while. But frankly, I'm not at all sure that Holden — or I, for that matter — would want to be friends with them.

22 maio 2006

How to Measure

Measuring things is one of the greatest sources of unhappiness. Comparison always comes hard on the heels of measurement, and envy and bitterness follow shortly after. Some primitive tribes had a taboo on counting, and they may well have been on to something.

Men know three measurements off by heart: how large their salary is, how long their penis is and how big their car's engine is. Happiness for men is when salary over engine times penis equals 20. Women are much more sensible, and are more concerned with quality than quantity, except when it comes to shoes.

People tend to remember their vital measurements at different times in their life. For example, most people will remember what their waist measurement was when they were 32 and wonder for ever afterwards why their trousers no longer fit.

Some people, especially at work, like to measure everything, because this makes them feel as though they are in control. In reality, for everything that's accurately measured, there's some big and blobby unknown quantity lurking just around the corner.

Traditional imperial measurements are based on understandable human measurements. For example, a yard was the length of a man's belt. It was also how far you could walk before you fell over after you'd taken off your belt. Similarly, a mile is 2,000 paces. When you try to count up to 2,000 paces, a kilometre is roughly where you get to by the time you forget what number you're on.

Most everyday objects are measured in feet, except for horses, which are measured in hands. Really large things are measured in double-decker buses, swimming pools or football pitches. For conversion purposes, a football pitch is 124 buses and a bus holds one 18th of a swimming pool.

Minutes and hours are measured in 60s. The national speed limit and retirement age are also 60, or thereabouts. We used to work 60-hour weeks and retire at 60. Now the EU has put in speed bumps and we have to work 35 hours a week and retire at 70.

Very long distances are measured in light years. For example, it would take 30,000 light years to reach the edge of our galaxy. But long before that happened, someone would accidentally turn off the light because they thought you weren't in the room.
The Guardian

Anthony Beevor and Terry Jones on Radio 4

I listened to this while driving back from the airport today (God bless AM). Quite interesting, Terry Jones deriding the Romans in praise of the Celts and Anthony Beevor (at the end of the broadcast, I believe) on the Spanish Civil War and his book.

21 maio 2006

The Saddest Thing I Own

My Dog is the saddest thing I owned, my Dad used to pickup injured or astrayed dogs that my brothers and I now refer as family memories; them and their injuries funny how they moved about in their handycapped twisted ways but they all were faithful and loving even if they had been abused. Then one day i decided to get my own Dog, got him for $75.00 a pure (pedigree and all) chow-chow (food in china about 500 years ago, you know?!) beautiful and not vicious at all!! named him “tylo” after my husband’s favorite childhood movie (about a dog that had been granted to be human for a day) and now I have this dog in a prison(my house) I leave him all day alone, watch his behaviour via internet from work , he is lonely sits by the door most of time , sleeps 78% of the day since I’m too tired to walk him when I come home at nite (my husband and I carpool) and yet he’s there…old faithful, it’s sad, sad how we turned animals into possessions and victims of slavery.

Why does anyone translate?

Tim Wilkinson, the English translator of Imre Kertész, talks about the lack of literary translations in the UK and US, and assesses past, present, and forthcoming efforts to bring Hungarian literary fiction to the English-speaking market.

Why does anyone translate? The question is not mine, but comes from a typically bracing comment by Thomas Bernhard: "Translators are ghastly: poor devils who get nothing for a translation, only the lowliest fee – shamefully low, as they are wont to say – and they accomplish a ghastly job. In other words: the balance is restored. If a person does something that is worth nothing, then they should get nothing for it. Why does anyone translate? Why don't they write their own stuff instead?"

As someone who has been trying to make a livelihood from translating contemporary Hungarian fiction, the comment rings so true that I increasingly ask myself why I thought, eight years ago, that this might be viable. Having learned the language through working in Hungary during the early 1970s, I had done occasional translations of more or less academic (mainly historical) works as a "hobby" without thinking of it as a possible full-time pursuit. That changed after my encounter with the work of Imre Kertész, and specifically, in 1995, with Kaddish for an Unborn Child (though I had previously read his earlier two novels). By then I was very attuned to Bernhard's writings, and I was struck by how in this short novel Kertész was doing something recognizably similar yet with even more complex overtones. Curious to see how the text might look in English, I did a rough translation for myself. While finishing that in late 1996, though, I discovered that a translation of the work had just been published in the US. On obtaining a copy of this, I was horrified to find it was teeming with errors and elementary failures of comprehension (see my article in the Hungarian Quarterly No. 168, Winter 2002). My regular trips to Budapest had begun to net a growing pile of fascinating works by other authors, so with Hungary scheduled to be the featured country at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1999, it seemed to be the right time to make the leap and commit to becoming a full-time freelance translator.

It is probably naive to think that one can buck long-running trends, however. On my informal count, translations of just 36 serious novel titles by 20 authors have been put out by UK and/or US publishers over the 16 years since 1989 (to use that as a convenient marker), and that total includes two books (by Frigyes Karinthy and Lajos Zilahy) that were reissues of old (pre-war) translations and three (two by Imre Kertész, one by Magda Szabó) that were translated twice over because the first translation proved inadequate. In a nutshell: two titles per year. Of the 20 authors, just eight are living (yielding 20 titles), of whom three (Péter Esterházy, Péter Nádas, and Imre Kertész) account for 12 titles (admittedly one of the other five living authors is György Konrád, who already had four fiction titles translated by the mid-1980s). Eight of the clutch of 16 titles by 12 dead authors, incidentally, were originally published in Hungary during the seven-year spell 1935-42. The good news is that living authors have only had to wait, on average, nine years to see a title make it into English translation; for the dead writers, the average is over 60 years.

According to the Guardian Review (14 January 2006), "There has never been such a boom in book buying and reading. Overall, books cost less than ever, and there has never been such a wonderful variety of new titles from smaller publishers." True, but it happens not to cover fiction in translation, which is in decline. In the UK (population 60 million) an astonishing 120 000 book titles of every possible category are published annually, including 5000 that one might class as adult fiction titles, but no more than 100 to 200 of those (2-4 per cent) are translations (the figures for the US are not very different). The usual contrast is with Germany (population 80 million). There, some 75 000 book titles are published annually, including approximately 3500 new fiction titles, of which as many as 1400 (approximately 40 per cent) are translations. If one looks specifically at works translated from Hungarian: not only did more of these appear in German during 1999 alone than in English during the entire 16 years since 1989, but on average, ten times more titles are published annually in Germany than in the UK.

As a result, a huge range of works by Hungarian authors, and a body of informed criticism of contemporary Hungarian literature, is now available in German. Corresponding guidance simply does not exist in English, and with the run-down of the public library system, one would have trouble locating even what little published work has been translated. The Hungarian Book Foundation ( www.hunlit.hu) tries to help, in part by also supporting the website Hungarian Literature Online. For 40 years, the Hungarian Quarterly has admirably sought to bring choice delicacies to English readers, and is now available online. This magazine has a regular literary column that reviews ten to twelve new books a year, though it often presumes an intimacy with Hungarian authors and works that a non-Hungarian readership cannot possibly have. A "The Best of the Hungarian Quarterly" was published by the Harvill Press in 2004 (An Island of Sound: Hungarian Poetry and Fiction before and beyond the Iron Curtain, eds. George Szirtes and Miklós Vajda); a laudable project, though the book tries to cover too much and is rather uneven, while failing to be very informative on the literary justification for the selection. Better on that score, though obviously narrower in focus, is Contemporary Jewish Writing in Hungary: an Anthology, eds. Susan Rubin Suleiman and Eva Forgács (Univ. of Nebraska Press, 2003). But that is more or less the extent of it.

So what needs to be tackled? At the request of Context, an occasional American literary magazine associated with the Dalkey Archive Press that devotes particular attention to literature in translation, I wrote a short article on Hungarian fiction since 1975 which mentioned 77 works by a "Top 20" list of authors. As only 19 of the titles mentioned there have been published in English translation, that leaves a lot to go for (30 years' worth at current rates of translation), and nearly half the authors have brought out newer work since then. Quite apart from hopes for the remaining four to five volumes by Imre Kertész that have yet to make it to English, if pressed on personal favourites, they would be László Márton's The True History of Jacob Wunschwitz or anything after it (especially A Shady High Street); Endre Kukorelly's Fairy-Vale, or Riddles of the Heart of a Man; Zsolt Láng's Transylvanian Bestiary (2 volumes); with Gábor Németh's Jewish, Are You? (2004) as a wild card. László Krasznahorkai also merits wider recognition, and his soon-to-be-published War and War (New Directions, 2006) may or may not achieve that. While the fêting of Sandor Márai is all very well, it would be gratifying to see acknowledgement for more original writers of the recent past, such as Géza Ottlik or Miklós Mészöly.

Still, the question remains: Why does anyone translate? The above authors share the feature that, besides writing marvellously distinctive Hungarian prose, they offer fresh and highly individual approaches to how one thinks about the world – above all, about history and personal identity. That, surely, is the whole point of serious literature. By contrast, most UK writers are, in my view, terminally derivative and boring, and an infusion of new thinking would not come amiss there or in the US. The bottom line was well expressed by Ezra Pound in The ABC of Reading: "The sum of human wisdom is not contained in any one language, and no single language is CAPABLE of expressing all forms and degrees of human comprehension." Moreover, noted Pound, "If a nation's literature declines, the nation atrophies and decays."


19 maio 2006

Magnum, Slate and the Louvre

Hands down, as usual:

And some others:


Andalucia, Sept 1936

Leia mais:

Alentejo Blue by Monica Ali

The setting this time is Mamarrosa, a dead-end village in a minimally described corner of the Alentejo area of Portugal. Ali peoples the village with locals and an assortment of estrangeiros. In nine chapters, the many residents meditate on life's purpose or purposelessness. While it was still a work in progress, Ali referred to Alentejo Blue as a "novel," but it is now being advertised alternatively as a "collection of stories" and as "fiction." None of the chapters coheres well enough to be read as a short story; the sum of them does not add up to a novel. In her acknowledgments, Ali tells us more clearly how not to approach the book than how to, describing it as "neither a history book nor a travel book, only a work of fiction."

Mamarrosa is intended to be viewed as an allegorical place. Except for insistent references to cork trees (and to the decline in international demand for cork) and the occasional cataloguing of Alentejo flora, this village could be anywhere in southern Europe. It has
a bar, a general store, a pharmacy, a cell-phone store with a flashing Vodafone sign, and an Internet café whose computers don't function. These are convenient sites for random reunions of quarrelsome or restless locals, naive tourists, and condescending expatriates who have little in common. But Ali's imaginary village is bland and lacks the allegorical complexity and emotional density of García Márquez's Macondo, Narayan's Malgudi, or Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County.

Ali's villagers are expedient mouthpieces for philosophical inquiries into the natural and moral laws of the universe. Is it possible to believe in God and salvation and have faith in organized religion in a world in which evil operates as forcefully as good? Ali does not intend for her characters to engage the reader's sympathy. She treats us instead to a parade of the flamboyantly freakish and the downright repulsive. The cast is huge—there's an obese bartender who delivers a Hamlet-like soliloquy on whether to eat or not to eat a piece of stale cake, a finicky British author writing on Blake but suffering from writer's block, and a dysfunctional English family that includes a lip-reading teenage nymphomaniac who sports a cheap, ugly hearing aid, a stolen pair of sunglasses, and a navel stud.

There is little action in Alentejo Blue, because Ali permits little to happen in Mamarrosa. For one young woman, Teresa, who works as a sales clerk in the general store, the high point of the day is watching her boss "put rat poison in the store room." She dreams of escaping to England as an au pair. Her birthplace, she laments, is good only for being turned into amusing anecdotes.

Ali dangles possibilities of melodramatic plot turns—outed cuckoldry, teenage pregnancy, illegal abortion, and charges of murder—but does not follow through. What conflict there is takes place on a metaphysical plane, between the impulse to despair and the impulse to hope. The catalyst is Marco, the only native son who's left Mamarrosa and made a fortune (or so the villagers need to believe) and who, early in the novel, is rumored to be returning home. The Portugese residents look to Marco as a caring, powerful god who, if properly prayed to, can resuscitate the moribund village economy and grant each of them material boons. It's hard to escape the implicit parallel between waiting for Marco and waiting for Godot. But unlike Godot, Marco does appear, in the novel's final chapter: He gets off the train, an ageless man with unblinking (all-seeing?) eyes, dressed in jeans, scuffed shoes and a theatrical black cape. He then skips out of Mamarrosa without acknowledging the villagers' petitions.

Ali jump-starts a meditation on mortality and salvation with a stunning scene of an eighty-four-year-old Portugese peasant, João, cutting down the body of his octogenarian friend, Rui, who has hanged himself, and pantomiming the act of love with Rui's corpse. Slowly, we learn that Rui had once been a believer in reform through revolution; that he had fought against Portugal's onetime dictator António de Oliveira Salazar and been tortured; that he had witnessed the passing of military oppression and its replacement by economic exploitation. Still later, we learn that João's village has been afflicted by loss of hope and an epidemic of suicide. João, cradling the corpse of the friend he had secretly desired for decades but made love to on only one furtive occasion, laments the passing of desire. In this opening chapter, Ali renders political disenchantment, exploitative globalization, and repressed lust with laconic lyricism.

Unfortunately, Ali forces João and Rui to yield narrative space to a succession of feckless characters. Their ruminations on life would be banal if Ali had not given them some intellectual heft through allusions to Blake's visionary poems. One of the estrangeiros is Stanton, an expert on the English poet. Stanton's struggle to revive his muse, and his seduction of the wife and the daughter of China Potts, another Englishman, is the most fully developed tale in this collage of life narratives. At the end, still suffering from writer's block, and having learned little about himself other than that he savors his seductions more for their potential as material than for the actual pleasure they afford, Stanton decides to move on to Prague, "where writers met in cafés with notebooks and grievances and discourse flowed on the meaning of life and of death."

The chief lesson to be gleaned from the many characters' musings is something like, There's no explaining why some people are victims and others victimizers. An English schoolteacher spending her midterm break in Alentejo recalls the words of a schoolboy who has written a failing paper on Lord of the Flies: "There's no reason why it should turn out like that. It could go one way or another." A Blakean symmetry prevails in Ali's moral universe, holding in place the lamb and the "tyger": the victim and the predator.

In any event, Alentejo Blue does defy expectations. Ali risks disappointing fans who are looking for more on Bangladeshi Britons, while her deployment of philosophical discourse in place of believable characters and compelling situations will certainly put off other readers. At least for this audacity, she is to be praised.

17 maio 2006

Why has Spain fallen in love with architecture?

The death of General Franco in November 1975 triggered a design revolution in those regions within Spain repressed since the Caudillo seized power in 1939. In Barcelona, street signs along the Avenida Generalissimo Franco were torn down, a satisfying moment for Catalans whose language, culture and politics had been suppressed.

In 1980, Catalonia regained its autonomy. Two years later, Pasqual Maragall was elected mayor of Barcelona. Maragall championed a strenuous reconstruction of this magnificent seaport. Architecture played a key role. The city planner, Oriol Bohigas, brought intelligent redevelopment to its poorest squares, while a cluster of bright young architects shone through with the design of enticing new bars, clubs and restaurants. And then came the 1992 Olympics. Investment in ambitious new buildings, parks and civic engineering pole-vaulted. Barcelona became a magnet for architectural innovation as it had been in the heyday of Antoni Gaudi, designer of the sensational Sagrada Familia. Today there are said to be more architects at work there than in New York.

The Barcelona experience affected Bilbao. Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum made this neglected Basque city the centre of international attention. In turn this inspired a revival of architecture that spread across Spain and reached out to the world, employing internationally acclaimed architects. Now it is beguiled by the sorcery of Zaha Hadid, whose Spiralling Tower design for Barcelona was commissioned this week.

Spain's own talent has blossomed abundantly too, helped by attitudes to heritage and planning very different from those in Britain. In the smallest Spanish towns it is possible to see bright new buildings that would be a credit to Barcelona or Bilbao jostling happily with historic neighbours. The desire to shape a visibly worthwhile new world in a country that had once produced both the sensual delights of the Alhambra and the religious rigours of the Escorial continues apace as the ghosts of four decades of dictatorship are finally laid to rest.

More Kurosawa drawings

Found the exhibition (now over) site in Tokyo

16 maio 2006

Periods: the final frontier

There's a story I've been touting round the national papers recently which has been touched upon by a few columnists and raised some interest from women's magazines, but that has not been given the mainstream coverage it deserves.

The story is this: in Zimbabwe there has been a massive dip in the amount of sanitary products - tampons and towels - available to women due to the relocation of the manufacturers of these products from Zimbabwe to South Africa because of the current economic crisis. Those that are available are hugely expensive - a single box of tampons (most women use three boxes a month) costing nearly a third of the average wage for a woman in Zimbabwe (and practically 100 per cent of the wage of farm workers, domestic workers and women in the informal economy).

Consequently women are being forced to find alternate means of containing their menstrual blood. In many cases this means using old newspaper or cloth, leading in many cases to infection. Infections are obviously a big problem alone. But they also lead to other problems such as violence against women where lack of understanding means that infections are blamed on sexual promiscuity. Such infections also create the optimal biological environment for the spread of disease, particularly HIV/Aids. And of course there's a lack of dignity and the effect on education and work - in some cases girls are having to take a week each month off school and women are having to miss a week of work each month.

Of course many developing countries don't have access to modern sanitary methods. In Zimbabwe's case however there was for many years pretty much full access to tampons and towels. Consequently the knowledge of more traditional methods has been lost. Occasionally women in today's Zimbabwe will hear a story of how a certain type of tree bark was once used, but with just tiny fragments of information about the preparation of these methods it is being used the wrong way and also leading to infection.

This shortage of sanitary products is at the centre of a major campaign by Actsa (Action for Southern Africa). Their Dignity.Period! campaign is drawing attention to this issue and raising money to import sanitary products to Zimbabwe. The Zimbabwean government however has a nasty habit, one of many, of blocking products, even those donated free, and charging import taxes that go up hourly, costing organisations like Actsa many thousands of pounds.

The only way this will stop and the women of Zimbabwe will be given their health, and their dignity, back, is if this issue is highly publicized. But who will discuss periods? Certainly many of the editors I approached thought the subject too icky for their readers, by which I suspect they mean their male readers as women's magazines are awash with articles about periods.

Yes periods are icky, and by their very nature rather messy. But there's far more to being able to talk about it than a bit of blue liquid on an absorbent pad in a television advert or a woman in white trousers rollerskating down a promenade.

If it were the other way round - if say penises were falling off, would the world take note? Absolutely. But it's periods and seen as a women's issue and, as one editor put it to me, it seems that periods truly are the final frontier.


Late Night ROTFLOL


15 maio 2006

Passion for Paper

I am a digitally-enabled, network-ready scholar. I check e-mail and browse the Web. I read RSS feeds. I leverage Web 2.0’s ambient findability to implement AJAX-based tagsonomy-focused long-tail wiki content alerting via preprint open-access e-archives with social networking services. I am so enthusiastic about digital scholarship that about a year ago I published a piece in my scholarly association’s newsletter advocating that we incorporate it into our publications program. The piece was pretty widely read. At annual meetings I had colleagues tell me that they really like it and are interested in digital scholarship but they still (and presumably unlike me) enjoy reading actually physical books. This always surprised me because I love books too, and it never occurred to me that an interest in digital scholarship meant turning your back on paper. So just to set the record straight, I would like to state in this (admittedly Web-only) public forum that I have a deep and abiding passion for paper: I love it. Love it.

It’s true that there is a lot of stuff you can do with PDFs and the Web that you can’t do with paper, but too often people take this to mean that digital resources “have features” or “are usable” while paper is just, you know, paper. But this is not correct — paper (like any information technology) has its own unique form of usability just as digital resources have theirs. Our current students are unused to paper and attribute the frustration they feel when they use it as a mere lack of usability when in fact they simply haven’t figured out how it works. Older scholars, meanwhile, tend to forget about paper’s unique utility because using it has simply become second nature to them.

Some of the features of paper are well known: Reading more than three pages of text on a screen makes your eyes bleed, but I can read paper for hours. You can underline, highlight, and annotate paper in a way that is still impossible with Web pages. And, of course, in the anarchy after The Big Electromagnetic Pulse the PDFs will be wiped clean off my hard drive but I will still be able to barter my hard copy of Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of the Religious Life for food and bullets.

But my passion for paper is about more than preserving the sociological canon in a post-apocalyptic future. Using paper is embodied in a way that using digital resources are not. Paper has a corporeality that digital texts do not. For instance, have you ever tried to find a quote in a book and been unable to remember whether it was on the left or right hand side of the page? This just a trivial example of way in which paper’s physicality is the origin of its utility.

And of course professors have bodies too. This is another way that scholarship is embodied — we often do it while in libraries. Here our bodies are literally in a vast assemblage of paper with its own unique form of usability. And as scholars achieve total communion with the stacks, they find books based not just on catalog number, but on all of their senses. The fourth floor of the library I wrote my Ph.D. in sounded and smelled differently than the second did. How many of us — even the lab scientists — with Ph.D.’s will ever be able to forget the physical layout of the libraries where we wrote our dissertations? Or our undergraduate libraries? I find books in my current library by comparing its floorplan with the layout of the college library where I first studied.

And catalog systems! I am a DU740.42 man myself, although I freelance in B2430 at times and of course retain a broader competence in G and GN. I was visiting a colleague at Duke once and went into its library to see what sort of GN treasures it might have stored away only to find that the library used Dewey Decimal — a fact I experienced with surprisingly raw sense of betrayal.

The very fact that libraries can’t buy every book is a form of utility, not a disadvantage. True, there is tons of hubub about Web sites that provide users “personalized recommendations” based on their preferences and the preferences of people in their social networks. But in practice all this has boiled down to the fact that after years of using Amazon.com, it has finally figured out that since I enjoyed reading Plato’s Republic, I might also be interested in Homer’s Iliad. But every book in my library has been “filtered” by my librarian, and browsing through stacks arranged by subject allows “discovery” of “resources” in a non-metaphorical pre-Internet way.

At Reed, where I went to college, the library had a disused, musty room dubbed the “multiple copy room.” Not surprisingly, it was where all the multiple copies of books were stored. The librarians at a small liberal arts college like mine did not buy 10 copies of a book unless they sure that it was a keeper, worthy of being taught for eons, its wisdom instilled into countless generations of students who would value it so much that they would weep when bartering their own copies of it for food and bullets after The Big Electromagnetic Pulse. Browsing through and reading from those shelves was the best “filter” for “content” that I ever had. So much for “the long tail.”

And of course browsing doesn’t just happen in libraries. Amazon may have a bintillion books for sale out in the ether of the ethernet, but there is no better place to take the pulse of academic publishing that a good used book store near a university. Bookstores mark the life cycle and disposition of the community where they are physically located — the end-of-the year glut of books dumped by students eager to rid themselves of dead weight like Anna Karenina in order to spend more time tinkering with their MySpace page is itself a good indicator of what a university has been assigning.

Bookstores also connect us to the larger scholarly community. Remainders — books that are being sold at discount prices because publishers want them out of their warehouses — are a remarkable measure of what fads have just passed in scholarly publishing or what is about to come out in paperback. And of course just being in a good bookshop can be therapeutic. A good friend of mine worked his way through college at a Walden Books. After work he would spend a half hour in the aisles of our local used book store, staring at the covers of Calvino novels until he had recovered from eight hours of selling people copies of The Celestine Prophecy.

The used book store is the horizon at which our human finitude and our books intersect. I have actually been turned on to the work of scholars based solely on the fact that I’ve purchased so many books from their collections. One book store I frequent actually put a picture of one recently deceased professor in the window to advertise that his library was on sale. Some find the practice morbid, but for me this sort of thing is the academic equivalent of the life-affirming musical number in The Lion King about how we are all part of the circle of life. Roscher and Knies costs $180 off the Internet and is scarcer than hen’s teeth, but in that magical, electric moment that I found it used for 20 bucks I knew that in cherishing and loving it I would not only be honoring the memory of the previous owner, but perpetuating the hopelessly over-specialized intellectual lineage which we both cared about so deeply.

What I am trying to say is that owning and reading books is about our lives as scholars in a way that e-journals are not. Our libraries are furniture. They are decoration. They threaten the breathable air to paper ratio in our apartments and offices. Books spill over my shelves. They crowd my kitchen table. We are what we read. On my bedside I currently have one Hawaiian language textbook, Dan Simmon’s science fiction novel Hyperion, Jonathan Lamb’s Preserving the Self In The South Seas: 1680-1840, Eugene Genovese’s Roll Jordan Roll and Jean-Luc Nancy’s The Inoperable Community. In this combination I find elemental solace.

Our collections of physical, paper texts do not only help explain who we are to ourselves, they signal this to our visitors. When my guests first enter my apartment and make a beeline to my shelves they are actually learning more about me. When they admire my copy of Roscher and Knies I am learning something about them. When they spot my first edition of Ricky Jay’s Cards as Weapons or Scatological Rites Of All Nations I know that I have found a true soul mate. I am convinced that this is somehow more important than finding out that the professor in the office next to me reads the same cat blogs that I do.

It is easy to see that paper will continue to be used by academics for a long time to come purely on the basis of its utility as an information technology. But we are not passionate about paper because it is a good research tool. We are passionate about it because of the way that it smells and feels. Our love of paper springs from the way it insinuates itself into not only our career, but our souls. This is why, after The Big Electromagnet Pulse, I won’t be working desperately on some computer somewhere trying to resurrect my metadata. I’ll be fortifying the multiple copy room and trying to figure out how few copies of The Andaman Islanders I’ll have part with to keep alive until someone manages to turn the power back on.

Inside Higher Ed

Ethical luxury travel, dizem eles...

See all at The Observer:
(and the only European site is...)

Dubai - Al Maha

Mozambique - Nkwichi Lodge

Morocco - Kasbah Du Toubkal

Namibia - Damaraland Camp

Tanzania - Chumbe Island Coral Park

Australia - Kooljaman

Romania - Danube Delta

Chile - Rio Futaleufu

Ecuador - Kapawi

Tonga - Vava'u

[kinda disclaimer :]

The real cost

Of course an 'eco holiday' that involves flying to the other side of the world is a contradiction in terms. Your flight will emit vast quantities of carbon dioxide, contributing to global warming. One answer is to offset the emissions by paying money to a company which will invest it in energy saving and green technology projects around the world. Purists see this as a cop-out, like dropping litter on a pristine beach then buying a big litter bin to compensate, but the unarguable fact is that it's better than nothing. Go to www.climatecare.org to calculate your emissions, and offset them.

13 maio 2006

This is me, sort of

You're Already Part of the Phenomenon

Like millions of people around the world, I have thrilled to the phenomenon of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. I've been intrigued by the theory (borrowed, as everybody now knows, from an earlier, nonfiction book called Holy Blood, Holy Grail) that literal descendents of Jesus Christ are walking the earth today. I salute Brown's recovery of the "eternal feminine" in church history, which is long overdue even if I'm not totally sure of the evidence he uses to support it. I got a kick out of the Nabokovian puns, puzzles, anagrams, and Fibonacci sequences—and I think it's great that this kind of postmodern trickery is finally finding a popular audience. I enjoyed the revisionist tour of art history, and was even taken in by the plot, rooting for Robert Langdon and Sophie Neveu to solve the mystery, clear Robert's name, and maybe hook up. Who wouldn't enjoy their bravura escape from the Bank of Zurich with the rosewood box, or get a charge out of the idea of killing a peanut-allergic henchman by slipping peanut residue into his cognac? Many critics fault Brown's crude writing style and two-dimensional characters, but the book features some interesting character twists, including the idea that Silas and Bishop Aringarosa were not consciously malevolent figures, but rather people convinced of their own rectitude. The plot reversals were an interesting blend of genuine surprises (I.M. Pei's pyramid is in plain view through most of the book, and I didn't pick up on it) and whoppers you can spot a mile away (I mean, who couldn't have guessed that Sir Leigh Teabagging, or rather Teabing, would, according to the law of sophisticated British villains, turn out to be The Teacher?).

I'm so much a part of the Da Vinci Code phenomenon that I didn't even have to read the book. Nor have I read any of the knockoff books, nor the tie-ins with titles like Secrets of the Code, nor any of the anti-Brown books with titles like The Da Vinci Hoax, nor Brown's other title (I think it's called Angels and Insects or something), nor even Holy Blood, Holy Grail itself. I haven't watched a single TV special about the book or the upcoming big-screen adaptation. I have never read a plot synopsis, though I did verify some of the information in the above paragraph at Wikipedia. (However, I made sure to look up only stuff I'd already heard about.) Finally, I have never interrogated any acquaintance who had read the book. Everything in the introduction comes from casual and/or overheard conversations with and between Da Vinci Code enthusiasts during the past two or three years.

Since The Da Vinci Code has been attacked as an anti-Christian book, I think absorbing it indirectly is an appropriate mirror to Christian pedagogy. Although I eventually read the Old and New Testaments through (and was scandalized by what I found there), like many Christians and most Catholics, I originally learned the founding text of my religion almost entirely by osmosis.

Having made the decision to enter into the Da Vinci Code phenomenon obliquely, with disciplined passivity, I am puzzled by the tagline for the upcoming film, zooming by on buses whenever I step outside. "Be Part of the Phenomenon," it reads. Is this not the stupidest tagline in the history of movie hype? You'd have to go back to another Tom Hanks vehicle, 1986's Nothing In Common, to find one that's nearly as bad: "It's a comedy and a drama, just like life." Does Columbia Pictures still believe audiences are so inert that they can be requested (in fact, commanded) to join its top-down phenomenon? I'm proof that you can be part of the phenomenon without putting another ten dollars into Opie's pocket.

And whatever else it is, The Da Vinci Code is a genuine phenomenon, one of the biggest examples of popular penetration in the last ten years. Since 2003 the book has sold 40 million hardcover copies, and when Random House finally put out a paperback edition in March, the publisher wasn't looking to address slipping sales (the hardcover edition is still in ninth place on The New York Times bestseller list) but to gin up excitement for the movie. Including translations, variant editions, spinoffs, critical studies, and knockoffs, Amazon lists more than 230 Da Vinci Code-related titles, among them: The Da Vinci Code Travel Journal, Exploring the Da Vinci Code, The Da Vinci Code And the Secrets of the Temple, Cracking the Da Vinci Code, Beyond the Da Vinci Code, Walking the Da Vinci Code in Paris, The Da Vinci Fitness Code, The Rough Guide to the Da Vinci Code, and Who Can Crack The Leonardo Da Vinci Code?. And that's not even counting all the indirect attempts to make bank on the book's success—countless titles popping up (and even selling well themselves in some cases) to explore the world of the Knights Templar.

Devout Christians, who perceive the book as an attack on their faith, have not taken this lying down. Cardinal Francis Arinze recently denounced the novel, urging legal action against Brown and issuing a vague threat: "Christians must not just sit back and say it is enough for us to forgive and to forget... There are some other religions which if you insult their founder they will not be just talking." The Church of England has taken a smarter approach, producing a user-friendly series of documentaries and a movie trailer that shows Jesus making a funny face—always comedy gold. (Not since the Falklands War have Anglicans proven so much better in a fight than Catholics.) Among the Christian responses to Brown's juggernaut: The Gospel According to the Da Vinci Code, Unveiling the Da Vinci Code, 101 Questions & Answers on the Da Vinci Code and the Catholic Tradition, The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code, and De-Coding Da Vinci.

Religious folks have found some unlikely allies in the form of art historians, who point out that Dan Brown's trail of errors begins with the very title of his book, which incorrectly treats "Da Vinci" as if it were the artist's surname. (And really, would you trust a biography of Sammy Davis, Jr. that refers to its subject as "Mr. Jr."?) But so far, all of Dan Brown's opponents—including Holy Blood, Holy Grail authors Michael Baigent, and Richard Leigh whose lawsuit against Brown was dismissed by a British court—have lost.

Whether any of those opponents have a grievance against Brown is another story. Sales of Leigh and Baignent's long-forgotten book have only been helped by the Code phenomenon; Delacorte Press brought out a new hardback edition last year to capitalize on Brown's success. For that matter, why should art historians be disgruntled, when millions of people have been moved to take an interest in their formerly recondite field?

The religious objection hangs on a misconception about audiences and popular phenomena. With its clumsy attempts to suppress the Da Vinci Code groundswell, the Catholic Church is not only behaving pretty much exactly the way Brown's book depicts it as behaving, but revealing an outmoded, Hidden Persuaders notion of audience response. Far from swallowing Brown's tangled conspiracy theories in full, Da Vinci Code fans, in my experience, simply regard the tale of Jesus and Mary Magdalene's "bloodline" as an interesting attention grabber. In fact (and again, based only on my own experience), the farther out a person is on the hipster/nonbeliever continuum, the less likely he or she is to take any interest in the book at all. The most interesting aspect of the Da Vinci Code phenomenon is its resistance to a Red State/Blue State paradigm. The book's fans are found overwhelmingly in the vital center, among the family-oriented churchgoers who have enjoyed works of religious speculation, New Age pop, and life management since time immemorial.

If anybody has a right to complain about Dan Brown's success, it's James Redfield, whose The Celestine Prophecy was the Da Vinci Code of the nineties. There's a real Rocky and Father Jerry story in the history of these two books: If Redfield had just been a few steps faster in his market timing, he might be enjoying the colossal wealth and adulation that is now Dan Brown's. As it happens, the no-budget film adaptation of The Celestine Prophecy hobbled into theaters just a few weeks ago, long after the phenomenon had passed, receiving critical pans and negative box office. Or consider Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, whose mega-selling Left Behind books ended up yielding naught but a straight-to-video film franchise that even the star power of Kirk Cameron and Lou Gossett, Jr. could barely ignite. And what of the rest of us, who might have cashed in a long time ago on the public's hitherto unknown appetite for medieval history and code-breaking? If we'd all known how popular the Templars and armchair semiotics would become, George "The Saint" Sanders might not have killed himself and Roland "Mythologies" Barthes would have looked both ways before stepping in front of an oncoming laundry truck.

So it will be, in time, with The Da Vinci Code. With hindsight it will be clear that Dan Brown, like all those History Channel producers and Newsweek writers who regularly report new findings about the "historical Jesus," was doing a great service to Christianity. Ostensibly anti-Christian works from The Secret Life of Christ to Léo Taxil's Vie de Jesus to The Da Vinci Code participate in a conspiracy more vast than anything Dan Brown has in mind: the elaborate collusion by billions of people to agree that anybody named Jesus Christ existed in the first place. If he did live (and beyond a forged passage in Josephus, there's no non-faith-based evidence that he—or He, or She—did), Dan Brown's claims about a royal bloodline look modest indeed: As the writer Steve Wilson has demonstrated, most of the population of planet Earth is already related to the savior. Most also believe that there really was a Jesus of some kind, and once that hurdle is overcome, arguments over whether he was divine or merely a prophet, a Jewish apostate or a closet Buddhist, a celibate or a father, are as intramural as arguments over Batman's origin story (though even the most shameless DC comics geek understands there was no historical Batman). In an era of audience fragmentation, Dan Brown has produced something rare—a genuine popular phenomenon. But to get Christians, Muslims, and Jews agreeing that you're worth arguing about at all— even Ron Howard and Tom Hanks couldn't pull that one off.

Found in Translation

The New Yorker’s fiction editor, Deborah Treisman talks to Ismail Kadare about his fiction and his life in communist Albania.

DEBORAH TREISMAN: The situation you describe in “The Albanian Writers’ Union as Mirrored by a Woman” is based on real events in Albania in the nineteen-sixties, and the last line of the story suggests that it is quite autobiographical. Is it?

ISMAIL KADARE: Yes, it is. The story is based on events that were well known among writers and also in wider circles in Tirana. Life there was pretty dull, just like it was in the capital cities of all the other Communist-bloc countries. So everyone thought that what was going on at the Writers’ Union was really interesting.

Was there a real Marguerite?

Yes, there was, but not the one described in this story. Let me explain. In Communist countries, women with liberal attitudes toward life—and, especially, toward love—were often treated as shameless hussies. But they included some of the most interesting people of all. The touch of “dissidence” in their opinions, if I can use the term here, made them altogether attractive—it made them sexy in all senses.

Were you “rotated” out of Tirana as a young writer? What was life like for you in those years?

Yes, I was indeed “rotated” in the way it happens in the story. That was in 1967-68, when Albania was aping China’s Cultural Revolution. I had to go and live in Berat, an ancient city about a hundred kilometers from Tirana. It was quite tough, actually. On the other hand, life under Communism was fraught with so many dangers and difficulties that banishment to a provincial town was hardly a tragedy.

The story treats Enver Hoxha’s suppression of literary freedom with quite a bit of humor. You capture the hubris of the young writer in a way that seems universal to me—as relevant for budding literary geniuses in New York today as it was for Albanians then. But I’m guessing that it was all much less funny for you at the time. Did you feel that your work in those years was censored or otherwise inhibited?

Life under Communism was principally a tragedy, but a tragedy with comic, not to say grotesque, interludes. Life over all could be described in those terms—as a tragicomedy.

When I look back at works written by my colleagues during that period, I can see that they all have an element of humor, satire, or mockery—which shows that the writers’ spirits were not entirely crushed by the brutal atmosphere we lived in. Writers from former Eastern-bloc countries—Milan Kundera, for example—have often asserted that laughter and mockery were ways of saying no to that world.

Certainly, what happened to us was no joke. On the other hand, you should not imagine writers and their circle as if they had been turned into zombies devoid of critical ability. Let me show you what I mean. In 1967, when the events of the story take place, I had published three works in prose (besides my poetry): the novels “The General of the Dead Army” and “The Monster” and the short story “Coffeehouse Days.” The last two had been banned for “decadence,” but they were widely known, because the ban had been imposed after they were published. Being “scandalous” and forbidden, they gave me a lot of trouble, of course—but, for the same reason, they gave me a certain weight in the eyes of my readers. It was one of the peculiar contradictions of life in those times. If you had problems with the state, you were looked on with a certain suspicion, but that very fact gave you greater prestige in certain circles. I think this is what creates the impression of hubris in the young writer.

What we wrote was censored, but what was far worse than censorship was self-censorship. That was the real death of art. Fortunately, I managed to avoid being infected by it.

Although you’ve lived in France for the past fifteen years, you write most often about Albania. Does the country where you came of age provide stronger literary material, or is it simply so imprinted on you that it would be difficult to write about anywhere else?

It’s not unusual for the work of a writer to remain tied to the country where he lived the largest part of his life, although it’s not unusual to be detached from it, either. I’m somewhere in between these two positions.

In fact, quite a large part of my work is not set in Albania, nor does it tell stories about it. “The Pyramid,” for example, which came out in the United States in 1996, is set in ancient Egypt, although its core is a universal idea about dictatorship, which naturally includes the Albanian variety. “The Palace of Dreams” takes place in Constantinople, and other novels and stories I’ve written take place in Moscow, in northern Greece, and in an unreal Troy that I imagined for myself.

I don’t make any special effort to stay inside Albania, nor do I take any pains to wander abroad in my writing.

Was it hard for you to leave Albania when you did, as the Communist regime was crumbling? Are you sorry not to have been living there to see the first years of the transition, or were those times even harder than the preceding period? Do you spend much time in Albania now?

Although I had had several opportunities to emigrate, I stayed in Albania throughout the darkest and most dangerous period. I never imagined that the fall of Communism would occur in my lifetime.

When I decided to leave, it wasn’t because I was in any danger. The tyrant was dead. The regime was no longer punishing people. In “Albanian Spring,” I explained my reasons for leaving and the circumstances of that event. I had been engaged in a bitter exchange of letters with the Communist President of the country. From that correspondence, I learned that, despite the liberal signals the regime was giving, the authorities had no real intention of relaxing their grip. Albania was on the verge of turning into another Cuba or North Korea. I couldn’t strip the mask of hypocrisy from the President or his regime without a channel of communication—a radio or a newspaper. There was no way I could have a platform of that kind inside Albania. So I sent a message to my French publisher, asking him to arrange a book promotion in Paris to justify a trip over there. It took me five months to get the exit visa. Voice of America’s Albanian Service then provided me with the microphone I needed, and through it I reached my goal. The speech I gave on the radio (which was reprinted in “Albanian Spring”) had the effect of a bombshell in Albania. The regime collapsed, and, eighteen months later, as I had promised in my speech, I went back to my country. I now spend more than half of my time in Albania.

What was it like to live in the West after spending more than fifty years in socialist Albania?

Adapting to life in the West hasn’t been hard. What made the first years difficult, and sometimes dramatic, sometimes happy, was the news from Albania. That’s what gave the basic rhythm to my life in the West.

Many of your works are either directly or allegorically political. Do you feel an obligation to acknowledge the political world in your writing?

I don’t think there’s any more politics in my work than there is in Greek drama. I’ve not been scared of including it, or of leaving it out.

No one ever forced me to write anything political, even during the most ruthless years of the dictatorship. The only obligation, the only “tax” that was due from me, applied to everyone. To have the right to work on universal subjects or on myths, you had to write one or two works about contemporary life. Does that seem crazy? Anyway, that’s how it was.

If you didn’t pay the tax, then you had to face the question in the press, in meetings, everywhere: “Comrade X, why don’t you write about our socialist life? Could it be that you do not like this kind of life? Or is there a deeper reason?” The “deeper reason” was understood to be political opposition, and that could send you straight to prison or to the firing squad.

What do you see happening in Albanian literature today?

Albanian literature is developing normally, like the literature of any other free country. However, the illusion of a miracle happening after the collapse of Communism (an illusion that afflicts all post-Communist countries) remains just that—an illusion.

Literature has its own internal rules of development. Just as it can be free in captivity, it can also be captive in freedom. The writers of the free world are well aware of this.

Your writing has been much celebrated in France, where your “Complete Works” are in the process of being published. Have you found it harder to reach English-speaking readers?

My first novel, “The General of the Dead Army,” came out in France in 1970 and in English in 1971. My second novel, “Chronicle in Stone,” was greeted by a very kind essay by John Updike, writing in The New Yorker. Since then, more than a dozen of my books have appeared in English. It is true that I enjoy a wider readership in France, but I think all European authors have a harder time achieving recognition in the English-speaking world.

Kadare’s responses were translated, from the Albanian, by Elidor Mehilli.

12 maio 2006

Sunken Alexandria

Are plastic corks better than real corks at keeping wine at its best?

Wine exposed to air oxidises - becoming harsh and unpleasant. The Romans used to pour a little olive oil on top of the wine to prevent contact with air. After experiments with pitch, leather and even glass stoppers, the Victorians happened upon cork, which comes from the bark of a particular species of oak tree. Unfortunately, corks can contain microbes that produce the powerful musty-smelling chemical 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA), which causes a "corked" or "off" taste.

To reduce the risk of TCA taint, some manufacturers are replacing cork with sterile plastic stoppers or screw tops. Plastic "corks" do reduce the proportion of bottles that become "corked", but they do not give quite as good a seal as traditional cork, and therefore the wine can, very slowly, oxidise. This won't matter for most wine, which is drunk within a year or so of bottling, but is a problem for fine wines that are aged for years in the bottle. However, screw tops offer a better seal against oxygen than traditional corks, not only preventing wines from becoming "corked" but also giving better protection against oxidation. That said, the interaction of the wine with the cork certainly plays a role in the taste, so wine matured in a bottle with a screw top will certainly taste different from the same wine matured in a bottle sealed with a cork. Which is better, only time will tell.

The Guardian

11 maio 2006

Why oh why?

Why these Americans, these English-speaking gits have to fuck up other people's names?
It's Vasco dA Gama!!
It's like when they talk about Fernando Pessoa's heteronyms, for f*** sake do not say Caeiro, Soares, Reis, De Campos, it is Campos, Campos, Campos!!!

Original Drawings by Kurosawa Akira

Some of his drawings for movies like Ran or his Dreams:

10 maio 2006

America is a bilingual nation

The airing last week on Hispanic radios of Nuestro Himno, a Spanish-language adaptation of the American national anthem, has been greeted with an unprecedented wave of denunciations all over the United States. Talkshow hosts and academics have indignantly called this loving rendition by a group of Latino artists a desecration of a national symbol. Senators - both the conservative Lamar Alexander and the liberal Edward Kennedy - have expressed that The Star Spangled Banner needs to be sung exclusively in English. And President Bush has warned the citizenry that "one of the important things here is, when we debate this issue, that we not lose our national soul".

The national soul? In danger of being lost? Because Wyclef Jean and hip-hop star Pitbull are crooning a la luz de la aurora rather than by the dawn's early light? Would such an outcry have erupted over translations into Navajo or Basque, Farsi or Inuit? Would anybody have cared if some nostalgic band had decided to record the 1860s Yiddish or Latin version of the song?

Of course not.

The streets of America are not filled with marching Eskimos or Basque patriots and certainly not with scholars ardently shouting against discrimination in Virgil's lost language. What resonated recently in Los Angeles and Atlanta, Chicago and New York, was the voices of hundreds of thousands of protesters demanding that 12 million undocumented workers living illegally in the United States be granted amnesty. And the language in which they were chanting was the same sacrilegious Spanish of Nuestro Himno.

That's why the latino version of the national anthem caused such alarm: it was a reminder that those mojados had smuggled into El Norte, along with their swarthy and labouring bodies, the extremely vivacious language of Cervantes and Octavio Paz. They weren't coming to the US merely to work, bake bread, lay bricks, change diapers, wash dishes, pick strawberries, work, work, work; Dios mío, they might decide to speak!

What differentiates these recent arrivals to American shores from earlier "huddled masses" is that they're not prepared to abandon their mother tongue. This Spanish is not going to fade away as Norwegian or Italian or German did during previous assimilated waves. Not only whispered by the largest minority in the United States, it is also being spoken, written and dreamed, at this very moment, by hundreds of millions of men and women in the immense neighbouring latino South. Spanish is a language that has come to stay.

Nuestro Himno, therefore, by infiltrating one of the safest symbols of US national identity with Spanish syllables, crossed a line, inadvertently announcing something that many Americans have dreaded for years: the fact that their country is on its way to becoming a bilingual nation.

If this prophecy of mine is right, and America will sometime in the near or distant future be articulating its identity in two inevitable languages, then the question looms: how will the citizens of the United States react to this monumental challenge?

One possibility, of course, is a nativist backlash, with more vigilante Minutemen voraciously pledging allegiance to the flag under the Arizona sun, more calls for deporting all illegal workers, more demands that an impenetrable wall be built against the foreign hordes, more attempts to dismantle bilingual education in US schools.

But others may tell themselves that the United States has been built on diversity and tolerance and that at a time when the national soul is indeed being tested, at a time when the democratic ideals at the heart of American identity are truly in danger of being sacrificed on the altar of false security, the better angels of that America should welcome the wonders of Spanish, the first European language ever spoken on America's shores, to that struggle and that debate.

To those who are afraid and claim it can't be done and believe the United States can only endure as monolingual for ever, there's a simple answer. The words have been heard on the multiple streets of America in recent days, sung and imagined by destitute men and women who crossed deserts and risked everything to live the American Dream. In words that the Founders of the Republic and the pioneers who crossed the continent would have embraced and have now become part of the national vocabulary: Sí se puede - yes, it can be done.

[Guardian´s G2]