Between absence and presence

A reading of Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami

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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)

Of a Bottle of Coke, and a Typewriter

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In 1937 the city of Berlin celebrated its 700th anniversary. 1237, was the year when the first artefacts and documents attested of the existence of an organised municipality, in what was then the town of Cölln, as Berlin was still then a mere nearby hamlet. In 1937, the NSDAP, the party of Adolf Hitler, had been in power for four years, following its electoral success in the general elections of 1933. Fleeing the noises and fracas of another election, we visited the most interesting, and beautifully laid-out exhibition “Berlin 1937, Im Schatten von Morgen“, at the Märkisches Museum, Berlin.

Fifty exhibits, photographies, audio recordings, day to day objects, display the day, as it happened, at a time when all organised resistance to the régime had long been brutally suppressed, and the city’s cultural and public life were totally subordinated to the dominating ideology. One can see the Wehrmacht marching, Coca Cola Gmbh doing well, and a typewriter, magnificently manufactured, and doted of a special key for “Schütz-Staffeln” (SS). There are also recordings of letters and diaries of people, then jailed, soon to be directed to an even worse fate, and their murder.

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It all felt strangely close to us, not at all old history. Yet, since, the city saw so many tragedies and as much destruction as the human species can take. We walked those streets, and heard the marching songs. In 1987 Berlin celebrated its 750th anniversary.

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Pictures: courtesy Märkisches Museum, Berlin

Blindly #DailyPrompt

Today’s one-word prompt

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He watches the City born again, the ghosts of the past walking, silently, amidst the joyous crowds. The ancient monuments look old and cleansed, no longer ruins martyred by war. Yet he does not follow the script, blindly, but, rather, reflects on the meanings, the hidden messages, the untold truths. Here were divisions, for sure, and the hideous spectrum of tyranny. But here was courage also. And patient work, and the indomitable spirit of a great nation.

Photo: Brandenburger Tor, von Bundestag cupola, 2017 (Honoré Dupuis)

Teufelsberg, or, of the Vanity of Wars…

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The woods are silent, high above the hills a hawk observes the few walkers: we are aware of what we are treading on: a still intact Nazi building that resisted attempts at destroying it, on top layers after layers of rubbles from ruined homes and monuments destroyed by the war. We admire the views, the lakes on the horizon, the stadium’s tower above the trees, the white city and its domes.

We approach the site through the naked trees, past the climbing rocks, along the double fence. Everything has been vandalised, rubbish strewed over the once well ordered roads. What remains is enough to show the extent of the buildings here, and there is more underground.

What did they listen to? What did they learn? Was there a sane reason for them to be there, for nearly forty years… Was there a sane reason for the division, the pain, the fears?

What do the ghosts think? Or have they given up since the devil persists in haunting those hills?…

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From a visit to Teufelsberg, former NSA listening station in West Berlin.

Envy #TheDailyPost

Write a new post in response to today’s one-word prompt.

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The fools, if only they knew! As we run along the path, near the canal, early in our morning routine, I see them, their eyes on you, on the golden girl, sometime on me… I can read their puzzled minds, jealous, tortured to see what must be a very happy, if odd, couple. Their imagination must run wild.

Our routine takes us all the way to the river. There we undo our running shoes, store them safely in our rucksacks, and we swim to the other side. Then we follow the time honoured path we have for so many years. Back along Unter den Linden, across the Tiergarten, and then down toward Kreuzberg and our small home, our shelter.

The first time we did this we were much younger, if this could make any sense. All around us were ruins. The conquering soldiers could not see us then. We hadn’t yet taken our present forms. Just ghosts, the pitiful remains of two lovers, victims of absolute war.

Why did we stay? Well, it’s our city, we have nowhere else to go. Here are our memories, our friends, hidden, deep in the ground, unlike us, who keep passersby intrigued by the sight of an athletic pair in old fashioned 30’s sport gear.

The depth of sorrow, a reading of “Prague Fatale” by Philip Kerr

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The year is 1942, and the gods of war appear to be still smiling to the conquering nazis. Bernie, back from the Ukrainian front, is in Berlin, already besieged by restrictions, lack of petrol, lack of good bier and of most amenities. In the West, German cities are now targeted by allied bombers.

There is a dead body, on a railway track, near the Jannowitz bridge. It seems to be that of a foreign worker, a Dutchman. Then there is an incident, at Nollendorf Platz station, when Bernie gallantly saves a young woman from an attacker who disappears in the night. Soon afterwards he is called upon by the Gestapo to help on another case, another body in a small park nearby…

As Bernie starts his investigations fate catches him up, in the icy person of his nemesis, Reinhard Heydrich, now protector of Bohemia and Moravia. Bernie is summoned to Prague, seemingly invited to a party organised for “intimate friends”, in celebration of Heydrich’s new post. Foolishly, Bernie takes the young woman with him, the one he rescued at Nolli.

Prague is in the hands of the SS and the Gestapo. Resistance suspects are arrested, tortured and summarily executed. At Heydrich’s residence, Bernie meets a group of nazi officers, and among them a young captain, like him recently returned from the Eastern front. As Bernie spends the night with his girl, the young captain is murdered, and Heydrich orders Bernie to lead the investigation…

Bernie solves the riddle, only to realise, too late, his mistake and to be forced to hopelessly witness the demise of the girl in the hands of the Prague Gestapo. But soon Heydrich himself is assassinated by Czech resistants… This is a bitter, devilish story, with many twists and surprises, as Kerr immerses his reader in the horrors of Prague in 1942.

Picture from “World War II in Prague”

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.”

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“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

 

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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

Pale criminals, a reading of Berlin Noir by Philip Kerr

Bundesarchiv Bild 146-1969-054-16, Reinhard Heydrich

Bernhardt Günther is a tough guy, a survivor of the trenches of the Great War, a cop, a man who loves women, and his city, Faust’s metropolis, Berlin in the 30s.

In March Violets – evoking the cynical opportunists who join the Nazi party late, and buy their way to a low number party card for political advantage – Bernie is a private gumshoe commissioned by a powerful industrialist to recover a precious, and priceless, diamond necklace. The Berlin background of the early years of the Nazi government, the corruption, the fear, the victims, are beautifully drawn, as the plot unfold, at each turn revealing the villainies of a régime that amounts to rule by gangsters. There is more than a diamond necklace in the chase, and Bernie will end up, under the icy blue eyes of Reinhard Heydrich, number 2 in the SS, in the Dachau concentration camp. Bernie survives, by skill and luck.

In the Pale Criminal a sadistic murderer of young aryan women roams the Berlin streets. Sensing a motive that would trouble his sense of law and order, Heydrich drags Bernie back into the Berlin Kriminal Polizei, the Kripo, because he trusts his skills and independence of mind. But there is more to those crimes than one demented mind. As more dead bodies are discovered, and the truth slowly appears, Bernie’s convinced of more horrors to come. The year is 1938, and soon it will be Kristall Nacht, the “spontaneous expression of the German people’s anger”…

A German Requiem finds Bernie in the ruins of Berlin. He has survived the disaster of the Nazi defeat, escaping death both from SS execution squads and Soviet uranium mines. Called upon to save an old acquaintance, a colleague from his Kripo days, accused of the murder of an Americal officer,  Bernie goes to Vienna, the year is 1947. Old Nazis fight for their survival, sometimes by selling their skills to the Americans, or the Soviets. Vienna’s not a heap of burning rubles as Berlin still is, but it’s an occupied city. Black market and prostitution are the main sources of income for the locals, and others. Nothing is what it seems, old enemies may pose as allies, women’s lives are cheap, from the ruins of the old a new world has yet to be born. Bernie fails, and yet resolves the riddle. His wife is in Berlin, he’s in Vienna, and Faust’s metropolis is now blockaded by the Soviets.

Kerr’s knowledge of the Berlin geography and recent history is to be lauded, this backdrop to the character of Bernie Günther perhaps one of  the main charms of the stories. His pictures of villains are remarkable: similarities with gangster-politicians in our time must be the result of sheer coincidence.

Berlin Noir, by Philip Kerr, Penguin Books, 1993

Image: Porträt Reinhard Heydrich in der Uniform eines SS-Gruppenführers ca. 1940/1941, German Federal Archives, Bild 146-1969-054-16

#AtoZChallenge2015: Hegemony

For students of world history, and of world-historical thought, hegemony is one of the Sesame keys: from ancient Greece, to the Italian city-states of the early Renaissance, to the Netherlands of the 17th century, to imperial Great Britain, to todays’ United States of America, the presence of “great powers”, and among them that of a “hegemon”, one country or nation state for a while dominating the others, has been the backdrop of western history.

From Wikipedia: “Hegemony is the political, economic, or military predominance or control of one state over others.[1][2][3][4] In Ancient Greece (8th century BCE – 6th century CE), hegemony denoted the politico–military dominance of a city-state over other city-states.[5] The dominant state is known as the hegemon.[6]

In the 19th century, hegemony came to denote the “Social or cultural predominance or ascendancy; predominance by one group within a society or milieu”. Later, it could be used to mean “a group or regime which exerts undue influence within a society.”[7] Also, it could be used for the geopolitical and the cultural predominance of one country over others; from which was derived hegemonism, as in the idea that the Great Powers meant to establish European hegemony over Asia and Africa.[8]

The Marxist theory of cultural hegemony, associated particularly with Antonio Gramsci, is the idea that the ruling class can manipulate the value system and mores of a society, so that their view becomes the world view (Weltanschauung): in Terry Eagleton’s words, ‘Gramsci normally uses the word hegemony to mean the ways in which a governing power wins consent to its rule from those it subjugates’.[9]

Ancient Greece under the hegemony of Thebes, 371–362 BCE

In cultural imperialism, the leader state dictates the internal politics and the societal character of the subordinate states that constitute the hegemonic sphere of influence, either by an internal, sponsored government or by an external, installed government.”

From Giovanni Arrighi “The Long Twentieth Century”:

“A dominant state exercises a hegemonic function if it leads the system of states in a desired direction and, in so doing, is perceived as pursuing a general interest. It is this kind of leadership that makes the dominant state hegemonic. But a dominant state may lead also in the sense  that it draws other states onto its own path of development… This second kind of leadership can be designated as ‘leadership against one’s own will’ because, over time, it enhances competition for power rather than the power of the hegemon.”

From Christopher Layne (“The Peace of Illusions”):

“When World War II ended, the Soviet Union was the only obstacle to US global hegemony, and in the first postwar decade Washington’s principal grand strategic goal was to secure that hegemony by removing the Soviet Union as a peer competitor. The United States emerged from the war in a position of unparalleled geopolitical preeminence, and the scope of America’s interests expanded concomitantly, and indeed, had done so  while the war was still ongoing. Once the war ended, Washington’s perceptions of the Soviet threat to those interests began to grow. As a result, US and Soviet  interests collided… in Europe, the Middle East, and Northeast Asia, which contributed to the intensification of postwar Soviet-American tensions that culminated in the cold war… America’s main grand strategic aim was to secure its global hegemony by bringing these potential poles of power [Germany and Japan]  into its orbit and thereby prevent them from emerging as challengers  to US predominance.”

While reading through this post, I realised I had already written on the subject, for last year’s challenge! Which shows either (or both) my lack of imagination, or continued interest in the subject…