Mettant en forme le passage d’une oraliture à la littérature, Solibo Magnifique, l’un des premiers romans de Patrick Chamoiseau, narre le meurtre du raconteur paradigmatique, le personnage éponyme tué par la parole, et nous lance à la poursuite de son assassin. Bien vite une question s’impose : comment peut-on mourir « égorgé par la parole » ? En mettant la science et les institutions de l’État au défi de répondre à cette interrogation, le roman ouvre la possibilité d’une parole libre de toute restriction, d’une parole comme lieu limite de la colonisation et du pouvoir. C’est parce que la parole échappe toujours aux investigations des policiers, aux pièges du marché que l’on peut parler de la liberté de l’expression opposée à la liberté d’expression sans contenu dont parle la bourgeoisie moderne. Mais en même temps, le roman témoigne de la violence qui résulte de cette crise d’anxiété de l’Etat confronté à la résistance de la parole, en l’occurrence celle de la parole créole. Même si c’est le destin des langues créoles de la Caraïbe de finir par être institutionnalisées, pour le moment nous pouvons rêver à ces libertés inconnues et source de renouvellement dont parlait Césaire,
Et je te caresse de mes mains d’océan. Et je te vire
de mes paroles alizées. Et je te lèche de mes langues d’algues.
Dear 3 followers,
I have renamed and moved to my own domain: www.elotroalex.com/cafe
Hope to see you there,
Toda esa luz está muerta —dijo Ingeborg—. Toda esa luz fue emitida hace miles y millones de años. Es el pasado, ¿lo entiendes? Cuando la luz de esas estrellas fue emitida nosotros no existíamos, ni existía vida en la tierra, ni siquiera la tierra existía. Esa luz fue emitida hace mucho tiempo ¿lo entiendes?, es el pasado, estamos rodeados por el pasado, lo que ya no existe encima de nosotros, iluminando las montañas y la nieve y no podemos hacer nada para evitarlo.
Roberto Bolaño came to me through Mike Engle and Jordan Taylor. I trust them both to pass me a book in a way that I trust few, bless their hearts. I read Mike’s copy. He recently confessed he has been obsessed with Bolaño for a few years, about the same time I’ve been trying to get him to lend me his Spanish editions of the books. Ever the sadist, he started me off with 2666, by far the sexiest, murderous, baroquest wordfest I’ve read in recent months. Coming off from Sade’s Justine last week, I thought this would be a digestive. Little did I know I was lining up for the real grease. Sadly, though, Mike is leaving for Madrid tomorrow and I won’t be able to unload before he comes back in August. Let’s say this brief commentary is a little burp presaging the real vomit to come.
The part of the embedded narratives.
The stories blink on and off like traffic lights. This is a very common device in telenovelas, and yet I couldn’t remember it ever being used in any of the novels I’ve read, ever. The device sort of caught me off guard. So much so, I didn’t realize I was otherwise familiar with the form until halfway through the novel. Good for me, I guess, because I was able to experience some interesting dislocations while I was switching back and forth between murder reports and the stories of the living in Santa Teresa. In “la parte de Fate” we are adomnished that the wretched of the earth don’t get that much airtime, but we’ve heard it so many times, it doesn’t really click. It was in “la parte de los crimenes,” during one of the clinical reports that I caught myself yearning for the continuation of a story that had just been interrupted halfway, one of the many love affairs in the novel, a titillating, yet ultimately banal story. Mon semblable, mon frere! Boy, I like catching myself in the horror within. There it was though. I understood how this simple narrative device, which actuates the form of oblivion by over-splintering the shards of reality —Plotinus meets Bosch— learns us the dark secret of the novel, in a sense drawing our ship past the limit event (boredom) towards the black hole at the center (horror). Each fragment generating a different kind of desire, unpredictable when confronted with the monadic nature of the game, we can get a glimpse of how systemic evil cannot be divorced from the particular fragmented act. While we try to do the social justice math in our heads, we start intuiting a troubling result: The only way humanity could be whole is by facing death together simultaneously… apocalypse, 2666. And yet, this seems like the perfect prelude for a new kind of humanism, a more wistful, sober, seasoned kind of love. Adjust your now nimbler sight to the criss-crossing shards and you will understand why I refuse to label this a dark novel.
Bertolt Brecht believed that alienating an audience would encourage their thoughtfulness. In the case of Susan Boyle’s performance, the initial distance between her and the crowds served only as a prelude for the ultimate hook: the more you thought she was homely and comical, the more you felt the grave beauty of her untrained voice. It took me about three hours of watching the now famous YouTube video to regain my senses. I was hooked.
Britain’s Got Talent did an excellent job of editing, of course. Every second of the clip is recruited in the service of making the frog turn into a princess: They show Ms. Boyle eating a sandwich before confessing her virginity, several reaction shots of the audience and the panel coaching, coaxing us to dismiss her, etc; then she sings as if it was the last song before the music died. The song is marshaled by a cavalry of reaction shots now emphasizing the princess and the moral lesson: “Do not judge a book, yada, yada.” This narrative structure is ancient and has moved us all at one point or another. While it is important to recognize it, the Shrek story is not what brought me here today.
The song, “I Dreamed a Dream,” was originally sung by Fantine, the single mother turned prostitute in the musical adaptation of Les Misérables (The Wretched of the Earth). Although I would not consider Ms. Boyle’s destiny to be as harsh as her French counterpart, the show does attach a certain level of tragedy to the cat lady: Ugly folk can’t be happy after all. No sex, remember. “What is your dream?” Simon asks, and this is the main theme of the tune, dreams frustrated. Another parallel: Fantine and Ms. Boyle both incite us to believe in their original state of grace and purity. Finally, “I Dreamed a Dream” speaks of the American dream, a leaflet dream long ago photocopied and distributed on the world’s campus. It is this last echo what brought me here.
In the middle of a global crisis of YouTube proportions, “I Dreamed a Dream” sung with pathos by a comic figure inspires millions. To do what, exactly? The double bind of the scene complicates the answer: While she is singing of dreams frustrated, Ms. Boyle is instantly fulfilling her dream —Like the woman who says her husband doesn’t love her anymore while he is hugging her with passion. As millions are reminded of the disjuncture between their ‘reality’ and their ‘dreams’ (mirages in the desert of the mirror for the most part), the cute (read ugly), natural (read unkempt), cheeky (read vulgar), pure (read 48 year old virgin), Susan Boyle sings on with bravura , and yet, somehow, dreams remain dreams, “y los sueños, sueños son.” Notice how the melody continues to play over the scene as the judges make her dream come true and then some, until the commercial break. If to fulfill a dream is to finally wake up from the nightmare of dreaming, then we better hope someone set the alarm clock.
Unlike the old fairy tale, Ms. Boyle does not turn into a prince at the end, she just sings like one. As soon as her song is over, a comic scene follows as she is about to go off-stage out of cue. She is still a frog after all. This is what makes this story so contemporary. The Susan Boyle in the global psyche is comic, nothing to really worry about. The embodiment of Fantine by Susan Boyle speaks to the sense of false tragedy we are being offered as consolation price for inconsequence and mild manners. It is at best condescending.
If you want me to believe that reality has developed a conscience, please invite Ms. Boyle to your next orgy. I imagine she should be pretty horny by now. In the meantime, I’m going to go listen to her a couple of more times before going to bed. There is something about her voice that is just as brutal as the real thing and I can’t get enough of it.
Así se escribe, sí señor. Y muchas preguntas después. Respondamos algunas. ¿Por qué tres tristes tigres? Porque son tres amigos que andan por ahí melancólicos y apolíticos, llorando la extinción de su mundo de arrimados al detritus cultural. Porque es un trabalenguas y la novela traba las lenguas de daiquirís y manías verbales, que mira que a las tres de la mañana andar triste con los tigueres es una cosa tumba monumentos, bustrafelónica, como diría B. Y es que ponerse a hacer trabalenguas es cosa de borrachos desobamados. Esta era aparentemente la noche bohemia de la Habana que ahora extrañan los septuagenarios del exilio. Que no me pregunten a mí, que así me acuerdo yo la noche Habanera de antes de ayer.
¿Por qué domina en la novela la voz del fotógrafo? Porque es el pseudo-Infante. Porque la novela era toda suya cuándo se llamaba solo “Ella cantaba boleros.” Porque es muy aburrido hacer del escritor personaje principal (aun si el fotógrafo habla y escribe como uno). ¿Por qué tantas referencias literarias? Porque hay que sudársela si después de pasarse toda la vida tragándose lo que se vende como haute culture, no le va a salir a uno borracho perdido (¿o encontrado?) con el clan de los taimados (¿o estafadores?). ¿Y cómo entonces es literatura? Y si no lo es, que va a ser, ¿un juego de monopolio?
Y al final unas preguntas baja-nota, que para eso nos pagan, ¿Qué hacen todas esas lenguas extranjeras en la Walpurgis Habanacht? Esto, amigos míos, es lo que nos incumbe, a mí y aquellos planes de asustar a la literatura. Mientras el español se desenrolla de coloquialismos y formalidades, el inglés merodea, asomándose en las pretensiones de Cué, en los filmes y las importaciones de Miami, y así poco a poco, a pesar de los berrinches del fotógrafo, se va gestando un nuevo código. ¿Será que el worcestershire aderezando el sinfín de alusiones no es más que otra señal de salida del texto o se nos desparrama de una vez como el eclipse de la Estrella desnuda? No es solo el inglés; los Usual Suspects se cuelan también, francés, italiano y alemán (en su debida proporción, claro). Es y no es la poliglotía caribeña y ahí está el rub. Es el desmadre lingüístico de los sobre-leídos, no cabe duda, que por falta de público no mezclan el chino con árabe y farsi. En el Caribe existe otra poliglotía, la que llamaremos geográfica por el momento. Este otro inglés, este otro francés (sin italiano, ni alemán, salvo turista), con una triza de holandés y mucho pero mucho kreyol, esta otra Babel, no tiene ni público ni biblioteca descomunal que la sostenga. ¿No sería lindo, digo yo, si de ella también sacamos una novelita? Y quizas al final del experimento se verifique la hipotesis de Bustrofoneta que sugiere que de siete u ocho lenguajes se puede sacar uno… aunque al final venga pareciendo mas inglés que otra cosa.
I’m obviously still a sucker for a moving finale. In the case of this novel I was a sucker for the whole thing. Written in very simple prose, almost as if the book was a series of screenshots, the story has time to develop through an A, B, C and then F plot that I had not come across in a while. In a sense, the simplicity was refreshing. A few dream sequences here and there, strange nightmares, dotted the otherwise crystalline storyline. Don’t be fooled though. A series of complexities underlines the straight-shooting. First, I would argue, is the role of English itself in a novel that deals with the advent of Westernization at the end of the Qing Dynasty. Chiew-Siah obviously has a sympathetic ear for Walter Scott’s brethren, and apparently she started writing the thing under Alasdair Gray’s tutelage. Then there’s the question of the inside and the outside, the self-contained world and the chopstick intrusions from the outside as Real. The main character of the novel is the 2000 year old promise of the just Confucian society, embodied in the virtuous mandarin Mingzhi. “Everything changes,” though, and the stout philosophy does not crumble in the face of corruption, “the dark vines,” but in change itself, in Dao. Last, but not least, is the question of present-day China, the Marxist reading waiting to call out the Dr. Zhivago inside the little hut, somehow right, somehow wrong. You see, the novel is not only written in very simple English, it is also written in very simple Chinese History: Almost a China for Dummies, with canonical lists of events and cultural icons interspersed amongst a series of coincidences that place the main character next to the action during the main historical events of the 1890’s. “May you live in important times” says an old curse, and boy was Mingzhi cursed. Imagine visiting the Imperial City only a couple of times in your life, and have those coincide with the Gong Zhe Shangshu movement and the Boxer invasion of Beijing. And yet, if you know nothing about the end of the Qing and/or about the China of yore, I would start here.
That wonderful compliment was originally meant as an insult. I earned the soubriquet a few years ago for my penchant for reducing reducible jargon to sentences your average bloke could understand. “It is more complex than that,” always seemed to follow these famous condensations, as if all the ornament that surrounds an idea necessarily reflects a morsel of reality. Later, the epithet came to include more and more of my discourse, not just my translations from English to English. Think about it, not just vulgar, but a vulgarizer. Herein lies the threat. To be simply vulgar gives your audience a chance to dismiss you on aesthetic grounds, the great distinction of Bourdieu, but to dare refract the great pretentions of the so-called sophisticated in such a way that their core ideas undress before the world, now there is a transgression. No need here to go into the origins of the word vulgar or any discussions about elitism. It would be more rewarding for now to look at the possibility of vulgarizing as a form of dissent.
For a long time during my bookish journey, I used my familiarity with the world of words to distinguish myself from those around me. No one has to sell me on the pleasures of arrogance. I know the appeal of weaving language and knowledge around the heads of others. Changing gears came perhaps in a few stages, a few episodes. God knows, coming from Santo Domingo I received a sound education in vulgarity at an early age, and this was what my books were there to counteract. For many years while I read and read and read, I grew farther and farther apart from this world, until a form of solitude set in. A few important episodes came while I was an undergrad at FIU to maneuver me in the opposite direction. One day while chatting about poetry with my first real mentor, Philip Marcus, I made some disparaging comments about poetry.com, to which he quickly responded with that kind of endearing scorn that only true mentors can muster, “at least they are writing poems, Alex.” The glace began to melt on my pretentions. In the office next door, on a similar afternoon and surrounded by countless books, Butler Waugh famously declared in his unforgettable hoarse voice, “in this world there are only three things I like: I like to read, I like to drink and I like to fuck.” A confession which took me many more years to appreciate; these frank words are now a kind of a mantra for me.
By the time I came to graduate school, you could already see inklings of the great vulgarizations of the future. In those days you could probably ascribe my controversial statements to the pleasures of shock, an early form of resistance, not to hypocrisy, but to timidity. Soon it became apparent that a certain form of Puritanism was the order of the day and that I was being remonstrated not for intimidating the timid, but for breaking certain unspoken laws of discourse. My first official assignment came back with an F grade. It was one of those things you write and email everybody in class for review. The subject was Eugene O’neill’s “Desire Under the Elms.” My essay —entitled “Desire Under Her Elms”— argued rather convincingly that the play functioned like a penis, limp at first, slowly becoming erect, eventually ejaculating all over the audience: F + 2 weeks worth of hate-mail from other students, one of which called me the “most offensive person she had ever met.” Knowing very well that my analysis of the play was dead on, and considering everyone chose to go after the shell rather than engage with the argument per say, I realized right away that I was on to something.
What exactly then does a vulgarizer resist? The answer should be apparent by now: Hypocrisy, whether it is unconscious, such as the divide between theory and practice, the rational and the irrational; pre-conscious, such as literary pretensions or sexual mores; or conscious, such as political wriggling or the neo-liberal gospel. To vulgarize is to inflate cultural capital so that it gradually loses its value. Do not despair if you can’t understand this last paragraph, I will vulgarize it for you in postings to come.