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Rebuilding, Remembering & Renewing

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Gillion_Grantsaan.jpgToday is the closing date for the "NotAboutKarenBlixen" exhibition at The Karen Blixen Museum in Rungstedlund, Denmark.  A collection of collaborative work between Kenyan, Danish and other artists from around the world, "NotAboutKarenBlixen" featured an installation performance art piece called "Rebuilding, Remembering & Renewing" by Gillion Grantsaan (pictured above) and Ato Malinda (pictured below).  Gillion and Ato constructed a shanty outside Karen Blixen's writing studio (pictured below), an artistic home for homeless real and imaginary writers in migration.  Gillion and Ato invited a number of writers (including myself) to collaborate on the installation.  Below is the piece I wrote in connection with the installation, which - consistent with the installation's themes of nomadism, immigration, displacement, alienation and assimilation - I developed in Denmark, wrote in Italy, and mailed to the The Karen Blixen Museum from England.

Maya Alexandri's stream-of-consciousness meditation on themes relating to Gillion Grantsaan's and Ato Malinda's installation "Rebuilding, Remembering & Renewing" in the "Not About Karen Blixen" show at The Karen Blixen Museum, Rungstedlund, Denmark

Ato_Malinda&Gillion_Grantsaan.jpgBoats are destabilizing.

On a boat, humans come closest to experiencing the movement of the planet.  Standing on the deck of a water bus in Venice, with the deck rocking beneath me, I place my backpack at my feet and worry about it slipping between the slats of the gangway gate and sinking.  I watch an older couple standing at the wheel of a speedboat passing us.  Neither member of the couple looks to be in great shape, and I am amazed that they remain upright as the lagoon bounces their speedboat into an imitation of an airplane taking-off.

Perhaps because of their ability to connect humans with the reality of the earth's motion, boats are vehicles of momentousness.  Pirates sail on boats.  Slavers carried their human cargo across the world on boats.  Karen Blixen sailed to Kenya, and Paul Gaugin to Tahiti, and King Claudius banished Hamlet to England by boat.

Hamlet was kidnapped by pirates.

Slave_ship.jpgAt Kronberg Castle in Helsingor, Hamlet's abode, the Maritime Museum contains a small visual memento of Denmark's slave trade: a painting of a slave ship below deck (pictured right).  Black people, naked, peer out from where they are stacked in horizontal berths.  Descending into their squalor are a black cabin boy and a black steward, both impeccably dressed.  The painting is beautiful: did the artist think he was documenting a horror?  

In a later room in the Maritime Museum, in an exhibit about Danish emigrants to the United States, the display is accompanied by the following blurb:

In the early days of emigration the voyage was made by sailing ship with the emigrant supplying his own food and drink, which had to keep for up to six weeks without refrigeration.  Added to this was the lack of ventilation and bad hygiene, not to mention seasick passengers.  Even though steamships and increased competition gradually improved conditions one can still safely conclude that a trip in emigrant class was often like a trip on a slave ship - an experience for life!
Whatever the phrase, "experience for life," means, emigrants, colonists and slaves all have it.  Transplants, (mal)adjusters, uprooted, disconnected, identity-inventors - all.  The difference is choice and humanity.  Those who choose to uproot themselves may be crazy, but they're not property.

Paul Gaugin was crazy.  Although he may have been born with a predisposition in this direction, at his death, the cause of his mental illness was syphilis.  Who knows how long syphilis addled his brain?  

When he arrived in Tahiti and learned that missionaries had banished paganism and converted the island a hundred years previously, he was despondent.  He carved his own pantheon of pagan gods.  He was going to out-savage the savages.  He was determined to paint like a primitive.  

What did Gaugin think "painting like a primitive" meant?  Was he seeking a visual palette free from the overbearing influences of the Old Masters, of the Romantics, of the Impressionists?  Was he enraptured by the stereotype of pure, uncorrupted, natural, sexual, uncivilized primitives?  Did he think painting like a primitive was beautiful?  Or was he just crazy?

Mette Gad probably regretted that Gaugin was a colonist (a pariah within the French colonial system in Tahiti, perhaps, but still a colonist), and not a slave.  A crazy husband with no property was no good to her and their five children, freezing in Copenhagen while Paul was sunning his syphilitic phallus in Tahiti.  At least if he'd been a slave, she could have sold him.  (Being married to Paul Gaugin must have been an experience for life.)

Paul Gaugin never enriched Mette Gad, though.  Carl Jacobsen was another matter.  Gaugin's Danish wife correlated with a disproportionately large number of Gaugin's paintings landing in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, the museum in Copenhagen housing Jacobsen's collection.  In the Glyptotek's sophisticated, well-appointed nineteenth century art wing, Gaugin's paintings don't look particularly primitive.  They don't have the appearance of paintings best viewed on a boat.
 
Shack.jpgI wonder if Karen Blixen ever saw the Gaugins in Carl Jacobsen's collection.  If she did, what did she feel?  A visual artist before she was a writer, Karen, too, had painted "primitives."  She, too, had sailed on a boat to live among primitives.  She, too, sought to understand their customs, religion and mindsets.  She, too, had syphilis.  She, too, was a prominent authority on whom Danes relied for information about primitives.  Did she see Paul Gaugin as her kindred?

Boarding my own boat - my imagination - I slip my toes inside Karen Blixen's feet and peer from her eye sockets at Paul Gaugin's painting, "Manao Tupapau."  No, he is not my kindred.  He is not noble; he represents nothing beyond himself.  He's a sexual adventurer among the savages.  I know his kind, and he wouldn't know the Crusades from the Renaissance.

(Isn't there always dissension among the ranks?  Geniuses tend to despise each other.  Byron and Shelley would've eventually hated each other if their premature deaths hadn't prevented them from doing so.  Wordsworth's ultimate treatment of Coleridge is abominable.  Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel Garcia Marquez couldn't remain friends.)

Imagining Karen Blixen viewing the Gaugins in Carl Jacobsen's collection, I am in a kind of matryoshka boat: a boat, within a smaller boat, within a boat smaller still.  In the boat of my imagination, I sail on a boat of another sort: Denmark.  For islands are boats more than other landmasses are.  And the ground in Denmark is moving perceptibly. 

Homogenous cultures breed conservatism that may mask the movement beneath the feet, but in the end it emerges because it exists: boats are destabilizing.  Shaky ground is not the place for an unstable structure, but instability is relative.  Paul Gaugin no doubt sailed on leaky ships, the Venetians rebuilt the Palazzo Ducale on its fire-damaged hulk, and a wobbly ladder didn't prevent Gillion and Ato from constructing the shack.  Instability, after all, lasts only until it is assimilated or eclipsed by the next cataclysm.

Every life - if we're lucky - includes more than one experience for life.   

(All photographs taken by Maya Alexandri)

Love in the Time of Maladjusted Behavior

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Love_in_the_Time_of_Cholera.jpg
In Catherine Shoard's 2008 Telegraph review of the film version of Gabrielle García Márquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, she asks a critical question:

Should our hearts flutter in the face of a love this enduring [the love Florentino Ariza harbors for Fermina Daza through the 50 some-odd years of her marriage]? I'm not sure. As with many literary adaptations . . . , what seems swoony on the page can seem plain sinister on screen.
In fact, what seems plain sinister on screen seemed just as creepy on the page to me.  Two examples suffice:

(1)  When Florentino Ariza seduces a married "pigeon fancier," Olimpia Zuleta, her husband discovers her faithlessness and slits her throat.  Florentino Ariza has sent Olimpia Zuleta signed love notes, and García Márquez reports,

For many years he [Florentino Ariza] thought with terror about the signed letters, he kept track of the prison term of the murderer [Olimpia Zuleta's husband], . . . but it was not so much fear of a knife at his throat or a public scandal as the misfortune of Fermina Daza's learning about his infidelity.
(p. 217.)  A woman is dead because of your sexual desires, and your main concern is that another woman not find out that you've had sex?  That's not touching.

(2)  Florentino Ariza's penultimate lover, América Vicuña, is 14 (to his 76) and his ward.  He abruptly dumps her at the death of Juvenal Urbino, Fermina Daza's husband, and in her inability to comprehend this rejection, América Vicuña kills herself.  Florentino Ariza reacts as follows:

The only thing he could do to stay alive was not to allow himself the anguish of that memory.  He erased it from his mind, although from time to time in the years that were left to him he would feel it revive, with no warning and for no reason, like the sudden pang of an old scar.
(p. 336.)  Another woman is dead - this one a teenager - because of your exploitative sexual desires, and you erase her memory?  Not romantic.

More than once, García Márquez describes Florentino Ariza as a "man who gave nothing and wanted everything" from his lovers (p. 216).    The fact that he's treating women so harshly while he bides his time waiting for his "true love" is, again, not sympathetic. 

A man who knows love for a woman ought to - we'd like to think - treat her sisters with dignity and respect.  Otherwise, what is his love for "Miss Right"?  Whether on the page or in the movie, Florentino Ariza's love for Fermina Daza is the enabler of a life lived at an emotional and moral distance from beloveds; it is the romantic fig leaf that fails to justify a misogynistic reality.

To return to Catherine Shoard's perceptive question, Florentino Ariza's "love enduring" provokes, not a flutter, but a shudder.

(Image of Javier Bardem as Florentino Ariza in Mike Newell's film version of Love in the Time of Cholera from The New York Times)

Note to Self

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Javier_Bardem.jpg
If I am ever crafting a romantic male lead in a novel, I'll do well - both for character and for reader - to spare him the indignities of chronic constipation. 

I don't get what Gabriel García Márquez was doing, in Love in the Time of Cholera, when he saddled poor Florentino Ariza (as played by Javier Bardem in Mike Newell's movie version, pictured left) with this debility.

Granted, I recognize that the problem is common.  Also, that people who suffer chronic constipation have just as much entitlement as the rest of us to passionate love affairs.  Also, that they can screw a lot.

But I don't like to dwell on it.  When García Márquez conflates constipation and screwing, as he does Florentino Ariza first meets Leona Cassiani, I cringed:

Florentino Ariza remembered a phrase from his childhood, something that the family doctor, his godfather, had said regarding his chronic constipation: "The world is divided into those who can shit and those who cannot." . . . But with what he had learned over the years, Florentino Ariza stated it another way: "The world is divided into those who screw and those who do not."
(p. 183).  Please!  Gabriel!  Spare us!

Throughout, I had problems believing Florentino Ariza as "one who screws" because I just couldn't reconcile the openness required for sexual release with the closedness required for chronic constipation.  And when one of Florentino Ariza's lover takes his enemas with him, I found myself regretting the compassionate capacities of my gender: ladies, there are limits!

Later, when Leona Cassiani gives the aged Florentino Ariza his enemas, I had a hard time with the humiliation and emasculation that redounded to Florentino Ariza from this interaction.  He's going to get up off the enema bed and go woo Fermina Daza?  Really?

When it comes to enemas and a romantic male lead, my feeling is that there's too much realism and not enough magic.

(Image of Javier Bardem in the film version of Love in the Time of Cholera from The Telegraph)

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the Garcia Marquez, Gabriel category.

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