2010/12/26

A mini-odissey and a Great Idea

We're flying to Athens this evening, and plan to see as much of Greece as we can between now and the 2nd of January, when we continue on to Istanbul. We're excited about this adventure: our first view of Greece (I'm sure it won't be our last), and a return to Istanbul, a grand city.

All my research into the Eastern Roman ("Byzantine") Empire in its last decades has made me especially sensitive to the complicated, many-layered relationships of Greeks and Turks, adding to my excitement about this visit. I've been trying to learn a few Greek phrases and to familiarize myself with the alphabet at least well enough to be able to sound out street signs. I hope to understand their thinking a little better, and being in the original homeland after trying to understand their "Byzantine" phase should help, before I resume thinking about the explosive implications of the Μεγάλη Ιδέα — the "Megali" or Great Idea that emerged in the 19th century, of recovering under Greek control all the lands their ancestors once held, including Constantinople and most of Anatolia.

On that "Idea", as experienced by Turks in their fierce "War of Independence" of the 1920s , I've begun reading Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar 's exquisitely written novel whose protagonist, Mümtaz, is orphaned and thereafter deeply affected by that war. If I ever return to the themes of A Gift for the Sultan, it will be to take them up in a later period, perhaps the 20th or 21st century.

We've never been in Istanbul in winter, and we see that it will be even a little colder than Madrid (it's almost one degree further north). But no matter. We have friends there, and even the loan of an apartment, and I'll be doing a reading from A Gift for the Sultan before a group of Turks who surely will catch all the subtle references in the book.

I'll tell you what I think I've learned when I get back. Until then, Happy New Year!

2010/12/25

The Fading Dream of Europe by Orhan Pamuk

A good commentary to read in conjunction with Tony Judt's book on Europe since 1945, Postwar.
The Fading Dream of Europe by Orhan Pamuk | NYRBlog | The New York Review of Books

The WikiLeaks revelations underscore just how confused European leaders are about their mission. Here in Spain the biggest scandal (of several) is permitting interference of the US State Department in the Spanish justice system, to prevent prosecution of the US soldiers who killed TV cameraman José Couso and another journalist. But even apart from US interference, German and French politicians (the ones who have most clout in the European Union) pursue self-defeating policies to placate sectors of their equally confused electorates. They don't seem to be willing to accept that Iraq, Afghanistan and Turkey (and every other country outside Europe, North America and maybe China and Japan) may have their own needs and agendas and are no longer (if ever)  simply willing to emulate the Europeans.

2010/12/24

'Welcome to My Contri' again available

Buy here
My 1988 book Welcome to My Contri, described by the New York Times Book Review as a "powerful collection of short stories [that] leaves us thoroughly wrung out -- and aware that we are in the presence of a formidable new writer" (Sunday, November 20, 1988), is again available through Amazon.

These are stories of encounters and misencounters somewhere in Latin America, which foreign tourists sometimes think of as all one country — which is what the tour guide Joe slyly implies when he announces, "Welcome to my contri!" — a "contri" which turns out to be, in the following stories, many very different places.

The book has been almost impossible to get for years — but we recently located some brand-new copies which are now available through Amazon at the bargain price of US$6.00 (+ $3.99 shipping). You can find that $6 price here.

If you are on the east side of the Atlantic, I have a few copies available for sale at the equivalent price in euros, €4.60.

To see the original review in The New York Times Book Review, click here.

2010/12/23

Turk Radio interview on "A Gift for the Sultan"

A Gift for the SultanHere you can hear the SF Turkish Radio interview of me about the novel, conducted by host Ahmet Toprak. Ahmet has also posted a link so that listener's can buy the book from that site. Thanks, Ahmet, and happy Winter Solstice and New Year to you and all my readers!

From self- to commercial publishing

Here's some Advice on self-publishing from Lisa Genova, author of Still Alice, a self-published book (iUniverse) by which she got enough attention to land a contract from Pocket Books and turn it into a NY Times bestseller. Encouraging story, an example of what can be done. See also the NYT article that she has linked to her site: 

Self-Publishers Flourish as Writers Pay the Tab by Motoko Rich, January 27, 2009.

Serious thinking about cities & us

Thanks to dear friend LouBette Herrick for recommending this piece by Jonah Lehrer in the New York Times Magazine, A Physicist Solves the City. Subject: “What makes a city grow and thrive? What causes it to stagnate and fall? Geoffrey West thinks the tools of physics can give us the answers.” Herewith a couple of quotes:
The end result is that cities aren’t just increasing the pace of life; they are also increasing the pace at which life changes.

But it turns out that cities and companies differ in a very fundamental regard: cities almost never die, while companies are extremely ephemeral. … As West puts it, “Companies are killed by their need to keep on getting bigger.”
Whether he's got all the details right or not, he's obviously on to something. This very different way of thinking about large agglomerations like cities and corporations should provoke us to come up with better solutions to urban and other problems. Almost makes we want to rush to order this book, but it's a little pricey.

2010/12/18

2010/12/15

Writer’s Digest - The Evolution of the Literary Agent

Writer’s Digest - The Evolution of the Literary Agent: Snippets from an article by Jane Friedman recording a roundtable discussion among four top agents. Here I've quoted Wendy Keller, Keller Media, kellermedia.com and more briefly Scott Waxman, Waxman Literary Agency, waxmanagency.com/diversionbooks.com. In the first snippet, Keller responds to Friedman's question, "What’s the most important change happening in publishing right now that’s impacting the future of the agent-author relationship?"

Keller: The most important change is not the format in which books are being published. The most important change began with the fact that a million books published in 2009—and 774,000 or so of them self-published. That many “unsupervised” books will definitely tip the ship in the reader’s favor. When all the people who have written and self-published books that don’t sell—and when all the junky books publishers have thrown against the wall using the old “see if it sticks” model have been exhausted—then there will emerge from this desolate landscape a new breed of books that are excellent, well-thought-out, well-formulated, actually useful to the reader (inform, educate, inspire or entertain). In other words, the pendulum will have completed its full swing, back to quality over quantity. Like publishing was before any of us were born, when the last American “classics” were published. There’s just no bleedin’ way for the marketplace of readers to absorb 1 million titles annually. Things must change and I am part of that change, as are you, the hopeful author who is reading these words right now. Quality over quantity is what will emerge from this debacle. But for now, the best, brightest marketers will win the skirmishes.


What’s your advice to authors who might be thinking about publishing or distributing their work digitally through a service like Amazon DTP or Smashwords?

Waxman: In these cases, you really need to have a strong social network online to sell books. Otherwise, you’ll be drowned out by the masses.

Keller: If you know what you’re doing, are willing to hire any of the brilliant recently fired editors to help you edit the thing, and most of all if you have a cogent, smart, dynamic marketing plan, do it. Even self-publish, something I used to abhor. And if you don’t have your own personalized marketing plan and the enormous drive and focus to enact it, then don’t do it. It’s black or white. Save your money and time. 

2010/12/14

Marketing the sultan

I just discovered that my book is available at Powell's and Barnes & Noble in addition to Amazon. I discovered this when I updated by home page in the Red Room, which automatically posted these other buying links. Gee, I hope somebody writes a comment or review at those sites, too.

Reading in Vera

Susana snapped this shot of me reading from A Gift for the Sultan in the "Espacio Lector" ("Reader's Space") of the excellent bookstore Libería Nobel in Vera, Almería. If you are in our area (southeast coast of Spain), you can purchase the book there.

We had a good crowd at the reading and a good time, and even sold some books. A great many of our English and other friends were there, and I'm grateful for their support.

There should soon be a note on the event and the book, A Gift for the Sultan, in the local English-language weekly Levante Lifestyle.

(You can also find A Gift for the Sultan on Amazon, with customer reviews and a link to my author page, where there is a video discussing the book.)

2010/12/12

PIGS Vs. APEs: Debunking myths about Spain

This is an engaging, amusing 3-part essay, not convincing in all its acerbic barbs, but clear at dismanteling some of the stupider and most common myths about Spain as compared to other European countries. I think you'll enjoy reading it, even if you want to argue with him over some points. Luis Francisco Martínez Montes is described here as "the adviser to the Spanish Deputy Minister" (presumably Ministry of the Exterior).
 
PIGS Vs. APEs: Living on an Animal Farm by Luis Francisco Martínez Montes - The Globalist

Introducing the APEs: Anglo-Protestant Economies by Luis Francisco Martínez Montes - The Globalist

Spain — A Country Built on Sand? by Luis Francisco Martínez Montes - The Globalist

Famous all over town

This has been a busy week for sultan “Yildirim” Bayezid. His image, paired with mine, was plastered all over Carboneras, Mojácar and all the way to Vera, to announce my readings from the novel about his last great adventure on earth, A Gift for the Sultan. If he is watching from Paradise, it will no doubt seem less than his magnificence deserves, but it is more attention than he has received in Spain in the past six centuries.

For our Spanish friends in Carboneras, Susana and I translated the introductory scene and another chapter to present in the town's library. The place was packed for the reading Thursday night, S.R.O., more people than the library had hosted for any other event in memory — just shows you how people still care about old Yildirim ("Thunderbolt"). Now they want a Spanish translation of the whole book; I do too, but I'm not about to do it. It would be a big and challenging job.

Then on Friday, the sultan filled the presentation room of the Nobel bookstore in Vera for a reading in English to folks who don't require translation, and several of them bought the book.

All this in the same week that I was interviewed by that Turkish radio program in San Francisco. 

Do you remember this book? The young Chicano who wrote it turned out to be a 72-year old non-Chicano playwright, Daniel Lewis James, but that's another story, a sad and funny one — sad because James had been so damaged by being blacklisted from the theater, which was his life, that when he years later dared to take up the pen again, he could manage only under a pen name. Funny, because after years of community work in East Los Angeles, he got the voice of the young Chicano so right that he fooled all the critics. In the novel, the young hero — frustrated by being treated as a nobody all his life — finally makes himself famous all over town by writing his name in big letters on all the billboards. And Daniel James did it by writing as Danny Santiago.

I was thinking of Danny and Daniel as our friends Hazel and David Jones (many thanks, from me and the sultan) put up those posters all over Carboneras, Mojácar and Vera.

2010/12/08

Quality seal for self-publishers

A thought for fellow writers: My guess is that self-publishing will become more and more common and that the stigma will continue to diminish. This is partly because commercial publishers are more and more reluctant to invest in risky books, and partly because self-publishing has become so much cheaper and easier. However knowing that a book has passed through an editorial selection process (that somebody besides the author thought it was worth publishing) is still an important way to reassure readers of quality.

Maybe what we need to do is form editorial collectives, so that a self-published author (who has paid to publish) has the imprimatur of a respected coterie of writers/editors before the book appears (instead of just hoping for such support in reviews after it is published). The collective would provide (in effect) a blurb of approval. The collective (maybe two or three writers, maybe more) would create a web page where its members' credentials (previous publications, etc.) could be consulted.

Any thoughts? Any volunteers to join me in such a project? We would read and either grant or not grant our seal of approval to new works submitted — but publishing and distribution (and the expense involved) would still be up to the author. If we didn't give our seal, the author could simply ignore us, but if we did, he/she could advertise that fact on the book cover.

The strengths of Europe

A look on the brighter side.

The Supreme Strengths of Europe by Stephan Richter and Martin Sieff - The Globalist

It's all true, we do have much less inequality here (in Europe — I'm writing from Spain) and even the poorest are nowhere near as poor as millions of people in India or China or other countries, or even in the poorer areas of the US. If these 27 countries could only get together on major issues like defense or economic policy, Europe could again be a power, and this time (unlike the era of imperialism) for good.

2010/12/07

Coming events

I'll be doing a reading from my novel A Gift for the Sultan this Friday at the Librería (Bookstore) Nobel in Vera (Almería province, Spain) at 8 p.m.

And on Thursday, I'll do a presentation in Spanish in the public library of Carboneras at 7 p.m.

I'm suppposed to be interviewed on the book on Turkish Radio, San Francisco — still to be scheduled.

And on January 4, I'll be presenting the book to a Turkish literary circle in Istanbul. Meanwhile, if any of you have had a chance to read the novel, I hope you will post a comment in the "customer review" section of the Amazon page. Thanks.

(Map of Constantinople, 1422)

2010/12/06

Review: Postwar by Tony Judt | Books | The Guardian

Another view, more critical than mine, written by Norman Daview in 2005 when the book came out and Tony Judt was still among us.

Review: Postwar by Tony Judt | Books | The Guardian

A book this length and this comprehensive, dealing with so many histories of so many countries, will inevitably have a lapse or two, I suppose. But Davies still seems to be fighting the Cold War, while Judt is not. And this criticism seems to me off-base: "Judt, however, is impervious to religion, unmoved by music and rather complacent about non-French and non-political branches of art and culture." — especially the phrase "unmoved by music." There's quite a bit about popular music trends, hilariously opinionated so he must have cared about it.

Thanks to Andrew Hull for pointing me to this review.

2010/12/03

Why Europeans Think We're Insane | Economy | AlterNet

A friend on Facebook posted this, and when I started to respond I realized it called for a longer analysis.

Why Europeans Think We're Insane | Economy | AlterNet

This is naïve and deserves a more detailed response. Yes, as an American resident in Spain, I know full well: European social benefits are vastly greater than those in the US. But that could not have happened (it's all since WWII) without the US: Marshall Plan, US defense spending & much else. The story is well told in Tony Judt's Postwar. And because of "the Crisis" (which showed how dependent European prosperity has been on US prosperity—it all started with US financial giants finagling their books and US banks overextending credit) the European advantage may not survive the big benefits cutbacks in the UK and elsewhere. Or will almost certainly diminish.

I'll have more to say about Judt's book on modern Europe soon. I'm about half-way through it, reading slowly and carefully (it's a big book) because what he says (whether I always agree with him or not) is so important for understanding where we are now

"No TV"

A complex, beautifully written story by
Dirk van Nouhuys at Unlikely 2.0

Here's just a sample:

Joe walked from the front door a little way along the palm-lined drive to where his companions waited in the battered Volvo bus that had carried them from Elsinore to Sarajevo, crossed from Le Havre to Vera Cruz, and then carried them from Vera Cruz here. He thought he had been on this road forever, at first a celebrity, then a classic, now three-quarters forgotten, meeting people he did not understand, unable to discern the outlines of motivation, disconcerted by the greed for violence and power, seeing figures that looked like battered cars, the motor failing, the fender falling off, and the emergency brake intermittent, trekking on a great highway where no one was sure of his direction. He imagined stopping someone to ask the way to the next town and hearing grammars plucked from a language beyond scholarship. Everything falling, like in Revelations, bumbling, directionless on this crowded road, refugees toting trunks of belongings, baskets, bundles, going north and south, tired, crazed with sleeplessness. The only hope: "I love to see her use her powers".


2010/12/02

Update on "Sultan"

I've just ordered conversion to e-book format "for purchase on Kindle devices and Kindle apps for iPad, iPhone, iPod touch, PC, Mac, Blackberry, and Android-based devices." Thus the book should be available for nearly instant delivery anywhere with Internet, and cheaper. (Price to be determined, but it will be less than the $15.70 list for the paperback, and virtually no shipping charge.) I was studying how to do this myself (you can do the conversion from a text in MS Word), but it was going to take me hours to figure out and anxiety about making mistakes, so I was glad to see the offer from CreateSpace to handle it for $69.

Of course, the printed paperback is prettier, with its color cover. But I'm beginning to enjoy reading on my Kindle, and maybe you will too. And if you live outside the US, you get the book much quicker (within minutes) and save the extra shipping expense, which can be considerable to Europe or Asia.

2010/11/26

Twice told tale: fanatics in the backlands

A couple of weeks ago, I re-read Euclides da Cunha, Backlands: the Canudos Campaign, trad. Elizabeth Lowe (New York: Penguin Books, 2010), better to understand its relation to Mario Vargas Llosa's 900-page novel, La guerra del fin del mundo, about the same bloody episode in Brazil's northeastern backwoods in the 1890s. For some of the background on these two books, please see my earlier weblog entry History, fiction and historical fiction which is the first part of this essay.

Da Cunha's book is considered a classic of Brazilian literature. It is dramatic, moving, encyclopedic and often — like its author — grandiloquently, pigheadedly wrong. The savage war in the Brazilian northeast backlands of Bahia state from 1893 to 1897 was a defining event of the new Brazilian republic, and Euclides da Cunha's amazingly vivid account of it, Os sertões, is considered by many Brazilians as their country's most outstanding literary achievement. That should be reason enough to put it high on your reading list. But even if you don't care about this huge country (192 million people, a booming economy, a territory amounting to almost half the South American continent) that is rapidly rising to world influence, you will want to understand the dynamics of that war, because it has parallels to some of the world's most critical struggles today.

That it also inspired Vargas Llosa's  powerful and complex novel is for me an equally important reason for studying it. Vargas Llosa insists that he has never written a "historical novel", "a more or less animated retelling of historical events", which he apparently thinks of as a lesser category of literature. What he has done here and in La fiesta del chivo and his new novel on Roger Casement is to use thoroughly researched historical events to tell an original story that helps us feel and understand those events from an original perspective. And that's what I've tried to do in A Gift for the Sultan. To me, it's what a historical novel should be, and this is why I'm fascinated by the ways Vargas Llosa handles his material.

But first, lets look at the material, the documented historical events, filtered through Da Cunha, that Vargas Llosa was working with. Every local and traditionalist movement is peculiar, the more local the more peculiar, and the movement around the holy man Antônio Conselheiro in the dense, ramshackle settlement of Canudos was so peculiar that the sophisticates in Salvador de Bahia or Rio de Janeiro could not believe it. A primitively armed, fanatically devout poor rural people was defeating every invasion by a modern, disciplined and experienced army with all the latest technology and firepower.

Sound familiar? They didn't have car-bombs or suicide belts, but they were ingenious at using everything they did have (even slingshots and crossbows, plus traps and tricks) and did not hesitate to sacrifice their own lives to destroy an enemy that they saw as the Devil incarnate. 

Brazil had just become a republic in 1889, when the army deposed the ailing and weary Emperor Pedro II. Only a year earlier, Dom Pedro had achieved his long-held ambition to abolish slavery—provoking the wrath of slave-using coffee-growers and contributing to the anti-monarchical sentiment among the urban elite that led to Dom Pedro's downfall.

The rebellion in the backlands began as defiance against the republic and its new laws. A wandering visionary named Antônio Maciel, known as o conselheiro (the counselor),  gathered a growing following as he denounced such impieties as a census (he said its purpose was to count people who would be returned to slavery), civil marriages and non-religious burials (an offense to God), and taxes (instead of tithes to the Church). He and most of his followers were barely literate, so we have only fragments of his preaching and exhortations recorded by people who regarded them as holy, and reconstructions from oral accounts by those who heard him. With the few believers he allowed to accompany him, he strode continually through the  mountains, caatinga (shrubland), arroyos and canyons,  stopping at each settlement to preach and also to command the restoration of abandoned chapels and cemeteries or the building of grand new ones, which he would demand be attended by a priest. The Catholic Church didn't know what to make of him. Sometimes a curate would invite him to preach, but the church hierarchy was suspicious of his strange sermons, equating the republic with "the Dog"—meaning the Devil—and predicting the end of the world and the advent of the Good Jesus to the backlands. But what caught the authorities' attention was his destruction of official edicts proclaiming the census, elections and taxes, and his orders not to obey any authorities of the republic.

The governor of Bahia and the military chiefs in Rio assumed it would be simple to put down this nuisance, and sent a military expedition to quash it. It was destroyed. They sent another, much larger one, under the command of a hero of several other repressive campaigns, and this turned out even more disastrous—Col. Moreira César and thousands of his troops were killed, their huge Krups cannons seized, and the surviving troops chased from the territory. This was incomprehensible from primitively armed cowhands and homesteaders. The excitable press and their elite backers kept inventing more plausible (but completely fallacious) explanations for the ongoing disaster. They must be secretly financed by aristocrats who wanted to restore the empire, and/or by British capitalists who for other reasons wanted to dismember the republic.

A former military man turned journalist and a fervent republican — that is, supporter of the coup that had deposed the Brazilian emperor in 1891 in order to "modernize" the country — Da Cunha got himself embedded in what turned out to be the final, and finally successful campaign to destroy the rebels. Os sertões is not an easy book to follow, mainly because Da Cunha wants to tell so many different stories all at the same time: how the land forms of Brazil were created, how climate affects the habits of cattlement and farmers in different regions, the history of settlement and pillage from earliest colonial times, and only then, after you've got through all that, the story of the "war",  one failed military campaign after another until finally the rebellious settlement is overcome and eliminated. (A particular problem with this translation is the lack of maps, making it almost impossible to follow all the military maneuvers or the geological descriptions in detail.) For much of the book, the real protagonist is not the army or the Canudos resistance nor any of its human participants, but the land itself, which Da Cunha describes as a living thing, crashing thunderbolts and rainstorms to flood out farms and fragile villages, or sucking down every last drop of water and splitting open deep gorges during the droughts, then sprouting its hard sharp foliage to slash human invaders, almost as though the backlands were laughing at human attempts to civilize them..

Another difficulty is that Da Cunha's literary standards, what he considered good writing, were so different from those of any of our contemporary best-selling authors. He is forever digressing and interrupting himself for the sake of reaching an especially dramatic phrase or description. And there is the additional problem that some of the things he asserts are completely screwball, especially race as determining character and ability. Then when the supposedly primitive and intellectually simple blacks or Amerindians or mestizos of the Canudos settlement keep outsmarting the supposedly superior Portuguese-descended commanders sent out to crush them, not acting according to type, phrenology — the shape of the cranium as a clue to brain development.

And there are many contradictions like this, because Da Cunha, though fervently on the side of the  army, is often overwhelmed by sympathy for the supposedly inferior (racially and culturally) "enemy" who resists that army with courage and ingenuity. If they are so inferior, how can they be so smart and so brave? And how can they, with such poor weapons, obliterate one Brazilian army campaign after another? This gets the author into some very complex speculations about racial mixing and its peculiar consequences, and how those races were somehow better adapted to the harsh physical environment of the backlands. It's as though the social groupings there — the Indians, the blacks, the mestizos — were themselves parts of the natural environment, not to be thought of as "intelligent" any more than the climate or the vegetation or the sharp-edged geology, but that all together they composed the hostile, alien environment that overwhelmed the urban, cultured, white military officers with their neatly formed batallions and cannons and bugle calls.

Vargas Llosa rehumanizes these characters. He takes da Cunha's scattered and often admiring portraits of the famously cruel and brutal bandits Paheú, João Grande and João Abade — real outlaws converted to the Counselor's faith to become fierce defenders of the community — and others and develops them into full, complex psychological characters whose intelligence and human sensibilities, and the wrongs they've suffered and the things they desire, make fully understandable what for da Cunha were simply unexplainable and unreasoned acts of instinct. And he also invents characters — a "near-sighted journalist" (unnamed), a Scottish anarchist who calls himself Galileo Gall, the baron of Cañabrava, the much-abused Jurema, and various midlevel Brazilian military men among them — to lets us see this conflict from other points of view. In all, it is a magnificent denunciation of fanaticism, not just (not even principally) of the Counselor's faithful followers, but also (and even more evidently) the fanaticism of those who thought they were bringing civilization but ended up bringing only total destruction to this poor community.

Like Chechenya, and many other places. It's a marvelous, passionate and thought-provoking novel.

2010/11/25

Too much selling, too little writing

I've been so caught up in promotion of my own new novel that I haven't had a chance to write about the other readings I'd promised, including Da Cunha and Vargas Llosa's Brazil books. So I'll get to that in a minute. First, to bring everybody up to date on my promotion efforts besides my announcements and video on Amazon and notices in other web venues (Facebook, Twitter, Red Room, etc.). 
  • I'll be offering two presentations of the book locally: On December 9, for my Spanish-speaking friends and fans here, I'm preparing a translation of two short chapters to read in the public library of Carboneras at 7 p.m. Then the following night, December 10, I'll be reading from the book at the Librería (bookstore) Nobel in Vera, in English. Susana has been doing a marvelous job of announcing this event in Vera to the many English and other English-speakers in the area.
  • Very soon I expect to be interviewed by a radio station in San Francisco, in a program aimed at Turks and those interested in Turkey in the US. This should become a podcast, which I can then let everybody know about. I expect a lot of interest in the book from Turks (also from Greeks and anybody who cares about Muslim-Christian relations).
  • Susana and I will be in Greece and Turkey at the end of December and beginning of January. I don't have anything set up in Greece, but I hope at least to visit an English-language bookstore in Athens to see if I can interest them in announcing and distributing the book. In Turkey I'll do the same, and I also have a reading scheduled in Istanbul with a literary club.
I'll save the comments on other readings for a separate blog entry. Meanwhile, I hope thousands, or at least two or three, people choose A Gift for the Sultan as a Christmas gift for friends and relatives.

2010/11/24

Battle Lines Drawn in Catalonia - NYTimes.com

As I was saying: fissiparous tendencies not just in Europe, but even in its constituent countries. Every little nationality wants to be proud, independent and colorful. Like the Most Serene Republic of San Marino.

Battle Lines Drawn in Catalonia - NYTimes.com

Can Europe be saved?

Or save itself? As we sit here in this southeast corner of the Iberian peninsula watching Europe disintegrate, I find myself wondering how "Europe" ever happened and whether it exists at all except in our collective imagination. As Tony Judt remarks in the first lines of Postwar: A history of Europe since 1945, “It is not really even a continent — just a subcontinental annexe to Asia. The whole of Europe (excluding Russia and Turkey) comprises just five and a half million square kilometers: less than two thirds the area of Brazil, not much more than half the size of China or the US.”

Too bad Tony isn't with us to help us understand this new crisis. (He died earlier this year.) In Postwar, he makes vividly clear how nearly “Europe” as a cultural unit came to disappearing as a result of its two world wars. What I mean is the glory and power that had made that territory something more than an annexe to Asia, or the sense of common cultural values that at least seemed to unite the hundreds of language groups and scores of more or less sovereign states (at last count, 46). This time it's not war but simple inability to come to agreements, coupled with nationalist pretensions ridiculously out of sync with national economic potentials, exacerbated by the usual short-sighted opportunism of political parties and factions, that's threatening the economic union holding all these countries together. 

Postwar goes over familiar ground, and most of what it tells us in the first chapters (I'm about a quarter of the way through this big book so far) are things you've probably read or heard before about the enormous destruction of housing, industry and infrastructure along with the millions of lives lost in the Second World War, the anxieties and contradictory demands of the survivors and the beginnings of an improvised, ad hoc postwar division of power we call the Cold War. But there will be many things that you hadn't heard before, or that you had never connected to other elements to see the themes. This English scholar, son of Eastern European Jews and long-time professor in the US, is especially good at explaining how and why the US saved the western parts of the subcontinent and bolstered the defeated and ruined Germany (the part not governed by the Soviets) to regain its industrial strength and prosperity (a complete break with Allied practice after World War I),  along with the equally ruined France and smaller countries such as the Netherlands and Belgium.

Those countries with all their rivalries were able to cohere more or less because of the Cold War. I'll be eager to read Judt's description of the end of that division, the collapse of the “socialist bloc” and disintegration of the Soviet Union — he was there, more involved than most of us (he even went to the trouble of learning Czech).  Left to itself, without the USSR and its subject states squeezing it from the east and the US pressing back from the west, “Europe” had to re-invent itself and define its boundaries. How far west? Are the British Isles part of Europe? Ireland decided it was – though it may now be regretting that choice. England has been more diffident. How far east? Ukraine has been welcomed, but coldly. Turkey? Not yet. France and Germany came to believe they were Europe, and the other countries merely satellites.

I'm going to have to go back to re-read Janet Abu-Lughod's marvelous book on the world system before Europe emerged, back in the 13th century. It may be that we're headed back that way, except that now Brazil and South Africa may join those great pre-European powers China, India and Persia (Iran). “Europe” appears to be voting for its own irrelevance.

2010/11/17

Bad Marie

Bad MarieBad Marie by Marcy Dermansky

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Marie is not really bad, she is just ambitionless and self-indulgent and steals things, including her patroness's clothes, baby and husband, just because she likes them. The husband turns out to be a hopeless, helpless fraud (known for a book which, he confesses, he didn't write) who takes her to Paris on his wife's credit card (he is also moneyless), where he abandons Marie and the baby. Marie has already spent 6 of her 30 years in jail, as an accomplice after running off to Mexico with her Mexican boyfriend who had robbed a bank, and a gullible and guilt-ridden workaholic former schoolmate, Ellen, had hired her as nanny. Fearing pursuit by Ellen, Marie flees Paris by train to the Riviera with the 2 1/2 year old baby Caitlin, meets a young, pretentious movie star (despite her habit of gorging herself on fattening foods and drinking whatever is available, Marie is still attractive, mainly for her big tits), who takes her out to dinner, buys her and the baby clothes and invites her to stay in his borrowed house. When a papparazzo publicizes this outing, the young actor insists that Marie leave, so she steals his credit card and runs off to Mexico, to the home of her now-dead Mexican boyfriend (he committed suicide in prison), where Juan José's family all blame her for his death. Once again really bummed out, Marie walks with baby Caitlin to the nearby fancy beach resort and registers with the movie star's credit card. What happens next? Since Marie has made no effort to cover her trail, we can only assume she will soon be back in prison as thief and kidnapper.

Marcy Dermansky tells us in an afterword that almost everything in this novel is inspired by scenes from her favorite French movies. That no doubt explains why Marie and her experiences seem so far from real life. They are impressions (by an American author) of impressions (by French auteurs). It's fun to read, especially if you've seen some of those same movies, or even if you haven't.


View all my reviews

2010/11/08

Reading update

The War of the End of the WorldThe War of the End of the World by Mario Vargas Llosa

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


So good and so complex that it has driven me to re-read Os sertões, the reportage of the war of Canudos (Brazil) by Euclides da Cunha that inspired this novel. Next I'll re-read the novel better to understand the uses and transformations Vargas Llosa made of this violent history.

I'm reading Os sertões in a new translation: Euclides da Cunha, Backlands : the Canudos Campaign, trad. Elizabeth Lowe (New York: Penguin Books, 2010).  I doubt that I could get through the original, in Brazilian Portuguese, without a major effort. La guerra del fin del mundo I'm reading in the language in which it was written — always preferable, when possible. I wish I read more languages.

View all my reviews

2010/10/26

City under stress: Cartagena in wartime

Before continuing about Mario Vargas Llosa and Euclides da Cunha and Brazilian history, I have to say something about Cartagena, Spain. I made my first visit last week and it made a powerful impression.

First, there's the spectacular setting, built on the peaks and dips of mountains around a bay ground out by millenia of waves pounding on the rock — the east coast of the Iberian peninsula — that forms the western wall of the Mediterranean sea. And then there are layer upon layer of human history, preserved in the fragments of ancient and newer streets and buildings and waterworks since Hasdrubal (Hannibal's younger brother) renamed it Carthago Nova ("New Carthage") in 228 BC. (See Cartagena Spain - Google Maps. Carthage was based in what is now the Gulf of Tunis.) A Roman theater has been partially restored, and a separate Roman circus, and the Vandals and Visigoths and Byzantines and Moors were also here.

Susana and I went with two friends, artist Ernesto Pedalino and publicist Dora Revinski to see the art installations in Manifesta 8, scattered in various structures around town. Some of the art responded very effectively to its setting, especially the creations in the former prison of San Antón, where we had the added advantage of an actual convict, formerly a prisoner in San Antón and full of stories of what life was like there, as guide. But what most impressed me was the giant Refugio or air raid shelter dug out of the Cerro de Concepción by pick-and-shovel miners during the civil war. Cartagena, the Second Republic's main naval base,was bombed heavily and repeatedly by German aircraft, 1936-1939. To protect as many people as possible, refugios were dug or built in many places in the city and outlying areas. This was the largest, with a capacity for 5,500 people. A very knowledgeable guide led us through the galleries, showing us how families tried to survive in the dark, compact spaces and explained the terrible problems of health care, food rationing and, of course, hoarding and hunger. Though suffering near starvation and massive destruction, Cartagena hung on until March 30, 1939, being the last Spanish city to fall to the forces of Francisco Franco.

You can see images of the war in Cartagena here: La Guerra Civil Española en Cartagena. I won't soon forget them.

Manifesta 8
Cartagena, Spain - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

2010/10/20

History, fiction and historical fiction

In my review agenda that I posted last month, I promised to write something about two closely related, big, important books on Brazil: Euclides Da Cunha, Backlands : the Canudos Campaign, trad. Elizabeth Lowe (New York: Penguin Books, 2010), and Mario Vargas Llosa, La guerra del fin del mundo (Madrid Spain: Punto de Lectura, 2008).  Vargas Llosa's recent and belated Nobel recognition may make readers especially interested in this and all of his fiction. 

But to my annoyance, my alter ego Baltasar Lotroyo has beaten me to the punch with his own blog entry: Lecturas y lectores: Ficción, historia, ficción histórica. As you see, if you read even a little Spanish, I've plagiarized his title. And for those who don't read Spanish easily, I'll sum up his main points.

Balta begins by quoting Vargas Llosa from a recent interview, “I have never written a historical novel.” And then goes on to mention three of Vargas Llosa's novels situated in and based on extensive investigation of historical events: his latest, El sueño del celta; his La fiesta del chivo, and the one that concerns us here, La guerra del fin del mundo.

This dense, long, and powerfully moving book (first published in 1981) is dedicated to Euclides da Cunha, “a tragic figure and one of the greatest of Latin American narrators,” known today almost exclusively for his great book Os sertões, which has been recently re-translated as Backlands: the Canudos campaign. (There is also an earlier translation, Rebellion in the backlands, 1957, by Samuel Putnam — but probably harder to find now.) So let's begin with Da Cunha and his story, considered by many Brazilians to be the greatest work of literature their country has produced.

In 1889, Brazilian military units backed by the urban elites of Rio de Janeiro and Salvador da Bahia, deposed the aging Emperor Dom Pedro II and declared the country a Republic, and the new republican rulers initiated a whole panoply of reforms meant to “modernize” the country, that is, to make it look more like the European countries they emulated. Just the year before, Dom Pedro had finally succeeded in pushing through the abolition of slavery, and for this and other reasons he was revered by many of the poor, non-urban, non-propertied, illiterate or barely literate majority of Brazilians. Nor did these poorer, non-elite groups understand or accept such changes as the introduction of the metric system, a census, increased taxes.

In the deep backwoods of the northeastern state of Bahia, with a mestizo population — whites, Amerindians, blacks and various combinations — and a primitive economy of hard-scrabble agriculture and cattle-raising, where the mounted police rarely entered the dense scrub, gulleys, canyons mountain peaks and bandits roamed at will, the people were especially suspicious. And when a tall, thin, ascetic preacher with penetrating gaze and a direct line to the will of the Good Jesus walked barefoot into their villages, telling them everything that was wrong with the republic and urging devotion to the Good Jesus and to the traditional ways, more and more of those villagers and wanderers followed him. His name was Antônio Vicente Mendes Maciel, but he was known as Antônio Conselheiro ("the Counselor").  And this was the unlikely, and to city folks from Rio or Salvador incredible, beginning of what grew into a massive and extremely bloody revolt against the new state.

(To be continued)

My video on A Gift for the Sultan

In this informal 7-minute video I say how A Gift for the Sultan is a radical break from what I've written up to now (almost all of it on Latin America) but also how it is a continuation of my life-long concerns with the conflicts and interpenetrations when cultures collide. I also show you a bit of the place where I live and work. We taped it for my Amazon Author page, where it should show up tomorrow. Meanwhile, you can see it here on YouTube.

2010/10/18

Updated author page

I've just updated my Amazon Author Page, with a profile and another, happier photo of me — there's no room for modesty when you're trying to sell your books —and more info on the books. Soon, maybe even later today, I plan to put up a short video explaining how and why I wrote my latest novel, A Gift for the Sultan, and showing the place where I work (it's really lovely).

There's a link at the bottom of the Amazon.com page that opens when you click on any of my books (they've got seven listed, but one title twice, so it's really only six).  If I've done this right, an RSS feed should place this and other new Literature & Society blog posts there, too.

2010/10/08

Obama in Command: The Rolling Stone Interview | Rolling Stone Politics

Eloquent. Persuaded me, mostly. Except we're still waiting for a more realistic policy in Afghanistan.

Obama in Command: The Rolling Stone Interview | Rolling Stone Politics

On the other stuff, I think he's right, and even on Afghanistan — well, we know the other guys, the GOP, would only make things worse, so BHO is the best man available. (Thanks to friend Sylvia for forwarding this link.)

2010/10/07

BBC News - The Nobel and the ignoble

The big news is that Mario Vargas Llosa finally has been awarded the Nobel Prize. But while reading the BBC account of that, I came across this oddity:


BBC News - Guayabera shirt now official Cuban formal dress code

And these people still think of themselves as “revolutionary”. And who do you suppose is going to iron the things?


As an unrelated item, Vargas Llosa's recognition gives me great satisfaction. I often disagree with him politically, but I respect his serious engagement with politics even if from erroneous neoliberal premises. Most of all, I admire his art and tremendous industry in producing novels that show a rich, complex world far beyond his doctrine or mine.

When I think about V LL and me, I am reminded of Pablo Neruda's late poem “El enemigo” about an encounter with an old ideological adversary. It ends…

Allí estabamos cada uno
con su certidumbre afilada
y endurecida por el tiempo
como dos ciegos que defienden
cada uno su oscuridad.
And there we were, each one / with his certainty honed / and hardened by time / like two blind men, each defending / his incomprehension.

(That's rather loose, but “incomprehension” is closer to Neruda's meaning than “obscurity”. Perhaps “lack of clarity” is closest, except it's too wordy.) 

Other gifts for other sultans

While googling for my book's title, I came across the charming and informative article by Peter English.

Saudi Aramco World : A Gift for the Sultan

The sultan in question is Murad (or Murat) III, nearly two centuries later than the one who figures in my novel, but this is a fascinatingly detailed account of an incident in British and Ottoman diplomacy.

I've also just discovered another novel with the same title as mine, A Gift for the Sultan, published nearly 50 years ago and described as “the intimate novel of a young girl sold into slavery.” According to a reviewer, it is “Based on the true story of Helen Gloag, a Scottish girl that will become the wife of the Sultan of Morocco, after being captured by wild pirates and sold as a slave. Interesting details of the life of the Sultan's court and Middle Eastern culture.” Not my story, and not the same sultan.

There's no end of stories about “gifts” to some sultan or other, usually a girl for the harem, as in Colin Falconer's novel The Sultan's Harem, 1992: “Hurrem, a young, red-headed nymph was "imported" by a prince or "Pasha" of the empire as a gift for the Sultan along with other girls.” (From a reader's review). 

The one in my novel is Yildirim Bayezid, the first Ottoman to assume the Arabic title sultan, which he thought would give him more prestige than the traditional Turkish khan. And the “gift” here is the city of Constantinople itself, whose ruler is willing to surrender because…

But read the novel. Especially if you're interested in the history of Muslim-Christian conflicts and connivances, which become quite complicated when money was/is involved.

2010/10/06

Labors of self-promotion

I've just spent the whole day updating (and renaming) my website, now called Fiction & Social Thought (I thought it would be too confusing to have two "Literature & Society" pages).  Please take a look and let me know what you think. It was time for an overhaul, especially now that I have a new novel out.

And for those few of you who have read it in advanced copies, now that it is at Amazon, be the first (or the second or the third) to review it! Please!

P.S. The image of the book cover (left) sometimes comes up and sometimes doesn't. If not, try refreshing your screen.

2010/10/05

Walter James Miller Obituary

I just learned of the death of my dear friend and mentor. He was always encouraging of my work, and I had hoped to share with him my new novel. Even in his nineties, he remained active as a writer, lecturer and reader. A dear, adventurous, generous man.

Walter James Miller Obituary: View Walter Miller's Obituary by New York Times

Among many other things, he did several ambitious translations from the French. This is one of them.

2010/09/17

Review agenda

I just got my 1st Kindle — a gift from my beloved accomplice, an anticipatory reward for getting my novel published. And for starters (I'm still learning to use the thing) I've loaded it with Jonathan Franzen, Freedom and Marcy Dermansky, Bad Marie, which I intend to read and remark upon here. But first I have to get through the pile of other, old-fashioned printed books I'm committed to review. So here then is the rough schedule of what to expect in coming weeks, in order of schedule (I'm not a speed reader, and I like to take time to write these things, so I'm not promising any deadlines):
  1. Euclides Da Cunha, Backlands : the Canudos Campaign, trad. Elizabeth Lowe (New York: Penguin Books, 2010).  I've finished reading this big (476 pp.), complex and immensely famous work of Brazilian history, anthropology and geography (not to mention phrenology, a theme for da Cunha), but I'm not yet ready to give you my thoughts on it because I first want to finish another immensely famous and important book, 
  2. Mario Vargas Llosa, La guerra del fin del mundo (Madrid Spain: Punto de Lectura, 2008). English translation by Helen R. Lane, The War of the End of the World. This is a big (921 pp.), ambitious novel based on these same events, the resistance to the death of thousands of extremely poor, backlands fanatics to the then-new Brazilian republic and its army, 1895-97. I plan to post the review of this book on the Spanish-language blog, but for Literature & Society I want to reflect on these two books together, what they tell us about Brazil and what they can teach us from these two very different approachs (da Cunha's and Vargas Llosa's) to telling a similar story. Maybe next week I'll have this thought through to share with you.
  3. Karen Kerschen, Violeta Parra: By the Whim of the Wind (Albuquerque: ABQ Press, 2010).  For a  change of pace, though not of continent. I'm eager to read this bio of Chile's famous composer, performer and artist (and part of a family of famous artists) whose most famous song, "Gracias a la vida",  became a kind of theme for those of us defending Chile in its long, dark night of Pinochetism. Probably in about 2 weeks (no promises, though — things happen, and I'm going to be very busy promoting my own new novel, so it could take longer).
Then I can turn to other works, like the two books I just downloaded onto the Kindle and Tony Judt's big Post-War. I may learn to love the Kindle, but even if I don't — real printed books are still more comfortable — it's awfully handy for somebody like me living in Spain who wants to acquire books from the States quickly and cheaply.

My one complaint so far: The Amazon library I log onto is very weak on books in languages other than English. I'll go back to the instruction book (loaded onto the Kindle) to find out how I can download books from other suppliers, such as Spanish publishers.

    2010/09/16

    Scribd archives and new reader

    Scribd is getting smarter. The new HTML5 platform, replacing Flash, now lets you read and move around in archived docs just the same way you read and move around on any page in your browser.

    But they have started charging for downloads of archived material ($5 a day or $9 a month for unlimited downloads). Reading is still free on everything posted as a "public" document, which is almost everything. I can understand their need to generate a little revenue, but since they've given me the option, I've exempted all my docs from the archive. This means (if I've understood them correctly) that any of you can download for free my "Mermaids and Other Fetishes" (1,118 reads so far —far more than it ever got in its original print publication in Translation Perspectives) or "Liberty and People" (on Simón Bolívar's political thought) or any of the other fiction ("Hunting the Thylacine" is kind of fun) or op-eds I've placed there.

    All this stuff is on my Scribd shelf. I plan to put more there soon. Take a look, and let me know if you've published things there that'll be of interest.

    2010/09/15

    Guest posts

    This used to be a quiet little blog, not too crowded and with only the broadest agenda: anything conceivably related to literature or society and their interaction. And up to now, almost always written by me. I was glad for Douglas C. Smyth's contribution on Venezuela, Will Chávez become a dictator?, posted in January 2007, but otherwise the only contributions by readers have been in the comments.

    Now I want to invite more guest posts. A variety of voices on this blog should make it more interesting, and should make for more frequent postings.

    If you would like to see some work of yours (text or image or both) published here on Literature & Society, just send me an email query (email address on profile page) with the subject "guest post" and your idea. I'll be most interested in literary reviews or a reasoned essay on any of the issues discussed here, especially the topics I've labeled as "consciousness". I'm no longer looking especially for Latin American or Spanish topics as I was in 2007, though I'm certainly not excluding them. I'll try to respond quickly.

    Thanks to Kelly Diels and Dave Doolin for their Pro Blogger blog on guest posts.

    2010/09/14

    Defining this blog

    You've probably noted changes in the "About me" box to the right. My aim is to make my intentions clear to you and also to me; it's so easy to get distracted these days by whatever fascinating new thing comes up on the 'net that it takes effort to maintain focus.

    One major editorial shift is that I'm no longer committing myself to that weekly essay on Spain. I didn't sense any great demand for it from my readers (though Dirk, as usual, made intelligent comments), so I'll shift my reflections on Spain to the other, Spanish-language blog, Lecturas y lectores. It was mainly for myself, as a way to try to understand some of the puzzling phenomena in the country where I now live. I'll leave a note here whenever something on the Spanish blog may be of interest to readers here, such as reviews of fiction.

    Another thing. Somehow I've got onto a list of potential reviewers of new books, and publicists keep sending me proposals to interview authors on all kinds of things. Naturally the publicists have never actually looked at this blog to see what I do cover, so I get everything from astrology to diet to reconciliations of science with God to searches for undersea treasure. Not what I do. If you want me to critique serious fiction or something related to the topics I've listed in "About me," please do write. Otherwise don't be surprised to receive no answer. I've got other things to do.

    Words that Change the World

    Thanks to my son Joaquín for sending this marvelous "Radio Lab" audiofile (WNYC and NPR production) on language and how it works.

    Words that Change the World

    From the story of a deaf Mayan who only as an adult learned that there were words, through experiments showing how language allows us to connect discrete concepts of space, to Shakespeare's inventions from the throngs of words that clamored for entry into his brain. Listen, if you love and are perplexed by language. Columbia U.'s James Shapiro now has me reading "The Rape of Lucrece" — as a lesson in language and writing, besides all the emotions it directly talks about. He also has made me want to read his next-to-latest book, A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare.

    For more stuff on language, click on — what else? — "language" in the labels beneath this post.

    2010/09/12

    A Gift for the Sultan

    Finally, after years of reflection, investigation, writing, rewriting, and mind-wandering, my most ambitious work of fiction to date is about to appear! Launch early next month (October 2010).

    A GIFT FOR THE SULTAN is a historical novel about the great conflict between Orthodox Christian Constantinople and the mostly Muslim Ottoman horde in 1402, a siege that the city narrowly survived (51 years before the Ottoman conquest).

    It is also a sociological novel, where I try to take the reader into the minds of a whole range of actors, including the emperor and the sultan but also Turkish warriors, Frankish and English mercenaries, slave women, and a young Christian princess being sent to the sultan as part of the "gift" of surrender.


    I first got the idea on a visit to Istanbul in 1997. What took me so long was, first, learning everything I could about Byzantium in this period and about the Turks, Serbs, Armenians and others who were involved, and secondly, getting the words right and constructing a complex narrative that made sense.

    It will be available from Amazon and other sellers, very soon. If you would like an advance copy for review, I can send you the pdf.

    (Now available)

    2010/09/10

    Interesting times

    It was supposedly a Chinese curse: "May you live in interesting times." We do.

    Curse? Yes, if what you, like most people everywhere, most want is predictability, to have some idea of what's going to happen and what will be the consequences of whatever action you take, "interesting times" are a curse.

    Unsettled times are unsettling. And times that are as unsettled as ours, with the globe warming and the sea rising over isles and the rims of continents,  the climate producing heat waves in Moscow and hurricanes of unprecedented intensity, fish disappearing from the oceans, farmlands turning to desert, gigantic engineering projects turning valleys into seas, whole industries collapsing and economies crashing, while communications technology changes so fast that we can only wonder as it whizzes by, are enough to induce panic. Especially in those people most affected by one or several of these unsettlements.

    So of course people are killing each other in the Sudan (and many other places), pirating ships in the Gulf of Aden, fleeing starvation or confusion or violence or ethnic or religious persecution or all those together, in short, resorting to any available method, including violence, to acquire or recover resources. It makes things interesting, all right.

    And that, I think, is what drives so many people, in so many different societies and social conditions, to the extreme right. When everything else is falling apart or moving so rapidly it throws us off balance, we have to have some psychological stability. Something unchanging. God, for instance. Or the eternal superiority of our race. Some absolute truth to cling to. Sarkozy is re-inventing some absolutist idea of France (without Gypsies), religious nuts are burning one another's holy books or symbols and blowing up institutions, governments are punishing anyone who questions the government's truth, and so on.  We've seen this before, when the huge changes in chemistry, communications, manufacturing and everything else, upsetting class relations and population patterns coming ever faster toward the end of the 19th century made many people see the desirable solution in fascism and its kindred. After two world wars and and two atom bombs, daily life in some parts of the world became at least more predictable. The Cold War, awful as it was, was at least an understandable system. But then everything got moving again, ever faster, and here we are. The Soviet Union disappeared, the Internet appeared, and so on.

    Of course a minority of us go in the other direction, to the left, recognizing that everything is changing and trying to prepare not only ourselves but all humanity to take advantage of the good things and avoid the worst of all the possible outcomes. This means the opposite of clinging to any absolute truth, denying that such a thing even exists or is knowable to us, the only absolute being a value, the value of our lives—all our lives, all of humanity.  And it requires us to be probing and watching to anticipate, if only by a microsecond, the next big change and position ourselves to duck or use it. And hoping to stay agile enough to recover if we misjudge and get slammed by something.

    The rapid shifts in publishing are just one mix of currents in the maelstrom. None of us can say how things will turn out in, say, 50 years. What people will be reading, or how, or even if. But right now, trying to stay agile and to ride what seem the strongest currents, I'm hitching my novel to p.o.d. (print on demand) and plan also to take it to e-publishing on several platforms. Launch in mid October.

    2010/09/03

    Side-trip to mysterious Nicaragua

    This won't take you long, and you'll be glad you visited the Laguna del Vuelo in the Bluefields region of Nicaragua. Which may or may not exist, you decide.
    f a i l b e t t e r . c o m

    2010/09/02

    Spain's disloyal opposition

    Please accept my excuses, lame though they be, for not writing anything of consequence about contemporary Spain since mid-July. First, nobody does any unavoidable work in Spain in August (that's really lame, I know, but it was hot—up to 38º [100.4º F] locally, though much worse in other parts of the country). Second, the current political scene here has been so depressing that I preferred to think of something else, anything else. Except of course the rise of the Know-Nothings of the Tea Party back in the US, which is even more depressing. Finally and most importantly, I was focused on the final corrections to my novel, now done. The printers just today wrote to say they have shipped me the author's proof, and if (as I expect) all is well, we plan to launch it early next month (October).
    (A Gift for the Sultan—my 388-page novel—is totally unrelated to contemporary Spanish politics or to anything else I've written in the past; it takes place in and around Constantinople in 1402, and features Byzantine nobles and rabble, a princess, a Russian slave, English mercenaries and a Frankish knight, Ottoman Turkish warriors, soothsayers and connivers, a couple of Armenians and a young Serb woman. What fascinated me was the interaction—much conflict, but also collaboration and affection and mutual imitation—among all these very different people in the midst of open Muslim vs. Christian hostilities. Sort of like what's going on in our world today. The only Spanish connection is the fleeting reference to the 1403 visit by the Castilian knight Ruy González de Clavijo, who stopped in Constantinople while on a diplomatic mission to the terrible Tamerlane; his report to his king was a major source on the condition of Constantinople in this period. You'll be hearing more about A Gift for the Sultan soon.)
    What is most depressing about Spanish politics is that the most unscrupulous, uncivic-minded band of thieves is very likely to return to power here, because the good (or at least somewhat better) guys are pusillanimous, confused about what to do and quarreling with one another. I am talking about the Partido Popular (PP) and the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, pronounced here as "soy").

    That the PP is a den of thieves is amply demonstrated in the corruption investigations almost everywhere they govern, most notoriously in Valencia and Madrid. (See the many trials and revelations regarding Fabra and Francisco Camps & co. in Valencia.) They're not the only ones—the fragmentation of supervisory and judicial authority and the wide hiring and contracting powers of local executives in Spain practically invite corruption, and too many mayors and others have accepted the invitation. The PSOE has also had some notorious corruption cases, but far fewer and on more local levels.

    That the PP is uncivic-minded, unpatriotic in the sense of desiring the best for the collective interest in Spain, has been evident in their campaign to discredit the PSOE government by undermining confidence in Spain's economy and by trying to sabotage the government's negotiations abroad, most notable with Morocco and Cuba. 

    There's an ominous spat about nothing between Spain and some Moroccans right now at the border of Melilla, one of Spain's two remaining beachheads on Morocco's Mediterranean coast (the other one is Ceuta; both are tiny urban enclaves left over from colonial days). Relations between the two kingdoms (unlike Spain, Morocco is a real kingdom, that is, Muhammad VI actually rules) have been generally good, but lately two radical Moroccan organizations have been demanding that Spain "return" the territory to the Kingdom of Morocco (which actually never possessed it; Ceuta and Melilla have been Spanish since before the current Kingdom of Morocco existed), and staged a blockade preventing Moroccan produce from entering the enclaves. Whatever the merits of this campaign (given the disparities in wealth and civil rights between the two countries, it's unlikely that most Ceutis or Melillenses would opt for Moroccan rather than Spanish citizenship), what Spain needed to do was to calm things down by patient negotiations with the Moroccan government. The PP's José María Aznar seized the opportunity in a lightning visit to Melilla to denounce the passivity of the Spanish government in protecting its citizens against Moroccan insults, the only possible consequence of his intervention being to further anger the agitators. (See Aznar: "Melilla vive entre el acoso y la dejadez del Gobierno" — ELPAÍS.com)

    And as for Spain's Cuba policy, it may not be brilliant but it has managed to get a lot of people out of prison, and for that the PP also denounces the government: the PSOE should not have deigned to deal with Raúl Castro, they say.

    All of this is sad. But sadder yet is the inadequate response of the PSOE, fighting with the trade unions that have always been its major supporters and now riven by a primary battle for the autonomous region of Madrid. Primaries shouldn't weaken a democratic party, but Spanish politicians are not accustomed to them and the whole party structure is set up with top-down command, allowing very little discretionary maneuver by party members. The party chief, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, who is also the president of the government, is pushing for one candidate, Trinidad Jiménez, for president of the region, and whatever he says should by law. Thus the candidacy by the current president of the PSOE organization in Madrid, Tomás Gómez, is seen as defiance of the president of the party and the government. If he wins, or even if he loses by a small margin, the opposition PP will ballyhoo the vote as further demonstration of the weakness of Zapatero.

    eso es lo que hay —that's what we have and what we have to work with. The PP does not inspire much confidence among voters, but if the PSOE doesn't look to be better, it's potential supporters are likely to abstain from the next election or vote for any of the many minority parties, and let the crooks and opportunists triumph.

    2010/08/28

    Updating Whorf

    Does Your Language Shape How You Think? - NYTimes.com: "Did the opposite genders of “bridge” in German and Spanish, for example, have an effect on the design of bridges in Spain and Germany?"

    I remember being tremendously impressed by Benjamin Whorf's arguments back when I was in graduate school: the language you speak shapes the way you think. This was obvious to me as somebody who was learning other languages, even languages as closely related to my native English as French or Spanish. Then when I poked into Russian, Hebrew and Arabic, the effects of language on thought seemed even more obvious: for example, in Russian you have to have to be conscious of a verb's "mood" (subjunctive or imperative), and you lose the distinction that other European languages provide by the definite versus indefinite article ("a" vs. "the", "ein/eine" vs. "die/das/der", etc.).

    But as Guy Deutscher points out in this article, there were some things in Whorf that just didn't make sense — like, that certain peoples can have no sense of time if they had no way to express past tense. In short, it now appears that Whorf, "a chemical engineer who worked for an insurance company and moonlighted as an anthropology lecturer at Yale University," was on to something important even if he misinterpreted his data. His hunch was right even though his facts were wrong. And that's something; the hunch has inspired some important further research.

    Much to think about.  Deutscher has already done much of the updating of Whorf, though there's still a lot more to learn about language and thought. This line of inquiry should help us in our tense international relations. The sequence of ideas and the relative importance of aspects of reality must be very different if one is speaking English, or Farsi, or Korean, or Pashto or Dari.

    Also, check out my earlier blog note on Stanislas Dehaene, Reading in the Brain.