Monday, July 16, 2018

The Five-Mile Wall

Nothing Ever Dies, Viet Thanh Nguyen (essays)

Night Sky With Exit Wounds, Ocean Vuong (poems)


As I write this post, Mr. Trump is meeting in Helsinki with Mr. Putin.  Mr. Pompeo, our latest Secretary of State, has met a few times with Kim Jong-un of North Korea.  My brother-in-law, a businessman, has made many trips to Vietnam, exploring mutually beneficial economic relations with our former enemy.  We briefly forgave Cuba for Fidel, but it didn't stick--too close to home.  Iran remains non grata going on forty years after that country's Islamic Revolution.  We don't care for Venezuela, though this administration doesn't much like Mexico, Canada, or Europe either.

In the peculiar calculus of international relations, friends and foes change places with astonishing rapidity.  That our president admires Putin but despises Theresa May is surely wondrous, a fact not even explicable in reference to national interest. The nexus of corporate capitalism and high-end scheming has created strange bedfellows in the 21st century. Like the stock market, volatility and creative destruction (of companies, or workers, or resources) has replaced the once sacrosanct pursuit of stability. 

Nothing is more mind boggling to me, a college student in the 1960's, then the about-face on the country we invaded and made war on for twenty years, the domino that wasn't to be allowed to fall, the communist state that would infect all of southeast Asia with the contagion of monolithic communism.  But my incredulity stems from my inability to grasp the simple fact that ideology is dead, replaced, worldwide, by the logic, the omnipotence, of capital.  There's a franchise here that I hadn't paid enough attention to: destroy a country, then with multinational investments rebuild it; once rebuilt (more or less after a Westernized model) use the former enemy as a base of operations for the storage of surplus domestic capital, avoiding taxes at home.  Everybody gets rich, except for the people. 

Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of the bestselling and remarkable novel The Sympathizer attempts, in his essays Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War to catalogue the ways in which for Vietnamese and Americans alike the war in Vietnam, the war of American aggression (as it is known in Southeast Asia) has been memorialized--in graveyards, formal memorials, novels, and films.  It's a fine book, but for me at least, unconvincing.  As with Drew Gilpin Faust's The Republic of Suffering, the award-winning account of the memorization of the Civil War dead, I came away thinking that the construction of memorials, the dedication of grave sites, the commercialization of war in books or films has nothing to do with remembering.

Viet Thanh Nguyen's academic style--he's a professor of English, and writes like one--obscures the fact that for Americans the war in Vietnam isn't a historical fact, but a mythological tale, a story that has taken its place alongside the vast array of myths that define our national consciousness.  The Vietnam Memorial in Washington, for example, is a powerful reminder of the human cost of the war for the United States. A similar war memorializing Vietnam's dead would stretch five miles, from the Lincoln Memorial well up Capitol Hill.  But what does this reflective wall have to do with remembering?  What does any statue or any field of white crosses have to do with the internalization of a catastrophic historical event?  Remembrance depends upon compassion, empathy and imagination far more than it does on the traditional symbols of death and loss.  A visit to Gettysburg's famed battlefield, with its plinths and equestrian statues, is like an episode on the History Channel unless one is willing to look inward and feel the mayhem and suffering that took place on those pastoral acres on three summer days in 1863.  Americans might be moved by the Wall, but they aren't thinking much about what it really means; if we were, we wouldn't be continuing to behave as we do, creating new memorials to the dead. It's easier to build another Wall than to stop the need for them.

Sorry, I've oversimplified Viet Thanh Nguyen's argument here. He has many subtle and important things to say about the asymmetries of power and the problem (impossibility) of humanizing one's enemies--please do read this book--but I still haven't understood how remembering and memorializing explain America's amnesia or Vietnam's transformation into an "acceptable" communist government. What sleight of hand is at work here? I defer to historians on this question.




If you want to feel things, if you want to know about human beings, it's poetry that is required, not statues. 

The young (he's twenty-nine) Vietnamese-American poet Ocean Vuong has produced a remarkable book of poems about war, isolation, foreignness, loss, and memory.  Particular impressive is the way in which Ocean moves from formal verse to free verse to idiosyncratic styles in order to blend meaning and feeling with form.  There's a violence in the book, a sustained pitch of anger and despair that is inescapable, particularly if one reads straight through in a single sitting. This book is not a sampler but a slap in the face, a call to wake up and share in a stranger's life (and what could be more foreign to us than this young man's life)? 

There isn't an uninteresting poem in the book. Here's one that shows the range of feeling and mastery of tone:

Prayer for the Newly Damned

Dearest Father, forgive me for I have seen.
Behind the wooden fence, a field lit
with summer, a man pressing a shank
to another man’s throat. Steel turning to light
on sweat-slick neck. Forgive me
for not calling Your name. For thinking:
this must be how every prayer
begins—the word Please cleaving
the wind into fragments, into what
a boy hears in his need to know
how pain blesses the body back
to its sinner. The hour suddenly
stilled. The man genuflected, his lips
pressed to black boot as the words spilled
from his mouth like rosaries
shattering from too much
Father. Am I wrong to love
those eyes, to see something so clear
and blue—beg to remain
clear and blue? Did my cheek twitch
when that darkness bloomed from his crotch
and trickled into ochre dirt? Father,
how quickly the blade becomes
You. But let me begin again: There’s a boy
kneeling in a house with every door kicked open
to summer. There’s a question corroding
his tongue. There’s a knife touching
Your name lodged inside the throat.
Dearest Father, what becomes of the boy
no longer a boy? Please
what becomes of the shepherd
when the sheep are cannibals?

Many of the poems in Ocean's collection are memorials to his father, as here. Some are love poems, and some, among the most moving, are reflections on the poet's own identity as a son, a gay man, an American. (See "Someday I'll Love Ocean Vuong").  Here's a poem about remembering the war:

Aubade With Burning City

South Vietnam, April 29, 1975: Armed Forces Radio played Irving
Berlin’s “White Christmas” as a code to begin Operation Frequent
Wind, the ultimate evacuation of American civilians and Vietnamese
refugees by helicopter during the fall of Saigon.
           Milkflower petals in the street
                                               like pieces of a girl’s dress.
May your days be merry and bright…
He fills a teacup with champagne, brings it to her lips.
           Open, he says.
                                       She opens.
                                                           Outside, a soldier spits out
           his cigarette as footsteps fill the square like stones
                                                                         fallen from the sky. May
all your Christmases be white
                                        as the traffic guard unstraps his holster.
                                       His fingers running the hem
of  her white dress. A single candle.
                                       Their shadows: two wicks.
A military truck speeds through the intersection, children
                                     shrieking inside. A bicycle hurled
           through a store window. When the dust rises, a black dog
                           lies panting in the road. Its hind legs
                                                                             crushed into the shine
                                                      of a white Christmas.
On the bed stand, a sprig of magnolia expands like a secret heard
                                                                 for the first time.
The treetops glisten and children listen, the chief of police
                               facedown in a pool of Coca-Cola.
                                            A palm-sized photo of his father soaking
               beside his left ear.
The song moving through the city like a widow.
                A white…A white…I’m dreaming of a curtain of snow
                                              falling from her shoulders.
Snow scraping against the window. Snow shredded
                                      with gunfire. Red sky.
                             Snow on the tanks rolling over the city walls.
A helicopter lifting the living just
                                                                               out of reach.
           The city so white it is ready for ink.
                                                    The radio saying run run run.
Milkflower petals on a black dog
                           like pieces of a girl’s dress.
May your days be merry and bright. She is saying
           something neither of them can hear. The hotel rocks
                       beneath them. The bed a field of ice.
Don’t worry, he says, as the first shell flashes
                            their faces, my brothers have won the war
                                                                 and tomorrow…
                                            The lights go out.
I’m dreaming. I’m dreaming…
                                                           to hear sleigh bells in the snow…
In the square below: a nun, on fire,
                                           runs silently toward her god—
                          Open, he says.
                                                        She opens.






 If you can, get both books and read them together.  Let me know what you think.

George Ovitt (7/16/2018)



Friday, July 13, 2018

The Science of Destruction



Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century by Patrik Ouředník

“I devoutly believe in the reign of peace and in the gradual advent of some sort of socialistic equilibrium,” professed the philosopher William James in his 1910 essay ‘The Moral Equivalent of War’. “The fatalistic view of the war function is to me nonsense, for I know that war-making is due to definite motives and subject to prudential checks and reasonable criticism, just like any other form of enterprise. And when whole nations are the armies, and the science of destruction vies in intellectual refinement with the science of production, I see that war becomes absurd and impossible from its own monstrosity. Extravagant ambitions will have to be replaced by reasonable claims, and nations must make common cause against them… I look forward to a future when acts of war shall be formally outlawed as between civilized peoples.” It is a declaration, an optimism, that seems naïve, if not positively obtuse, when viewed in the light of the decades that followed it, nearly a century of the worst violence and destruction the world has ever known.

 
       Nazi Diagram of Gas Chambers at Auschwitz
 
Patrik Ouředník, in this extraordinary short novel, takes pains to remind us of just that in what is largely a compendium of brutal, if deftly rendered facts. The novel begins like this:

The Americans who fell in Normandy in 1944 were tall men measuring 173 centimeters on average, and if they were laid head to foot the would measure 38 kilometers. The Germans were tall too, while the tallest of all were the Senegalese fusiliers in the First World War who measured 176 centimeters, and so they were sent into battle on the front lines in order to scare the Germans. It was said of the First World War that people in it fell like seeds and the Russian Communists later calculated how much fertilizer a square kilometer of corpses would yield and how much they would save on expensive foreign fertilizers if they used the corpses of traitors and criminals instead of manure. And the English invented the tank and the Germans invented gas, which was known as yperite because the Germans first used it near the town of Ypres, although apparently that was not true, and it was also called mustard because it stung the nose like Dijon mustard, and that was apparently true, and some soldiers who returned home after the war did not want to eat Dijon mustard again…


 
            U.S. Government Diagram of ‘Fat Man’ 

Continuing in the same matter-of-fact tone, if with the occasional inflection of irony, of humor, Europeana is—in the tradition of Rabelais and Beckett (both of whom Ouředník has translated into his native Czech)—a prose poem of modern hubris and folly, a dazzling, finally breathless, primer on the horrors and absurdity of our times.   

 
Peter Adam Nash

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Poorest Coffee in America!


My favorite scene in West Side Story is the one in which George Chakiris and Rita Moreno,  Bernardo and Anita in the film version, sing and dance on a tenement rooftop to Bernstein and Sondheim's  "America." Bernardo is disillusioned by America--especially by the fact that Puerto Ricans like himself are not welcome on the "isle of Manhattan." Vivacious Anita feels differently. America a land of possibility, or at least of short-term glamor and fewer hurricanes.  "Everyone free in America" sings Anita as she swings her orchid skirt and high kicks with the exuberance that characterized all of Robbins' choreography for the film. As it turned out America wasn't altogether welcoming, and its Romeo and Juliet (Tony and Maria) are killed by the racial hatreds that we Americans are still, perennially, struggling to put aside.

****

I just put out my American flag--reluctantly I admit--as I do each Memorial Day, Labor Day, and Fourth of July.  If my neighbors, who resolutely show no colors, asked me about the flag I would explain that for me the stars and stripes acknowledge the noble idea of individual rights, freedom of conscience, and the striving for an inclusive, just, and democratic society.  We haven't done so well in any of these departments. We are, in fact, rushing backward toward the worst periods of oligarchy, racism, xenophobia, and civic indifference. But still, one can hope, and the flag is a reminder of what might be.  (No doubt you know this iconic Gordon Parks photo, one I have above my desk at home.)



But this is a post about books, not politics, and I wanted most of all to mention just a handful of  books about America, or the Other America, that lately mean most to me, that have done most to shape my perception of my country. 

This is not a list of "great American novels," It is a personal list of books (including non-fiction) that at this moment mean a great deal to me.  I almost wrote "help me make sense of," but that, I think, is asking too much.

On the very top of my list of novels about America is Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's 2013 Americanah. This brilliant exploration of the life of a Nigerian immigrant woman in America and its unsparing analysis of racism is required reading, especially now.






And what is it like to be a Mexican-American in the late 2010s? Indispensable is Cristina Henriquez's aptly titled, multi-voiced, poignant The Book of Unknown Americans. Told from many points of view, Henriquez's lyrical novel examines with humanity and sobriety the plight of invisible yet  polarizing immigrants from the South. Super smart and beautifully written.


I have read all of Ha Jin's novels.  In the category of "what does it mean to be an American" I recommend A Free Life. As in all of Ha Jin's work, there is a deceptively simple story masking rich philosophical and political themes.  Here the issue is what it means to be a person, specially a writer, who happens to be a refugee from China living in America.


 Independence Day (1995) by Richard Ford, is the second part of the four-part series of books about Frank Bascombe, a middle-aged, white, male, real estate agent. Yes, I know, stories of white men who live in suburban New Jersey and sell houses between existential crises don't exactly titillate, but Ford has never written a dull sentence, and Frank's July 4th Odyssey explores not only the inner life of an Everyman, but also the flaws and beauties of our perplexing country. 



I never really "got" immigrant life on a visceral level until I read Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March. This Jewish-American bildungsroman might be complemented by John Dos Passos's U.S.A. trilogy.  Bellow is funnier and far more readable. Bellow's book should be read in tandem with James Baldwin's Another Country.  The similarities between the lives of a Harlem "Negro" in the 1940s and a Jewish boy in Depression-era Chicago are uncanny. Both books deconstruct the idea of the American "hero" and replace him with men and women who must hustle to get by on the fringes of a never-quite-welcoming America.






American Pastoral, I Married A Communist, The Plot Against America--a trilogy of novels by Philip Roth that measure out the cost of our deeply-felt fears and paranoia. We are the melting pot that mostly prefers not to.




 What's the best book celebrating America and American values? Hands down, the complete version of Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America (Two volumes, 1836 and 1840).  Don't keep promising to read it--just do it. This liberal Frenchmen (zut alors!) saw more clearly into our soul than anyone save Jefferson, Emerson, and Henry Adams.


 Gotta go and put the burgers on the grill.


George Ovitt (July 3/4, 2018)