Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Moor's Account, by Laila Lalami

Laila Lalami fills in the historical record of Spanish conquest in Florida and Mexico with The Moor's Account, building her novel from a brief mention in Cabeza de Vaca's story of his explorations: "el cuarto [sobreviviente] se llama Estevanico, es negro olarabe, natural de Azamor" which translates: The fourth [survivor] is Estevanico, an Arab Negro from Azamor."

In Lalami's hands, Estevanico becomes our narrator during an eight-year struggle for survival among the tribes of the southeast portion of the North American continent. He begins the expedition as a slave, but his skills at learning languages, adapting to primitive conditions, and his storytelling ability help him not only to survive but eventually to thrive while the majority of the Spaniards perish from disease, starvation, accidents, or murder.

A Moor from Spain, he is Muslim, and his given name, Mustafa ibn Muhammad, is the first thing taken from him when he sells himself into bondage to provide money for his family's survival. From a slave's vantage as Estebanico, he sees the underbelly of the wealth and power of sixteenth century Castilia: the many nameless whose labor supports them.  The life of a slave turns on caprice: one day his master, whose fortunes are rising thanks in part to Mustafa's skills as a merchant, brings home a slave for his wife. Ramatullai becomes Mustafa's ally, friend, and love, but one day the master's gambling debts cannot be ignored, and Mustafa is sold to cancel them - to a nobleman enticed by rumors of the riches of New Spain across the ocean.

Through a combination of greed, ignorance, and fatal arrogance, the leaders of the expedition seeking the wealth of legendary Apalache squander their military advantage over the natives, make enemies of those who could assist them, and fall prey to the terrain, weather, and lack of food they had never imagined might be obstacles to success.  Their weapons and tools dwindle, their clothing is used to make sails for rafts, they must slaughter and eat their beloved horses, and in the end, it is every man for himself.

They engage with many tribes, first as conquerors, then one leader to another, and finally as supplicants so desperate for a meal and protection from the cold that they become slaves themselves, scorned and beaten by the Indians who despise their incompetence and mistrust them. When they come to villages previously marauded by Spaniards - slave-takers and spreaders of disease - they find themselves less objects of curiosity than harbingers of trouble.

Mustafa and his master, Dorantes, remain together, becoming equals as they survive the challenges - until they come across another Spanish expedition. Reunited with Dorantes' fellow Castilians, their relationship reverts to master and man - only in the jungle could they be peers. Dorantes is all too willing to leave his life as an Indian behind, including forsaking his native wife and daughter, but Mustafa makes the most of his opportunities, and when at last he finds love with a native woman, he enlarges his dreams of home to include her.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Joseph Anton, by Salman Rushdie

In his more-relevant-than-ever memoir of life under the Iranian fatwa announced on Valentine's Day 1989 and only lifted over a decade later, Salman Rushdie chronicles with unvarnished exactitude the life of a man constantly under death threat. He lived with police protectors ("prot"), doing battle with their higher-ups who would have been happier had he simply retreated to some unmarked hole in the ground never to re-emerge.  His team told him he was as vulnerable as any head of state - yet those people were allowed to set foot outside, and the world knew where they lived - he was hidden away, and it was only the flawless cooperation of his friends and family that prevented his home from being known to those bent on murdering him.

The point on which he continued to insist, unheeded, is that The Satanic Verses, far from being a satire on Islam, actually reflected the history of that religion, which he studied at Cambridge. He writes about Muhammad's revelation:

"But the Qur'an spoke of how all the prophets had been tested by temptation. "Never have We sent a single prophet or apostle before you with whose wishes Satan did not tamper," it said in Sura 22. And if the incident of the Satanic verses was the Temptation of Muhammed, it had to be said that he came out of it pretty well. He both confessed to having been tempted and also repudiated that temptation. Tabari quotes him thus: "I have fabricated things against God and have imputed to Him words which He has not spoken." After that the monotheism of Islam, having been tested in the cauldron, remained unwavering and strong, in spite of persecution, exile and war, and before long the Prophet had the victory over his enemies and the new faith spread like a conquering fire across the world.
"Shall God have daughters while you have sons? That would be an unjust division."
The "true" verses, angelic or divine, were clear: It was the femaleness of the winged goddesses - the "exalted birds" - that rendered them inferior and fraudulent and proved they could not be the children of God, as the angels were. Sometimes the birth of a great idea revealed things about its future; the way in which newness enters the world prophesied how it would behave when it grew old. At the birth of this particular idea, femaleness was seen as a disqualification from exaltation."

Across the Muslim world he was vilified, officially and personally, by people who did not read The Satanic Verses nor bother to know anything more about them than that they referred to the Qur'an and used the word Satanic, which must mean the author was calling the Qur'an Satanic. Once the fatwa was in effect, the truth scarcely mattered - his novel was unavailable in those countries and so people had only the imams' and Ayatollahs' word for what he had written: blasphemy.

One cannot fault Rushdie, living so long in the crosshairs, for speaking out against the way the liberal tolerant cultures of Europe and the Americas defended what they thought of as Islam, up to and including citizens who made specific death threats against him. He makes the case for the right of artists to say what they think, to imagine what they dare, and to share those visions with the world without the censorship of offending those who can't even be bothered to know what they are condemning.
"Something new was happening here: the growth of a new intolerance. It was spreading across the surface of the earth, but nobody wanted to know. A new word had been created to help the blind remain blind: Islamophobia. To criticize the militant stridency of this religion in its contemporary incarnation was to be a bigot... 
It was Islam that had changed, not people like himself, it was Islam that had become phobic of a very wide range of ideas, behaviors and things. ... There were Islamist attacks on socialists and unionists, cartoonists and journalists, prostitutes and homosexuals, women in skirts and beardless men, and also, surreally, on such evils as frozen chickens and samosas."

Once the fatwa was lifted he was eager to resume his disrupted creative life:
"It would be wise to withdraw from the world of commentary and polemic and rededicate himself to what he loved most, the art that had claimed his heart, mind and spirit ever since he was a young man, and to live again in the universe of once upon a time, of kan ma kan, it was so and it was not so, and to make the journey to the truth upon the waters of make-believe." [emphasis mine]

Thank you, Salman Rushdie, for your courage and for sharing your long drinks from the Sea of Stories.

Monday, November 9, 2015

When the Killing's Done, by T.C. Boyle

T.C. Boyle, in his storytelling prime, weaves the inevitable and improbable into a tapestry, giving individual faces to social movements and global issues.  His 2011 novel When the Killing's Done sets up a clash between fanatical nature-lovers, raising questions that should make any thoughtful person uncomfortable:

Why should some species be allowed to flourish while others, considered invasive, merit eradication?
What makes any species "native" to an isolated place?
To what extent is it even possible for us to undo the mistakes of earlier generations?
Why do we still think, "We know what we're doing"?

The setting is a California archipelago opposite Santa Barbara, twenty to thirty miles offshore but a world apart: three small rocky Anacapa Islands, and the larger Santa Cruz Island.
The main characters, tenacious and intolerant in pursuit of causes on collision course, are:
Alma Takesue, Ph.D biologist working for the National Park Service, in charge of restoration of the islands - which means extermination of the rats on the Anacapas and the pigs on Santa Cruz; and
David LaJoy, successful businessman and leader of FPA, For the Protection of Animals, a local animal rights group resisting the slaughter of rats and pigs.

Takesue's circle is rounded out with biologists, Park rangers, her lover Tim who's both, the exterminators, the local representative of The Nature Conservancy - which owns a large portion of Santa Cruz Island; her grandmother whose husband and his brother died in a storm off the Anacapas while she, pregnant, survived; and her own father, a sea urchin diver until an accident off those islands ended his life.

LaJoy's compatriots are his musician girlfriend Anise, who spent her youth and adolescence on Santa Cruz Island where her mother Rita was cook and general factotum for a sheeping operation; his right-hand-man Wilson, skilled handling a boat, delighting in the mischief LaJoy dreams up to interfere with the Park Service's plans; journalist Tina who applies her muckraking skills on behalf of LaJoy's cause; a young woman who works in Takesue's office, sharing inside information with FPA; and a group of impassioned youth following their fearless leader.

The other significant characters are sea and land and sky:
Glassy still one moment, raging the next, the unpredictable Pacific.
The craggy inhospitable islands - rocky coastlines, the only fresh water what falls from the sky.
The sky, by turns blistering, torrential and fog-bound, as different from Santa Barbara as if the islands were a thousand miles away.

Along the way, we learn enough about the ecology of the islands and what they demand of those who would survive on them, to confront the big questions and come up empty-handed.  A rat is a living creature.  Rats have lived on the Anacapas for centuries, survivors of a shipwreck.  The island birds, having no experience with them, have made easy prey for nest-robbers.  The sheep, imported to the islands as a money-making concern in the 19th century, wreak environmental havoc as they overgraze, denuding the landscape which is then at the mercy of erosion and runoff from fierce storms.  But to the sheepherders, the worst enemy is the ravens that gather at lambing time, bewildering the ewes then picking off their newborns with appalling efficiency.

Boyle is unsparing about the devastation of invasives: brown snakes, stowaways on planes or ships during World War II, have eradicated nearly all bird life from Guam.  That ecosystem is changed - the Guam before the snakes showed up is irretrievable.  Foxes and skunks live on Santa Cruz Island - how and when did they arrive?  They've been there long enough to evolve into smaller versions of their mainland counterparts, but does that make them "native"?  More "native" than the rats?  By what measure?

We can't un-break the egg.  Here in the Anthropocene era, we rely on the twin indices of appeal and efficiency, in deciding which species are good and which must go.  Water managers across the American West have declared war on Russian olive and tamarisk, which crowd riverbanks, sucking up water and blocking access for native creatures - but the primary creatures that want that water, and that riverbank access, are humans.  Fish and elk have no voice, neither do Russian olive trees.  Rats and snakes are "pest" species, raiding the nests of other creatures - but they're just doing what nature has equipped them to, and perhaps it's their survival skill that makes us hate them.  A weed is a successful plant; a pest is a successful animal. Human interference is the beating heart of the problem.

Monday, November 2, 2015

A Separation - Film Review

The Iranian film (2011 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Film) A Separation, directed by Asghar Farhadi, is a window onto the court-ruled lives of modern Iranians. The story opens with Simin, a woman in her thirties, seeking divorce from her husband, Nader. The sticking-point is that Simin wants to leave the country, and take their 11-year-old daughter Termeh with her. Nader is willing to allow divorce, but he wants Termeh to stay with him. His Alzheimer's-stricken father, who lives with them, cannot travel, and he won't leave him. Simin oversimplifies matters - Nader should come with her: his father doesn't know him anyway, she claims, so anyone could look after him - nothing would stand in her way. She sees his refusal as stubbornness and antipathy. But as the story unfolds, we see that Nader's father does in fact know his family, and needs them.

Simin walks out, so to care for his father while he's at work, Nader hires a caregiver. This woman, who comes with her 4-year-old daughter, is so pious that before helping, she consults an imam, asking if assisting a senile man who has soiled himself is a sin. But she is also pregnant, which her little girl knows but is a secret from Nader - and from Simin, who provided her name. According to the law, this woman must have her husband's permission to work for Nader. The men meet and Nader thinks the man will be coming to look after his father - instead, it's the woman who continues to come, though her long bus commute and trek up multiple flights of stairs to Nader's apartment exhaust her.

Spoiler Alert - read no further if you plan to see the film!

Nader comes home early and discovers his father alone, crumpled on the floor barely alive, one arm tied to his bed-frame. In his rage, Nader sees that the cash he had set aside to pay the woman is gone. When she and her daughter return from their errand, he confronts her, accusing her of theft. She argues, and he pushes her out of his apartment.

Next thing we know, Nader is informed that the woman fell on the stairs and miscarried, and therefore he is charged with murder of the 19-week-old fetus. He and Simin, concerned when they hear the woman is hospitalized, go to visit her, only to be confronted by her angry distraught husband who declares they have only come out of guilt. The men are soon at each other's throats.

The referee requires witnesses; clearly this arbiter of justice is exasperated trying to get to the bottom of who knew what, whether Nader pushed the woman, whether he knew she was pregnant, why the woman tied his father to his bed then left - the story becomes more convoluted. Costly bail is set which Simin's wealthy parents willingly pay, while we learn that the caregiver's husband was recently in debtor's prison and takes several medications to treat mental illness. More and more, Simin's plan to leave Iran looks like the choice of a person of means.

Simin continues to negotiate with the woman, forcing Nader into a position of having to say he knew the woman was pregnant when he pushed her, or else face prison time. He doesn't want a deal, he wants justice. The other man also wants justice, which to him appears to mean that others must suffer as he has. He stalks Termeh at her school, which throws Simin into panic, her own role in Termeh's anguish quickly forgotten.

At every turn, Termeh is forced to bear witness to her parents' behavior. She wants only for her mother and father to stay together, and she'll say whatever she thinks will enable that - but they withhold what they know, urging her to "tell the truth" though she knows that will not help. She's constantly weighing what they tell her - If I say this, will Mom stay with Dad? If I say that, will Mom leave for sure? It's heartbreaking.

This glimpse into a society as litigious as modern America is depressing: Sharia (Quranic law) solves nothing - piety is just one more weapon people use against each other. Class divisions spark resentment and jealousy, and justice is blind. When Nader is first charged with murder, he pleads with the judge: who will care for his father if he's in prison? But it's not the judge's problem.

At the end, Simin, Nader and Termeh are again meeting with a judge about the divorce, this time to determine custody. By now Nader has passed the burden to their daughter - whichever parent she chooses, he'll agree. The judge asks Termeh if she has decided, she says yes. But she won't utter the name. He presses, she continues to say yes, she's decided. Tears flood her face. He sends Simin and Nader out into the corridor, which is filled with petitioners, some bickering and others slumped in chairs in a scene out of Kafka. They wait as the credits roll.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

A Fasting Meditation

I'm not Jewish, but for the last 15 years have been celebrating events on the Jewish calendar. I have learned that my digestive system is unhappy without bread, and that I don't mind fasting. That's not a contradiction.
A week of Passover turns my gut inside out.
A day of fasting for Yom Kippur is welcome.

Fasting is not about food.
It has to do with how we spend our daily lives, and what happens when we interrupt routine.  When you get up in the morning, thoughts of eating are not far off. Brush teeth, wash face, put on the day's clothes - and on to breakfast. It's comforting, stabilizing, sets you up for a typical day.

Break the pattern.
Wander the kitchen for a few minutes: no, no coffee, no toast, no yogurt or piece of fruit. The morning news isn't the same without them - just skip that. Leave the kitchen - what are you doing in there anyway? You're not eating today, and you can only drink water to keep from passing out.

Go outside. Talk to god, whatever/whomever/wherever that is for you. Follow love from what you know brings joy, into the crevices where you doubt it can reach. And seek it there: in the face of the homeless woman who sells you a newspaper, in the bees pollinating trash cans, in contrails painting the sky with a gigantic Y.

What is atonement? Apology for what you did that you shouldn't have, or an effort to turn the opposite direction? Acknowledging the existence and humanity of someone invisible might be the kindest possible act.

Atoms packed close together form a solid - see it, touch it, manipulate it. Further apart, they form liquid - still visible, still tangible, but restless, taking on the forms of its containers. More space, they become gas. Now we can't quite see it, can't feel it. The vibrational space between atoms is god - more intense in a solid, more malleable in liquid, more ubiquitous in gas.
Bones, tears, breath - fragments of god, surrounded by an infinity of fragments.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Fruitvale Station

Fruitvale Station all the time

This rumpled sky, rough worthy of Van Gogh,
a hundred colors graying into dusk
a palette mixed of white in black to mimic coming dark.

At Fruitvale Station New Years Eve (2008-9) a young black man was jumped then
    policed to death
      subway crowd recording pictures under threat
         till the train moved out.
Fear, hysteria, chaos, reactions under duress -
      we have divided our nation into warring camps while
Justice, head in hands,
      catches the action too late for
                          the weighing and balancing for which we turn to her after, torn,
                          we have berserked.
We grieve an instant before the next bad-news pulse
     beats away this alarm.
Shrug or shout later, how change that fraught interface between
        what we fear and
        those anointed as our bulwark,
                            frail tho they be,
                            not up to correct swift determinations,
                            just jumping at noise, struggle,
         a young man harmless till they thugged him?

It's coming evening now, and for now
    cicadas soundtrack the time -
pop of guns come later
    - Friday night in America
           young men and cops are cruising armed,
                   looking for a hair out of place,
                   trigger to take offense.
How do we collectively learn to draw a breath,
             to see past the fear-paintings that debase our nature,
             to prove we are the homo sapiens -
              the thinking beings -
 we are named?

Fruitvale Station again and again -
      why are young men of color the enemy?
      why are police an occupying army?
Life is a wink between waking and gone -
       why do we invest in damage and defense
       when the door to the stars yawns near and cold?
When we lie in ashes, my atoms and yours rejoin once more.

Start by remembering:
   this is who we are:
       bits of one whole
           so soon to return
    having learned -


Friday, July 31, 2015

Self Portraits: Fictions, by Frederic Tuten

Frederic Tuten's series of linked short stories, most titled Self Portrait (followed by such varied qualifiers as "with Bullfight", "with Cheese", "with Icebergs"), examine love and adventure in magical ways. The narrator, the I of these pieces, is variously a lover, husband, father, son, and a man spending time alone in a public place where he can observe those around him. Tuten makes frequent allusions to paintings and films, which must either alienate the inexperienced, or draw closer those for whom these arts are familiar.

His story The Park Near Marienbad, for example, refers to Alain Resnais' film "Last Year at Marienbad", in which at a spa a man approaches a woman with intent to seduce her, insisting on details of what they did "last year at Marienbad." She has never seen him before, and knows this, but though she puts him off, gradually his stories insinuate themselves into her thoughts. The narrator weaves his fondness for this film into his museum-going travels with his wife: they too are among the few who have the time to visit places for no purpose except pleasure. He watches his wife hoping to see a repeat of Delphine Seyrig's enchanting gesture, so singular in the film. If she can slip across the boundary between the closed reality of a story and the larger world in which they have wed, perhaps their marriage will touch him on that deeper level where he seeks consonance between artistic vision and life.

Often a story's setting is a restaurant or cafe; a newlywed couple's interactions with their waiter are key to the progress of Self Portrait with Bullfight:
"...[I]f you turn you may notice [the waiter's] appearance, accompanied by two guests."
"Just a coincidence," I averred, deigning not to seem amazed by two bulls, festooned with garlands of garlic and roses, being ushered to their table.
"It is the custom," our waiter explained, finally returning to us, "to host a banquet for those bulls who survive the day. Of course, they may stay the night, on the house, naturally, and leave when they want and return to their mothers, if they wish."

In this brief exchange we see Tuten's method: his mingling of familiar and fantastic in ways that challenge the reader's comfort with what we think we're used to, and also question whether the magical is as removed from daily life as we might prefer.

The cycle's progress takes us from a man recalling his grandmother, to the death of the narrator's mother, and his son's pursuit and rescue of her soul from pirates. In that first piece, stories are the binding skein that holds a child to his grandmother. In the last, the grandmother's fond final desire was to be alone through eternity with the Borges-sized library of stories she loved so well.

Tuten's spare precise language is a marvel, the stories he tells the more wonderful because of the delights of his prose.  Seek, and enjoy!