June 2009 Archives

Dissent into madness

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Libertas Schulze-Boysen.jpg
Recently, I've stumbled across books about "good" Germans during WWII.  Jenna Blum's Those Who Save Us is about the legacy of a German resistance fighter's silence regarding her war time activities.  Anne Nelson's Red Orchestra (which I haven't read, but which was reviewed recently in The NY Times Book Review) is about a network of people not dissimilar to the protagonist in Those Who Save Us.

I am intrigued and heartened by this interest in the Germans who dissented from Nazism.  The portrayal of WWII as a black-and-white battle of good against evil is one that is both tiresome and troublesome.  It's tiresome because it's not true: among other reasons, Stalin's Russia also fought against Germany, and no one could class Stalin among the forces of good.  It's troublesome because this myth of a "morally clean" war of good against evil has animated the war plans of administrations like W's.

Moreover, the examination of the people who resist (even futilely, perhaps especially those who resist futilely) is revealing of the most interesting aspects of human capacity.  Such people are, by definition, acting within a scope of choice that is severely narrow and punishingly inhumane: as Denis Lehane wrote in a recent review of Tom Rob Smith's The Secret Speech, "What is the ordinary man to do when his very existence makes him an apparatchik of institutionalized sadism?" 

These people who, existing in regimes that transform daily life into complicity with crimes against humanity, manage to muster the integrity and courage to fight back have so much to teach us.  They have achieved an inspired disconnect from their societies that allows them to act in ways that are, from the perspective of survival, profoundly irrational and yet, from the vantage point of living, are deeply wise. 

The beautiful woman pictured here, Libertas Schulze-Boysen, was beheaded by the Nazis for gathering photographs that documented their atrocities.  Red Orchestra recounts that she died pleading, "Let me keep my young life!"  The poignancy of her words derives from how manifestly she has miscalculated her audience.  I'm no romantic, but I can't help but see a role model in her misguided example.

(Photo courtesy of The New York Times)
I've been disappointed to see the way the 60 Years Later: Coming through the Rye legal tangle has been unfolding.  Very briefly, the basic facts are this:
  • In 1951, J.D. Salinger published The Catcher in the Rye, a book about a wayward teenager, Holden Caulfied, who wanders aimlessly through NYC, often drunk;
  • Earlier this year, someone called "J.D. California" published 60 Years Later, which purports to be a "sequel" to Catcher and features a character called "Mr. C" who wanders aimlessly through NYC (whether drunk is unclear since the book hasn't been released to the general public; I haven't read it);
  • "J.D. California" was revealed to be Fredrik Colting, one of the owners of Nicotext, the Swedish publisher that first published 60 Years Later;
  • J.D. Salinger sued to enjoin publication, claiming in his complaint that 60 Years Later was copyright infringement and not a fair use (e.g., a criticism, parody or transformation of the original);
  • Colting defended, saying that 60 Years Later does not merely rehash Catcher, but includes J.D. Salinger as a character who tries to kill Mr. C in multiple ways;
  • On June 17, a U.S. federal district court enjoined the release of 60 Years Later for 10 days;
  • Although 10 days seems a moderate amount of time for an injunction, the judge indicated that she was not inclined to find that 60 Years Later was a fair use saying, "Let me be clear, I am having difficulty seeing that [a critique of Catcher] exists [in 60 Years Later]."
Without prejudging the case, I don't find the judge's comment promising.  As I said, I haven't read 60 Years Later, but if it does include a character named "J.D. Salinger" attempting to kill an aged Holden Caulfiend (a/k/a "Mr. C"), that situation strikes me as a very obvious critique: Colting is observing a power struggle between author and character, implying the author's resentment and jealousy of the character's power and fame.  J.D. Salinger has decided to stop speaking and wants his character to do the same; Salinger will not tolerate the inevitable fact that Holden Caulfield has a life of his own.  

Beyond what seems (to my inexpert eye) to be a facially apparent critique which ought to classify 60 Years Later as a fair use, creating new works using existing characters is common practice.  Tom Stoppard did it with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead; Jean Rhys did it with Wide Sargasso Sea; Paula Vogel did it with Desdemona: A Play about a Handkerchief; Alice Randall did it with The Wind Done Gone; Pia Pera did it with Lo's Diary.  (Full disclosure: I did it with Portnoy's Daughter.)  These authors aren't counterfeiters or pirates; they're authors themselves, people who are supposed to benefit from copyright.  These works embody the compromise that copyright law strikes: it preserves exclusivity to one author without impinging on the free speech of another.

If the 60 Years Later case is going badly, it may be for reasons apart from fair use law.  The defendant, Colting, has come across as weasely.  Colting picked a pen name "J.D. California" that invokes "J.D. Salinger" and, making matters worse, he's told a number of contradictory stories about the name. 

Publisher's Lunch reports that Colting initially claimed that his name really was "J.D. California":  "[A] few days ago he insisted to the Telegraph 'My initials really are JD, my first names are John David and I changed my last name to California. That's what's in my passport.'" 

Then Colting reversed himself, admitting that "J.D. California" was a pen name, but that he hadn't picked it to sound like "J.D. Salinger":  "Somehow, John David California sounded like JD. I didn't think about that actually. I just thought it sounded cool. Of course afterwards, I see the resemblance," Colting told The Local. 

Then, when asked for a picture of himself, he gave a photo of an actor friend of his, Gustav Roth, that ran in the Telegraph.    

Outcomes in fair use disputes are notoriously difficult to predict because the test for fair use requires consideration of multiple factors.  The character of the defendant isn't one of those factors, but defendants who come across as intending to ride the coat-tails of the famous don't tend to do well in court.  Courts in intellectual property cases typically give heavy weight to evidence of bad intent -- perhaps because the issues are often difficult to parse, and bad intent often seems worthy of punishment.  All the same, as a matter of law, the case ultimately turns on the work, not whether the defendant is an upstanding citizen. 

If the court allows Colting's poor conduct to cloud the redeeming qualities of 60 Years Later, the people who will pay the price are other authors and the reading public.

Sucker for the books

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The Chinese government apparently doesn't think anyone would export books from China.  Not using DHL in any event.

My books have just today arrived in Nairobi, where I'm working for the next six months.  Packing for six months isn't, in my case, a light affair, and shipping my books via DHL was part of my project to do whatever I could to reduce my overweight charges on the flight from Beijing. 

As it turned out, I couldn't do much.  DHL claims that the list of items that you can't ship out of China is staggeringly long.  Shampoo, for example, is a complete no no.  Shoes can be shipped, but only if you fill out an export bill.  It seemingly has never occurred to the Chinese government that someone might ship their own shoes out of China because they were, say, moving.  No, if you're shipping shoes out of China, even a small quantity of shoes, the Chinese government is convinced you're exporting.

Books, on the other hand, don't count as wupin (物品) -- goods.  This classification is no glitch.  While China produces 50% of the world's shoes, it exports something close to 0% of the world's bestsellers.  I guess Chinese customs figures that if you're exporting Chinese books, they don't need to tax you because the market will punish you sufficiently.

Kenyan customs, to the contrary, has apparently never heard of anyone shipping their own books into Kenya . . . probably because "there's no reading culture in Africa."  They insisted on charging me import duty.

I'd be annoyed . . . but I'm too happy to have my books. 

Dream sequences: not just for David Lynch

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According to Jonathan Lethem -- and I have to rely on him because I wouldn't know what they teach in writing school -- "the foremost writing-school rules" include proscriptions "against dream sequences," among other common (cliché) literary devices.

Frankly, I was surprised to read this.  Dreams, like falling in love, are a profound experience of the irrational common to all humans.  Banning dreams from literature is like forbidding female characters in novels from crying.  I understand the rationale: the idea (in both cases) is to prevent authors from getting lazy and taking easy routes to conveying information.  But shouldn't the lesson be to be more creative about dream sequences -- and female bawling scenes -- rather than decreeing a literary world absent of quotidian experiences of the irrational?

I was reminded of Lethem's comment after I read a terrific dream sequence in Jenna Blum's Those Who Save Us.  (In fairness to Lethem, he mentioned the proscription against dream scenes in the course of praising Roberto Bolaño for violating it.)  In the dream, Trudy, the protagonist, envisions a Santa Claus in the kitchen, making a mess.  When she confronts him, he unbuttons his shirt, showing it to be stuffed with tempting food dishes.  Then he says,

    Come, sit down, he says, and tell me: Have you been a good girl this year?
    No, says Trudy.  No, no, no --
    He cocks his head.  Yes? he says, as if he hasn't heard her.  Good.  Then I will show you a little something.
    He rises from the chair and starts to undo the buttons of these trousers as well.
    Stop it, Trudy shouts.  I don't want to see!
    He parts the cloth and holds it open, standing at attention.  He wears nothing underneath, and his stomach and pubic hair are smeared with dark blood.
    You see, I am not Santa, he says.  I am Saint Nikolaus, and I come whenever I please.

(p. 188.)  That last line, "I am Saint Nikolaus, and I come whenever I please," stayed with me for days, blindsiding me in the shower or shadowing me as I took a walk.  Blum's dream sequence tapped my visceral vein, just as a vivid and disturbing dream would in life.

Provoking a gut response with written stimulus is hard -- maybe the hardest feat in literature.  (The author who does this best, in my opinion, is D.M. Thomas in The White Hotel.  But for sheer frequency, the crown no doubt goes to Stephen King.)  Learning how to transcend the page and worm into the reader's gut is a skill that, so far as I can glean, can't be taught.  One stumbles onto by following one's instinct.  Blum reached it through a dream scene. 

If that diminishes her accomplishment in writing school, I'd suggest skipping the writing school.

Adventuress absolute

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Beryl Markham & Percival Gull.jpgWest with the Night is not as compelling as the persona it depicts of its author.  The book has no plot, and I'm a reader who loves plot.  It meanders non-chronologically through a series of testosterone-laden topics: flying, hunting, race horses . . . and then more on hunting and flying.  There's an entire chapter ("Royal Exile") written (mistakenly, in my perspective) from the point of view of a horse.  There's no mention of men she's loved, sex she's had, women friends who were important to her.  She doesn't mention her mother.  As Martha Gellhorn observes in her introduction, West with the Night leaves many questions unanswered (p. ix).

But whatever the failings of the book, I wanted to keep reading it because Beryl Markham comes through the text as so palpably fascinating a person.  I felt like I was having coffee with a person who, regardless of whether I liked her, transfixed me.  Not that Markham seems unlikable in the book . . . just remote.  Unknown.  Unbelievable.  She'd lived through a number of confrontations with lions, had been thrown from horses, trained champion thoroughbred racers, pioneered the use of planes in safaris, flew across the Atlantic by herself, wrote an elusive and fluid memoir -- how could a person of her many and varied talents, courage and insight exist?

West with the Night
is all voice.  Whether fact or fiction, her voice is so compelling that I wanted to keep listening.  Time after time in the course of reading, I was jolted by a frisson of recognition, identification or empathy:

"Oxygen to a sick miner.  But this flight is not heroic.  It is not even romantic.  It is a job of work, a job to be done at an uncomfortable hour with sleep in my eyes and half a grumble on my lips."  (p. 13.)

"It is really this that makes death so hard -- curiosity unsatisfied."  (p. 25.)

"He remained a man of mystery, without age or youth, but burdened with experience, like the wandering Jew."  (p. 61.)

"If a man has any greatness in him, it comes to light, not in one flamboyant hour, but in the ledger of his daily work."  (p. 153.)

"I have had responsibilities and work, dangers and pleasure, good friends, and a world without walls to live in."  (p. 239.)

"There is no hell like uncertainty."  (p. 255.)

"The abhorrence of loneliness is as natural as wanting to live at all."  (p. 283.)

Given how strongly Markham speaks to me, I am cautiously pessimistic about her fate: three times married and divorced, chronically impoverished, called a "high-grade bitch" by Ernest Hemingway, a man who fraternized with her friends; always distinct and apart.  I have no doubt that Beryl Markham had no regrets, but my own sake I wish her example was less severe.

(Photo courtesy of NYPL Digital Gallery)
A resonant thought after reading The Feast of the Goat is the remarkable similarity of the characteristics and crimes of autocratic regimes.  Trujillo's accomplishment was reducing the citizenry of the Dominican Republic to a state where -- in the view of Mario Vargas Llosa -- their only remaining hope of dignity was to die nobly.  That horrendous state was the hallmark of all the worst regimes of the 20th century (Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao, Pinochet, Idi Amin, Mobutu Sese Seko, P.W. Botha -- the list is shamefully long, and this assembly is under-inclusive). 

It's not to the U.S.'s credit that, of the people it has placed in this state in the last eight years, most have not been its own citizens.

Staring down Trujillo

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Mario Vargas Llosa does it all: page turners, tight plots, effortlessly-readable sentences; full-bodied, fleshed out characters; global locales; exploration of the big, literary themes.  Vargas Llosa pins the world beneath his pen, compelling it to stop turning just long enough for you to take it all in greedily, reading.

I've heard The Feast of the Goat, which I have just finished, described as his best book, and although I haven't read as deeply into the Vargas Llosa oeuvre as I will, I feel confident that The Feast of the Goat -- though captivating -- will not be my favorite.  The Feast of the Goat can be characterized as being, in some respects, a novelistic equivalent of the Red Cross report on torture in Guantanamo: no matter how important, correct, thought-provoking, and well-written it is, you still wish it didn't exist.

But for all the horror, Vargas Llosa's insights into the human condition are compelling.  One aspect of The Feast of the Goat that particularly interested me was Vargas Llosa's depiction of the slow "deaths" people in the Dominican Republic "died" by way of having their personalities and integrity eroded and corrupted by the Trujillo regime.  As Vargas Llosa writes about Antonio de la Maza, one of Trujillo's assassins, Trujillo had "killed [de la Maza] in stages, taking away his decency, his honor, his self-respect, his joy in living, his hopes and desires, turning him into a sack of bones tormented by the guilty conscience that had been destroying him gradually for so many years."  (p. 90.)

Having lived for more than four years in China, I've seen people stumbling around in this state of slow death, and I've felt -- far at a distance, but still perceptible; still necessary to resist -- the pressures of an autocratic regime.  My knee-jerk thought, reading Vargas Llosa's description of the slow death of Antonio de la Maza, was that de la Maza was too passive.  How can Trujillo "take away his deceny, his honor, his self-respect"? I thought.  De la Maza has to fight for those qualities, stand up for himself.  ("Oppression . . . takes two," writes Waltern Kirn, reviewing The Feast of the Goat for The New York Times Book Review.)  That's why we admire people with moral integrity: it's a quality that's only obtained by being tested and challenged.

But after my first impression thinking mellowed, I reflected that a "slow death" is aptly named; like it's faster counterpart, resistance is futile.  The human capacity for living is a complex thing, with invisible parts and irrational aspects that can weigh as heavily as the biological.  And it's surprisingly tender.  Even a domestic tyrant can choke off an individual from the artery of life.  Disappointments of a magnitude far smaller than the 31 vile years of the Trujillo regime can leave a person in a state of slow death, cradling a part in need of mourning, infuriated that the remainder is expected to carry on as before, though no longer whole.

Vargas Llosa's view of the slow death is severe: it's not metaphoric; what it kills is dead forever.  Antonio de la Maza, already dead in all but his physical state at the book's opening, hoped that assassinating Trujillo would, in some way, resurrect him by making him worthy of living.  But Vargas Llosa takes a dim view of a revenge as a restorative.  De la Maza dies in a storm of bullets, and in the characters of Ramfis Trujillo and Urania Cabral, Vargas Llosa depicts vengeance as ruining its practitioners. 

For de la Maza and his brethren, Vargas Llosa sees only one possibility of redemption: the dignity and nobility with which they end their physical existences.  After the assassination, Ramfis Trujillo rounds up most of the assasins -- and their families -- and tortures them with an extremity of cruelty that sickens.  De la Maza is already physically dead by this time in the book, but his father Don Vicente de la Maza is imprisoned and tortured.  When Ramfis confronts Don Vicente with news of his son's death, Don Vicente asks only, "Did he die fighting?"  When Ramfis nods, the father replies, "Thank you, Lord!"  (p. 338.)

Appreciating such expert depictions of the worst extremes of human capacity is not easy.  Like the Domincans who, repeatedly in The Feast of the Goat, couldn't hold Trujillo's gaze, the impulse when confronting a feast of horrors on the scale of Trujillo's regime is to look away.  Vargas Llosa's adeptness at compelling our attention is impossible not to admire.
Two weekends ago, I spent three days in rural Maharashtra, documenting structural mitigation aspects of disaster risk reduction programming being implemented by a local NGO called Parivartan, with funding from Oxfam-Australia, and with technical assistance and monitoring from RedR India.  This video surveys three projects that are ongoing in two villages, called Chorawne and Tiwre.

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