Tag Archives: Hourglass Literary Magazine

Standing Rock, the Police State, and a Forgotten Quixotic Adventure

First, the latest news—truthful and unlovely as it is—from Indian Country:

Documents leaked to The Intercept’s investigative team of Alleen Brown, Will Parrish, and Alice Speri reveal how the company charged with building the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) colluded with mercenaries from the War on Terror to surveil and suppress the Standing Rock Sioux water protectors and their friends in their lawful struggle against ecological degradation.

As you may know, since the new Administration’s cancellation of environmental review and its re-authorization of construction, the pipeline struck its first leak while still barely operational. No surprise for anyone who has paid even passing attention to the abominable environmental record of the extractive industry and its infrastructure. Once again, the prophetic fears of Indigenous peoples have been confirmed. The cynical assurances of Energy Transfer Partners and their governmental and corporate enablers, given the lie.

And now, fresh from Iraq and Afghanistan, the TigerSwan security agency—in collusion with the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, the Marshals Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and state and local police in five states (forgive me if I have left anyone out!)—have brought the battlefield home. This is the reality that we saw live on our computer screens last fall: a brutal, militarized, domestic law-enforcement regime reminiscent of the occupying force that greeted protesters in Ferguson, Missouri. Which only added legitimacy and momentum to the nascent and unduly maligned Black Lives Matter movement.

Yet we are expected to swallow the propaganda, as the President and others have conveyed it to us, that the protesters in North Dakota were “very bad people” and their oppressors, in their figurative white hats, pure and good. And that the victims and activists against police misconduct in Black communities across the nation are the moral equivalent of rioters, cop-killers, and terrorists.

This in the fabled “land of the free and home of the brave,” where hysterical public officials, politicians, and white supremacists feel newly emboldened to assault journalists (“enemies of the people,” as we are told) and where state and national legislators feel empowered to criminalize our First Amendment rights to peaceful assembly and protest.

While I have not dug into the multiple files of evidentiary documents, I have read in its entirety The Intercept’s extremely thorough (and unsensational) reportage. Those of us who value our own and our fellow citizens’ civil liberties—even theirs with whom we most vigorously disagree—have more than ample reason to feel incensed by the story it brings to light.

Consider these few passages that I scribbled in my notepad; I don’t know how to interpret them without feeling the encroachment of George Orwell’s permanent Police State:

TigerSwan Website Image

Passage 1: “TigerSwan’s relationship with public police agencies was not always harmonious,” we read fairly deep into the article. “The situation reports describe TigerSwan’s frustration with the amount of leeway some law enforcement gave protesters in Iowa and the company’s efforts to convince officers to use more punitive tactics.”

Passage 2: “Perhaps one of the most striking revelations of the documents is the level of hostility displayed by TigerSwan toward the camp protectors. TigerSwan consistently describes their peaceful demonstrators using military and tactical language more appropriate for counterterrorism operations in an armed conflict zone. At times, the military language verges on parody. More often, however, the way TigerSwan discusses protesters as ‘terrorists,’ their direct actions as ‘attacks,’ and their camps as a ‘battlefield’ reveals how the protesters’ dissent was not only criminalized but treated as a national security threat.”

Passage 3: “In one internal report, a TigerSwan operative describes an effort to amass digital and ground intelligence that would allow the company to ‘find, fix, and eliminate’ threats to the pipeline—an eerie echo of ‘find, fix, finish,’ a military term used by special forces in the U.S. government’s assassination campaign against terrorist targets.”

(Here I pass over some particularly chilling accounts of close surveillance and dangerously fanciful, paranoid, entirely unexamined, and freely disseminated assumptions about the most innocuous subjects of scrutiny. It’s like reading 1984, coming to the fateful hour of Winston’s and Julia’s arrests, and thinking: My God! There really is nowhere to hide! Big Brother and his Thought Police are everywhere! So that you catch yourself looking over your shoulder for the hidden drone with its precision camera.)

Passage 4: “In recent weeks, the company’s role has expanded to include surveillance of activist networks marginally related to the pipeline, with TigerSwan agents monitoring ‘anti-Trump’ protesters from Chicago to Washington, D.C., as well as warning its client of growing  dissent around other pipelines across the country.”

Passage 5: “In a March 24 report, TigerSwan writes, ‘Much like Afghanistan and Iraq, the ‘Fighting Season’ will soon be here with the coming warming temperatures.”

America’s economic empire—increasingly enforced by military might—has come home to roost, it would seem. Protecting the investments of our perpetual-war profiteers all around the globe: the art of the deal, and the privileging of property and profits over the moral needs of regular people, represent the prevailing socioeconomic and political ideology, after all. Which, with the unregulated exploitation of our planet’s natural resources, is the logical end-place of unrestrained capitalist greed.

But why are we surprised? The primary business of the American people, as Calvin Coolidge told us, and since the days of the recently lionized and celebrated Alexander Hamilton, has been business. And President Eisenhower warned us, when he left office in 1960, of the rapacious appetite of our military-industrial complex; which the brilliant and indomitable Canadian journalist Naomi Klein has more recently metamorphosed into the neoliberal regime of disaster capitalism.

Is this the promise of peace and prosperity that we all voted for? Winners and losers, both, in the past election?

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Now, my patient readers, let me make a rhetorical turn to a more particularly literary terrain. Perhaps, in the end, the twain shall meet and lead us toward the seat of wisdom.

Reading, recently, Ilan Stavans’s charming book Quixote: The Novel and the World, I came upon an allusion to the 19th-century Ecuadorian writer Juan Montalvo’s posthumous novel Capítulos que se le olvidaron a Cervantes (Chapters that Slipped Cervantes’s Mind—or, Memory). “It imagines,” Stavans writes, “a continuation of Don Quixote and Sancho’s third outing. An independent-minded anti-clerical thinker, Montalvo had a remarkable ability to mimic Cervantes’s style and content. His narrative is the closest I know to a sequel that feels authentic.”

Juan Montalvo

I don’t recall how, more than a decade past, I came upon it myself, but doing so I translated the episode in which Don Quixote, were it not already taken by another knight, might have acquired a new title: The Knight of the Forest. The excerpted arboreal narrative, taken from chapter 16 and the beginning of chapter 17 of Montalvo’s work, I offer here in the spirit of the Standing Rock Sioux and their sacred waters. The translation first appeared online in The Quill & Ink, whose Indian editor, Anirban Choudhury, now resident in Hong Kong, was a consultant to Bosnian editor Voki Erceg’s  Hourglass Literary Magazine—about which, a brief note further on.

Don Quixote on the Ecology

As Don Quixote was saying this, he cast a glance to one side of the road and saw a man, rather well on in years, who was having two beautiful cypresses hewn down from a group that offered dark, fresh shade for a good distance around. He stopped and asked him why he was having such beautiful trees demolished, in an instant destroying the work for which nature had required so many years.

“I’m demolishing them,” the old man responded, “because they produce nothing and pointlessly occupy the estate. These and the rest, which are no fewer than fourteen, I’m bringing down.”

“Might there be a way,” Don Quixote replied, “to avoid this slaughter? If the value of these cypresses incites you, I’ll pay you for them. Then they may remain standing.”

“That would go part and parcel with selling the land, which isn’t what I have in mind,” the owner said. “Rather, I am clearing it. Not so much to take advantage of these trees, which aren’t worth a great deal, as to give the land over itself to farming.”

“Cut, they are worth nothing,” the knight replied. “Alive and beautiful as they are, they are worth more than the pyramids of Egypt. And thus I entreat and strongly urge you to consider whether it’s not better for you to change your resolution and make a gift to Mother Nature, who takes pleasure in her children’s shade.”

“All shade is harmful,” the bloodthirsty old man argued. “Shade gives me nothing. Rather it takes from me what this estate could yield. Today I’m leaving it as bare as the palm of my hand. I’ll plow it right away, I’ll sow lettuce and cabbage. And from now, just as soon as you return this way, Your Worship is invited to the banquet.”

“Cease all jesting, since that’s not why I’ve come,” Don Quixote said. “For the last time, I express and ask for what is already expressed and asked for. And take your lettuce somewhere else.”

“Elegant performance,” the man responded. And despite his age, because in his day he had been something of a roughneck; or perhaps because Don Quixote’s figure, along with his pretensions, moved him to make himself ridiculous: “Elegant notification. And in the event that I don’t go along with that, does Your Worship plan to threaten me with your lance?”

“In your own words!” Don Quixote replied, charging then at the old man. Who by way of defense let himself fall, feet up, from the stone on which he was seated. “Concur,” the knight shouted, holding him in check with his lance, “that these trees remain uninjured. Offer, promise, and even swear not to touch them nor a hair of their beards.”

“I submit to however much Your Worship should command,” the wag responded, seeing that menacing point glisten. “Come on, friends! Leave me those trees standing. And don’t offend them with another blow of the ax, since that’s this good knight’s will.”

There was nothing more urgent than to save his life, and afterwards establish what amends should be made. But the knight-errant spurred on his steed and took off without adding a word. While at the same time the vanquished was sluggishly picking himself up, hurling epithets against the madman who had put him in that position. Then Don Quixote returned and said: “Those grooves or wounds in the cypresses can be fatal to them. Fill them at once with wax, and spread a layer of moist soil over it so that there won’t be any risk of their withering and dying.”

At that time two horsemen were arriving on either side of a carriage pulled by four proud mules richly harnessed and wearing very tall plumes on their headstalls. It was not possible for someone like Don Quixote to allow anyone to continue on their way without some inquiry, much less a procession that smelled so much like an adventure. “Good man, stop and respond point by point. Who are these who are coming this way? From where are they coming? To where and to what purpose are they going?”

“It is the Most Illustrious Bishop of Jaén,” the postillion responded. “He is coming from Madrid and going to his diocese.”

“Welcome,” the knight responded. “Now advise the Most Illustrious Bishop of Jaén that Don Quixote of La Mancha wishes to take with him some of his episcopal blessings.”

“Who is it?” they asked from within the carriage.

“The knight Don Quixote of La Mancha, who wishes to greet the Lord Bishop,” responded one of the men on horse.

“Don Quixote of La Mancha? I know him. The famous knight whose history travels all over the world. Well, I would be glad to see him. Tell him, if he please, that he approach the carriage door.”

Don Quixote dismounted then and did what the prelate wished, greeting him with a bow.

“Is Your Worship, Sir Knight, the same Don Quixote of La Mancha whose deeds the historian Cid Hamete Benengeli has praised to the clouds?”

“I doubt there be two knights of that name,” Don Quixote responded with great assurance. “As for he who dared assert to me that he had conquered a certain Don Quixote in singular battle, I already proved to him that he was deceived, not to say lying.”

“That audacious individual was the Knight of the Forest,” said the Bishop. “What is Your Worship doing in these environs? We thought you to be in Trebizond, and have even heard that you had crossed over to the island of Lipadusa to engage in combat with whomever might possess the sword Durindana.”

“Should I have notice of that famous sword,” Don Quixote responded, “I will cross over, not only to Lapidusa, but to Estotilán and Norumbeca. And to win it I will go arm in arm with King Gradasso, and even with that bewitched Don Orlando.”

“Once that bewitched Don Orlando is subdued by Your Worship,” said the Bishop in his turn, “what obstacle will there be to your taking from him, not only his sword, but also his lady? In this way, Angelica the Fair will come as it were to supplant Dulcinea.”

“No, Sir,” Don Quixote responded. “Durindana and nothing else will I take from him. Nor what should I do with that affected, fickle damsel? Who takes off when it catches her fancy with some Moorish jackanapes, as inexperienced in war as in love? In speaking so, Your Most Illustrious Grace, you sully the reputations of champions like Orlando the Bewitched and Rinaldo of Montalbán.”

“If it doesn’t anger Your Worship,” the Bishop answered, “I repeat my question. What business brings Your Worship through these environs?”

“I am going about in search of adventures,” Don Quixote responded. “If chance hadn’t guided me this way, just now a deed would have been done that no knight-errant would tolerate. Your Most Illustrious Lordship should leave his gig. Come see with your own eyes whether my profession matters to the world. And whether those of us who follow it lose our time and win our fame at little cost.”

The Bishop got out, considering whether some crime might really have been attempted there, and whether even now it was possible to prevent some misfortune.

“Does Your Most Illustrious Grace behold this small forest whose dark green trees rise in the shape of pyramids and spread forth over the ground this dense, inviting shade? In truth I tell you that there was not going to remain branch on branch, because if I had not arrived to save them from the destroying ax, this inhuman being would have cut them all to earth.”

The Biblical form of speech used by Don Quixote seemed good to the Bishop. Understanding the situation perfectly, and to humor the knight, he expressed that such an outrage greatly displeased him. And he joined him in extolling the inhumanity of one who had thus wanted to kill those beautiful giants of creation. Perhaps the prelate was speaking in good faith, too, since every heart where noble sentiments dwell has hidden connections with nature.

A tree that has lingeringly received the mysterious virtue of the centuries, along with the recondite essence of the earth, is an object that instills an almost religious respect and love. Yet there are those who in an instant destroy the work of two hundred years to take advantage of the puny circumference that a tree makes useless with its shade. To greed nothing is sacred. If the Phoenix bird were to fall into his hands, he would eat it or sell it. What does not produce, the speculator does not want. To the miserly soul, beauty is a chimera. A fool with neither light in his mind nor music in his heart does not attain the ability to enjoy it, nor does his soul possess the requisites that are needed in order for the wonders of the universe to make an impression on it. Only the thoughtful man whose deity has him continually aware, marveling at the Omnipotent’s works and becoming mad about Nature’s graces, ever kneels before the Parnassus.

Don Quixote and his good squire, Sancho,                  who is not present for this adventure.

Whether for fear of the one or respect for the other, the old man apologized as best he could and confirmed his promise to not carry forward a work that he had in no way considered to merit censure.

“And why wouldn’t it?” said the Bishop. “If you didn’t have an imperative need, it wasn’t at all Christian to thus destroy, purely for the sake of it, such a beautiful effect of our Mother Earth’s virtue.”

“It seems to me,” Don Quixote said in his turn, “that the Gentiles were on many occasions more pious than we. That veneration of theirs for the sacred forests reveals a whole world of religion in their soul. The woods of Delphi, the forest of Dodona, were temples for them.”

“Your Worship shouldn’t claim authority for the Gentiles,” said the Bishop in his turn. “The patriarchs of ancient law rendered almost divine honors to trees. Abraham planted a cypress, a cedar, and a pine, which by the work of Heaven became a single tree. Consequently that tree was looked upon as a wonder and a thing truly destined for the Divinity. Therefore it was cut down for Solomon’s temple. And what does Your Worship say about the famous oak beneath whose shade that very patriarch of whom I’ve just spoken pitched his campaign tents? The people bowed before it, and they made pilgrimage to the plains of Mamre to see that witness of such great things.”

“I have read,” responded Don Quixote, “that the Japanese, despite being barbarians, respect trees as much as their gods. They plant them everywhere and with them give shade to the roads. Because of that it’s a pleasure to stroll, beneath those regions’ blazing sun, along those fresh, green routes.”

“Among some peoples,” the Bishop said, “those who destroy certain birds are rigorously punished. As in England where no one can kill eagle, crane, nor raven. Small wonder if the Japanese punish the killer of a tree.”

“If it’s not permitted to kill ravens in England,” Don Quixote answered fervently, “it’s not out of respect for that animal but so as not, through wounding one of them, to injure King Arthur, who now moves through the world under a spell put upon him by his sister, the enchantress Morgan le Fay, and who in due time must return to his real shape and rule over the English. For it was never her intention, when she put the spell on him, to annihilate so great a king and valorous a knight, but perhaps to free him from some danger, and make the days race past him until the time should be accomplished for returning him to his own being and person. Your Lordship knows that this can be done without difficulty, or time can do nothing against those who are under enchantment. A thousand years pass, and still they emerge with not a white hair nor wrinkle more than when the enchantment was worked upon them.”

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Anonymous reader of first volume of                Hourglass Literary Magazine

 

 

Postscript: I will forego my translator’s note on names to mention, finally, the happy news of the previously promised publication, in the little country of Bosnia, of Hourglass Literary Magazine. A copy of this in-every-sense weighty book came to me some few weeks ago with, toward the back of it, my own essay called “Small Graces.” It is followed by its translation into the language formerly known as Serbo-Croatian and now, in the reconstituted reality of four nations, at once Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, and Montenegrin.

Those of you who have ever seen your own literary work rendered in a language you cannot read will understand the level of my excitement. And, while publication was delayed for some months (as is not uncommon, given the vicissitudes of modestly and irregularly financed literary journals), its material remains immediate to the concerns we face a year after my writing. And not just my essay, but everything I have so far encountered in the magazine. I continue to make my way through the rest of its excellent content.

As for “Small Graces,” should you have a chance to read it, rest assured that its musings of a political nature are surpassed by the most judicious and personal consideration of the liberal arts and human graces that become even more vital than ever in times such as ours.

We may be trapped in a world of cutthroat business and corporate practice, conscienceless deal-making and opportunistic politicos, but only through art, music, literature, and all the other liberal or humane arts do we learn how to live and conduct ourselves in the shadow of the valley of the imperial doctrine of Might-Makes-Right.

Don Quixote, Sancho Panza, windmill

Impossible dreamer Don Quixote,
tilting at windmills

The eloquent and honest wielding of letters, after all, or of the poetry and rhetoric of literature, is arguably no less necessary than the most righteously activist tilting at the windmills of extreme inequality, injustice, and ecological ruin. Perhaps even more so, we can only hope, than Don Quixote’s soldierly exercise of arms in the age of potential nuclear and climate apocalypse.

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Hourglass: an international, bilingual, anti-nationalist literary magazine

cropped-brett6.jpgSince I posted yesterday on a new publication and the “reconciling of contraries,” I have heard from editor Voki Erceg at Hourglass Literary Magazine. As I mentioned in that blog post, I have another essay forthcoming in this journal.

Hourglass is an exciting and ambitious project whose first print edition seems to be well on its way to fruition. And, according to the visual and aural pitch that is being made for the crowd-funding campaign for next year, which Voki just sent to me, the forthcoming issue will be a very substantial and sturdy book. This brief note today is to get that address out to you (www.igg.me/at/hlm). Even if you are not looking to donate, it will give an intriguing and informative look at the project.

Danilo_Kiš_2010_Montenegro_stamp[1]Hourglass is named for the Serbian writer Danilo Kiŝ, whose 1973 essay “On Nationalism” is excerpted/translated at the bottom of their home page and is as pertinent today as ever; as is the magazine’s anti-nationalist and humane internationalist vision in the context of the demagoguery of too many political leaders around the world today, no less so in the U.S. when the Republican Party is running Donald Trump, who is perhaps the caricature of the nationalist/xenophobic Us-against-Them rhetoric.

Among his Primary opponents, who at best were smoother at it than he, Trump was not alone in nationalist demagoguery. And even progressive Democrats may occasionally flirt with it, though between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton the American exceptionalism (an inevitable and necessary political rhetoric, perhaps) is tempered by a realization that we are in it together with the rest of the world; a mindset that honors diplomacy and compromise, though inevitably one wishes their foreign policy could move even further away from the extreme military “solutions” to our shared problems with terrorism and such.

In any case, it seems appropriate to close this little essay with a small excerpt from Kiŝ’s:

Nationalism is first and foremost paranoia. Collective and individual paranoia. As collective paranoia, it results from envy and fear, and most of all from the loss of individual consciousness; this collective paranoia is therefore simply an accumulation of individual paranoias at the pitch of paroxysm.

He goes on to call the individual member of the nationalist mob “an individual without individuality,” as is surely apt for any person moved to act by what amounts to massive and often violent “peer pressure”; and xenophobic nationalism itself, he calls “the ideology of hopelessness, the ideology of feasible victory, victory that is guaranteed and defeat that is never final.”

Kiŝ’s words are food for thought, and the argument more involved and nuanced than I have time to elaborate on here, but a fuller version of this text is available at www.hourglassonline.org. And in the forthcoming issue, further perspectives and civil exchange of ideas.

We may quibble with the writer on one point or another (as my reader may quibble with me), but the above-cited passage does certainly bear some resemblance to the present state of affairs in my/our country and world. Given the intimate and recent (and ongoing) history of nationalism in the region of the former Yugoslavia, it might behoove us in the United States of America, in particular, to pay heed.

 

 

Reconciling Contraries

Revista Letra Urbana #33

Mural art: cover of Revista Letra Urbana, #33

With some excitement I announce the appearance, in Revista Letra Urbana, an online Spanish-language journal based in Miami (“a digital magazine of culture, science, and thought”), my first essay written for publication in Spanish. Undoubtedly the kind editors helped me to knock off a few rough edges, but on the whole it was a stimulating and enjoyable process and flowed rather more smoothly than I had anticipated. The essay, “Sobre la reconciliación de contrarios,” pays homage to the lives of three great literary artists on this 400th (or 30th) anniversary of their deaths: Cervantes and Shakespeare (d. 1616) and Borges (d. 1986) while addressing, through their literary work, what I believe to be a single literary/rhetorical project that they all shared in common: the reconciling of contraries.

Another invited essay, forthcoming in Hourglass Literary Magazine (which will appear in my original English and translated into the common language of Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, and Montenegro), speaks to the same concern in a different and more personal way. Also, recently published in the local Perry County News, is a more strictly political attempt to counter Candidate Trump’s divisive rhetoric and to rehabilitate Hillary Clinton as not quite the rabid, corrupt liar as her enemies—and her own foibles—have made her, in the perception of so many voters.

Early responses, from the usual local suspects, have been predictably hostile, but one must accept that some opinions have already been etched in stone and will not be moved. I was directing myself to those whose views still might. The entire comment, in any case, published under the heading “Presidential Politics and Donald Trump,” can be read here:

http://www.perrycountynews.com/content/presidential-politics-and-donald-trump.

The core of my argument, as expressed in the second-to-last paragraph of the newspaper column, goes as follows:

What this country needs is not to move toward an empty, depraved rhetoric of raw force and bluster. It is to move, instead, even if we never fully attain it, toward what one practical philosopher has called a “rhetoric of assent”; by which he means, not the empty eloquence of deceivers, but a kind of humane politics by which people of competing ideas and beliefs—deliberately and in cooperation with each other—seek a more complete understanding of the issues that face us; and labor, then, toward reasonable (if imperfect) solutions that move us as far as immediately possible in that direction.

From the Hourglass essay, “Small Graces,” I draw this brief provocation to thought:

 What might happen, if in our civic conversation, we were actually to explore the unspoken nuance that hangs between our competing arguments? Might extended dialogue of this sort actually bring people of good will on either side of an argument to a new consciousness of what we do or might come to agree on?

Cervantes

Cervantes

And from Letra Urbana—hastily translated, excerpted, and recombined from the Spanish—the following, in the context of a proposed rhetoric of the subjunctive mood (what otherwise might be called “the Quixotic principle”):

 

an attitude and a rhetoric that considers, with a certain humility, the possibility of multiple realities or perspectives. It is to be hoped that this concept, this attitude of the subjunctive, might come to be a new rhetoric for all people, whose world is at risk of disintegrating by means of the collision of absolutes charged with so much violence: destructive illusions on the planes of politics, religion, and everything else. The antidote that I propose to those apocalyptic ideologies is the perspectivism, the subtle and majestic Quixotism, of Cervantes.

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My recent reading has included two books that, along with my recently completed translation of María Rosa Lojo’s novel Todos éramos hijos (All of Us Were Children), could contribute a great deal to the discussion of what the United States under an authoritarian leader like Donald Trump might look like. Certainly it would have a different face and a divergent reality from those of Argentina’s “dirty war” and Franco’s post-Civil War Spain. Yet, as the Bible tells us, in a sense there is nothing new under the sun; so any valid comparison could be, for any of us, words to the wise.

In my search for an English-language publisher for María Rosa’s novel—about Argentina in the first half of the 1970s, through the eyes of a group of young adults on the brink of an uncertain future—I have come on these two recent translations from the Canadian press Biblioasis: The End of the Story, by Liliana Heker, translated by Andrea G. Labinger; and Black Bread, by Emili Teixidor, translated from the Catalán by Peter Bush.

Liliana Heker

Liliana Heker

The End of the Story is a complex and disorienting book, as must have been the experience of being alive in Buenos Aires at the time, while some beloved other or others have been “disappeared” without a trace; but, bit by bit, the pieces of the life of the young revolutionary woman whose life the narrator is struggling to evoke are revealed more clearly. Though to say that, in the end, the novel achieves a perfect clarity would be to ignore the unknowable, the unanswerable, within the narrative itself and in the existential questions that are left provocatively hanging.

But if what we seek is the illusion of unambiguous, absolute certitude within a world of competing absolutes, we can only end up with something resembling (or approaching) the torturer’s logic in Heker’s novel, here compressed from a longer tirade (warning: this passage does include a lightning bolt of upsetting images, though with no gruesome elaboration of them):

 “There’s only one truth. What happens is that some people don’t even realize that they’re wrong. We have to wipe them out anyway; we have to wipe out all the garbage that piled up in Argentina as soon as possible, so it’ll go back to what it was. It’s like a serious illness: you have to operate, with or without anesthesia, in order to save the organism. I’m not about to put up with disrespect from some Commie traitor to the Fatherland. But I don’t do it for pleasure; I do it out of duty. I tell myself, this is a mission you have to fulfill, Sharkey, this vagina, these nipples, are your target; you have to rip these nails off because if you don’t, the Fatherland will fall into foreign hands. Those are the real enemies, because those people think they own the truth. You’ve got to eliminate them without being disgusted. And without hatred. This isn’t pleasant work. Necessary, yes, but not pleasant” (pp. 122-123).

The End of the Story, Biblioasis edition

El fin de la historia, Biblioasis International Translation Series edition

I will leave the reader to contemplate the speaker’s unintended ironies and faulty reasoning. True logic, in any case, as Heker writes, is not “applicable in times of official lunacy” (p. 70); in this official absence of reason we come up with formulations like this: “[The poem] talks about torture. Spells it right out: t-o-r-t-u-r-e. It’s forbidden to write about, understand. It’s immoral. It’s subversive” (p. 103)—but of course, by inference, it is neither immoral nor subversive to inflict it on our perceived enemy; let’s not get carried away with ourselves, fellow bleeding-hearts!

But perhaps most chilling, if we cannot conceive of this happening to ourselves, good and law-abiding citizens such as we are, is what happens to the ordinary man or woman who, looking out of a café window (for instance) and then rushing out to greet someone in the street—without paying, though with notebook and purse still on the table—might lead so perilously close to the torture chamber (as a random traffic stop, to a law-abiding and courteous black man in the U.S., is many times more likely to end in death than for a white man in a comparable position):

“This is what’s changed, she thinks as she leaves: death lying in wait, floating over the minutiae of daily life. To unravel the meaning of these trivial, apparently unhistorical, actions, which nonetheless intercept History, diverting its course in unforeseeable ways” (p. 57); and, reflecting further on the same instance: “Civilized people. And yet one suspicious move on her part would be enough to make the man point her out with his finger” (p. 65).

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Emili Teixidor

Emili Teixidor

Black Bread, which has been made into an Oscar-nominated film from Spain, reminded me of another film, Pan’s Labyrinth, which I have particularly loved. The common bond is the emotionally sustaining bread of imagination and of lush fantasy—in the former, the source is the grandmother’s store of fancy and lore, which must be suppressed if our boy protagonist is to make it in the cruel adult world he is to be educated for; and likewise, in the latter, the fairy tales that the mother (widow of one of the Civil War’s losers; now consigned to a loveless marriage with a cruel, misogynistic military victor) no longer wants the girl protagonist to read or to believe in, if she too is going to survive the new enforced reality.

In Teixidor’s novel, his more traditional narrative with its peaceful pastoral setting—not exempt, nonetheless, from the violent inroads made by the victors in their campaign to purify the land of any trace of liberal ideas—is an easier read than Heker’s; which is not to say that its secrets are any more easily obtained.

It is narrated, presumably, by an adult Andreu looking back on the effective end of that childhood, though entirely through the more ingenuous eyes of that younger Andreu’s at the time. This is a perceptive boy in his evolving notions of the adult world he cannot avoid entering, though continually perplexed by its secrets that he and his younger cousin, Núria (or Cry-Baby) must unlock on their own.

The hardest chapters for me to read, the hardest to emotionally bear up under, involve the boy’s journey with his mother to visit his ailing father in one of Franco’s prisons—a hellhole if ever there was one; and a testament to human cruelty and indifference to the sufferings of real or perceived enemies and their families—and, then, after the father’s death, the mother’s emotional breakdown and confrontation with the local leaders who could hardly be bothered to let her bury her husband.

Still, I would not give up the experience of having read them; for, of what worth is the literature of suffering that does not, in some degree, break our hearts?

This is not just a sad book, in any case, but a sad book laced with moments of intense joy and grace, of life and of beauty that are no less overwhelming than the horror of human violence and malice. In Andreu’s grandmother’s storytelling, for instance, hid a power “that could transform cruelty into happiness, laughter and hope. Death, into life” (p. 233)—which is undoubtedly true of the folk tales or fairytales recorded by the Brothers Grimm, or the literary folk- (or fairy-) tales of Hans Christian Andersen; and all the more so in their unsanitized originals, from which (perhaps unwisely) we try to shield our children.

As for the vitality of that fantasy world as developed so richly in Black Bread (likewise in Pan’s Labyrinth), it is not nor has it ever been enough for the world’s realists to pronounce that realm superfluous to the merely visible one we inhabit. For we must account for the world of beauty, of mystery, of imagination that sustains us and makes our spirits soar—and is the source of the slow advances and refinements that do take place, from time to time, even in the harsh yet necessary political realm.

Andreu suggests something of this, I think, in the following passage, which proceeds from a critique of the Church—religious leaders in league with the military occupiers—and the absence, within that victorious society that the Church implicitly blessed, of any thread of mercy or forgiveness:

[The adults] all knew mercy and forgiveness didn’t exist in this world and that everything priests said was like Grandmother’s fireside fairytales, pleasant, cheery chatter to pass the time, entertainment for our leisure time, but not totally nonexistent.

In fact, that was the source of the intangible beauty and virtue of Grandmother’s imaginary characters that were as evanescent as a dream (p. 227).

Pa Negre, Biblioasis International Translation Series edition

Pa Negre, Biblioasis International Translation Series edition

The personal and collective tragedy, within the thematic structure of Teixidor’s novel, is in the child’s anguished understanding that, in order to survive in the world of these conquerors, he will have to become a little more like them and live strictly in that real world, a world destructive of any true spiritual dimension that might come to us through worlds of imagination and tolerance; or, by a logical extension, through the risk involved in loving and confiding in any one person or relationship. Because, as Grandma Mercè puts it in one of her darker moments:

“War rots everything, that’s what Father Tafalla says, and he’s right. Blasted war spares nothing, saves nobody, simply kills…and…everbody scattered to the four corners…brother and sisters, sons and daughters, grandchildren…flung all over the shop, like thunder, lightning and hail that leaves not one plant standing” (p. 321).

A parallel tragedy, however, in pursuit of those spiritual intangibles that offer us sustenance, is a descent into the false certitudes of absolutist doctrines both political and religious, which are a frightful aspect of the false security of authoritarian regimes like those of the generals in Argentina and Franco’s decades-long Spanish reign.

We must become more comfortable as a people, it seems to me, with the inescapable facts of uncertainty, of difference, of ambiguity, of perpetual change that inevitably exists in any world we might inhabit. For, that golden age we hearken back to while latching onto slogans like “Make America Great Again” was never as golden as nostalgia paints it for us. And certainly not for the invisible sufferings of all those whom the relatively comfortable have almost always failed to take into account.

It is the search for absolute certitude and security, in other words, not the imaginative embrace of mystery and ambiguity or liberality, that leads almost inevitably to the destruction of all we hold dear.

And the politics or religion that cannot allow contraries (people or ideas) to live in harmony and tolerance—whether it be radical Islam or radical Christianity; the most extreme expressions of reactionary American Republicanism or of the radical Liberal or Progressive, or Democrat, or Socialist—is a politics or a religion necessarily at odds with an ever-evolving, flexible Constitution that seeks to reconcile the secular with the religious so that no individual or group be subject to “the tyranny of the majority”—a phrase variously attributed to Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John Adams; and made popular by Alexis de Toqueville in Democracy in America.

Lord Acton offers this clarifying definition of the term: “The one pervading evil of democracy is the tyranny of the majority, or rather, of that party, not always the majority, that succeeds by force or fraud, in carrying elections.”

The problem, then, a thorough discussion of which I must put aside for another occasion, is how to discern among competing claims on the status of most-tyrannized. And that is just one of the prickly subjects of contention that will have to be surmounted, if we are ever to truly be a nation of engaged citizens whose members can take part in civil discourse with each other.

Who can participate, in other words, in an ever-ongoing national reconciliation of contraries.