Monday, January 28, 2013

Sukunahikona Shrine and Pharmaceutical Museum, Doshomachi, Osaka

In the Edo-period, Osaka was the trading center of Japan. Not only did important wares such as rice pass through its warehouses before being distributed nationwide, Osaka was also the financial center of Japan. One of the items on which merchants from Osaka had a nationwide monopoly, was herbal medine. As initially Japanese medicine was based on Chinese herbal medicine, plants, roots, bark and other substances were imported from China (or brought from other areas in Japan), collected in the Doshomachi quarter in Osaka, checked, and then distributed nationwide.

In 1722, 124 brokers of such medicinal ingredients received official permission to act as a trade association (kabunakama) - meaning they had a monopoly on the medicine trade in exchange for taxes. Of course, a practical reason was that these traders had built up enough expert knowledge to judge the quality of the ingredients (and recognize fake ones) and see to it that they were used in a proper way.

[Entrance to the Sukunahikona Shrine and Museum]

Dealing in Chinese medicine, these traders honored the Chinese Deity of Medicine, Shennong (Shinno in Japanese). Shennong ("Divine Farmer") is a culture hero and mythical figure who has been credited as the inventor of both agriculture and medicine (in the form of herbal drugs, the therapeutic understanding of pulse measurements, acupuncture, and moxibustion). In the Huainanzi he is said to have tasted hundreds of herbs to test their medical value - and in some traditions, he finally swallowed a poisonous plant and so died for the welfare of mankind. Shennong became the patron deity of farmers, rice traders, and practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture. The most famous ancient book on agriculture and medicinal plants from China has also been ascribed to Shennong: the Shennong Bencao Jing ("Shennong's Materia Medica"), although in fact this is a compilation of oral traditions made between 300 BCE and 200 CE. The book describes 365 herbs and therapeutic substances, among which ginseng, linzhi mushrooms and ginger. Tea, seen as an antidote to poisonous herbs, is also described and Shennong so is also seen as the inventor of tea - a chance discovery, as tea leaves on burning tea twigs were carried by the hot air from the fire precisely to his cauldron of boiling water.

[Ingredients in a store of traditional medicine]

Later, Shennong was coupled with the Japanese deity of medicine, Sukuna-hikona. This deity, whose name means "Renowned Little Prince" appears in the Nihongi as the helper of Onamuchi no Mikoto, in "animating" the newly created land. He also set forth methods for healing illness among humans and their livestock, as well as magical ways of averting disasters. On top of that, he came to be regarded as the deity of curative springs (Onsen). In 1789 a shrine was built in the Doshomachi quarter, in which eventually both deities were enshrined. The popular name of the shrine is still "Shinno-san;" the official name is Sukunahikona Shrine.

[The Sukunahikona Shrine]

In 1822 a cholera epidemic hit Japan, brought into the country via Nagasaki, the only international port at the time. Also in Osaka, hundreds of people were dying every day. The medicine traders created medicine from tiger's bones and also made toy tigers from papier-mache as offering to Shinno and Sukuna-hikona. Although this undoubtedly did not help against the disease, it became customary to purchase a toy tiger (hariko) at the annual shrine festival in November as a prayer for good health.

[Votive plates with on top the two deities Sukunahikona (left)
and Shinno (right) and at the bottom the tiger]

In the Meiji period (1868-1912) Western medicine was introduced, first from the Netherlands. The Doshomachi merchants again acted as importers, although the monopoly of course was gone. A new phenomenon occurred: production of medicines was also started in the area, and the Osaka Pharmaceutical School was set up here. Some of the famous pharmaceutical companies that grew up in Osaka and are still headquartered in Doshomachi are: Takeda, Fujisawa, Kobayashi, Shionogi, Tanabe and Dainippon. There are 300 pharmaceutical wholesalers and manufacturers in the district, many also carrying out research. There are also several companies producing more traditional medicines, as Kaigen.

[A rare traditional building of a pharmaceutical company surviving in the area]

In the grounds of Sukunahikona Shrine (on the 3rd floor of the building housing the shrine office), one finds the Doshomachi Pharmaceutical and Historical Museum, which shows how the Doshomachi district has developed over the centuries. The museum possesses a large collection of valuable documents, but also advertising posters. One can watch several interesting videos as well. Unfortunately, the museum is only in Japanese.

At the entrance to the shrine is a plaque with a replica of the handwriting of the novelist Tanizaki Junichiro - his novella Shunkinsho (A Portrait of Shunkin, 1933) is set in this area.

[Tanizaki's Shunkinsho manuscript]

Address: 2-1-8 Dosho-machi, Chuo-ku, Osaka. TEL: 06-6231-6958  
Hrs: 6:00 - 18:30. Both shrine and museum are free.  
Access: 2 min. walk from Kitahama St. on the Sakaisuji Subway Line

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

"Elective Affinities" (1809) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (Novels)

A bored married couple invites a man and a young woman to their estate, without realizing that these two new elements make other attractions and couplings likely. Love is presented as an irresistible chemical force, pulling partners apart in a quartet of friends.

Elective Affinities, Goethe's third novel, is an elusive book. Even Goethe's contemporaries didn't know how to explain it: was the great author in this tragic story of persons attracted to each other as by some natural force, against which nothing helped, pleading in favor of marriage or rather against it? The novel was even misunderstood as a metaphorical argument for the chemical origin of love (as in the tendency of chemical species to combine with certain substances in preference to others)! Written in a detached, even august tone (the principal characters always maintain the strictest decorousness, no matter how strong their feelings) and composed with well-balanced care, the novel itself is an expression of Weimar Classicism, a movement inspired by the humanistic, classical art of Greece and Rome, of which Goethe was the foremost proponent.

[Goethe portrait from Wikipedia]

Elective Affinities tells the story of Baron Eduard and his wife Charlotte, wealthy aristocrats who have married each other for love after earlier marriages of convenience. They live on an idyllic country estate near Weimar (to which the action of the novel is limited) and spend most of their time managing and improving the estate. No expense is spared on garden design, the construction of a summer house, road improvement and church restoration. Then they decide to bring some variation into their life of rural idyll by inviting a couple of visitors: Eduard's best friend, Otto – in the novel usually called "the Captain" – and Charlotte's beautiful, docile niece, Ottilie, an orphan who is just coming of age.

Goethe here introduces the chemical metaphor of “elective affinities” – as in an experiment in chemistry, also in human relations instant recombinations may take place – this is what the title of the novel points at. Or is there a free choice ("Wahl")? When Eduard and Charlotte start playing games with their own and otter’s lives, they will notice that things can easily get out of control – human nature is different from the nature in their park and cannot be so easily mastered. There are perfectly good reasons for inviting The Captain and Otille, but doing so can very well upset the balance between Eduard and Charlotte. The house and estate become as it were a chemical retort in which human elements are mixed for an experiment.

And indeed, the inevitable happens. At first these four people get along famously: they take long walks together and in the evenings make music. But it gradually becomes clear that Eduard is strongly attracted to Ottilie and Charlotte to the Captain. Charlotte and the Captain, two rational characters, struggle against their inclination, without transgressing any borders; but Eduard helplessly succumbs to his affection and the young Ottilie also falls for the older man. They are both emotional natures and their lives will end tragically as they are unable to keep the necessary balance.

Charlotte confronts her husband but refuses to agree to a divorce. So both Eduard and the Captain leave the estate for a trial separation – Eduard starts living apart on one of his farms and later decides to join the army (it was the time of the Napoleonic Wars), even though Charlotte has just given birth to his baby. The second part of the novel introduces new characters, such as an architect who decorates a chapel in the village church; and the Assistant of Otillie's college who is in love with her. We also see Charlotte's exuberant, hyperactive daughter and her extravagant wedding party to a rich Baron, brought up by Goethe as a contrast to the quiet and serious Otillie. Otillie, for her part, grows more and more ethereal and has started a diary in which she mainly writes down impersonal maxims.

But when Eduard returns, things quickly come to a head. When he unexpectedly appears before Otillie, who is out in the park carrying his and Charlotte's baby, she panics so much that she ends up dropping the baby in the lake. The first victim has been made, but it will not end here. Seemingly harmless at first, the experiment which toyed with real feelings has gotten out of hand and finally will have deadly results. Eduard later commits suicide, and Otillie in the end dies of anorexia. She is buried in the newly decorated chapel of the village church, in a glass coffin, and the villagers adore her as a saintly figure...

The novel ends with the transfiguration of Otillie, who is seen as a saint by the villagers. This may be because Goethe himself was a bit in love with her character – although married, even until high age he entertained spontaneous passions for various young women. One could say that he has written what can almost be called a postmodern novel about the conflicts those passions caused in him.

The Writer: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) needs no introduction, although he is perhaps more famous – especially in Anglophone countries – for his poetry and verse drama Faust than his novels. But it was a short epistolary novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, with its glorification of love suicide, which propelled him to fame in 1775. Less popular were the two more deep and difficult Wilhelm Meister novels (written between 1795 and 1829), about self-realization and the philosophical idea of renunciation. The present novel, in German called Die Wahlverwandtschaften, was published in 1809 as Goethe’s third one. It deserves to be much better known in English lands, as it inspired both Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier and John Banville’s The Newton Letter, with their partner switching between two couples (John Banville even copies the names of the characters of Elective Affinities in true postmodern style).

English translation: There are excellent modern English versions in Penguin Classics (by R.J. Hollingdale) and Oxford World’s Classics (by David Constantine). Both have interesting introductions. The original German (Die Wahlverwandtschaften) can be found at Gutenberg.

Influence: Both The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford and The Newton Letter by John Banville allude with a similar set-up to Elective Affinities.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Best Japanese Gangster (Yakuza) Films (Movie Reviews)

Like in other countries, there have always been gangster films in Japan (a superb non-genre film is of course Drunken Angel by Kurosawa Akira, about the complex ties between a violent gangster and a doctor fond of the bottle), but the yakuza genre is typical for the Land of the Rising Sun. This genre only really got underway in the sixties, when the "ninkyo eiga" or "chivalry films" started being made. The hero in these movies is always a traditional yakuza who strictly observes the honor code and does not hurt outsiders. He wears kimono and fights with a sword in contrast to the "bad" modern yakuza who look like businessmen and carry pistols. The setting is in the Meiji-, Taisho- or early Showa-period. In the the drama, the hero is often torn between the contradictory values of giri (duty) and ninjo (personal feelings). The most popular actor in these films was the stoical Takakura Ken, often flanked by Tsuruta Koji or Ikebe Ryo. Countless of these films were produced by the Toei studios, replacing their samurai films which had been going strong in the 1950s. The 1960s were the heyday of the yakuza genre. Since these classical yakuza films later fell out of favor, they are now difficult to find, even in Japan.

[Takakura Ken]

After the demise of the ninkyo-film, the yakuza movie boom as such stopped, but there were three separate revivals. First, the "jitsuroku" or "docudrama" films devised in the early 1970s by Fukasaku Kinji in his five-film series Battles Without Honor and Humanity. These films were based on true stories, filmed with a hand camera in documentary style, and they portrayed the yakuza as they really are: ruthless, treacherous street thugs - as "unchivalrous" as possible. The films are also extremely violent. The "hero" is played by Sugawara Bunta - a cynical ex-soldier who just after WWII rises to power in the underworld of post-atomic bomb Hiroshima. Many "jitsuroku films" were produced - most yakuza films made today still belong to this genre - but without the genius of Fukasaku, this is mainly straight-to-video stuff.

The second revival came in the second half of the eighties when a series of films was made about the wives of gangster bosses. These films were also based on journalistic "true stories" and caught the popular fancy with a generous admixture of sex - an element which so far had been lacking in yakuza films. The star of these films was Iwashita Shima, as a tough and coolly elegant female gang boss stepping in for her husband (either in hospital, in prison, or in his grave). These films never made much impact in the West, but had a very strong following in Japan.

In the nineties, finally, there was a third revival, in the films of new directors as Kitano Takeshi and Miike Takeshi - to whom one might add Ishii Takashi and Mochizuki Rokuro. These latter-day productions were often direct-to-video releases (certainly in the case of Miike), meant for a small and specialized cult public. Even the films of Kitano Takeshi have never caused much of a ripple in Japan, in contrast to the praise they received at the film festival circuit outside its borders. They are a strange mix of static boredom and sudden, ultra-violent scenes. The typical actors are Kitano Takeshi himself, as well as Ishibashi Ryo, Takeuchi Riki and Aikawa Sho. The last three actors also often appear in films of the other three directors. This third revival, by now, has died a silent dead as well.

Here are 10 yakuza films you must see under threat of loosing your little finger:

  • Tough Guy (Akumyo, 1961; Lit. "Bad Reputation") by Tanaka Tokuzo and with Katsu Shintaro, Tamiya Jiro and Nakamura Tamao. This series was started in 1961 by the Daiei studios, well before Toei began making its "ninkyo" films. Based on a popular serial novel by Kon Toko, it features Katsu Shintaro as Asakichi, a rough and ready young thug with a peasant background who easily gets into fist fights, although he is chivalrous at heart. The handsome but dry Tamiya Jiro plays his sidekick (kobun) "Motor" Sada, as the studio didn't believe Katsu Shintaro alone was enough of a leading man type. But Katsu's enormous vitality propelled him to stardom. The series saw 16 installments until 1974 and probably gave the studio the courage to have Katsu Shintaro star on his own in another series, the chanbara films about the blind swordsman Zatoichi. These last films are now more famous outside Japan, but in the 1960s both series were equally popular. Different from the heroes in the later Toei ninkyo films, hot-headed Asakichi frequently gets into trouble with women. In this first film he rescues Kototoi, a geisha from the Matsushima yukaku, with whom he has fallen in love, from Innoshima Island in the Inland Sea, where she has been sold. This brings him into conflict with the local gang of Silk Hat, but a tough female boss helps him. However, back in Osaka there is another girlfriend who claims to be his wife, so things are not that easily settled. Production values of this color film are high, as is usual for Daiei.
  • Pale Flower (Kawaita Hana, 1964; Lit. "Withered Flower") by Shinoda Masahiro and with Ikebe Ryo, Kaga Mariko and Fujiki Takashi. Beautiful authorist art film with a strongly nihilistic tone made at Shochiku. Ikebe Ryo plays Muraki, a misanthropic, world-weary yakuza gangster just released from prison. Previously, he has killed a gangster from a rival gang, with whom his boss now has formed an alliance, so he feels rather out of place. In one of his old gambling haunts he meets Saeko (Kaga Mariko), a young upper-class child-woman who seeks thrills by gambling on high stakes and driving madly fast in her sporty convertible. Muraki introduces her to a new high-stakes gambling joint but gradually looses control over her. One of his worries is Yoh, a drug-addict with the cold eyes of a killer, who stalks her without ever saying a single word. But Muraki never pries into who she is, the relationship seems almost Platonic. When Muraki finally accepts another killing assignment, he takes Saeko along for the thrill. The final killing is filmed like a religious sacrifice and brings Muraki where he was at the beginning of the film: in jail, where he finally learns of Saeko's death. Life has nothing to offer him, but he already knew that, too, in the beginning. This existential noir film is shot in stark black-and-white, in a mostly night-time Yokohama, with an atonal score by Takemitsu Toru.
  • Abashiri Prison (also called "A Man from Abashiri Prison;"Abashiri Bangaichi, 1965) by Ishii Teruo and with Takakura Ken, Nanbara Koji, Tanaka Kunie and Tanba Tetsuro. The popularity of Toei Ninkyo films in the 1960s rested on five "cash-cow" series, of which three featured Takakura Ken. This is the first one, very popular in Japan even today, but little known outside its borders. Takakura Ken was introduced in this film as the noble yakuza hero - you still see him working on his character. The prison was a very notorious real one, Japan's Alcatraz, located in Abashiri, in the wilds of the northernmost island of Hokkaido - it now is a popular prison museum. Maverick director Ishii Teruo helmed the first ten films of the series, after which other directors took over for another eight films. The story is simple: Takakura Ken plays a convicted yakuza, Tsukibana Shinichi, who despite nearing the end of his prison term, escapes to visit his ailing mother (a motivation typical of the sixties, when mothers were the most important women in the lives of screen "ninkyo" yakuza). Tanba Tetsuro plays a prison warden who believed in Tsukibana's character, but after being disappointed, chases him relentlessly. In a breath-taking sequence, Takakura Ken flees handcuffed to another convict in a railway handcar hurling down a steep mountain. Next, the escaped convicts trek across the desolate snow country of Hokkaido, affording the director the opportunity to show us some great vistas.
  • Account of the Chivalrous Commoners of Japan: Osaka (Nihon Kyokyakuden: Naniwahen, 1965) by Makino Masahiro and with Takakura Ken and Tsuruta Koji. The most typical ninkyo series of the sixties, and the second one with Takakura Ken, unfortunately little known outside Japan. This is the second installment of eleven, running from 1964 to 1971, and often thought to be the best. The story is set among transport companies in Osaka port, where honest workers are threatened by cheating gangsters. Takakura Ken plays a yakuza who upholds the traditional ninkyo code and selflessly sides with the workers. Besides the feuding gangs, we have two stories of doomed romance, which give the film additional interest. On top of that, a young woman who keeps an outside stall falls in love with Takakura Ken, but this is only played for laughs as a true yakuza is not interested in women (he is shy and she only giggles). Before the final showdown, the film contains several of the large action scenes for which Makino was famous. Yachigusa Kaoru has a nice role as a flirtatious geisha. The film reaffirms the status quo, in typical "ninkyo" manner: the Japanese way as exemplified by the common people is basically good and fills us with warm feelings; the bad gangsters who disturb the normal, harmonious relations are duly punished. A third series with Takakura Ken, now flanked by Ikebe Ryo, and with a setup-up very similar to Nihon Kyokyakuden was Remnants of Chivalry in the Showa Era (Showa Zankyoden), which saw nine entries between 1965 to 1972. The only difference is that the stories are set in the more modern Showa-period in which chivalry was getting an even rarer item and that Ikebe Ryo always dies in the ultra-violent finale. And here, too, Makino Masahiro was the major director.
  • Branded to Kill (Koroshi no Rakuin, 1967) by Suzuki Seijun and with Joe Shishido, Nanbara Koji, Mari Annu and Ogawa Mariko. Suzuki Seijun was thirty years in advance of his time - he made satirical, grand-guignol yakuza films in the days of the straight-laced ninkyo flics. No wonder he was fired by his studio after the present film - which today is considered as one of Japan's most important cult films. It is difficult to make sense of this wild ride through the bypaths and alleys of the yakuza genre, but it is enough just to enjoy the visiuals. Joe Shishido plays a yakuza assassin who has two problems: he wants to reach the top of his profession, but is stuck in the position of "number 3" killer, without even knowing who is "number 1." And he has a problem with women: his loony wife despises him but is mad for sex, and an icily cold, mysterious woman who is eager for death and surrounds herself with dead butterflies, becomes an obsession for him. On top of that, he needs to sniff boiled rice as a turn-on... There is one very stark scene: a butterfly lands on the gun of our killer, just as he is about to pull the trigger. A sign of peace? No, he misses and instead hits an innocent bystander... A brilliant. modernist masterpiece.
  • Red Peony Gambler: Flower Cards Match (Hibotan Bakuto: Hanafuda Shobu, 1969) by Kato Tai and with Fuji Junko, Takakura Ken and Wakayama Tomisaburo. This was a highly popular series, running to eight installments, with actress Fuji Junko (Sumiko Fuji after her marriage) in the main role of the knife-wielding female yakuza Oryu, a wandering gambler. Takakura Ken plays a wandering gangster who joins forces with her. Oryu lodges with the Nishinomaru gang which is vying with the Kanahara-gumi for a lucrative gambling concession that raises money for the Atsuta Shrine in Nagoya. To complicate matters, in a true gangland "Romeo and Julia" story, the son of the Nishinomaru boss is in love with the daughter of the Kanahara-gumi leader. Oryu helps them flee to Osaka and in the end takes on the whole Kanaharu gang. An interesting scene is the first one, where Oryu saves a young girl from an onrushing train - director Kato Tai demonstrates his skill here in some rapid, Eisenstein-style cutting. Culturally interesting is another scene at the beginning, where Oryu first arrives at the headquarters of the Nishinomaru gang and in an elaborate greeting in stilted Japanese asks for their hospitality as "kyakubun." This is a faithful representation of a typical yakuza ritual. But the top attraction of these films is the alluring Fuji Junko who wears an immaculate kimono and has perfectly polite manners, but who also possesses nerves of steel and can kill in the blink of an eye. Besides that, she has a warm humanity as shown in this installment.
  • Battles Without Honor and Humanity (Jingi Naki Tatakai, 1973) by Fukasaku Kinji and with Sugawara Bunta, Matsukata Hiroki and Tanaka Kunie. The yakuza as just a gang of violent mobsters, without an inkling of chivalry - the ninkyo-code is trampled in the mud here. Based on a magazine series about the life of a gang boss from Kure (near Hiroshima) in the chaotic years just after WWII. Fukasaku filmed the realities of the postwar world, of angry ex-soldiers turned gangsters and black marketeers taking on the Japanese cops and the GIs - with as only values those of the street. He used handheld cameras, frequent zoom-ups and natural light to give a gritty and authentic look to the film. The violence is extreme and sudden, and not cartoonish but brutal and shocking. At the same time, Fukasaku emphasizes the absurdity of the Hiroshima gang wars. The series, which starred Sugawara Bunta, became a great hit. Fukasaku made five installments. The plot is so insanely complicated and fast moving, that I will not try to reproduce it here! The director created a new type of yakuza movie that is in a way still with us, for ever burying the ninkyo-style flics.
  • The Yakuza Wives (Gokudo no Onnatachi, 1986) by Gosha Hideo and with Iwashita Shima and Katase Rina. Based on a reportage by journalist Ieda Shoko, who demonstrated that the women in the yakuza world were strong personalities with nerves of steel. Iwashita Shima (the wife of director Shinoda Masahiro) was a golden choice for the gang-boss wife, cool and steely, but also elegant and stately. And Katase Rina provides a perfect contrast as her softer and more voluptuous younger sister - she attracts men as honey does flies, and one of her admirers is a vile, low-life yakuza which leads to problems as her sister wants to keep her out of gang-life. A highlight of the film is the cat fight between both women, and there is plenty of other action as well. Iwashita Shima rules the mob like a business imperium, but just in case also hides a gun under her kimono. And woe to who opposes her, he may find his house bulldozed at night! This first film still has the feel of the reportage on which it was based, which adds to authenticity. In later installments it would peter out into a yakuza sopa opera. By the way, the "gokudo" of the Japanese title refers to "the extreme way," i.e. gangsters and gangs.
  • Sonatine (1993) by Kitano Takeshi and with Kitano Takeshi and Kokumai Aya. While the whole yakuza genre is quite nihilistic, this is probably the most empty and negative gangster film ever made, the most perfect example of the minimalist style of director Kitano Takeshi. Stone-faced Kitano (the director also plays the lead role, as usual in his films) plays a world-weary yakuza, who is already spiritually dead before he commits suicide in the last reel. He is tired of living and wouldn't mind dying, "as that at least would end his fear of death." He is a blot of emptiness at the center of film. The set-up is a familiar yakuza turf war, in which Kitano and his men - though outgunned - face certain deaths by counterattacking. There is no real narrative: what we get is a depiction of the numbing boredom and emptiness of yakuza life - always hanging around and killing time, just like in that other male macho institute, the army. Stalled on a beach in Okinawa, the gangsters in their Hawaiian shirts drink beer and play silly games - until Kitano turns the tables by introducing some serious Russian roulette. There is some comedy thanks to Kitano's inventive and funny mind, but most jokes suffocate in the cruelty which is at their basis. There is little gore, but violence flashes up like a lightning bolt, out of the blue - just as in real life. An unconventional, original vision, not in the last place through the film making with its consciously jerky editing.
  • Fudoh: The New Generation (Gokudo Sengokushi Fudo, 1996) by Miike Takashi and with Tanihara Shosuke, Takano Kenji and Jinno Marie. One of the most outrageous productions of provocateur Miike, about a generational conflict in a Kyushu yakuza gang. The father has killed the transgressing eldest son and sent his neatly boxed head to the bosses of a rival gang to appease them. Some years later, the younger son who is out for revenge has already set up a shadow gang within his high school, using 11-year olds with pistols hidden inside teddy bears. Fudoh is one of the most exuberant and over-the-top films Miike ever made. There is not a second of seriousness in its cartoonish reels. It all starts with a battle in a public toilet where 10,000 rounds of munition are fired making Sam Peckinpah look like kindergarten stuff. Some other delicious outrages are: a yakuza poisoned by some bad coffee and turning into a human blood geyser, or a schoolgirl assassin who fires poisoned darts from between her legs with lethal precision (as an interesting inquiry into the link between sex and death). Not to forget a hermaphroditic love scene, soccer with a hacked-off head, and a lovely English teacher in the most "sexploitational" skimpy outfit you have ever seen. This is one fest of macabre humor, and a demented, mayhem parody of the yakuza genre.

"The Seventh Seal" & "The Virgin Spring" by Ingmar Bergman (Movie Review)

There is some justification for taking these two films together: both The Seventh Seal (Det Sjunde inseglet) (1957) and The Virgin Spring (Jungfrukällan) (1960) by classical Swedish director Ingmar Bergman are set in the Middle Ages and they are existential struggles with the (non-) existence (silence) of God. The Seventh Seal was the Cannes prize-winning film that made Bergman famous over the whole world, the landmark art film that stood at the beginning of the art house. The Virgin Spring is conceptionally a lesser work, later even discredited by Bergman  (although winner of the "best foreign picture" Academy Award), but it shares the same high level of performances and beautiful images. In both films, Bergman shows he is a disciple of the Japanese director Kurosawa (especially Rashomon) and his countryman Dreyer (The Passion of Joan of Arc).

In The Seventh Seal a medieval knight, Block (Max von Sydow), who has returned from the Crusades together with his squire Jöns, trecks through a landscape ravaged by the Black Death on the way to his castle. By challenging Death (Bengt Ekerot) to a game of chess he is able to keep him at bay. During the trip, he meets a juggler with his young family, but also groups of religious nuts, flagellants, a young women who is going to be burnt on the stake "as she has had intercourse with the devil," and a degenerate priest who steals from those who have died in the plague.

In The Virgin Spring, a beautiful young woman, Karin (Birgitta Pettersson), who is on her way to bring candles to church, is raped and murdered by three goatherd brothers, who later – ironically enough – happen to ask for lodging in the castle of the woman's father (Max von Sydow). One of the men offers the clothes of the dead girl for sale to the mother, an even greater irony because this is how they are found out. The father then prepares himself for battle in a pagan way and in cold blood executes the killers, one of whom is a mere boy.

Although the stories are different, there are several similarities between these films. Both films have an archaic quality and feature archetypal characters living in a remote and vague past and speaking high-minded dialogues. They also share a certain mannerism, although the evocation of the Middle Ages with simple means is very natural (just as the Japanese past was evoked in the films of Mizoguchi and Kurosawa).

Both films question the existence of God, the one by relentless images of war, plague and the falling apart of society, the other by questioning how God could allow the so cruel death of a young, innocent woman. Both films are morality plays, in which Everyman faces Death and Evil.

The Seventh Seal is often reduced to that one iconic image of the chess game on the beach, with the sea as background, and as opponents the medieval knight Block and the black-hooded, white-faced Death. The Virgin Spring is built around another iconic scene, the rape and murder of Karin, which in its brutality shocked 1960 audiences.

Both films end with an epiphany: in The Seventh Seal the final images are of a near-silhouette "Dance of Death," where Block, his wife and his friends are claimed by Death after losing the chess game (Block has however been able to save the entertainers and their young child, and so given meaning to his own existence); in The Virgin Spring, the fresh spring that miraculously bubbles from the ground where the daughter had been killed.

Both classical films inspire us to look for meaning in the world around us, before Death has us checkmate.
Ingmar Bergman official website. The "Seventh Seal" of the film title refers to Revelations, where the seventh seal to be broken on the day of last judgment, will reveal "the secrets of God." The Virgin Spring was based on a Medieval Swedish ballad. The film served as the basis for the trashy shocker The Last House on the Left by Wes Craven (1972).

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Bach Cantatas (46): Trinity XIII

The thirteenth Sunday after Trinity treats the well-known parable of the Good Samaritan.

The parable tells about a traveler who is beaten, stripped of his clothes, and left half dead alongside the road. First a priest and then a Levite come by, but both avoid the man and continue on their way. Finally, a Samaritan happens upon the traveler. Samaritans and Jews despised each other, but the Samaritan helps the injured man.

Jesus is described as telling the parable in response to the question "And who is my neighbor?" In other words, it is the man who showed mercy to the injured traveler - that is, the Samaritan. Although some read this parable allegorically, it is mostly interpreted in an ethical way. The parable has inspired many art works. The phrase "Good Samaritan", meaning someone who helps a stranger, is often used as the name for hospitals and charitable organizations.

There are three cantatas for this Sunday.

Galatians 3:15–22, law and promise
Luke 10:23–37, parable of the Good Samaritan

Cantata Studies:
Bach Cantatas Website | Simon Crouch | Emmanuel Music | Julian Mincham | Wikipedia | Eduard van Hengel (in Dutch) | Bach Companion (Oxford U.P.) | Bach: The Learned Musician (Wolff) | Music in the Castle of Heaven (Gardiner)

[Parable of the Good Samaritan by Balthasar van Cortbemde (1647)]  

  • Du sollt Gott, deinen Herren, lieben, BWV 77, 22 August 1723

    Coro: Du sollt Gott, deinen Herren, lieben
    Recitativo (bass): So muss es sein!
    Aria (soprano): Mein Gott, ich liebe dich von Herzen
    Recitativo (tenor): Gib mir dabei, mein Gott! ein Samariterherz
    Aria (alto): Ach, es bleibt in meiner Liebe
    Chorale: Herr, durch den Glauben wohn in mir

    "You shall love God, your Lord"
    Text: Johann Oswald Knauer (mvts. 2–5); David Denicke (mvt. 6)

    Cantata based on the parable of the good Samaritan. The opening chorus is rich in religious and musical symbolism, an expression of the theological foundations of both the Old and New Testaments. Trumpet and continuo play a choral tune by Luther (“Dies sind die heilgen zehn Gebot”), representing the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament. The choral is played in a canon and “canon” not coincidentally also means “law.” In the canon, the trumpet playing in its highest register is twice as fast as the bass part and there are a symbolical ten entries of the instrument. Against this background, the chorus sings the New Testamental theological addition of the dualism of love of God and brotherly love, “You shall love God, your Lord, with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” The melody to which the chorus sings this is cleverly derived from the canon – the vocal parts are diminutions of the chorale theme turned upside down and backwards, something which has been compared to “a giant oriental carpet in which the front side is the choral music and the back side is the Old Testament underpinning.”

    After a short secco recitative, the cantata continues with a soprano aria (“My God, I love You from my heart, my entire life depends on You”), accompanied by two obbligato oboes playing in tender third parallels. This simple aria forms a lovely contrast to the contrapuntal fireworks of the opening chorus.

    The alto aria (“Ah, in my love there is still nothing but imperfection”), which follows after a second recitative, features as its obbligato a haunting trumpet, the only instance in Bach's cantatas where this instrument is used in a quiet soulful manner rather than a military way. The aria has the form of a sarabande and Bach conveys the imperfection of the human attempt to live by the law of love, by composing "awkward intervals" for the valveless instrument.

    An austere setting of the Luther Chorale "Ach Gott vom Himmel sieh darein" ends the cantata.

    Rating: A+
    Video: Chorus 1 (Kay Johanssen)

  • Allein zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, BWV 33, 3 September 1724

    Coro: Allein zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ
    Recitativo (bass): Mein Gott und Richter
    Aria (alto): Wie furchtsam wankten meine Schritte
    Recitativo (tenor): Mein Gott, verwirf mich nicht
    Aria (tenor, bass): Gott, der du die Liebe heißt
    Chorale: Ehr sei Gott in dem höchsten Thron

    "Towards you alone, Lord Jesus Christ"
    Text: anonymous; Chorale "Allein zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ by Konrad Hubert

    Chorale cantata with the original chorale melody by Konrad Hubert (1540) appearing in the first and last movements – and only an indirect reflection of the readings for this Sunday.

    In the opening chorus (“Only upon You, Lord Jesus Christ, does my hope rest on earth”) the cantus firmus is sung by the soprano, but what attracts our attention first and for all, are the expansive ritornellos by oboes and strings, with an energetic forward propulsion through upward rushing scales, that almost eclipse the hymn. It is like a small concerto.

    The alto aria (“How fearfully my steps wander, yet Jesus listens to my pleas and shows me to His Father”) is in contrast quietly accompanied by muted first violins and pizzicato in the other strings, while the fearful, shaky steps appear in syncopated lines – this all in a typical “stepping” rhythm.

    After a recitative follows a duet (“God, You who are called Love, ignite my spirit,”) for tenor and bass accompanied by two oboes that are playing a duet themselves. It depicts God's love in consonant parallel sixths and thirds, forming a symbolical image of unity. The cantata is concluded by a rich, melismatic harmonization of the choral tune.

    Rating: A
    Video: Aria Alto (Bach-Stiftung); Aria bass & tenor (Bach-Stiftung)

  • Ihr, die ihr euch von Christo nennet, BWV 164, 26 August 1725

    Aria (tenor, strings): Ihr, die ihr euch von Christo nennet
    Recitativo (bass): Wir hören zwar, was selbst die Liebe spricht
    Aria (alto, flutes): Nur durch Lieb und durch Erbarmen
    Recitativo (tenor, strings): Ach, schmelze doch durch deinen Liebesstrahl
    Aria (soprano, bass, flutes, oboes, strings): Händen, die sich nicht verschließen
    Chorale: Ertöt uns durch dein Güte

    "You, who call yourselves of Christ"
    Text: Salomon Franck

    A more personal reaction to the parable of the Good Samaritan, dating from Bach's Weimar period and essentially chamber music. The cantata starts with a tenor aria (“You, who call yourselves of Christ, where is your mercy”) in gently flowing 9/8 rhythm, a contrast with the text scolding the professed Christian for his stony heart. Rather than anger, it expresses Christ's sadness at the hypocrisy of his followers.

    The following bass recitative is tougher in tone. This is followed by a gentle alto aria (“Only through love and through mercy will we become like God himself”), accompanied by two gorgeous flutes, depicting the consolation brought by the Good Samaritan.

    A second recitative is followed by a pleasant duet for soprano and bass which is introduced by an orchestral accompaniment. Forgiveness is expressed by music in the treble instruments, in canon with the bass instruments. This has been compared to two open hands moving together, expressing the text “To hands that do not close will heaven be opened.” The cantata closes with a straightforward setting of a beautiful chorale melody.

    Rating: B+
    Video: -

Bach Cantatas

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Gion Shrine, Kobe

The Gion Shrine in Kobe stands north of an area called Hirano (which itself lies due north of Kobe Station on he JR line), where the road forms a pass into the mountains. As the name indicates, it is linked to Kyoto's Gion, the Yasaka Shrine.

As a small shrine standing within walking distance from where I live in Kobe, this year I visited the Gion Shrine for a "nonbiri" Hatsumode. 

The shrine's history is as follows. When in 869 Kyoto was troubled by an epidemic, soothsayers in those unashamedly superstitious days decided that was caused by angry spirits that could only be subdued by the deity Susanoo. Susanoo happened to be honored in the Hiromine Shrine in Himeji and his "split-off spirit" (bunrei, from flame to flame) was brought to Kyoto where it was housed in the Tokoji temple (now the Yasaka Shrine of Gion fame). On the way to Kyoto, the spirit of Susanoo spent the night in Kobe, in the area called Hirano that belonged to a priest, Tojobo, who was connected to Enkyoji temple in Himeji (which was again linked to the Hiromine Shrine of Susanoo). That became the origin of the present shrine. Networks are as old as the world!

It is a nice place, with a good view over Kobe. There is not much to see, but the steep staircase leading up to the shrine provides a good exercise and the Gion Shrine also has a nice summer festival (13-20 July).

Monday, January 7, 2013

"Zeno's Conscience" by Italo Svevo (Book Review)

Zeno's ConscienceZeno's Conscience by Italo Svevo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Even if James Joyce had not written Ulysses, he would still be important for world literature for he was the discoverer of the Italian author Italo Svevo, whose major work, "Zeno's Conscience" (La conscienza di Zeno, 1923 - tr. by William Weaver, 2001), I want to discuss here.

Italo Svevo (1861-1928), whose real name was Aron Ettore Schmitz, was born in Trieste (a city in northwestern Italy, at that time part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire) into a Jewish family of German-Hungarian and Italian descent. His schooling was in the first place German, and he felt never completely comfortable when writing literary Italian (which was based on the Tuscan dialect, not on the Triestine one he heard around him). Svevo cherished the dream of becoming an actor, but a reversal in his father's business forced him to become a clerk in the Trieste branch of the Union Bank of Vienna. Outside office hours, he avidly read literature, with Zola as his idol. In the 1890s he published two short novels at his own expense, A Life (Una Vita, 1892) and As a Man Grows Older (Senilità, 1898), but as they were not very successful, he abandoned literature. Svevo then married into a prominent Trieste family and joined the successful marine paint company set up by his his father-in-law.

In 1907, this company - which had a patented product that slowed down corrosion - , decided to set up a branch in London. Svevo was going to establish the branch office and needed to learn some English. He took a private tutor and by a happy twist of fate, that teacher turned out to be the young James Joyce (!), who was then working in Trieste at the Berlitz School. They talked about literature and Svevo showed Joyce his novels. Joyce expressed his admiration, and so stimulated Svevo to start writing again. It took until 1923 before the fruits of that renewed endeavor were published: Zeno's Conscience – and James Joyce, by now famous, promoted it by arranging a French translation. As a result, the 62-year old Svevo became famous, also in Italy. Svevo was working on a sequel when unfortunately he was killed in a car crash in 1928.

The narrator of the novel, called Zeno Cosini, tells five stories; the book is not arranged chronologically but according to subject matter: Zeno's attempts to quit smoking, the death of his father, his courtship and marriage, his mistress (or rather, one of them), and the story of his business partnership with his brother-in-law. At the time the novel was written, psychoanalysis was popular and this provides the frame for the novel: the middle-aged Zeno feels there is something wrong with him and visits a psychoanalyst. For starters, the doctor wants him to write about his life – and when Zeno suddenly stops the treatment, the doctor publishes the manuscript in order to compensate for lost fees.

Zeno is a hardcore nicotine addict, who can't stop smoking and uses endless reasoning with himself that the next cigarette will be the last; he is also a guilt-ridden adulterer, who continually justifies his awkward affairs while convincing himself that he loves his wife; and a bumbling businessman who is caught in a doomed partnership with his brother-in-law. As the narrative unfolds, the creative bookkeeping of his conscience becomes increasingly intricate. “Resolutions existed for their own sake and had no practical results whatever.” At the same time, he becomes more and more unsure of the meaning and the rightness of his actions, he is caught in the paradox of his own convoluted rationalizations. But his constant whitewashing is also alarmingly like the fictions many people tell themselves on a daily basis.

This may come over as rather serious, but the novel is above all extremely funny. Svevo learned much from Kafka. Zeno's tale is a comical exercise in self-revelation, that is as false as it can be, and the psychoanalytic treatment leads not surprisingly nowhere at all. Zeno never finds a solution for his problems – Svevo is not only skeptical about psychoanalysis, but also more fundamentally about the notion that people can cure themselves - , but Zeno's not so honest confessions and extravagant fantasies make a great story, not in the least because he accepts everything he sees with humor.

The most funny part is the one about Zeno's courtship. Zeno is invited into the home an important businessman to select one of the four daughters for marriage. All daughters have names starting with an A, Zeno is of course a Z. The eldest daughter, Ada, is a classical beauty; the second, Augusta is out of the question as she has a squint; the third one is interesting but prefers intellectual pursuits to marriage and the fourth one is still too young. Of course, everything goes wrong - when Zeno tries to make polite conversation, he ends up uttering insults; when he leans nonchalantly on his umbrella (a Freudian symbol), the umbrella snaps in two, causing general mirth. And as could be expected Zeno ends up marrying the daughter with the squint – Ada dislikes him and already has promised herself to Guido, a German suitor. The whole family schemes to push Zeno into the marriage with Augusta – finally putting her next to him in a dark room so that he mistakes her for Ada and asks for her hand! Augusta proves to be an excellent wife, who puts his chaotic house in order.

In the end, the sickness of Zeno, of which he doesn't want to be cured, is the civilizational crisis of Europe itself, the "mal du siècle," which led to the wars of the 20th century. Svevo is remarkably silent about the major political events that shaped history during his life, just as there are no overtly Jewish characters or themes in his work. Although the Hapsburg Empire broke apart in 1918, his comfortable life in Trieste continued without major upheaval, at least until his death. But later history would overtake his family with a vengeance: during WWII, his wife and daughter had to hide for the Fascist “purification” squads; of his three grandsons, two died at the Russian front, the other was killed when he took part in a rebellion against the Nazis in 1945.

View all my reviews

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis by José Saramago

José Saramago (1922-2010) is one of Portugal's major novelists, who in 1998 received the Noble Prize in Literature.

Saramago had come late to literature. His parents were poor farm workers, his mother never learned to read. Because of lack of funds, Saramago couldn't go to grammar school, but had to start working in odd jobs at a young age. Among these jobs was also that of translator and critic for a publishing company. He educated himself by spending long hours reading in libraries. At age 25 he published a first novel, which was not successful, and Saramago decided he “had nothing to say” at that time and stopped writing. But finally, in the mid-seventies, after finding himself out of a job due to the cooling down of the 1974 democratization process (the “Carnation Revolution”) in which he had whole-heartedly participated, Saramago decided to become a full time writer. His first novel of this new writing period appeared in 1977 (when he was 55), and from then until his death at the advanced age of 87, he wrote more than 15 novels plus nonfiction work, such as personal memories and a travelogue, on such a high level that already in 1998 he was awarded the Nobel Prize.

Saramago was a man of strong opinions. Politically, he was a communist, perhaps as a reaction to the fact that until 1974 he lived under a fascist dictatorship. Besides being politically against the grain, he also harbored strong stylistic idiosyncrasies, as readers will immediately notice. He skips quotation marks, dialogue is only indicated by a comma followed by a capital letter. This gives his writings a dreamy quality, as if even discussions are filtered through the mind of the narrator. His rambling sentences run on and on and he uses paragraphing only sparingly. Saramago also frequently digresses from the story, giving ample authorial philosophical comments on the significance of situations encountered in the story.

Saramago finds his themes in Portugal, its culture and politics, but always with a wider relevance for the general human condition. He also criticized religion and when his novel The Gospel According to Jesus Christ was sidetracked for a European prize by the Portuguese government, in order “not to offend Catholics,” he left Portugal and started living on the island of Lanzarote in the Spanish Canaries.

One of Saramago's best works is The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (O Ano da Morte de Ricardo Reis), a surreal, magic-realist novel published in 1986 (English translation: 1991) and in my view one of the great novels of all time.

Ricardo Reis is a medical doctor and poet who after having lived for 16 years in a sort of self-imposed exile in Brazil, returns to Portugal in the last days of 1935. Alone, he stays in a hotel and in the rainy winter weather walks the streets of Lisbon. On his strolls Reis observes the changes that have taken place since he left for Brazil; the city almost becomes a character in the novel. Reis also is an avid newspaper reader, even studying the advertisements to see what they reveal about modern culture. In this way he also learns about the gathering clouds of European fascism. Portugal itself, which has lost its empire but not its pride, has become a European backwater and fallen into the hands of the Fascist dictator Salazar. The newspapers warmly applaud the rise of Hitler in Germany and the coup by General Franco in neighboring Spain, as well as the "heroic" war against Ethiopia by Mussolini.

Reis strikes up relationships with three persons: two women, and a dead poet. The first woman is the hotel-maid, Lydia, who secretly shares his bed at night, and later, after Reis has rented his own apartment, in addition provides free house-keeping. Saramago stresses the class difference between doctor and maid (still a factor in the 1930s), which always keeps them apart, but also shows that Reis gradually learns this warm person has her own mind and sense of independence.

The second woman is Marcenda, an aristocratic, virginal women with a paralyzed arm who once a month comes to Lisbon with her father to see a specialist (her father uses that as a cover for his own visit to a prostitute). When Reis once happens to touch Marcenda's broken hand, there is a romantic and even sexual surge that surpasses any more physical encounter. Marcenda is, however,  circumspect about their friendship and in the end disappears from Reis' life.


Reis also meets an old friend, the poet Fernando Pessoa, who has died a few months ago but whose ghost, passing through walls and doors and clad in his funeral suit, visits him at odd times for various deep discussions.

A visitation by a dead poet almost seems like a ghost story, but here we have to step outside the novel for a moment as Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) is a historical person – in fact, Pessoa was the greatest Portuguese poet of the 20th century. And the character of Ricardo Reis was not made up by Saramago, but was one of the many pseudonyms under which Fernando Pessoa wrote his poetry. In fact, “pseudonym” is not the right word. Pessoa gave his numerous adopted personages their own biographies and he wrote poetry in a different style for each character. Pessoa therefore didn't speak of pseudonyms or personae, but he called these multiple authorial selves “heteronyms.”

So this is also a novel about Ferdinand Pessoa, a literary figure of surprising post-modernity, who left most of his oeuvre on thousands and thousands of fragmentary slips of paper. Pessoa himself was a great flaneur, like Reis in the novel – he even wrote a walking guide to Lisbon. He was born in Portugal, but educated in South Africa where he learned to speak and write in English. He spent the remainder of his life in Lisbon where by day he worked as translator and by night was a figure on the local modernist literary scene.

Among Pessoa's different personae, the one called "Ricardo Reis" was a meditative pagan who wrote classical odes, with as philosophy: “'See life from a distance. Never question it. There's nothing it can tell you.” After all, even the gods look upon us with indifference. Reis accepts fate with tranquility, also in Saramago's novel where he is a pure observer, even of the people around him – only Marcenda fills him with life and he withers away after he cannot see her anymore. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Saramago talked of his love for the poems by Ricardo Reis / Fernando Passoa – he knew many of Reis' poems by heart and indeed, individual lines lie scattered throughout the novel.

Saramago writes in a style that is extremely dense, full of conceits and circumlocutions and echoes of other Portuguese literature. There are also subtle in-jokes, such as the frequent references to a book Reis is reading – it is The God of the Labyrinths by one "Herbert Quain," and readers of Jorge Luis Borges Ficciones will recognize this as a non-existent book invented by Borges in his short story “A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain.”

And in the end, when time is up also for Ricardo Reis, he meekly accompanies his dead companion Pessoa to the tomb. After all, what life has a heteronym after its author is already dead?

A true masterwork by one of Europe's major writers who deserves to be better known.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

"A Bend in the River" (1979) by V.S. Naipaul (Book Review)

V.S. Naipaul (1932) has been called "the finest contemporary writer of English prose fiction." Unaffected by literary fashion, he has wrought a style of his own, and in his later works he even transcends the borders between fiction and non-fiction. Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2001, V.S. Naipaul was born in Trinidad from Indian parents; since his university years starting in 1950 he has been a resident of England, but he has also been a great traveler, to India and Pakistan, Southeast Asia, South America and Africa (starting in 1966 with a period as writer-in-residence at Kampala University in Uganda - see Sir Vidia's Shadow). To date, he has written 15 works of fiction and 19 works of non-fiction. As the Nobel Prize website puts it: "Naipaul is Conrad’s heir as the annalist of the destinies of empires in the moral sense: what they do to human beings. His authority as a narrator is grounded in his memory of what others have forgotten, the history of the vanquished."

Naipaul is very much a cosmopolitan writer, partly by necessity due to his lack of roots: his ancestors are Indian, but he feels alienated from that country; he was born in Trinidad in the Caribbean but is unhappy about the cultural poverty of the island; and in the U.K. he has embraced the language and the literature but remains aloof from the general society, living in a sort of retirement in a small village near Stonehenge.

A Bend in the River (1979) is considered as one of his greatest novels. It is set in central Africa, in the area described by Conrad in Heart of Darkness. Although unnamed, the town that features in the novel must be Kisangani (formerly called Stanleyville), and the river in which bend the town lies, is the Congo River. The novel is narrated by Salim, an Indian whose family had lived for generations on the East Coast of Africa. He has come to this other African country inland to be free from his family - and because of a business opportunity - Salim can take over a shop with stock.

So he does and we follow him as he settles as an outsider in the nameless town which shows the traces of willful destruction. During decolonization the population has vandalized the buildings put up by the colonists, but as nothing new has taken their place, the town is a ruin. The same is true for the whole country, which - as seems to be the fate of every country liberated from colonialism - is ruled with an iron hand by a dictator, the "Big Man," a character based on Mobutu, who in reality ruled the country that he renamed "Zaire" from 1971 to 1997.

Despite everything, there is a short-lived economic boom and Salim has success with his store. He also becomes involved with Yvette, the French wife of a scholar, Raymond, who in his turn has an ambiguous relation with the “Big Man.” But finally the emerging chaos in the larger political scene causes the renewed disintegration of the local economy, which is paralleled by the disintegration of Salim and Yvette’s relationship. Salim is an outsider, a rootless person, and he realizes he has no place in Africa: "The bush runs itself." Eventually he must give up everything.

A Bend in the River is not driven by a superficial plot, but floats on the stream of the thoughts of the narrator, about Africa, about history, about the corruption of mankind. Naipaul possesses a hard-edged sort of wit; his personal vision refuses to pay homage to political correctness on either side: he unflinchingly demonstrates the absurdity of life in a decolonized but dictatorial failed state, but also evades the cliff of nostalgia for colonialism. In the end the question for Salim and other uprooted people is: what is one's place in the world? "The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to be nothing, have no place in it."
I read the Vintage edition of the novel. 

Friday, January 4, 2013

"Legend of the Holy Drinker" by Joseph Roth (Best Novellas)

When watching the New Year Concert from Vienna on TV this week, I was reminded that Strauss' polkas and waltzes formed the popular music of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, while his marches were played by the imperial army bands. That Empire, governed from the "musical" capital of Vienna, consisted of Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, Czech, northeastern parts of Italy, Romania, Croatia, Bosnia, parts of Ukraine and Poland, etc. It was a truly multinational state, and that was also its problem, as the second half of the 19th c. was a period of rising national consciousness - the Double Monarchy came to be regarded as a "prison of nations." As long as it lasted, it was the second largest country in Europe (after Russia) and the third most populous (after Russia and Germany).

The First World War was caused by an act of Bosnian-Serbian terrorism against the Habsburg crown prince. Austria-Hungary immediately declared war on Serbia, which was joined by Russia and later Italy. Although the Western front, opened by ally Germany against France (joined by the U.K. and later the U.S.) became more "famous" because of the terrible trench warfare, there was also this eastern front, the origin of the whole war, which led to the synchronous demise of the two main participants, the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires. The large multinational state fell apart and only its core, the small country Austria with Vienna as a sort of water head, remained.

Those who were most negatively affected by this desintegration, were the two million Jews living in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They had no national affiliation and felt at home in the multinational empire, where they thrived and were able to come to good positions in the army, in medicine, science and in music. But after 1918, in the small nation states, Antisemitism became virulent.

This rambling preamble brings me to my topic: the author Joseph Roth (1894-1939) and his novella The Legend of the Holy Drinker. Roth grew up as the son of a Jewish family in Brody, at the easternmost reaches of the Empire. He studied in Vienna and was devastated by the end of his country, which came when he was in his mid-twenties: "My strongest experience was the War and the destruction of my fatherland, the only one I ever had, the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary."

Roth started writing for newspapers and in 1922 moved to Berlin, to work for the "Neue Berliner Zeitung." He also started writing fiction. His greatest achievement is generally considered to be the novel Radetzky March (1932), which tells of the flourishing and fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire seen through the fate of one family.

After Hitler came to power, Roth fled from Germany to Paris, where he continued writing during the thirties  until his death (brought on by alcoholism) in 1939. He wrote about 20 novels and a number of short stories; his collected works consist of six volumes, of which half is journalism.

The Legend of the Holy Drinker ("Die Legende vom heiligen Trinker", 1939) was Roth's last work, published posthumously in Amsterdam. It is a secular miracle-tale, a self-ironic fable into which Roth transformed his personal tragedy. Set in Paris, it follows a drunken vagrant, Andreas, a Polish miner who had come to France to work in the mines, but has lost his job due to trouble. Now he tramps through Paris without any papers, living under the Seine bridges like a true clochard. Then he has a series of lucky breaks that let him briefly taste of another life. A stranger gives him 200 francs and asks him to repay these, if he can, to the shrine of St. Theresa. As an honorable man, Andreas indeed tries to do so, but he is continually sidetracked - he either spends the money on wine and Pernod, or on lovemaking and a hotel room. But each time he runs out of cash, more is provided by another miracle... And in the end, Andreas repays the debt with his life in a beautiful epiphany. Convinced in his befuddled state that a little girl called Therese he encounters in a bar is Saint Therese, he drops dead at her feet with just the right amount of money in his pocket.

Roth himself seems to have been the most prodigious dinker of his time, but there is nothing of the alcoholic about this story written in a beautiful inspired and elegant style. The story is dry-eyed and witty, rather than sentimental. It is also full of innocence, an improbable twinkle of sweet light in the gathering darkness of Fascism. The Legend of the Holy Drinker is generally considered Roth's best novella, second only to the novel The Radetzky March - about which another time.
My attention was drawn to Joseph Roth by an essay of J.M. Coetzee in Inner Workings. I read the novella in the German complete works which are hosted at Many of Roth's novels and stories have been expertly translated into English by Michael Hofmann and others and published by Granta (here is "The Legend of the Holy Drinker").
Best Novellas

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Best Stories by Jorge Luis Borges

In 1961, the Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) finally arrived on the radar screen of readers and critics when he received the first Prix Formentor, the (European) International Publishers Prize, at a time that he was already in his 60s - Borges' best work had appeared in the 1930s and 1940s. Now many translations of his short stories followed, in English (Ficciones and Labyrinths appeared in 1962) and other languages. Until that time, Borges had - except in his native country - only been known in France, where translations had appeared already in the 1950s, and Italy where Italo Calvino had enthusiastically written about his work.

 [Jorge Luis Borges - Photo from Wikipedia]

The rest is history - the mirrors, labyrinths, dreams and endless libraries of Borges now occupy an immensely important position in world literature.

In 1998 Viking/Penguin published Jorge Luis Borges' Collected Fictions, in a new translation by Andrew Hurley - until then, there had been several different translators, and although many were good enough, it is nice to have all Borges' stories in one and the same English voice, in what is evidently the most complete collection. Viking has also published companion volumes with anthologies of Borges' poetry and essays. The Collected Fictions is relatively complete, with only the strange omission of all works written in collaboration with others, such as The Book of Imaginary Beings (published separately by Penguin) and the many stories written together with Adolfo Bioy-Casares. Another editing decision I do not approve of is to translate only the prose from The Maker and leave the poetry out - although Borges clearly meant this as a unified work. And a third point of criticism concerns the notes, which are too scanty. One now has to keep Google open next to the book (luckily easier thanks to the recent proliferation of pads and pods). Why are publishers afraid of notes?

Borges stories were originally published in the following collections:
  • A Universal History of Infamy (Historia universal de la infamia, 1935)
    Mostly retellings of historical legends about famous impostors, including the Japanese Chushingura in "The Uncivil Teacher of Court Etiquette Kôtsuké no Suké." Original is the last story, "Man on Pink Corner" ("Hombre della Esquida Rosada"), a violent tale about gaucho machismo and a knife fight that brought Borges some notoriety.   
  • The Garden of Forking Paths (El Jardín de senderos que se bifurcan, 1941)
    The eight stories in The Garden of Forking Paths are all sublime, vintage Borges at his best. Borges explores the labyrinthine nature of reality and the impact of language on literature and philosophy. Several stories are concerned with imaginary books penned by fictional authors; reality and fiction have been seamlessly rolled into each other.
  • Artifices (Artificios, 1944) [together with the previous volume also brought out as Ficciones]
    Nine stories that continue in the same vein and on the same level as the previous collection.
  • The Aleph (El Aleph, 1949)
    The third great collection, although these 17 stories about the relationship between consciousness and reality and time and eternity are a bit more sprawling and less concentrated than those in the earlier collections. 
  • The Maker (El Hacedor, 1960).
    Aphorisms and sketches mingled with poetry. The complete book has been translated into English as Dreamtigers.
  • Brodie's Report (El informe de Brodie, 1970)
    11 new stories, written by Borges after he became world-famous - the popularity of his earlier stories must have formed an incentive to write another collection. Emphasis on gaucho's, like in the last story of A Universal History of Infamy, rather than imaginary books.
  • The Book of Sand  (El libro de arena, 1975)
    13 more stories. This time back to the theme of infinity.
  • Shakespeare's Memory (La Memoria de Shakespeare, 1983)
    Four final stories, published by Borges in a Spanish-language collection of short stories from the whole world which included tales by his favorite authors as Stevenson, Meyrink, Villiers de L'Isle-Adam, Bloy, Kafka, Poe, Wilde, Saki, Pu Songling, etc.
In all, Borges' fictional prose consists of about 100 stories, sketches and aphorisms. Many of Borges' works are hybrids - part story and part essay. Borges has been called "postmodern," in the sense that his stories are built on a huge range of other literature. Borges also employs fake sources, literature he himself has made up. His great examples were Poe, Kafka and, perhaps more surprisingly, Chesterton (Father Brown) - several of Borges' stories take the form of detective fiction (Borges is not very fond of Conan Doyle/Sherlock Holmes, who in his "puzzles" withholds crucial information from the reader).

Here are ten stories which I consider among the best (although this is very relative: all Borges stories are of the highest level, especially those in the Ficciones):
      • "The Library of Babel." ("La biblioteca de Babel", from The Garden of Forking Paths)
        In this story the universe consists of a labyrinthine library, built of interlocking hexagonal rooms, containing on infinite number of books, imprinted with every possible ordering of letters on a fixed number of pages. The majority of the books, of which the order is random, are pure gibberish, but in this infinite number of books the library must also contain, somewhere among its billion billion billion (etc.) books, every book written or possible to be written in the future. In other words, the library contains all useful information, but in such a random way that it is completely useless (there was no Google yet). Borges himself was a librarian - he served for many years as Director of the National Public Library of Buenos Aires. This story was the inspiration for Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose (1980), which features a labyrinthine library, presided over by a blind monk named "Jorge of Burgos."
      • “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” (from The Garden of Forking Paths)
        A spurious volume is found of a famous encyclopedia, containing an article about a mysterious country (Uqbar) which turns out to be part of an imaginary world (Tlön). As later becomes clear, behind this article is a conspiracy of intellectuals to imagine (and thereby create) a world known as Tlön, as an exaggerated form of Berkeleian idealism. In Tlön, the 18th c. philosophical idealism of George Berkeley is viewed as common sense and materialism is considered as heresy. Physical objects can be willed into existence by sheer force of imagination. The story later turns darker, as fascination with the idea of Tlön begins to distract people from paying adequate attention to the reality of earth. In this way, the story is also a protest against totalitarianism (which in the early 1940s when the story was written had the world in its grip).
      • “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote” ("Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote", from The Garden of Forking Paths)
        A story in the form of an essay, a mock literary review of Pierre Menard, a fictional 20th-century French writer. After listing up Menard's work, Borges talks about his magnum opus, a word for word recreation of the Don Quixote in the original language. Borges uses this set-up to pose the problem of the interpretation of literary works, for Menard's Don Quixote, written in the 20th c. and therefore of necessity seen through different critical glasses than the original by Cervantes from the early 17th c., is "more subtle and richer" than the original - although both are word for word the same! "Every time a book is read or re-read... something happens to the book."
      • “The Babylon Lottery” ("La Lotería en Babilonia", from The Garden of Forking Paths)
        A vision of a society ruled by a random, invisible, and godlike corporation. All activities are dictated by a huge lottery. But the lottery gradually changes in a sinister way, when punishments are introduced, and participation becomes mandatory for all but the elite. Secrecy also increases:  "The Company has never existed, and never will." Rather than an allegory for the role chance plays in life, this is a dark vision of a dictatorial society. 
      • “The Garden of Forking Paths” ("El Jardín de senderos que se bifurcan", from The Garden of Forking Paths) A unique spy story about the elaborate strategy employed by a Chinese scholar, operating as a spy in England during WWI, for sending a message to his contact person in Germany. In the short compass of under ten pages we find an intricate plot, featuring Borges' trademark labyrinth, riddles, cross-cultural confusions, duplicitous role playing and an alternative reality angle. Borges also describes the concept that a novel can be read in multiple ways - in other words, he "invents" the hypertext novel long before its time! (This idea was put into practice by the Argentine author Julio Cortázar, whose 1962 novel Hopscotch can be read via various paths). 
      • “Funes, the Memorius” ("Funes el memorioso, from Artifices)
        An accident leaves a teenage boy, Funes, paralyzed, but with such a strong memory that every incident in his life is preserved in his mind and he can forgot nothing. But because Funes can remember every physical object he ever saw, he has no need of generalization and therefore lacks that ability. This in fact means that he is worse off than ordinary people - his detailed memory serves no purpose. In order to think, as in science and philosophy, it is necessary to make generalizations and abstractions. "To think is to forget a difference, to generalize, to abstract. In the overly replete world of Funes, there were nothing but details."
      • “Death and the Compass” ("La muerte y la brújula", from Artifices)
        A private investigator attempts to solve a mysterious series of murders which seem to follow a kabbalistic pattern; the principal clue is the unspeakable four-letter name of God (near the scene of the first murder is found the text "The first letter of the Name has been written"). The scholarly efforts of the detective, however, lead only to his doom - known to the criminal via newspaper accounts, they are used to set a deadly trap. In the story Buenos Aires is presented as a labyrinth, and the end takes place in the southern, lawless part of the city, the final frontier.
      • “Emma Zunz” (From The Aleph)
        I have selected "Emma Zunz" as it is a rarity in Borges' work: the only story where a woman is the protagonist! It is a seemingly straightforward - but shocking - tale of how its eponymous heroine avenges the death of her father, by killing the industrialist who drove him to suicide. She commits the "perfect crime" as well... (But one that in our times of DNA testing would not be feasible anymore).
      • “Borges and I” ("Borges y Yo", from The Maker)A one page story about Borges, the "I" (the Self) and Borges the famous author (the public persona). Gradually the author is taking over the "I", although, as the "I" claims, they are not at all the same and have different preferences. "Little by little, I have been turning everything over to him, though I know the perverse way he has of distorting and magnifying everything."
      • "The Gospel According to Mark" ("El Evangelio según Marcos", from The report of Brodie
        A naive student is trapped by heavy rains in the house of a rural family in the deepest Argentinian countryside. To pass the time, he starts reading to the illiterate farm family from an old Bible. The family is captivated by the story of the crucifixion as told in the Gospel of Mark, and he has to read it again and again, not realizing that the ignorant peasants see him as the Savior and have already erected the cross...
      From the time I obtained a copy of Labyrinths when I was at University, Borges has been one of my favorite authors. 
      Website on Borges
      Trivia: In The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco one of the central characters is called Jorge of Burgos; the library in the novel is also based on Borgian notions, as in The Library of Babel. And in Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville, the detective outwits an evil computer with poetry based on Borges. 

      The Year of the Snake (Japanese Customs)

      In Western culture the snake is the great seducer: in the paradise story, it is the snake that entices Eva to take a bite from the forbidden apple, leading to the Fall. And in the Gilgamesh epos, it is a snake who steals immortality from Gilgamesh. But besides being a symbol of evil - and even Satan - , the snake is also a symbol of fertility and regeneration - because it can shed its skin. The Sumerian fertility god Ningizzida - who also became the god of healing - was depicted as a serpent with a human head. And as is well known, the Greek medicine god Aesculapius carried a serpent-entwined staff.

      In Asia, the snake was close to the divine dragon. In Indian mythology we have the Nagas, great dragon-like serpents, who possessed many magical powers and guarded great treasures. In Buddhism, Nagas were believed to be both water-dwellers, living in streams, and earth-dwellers, living in underground caverns. They also guarded Mt. Sumeru, the Axis Mundi. In the legend of the Buddha's life we encounter a naga called Mucalinda - when Sakyamuni sat meditating under the Bodhi tree, a heavy rain started and Mucalinda with his seven snake heads formed a sort of umbrella above the Buddha's head to protect him from the elements.

      [Pilgrimage to the Cave Shrine of Benzaiten by Hiroshige (c. 1850)]

      In Japan, the serpent is especially associated with the syncretic Benzaiten, the goddess of everything that flows: water, words, and music. She is the main deity of the shrines on islands as Enoshima and Chikubushima and is often represented with a snake coiled around the rock on which she is seated. In Japanese legend, the snake is also a symbol of a woman's jealousy: in the famous story about Kiyohime, the jealous woman transforms herself into a serpent and coils around the temple bell in which her fugitive lover has hidden, literally "frying" him with her passion.

      Perhaps because of the "Naga treasures," the snake is also associated with money and profit - on New year cards we often find it accompanied by gold coins.

       Japan knows many snakes (as anybody who has hiked in Japan's forests can attest to); they are an ingredient in traditional medicine. Dangerous is the mamushi, the pitviper, whose bite leads to several deaths each year (another venomous snake is the habu, found on Okinawa).

      The Year of the Snake is associated with the earthly branch symbol 巳 (mi), and this is how it is written on New Year's cards.