Utopian dreams: a post-mortem

In August 1940 Leon Trotsky, one of the architects of Bolshevism and the Russian Revolution, was assassinated in Mexico City.  It was the second attempt on his life in less than three months. The assassin, a Spanish Communist named Ramón Mercader del Río, received his orders directly from Joseph Stalin.

Stalin had banished Trotsky from the Soviet Union in 1928, but Trotsky continued to write harsh criticism of the revolution’s direction under Stalin’s increasingly tyrannical regime. In 1936, in one of Stalin’s first show trials, a Soviet tribunal tried Trotsky in absentia for treason along with sixteen other high-ranking Bolsheviks arrested by the secret police. All were sentenced to death and all but Trotsky were summarily shot.

Four years later, in Mexico, Mercader, who claimed to be a Belgian named Jacques Mornard but also used a Canadian passport with the alias Frank Jacson, gained Trotsky’s trust by forming a relationship with his secretary. On August 21, while Trotsky worked at the desk in his library, Mercader plunged a sawed-off ice ax into his skull. Despite the blow Trotsky lived until the next day. Apprehended by Trotsky’s bodyguards at the scene, Mercader spent the next twenty years in a Mexican prison.

Trotsky's study as it was on the day he died. Photo: Museo Casa de León Trotsky
Trotsky’s study as it was on the day he died. Photo: Museo Casa de León Trotsky

From these bare facts Cuban novelist Leonardo Padura has written a fine historical novel that is Russian in scale, spanning much of the 20th century’s experimentation with Communist utopias. The Man Who Loved Dogs begins in post-revolutionary Cuba after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. Iván Maturell, a self-censored writer who works as a proofreader for a veterinary magazine, tells how he met a mysterious Catalan with two Russian wolfhounds on a beach outside Havana in the late 1970s. Over the next few years, in intermittent encounters, the eponymous man who loved dogs relates the life story of Trotsky’s assassin.

22474310In alternating chapters Padura moves three separate stories forward until they collide: that of Trotsky’s wandering exile in Kazakhstan, Turkey, Norway and finally Mexico, where the Communist painters Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo persuaded Mexico’s leftist president, Lázaro Cárdenas, to accept the unwanted revolutionary; that of Mercader’s journey from the trenches of the Spanish Civil War to the Soviet Union during Stalin’s purges, then to France and Mexico in pursuit of his target; and finally, that of his depressed narrator, Iván Maturell, who occupies the terrible days of economic crisis in Cuba after the Soviet collapse with his compulsive desire to uncover the truth about the story the man on the beach told him.

Padura spent over ten years conceptualizing, researching and writing this novel, and it shows. The book breathes life into the character of Trotsky—a zealous, ruthless revolutionary who rues the destruction of his life’s work at Stalin’s hands. It makes real the transformation of a young, unthinking ideologue-soldier into a hardened assassin of Stalin’s secret police. And it is rich in describing the complex political currents facing Europe in the 1930s as two violent ideologies—Fascism and Communism—ripped Spain apart.

Today, the house where Trotsky lived in Coyoacán—an affluent suburb of Mexico City—is a museum. Trotsky’s study has been left much the way it was on the day he died, with his wire-rimmed eyeglasses, pages of correspondence and books in Russian and other languages on the table. Outside, in a courtyard garden surrounded by high walls  and protected by a guard tower and steel doors, a stone monument bearing a hammer and sickle marks Trotsky’s grave.

Trotsky's ashes lie beneath a monument in the garden of the house in Coyoacán. In the background, the guard house on the walls that failed to protect him. Photo credit: Museo Léon Trotsky.
Trotsky’s ashes lie beneath a monument in the garden of the house in Coyoacán. In the background, the guard house on the walls that failed to protect him from his enemies. Photo credit: Museo Casa de Léon Trotsky.

When I visited the museum on a cloudy, humid summer day in 1976, there was an oppressive atmosphere to the place; it felt more like a prison than a sanctuary. I remember thinking Trotsky’s life in Mexico would make a fascinating story. Padura, visiting the museum in 1989, had a similar thought, and he turned out to be the perfect writer to pull it off. Having lived through the Cuban Revolution, he knew firsthand the optimistic fervor of its early days, when Cubans embraced the great utopian dream of Communism espoused by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Padura also saw the gradual corruption of the dream and its decline into diminished freedoms, increasing authoritarianism and hopeless poverty for all but the elite few.

In the October 23, 2013 issue of the New Yorker, Jon Lee Anderson wrote an insightful article about contemporary Cuban literature that highlighted Leonardo Padura. Since the Revolution, most Cuban writers have either had to write dull, non-controversial books in order to pass the censors or see their books banned. Padura was the exception. By devoting himself to detective novels, he managed to slip social criticism into his fiction elliptically, avoiding the ire of the state. This made him one of the most popular writers in Cuba. The Man Who Loved Dogs is his most openly critical book, and although he won a national literature prize for it, it’s noteworthy that, after years of skirting trouble in Cuba, Padura now lives in Berlin.

If there is one history lesson from the 20th century that echoes throughout Leonardo Padura’s important novel, it is this: Any ideology—political, religious, or economic—that must compel people to change their behavior in order for the system to succeed inevitably becomes abusive, corrupt and cruel, and is inherently doomed to fail. All three of Padura’s protagonists love dogs but only one, his questioning Cuban narrator, shows any compassion for his fellow man.



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Geologists as heroes

Last year, after backpacking for days through the bright white granitic rock in the high country of the Sierra Nevada, my friends and I began descending to our point of departure near Bishop, California. As we made our way down Piute Canyon, we began to see outcrops of sedimentary rock, weathered bluffs so red they might have been out of a Georgia O’Keefe painting. This startling contrast got me wondering how that red rock got there.

Sedimentary rock in the Sierra Nevada Photo: T. Gething

Sedimentary rock in the Sierra Nevada
Photo: T. Gething

Annals of the Former World, John McPhee’s vast, extensively researched collection of five books about the geology of the continent, answered my question. In the fourth book of the series, Assembling California, he writes: “Soon we were dropping toward two thousand feet, among deeply weathered walls of phyllite, in color cherry and claret—the preserved soils of the subtropics when the unrisen mountains were a coastal plain. Geologists call it lateritic soil, in homage to the Latin word for brick. All around the Sierra, between two and three thousand feet of altitude, is a band of red soil, its color deepened by rainfall that leaches out competing colors and intensifies the iron oxide.”

The Sierra Nevada is a young mountain range, the result of the Pacific Plate colliding and grinding against the North American Plate. The range began lifting some three million years ago like “a raised trapdoor,” according to McPhee, sloping gently to the west toward its hinge somewhere under California’s Central Valley and with “a plunging escarpment facing east.” It’s still rising.

18895344Written over a span of twenty years, between 1978 and 1998, McPhee’s Annals is a chronicle of geologic discovery. The book began as a series of New Yorker articles in which he set out to describe a geologic cross section of the continent by traveling along Interstate 80. In the process, McPhee not only ranged across thousands of miles but billions of years. His attention turned inevitably to the revolutionary theory of plate tectonics that was then shaking up the field. Imbedded in his subject like fossils layered in stone was the history of our growing understanding of the earth’s mechanics.

In the first book of the series, Basin and Range, McPhee crosses Nevada with Princeton University geologist Ken Deffeyes. Stopping at road cuts to inspect the exposed rock strata, Deffeyes explains the basic concepts of plate tectonics, which leads McPhee into the history of geology as a science and the pioneering observations of James Hutton. In Scotland, in 1785, Hutton shook up the established order by asserting that geologic evidence showed the world to be much, much older than the 4,000 years theologians, basing their claims on biblical scholarship, reckoned it was. The development of plate theory in the last half of the 20th century was just as unsettling, finding staunch proponents and skeptical opponents in the 1960s and 1970s.

Much still needs to be learned about the earth’s core, mantle and crust, the vulcanism of hot spots and the movement of continental plates, but plate tectonics are now accepted as the geologic engine of mountain formation, continental drift, the spreading and subduction of the ocean floor, and the shattering earthquakes that occur where plates meet.

Today, you can watch a fifty-minute National Geographic video on YouTube that explains, somewhat sensationally, the latest thinking on plate tectonics. But what McPhee managed to capture in his twenty-year project was the fascinating intellectual chase of the scientists who helped establish the theory. In Suspect Terrain, the second volume in the series, looks at anomalies in the Appalachians with Anita Harris, a skeptical petroleum geologist, as McPhee’s guide. In Rising from the Plains, David Love pieces together the puzzling results of mountain formation and the disappearance of ancient oceans in Wyoming as plates collided. In Assembling California, Eldrige Moore carries on where Ken Deffeyes left off, addressing the seismic activity that has shaped, and is still shaping, the West Coast. And finally, in Crossing the Craton, Randy Van Schmus helps unlock the secrets of the Canadian Shield, the Precambrian craton that runs beneath the Middle West and contains some of the oldest remaining rock in the world (3.8 billion years).

No one writes with more clarity and enthusiasm about arcane terrain than John McPhee. What could easily become dull or geeky in others’ hands is a lively and at times humorous account of numerous road trips with brilliant, eccentric geologists who dedicated their lives to their science. By shadowing the men and women who have been leaders in their respective fields, McPhee delivers insights on the powers of observation, trial and error, multi-dimensional problem-solving, perseverance and obsession, and the iconoclasm that breeds breakthroughs. Being a geologist apparently leads to ambivalence about things that appear solid if not permanent, conflicted attitudes regarding man’s impact on the environment, and a changed perspective on time.

There are moments in this book that truly highlight our insignificance in the scheme of things. Just as new telescopes have revealed the mind-boggling expansiveness of the universe, improved isotopic dating techniques have shown how old our planet is. Great mountain ranges have risen and crumbled and been overlaid by new mountains. Continents have amassed and split apart and amassed again. Oceans have widened and narrowed and disappeared. Mass extinctions have occurred numerous times and may well happen again. As McPhee so eloquently tells us, time functions on two very different scales, the human and the geologic:

“In like manner, geologists will sometimes use the calendar year as a unit to represent the time scale, and in such terms the Precambrian runs from New Year’s Day until well after Halloween. Dinosaurs appear in the middle of December and are gone the day after Christmas. The last ice sheet melts on December 31st at one minute before midnight, and the Roman Empire lasts five seconds….Geologists live with the geologic scale. Individually, they may or may not be alarmed by the rate of exploitation of the things they discover, but, like the environmentalists, they use these repetitive analogies to place the human record in perspective—to see the Age of Reflection, the last few thousand years, as a bright sparkle at the end of time….

The human consciousness may have begun to leap and boil some sunny day in the Pleistocene, but the race by and large has retained the essence of its animal sense of time. People think in five generations—two ahead, two behind—with heavy concentration on the one in the middle. Possibly that is tragic, and possibly there is no choice. The human mind may not have evolved enough to be able to comprehend deep time….Geologists, dealing always with deep time, find that it seeps into their beings and affects them in various ways. They see the unbelievable swiftness with which one evolving species on the earth has learned to reach into the dirt of some tropical island and fling 747s into the sky. They see the thin band in which are the all but indiscernible stratifications of Cro-Magnon, Moses, Leonardo, and now. Seeing a race unaware of its own instantaneousness in time, they can reel off all of the species that have come and gone, with emphasis on those that have specialized themselves to death.”

John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World shows geology as a heroic quest for knowledge and geologists as heroes who have rewarded us with a deeper understanding of the world and of mankind’s tenuous place in it.


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All in the family

“All happy families are alike,” wrote Tolstoy in Anna Karenina, “each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Which, if you agree, goes a long way to explaining why novelists focus on the latter.

When Rohinton Mistry’s Family Matters was published in 2002, several reviewers compared the Indian-born writer to Tolstoy. Mistry, who now lives in Canada, is best known for his 1995 prize-winning novel, A Fine Balance, about the Indian Emergency of 1975.

535293Family Matters, as the title suggests, is the story of an extended family living in Mumbai (Bombay)—India’s largest city and commercial center—during the 1990s. It’s a period of rapid growth and political turbulence. While the ethnic-based politics of the Shiv Sena and longstanding tensions between Hindus and Muslims swirl like a typhoon in the background, Mistry’s attention is on the disruptions to a Parsi family when Nariman Vakeel, the family’s 79-year-old, Parkinson’s-stricken patriarch, falls and breaks his leg.

The Parsis are an ethnic and religious minority in India (originally from Persia, they practice a form of Zoroastrianism). They have enjoyed a disproportionate role in the commercial success of Mumbai since the days of the British East India Company. Over time, however, they have become a smaller and smaller minority, and one of the questions raised in this novel is the place they will have in India’s future.

Family Matters doesn’t strive for the epic proportions or moralistic tone of Tolstoy’s novels. But, like Tolstoy, Mistry uses third-person omniscience and a graceful, dispassionate style to describe Nariman’s physical decline. With the same objective scrutiny, he details the stresses and strains pulling apart the siblings who must care for him. In extremis, their dysfuntional relationships surface, and as the story unwinds we learn in flashbacks that the unhappiness stems from Nariman’s past.

In his youth, Nariman fell in love with a non-Parsi woman named Lucy. Lacking the courage to defy his parents, he broke off with her to marry Yasmin, a Parsi widow with two young children, Coomy and Jal. Despite the birth of another child, Roxana, Nariman and Yasmin’s marriage remained unhappy. Unable to stop loving Lucy, Nariman stirred resentment and anger in his wife and bitterness in his stepchildren, a bitterness that emerges as disgust when Nariman becomes an invalid under their care.

Having failed to launch and still living with their stepfather in his large flat, where they are haunted by the memory of their dead mother’s unhappiness, Coomy and Jal are quick to foist Nariman on Roxana even though she and her husband and two sons live in a much smaller two-room apartment. Soon financial pressures and the close quarters put stress on this once-happy family, too.

Rohinton Mistry (Photo Credit: The Telegraph Media Group Limited)

Rohinton Mistry
(Photo Credit: The Telegraph Media Group Limited)

Mistry is best at describing the physical tribulations of old age—the embarrassment and helplessness as illness takes over. His clear-eyed writing of these difficult scenes bears all the hallmarks of Tolstoyan realism. His characters, however, lack the complexity and inconsistencies of the great Russian’s. With the possible exception of Roxana’s husband, Yezad, they remain constrained by what fate has delivered: Roxana worries about finances and the added strain on her family but remains cheery beyond belief while caring for her father. Coomy, in her unforgiving bitterness, seems one-sided, and Jal, too vague and passive.

This stunting of character may be intentional. No one in this family except Yezad and his young sons has any life outside the family. And even Yezad ends up cutting off most of that as he struggles with career ambitions and swerves toward religion. There is an incestuous feeding on unspoken emotions within this family, and the novel at times feels claustrophobic, as confined as Nariman in the late phases of his illness. And that may have been Mistry’s point.


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An aside and an introduction

Last year I set a goal to write at least one blog post per month. Sometimes I managed more but, by and large, I stuck to my modest target. (It’s always a balancing act between one’s own writing and reading others.)

As this year began I debated whether to continue at the same pace, and how to continue–whether to use the random approach I’ve used in the past, which simply reflects my literary whims, or to apply a more focused method to the madness. For example, should I only post about authors I’ve never read before? Or focus on the classics? Or newly published books? Or indie authors? Or take a deep dive into one country’s literature, or into a particular genre? How about a year devoted to Montaigne’s Essays?

In the end, I decided to stick to randomness and the same pace (unless I hole up with a stubborn novel draft instead, in which case it will be even less frequent). So, to kick off the year I’m starting with an indie author like myself.

22744273Nola Fran Evie is a novel by Britt Skrabanek, a fellow blogger who like me once lived in Milwaukee and has migrated to the Pacific Northwest. Britt has written a fun, fast-paced story about four determined women. The eponymous Nola, Fran and Evie meet and form a lifelong bond while playing for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. (This was the league formed in 1942 to fill the void the war brought to Major League baseball.) There are a few early scenes at Wrigley Field, but don’t expect lots of tense baseball games with pitchers staring down tobacco-spitting batters. This book is about the women’s disparate struggles off the field after the league ended in 1954.

The league not only brings Nola, Fran and Evie together but, while in it, each woman meets the man who, for better or worse, will change her life. Much of the action takes place in Chicago during the 1950s, after the men have returned from the war and the women are supposed to retreat to the suburbs to raise families. But Nola, Fran and Evie are not the types to go quietly.

Their story is actually a story within a story. The book begins with Jacks, a young contemporary businesswoman in Chicago who is heading to London for a new job, but who feels lost and empty. As she is packing up her apartment, a plate of laced brownies left by a mysterious neighbor and a vintage purse from a keepsake box send her into a reverie about the purse’s owner, who happens to be one of the three ball players.

Britt knows baseball and she knows brisk plotting and crisp dialogue. She deftly ties together the story of the “imagined” trio with Jacks’ own story in a romantic, heartfelt way. As I read the book over the holidays, I kept thinking of hot summer days in the Midwest. Give it a try and see if it does the same for you.


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A polyphonic classic


Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 1918-2008

When Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn died in 2008, the totalitarian state that imprisoned him, exiled him and turned him into one of its fiercest critics was already twenty years gone. The Soviet Union—in particular, the despotic regime of Joseph Stalin with its sham trials and violent purges, its forced collectivizations and frozen gulags—was a thing of the past, a dark spot from another century. As I began Solzhenitsyn’s In the First Circle recently, I wondered if the novel would prove to be a historical relic or, worse, a dated polemic masquerading as art.

I needn’t have worried. In the First Circle is a Great Russian novel in the realist tradition of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. Epic in scope and genesis, and based on personal experience, it is polemical only in the way War and Peace is: it asserts the dignity of the individual in the face of a nation’s collective crisis. In the First Circle condemns the corrupted political system left in the wake of a failed revolution while it depicts a society terrorized by a secret police that operate through intimidation and cruelty.

Solzhenitsyn wrote the first draft of In the First Circle in the late 1950s. After winning worldwide acclaim for his 1962 novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, he hoped to see this large novel published, too; he even excised some of its more critical sections and softened the plot to make it more palatable to the authorities. Still, the censors rejected it. But the expurgated version did see publication overseas, in English as The First Circle (1968). Later, dissatisfied with the “distorted” version as it had appeared, Solzhenitsyn restored the text to his original intent. This definitive version only appeared in English in 2009.

2080190Differences in the two versions begin with the title, which is a reference to Dante’s Inferno. A novel that takes place in the first circle of hell is different than one about it; the former emphasizes the people there over the place itself. The plot changed as well. In the restored version, the story hinges on the treasonous act of a disenchanted Soviet diplomat who on Christmas Eve, 1949, telephones the American embassy to inform them that Soviet spies are about to steal secrets about the atomic bomb. The secret police intercept the anonymous phone call, triggering a hunt for the traitor.


Solzhenitsyn as a political prisoner. Image: scienceblogs.com

After what seems like a fine opening to a thriller, Solzhenitsyn shifts gears. The detective story is only a thread to loosely hold together the fabric of a much larger story. In order to determine the traitor from the recorded voice, the secret police turn to their experts: the zeks, or political prisoners, held in a sharashka, a prison research institute on the outskirts of Moscow (modeled on the prison where Solzhenitsyn spent three years). There, a select group of scientists held without trial for undefined crimes against the state are ordered to identify the traitor. If they fail, they will be sent from the comparatively comfortable existence “in the first circle” of the sharashka to one of the harsher physical-labor camps in Siberia.

When Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, the Soviet authorities refused to let him travel to Sweden. Karl Ragnar Gierow, who accepted the prize on his behalf, described Solzhenitsyn as the creator of the “polyphone” or “horizontal novel,” where “each person becomes the chief character whenever the action concerns him.” In the First Circle is perhaps the finest example of this technique. Each of the 96 chapters is told from a limited third-person point of view in which we think and feel with the character, and in this novel there are some thirty different points of view.

The result is a bottom-to-top depiction of Soviet society, of the prisoners, their wives and children, the guards and police, and the privileged apparatchiks who made the system work. Some of the stories are full of ironic undertones, even gallows humor; some epitomize the turbulent upheavals that so many Russians faced, first in civil war then in world war, and several chapters of the restored version even attempt to penetrate the midnight musings of a paranoid Joseph Stalin. Hell, it appears, is not reserved for the prisoners alone. Everyone in this novel lives in one circle of hell or another, except perhaps the prisoners being sent to the gulags. Having had everything taken from them, they have nothing left to fear.


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The Wild West revisited

Here lies Lester Moore,

Four slugs from a .44,

No Les, no more.

 * * *

Here lies George Johnson

Hanged by mistake


He was right,

We was wrong,

But we strung him up

And now he’s gone.

Epitaphs from Tombstone’s Boothill Graveyard 

Despite the flippant wit of these epitaphs, Lester Moore was a real person killed in a brawl and George Johnson was wrongly accused and hanged for horse stealing in Tombstone, a silver boomtown in the Arizona Territory that came to epitomize the Wild West. The 1881 gunfight at the O.K. Corral put the town on the map when the Earp brothers and “Doc” Holliday faced off with five of the Cochise County Cowboys, a gang of rustler-outlaws. In the 30-second fight, three Cowboys were killed and, of the lawmen, only Wyatt Earp came away unscathed.

In almost real time, yellow journalism and dime novels celebrated the fearless men who tamed the lawless town. And, as if America needed heroes to sanction its manifest destiny, or to assuage its conscience, the legend blossomed. Throughout the 20th Century countless books, movies and television shows recycled the incident, inflating the characters to mythic proportions.

By the 1950s, you would think the gunfight at the O.K. Corral was as played out as the mines around Tombstone. (The silver long gone, Tombstone nearly became a ghost town, only surviving as a tourist trap playing up its mythic past and marketing itself as “the town too tough to die.”) But a great novelist can always find new material in the timeworn. In capable hands, myth and cliché become fertile ground for reassessment, and in 1958 Oakley Hall did just that, writing the extraordinary novel Warlock.

Hall, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, taught creative writing at the University of California-Irvine for many years. With Warlock, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, he became something of a cult figure for a younger generation of writers who admired the craftsmanship and epic proportions of this myth-busting novel. “One of our best American novels,” Thomas Pynchon claimed in a 1965 Holiday magazine article about his favorite neglected work of fiction. Fortunately, New York Review Books agreed with him and republished Warlock in 2006 with an introduction by another devotee, Robert Stone.

183199As a historical novel, Warlock does everything right. First, Hall made the smart decision to rename the town and the people involved. (Tombstone becomes Warlock, named after a local mine.) As Hall explained in his preface: “By combining what did happen with what might have happened, I have tried to show what should have happened.” In other words, he liberated the story from the exigencies of the historical record to probe the myth for its deeper, more resonant truths.

Second, instead of attempting to mimic the “old consciousness” that so often hampers historical fiction (see my recent post), Hall approached his subject with a modern sensibility and style. As Robert Stone writes in his introduction, “I remember thinking how wonderfully clear the book was. Not only clear, as I remember, but full of light. The sensation of reading back into time was very strong because the style made itself invisible as good style will when it is accomplishing its purpose.”

Hall did use the occasional archaic word, but it was always carefully chosen and deadly accurate. Even when writing in the voice of one of his characters, he maintained complete authorial control. Here is an example from the first page of the book, a journal entry of Henry Goodpasture, a prominent Warlock citizen, describing the recent turnover of the town’s deputies:

Canning was a good man, a decent man, an understandably prudent man, but an honorable one. He coped with our daily and nightly problems, with brawling, drunken miners, and with Cowboys who have an especial craving to ride a horse into a saloon, a Cyprian’s cubicle, or the billiard parlor, and shoot the chimneys out of the chandeliers.

That adroit use of “a Cyprian’s cubicle” as a euphemism for a prostitute’s room tells you all you need to know about the man writing this journal, and Hall’s choice of “chimneys” is a pitch-perfect detail that not only evokes the time period but assures you that you are in the hands of a master storyteller.

As befits its legendary subject, Warlock is an epic that uses multiple points of view to build perspective and tension. With the exception of Goodpasture’s journal entries, which serve as an intermittent Greek chorus, the book is written in the third person. The only main character whose point of view is not used is the Wyatt Earp-like marshal, Clay Blaisedell. By circling around the man, Hall pokes at the legend. Showing the gunfighter through the eyes of the town deputy, John Gannon, who is the real hero of this book, or the gambling saloon keeper Tom Morgan (the facsimile of “Doc” Holliday), or the Cowboy Curley Burne, or Kate Dollar, the woman who would like to see Blaisedell dead, Hall elevates the story to social criticism. And the moral questions he raises–about vigilantism and the imposition of law and order and its concomitant restriction of freedom–are as relevant today as they were in the mythic territory of Warlock. In the stark desert sunlight Hall distills the dilemmas of might versus right, of justice and the hypocrisy used to justify its abuse.

Hall’s focus is on the entire social milieu, not simply the famous incident in the corral, which occurs in the first third of the book. He is more interested in the consequences on citizens and gunmen alike. A miners’ dispute with mine owners over safety and wages plays as much a role in this novel as Cowboys and gunfights. The tenuous reach of the territorial government and the deployment of the military to quell the spiraling violence in Warlock come under Hall’s lens as much as the individual showdowns at high noon.

Oakley Hall’s novel is a thoughtful and thought-provoking western that has much in common with Walter Van-Tilburg Clark’s The Ox-Bow Incident, Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man, and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Like them, Warlock is a clear, finely crafted reassessment of how the West was won.


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The talking dead

Traditional grave-side offerings--cigarettes, decorated bread, fruit, beer and mescal--in Oaxaca. Phot credit: T. Gething

Traditional Day of the Dead graveside offerings in Oaxaca: cigarettes, tortillas, mole, decorated bread, fruit, beer and, of course, mescal.
Photo credit: T. Gething

Yesterday marked the end of los Días de los Muertos—the Days of the Dead—that syncretic Mexican celebration of Mesoamerican and Catholic beliefs encompassing Halloween, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day. During this time Mexican families traditionally clean up and adorn the graves of their relatives, then spend a night of vigil, eating and drinking, singing and playing music, praying for and remembering the deceased.

Two great novels capture the mood of this annual event. One is Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, which takes place on November 2, 1938. It’s a masterpiece for many reasons, not least for its atmospheric descriptions of this largely indigenous celebration.

38787The other book isn’t directly linked to the Day of the Dead but might as well be. It’s Juan Rulfo’s enigmatic masterpiece, Pedro Páramo. I spent part of yesterday rereading this little gem, a novella of less than 50,000 words that is perhaps the greatest and most influential Mexican fiction yet written.

This is the fourth time I’ve read it—twice in a translation by Lysander Kemp, once in the original Spanish, and now in a newer and more faithful translation by Margaret Sayers Peden. The first time I read it during the graveyard shift while working as a security guard at the university library in Tucson forty years ago. I remember being transfixed by the spare, poetic magic of Rulfo’s prose. I am still spellbound by it.

Juan Rulfo

Juan Rulfo

Rulfo published only two slim books in his lifetime, a collection of stories, El llano en llamas (The Burning Plain and Other Stories) and Pedro Páramo. The former was published in 1953 and the latter in 1955. Rulfo spent much of his career as a traveling tire salesman and pursued another artistic passion, photography, as he made sales trips around the country. Although there were rumors he was working on another novel, La Cordillera, he revealed shortly before his death in 1986 that he had destroyed his work in progress.

According to Susan Sontag who wrote the introduction to the most recent English edition, Rulfo once said: “In my life there are many silences. In my writing, too.”

That statement summarizes the mystery of his writing, but it hardly explains how he accomplished it. Rulfo’s prose is inimitable and perfect, whether he was writing about illiterate adulterers who have murdered her husband and are obsessed by their sin, as in the haunting story “Talpa,” or about desperate revolutionaries ambushed in a canyon, as in “The Burning Plain.” Rulfo’s economy with dialogue and narrative exposition, his use of non-chronological sequences and time shifts add a strange intensity to his writing; his prose burns with unspoken emotion. (Not surprisingly, his black-and-white photographs express the same silences and economies, as if they were renderings of his books in images.)

Juan Rulfo's photography mimics the spare stark style of his fiction. Published by the Smithsonian Institute

Juan Rulfo’s photography mirrors the spare, stark form of his fiction. Published by Smithsonian Books (2002).

Here’s an example of Rulfo’s prose from the early pages of Pedro Páramo, but really any section of the book matches it in tone:

It was during the dog days, the season when the August wind blows hot, venomous with the rotten stench of saponaria blossoms.

The road rose and fell. It rises or falls depending on whether you’re coming or going. If you are leaving, it’s uphill; but as you arrive it’s downhill.

“What did you say that town down there is called?”

“Comala, señor.”

“You’re sure that’s Comala?”

“I’m sure, señor.”

“It’s a sorry-looking place, what happened to it?”

“It’s the times, señor.”

Pedro Páramo is considered a precursor of magical realism; Gabriel García Márquez admired it so much he memorized entire passages. But the novel has more kinship with surrealism than magical realism.

Simply stated, it is the story of Juan Preciado, a young man who goes to Comala, the village of his dead mother, in search of his father, Pedro Páramo. At least that’s how it begins, but soon you realize nothing is quite normal. Pedro Páramo, Preciado learns, is long dead. The town is deserted and voices of the dead fill his ears. The story jumps in time and point of view, from the first person to the third, numerous times. Soon you wonder if everyone isn’t dead, including Preciado, and if these aren’t voices from a horrible past unburdening themselves of their losses and the grief caused by their cruel patrón. Pedro Páramo owned all the land around, controlling and abusing the people subsisting underneath him, taking what he wanted—land, men’s lives, other men’s wives—as he pleased.

Rulfo tapped a deep vein of Mexican experience in his indictment of the greedy landowners who used the turmoil of the revolution to their advantage, behaving like feudal lords in their own isolated worlds. The poor, the illiterate, the weak suffered at their hands, living in terror, haunted by violent death—it is a fatalistic, distinctly Mexican vision that resonates across time and place. For what is the difference between Pedro Páramo and the Mexican drug lords of today who use corruption and intimidation to control their turf? And, as the unearthed mass graves reveal, what awaits those who must live with such terror but death and decay?

Rulfo wrote about another time, about a poor, superstitious and oppressed Mexico devastated by lawlessness from years of revolution and brigandage, but it could be now, and it could be many places.

Photo credit: T. Gething

La Catrina as a sand drawing—here today, gone tomorrow. Photo credit: T. Gething


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A thousand-mile journey by canoe

Having spent a week last summer sea kayaking along the coast of northern British Columbia, I was looking forward to Ivan Doig’s The Sea Runners. Doig is a regional writer best known for his books about Montana, notably his novel Dancing at the Rascal Fair and a memoir of ranching life, The House of Sky.

223406The Sea Runners, published in 1982, is an early work that builds on a footnote of history. (Doig earned a Ph.D. in history before turning to novel-writing.) It is the story of four indentured Swedes who escaped New Archangel (Russia’s settlement where Sitka, Alaska sits today) by paddling a canoe to Astoria, Oregon in the winter and spring of 1853.

Doig’s historical research of Russian America shows. He provides a vivid description of the bleakness of New Archangel as he develops the back-story of the four men: how they got there, why they so desperately wanted to leave and how they planned their escape.

The last three-quarters of the novel deal with the arduous journey down the coast and the men’s struggles to work as a team. The descriptions of the journey are nautically and geographically accurate; you get the sense that Doig sailed along that rugged coast before embarking on his writing. But missing for me were the details that create verisimilitude, those bits of first-hand experience that persuade the reader to suspend disbelief.

For example, Doig tells how the men preserved venison by boiling it in saltwater, but he fails to describe the taste of it after weeks of soggy travel. He describes the rocky islands of the Inside Passage but omits any mention of the abundant sea life at tide line. He captures the frustration of paddling against high seas and headwinds but provides little detail of the natural world, such as the frantic flapping of seabirds over schools of fish or the yelp of sea otter pups left by their mothers tethered to beds of kelp. The Swedes would surely have noted such things, just as they would have felt the chill and chafing of wet woolens, the effects of scurvy after weeks of bad diet, and the sores and aches from paddling a heavy cedar canoe for hours, days, weeks on end—all things Doig largely disregards.

Like South, Ernest Shackleton’s superb memoir of his failed expedition to the South Pole, or Alive, Piers Paul Read’s riveting account of the air-crash survivors in the Andes, this should have been a story of survival and extreme physical endurance. Instead, Doig concentrates on the differences between the four men, their petty bickering and clashes as they vie for leadership.

Purple and orange sea stars at tide line, British Columbia
Photo credit: P. Lane

In what for me was the weakest aspect of the novel, Doig chose, perhaps for color, to write in an oblique, almost archaic style which impedes the narrative. Here’s an example:

What brought down Melander’s decision in favor of Karlsson, however, was a feather of instant remembered from shipboard. Karlsson had been borne to Alaska on the same schooner as Melander, and Melander recalled that just before sailing when others of the indentured group, the torsion of their journey-to-come tremendous in them at the moment, were talking large of the bright success ahead, what adventure the frontier life would furnish and how swiftly and with what staggering profit their seven years of contract with the Russians would pass, Karlsson had listened, given a small mirthless smile and a single shake of his head, and moved off along the deck by himself.

And another:

One further impression of the slender man’s interesting constancy also was stored away in Melander. The observation that Karlsson visited more often to the women in the native village than did any of the merchants of wind who perpetually bragged in the barracks about their lust. Or as Melander mused it to himself, the mermaids had hold of Karlsson’s towrope but he didn’t go around yipping the news.

Doig’s stylistic decision extends to dialogue as well. He may have intended to convey the idiomatic speech of the Swedes, but it comes off sounding like a bad pirate imitation:

“Wennberg, Wennberg. Always ready to bone the guff out of me, aye? Tell me a thing, how do we come by this honor of having you in our crew? What sugar was it that kept you on at New Archangel past your years?”

Wennberg studied the tall leader. Then he spat to one side and muttered, “Serving for Rachel.”

Melander tugged an ear. “Lend us that again?”

The prose is all too overwrought, as if colorful language might cover up a lack of detail from the historical record or first-hand experience. It’s a common problem with historical fiction, as Henry James noted long ago. The result is a story that would have been better served if it had been more plainly told.


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¡Viva la revolución!

villa bannerI’ve never been much of a graphic novel fan, mainly because I prefer to have an author’s words ignite my imagination. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed the new collaboration by Mexico’s most highly regarded crime novelist, Paco Ignacio Taibo II, and the illustrator Eko.

Cover_Pancho_Villa_Takes_ZacatecasPancho Villa Takes Zacatecas (published by Restless Books in an English translation by Nina Arazoza) celebrates so many things Mexican. For one, the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Zacatecas—the bloodiest engagement of the Mexican Revolution—which took place on June 23, 1914.

Under the leadership of General Francisco “Pancho” Villa, the insurgent División del Norte fought the federal troops of President Victoriano Huerta. By routing Huerta’s army and taking the city’s strategic railroad junction, the revolutionaries forced Huerta’s resignation. Afterward, the Division of the North proceeded to Mexico City to meet Emiliano Zapata’s troops coming from the south. Villa’s victory was soon memorialized in the Mexican corrido, “La toma de zacatecas” (listen here).

Paco Ignacio Taibo’s minimal text deploys a fictional character, Colonel Montejo, loosely based on a historical figure, to tell the story of Villa’s famous victory. In the U.S., Pancho Villa is remembered as the “bandit” who shot up and burned Columbus, New Mexico, killing eighteen people, which prompted President Wilson to send General John J. Pershing and 5000 troops into Chihuahua in pursuit. But in Mexico Villa is a revered revolutionary leader.

The illustrations by Eko are the most impressive aspect of this novel. I was unfamiliar with this Mexican artist, but it turns out he has done work for the New York Times, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and other newspapers. Here, his inspiration comes from the great Mexican caricaturist, José Guadeloupe Posada. Posada used Day of the Dead calaveras to lampoon the political corruption at the height of the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz and during the chaos that followed in the days of the revolution.


Posada’s depiction of the Mexican Revolution.

In an interview published by Restless Books, Eko says: “Posada to me is the first urban artist, a guerrilla for art. His work is made for the streets and the people. He uses the cheapest paper and makes his prints everyday with gossip, murders, and political criticism. Posada is the teacher of Banksy, Shepard Fairey, and all those new artists. But Posada is different because he worked to the limit, in the middle of a war.”

In Eko’s style there is also a nod to the great muralists of the Mexican Revolution: Orozco, Siqueiros, and Rivera, as can be seen in the page below.

A page from "Pancho Villa Takes Zacatecas."

A page from “Pancho Villa Takes Zacatecas.”

I was somewhat apprehensive buying a graphic novel as an eBook. On an old Kindle the illustrations are okay, but on an iPad they come through crisply, and the ability to enlarge them makes it even easier to admire their many fine details.


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Those French!

Is it any wonder that not one but two words in English for a social climber—arriviste and parvenu—come from the French? Our language is peppered with borrowed terms that provide nuanced derision in respect to class and wealth: nouveau riche, bourgeois, and gauche are but a few.

I can see why the French economist Thomas Picketty, who has made his name with a study of wealth inequality, was fascinated with Honoré de Balzac’s novel Père Goriot. It’s as if Balzac’s characters epitomize many of these class-based pejoratives.

Balzac by Rodin Photo Credit: Musée Rodin

Balzac by Rodin
Photo Credit: Musée Rodin

Balzac was one of the great fathers of the realistic novel. In The Human Comedy, a series of eighteen novels in which characters appear and reappear, he depicts the complexities of French society between Napoleon’s reign and the Revolution of 1848. As Dickens dramatized life in the sooty, foggy, wretched, have-and-have-not world of Victorian London, so Balzac documented the pompous, greedy, stratified and amoral society of Paris during the Bourbon Restoration. The French Revolution may have toppled the ancien régime, but deference to status and wealth never disappeared.

In Cousin Bette, my favorite of his novels, Balzac targets the power struggle between the sexes. Men may wield power through the laws and purse strings, but clever women survive by charming and manipulating them—husbands and lovers alike. As Balzac sees it, men are vain, foolish and lustful, making them easy marks of feminine guile.

In Père Goriot, Balzac’s focus is on love and money. Old Goriot, a widowed vermicelli merchant now living in a seedy boarding house, has doted on his two daughters all his life. Because of the large dowries Goriot provided them, both are married to noblemen and treat their father with shameful ingratitude.

578367Enter Eugène Rastignac, a law student from a “good” but impoverished family, who arrives in Paris to make his fortune. Settling into the same boarding house, he befriends old Goriot. Eugène’s one distant relation in the capital happens to be a baroness, and he relies on her to make his debut into high society. At a ball hosted by the baroness he meets one of Goriot’s daughters, the Madame de Restaud, and becomes determined to win her heart. When rebuffed (she already has a lover), he takes aim with a vengeance at the other daughter, the Madame de Nucingen.

It’s a cynical and very French interpretation of love that Balzac puts forth. Eugène—so intent on gaining a foothold in society—convinces himself that he loves Madame de Nucingen. And Goriot, in his fondness for Eugène and his antipathy for his sons-in-law, encourages Eugène in his seduction. Goriot hopes Eugène’s attentions will make his daughter happy and enable him to see her more often, or at least hear about her from Eugène.

Meanwhile, one of the more interesting characters in the book, the shady criminal Vautrin who also lives in the boarding house, expounds a truly cynical worldview. Counseling Eugène to marry an heiress (which he is willing to arrange for a fee), Vautrin whispers like the devil in his ear:

There are fifty thousand young men in your position at this moment, all bent as you are on solving one and the same problem—how to acquire a fortune rapidly. You are but a unit in the aggregate. You can guess, therefore, what efforts you must make, how desperate the struggle is. There are not fifty thousand good positions for you; you must fight and devour one another like spiders in a pot. Do you know how a man makes his way here? By brilliant genius or by skillful corruption. You must either cut your way through these masses of men like a cannon ball, or steal among them like a plague. Honesty is nothing to the purpose.

Vautrin nearly persuades the young student: “Vautrin is right, success is virtue!” Eugène says to himself in a moment of financial frustration. But he subsequently convinces himself that with Madame de Nucingen he can find both love and fortune; it’s this naiveté that Balzac gradually chips away through the course of the novel. No one comes away unscathed, except perhaps old Goriot, whose devotion to his daughters in the face of the most heartless cruelty is the least credible aspect of this retelling of King Lear.

Early on, Balzac hints at his theme in a description of the garden of the boarding house where Eugène, Vautrin and old Goriot live:

On the opposite wall, at the further end of the graveled walk, a green marble arch was painted once upon a time by a local artist, and in this semblance of a shrine a statue representing Cupid is installed; a Parisian Cupid, so blistered and disfigured that he looks like a candidate for one of the adjacent hospitals, and might suggest an allegory to lovers of symbolism.

An allegory, indeed. But not just for Parisians. Which may explain why so many of those derisive French words have entered our own language.


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