Monday, September 14, 2015

The Mountain and the Wall (Book Review)

My literary education includes many of the great twentieth-century novelists of world literature, such as Salman Rushdie, Carlos Fuentes, Isabel Allende, and Günter Grass. Fortuitously, I studied this literature with Wendy Faris, one of the great scholars of magical realism, who opened up the entire world of contemporary literature for me as an undergraduate. I was only through the first 100 pages of Alisa Ganieva's novel The Mountain and the Wall (trans. Carol Apollonio, pub. Deep Vellum) when I realized I had been reading something equally delectable, enchanting, and momentous. Ganieva reveals herself to be a top-tier storyteller on a par with these greats.

The Mountain and the Wall is broad and sweeping in its historical consciousness, its mythologizing, and its narrativizing–its ability to make some of the most mundane acts the basis of an engrossing story. Ganieva achieves this in a story that takes place over the course of a couple of days in Dagestan, a country of about three million people on the Caspian Sea. The novel follows Shamil as he walks the street of the capital trying to make sense of the rumors in circulation: the Russians, in sheer exasperation with the republics of the Caucasus region, are building a wall on their border. It's a plausible premise that resonates not only in Texas (where I am) but also across Europe, across the globe. Our history shows us to be a walled-in creature, Homo muratis. Ganieva is our sibyl.

This is more than a story about Shamil, or a wall, or a mountain, however. At 245 pages, you'll notice that it's also considerably shorter than many of the novels by the pantheon of writers mentioned above. But like intricate origami, this story unfolds and unfolds. Shamil's story opens up multiple stories within stories. We read Shamil as he reads–sometimes skipping pages–through the various layers of Dagestan: its Socialist Realist past as part of the Soviet Union, as well the conflict between its two present narratives: a call to jihad versus a nationalist panegyric. These are the texts, the contents of the texts, that Shamil reads, and in reading, he excavates the plurivocality and multidimensionality of the Caucasus nation that is "both small and large." This is metafiction at its finest.

Reading headlines today, we can wonder how someone falls for the jihadist line, how someone can respond to an extremist's call to arms. Ganieva shows us how. Through this exquisitely crafted tale, she weaves the storylines of her characters in such a way that taking the veil is as viable a response to the socioeconomic disorder as drinking oneself into oblivion or retreating to the vagaries of the black market of bribes. The novel, as an eloquent understatement, offers an explanation: such radicals depend on the incredulity of the people. "Something like that can't happen here!" we continue to exclaim as those very things happen more and more frequently, more intractably.

But The Mountain and the Wall is not an easy, moralizing book. Many of the characters seek answers to questions they don't yet even know how to ask. It seems, aside from the Salafis, that everyone is desperately trying to make sense of their world, like the scholar who groans and curses as he sorts through "the books, which his wife had arranged by size and color, trying to find the places he had marked so carefully" (193). Every detail (much like every historical, cultural, and ethnic particularity) had been made the same, which is not only a repeated literary device but also the novel's instinctive critique of both colonialism and post-colonialism.

The jihadists, who are so certain of their interpretation and the Truth of the Prophet, must resort to Russian, the lingua franca of Russia's most heterogeneous republic. But they can't even reconcile the language they're forced to use with the force their faith requires. The radicals don't know Arabic and have all but lost command of their native tongues. When posters appear across the capital urging the citizens to burn everything written from left to right, the people realize they they would have to burn even the posters themselves since they were written in Russian. This is but one of the many comic insights and clever ironies that Ganieva scatters throughout her text. She has inherited this trait straight from Dostoevsky.

Translator Carol Apollonio exhibits a nuance of language that makes this novel a pleasure to read in English. She effortlessly navigates the tricky shifts between characters, voices, and embedded genres. I applaud her for the way she contends with the overabundance of ethnic and religious terms. It is no exaggeration to say that the English-speaking world is indebted to her.

The nexus of narratives and the subtlety of the translation would've benefited, I think, by a more useful and user-friendly Glossary. I would've liked for it to have contained more entries and to be properly alphabetized. It seemed that close to one-third of all special vocabulary and italicized terms were not to be found there. Even the dictionaries I used and Wikipedia did not have entries for some of the terms. I was never able to find any information, for example, about Gamalkar and Untul Ebel, two Dagestani mountain deities (or spirits or devils?), beyond their brief mention in the text (220-221).

There were also some terms whose Glossary entry didn't quite get it right. For example, the entry on sabur simply states that it's Arabic for patience. But near the end of the novel, one character tells another, "Say a sabur, sister, your husband isn't there right now..." (239) which contextually seems to imply that a sabur is a type of prayer. After about ten minutes on Google, I finally found reference to the As-Sabur, one of the many names from the Koran for God (as the Patient One). Reciting this name 3000 times will allegedly rescue the person from difficulty. I know many translators who cringe at the thought, but even more footnotes would've been appreciated.

Regardless of this minor criticism, I wholeheartedly and without reservation urge you to read this book. Let it astound you the way it astounded me.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

10 Reasons Not to Become a Translator

  1. You don't know any language well enough, not even your own.
  2. You hate reading.
  3. You like food, basic shelter, security, and you regularly waste your money on such extravagances. Get over yourself, princess.
  4. You find working with people to unnecessarily tax your emotional well-being. You're not what they call a "people person."
  5. You don't own any dictionaries.
  6. Grammar make you sad.
  7. You never ventured off the farm.
  8. You don't really care about what's happening around the world. Hell, you don't even care about what's happening on your block.
  9. Your memory is not what it was 10, 20, 30 years ago. You'll end up looking up that one word that that author used at least 100 times at least 110 times. (Read that last sentence carefully. You'll get there.)
  10. You have better things to do, like bathe, floss, and pay the bills.
  11. You don't know how to count.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Rocks in Your Head

Timothy Morton is an English scholar at Rice University. He is also a "speculative realist." That's fancy theoretical talk for "bullshit artist." He would have you believe–and I chose this word carefully–that there's a new way to see the world. He is wrong. The same nonsense he and his kind peddle has been around for centuries. Don't be fooled with the new name: this is the New Coke of English Departments.

In his "essay" for the Los Angeles Review of Books (link above), he first insults you if you don't already know about the latest fad in "theory." (I'm using quotes around "theory" to indicate its specialized use, particularly among English professors, when it denotes a set of "theoretical" approaches to literary and cultural texts.) According to him, you'd have to have been hiding under a rock not to already know about speculative realism.

I'd like to add: you'd have to have rocks in your head to believe any of this.

Moreover, you'd have to be a jerk to insult the non-academic world in such a jerk-ass way. Thankfully for Morton, I am both a philosopher and an anti-academic snob-hater. I would be happy to school him on proper thought as well as on manners. You're welcome, world. Now let's begin.
After 60 or so years of talking about how you can’t talk (directly) about reality, only about how to access (or indeed how to access how to access) reality, humanities scholars are talking about rocks, and not just (human) representations of rocks either.
"Reality," "rock," "human," "representation" are empty signs signifying other signs. Even if these terms were, like some good Platonic ideal, fully invested with the content that they purportedly signify, any such reality would dissolve among the pages upon which they were scribbled. Therefore, it behooves any person claiming to be a scholar to specify exactly which, within this context, "reality" he is referring. Is it that which appears to be physically real, which would throw us back into the sham of positivism? Is it the noumenal or phenomenal world? You can't just spout "reality" and have it mean something. Unless, of course, you're still fully ensconced within the "the normative humanist box" which Morton himself derides.

Here Morton describes the main strategy of speculative realism: "speculative realism is about how much you can say about anything other than human meanings from inside the Kantian box, without just yelling anything at all. Can you open the lid and peep outside while avoiding religion? Can you infer that your human box is not the only one?" This is the saddest and most deficient view of human understanding I've come across in a long time, at least outside of religion. Anything such a disembodied (hence, abstract) human would perceive would necessarily be through the lens of human understanding.

It's like when I go grocery shopping. Because I am a native speaker of English, I encounter the world through the lens of English. That is, I'm aware when English is not proper to the task at hand. For example, when I drive down Garland Rd, I know English won't help me read the signs. But I can resort to Spanish because A) I know Spanish, and B) Spanish is another human lens through which to encounter the world.

Morton, however, seems to propose that the human mind is first capable of knowing when it is "outside" the realm of human understanding, and that the human mind can somehow make sense of that "outside." If I encounter a language I don't know, or a person who speaks only gibberish, my experience is still one of human English comprehension: I know that the person is not speaking English, I know I don't know that language.

Even beyond the limits of human perception, our knowledge of that beyond is fraught with human perception. Our mind does not comprehend ultraviolet radiation, for example, but we've designed technology that can interpret such radiation in a perceivable structure for the human mind. That is, we still impose our human perception on the imperceivable, the imperceptible. I hope Morton sends a postcard once he makes it outside our clichéd "box." I won't read it, of course, because it will be illegible. Return to sender.

And speaking of clichés, thanks for dragging out poor dead Derrida to serve as your whipping boy/straw man. If I were a snob, I'd write something like, "Just because you didn't understand Derrida when you read him, or when you tried to read him, or when you pretended to know the least bit of information about him, doesn't mean that there's some of us out here who actually read and understood him. We understand Derrida because we didn't read him as a 'theorist' but as a philosopher, as someone deeply invested in the history and discipline of philosophy." But I'm not a snob. I'll instead propose that "scholars" avoid bringing up Derrida when it's obvious they don't know what they're talking about.

Morton arrogantly laments, "It’s interesting and sad how we keep inventing new ways not to talk about polar bears." Yes, but it's equally interesting and sad how you talking about polar bears is still very much within the confines of anthropocentrist violence and injustice. Come to the dark side: learn the ways of deconstruction. I'll let you in a secret: deconstruction does what it does without human volition. All texts–even your precious polar bears–deconstruct themselves! It's self-reflexive and doesn't require human agency or intervention and projection. Or a flawed and narrow view of "reality" or "theory." And despite its self-reflexivity, deconstruction doesn't even require a self!

But just when I'm getting bored with Morton, he turns into what Nietzsche would refer to as "an interesting animal." Well, not that interesting. He just starts ranting and railing against the system in which he's built his career. Praising Alfred North Whitehead because that's cutting edge "theory"! He ends his hissy fit by utterly dismissing religion. What happened to the essay structure that has a thesis statement and support for an argument? Hell, wasn't this supposed to be a book review?!

Morton here goes rogue, jumps ship, leaves his good sense back in the "box." He jumps for joy that scientists are now catching up to his view of "reality." So cutting edge, so avant-garde, this Morton is! And now he disses art critics for "merely" noticing patterns. When will such insight stop?!

Just because Morton and other failed thinkers separate the world into a false binary of theory and practice does not mean there aren't those of us lightyears away from such a sad, diminished "box." Nonetheless, I do appreciate a good rant. And his arrogant rant against others of his ilk ("theorists" in university English departments) and their own cheapened bête noires and bugaboos is top notch. What's even better: each of them really earns his–and yes, I chose this word carefully–tenured salary.

In the end, his rant becomes more elevated, more unhinged: "Science does appearance, we do reality." Still never defining this "reality." In other words, I read Morton's diatribe so you wouldn't have to. And I can say with great confidence that you also don't need to read Steven Shaviro's The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism, the text that this "essay" purports to review.

Only the title of Morton's "essay" makes any sense: Theory Class Needs an Upgrade. I couldn't agree more. You're welcome, world. Class dismissed. Welcome to reality.

Friday, July 17, 2015


I've been dreading this day for a year now: the first anniversary of when flight MH17 was shot down by thugs in eastern Ukraine with a Buk on loan from the Russian military. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

A year and a day ago–on July 16th–I flew home from Europe via Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport. On my first morning back in Texas, I was lying on the sofa catching up with my Twitter feed. I had come to rely on Twitter as the most useful news source months before when the Russian military began to invade and occupy Ukraine.

Most of the typical news sources were still referring to a fantastical place called "the Ukraine," so I instead found trusted journalists on Twitter who were in the region who actually knew what was going on or what had been going on since "the Ukraine" existed (1991). In fact, such frustration and utter exasperation with the press had prompted me to register for a course in journalism held in Prague that summer so that I would be in an even better position to get accurate information about Central and Eastern Europe, so that I could contribute to the dissemination of accurate information about the region. I was returning, via Schiphol, from a month of intensive training in journalism in Berlin and Prague.

On the sofa in the early morning haze of my first day of jet lag reading Twitter when one of the journalists in eastern Ukraine writes, Oh god… He quotes some thug bragging about shooting down a plane. Then minutes later: a missing passenger plane that was flying over eastern Ukraine. The events unfolded in real time in my timeline. There was–and still is–no doubt about who shot down that plane.

From several trips to Europe, I know Schiphol quite well. I know, for example, that if my layover is tediously long, I can get to the city center in less than 30 minutes by train. Or that I can buy a day pass at the hotel gym in order to use their exercise equipment and showers. I've done both multiple times. I know where to buy good coffee, a decent vegetarian meal, duty-free chocolates as gifts. I had spent a few hours there just the day before. A year-and-a-day ago now. Less than twenty-four hours before 298 passengers and crew boarded MH17 flying in the opposite direction. We ate at the same cafés, ordered from the same surly clerks, pissed in the same urinals.

But this isn't about my empathy, my sympathy, the sheer horror I still feel about their senseless deaths. It is about the lack of values, ethics, and human decency, the lack of political and diplomatic will to punish the assholes who did this. The long line of assholes that stretch all the way to Putin himself.

Let's be clear: the deaths of these 298 people lie squarely on Putin's shoulders. Any other explanation or conspiracy theory is propaganda, a provocation, a distraction. A lie.

For years, the Putin Doctrine has been to disrupt the region by infringing on the sovereignty of several nearby countries, most notably Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova. And now for the past several months Russia has ramped up its own belligerence toward NATO and Western and Central Europe: kidnapping an Estonian policeman, sending its submarines to enter Swedish waters, countless military flyovers in European, Canadian, and even American (Alaskan) airspace, cyberattacks, etc. As far as Putin is concerned, in his decrepit, morally-bankrupt mind we are already fighting Cold War II. Except this war is unusually one-sided.

Writing this, I know, sets me up for various online attacks by assholes, both paid and voluntary. Russia's army of trolls is well documented, and I've had my run-ins with them before. That doesn't matter. What matters is that all tyrants will die and all terrorists–even state terrorists such as Putin–will perish.

To my Ukrainian friends and readers: You have my undying support as you work to make a viable democracy despite having your country hacked away by the thugs of a tyrant. Путін - хуйло! Крим наш!

Remember the people whose lives were snuffed out by state-sponsored terrorism a year ago. May the living live to see their murderers brought to justice. May their families know peace.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Angela Davis

When ostensibly asked is she supported violence while she was in jail, Angela Davis not only explained violence, but she related its origin: the violent state. Any violence perpetrated by the revolution, by the liberation of the oppressed, would merely reflect the violence under which the oppressed had lived and suffered at the hands of state terror (i.e., the police, the government, the military, institutional racism–whether de jure or de facto, etc.).
When you talk about a revolution, most people think of violence. Without realizing that the real content of any kind of revolutionary thrust lies in the principles and the goals that you're striving for, not in the way you reach them. On the other hand, because of the way this society is organized, because of the violence that exists on the surface everywhere, you have to expect that there are going to be such explosions. You have to expect things like that as reactions.
Governor Ronald Reagan, who was from early on in bed with the FBI/CIA as an informer and useful tool, and President Richard Nixon, whom we all know as the most despicable of Presidents, should have been the ones jailed, the ones on trial.

If you've tried to read Marcuse or Baudrillard or Žižek or even Derrida on violence and the state and still don't get it, then listen to the truth bombs detonated by someone once deemed the most dangerous woman in America. All your confusion will dissipate with the simple tale of her childhood in Birmingham.

This clip is taken from the documentary The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975. You can watch the entire film on Netflix. I highly recommend it.