Between absence and presence

A reading of Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami

Jean_Siméon_Chardin_-_Draughtsman_-_WGA04754

 

This is Mr Murakami’s latest work, published in Japan in 2017, and translated by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen (I guess: a tour de force). First of all, I must say that, in my view, this is Mr Murakami’s most accomplished work thus far, a fascinating, troubling and at time challenging novel. To be sure, long haul readers will find there a familiar atmosphere, but also the unknown. I will not spoil anything, but mention some ideas and metaphors.

There is a young artist, a portrait painter, and his beautiful, estranged wife. There is a, now dead, beloved little sister. There is  a lone timber house, high up in the mountains, which belongs to a famous old painter. There is an owl in the attic. Across the valley, there is a big, strange house, with a stranger owner.

The young artist teaches drawing at a local school. He lives on his own, in the timber house, with the owl in the attic, visits the attic, walks in the woods. Behind a little shrine he discovers a pit, the pit in the woods. There is the start of the quest, with a surprising painting, and a bell.

There is Vienna, at the time of the Anschluss, there is the war in China, but this is the past, with deep consequences for the present. The old painter is famous for his classical formal Japanese paintings, but this one painting…

The novel oscillates between dream and an even more unfathomable reality. There is a lovely, pubescent young girl, her beautiful aunt, and two portraits, or is it three?

Once started this, as with all of Mr Murakami’s work, the book becomes desperately addictive: one dreads the prospect of finishing the book.

Yet the quest has to be completed, through sacrifice and ordeal.

I must add a warning: if readers wish to cross the river, between absence and presence, they must pay the ferryman. So, have your penguin ready!

That’s about the size of it.

Image: der Zeichner (the young draughtsman) by Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin)

In the Land of Ago

A reading of 11.22.63 by Stephen King

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How often do we think: “If only I could change this”, or, in whatever form, “if only I could have a second chance, go back, and do something different”? Going back, erasing, and changing the past is an old dream, the subject of countless tales and fiction works. Of course there is a second law of thermodynamics, to keep things simple, that says “no-can-do” – but still…

But imagine one could go back, reverse entropy, and travel back in time, would it be possible to change anything? Or, is the past resistant to change, obturate enough to stop, or at least oppose, a time-traveller interfering with what was, and, maybe, should be? And, even if the time traveller could change the past, what would be the cost? Perhaps more ominously: what would be the consequences?

Changing history is a special case. History, they say, is written by “the victors”, whoever they may be. It can also be rewritten, and this without, perhaps because of (not), going back to the past. There is the “official” version, and the “conspiracies”. A long-lasting, and still sinister, such story is that of the assassination of President Kennedy.

Jake Epping, not a crying man, is an English teacher at a high school in a small town in Maine. The year is 2011, and this is the end of term. Jake is, unique among his school colleagues, the customer of Al Templeton, the proud owner of the fat burgers diner. More than just a customer. He’s soon someone with whom Al is about to share a deadly secret. At the back of Al’s diner trailer is an anomaly: a fissure in time. Al has a mission, one he cannot complete, for he is dying of lung cancer. He wants Jake to take over, as he has identified Jake as someone who could, who will, bite at the bait. So Al teaches Jake, explains how this could work, and Jake listens. There is a first trial, then another. On the other side of the fissure it is Spring 1958, and America is young. Jake likes what he sees. He enjoys the fresh taste of root beer, the sweet air. Jake also has a personal objective: to prevent a domestic tragedy and help his friend Harry Dunning. The first leg of the story is there: the killing of Frank Dunning. Jake, armed with Al’s mission and notes, as well as dollars of the time, embarks on the journey.

Saving the Dunning family will take two attempts to get it “right”, or so Jake thinks. Then his personal odyssey will start , on the road to Dallas. For Al’s, now Jake’s, aim is to prevent the assassination of President John Kennedy, on November 22, 1963, nothing less. Jake has five years to adapt, plan, live, and, finally, execute Al’s mission.

Jake follows a route of nostalgia: an all-American Ford Sunliner, overnight stoppages in motels, drive-in cinemas, finally a small town, and an equally small school, in Texas. Later, much later, there will be Dallas and the horror. For a while it is (almost) paradise, his class, football, friends, a girl he falls in love with, America’s early 60’s: (almost) perfection.

Jake decides to stay, he won’t go back to 2011. But, in the end, he does. For fulfilling the mission has unpredictable consequences. When, on the threshold of his desperate return, Jake faces a dystopian 2011, he finally understand what Al had missed: that interfering with the strings of time has a price, and this is proportional to the change.

The novel concludes on a note of hope, an ending for which Stephen King credits his son, Joe Hill, at the end of the book.

11.22.63 is a great novel, to read, reread, and cherish. It is also a book to meditate on, seriously, listening carefully to the voice of its author.

Photo: Ford Sunliner 1958, via eclassicautos.com

 

Swarm

The Prompt

Large Asteroid closing in on Earth

 

Communication with the Swarm was sporadic and tended to come in bursts, when the Swarm needed something. The groups had separated under conditions that would have been deemed a state war had the Break not happened in the midst of a catastrophe more deadly than anything that one side could have inflicted upon the other with force of arms. Neither side was likely to begin trusting the other anytime soon…

From: Seveneves, a novel, by Neal Stephenson

Image: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/may/13/seveneves-by-neal-stephenson-disaster-novel

Sound #DailyPrompt #WritersWednesday

The Prompt

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For some days I have been deep in Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves, perhaps one of the most daunting reads of the past decade. I intend to review the novel on my Goodreads page, but for now, suffice to say that sounds have a role in that astounding saga of the end, and rebirth, of mankind. Space is silent, but not those tiny cramped tins, where survivors hide waiting for death… And then…

The source of the dappled light, as she now saw, was sunlight sparkling from waves on the lake below, shooting rays through the branches of trees, perhaps a hundred meters down the slope from her, that were beginning to stir in the morning breeze, making soft noises, as when a sleeping lover exhales.

The light of the sun, the sound of waves, violin notes in the evening air… The symphony of Peace.

Image: “Seveneves: the end and beginning of life on Earth”, The Seattle Times

T-Rain, and a girl named Zula: a reading of Neal Stephenson’s Reamde #amreading

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Every other thing that he had done for the company – networking with money launderers, stringing Ethernet cable, recruiting fantasy authors, managing Pluto – could be done better and more cheaply by someone who could be recruited by a state-of-the-art head-hunting firm. His role, in the end, had been reduced to this one thing: sitting in the corner of meeting rooms or lurking on corporate email lists, seeming not to pay attention, growing ever more restless and surly until he blurted something out that offended a lot of people and caused the company to change course. Only later did they see the shoals on which they would have run aground if not for Richard’s startling and grumpy intervention.”

Reamde is a tough, long, and interesting novel. I had to interrupt my reading several times during this year, and this made following the plot as hazardous as the story itself. I acquired Reamde initially as an e-book. The version I had was poorly edited, and after some four hundred pages I could no longer find my way through the various geographies and characters. Finally I purchased the paperback (in the Atlantic Books edition available in the UK.) This helped me to come back on tracks, as the good ones were getting deeper into serious trouble, and the bad ones were… getting more horrible than ever.
Richard Forthrast is a wealthy entrepreneur, and the soul at the core of T-Rain, a world-class multiplayer (MMORPG) game and metaverse, that transcends all predecessors. Richard is the head of the Forthrast clan, an expanded family of gun-totting characters who include his adopted niece, the beautiful Zula, a refugee from Erithrea. The world of T-Rain is, one day, disrupted by the double event of an internal war – the Wor – and the advent of what turns out to be a deadly virus, Reamde. The plot then develops into two parallel, but eventually convergent, lines: what happens in T-Rain, and what happens in “reality”: much of the book’s interest arises, in this reader’s view, from this double narrative, the journey in T-Rain, and the journey in this world, from Idaho to the Philippines, via China and various airfields and oil tankers, and back again, as Bilbo Baggins used to say. Both are rich in deadly traps, of the explosive and other varieties, such as magic spells.
A good first tier of the book is devoted to a description of T-Rain, its design, history and creators, a medley of British and US genial weirdos, recruited by, and under Richard’s influence. I must admit having lost the thread more than once (a fuller understanding would require a second reading, at least.) The real world’s thread centres on Zula and her companions, and their odyssey. For Reamde, the virus, cuts across the machinations of a criminal gang from the East, whose extortion racket is disrupted by the virus. The consequences of the gang’s brutal intervention, and a chance meeting with a bunch of jihadists, make up the second half of the novel, as the separate trails slowly converge back to the US-Canadian border, and Richard’s eagle nest.
There are hints of Snow Crash, Stephenson’s earlier novel that introduced a proto-virtual world, and multiple references to the world of hacking and virus developers. There are peripheral characters, some roughly inspired by the “war on terror”, and of course, the very nasty, and yet noble jihadist, the infamous Jones.
I only caught up with the female characters, all three of them, once I had acquired the paperback, having to backtrack through the 1044 pages! I think, now, that sometime I will re-read Reamde, when I have some uninterrupted three or four weeks of quiet vacation (maybe when we visit Seattle?) Stephenson lives in Seattle and his geographical knowledge of the region is evidently vast. I struggled with the trails through the mountainous area above Richard’s Schloss! A map would be as useful to the reader as it would be to Zula and her friends.
Reamde is, in turn, hilarious and tragic, a great read, and a milestone for Stephenson’s aficionados.

Photo: [By Ryan Somma – https://www.flickr.com/photos/ideonexus/6191024454, CC BY 2.0, Link]

My reading of Cryptonomicon

Of Thanatos, Ansky’s Notebook and a City in the Desert, a #reading of “2666” by Roberto Bolaño

“Jesus is the masterpiece. The thieves are minor works. Why are they there? Not to frame the crucifixion, as some innocent souls believe, but to hide it.”

2066

“Now what sea is this you have crossed, exactly, and what sea is it you have plunged more than once to the bottom of, alerted, full of adrenalin, but caught really, buffaloed under the epistemologies of these threats that paranoid you so down and out, caught in this steel pot, softening to devitaminized mush inside the soup stock of your own words?”

Gravity’s Rainbow

 

Child in Berlin  -  David Bowie  1977

 

The geography is immense, as the novel meanders through the streets of Paris, Madrid, London or Milan, the ruins of Cologne after the war, the snows of the Austrian border, Venice, Hamburg, the Crimean peninsula, the dark forests of Rumania, Mexico City, and, inevitably, Santa Teresa, the industrious and sinister city in the Sonora desert, still vibrating from the visit of the Savage Detectives.

Is Hans Reiter a reference to the war criminal of the same name? Does the writer’s name, Benno von Archimboldi, hide a deeper meaning? We follow four academics, German literature specialists, united by their obsession with the shadowy writer, Archimboldi. They read, visit each other, Mrs. Bubis, the publisher of Archimboli’s books and his lifelong friend, and try to discover who the writer really is. Their quest finally takes them to the city where girls and young women are butchered by one (of several) sadistic murderers.

Amalfitano, the critics’ host in Santa Teresa, reflects on death and his reasons to have moved o the city, from Spain, where his daughter, Rosa, was born. As he observed the treaty of geometry, hanging upside down from his washing line in his backyard, swept by the desert’s winds and dust, the scholar fears for his daughter, in a city where they kill girls like sparrows. Fate, the reflective journalist from New York, who travels to Santa Teresa for an article on a boxing match, when he is in fact no sports writer, befriends Rosa, and travelled back to New York with her, away from her father and the malediction of the city.

The endless narrative of the murders, spanning four years, unresolved and the investigation of which is plagued by incompetence, corruption and neglect, after all, most of the victims are poor girls working in the sweatshops of the city, or whores, or both, takes three hundred pages of the novel, a harrowing and at times monotonous read. Finally, Klaus Haas, a German-American citizen, is arrested, probably wrongly, for some of the murders.

At long last, we meet Hans Reiter, learn about the house in the forest, the one-eyed mother and the one-legged father. Young Hans is fascinated by the sea and its forests. Unstoppable, the river flows to the beginning of the war. Hans is strong, foolishly brave, visibly with no fear of death. Drafted in a light infantry regiment he picks up an iron cross on his way to Crimea. On a short permission back to Berlin he meets Ingeborg, who after the war would become his wife. Severely wounded Hans is sent to the village of Kosteniko, on the banks of the river Dniepr. There the future Archimboldi meets his future career in a farmhouse that belonged to Boris Ansky’s family, before the village jews were massacred by the Einsatzgruppe C. Hans discovers Ansky’s notebook, the story of an “enemy of the state”, witness of the horror, soldier of the revolution, and genial writer under another man’s name.

Fifty years later, Klaus Haas, son of Lotte, Hans’s sister, is in jail, his trial postponed. Finally Hans, now eighty, and a possible Nobel-awarded writer, visits Santa Teresa, closing the loop.

The book closed, we must read again, as we must reread “Q”, or Gravity’s Rainbow, or the Man Without Quality. In the end we know that Sisyphus trumps Thanatos, even for just a few years.

Image: Child in Berlin  –  David Bowie  1977

Against Evil

“And the hard part is that she knows better, knows that beneath the high-cap scumscapes created by the corporate order and celebrated in the media, there are depths where petty fraud becomes grave and often deadly sin.”

~ Thomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge

Silicon Alley For the past twenty years, that’s the time we have been sheltering in this little corner of damp suburbia, I have owned and used a wonderful little petrol-engine lawnmower. It does, in all seasons, a jolly good job of keeping our patch of grass tidy, even, at times, depending on the vagaries of this island’s weather, delightful.

The small engine was designed and built by a US engineering outfit in Milwaukee, and I guess “they” have long sold off, or been declared bankrupt. Their product is clean, does not leak oil, is wonderfully sober. Through the year I probably use a mere three or four litres of unleaded, sometimes much less. I love the sound of the engine, a low purr that does remind me of old American cars, with big, friendly, low revving eight cylinders disposed in V. Yet, it is a small engine.

When I cut the grass I think of the people, in Milwaukee, who built the engine, and I praise them, and their skills, wherever they now are. The same feeling overcomes me when I read a Thomas Pynchon novel: I know that this voice is more powerful that the thousands of followers of the “pensée unique” that clogs up the web, those writers and journalists who have long given up thinking for themselves, and respecting their public.

In a Pynchon novel there are several co-centric stories, and like Johann Sebastian Bach’s Art de la Fugue, it takes several readings, indeed a lifetime of reading, to discover them. The central character is on a journey, or, better, a quest. Along his or her progress, often halted by external events of great, if hidden, significance, or smaller anecdotes whose meaning may remain obscure, evil lurks. In “Against the Day”, and now, in “Bleeding Edge”, this evil has a clear profile: the late capitalistic neo-liberal conundrum, responsible for atrocities and destructions perpetrated world-wide, in the face of God and Mankind.

One of the book’s theses is that evil well precedes its latest avatars. The story follows Maxine Tarnow’s gumshoe and sexed-up mother of two, who’s investigating that rarity, in early 2001, out of the ruins of Silicon Alley, a technology company – hashlingrz – that is successful and growing, but also engaged in obscure, and well protected, big money transactions with the Middle-East. For the technology sector has crashed, in the so-called dot com collapse of 2000. This is a pivotal moment in US history: the cranked up Y2K fallacy, the Nasdaq equity dive, and now those rumours about all things Arabic, and the rise of Bush Jnr. Maxine’s work is part funded by Igor, an ex-Spetnatz soldier-turned-entrepreneur, whose soul found its road of Damascus, when his umbrella failed to open over Chechnya.

Soon, the boss of hashlingrz, Gabriel Ice, comes into sharp focus: double or triple agent, engaged in a series of capital manipulations for the benefit of shadowy Gulf’s secret armies, and protected by equally shadowy US agencies. This is September 8, 2001 and “the market” is playing with airlines shares, fact that Maxine’s found again ex-husband and commodity trader, Horst, does not fail to notice and explain to their kids, while masked men play with Stinger missiles and sniper rifles on the roofs of New-York.

Maxine, above all caring for her two boys, Ziggy and Otis, proceeds to meet one operative, Nick Windust, mercenary in the pay of evil, assassin, presumed torturer, and well-hung enough to attract more than Maxine’s fraud examiners’ professional interest. Indeed our hero gets seduced by Mr I-don’t-do-foreplay-Windust, one evening, in the sinister flat the said Windust occupies, in an equally sinister part of the City. For this is New-York City, just before the fall.

When the outrage comes, to no-one’s real surprise, Maxine is momentarily lost, in fear for her boys. She has discovered DeepArcher, a piece of code constructed by survivors of the crash, and finds for a short while some solace in its depth, before it goes “open-source”. This virtual world is not without reminding us of that proto-metaverse: Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992). So we have, at least, three stories: Maxine’s quest to uncover the truth about Mr Ice and his corporation, her infatuation for Windust – who will end up murdered by , presumably, his employers, and half eaten by wild dogs, and her reflections on 9/11 as viewed through the eyes of a true New-Yorker, who longs for the City of her childhood. Those reflections are enhanced by her travels through DeepArcher, the memories of her father, who is clear about what the Internet is, where it comes from, and where it is going: a tool – a toy? – of the Cold War, first designed to survive a nuclear blast, now magisterially transformed into instrument of manipulation and slavery, and a “chance” meeting with Windust’s once South-American wife, now strutting her stuff in US Academia.

Despite all, Maxine, who lost at some point her license of fraud examiner, manages to stay “on the honourable side of the ledger”.

As one of her friends says to her: “Guess I’m just a Yahoo! type of girl. Click in, click back out, nothing too far afield, nothing too… deep.”

One way to stay safe.

Talking about Maxine

Takahiro Shimatsu I haven’t finished reading Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge, and I will later adorn my Goodreads page with my conclusion. Suffice to say that Thomas Pynchon is, for this reader, one of the four vortices of the magic square, that which is at the heart of my love for contemporary American letters: Pynchon – Stephen King – Neal Stephenson – Bret Easton Ellis. Those guys are, to my mind,  America, through and through.

Re-reading Christian Lorentzen’s review of Bleeding Edge in the 26 September 2013 issue of the LRB, I found myself, a rare event, in some disagreement with the respected editor of the said LRB. Bleeding Edge is not, in my reading, “a period novel” about New-York City’s Silicon Alley, that is merely the backdrop. Bleeding Edge is, literary speaking, about the atrocity, about 9/11, in the same way as Gravity’s Rainbow is about the nazi weapons of reprisal, and their aftermath.

Pynchon’s genius, once again (as, in Gravity’s Rainbow, the surreal connection between Peenemünde and West Africa), is to link the Saudi-perpetrated-and-funded outrage with the preceding, less bloody, but no less potent, disaster: the collapse of the first corporate attempt to subjugate the Internet, known as the “*.com” bubble. The link – shadow of Stephenson’s Snow Crash – is DeepArcher, a “piece of code” that turns out to be a deep metaverse, malevolently seductive to the hero of the tale, Maxine Tarnow, fraud investigator by profession, and to survivors of the outrage. The book mentions a number of fraudulent plots, real or supposed, the main one being the subject of Maxine’s own quest for truth, about Gabriel Ice, corporate predator, pervert, double or triple agent, and purveyor of funds to shadowy Gulf’s paramilitaries.

Thus the novel skirts around the trinity: late capitalism – “War on Terror” and, finally – the Terrorists among us, bankrolled by successive US administrations (the “ben Ladin’s network” and its successors) and the Saudi’s evil empire. In the meantime we get the “period piece” about 2001, which could be described as the last year of innocence of the 21st century. Worse was to come.

Maxine, a hero for our time, is left, bemused, abused – on her own volition – but still kicking, incredibly.

I am taking my time to finish the book, and will write again. Incidentally, my definition of the atrocity, is my own, not Thomas Pynchon’s.

Related articles:

The Crying of September 11

The New American Way of War

#FiveSentenceFiction: Moon

1Q84 Aomame lifted her sight to the skies above: the crescent Moon started appearing behind the clouds, a silver ghost emerging from another world.

Tengo thought his lover had turned into a hopeless romantic, but he also felt the pull.

Soon the second Moon would appear, to confirm they had crossed the frontier between reality and their dreams.

A surge of memories invaded their souls, and slowly the smaller Moon appeared, shrouded with silver mist.

“You see, my love,” said Aomame in a whisper, “Anytime we are about to die, she appears, she’s our destiny…”

Inspired by Haruki Murakami’s immortal novel: 1Q84.

An Aut to Fraa Stephenson, author of Anathem

Anathem: (1) In Proto-Orth, a poetic or musical invocation of Our Mother Hylaea, which since the time of Adrakhones has been the climax of the daily liturgy (hence the Fluccish word Anthem meaning a song of great emotional resonance, esp. one that inspires listeners to sing along). Note: this sense is archaic, and used only in a ritual context where it is unlikely to be confused with the much more commonly used sense 2. (2) In New Orth, an aut by which an incorrigible fraa or suur is ejected from the math and his or her work sequestered (hence the Fluccish word Anathema meaning intolerable statements or ideas). See Throwback.

— the dictionary, 4th edition, A.R. 3000

My name is fraa Arturus the Laterran, tenner at the concent of Saunt Orolo. Ma family was on the Daban Urnud, and after the Second Reconstitution opted to join a colony of Laterrans on Arbre. Those folkes were later the builders of the shrine of Saunt Lise at Ecba. I was collected some thirty years after the founding of the concent by Saunt Erasmas (the Second) and Saunt Ala,  on the site of the launch pad rodded by the Geometers during that short war. By the time of my arrival it was no longer the original timber construction but a magnificent stone building, or rather walled town, almost rivalling the concent of Saunt Tredegarth in its splendour. Aged twenty at the time of my Eliger, I elected and was admitted to the Edharian Math of this concent. You can imagine my joy and pride then: following the steps of Saunt Orolo and Saunt Erasmas! Not a small feat for a descendant of poor Laterran farmers…

Saunt Lise on Ecba This is an important Apert for me as, for the first time in ten years, I am now leaving my concent, for a few years, to retrace, in reverse, the journey of Saunt Orolo, from this concent and over the northern waste, all the way to the concent of Saunt Edhar, for the pilgrimage of a lifetime. I will stop at Ecba to kneel at Saunt Lise’s shrine, visit the new Temple of Orithena, rereading the Dialog of Saunt Orolo and Saunt Erasmas, where they discuss quantum theorics, worldtracks and Saunt Grod’s Machines. On the long journey I will see again the terrible images of the sacrifice of the Valers, the poignant speelie of the return of their coffins and that of Saunt Lise, listen to the Anathem, and to the glorious aunt celebrating the Perelithian Liaison of then Fraa Erasmas and Suur Ala… I will meditate on the mysteries of the Hylean Flow and of the Mathic world that inspired Fraa Stephenson to write this immortal narrative of Fraa Erasmas’s quest.