Thursday, April 28, 2016

Crocodile Tears

Two  Crocodiles by Fyodor Dostoevsky and Felisberto Hernández

—how true it is that we know not beforehand the fate that awaits us!

What happens when you put a Russian and a Uruguayan crocodile into the same small tank (or between the same two covers)? You get a lot of crocodile tears.

Dostoevsky’s 1865 story “The Crocodile: An Extraordinary Incident” is described, on its title page, as “A true story of how a gentleman of a certain age and of respectable appearance was swallowed alive by the crocodile in the Arcade, and of the consequences that followed.” The description is not only funny, but apt in characterizing the brilliantly dry, matter-of-fact tone in which this shrewd little satire unfolds. 

One day, so Dosotoevsky’s narrator relates to us, a pompous civil servant named Ivan Matveitch takes his wife, Elena Ivanovna, to see the exotic and “monstrous” crocodile on exhibit at the Arcade, part of a travelling sideshow from Germany. Boldly taunting the creature to impress his pretty young wife, Ivan Matveitch is promptly gobbled up, swallowed whole before her much-astonished eyes. In the words of friend and narrator, Semyon Semyonitch (which, forgive me, I will quote at some length), this is what ensues:

The crocodile began by turning the unhappy Ivan Matveitch in his terrible jaws so that he could swallow his legs first; then brining up Ivan Matveitch, who kept trying to jump out and cltuching at the sides of the tank, sucked him down again as far as his wasit. Then bringing him up again, gulped him down, and so again and again. In this way Ivan Matveitch was visibly disappearing before our eyes.  At last, with a final gulp, the crocodile swallowed my cultured friend entirely, this time leaving no trace of him. From the outside of the crocodile we could see the protuberances of Ivan Matveitch’s figure as he passed down the inside of the monster. I was on the point of screaming again when destiny played another treacherous trick upon us. The crocodile made a tremendous effort, probably oppressed by the magnitude of the object he had swallowed, once more opened his terrrible jaws, and with a final hiccup he suddenly let the head of Ivan Matveitch pop out for a second, with an expression of despair on his face. In that brief instant the spectacles dropped off his nose to the bottom of the tank. It seemed as though that despairing countenance had only popped out to cast one last look on the objects around it, to take tis last farewell of all earthly pleasures. But it had not time to carry out its intention; the crocodile made another effort, gave a gulp and instantly it vanished again—this time forever. This appearance and disappearance of a still living human head was so horrible, but all the same—either from its rapidity and unexpectedness or from the dropping of the spectacles—there was something so comic about it that I suddenly quite unexpectedly exploded with laughter.

In fact what at first appears a matter of horror, soon turns decidedly amusing, bizarre, as the just-devoured Ivan Matveitch begins to speak, to cajole his awestruck wife from within the bloated belly of this same beast. When his wife exclaims with wonder that he is still alive, he replies, “Alive and well, and thanks to the Almighty, swallowed without any damage whatever.” In fact, he feels so well, is so steadfast in his devotion to his work, that he determines (expounding all the while) to continue his official duties as a civil servant from his new home inside the crocodile!

Paired with this tale, producing an interesting reaction between them, is the much shorter, if equally amusing story by the same name by the great Uraguayan writer, Felisberto Hernández. Based in part on the author’s own experience as a self-taught pianist who earned his living playing music in the silent-screen theatres and cafes of Uruguay, the story is narrated by a lonely concert pianist trying hard to make ends meet. One day he makes the inadvertent discovery, when he finds himself weeping in the middle of a concert, that his tears are more of an attraction than his music. Told in a voice and style reminiscent of (if predating) that of Boll’s The Clown and “The Laugher”, Hernández’s “The Crocodile” is one of numerous tales “about quietly deranged individuals” that has distinguished the career of this highly influential stylist. Revered by such writers as Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, and Roberto Bolaño, Hernández is a writer whose works I am delighted to know. 

“The Crocodile: An Extraordinary Incident” by Fyodor Dostoevsky was translated by Constance Garnett. “The Crocodile” by Felisberto Hernández was translated by Esther Allen.

Peter Adam Nash

Tuesday, April 19, 2016


Siamese by Stig Saeterbakken

Beauty and Sadness by Yasunari Kawabata

The Vegetarian by Han Kang


It's been a siege of spiteful characters, plots, and world views--months really, since through pure happenstance I started to read the backlog of novels I've been accumulating since year's end.

What exactly is spite? Not an easy word to define, spite evokes the worst character traits: simmering anger, bitterness, vindictiveness, pettiness, resentment, vengefulness. I imagine the spiteful would reside in Dante's Fifth Circle, hard on the banks of the River Styx. Filippio Argenti is one of the only souls in hell for whom Dante feels only spite ("I would see him pickled in that swill.") The spiteful imagine great wrongs done to their person; they feel deeply, but only to the end of exacting revenge. Spite presumes a form of justice that doesn't even accounts but obliterates those who have given offense. Perfect spite is nurtured, kept alive as a means of providing the spiteful a reason to live.

A nearly-blind Edwin Mortens lives in the bathroom of a flat with his almost deaf wife Erna. They hate each other but depend on one another physically and psychologically--they torment one another, suspect infidelities, are envious and spiteful--a marriage made in hell. Saeterbakken, author of Journey Through Night and Self-Control specializes in character studies of men and women living in extremis, surviving in the face of suffering and loss, spreading the wealth, so to speak, by tormenting those around them. Siamese is a novel Beckett might have written or brought to the stage. The sequential interior monologues of Edwin and Erna are perfectly suited to the theater--Edwin seated in the bathroom staring with milky eyes at nothing; Erna seated at the kitchen table in a run-down apartment muttering about her husband's vileness. Nurturing their hatred so as to continue living, after a fashion.

 Revenge isn't inherently spiteful: one might get back at someone coolly, just to even the score. But the best sort of revenge is obsessive and therefore steeped in spite--and the payback, ideally, will both duplicate the original offense and quote it. The finest novel of revenge-spite that I know of is Kawabata's Beauty and Sadness, a title that suggests the great Japanese writer's penchant for delicate stories of unhappy love, but which actually delivers a bitter tale of terrible revenge enacted long after the precipitating crime. As the novel opens, Oki Toshio is journeying from Tokyo to listen to the New Year's bells in Kyoto. But his real hope is to visit a lover whom he impregnated and abandoned twenty years before--Otoko Ueno. Ueno is now a famous artist who lives with a young lover and protege, Keiko Sakimi. Keiko is jealous of Ueno's former lover, but her feelings of hatred and her desire for revenge, as is typical in Kawabata, are just as much directed against what to her appear to be the cruel customs and repressive culture of traditional Japan. As Keiko plots exquisite and terrible revenge against Otoko and his family, Kawabata reveals deeper fissures in the social fabric of Japan: the subservient role of women is one of them, but more poignant is the Kabuki-like ritual of love-death. Ueno and Keiko share a destructive passion: Ueno's detachment and world-weariness are well suited to Otoko's deep-seated grief for his treatment of Ueno, but Keiko is nearly driven mad by the passivity and introspection that has allowed Ueno to live her life as a victim. Keiko dispatches her victim callously, methodically, and without a hint of passion. Her spite is reserved for Ueno--this is the genius of the novel--rather than for the man who abandoned her.

“Before my wife turned vegetarian, I thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way." Thus begins the most disturbing--I suppose I should use the word "transgressive"--of the three novels, the story of an ordinary woman who has a dream of blood and elects to become a vegetarian as a result. Where's the harm? Hardly as serious as the mad hatreds of the Mortens or as obsessive as the revenge described by Kawabata--vegetarianism, after all, would seem to be a personal and an ethical decision, to be respected and honored. But Yeong-hye's husband and family behave as if she had elected to become a serial killer: they torment her with arguments, they stuff food into her mouth, they treat her as if she were insane.  Yeong-hye's response is to become nearly catatonic, to abandon not only meat but her life and, eventually, her language. Her tormentors are ordinary people--her family--but the spiteful ways in which they insinuate that Yeong-hye has no rights over her own body suggest the brutal way in which men (and some women) assert the proposition that women are not agents and that their bodies belong to husbands and fathers and mothers.

The spite trilogy. Hardly cheering, but each of these three novels was compelling in the way that a traffic accident is compelling--you slow down despite yourself, relieved that it isn't you--this time. 

George Ovitt (4/19/16)

Friday, April 8, 2016

The Feet of the Word

A Red Cherry on a White-tiled Floor by Maram Al-Massri

Where horses
cannot gallop,
where there is no
to allow
a beam of light to pass,
where no grass
I cling
to the feet of the word.

Published to critical acclaim in Tunis in 1997, A Red Cherry on a White-tiled Floor is a selection of poems by Syrian born author, Maram Al-Massri, that will impress the reader at once with its spare, unadorned language, and with its emotional and sexual candor. There is a curt, sometimes lyrical gravity to her writing, a concentration of insight and feeling, at points an almost wincing vulnerability in the poem’s various speakers, that makes it all feel instantly familiar to the reader, starkly, intimately, real. For those versed in classical Arabic love poetry, these poems may resonate even more deeply, colored as they are by the loss and longing characteristic of the poetry of such masters as Rumi and Hafiz, as well by the more modern treatments of these much-beloved subjects by such Syrian contemporaries as Fuad Rifqa and Huda Naamani. By one recent critic Al-Massri was called “an Arab love poet for the modern age,” a title she wears quite well.


He felt no shame before her
in his old cotton clothes
and his torn socks.
He undressed,
the way the need for love
strips naked,
and descended
like an angel
upon her body.


I killed my father
that night
or the other day—
I don’t remember.
I escaped with a suitcase
filled with dreams and amnesia
and a picture of me
with him
when I was a child
and when he carried me
on his forearm.

I buried my father
in a beautiful shell,
in a deep ocean,
but he found me
hiding under the bed
shaking with a dear loneliness.


Maram Al-Massri was born in Lattakia, Syria. Since 1982 she has lived in Paris. A Red Cherry on a White-tiled Floor was translated by Khaled Mattawa.

Peter Adam Nash