After-death reading for the Day of the Dead
Tomorrow, November 2, is the Day of the Dead, as you surely know if you've read Malcolm Lowry, and even if you haven't. It is also Susana's birthday. Whether this coincidence explains some of her supernatural powers, I cannot say, but there is some mystical connection. It drove us to travel to Mexico, at considerable trouble and overcoming ridiculous mishaps, to the island of Janitzio in Lake Pátzcuaro, one memorable birthday, to celebrate the Day of the Dead the proper way, with dancing and music and flowers and feasts to be shared with the beloved dead. It was nothing at all like the solemn observances to which she had been confined growing up in Argentina.

Now just in time for the Day of the Dead comes news from the NYT's Edward Rothstein of a new book, The Dominion of the Dead, by Robert Pogue Harrison (U. Chicago Press).
For Mr. Harrison, in fact, the entire world of the living is permeated by the dead.
"We inherit their obsessions," he writes, "assume their burdens; carry on their causes; promote their mentalities, ideologies, and very often their superstitions; and often we die trying to vindicate their humliations."
Mr. Harrison is also haunted by their presence.
"It is impossible to overestimate how much human culture owes, in principle and in origin, to the corpse," he proposes.
Since I've already concluded that I'm not going to get to read all the important books I'd like to during my lifetime, I'm putting this one on the list of books to read after I'm dead. I don't want to be bored in the hereafter.


Under the hobnailed boots of the Empire

From Otto Reich, billed as "the White House's chief envoy to Latin America":
"There are people in Bolivia who don't believe in democracy and we cannot allow them to take power,'' Reich said. Still, he insisted that he was not telling Bolivians what to do.

I'll bet. On Bolivia, if you read Spanish, check out this report: Bolivia:Todas las cartas en Mesa by Daniel Badenes. The quote from Otto Reich is from a Knight Ridder reporter, picked up by Centre Daily, the Penn State paper.


In the homeland of language
I've been meaning to write about this for days, but you know how it is. I'm sure the same thing happens to you. The things that are most important are the hardest to write about. So, I kept putting it off. It's about the most intimate thing I know, language. Because language is the way we construct ourselves, with every thought and every statement -- at least for me. I don't know how to begin, so I guess I'll approach my subject indirectly. By talking about Saúl Yurkiévich.

Saúl approaches everything indirectly, or so it seems when you read his poetry. But sometimes he is very direct. Like the Sunday before last, when he suddenly dropped in on us. We didn't even know he was in the U.S. -- he's lived in Paris for decades -- but there he was at our door, and he ended up staying for dinner.

He's a loving and lovable little man -- really tiny -- with an immense vocabulary and a wide compassion for humans of all languages. Susana has known him since she was a girl in La Plata, and I've known him for almost as long as I've known Susana. He had come to the States this time to present his two latest books -- the first bilingual (English & Spanish) editions of his verse -- and to read from them at various schools; he'd already been to Harvard, was scheduled for Columbia, and later in the week -- last Friday -- I would get to hear him read at the CUNY Grad Center. He has written 15 books of criticism of other Latin American writers, and 17 volumes of his own poetry. And his conversation is a fantastic chase through allusions and references. Julio Cortázar (who knew him well) pokes gentle fun at him in the novel El libro de Manuel (I think this was translated as "A Manual for Manuel"); in that comic and terrifying book about Argentine exiles in Paris trying to think of something, anything, they can do to overthrow the dictatorship in Argentina (this is around 1973), Saúl appears under another name as one of the conspirators, speaking in long and convoluted sentences flavored with the rarest of words.

Saúl's first language is not Spanish, but the Yiddish his parents continued to speak after escaping Europe and ending up in La Plata, Argentina. He has, doggedly, made his home in the Spanish language, exploring its byways and crevices, and now he knows it as thoroughly as any botanist may know a forest that the rest of us just blithely walk through. If you get a chance, take a look at his new book, Background Noise / Ruido de fondo, tr. Cola Franzen (North Haven CT: Catbird Press, 2003). And when you do, you might turn to one poem whose meaning is absolutely clear, and sad, and yet bravely persistent in the face of many tragedies: "It All Tattoos You / Todo te tatúa".


Raptured Republicans
My National Writers Union colleague Mel Friedman just forwarded the article in the NYRB by Joan Didion, on the "Left Behind" series about the last days of the world before Christ returns to defeat the Antichrist. This happens after all the true believers have been taken into Heaven in the Rapture. Didion's point is that G. W. Bush actually believes this stuff -- or at least has decided to pretend to. Mel promised a "frisson" from reading it.

Quel frisson! It's left my hair curled like a bichon frisé.

Actually, I hope it's true -- the Rapture, I mean. It would be a great thing if all the True Believers suddenly disappeared, leaving behind only their clothes and pacemakers and surgical pins. Then maybe we could get back to work on some sane politics. Fwoop! There goes Bush. Fwoop! there goes Ashcroft. We'd be left with Cheney (who believes only in cash), Wolfowitz (who believes only in power), and Rumsfeld (who believes only in himself), but we'd have a better chance of overcoming them once the Christian host has wafted off to glory.

Here's the Joan Didion article (New York Review of Books)
And if you're not already a member, check out the National Writers Union


Pax Americana, Pax Romana
I had just read of yesterday's rocket attack on the Rashid Hotel in Baghdad when I came across this passage, in the obituary of the distinguished British historian of the Byzantine empire Donald MacGillivray Nicol:
One of his last books, The Reluctant Emperor (1996), is a sympathetic portrait of the controversial 14th-century emperor of Constantinople, John VI Cantacuzene, who had also been a historian. As Nicol understood him, Cantacuzene had been one of the few leading men of his time to perceive how far the empire had declined since its heyday. When he realised the impossibility of restoring its fortunes, according to Nicol, he did the decent thing, and abdicated.

Nicol's lifelong study of the terminal dissolution of an empire that had once believed itself to be God's kingdom on earth may owe something to the same stoical pessimism that he attributed to this "reluctant emperor".

Here is the full obituary, by Roderick Beaton in the Guardian (UK).

I also noted this interesting insight into how some Americans view the city we say we're liberating, in a piece in today's NYT by Joe Brinkley:
BAGHDAD, Iraq, Oct. 26 -- The Dor al Sikik neighborhood lies like a snake coiled around one side of the Rashid Hotel...