Monthly Archives: August 2012

Anna Alchuk- First Victim of Religious Terror in Russia.

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Last Autumn I went to meet a friend at a cafe in Moscow. We turned up at a book presentation that interested me more than it interested my friend. I was a Russian speaker (whereas he wasn’t) and I was curious to hear about a poet to be introduced by a number of literary figures. My curiosity pricked up when I found out that the philosopher Mikhail Ryklin was also present – a philosopher who was the first to introduce Jacques Derrida into Russia. It was only at the end of the evening that I found out that the volume introduced was the collected works of Anna Alchuk and it was only the next day when I opened the book that I realized who this poet was.

In the early 200os an exhibition at the Sakharov Centre had been attacked by thugs and art works savagely destroyed. One would have thought that this would have resulted in some kind of court action against the thugs. Well, yes a court action did result. Only the trial was not against the thugs who destroyed the art, the ensuing trial was to end up persecuting the curators of the art exhibition. If one ever wishes to know about the genealogy of the Pussy Riot affair they would surely do no worse than learning about the ‘Beware Religion’ exhibition in which art curators were accused of fomenting religious hatred. This was 2003 and not 2012 and so heavy jail sentences were avoided. Yet this early sign of religious fanaticism in Russia did have its victim. In April 2008 a body was found in the River Spree in Berlin. This body was found to belong to that of Anna Alchuk, the wife of Mikhail Ryklin, and one of those involved with the Beware Religion exhibition. She had been a victim of the religious hate campaign against recalcitrant or sceptical artists. Her husband tells the whole story in a very moving piece named the Burning House published in The New Humanist magazine (Riklin article).

Anna Alchuk, it seems, can be said to have been the first victim of what the Pussy Riot trial has highlighted as a kind of religious terror. One might argue that Alchuk was suicided by this new authoritarian climate based on nationalism and Orthodoxy. The torn and tattered roots which Alchuk used in her artwork and poetry were wrenched from her both by a savage band of haters as well as by a rather cowardly group of intellectuals and artists who failed to oppose this onslaught. This assault on culture by Orthodox Red Guards has only become too obvious in the past few months. Yet from here one can base the genesis and one should not forgot that it also has had its first victim. A victim of religious terror. One must hope that gradually the work of this poet and artist will slowly become more known to audiences in Russia and outside and through her words and the preservation of her memory some form of resistance to this can be forged. It is the only way one can pay witness to this crime and hope that culture one day will fully reclaim its space in Russia- a space that is savagely being claimed by a fanatical wing of religion.

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Roberto Bolaño on Juan Rodolfo Wilcock : The Raving Inventors.

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Well if I can’t persuade anyone to read Juan Rodolfo Wilcock (and who am I to pretend to be a literary connoisseur of the highest order) then surely the great Chilean author of The Savage Detectives2666 is a more worthy promoter of Juan Rodolfo Wilcock. True, he talks here of another book of his The Temple of the Iconoclasts but Bolaño surely gets it right when he states that the fantasy of Wilcock and the hilarity that his works provoke have something of the Marx Brothers about it. Italian critics have also alluded to Monty Python when trying to describe Wilcock’s wit. My hope is that in a decade or so’s time everyone will be talking about how Wilcockian or Wilcockesque situations are. Whether this would signal a progression from a Kafkaesque universe remains to be seen for it seems that Wilcock’s prose is required to cure some pretty absurdly grotesque social ills and, I’m not sure whether Bolaño or Bianciotti got things more correct but Bolaño is surely right in emphasising that Wilcock’s wit – inspired, caustic and irreverent – is pretty unique.

The Temple of the Iconoclasts (La Sinagoga degli Iconoclasti) which was first published in Italy in 1972 is without doubt one of the most inspired, irreverent, witty and caustic books of the twentieth century. Very much influenced by Borges, Alfonso Reyes and Marcel Schwob and these in their turn indebted, in the manner of distorted mirrors, to the prose of the French Encyclopedists, The Temple of the Iconoclasts is a collection of biographies of delirious inventors, adventurers, scientists and artists. According to the Argentine writer Hector Bianciotti the book can be read “as a comedie humaine in which the bitter rage of Celine is hidden beneath Marx Brother type gags”. I don’t believe that any bitter rage (let alone the bitter rage of a Celine) is squatting in the prose of Wilcock. His characters when they are wicked are so out of an excess of goodness, and when they are good are reckless and therefore to be feared but not to be feared more than any other human being. Wilcock’s prose- methodical, always sure of itself, subtle even when it deals with awkward or even immodest subjects gravitates towards sympathy and forgiveness rather than rancour. From Wilcock’s wit (and The Temple of the Iconoclasts is essentially a work of humour) no one is spared.

Some of the characters did in fact exist, like Hanns Hòrbiger, the Austrian scientist who advanced the theory of successive moons and whose disciples included Hitler. With others it is possible that they actually existed like that André Lebran who is “remembered, infrequently remembered, in fact not remembered at all, as the inventor of the pentacycle or the bicycle with five wheels”. Some of the characters are heroic, like the Philippine José Valdés y Prom, telepathist and hynoptist. Others are beings of an absolute innocence, that is to say, saintly, like the Canadian emigrant from Armenia Aram Kugiungian who would became reincarnated or (who would transmigrate) into hundreds or even thousands of people, a phenomenon about which he “always replied that he felt nothing special, rather that he felt nothing at all except a vague sense of not being alone in the world”. One should not neglect the story of Llorenç Riber, a Catalan theatre director who was able to bring Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations on to the stage wearing out through nervous breakdowns not just the most savage reviewers but also the occasional theatre goers. Or the inventor of Canarian extraction  Jesús Piea Planas, father of the Ferris-wheel type roasting spit operated by four tortoises or the hermetic elastic panties for bitches in heat or the mouse trap operated by photoelectric cells and guillotine which is to be placed in front of the mousehole. These thirty five biographies summons one to a rapturous and uproarious read of one of the greatest and strangest (with all the revolutionary implications that this word holds) writers of this century and which no good reader should neglect.

Juan Rodolfo Wilcock – A Conservative.

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A rather common idea of how the universe works would go like this: there are nebulous infinities which detach themselves from each other at remarkable speeds and amidst these nebulae, lost in this cosmic explosion, is ours, the so-called Galaxy. This Galaxy spins around like a flat disc and contains billions of stars amongst which is found, even though barely visible and distant from the centre, the sun. And around this sun moves the earth. To me it seems quite obvious, however, that the sun is not a star but the sun, as anyone can check for themselves. Every morning it appears from behind these hills and then it goes down behind those other hills over there at night just as the stars are nothing else but shining dots, the proof of which is that they are only visible at nighttime.  The Galaxy in question can be nothing other than the moon which heralds rain. As far as the nebulae are concerned they are so nebulous that they can only be seen in photographs. Now, it is an established fact that one can’t trust photographs of the sky very much- usually they don’t even show up the evil spirits that, as we all know, fill the spaces where they do nothing but beckon to us attempting to seduce us in a thousand ways. They would like to make us leave this solid earth, rendered fertile by the bodies of our ancestors, simply out of their mean-spirited joy of seeing us descend into the empty darkness.

Alas, there are many today who genuinely wish to leave the earth, deceived by a series of optical illusions and even of illusions of other kinds. I, however, have chosen, one of these days, to take a stroll around my garden, naturally taking every kind of precaution.

Juan Rodolfo Wilcock’s The Valkyries.

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Baruch is a friend of the Valkyries but theirs is no ordinary friendship, the kind of friendship between people who meet up from time to time and go to the cinema together or have an ice cream in a local cafe that’s not too crowded to talk about this and that and gossip about a common acquaintance. No, their friendship has something a bit wild about it. Baruch has a small property at the foot of the valley on the green slope which descends into a stream. There are some fruit trees growing on the property, otherwise it is mainly an area of woodland. It is here where the watch-maker and the Valkyries meet up. The latter always arrive on horseback with a deafening roar which makes the whole valley shake. Armour-clad and with uncombed hair they are rather old but still quite agile and rowdy like young girls. The watchmaker waits for them in the middle of the field and the Valkyries straddled beside him brandish their spears in the manner of the Indians of the New World yelling like lunatics “Ho hai! Ho ho hai!. Hi Baruch! Hoio tohoio ho ho hai!” They are very fond of him, they’ve known him since he was a child.

It’s not as though the Valkyries have a lot to do, nowadays, except visiting their friends. There are seven of them, all spinsters and they only eat bread, even stale bread. So when Baruch hears them coming, he gets out his shopping bag of old bread and takes it along with him. While the Valkyries are making a commotion around him with their white hair fluttering in the wind, he breaks the bread and flings it a few metres as though they were hens and they then gather up the bread with the point of their spears. The Valkyries satisfy their primal hunger in the way most becoming to their almost godly nature.

Lazar Stojanovic – Plastic Jesus.

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There are certain films which remain long in the memory and yet one can never quite classify the reason. For me, a viewing of Lazar Stojanovic’s Plastic Jesus something like a decade and a half ago (maybe more) on a late night Channel Four show was quite a revelation. This film shown in a series of programmes which tried to give some context to the war then raging in Bosnia stayed long in my mind. Bosnia (the former Yugoslavia) ‘preoccupied’ me then – and listening to so many discussions about the wars of secession I’ve always been impatient that people seem to forget that the country was at war for a whole decade  – the decade of the 1990s. Having met three Slovenians in the Autumn of 1990 when picking apples in north-east Italy and kept in touch somehow the short war in Slovenia almost became something like a personally traumatic moment. It was the moment that war returned to mainland Europe. 1991 to 1993 found me in Trieste – the border town over which Italy and Yugoslavia almost came to blows after World War Two. Anyway the film Plastic Jesus was to be the film that, apart from the odd Dushan Makevejev film, would represent Yugoslav film for me from the moment I watched it on television.

Its rediscovery on You Tube a few days ago (albeit without subtitles) seemed to be something like a personal miracle. I finally managed to relocate a film which had been ‘archeologically’ important to me. It formed a certain new taste in me- and although I had never been much of a standard film buff, Plastic Jesus would be a film I would watch a number of times on a gradually worsening VHS video tape until finally it would be recorded over. The difficulty of knowing what attracted me to this very eclectic and rough film still presents with a problem in this post. The internet is definitely not a place that has much in English about this film. What little there is concentrates on the fact that this was very much an Underground classic. Stojanovic was to be the only film director jailed in Tito’s Yugoslavia. Some accounts put his jail term as a matter of days, others as 18 months and another as three years. Nonetheless, it is very clear that Stojanovic’s film is supremely radical- both for its time and also for now. Juxtaposition of Nazi and Partisan footage, of homosexual scenes immediately followed by official footage of Marshal Tito and a kind of levelling of all ideologies makes this film go way beyond the Marxist humanism of other Black Wave practitioners. The direct linkage of the sexual and the political were, perhaps, what seemed anyway to distinguish Yugoslav cinema from Soviet bloc films but here it seems to be taken further.

What seems to me to be particularly radical is also this assault on the religious along with the assault on all political ideologies – the Plastic Jesus motif and the linking of Nazi scenes and salutes coupled immediately with a group in contemporary society carrying work tools that then become crosses. This, now, seems equally, if not more, radical- as radical as the film must have been at the time. The shots of the man on the balcony loading his gun with chewing gum while he shoots at what then turn out to be film reel of victims of war atrocities to an accompanying upbeat war tune is equally radical and memorable. The further enmeshing of the sexual and the political, the historical and the contemporary, the religious and the totalitarian with an ending of the film’s protagonist which prefigures that of Marlon Brando’s protagonist in Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris –makes this film a true Underground masterpiece which went beyond much of what seemed possible in its own day and which, even today, appears radical.

Stojanovic – after his jail sentence- appeared no longer to have made any major films but surely this film deserves a greater reputation than it has at present.

Forgotten New Waves.

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In the UK every now and again a film morsel will turn up – one of those forgotten and radical classics from a far-away country of which we know little. This week it is the turn of the former Yugoslavia and the great Dushan Makavejev film ‘WR – Mysteries of the Organism’ http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/film/2012/08/dusan-makavejevs-visionary-insolence. A great hurrah goes up amidst the alternative crowd and then film buffs will have to wait for another year or so until this film is shown once again. Yet no one dares to ask for more or to inquire from what ground this film arose. Every film buff in the UK will be able to cite this film but very little else. Even if they do maybe it will be another Makvejev movie – perhaps some lucky buff has also seen his ‘The Switchboard Operator’ or, god forbid, ‘Sweet Movie’. And that will be it. It is the same with the Czech New Wave – how many times would my local ‘independent’ cinema in Brighton put on Jiri Menzel’s  ‘Closely Observed Trains’ to the absolute exclusion of any other film. I think that few film buffs around the world are as ignorant as the British as to the wide variety of European New Wave cinemas precisely because of this fixation on the single masterpiece. (I could mention Chytilova’s ‘Daisies’ here as all British film buffs will probably only know this one film of hers and not a whole host of others).

So with the exclusion of the French New Wave (and possibly one may include a Czech and a Polish New Wave and, hesitantly, a recent Roumanian New Wave) the rest is silence. Silence about the Yugoslav Black Wave or silence about the Spanish New Wave of the 1960’s and 1970’s (the Bardem’s, Berlanga’s and early Saura’s, the Basilio Martin Patino’s, Mario Camus’s etc), silence even about the Soviet New Wave which is not Tarkovsky or Paradjanov – ie the Poetic part of the New Wave- the Shukshin’s and the Khutsiev’s are completely ignored. Take, for example, a Guardian article talking about Spanish cinema and its history – barely a mention of any of the great New Wave films apart from Saura’s ‘La caza’ (The Hunt). It’s great underground classic ‘El extran’o viaje’ which influenced Spanish cinema after Franco and Almodovar in particular is nowhere to be seen. In the near future I’ll be taking a look at some of these great classics of the Forgotten New Waves starting, I hope, with some Yugoslav ones such as the Underground Classic ‘Plastic Jesus’ and Fernando Fernan Gomez’s ‘El extran’o Viaje’

Lost manuscripts and missing translations.

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Two months ago reading one of the most inspiring texts that I have come across for some time – Henri Lefebvre’s Introduction to Modernity – I was, perhaps, most struck by a story of an unknown and forgotten artist who Lefebvre once knew. Unlike, say, Van Gogh or Anatoly Zverev who, although, suffering in their lifetime would gain immortality after their death, Lefebvre’s artist would never be reclaimed. Not only was he a penniless artist in his lifetime but also his art works were destroyed by an indifferent landlord who reclaimed the property where the artist had been living. This led to Lefebvre’s talking about the ‘Unknown Artist’ as a kind of counterpart to the ‘Unknown Soldier’. As one of those hidden victims of the social system, the marginalized whose voice is never recuperated. The abandoned and destroyed art work which is never recuperated neither in this lifetime, nor in the next is perhaps a kind of obsession of mine. Bulgakov’s phrase in the Master and Margherita ‘Manuscripts Don’t Burn’ is, alas, not always true and a recent item of news about a Naples art gallery forced to destroy works of art because of a lack of government funding was, perhaps, just one more example of how art too has, in one way or another, been lost for ever.

(I suppose I must admit here to my own lost manuscript – a translation but admittedly not a great one – of Roberto Arlt’s The Seven Madmen. I undertook this translation before I knew Spanish well and travelled down to the Rome National Library to find an earlier Italian translation. Well to cut a story short I spent nearly six months on my translation – sent it on to publishers – got it rejected but then found that one publisher soon after rejecting mine had commissioned a translation from an established literary translator and published this book- though it never published the sequel Los lanzallamas (The Flamethrowers). Therefore readers of the Serpents Tail translation of Roberto Arlt’s first volume will never get to know what happened to Erdosian and fellow conspirators in the sequel. My own translation, then, was never returned to me from a computer hard disk taken from me and my six months hard work and labour of love also has seemingly been lost for ever due to the indifference of others. Other lost translations and letters – also destroyed – also plague my good mood from time to time).

Yet, in spite of all this, the translation of that book I desperately wanted to be translated into English (though it had come out in 1984 in the US but, then, soon became out of print) was translated. All the same for years I have been rather obsessed with the subject of missing translations. Maybe it stemmed partly from a conversation with a Croatian poet who was also for a brief period my teacher of translation at the Trieste School of Modern Languages for Translators and Interpreters. Himself a translator from something like seven languages, Tonko Maroevic’, started to talk about the lines from T.S.Eliot where he says “I had not thought death had undone so many”. This, of course, was a reference or even translation from Dante. Yet Maroevic went on to tell me how hermetic English literature was. He talked about the influences that Eliot or Rilke would have on Croatian literature but with English literature one could not really talk about strong outside influences. Maybe poets from centuries earlier – the Dantes, the Goethes, the Villons may be acceptable – but what about contemporary twentieth century influences. Maybe the odd Kafka, Borges, Chekhov in prose but bare little in poetry. Eliot, himself, admitted of only Laforgue. But others? Maybe Vasko Popa had some influence on Ted Hughes. How many polyglots were there in English literature? Barely any. The Irish fare better than the English – Joyce even began to compose letters in triestino and would apparently sing drunk in the gutter in this dialect too. His Finnegans wake was a polyglot’s dream too. Beckett can also be seen as a bi-lingual writer. Well, perhaps, D.H.Lawrence translated the odd novel of Verga’s & there’s the odd Tim Parks who is both writer and translator but that is about it.

In general, the role of the translator-writer or even the polyglot or polycultured literary figure in Anglo-Saxon countries is a much less common one than in other European countries. There may have been the situation of the empire writing back- a kind of return of colonized culture- which could have revolutionized English-speaking cultures recently. Yet it seems to have been limited to figures such as Salman Rushdie and a handful of others and in any case Britain has still remained incredibly isolated from other European trends and influences and hardly shares any common cultural space with the European continent. The established writers like Martin Amis will only limit themselves to enthuse over those like Vladimir Nabokov who heroically changed from another language to English succeeding in that endeavour with extraordinary success. Perhaps even much more generous and open writers like Harold Pinter can’t be said to have strayed too far from home in terms of real literary sources.

On the continent it is a different story. Spain’s closest figure to a modern classic, Javier Marias, has undertaken translations from the English including Lawrence Sterne’s Tristan Shandy and Claudio Magris’s openness to German literature through both translation and scholarship needs no underlining. Sometimes writers will deeply immerse themselves in what have been erroneously seen as minor literatures- Antonio Tabucchi’s absolute devotion to Portuguese literature and Juan Goytisolo’s dedication to Maghrebi culture are cases in point. This daring homage across cultures could be said to be especially strong in Italy’s relationship to Russian culture. Apart from the wonderful mixture of translation and literary scholarship that comprised Angelo Maria Ripellino’s outstanding contribution to an inspirational proselytisation of Russian and Czech literature in the second half of the twentieth century. Yet, perhaps, even more significant was the fact that one of the major writers of Italy in the late twentieth century, Tommaso Landolfi, was also the author of major translations of the works of both Pushkin and Lermontov. Italian letters has been one of the most open to miscegenation. The decision by the Einaudi publishing house to publish a whole series of classics translated by established Italian writers some time ago is something that would probably never be replicated in an Anglo-Saxon country.

This heremticism accounts for the genuine lack of translations in English compared to other languages and I’ll be hoping to post some blogs in the future of what writers and books that haven’t gained any recognition in Britain I feel should be more widely known. They may, like Roberto Arlt, be long dead or they may be still with us or they may be long forgotten writers who were once briefly translated. Nonetheless, these blog posts hope to try to add some new and forgotten names that the British reader has for too long been ignorant of.