Crimes of August

fonseca_crimes

Crisis in Brazil, with politicians up to their necks in corruption and a popular modernizing president forced out amid intrigue, violence, and scandal… Rubem Fonseca’s thriller Crimes of August, though first published (as Agosto) in 1990, couldn’t perhaps be more timely.

But the year is 1954 and the president is Getúlio Vargas, the legendary populist leader and the country’s longest-serving non-royal head of state, in the third year of his second period in power, following elections in 1951. It was in his earlier presidencies that Vargas had done most to reshape Brazil: first installed (in a bloodless coup) in 1930, then establishing a new constitution in 1934 and holding on to power (against that constitution’s provisions) from 1937 to 1945, he had announced the formation of a “New State” (“Estado Novo”) that combined features of a Welfare State, nationalizing key industries and promoting social security and workers’ rights, with a style of government and centralization of power reminiscent of Italian fascism. Indeed, under Vargas in the late 1930s Brazil had flirted with the Axis powers of Italy and Nazi Germany, until ultimately, in part thanks to the influence of Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor” policy, entering World War Two on the Allied side, and sending a small expeditionary force to the Italian front in late 1944. So Vargas is a complex and ambiguous figure, claimed by Left and Right alike, who is most associated with Brazil’s transformation from a plantation-based economy to an emergent industrial power.

By 1954, however, Vargas’s reformist energies were running out of steam, to some extent a victim of their own success, and he himself was no longer the intimidating autocrat he had once been. Thus though Vargas is nominally at the center of Fonseca’s novel, in that it revolves around his final weeks and a crisis that ends only with the president’s suicide (a self-inflicted gunshot to this chest, in his pajamas, in his quarters in the presidential palace), from the outset of the narrative the president is effectively absent. Very early on in the book, we see his bodyguard, late at night, approach Vargas’s bedroom door and we are told that on the other side, “sitting on the bed, his shoulders bowed, [. . .] was the person he protected, an insomniac, pensive, fragile old man: Getúlio Vargas, president of the Republic” (2). Hearing nothing through the door, however, the bodyguard assumes that his boss is sleeping, and withdraws. Similarly, as the book continues, Vargas is barely visible and almost entirely mute throughout. It is as though he were already one of the “ghosts” that populate the “stupid succession of random events, [the] inept and incomprehensible confusion of falsity, fictitious inferences, [and] illusions” that (we are later told) constitute history (250).

Into this confusion, then, and in lieu of the president as protagonist, Fonseca inserts a fictional creation of his own: Alberto Mattos, police inspector and detective, whose traits include his love of opera and his constant drinking of milk and chewing of anti-acid tablets. Mattos has many cases on his plate (no wonder he has an ulcer!), embedded in an institutional morass at a police station whose cells are overflowing with both presumed and convicted criminals. But his focus here is on the (fictional) messy murder of an industrialist, which turns out to be intricately connected to the (real) killing of an Air Force officer as part of the (again, real) botched assassination of a journalist who is one of Vargas’s most forthright critics. At one point, for instance, Mattos suspects Vargas’s bodyguard of bumping off the industrialist when in fact (spoiler alert!) he is responsible for the attack on the journalist. But there are more enough murderers to go around. At the end of the book (again, spoiler alert!) Mattos has two assassins on his own trail: one gets to him first, but the other is hot on his heels and also takes the credit (and the payment) for doing the job. More generally, just about everyone is complicit in something in some way: politicians, cops, gangsters, businessmen, military officers (and their many women–wives, lovers, prostitutes, madams) are all tightly bound to each other in a densely intimate network of corruption and connection.

Mattos’s most fictional attribute is surely the fact that he is the prototypical “straight cop” who refuses to take payment or bribes while all around him are on the make. But he can never fully maintain his distance when his ex-girlfriend is now married to one of the prime conspirators (who is having an affair with the industrialist’s now-widow), while his current on-again off-again fling is also involved with the middleman for a Japanese syndicate’s political bribery. Mattos is forever trying to do the right thing, declaring that his sole allegiance is to the truth, but it turns out that he gets even one of his simpler cases wrong, inadvertently causing the death of an innocent old man. In response to complaints from the dead man’s son, who had allowed his father to take the blame for the crime, the detective declares that “Things are never the way they are, that’s life” (252). His last act as a policemen is to set all the prisoners (convicted or not) free from their overcrowded cells, as though to abandon any attempt to determine the distinction between guilt and innocence.

When “things are never the way they are,” it would seem that there are few certainties. Except that “Brazil goes on,” says the president himself, in what is quoted as a speech that may or may not be fictional. The lines between history and fiction are inevitably blurred when history is represented as a jumble of falsity, fiction, and illusion that’s incomprehensible even to the most level-headed of investigators. But some things do stay the same, even as everything (also) shifts and blurs: “Don’t think you can change,” another character is quoted as saying, as he invokes the French maxim: “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (246). So the novel as a whole suggests that Vargas’s “New State” perhaps didn’t fundamentally transform the country; it was unequal and corrupt before, and it remains so still. Moreover, Fonseca’s recourse to this history of political crisis seventy years ago is no doubt designed to indicate that we continue to be somehow stuck with the same issues that confounded both the real Vargas and the fictional Mattos. Hence the novel’s potential contemporary relevance, even though many–such as, here, Mattos’s ex-girlfriend who burns her diary because she would prefer to forget (259)–might not want to make the connections.

But if the ghost of Vargas haunts this book, it also ambiguously and ambivalently haunts the present: he represents the promise of change, even if that promise has consistently been betrayed, and even if it may be the threat of something worse.

La mariposa mundial

mariposa_mundial

Presented at the Research Seminar in French, Hispanic, and Italian Studies
University of British Columbia
September 26, 2018

“Time-Travelling, Globe-Trotting: La mariposa mundial 23/24 (2016-2017)”

The latest issue of the Bolivian literary journal La mariposa mundial is dedicated to the theme “journal of journals.” Or rather, this issue is designed, at least in part, to be a journal of journals. As a double issue (bearing the numbers 23/24) it is already multiple, but that multiplicity is exponentially increased within its covers: it also, for instance, comes with a detachable supplement that is a facsimile edition of the six-page second number of the avant-garde journal Dum Dum, first published in Oruro in September 1935. Beyond that, it comprises extracts and images from (and of) a whole series of other Bolivian literary journals and little magazines, as well as archival material relating to those journals plus critical surveys, interviews, and reflections on decades of the country’s journal and magazine production.

La mariposa mundial reprints dozens of items (as well as facsimile pages, cover images, photographs, and related ephemera) from publications that originated in a swathe of Bolivian cities and from a period covering fifty or more years, starting in the 1910s: a poem from the first issue of La Tea (Puno, 1917); a profile from Argos (Oruro, 1923); the tables of contents (and reproductions of the covers) of the first three numbers of Inti (La Paz, 1925-26); the splendid cover of the second issue of Tempestad (Puno, 1930); a set of reflections on poetry from Sísifo (produced by Bolivians in Cordoba, 1959); an open letter published in the third number of Nova (La Paz, 1962); a copy (and transcription) of the manuscript original of an interview that would appear in Dador (La Paz, 1979); and much more. This is a treasure trove of fragments and extracts from half a century or more of literary creation and exploration that turns both inwards, in its attempts to outline and define a specifically Bolivian literary tradition, and outwards in its insatiable curiosity and desire for cosmopolitanism. The authors featured are, on the whole, experimental and avant-garde writers little-known today, even in Bolivia: Hilda Mundy, Gamaliel Churata, Jesús Urzagasti, and others. Here, La mariposa mundial (“the globe-trotting butterfly”) earns its name as it flits across space and time and shows how other journals were already likewise ranging far and wide, drawn to whatever is colorful, odd, challenging, and thought-provoking.

Justifying such sustained interest in what are often fleeting, transitory blooms (the Dum Dum supplement comes with a note observing that other numbers of that journal are missing, hopefully awaiting rediscovery in some forgotten archive), Omar Rocha argues in the essay that opens the issue that “literary journals [. . .] reflect the spirit of the age” (7). He continues: “Newspapers and journals register not only everyday events, but also forms of thought at a particular moment; they are shot through with the expectations and values, beliefs and priorities that are shared by people who belong or belonged to a specific place and time” (9). Perhaps all the more so because of their ephemerality and precariousness, a journal might (like a butterfly) be an especially sensitive register of regional, national, or even international moods, fears, anxieties, hopes, and dreams. Particularly compared to canonical works or officially-sanctioned monuments (in Rocha’s words, “the celebration of heroes and construction of statues that are polished from time to time” [17]), a literary journal from the periphery might also be all the more democratic and inclusive, offering other ways of seeing, decentered and aslant.

Yet there is a paradox here. We are told that the value of reprinting (and reading) these fragments is that they offer snapshots of forgotten presents, that they allow us to immerse ourselves, however briefly, in forms of thought and structures of feeling different from our own. But what then of (this issue of) La mariposa mundial itself? Given its devotion to the archive, what if anything does it tell us about the present, about the spirit of our own age? Is a “journal of journals,” especially one that displays such research and erudition, an exception to the general rule that a journal should be prized for its immediacy, for its fleet-footed (light-winged) capacity to record and reveal the passing perspective of a cultural moment?

For in many ways La mariposa mundial is less of its time than untimely, almost anachronistic. Not least in its format and presentation: Rocha gestures towards the contemporary emergence of “virtual journals and ‘lampoons’” (17), but he is writing in a journal that is almost defiantly un-virtual. This is a handsome printed edition, complete with its detachable supplement but also with folded, relatively heavy-duty covers and, most impressively of all, a fine fold-out color map (of “Ultima Sude,” a mythological reimagining of what we might call “Greater Bolivia”). The design and illustration are throughout both top-notch and notably old-fashioned in their attention to detail and desire to fill the page: from decorative borders, embellishments, and arabesques to flourishes and a wide variety of fonts and typographical styles. Every page manifests meticulous attention to the text’s framing and embodiment in this particular, printed medium, right down to the swirl underneath each page number. Not that the journal’s obsession with the materiality and even tactility of the communicative medium is confined to print technology: it also lovingly reproduces typescript poetry (complete with liquid paper corrections), a facsimile letter whose rips, folds, and creases are if anything highlighted in the reproduction, and handwritten notebook pages and notes. La mariposa mundial has a website, but it is no surprise to find that its content is currently unavailable, pending a site redesign.

Is this concern with the archive and the object a reflection of our age, or does it instead go against the grain? In some ways this is a false dichotomy: everything (whether journal or statue, crafted for the few or churned out for the many) bears the mark of the historical moment at which it is produced. And this is true even, perhaps especially, of those objects (texts or images, ideas or impulses) that purport to go “against the grain.” They need, after all, the grain to go against. In other words: the very fact that the editors and contributors of La mariposa mundial seek to ransack the archive is surely a sign that they believe it speaks somehow critically to us today.

For the point is not simply that the journals extracted and collected here offer us windows into Bolivia of the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s–an alternative Bolivia or Bolivias, outside or excluded from official portrayals–but that they, too, are in some sense untimely, out of their time. The wager of La mariposa mundial is that just as (this collection demonstrates) such journals look outwards, in constant dialogue not only with the national capital, La Paz, and the weary task of constructing or consolidating a national tradition, but also with influences, ideas, and collaborators across Latin America and the globe, so too they also look forwards. Time-travelling as well as globe-trotting. As self-conscious members of the avant-garde, their contributors hoped to be addressing their contemporaries from the future. It may be that, liberated from the archive, they speak, not only from our past about their present, but to our present about what might still be to come.

Fricciones

saldias_fricciones

“Then, it began” (100). This is the last line of Gabriel Saldías’s book Fricciones (Frictions) and it hardly sounds like the way to end a collection of short stories, until you realize that what is probably beginning here is, in fact, the end of the world. The story that concludes with this line is titled “Tomorrow We Talk” (“Mañana hablamos”). But it is likely there will be no tomorrow. For some reason, never fully made clear, a catastrophe is coming, some kind of sudden if predictable ecological collapse. Not that this leads to great public lamentation or panic. Sadness prevails, but all emotions have to be reined in. The story’s narrator is a young boy, and at dinner the evening before his father simply insists that he and his brother eat their dinner and be grateful for the life they have lived. “Yes, father,” the narrator replies. “I’m grateful.” Then “nobody said anything more” (97). His mother hands out sleeping pills. They head off to bed.

Such is the tenor of many of these stories. Repeatedly, the world is coming to an end, if not literally then figuratively. And those who do survive tend to regret it. In “Latin American Champion” (“Champion latinoamericano”), for instance, it seems that Russian Roulette has become a spectator sport, as people wager on what is effectively a shorter and more brutal version of the Hunger Games in some apocalyptic near future. But incredibly a champion emerges, an emotionless and otherwise nondescript ex-boxer who somehow manages time and time again to avoid oblivion while other competitors blow their brains out in front of him. He would appear to be the very figure of good fortune in the face of overwhelming risk and imminent danger, but his luck runs out not thanks to the game but when he is devoured by the incredulous crowd who leave him “as dead as it is possible for a human being to die” (19).

In interview, Saldías has said that he sees himself and his writing as “pessimistically hopeful.” To be honest, however, the glimpses of hope that his stories provide are marginal at best. In “Tomorrow We Talk,” for instance, it is true that the narrator opens up his heart on the eve of destruction, declaring his love for a classmate who goes by the name of Susie Q. Will she be his girlfriend? If not, “I think I will die.” Susie doesn’t respond to this anomalous display of emotion, though nor does she reject the boy’s entreaty outright: she agrees merely to get back to him the following day; hence the story’s title. And the last we hear is the phone ringing in the middle of the night, the narrator dashing to pick it up and shout down the line: “Hello? Hello? Susie Q?” At which point the story ends, maybe with the slight hope that the line “Then, it began” might refer then not to the end of the world but to the start of their relationship. But it somehow seems unlikely.

Likewise, another story, “Residence on Earth” (“Residencia en la tierra,” the title a nod to Pablo Neruda) is for the most part a litany of misery and dispossession. It details how the inhabitants of a nameless country, presumably Chile, have been displaced by the market, forced out of their houses by gringos backed up by state power, who destroy their homes so as to build malls, hotels, bars, cinemas, and son. Here, the protagonist’s mother writes a letter announcing that she is joining the resistance, if indeed such a thing exists, somewhere in the South. And the protagonist himself is set on enacting his own form of vengeance, as the story ends with him setting up a sniper’s rifle to assassinate one of the figureheads of the regime. But this is surely a futile act, we are left thinking, made possible only by the protagonist sacrificing his very humanity, to become the “Hard Man,” ruthless and efficient as any capitalist entrepreneur.

These are hard stories, too, in more than one sense. Often cryptic, brief and allusive, chiseled down to bare essentials, they offer little in the way of consolation for a vision that is relentlessly downbeat and dystopian. Even irony and humor, where they appear (as in “Pretty as a Sun” [“Lindo como un sol”], the tale of a Chilean returning to his country), are not enough to save us. Despair and quiet rage are the prevailing emotions. I am reminded of Franz Kafka’s famous line that “There is an infinite amount of hope in the universe… but not for us.” Except that here there is not much hope for others, either. Perhaps then we can take these stories as a series of cautionary tales, a warning of what life would look like if we abandoned hope entirely. But even that may be an overly optimistic reading of the dark but powerful imagination evidenced in this harrowing but enthralling collection.

Una comunidad abstracta and Te Faruru

Te Faruru

In the past year or two, the young Ecuadorian writer who goes by the name of Salvador Izquierdo has published two works of what I hesitate to call fiction: Una comunidad abstracta (2015) and Te Faruru (2016). Each is intriguing and frustrating in equal measure, though the frustration itself is part of Izquierdo’s strategy. Indeed, the more frustrating of the two–the later, longer Te Fararu–is also the more interesting precisely because it outright refuses any simple resolution.

The manifest content of the two books is similar. They consist of a lengthy series of often very short paragraphs detailing facts or offering hypotheses about literary and artistic figures, texts and performances, essentially from modernism to the present. Often the form these paragraphs take is short quotations by or about the figures under discussion. So we have brief (sometimes absolutely telegraphic) musings from or about everyone from Paul Gauguin or Hart Crane to Henry Miller, Elisabeth Bishop, Juan Carlos Onetti, Jean-Luc Goddard, and Susan Sontag, along with a host of other, more obscure denizens or hangers on from the international artistic demi-monde.

The links established among the multitude of characters that thus populate each book are often at first sight tangential, almost random associations. Artists who feature (or don’t) in a book entitled Fifty Twentieth-Century Artists You Should Know (Picasso, twice, but not Ana Mendieta or Robert Crumb). Authors who changed their names (Comte de Lautréamont, George Orwell, Pablo Neruda). Writers or actors who went bald (Philip Larkin, Alfonso Reyes, Ed Harris). Men named Robert (Rauschenberg, Capa, Graves). People who came from, visited, or may have visited, Vancouver (Bill Reid, Malcolm Lowry, Kurt Vonnegut). People from or with some connection to Uruguay, however minimal (Josephine Baker, Joaquín Torres García, Martin Amis). The narrator of Una comunidad abstracta tells us that “it’s not me who’s making these connections” (58). But collectively they begin to establish patterns that respond to the particular preoccupations of this shadowy compiler of apparent trivia: people who had a child at the age of 24 (Robert Hughes, David Bowie, Bob Dylan); “I mention it,” the narrator tells us, “because, whatever else separates us, I too had a child when I was 24” (49).

“What have I said about myself?” asks the narrator of Una comunidad abstracta (86). The answer is both “not much” and “a fair bit.” This is someone concerned with the process of translation, in all its meanings, and in establishing facts while worrying as much about their accuracy as about their relevance: “Errors in books or errors within myself?” he asks about the possibility of mistakes (86). But to “err” is also to deviate, to roam, to travel (and so also to translate). These are definitely “errant” books, which roam widely with no obvious destination or purpose.

Ultimately, Una comunidad abstracta ends up being something of (quite literally) a shaggy dog tale. It seems to revolve around a lost dog, called Fito: “I write these little paragraphs [. . .] for Fito.” But this is both too neat and too unsatisfactory a key to the endless perambulations, meanderings, and circumlocutions that characterize the book. Indeed, surely it’s at best an alibi, or a metaphor for everything else that also escapes such attempts to put an end to the chain of connections and apparent coincidences. Te Faruru hints more directly at what else may lay beyond or beneath the imperfect search for order, for putting everything in its place.

In this more recent book, the narrator (although really nothing is ever narrated) may or may not be the same as in the previous one. But he shares many of the same obsessions. And he shares a little more, too, above all in a series of long footnotes that take up more space on the page as the book progresses. It is in one of these notes, for instance, that he tells us of a grandmother who once gave him a book by Eduardo Galeano, dedicating it to a “great reader” (113)–a compliment, however, that the narrator wishes quickly to disown. And another footnote tells us of a former literature teacher who also gave him a book, this time the collected works of Cavafy, inscribed to an “exceptional person” (126)–but he has to admit that he has lost touch with the teacher, and hasn’t returned to any of the authors he read with her.

In these footnotes, then, Te Faruru‘s reluctant narrator struggles with the slogan “Don’t Look Back” that otherwise reverberates through the main text, in all its various versions from Lot’s Wife to Orpheus to Bob Dylan and Pennebacker’s documentary. After all, the footnotes themselves interrupt the onward flow of the connections and interconnections that comprise the text, each point linked to the other by little more than free association with no attempt to dwell on any moment in particular: “Now I think of it” is otherwise the book’s refrain, like an exercise in ADHD. But in the footnotes lurks the shadow of something that the narrator can’t think about and can’t help thinking at one at the same time. Something that demands a narrator, however much our guide denies that this is what he is: “To relate what I don’t want to relate I’d have to begin much further back, I’d have to put together a story [or history–historia], I’d have to look back, and I don’t feel up to it” (131). Or later: “Again, I’d have to relate certain things that are neither here nor there [que no vienen al caso aquí]. It would be better to come up with a narrative, but I’m no narrator” (141).

But it may just be that the footnotes are pointing out something that’s present also in the main text. For all the injunctions to keep looking ahead, in fact it, too, is full of repetitions and returns. Its last line, after all, declares that “here, where there is nothing but repetition, the same thing happens” (157). And not only does its apparently random flow of consciousness incessantly revisit the same preoccupations, but the themes to which it returns often themselves deal with going back: Odysseus’s voyage home to Ithaca; and perhaps above all, Torres García’s return to Uruguay after 43 years away. For the narrator’s secret may well, it seems, have something to do with “what happened in Montevideo. To relate that episode in narrative form would shrink what I am holding on to in my memory, which wants to stay there, undisturbed [quieto]” (151). We can doubt, however, that this memory is really so quiet, so undisturbing. For it seems to be what sets in train the entire sequence of fragments that constitutes the book.

The book’s title, “Te Faruru,” is taken from a series of woodcuts made by Gauguin in the South Pacific. It means, we are told, “Here we make love” in the Maori language (81). But Izquierdo’s text is much more restless and unsettled than this title at first sight implies. The book seems to be telling us something, but we don’t know what–and perhaps neither does its author, let alone its (anti-)narrator. Or maybe all that matters is the movement itself, and by willfully frustrating us the text is warning against the childlike impulse to “connect the dots to come up with a figure that at the outset seems hidden” (23). Any story, any narrative, would ultimately be a trap, as arbitrary and at best merely fortuitous as any of the other relations and relatings that constitute these two books. So if we are to make (or find) love, it must be in the context of this uncertainty of the “neither here nor there,” of a concatenation of circumstances and encounters, errors and deviations, in which we happen to find (or lose) ourselves.

Life During Wartime

RACAL

“Life During Wartime: Infrapolitics and Posthegemony”
(with a coda of eleven theses on infrapolitics)

Presented at the III Seminario Crítico-Político Transnacional
“Pensamiento y terror social: El archivo hispano”
Cuenca, Spain
July, 2016

Why stay in college? Why go to night school?
Gonna be different this time.
Can’t write a letter, can’t send a postcard.
I can’t write nothing at all.
–The Talking Heads

In what is no doubt the most famous theorist of war’s most famous claim, Carl Von Clausewitz tells us that “war has its root in a political object.” He goes on: “War is a mere continuation of politics by other means. [. . .] War is not merely a political act, but a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means” (119). There is, then, for Clausewitz an essential continuity between war and politics; they share the same rationality and ends. And this notion has in turn led many to think of politics, reciprocally, as a form of warfare. The German theorist Carl Schmitt, for instance, defines politics in suitably martial terms as a clash between “friend” and “enemy”: “The specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy” (The Concept of the Political 26). Moreover, this invocation of the term “enemy” is scarcely metaphorical. Schmitt argues that “an enemy exists only when, at least potentially, one fighting collectivity of people confronts a similar collectivity” (28), and he further qualifies the particular type of enmity involved in political disagreement in terms of classical theories of warfare: the political enemy is a “public enemy,” that is a hostis, as opposed to a “private enemy.” He quotes a Latin lexicon to make his point: “A public enemy (hostis) is one with whom we are at war publicly. [. . .] A private enemy is a person who hates us, whereas a public enemy is a person who fights against us” (29).

Likewise, the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci also calls upon the language of warfare to describe political activity, which he classifies in terms of the “war of manoeuvre” by which a political party bids for influence among the institutions of so-called civil society, and the “war of movement” when it is in a position to seek power directly from the state. Indeed, the notion of an essential continuity between armed violence and civil dispute informs Gramsci’s fundamental conception of “hegemony,” which characterizes politics in terms of a combination of coercion and consent, the attempt to win or secure power alternately by means of force or persuasion. War is politics, politics is war: the basic goals and rationale are the same, we are told. It is just the means that are different.

Keep reading… (PDF document)

eleven theses on infrapolitics

  1. Infrapolitics is not against politics. It is not apolitical, still less antipolitical.
  2. There is no politics without infrapolitics.
  3. It is only by considering infrapolitics that we can better demarcate the terrain of the political per se, understand it, and take it seriously.
  4. The interface between the infrapolitical and the political cannot be conceived simply in terms of capture.
  5. Only a fully developed theory of posthegemony can account properly for the relationship between infrapolitics and politics.
  6. Infrapolitics corresponds to the virtual, and so to habitus and unqualified affect.
  7. The constitution (and dissolution) of the political always involves civil war.
  8. Biopolitics is the name for the colonization of the infrapolitical realm by political forces, and so the generalization of civil war.
  9. But neither politics nor biopolitics have any predetermined valence; biopolitics might also be imagined to be the colonization of the political by the infrapolitical.
  10. None of these terms–politics, infrapolitics, biopolitics, posthegemony–can have any normative dimension.
  11. Hitherto, philosophers have only sought to change the world in various ways. The point, however, is to interpret it.

For Whom the Bell Tolls II

Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls

Time and timing are of the essence in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. The mission at the heart of the book, for which the young American Robert Jordan is to sabotage a bridge in concert with a Republican offensive, is time critical: “To blow the bridge at a stated hour based on the time set for the attack is how it should be done,” he is told by the man in charge, General Golz. “You must be ready for that time” (5). But then, ultimately, when it becomes clear that they have lost the advantage of surprise and Jordan tries to have the attack called off, his messenger cannot get through in time: “C’est dommage. Oui. It’s a shame it came too late” Golz reflects (428). His divisions are already on the move, and there is no stopping them now. Still, “maybe this time [. . .] maybe we will get a break-through, maybe he will get the reserves he asked for, maybe this is it, maybe this is the time” (430).

We never know what comes of the offensive, and whether indeed “this is the time,” though we must presume it isn’t: the book was published in 1940, and so in the aftermath of the eventual failure to save Madrid, and indeed Spain as a whole, from Franco’s forces. A sense of doom hangs over the entire enterprise: “I do not say I like it very much” responds Jordan to Golz even when he receives his orders (6). And “It is starting badly enough [. . .]. I don’t like it. I don’t like any of it” he muses once he is on the scene with the bridge (16). Little by little, step by step, things go from bad to worse: the sky is full of Fascist planes; the leader of the local guerrilla gang is unpredictable and broken; unexpected snow reveals the tracks of an allied group, who are unceremoniously slaughtered; Jordan has to deal with incompetence and betrayal. By the time they finally blow the bridge they know that it is effectively a suicide mission, and what’s worse for a larger cause that is itself destined to fail. Yet still they go on with it. The book ends with Jordan, his leg broken and so unable to flee, on the verge of unconsciousness, waiting for his last fight as the enemy come up the road: “Let them come. Let them come! [. . .] I can’t wait any longer now [. . .]. If I wait any longer I’ll pass out” (470). But again, we are not told precisely what happens next. Instead, the novel’s final line (“He could feel his heart beating against the pine needle floor of the forest” [471]) returns us to how it all started: “He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest” (1). The entire book is a circle, refusing to look ahead as though to stave off the certain tragedy of what is to come, and refusing equally to look back, for the little we glimpse of the past is likewise marked by violence and shame.

Instead, the novel carves out an oasis of time: four days, or rather “not quite three days and three nights” (466), in which almost the entirety of the novel is set, between the moment at which Jordan meets the partisans and the point at which they have to leave him there by the bridge, with hardly the chance for goodbyes: “There is no time” (462). It is not as though this brief stretch is unaffected by what has gone before and what is to come: it is clear, for instance, that some unresolved Oedipal drama has brought Jordan here, while the other characters have traumas of their own that they are unable to escape; and however much they stoically (or heroically?) try to deny their intuition of a bitter finale, they are unable to dispel these presentiments altogether. But Hemingway’s point, I think, is that within these three or four days they are able to live an entire lifetime. There is something almost Borgesian about this, like the short story “El milagro secreto,” in which a man in front of the firing squad lives out what for him is an entire year between the order to fire and the bullets piercing his chest. Robert Jordan lives out his own “secret miracle” in the company of Maria, the ragged-haired young woman that the guerrillas had rescued from a previous operation.

On their last night together (Jordan’s last night tout court), “Robert Jordan lay with the girl and he watched time passing on his wrist.” But this steady temporal progression is, he feels, somehow under his subjective control: “as he watched the minute hand he found he could almost check its motion with his concentration” (378). A little later, “as the hand on the watch moved, unseen now”–and so perhaps unchecked, but also unminded–comes an extraordinary passage in which Hemingway (or Jordan) tries to delimit something like a pure present of absolute intensity:

They knew [. . .] that this was all and always; this was what had been and now and whatever was to come. This, that they were not to have, they were having. They were having now and before and always and now and now and now. Oh, now, now, now, the only now, and above all now, and there is no other now but thou now and now is thy prophet. Now and forever now. Come now, now, for there is no now but now. Yes, now. Now, please now, only now, not anything else only this now. (379)

Of course, the watch hand cannot be detained indefinitely: its motion can at best be “almost check[ed].” And language–or writing–inevitably unfolds linearly. The sentence, the paragraph, the book must all grind inexorably to their ends. But in the meantime, perhaps, this is the time; this is their time, our time. Hemingway’s wager, in For Whom the Bell Tolls, is to rescue and resuscitate a moment of exceptional intensity and vivacity, even within the earshot and in full knowledge of the bells that toll relentlessly for a death that (as in the epigraph taken from John Donne) diminishes us all.

See also: For Whom the Bell Tolls I; Spanish Civil War novels.

Luna de lobos

Llamazares, Luna de lobos

Julio Llamazares’s Luna de lobos reads a little like a story of one of the so-called Japanese “holdouts,” soldiers who continued to fight the Second World War long after the official end of hostilities. In this case, though, the post-Civil War stragglers keep fighting not because they are unaware that the war is over, but because they know that in fact it isn’t.

At first, there are four of them: the narrator, Angel; Ramiro, who quickly establishes himself as the group’s leader, and his brother, Juan; and Gildo. They have been fighting on the Republican side in Asturias, in Spain’s Northwest. When the front collapses in the Autumn of 1937, they find themselves too far from the zones of continued Republican control (either around Madrid and further South or in Catalonia to the East) and a long way from the French border. So their only option is to take to the hills, near their home villages, hoping for some kind of support from their family and friends, without ever being able to go back home so long as the fascist civil guards remain in their pursuit.

Their tale is recounted in four parts, each a snapshot of a distinct year as the war comes to its conclusion and then the post-war reprisals continue: 1937, 1939, 1943, 1946. They are armed with machine gun and pistols, and make some small incursions on the hamlets in the valley, but these are mostly defensive or to secure food and shelter. Even before the war as a whole is over (and despite a vague plan proposed by one of their contacts), it is abundantly clear that they are fighting not for the Republic but for their own survival. And as time goes by, one by one they lose this war, too. Juan is the first to be killed, as he disappears on a quest to see his mother and bring back food and blankets. Then Gildo, betrayed and ambushed as they desperately try to rustle up money to bribe a local stationmaster to get them on a train to freedom. Then Ramiro. Until finally there is only one.

As this small remnant of the Republican army gradually diminishes still further, it becomes increasingly spectral, less and less human. Almost from the start, they are compared to animals, particularly the wolves of the novel’s title. They may still be alive, but theirs is a “bare life” indeed. They become ever more cut off from the community, as those who initially help them out (a shepherd who provides them with a sheep, a doctor who attends to a wound, for instance) become increasingly reluctant, either for fear of reprisals or in hope that they will simply go away. Towards the end, Angel imagines that in his years haunting the villagers he has become a “legend,” renowned as a man “indomitable and invisible [. . .] observing them from somewhere [. . .] immortal as his shadow, distant as the wind, astute, intelligent, invincible” (136). But when finally even his sister rejects him, having allowed him to rest in what is almost literally a subterranean grave under the farmyard, he realizes that he is at best an unquiet ghost, and that those who are still fully in the land of the living would rather he disappear once and for all.

Ramiro, before he dies and while he still has revenge of his own to enact, tells the local priest that the holdouts are “like God: we see everything from up there” in their hidden cave high on the hillside (93). And the narrator, the last of the group, is an angel by name and perhaps also by nature when he tells us he has “descended” at last, to visit his father’s grave (137). But he is also aware he has become “a pest for real,” “a pest whose proximity spooks both humans and animals” (125). He stands in no doubt for a memory that has to be erased for his loved ones to lead anything like a normal life. In the end, indeed, you can’t help feeling sympathy for them. His soul, he tells us, is “white” but also “rotten” (145). He is the living dead, a zombie as much as a revenant. When his sister tells him that “this land has no forgiveness. This land is cursed for you” (151), she is speaking out of simple realism.

But then there is the performative contradiction of the novel itself. It seems to be arguing for forgetfulness, in favour of the wholesale oblivion to which the Republican cause was consigned at the end of the war. It makes little effort to ingratiate either the so-called wolves or the lost cause as a whole with us: we are told, for instance, that Angel was once a teacher, but have little sense of his past life and still less idea as to why he took up arms for the Republic. The case it seems to be making is the same one made by the villagers, that these men are better off dead, that the past should remain firmly past. And yet it does so precisely by resurrecting these restless ghosts, by returning to their still-fresh graves. For something to be forgotten it first has to be remembered, and Luna de lobos is as much about remembering the collective edict to forget as it is about repeating it.