The Absent Sea

Where were you Mamá, when all those horrible things were taking place in your city?”  This question, put to Laura by her daughter Claudia, is what has drawn The Absent Sea’s protagonist back to the fictional town of Pampa Hundida at the start of novelist Carlos Franz’s exploration of the turbulent aftermath of Chile’s 1973 coup.

Pampa Hundida is a recurring setting for Franz’s work.  He places it in the northern part of the country, an oasis hidden in the Atacama desert; he has described it as “above all, a region of the spirit.”  In The Absent Sea’s opening pages the city is in the midst of La Diablada, Pampa Hundida’s annual religious festival.  Costumed pilgrims from the region—“a disparate bewildering, arbitrary crowd”—come “to beseech and to celebrate, to plead and to dance” in an age-old collective reckoning with evil.  After twenty years of self-imposed exile, Laura has returned for a reckoning of her own.  She’s come to reclaim the same judicial post she left two decades before, and to face up to where she was when all those “horrible things” were happening in Pampa Hundida.

My review of The Absent Sea by Carlos Franz is now up at Words Without Borders.

Some of the Things I Saw on My Run Today

One boy chasing another boy with a metal ladle on 14th St.
Multiple birthday cookouts in Rainey Park.
A hipster couple biking through the projects.
Two runner-guys wearing tshirts for recent 10k races (that I also ran).
Five wheel-chair-bound patients of Coler-Goldwater hospital getting some sun along the East River.
A well-attended Blonde vs. Brunette flag football fundraiser tournament on Roosevelt Island.
A man with a breathing tube waiting for the bus on 27th Ave.
A little girl floating plastic bottle caps in the water-fountain at Light House Park.
Two pre-teen girls sharing one set of iPod headphones.
A woman selling flavored ice.
A woman wheeling her Costco groceries home.
Kids hanging newly tie-dyed tshirts out to dry on a clothesline in Socrates Sculpture Garden.
A little boy with a soccer ball heading to Astoria Park with his dad.
Dog-walkers galore.

Remembering Photojournalists Killed in Misrata

I never met Chris Hondros.   But he took my photo once, on a very cold day two years ago when  I was part of a media gaggle outside Bernie Madoff’s Upper East Side apartment, waiting for the Ponzi-schemer to return home from a court appearance.

When I first saw that photo, the novelty of it tickled me. The camera had been turned on me — a media peon with a very minor role in the Madoff drama. It was slightly flattering and slightly funny, in part because it documented me holding my favorite travel mug, a souvenir from the Greenberry’s coffee franchise in Charlottesville. I never noticed Hondros specifically, and I’ll never know if he had been assigned to document the media scrum that day, or if this particular shot was just one he took while waiting for Madoff, bored like the rest of us.

Since hearing news of the deaths of Hondros and British photojournalist Tim Hetherington in Misrata yesterday that photo has taken on a completely new meaning — and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.   In light of Hondros’ death, the photo is a reminder to me that the world — and I don’t just mean the world of journalism, or its New York microcosm — really is quite small and interconnected.  And it reminds me that journalists everywhere, every day, can be made to pay a steep price for doing their jobs.

When Madoff’s car arrived that day, the crowd was caught off-guard.  CNN got the shot it wanted — mostly because of the good instincts of the photojournalist I was field producing for, who at the last minute stationed me as a lookout so I could signal which way the car was coming. In the chaos of the stakeout, I left my prized Greenberry’s mug on Madoff’s stoop, and the photo used to remind me of the mug I lost that day. But of course now the loss it conveys is much heavier.

(For more on Hondros and Hetherington, check out The Takeaway’s audio remembrance, either of these — one and two — New York Times slide-shows, or this video diary).

“It’s safe, but”

As I was waking up for work early yesterday morning, on the other side of the globe Japan was observing a moment of silence for the victims of its twin natural disasters.

When I arrived at the office that day a month before, 32 people had been killed from Japan’s earthquake and tsunami. By the time I left work that day, the estimated death toll was between 200 and 300– a nearly tenfold increase.

Just one week later, the number of people dead or missing from the disaster had risen to more than 20,000– almost twice the population of my hometown.

Now that number is closer to 25,000, and I’m no less stunned by the effects of the disaster.  In the past weeks, The Takeaway has heard from nuclear experts, relief workers, professors of Japanese culture, and even Yoko Ono, but there’s no getting around the basic incomprehensibility of the damage.

Yesterday as I was thinking about how the story has unfolded, I stumbled on this moving poem by Tadashi Nishimura:

“It’s safe, but” / they say over and over / that’s worrisome

Watching the story develop in the role of a journalist, my eyes have been trained on the facts (many of them numerical in this “level 7” disaster).

But poetry cuts past the numbers — the thousands dead or missing, and many more without electricity or water, a home or word from their families; the hundreds of millisieverts of radiation being emitted; the billions of dollars in economic losses — and pierces the heart of the catastrophe’s uncertainty.  It emerges from the rubble of destruction, confusion, and misinformation to describe the very things which evade measurement: loss, blame, guilt, fear, upheaval, meaninglessness.

Another thing about poetry is its eerie timelessness.  From an anthology compiled in 13th century Japan:

Like a driven wave,
Dashed by fierce winds on a rock,
So am I: alone
And crushed upon the shore,
Remembering what has been.

Please Look After Mom

Outside the market you saw two people cutting apart a fish that was as big as a sedan. You asked if it was tuna, since it was so large, but the vendor said it was an ocean sunfish.  You were reminded of a character in a book whose title you couldn’t remember. She was from a seaside town, and she would go to the huge aquarium in the city every time she had a problem, to talk to the ocean sunfish swimming inside. She would complain that her mother took all her life savings and went off with a younger man to a different city, but then, at the end, would say, But I miss my mom; you’re the only one I can tell this to, sunfish! You wondered if that was the same fish.

Kyung-sook Shin

Please Look After Mom by Kyung-sook Shin sold close to a million and a half copies in South Korea, and is set to be published in 18 countries around the world.  It’s the first of Shin’s books to be translated into English.  My full review for Sunday’s New York Times Book Review is here.

Whatever Spell

There’s a scene in Roberto Bolaño’s Savage Detectives where an unhinged author starts to drive himself mad waiting for a particular writer’s review of his latest book. Given what he knows about the critic, he’s sure the review will be scathing, and will destroy his career.  Rather than wait to see what this critic comes up with, the author challenges him to a duel to the death.

To keep myself out of fatal sword-fights, I find it helpful to look at John Updike’s rules for book critics from time to time when I need a little bit of refocusing in the book reviewing department:

Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never (John Aldridge, Norman Podhoretz) try to put the author “in his place,” making him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.

Daniel Mendelsohn takes a similar position:

Even Aristophanes — who was, we should remember, a comedian and not a critic — seems to have been made uneasy by the sadistic aspects of criticism. “I cannot judge anymore,” his Dionysos apologizes when the word-weighing is over.  “I must not lose the love of either one of them. / One of them’s a great poet. I like the other one.” The lines remind you that loving and liking are as much a part of criticism as are hating and hacking; and that the impulse underlying good criticism ought to be affection for literature rather than animus toward writers.

An Afternoon at the Museum

Lan came to visit! (click on thumbnails below)

 

photos by me and Lan

When the Killing’s Done

Knowing that Jay is a fan of novelist T. C. Boyle, on Friday one of his Daily Beast colleagues (who works in the books section) gave him an extra copy of Boyle’s latest novel.

When the Killing’s Done is officially is out tomorrow, and Boyle will be on The Takeaway to talk about some of the environmental questions it raises.  Over the weekend, I decided to give the book a read ahead of Boyle’s interview. I borrowed Jay’s copy and blogged about the book for The Takeaway:

Boyle gets around the difficulty of dramatizing environmental issues by dramatizing the environmentalists themselves. To drive home the tension between their positions, he draws out the similarities between Alma and her nemesis David. Alma and her biologist boyfriend Tim Sickafoose are vegetarians, and so are David and his girlfriend Anise Reed. They all live in the Santa Barbara area, they all drive white Priuses, and they all grapple with the quandaries of consumption while listening to the same hippie folksinger—and the similarities don’t end there. Like Alma, David’s girlfriend Anise has matrilineal ties to the islands: Her mother worked as a cook on an island sheep ranch in the 1970s.

Though their philosophies on what’s best for the natural world around them clash perfectly, Boyle makes it clear that both the Alma/Tim and David/Anise camps are equally motivated by a mix of childhood sympathies, inclinations of personality, and adult life politics. Our approach to moral questions about the environment, Boyle seems to suggest, is as complicated as the environment itself.

The full post is at The Takeaway’s blog.

One small thing I left out: I was more than a little bit annoyed at Boyle for making one of his character’s conversion to meatlessness come at the hands of a proselytizing Hindu.

Alma won’t touch the bacon– she hasn’t eaten meat since her conversion to vegetarianism in the seventh grade under the influence of her best friend, a girl from India whose parents were both doctors and who persisted in wearing a red caste mark on her forehead through the end of junior high …

Of course this is the only mention that this nameless character and her persistent “caste mark” get.  And of course, my annoyance comes from personal recognition of this particular bundle of stereotypes.  I stopped eating meat at age 10; my mom applied a small dab of kumkuma on my forehead every morning before school, after we said our prayers; my father is a physician.  But preach vegetarianism?  That kind of “girl from India” would know better.  So should Boyle.

The Scale of Maps

It is said, my friends, that a number located between seven and eight was lost with the writings of Diophantus, the algebraist.  Of course this is a legend, but I do not have to remind you of the theory that there can be no sign without a referent. It is tempting indeed.  Imagine, my friends: another number, an hour every day outside the flow of time, a month unaccounted for every year between July and August.

Belén Gopegui

I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t mind if some secret hours, days, and months were quietly slipped into my life.  So much to do, so little time!

Among the things filling my recent accounted for hours: A review of The Scale of Maps by Belén Gopegui I wrote for the latest issue of Words Without Borders.  Enjoy!

Revolution in Egypt

It took eighteen days (or was it thirty years?) but finally the man who once said “I have a PhD in stubbornness” has stepped down.

Undoubtedly, Egypt’s struggles are far from over — there are still too many unknowns at this stage — but for those of us watching from the other side of the world, what an exhilarating ride it’s been.

There’s also still no single answer to the question I posed last week — why now? — and President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation only raises more questions.  What will the military takeover mean for the country? Can the army make good on its promise to ensure fair and peaceful elections? Will the crowd that’s organized so bravely on the streets be able to find solid political footing in the halls of parliament? What will become of mid-level government officials who supported the old regime? What will become of Mubarak himself? Who will step up to fill the vacuum of democratic leadership? How will the United States reposition itself towards the new Egypt? How will Egypt’s economy regain its footing after three weeks of this $300-million-dollar-a-day disruption? What will this upheaval mean for the rest of the Mideast?

So far, Egypt’s revolution has been the most-covered international news story in 4 years — and it looks like the story is just getting started.