Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Leave No Trace

In writing reportage about the Polish People's Republic, Cezary Łazarewicz has written a universal book about the pathology of power. That this is a universal story, we can experience today as we watch the news about a boy killed a year ago at a police station.

Abuse of power, the officers' brutality, a conspiracy of silence, the attempt to sweep cases under the rug, and the punishment that never was–Leave No Trace, which describes the case of Grzegorz Przemyk, is about all of this. The same elements of pathology show up in the context of Igor Stachowiak's death at the police station. He was a twenty-five-year-old who in 2016 was arrested in Wroclaw's Market Square because he matched the description of a criminal who had escaped the police earlier. Though Przemyk's and Stachowiak's cases happened in different times and in different places, even in different dimensions, the mechanisms controlling them are the same.

In his excellent reportage Łazarewicz has focused on a thorough analysis of these mechanisms. The account of Przemyk's death and of what happened afterwards was a manifestation of the pathology of the PPR's power. Lazarewicz, to show these pathologies, concentrated on a thorough description of the events.

Leave No Trace is the result of meticulous investigative journalism that lays bare the subsequent phases of the so-the Grzegorz Przemyk case. Almost like in positivistic novels, the book begins with a detailed  description of the day Przemyk was beaten. The strong beginning is only a prelude to a double story, provoking anger and frustration in the reader.

Why double? Łazarewicz divides the book into two main themes that go back and forth but which are two distinctly separate stories. The first is the story of Przemyk's mother, Barbara Sadowska, a poet, anti-communist activist, and a victim of the communist system. The second thread clearly tells how the system first tidied up and later tried to cover up the high school student's death. And it was precisely this storyline that was so exceptionally and thoroughly examined and described by Łazarewicz.

What was most interesting was that Łazarewicz managed to discern in the sick system the human factor and it's huge impact (it really is an art when one's work relies primarily on documents), that the decisions made were hugely influenced by fear, shame, and the pettiness of the people who made those decisions during the various phases of the Przemyk case as it developed.

Read today in the context of Igor Stachowiak, Leave No Trace is not a hopeful read because it shows that it's not the system or form of government that's the greatest threat to society. Worse: it's the people.

[My translation from Polish of Rafał Hetman's review of Leave No Trace, which was awarded the Nike 2017 Literary Award.]

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Tres libros

I recently read three short books, all fiction about Mexico: the novel Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera (trans. Lisa Dillman), the collection of short stories Barefoot Dogs by Antonio Ruiz-Camacho, and the play so go the ghosts of méxico, part one by Matthew Paul Olmos. Olmos is an American Latino, Ruiz-Camacho is Mexican but now lives in the US and writes in English, while Herrera is Mexican, now lives in the US, but continues to write in Spanish. All three books deal with the themes of family, machismo, violence, and loss within the shady underworld of border crossings and drug cartels. In each, what is lost (or never had) weighs upon the protagonists, compelling them northward and beyond.

I became interested in Olmos' work because I had bought a season subscription to Undermain Theatre. Last month Undermain produced the world premier of part two, so I read part one before attending. Part one tells the story of the bravest woman in Mexico who becomes sheriff after a drug cartel murders the last sheriff. She is haunted by several ghosts of Mexico, including her decapitated predecessor as well as the daughter she will never have now that she's become a sheriff herself. Olmos' stage directions read like poetry, and the words his characters deliver are built on a bedrock of melody and rhythm that at times surpasses mere content. Music shifts between ambient sound design and catalyst, at times, even character. I eagerly await Undermain's production of part three next season; it promises to be just as important, necessary, and accessible.

Barefoot Dogs came to my attention when the Texas Institute of Letters awarded it the prize for Best Work of Fiction. A collection of related stories that revolve around the extended family of a Mexican patriarch who goes missing, the characters suffer their loss in personal grievings that continue to connect them together as a family despite the geographic and emotional distances between them. The writing is elegant while remaining excruciatingly raw. Familial and erotic love trip along the tightrope stretched over a chasm of apathy that threatens to swallow the characters whole should they make one wrong move. The stand-out story in my opinion is "Better Latitude," about the patriarch's mistress and their son: twenty-one pages with twice as many emotional gut punches.

Herrera's novel continues to haunt me days after finishing it. So simple a story: a woman is sent in search of her brother who had gone north and had gone missing. But its simplicity is a cover for the book's mythic proportions. And I'm still not sure where exactly in the text the transubstantiation takes place, if it ever really did. Maybe it is really just a simple story after all. But ohmygod this story is everything. Lisa Dillman has done the Lord's work by translating it. Her short Note (the entire book is only 114 pages) is eye-opening. I envy her the levels at which she's read the original and the hours of thought gone into each translated passage. I want another translation, though: this work needs to be adapted for the stage, serve as the basis of a film or of an opera. Makina needs to become one of the great archetypes of literature: the perfect blend of saint, prophet, messenger, bad ass, party girl, switchboard operator.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Cuban Fantasia

My most recent fantasy: live part-time in Havana and start an English-language walking tour, modeled after Brendan's Isherwood's Neighborhood tour in Berlin, retracing the sites and scenes of Reinaldo Arenas' last years in Cuba.

On the right you'll see the site where Reinaldo heckled world-famous novelist and sellout Alejo Carpentier during a public lecture. Around the corner--where the Santa Clara Cathedral stood until Reinaldo and his friends, in an act of charity for the artist and prostitute who lived next door and could no longer earn a living after her breasts fell, pulled it down after absconding with what post-Revolution valuables remained.

We'll walk from the Morro down the Malecón. We'll stop for ice cream at Coppelia, indulging in the flavors offered to the locals because we'll hire a Cuban national to buy them for us in CUPs. We'll tramp through Lenin Park where he read the Iliad while evading the police for months, visit the Monserrate Hotel, his home after his release from prison, and pass by the Episcopal church in the Vedado, the setting of many orgies during the mid-70s.

To end the tour, over a mojito or canchánchara, I'll read Reinaldo's suicide note as he's dying from AIDS in the US. His last written words: "Cuba will be free. I already am."

This fantasy makes me happy.

Monday, February 20, 2017


To all you Presidents of the United States of Love this Presidents Day.

And, lest we forget, the original:

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Top 10 Composers

According to the number of plays in my iTunes for all my music categorized under Classical, here are my Top 10 Composers:
  1. John Cage
  2. Karol Szymanowski
  3. Kevin Volans
  4. Samuel Barber
  5. Krzysztof Penderecki
  6. Arvo Pärt
  7. Henryk Górecki
  8. Witold Lutosławski
  9. Vladimir Martynov
  10. Sergei Rachmaninoff
As you can see, I have quite a liberal understanding of what "classical" means.