Julie Bertuccelli in Georgia and Australia

Since Otar Left (2003)

If you can imagine the experience of watching an Abbas Kiarostami film in an Iranian mountain village, or Star Wars on a space station, you’ll have some idea how strange it was to see Julie Bertuccelli’s wonderful Since Otar Left (2003) at a Tbilisi film club less than a decade after it had been shot in that city. In fact, some scenes had been shot directly outside that tiny cinema on Rustaveli Avenue. There were chuckles of recognition.

That season Tbilisi revealed to me its double identity. When the clouds were black the city was an atmospheric post-Soviet ruin stinking of cold mud and acrid cigarettes. The sagging balconies of its nineteenth century apartment buildings sometimes hung by a single bolt, while the Soviet concrete monoliths looked, bizarrely enough, centuries older. Rubble piled up on the footpaths. The flaking and mould-blackened yellow paint, the makeshift patches of rust-red tin, the bare-limbed trees — all contributed to an atmosphere of devastation. And yet when the sun sparkled on the River Mtkvari all that decay seemed diminished and Tbilisi was as delightful as an Italian renaissance town.

Since Otar Left captures that urban duality. Co-written by Bertuccelli and Bernard Renucci, the film centres on three generations of a Georgian family. The elderly matriarch’s adored son, a doctor named Otar, is working as an illegal immigrant in Paris. The report comes of his accidental death. To spare the old woman this devastating news, her granddaughter begins to fake new letters from Otar. This plot is nothing new — E. L. Doctorow’s story ‘A Writer in the Family’ (1984) spins from the same basic idea — and yet the subtle screenplay and the tremendous performances of its three central actresses are the foundations of a powerfully moving film.

Each of the three main characters seeks her own vision of dignity and independence. The elderly matriarch Eka (Esther Gorintin) is stubborn, full of life despite her years, and unfairly critical of her supposedly ambitionless daughter Marina (Nino Khomasuridze). Marina’s daughter Ada (Dinara Drukarova), while dutiful and loving, is bored by her university studies, bored by her casual boyfriend, and bored by the squabbles of her mother and grandmother over the legacy of Stalin in the close quarters of their ramshackle apartment.

All this takes place in an era of economic deprivation. The film repeatedly returns to the failure of Tbilisi’s basic utilities a decade after the end of the Soviet Union. Power outages leave the women in the dark. The water supply cuts while Marina is washing her hair in the shower, causing her to cry out in despair, “Life’s impossible in this fucking country!” (By 2011 the situation had improved, although most of the shops in the city centre had a petrol-powered generator on its stoop ready to start puttering.) To survive, Marina must sell items in the open-air antiques market beside the river with her supportive but inessential lover; at one moment she tells him with a laugh, “I wish I was in love with you.” (That week I had browsed in that very market, where ruined cars live on as permanent stalls selling every imaginable item: swords, canes, pick-axes, rusty pistols, button accordions, 8mm camera equipment, pictures of 1970s Soviet film starlets, cigar boxes decorated in Polynesian kitsch, and century-old adding machines.) When Eka falls ill, the hospital facilities are inadequate and the bill must be paid immediately in cash to the bored, chain-smoking doctor.

Despite hard times, life goes on in Georgia. Eka, Marina, and Ada own an idealic country dacha where they collect fruit. They gather with friends in their apartment to sing folk songs. They pause by the roadside to tie strips of cloth to a wish tree — until Ada refuses to perpetuate this superstition.

The women also follow family tradition as devoted Francophiles — although none of the three have ever actually visited France. This is one reason Eka is so supportive of Otar’s life in Paris. At night Ada reads to Eka from a volume of Proust, part of the valuable library of French books that had to be hidden during the darkest Soviet years. France represents the apex of culture and economic opportunity. There is a powerful conclusion as Ada, with Eka’s complicity but Marina’s distress, decides to remain behind in Paris as an illegal immigrant. As an audience we are left in no doubt that Georgia is a provincial dead-end for Ada. The film boldly depicts illegal immigration as a step towards self-fulfilment. France offers a new life. It might have been a colossally chauvinistic move for these French screenwriters to invent Georgian characters who exalt France in this way, but I have to admit I was totally won over by the humanity of the performances and the universality of the film’s theme: the desire for a better life and to transcend the mundane here and now.

Nevertheless, watching this story about Tbilisi in Tbilisi gave me a usefully unsettled perspective. Is Since Otar Left a film made for international audiences rather than for the Georgians it purports to depict? I’m sure many locals do not consider it a Georgian film. Although acted in a mixture of Georgian and French, only one of the three leads, Nino Khomasuridze, is actually a local (the late Esther Gorintin was Polish and Dinara Drukarova is Russian). I’m not suggesting that Bertuccelli was a superficial tourist — after all, she was a protégé of director Otar Iosseliani — but I wondered whether Georgians consider her a cultural interloper, a Western European condescending to tell a story about the citizens of an impoverished country who idolise her own.

Luckily, Bertuccelli has given me a convenient opportunity to evaluate that question because her second fiction feature, The Tree (2010), was made in my home country, Australia. All the characters are Australian with the exception of its nominally French-English protagonist, Dawn, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg. The setting is rural Queensland. Dawn’s husband dies and leaves his family in grief. His young daughter (Morgana Davies) comes to believe that the enormous Moreton Bay Fig on their property has absorbed his spirit and can speak to her. Dawn also toys with the belief. But the tree grows wildly, and its roots and branches invade the house. The neighbours are outraged. The family’s grieving process, the slow acceptance of the man’s death, is mirrored by the eventual abandonment of the tree after an act of God.

How well does Bertuccelli grasp the Australian milieu? An interesting question, because I don’t actually think many unquestionably Australian films demonstrate any particular insight into Australia as it really is. Despite tiny box office and indifferent reception, much of the national cinema doggedly sticks with a default set of elements: depressing subject matter, protagonists of limited intelligence who lack agency, and plenty of lingering shots of the landscape. There’s nothing inherently limiting about that, but so far Australia hasn’t produced filmmakers of the calibre of the Dardenne brothers or Andrey Zvyagintsev or Andrea Arnold who would find universal resonance, let alone poetry, in the dark and mundane surfaces of Australian society. Instead we frequently wind up with badly written, pretentious, and crushingly boring movies that nobody really likes.

I had high hopes for The Tree after the triumph of Since Otar Left. Bertuccelli was also a assistant director on Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colours Blue (1993), a truly great film about a grieving widow. What could go wrong? But I’m afraid The Tree, to borrow a phrase from Jean-Luc Godard, is a film like any other. Although beautifully photographed, its Australian characters have none of the complexity of Bertuccelli’s Georgians. True to the conventions of our national cinema, no character in The Tree is allowed to have any sort of intellectual life — not even a corny worship of Le France. The dead husband and his replacement, a plumber, are almost interchangeable tanned men in flannel shirts, amiably laconic, of whom almost nothing is discovered. Charlotte Gainsbourg and Morgana Davies give strong performances with what they have but the dialogue often sounds unrealistic. The narrative meanders, and many scenes could have been removed with little consequence to its coherence.

To date these are Bertuccelli’s only two fiction features, although she has been a prolific documentarian of French society. I’m happy to see that a third starring Catherine Deneuve and Chiara Mastroianni is in post-production — a feature film, finally, set in France.

Edinburgh, February 2018


Hemingway’s Garden


Here are two older pieces, the latter updated, about Ernest Hemingway’s intriguing unfinished novel The Garden of Eden (1986). They originally appeared at the blog Honey for the Bears.


In late 2010, hiding from the chill of the Manhattan winter in the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel, I had tea with screenwriter James Scott Linville. An American who lives in London, Linville is a former managing editor of the Paris Review. His adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s Garden of Eden—Linville’s first produced screenplay—is now available on DVD in the US through Lions Gate.

The film recreates the sun-blanched milieu of the Lost Generation at play between the wars. On an extended honeymoon on the Côte d’Azur, Catherine (Mena Suvari) draws her writer husband David (Jack Huston) into androgynous sexual role play. They soon have identical bleached blonde haircuts and are the scandal of the season. David, a less macho Hemingway hero than we’re used to, doesn’t put up much resistance. Catherine then seduces the smitten Marita (Caterina Murino), a beautiful Italian heiress, and offers her to David as a part-time mistress. This time-share arrangement soon dissolves as Catherine drifts into madness and David and Marita grow close. Interpolated into this narrative is a dramatization of David’s work-in-progress, a short story based on a childhood elephant hunt in Africa with his father (Matthew Modine).

Colonel Boyle, a World War I pilot and David’s former comrade, is played by Richard E. Grant. “He’s astonishingly good,” said Linville. Boyle appears only in passing in the novel, but Linville expanded the role to three scenes. “I liked Colonel Boyle because he was a bit of an outsider, stepping in and quickly getting the lay of the land.” The Boyle role turned out to be useful in raising money for the project. “The producer told me, ‘Inadvertently you created a cameo for a star. We will pay him to come in for four days, but his name will be up there.’” Linville smiled. “I had no idea. It was luck. But it was also a great education.”

Linville’s literary background helped in unexpected ways. He had worked on many Paris Review author interviews in the 1980s and 1990s with George Plimpton (Plimpton had famously interviewed Hemingway for the journal in 1958). Linville learned firsthand Plimpton’s techniques of “fiddling” with transcribed speech for print. The reverse was necessary when transforming Hemingway’s laconic dialogue for the screen. “Even if a line reads well on the page,” Linville said, “it’s not necessarily going to sound right in the actor’s mouth.”

Hemingway’s novel was controversial not just for its preoccupation with androgyny when published posthumously by Scribner’s in 1986. The 247 page book had been created by editor Tom Jenks from a much longer, more ambitious unfinished manuscript Hemingway worked on during his last fifteen years. A long manuscript analysis in Rose Marie Burwell’s Hemingway: The Post-war Years and the Posthumous Novels (1996) indicates how much of Hemingway’s original conception was excised, including a mirror plot about a painter named Nick Sheldon and his wife Barbara.

I asked Linville if he made a trip to the Hemingway Archive at the JFK Presidential Library in Boston to read the purported 1500 pages of raw manuscript. He said no. Firstly, Jenks had told him the published book was very close to one version of the manuscript. “The other thing is I was given the commission and had to start three days later on Monday. The clock was ticking on some equity that could be put into the production, and I had to finish and lock a script to go out to actors by a certain date,” said Linville. “I approached this as somebody who loves the writer’s work, loves this book, not as an academic.”

The film was not well-received by critics when released theatrically in December 2010. Linville said, “In some ways people have been arguing with Hemingway. They’re arguing with the movie because it’s Hemingway taking his themes and turning them upside down, examining them, taking them apart.” The novel, like several other posthumously published works, suggests that late in life Hemingway was reconsidering his core beliefs. “There are scenes of hunting but the lead character of the subplot is making an anti-hunting argument.”

“When the book came out it got wonderful reviews from James Salter, E. L. Doctorow, and John Updike. At the same time it sold millions of copies. Why is there slightly less respect for the book now? I don’t quite understand. In some ways Hemingway is somewhat out of fashion. He was even more so at the time the book came out and that was why there was such a startling reassessment.” Linville added: “I think The Garden of Eden is one of his most interesting books. It might be his best about a writer writing.”

John Irvin (Hamburger Hill and the 1979 TV series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) directed the picture. Linville joined the cast and crew on location in Spain’s Alicante province. The small city of Alcoy doubled for 1920s Madrid. Hemingway’s immeasurable gift for evoking the physical qualities of a landscape is beautifully translated to film by cinematographer Ashley Rowe.

Linville praised Mena Suvari’s “brave performance” and called the Italian actress Caterina Murino, who previously appeared in Casino Royale (2006), “a revelation. She’s considered a Bond girl but she’s a wonderful actor, extremely refined, very beautiful. You’re seeing a young Sophia Loren. She’s been in a lot of French movies but none have come out in the United States. I think this movie should probably be remembered for introducing her.”

With a new Raymond Chandler adaptation recently completed, Linville faces the possibility of another Hemingway project. The Garden of Eden and its unusual history still fascinates him. “Mena Suvari was very curious and did a great deal of research for the part. She wants to go to JFK and read the original.” He laughed. “Maybe we’ll all go on a field trip.”


I enjoy the edition of The Garden of Eden published in 1986, although Tom Jenks’ drastic reduction of the unfinished manuscript makes Mary Hemingway’s posthumous tampering with A Moveable Feast look like mere spell-checking. Nevertheless, I like the published novel’s rich evocation of the 1920s Riviera setting, the dark portrait of a ménage à trois, and its embedded African hunting story.

According to Rose Marie Burwell, Hemingway wrote The Garden of Eden between 1948 and 1959. It evolved from an ur-text he began after the war – from which also grew Islands in the Stream, Across the River and Into the Trees, and The Old Man and the Sea. Thematically, The Garden of Eden evolved at least partially from the discarded “Miami” section of Islands in the Stream (much of “Miami” was published as a short story, “The Strange Country”, in 1987’s not-exactly-complete Finca Vigia story collection). Burwell makes the case that Garden, Islands, A Moveable Feast and Under Kilimanjaro (initially published in edited form as True At First Light):

form a serial sequence that was at times consciously modeled on Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. The works form a tetralogy that is Hemingway’s portrait of the artist as writer and painter, and as son, husband and father; but their serial nature, and their place in the body of his fiction, has been unrecognized, misconstrued, and undervalued because of the manuscript deletions made for publication, the order in which the […] works appeared, and the restrictions of archival material that clarifies much about their composition and intentions.

Of course, some kind of drastic editing was necessary to create a readable and marketable Garden of Eden. The Garden manuscript material, according to Burwell, is immensely repetitious. But Jenks went to an extreme by deleting half of the plot, and as such distorted the very conception of the novel.

The publication of the ‘restored’ Moveable Feast in 2009 initiated a series of ‘Hemingway Library Editions’ overseen by the Hemingway heirs including grandson Seán Hemingway. Each volume — not exactly a critical edition — contains the text of an original book with appendices of deleted sequences, alternate drafts, and relevant historical documents. To date we’ve seen The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, Green Hills of Africa, and a volume of selected stories. Meanwhile Cambridge University Press has pressed on with their mammoth, multi-volume complete letters project, executed with scholarly rigor.

In other words, Hemingway continues to be republished and the ouevre goes on expanding. The Garden of Eden‘s moment of reconsideration has not yet arrived. The manuscript poses an editorial challenge that may require several parallel volumes. I don’t believe the Jenks version should go out of print, but a judiciously edited, essentially comprehensive reading edition of the full manuscript — similiar to Under Kilimanjaro — would give us a much better indication of Hemingway’s ultimately unrealised ambitions.

There should also be a simultaneous publication of a facsimile edition of Hemingway’s very long typescript with his annotations intact. Similar editions exist of other Hemingway manuscripts. The mass market has had their version of the book for more than thirty years, and it is time to release the full manuscript to those who want to slog through it.

Madrid, March 2011
Sydney, July 2009

Romance in Durango

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Major Dundee (1965)

Sam Peckinpah’s third film is usually considered a failed draft of what would be more fully realised as The Wild Bunch (1969). Peckinpah’s behaviour was too erratic, and his producers and budget too inflexible, for the earlier film to be finished to anybody’s satisfaction. But what survives, particularly in the 2005 extended version, is compelling. Major Dundee is the first film set in Peckinpah’s Mexico. His dark vision of the country is a land of escape, lawlessness, corruption, sexual decadence, alcoholism, and some measure of purity.

Peckinpah was engaging with the tradition of John Huston, who first went to Mexico in 1925, a few years after the end of the revolution. Vera Cruz, Huston remembered in his autobiography An Open Book, “had a blasted, pitted look. Buzzards fed in the streets, which were the same unrelieved color as the tin-roofed adobe houses.” Beggars cruised the cafe tables, just one aspect of “the bleak, dire kind” of poverty “that revolution leaves in its wake.” Irrepressible and lusty, Huston took the train to Mexico City and befriended a colonel who gave him an honorary commission in the Mexican army. That way he could train as a horseman with the calvalry. During poker games with high ranking military officers, “someone usually drew and cocked a pistol, turned the lights out and threw the pistol up so that it hit the ceiling. It would go off upon striking either the ceiling or the floor, and then the lights were turned on to see who, if anyone, had been unlucky.” Huston escaped a duel and discovered a passion for pre-Colombian Mexican artefacts; in later years he would smuggle out antiquities of dubious authenticity. On another trip he rode a mule train from Acapulco to Mexico City. He witnessed bandits rounded up to be executed by rurales.

Huston’s colourful memories of Mexico in the 1920s gave him firsthand details to draw upon when he made a film of B. Traven’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in 1948. Huston sought an unusual level of authenticity for a Hollywood film: he shot on location in Tampico, hired real Mexican actors for supporting roles, even used unsubtitled Spanish dialogue in some sequences. Set just after the Mexican Civil War, Sierra Madre became the foundational movie of the desperate-gringo-south-of-the-border genre and an influential expression of a mythical Hollywood landscape. In this ‘Mexico’, the West could still be found long after the US frontier had been conquered. We visit it again in Vera Cruz (1954), The Magnificent Seven (1960), and The Professionals (1966). (Read Richard Slotkin’s Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America (1992) for the best elaboration of the evolution and political significance of this cinematic landscape.) Huston himself revisited the landscape in The Night of the Iguana (1964) and Under the Volcano (1984) — and all of this without ever bothering to learn Spanish.

Sam Peckinpah’s ‘Mexico’ does not reject the Hollywood myth but makes it grittier, more violent, and so static that almost nothing changes from the 1860s to the 1970s. Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), a brilliant, bizarre, and extremely violent reworking of Huston’s Sierra Madre, intentionally blurs the place and the time at the film’s outset. The script begins at a hacienda: “IS IT SPAIN — Maybe ITALY — or possibly MEXICO — or BRAZIL — or ARGENTINA — or…? It is not Mexico.” But it is! At the conclusion of a brutal scene in which a pregnant teenage girl is stripped and tortured by her father into revealing the name of her lover, his henchmen leave to seek the man’s head. “BUT NOT BY HORSE,” says the script. “MERCEDES, FERRARIES [sic.], CORVETTES and even a Limo or two provide transportation. Because it’s today, baby, not 1880, and like it or not, exactly this kind of bullshit still exists.”

A decade earlier, in early 1964, Peckinpah had shot Major Dundee on location in Mexico. The screenplay, originally by Harry Fink, was greenlit by Columbia Pictures before it was finished. On the strength of Ride the High Country (1962), Peckinpah was invited to take over the script and direct the film. He took the company south of the border. Lead actor Charlton Heston, in his autobiography In The Arena, recalled that their script conferences often wound up in grimy brothels. Heston sat out these sordid evenings drinking beer. He didn’t share Peckinpah’s taste for very young prostitutes.

Plot-wise Major Dundee is a pastiche of classic westerns. Like John Ford’s Fort Apache (1948), it follows the US Cavalry hunting Apaches in border territory. After unspecified actions at the Battle of Gettysburg, Major Dundee has been unofficially demoted to a jailer at a fort in New Mexico in the middle of the American Civil War. But then a family of ranchers and a group of soldiers are slaughtered by Sierra Chariba’s band of Apaches. Borrowing a page or two from Ford’s The Searchers (1956), Chariba also kidnaps white children. Dundee eagerly raises an army — Union soldiers, black soldiers, and a group of Confederate prisoners led by Lt Tyrene (Richard Harris), Dundee’s former friend. His quest for Chariba and the children quickly reaches Mexican territory, as hatred and mistrust grow between the soldiers. He essential starts a war with the occupying French — all to promote his own military glory.

Heston reflected:

Columbia, Sam and I all really had different pictures in mind. Columbia, reasonably enough, wanted a Calvary/Indians film as much like Jack Ford’s best as possible. I wanted to be the first to make a film that really explored the Civil War. Sam, though he never said anything like this, really wanted to make The Wild Bunch.

Peckinpah lost the right to final cut on Major Dundee, which wasn’t really finished at all; it splutters towards an only minimally coherent ending. The story loses focus after Dundee is wounded in the leg by an arrow during a tryst with a beautiful Austrian widow played by Senta Berger. Still, I’ve always been fascinated by Dundee’s subsequent self-destructive lost weekend in French-occupied Durango (much restored for the 2005 version). Here is Peckinpah’s attempt to personalise the generic story material and the landscape, the plot be damned.

“You make an unlikely-looking Mexican,” Sgt. Gomez tells Dundee as he lies wounded in Durango and considers fleeing in disguise. (That might have been a joke about Heston’s earlier role as the narcotics agent Vargas in Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958); written as a cosmopolitan Carlos Fuentes-type, Heston played him without an accent, albeit with dark makeup.) So Dundee stays in Durango, gets drunker, wallows in self-pity. He takes his nurse to bed. It would be overstating things to say Dundee has been drawn away from his quest for Chariba like Odysseus to the island of Calypso — his dignified and largely passive Mexican lover, played by Aurora Clavel, is far from a seductress. Nevertheless, there is something of that mythical quality to Dundee’s fall. In Peckinpah’s Mexico things quickly go to seed. Dundee winds up a bum in a dive bar. Identity begins to dissolve in whisky.

Heston, a conscientious but stiff and limited actor, is well cast as a soldier who leads through intimidation rather than inspiration. Senta Berger is a far better actress than her character really deserves. With her discovery of Dundee’s affair during his Durango convalescence, Berger forever vanishes from the film. The script’s well-developed tensions then fall apart. Tyrene dies bravely in a fight with the French at the Rio Grande, evading what should have been an inevitable showdown with Dundee. Major Dundee is a small man who seeks greatness — an ego-driven monster — but there is no reckoning for his colossal irresponsibility.

The original 1965 score by Daniele Amfitheatrof is terrible. The longer preview version of the film, rediscovered and released in 2005, was specially rescored by Christopher Caliendo. This version of the film is the best one in existence but is still not Peckinpah’s version. He never was able to finish the movie.

Peckinpah would return to Mexico many times, lastly in Alfredo Garcia, which imagines a more pathetic version of Sierra Madre’s gold-lusting Fred C. Dobbs. The great Warren Oates puts Heston to shame as a lowlife gringo in Mexico still seeking the prize.

Seville, January 2018

Lewis’s Loyalty

CC Wikimedia Commons, Attribution agracier

A View of the World by Norman Lewis. 310pp. Eland, 2004 [1986].

Norman Lewis’s thirty-odd books testify to a long and admirable life of travel and activism. Born in 1908, he spent his childhood in the drab London borough of Enfield — “nothing, with chips,” in his words. Forever after he sought experience. He travelled through pre-Civil War Spain and went to Arabia as a spy for the Foreign Office. In the Second World War he was posted to North Africa and Naples with the Intelligence Corps. But Lewis wasn’t really cut out to be an English patriot. He was entirely lacking in imperial chauvinism. His loyalty was to human dignity wherever he found it.

After the war he made several South East Asian and Central American expeditions. He spent summers in Spain before the irrevocable transformations wrought by commercial tourism. In late middle age his efforts were directed towards exposing the ongoing genocide of indigenous peoples, particularly in South America. I only wish he had written about Australia.

Lewis died in 2003 at the age of 95. So far his posthumous legacy has been well-served by his champions. Julian Evans’ outstanding and ambitious biography Semi-Invisible Man appeared in 2008. All thirteen of Lewis’s novels remain out of print — I haven’t read any — but most of the travel books have been republished by Eland as high quality paperbacks.

Disregarding Lewis’s juvenilia — accounts of his early journeys through Spain and Arabia that were eventually rewritten from scratch — the non-fiction can be divided into five basic categories. Four books recount his travels in Asia: to Indochina (A Dragon Apparent, 1951), Burma (Golden Earth, 1952), India (Goddess in the Stones, 1991), and Indonesia (An Empire of the East, 1993). His extensive experiences in Italy and Spain inspired two retrospective memoirs each: Naples ’44 (1978), Voices of the Old Sea (about the Costa Brava, 1984), In Sicily (2000), and The Tomb in Seville (2003). He wrote book-length pieces of investigative reportage on the Sicilian mafia (The Honoured Society, 1964) and on genocide perpetrated by evangelical Christians (The Missionaries, 1988). His two-volume autobiography begins with Jackdaw Cake (1985; expanded as I Came, I Saw, 1994) and concludes with The World, The World (1996).

There are also five collections of shorter travel pieces. They were never simultaneously in print, so it isn’t surprising that their contents occasionally overlap. The Changing Sky (1959) contains nineteen pieces and is illustrated by Lewis’s exceptionally good photographs (for much of his life he operated a chain of camera shops). Ten of those early pieces were republished in the next collection, A View of the World (1986), accompanied by another ten written since 1959 including his most widely-known article, ‘Genocide’ (1969), about the destruction and enslavement of Brazilian tribes. Lewis’s dispatches from the eighties and nineties are respectively anthologised in To Run Across the Sea (1989) and The Happy Ant Heap (1999). A Voyage by Dhow (2001) gathered pieces from across thirty years. A final tally of seventy-four unique short articles across five books. They range nearly everywhere across the globe.

Few writers can make the imaginative recreation of a place truly palpable and memorable for the reader. How does Norman Lewis do it? Game for adventure and discovery, his voice is wry, gently amused, free of cynicism. The narrator, the man himself, retreats into near-invisibility; the prose also does its work without drawing much attention to itself. He writes in the tradition of Orwell — elegant but unpretentious clarity. Some writers are casual in the division of their prose into blocks of text, but Lewis is a crafter of paragraphs. They have robust internal structures and almost always contain at least one attention-grabbing element to ignite the imagination of the reader. It could be a concrete detail, a metaphor, a line of dialogue, or a piece of information. These moments register in the reading mind like splashes of colour, bring the setting to life, and with their accumulated weight, compel the reader onwards.

Consider the most vivid specifics in ‘A Quiet Evening in Huehuetenango’, which was first published (as fiction) by The New Yorker in 1956. Lewis escapes an English winter and winds up in the Guatemalan highlands. He is adept at metaphorical descriptions — in the town he sees soldiers “fishing in space with their rifles over the blood-red balustrade of the town hall” and vultures that fly over “waving their scarves of shadow” — but the details he chooses to note without such overt literary flair register even more vividly. His hotel features a garden turned into a “floral jungle” bordered by “Pepsi-Cola bottles stuck neck down in the earth.” Each table-top has a goldfish bowl “containing roses hideously pickled in preserving fluid.” A craze for American-style processed food means Lewis must eat “hygienic but emasculated fare… The whole loaf of bread and a half-pound of butter of a generation ago had wasted away to two slices of toast and a pat of margarine.” The scene is set and the adventure begins. When Lewis goes out to investigate a commotion in the street, he encounters a boy “throwing a bayonet at an anatomical chart given away with a Mexican journal devoted to home medicine.” Lewis and his driver wind up in a bar as the semi-captives of exceedingly polite bandits with “machetes as big as naval cutlasses.” Lewis is pressed to operate the jukebox for the bandits, who only want to hear one record over and over again. A deus ex machina arrives in the form of an earthquake, which Lewis cleverly defamiliarises: “It seemed unreasonable that an electric train should be rumbling through a subway immediately beneath us in Huehuetenango.”

A quiet man with expansive compassion, appalled by exploitation of the weak, Lewis celebrated societies that had not been transformed (or destroyed) by modernity. This could easily have become mere romantic nostalgia, but Lewis did not shy from exploring the violence, superstitions, and destructive codes of honour within the traditional societies he encountered. He evokes those societies in their complexity. A View of the World may have a lacklustre title, but it is a perfect introduction to Norman Lewis’s imaginative prose.

Edinburgh, December 2017


[Image CC Wikimedia Commons, Attribution agracier]

The Interpretive Impulse


As a writer of fiction, the act of filling the blank page gives me an exhilarating sense of imaginative freedom. The horizons seem endless. The same must be true for composers and painters.

Yet sometimes I envy the interpretive artist.

Maybe these thoughts have been prompted by listening to András Schiff’s humane and amusing lectures on each of Beethoven’s thirty-two piano sonatas, an open invitation into a great musician’s workshop. They reveal the mad ambition necessary to record the whole cycle. Beyond mere technical virtuosity and interpretive artistry, the task requires total immersion in the works, years of study and research. But what could be a higher calling than anchoring your creativity to a master?

I think that’s why writers are frequently drawn to the supposedly subservient roles of translator, adaptor, or critic. The impulse to interpret an existing text — in another language, in another medium, or in an essay — represents the desire to be the best kind of reader, to grasp the intimacies of a book’s structure, to know the contours of its sentences. Ray Bradbury showed that impulse at a fantastical extreme in Fahrenheit 451 — the reader who memorises and in essence becomes a book in order to preserve it.

Of course, the Fahrenheit 451 approach is too selfless and too much like religious worship for any kind of creative, critical reader. It is not enough merely to absorb a work of art. The ultimate homage is to re-express the work by filtering it through the self — personalised, recontextualised, embellished, contested. See, for example, Picasso’s obsessive studies of Velázquez’s Las Meninas. This week I visited the Museu Picasso in Barcelona to look again at his forty-five canvases from 1957 that comprehensively analyse, break apart, and remake the forms, motifs, and characters of the original in his own style. Picasso wound up with what he acknowledged would be “a detestable Meninas for a traditional painter.” Nevertheless, it had become Picasso’s Meninas.

Fortunately Velázquez was by then safely in the public domain and available to Picasso’s appropriation and sacrilege. Pablo Katchadjian, a contemporary Argentinean author, has not been so lucky. He has been weighed down with outrageous legal problems since he self-published a chapbook called El Aleph engordado in 2009. He had taken Borges’ classic 1945 story ‘El Aleph’ and, as an experiment, “fattened” it to twice its original length. Borges’s widow, exercising her powers as heir to the copyright, has unrelentingly pursued Katchadjian for his supposed criminal “plagiarism.” Apart from the basic wrongness of the charge and staggering disproportion — the chapbook was published in a mere 200 copies — the legal action ironically demonstrates an indifference to Borges’s influence on successive generations of authors. In effect it advocates banning certain types of critical and creative reading.

It is as absurd to prohibit writers from creatively wrestling with great books as to silence pianists exploring Beethoven. Most writers discover a few crucial books early on that help them understand aspects of worldly experience, furnish them with powerful myths and metaphors, introduce them to characters they come to know as intimately as friends. Consider Orson Welles as a reader. Throughout his career, he returned repeatedly to the same books and, perhaps more importantly, to the same characters as source material for his films, theatre, and radio dramas. He never seemed to want to give up reinterpreting Don Quixote and Falstaff, Moby Dick and The Merchant of Venice, Joseph Conrad and Isak Dinesen.

As a film critic and historian, I’ve come to specialise in adaptation studies. I’ve spent a lot of time analysing the hand-annotated manuscripts of Welles’s screenplays, many of which were never produced. It has been intimately illuminating hanging out with Welles at the point of his pen, being able to relive his thought processes as a writer. Comparing an original novel or play to its adapted screenplay, I attempt to fathom the reasons behind Welles’s choices. Why this specific change? Why this cut? Why this new and original scene?

Most of Welles’s interpretative choices were designed to re-tell a story cinematically rather than with words. On this point, Welles was a formidable translator. Sometimes Welles argued against the original author’s worldview, as in his 1962 version of Kafka’s Trial. He refused to allow Josef K. to submit meekly to execution “like a dog” because he found it unbearable after the Holocaust. Welles also personalised his source material, incorporated autobiographical elements, and even synthesised different literary touchstones. Welles’s and Oja Kodar’s late 1970s screenplay The Dreamers, for example, adapts two stories by Isak Dinesen about an opera singer named Pellegrina Leoni. Several settings are relocated to places of autobiographical significance to Welles. This includes the Triana neighbourhood of Seville, where Welles had lived as a teenager amid the brothels and the bars. In Triana, Pellegrina briefly becomes an unacknowledged incarnation of Prosper Mérimée’s Carmen, another of Welles’s favourite books which he had attempted to adapt directly for screen and which fed into The Lady From Shanghai (1947).

Radically reinventing his beloved books, Welles’s adaptations wound up more personally expressive than his own original stories. Certain books become part of a writer’s inner life. Heirs may own the copyright, but these books belong to us. In turn, we belong to these books. They call for our interpretation.

Edinburgh, December 2017

Ozick’s Opening Salvo


The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories by Cynthia Ozick. 270 pp. Knopf, 1971.

Cynthia Ozick’s ear for the vernacular cadences of Jewish-American English is equal to the great writers of her generation. Like Saul Bellow, Grace Paley, and Philip Roth, she writes dialogue that seems to leap from the page and grab you by the shirt. She can be as funny as those masters, too, but otherwise Ozick goes her own way. She’s a challenging and cerebral writer intensely engaged with Jewish identity, history, and mythology.

Ozick’s first story was published in the journal Prairie Schooner in 1956. Her first collection, The Pagan Rabbi (1971), doesn’t reach back quite that far. Most of these seven longish stories were first published in periodicals between 1966 and 1971, with a concentration of activity at the turn of the decade. Her prose is always a delight, but among a couple of unqualified successes several stories seem slightly suffocated in the fusty air of their historical-mythological inspirations.

‘Envy, or Yiddish in America’ is the masterpiece of the collection. It recounts a point of crisis in the life of Hershele Edelshtein, a 67-year-old widower, an obscure poet, who doggedly, provincially, even quixotically equates Jewish culture almost exclusively with the Yiddish language. After forty years in America, he resents the “puerile, vicious, pitiable, ignorant, contemptible, above all stupid” younger American novelists defining Jewishness for the contemporary world. He reads them ravenously. Edelshtein has always been a provincial who never saw the great European capitals — “for him Western Civilization was a sore point,” Ozick writes with a particularly Bellovian cadence. Western Civilization is a “pod of muck.”

After the genocide of Europe’s Jews and the adoption of Hebrew in the new state of Israel, Yiddish literature is dying — “lost, murdered”. It is a loss unique to history:

Of what other language can it be said that it died a sudden and definite death, in a given decade, on a given piece of soil? Where are the speakers of Ancient Etruscan? Who was the last man to write a poem in Linear B? Attrition, assimilation. Death by mystery not gas.

Edelshtein contributes poems to his friend Baumzweig’s biannual Bitterer Yam (Bitter Sea), a Yiddish language journal that is forgotten and almost without subscribers, enduring only because of the philanthropic bequest of some long-dead laxative manufacturer. Poor Edelshtein earns a meagre living as a lecturer on the death of Yiddish literature to synagogues and community centres. Here we are on the pathetic fringe of the poetry world, and the Yiddish fringe at that — a double whammy of obscurity. Roberto Bolaño would have liked this milieu.

By now the only shot at writerly immortality — even writerly recognition — is English translation. The only translated Yiddish writer is Yankel Ostrover (clearly inspired by Isaac Bashevis Singer), the man who once cuckolded Edelstein. Ostrover is celebrated and feted by Americans for his stories of a fictional Polish shtetl. Edelshtein and Baumzweig, ageing Yiddishists, are united by their jealous hatred for a man they call ‘Pig’ for his white skin that appears like “a tissue of pale ham.”

Edelshtein writes to Ostrover’s New York publishers to attack their star author as well as beg for a translator. The publishers pass on the opportunity because “reputation must precede translation.” That smarts, and Edelshtein fires off a riposte to these “Jews without tongues.” Next Edelshtein tries to persuade some of Ostrover’s put-upon translators to take up his cause. One rejects him with a hilarious letter describing the thankless and ill-paid work of the translator. She writes of a gruelling session with Ostrover and his meddling wife as they struggle to come up with a more idiomatic word for ‘big.’ “We go through huge, vast, gigantic, enormous, gargantuan, monstrous, etc., etc., etc., and finally Ostrover says — by now it’s five hours later, my tonsils hurt, I can hardly stand — ‘all right, so let it be “big”. Simplicity above all.’”

Ozick must have had the inside dope on Singer’s methods. Lester Goran, one of Singer’s translators in the 1980s, told me how their work sessions would sometimes remind him of the fate of the man forced to read aloud to his captor in Evelyn Waugh’s ‘The Man Who Liked Dickens’. “I often felt like I was being held prisoner by Isaac,” Lester told me. “We would finish up and I would be stunned. My ears would be ringing with boredom.”

Edelstein may be a mediocre poet with an inflated sense of self-worth, but to his credit he checks his self-pity. After all, what is his dilemma in the scheme of his people’s suffering? He carries the burden of survivor guilt. He is a man who has lost everything, including the eyes and ears of his people. His crisis turns ugly as he pursues a young Jewish woman who knows one of his poems. Will she translate for him?

Not all of the stories in The Pagan Rabbi unite Ozick’s cerebral exploration of Jewish life with such zest, humour, and moving tenderness. At times she jumps into the downright bizarre. Remember Alexander Portnoy’s exasperation at his parents’ extreme naivety, their scepticism that “there are women who are homosexual persons”? “Momma! Poppa!” Portnoy cries. “There are people who fuck chickens!” Well, in title story of her collection Ozick gives us a rabbi who fucks a tree. I am not sure how this subject could ever be the basis for anything but bawdy comedy, but Ozick plays it straight. Or maybe I just missed the joke. Obsessed with ‘free souls’, a rabbi goes madly pagan in a public park, copulating with a tree who appears to him as a dryad. She helps him separate his soul from his body and he hangs himself. The rabbi’s dense letter of romantic mythopoeic pedantry is quoted at length.

‘The Dock-Witch’ is another metamorphosis story about a woman emerging from wood — in this case the lyre-strumming figurehead on a ship’s prow. The narrator is a young man from Ohio, a former landlubber now living in New York. His provincial kin frequently pass through the city on their way to the port to take superficial European vacations. The man-destroying siren who hangs around the docks sets her sights on him.

The main character of ‘The Suitcase’, a very finely constructed short story, is Gottfried Hencke, a former WWI air force pilot for the Kaiser, a German long-resident in America. The setting is New York, Hencke’s son’s self-funded art exhibition. Gottfried Jr. has a rich and stupid gentile wife as well as a Jewish mistress, Genevieve. Hencke is at pains to insist he admires Genevieve even if she relentlessly provokes him with suggestions he is a Nazi sympathizer. He rejects any culpability for the Holocaust. He wasn’t there. “Who could be blamed for history?” he thinks. Hencke is haunted by the thought of his sister’s eleven year old daughter, killed by Allied bombing. But finally, desperate to prove his innocence in the surprise theft of Genevieve’s pocketbook, Hencke opens his suitcase and exposes his underwear, even though he has not even been accused of the crime.

Ozick has subsequently published another five collections of short stories. For some reason her Collected Stories, which rounds up everything to 2006, has only ever been published in the UK. In The Pagan Rabbi we meet a still-maturing writer, with one long novel already to her credit (Trust, 1966), sketching a preliminary map of what would become her terrain.

Edinburgh, November 2017


Lonely Avenidas


People back home in Australia wondered if the streets of Buenos Aires were dangerous.

“Very dangerous,” I’d say. “Because on rainy days the cavities below the paving stones fill with water. If you step on a loose stone a jet of mud will splash over your shoes and your feet will be wet all day. You have to be on guard!”

Okay, they’d say with a roll of their eyes, stop being disingenuous. What about thieves?

Well, the most successful thieves were the corrupt elite who ran the country. But certainly times were tough. Nearly fifteen years after 2001, Argentina had not yet recovered from its devastating financial crisis. Many lives had been ruined. Now the main paranoia of the struggling middle class seemed to be a strike by a motochorro, a bandit on a motorbike who would swoop past to seize a handbag or, worse, stop the bike and pull out a handgun. This kind of thing, though rare, was hardly surprising when a large part of the population were forced to survive by scavenging the city’s garbage.

“Still,” I had to admit, “the only person who robbed me in Buenos Aires was my landlord.”

For me, the main danger of the streets of Buenos Aires was to be swallowed up in their enormity, to be reduced to just another lonely blur in the night. As a new porteño, I was a stranger to the people, to the language, to the culture. I was lucky, because Buenos Aires quickly became a city of new friends. Still, there were inevitable nights of solitude. I found the immensity of the city’s avenues–particularly Avenida 9 de Julio, the widest street in the world–eerily intimidating when the darkness closed in. I began to understand how this strange metropolis of the new world, always full of immigrants and exiles, had given birth to its beautiful poetry of loneliness and desire. Tango was the most famous manifestation. But inevitably these sentiments more frequently gave birth to despair. Sometimes I encountered it in the streets.

When I was at a loose end, I would vanish into book browsing. This pastime reliably replaced my present preoccupations with absorbed distraction. It was fortunate that Avenida Corrientes, between the obelisk and Avenida Pueyrredón, was probably the greatest book browsing street in the world. The bookshops were staggered between theatres, cinemas, restaurants and cafés. They stayed open late. They could be elegant or bluntly utilitarian, small boutiques or open warehouses. Many of the cheaper second-hand shops had concrete floors. Their wide entrances let in the wind and the dust and the traffic noise, and in winter people had to prowl the tables with their jackets zipped up. Some of the larger shops, with their seemingly limitless inventories of old books in numerous languages, functioned as a historical museum of the city, curated by accident. Almost every bookshop had a small English language selection full of unpredictable titles. Since it was almost impossible to have English books sent in from outside—the Argentinean postal system did not work—finding a battered mass-market paperback of Saul Bellow’s stories was thrilling. It was like running into an old friend.

Some nights I encountered strange lonely people in search of some obscure solace. I remember one man in a small restaurant on Calle Esmeralda in the Microcentro. The cheapest way to eat in the city was to visit one of the many take-away buffet restaurants, usually operated by Chinese immigrants, which advertised comida por kilo or comida por peso—food by weight. The customer could fill a thin plastic container with any combination of meat, fish, pasta salad, rice, hot baked potatoes or papas fritas, fresh tomatoes, warm empanadas, and vegetables from the can (lentils, chickpeas, beetroot). It usually only cost twenty-five or thirty pesos for a meal.

In that comida por kilo on Esmeralda the left side of the dining floor was full of plastic tables and chairs. To the right chafing dishes sat under hot lights. A stairway at the back led up to the bathroom. The fluorescent light rendered everything in cold white except the front counter, which glowed green beside a fish tank. I was the only customer. I paid for my food and sat down to eat and read.

A few minutes later a man came in from the street. His grey beard and longish hair were greasy and clotted. His overcoat was unbuttoned and his pilled black sweater was tight across his belly. He came over and insistently shook my hand. He pulled out the small plastic chair in front of me, sat down heavily, and began to talk. I broke in and told him I didn’t understand, that my Spanish was rudimentary. He kept talking anyway. It was a long story with periodic questions directed at me, who couldn’t answer. I said again I was sorry, but…. As time went on his voice rose in pitch. He was upset, although not with me. I guess I struck him as simpatico. He beat his fist against the plastic table and then began to cry out four syllables that were musical and infinitely expressive—“Ar-gen-ti-na!” He said it again with even more passion—“Ar-gen-ti-na!” The manager behind the cash register, a big guy who had been typing into his phone, began to yell in Spanish that he should shut the fuck up. The man ignored the manager and looked me in the eye. He was silent for half a minute.

Then he mumbled, in English, “I love you.”

His pained eyes convinced me that he was sincere, at least in that moment. Now he decisively got to his feet. Relieved of his weight, his tiny plastic chair toppled onto its side. Oblivious to the obstacle of chairs and tables, he tried to walk through them to embrace me. “No, señor!” I said with an embarassed smile. “Por favor!” I managed to scramble to my feet before the table edge wedged me into my chair. The manager yelled again, came out from behind his cash register, and began to argue. The man was distracted. Their argument was elaborate and inaccessible. It went on for several minutes while I stood there. I decided it was a good moment to go to the bathroom.

I left my food and went up the stairs at the back of the restaurant. I followed a dank-smelling, blue-walled corridor that ended at a bathroom where water was dripping and the light was buzzing. A minute later, coming back into the corridor, I saw the man again. He had followed me up the stairs and was now stumbling towards me. I found this outrageous and threatening. “Señor!” I said. “Basta!”—enough. But he didn’t seem to hear me. His eyes were on the ground, as if searching for a coin he had dropped. Then I saw the manager right behind him, grabbing the sleeve of the man’s overcoat, eager to resume their argument. I was able to squeeze past both of them and go downstairs. I left without finishing my food and walked out into the night.

I walked along Calle Lavalle with an occasional backwards glance. I turned left into the darkness of Suipacha until I was a little way south of the obelisk, then right until I reached the edge of 9 de Julio. The brightly lit chain of bus stops, running for blocks through the centre of the avenue, was far away across many lanes of empty grey road. Here, under a dim yellow streetlamp on the avenue’s periphery, the wide pedestrian footpath was deserted. All the shops had closed. The wind blew south and fluttered the leaves of the swaying jacaranda trees. Plastic rubbish rolled and scraped along the uneven pavement. Half-crumpled newspaper sheets swept past my shoes and were sucked into the darkness beyond the brief zone of lamplight. A block away towards San Telmo, under another streetlamp, I could see the backs of solitary, unknowable walkers before they also vanished into the shadows. I heard their shoes trotting away along the wobbly, mismatched patches of paving stones.

At that moment I was thankful I had friends in Buenos Aires.


Edinburgh, October 2017

Sodom with Piña Coladas


The Reef by Juan Villoro, translated by Yvette Siegert. 246 pp. George Braziller, 2017.

Juan Villoro is not only a leading Mexican novelist but also a popular football journalist with 328,363 followers on Twitter. That hasn’t mattered much in the doggedly provincial Anglosphere. Until recently he has suffered the usual fate of any writer outside that tiny elite whose work is comprehensively translated. Very few English readers had heard of him.

My own small evangelism for Juan Villoro was to commission the first translation of his short story ‘El silbido’ (‘The Whistle’) for the journal Contrappasso in 2013. After reading ‘Coyote’ in The Vintage Book of Latin American Stories, I’d looked for other examples of Villoro’s work in English. The harvest was small, but Villoro had been lucky to attract two of the best contemporary Spanish-to-English translators. Chris Andrews, champion of Roberto Bolaño and César Aira, had optimistically published a few chapters from the novel El Testigo (2004), widely considered Villoro’s masterpiece (it still awaits a publisher). Lucas Lyndes’ exemplary translation of the story ‘Mariachi’ had turned up in the electronic literary journal The Portable Museum, a brave publishing endeavour initiated by American expatriates based in Lima.

‘Mariachi’ was one of seven stories from Villoro’s collection Los Culpables (2007). I didn’t consider it much of a gamble to invite Lucas to choose another one to translate for Contrappasso. ‘The Whistle’ is a football story about a hapless and recently-cuckolded player hired to play in the desert for the Mexicali Toucans. The team is owned by a pair of identical Chinese triplets. A terrorist bomb puts the hero in hospital, and later he winds up on another team playing against the Argentinean teammate who rescued him from the rubble. The punchline is a hilarious acknowledgement of the futility of our best efforts.

Two years later the entire story collection was published by George Braziller as The Guilty, translated (or in some cases retranslated) cover-to-cover by Kimi Traube. It is a wonderfully funny book. In lean and punchy sentences, Villoro creates a kind of over-cranked satirical realism full of tenderness for human failure amid the absurdities of contemporary Mexico.

The momentum continues to grow. In 2016 Restless Books published a collection of Villoro’s soccer writings, God is Round, translated by Thomas Bunstead. And now from George Braziller comes The Reef, originally published as Arrecife in 2012. It is Villoro’s first novel to appear in English, courtesy of yet another translator, Yvette Siegert.

The setting of The Reef is the fictional Kukulcán, the Mayan name for their plumed serpent deity, on the Caribbean coast of the Yucatán. It is a Cancún-like destination for gringo tourists and an ecological disaster thanks to oil rigs, bad city plumbing, and the garbage dumped by passing cruise ships. Rain is a constant. While the development had meant “jobs for people who used to suck mango seeds to curb their hunger,” the already decaying hotel rooms of Kukulcán will be eventually occupied only on paper by Gogolesque ‘Dead Tourists’, a scam for international money laundering.

The Pyramid is a hotel resort that has staved off closure by offering chronically bored Westerners the thrill of pseudo-dangerous pseudo-experiences of Mexico: encounters with fake guerrillas, staged kidnappings, jungle snakes pretending to be deadly, plastic machine guns, etc. It provides a kind of “recreational paranoia.” The Pyramid is now “a Sodom with piña coladas, a Disneyland with herpes, or a ‘Nam with room service.”

Tony Góngora is a typical Villoro hero, a passive and resigned middle-aged failure. His father was supposedly killed in the Tlatelolco massacre in 1968. He is, in fact, overloaded with traumas and literally walking woundedwhen he was a child he had permanently damaged his leg in a car accident and later lost a finger to an exploding firecracker. The former bass player for a group called Los Extraditables, Tony idolises Jaco Pastorius, whose uninhibited indulgence shortened a brilliant career. Tony is also a drug addict. Los Extraditables had once been selected to support a reformed Velvet Underground, but Tony had blown their big chance. The Velvets had mandated “a tyrannical code of wholesomeness” but Tony had betrayed Lou Reed, “a walking skull in dark sun glasses”, with a spectacular binge. Another casualty of that relapse was his relationship with a woman from Guadalajara.

Tony’s post-addiction gig is to synthesize ambient music from the movements of the fish in the Pyramid’s aquarium. Nepotism landed Tony this ridiculous job. The resort is managed by a fellow former Extraditable, Marcus Müller, who fills in the gaps in Tony’s drug-destroyed memory, although the stories are rarely flattering. Müller has misguidedly encouraged ‘Maya Pride’ in his indigenous workers, installing a replica of an ancient tablet from Palenque in the lobby, but the workers really believe their ancestors came from outer space. Meanwhile the Pyramid’s major shareholder El Gringo Peterson, Tony’s unlikely confidante, regrets never fighting in Vietnam and is obsessed by his failure to save his infant son from drowning.

The plot is vaguely centred on a ludicrous murder mystery. An American diving instructor, Ginger Oldenville, is found murdered in the aquarium with a spear in his back. Almost simultaneously his lover, Roger Bacon, is found drowned. Each has a hammock rope tied in a knot around his penis. Some bizarre gay suicide pact? Bored with normal life, the dead men had been part of the Cruci/fiction group, a “risk club” for “ultra-sports” where “there are no injuries, just deaths.” Señor Roger also had a tattoo in Arabic. Was he a terrorist? Or is all of this just an intentional distraction from a greater conspiracy? For some reason the CCTV cameras were shut off during Ginger’s murder.

The discovery of Ginger’s corpse interrupts a drunken sexual encounter between Tony and Sandra, the hotel’s American instructor in “Ashtanga yoga, Tibetan kung fu and contact improv.” Her backstory is a dead boyfriend, alcohol, and cage-dancing. Nearly every character in this probably overpopulated novel is living life in the aftermath of bad decisions. Lacking the proper work visa, Sandra has been sexually blackmailed by the hotel’s detestable security officer. Her eventual one-off consummation with Tony is decidedly unsexy (“The lubricant smelled like window cleaner”). We never really learn Sandra’s fate because she vanishes from the narrative. Women in Villoro’s work tend to be assertive, alluring, but elusive. Villoro’s heroes take their female punishment with a shrug, as their due.

The short unnumbered chapters zip past in a flurry of blunt dialogue and manic characters. The murder mystery is solved but without much urgency. Tony’s unlikely acceptance of the role of an adoptive father to Müller’s illegitimate daughter, who lives in a shelter for battered women, offers hope for a purposeful future. Villoro makes wry observations about Mexico and the state of humanity in this nearly-plausible contemporary wasteland. The English-speaking world deserves more of his books.

Manchester and Edinburgh, October 2017

Homage to Granada


I visited Granada at the end of spring when the drifting pollen of its olive trees was triggering severe asthma. Some unfortunate locals were forced to wear allergy masks out in the sunbaked streets. But luckily I had no asthma and ample time to sit in the shade with friends enjoying beer and tapas. For me, it was pleasure to stop and take a breath in the city.

Granada’s air was also filled with musicmostly frequently the hit ‘Despacito’. It took me several days of scouting to find quality flamenco. I finally discovered El Tabanco del Tío Gregorio on the edge of Albaycín, the old Moorish quarter. Unlike the tablaos aimed at tourists, El Tabanco is a modest and inexpensive peña flamenca designed for intimate recitals. Obviously run by true believers, it can accommodate no more than twenty-five listeners, who sit on tiny wooden stools that wobble on the smooth stones cemented into the floor. We drank beer and ate cheese, pickled carrots, and bullet-shaped crackers. María García Toque, a young dreadlocked singer, introduced her fandangos and ferrucas with courtly grace and sang with fire. She was accompanied by a suited, ponytailed guitar player named Pablo Giménez.

Later, out on the descending cobblestones of Cuesta de San Gregorio, the smell of jasmine travelled with the breeze. A cross-legged busker was playing two hang drums in the moonlight. Surprisingly, these drums do not originate in, say, ancient Persia, but are recently invented and catching on with hippies everywhere. A hang looks like a upside-down wok that has been attacked by a man with a hammer. The drums are permanently tuned. People were sitting on the stones in rapt contemplation of the melancholy and resonant timbre. Without discounting the skills of the percussionist, I wondered if musical profundity should be harder earned.

After some manoeuvrers, I snared a ticket to wander through the Nasrid Palaces of the Alhambra, the last reconquered site in Muslim Spain. In The Buried Mirror (1992), Carlos Fuentes wrote, “Perhaps only a people who had known the thirst of the desert could have invented this extraordinary oasis of water and shade.” I also come from a desert country, so maybe that explains why I was so awed by this voluptuous monument to flowing water. Back outside, I was also awed by the view from the gardens of the Generalife. Looking down at the neighbourhoods of Sacromonte and Albaycín, I contemplated the high-leaping dark-green poplars, the narrow streets notched into the hills, the terracotta roofs and interior patios of the white houses. The hazy air above the city beautifully diffused the sunlight. It wasn’t always that way. Inscribed on the wall of the Hall of Two Sisters: “Never have we seen a palace so exalted, with so clear and broad a horizon.”

A less exalted palace is that of Charles V, an ugly Renaissance addition to the Alhambra, the Spanish reconquistadores metaphorically pissing on the site to mark their reclaimed territory. A few years ago its open-air patio was the stage for a summer concert by Jordi Savall, the Catalan musical archaeologist, viola da gamba player, and cultural impresario of boundless ambition. He attempted to use music and texts to narrate the history of multi-faith, medieval Granada. I was curious about the pre-flamenco musical traditions of this great and ancient city, so I bought the recently released recording of that concert, Granada 1013-1502 (Alia Vox). The performers are Hespèrion XXI and La Capella Reial de Catalunya, with a number of solo instrumentalists and singers.


This is not the first time Savall has created early music programs centred on cities with shared Jewish, Christian, and Islamic histories. There is one on Jerusalem (subtitled The City of Two Peaces: The Celestial Peace and the Earthly Peace) and two on Istanbul (The Sublime Gate 1430-1750: Voices of Istanbul and Dmitrie Cantemir 1673-1723: The Book of the Science of Music and the Sephardic and Armenian Musical Traditions).

Savall’s laudable purpose goes beyond the merely musical and historical. When Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in Seville, it was an idealistic political gesture: to have Jewish and Arab musicians playing music together in defiance of the political stalemate and apartheid in Israel and the occupied territories. Still, the West-Eastern Divan play music in the European classical tradition. I saw them perform Pierre Boulez with formidable panache at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires.

Like Barenboim, Savall is also engaged in defiantly humanistic political gestures, reassuring in this era of rising European nationalism and Islamophobia. But Savall not only brings together musicians of different religious or ethnic backgrounds; he also juxtaposes different musical traditions within his narrative programs, a timely reminder that Europe has always been multiculturalalthough rarely peaceful.

A terrifically prolific recording artist of dauntless ambition, Jordi Savall calls the more lavishly-packaged recordings ‘CD-Books’, but that still does not indicate the idealistic scope of these multilingual, multimedia musical-historical projects. In fact, Granada is one of his more modest presentations. In the past I have contemplated Erasmus of Rotterdam: In Praise of Follysix hybrid CDs/SACDs containing two alternate versions of the same musical program (with French narration or without) and a heavily annotated hardback book in multiple languages with glossy colour illustrationsbut quickly put it down in total intimidation.

Lest we allow the evocative music to simply inspire Orientalist fantasies, Granada comes with a full-colour 280 page booklet with numerous illustrations, photographs, and dense explanatory texts in six European languages. (Strangely, considering its focus and idealism, there is no Arabic translation.) I had to set aside an hour or so to come to terms with this project’s scope. Unfortunately the method of annotation is inconsistent, forbiddingly pedantic yet without precision, a hurdle to be jumped by those unacquainted with early music performance conventions. What exactly is this music? Who were the composers and who are the performers? How did these pieces survive centuries to be performed today?

The English text of Savall’s essay is a slog through translatese. The text is pointlessly repetitivewe’re told twice in successive paragraphs that ‘Garnata al-Yahud‘ means ‘Granada of the Jews’. Spellings are inconsistent, too. Is the Arabic musical genre called ‘muwashshah‘, ‘muwashah‘, or ‘muwassah‘? Somebody should decide, or else stick with ‘موشح‎‎.’ Definitions of unfamiliar terms arrive paragraphs after they have already been used. There are also confusing leaps back and forth in time as Savall attempts to explain historical cause and effect. (Comparing the printed booklet cover and the one on the Alia Vox website, the title of the disc is not even consistent. Does this story end in 1502 or 1526?).

The show is presented chronologically with bridging passages narrated in Spanish. We start a thousand years ago in the time of the city’s founding as a Moorish kingdom on the site of the ancient Garnata al-Yahud (which means ‘Granada of the Jews’, in case you’ve already forgotten). We pass through dynasties, wars, massacres, and persecutions until Isabella and Ferdinand take the city in the fateful year of 1492 and decree the expulsion of the Jews. Muslims are forcibly converted.

Jewish, Christian, and Islamic medieval music is reconstructed from disparate sources, and performed with elements of improvisation. The Visigoths had been in Spain before the Moors, and influenced forms of Christian religious music that continued to be practiced in what became al-Andalus; this is now called ‘Mozarabic’ music. Savall includes prayers from the Mozarabic repertoire, songs from the famous Cantigas de Santa Maria and the Codex Las Huelgas, and other surviving ballads and villancicos. Much early Christian music was preserved in imprecise and difficult-to-decipher forms of musical notation, but Savall makes an attempt to interpret these scores.

The Jewish pieces are settings of Hebrew texts by medieval poets, by the rabbi Maimonides, and from the Song of Songs, performed in the traditional styles of the Sephardic diaspora, specifically in communities that endure in Morocco and Thessaloniki. The Israeli singer Lior Elmaleh is prominently featured in these pieces. The Muslim segments include muwashshahs and improvisatory maqams, texts and poems, and dances surviving in Muslim communities in North Africa and the Middle East. I’m sceptical that these musical forms have endured essentially unchanged after half a millennium, but I guess that’s a question for the musicologists.

It is difficult to encompass five hundred years of a city’s history in any sort of dramatic narrative. Instead there is a parade of historical figures and wavering levels of religious tolerance and persecution leading to the fall of Granada. It must have been serious stuff in the stifling air of a summer night, but the music is evocative and beautifully performed by the solo singers, the choir and an embellished ensemble that stretches from Savall’s viola da gamba to the ney, the oud, and the kanun. Putting the heavy scholarship aside, the recording works as a perfect stimulus for anybody who wants to drift into dreams of this glorious and tragic city.

Edinburgh, September 2017


Lester Goran: Wiseguy


Lester Goran? I’m going to steal one of Saul Bellow’s opening pitches:

Sure, I knew the guy. He was wonderful.

Lester was only an occasional writer of comic fiction, but that’s what I read first—one of the funny books. As a result, his big kindly grin in person didn’t surprise me at all. And yet, practically beatific as he drove me around Miami, Lester said he considered William Trevor and Joyce Carol Oates his two best living writers. Okay, LG, but not really wisecrackers. Worlds of grimness!

“Yeah, they play it pretty straight,” Lester said.

Lester had grown up poor in Pittsburgh and read the proletarian fiction of James T. Farrell (vintage grimness). Then he’d joined the army, gone to university on the GI Bill, written his thesis on Henry James. It was an unlikely identification—the underclass tenement kid and the aristocratic expatriate. “I was here and James was there…and yet we both saw the world very much the same way: greed, manipulation,” Lester told me. “His eye was so cold.” He didn’t think middle-class critics could grasp James’ writing about loneliness.

I figured he liked Chekhov, too.

“Oh, yes,” Lester said with reverence.

Now, I can’t think of a writer who doesn’t revere Chekhov, but with Lester Goran the influence seems unavoidable. The unsentimental compassion for the small and large tragedies of ordinary people, of lives blighted by loss or mere lost opportunities. What sustains Goran’s characters through the darkness is the hope of transcendence through acts of imagination, no matter how pathetic or bizarre or borderline crazy—a corset with magical properties; a romance with the ghost of an Episcopalian preacher; aiding and abetting ‘Pretty Boy’ Floyd. For most of his writing life Goran bound himself to the honorable task of sketching the lives of humble Pittsburghers—the underclass of the Hill District (disguised as ‘Sobaski’s Stairway’) and the Irish working class of Oakland—restricting his prose to what he called the “earnest expression of the consciousness that my characters are capable of.”

He published nearly a dozen books in this mode. But let’s not forget the rare funny books—what Lester called his “wiseguy” comedies—which gave him a chance to display the dexterity of his prose and his considerable comic abilities.

I discovered one of these comedies by accident in a thrift shop in Sydney, Australia, in the early 2000s. (I think Lester liked the idea of his books scattered around the world from Australia to Iran, emissaries on patient standby.) The book was The Keeper of Secrets (1971). The price: $1. What stood out was not the author’s name—I’d never heard of this Lester Goran—but the Portnoyesque typeface on the plain off-white dust jacket. Its lurid swashes evoked the first Nixon administration and an oppositional attitude embodied not only by Philip Roth but by Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, Leonard Michaels, J. P. Donleavy, Terry Southern, Robert Crumb, Frank Zappa, Sam Peckinpah, Robert Altman, Elliot Gould, Jack Nicholson, and the ghost of Lenny Bruce: liberated heterosexual mischief fuelled and given moral dignity by outrage at American injustice. Men collecting the late fee on overdue freedom in a frequently hilarious, masculine, virile, sweaty, occasionally misogynist Great American Fuck You.

Of course many books were sold with a Portnoyesque dust jacket around 1971. In the case of The Keeper of Secrets, I guess the designer recognised a few affinities—Jewish irony, a schlemiel with a roster of ex-wives, (slightly) bawdy comedy—and tried to hitch it to a passing mood. But it doesn’t really fit in.

The Keeper of Secrets is Shimen Groff, a mess of a human being but a Nobel Prize contender if only his epic long-in-progress novel, scattered in manuscript across the United States among ex-wives, can be collated and published. It’s the set-up for a road story and riotous farce. Goran freely moves between third and first person to distinguish Shimen’s ideal and actual selves. Ideally Shimen is “dapper, clean, resolute, entirely admirable”; in actuality Shimen proves a slob, unreliable, wilfully obscure, a betrayer—”a forest fire,” Lester told me. But we can hardly hate him. After all, we need novelists. Lester said he was interested in how “the writer draws the conclusions to all of the uncorrelated parts of experience that are moving in so many directions.”

The dust jacket for Goran’s earlier comedy The Candy Butcher’s Farewell (1964) is also a lazy period piece, illustrated in the style of a cheap morning cartoon like Roger Ramjet. Again it fails to communicate uniqueness.

I think Candy Butcher is his best novel, the one most deserving of rediscovery and republication. A ‘candy butcher’ is a seller of sweets at an Atlantic City burlesque house. The titular narrator is Henry Sneffer, Jr., plucky, hopeful, enthused—“Count me in!” is the novel’s first sentence. Henry is born to an absent father and a ‘nurse’ he calls Big Sister with whom he travels across the United States in the 1930s. When Big Sister dies Henry is sent to live with his Uncle Jonas and Aunt Alma in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania. He eventually flees to Atlantic City after discovering that Jonas has committed arson at one of his slum properties and has no remorse about the death of a little black girl.

In Candy Butcher the pull between Goran’s ambitions—almost a question of loyalties—is explicitly referenced. Henry, a budding writer, says he “kept one of Uncle Jonas’ rent lists, thirty-six gray names, thinking I would one day write a story about every gray name behind every one of Uncle Jonas’s gray doors. I lost the names with a collection of Unknown Worlds and Amazing Stories, science fiction that Aunt Alma sent to a trash collector for the worth of the paper. I’m sure that, except in the aggregate, none of those 36 names would make anything but bad news as they hanged themselves or slashed with a razor their own image in someone else. They would probably have made…a failure of a book for any young writer dumb enough to try them.”

And yet in his future books Goran repeatedly came back to the gray names, risking novelistic failure for the greater cause of reimagining lost Pittsburgh. He wrote about the sort of people who not only rarely appear in novels, but rarely even register on the consciousness of society. He told me he wanted to return to the subject of burlesque in an altogether darker mode—a novel imagining the life of one of the Green River Killer’s victims. What astonished him was that “most of these women were so anonymous nobody even knew that they were gone.”

Goran greatly admired Bellow—the admiration was apparently reciprocated—but didn’t recognise what he called Bellow’s working class “Delphic expressionistic people” who toss arcane philosophical debates back-and-forth like baseball raps or tabloid gossip—wiseguy gab applied to the cosmic. For Bellow, living in a modern city like Chicago stirs and demands contemplation, prompts the Big Questions. His leading characters may be emotional disasters but they are all questing and curious—protagonists with a vengeance—and are surrounded by characters on the make, schemers for success, money, women. Perhaps Goran’s bravest act as a writer was to take his characters as he knew them from the streets of Pittsburgh—often paralyzed, wounded, bewildered, timid, or passive; people haunted by grief, guilt, fantasies, and visions. Sometimes Goran risked inscrutability by this act, his surrender to inwardly directed subjectivities. But damn the consequences—this was Lester’s universe.

As he wrote in the introduction to Tales from the Irish Club (1996):

“No one except a fiction writer would want to perpetuate a cast of all the unremembered delegates from an abandoned time.”

That said, I considered it great news when Lester resurrected his comic mode forty years after Keeper of Secrets in the sequel, Unnatural Expectations, and in a short story cycle about the ‘Air Man’ A. C. Laredo, based on the life of Goran’s immigrant father. I was honoured to be able to publish excerpts from both as-yet-unpublished manuscripts in my capacity as the editor of Contrappasso.


The Keeper of Secrets marked the end of Lester’s first period, an impressive run of six novels in a dozen years. Then there was a long silence of more than twenty years broken only by the indie appearance of the historical novel Mrs. Beautiful (1985) and his collaborative translations of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s late stories (I’m discounting the two paperback ‘saga’ novels Goran wrote for money). The intensity of Goran’s second period of publishing activity is extraordinary: five books published between 1994 and 1999. These are a memoir of Singer, the novel Bing Crosby’s Last Song, and three collections of short stories focusing on the denizens of Oakland’s Irish Club (a fourth collection was mooted but never appeared). Suddenly Goran, in his late sixties, had a critically-acclaimed corpus of fifty stories. His earlier novels entirely out of print, he was now best known as a short story writer. This was unusual because he hadn’t concentrated on stories in the past nor sold these ones individually to magazines and journals.

But bibliographies are misleading. Like any writer attempting maneuvers without ever having the good fortune of penning a bestseller, Goran’s published work—twelve books—is merely what he was able to smuggle out to the world as he moved from publisher to publisher. He enjoyed two brief periods of regular publication in a career of more than fifty years. I don’t believe he ever stopped writing. He told me his archives held many other manuscripts, including a novel that was supposed to be published following The Keeper of Secrets but was cancelled.

Although he surely promoted his work to agents and publishers when necessary, especially in the early days, it is difficult to imagine Lester as a hustler. That would indicate a need for outside affirmation. In the brief time I knew him, Lester seemed eminently self-sufficient, a modest man rather chuffed by where he’d found himself. He’d come a tremendous way from his slum youth, but he said the biggest leg of the journey was from the 5th to the 4th Ward of Pittsburgh. He never betrayed a sense of injustice that his work remained largely unknown.

He continued to teach and write into his mid-eighties. He confidently expected to follow his brother’s lead and live to a hundred. His emails to me as he worked on the Shimen Groff sequel and ‘Air Man’ communicated an undiminished glee in the simple act of writing—again, transcendence through imagination. Swapping reports of our respective novel writing, Lester wrote to me on February 16, 2012, in his standard telegrammic style:

“Revived work on Shimen mss., should be done well before 21st century ends. All very exciting. Fun like all hell. Happy to hear you are in throes of creation, all there is between artist and lunacy of the world. Best and thanks. LG.”

Buenos Aires, July 2014

Presented at ‘Goran’s Gifts: A Tribute to Creative Writing Professor Lester Goran’, University of Miami, 24 October 2014; Originally published in Mangrove (Fall 2014)