NPL 4: J.M. Coetzee

This is the fourth in the series of reviews of books of those authors who have won the Nobel Prize in Literature. J.M. Coetzee received the prize in 2003.

I have read 5 books by J.M. Coetzee; two before he received the honor (In the Heart of the Country, Vintage books, 1977 and Waiting for the Barbarians, Vintage Books, 1980) and three after he was awarded the Nobel Prize (The Childhood of Jesus, Harvill Secker, 2013, The Schooldays of Jesus, Harvill Secker, 2016, and The Death of Jesus, Harvill Secker, 2019).

There is no doubt that J.M. Coetzee is a consummate narrator whose power of expression wins over any hesitation to continue reading. The themes in the novels embrace a vast array of specific topics, some of which are dealt with below. The characters themselves do not exhibit great resolve, but definitely a great strength in searching for the meaning in their lives. This search is expressed in very different ways in the 5 novels.

In the Heart of the Country is written in a first person narrative, from a perspective of a “melancholy spinster” (p.3) who lives on a farm far from other farms or indeed towns or cities, among “brown folk” she is the “black widow” in an undisclosed country, although the use of “veld” narrows it to South Africa. The story which this spinster offers us is very limiting, prompting her to ask, almost right at the outset, “Does an elementary life burn people down to elementary states, to pure anger, pure gluttony, pure sloth? Am I unfitted by my upbringing for a life of more complex feelings? Is that why I have never left the farm, foreign to townslife, preferring to immerse myself in a landscape of symbol where simple passions can spin and fume around their own centers, in limited space, in endless time, working out their own forms of damnation? (p. 13) The question of the utmost importance of upbringing for the development of a human being’s life is taken up in the “Jesus” series as well. In any case, the introspective narration of this utterly lonely woman contains at least one murder, lots of desire for human relationships of all kinds, and, above all, the need to understand oneself. Language, therefore, plays a crucial role, and there are a number of musings about especially words that the spinster presents to us. On the one hand, “Words are coin. Words alienate. Language is no medium for desire.” (p. 28), on the other hand, “Perhaps…if I stopped talking I would fall into panic, losing my hold on the world I know best.” (p. 85) She is “the poetess of interiority” (p. 38), and yet she wants to be noticed (yet another leitmotif in these novels). She feels she is like “a great emptiness…filled with a great absence…which is desire to be filled, to be fulfilled” (p. 125). She explains that she is “a sheath, a matrix, a protectrix of vacant space. I move through the world as a hole, … I am a hole crying to be whole.* I know that this is in one sense just a way of speaking, a way of thinking about myself, but if one cannot think of oneself in words, in pictures, then what is there to think of oneself in?” (44-45) But more than anything else, “I need people to talk to, brothers and sisters or fathers and mothers, I need a history and a culture, I need hopes and aspirations, I need a moral sense and a teleology before I will be happy, not to mention food and drink” (13-131). The main point of the novel, therefore, is an answer to the question “What happens to a person when her/his life experiences are lived through a language which is devoid of the connections between language and culture, language and politics, language and history, language and philosophy?” (The Jesus trilogy also brings up this theme.) The answer seems to point to a desperation of the blackest type because it looks like the language we have cannot be separated from other expressions of the human psyche. If this connection does not exist, the person is forever searching for answers that cannot be given and therefore desperation ensues. It seems we need what Lyotard called grand narratives to anchor us in time and space so that we can keep on living. Interestingly, the spinster does not mention religion nor philosophy nor music nor any arts, so clearly her language is disjointed from experiences of a different sort than the one she made for herself: carnal desire.

Waiting for the Barbarians made me remember Dino Buzzati’s Il deserto dei Tartari, since the setting is a military outpost of invaders representing the Empire surrounded by a desolate land. Life in this outpost is relatively calm, until a colonel of the Civil Guard comes in and stirs up the idea that the tribes (the barbarians) are likely to storm the outpost, so the military comes in to embark on an expedition to defeat these barbarians. However, no barbarian invasion happens, it is the military who return from the action, badly beaten, to this outpost whose peaceful existence they themselves destroyed. The story is told in the first person by the Magistrate of the outpost who sees all the injustices perpetrated by the invaders (of whom he is a part), of the physical, psychological, sexual tortures the tribespeople endure, and he himself becomes the victim of the colonel’s wrath. He is very much a man of honor, and he knows when his actions are those of an invader: “I do not want to see a parasite settlement grow up on the fringes of the town populated with beggars and vagrants enslaved to strong drink. It always pained me in the old days to see these people fall victim to the guile of shopkeepers, exchanging their goods for trinkets, lying drunk in the gutter, and confirming thereby the settlers’ litany of prejudice: that barbarians are lazy, immoral, filthy, stupid. Where civilization entailed the corruption of barbarian virtues and the creation of a dependent people, I decided, I was opposed to civilization: and upon this resolution I based the conduct of my administration. (I say this who now keep a barbarian girl for my bed!)” (p. 41)The Magistrate is not a hero, but “the lie that Empire tells itself when times are easy”, as opposed to the Colonel, who is “the truth that Empire tells when harsh winds blow” (p. 148). The colonizing effects (obviously negative for the tribespeople and for those invaders, like the Magistrate, who are aware of the consequences of substituting the old ways of the tribes with the new ways of the invaders) are powerfully spelled out in this novel.

The “Jesus” trilogy, on the surface, analyzes elements connected to childhood, schooling, and death. We look at the actions through the eyes of an omniscient author who takes the perspective of Simon, a 42-years old migrant. In the first volume, Simon leaves his old life behind and embarks on a new one. The old life comes with a five-year old boy whose mother disappears while many migrants cross the sea to their new land. In this way, Simon becomes the uncle, or godfather, to the boy, David, and it is his responsibility to take care of him until the real mother is found. The new land expects the newcomers to shed everything that was their past. This place, where transportation and public schooling, as well as certain meals are free, may be a spoof on Cuba – the newcomers have to learn Spanish, and criticizing matters is not tolerated. Language is again important: on many an occasion, Simon says he cannot express himself well since he is still learning Spanish, and yet David has no problem to express himself. Simon chooses a mother to David when they see Ines playing tennis in an exclusive residence. Ines agrees to take care of the child. David is an exceptional child and all his desires and wishes command Simon’s and Ines’ life. Since he has learnt to read by himself (using the novel Don Quixote for children), he is disruptive in class, and it is suggested that he attend a reformatory school. His parents disagree with this decision, so the three of them escape to another town where they start a new life. The second volume deals with this new setting. In this town, David is enrolled in a Dance Academy, where he hones his special skills of forming an unusual picture of his life, of the universe, of numbers, of music. There he befriends a strange person who will have an unusual hold over him but who is also a murderer. Since his desires are not met even in the Academy, he escapes to a School for Orphans, as he believes he is an orphan. He claims Simon does not understand him. He wants to be recognized – a recognition similar to the spinter’s in the novel In the Heart of the Country. In the third volume, a long and unpleasant agony of David’s illness is described. He loses the use of his legs, presumably due to a neuropathy. David dies alone, in the hospital, without ever telling Simon a special message that he apparently had for him. Clearly, the book is meant to be read as an allegory on many levels, starting from the name Jesus, which is probably the real name of David used in his old life (the biblical names are not used by chance). David never delivers the special message, however, due to his sense of being different than everyone else and due to his illness. The setting, too, depicts a country in which things function superficially, People are neither happy nor sad, there is no laughter, no music, no real abandon to passions. Simon tries his best to explain to David some intricacies of life, but he does so in a didactic and unimaginative manner. David is put off these explanations, and insists on his own views, especially the one that takes Don Quixote as a model to emulate. David wants to help people but he also wants to be recognized by people. He is recognized as someone special, particularly by Simon and Ines, but this recognition does not satisfy him.

In conclusion, there is no doubt that J.M. Coetzee’s literary output gives readers a lot of satisfaction. The language is rich, the actions interesting, the messages profound. But at the end, the feeling that remains is of our own detachment. This detachment, this lack of crucial understanding of the depth and function of our language, makes for a superficial life. The characters are searching, but searching perhaps in the wrong place. Overall, the female characters’ depiction is disappointing, showing the manner in which women are thought of as beings limited in their purpose for men, not as partners in this trip on which we are together.

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*Until this section, I wasn’t sure whether J.M. Coetzee was a man or a woman. These sentences clearly showed he is a man, because a woman, no matter how much debased, how much maligned, lonely, desperate, would never think of herself in these terms.

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NPL 2: V. S. Naipaul

This is the second in the ongoing series of reviews of books by authors who won the Nobel Prize in Literature. V. S. Naipaul won the prize in 2001.

I have read three books by this author: one written and published before he received the prize and two published after the event.

A Bend in the River (New York, The Modern Library, 1997, first published in 1979) shows the author’s mastery in weaving together colonialism, race, imagination, religion, slavery, individual psychology, social dilemmas, as well as cultural transformations in migration situations. At the outset, the narrator, Salim, lives on the east coast of Africa, and being a descendant of Indian migrants, lives a particularly troublesome interior life. His loyalty is not certain: he is not wholly “African”, and he is not wholly “Indian”, and yet he is both. The colonial and internecine wars and battles force him to move and set up a shop in the central part of Africa, in a town at a bend of a river: it is a commercial site, where goods from afar travel deep into the bush and are exchanged together with opinions, traditions, biases, food, insecurities and hates. He is alone and he is lonely; the town offers only superficial connections and relationships. Through Salim we meet a number of fascinating characters, such as the marchande Zabeth, the Belgian priest, his ex-servant, and others; but the bond between them and Salim is tenuous. The first person narrative allows Naipaul to delve deep into the soul of a man who is experiencing transformations in all aspects of life around him: the rulers are no longer white, the President is becoming an autocrat, the local tribes use violence to deliver their wants and needs, everyone tries to make the best of a shaky situation. Everything is up for grabs: history, education, new Africa, values, civilization, ambition. Whereas Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart illustrate the dismantling of the local African culture from the point of view of one village dweller, A Bend in the River elaborates on the dismantling adding the cultural and religious layer of Indian Muslims living in Africa. This is a profoundly pessimistic novel, because at the end, it seems that despite the battles, the deaths, the victims and heroes, people are unable to create more positive and joyful lives. In the words of one character (Indar), if you travel back to the same place (in this case the east coast of Africa) often, “You stop grieving the past. You see that the past is something in your mind alone, that it doesn’t exist in real life. You trample on the past, you crush it. In the beginning it is like trampling on a garden. In the end you are just walking on ground. This is the way we have to learn how to live now. The past is here.” (p. 167) Salim’s stance is interesting, objective, but not really useful: “In the beginning, before the arrival of the white men, I had considered myself neutral. I had wanted neither side to win, neither the army nor the rebels. As it turned out, both sides lost.” (118). If it is the case that the past (and therefore all the culture, religion, traditions it carries with it) does not exist, and no new culture, traditions, religions are created, the result is living in a limbo of insubstantial connections to tangible remnants of a past life. The book can therefore be read metaphorically – beyond the troublesome situation of migrants living on a foreign soil – as a warning about humanity’s inability to create new inclusive culture, traditions, religions.

Magic Seeds (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2004, the illustration above shows part of the jacket) continues the theme of an Indian born in Africa, studying in London. But this time this Indian travels to Germany and then to India to become – cajoled by his sister – a revolutionary fighter for one of the guerrilla groups in India. He abandons his wife in Africa after 20 years of marriage. Although the reasons for Willie’s joining a terrorist group are murky, Naipaul the omniscient narrator throws us crumbs of possible causes for becoming a guerrilla fighter: a cuckolding wife, weakness of mid-life, revenge oneself on the world, seeking a kind of asceticism or sainthood. The theme of slavery appears again, but this time as a historical force which debases people to such an extent that they do not think for themselves, and the void is being filled by guerrilla fighters. “The old lords oppressed and humiliated and injured for centuries. No one touched them. Now they’ve gone away. … They’ve left these wretched people as their monument.” (p. 43) Willie is left to his own devices in the guerrilla group, which, by some unforeseen circumstances, is the enemy of the one he really wanted to join. It is significant that he does not try to cross over to the enlightened group which does not believe in violence to achieve their goal of freeing people from a life of wretchedness. No amount of boredom, starvation, deprivation makes him try to leave; in fact, he thinks “I must give no sign to these people that I am not absolutely with them.” (p. 52). The group he joined makes the villagers kill the richest person of the village. He thinks of one group of village people as “survivors”: “Perhaps this exposure to human nullity will do me good, will make me see more clearly.” (p. 68). After incredible vicissitudes, he is arrested and then freed thanks to a lawyer-acquaintance of his from his life in London. He starts a new life in London, learning to write for an architectural journal. The last quarter of the book deals with the story of marriage infidelities of both the lawyer and his wife (with whom also Willie has sex). This is also a sadly pessimistic novel, and can be described as a metaphor for the individual’s search of the meaning of life. This search is boring, tragically twisted, leads to the individual’s learning about himself, but really to no purpose. The words of the title are inscrutable, since they refer to something received by an egg-seller in a village market “who exchanges everything for a handful of magic seeds” (p. 242). This book was disappointing after the mastery of A Bend in the River.

A Writer’s People (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2007) is not, according to Naipaul, literary criticism or biography. “I wish only, and in a personal way, to set out the writing to which I was exposed during my career. I say writing, but I mean specifically vision, a way of seeing and feeling.” (p. 41). It is unclear why a writer would write such a book, unless he wanted to re-affirm for himself certain ways of seeing and feeling. There is no doubt that Naipaul’s “people” are varied, from colonial or post-colonial and other situations, and some well-known. However, the book describes, in an interesting way, the present way of being for a writer. First, an European writer: by 1930, (after Balzac, Tolstoy, Dickens) “little about these great European societies had been left unsaid. The societies themselves had been diminished for various reasons – war, revolution; and the world around these once unchallenged societies had grown steadily larger. A society’s unspoken theme is always itself; it has an idea where it stands in the world. A diminished society couldn’t be written about in the old way, of social comment.” (p. 62) Therefore, writers have to find another perspective, such as fairly-tale or romance. Among the colonial and post-colonial authors (Naipaul’s father plays a prominent role) who caught the eye (and perspective and feeling) of Naipaul are Gandhi and Nehru (autobiographies). A different way of looking is an elaboration on history, to which Naipaul reserves many pages. Specifically, Flaubert’s elaboration of the mercenaries’ war in Carthage after 241 BC, based on Polybius’s account. Naipaul parallels the descriptions of mercenaries given by Polybius with the treatment Flaubert gives them in Salambo.and prefers the ancient Greek historian’s version. It is shorter, “drier, but profounder…more full of true concern” (p. 135). Naipaul touches also upon the difficulties of reading literature. From the perspective of a young man born in Trinidad, living in “the half-world in the privacy of an extended family” (53), clearly, reading about the court of Luis XIV was like reading a fairy-tale. “What was a court? What were the courtiers? What was an aristocrat? I had to make them up in my mind, though for the most part I left them as words. … I lived in a cloud of not-knowing.” (54) “But the writers I couldn’t read were also partly to blame. …[Graham Greene in The Quiet American] hadn’t made his subject clear, He had assumed that his world was the only one that mattered.” (54) Naipaul praises Maupassant because he made his far-off world complete and accessible, even universal (54).

The conclusion? A Bend in the River is truly magnificent, and the part of Magic Seeds which deals with Willie’s life of a terrorist is likewise fascinatingly written. Naipaul’s literary world is, however, peopled by lonely men who take up occupations (trader, guerrilla fighter in these two cases) seemingly without thinking, and who don’t find even a smidgen of joy in any activity they are engaged in.

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NPL 1: Jose’ Saramago

This is a new series, entitled NPL (Nobel Prize for Literature), in which books of those authors who won the Nobel prize in literature are reviewed. An attempt is made not to spoil the reading for those who intend to delve into these books.

The first in this series is the review of Jose’ Saramago’s The Lives of Things (translated by Giovanni Pontiero, London: Verso, 2013) and Death with Interruptions (translated by Margaret Jull Costa, New York: Harcourt, 2008). He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998.

Content

Saramago’s strengths are both in content and in style, as both of these are interesting, fresh, and highly entertaining. To be more precise, for example, the story entitled “The chair” describes the form and substance of chairs, but it is specifically about a chair that stopped doing what it ought to, and is collapsing, together with the person sitting on it. Besides dealing with the possible reasons for the chair’s demise, and the consequences of the fall of the person sitting on it as it buckles, this short story is above all a brilliant metaphor for writing: authors have to depict/photograph in words elusive actions and unknown quirky characters in fieri, i.e as these are imagined, and we, the readers, have the chance to follow the linguistic descriptions of these actions and characters and engage with them in our minds. If the depiction is felicitous, then happiness reigns, and this is the case with Saramago’s writing, because reading it brings joy, thoughts, and chuckles. The content of three stories in the collection deals with the reaction of a character (male) to unpredictable (and therefore difficult) circumstances the setting of which is usually some type of bureaucratic state attempting a type of control: “Embargo” (lack of fuel), “Reflux” (moving the human remains from one cemetery to another), “Things” (things acting in strange ways). The last two contain very different contents: the lyrical story “Centaur” imagines the life of a centaur who has lived for millennia and has been attempting to find the place of his origins, and “Revenge” looks at sex from two perspectives.

In the novel Death with Interruptions death is the main character both acting and being acted upon.The author analyzes the consequences of the fact that in one country no one dies. He skillfully, ironically and profoundly narrates the need for death (and therefore the utter dismay when no one dies) on the part of ecclesiastical authorities, funeral homes, and medical profession, as well as some common people. As death returns (with conditions), one person, a musician, does not come under her authority. The novel ends with a lyrical possibility that even death could fall prey to if not love, at least feelings of tenderness. Memorable are the pages that discuss the philosophical musings (by some characters) on death, tackling questions such as “Is there one Death (of the universe) or many deaths (of humans, animals, plants, etc.)?”, or “Is death more powerful than god?”. Although the movement Humanity + has been pursuing the possibility of humans not needing to die, or at least living for a very long time, it bases its futuristic predictions on human biology and the possibility of connection between biology and technology. Saramago’s death is very different. It simply is, and although he describes her at first according to the usual European iconography as a skeleton with a scythe dressed in a long cape, she possesses the ability to transform herself. There are two ironic views which are followed in parallel in the novel: on the one hand, there is the fact that humans live with the thought of death, but not really thinking deeply of the time when death comes to them, and on the other, so much of what humans do is dependent on death. Life without death is really unthinkable, but it is also uncomfortable. We are trapped in this tug-of-war, but it si also what makes us human.

Style

Saramago’s linguistic expression is noteworthy. I would love to be able to read him in the original Portuguese. Especially in the novel, his syntactic constructions can be compared, as a complete opposite, to the style of Ernest Hemingway, but not in the vein of Henry James. Reading his sentences leaves the reader almost breathless, and yet wanting to read on. But reading his sentences is not like reading stream of consciousness, it is more like catching up with the developing asides which lead to other ideas but the thematic centre of the sentence is still discernible. Furthermore, now and then the author shows his self-awareness as writer answering questions that careful readers ask as they read, and his comments are witty. Two quotations precede the beginning of the novel. The first one is from the Book of Predictions: “We will know less and less what it means to be human”. The second one is from Wittgenstein: “If, for example, you were to think more deeply about death, then it would be truly strange if, in so doing, you did not encounter new images, new linguistic fields.” Both obviously refer to language, and Saramago’s writing shows he thought about linguistic expression in depth.

In conclusion, these two books brought me full joy, entertainment, and inspirational ideas which I will treasure for a long time.

Alla Faccia

Cosi` come molte altre lingue, anche l'italiano offre vari modi per potersi riferire alla parte della testa che ci guarda: faccia, volto, viso. Nell’agile volumetto di Antonio Marturano, intitolato Faccia. Identita` e deformita` (Fefe` Editore*, 2021, pagg.132), la faccia e non il viso ne` il volto e` al centro dell’attenzione soprattutto intesa come “elemento distintivo di un individuo all’interno dei rapporti sociali portarice dell’identita` personale”. Nell’Introduzione viene spiegata questa scelta molto saggia perche` lascia all’autore la liberta` di trattare della parte materiale del corpo, visibile, tangibile, e piena di significati sociali e personali. Due sono le linee centrali che guidano il pensiero dell’autore: da un lato, viene sviscerata la questione sociale e i rapporti umani che riguardano le reazioni pieni di pregiudizi degli altri dimostrati alla faccia, soprattutto se questa e` in qualche modo non “normale”, deturpata da malattie e ferite. D’altro lato, si prende in esame il ruolo identitario della faccia, vista come l’elemento centrale dell’identita` personale.

I quattro densi capitoli ripartono la materia in questo modo:

  1. Pragmatica della faccia

Qui viene descritto il ruolo istituzionale della faccia in quanto la “vera” imagine di essa appare su documenti istituzionali che poi rafforzano l’idea dell’identita` personale (per es., la carta d’identita`). In questo caso, una persona e` “puramente una costruzione sociale” (p. 21). L’italiano abbonda di metafore e modi di dire che ruotano intorno alla faccia: perdere la faccia, metterci la faccia, faccia d’angelo, (viene menzionata la faccia verde e ‘ngialluta in napoletano). Nel capitolo si fa anche menzione della tecnologia dell’intelligenza  artificiale che si occupa del riconoscimento facciale e dell’interfaccia nella computeristica.

  • Topica della faccia

Questo capitolo prende in esame alcune malattie che risultano in malformazioni e patologie facciali che provocano in altri un senso di repulsione e causano nell’individuo che ne soffre una forzata reclusione e privazione di rapporti sociali normali. L’autore esamina 3 casi: quello di Remy De Gourmont, quello di Joseph Merrick (the Elephant Man), e quello dell’esperienza personale. La consapevolezza di essere repellenti e la consequente mancanza di rapporti sociali separano brutalmente l’individuo dalla vita “normale”.  Qui il gioco e` anche la “trasfigurazione” della faccia, cioe` l’interazione tra la brutezza esteriore e la bellezza interiore (dio/diavolo): sia De Gourmont che Merrick, nonostante le loro facce fossero deturpate da malattie orribili, trovarono amici o medici che furono capaci di intravvedere i valori  umani al di fuori delle loro malformazioni facciali. Il caso personale di Antonio Marturano riconduce il discorso alla forza motrice della discriminazione nei riguardi di chi e` “diverso”, ma anche alla forza della gentilezza e dell’amore materno che superano quelli che sarebbero visti come ostacoli alla vita “normale”. Viene anche ricordato il fatto che la chirurgia maxillo-facciale arriva solo dopo la I Guerra Mondiale dopo la quale i reduci i cui visi furono distrutti poterono usufruire delle cure particolari per la prima volta.   

  • Prostetica della faccia

La possibilita` di subire interventi chirurgici per risanare le sfigurazioni dovute alla guerra schiude altre problematiche, quali l’inclusione/l’esclusione sociale, il riconoscimento o l’orrore della propria faccia dopo l’intervento, la difficolta` di acquistare l’integrita` personale. Il caso dell’autore stesso che soffre della Sindrome Treacher-Collins (o Franceschetti-Zwahlen-Klein) sottolinea il problema di quelle malattie che portano non solo deturpamenti alla faccia, ma che sono accompagnate da altre patologie (che compromettono la respirazione, l’alimentazione, l’udito, il linguaggio): tutto questo provoca effetti negativi nelle relazioni sociali tra l’individuo e la societa` che in tanti casi si presenta intollerante, e piena di pregiudizi nei riguardi di chi e` “diverso”. L’autore, la cui malattia viene descritta come disabilita` di tipo medio-leggero, ha potuto costruirsi, dopo molte sofferenze, una vita piena di soddisfazioni grazie anche alla moglie Cinese e al figlioletto adottato Indiano.  Inoltre, questo capitolo tratta l’argomento scottante dei nostri giorni dovuto alla pandemia: quello delle mascherine, le ragioni del loro rifiuto, e le spiegazioni del loro uso. In teoria, tutti dovrebbero avere gli stessi diritti, ma e` palese che la realta` si rivela ancora lontana da questa visione.

  • Conclusioni. La bellezza non salvera` il mondo

I pregiudizi estetici nei riguardi di chi ha la faccia deturpata da malattie o da ferite non solo sopravvivono ma vengono amplificati dalla sfrenata corsa all’uniformita` forzata dai sistemi produttivi capitalistici. L’autore fa appello a non lasciarci cullare dalla pigrizia mentale dell’uniformita` in modo che la biodiversita` culturale sia preservata e incoraggiata. Bisogna non solo uscire dalla conformita` e confrontarsi con la diversita`, ma soprattutto e` indispensabile uscire dall’incapacita` di “estirpare l’idea dell’equipolenza tra carattere e forma della faccia”.    

Questo libro si e` rivelato uno di quelli che bisogna leggere piu` di una volta, perche’ i pensieri, le idee, i suggerimenti inclusi in esso fanno volare la mente in varie direzioni, tutte fruttuose. Prima di tutto, la forma, la foggia, della nostra  faccia, volente o nolente, incita a una reazione sociale e  personale. Questa reazione sociale non e` innata, e` creata dalla cultura in cui viviamo ed e` spesso esito di secoli di affermazioni estetiche senza fondamento. La reazione personale, come ci vediamo noi stessi, soprattutto oggi, e` pure finzione di un  meccanismo economico e non ha basi solide su cui costruirsi un’identita`. In secondo luogo, il libro sottolinea la tensione ghettizzatrice fra la voglia di passare inosservati e la voglia di essere riconosciuti veramente: questa tensione esiste sia in chi ha deformazioni facciali sia in chi nasce con quello che si intende per belta` oggi (anche se, per ovvi motivi, il libro non tratta questa situazione). La malattia puo` diventare anche una fonte di forza, di autocoscienza piu` profonda: chi ha il volto deturpato osserva il mondo da una prospettiva che apre le riflessioni e stimola “ad andare oltre i limiti che la societa` a tutti i costi, con la sua logica da darwinismo sociale”,  vuole imporre a tutti (p. 113). Inoltre, l’autore cita, sempre a proposito,  vari autori (Arendt, Berlin, Kant, Lavater, Lombroso, Rodota`, ecc.) le cui idee arricchiscono il ragionamento offerto. Interessantissime sono pure le illustrazioni di facce prese da pittori (Escher, Salvador Dali`, De Chirico, Haisler, ecc.), ognuna delle quali potenzia gli argomenti trattati.  

In conclusione, la lettura di Faccia. Identita` e deformita` di Antonio Marturano regala un godimento intellettuale che vale la pena assaporare a lungo.

*Il libro fa parte dell’affascinante collana intitolata “Oggetti del desiderio” in cui trovano posto Lingua, Cuore, Palpebre, Bocca, Orecchio, Naso, e molti altri.

The Celts and the Cruelty of History

Never have I read a subject treated with such tenderness and unabashed partiality as shown by Peter Berresford Ellis in A Brief History of The Celts (London: Robinson, 2003, 235 pp.). If the saying that “history is written by the victors” rings true, this book certainly contradicts it. Even though the individual Gauls and Celtic tribes are gone, the Celts/Gauls are still alive today in languages, the DNA, in arts, in myth. The author wrote this handy history of the ancient Celtic peoples to dispel in fact some erroneous myths and views about them, propelled by the historical urge of the winners to belittle the vanquished, in this case, the victorious Romans and the defeated Celts.

The contents of the book are divided into 15 chapters with titles such as “The Origins of the Celts” (Chapter 1), “The Druids” (Ch. 4), “Celtic Warriors” (Ch. 5), “Celtic Women” (Ch. 6), “Celtic Farmers” (Ch. 7), “Celtic Cosmology” (Ch. 9), Celtic Artists and Craftsmen” (Ch. 11), “Early Celtic History” (Ch. 15). The author relies on factual documentation usually presented by historians, or, better still, of history before it has been written down by the Celts. Hence, his sources are Greek and Roman historians (obviously biased, and this bias has been underlined numerous times; “bowdlerise” is a verb that the author uses for Roman history of the Celts), writings from the Middle-Ages (usually Christianized Celts, so, too, their view of Celtic history is skewed), archaeological finds mostly from Britain and Ireland, found in museums of various countries, and settlements dug up even as recently as the early 2000s. What follows does not recap the corrective process of setting straight the erroneous beliefs about the Celts. It is clear that the Celts were not “drunken, childlike barbarians, only one step removed from animals” (p. 199, a view held by the Romans). Their achievements were numerous, and their inventions helped the world to move forward, even if it was thanks to the Romans who appropriated themselves of these inventions (such as the Celtic rectangular shield, instead of the round Roman one, since the rectangular one was more useful to form the testudo). Rather, there are three questions of clarification I would ask the author, and these are elaborated on below.

  1. What determines the success of one people over another? Why did the Celts, who were smart, politically savvy, and spiritually strong, succumb to the Roman armies? The author does not offer an overt answer to this question, although there are indications of some reasons for the defeat of the Celts. These include pressures from the Germanic and Slavic peoples who were encroaching on the Celts’ territories, tribal wars among the Celts themselves, the Celts’ relatively peaceful lifestyle, and a lack of unified Celtic nation.
  2. There are a number of occasions which warrant, according to the author, a comparison with the ancient Indian civilization parts of whose knowledge, compiled in the Vedas, seem to proceed on a parallel trajectory to the Celtic civilization. What is the reason for this similarity between the ancient Indian Rajputs and Celtic Riglach (young warriors recruited only from the sons of kings)? Or why is it that only in the Celtic and ancient Indian societies the sick were cared for in what may be termed the first hospitals (whereas other ancient cultures tended to abandon the sick and the aged)? Or why is it that the Celtic god Cernunnos, and the Hindu god Shiva/Prasupati, were both called “Lord of the Animals”? Is their origin indeed common, as is claimed by Prof. Dillon? As far as the Celtic belief in the immortality and the Greek one is concerned, Berresford Ellis states clearly that “the Celts did not borrow their philosophy from the Greeks, nor did the Greeks borrow it from the Celts. The evolution of the doctrine of immortality of the soul was a parallel development in several Indo-European cultures, and might originate from an earlier common belief.” (p. 171).
  3. The Druids were clearly a group (caste?) set apart form the rest of the Celtic population. Was their oral-only transmission of knowledge a hindrance to open-up their discoveries to all the people? Why were they so loath to put in writing what they knew? Although the ancient Indian civilization, too, was based on oral transmission, especially of the chants, it did, after all, end up putting in writing the sacred texts. Not so the Celts. What was the reason for this reticence?

This book, more than any other historical account of vanquished peoples, underlines the fact that history in general, and ancient history in particular, is much more complex than meets the eye. The author succeeded in making the readers much more open to question their beliefs about the Celts, and to see them in their human, frail, and yet realistic form. To illustrate this, one endearing fact will suffice: the Celtic law allowed the wife to divorce her husband if he snored. It seems that snoring was and is an aggravating aspect of marriage…

In conclusion, the book deserves to be read because the author insists on reliable sources, and presents his subject in an accessible manner.

Oltre “il fenomeno Camilleri”

Nella cultura letteraria italiana, periodicamente capita “il caso”, detto anche “l’autentico caso”, o, più recentemente, “il fenomeno”. Si tratta di un avvenimento condizionato dal profitto e limitato nella sua durata temporale, eppure con strascichi culturali imprevedibili e duraturi. Il “caso letterario” nasce quasi di botto, senza preavviso, e può essere definito come la salita nella popolarità di uno scrittore anche alle prime armi che riesce a diventare popolare (spesso senza l’aiuto dei critici accademici), vende moltissimi libri (e così solleva dai debiti la fortunata casa editrice), appare come ospite in moltissimi programmi televisivi, e, se ha carisma, diventa il beniamino dei mass media. Tutto questo offre delle  condizioni perfette per dare sfogo a schieramenti di parte, a polemiche anche spietate, e a esternazioni inaspettate.

            Uno dei personaggi emblematici di questo intreccio tra popolarità e macchinazioni mediatiche è senza dubbio Andrea Camilleri (1925-2019).  Non c’è bisogno qui di percorrere la sua carriera di regista e di scrittore. Basti dire che la sua opera letteraria spazia vari generi, diversi stili e lingue: di sicuro, i più conosciuti sono i gialli, inoltre, ci sono i romanzi storici, saggi di storia e di letteratura, i romanzi poetici (la trilogia delle metamorfosi), e altri.  Le trasposizioni dei gialli a sceneggiati TV hanno raggiunto altissimo numero di spettatori, per di più, non sono le uniche trasposizioni delle sue opere letterarie (se veda la più completa miniera di informazioni sullo scrittore e sule sue attività offerta da Camilleri Fans Club sul sito http://www.vigata.org/).

            Chi guarda il fenomeno Camilleri da una certa distanza si può rendere conto del fatto che questo scrittore ha portato tre valori significativi alla cultura italiana contemporanea:

1. Soprattutto i suoi gialli hanno (ri)avvicinato moltissimi italiani alla lettura. Ci sono varie testimonianze di questa magnifica funzione dello scrittore agrigentino sia nei programmi televisivi che sui social media. Nel paese che non vanta l’assiduità alla lettura come una delle caratteristiche culturali, questo fatto è notevolissimo.

2. Le opere di Camilleri hanno offerto una rivalutazione dei dialetti italiani, in specie del siciliano. Nel momento in cui la letteratura italiana stava perdendo il sostegno della lingua letteraria, era inevitabile che uno scrittore di un certo retroscena sociologico guardasse all’indietro e usasse gli attrezzi linguistici a lui cari, che si sarebbero rivelati cari anche alla maggioranza dei lettori non siciliani e non accademici. Sulla lingua di Camilleri esistono molti interventi, e, come capita sempre con un “fenomeno”, i detrattori e i lodatori propongono i fatti che comprovano le loro posizioni. L’analisi di Luigi Matt  descrive in profondità  le posizioni opposte (“Lingua e stile nella narrativa camilleriana” https://www.camillerindex.it/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Quaderni-camilleriani-12.pdf#page=41 )

3. Il terzo pregio di Camilleri è stato quello di costringere gli Italiani a guardarsi dentro di sé e intorno a sé con più attenzione per capire chi sono, quali caratteristiche dimostrano, come si comportano, come parlano. È noto che Camilleri stesso ripeteva che vorrebbe che i suoi lettori ridessero di meno e pensassero di più. Questo desiderio non è stato accolto dai detrattori dello scrittore perché continuano a ripetere: ma i Siciliani non sono cosi, nessuno parla come i personaggi dei romanzi, la Sicilia descritta è superficiale, folkloristica, sorpassata (si veda Francesco Merlo, Roberto Cotroneo, Giulio Ferroni, ecc.). Le analisi dei detrattori non fanno progredire la conversazione oltre queste generalizzazioni. È più che evidente che ai detrattori dello scrittore agrigentino non piace come scrive e cosa scrive, e allora le loro conclusioni continuano a separare la cultura “alta” da quella “bassa”, mettendo le opere di Camilleri nel mucchio basso perché contiene cliché ormai sorpassati, esagerando la dualità della cultura italiana. Camilleri si è difeso dicendo che è ‘un artigiano della scrittura’, ma l’ironia sottile del suo atteggiamento non sfugge ai membri del Camilleri Fans club, che lo chiamano, con affetto, “il Sommo”. Che la popolarità sia alla base dei giudizi così polari non c’è dubbio (si veda a questo proposito il mio articolo intitolato (“I test della (im)popolarità`: il fenomeno Camilleri sulla rivista Quaderni d’italianistica https://jps.library.utoronto.ca/index.php/qua/article/view/9344/6297 )[i].

Sarà troppo presto per tirare le somme dell’importanza o meno di Camilleri per la cultura italiana, ma due sono i fenomeni che ci costringono a fare delle considerazioni preliminari: da un lato, c’è la scomparsa di Camilleri nel 2019, e, dall’altro lato, la pandemia del covid-19. La morte di uno scrittore segna la fine del suo lavoro, ma non la fine dei convegni accademici virtuali, delle relazioni ufficiali pubblicate e non, dei raduni virtuali che hanno come scopo la discussione dei temi, dei personaggi, della lingua nelle opere letterarie. Questo è vero anche per Camilleri, e la prova sta nelle iniziative che sono elencate sia sul sito vigata.org, che sui vari social network. La pandemia, pero`, ha fermato l’aspetto sociale, il passaparola di presenza, perché tutto avviene ora nel mondo virtuale. Questo fatto rende la conoscenza delle tendenze sociali profonde molto difficile e lascia spazio ai vari specialisti di comunicazione di massa di promuovere, forzare, originare le tendenze.  

È indubbio che Camilleri ha guardato all’indietro, perché apparteneva alla generazione che ha vissuto la seconda guerra mondiale (è stato chiamato anche “il nonno”), ha visto il susseguirsi dei governi, ha imparato le nuove tecnologie che però non sono protagoniste dei suoi romanzi. Comunque, la pandemia ci induce a guardare in avanti. In questo senso, le opere di Camilleri sono una testimonianza del tempo immaginario che fu, piena di lingue particolari, di ironia, di tristezza, di amore, di odio, di leggerezza e di profondità, e di umorismo: la testimonianza è viva finche` ha lettori. Questo è vero per tutti gli scrittori che pubblicano opere letterarie. La pandemia sta rafforzando però quell’aspetto della tecnologia che non si basa sulla scrittura: i vari programmi (Zoom, Team, ecc.) fanno dell’oralità la regina.

Cosa ne è rimasto della auto-definizione degli Italiani? Nunzio La Fauci suggerisce che Camilleri sia “una nobile varietà dell’arcitaliano” (https://www.doppiozero.com/materiali/andrea-camilleri-un-arcitaliano?fbclid=IwAR1WFPyjY8y4hXRpmWu1g3KaCZTc4u5go9IiDJY0SzQ1ekToQAHoczHm76o). Ma ha ancora senso cercare una definizione di “Italiani/Italiane”? La pandemia sta sgretolando il senso di appartenenza a una nazione (a meno che non sia forzato per motivi economici – si veda il piano europeo di sussidi agli stati), e sta chiudendo gli individui in un guscio ancora più piccolo di un paese. Nel periodo di transizione tra l’Italia folkloristica che cerca di diventare qualcosa d’altro e l’Italia sotto pressioni multinazionali capitalistiche, la fragilità dell’individuo ne fa una vittima facile. La consapevolezza della fragilità, e le sue possibili  soluzioni, staranno soprattutto nella rilettura di autori italiani, incluso Camilleri. 


[i] È d’obbligo menzionare che i diversi livelli di popolarità esistono in Italia e anche fuori dall’Italia. Ci sono paesi che hanno dimostrato l’interesse abbastanza profondo nelle opere di Camilleri: basti notare addirittura versioni diverse di più traduttori (tedeschi, francesi, spagnoli). Dall’altro lato, le opere di Camilleri non sono attecchite sul suolo nordamericano, nonostante le rispettose e rispettabili traduzioni di Stephen Sartarelli.  Ma questo è un argomento a parte.

Future Fiction 3: Unexpected endings? You bet!

True to its main aim, the publishing house Future Fiction keeps giving new authors from a variety of cultural and geographical backgrounds a platform from which their worthy and amazing works can find yet a wider readership. Rich Larson’s Ghost Girl / La ragazza fantasma is a perfect example of this (multi)cultural endeavour. Published in 2018, the slender volume contains four of Larson’s stories, previously published elsewhere, and collected here together with their Italian translations.

            As usual, I do not give the plot away, but some spoiler alert remains. My review here deals with the intricate sorts of dependencies and power relations between technology and human foibles as these are evinced from Larson’s stories.

            The eponymous story “Ghost Girl”, set in Bujumbura in an unspecified period, but after a political and economic upheaval of great magnitude, when criminals and police try to prevail in a disastrous situation. The society seems intent on getting the most gain out of any situation. Individuals who exhibit unusual features command high prices on the international market, and hence the “ghost”, i.e. albino girl who is highly sought-after. The advanced technology serves first and foremost the military. But there is a ray of hope in what could be called a souped-up drone/robot who has been modified from a killing machine to a protector and more. The drone then, in capable and good hands, can overcome the programming of violence for its own sake. But the story proposes that in certain conditions, also humans can abandon their thirst for revenge.

            “Let’s take this viral” should be a compulsory reading for all those who are taken in by the amazing possibilities offered by the ideas of Humanity + (ex-Transhumanism). The story takes place in a very distant future on an unspecified planet inhabited by units partly biological, endowed with amazing IQ, surrounded by all kinds of energy sources, whose every desire, whim, need can be easily fulfilled in kiosks, booths, vending machines. They do not worry about getting sick, about being broken, or malfunctioning, since there is a quick and easy solution to everything. They may upload to a probe to roam the universe. However, most of all, the units thrive on social recognition by other units, vie for being the first to start a trend, party as hard as they can, have sex anytime and almost anywhere, and get high on dope for days. Trying new things is their most desired activity. Cosmetic viruses are the prominently fashionable novelty, and the more visible and virulent the virus, the more desirable it is. Technology, then, is not a problem, what is problematic is the predictability of everything and the possibility of experiencing everything that is driving the lives of the units.  Under these conditions, can there be an ultimate experience? The story offers one possible answer.

            The third story entitled “Meshed” deals with the tug of war between a for-profit company (Nike) and a young athlete who exhibits a talent not seen before. The company needs to engage this young man in order to mesh him, i.e. to connect his nerves into a mesh which lets all those connected to it feel what the athlete feels when his muscles twitch and flex, when he scores a basket, in other words, to engage the audience neurally. Technology drives the profit, but it needs ever new sources, i.e. remarkable people of exceptional talent, capable of stretching the entertainment even further. Technology also allows those who hunt these new sources of entertainment to use all kinds of unseen aids (such as biofeedback) to understand the prospective advertising idol.  The nerve mesh makes it possible to override the central nervous system and not only track the person who is meshed, but also command it to speak or to be silent, to kill on command. But it also allows millions of other people to watch what the athlete sees and feel what he feels. Kids may dream about having their face plastered on a billboard and releasing their own signature shoes, but is there a limit to what they would be willing to do to sell themselves? The story gives one example of an answer to this question.

            “Your own way back” toys around with forms of survival after death: will the deceased’s consciousness continue as part of a clone, a digital hologram, a chip to be uploaded into a living relative? And who will make the final decision on the form in which the deceased will keep on being?  Clearly, money is still an issue, even in a technologically advanced future: not everyone can afford a clone that is a close replica of the deceased relative. And, if the link between the dead grandfather and a living grandson can be embodied through a chip implant, is the decision-making process easier? The possibility of consciousness surviving has have the option of the deceased to make the final decision himself/herself. What will that decision be? What are the criteria on which this decision is made? The story allows just for such a possibility.

            The language of the stories is true to the settings: police and rebel slang, business communication, techno-cool in-group vocabulary, young person’s expression. It is, however, deceptively simple: it hides connections and relations which make the stories rich and profound.   

            The Italian translations, prepared by Lorenzo Crescentini (a published author of sci-fi in his own right), do justice to the original stories. Of course, it is always difficult when one language has a specific meaning for a word which does not exist in the other, and it would be too easy to quibble with the translator’s choice. A case in point is the English word “scavenger” meaning “a person who looks for useful items in a trash heap”. Crescentini opts for cercatore and spazzino. Or “basement” which could be, but probably is not, seminterrato as far as the second story is concerned. A bit more problematic is the translation of some sentences with broken English, translated using standard Italian. A question that cannot be decided once and for all, is whether to translate personal names or not. In the second story, the protagonist’s name is Default (lots of choices in Italian: mancato, inadempiuto, difettoso, predefinito), the meaning of which is an integral part of the character’s behaviour. Perhaps the English term’s frequency of use in computer language makes the significance clear to the Italian reader. It is inevitable that some idioms may trick the translator, such as “bird’s eye view” which in the case of the second story, with all probability means (visuale) panoramica, not dagli occhi degli uccelli. The title “Your own way back” is rendered as Il ritorno, but perhaps Il ritorno a modo tuo would give a closer interpretation of the original. But these are just suggestions, and since translation is also a re-writing, the translator’s art must be taken into consideration.

            In conclusion, it is hoped that these four stories by Rich Larson find a multitude of readers both in English and in Italian. They are worth it for their enjoyment value, for their novelty, and for the interpretations of possible and probable futures we can look forward to.

Future Fiction 2: The natural in the artificial

Future Fiction is a publishing company (and more: see my previous post), specializing in publishing short science/speculative fiction from all over the world in the original and in an English translation. This time Francesco Verso collaborated with Francesco Manovani (another well-known author) on a jewel of a story, engaging, thoughtful, fast-paced and with surprising twists. The book contains not only the Italian original version and its English translation, but also an essay on immortality, building a bridge, in this case, between an aspect of the sci-fi story and philosophical musings.

The themes found in iMate are not far off from Verso’s fictional preoccupations found in his other works: the ethics, identity, desires and concerns of AI especially when the artificial is embodied a human form. The thin membrane that separates the “natural”, i.e. human, free, and the “artificial”, i.e., artifactual, enslaved, is thoroughly analyzed in this story, moreover, with a feminine spin. And, as is characteristic of Verso, puns abound and take the mind to other layers of meaning, not immediately perceived. Specifically, the “Mate” in the title is not only a 3D-printed flesh-and-blood biobot endowed with sophisticated intelligence and grown under strictest ethical and moral parameters living and working alongside humans. It is also check mate, i.e. triumph over human intelligence, hacking into the impregnable program the technicians who build iMates think invincible, all achieved by, yes, one of the iMates themselves. But it is also I mate, i.e. I procreate, and thus focusing on an aspect of human experience perhaps out of bounds to every but the most sophisticated AIs.

Janna, the protagonist in this story, tries her best to help her ill partner, David, to live safely and comfortably, by caring for him and by earning the money needed for his physical and psychological well-being. In the process, she is discovering her identity, her desires, and her view of the important things in life. Living in Sweden, where iMates are exceedingly expensive, she looks for better paying jobs elsewhere, to be able to afford one. Among all these preoccupations, she prioritizes her greatest desire: to have a child, even though David is against it. For the rest, you have to read the story, as I will not spoil the pleasure of discovery for you.

Suffice it to say that the story takes place in not a very distant future, building on technologies that are currently being experimented on. Even though they are extremely intelligent and endowed with feelings, sensitivities, desires, memories, iMates are built to serve the human “dominus” (master). They are not free or independent: they are always tethered unknowingly, invisibly, electronically, to the company that made them, which can make them faint at will and scan their inner workings. The society that is depicted is not much different from ours: there are incurable illnesses, car accidents, divorces, concerns around money, there is soccer, data theft, industrial secrets, legal restrictions, need for affirmative action and women’s rights; not to mention the fact that life expectancy is lower in Naples than it is in Sweden. All these are dealt with using technological props which blur the human “freedoms” and make people more like androids, living with unpleasant restrictions. But there is also friendship, love, altruism, not to mention egotism, competition, and class distinction. Mass communications are amazingly easy and ubiquitous, yet another aspect of our present situation, which may have unintended consequences. The story shows a happy ending for the iMates,perhaps leaving the humans evolving as they are wont to.

The essay which forms a part of the book (entitled “Immortal: why not? A philosophical reflection”) offers philosophical musings on immortality. It is not entirely related to the story, although it is argued by the author that iMates may be immortal: i.e., the idea of immortality attached to androids, not only to humans. The author, Maurizio Balistreri, discusses the pros and cons of human immortality, siding, of course, with the “for” side. He demolishes some obvious and usual assumptions of those who are against human immortality, such as the fact that whoever lives long is stuck to their old views and does not change/grow, or that there will not be enough food for all those who will live very, very long. Clearly, these are problems that will be solved in the future, using technology, of course. His essay raises one interesting issue, though, and that is the utilitarian view of human life: Balistreri builds his arguments on the fact that each one individual human contributes something to society. He does not, however, touch upon the fact that there is a hierarchy of types of contributions, and therefore, competition for what one particular society deems as important occupation/profession. The hierarchy is not written in stone, and it is perhaps too ambitious to attempt to wrestle with the variety of occupations that will be preferred in the far distant future, not to mention the fact that this utilitarian principle of human life is not the be all and end all of human life, however long.

In conclusion, iMate transports the reader into a possible future world inhabited by humans like us and by biobots (indistinguishable from humans) capable of doing much more than humans, but for that reason, having the same human preoccupations, needs, and wants, such as love, maternity, friendship, i.e. they are more than human. And in this way, the thin line between natural and artificial has disintegrated, at least for the biobots. This engaging story should form an indispensable part of the reading experience of everyone.

Future Fiction 1: An original Canada-Italy connection

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Future Fiction Publishing is the trailblazing brainchild of Francesco Verso, a multiple prize-winning novelist, publisher, cultural enabler. This initiative is an integral part of the Future Fiction Factory, which is comprised of the publishing house, theatrical production, Website, YouTube videos and other mass media offerings. Future Fiction has at least three specific aims: 1.  To make known short sci-fi fiction from all over the world to readers everywhere. Preference is given to those stories which represent possible and plausible dystopias and utopias; 2. To translate into Italian and into English works of speculative fiction form all over the world. These “dual language” books rely on skilled translators; 3. To engage all possible media to further the knowledge of others’ speculative fiction through works such as theatre pieces, graphic novels, music, etc. According to Francesco Verso, every country has an idea about its imaginative future which is projected into its own vision: publishing these works will further the biodiversity of ideas and will be an alternative to the vice-like hegemony of Anglo-American publishing.

To start a more nuanced analysis of the products published by Future Fiction, I have chosen to delve into the bilingual (Italian-English) version of Claude Lalumière’s Other persons/Altre persone (Future Fiction, 2018). Claude Lalumière is a Canadian author, blogger, reviewer, editor and co-editor, whose works have been showcased at various festivals and are taught at universities. The three short stories published by Future Fiction appeared in print elsewhere, but their original themes, interesting characters, and novel plots need a wider audience: it is no wonder then that they have been chosen to be translated into Italian and published in Italy, together with their English version. The three stories are Maxim Fujiyama and Other Persons/Maxim Fujiyama e altre persone, This is the Ice Age/Questa è l’era glaciale, The Ethical Treatment of Meat/Il trattamento etico della carne.

Rather than to reveal the plots and spoil your reading pleasure, what follows concentrates on the commonalities in the stories, as well as their differences, and on the overall effect of their plots.

  1. All three stories are set in not too distant future, which means that their development is plausible and possible. The stories do not contain AI or other types of complex technology, they rather concentrate on the means with which people react to dystopic situations. According to the on-line Science Fiction Encyclopedia, Canadian sci-fi in English is more literary, concerned with communication, and less high-tech than most US science fiction. This is speculative fiction of a particular type, focusing on human decisions to be made not on the basis of or using a given technology, but relying on people’s own inner strengths, ingenuity and showing their weaknesses and shortcomings in the process. Lalumière’s treatment of these topics is highly original and surprising. Vancouver and Montreal are the settings for the first two stories, and an unidentified Canadian city for the third.
  2. All three stories have as protagonists children and young people under 20 years of age. This is a fascinating, and not very common trait of sci-fi: young people’s reactions show inventiveness and unpredictability, so they offer an imaginative world that is perhaps closed to adults and therefore fiction writers find in them ample sources of inspiration. In the first two stories, the surrounding world has been destroyed, and Lalumière has the reader follow not only the characters’ footsteps, but, above all, their thinking processes and coping mechanisms. In the first story, Maxim, besides looking for food, keeps tallies on the number of dead, and those who he meets, making statistics one way of coping with his situation, which is pretty bleak. His other constant thought is his almost insistent question about the definition of “person”. Clearly, a most appropriate and always timely topic outside of fiction too. The end, amazing and unexpected, gives him the answer he so desires: a person is whoever loves us and we can love them back. In the second story, Mark and Martha, after a chance meeting in a city that has been destroyed, live together, attempting to somehow steer Mark’s brother, Daniel, away from trouble. Being younger, and an engaging speaker, Daniel gets into trouble by attracting followers to what amounts to become his religious cult, and, predictably, this cult, although it allows Daniel to cope with the dismal situation, promotes hatred and violence. For Mark and Martha, the way out seems to be leaving the city and settling in a rural area, which, too, is fraught with unwelcoming settlers and other troubles.  In the third story, the dystopic society is inhabited by humans who are obviously physically sick as well as psychologically unstable. Thriving on eating brains, they go to great lengths to raise this preciously exquisite food. In the process, acting  unethically can be questioned, but the society cannot extricate itself from its addiction to one particular food. Clearly,  Lalumière nudges us to consider our eating habits, too.

All three stories have as central themes the psychological reaction of the protagonists to a changed, altered, or otherwise different life circumstances and the world around them. Lalumière’s engaging style and unpredictable twists makes reading these stories a true pleasure.

As regards the translation, Fiorella Moscatello translated other works as well for Future Fiction from English. The Italian translation reads well, keeps the rhythm and speed close to the English, and communicates Lalumière’s intentions faithfully.  Of course, one could quibble with the interpretation of some phrasal elements (for ex., “The Rottweiler is being gentle as she licks the wound on his cheek, but her aim is broad.” The plausible interpretation is that the “aim” refers to the aim of the dog’s tongue while she’s licking the wound. Moscatello interprets it completely differently: La Rottweiler lecca delicatamente la ferita sulla guancia, ma continua a sorvegliare i dintorni. Or [“Fractals…] had erupted” interpreted as erano spuntati). Other turns of phrases are more English, such as “una volta che”, (un piatto) “delizioso”, or imitate the English syntax, such as “it’s natural for people to live…” rendered as e` naturale per le persone vivere… . But these do not detract from the completeness, flow, and engaging manner expressed in the English version.

In conclusion, Claude Lalumière’s stories in  Other Persons/Altre persone has found an excellent home in this bilingual version published by Future Fiction. It is hoped that these stories find also numerous readers, because they are worth reading: their themes invite a profound re-thinking of many aspects of our lives.

 

 

“American Gods” or Gods in America?

American_gods

In the Introduction to the Tenth Anniversary Edition of American Gods (Harper Collins, 2011), Neil Gaiman claims that readers either hate or love this book. Well, I neither love nor hate it, but I am not sitting on the fence: Gaiman’s artistry shows on every page, as well as his ability to treat serious matter with a special sense of humor,  and his vivid imagination. Above all, the book does make you think deeply about the role of gods in human cultures, about the definition of sacrifice, about the relationship between love and violence, about what makes America tick, about the world’s obsession with America, etc. In other words, having read it was not for naught. The frustration and disappointment that reading American Gods brings with it spring from the fact that the book tries to be too many kinds of narrations all at the same time: fantasy story, horror/gothic novel, mystery novel, spiritual travelogue, essay on what happened to gods once brought to America by immigrants, musing on what defines America, definition of sacrifice, love, etc. Nevertheless, these may be its strong points, given that the novel has won prestigious awards. Rather than outlining the plot and discussing the settings and characters, here is my take on Gaiman’s contribution – by way of fiction –  to the eternal human fascination with gods.

Notions of “god”: human and divine perspectives

Gaiman’s basic premise underlying the idea of “god” is that gods are human creations which, once accepted, grow in significance and this makes their power amplified. Therefore, humans allow themselves be molded by these “home-made” beings, and hence they relinquish their own free will. It is a magic circle. Throughout the book, the god characters predict the future, foresee the characters’ behavior (specifically that of Shadow, the protagonist) and therefore negate the idea of free will.  Since gods are created by humans, their characteristics are human (the full list would take too much space): arrogance, avarice, fear, gluttony, megalomania,  nymphomania, underhandedness, violence; they are standoffish swindlers, and indifferent tricksters. That’s the human side. From the divine perspective of the gods themselves, matters are a bit more complicated.  They thrive on sacrifice but they are also easily hurt. They must fight for survival and existence anyway they can. One of the gods, Loki, having a conversation with Shadow, puts it this way:

You got to understand the god thing. It’s not magic. Not exactly. It’s about focus. It’s about being you, but the you that people believe in. It’s about being the concentrated, magnified essence of you. It’s about becoming thunder, or the power of a running horse, or wisdom. You take all the belief, all the prayers, and they become a kind of certainty, something that lets you become bigger, cooler, more than human. You crystalize. … And then one day they forget about you, and they don’t believe in you, and they don’t sacrifice, and they don’t care, and the next thing you know you’re running a three-card monte game on the corner of Broadway and Forty-third.

Throughout the novel, the old gods, those that the immigrants brought with them on the boats, and on the planes, show their uneasy and by no means solid position in modern America: new gods are springing up which try to usurp the ancient divine forces, take away the offerings and deviate the sacrifices made to the old ones. The new gods are many and varied: money, power, cars, technology, TV, etc. When the old gods face the new ones in a ruthless, violent and brutal combat situation, each side sees the other as “demons, monsters, damned”. Both sides have a deathly fear of being ignored by the humans, of being abandoned, forgotten, rendered obsolete. Gaiman’s tongue-in cheek attitude receives its full force when he has Odin address the “armies” about to engage in battle. However, since they are tricksters on both sides, the reader suspects foul play even on the battlefield and beyond.

Whether by design or by the need to be inclusive, divinities include gods and goddesses from all corners of the earth:  Odin ad víly, dwarfs and Mama-ji, Thunderbird and Easter. Jesus does not appear in the book since, as the author notes in the Afterword, he plans to have Shadow meet him in another narration.

Sacrifice

Gaiman presents the stance of “tradition against innovation”. The old gods, those that require the physical human sacrifice, i.e., human death, especially of children or youth, are about to lose their position to the new gods. For these, sacrifice is of a different type: human time, attention, focus, interest, i.e., human life. Only the protagonist, Shadow, with whom we are journeying through America, seems to be able to offer both types of sacrifice. But Shadow sacrifices on many additional levels: he sacrifices his time by spending three years in jail, (for doing something illegal on the instigation of his wife, Laura), he sacrifices his love life by being faithful only to Laura (whose character is least elaborated, even though she appears on a number of occasions). So the notion of “sacrifice” is watered down, and almost of no use for a serious definition of its function. This mirrors the devaluation of the traditional native sacred places, most of which in America (and many parts of the world, I have to add), become simply destinations for buying a T-shirt or a souvenir trinket, with the new purpose of tourist visits: photography.

Sacrifices to the old gods were always accompanied by specific pre-determined  rites. with the worship of the old gods on the wane, rites too, transform their meaning to secular uses and become easily changed. The new gods do not care about rites at all.

America

All in all, America “is a bad land for gods” because the old ones are rendered obsolete and the new ones are quickly cast aside for the “next big thing”. There is no space for transformation, or an amalgam of the two,  which normally happens when gods of two different cultures meet: they become an amalgam of the familiar and the unfamiliar. (See, for ex., Joseph Campbell, Goddesses. Mysteries of the Feminine Divine. New World Library, 2013). Gaiman presents the vastness of America, its varied and disjointed cultures connected by the thread of money, violence, and technology. This could be the author’s warning: by dehumanizing, many aspects of the human are lost, first of which is gods. However, Gaiman, a trickster himself, does not mourn this fact. The question remains, therefore, what actually happens when the old gods disappear (beyond making human sacrifice a thing of the past).

In the novel, the very first sacrifice on American soil was the one offered to Odin by the Vikings of a native man. Despite the fact that human sacrifices to the old gods are decreasing,  the tone of violence that is part and parcel of American colonization and culture is only increasing: in the novel, physical violence is almost never of the sacred kind.

In conclusion, the novel gives Gaiman a platform on which to use all of his talents. Given that the author skillfully compels the readers to follow the vicissitudes of the protagonist, new ideas are created constantly. One final thought: perhaps the title American Gods does not really reflect the novel’s content: the book is more about (Some) Gods in America.