A peculiar feeling, I wonder if you’ve had it: I stop at a stoplight not far from our house. I know this light well; ten thousand times it’s turned red on me and always stays red at least three beats too long. On the southeast corner, to my left as I wait, is a homegrown karate studio called Progressive Martial Arts. It’s cracked and fallen whitewash gives the small concrete building all the charm of an oft-washed and tumbled dollar bill. A large single pane of glass frames the gi-clad students who chop, kick and roll through their katas. I watch them. My blue Toyota, which needs hubcaps, idles. I watch, and as I watch it all seems altered, made strange, like a photographic negative of this mundane occurrence of which I and my idling car have ten thousand times been a part. Sam has died.
The genius of Cezanne was the flattened canvas. Perspective, he saw, was the great illusion. Mt. St. Victoire becomes a blue density as near as the greens, roses and ochers of the abutting valley forest and towns. Everything in a pervasive visual present tense. Beautiful, but imagine living in such a world.
What settles over me, as surely as the damp florescent light settles over the sweating students inside the studio, is that I will never again stop at this traffic light, watch the karate dance, then continue on the one and a half minutes to my house where Sam waits, where Sam plants the leeks he’s sprouted, where Sam practices Beethoven’s Op. 111., where Sam composes, or arranges American carols for the Symphony’s Christmas concert, where he revolves in the kitchen preparing his special Moroccan lentil soup, where he helps the dog say her prayers over her food bowl, where he will hug me, where we will, all too frequently, fail each others’ tests of patience.
I’m not, in common parlance, a believer. And yet my love for God, or the idea of God, has so far proved intransigent against all my well-founded protestations. I lay them like dynamite against the stone face of faith and all that blasts forth are chalices and wafers. I’ve learned to accept this. But here’s one thing I cannot accept, that God would pull a stunt like giving someone a long-term, complex, finally terminal illness because it expedites some “divine plan”. Nor do I believe God would do this for some blithe moral imperative, either “for the good” of the sufferer, or, worse, those around him. I could never worship such a self-important busybody. What I believe is that, if there is a God, God inheres somehow in Enormity itself. Death is an enormity. I crumple before it in rage, grief, and terror as before a flaming bush. I want no part of it. But that, to the bush, is neither here nor there. And along with God, or the idea of God, along with the furnace blast, the Holy Danger the meeting of God can sometimes entail, there comes, too, so I am told, the idea of a promised land.
The light changes. I leave the martial dance to the dancers. I drive across flattened space the no distance at all to my front door. The bush breaks into flame. Can’t very well stay out on the front porch.
Sam. For you, my love:
THE SEASON OF PHANTASMAL PEACE
Then all the nations of birds lifted together
the huge net of the shadows of this earth
in multitudinous dialects, twittering tongues,
stitching and crossing it. They lifted up
the shadows of long pines down trackless slopes,
the shadows of glass-faced towers down evening streets,
the shadow of a frail plant on a city sill—
the net rising soundless as night, the birds’ cries soundless, until
there was no longer dusk, or season, decline, or weather,
only this passage of phantasmal light,
that not the narrowest shadow dared to sever.
And men could not see, looking up, what the wild geese drew,
what the ospreys trailed behind them in silvery ropes
that flashed in the icy sunlight; they could not hear
battalions of starlings waging peaceful cries,
bearing the net higher, covering this world
like the vines of an orchard, or a mother drawing
the trembling gauze over the trembling eyes
of a child fluttering to sleep;
it was the light
that you will see at evening on the side of a hill
in yellow October, and no one hearing knew
what change had brought into the raven’s cawing,
the killdeer’s screech, the ember-circling chough
such an immense, soundless, and high concern
for the fields and cities where birds belong,
except it was their seasonal passing, Love,
made seasonless, or, from the high privilege of their birth,
something brighter than pity for the wingless ones
below them who shared dark holes in windows and in houses,
and higher they lifted the net with soundless voices
above all change, betrayals of falling suns,
and this season lasted one moment, like the pause
between dusk and darkness, between fury and peace,
but, for such as our earth is now, it lasted long.
— Derek Walcott
SAMUEL B. LANCASTER, July 9, 1944 – May 11, 2013
What was Chinua Achebe thinking? It was his only manuscript, and handwritten.
I picture him as a young man living in Lagos, carefully stashing in his suitcase the manuscript for the novel he has begun. It is 1956, and the BBC has given him a scholarship to study in London. The first non-Nigerian soil he will have ever set foot on will afford him a glimpse of the world from which had come his beloved Dickens, Shakespeare, Tennyson, as well as the captivating colonial pablum of Sir Henry Rider Haggard, whose tribal African characters, malign brutes driven by bestial cunning, had filled Achebe with a distressing loathing for his own. It had also given him Joseph Conrad, a writer of greatness, himself an immigrant, who, ironically, may have shaped his destiny as a writer more than any other because there came a moment when he realized he was not numbered among the noble race on Marlow’s boat steaming up the Congo in Heart of Darkness, “rather, I was one of those unattractive beings jumping up and down on the riverbank, making horrid faces.” Conrad’s famous book set up a fortuitous dissonance between his reading and the eloquence of the Christian ministers and Igbo elders who formed him as a child, one which made the manuscript he had so carefully tucked under his few clothes in that suitcase a fierce necessity.
London. Dickens’ hotbed: I imagine the twenty-six year old Chinua Achebe, furrow-browed, and, on account of the latitude, just a little chilly, taking in his new surroundings, running all the novel sensory input coming at him against all he knows of life in Nigeria, learning as much about his homeland as about London. Less color here. Fewer flies. Post-war scarring notwithstanding, it is clear where power lies. Things fall apart here too, but no one lets on.
He meets a man named Gilbert Phelps, a novelist and, incredibly, a critic of African literature. Phelps introduces this intense young African to the English way of drinking pints, over which they discuss the work of Achebe’s compatriot, Amos Tutuola, whose novel, Palm-Wine Drinkard, had finally been published in England in 1952, and about why it had taken six years. They go back and forth about the work of Achebe’s other compatriot, Cyprian Ekwensi, whose novel, People of the City, had come out just two years earlier to become the first book by a Nigerian to have made it onto international shelves. How amazed they both must be to be talking about these things. Achebe goes back to his quarters, spends a sleepless night, by the end of which he has reached a decision. He gathers up his manuscript and brings it to Phelps. His novel, set in the late nineteenth century, about a local Igbo (or “Ibo”) wrestling champion and yam farmer, whose people suffer the influence of British colonialism and Christian missionaries, is now in the hands of one of the race of colonizers. One of those on the riverbank has handed over the product of his mind to one on deck.
Phelps loves what he reads. He tells Achebe that he has produced a great book which must be published. But Marlow’s world has left him changed. There is so much more that must be said than he had realized. Back in Lagos he finds that his manuscript has, quite unbeknownst to him, divided in two. He takes up what has become the first part, in which his former wrestler, Okonkwo, rises out of poverty to become a wealthy landowner, then a murderer, and finally a suicide, and shapes it into a tragedy worthy of Aeschylus. The pages burn so bright with counter-Conradian fire that he can work well into the heavy nights without a light. One morning, he wakes, steps out into the sub-Saharan sun, blinks, rubs his nose once, and realizes he has finished.
Now, what’s an African writer to do? He knows he has something powerful on his hands, a fiction different from that of Tutuola, different from Ekwensi, whom he admires. But he knows, too, that the world into which he wants to introduce it, like a firebrand onto the deck of a Congo-trolling steamboat, will snuff it like a cigarette butt unless it has the right look. And so he gathers up the pages and like a parent sending off a child he sends them, along with 22£, back across the continents, to a typing service in London. He has done the right thing. Surely.
And I’m left wondering what he was thinking. Upon what reserves of faith did he draw, tapping what vein of idealism, or was it plain naiveté, to conceive that he could entrust the one and only copy of his manuscript to the transcontinental post, bound, unheralded, for the crowded desks and files of a typing service in London, without imagining that it could be lost along the way, or, assuming it arrived as intended, that those who received it would not regard it – a novel apparently, from Africa? – as some kind of joke? I find it moving beyond words that he was already living, mentally, in the kind of world he hoped his novel would be, in some small way, an agent of.
And it seems for a moment he will be vindicated. How quickly he tears open the envelope with the agency’s reply. It says that for two typed copies they require 32£, which he promptly sends, then settles in to wait out the weeks. Then the months. A season or two. Those around him begin to note to each other how emaciated Chinua is becoming. After many months, it seems clear that his manuscript is lost – to him, and to the world. Late in life he will acknowledge that the fate of his own character, Okonkwo, could have been his as well.
To those among us not destined to be artists, let us hope will fall the role of advocate. Angela Beattie, an Englishwoman abroad, could choose not to bother with her brainy and ever more apparently troubled employee, Chinua. Surely she has enough on her mind unpacking how she has come to hold this position with the Nigerian Broadcasting Service here in swarming Lagos. But she does bother. She finds out what has left Chinua so reduced, and when next she travels home to London, she seeks out the delinquent agency and unleashes a righteous furry. “And when they saw a real person come out of the vague mess of the British colonies,” Achebe will later write, “they knew it was no longer a joke.” He got his copy – one copy, never the paid-for second.
He sends it to a British agent, recommend by his friend Phelps, who gets it to the desk of a publishing house called Heinemann. Once again it meets with skepticism. A novel apparently, from Africa? They seek an informed opinion. A London professor by the name of Donald McRae, the imprint of travel in West Africa still reddening his mind, gives them seven words, all they need, calling it, “The best first novel since the war.” And so Heinemann, the publishing house which sixty years earlier had published Joseph Conrad’s The Nigger of the Narcissus, introduces Chinua Achebe to the world with Things Fall Apart.
And so began one of the century’s great literary careers. As early as 1973 his name began to be mentioned in connection with The Nobel Prize. But when, in 1986, the Nobel committee was finally ready to touch its scepter to the shoulders of an African, the honor fell to Achebe’s compatriot Wole Soyinka. Over the years, three more Africans won, each having stepped through the door Achebe opened. Nadine Gordimer called him “the father of modern African literature.” American laureate Toni Morrison, who wrote an essay on Achebe back in the 1960′s, found his work “liberating in a way nothing had been before.” Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who has been increasingly in the sights of Nobel hounds, owes his emergence onto the world stage directly to Achebe’s championing of his first novel. “Achebe bestrides generations and geographies,” he has said. “Every country in Africa claims him as their own. Some sayings in his novels are quoted frequently as proverbs that contain universal wisdom.”
Still, no Nobel. Reconciling Achebe’s worldwide eminence, which The New York Times has noted “was rivaled only by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Toni Morrison and a handful of others,” with his apparent inability to be sufficiently interesting to Stockholm, has for decades been a mental exercise among his admirers. Arguments coalesce, rather thinly I think, around the Conrad issue. Achebe’s lifelong criticism of this sacred cow of the modern Western canon must, they think, have inoculated him against a Nobel. As if, having gained the respect of those on board that Congo steamer, he should have had the grace to ascend the gangway they had lowered for him. Well, perhaps. Then there is the language question. Even as Things Fall Apart was blazing the trail that over the next few decades would widen into a highway, Achebe was lambasted for writing in the language of the colonizers. With the steady depreciation of the idea of colonialism, attention has begun to fall, quite rightly, on the endangerment of native languages. Achebe may have made Ngugi wa Thiong’o's career possible, but writing in Gikuyu has made the Kenyan the more ascendant Nobel contender.
Achebe himself didn’t worry much about the Nobel. He had much greater ambitions: “I would be quite satisfied,” he said, “if my novels did no more than teach [African] readers that their past was not one long night of savagery from which the first Europeans, acting on God’s behalf, delivered them.”
Last year Carlos Fuentes deprived the Nobel committee the honor of making him a laureate. Last month it fell to Achebe to do the same.
Chinua Achebe, 1930 – 2013
She insists, that flinty Elizabeth Bishop, that “the art,” (how coy) “of losing isn’t hard to master.” She presumably would know. Considering my response over the weekend to this blog going apparently missing, I’m clearly a slow study. I believe I was somewhat less infantile than I was on my fortieth birthday when I gave myself whiplash by looking rather too sharply over my shoulder at what I believed to be my years of hope and possibility streaming away from me, but I was in no sense composed. Put yourself in my suspenders: On Friday night, when I attempted to visit my two-year-old plot of cyber-acreage which I had named, quite wittily I thought, “The Stockholm Shelf”, I found my access blocked by an image of a smiling blonde female student, as intransigent as she was impertinent, presiding over a list of Stockholm-related links: Stockholm restaurants, Stockholm hotels, Stockholm furniture, Stockholm garden hoses, as well as a few items only identifiable in Swedish. I can mark the absurd, and even sometimes laugh at it, on two conditions, that it not be violent, and that it not affect me personally. Irrational, I know, but the latter always feels like the former. That is to say, Ms. Bishop, “like disaster.”
Thankfully, the problem was only a glitch in my web host’s system which prevented it from acknowledging the renewal of my contract. The woman who caught my wailing at the receiving end of the help-line, whom I couldn’t help picturing of an age with that insipid blonde girl barring my path, barely suppressed her own sigh of dismay to explain that they had received exactly the same complaint numerous times over the past week and that the one technician able to fix the problem would apply himself to my site as soon as he could get to it. When on Monday I checked for the four-hundredth time, and the blonde girl was gone, and the reassuring layout of my WordPress dashboard met met my gaze with the equivalent of a raised brow, as if wondering where I had been, I nearly cried.
It put me in mind of Hemingway and his lost valise. No help-line to call, no contending with dumb technology, although there was a girl involved, all those months and years of hard creative labor, the efforts to invent himself, gone, all at once, simply. Although – and here’s the absurd part – it wasn’t really gone. Someone had it. At least for awhile.
Ernest Hemingway and Elizabeth Hadley Richardson in Switzerland
The story goes that in December of 1922, while living in Paris and working as a correspondent for The Toronto Daily Star, Ernest Hemingway was placed on assignment in Switzerland to cover the Lausanne Peace Conference. While he had, by then, written some twenty four stories, twenty poems, and had a novel, probably A Farewell to Arms, well underway, he had not published a word of it. At the conference, he became reacquainted with a journalist and editor by the name of Lincoln Stevens, whom he had met once before in Genoa, Italy. Stevens was suitably impressed by Ernest’s writing and asked to see more. To this end, his wife, Elizabeth Hadley Richardson (his first, though at the time there was no intimation that she would eventually be so designated), who had stayed behind in their flat in Le Quartier Latin, packed up her husband’s writing, all of it, in a suitcase and and set out to meet him in Lausanne. At some point, while the Swiss-bound train sat, hissing and massive, in the Gare de Lyon in Paris, Hadley, as she was called, and the valise parted ways. Whether she had handed it to a porter or simply left it unattended, when she returned to her cabin, it was gone, together, I would imagine, with the contents of her bladder, or very nearly.
The leading theory is that it was stolen. One feels for the thief. Imagine taking the trouble to swipe a valise, thinking it contained valuables, and finding it contained only sheafs of paper, scrawled and typed on. All that risk for a bulky item that then just needed to be disposed of, burned, buried, stashed, or perhaps thrown into the Seine. Once accomplished, the poor fellow would have faced whatever fortune remained to his days, never understanding that, if he had simply held on to the thing for a scant thirty two years, he would have had in his possession a treasure of inestimably greater value than whatever his most far-flung imaginings could have placed in that unprepossessing suitcase. To have in your hands even one Hemingway manuscript, and not to know it was a Hemingway manuscript, or what that would mean one day not too distant, and to let it go, it puts me in mind of Pablo Neruda’s prediction of the fate awaiting someone who has never read Julio Cortazar, the lack acting upon him as “a serious invisible disease which in time can have terrible consequences. Something similar to a man who has never tasted peaches. He would quietly become sadder… and, probably, little by little, he would lose his hair.”
To say nothing of how it affected Ernest Hemingway. He himself could not have known at the time what losing a Hemingway manuscript would one day mean, or not the extent of it. But he knew what it meant to him at the time, and something, no doubt, of what he hoped it would, or could, mean to the world, and somehow, despite all his efforts to think otherwise, Hadley wasn’t quite as pretty as she had been in November.
In January 1923, Hemingway confided to Ezra Pound in a letter: “I suppose you heard about the loss of my Juvenalia (Hemingway’s misspelling)? Went up to Paris last week to see what was left and found that Hadley had made the job complete by including all carbons, duplicates, etc. All that remains of my complete works are three pencil drafts of a bum poem which was later scrapped, some correspondence between John McClure and me, and some journalistic carbons. You, naturally, would say, ‘Good’ etc. But don’t say it to me. I ain’t yet reached that mood.”
Not quite true that it was all that remained of his complete works. Two stories survived the disaster: “My Old Man,” which was actually in the hands of a magazine editor at the time, and “Up In Michigan”, which he had buried in a drawer after Gertrude Stein declared it good but, with its disturbing sexual content, inaccrochable.
Yes, you read correctly. “Inaccrochable.”
Pound’s response was that all he had actually lost was the time it would take to rewrite the pieces anyway. Hemingway rallied, and by 1925 had produced In Our Time, the book of stories that introduced the world to what would soon be, and forever after, known as the “Hemingway style”.
The Gare de Lyon
Many years later, with a Nobel Prize behind him, Hemingway recalled the loss of his early manuscripts. “It was probably a good thing it was lost,” he wrote in A Moveable Feast, “When I had written a novel before, the one that had been lost in the bag stolen at the Gare de Lyon, I still had the lyric facility of boyhood that was as perishable and deceptive as youth was.” Here, then, is a great writer’s take on loss, that after it shakes one where one lives, after the dust settles, after the ruins are assessed, it is revealed as a fundamentally ambivalent beast. The nerve endings heal or habituate, the scars are for keeps, and something that may not have been otherwise possible can come forth and change everything. In order for Hemingway to become what he was, it was most important for him to loose what he wasn’t.
The teapot tempest of my three-days-missing blog put me in mind of Hemingway’s lost valise. It then occurred to me that, while Hemingway is a fine writer, he’s not so special as to be the only fine writer to have lost irreplaceable work. I had forgotten, for example, that Toni Morrison’s house burned down on Christmas Day, 1993, just three weeks after her trip to Stockholm. A little web-surfing turned up others among the Nobel laureates who had sustained similar losses. Pearl Buck, Tagore, Soltzhenitsyn, each experienced manuscripts gone missing. In upcoming posts, I’ll share their stories.
Everyone wants a Nobel Prize. Chilean poet Nicanor Parra feels he should get the “Nobel Prize for Reading”. How many aspiring writers feel they have the “Nobel Prize for Potential” in the bag? Nobel dreams arise from feelings of being unseen. One goggles out of one’s cranium at the wider world and sees the attention of those whose attention seems to matter being directed elsewhere, towards others, and one feels cut adrift, less than fully real, even, perhaps, mortally threatened. What people are really wanting when they want a Nobel Prize is to be seen and validated. It’s part of the human legacy to feel, somewhere along the line, unappreciated, misunderstood, not fully recognized. But for some, for whatever reason, the feeling carries an especially strong charge, giving rise to the sense that only something “ultimate” can break it. Winning a Nobel Prize means being seen, and validated, ultimately.
What goes for individuals can also go for whole cultures. Last October, The People’s Republic of China scored, if not its first Nobel Prize, then the first it can make use of in its rambunctious, somewhat hysterical pursuit of validation. Novelist Mo Yan’s win means that China can now punch the air over its invitation onto the cultural playing field. The Western cultural playing field, that is. The power it currently holds is based, in part, on their choice to match or surpass the shots the West had called. “About time, a Nobel,” said the regime.
To prolong the afterglow, the Chinese government has invested the equivalent of 110 million dollars to transform Mo’s hometown, the village of Ping’an, a backwater of eight hundred souls in the province of Shandong, into a theme park, the “Mo Yan Culture Experience Zone”. In a nod to Mo Yan’s famous novel Red Sorghum, the government has also mandated the cultivation, “by real peasants”, of 1,600 acres of sorghum, a now useless crop that hasn’t been planted in decades. I strain to imagine an equivalent response anywhere. Imagine the United States congress pushing through a bill to create a William Faulkner theme park in rural Mississippi, exhibiting the mentally impaired, incestuously conceived, and the suicidal, skulking about movie set mansions, with matches, while a near-by cotton field is tended by real free blacks.
Because his fiction often takes on social ills and petty government corruption, many readers see Mo Yan as a gadfly biting the ears of the regime. He has, himself, made much of being a critic of the system “from within the system.” This could explain why his books sing with something of the system’s nasality. With his sprawling historical revisions, incorporation of fantastical elements, and adolescent good-naturedness about sex and violence, he has become an exponent of a what appears to be a dominant strain of the modern Chinese aesthetic sensibility. It is, in essence, a romantic sensibility, rife with exceptionalism and teleological imperative, which hog-ties historical fact against the demands of operatic myth making. As in Romanticism’s more bombastic manifestations, it has little to do with self-understanding and much to do with theatrical projection. For China, the audience for this theater is the rest of the world, with box seats for the First World West. Its stage-managed ploy to be seen and validated by this audience has often resulted in an aggressive tawdriness. Witness the teenaged neon-lit skylines of their millennia-old metropolises. Witness the 2008 Beijing Olympics, a veritable tribal orgasm of overweening muchness. The Three Gorges Dam, whatever its state-proclaimed justification, is, first and foremost, an expression of defiant gigantism, more exhibit than solution. If Mo Yan sometimes criticizes this China, he does so in a prose which this China understands. Now, his books, too, along with his very celebrity, have become exhibits.
In Mo Yan’s 1992 novel, The Republic of Wine, the central government has dispatched special investigator Ding Gao’er to a district called “Liquorland” where he is charged with getting to the bottom of rumors about a decadent culinary practice involving the braising of human baby boys in red sauce. Upon arrival, he is invited to a banquet in his honor, where, after being forced by cultural mores to drink himself blind, he is served what appears to be the dish in question. He is appropriately horrified. The officials hosting the banquet try to calm him, explaining how valuable this dish has been to the region.
‘This is a famous dish in these parts… It’s called Stork Delivering a Son. We serve it to visiting dignitaries. It’s a dish they won’t forget for as long as they live, one that has drawn nothing but praise. We’ve earned a lot of convertible currency for the nation by serving it to our most honored guests.’ (75)
Ding is unpersuaded. In drunken protest, he pulls out his gun and shoots the head off this “incredibly fragrant little boy.”
The drive for caché with the West is even more explicit in a scene depicting a cooking lesson given by a master chef to a group of anxious culinary students. She tells them,
‘As long as you can command the skill of cooking meat boys you’ll never have to worry about a thing, no matter where you go. Don’t you all want to go abroad? So long as you can handle this superior dish, it’s as good as holding a permanent visa in your hand. You can conquer the foreigners, be they Yanks, Krauts, or whatever.” (224)
The comment is slapdash; nowhere else in the novel is it suggested that outside interest has made a local instance of cannibalism exportable. But Mo is being colorful, and a tidy argument would mute his vivid palette.
Ding Gao’er is less a character than a type, recognizable from earliest films noir: the washed-up randy detective, full of posture, and pitiful. The target of his investigation is a local party leader named Diamond Jin, whose godlike charisma goofily stems from his ability to hold his liquor by the apparent swimming pool-full. Such gifts obtain in Liquorland. Ding gets into a made-to-order mess by falling for Diamond’s chip-shouldering, truck-driving girlfriend, who essentially rapes him for blackmail. The final showdown – not with Diamond Jin, but with the girlfriend, as by the end of his story he has completely abandoned the investigation for which he was hired – occurs in a popular watering hole called the Yichi Tavern, owned by a toad-like dwarf named Yu Yichi, able to walk on ceilings, and whose goal, well within sight, is to sleep with every beautiful girl in Liquorland. By the time Ding’s story ends, at the bottom of an open-air privy, where, in retrospect, it had been heading all along, he has become the novel’s only confirmed murderer.
I refer to Ding Gao’er’s story to distinguish it from the two other narrative lines of the novel. The second takes the form of an epistolary exchange between a famous novelist named Mo Yan, who is writing a book fortuitously called The Republic of Wine, and an aspiring young writer named Li Yidou. Mo Yan bears a striking resemblance to the author of the book in hand: overweight, a Kung fu novel aficionado, with a novel called Red Sorghum already under his belt, which – he’s understandably proud of this – was made into a successful movie by the famous director, Zhang Yimou. He is demure about his reputation: “I have no grounding in literary theory and hardly any ability to appreciate art,” he writes. “Any song and dance from me would be pointless.”
Li Yidou lives in Liquorville, where he writes his stories while studying for his Ph.D. in – can you guess? – “liquor studies.” Mo Yan is suitably impressed. “I envy you more than is probably good for me,” he writes.
If I were a doctor of liquor studies, I doubt I’d waste my time writing novels. In China, which reeks of liquor, can there be any endeavor with greater promise or a brighter future than the study of liquor, any field that bestows more abundant benefits? In the past, it was said that ‘in books there are castles of gold, in books there are casks of grain, in books there are beautiful women.’ But the almanacs of old had their shortcomings, and the word ‘liquor’ would have worked better than ‘books.’
Despite such coyness, he does offer advice, which mostly involves complimenting the idealistic young man on his prodigious imagination, and suggesting ways to make the stories attractive to a state-sponsored literary rag called Citizen’s Literature.
The stories themselves comprise the third narrative line of the novel. The first few stories address the same nasty business of the meat boys under investigation by Mo Yan’s Ding Gao’er. Among Li Yidou’s recurring characters is a precocious toddler who stages an escape among his fellow toddlers being held in waiting at the culinary institute. In other stories, the same figure morphs into an adolescent boy with scales instead of skin, a kind of trickster making trouble for the government officials. One story recounts how Li’s father-in-law, a respected professor at the Brewer’s college, leaves behind civilization to research the phenomenon of “ape liquor”, wine made by great apes who throw fruit into a natural stone cistern where it ferments, reputed to be the finest liquor in the world. He shares with Mo Yan the character Yu Yichi, the dwarf who owns the famous Liquorville tavern where Ding Gao’er makes his final descent. In keeping with the novel’s gustatory theme, one of the dishes he describes being served at the tavern consists of the genitalia of a male and a female donkey arranged just so on a plate and given the appellation, “Dragon and Phoenix Lucky Together”. The best of Li’s stories and the best writing in the book, is about his mother-in-law, with whom he is erotically fixated, who, in her youth, accompanied her father and uncles to remote caves by the ocean where they harvested, at tremendous, even tragic, personal risk, the swallow’s nests so in demand by China’s most expensive restaurants.
The Republic of Wine feels chaotic. Just what Mo Yan hopes his readers will pull from the chaos seems unclear. His rather broad-stroke metaphor – local government officials sanctioning eating the male children of their own people – is clearly intended to be subversive. That this novel was initially refused publication in China is not surprising. But neither is it surprising that, after the release of a Taiwanese edition, its attributes, we’ll say – I hesitate calling them merits – were reconsidered. The novel, it turns out, actually works in The Party’s favor: In Mo Yan’s fictional country, corruption lies, not in Beijing, with a government known for violent suppression of the populous (the Tiananmen Square Protests had occurred just three years earlier) but in the outposts, where local party leaders surreptitiously practice a gruesome caricature of capitalistic hedonism. While seeming to decry florid abuses of power, it, in fact, leaves China’s central government unscathed and heart of the system remains pure. Approving such a work looks good for the regime, and Mo Yan gets to play both sides. Or so it seems.
One thing I can say unequivocally after reading this novel is that I find the Nobel Committee’s reference to Garcia Marquez in their citation incredible: Lots of writers include fantastical elements in their novels who neither merit nor require a Garcia Marquez pin. In the case of Mo Yan, sentence by sensibility, there is no less apt a comparison. The Colombian master is an infinitely more careful, more painstaking, writer. His fantasy all signifies, while Mo’s frequently seems gratuitous, as if he thought of it thirty seconds before writing it. As with his use of sex and violence, the flights of fancy, what the Nobel citation calls “hallucinatory realism”, seem included only to raise the decibel level, and a kind of puerile hysteria, like a room full of second graders doing the underpants dance. I am surprised at The Committee’s superficial reading, of both authors.
Equally incredible is The Washington Post’s endorsement of this novel, invoking Gorky and Solzhenitsyn. In an article called a “The Diseased Language of Mo Yan”, which appeared in The Kenyon Review, Anna Sun, a professor of Sociology and Asian Studies at Kenyon, contrasts Mo Yan with the greatest writers who have tackled the harshest social ills, suggesting that Mo lacks “aesthetic conviction.” She writes, “The effect of Mo Yan’s work is not illumination through skilled and controlled exploitation, but disorientation and frustration due to his lack of coherent aesthetic consideration. There is no light shining on the chaotic reality of Mo Yan’s hallucinatory world.” She goes after the writing itself, demonstrating how it fails to rise above “Mao-ti”, or “Mao-speak”‘ a language which survived the Cultural Revolution, when the state forced literature to break with its long literary heritage.
Open any page, and one is treated to a jumble of words that juxtaposes rural vernacular, clichéd socialist rhetoric, and literary affectation. It is broken, profane, appalling, and artificial; it is shockingly banal. The language of Mo Yan is repetitive, predictable, coarse, and mostly devoid of aesthetic value. The English translations of Mo Yan’s novels, especially by the excellent Howard Goldblatt, are in fact superior to the original in their aesthetic unity and sureness. The blurb for The Republic of Wine from Washington Post says: “Goldblatt’s translation renders Mo Yan’s shimmering poetry and brutal realism as work akin to that of Gorky and Solzhenitsyn.” But in fact, only the “brutal realism” is Mo Yan’s; the “shimmering poetry” comes from a brilliant translator’s work.
Even with Goldblatt’s heroic efforts, I, for one, experienced more shuddering than shimmering, at bald clichés and flat, unlayered prose.
Calling Mo Yan’s Nobel Prize “a catastrophe”, will likely prove one of Herta Müller’s most enduring public statements. The Swedish Academy’s decision to honor a writer who has refused to support dissident writers, and who has publicly attested to the usefulness of censorship, is, to her, an abomination. Yet, Mo Yan himself insists that his win is “a literature victory, not a political victory.” Echoing his position, the Nobel Committee had its perennial protestation, about the non-political, purely literary focus of the award all primed and ready to spray over the arguments of the expected detractors. Far more expert readers than me have persuasively argued the impossibility of such a clear separation of art from ideology, and it seems to me that Mo Yan would do well to invite the political foment, if only to distract readers from his actual writing.
Still, if read as a cultural artifact, The Republic of Wine holds a certain fascination. And I’m ready and willing to concede that my grimaced reading may, to some extent, be a cultural mis-reading. Clearly, his wild popularity in China avers that he has seen something compelling about China’s moment, and validated the experience of its people, or some important and unavoidable aspect of it. And who am I to say the favor shouldn’t be returned. While I find his political choices disturbing, to say the least, I cannot join those who cry that Stockholm should, for that reason alone, disinvite him from its table. If the artistry holds up, nothing more need be said. To me, it doesn’t. But then, he’s speaking for a country that would make a theme park out of his celebrity.
On-line references (Each of these, especially the second and third, are worth reading):
It can’t be done: after riding through the romantic landscape of Christmas on the rippling back of reassuring cultural signifiers and emotional triggers, one cannot dismount without one’s foot sinking into a steaming pile of religion. Best to know where one stands.
As far as belief goes, I am agnostic. Don’t grin. What other position is there for the befuddled, the timid, those of us unable, or unwilling to take a bold and heartening leap of faith in either direction? I’m guessing that most of us in this rather weak-kneed tribe strongly suspect the atheists of having the upper hand. Otherwise why not just be a believer and relax? But, however hard I try to defend against the seductions of religion, or even against the impure thoughts a simple belief in God can lead to, I am, at heart, and when it comes down to it, besotted. What my foot sinks into this time of year, especially when dismounting the culture’s sentimental Christmas warhorse, smells good to me.
I could go on about my lifelong slow dance with Christianity, from the flinty Calvinism in which I was raised, through the mystical traditions and Liberation Theology which spoke loudly to me in college, to my current, and most homelike, resting spot in a “high church” episcopalian congregation. I cannot deny my roving eye; other religions have always enthralled. So-called “Eastern religion”, for one, rather predictably perhaps, given my placement in white, educated middle class, post-1960′s America. But more beguiling has been Judaism, especially that of the Hasidim. I’ve always found profoundly affirming their huge, often unhinged desire for God paired with an ultimate despair of ever being able to cozy up to Him. Through it all, no matter how jilted, injured, or lost they may be, they never let go of that great desire, flamelike and pungent. They can’t. Just as, in the end, I can’t let go the great arc of the Christian narrative.
I think the reason, beyond its cultural cache, the ever-gripping theater of the Eucharist, the art, the music, the poetry, Bach, beyond the reassuring ease with which I recognize Christianity’s outlines and thereby know my wits and whereabouts, or think I do, the reason it continues to compel me is the vocabulary it provides for talking about matters of far greater import than Christianity itself. The story of Christ’s birth alone, beginning with the annunciation, through its gathering of shepherds, beasts, imperial dictates and petty kings, magi, stable, star, and all the rest, delivers into our fumbling hands almost every tool for living, if not always happily or safely, then always beautifully, rightly, and with greatest fullness. Perhaps my favorite verses in Luke’s famous second chapter are 15 and 16: “And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into Heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which The Lord hath made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger.” How I love these ragtags, who, after having the pants scared off of them, refused to brood or cower, but decided then and there to go, and, by making haste, found, found what amazed them, and found what filled with wonder all who heard their account. I am slow, I find, in learning to live like this.
Add to this the rest, Christ’s life, works, death and resurrection, what Wallace Stevens called “that old catastrophe”, and what emerges is perhaps the most complex and complete portrait of a deity, at once full-throated and dazzlingly nuanced, of any of the world’s religions, not merely a vision of God, but a god who is, godself, visionary. So that when absurdity beyond measure lands on Newtown, Connecticut, the dean of the cathedral I attend can say to us, “We should not be asking ‘How could God let this happen?’ Rather it is God who asks us, ‘How could you let this happen?’ Such is not God’s vision for us.” And hearing him say this, it strikes me that we have, by and large, so far at least, been content to stop at being terrified by the angels, cowering, brooding, and so have yet to hear what they have announced, and have yet to decide to go, and in the going itself, “with haste”, to find. For Christianity this is the heart of the matter, what we are here for. With such a compelling narrative, mere “belief” seems beside the point.
And now it is Christmas Day. In our part of the world, as the Earth continues to warm, an enervating brown has become the new white against which we pin our glittering hopes. But last night a light, gracious dusting of snow came while we were at church singing Gloria in excelsis deo, and has remained. Late last week the last of the Newtown slaughtered was, as we say, “laid to rest” in a land which, for the living among us, remains rest-free. I’ve just taken a cake out of the oven. It’s a French version of a cheese cake made with chèvre and whipped egg whites. Later I’ll mix honey with Heering cherry liquor for drizzling. We’ll have this after roast chicken and root vegetables. Sam thinks the roasted roots are a bit if a cliche, but I love them. Our friend Terri has joined us. Our friend Mary Louise will soon be arriving with her marvelous dog, Molly. We’ll exchange a few gifts, which will consist primarily of music and books. We will all acknowledge, whether aloud or in our hearts how good it is that Sam is with us restless ones this year. This is how, today at least, we will love. And we will hold, like the Hasidim, our love, our desire, for God or the idea of God, for each other, for living. No agnosticism here, in this I believe with conviction, that this is how, for today at least, we will go, find, and be found.
The Christmas Star
by Gabriela Mistral (tr. Maria Giachetti)
A little girl
she caught and carries a star.
She goes flying, making the plants
and animals she passes
bend with fire.
Her hands already sizzle,
she tires, wavers, stumbles,
and falls headlong,
but she gets right up with it again.
Her hands don’t burn away,
nor does the star break apart,
although her face, arms,
chest and hair are on fire.
She burns down to her waist.
People shout at her
and she won’t let it go;
her hands are parboiled,
but she won’t release the star.
Oh how she sows its seeds
as it hums and flies.
They try to take it away–
but how can she live
without her star?
It didn’t simply fall–it didn’t.
It remained without her,
and now she runs without a body,
changed transformed into ashes.
The road catches fire
and our braids burn,
and now we all receive her
because the entire Earth is burning.
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