Saturday, July 31, 2010

"Labour & sorrow & learn & forget, & return"

In my long novel The Contemporary Game, I named the patriarch who comes back to life time after time "Man who deconstructs." In this fallen, contemporary world which corresponds to Blake's real world, the body of Man who deconstructs has been separated into small pieces and is buried in the forest; in a passionate and painful dream, a young boy gathers up the pieces one by one and attempts to bring them back to life and to restore the Age to life as well but is finally unable to accomplish his task and grieves.

This post is rambling and disorganized. I didn't like this book and had a hard time thinking of what to write. I probably should've scrapped everything and started over but I had already spent too long on it and just wanted to end it already.

This month's selection for the Unstructured Reading Group was Kenzaburo Ōe's A Personal Matter (1964). Unfortunately, our local library system didn't have a copy so I had to choose another Ōe work. (Although they did have The Book Which Henceforth Shall Not Be Named in several locations!) I decided on the fictionalized memoir Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! (1986), about the relationship between a renown author, K, and his brain-damaged son nicknamed Eeyore. In fact, Rouse Up. . . can be thought of as the sequel to A Personal Matter. Both books are translated by John Nathan.

K has returned from an international trip to a tense family situation. His wife explains to him that nineteen-year-old Eeyore had been exhibiting violent behavior made even more threatening by his large, powerful build. When told that his father would hear of this when he got back, Eeyore shocked his mother by declaring that "Papa is dead!" It occurs to K that Eeyore lacks a definition of death, as he has never had it explained to him in a comprehensible manner. With Eeyore's limited capacity in mind, K had long intended to write a book of definitions that would be accessible to handicapped children. But in attempting to start the project, K found that he could never grasp the easily evocative language that such an undertaking would require, and that furthermore, such a thing would be ultimately subjective anyway. Rouse Up. . . can be thought of as a book of definitions for K/Ōe himself. It is a non-linear collection of seven loosely-connected chapters that detail a father's attempt to accept his disabled son and understand their relationship. The language K chooses for himself is the poetry of William Blake; hence the title, which comes from Milton.

Blake's poetry had been a profound influence on K since college, when he inadvertently stumbled across the following lines from The Four Zoas:
That Man should Labour & sorrow & learn & forget, & return
To the dark valley whence he came to begin his labours anew.
Having grown up in a valley which he left as a young man, K often pondered how these verses could be applied to his own life. From this starting point, he gradually builds up a perception of human bonds based on Blake's "tree of life." Similar to Emerson's Over-soul, K perceives each individual human as a fragment detached from the World of Eternity and fallen to the mortal realm for a brief physical existence. Kathleen Raine, a Blake scholar K reads, calls this "divine humanity" and links it to Blake's conception of Imagination as "Infinite & Eternal." K/Ōe refers back to another one of his novels, The Contemporary Game, and his use of the metaphor of The man who deconstructs, "a corpse dismembered but still pristine, undecayed" (which also has overtones of Osiris, Dionysus, and Orpheus). The attempt to reassemble the scattered body is an attempt to touch eternity by bringing together what belongs together.

Entering into old age after a lifetime with a disabled son, K moves ever closer to that transcendental unification in the immortal plane from which we all came. Eeyore will be there as well and their relationship will be renewed.

That's Rouse Up. . . in a nutshell. The bulk of K/Ōe's metaphysical ruminations occur in the last chapter which shares its title with the boo and is intended as an intellectual climax to twenty years of struggle, hardship, success, and setbacks. Though marketed as fiction, Rouse Up. . . probably fits better in the memoir genre. Names are either unchanged or shortened to a single letter and every event in K's life comes from Ōe's life. K's other novels are Ōe's other novels. "The first time I quoted Blake was in a novel I wrote just after Eeyore was born with a handicap and which I based on my actual experience at the time, A Personal Matter," he says at one point.
From the so-called Proverbs of Hell in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, I took the line, "Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires. . . ." The fact that I replaced the period that belongs at the end with an ellipses, as if I were abbreviating a passage that followed, suggests to me that I had not actually read The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Moreover, in translating the line, shifting responsibility to the young woman in the novel by having the translation come from her, I rendered it appropriate to my story. "Better kill the infant in its cradle! Rather than ending up nursing unacted desires. . . ."

Looking back from my more comprehensive vantage of Blake's work today, I understand that unrealized desires represented a mode of living that Blake condemned violently, and that his emphasis was accordingly on the second half of the line. Clearly I should have rendered it as an impassioned appeal: "Compared to nurturing unrealized desires, even murdering an infant in its cradle is the lesser evil." There is no question that my translation is incorrect; what is unclear to me all these years later is whether I twisted Blake to meet the requirements of a scene in my novel, giving the line to the young woman in the story, or whether the experience of the birth of a son with brain damage was controlling my reading of the line.
Emily's post on A Personal Matter discusses the violent, forbidden fantasies indulged in by main character Bird, which also include killing his mistress and then raping her body. This motif of repressed rage continues in Rouse Up. . ., usually in response to some cruelty directed at Eeyore, such as the time he was kidnapped by a radical who hated K/Ōe's politics, and then abandoned at a distant railroad station. The radical in question had previously accused K/Ōe of being too stuck on his disabled son to contribute anything meaningful to political discourse, a position which, despite his anger, K/Ōe nevertheless admits to finding some truth in. Japan's atmosphere of alienation and disillusionment, as depicted in A Personal Matter as a response to the loss of World War II and the subsequent bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has evolved into K/Ōe's preoccupation with anti-nuclear proliferation.

(The mistress A Personal Matter, it is later revealed in Rouse Up. . . is actually a Korean-Japanese woman nicknamed Ki-ko, with whom K/Ōe continues to have a contentious but platonic relationship. Of their past, K/Ōe recalls that sex with her always felt "incestuous," as though she was his sister, which unleashed something "grotesque" in him "that resembled, in the poet Homei's words, 'a desperate savageness.'" When Ki-ko wonders aloud what K/Ōe will do when Eeyore "goes must," he comes close to violence yet again.)

Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! is the first Ōe book I've read and quite frankly, I'm not sure if I'll be reading Ōe again for some time. It was mentioned somewhere that Japanese literature tends to blur fiction and memoir/autobiography more than we're usually comfortable with in the West but I don't think that had much to do with it. I think my mostly negative reaction was a combination of little interest in the subject matter and a dislike of Ōe's prose (or Nathan's translation thereof), which felt awkward and convoluted and seemed to lack any aesthetic value. The publisher's copy describes K as "a highly cerebral man who often retreats from real life into abstraction," and I think therein lays the problem. The prose is . . . left-brained, more like Ōe was writing an academic article than a story. The aspects dealing with Blake and metaphysics were certainly interesting and I got a lot out those parts but unfortunately, that still doesn't make up for the rest.

Kenzaburo Ōe's A Personal Matter (for which I substituted Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age!) was our Unstructured Group Read for the month of July. Please feel free to join us at any time! You can find a complete book list here.

Other July participants include:


Past selections:

March: Tennessee Williams, The Night of the Iguana
April: Georges Perec, Life: A User's Manual
May: Margo Lanagan, Tender Morsels
June: Gabriel Josipovici, Moo Pak

Thursday, July 29, 2010

This Background! This Header!

So I just got this vibrant new background from After a long period of background-hopping and header-changing, I had finally arrived at a combination that I liked. But it had been awhile and my old look, courtesy of The Background Fairy, was starting to feel a little washed-out. So I went through the list of Blogger design sites I had compiled (located at the very bottom) and, after long deliberation, decided on this one.

But! I'm not sure my header looks quite right anymore! What do you think? Be honest!

(Note: This is a three-column background. Even though I have two-column blog, I prefer to use these for a cleaner, less cluttered look.)

Update: New header added after my last comment! Like? Dislike? Actually, I find myself wondering if it would look better with the two-column version of this design.

Update #2: Here is a screenshot of the two-column option, which looks too crowded to me. How about you?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Thirty-Nine Writers

Beirut39: New Writings from the Arab World
Various Authors
Various Translators
Edited by Samuel Shimon
320 pages
Bloomsbury USA
June 8, 2010

Beirut39 is an anthology of poetry, short stories, and novel excerpts put together by the Hay Festival, an annual literary convention described by Bill Clinton as "the Woodstock of the mind." Since its inception in 1988, the Hay Festival has expanded internationally and become particularly well-known in Latin America. On April 15, 2009, it brought together thirty-nine authors in Beirut, Lenanon. According to a panel of judges, these authors represent the most promising Arab writers under the age of forty. They hail not only from North Africa and the Middle East, but also from the Arab Diaspora in North America and Western Europe. Most write in Arabic, but others prefer French and even English.

As Abdo Wazen explains in the introduction, there is no longer simply "Syrian literature" or "Egyptian poetry." Arab literature is a global phenomenon that reflects the movement of Arab peoples all over the world and their embrace of the Internet and the information age. Many of the writers represented in the anthology are foreign-educated, have lived abroad, and are probably multilingual. Naturally, their work is influenced by myriad literary currents and has moved beyond the ideological molds that characterized their forebears in the '60s and '70s. Young Arab writers are united, says Abdo, by "their tone of protest, and their rebellion against traditional literary culture." They are individualists who "aim to express their personal concerns as they see fit, freely and spontaneously." Abdo also claims that they compose a collective "youthful realist novel, or neo-realist novel, or fantastic novel or post-modern novel," but I think that's a bit much. They're too diverse for that.

Although my knowledge of Arab literature is limited (I've only read The Story of Zahra and Season of Migration to the North), I feel that I just had an amazing introduction to its most current incarnation. Although I enjoyed all the pieces in Beirut39, I have decided to highlight my favorites below.

Abdelaziz Errachidi, from Bedouins on the Edge (translated by Alexa Firat)

An excerpt that initially comes across as a detective story: an elegant car crashes in the Moroccan desert but the occupants are missing. The townsfolk are entranced by the mystery, especially a local outcast known only as al-mahjub. As truth and fiction merge together, the story takes on the feeling of an hallucination, like a mirage shimmering on the sandy horizon.

Abdelkader Benali, from The Trip to the Slaughterhouse (translated by Susan Massotty)

A young, unnamed boy lives with his sister and Moroccan-born parents in the Netherlands. His father, an otherwise distant man, becomes strangely happy once a month when he gets to take a trip. No one will tell the boy where his father goes even though they're also careful to emphasize that it's really not a secret. The mood is characterized by tension: of things left unsaid, of culture clash and the rifts between tradition and modernity, of the disagreements between parents. Tension reinforces that trace of menace: why is his father always so eager to visit a slaughterhouse?

Abdellah Taia, "The Wounded Man" (translated from French by Frank Wynne)

A cross between "Death in Venice" and an essay on French film. Late at night, a young Moroccan professor surreptitiously watches a banned movie on a foreign channel as his mother sleeps on the couch next to him, oblivious. The professor, a closeted gay man, is caught up in the violent, forbidden desires enacted to a tragic end by the two male leads. Like Mann's Aschenbach, he perceives something transcendent arising from his awakened passion: the power of cinema to reach across cultures and transform a viewer worlds away.

Abderrahim Elkhassar, "Amazigh" (translated by Tristan Cranfield)

A poem about a disaffected Moroccan who links his introverted, non-conformist nature to a wildly romanticized (and possibly imaginary) ancestor, "the Amazigh king of old" who lived a life in tune with nature. Perhaps the speaker's internal dissonance arises from his living on another's land, away from the home of his forebears. ("Amazigh" is the Berbers' name for themselves.)

Ahmad Saadawi, from Frankenstein in Baghdad (translated by Anne Shaker)

An impoverished denizen of Baghdad collects scrap from the local dumps and sells it. Considered an odd one by his neighbors, he is obsessed with human waste, be it household trash or the body parts strewn about in the wake of suicide bombers. He is building a person on the roof of his building, a mad attempt at reassembly from the dehumanizing horrors of war. And then patchwork corpse up and disappears.

Bassim al Ansar, three poems (translated by Robin Moger)

"An Outing," "A Life Surrounded by Trees," and "A Panorama of Wonder" are difficult to explain yet I found their dreamlike imagery and unexpected juxtapositions enjoyable to read. The last one is rich in irony. The present war in Iraq is described in a nonchalant voice that jars with the eerie metaphors.

Dima Wannous, two stories (translated by Ghenwa Hayek)

The title characters of "Hanan" and "Jihad" are residents of Damascus, whose scenic beauty is brought to life through Wannous's sharp, clear prose. In the former, a beautiful, woman reclines on her balcony with a cup of coffee, enjoying the stillness of the early morning and reflecting on the vitality of her latest lover. In the latter, the son of a legendary government minister is sitting alone in his opulent mansion. He has been trying to find fulfillment by indulging in high culture and has sought, vainly, to become a creator in his own right. The confident attitude revealed through the litany of luxuries doesn't quite mask Jihad's hidden insecurity.

Faïza Guène, "Mimouna" (translated from French by Sarah Ardizzone)

Mimouna, our narrator, tells us the story of her life from before her birth in Algeria to the birth of her first granddaughter in France. Her tone is conversational, as though she is speaking directly to the reader, but gradually evolves from the exasperation of one forced into the world to the settled voice of an old woman. Are we where we are by mere chance, being born only to die, or is there a divine will at work? Allah knows what he is doing, Mimouna concludes, we're here for a reason.

Hyam Yared, "Layla's Belly" (translated from French by Frank Wynne)

Post-war Beirut tries to forget its pain in bars and clubs. Layla is disgusted but she joins them anyway, bringing home man after man and trying to convince herself she's having oodles of fun. Bitter and cynical, the prose reflects the true feelings she tries to deny. Until she meets Will, who woes her with talk of the soul. But he's no different.

Mansour El Souwaim, from The Threshold of Ashes (translated by Rowan al Faqih)

This one is confusing, which leads me to wonder if they began this excerpt in the wrong place and I'm missing context? But Souwaim's dark, feverish prose won me over, beginning in a nighttime haze and then recovering itself as the narrator emerges from his illness. A strange story of blackmail and debauchery begins. Very reminiscent of Season of Migration to the North, I thought, and then noted that Souwaim is also Sudanese and had, in fact, been awarded the Tayeb Salih Award for Creative Writing.

Mansoura Ez Eldin, "The Path to Madness" (translated by Haroon Shirwani)

A creepy Egyptian story summed up by its title. The primary narrator, a single woman living alone in an apartment complex, is intrigued and disturbed by her odd neighbor. On the one hand, she is completely straightforward. Yet her account is disorienting, seeming to circle and circle around itself before finally collapsing.

Mohammad Hassan Alwan, "Haneef from Glasgow" (translated by Anthony Calderbank)

A bittersweet tale about the hardships faced by international migrant workers employed as servants in Saudi Arabia. The narrator is not Haneef himself but the grown son of the wealthy family he spent twenty years chauffeuring. We hear very little of Haneef's voice, only the narrator's childhood memories of him, which speaks strongly about Haneef's subordinate position. He is a Pakistani with three daughters back home in war-torn Kashimir. Now in Glasgow, he is even further away from them. You miss your old driver??? The narrator's wife is disbelieving.

Najwa Binshatwan, "The Pools and the Piano" (translated by Ghenwa Hayek)

A story of life during a tumultuous period in Libya. Seen through the eyes of a child, the bonfire of foreign books and Western instruments loses much of its political immediacy, taking on instead the appearance of a fun and interesting event. Divisions between Libyans and other national/ethnic groups arise out of fairy tales. The touches of magic realism give the narrative an almost Latin American feel.

Rabee Jaber, from America (translated by Marilyn Booth)

A vivid, hellish description of an Egyptian-American doughboy's experiences on the battlefields of World War I.

Randa Jarrar, "The Story of My Building" (English)

A ten-year-old boy lives with his extended family in al-Zarqah, the poorest neighborhood in Gaza. He shares a room with his sister, is top in class at school, and enjoys playing with his neighbor's pigeons. His otherwise happy life is punctured all too often by violent death: of his immigrant uncle in Detroit, of his other uncle who hijacked a plane, of the intermittent battles outside. He returns one morning to find his building gone and his favorite pigeon dead. A story that is simple, sweet, and brutal all at once.

Samar Yezbek, from The Scent of Cinnamon (translated by Haroon Shirwani)

A beam of light cutting across the corridor awakens the mistress to a tryst between her husband and her maid. But all is not what it seems. The prose is charged and dramatic, reflecting the heightened emotions of the two women as the betrayal is revealed to be even greater than expected.

Zaki Baydoun, nine poems (translated by Tristan Cranfield)

A collection of nine mixed verse/prose poems. Casual in tone, cosmic in perspective.

The Guardian has a more general review that covers the trends and styles represented by this sampling of young Arab writers.

LibraryThing Early Reviewers Program

Teaser Tuesday

• Grab your current read.
• Let the book fall open to a random page.
• Share with us two "teaser" sentences from somewhere on that page.
• You also need to share the title of the book that you’re getting your “teaser” from. That way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given!
Please avoid spoilers!

Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! by Kenzaburo Oe
Page 55 - Because he has learned to take his medication regularly, Eeyore hasn't suffered another major seizure like the one that terrified me, but there have been a number of episodes during the past two years that were the like harbingers of a seizure. Whenever this happened and he had to stay home from school and spend the day on the couch, my son would mournfully announce a new abnormality in some organ of his body: "Ah! There's not a sound coming from my heart! I think I'm dying! My heart isn't making a sound!"

Monday, July 26, 2010

Horrible Dare Challenge: L.A. Candy

HAI!!!!1!!!11!!!! omg u guyz i just red teh most awesome book!!! la candy bai lauren conrad wuz so kewl. its all about jane & scarlett & how they become REALITY STARZ!!!1!
they move 2 la cuz scarlett is in coleg & jane is intern who halps plan partys 4 selebritys! & they go 2 this club & meet this produser & he wants them 4 his new show la candy & theres 2 other gurls madison & gaby. & then its all liek kafka & baudrillard cuz u not noes wuts reel & wut isnt liek teh produsers mak all this stuff up! liek this hot guy asks jane out & she tinks omg maybe teh produsers asks him 2 do this 4 teh show! & scarlett sees there poster & is liek omg its liek teh pretend us r lukin down at teh reel us omg! & iz liek teh fake world is moar reel! cuz wen u tinks bout it perez hilton > cnn cuz who cares bout teh pplz gettin blowed up in irakistan. but we still not noes wut happens cuz teh produsers plan evryting behind teh seens liek teh produser not lieks janes other boyfriend braden & wants to end there relashunship cuz iz bad 4 teh show. teh produser is like omg he cant be part of janes reality & then jane dates this famus playa and hez like omg this cudnt be better if i rites it myself.i noes this sownds rly nitemary liek jane & scarlett r trapt in matrix w/invizibl pupetmastr controlin them & invisibl eyez wachin them but iz rly not cuz they getz in 2 all these clubz and they getz new cloths and new partment from teh show cuz tat maks them kewler & iz liek teh fake world > teh reel world so who wants to lives in teh reel world cuz iz so boring &

Leech! Parasite! Profiteering, neo-colonialist exploiter of the Third World worker! Hi everybody. I'm Karega and this is Joe.

omg! ur ruinin my review!!!11! GO AWAY!!1!11eleventyone!!!!!!

No! We're here on behalf of the little guys the ones who work in the factories who put together your handbags and shoes like the Carthaginian slaves who were blinded by the great lords to guard their treasure stores and the Egyptian slaves tens and thousands of them who died building the pyramids.


Indeed, that is the crux of the matter from the ancient days to the violence and corruption of our times. History should be about those whose sweat and toil changed the course of the world! But how did it come about that the non-producing few are those whom we worship as the gods of the system? How can that be when there are those who labor twenty-four hours a day for these very same gods? And how can it be that, despite their work, these very same labourers go without food to feed their children and clothes to warm them at night against the cold winds from the north? That, my friends, is history's universal question, and it is only be deciphering what came before us that we can arrive at a true vision of the future, one where men and women can find joy and happiness in creative labour.


Remember this. Remember this you famewhores you spawners of lame trends you opiate of the people. Remember this like you have never remembered anything else in your lives. You want reality I'll give you reality how's this for reality: I have no voice to yell no legs to run no eyes to see no -

creepypasta yay! omg did u hear teh 1 about teh babysiter & she calld teh parints & wuz liek lol wut is tat creepy statue in ur yard & they were liek omg we not haz statue omg call 911

Never mind, Joe, the burden of the Truth is always upon the masses. One day we shall rise and take back what is ours. Then, only then, will the log fall from their eyes.

I just don't understand. I was hurt in the head real bad and I'm not nearly this stupid! How . . . how can this be?

ur meen i dont liek u

Oh Chrissake. Karega you have arms: GET YOUR GUN AND SHOOT HER!

What! You have no face and no limbs and you still think you can give orders to the black man! Well, let me tell you -

ooooooh luk! a clowd tat luks liek a powder puff!

Look this is all I want. Take me wherever there are parliaments and diets and congresses and chambers of statesmen. I want to be there when -

u wants publicity? i noes ppl who can halp. maybe u not haz such boring reality show after all. omg i just remberd my gurl paris met michael moore at teh kans film festivle & he wud totally liek u.


Don't listen to her!

& cindy sheehan 2! omg this will be so kewl lemme call my agent.

I am physically incapable of signing a release form. Can we make other legal arrangements?

I knew it. I knew something like this would happen. You white folks originated this system and you're all corrupted beyond hope, no matter who you are! You have no souls. You take and take and take and there's no end to it! You round-bellied jiggers and bedbugs with cannibalism as your highest goal! And for the love of Mwathi, why can't you two use commas?



The Horrible Dare Challenge is hosted by Rayche and TY. The three following Horrible Books must be read and reviewed (snarkily) by September 21, 2010:

L.A. Candy by Lauren Conrad
Hush, Hush by Rebecca Fitzpatrick
Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater

Extra credit: One Danielle Steele novel Glenn Beck's The Christmas Sweater

Coming Up: Joe and Karega review Shiver. I have other plans, glorious plans, for Hush, Hush.


I use to hear this song all the time but never saw the video until now. "Run Away" (US version) by the Real McCoy.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Sunday Salon

The Sunday

Going to be a quick one. I went with my mother yesterday to visit with her old college roommate who is recovering from foot surgery and needed a bit of help around the house. We left today shortly after lunch. With the number of antique shops along the way, however, the two-hour car drive was extended to four hours, so I didn't get in until about an hour ago.

Anyway, right now I'm reading Beirut 39: New Writing from the Arab World, edited by Samuel Shimon with a foreword by Hanan al-Shaykh. Will begin Kenzaburo Oe's Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! next, followed by the behemoth that is Karen Tei Yamashita's I Hotel. Wish me luck!

And now for your weekly link round-up:

Amazon, An Author, and a "Bad" Review

Farm Dog versus Wile E. Coyote

Gratuitous Slave Imagery, Hobbit-Troll-Vampires & Team Jesus: Roundtable for True Blood S03E05 *

The Holders Series **

* I disagree on some points but it's a very thought-provoking article.
** I'm not sure if this is really creepy or really stupid.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

"the true universal connection between things, events, persons, places, time"

We can imagine the fatal meeting between the native and the alien. The missionary had traversed the seas, the forests, armed with the desire for profit that was his faith and light and the gun that was his protection. He carried the Bible; the soldier carried the gun; the administrator and the settler carried the coin. Christianity, Commerce, Civilization: the Bible, the Coin, the Gun: Holy Trinity.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o was born in Kenya in 1938. Although raised a Christian, he also learned the values of his family's tribe, the Gĩkũyũ, and underwent a traditional initiation ceremony. After graduating from college in Uganda in 1963, he went to work as a journalist and published his debut novel Weep Not, Child the following year. 1967's A Grain of Wheat signaled his break with cultural nationalism in favor of Fanonist Marxism. His acclaimed play, Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want), led to his arrest in 1977 and imprisonment for a year without trial. 1978's Petals of Blood, the last of Thiong'o's works to be written in English, reflects his shift in focus from the colonial era to present-day exploitation and corruption.

Following the publication of Caitaani Muthara-Ini (Devil on the Cross), the first modern novel in the Gĩkũyũ language, constant harassment forced Thiong'o to leave Kenya for London in 1982. Living abroad, he became known for his theories on language, colonialism, and cultural identity. In 2004, after twelve years in the United States, Thiong'o decided to end his self-imposed exile and return to Kenya. Instead, his high-security apartment was broken into by a gang of thugs of who stole money and a computer, tortured Thiong'o, and raped his wife, Njeeri, who has since spoken publicly about her ordeal to help combat the shame and silence experienced by many women following sexual assault. Subsequent investigation revealed that the attack was a politically-motivated inside job.

Thiong'o currently lives in California. His most recent novel, Wizard of the Crow (self-translated from Gĩkũyũ), was published in 2006.

I felt I had to get all that out there because, like Victor Serge, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o is one of those authors you really have to get to know first.

Petals of Blood is a 410-page epic that chronicles the lives of its four protagonists over a ten-year time period, stretching from the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies. Munira has settled in the sleepy backwater village of Ilmorog to work as a teacher. He is the son of a wealthy landowner who converted to Protestant Christianity to gain favor with the Europeans and acquire property seized from other Kenyans. Local shopkeeper Abdullah is another newcomer. He was crippled in the leg during the Mau Mau Uprising but refuses to speak of it. Wanja is an ex-barmaid who has left the big city to live with her grandmother, Nyakinyua. She too has many painful stories to tell. Last to arrive is bright-eyed Karega, far younger anyone else, and full of radical new ideas.

The story opens with an arson and the triple murders of Chui, Kimeria, and Mzigo, all of them prominent men celebrated and reviled for the wealth and power they've achieved as black leaders in post-colonial Kenya. Munira, Abdullah, and Karega have been arrested and are in the process of being interrogated. Wanja is in the hospital, hysterical.

What follows is an expansive view of the forces that shaped post-liberation Kenya, as seen through the eyes of four people living it. The result is humanized history (like Jorge Volpi's Season of Ash) that's alive in a way no textbook ever could be. As in most socialist-themed novels, the characters of Petals of Blood slowly develop an awareness of the unfair capitalist system in which they live and its harmful effects, which the author hopes will convince the reader as well. National in scope, Thiong'o also infuses a strong Christian overtone that elevates his message to near-cosmic proportions and recalls Jesus's admonitions that the meek would inherit the earth and the difficulty of a rich man entering paradise. ("She felt an excruciating love for them and she would have liked, at such moments, to embrace and give milk to all the little ones of the earth. Lord forgive our sins, Lord forgive our trespasses, and let the children come unto me.") Kenya's traditional religions are present as well, and set against Christianity's ironic identification with elites and sell-outs such as Munira's father.

Marxism itself is another all-encompassing worldview that posits an age-old struggle between the wealthy few and the producing masses whose labor they exploit for their own selfish ends. Set against each other are Karega and Munira, both of them well-read Ilmorog schoolteachers in love with Wanga. Karega's mother lived and worked on Munira's family's farm and they were both expelled from the same boarding school. But whereas Munira is never able to move out from under his father's shadow, Karega's experiences as a landless tenant, combined with his educational background, leads him into the study of history and the search for that one eternal answer.
Karega did not know what it was that he really wanted to get, but he vaguely hoped for a vision of the future rooted in a critical awareness of the past. So first he tried the history books. It had seemed to him that history should provide the key to the present, that a study of history should help us to answer these certain questions: where are we now? How did we come to be where we are? How did it come about that 75 per cent of those that produced food and wealth were poor and that a small group - part of the non-producing part of the population - were wealthy? History after all should be about those whose actions, whose labour, had changed nature over the years. But how come the parasites - lice, bedbugs and jiggers - who did no useful work lived in comfort and those that worked for twenty-four hours went hungry and without clothes? How could there be unemployment in a country that needed every ounce of labour? So how did people produce and organize their wealth before colonialism? What lessons could be learnt from that?
From here we get a brief overview of the prevailing historiography of Africa. Its Eurocentrism implicitly backs imperialist ambitions by erasing African history between the ancient era and the arrival of white colonists. But Karega's conclusions - which will influence his actions for the rest of the book - are familiar to anyone even slightly knowledgeable about Marxist theory. Kenya, Karega believes, once had a system in place, one that worked, in which everyone had access to land and basic necessities. Capitalism came with colonialism and seduced a few who set about adopting the ways of the foreigner at the expense of their own people. But if the workers join together we can overthrow the leeches and build our own Utopia.

Of course, with colonialism also came Christianity. For all the irony inherent to its use as justification for exploitation, there's also something to be said for the link between its millennialism and the post-historical Eden that socialism/communism aim for. Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, for example, features a literal mass conversion experience that brings about a secular paradise. Despite his own rejection of Christianity, I don't think this is lost on Thiong'o. While his embrace of American-style Protestantism eventually destroys Munira, he also arrives at a sort of neo-Platonic position similar to that of his counterpart, Karega.
And Munira would hold himself ready; he felt an incandescence of the spirit, a glow of the intellect, the pride of an inventor or a discoverer, and he was eager to communicate this to any listener. He felt even more than before that he now held the key which opened up, once and for all time, the true universal connection between things, events, persons, places, time. What caused things to happen? The New Ilmorog of one or two flickering neon-lights; of bars, lodgings, groceries, permanent sales, and bottled Theng'eta; . . . what brought about this Ilmorog from the old one of sleepy children with mucus-infested noses, climbing up and down the miariki trees? And why did things happen the way they did at the time they did and no other? How was it that the puny acts of men, arising from a thousand promptings and numerous motives, could change history and for ever condemn and damn souls to eternal torment and loss, guilt and cruelty, but also to love - yes - love that passeth all understanding? No there was a design, a law, and it was this that he would have liked to impress on Inspector Godfrey.
Both Munira and Karega become infused with an evangelical spirit, intent on spreading the Word and saving their fellow man. But whereas Karega's revolutionary socialism is portrayed as hopeful and constructive - despite the persecution and possible martyrdom he faces - Munira is driven to superstitious madness. I think Thiong'o is asking us to choose between doctrines here: a corrupted form of Christianity or a rising political movement that promises real results in this life. It was Marx himself, after all, who famously called religion the "opiate of the people" and argued that it pacified the masses by offering reward in Heaven only after the suffering of mortal life.

Now Thiong'o's message was never subtle but it was always well-integrated into the story despite a few instances of character filibustering. As with The Grapes of Wrath (another socialist novel), the political ideas we're supposed to pick up in Petals of Blood are pretty obvious and it certainly qualifies as an author tract. But although Thiong'o is never as graceful as Steinbeck, he continues along comfortably enough for the first 3/4 of the book. We genuinely sympathize with his characters and learn along with them.

Until he goes all-out anvilicious.

To his credit, Thiong'o never loses control of the plot, which is still perfectly coherent in its downhill climax. It's just that the Big Point starts to completely overpower the work in a way that can only happen in novels that are either very religious or very political. I mean, yes, we get it already. Quit preachin.' Pretty much the entire final 1/4 reads like this:
Her voice only agitated further images set in motion by her revelation. Imperialism: capitalism: landlords: earthworms. A system that bred hordes of round-bellied jiggers and bedbugs with parasitism and cannibalism as the highest goal in society. This system and its profiteering gods and its ministering angels had hounded his mother to her grave. These parasites would always demand the sacrifice of blood from the working masses. These few who had prostituted the whole land turning it over to foreigners for thorough exploitation, would drink people's blood and say hypocritical prayers of devotion to skin oneness and to nationalism even as skeletons of bones walked to lonely graves. The system and its gods and its angels had to be fought consciously, consistently and resolutely by all the working people! From Koitalel through Kang'ethe to Kimathi it had been the peasants, aided by the workers, small traders and small landowners, who had mapped out the path. Tomorrow it would be the workers and the peasants leading the struggle and seizing power to overturn the system and all its preying bloodthirsty gods and gnomic angels, bringing to an end the reign of the few over the many and the era of drinking blood and feasting on human flesh. Then, only then, would the kingdom of man and woman really begin, they joying and loving in creative labor . . .
WHAMWHAMWHAM! For comparison, here's part of the Johnny Got His Gun ending:
It will be you - you who urge us on to battle you who incite us against ourselves you who would have one cobbler kill another cobbler you who would have one man who works kill another man who works you who would have one human being who wants only to live kill another human being who wants only to love. Remember this. Remember this well you people who plan for war. Remember this you patriots you fierce ones you spawners of hate you inventors of slogans. Remember this as you have never remembered anything else in your lives.
Okay, they're not exactly alike but the spirit is the same. I heard this happens at the end of The Jungle too: we get this big socialist screed that sums up the Lessons Learned by Proletariat Protagonist. The Grapes of Wrath, by contrast, manages to avoid such heavy-handedness, which is probably why Steinbeck is a Great Author while Dalton Trumbo is a One-Hit Wonder Who Wrote a Cult Novel. I haven't read any other Thiong'o but he's otherwise quite talented so I'm hoping he eventually learned how to tone it down. Although granted, there's a real immediacy to the political message: people are out there suffering and being exploited right now. So maybe anviliciousness is largely unavoidable?

I'm worried at this point that I sound overly critical because I really did enjoy Petals of Blood. Along with The Genius, it was the first book in awhile I found genuinely gripping, and I recommend it for the educational value alone. Yes, it turns into a full-blown diatribe but there is still a great story here with strong characters, a vivid setting, and a swift-moving plot. Way cool.

A big thanks to Richard for sending me this! Here is his review.

For more information on the Mau Mau Rebellion, Caroline Elkin's
Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya sounds like a definite must-read. Ironically, Britain did this shit a scant ten years after trashing the Nazis for doing virtually the same thing!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Teaser Tuesday

• Grab your current read.
• Let the book fall open to a random page.
• Share with us two "teaser" sentences from somewhere on that page.
• You also need to share the title of the book that you’re getting your “teaser” from. That way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given!
Please avoid spoilers!

Petals of Blood by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
Page 141 - It was the journey, Munira was later to write, it was the exodus across the plains to the Big Big City that started me on that slow, almost ten-year, inward journey to a position where I can now see that man's estate is rotten at heart.

Even now, so many years after the event, he wrote, I can once again feel the dryness of the skin, the blazing sun, the dying animals that provided us with meat, and above us, soaring in the clear sky, the hawks and vultures which, satiated with meat of dead antelopes, wart-hogs and elands, waited for time and sun to deliver them human skin and blood.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Kenzaburo Oe and Other Reading Plans

As I mentioned in yesterday's Sunday Salon, I've been unable to get ahold of Kenzaburo Oe's A Personal Matter. It is the July selection for the Non-Structured Book Club and the discussion is scheduled for this next Friday, the 30th. (Thanks, Frances, for the correction. Why did I think the 30th was this week?)

When I came home from vacation yesterday, several hours after I posted, I checked the mail and found that my reading plans had undergone a shakeup.

This is I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita, which I had chosen from The Front Table's list of books available for review. Thing is, I didn't know it was 640 pages long! It's actually a collection of ten related novellas and there's no deadline for the review due to the overall prodigious length (that "due at your leisure" should've tipped me off). But still, I'd like to get I Hotel finished and reviewed as soon as possible, since I'm doing this for someone else. The Front Table is an online magazine I've written for in the past (here and here) and I'm very grateful to them for giving me the opportunity to build a profile beyond my personal blogging.

So, needless to say, with a giant chunkster waiting and with the discussion less than a week away, I needed a short Oe book I could get right away from the library. With that in mind, I have selected Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age!, a fictionalized memoir of a mere 272 pages.

I'm heading over to pick it up right now. Hopefully I'll get to read A Personal Matter sometime in the near future.

Update: So I went to the library to pick up Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! and lo! guess what came in!

Oh joy! Oh glad!

I explained very carefully that this was strictly for a Horrible Dare Challenge I am participating in with several other book bloggers and that I usually do not read this type of dreck. (Of course, I was also checking out Kenzaburo Oe, which doubtlessly boosted my credibility.) "Well, it's good to read books you normally wouldn't," the librarian replied.

Holy Christ, L.A. Candy is 324 pages. What could that ghostwriter Lauren Conrad possibly have to say that takes up 324 pages??? This promises to be excruciating.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Sunday Salon

The Sunday

Most people bring fluffy books to the beach. I brought this:

I've gotten through the entire first part and will hopefully finish the second part today. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o is an absolutely fascinating figure and I'd also love to know more about his wife, Njeeri. When they returned to Kenya in 2004 after twenty-two years in exile, their high-security apartment was broken into and Njeeri was raped. (It is believed to have been a politically-motivated inside job.) She chose to speak about her ordeal publicly to help address the silence and shame so many women experience after sexual assault. I should have a post up on Petals of Blood sometime this week!

Emily is also to be commended for her excellent choices in beach reading.

Meanwhile, I still haven't received my requested copy of Lauren Conrad's L.A. Candy from the library even though it's been two weeks since I ordered it through the inter-library system. I AM READING IT SOLELY FOR THE HORRIBLE DARE CHALLENGE OTHERWISE I WOULD RUN SCREAMING. Look, I just want to get it over with. Why is this purgatorial waiting period being dragged out? Does someone like this book so much they don't want to return it? Or - gasp - is it that damn popular???

In other, better news: the July discussion date for the Non-Structured Book Club is coming up. This month's selection is Kenzaburo Oe's A Personal Matter. I regret to say that I may not be able to get a hold of that specific book so I may be reading another Oe work. So we'll see how that works out.

And now for your weekly link round-up:

Borges on Tolkien

A Fourth Book in the Stieg Larsson Series?

"Looking for my Body" Of Bodies and Borders (Part 1)

The Madness of Thomas Kincade* [sic]

So moustachioed dads are funny and all, but. . .

Unitasker Wednesday

* See also: this week's Wordless Wednesday.

Friday, July 16, 2010


Today was our local library's annual USED BOOK SALE! People come from miles around and surround the roped-off area in the town square until the clock strikes noon, and then they descend like happy vultures. For $6 I got 6 paperback novels. The first two are of particular interest to me and I plan on reading them first once I've completed my other commitments.

Anzia Yezierska's Bread Givers was first published in 1925. Yezierska (1880-1970) was born in Maly Plock, Poland and came to the United States around 1890. She is best known for writing about the difficulties faced by Jewish and Puerto Rican immigrants in New York's Lower East Side. Set in the tenements of the 1910s and '20s, Bread Givers is a semi-autobiographical novel about the daughter of a deeply traditional Torah scholar whose yearning for individuality and self-expression clashes with her father's Old World culture. The story is also deeply concerned with the divisions between Orthodox and assimilated Jews.

Snow, a 2002 novel by Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, was translated from Turkish by Maureen Freely and named Best Book of the Year by the New York Times Book Review. Like Bread Givers it deals with the conflict between Western values and traditional religion (in this case, Islam). A Turkish poet named Ka, who has spent the past twelve years in Germany, has traveled to the small town of Kars to investigate the suicides of young women forbidden to wear the hijab. Ka encounters the various competing groups - ranging from Kurdish separatists to idealistic students - that characterize modern Turkish society and a deeply complex mystery emerges.

Other acquisitions:

Reminder: I am giving away a copy of Andreas Maier's Klausen! I didn't like but hopefully you will!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Klausen: Review and Giveaway

By Andreas Maier
Translated by Kenneth J. Northcott
168 pages
Open Letter Press
August 15, 2010

Incidentally, all your dialectic is metaphysics. All the conclusions of this sort of dialectic lead to purely imaginary products. What Nietzsche calls analysis I call mere fancy and a multiplicity of combinations. You take one thing, then another, combine the two, and then say whatever comes to your mind about the combination. That's what has always annoyed me about Nietzsche. Everything, free combination, but with a claim, with a claim, I ask you!

Andreas Maier was born in Bad Nauheim, near Frankfort, in 1967. His debut novel, Wäldchestag, was awarded the Aspekte Literary Prize and the Jürgen Ponto Foundation's Literary Support Prize. In 2000 Maier also came in first place at the Ingeborg Bachmann Literary Competition in Klagenfurt, Austria. Klausen is his second book.

Klausen is a German-speaking comune (municipality) located near the Austrian border in Italy's Bolzano-Bozen province. One day, in the midst of a raging controversy over noise pollution, a bomb went off on the autobahn, or in a shack near the autobahn, or someone was shooting in Klausen's direction from a bridge - actually, we're not sure what happened exactly, only that a catastrophic event took place that has the whole town talking and pointing fingers. Anxieties over immigration and ongoing ethnic tensions fuel the rumor mill until fact blends with fiction and no one can separate the two. But there is one notion on which all of Klausen is in complete agreement: that the guilty party is likely Josef Gasser, a mysterious figure who spent years away in Berlin and whose sister is a famous actress with a politically dubious fiancé. But beyond that, it's impossible to keep anything straight.

Maier's unusual style - the narrative repetition, the single nonstop paragraph, and embedded, indirect dialogue - has earned him comparisons to Thomas Bernhard and José Saragamo. As such, Klausen has a risky format akin to that of Gabriel Josipovici's Moo Pak. But what allowed Josipovici to pull it off was his constant introduction of new topics and many unpredictable turns. Despite presenting a veritable smorgasbord of ideas, the pull created by Moo Pak's relentless, unbroken execution did much to unify the book as a whole and maintain the reader's interest. Unfortunately, Maier's attempt at a similar project falls short. The people of Klausen are groping for answers in a fog where each story seems as credible as the next. To convey this confusion, Maier sets Klausen up as a recitation of conflicting theories, unreliable memories, and real action in which all three are given equal weight. But unfortunately, that's all it is: a dry recitation that just goes on and on for 168 pages. Andreas Maier also completely lacks Gabriel Josipovici's rich, conversational prose and the result is a book that's impossible to get into.

And so, I quit on page 66, which makes Klausen my first ever review copy to go unfinished. Apologies to Open Letter Press. Of course, as anyone familiar with this blog knows, I usually enjoy their offerings and firmly believe that we will have much better luck next time.

I don't usually do this but I feel really guilty about ditching a review copy. If you are a book blogger who might be interested in Klausen, and you are located in either Canada or the US, please email me at elfay123(at)gmail(dot)com and I'll be happy to send it to you, along with the press materials. Hopefully you'll find Klausen more engaging than I did. First come first serve! (This is a finished book, not an ARC.) Book claimed; giveaway now closed.

Review Copy

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Wordless Wednesday

Damn, I thought a Kinkade-Beksiński mash-up would be way cooler than this. Photoshop Phriday PHAIL! (Click here for more Wordless Wednesday.)

Update: I just remembered that there is an entire book series based on the paintings of Thomas Kinkade. Can someone please do something like that for the works of Zdzisław Beksiński? How about a psychic ghostwriter channeling H.P. Lovecraft?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Most-Read Authors

Taking a page from Emily, Amateur Weeder, and Nicole, I've decided to compile a list of my most-read authors. Naturally, it's an odd list that doesn't actually reflect my current reading tastes. Emily and Nicole cut off at five but since my numbers aren't as huge I decided to stop at three.

Dean Koontz - at least 30
Anne Rice - 18
Peter David - 9
Isabel Allende - 6
Toni Morrison - 6
William S. Burroughs - 5
Dan Simmons - 5
Roberto Bolaño - 4
F. Scott Fitzgerald - 4
Mark Twain - 4 (one was an anthology)
Virginia Woolf - 4
William Faulkner - 3
Hermann Hesse - 3
Jack Kerouac - 3

I went through the Dean Koontz bibliography on Wikipedia and counted all the titles that sounded familiar. I was a huge Koontz fan from the time I was about 11 until about halfway through college when I realized that all his books were following the exact same formula, centered on exact same stock characters, had too many damn superdogs, and each one was preachier than the last. While I still hold several of his works in high regard (particularly Phantoms, Winter Moon, and Seize the Night), I no longer seek him out.

Anne Rice was another high school favorite - something about all that WANGST just appeals to teenagers, I think. I've read pretty much everything she's written that wasn't either Christian or erotica. I still do like her and strongly recommend her but, at the same time, haven't picked up any of her books in a long time, other than a recent partial reread of The Witching Hour.

Peter David - Star Trek novels. All of them.

Isabel Allende was yet another high school favorite I no longer read. So were Burroughs and Kerouac, as part of a wannabe-iconoclast phase. I actually owned Burroughs's The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, and Nova Express at one point but never, ever made sense of any of them. I think I gave them away to a used book sale, although I still have Naked Lunch and Exterminator!

Toni Morrison, Mark Twain, and William Faulkner - meh. Once again, I liked Morrison better when I was younger. Maybe it's time for a reread? Was assigned As I Lay Dying in college and couldn't stand it.

I like Woolf but can't say I love her the way Emily does.

But Hermann Hesse, Dan Simmons, Roberto Bolaño, and F. Scott Fitzgerald - love them all!

In closing: favorite authors ≠ most-read authors. It was an interesting exercise, though, one that reflected my changing book preferences.

Update: I forgot Faye Kellerman until Jill reminded me in the comments! I've read 15 of her books which puts her between Anne Rice and Peter David. I still enjoy her Peter Decker/Rina Lazarus series and just learned that there is a new one out I haven't read yet.

Teaser Tuesday

• Grab your current read.
• Let the book fall open to a random page.
• Share with us two "teaser" sentences from somewhere on that page.
• You also need to share the title of the book that you’re getting your “teaser” from. That way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given!
Please avoid spoilers!

Klausen by Andreas Maier
Page 63 - Maretsch and Gruber said they could do as they pleased here, it was a free country and this was a public place. At this, the mysterious group began to laugh and to smirk, they found the term free country particularly funny; here and there fists were clenched.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Sunday Salon

The Sunday

Happy Sunday, everyone! I spent ALL WEEK on Dante's Inferno for Richard's read-along. I had originally intended to do one big post but then I realized I had way too much information. Lacking my Durling translation, I relied entirely on material from a Dante course I had taken in college, which consists of my extensive lecture notes and all the "fact sheets" we had to do for certain cantos. I LOVED that class and learned so much. One of my biggest regrets is that I couldn't fit part two into my schedule for the next semester (this was my senior year). I am very glad to have had the opportunity to reread everything and refresh my memory! (Here is my last post.)

But before I get to Purgatorio for August, I have the following:

From the top: Andreas Maier's Klausen (Germany), Naguib Mahfouz's Miramar (Egypt), Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o's Petals of Blood (Kenya), and Lauren Conrad's L.A. Candy (American, unfortunately). The Maier is a review copy from Open Letter Press; the other two were graciously sent to me by Richard. Please let it be known that the Conrad is NOT THE TYPE OF BOOK I USUALLY READ. It's strictly for the Horrible Dare Challenge being hosted by Rayche of books i done read and TY of The Lit Connection. (I'm not usually a challenge person but I couldn't resist the lulz.) I have substituted the extracurricular Danielle Steele novel for Glenn Beck's The Christmas Sweater. My mom loves Glenn Beck.

I got L.A. Candy from the library. IS THIS WHAT YOU'RE SPENDING TAXPAYERS' MONEY ON???

And now for your weekly link round-up:

Captured: Dog and Pig on the Run

R. Bartoni's Amazon Review of the Bible

Rescued From the Taliban: Brin the British Troop Mascot

Twilight |

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Inferno, Cantos 27-34

Whooo! Home stretch! The final eight cantos of Inferno for Richard's Divine Comedy read-along! So apparently, when you Google "Dante" you mostly get pictures of this guy, the protagonist of the Devil May Cry video games from Japan. Dante is a half-demon, half-human mercenary who specializes in paranormal assignments. Other characters include the beautiful Lucia, highly skilled in the use of ornate daggers, and Dante's evil twin brother Vergil, who embraces his demonic heritage.

Dante is not to be confused with Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), the author of The Divine Comedy. This is a totally different person.

Moving right along. . .

Canto 27

After Ulysses finishes his story, Dante encounters another burning soul who makes a strange roar Dante compares to the righteous anger of the Sicilian Bull towards one who has injured him. This is a story of a trickster being tricked. This particular soul is finding it difficult to speak while on fire but the tip of the flame forms a sort of tongue. He identifies Dante as a fellow Italian and wants to know if his homeland Romagna has found peace or war. He is referring to the conflict between the Guelph and the Ghibelline factions.

Dante tells him that Romagna is never without war but there is no open conflict at the moment. He goes on to discuss the region's seven cities: Cervia, Forli, Verrucchio, Lamone, Santerno, Faenza, and Cesena, who are all suffering under the yoke of various tyrants, mostly members of powerful families twisting the law for their own benefit. He then asks the soul who is he is. The soul replies:
"If I believed that my reply were to a person who
would ever return to the world, this flame would
remain without further shaking;
but since never from this depth has any one
returned alive, if I hear the truth, without fear of
infamy I answer you." (61-66)
This comes from the beginning of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." While Guido talked when he shouldn't have, Prufrock did not speak when he should have. T.S. Eliot was great poet. Dante and I are huge fans of T.S. Eliot.

The soul goes on to say that he is a "man of arms" (67) who became a Franciscan because he believed doing so would absolve him of his misdeeds. This might've worked too, if it wasn't for that Pope Boniface, the "high priest, may evil take / him!" (70-71). The notes to my edition identify him as Guido de Montefeltro, the most successful mercenary captain of his era. Guido adds that he was more sneaky (fraudulent) than outright aggressive (that is, more fox than lion). He was indeed notorious for his ability to manipulate and mislead people. But he eventually grew tired of this life and realized it was wrong. He would have given it up and retired peacefully but then Pope Boniface, the "prince of the new Pharisees" (85), had the nerve to make another war! And not even against the Jews, Muslims, or merchants who did business with the Turks, but against his own fellow Christians!

But of course, Guido's conversion probably wasn't as sincere as he claims it was.

Boniface asked Guido for advice on how to "raze Palestrina to the ground" (100) but Guido didn't believe this guy was for real and stayed silent. In doing so, Boniface was disregarding both his high office and Guido's vows as a Franciscan. Then Boniface assured him that he had the keys to Heaven and that he had henceforth absolved Guido, who believed him. But you cannot absolve someone of a crime they have not yet committed.

In other words, Guido (and Boniface) tried to trick God by fighting against the Church, getting excommunicated, and welcomed back when he became a priest. Like just about everyone in Hell, however, he blames another (Boniface) for his own misdeeds: "and it would have worked." (Recall, for instance, Francisca from the Second Circle blaming a book for her adulterous affair). The reason they're in Hell is because they didn't repent and take responsibility for their own actions. But both Dante and Guido are highly critical of Boniface for interfering with secular affairs and using physical force against other Christians (although Guido, ironically, did the same thing). This recalls Dante's discussion of Constantine in Canto 19 and the separation between office and person.

This canto also continues with the metaphor of life as a sea voyage from Canto 26, and which also appeared in Canto 1 with the image of the shipwreck. Although Guido wasn't nearly as famous as he presents himself, Dante wanted to set up a parallel to Ulysses.

Also: the sinners in the Eighth Circle are sometimes called those who were "violent against art." In this context, "art" refers to any purposeful human activity, be it politics, farming, shipbuilding, etc.

Canto 28

This is the one with Muhammad and the Sowers of Discord in the Ninth Bolgia. I'm going to skip it not because of the present-day controversy but because it contains torture and gore, neither of which sits well with my stomach.

Canto 29

Despite Virgil's warning that they don't have much time, Dante remains to speak with an ancestor his who died unavenged. This violation of chivalric ethos makes him angry with Dante. Virgil says not to bother but Dante is compassionate because he understands the soul's feelings. Recall that Dante discussed revenge earlier in the episode with the Furies outside the gates of Dis. It is a diabolical tyranny of memory, an obsession that imprisons us and precludes forgiveness. Dante was a knight who had been in battle, and here he is juxtaposes chivalry with Christian morality. Contrapasso, the punishment of the souls in Hell, is based on revenge: you do something wrong and are paid in kind. But this is God's job, not ours.

Dante and Virgil move on to the falsifiers in the Tenth Bolgia. Dante meets two Italians and offers them fame in the world of man in exchange for their stories. Griffolino of Arrezzo and Capocchino the Florentine were burned at the stake for heresy but landed here due to their practice of alchemy. This is actually the First Zone of the Tenth Bolgia, which holds the Falsifiers of Metals. The alchemists' production false appearances in a fraudulent attempt to imitate Nature parallels the condemnation of the usurers and sodomites in the Seventh Circle, whose sterile, unproductive work also offended Nature.

Dante has the opportunity here to mock Siena as a foolish. Griffolino says he was executed for claiming he could fly. This demonstrates the animosity Dante has towards other cities for their alleged character.

(Technically there is no hope in Hell but the preservation of one's memory among the living is a hope the damned are nevertheless allowed.)

These souls are strewn about the ground and covered with scabs they constantly scratch at. This goes back the idea that sociopolitical bodies, like human bodies, can become sick and deformed. Pursuant to the concept of contrapasso seen throughout Inferno, the souls' position reflects what they did to themselves and/or to society. Everyone in the Eighth Circle was an alchemist, impersonator, false witness, counterfeiter, hypocrite, and so forth. Their falsifications violated the trust that holds the human community together.

Canto 30

Upon seeing the Second Zone of the Tenth Bolgia of the Eighth Circle, Dante brings up Classical tales of humans whose immense suffering caused them to turn on one another like animals. But that is nothing compared to what he witnesses here: the Falsifiers of Others' Persons tear at one another relentlessly with their teeth. Dante recognizes one Myrrha, who disguised herself as another woman to sleep with her own father. Some of the Falsifiers of Coins, who are mostly in the Third Zone, are mixed in here. Dante speaks with a counterfeiter of Florentine money who is condemned to be wracked with neverending thirst. This soul, Master Adam, also points to two souls in the Fourth Zone, the Falsifiers of Words or Liars. They are the wife of Potiphar, who accused Joseph of trying to seduce her, and a Greek man named Sinon, who knows Master Adam and comes over to pick a fight with him. Dante listens to them for awhile until Virgil asserts that it is demeaning for him to listen to such a petty squabble.

Master Adam, who is lying supine on the ground, is shaped like a lute, a popular instrument in the Middle Ages. He has dropsy, meaning the fluids in his body are stagnant and he can't move. He dreams of streams and fertile lands, which makes him suffer even more. (He also allows Dante to reminisce about his favorite part of Italy, where the Arno River joins the sea near Pisa.) This reflects his practice of falsifying metal coins through use of diluting solutions. Stagnation → illness → death → can't produce life anymore. The stillness of fluid also hearkens back to the sterility and repetition represented as sodomy in the Seventh Circle (Canto 15).

Canto 30 continues the disease motif from Canto 29. Hospitals, where the physically ill go, were religious institutions in the Middle Ages. Since these people's spiritual sickness is manifested in their punishments, the Eighth Circle is akin to a kind of warped hospital. Hell can actually be thought of as a series of bogus arts, according to the definition provided above.

Regarding the case of Myrrha, not only did she pose as someone else, but her act of incest violates the assumption that parent/child sex is wrong, which can be thought of as a form of falsification.

Canto 31

Dante and Virgil have finally approached the great pit at the center of the Eighth Circle, which all the bolgias surround. At first Dante thinks he's looking at tall towers arising from the mist but they're actually giants. Their navels are level with the Eighth Circle but their feet are in the Ninth. Nimrod, who participated in the construction of the Tower of Babel, speaks a string of gibberish. Another giant, Antaeous, takes Dante and Virgil down into the Ninth Circle in two of his enormous hands.

The giants represent human will + rationality + intention + strength. They are emblems of pride: humans who wish to displace God. The story of the Tower of Babel, as alluded to through Nimrod, is about a group of humans who wished to build a tower that could reach Heaven. In other words, they wanted to control what is out of their control. Like Ulysses, they could not accept their limitations.

Canto 32

Dante's reference to Antheon, the mythical poet whose songs moved rocks to form the city of Thebes, demonstrates his inability to describe the very bottom of Hell. He and Virgil have come upon the frozen lake of Cocytus, in which souls are submerged up to their heads, teeth chattering. The First Ring of the Ninth Circle is called Caina and it is for those who betrayed family members. The Ninth Circle overall is for traitors.

There is no motion here, only paralysis and petrification. (Recall Canto 9, when Dante was threatened with being turned to stone.) The deep freeze also speaks to the souls' distance from the warmth of God's love.

Dante accidentally kicks a soul in the cheek and recognizes him as Bocca degli Abati. Dante threatens to tear his hair out before he and Virgil move on to Antenora, the Second Ring, for those who betrayed their homeland or party. Dante sees one soul chomping on another's head. He stops to speak with them, promising to spread the chewer's good name on Earth.


Canto 33

The chewer is eager for "my words [to] be seed to bear the fruits of / infamy for the traitor I gnaw" (7-8). (Recall the lesson on revenge and obsession from Canto 29 - another form of paralysis). He was Count Ugolino and the one on whom he feasts was the Archbishop Ruggiero. They are from Pisa.

Ruggiero betrayed Ugolino's trust and had him killed. Ugolino wants the world to know the extent of the cruelty of his death.

When he was in prison with his small sons (it was actually two sons and two or three grandsons, all of them teens or grown men), Ugolino had a vision of Ruggiero as a hunter stalking a wolf and his cubs. When he awoke, he learned his sons had had the same dream and were terrified. Line 46 has him describing the sound of the door being nailed shut.

From T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land": "I have heard the key / Turn in the door once and turn once only / We think of the key, each in his prison. . ." QUIT RIPPING HIM OFF, DANTE!

(In all seriousness, though, the Eliot's notes translate line 46 as "And I heard the key turn below in the door / of the horrible tower." The original Italian: "ed io senitii chiavar l'uscio di sotto / all'orribile torre.")

Ugolino was terrified and the look on his face frightened his sons. Over the next few days they starved to death, with Ugolino seeing his pitiful state reflected in the faces of his children. At one point, they asked him to kill them: since he brought them into the world, he can take them out of it. (This happened when Dante was in his twenties.) Ugolino ends his tale and resumes gnawing Ruggiero. Dante is so upset by the cruel death of the innocent sons that he calls for Pisa to be destroyed like Sodom and Gomorrah.

Virgil and Dante continue wandering. Dante observes that "[w]eeping itself prevents weeping there" (94), as the tears form an icy crust that freezes the eyes shut. Dante feels some wind and is confused because he had assumed it was too cold for wind. Virgil says he will soon know the answer. (If Dante is in his physical body and it's so damn - harhar - cold, then why doesn't he seem to be cold?)

A soul calls out to Dante and asks him to remove the ice from his eyes so that he can weep some more. Dante asks for his story in exchange. The soul introduces himself as Brother Alberigo, a member of the leading Guelf family. He had invited over some relatives from whom he had become estranged in a land dispute. At the end of the feast he announced, "Let the fruits come." This signaled the assassins to come out and kill his family members. Alberigo says, "I am / he of the fruits of the evil orchard, and here I receive / a date for every fig" (118-120).

It turns out that Alberigo was still alive when Dante wrote Inferno. This dialogue apparently establishes that his soul is in Hell while his body still lives, possessed by a demon masquerading as him. This may allude to Luke 22.3: "And Satan entered into Judas." Alberigo goes on to say that when a living person commits betrayal, his soul gets sent to the Ninth Circle and a demon assumes control of the body. The spirit next to him in the frozen lake has suffered a similar fate. Alberigo identifies him as Branca Doria, who had invited his father-in-law to dinner and then murdered him and his companions. (Doria apparently outlived Dante, dying in 1325).

Naturally, Dante is incredulous. Doria, he protests, "is not yet dead, and he eats and / drinks and sleeps and wears clothes" (140-141). Referring back to the Evil Claws of Cantos 21-22, Alberigo gives another example, that of Michael Zanche, who hadn't even yet arrived in the bolgia of the barrators when both his body, as well as that of a relative who had aided him in the betrayal, were possessed by devils.

Dante decides not to open Alberigo's eyes for him, as such compassion would be misplaced. He then denounces Genoa.

Canto 34

* drumroll *


Above: Lucifer, newly fallen, in one of Gustave Doré's illustrations of Paradise Lost. Below is Satan in Doré's depiction of the Ninth Circle of Dante's Hell.

Virgil and Dante have entered Judecca, where traitors to lords and benefactors are punished. Virgil says, "The standards of the king of Hell go forth" (towards us) in Latin. Dante thinks he sees a windmill turning in the distance. The wind has grown stronger so he hides behind Virgil.

The traitors here are completely encased in ice and cannot move at all. They lay on the ground in varying positions. No movement, no language, no love, no hope - only petrification.

Dante finally sees Satan, once the most beautiful of the angels but now unspeakably ugly. Unlike the others in Hell he doesn't talk. But Dante and Virgil are able to use him as stairs, so he is useful. Virgil's words echo what he said to Dante in Canto 3 when they were about to enter Hell. His reference to Dis, the infernal city of Cantos 8-10, links it to Satan's body.

Dante's description of his terror recalls the conception of evil as a negative quality; that is, a defect or lack of good, and thus of a lack of being. If Satan is the most evil of all creatures that should mean he possesses the least being. But because he metes out God's divine judgment, that means, paradoxically, that he is also good, which also explains this canto's satiric paralleling of Satan with God and the crucified Christ.

Satan is enclosed in ice up to his chest. His ginormous body reflects his overwhelming pride, just like the giants. But to compare one of the giants to one of Satan's arms is like comparing Dante's size to that of a gnat. Satan has three faces: the front is crimson, the right is yellowish-white, and the left is black (it is "such to see as those who come / from beyond the cataracts of the Nile" [44-45]). Beneath each face is a set of huge webbed wings, like those of a bat (no feathers), which are continually fanning and creating three separate winds. (This reminded me of T.S. Eliot's "Ash Wednesday": "Because these wings are no longer wings to fly / But merely vans to beat the air.") These winds are what freezes all of Cocytus.

All six of Satan's eyes are weeping: tears and bloody slobber drip over his chins. In each mouth he forever chews on a traitor.

The one with the greatest punishment is Judas, who betrayed Jesus. He is headfirst in Satan's mouth. Brutus and Cassius, the other two traitors, had led the conspiracy to kill Julius Caesar, despite being pardoned by him after Rome's civil war. They are in feetfirst. Brutus endures silently, as befitting his beliefs as a Stoic.

These are history's three greatest traitors of all time, according to Dante.

Hey, what about this guy?

Virgil says it's time to leave now because they have seen everything. With Dante hanging onto him, Virgil climbs down Satan's fur. He then climbs back up, leaving Dante to think they are going back into Hell. They then go through an opening in the rock. (Virgil is panting with exhaustion at this point, which makes no sense since he has no body.)

Before we leave, says Dante, could you tell me where the ice is, how Satan came to upside down, and how time has gone by so quickly? Virgil answers that Dante has changed hemispheres and is now under the opposite zenith to that of Jerusalem, where Christ was crucified. Virgil says that this hemisphere once had dry land, like Jerusalem's hemisphere, but then Satan fell down to Hell and water closed over him.

Dante and Virgil follow a hidden path along a hidden stream that leads to a hole in the rock. They emerge from Hell into a starry night.

Cantos 1-8
Cantos 9-17
Cantos 18-26

Since I didn't have my Durling translation available and had to rely on my old college work, I referred to SparkNotes to help me remembere what happened in what canto (since my notes sometimes got mixed up or only talked about concepts and context). Another great resource are the blogs of one Sebastian Mahfood, who brings up a lot of topics I missed.

A special thanks to Professor Donatella Stocchi-Perucchio for this excellent Dante course! Please also check out my comparison of Dalí and Doré illustrations for Canto 1, which was actually part of our final assignment. (I got A's in everything.)

August 6-8: Purgatorio
September 3-5: Paradiso

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