Thursday, January 30, 2014

¡Toro! ¡Toro! Japan?

Bullfight by Yasushi Inoue 

“The large, eye-catching announcement ran in the Osaka New Evening Post in mid-December 1946: early the next year, from January 20, the paper would sponsor a three-day bullfighting tournament at Hanshin Baseball Stadium…” So begins this prize-winning debut by Japanese author, Yasushi Inoue. Set in in the ruins of Osaka just shortly after the war, in a city all but demolished by the sixth-month U.S firebombing campaign in which more than 10,00 civilians were killed and the city’s heavy industrial sector destroyed, Bullfight (Japanese: Tōgyū) involves the struggles of small-time, mild-mannered newspaper editor who decides (in fact is persuaded) to risk it all, to gamble the fate of the very paper that employs him, by hosting a bullfighting tournament in the devastated city in the hope both of turning a profit and boosting the spirits of his demoralized compatriots. 

Kyodatsu is the name given to the condition of exhaustion and despair that plagued the Japanese as a people, following their defeat and humiliation at the end of the World War II and throughout the American occupation. Writes John W. Dower in his illuminating treatment of the period, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II: “Whether in war or in defeat, such collective exhaustion did appear to be the ‘great enemy’ to a vast array of observers. Just as it could erode reverence for the throne, so it might impede postwar reconstruction—not to mention undermining the whole idealistic enterprise of promoting democracy in a shattered land.”

It was a condition the poet Horiguchi Daigaku (like the protagonist of this story) sought to help his countrymen transcend:

The country has become small
and powerless.
food scarce,
shame plentiful,
life fragile.
Stop grieving!
Raise your eyes
to the treetops,
to the sky.

What better way to achieve this than with a bullfight? Strange, anomalous, as this may sound, there is in fact an old, much-cherished tradition of bullfighting in Japan, in Kyushu and the Ryukyu Islands, dating back as far as the late 17th century. Popularly called ushi-zumo, “sumo bullfighting,” (at least by foreigners), the sport indeed bears a greater resemble to sumo wrestling than to Spanish and Portuguese bullfighting in which a man confronts a bull and, after much pomp and sadism, kills it. Tōgyū, by contrast, pits bull against bull; horns locked, each bull with attendant coach tries to force the other bull to give way. That is it. The bulls are not killed; they are not injured; blood is rarely if ever shed.

It reminds me of the remarkable Japanese baseball tradition of playing for a tie as the ideal outcome of any game: in that way wa (group harmony) is maintained—no one loses face and everyone ends a winner. Which is surely not the case in Spanish bullfighting, a sport over which I have nearly come to blows with the ghost of Hemingway, not to mention with at least two of my more ardent Spanish friends. For while I have never seen a bullfight in Spain, I did see one in the ancient Roman arena of the southern French city of Nîmes, a city—with its innumerable bullfighting clubs—steeped in the rites, rituals, and lore of Spanish tauromachia. For all my anticipation, I did not find the bullfight beautiful; I did not find it graceful or sporting or refined. Given the odds against the bull, I saw no courage in the spectacle at all. It was farcical really, a sham, a precious stage play of posturing and poses, all very much for show. And of course it was ritually, elaborately cruel.

Not so with the Japanese version we see in Inoue’s curiously delightful tale. Here, though nearly everything goes wrong, the contests prove a balm, a victory for all. Writes Ian Buruma, “To the Japanese, always acutely conscious of their ranking among nations, sporting victories were one way to soothe memories of wartime defeats.” It therefore comes as no surprise that this spare and simple novella, first published in 1949, earned the fledgling author both the admiration of his people and the prestigious Akutagawa Prize.  

Yasushi Inoue, born in 1907, worked as a journalist and literary editor for many years, only beginning his prolific career as an author in 1949 with Bullfight. He went on to publish 50 novels and 150 short stories, both historical and contemporary. In 1976 Inoue was presented with the Order of Culture, the highest honor granted for artistic merit in Japan. He died in 1991. (Thanks to Pushkin Press)

Here you can watch a little ushi-zumo for yourself:

Peter Adam Nash

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Welcome to Sarajevo

Sarajevo Marlboro, by

Miljenko Jergović

"You can never list or recall the private libraries that have burned down in Sarajevo. And why should you?  But the fate of the Sarajevo University Library, its famous city hall, whose books took a whole night and day to go up in flames, will be remembered as the fire to end all fires, a last mythical celebration of ash and dust.  It happened, after a whistle and an explosion, almost exactly a year ago. Perhaps the same date you're reading this. Gently stroke your books, dear stranger, and remember they are dust." --The Library

Sarajevo Marlboro is a collection of short stories in a style reminiscent of Raymond Carver (without much dialogue, smoking, or drinking) and with more than a dash of the earnestness and irony of the stories of the Polish author Jerzy Andrzejewski. Jergovic explores the physical and emotional catastrophe that occurred in the capital city of Bosnia during the nearly four-year long siege (1992-1996) of Sarajevo--the longest continual bombardment of a city in the history of modern warfare.  It is impossible to imagine the conditions under which a quarter of a million residents of Sarajevo lived during the encirclement and bombing of their homes by the Serbian army.  Twelve thousand civilians died; and if the number means little in this era of extraordinary casualty counts, consider the visceral meaning of the phrase "the precariousness of everyday life" for the residents of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War, or compare it to the horrors visited upon Beirut--and Lebanon--during the fifteen years of that country's civil war.  As Jergovic's collection demonstrates, death was on every Sarajevan's mind--it had to be so--but the routine nature of disaster couldn't detract in the least from the anxiety and fear felt by every person in the besieged city.  Where would the shells fall?  Could one continue to live above ground, or did one have to climb--as the hero of Cactus does--into a subterranean room to survive?  When the fear of death becomes routine, what happens to one's connection to life?  These are the questions explored in Sarajevo Marlboro, an understated and almost matter-of-fact engagement with the destruction of Jergovic's beloved city.

"Salih F. saw with his own eyes his wife and two daughters being cut up with an electric saw by the Chetniks."  And what is the fate of Salih F.?  A prisoner, a refugee, a patient--what to do with a man who has witnessed such horror?  The point, of course, is to forget--but if one cannot, then one is declared insane.  I kept thinking that Jergović's laconic style reflected the impossibility of knowing what to do with such memories--going mad seems as good a choice as any.  And yet most of the characters in Sarajevo Marlboro are resolutely sane, trying simply to survive, adapting to conditions that most of us can't even imagine.  Many of the stories end with little moral lessons that are, under the circumstances, bitterly ironic: a man who has witnessed a friend's throat being cut for presumably telling a lie to the Chetniks reasons that "Perhaps there really are occasions in life when it is best not to say anything." 

Miljenko Jergović is an interesting and important literary figure   A Bosnian Croat born in Sarajevo (in 1966),  Jergović now lives in Zagreb and has written extensively both as a novelist and journalist about the sense of displacement felt by former residents of Yugoslavia since the tragic disintegration of that country.  The most moving story in the collection for me is The Library, a story that was inspired by the destruction of the National Library of Sarajevo and its 3 million volumes (!), many of them unique copies of works central to the history of the polygot, multi-cultural enclave that was Bosnia before 1993.

"With the illusion of the private library also vanishes the illusion of a bibliotheca, or civilization of they burned, disappearing irrevocably one after the other, you stopped believing that there was any purpose in a book's existence."

For a recent story of the preservation of 100,000 rare books and manuscripts from the conflagration of 1993, see Bookmarks Toolbar Most Visited 

Sarajevo Marlboro was translated by Stela Tomasevic, with an introduction by Ammiel Alcalay, and published by Archipelago Books (in 2004).

George Ovitt (1/23/14)

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Dictatorship of Flies

El Señor Presidente by Miguel Ángel Asturias

                               When the trumpet sounded
                               everything was prepared on earth,
                               and Jehovah gave the world
                               to Coca-Cola Inc., Anaconda,
                               Ford Motors, and other corporations.
                               The United Fruit Company
                               reserved for itself the most juicy
                               piece, the central coast of my world,
                               the delicate waist of America.

                               It baptized these countries
                               Banana Republics
                               and over the sleeping dead,
                               over the unquiet heroes
                               who won greatness,
                               liberty, and banners,
                               it established an opera buffa:
                               it abolished free will,
                               gave out imperial crowns,
                               encouraged envy, attracted
                               the dictatorship of flies…

                                          Pablo Neruda
                                   “La United Fruit Co.” from Canto General (1950)

Modeled after the brutal Guatemalan dictator and corporate henchman for the American-owned United Fruit Company, Manuel José Estrada Cabreras (1898-1920), the nameless tyrant of Nobel laureate Miguel Ángel Asturias’ most influential novel, El Señor Presidente, achieves a nearly mythical stature in this surreal and brawling tale as an aloof and evil god, the mysterious source of all suffering and death. What we learn of him we learn principally through the eyes and mouths of the poor and the mad and the dispossessed, as well as through the political jockeying of his many sycophants and jackals. Alternately praised as “Beloved Deity,” “First Citizen of the Nation,” and—in a single breath, without a trace of irony—“Constitutional President of the Republic, Benefactor of the Country, Head of the great Liberal Party, and Liberal-hearted Protector of Studious Youth,” this reclusive tyrant—with his toothless gums, pendulous cheeks, and pinched eyelids—is compared daily by his wretched subjects to none other than Pericles, Jesus Christ, and “the Sun King at Versailles.” 

Yet, ultimately, this novel is a less a satire of a particular man and regime, a particular Banana Republic* (for which Asturias had no shortage of choices, most notably Jamaica and nearby Honduras) than a broader, artistically ambitious study of the brutal effects of plutocracy, no matter the era, the people, the place. Indeed if one were to change the names, switch the props, adjust the lighting here and there, this novel could be set almost anywhere today (forget Iraq and North Korea and Iran; think of China, Russia, and Germany, think of England and France, think especially of the U.S.A.)—any place where, in the hallowed name of This or That, the elites of business, politics, and the military have gladly joined hands. 

In a story reminiscent of the gory productions of the popular, turn-of-the-century Parisian theatre, the Grand Guignol, there is one character, a man known as Miguel Angel Face (Miguel Cara de Ángel), who serves as a lifeline for the reader throughout the plot’s many twists and convulsions and turns, a moral, starkly human gauge of the corruption and tyranny that reigns supreme in this nameless Central American nation. 

Known as one of the first “dictator novels” (see also Fecundo by Domingo Faustino Sarmiento and Nostromo by Joseph Conrad), a genre that would inspire such other Latin American greats as Autumn of the Patriarch; I, the Supreme; and The Feast of the Goat, El Señor Presidente is additionally remarkable as a novel for its clear break from the historic and realist style that dominated the period, both in Europe and Latin America. Cleary influenced by surrealism, Asturias, in his effort to more deeply probe the human psyche under tyranny, achieved a new style at once mythical, dreamlike, and incantatory, an innovation soon to inspire the “magical realism” boom of the 1960’s and `70’s, for which the literature of Latin America remains widely, if imperfectly known. 

* The term was coined by coined by American author O. Henry around 1904, following his travels in Honduras.

Miguel Ángel Asturias (1899-1974) A Guatemalan by birth, Miguel Asturias studied the myth and religion of Central America at the Sorbonne.  While living in Paris (1923-1933), he worked as a correspondent for several Central American newspapers.  He then pursued a diplomatic career, representing the Guatemalan government in Argentina, El Salvador, and Mexico. He then served as the Guatemalan ambassador to France from 1966 to 1970.  In 1967 he was award the Nobel Prize for Literature. (Thanks in part to Atheneum)

Peter Adam Nash