There are some books that I root for, I want them to be good because they seem to carry an important message that might get lost due to too little or too much artistry. The premise of Jasmina Khadra’s novel The Attack is enormous, it deals with the causes of Islamist terrorism from a Middle Eastern perspective. The author is an Algerian army official writing under his wife’s name. The novel itself is like bag full of good and bad beans that have been mixed together and it takes so much effort to separate the good beans that you just want to set the whole thing aside. The writing is seeped in linguistic cliches and melodramatic, I wonder if the translation had anything to do with that, and the first person narration in simple present was quite awkward, it felt like reading a bad movie script at times. But still, the topic itself drew me in and despite its lack of artistry, the novel manages to capture the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the type of terrorism that is fostered in this vicious circle of violence and retaliation on both sides and of two ways of life that threaten each other’s existence. Unlike Western authors like Don DeLillo, John Updike or Martin Amis who wrote from the perspective of a terrorist, Khadra uses an in-between narrator: the clueless husband, a successful Palestinian doctor working in Israel, whose world is turned upside down when he finds out that his wife is a suicide bomber. I was quite disturbed by the Western authors’ ease when claiming access to the mind of a terrorist and I think Kahdra’s more indirect approach, the investigation the husband gets involved into after the shocking event, is a lot more effective and politically correct. It showcases the difficulty a non-terrorist person encounters in his effort to understand a phenomenon that is so foreign to most of us. The same effect is achieved by Orhan Pamuk in Snow, a novel that is beautifully written and constructed at the same time.
Returning to my homeland after a long time makes me go through the same cycle of feelings of attraction and rejection. In my mind, the longer I stay away, the better my country looks and feels like; it becomes my imaginary home, a shelter, the only place where I don’t get lost in translation, where people get my weird sense of humor, where tomatoes taste like tomatoes and last but not least where some of the most important people in my life live. The return is always sad and joyful, as I get to feel the love and familiarity I have long been missing, but I also get to relive the disappointment that led me away from there in the first place; the dirtiness, the hopelessness, the poverty that are intertwined and create a vicious circle we as a nation never seem to get out of. The people I love and admire the most are there, but they feel like tiny islands in a sea of dishonesty and vulgarity, which makes them even more precious to me. But even they, who are my last hope, have lost hope…
I remember feeling a tinge of hostility towards Herta Mueller’s fictional version of Romania, which is depicted as the embodiment of dictatorship and a type of corruption that leaves nothing untouched. Although I am aware that in her fiction the country is no longer the place itself but an epitome of repression, not a real land, but an existential one, I still couldn’t accept this totally somber vision of the society I too spring from, fictional as it may be. The first novel by her that I’ve read was neither in its original German, nor in Romanian, but in English and I remember being bothered by the translation of the title Herztier into The Land of Green Plums. Somehow, the more time passes and the novel itself fades from my memory, I am more and more taken over by this image of Romania as a land of green plums, which might have less too do with the actual book and more with my own projections. A land that keeps tempting me to have a taste of it once more, but then leaves a sour aftertaste in my mouth all over again… There is the undeniable beauty, but also the undeniable squalor:
Coming from a country where Marx and Engels where the household philosophers for about 40 years, I have never been too fond of the two. I still remember my surprise at walking down Karl Marx Allee in Berlin and the rather harsh remark from a German acquaintance that my view of Marx is quite limited and that it’s about time Marx got re-appreciated as a great philosopher. I have Western friends that proudly call themselves Marxists and quote Lenin like he’s their hero. That always makes me wonder about what a German would say if that same person quoted Hitler with such familiarity. They would dismiss the parallel looking at me like I’m a crazy person, but in my opinion they should consider it a bit. And yes, I know Lenin is not Stalin…
At one point I have walked out of a class on Marx somewhere in Germany feeling quite angry. Like my friend argued, Marx was treated like any other philosopher in that class and it is particularly this that struck me as inappropriate. I felt that they should have at least vaguely mentioned the consequences of putting these ideas into practice. Another question that I often ask myself is why is it that so many intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals still take so much pride in calling themselves Marxists and most of them, incidentally, are part of a university system supported through deeply capitalist means. I myself agree most of the times with Terry Eagleton and appreciate that part of Marxist philosophy that influenced Michel Foucault’s ideas about power, but I appreciate even more that it completely departs from its teleology.
Reading Bertrand Russell’s essay Why I’m Not a Communist started this whole train of thought. I was surprised to bump into this clear-headed rebuttal of Communism published in 1956 when so many Western intellectuals were completely enamored with it. Russell himself fell slightly under its spell, but a visit into the heart of the new Soviet Republic cured him. Here’s what he says:
“In relation to any political doctrine there are two questions to be asked: (1) Are its theoretical tenets true? (2) Is its practical policy likely to increase human happiness? For my part, I think the theoretical tenets of Communism are false, and I think its practical maxims are such as to produce an immeasurable increase of human misery. ”
It was surprisingly hard to convince people to go see this movie with me at the cinema. Some objected to the old gay guy story (I had no idea cinematographic homophobia was so widely spread among menfolk), others to the talking dog, although the poor guy actually only talks through subtitles, others had no clue who Christopher Plummer was and had never seen The Sound of Music (they have obviously not grown up in Romania).With all this pressure coming from the expectations of my companions, I couldn’t quite enjoy the film because I was so self conscious about it as if I had written the script myself. Still, it’s not bad for a sappy movie. It has beautiful photography and the kind of feel good for the non-believers thing about it, like the less brilliant love child of Amelie and Michel Gondry.
There is a lot “feel-good” manipulation but also truth involved in the main idea of the film that we never stop being beginners, that there’s always something new to uncover in ourselves and in the world around us, even as we get older or old. There is also an interesting parallel between how two different generations perceive love and relationships and the revelation that the unparalleled freedom my generation enjoys with regard to relationships is not necessarily free of limitations, but that it is precisely this freedom that becomes one. But if you are looking for a deep portrayal of human emotions and complex relationships, this is not the right movie. The characters are and remain sketchy and the relations between them are superficial to say the least, but who cares about that when you have a dog talking through subtitles (they should have used him more).
Anyway, one of my friends was definitely right in predicting that the best part of the movie is probably the trailer:
It’s moving to see that a dying man still has an undying desire to do more, to learn more, to go on. The last interview with Edward Said:
Girls that want to look like Audrey Hepburn instead of themselves, that dress in some other people’s old clothes as if they are trying to inhabit other worlds instead of their own and guys that wear grandpa pullovers, perfectly orchestrated messy haircuts and talk casually about fascism over their vegan lunch; there is something that makes me sad about this generation whose constant quest for uniqueness becomes their uniformity. Love to them is an aesthetic affair, like finding the perfect vintage bauhaus chair in a thrift store, love at first sight, love based on sight.
Every single frame of Les Amours Imaginaires has the narcissistic beauty of the thousands of pictures posted on flickr everyday, by people documenting their stylized selves and lives, it’s like a movie based on Hedi Slimane‘s photos. I’ve almost quit watching after 15 minutes. Another take on the threesome cliche, I thought. And it is that, too. But to me this was a film about the beauty of surfaces, the sadness of a generation of superficial hedonists that can only express themselves by a simulacrum of the past that is devoid of any signification; just beauty for beauty’s sake. Oscar Wilde would probably fit right in with this crowd.
A boy and a girl that are friends fall for the same boy. Its a visual love from the beginning and it stays so. The object of their love is like a painting that grips them and they have to have. He is the archetypal prototype of androgynous beauty, bearing a striking resemblance to the beautiful boy from Death in Venice. I think I might be reading too much into it and the film might in the end be just as superficial as its beauty. It could be like one of those fashion photo editorials that play a bit with something serious and for a second they make you think and forget that in the end their only purpose is to suck you into that beauty, make you want to posses some of it by buying stuff. It also brings to mind the nouvelle vague cinema with the very important difference that those where rebells that were accidentally chic and these are characters that live entirely through the chic that they surround themselves with.
As a restless teenager in a small Romanian town I would read Kerouac and dream of New York. My life was ordinary and predictable and I craved for the adventure that New York represented, the multitude of people, the high highs and the low lows, the alcohol and the jazz, the sex and the rock’ n roll. My New York was a mythical, imaginary place, where everything lacking in my life was taking place. With such high expectations you can only be disappointed when confronted with the real New York. But still it is hard to get disappointed by New York altogether, there’s too much in it to be awed by, even though the experience of actually being there is not quite as life changing as you would have expected. You don’t bump into Neal Cassady and end up drinking and talking like mad in a bar, but you may bump into his shadow as you walk around, just one of the anonymous tourists taking pictures of places that give you a strange sense of deja vu.
For this trip though, I have found a perfect companion: Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin. It’s a novel and an ode to the city, however lame that might sound, with its people, its gutters and its high end lofts. It’s a novel without a main character, because the main character is the city, a web of streets and of surprising, sometimes invisible connections. On the day when the real life Philippe Petit walked a tight rope between the two World Trade Center towers, the lives of several characters are changed by fortuitous encounters. A judge generously lets a young heroin addict prostitute go without charging her, only for her to end up in a deadly car crash a few hours later, the death of an Irish monk driving the car ends with his brother marrying the hit and run driver’s wife and so on. Every chapter is told from the perspective of a different character and in the end they all add together like puzzle pieces, revealing the surprising connections. Make no mistake, there is nothing forced or sensational about these coincidences, however Dickensian they may seem, although the tone often verges on the sentimental. I did appreciate the ventriloquism of the author, who writes from the perspective of a whore, a Latina nurse, an old Black woman, an Irish man, a hip young artist and a rich upper-middle class mother of a soldier who died in the Vietnam war, although at times I did have the feeling that these were creative writing exercises. My favorite was the voice of Gloria, an over weight Black woman who lives in a spotless apartment, up in a block of flats, surrounded by drug addicts, pimps and prostitutes and spends the money the state gives her as compensation for the three sons she has lost in the war, on opera tickets.
What I found touching, but at the same time a bit problematic about this author is that he has the immigrant’s unconditional love of America, there is a certain positivism in him that makes him see the light even in the darkest corners of this country, that I find a bit pollyannaish of him. Still, although I can rationally be quite critical of the book in many ways, the truth of the matter is that I’ve gotten engrossed in it all the way and it has been one of my best recent reading experiences, probably due to the context too. And I was happy to see we have the same Kerouac affinity in this interview.
My own bits and pieces of the city:
And the appropriate soundtrack: