This is the second Russian novel I’ve liked, but probably not as much as I should have.
I always get a little antsy writing my comments about famous bo...moreThis is the second Russian novel I’ve liked, but probably not as much as I should have.
I always get a little antsy writing my comments about famous books, because there’s so much pressure to agree that these works are indeed classic. If you didn’t like it, the silent implication goes, then you just didn’t understand it. Well, I know that there was a lot of this book I missed. For one thing, I read it in English, and I gather that the Russian style is subtle, unusual, and doesn’t translate well. (For example, Russian has freer word order than English due to its case system, and this apparently is used in this novel for artistic effect.) For another, the whole re-writing of story of Pontius Pilot is mostly lost on me because, not being a Christian, I never studied the original. Also, the book is a subtle yet scathing critique of Stalinist Moscow, a time and place somewhat out of my experience.
Still, there lovely things going on here that I did catch. On a surface level, the book is lively, funny, and the devil’s entourage produces wonderfully described havoc throughout Moscow. I especially liked the sumptuous Ball, which ends up spanning several chapters. The devil himself is also a great character, much richer than the usual stereotypes. In fact, there is a noticeable streak of compassion in him. More fundamentally, there are philosophical hints throughout the book that “good” and “evil” are not really as distinct as we might think. Very postmodern, for a book written in the 1930s. The character of Jesus is similarly nuanced and sympathetic, portrayed as neither a messiah nor a fool, but something in between, a cheerful but worldly philosopher who believes in the essential goodness of man.
There is also extreme cleverness in the critique of the moronic ideological blandness of communism under Stalin. Bulgakov had to please the censors — not mention stay out of jail — so there is nothing at all blunt. It’s all brilliantly deniable, but piercing nonetheless. For example, the poet Ivan Homeless realizes after his encounter with the devil that all of his poetry up until now has been terrible. The way that Bulgakov handles it, this is not unhappiness but the joyous realization of truth — and also a sly crack against the communist system, because Homeless has been writing brainless ideological sermons until now. The novel is in general filled with characters coming alive through their contact with the supernatural; the fact that imaginary forces are needed to make this happen is its own kind of critique of the oppression under which the author lived.
Anyway. It’s a good book. It’s wildly imaginative and extremely rich. I’d like to come back to it when I have a little more context. Also, be aware that the translation matters. I started with the recent translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, and found it a bit stiff and awkward when I later compared it to the (earlier) work of Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O’Connor.(less)
I’d never read Rushdie before. I can see why he has a Jihad against him — even in this book which only incidentally addresses religion, he is not shy...moreI’d never read Rushdie before. I can see why he has a Jihad against him — even in this book which only incidentally addresses religion, he is not shy about saying he sees no place for it. But that is beside the point. Rushdie is, truly, a brilliant writer.
The story is something about two kids from India who grow up to form the biggest rock and roll band of all time in some sort of closely-allied alternate reality, outselling even the Beatles. The themes are much wider ranging. There is the love of music and art, the strange workings of culture and politics, the sense of belonging or being an outsider, and finally, in the end, a love triangle. Pretty standard literary stuff, I suppose, but there’s a lot in there. In some sense it’s all in there. He talks about everything. It’s breathtaking. And the language is lovely, poetry all the way through. There’s a sly humour through the whole thing as well, visible most clearly through the alternate reality he creates, where “Jesse Parker” wrote Heartbreak Hotel, Madonna is a music critic, and JFK survived the assassination attempt (there’s also a crazy novel called “Watergate” where Nixon is thrown out of office for bugging the democrats.) Actually, more precisely, the novel is set in two parallel universes, one of which is our own and gradually fades throughout the story to become just another possibility that didn’t happen.
Otherwise, I really don’t know how to describe this book. It’s pretty damn amazing, one of the finest works I’ve ever read, both in terms of scope and execution. Rushdie is incredibly in touch with very many things, both academic (mythology, film theory) and popular (music, politics, Bombay street life) and as a result his novel is real and complete in a way I find deeply inspiring.
I’m going to end by quoting a passage that I found particularly resonant, perhaps the only time I’ve ever seen a deep part of myself expressed well in words:
For a long while I have believed … that in every generation there are a few souls, call them lucky or cursed, who are simply born not belonging, who come into the world semi-detached, if you like, without strong affiliation to family or location or nation or race; that there may even be millions, billions of such souls, as many non-belongers as belongers, perhaps; that, in sum, the phenomenon may be as “natural” a manifestation of human nature as its opposite, but one that been mostly frustrated, throughout human history, by lack of opportunity. And not only by that: for those who value stability, who fear transience, uncertainty, change, have erected a powerful system of stigmas and taboos against rootlessness, that disruptive, anti-social force, so that we mostly conform, we pretend to be motivated by loyalties and solidarities we do not really feel, we hide our secret identities beneath the false skins of those identities which bear the belongers seal of approval. But the truth leaks out in our dreams; alone in our beds (because we are all alone at night, even if we do not sleep by ourselves), we soar, we fly, we flee. And in the waking dreams our societies permit, in our myths, our arts, our songs, we celebrate the non-belongers, the different ones, the outlaws, the freaks. What we forbid ourselves we pay good money to watch, in a play-house or movie theatre, or to read about between the secret covers of a book. Our libraries, our places of entertainment tell the truth. The tramp, the assassin, the rebel, the thief, the mutant, the outcast, the delinquent, the devil, the sinner, the traveler, the gangster, the runner, the mask: if we did not recognize in them our least-fulfilled needs, we would not invent them over and over again, in every place, in every language, in every time.
No sooner did we have ships than we rushed to sea, sailing across oceans in paper boats. No sooner did we have cars than we hit the road. No sooner did we have airplanes then we zoomed to the furthers corners of the globe. Now we year for the moon’s dark side, the rocky plains of Mars, the rings of Saturn, the interstellar deeps. We send mechanical photographers into orbit, or on one-way journeys to the stars, and we weep at the wonders they transmit; we are humbled by the mighty images of far-off galaxies standing like cloud pillars in the sky, and we give names to alien rocks, as if they were our pets. We hunger for warp space, for the outlying rim of time. And this is the species that kids itself it likes to stay at home, to bind itself with--what are they called again? ”ties" (less)
In my younger years, I consumed a lot of science fiction. I read Clarke, Asimov, Card, Herbert, all the classic masters...moreThe Algebraist – Iain M. Banks
In my younger years, I consumed a lot of science fiction. I read Clarke, Asimov, Card, Herbert, all the classic masters and a lot of the lesser lights besides. Somewhere in the late nineties I discovered Iain M. Banks, first stumbling into the epic Against A Dark Background. Being used to rigorously researched treatises that exploited, oh, relativistic mass change or the Coriolis force on a rotating orbital habitat as plot points, I thought, hey, Banks isn't really writing science fiction. It's more like fantasy set in space, but damn, what an imaginative read!
These days, I don't need rigorous physics to be enthralled by a book. It is ironic then that Banks' latest SF novel – he also writes earthbound drama under the name Iain Banks, no M. – is "harder" than his previous work. Essentially, it's a study of galactic empire under the constraints of slower-than-light space travel. Without the aid of human-emplaced wormholes, the vast distances between star systems can only be bridged by hundreds or thousands of years of travel at near light speed. Wormholes are therefore the key imperial resource, much as water or roads have been the center of contention in earthbound empires.
What makes this story interesting – apart from lots of cool alien species and space hardware – is the sheer scale of it. The plot begins when the remote system of Ulubis is disconnected from the empire by the destruction of its only portal (by, admittedly, the relativistic mass of a near light-speed missile.) As the nearest connected star system is over 200 light years away, nothing will be heard from the rest of the galactic civilization for at least that time, and ships bearing a new wormhole will be even further delayed. Meanwhile, the scholar Fassin Taak accidentally learns an ancient secret from the race of Dwellers who live within the atmosphere of the system's gas giant. This venerable race, reckoned to be over ten billion years old, inhabits over 90% of the gas giants of the galaxy. They live and think on a different time scale, and indeed single individuals can survive for billions of years. They only occasionally stoop to conversing with the galaxy's younger, quicker living races, and it is during one of these slow-time exchanges that Fassin learns that the Dwellers might be concealing a giant wormhole network of their own. This intelligence leaks out, and suddenly a wide array of both imperial and unaligned forces converge on Ulubis at slower-than-light speeds in a game of strategy played over centuries.
So it's all politics and technology over time and space scales that we humans don't normally get to think about. As usual with Banks, there is also a great deal of discussion and insight into culture and civilization as whole; not just a technologist but a confirmed anarchist, Banks speculates better than anyone else on the possible structure of widely distributed post-scarcity societies. The is most strikingly seen in the contrast between the dominant galactic empire within which most humans live, and the much older, much less hierarchical Dweller society where key even functions are essentially elective. The Dweller military, for example, is really just a club of enthusiasts who enjoy tactics and hardware, and autonomously decide when and where to employ their force on the basis of strategic considerations and/or amusement value.
So yes, I enjoyed it. At times I couldn't put it down. It is, essentially, a space opera, but like the best SF it considers very human questions. In this case, it allows us to look at the structure of our own societies by studying the interactions of civilizations within a much broader context than our own. Perspective is a truly wonderful thing, especially when it's set within a good yarn. (less)
This is a truly dirty book, in that almost every one of its short vignettes contains some sort of sweaty, often...more(English translation by Natasha Wimmer)
This is a truly dirty book, in that almost every one of its short vignettes contains some sort of sweaty, often grotesque sex. The author is a pervert, and not a terribly creative one, really – there’s far more illuminating writing on sex elsewhere. That’s fine. The sex is merely backdrop for his stories of desperate people and situations in a Havana slum during the mid-1990s. The author has a unique perspective on all of this, an educated man and a former journalist who is struggling to maintain some sort of equilibrium in the midst of starvation and poverty, and to find some pleasure somewhere, anywhere, in his miserable life.
At the time I had a little business involving empty beer cans. I’d pick the cans out of Miramar dumpster, especially the ones around the embassies and foreign business offices. Sometimes I’d collect more than two hundred cans in a morning. I’d scrape the tops off and sell them for a peso each at ice stands. The stands sold a runny, almost sugarless grapefruit ice, but people waited for half an hour to buy it, and they bought cans from me because the stands didn’t even have paper cups; they took the shitty stuff and thanked God for their good fortune, because that ice was like a blessing on Havana in the nineties. In the rest of the country, there wasn’t even water to drink., Nothing. Hunger from start to finish. But in Havana there’s always more get-up-and-go. Take this can business, for example, People would look at me with disgust when I rummaged through the dumpsters. A few times, Public Health inspectors cornered me. They said that the cans were dirty and hassled me about epidemics and things like that. But I wouldn’t fight back. I’m tired of fighting back. In the end, no matter what happens, I always get screwed. I don’t fight back anymore. I play half retard, half moron, and I’m left alone. Sometimes I think if you’re poor, it’s better to be stupid than smart. A little bit stupid and very tough (a clever beggar is either a brilliant candidate for suicide or a far-flung combatant in the world revolution, or both at once).
And no complaining. It does no good to indulge in complaints or tears or self-pity. Not for your sake or anyone else’s. Compassion for no one. You’ve got to train yourself, but it’s possible to achieve the right state of mind. After being kicked a thousand times in the ass the balls, at last your learn to be a little bit tough and to face things head on and go on fighting, no matter what. There’s no other choice. Is it possible to live any other way?
It is an amazing book, a record of a time and place that we rich white Westerners would otherwise never have access to. You can view it as a counter to Fidel’s communist propaganda, if you wish. The author himself repeatedly makes reference to how he lost his job as a reporter after refusing to toe the party line.
I had spent my life as a fucking journalist, imagining when I began that I’d be master of the truth, someone who changed people’s ideas, but I could think that way anymore.
For more than twenty years as a journalist, I was never allowed to write with a modicum of respect for my readers, or even the slightest regard for their intelligence. No, I always had to write as if stupid people were reading me, people who needed to be force-fed ideas. And I was rejecting all that. Damning to hell all the elegant prose, the careful avoidance of anything that might be morally or socially offensive. I couldn’t keep upholding propriety or behaving properly, smiling and nice, well-dressed, shaved, spritzed with cologne, my watch always keeping the right time. And believing all that was inevitable, believing everything lasts forever. No. I was learning that nothing lasts forever.
I felt at home in that stinking building, with people who weren’t the slightest bit educated or intelligent, who knew nothing about anything, and who solved everything, or fucked it up worse than it had been before, with shouts, insults, violence, and fists. That’s how it was. To hell with everything.
This book, then, is a collection of the “naked stories” he always wanted to write. His stories are short, at most five or ten pages, and each chronicles a brief arc in the wretched life of a whore, an old plumber, an aging former showgirl, a mother with six children, a nurse or policeman. No one is happy, at least not for long. Everyone drinks cheap “kerosene-tasting” rum, smokes marijuana, and has sex whenever possible without regard to consequence. Most of them are petty criminals, stealing from their jobs or selling food or goods on the black market – one pretty much has to be a criminal to survive that time and place. There are also detailed descriptions of assaults and robberies, collapsing buildings, traffic accidents, and an extremely graphic and violent rape. Even the consensual sex is often lifeless and desperate:
I drank a few shots with her, got plastered again, and lost control. My prick stiffened, and I rubbed it through my pants. I like to give women thrills that way. They all like it, even if they pretend to be disgusted. They like to see a man getting hot sitting next to them. It was what the old woman was waiting for. “You’re plastered, sweetie.” She put her hand on my prick and squeezed. “Feel that beast! He wants woman’s flesh!” And just like that she pulled me out of my pants and took me in her mouth. She was a pro, naturally. We went into her room, and I spent an hour riding that huge bulk of warm, sweaty flesh. The two of us were sweating, sweltering. It was nice. It was really nice. She came five hundred times, and she kept saying, “That’s what I like, white boy, I like to come like a bitch in heat.” When I finally came, I fell asleep right there in her bed.
Aside from the lurid detail with which he shows us these miserable lives, his greatest accomplishment is perhaps the battering which he gives his readers. After hundreds of pages of despair, bad luck, ignorance and filth, I began to feel somewhat hardened and despondent myself. Nothing ever works out for any of the characters in his book – all of whom were real people, one suspects. Eventually, I approached the state of mind that he describes so well, where nothing good is expected to last. Reading about an old woman who emerges from solitude to find a little happiness in the kindness of her new neighbors, I could only cringe as I waited for disaster. Sure enough, one of the young men in the building seduces her, shows her love for the first time in fifty years, gets himself written into her will, and promptly disappears. The poor woman dies of shock a week later.
But I am glad for the existence of this book. It shows me a time and place and state of being that I had suspected, but could never see up close. It’s real, very earnest and honest in its own way. And though he goes through great pains to show us how he’s hardened himself – wouldn’t you? – he hints eloquently that he’s been in love, that he knows what life could be despite everything he’s currently experiencing. If you look closely, there is a hidden tenderness in this book. For the author, writing is a way out. He lives in shit, but has managed to forge an aesthetic ideal:
Art only matters if it’s irreverent, tormented, full of nightmares and desperation. Only an angry, obscene, violent, offensive art can show us the other side of the world, the side we never see or try not to see as so as to avoid troubling our consciences.
I hold a different view, but then I live a life of full bellies and running water. If I ever meet Mr. Gutiérrez, I’m going to get drunk with him. (less)