Archive for G-H

The Friendly Ones by Philip Hensher

It’s a novel of reflections, also a novel for our times: In a Brexit world of increasingly closed boarders and fear of new arrivals, it emphasises the benefits and enrichment that our society has gained from those who come from outside (albeit posh, skilled ones).

Hensher states that he took his story from “The Winter’s Tale” and “Eugene Onegin” Though we did know these well, iy seemed that the unjust death of young prince Mamillius corresponds with the presumed death of Sharif’s brother taken away from the family home by the Pakistani military forces. This would haunt the family for generations to come. From Eugene Onegin, Tatyana’s love letter to Onegin baring her soul is also replicated and her letter is received and rejected in a similarly dismissive manner in Hensher’s novel. From both stories, long time-lapses and people trapped in the mores of their times.

Who are the friendly ones? The Bangladeshi freedom fighters, the ‘hosts’ to immigrants? Collaborators with the Pakistani regime in these evil days called themselves, like the Eumenides, ‘the Friendly Ones’.

That one character became an ‘extremist’ is topical but was it necessary?

I liked it where young Leo became randy aged between ages 15 – 19 – a dwarf claiming to be big

p. 89 all get prizes – the first newspaper article | read by him was obsessed by the seeming lack of competition in schools so he writes here, glowingly, of sports teams and youth orchestras.

He also writes about CUs but Oxbridge has OIKU and CICCUI instead.

I would have liked a map of Sheffield – as in ‘The Northern Clemency’.

One member read it twice and found it ‘superb’.

‘It does go on a bit. Needs editing’.

It started as a cohesive narrative but became ‘straggly’.

The Bangladeshis return home frequently to see their family whereas the British rarely undertake the smaller journey to do so. Some hardly ever go home.

The various mothers come across badly.

Scenes from Early Life was remarkable partly because it used the same method to bring 1970s Dhaka vividly to life, plunging the reader deeply into the quiddity of the objects that made up that world. When The Friendly Ones moves its action to “Bangla Desh” – the original name for the country – in the second half of the novel, the Dhanmondi home of Sharif and Nazia in the time leading up to independence felt familiar to those who’d read Hensher’s earlier book.

There is, at one level, something scattershot about the narrative structure. In the

I started to get bored about three-quarters of the way through when the action abruptly changes to Dacca.

p. 439 has a good description of children encountering and marvelling at aeroplane food for the first time.

There’s an odd masochism scene with Josh towards the end – out of the blue unless I’ve missed something.

Though it is symmetrical, starting and ending with a perty, it peters out

Do gluttons explode? cause one’s stomach to rupture, which has very unpleasant consequences. In real life chances of survival are 50-50, but in a fictional work it’s usually portrayed as being lethal.

I had to look up khitmatgar  = A male servant, with responsibility for waiting at table.

also ‘haslet’ or acelet +  a pork meatloaf with herbs, originally from Lincolnshire. The word is derived from the Old French hastilles meaning entrails.

also ‘moue’ = a pouting expression used to convey annoyance or distaste.

Quotations:

“A bird was singing in the elm tree, a loud, plangent, lovely note, as if asking a question of the garden”

“the lawn, the red box of the barbecue, the white-shirted help”.

“He would not know how to begin to forgive Sharif for being Sharif, for being humorous and singing about the place, an old Tagore song, a funny old song he had just heard.”

“A woman passing a remark and walking away… the gaze and the hidden opinion”.

‘very supercilious and angry’.

‘Short men,’ she adds dismissively, ‘… very difficult in my view.’

“This is my wife’s country. This is where we will live and where we will go on living. The sea, the houses, the shops, the English sky: this is part of our country, and we will walk through it.”

If I lived in a cave and you were my only visitor,
what would I tell you that the walls had told me?
That people are unfinished and are made between
each other …JACK UNDERWOOD,`Second’

`Why don’t you put in for Oxbridge?’ Leo said once, in the pub where they thought they could-get away with it. Pete was untidy, scowling, pugnacious, and he kept his hair in a short­back-and-sides: he didn’t hold with sideburns and big hair and anything that would come and go. It made him look older than he was, though not always old enough to get a drink. He could have been in employment, even.

‘I’d love to,’ Pete said. ‘But it’s not for me.’

`I don’t see that,’ Leo said. It’d be for you if you got in.’

`There’s no hills,’ Pete said. ‘I couldn’t be doing with no hills. Oxford – no hills. Cambridge – definitely no hills. It’s Leeds for me. That’ll suit me all right.’

‘I thought you said you needed to test yourself in life,’ Leo said.

`I’ve tested myself,’ Pete said. ‘I don’t need to test myself until I fail and then understand that I’ve failed. There’s a world out there. They’re just men and women, writing their tests and seeing if you’re going to fit in. You and Tom Dick.’

‘He’s all right, that Tom Dick,’ Leo said bravely.

The next Wednesday he drove into the car park with a firm idea in his mind. The children from Gower were there. He made a small performance of shyness as he got out of the car. They would not shout if they thought he was likely to turn round.

`There’s that fooking Paki,’ one cried out. Was it the same one every time? ‘Paki! You fooking Pala in your fooking shirt and tie! Fooking look at the little Paki!’

Sharif turned. His expression was forcibly mild. He walked up to the fence. The children stood- exactly where they were, not moving and not quailing. They had the right to this land: that was what was in their minds. He had not looked at them closely before now. There were seven of them. The one who, he thought, had shouted was short and sharp-featured, with very dark hair. that stuck up at the back and paper-white skin. They all wore shorts and T-shirts; one or two wore those drapes of wool around the ankle called legwarmers.

`Did you call me a Paid?’ he said.

Tald’s come over,’ the boy shouted, with something like affected glee. The others were less sure.

Did you call me a Paid?’ Sharif said again. ‘I am not a Paki. I am certainly not a Paid. If anything, I am a Bangi.’

`You’re a Paid,’ the boy said, but not shouting now, speaking with derisory contempt to Sharif on the other side of the fence. `Look at you in your shirt and tie.’

`That is because I teach at the university here,’ Sharif said. `And I am not a Paid. If I were. Pakistani, I could understand your shouting “Paki” at me. I would not like it, but I would understand it. Do you know what I am? My country was Bangladesh. I have more reasons to hate the Pakistanis than you They ruled my country for twenty-four years. They robbed . They forbade us to speak our own language. When we voted or one of us to run the country, they annulled the election. They murdered people I knew and loved, and they murdered my brother. How old are you?’

Taki’s asking how old we are,’ the sharp-featured boy said. He was intelligent-looking. He could have done well. The other children were dull in their faces. They had no spark,or interest; they could not even walk away through self-awareness. Towards them was coming a larger person, a grown man.

`It was only ten years ago,’ Sharifsaid. ‘You weren’t born then.’ Took off,’ the boy said, and some of his friends started to laugh. ‘I’m fooking fourteen, I am.’

‘I’m fifteen,’ another boy said, his hair almost white, his jaw square, like- a hero’s, his eyes empty of anything.

`There was a war,’ Sharif said. ‘I had a brother two years older than you. You would have called him a Paid too. But he wasn’t a Palti. He was fighting the Pakistanis and they took him away. We never saw him again. My mother never knew what had happened to him.’

`Ay, but if he were in war, fighting as soldier, like,’ a boy offered from the back.

-`They tortured him,’ Sharif said. ‘The Pakistanis tortured him and they killed him and he was much the same age as you are. So I am not a Paki. You can shout out at me and call me a Bangi. But do not call me a Paki. Do not call me a Paki.’

The man was here. He was brisk and ginger and thirtyish; he looked as empty as the boys. His head was -shaved around -the back and sides and his shoulders bulged from the sleeveless T-shirt he wore. Are you talking to my boys?’ he said. ‘What do you want with them?’

`I am not talking to your boys, as you- call them,’ Sharif said. `They shouted inaccurate abuse at me and I was correcting their inaccurate misapprehension.’ –

`You little bastards,’ the man said, but affectionately. ‘What they bin shouting?’

`They called me a Paid; Sharif said. ‘I am not going to be insulted when I am parking my car at my place of work, and your boys —’

`They called you a Paki? It’s not exactly wrong, though, is it?’ the man said. Are you Pakistani? I don’t see there’s much wrong with —’

`I was explaining precisely what is wrong with what they were shouting,’ Sharif said.

‘If you called me a Brit —’

`I don’t care to be called what they called me,’ Sharif said, with a level gaze. If you are in charge here, you will see it doesn’t happen again.’

`I’ll see they don’t indulge their animal spirits in your direc­tion again,’ the man said un-seriously. ‘They’re good lads. This is our first team. They’ll be looking at trials for clubs in two years.’

`You should teach them how to read,’ Sharif said, walking away. He was not quite sure what the man meant. He understood that it was a world of no significance that he spoke about, in which his boys would in any case fail. ‘That,’ he turned his head, ‘would be of more benefit to them than the ball in the net.’

`Hey!’ the man was shouting, but Sharif went on walking, into the faculty. He walked with a certain buoyancy in his stride. Those children would dream of football and kick balls around until they could kick balls into nets six or seven times out of ten. Then they would fail in their dreamt endeavour and

would have to be sent off to learn how to read. Sharif knew that they could not read, or not much. No person who could read looked like that, so animal in the gaze, either docile or blankly raging. They didn’t know what they were here on earth to do. That was the future for the English.

There was ten minutes before his first student, and he could hear the shouting and whistling from the pitch behind the building. He picked up the telephone and dialled an internal number. In four minutes he had extracted a commitment from the registry that they would speak to the headmaster of Gower

I and extract a number of commitments in turn, before school was allowed to use the university facilities again. ‘f put the telephone down. He had ruined a child’s life – mewhere, one of those sharp-featured boys in the crowd had talent with the unlettered ball and an instinctive understand‑

of the spatial dimensions of a trajectory that needed no arks on paper. A dog could catch a thrown ball, after all. The brilliant moron, somewhere in that crowd, would have to do without the support of the university’s facilities, and he would fail in life because of it. Sharif was glad. And in a moment Mr Wentworth and Mr Tan knocked on his door, and he welcomed them in and began to explain, yet again, about ductile fracture equations.

There had been a note in his pigeon hole from Mr Ghosh, the manager of the hospice, asking if he would- come to see hi at the end of his shift. At first, long ago, these notes had ma him nervous. For along time now, however, they had appe when Mr Ghosh needed Leo’s help in a difficult matter. He worked there much longer than anyone else.

 

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The Sparsholt Affair -Alan Hollinghurst

I enjoyed this more than his previous books: maybe because it isn’t full of Tory ‘toffs’, though one in our group said it felt empty, pointless and though he’s a very good writer there are too many characters. Many chapters start with ‘HJe’ but uit can take you up to two pages to find out who ‘he’ is.

Maybe it’s because it’s the anniversary of the 1967 Act that he was asked to write something pan-generational, though he’s light on the 1960s (covered by The Line of Duty?)

There is a sense of movement from darkness (the blackouts etc.) to light – but is it a critique, rather than an endorsement, or 21st Century gay life?

Many thought that it was about one hundred pages too long: the middle section drugged. There was ‘testosterone coming out of every page for the first 150.’

He writes about death and bereavement very well.. The frame-making is beautifully described.

One member read of three times because some parts weren’t clear.

A young man looks at a red chalk drawing of a muscly torso, made years before. He registers the residual heat of homoerotic longing in this ‘ancient pornography’, but has no idea he’s looking at his own father’s flesh, captured in youth. Johnny Sparsholt is the gay son of a closeted father, David. He is growing up into relative freedom whereas his father was mired in a corruption scandal with a Tory MP and rent boys. The incident reverberates through other lives but Hollinghurst chooses not to bring this into clear focus, instead keeping it a matter of oblique glimpses and somewhat cryptic allusions.

How we view the past, and what we find in it, are questions at the heart of Alan Hollinghurst’s sixth novel; an evocation of time, loss and change, the social and sexual revolutions of the last 70 years.

Two generations of gay men in 5 interlinked sections:

section 1: about stunningly handsome, closeted David Sparsholt in 1942 WWII Oxford, England. ‘A New Man’, takes the form of a plummily written literary memoir by an Oxford contemporary of Sparsholt’s, Freddie Green, recording the young sportsman’s dazzling first appearance half-naked in a window just before blackout time, and the flutter of rivalrous longings set off in the various onlookers ogling him from Green’s rooms across the quad. Great use is made of these wartime blackouts, with much of the action occurring in a beautifully evoked pitch-black Oxford where submerged lusts bloom into furtive touches and brushes.

Sparsholt has a fiancee, Connie, and is already in trouble for the “rhythmical creaking” overheard while she was visiting. But his apparent heterosexuality only adds to his allure, especially when it transpires that he isn’t above being flattered by the admiring attentions of Green’s friends. It’s a variation on the classic erotic farce formula of virginal innocence besieged by cynical experience. Not that Sparsholt’s ultimate seducer, a sensitive aesthete named Evert Dax, is cynical in himself (he’s too ardent for that), but his success has as much to do with the awakening of mercenary tendencies in Sparsholt as it does with the gratifying of homoerotic ones, which doesn’t bode well for Sparsholt’s future.

The immediate fun of this section is largely in its reviving of a particular style of fine writing, in which the euphemism and indirectness about sexual matters still had a certain currency. It isn’t  quite pastiche, more a sort of dead-on rendition of how an old-school literatteur who also happens to be an old-school repressed homosexual (so repressed he remains comically unaware of his own infatuation with Sparsholt) might have written at that time; Henry James via Ronald Firbank, with a gravitation towards words such as “moue” and “tendresse”, lots of double entendres (“Where do you like to take her?”). There is also some complicated snobbish satire, much of it at the expense of Dax’s father, a famous but evidently awful novelist who embodies the vice that Hollinghurst’s own novels seem to despise above all others: bad art. (One enters his books nervous of being found guilty of some appalling error of taste; woe betide any admirer of Strauss reading The Line of Beauty, or of Chagall reading this one.)

sections 2-5: his gay son Johnny, living in his father’s notoriously “scandalous” shadow 1951-2012

In part two, set in 1965, Sparsholt, now a war hero and successful industrialist, has married Connie and the two have brought their son Johnny, an aspiring artist, on holiday to Cornwall (encroaching on Patrick Gale territory?) , along with his French exchange partner, Bastien. Johnny is besotted with Bastien, but the sexually precocious French boy has discovered girls  and Johnny spends his days in rebuffed longing. Another couple, the Haxbys, are also in Cornwall, and it becomes steadily apparent that a clandestine affair is going on. The section reformulates the pattern of pursuers and pursued from the first part, with Johnny in the lovelorn Dax’s role, Bastien reprising the role of freshly arrived young Adonis, a small yacht furnishing the same sexually charged atmosphere as the Oxford darkness, and so on.

Continuing this pattern of repetition with variation, part three brings back Dax, now the gay eminence of a bohemian household in the comparatively liberated London of 1974. Chance brings Johnny, at this point earning his living as an apprentice art restorer, into the household, where he duly assumes the role of flattered ingenu (“I like your trousers”). He is eager to be initiated into the mysteries of gay London but unaware of the connection between Dax and his father, and of the less than straightforward motives the men around him might have for taking him to bed. The three-day week, with its intermittent darknesses, nicely echoes the blackouts of the first part.

There is a layering of similar situations on top of each other like a series of transparencies that cumulatively portray a culture as it exists in time as well as in space, revolving the same constellation of longings and confusions, with the gradual relaxing of attitudes around sexuality operating as the principle of change.

In the 90s we get a lesbian couple’s invitation to “do a baby for us”  on into the present era of selfies, makeover TV and internet porn. Johnny, by now a successful portrait painter, carries the novel at this point. He’s a warmly sympathetic character to keep company with, whether he’s musing on portraiture, attending a funeral, suffering the indignities of a vegetarian in a carnivorous world, painting the arriviste (and viciously named) Miserden family, or finding new love at a club in autumnal middle age. An amazing amount of the passion and folly of the human comedy is woven into his modest life, all of it beautifully observed and memorably articulated.

The author:

“I wanted to create in the reader that sense of half-remembered details,”

“If you think about the Poulson scandal in the early 1970s [a property and corruption case that resulted in the resignation of the home secretary, Reginald Maudling] … the Profumo affair people remember a bit better, but actually, if we tested each other on it now, we’d probably be a bit rocky, and that was a very, very prominent scandal.”

“I can see that I keep going back to the periods when things were more difficult and clandestine, because they seem from a fictional point of view to be more rewarding.”

“It’s a funny thing; when you could openly have gay clubs after 1967, but they had all these complicated licensing laws, and one thing was that they had to serve a meal. You had to be a member, so you paid; I can remember when I first went to London gay clubs in the late 70s having to become a member, this ridiculous thing, and write down your address. And then you got this fucking salad!” (There is an additional twist of humour: Johnny’s salad includes a revolting knob of sweaty, gristly ham; he later becomes, like Hollinghurst, a committed vegetarian.)

“passing through a door, going down a staircase, into this magical other place where your desires can be made fresh”

“I did have that sense that I was very fortunate in a way, coming along just as gay lit as a genre was really coming into its own, and finding there was this whole fascinating, unexplored world to write about. But then of course that was in the wake of gay liberation and various social and political changes; and then of course the great crisis of Aids was the second stage of that – it gave gay writing a new, unanticipated subject.”

And what about now? “The distinctive purpose of gay writing, its political purpose or its novelty or its urgency have gone, and the gay world, as it changes, is perhaps not so stimulating to a fiction writer like me,” he says – although he’s careful to make clear he’s talking about his own writing rather than issuing blanket statements. “It doesn’t mean it can’t be written about.”

But Hollinghurst has never seen himself or wanted to be seen as a chronicler of gay life or “to claim to be a responsible historian of it; but of course I’m deeply interested in it and its effects on people’s lives, and the way that one’s telling a story that’s not over; it’s not a fixed thing that one’s writing about, but something that’s constantly changing.”

“I was once asked to contribute to a book of essays by writers about being only children, and actually I thought, I don’t want to examine too closely this thing which I just knew was actually rather fundamental to my psychology, to my whole being as a writer. That double sense of being an outsider, wanting to penetrate a world, but also having a sort of self-reliance that I think only children have. They’re very happy to be by themselves and quite a lot of their interesting life is happening when they’re by themselves.”

The business of ageing, he notices, has also led him to feel that in writing, “I’m constantly opening up a forgotten room in my past, as it were”. 

Portraits do interest me. I must say, when I’ve had some spare cash, I’ve found myself collecting them. Since I don’t have much space at home, they are rather small ones, and they tend to be of people I don’t know anything about, so everything is conjecture, really.

BOLLEN: You actually go to auction houses and hunt around the sales?

HOLLINGHURST: Well, I became really addicted about ten years ago, when I discovered that auction houses put all their catalogs online. People get addicted to various things online. My addiction is relatively harmless.

I usually end up giving just a few little physical details, which encourage the reader to make up the character themselves. You could have a sort of Dickensian approach, where you get almost grotesquely detailed with an exaggerated sense of someone’s physical appearance. But I think for a lot of the great fictional characters, you might only know roughly how tall they are or what color their hair is, or perhaps their eyes might be rather significant. Oddly, I think it’s the lesser characters that you might describe more vividly because they only get one moment in the spotlight. But I build a lot of characters more out of what they say and perhaps the way that they say it—the mannerisms and gestures associated with speech, as well as the tones. I’ve always been interested in analyzing the way people say things and what they’re not saying or trying to conceal.

I didn’t want to write an idealized version of Oxford, like a terrible, hackneyed kind of Brideshead Revisited. Those years seemed a fascinating moment when people of different backgrounds might have just been thrust together there in a new way.

BOLLEN: Especially when you’re facing possible doom for the first time. The idea that the world is blowing up and there might not be a future could perhaps symbolize everyone’s college years, but for these characters, they can actually see the bombs dropping on the horizon.

HOLLINGHURST: Normally, as an undergraduate at Oxford, you have this sense of three or four years of a leisurely stretch ahead of you, but back then most people knew they were going to go up for probably only a year before they were going to be drafted and sent to who knew where.

“in a way [scandals] make it possible to talk about things that we wouldn’t otherwise talk about – that was one of the things about the Wilde scandal I suppose, wasn’t it? That it made a shockingly public, unambiguous statement about this thing that was otherwise not talked about in polite society.”

Quotations:

“rhythmical shadow” leaping and shrinking “across the distant ceiling”

“It was that brief time between sunset and the blackout when you could see into other people’s rooms.”

“a figure in a gleaming singlet, steadily lifting and lowering a pair of hand-weights”.

“indiscriminate darkness”

“no place for polite indecision”

“claiming the full heterosexual allowance to carry on in public”

“It is hard to do justice to old pleasures that cannot be revived—we seem half to disown our youthful selves, who loved and treasured them.”

Evert’s stroke had had two main consequences — his short-term memory was impaired, leaving him sometimes at sea in the midst of a conversation started with a clear sense of purpose and subject. He said he saw soft white squares, where facts in the form of images, or images of words, should be, pale blanks that floated on his mind’s eye like the shape of a bright window. The other effect, somehow doubly surprising, was release from worry — not only the worry that pervaded decisions and plans, but the worry that was caused by not being able to remember. This felt like a blessing, but was also, Ivan felt, a bit worrying in itself.

There was a rather oppressive need to keep him focused — on day-to-day matters, and on the looming plans for the house. Victor was tidied up now, really for good. And all the things that had been put off until he was tidied up loomed much larger. The advance for the biography was £10,000, a much smaller figure when the book was delivered than it had been when the contract was signed. The work on the house might cost ten times as much. Besides which, Evert needed a new project. A proper memoir was the obvious idea; but it could be another art book, portraits of artists he had known over fifty years. Other­wise he was going to spend every day forgetting what he’d gone out for and picking up strangers in Marks and Spencer’s.

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Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow -YUVAL NOAH HARARI

(We have not discussed this in the group but it was a ‘spin off’ from one of our meetings and this review is in a personal capacity.)

The near-blasphemous title alludes thus: Homo deus — a much superior human model. Homo deus will retain some essential human features, but will also enjoy upgraded physical and mental abilities that will enable it to hold its own even against the most sophisticated non-conscious algorithms. Since intelligence is decoupling from consciousness, and since non-conscious intelligence is developing at breakneck speed, humans must actively upgrade their minds if they want to stay in the game.

Most predictions of the future extrapolate from the past and get it wrong.  This book is probably no exception.

The optimism of this book reminds me of Stephen Pinker’s ‘The Better Angels of our Nature.  Both these books are not realistic about ‘original sin’.

He labours under many errors: spirituality does not grow out of dualism; indeed it seeks to overcome it; official Catholicism does not teach ‘blind obedience to the pope’ (which he clarified later in the book) nor that the Bible was dictated by God. For Muslims, Muhammad did not ‘found’ Islam – he revived it.

Homo Deus argues that through advances in science (plastic surgery, genetic mapping, anti-aging products etc.) we are transforming into something that isn’t quite homo sapien. If you could select a gene for your child that would improve his/her memory, would you? What if everyone else is doing it?

He uses ‘due’ when he means ‘owing’ and puts to much trust in bankers, forgetting the system that props them up..

Apparently, the author is only 40,and is a gay Israeli vegan historian who meditates for two hours a day.

Summary

what we have achieved up until today and where we may take life in the future – from many different perspectives from agriculture, technology, economy, geography and medicine to psychology, politics, sociology, existentialism and science

The next section of the book covers how we brought the world to be in the last 2 or 3 centuries

Ranging from dating to medical diagnosis, from the care of the elderly to household work, entire industries now stand to both benefit and be complemented or even superseded by the march of the machines. Mr. Harari speculates about a bold vision in which most manual labor has been taken over by machines and true human input is limited only to a very limited number of people, many of whom because of their creativity and demand will likely be in the top financial echelons of society. How will the rich and the poor live in these societies?

Quotations:

Given our twentieth-century accomplish­ments, if people continue to suffer from famine, plague and war, we cannot blame it on nature or on God. It is within our power to make things better and to reduce the incidence of suffering even further.

Having secured unprecedented levels of prosperity, health and harmony, and given our past record and our current values, humanity’s next targets are likely to be immortality, happiness and divinity. Having reduced mortality from starvation, disease and violence, we will now aim to overcome old age and even death itself. Having saved people from abject misery, we will now aim to make them positively happy. And having raised humanity above the beastly level of survival struggles, we will now aim to upgrade humans into gods, and turn Homo sapiens into Homo deus.

What might have happened if a rare mutation had created a squirrel who, after eating a single nut, enjoys an everlasting sen­sation of bliss? Technically, this could actually be done by rewiring the squirrel’s brain. Who knows, perhaps it really happened to some lucky squirrel millions of years ago. But if so, that squirrel enjoyed an extremely happy and extremely short life, and that was the end of the rare mutation. For the blissful squirrel would not have bothered to look for more nuts, let alone mates. The rival squirrels, who felt hungry again five minutes after eating a nut, had much better chances of surviving and passing their genes to the next generation. For exactly the same reason, the nuts we humans seek to gather — lucrative jobs, big houses, good-looking partners — seldom satisfy us for long.

Over those 20,000 years humankind moved from hunting mammoth with stone-tipped spears to exploring the solar system with spaceships not thanks to the evolution of more dexter­ous hands or bigger brains (our brains today seem actually to be smaller).” Instead, the crucial factor in our conquest of the world was our ability to connect many humans to one another.

Yet of all the projects currently under development, the most revolutionary is the attempt to devise a direct two-way brain computer interface that will allow computers to read the electrical signals of a human brain, simultaneously transmitting signals that the brain can read in turn.

“The modern world does not believe in purpose, only in cause. If modernity has a motto, it is ‘shit happens.'”

Biblical Judaism, for instance, catered to peasants and shep­herds. Most of its commandments dealt with farming and village life, and its major holidays were harvest festivals. People today imagine the ancient temple in Jerusalem as a kind of big syna­gogue where priests clad in snow-white robes welcomed devout pilgrims, melodious choirs sang psalms and incense perfumed the air. In reality, it looked more like a cross between a slaughter­house and a barbecue joint. The pilgrims did not come empty-handed. They brought with them a never-ending stream of sheep, goats, chickens and other animals, which were sacrificed at the god’s altar and then cooked and eaten. The psalm-singing choirs could hardly be heard over the bellowing and bleating of calves and kids. Priests in bloodstained outfits cut the victims’ throats, collected the gushing blood in jars and spilled it over the altar. The perfume of incense mixed with the odours of con­gealed blood and roasted meat, while swarms of black flies buzzed just about everywhere (see, for example, Numbers 28, Deuteronomy 12, and i Samuel 2). A modern Jewish family that celebrates a holiday by having a barbecue on their front lawn is much closer to the spirit of biblical times than an orthodox family that spends the time studying scriptures in a synagogue.

Fiction isn’t bad. It is vital. Without commonly accepted stor­ies about things like money, states or corporations, no complex human society can function. We can’t play football unless every­one believes in the same made-up rules, and we can’t enjoy the benefits of markets and courts without similar make-believe stor­ies. But the stories are just tools. They should not become our goals or our yardsticks. When we forget that they are mere fic­tion, we lose touch with reality. Then we begin entire wars ‘to make a lot of money for the corporation’ or ‘to protect the national interest’. Corporations, money and nations exist only in our imagination. We invented them to serve us; why do we find ourselves sacrificing our lives in their service?

During the Second Temple period a rival religious elite gradu­ally formed. Due partly to Persian and Greek influences, Jewish ars who wrote and interpreted texts gained increasing promin­ce. These scholars eventually came to be known as rabbis, the texts they compiled were christened ‘the Bible’. Rabbin­ic authority rested on individual intellectual abilities rather than birth. The clash between this new literate elite and the old priestly families was inevitable. Fortunately for the rabbis, the Romans torched Jerusalem and its temple in AD 70 while sup­pressing the Great Jewish Revolt. With the temple in ruins, the priestly families lost their religious authority, their economic power base and their very raison d’être. Traditional Judaism — a Judaism of temples, priests and head-splitting warriors ­disappeared. In its place emerged a new Judaism of books, rabbis and hair-splitting scholars.

 

Not from reading the Bible, St Augustine or Martin Luther. Rather, it came from reading texts like Michel Foucault’s The His­tory of Sexuality or Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto’. Yet Christian true-believers — however progressive — cannot admit to drawing their ethics from Foucault and Haraway. So they go back to the Bible, to St Augustine and to Martin Luther, and make a very thorough search. They read page after page and story after story with the utmost attention, until they finally discover what they need: some maxim, parable or ruling that, if interpreted creatively enough means God blesses gay marriages and women can be ordained to the priesthood. They then pretend the idea originated in the Bible, when in fact it originated with Foucault. The Bible is kept as a source of authority, even though it is no longer a true source of inspiration.

That’s why traditional religions offer no real alternative to lib­eralism. Their scriptures don’t have anything to say about genetic engineering or artificial intelligence, and most priests, rabbis and muftis don’t understand the latest breakthroughs in biology and computer science. For if you want to understand these breakthroughs, you don’t have much choice — you need to spend time reading scientific articles and conducting lab experiments instead of memorising and debating ancient texts.

That doesn’t mean liberalism can rest on its laurels. True, it has won the humanist wars of religion, and as of 2016 it has no viable alternative. But its very success may contain the seeds of its ruin. The triumphant liberal ideals are now pushing humankind to reach for immortality, bliss and divinity. Egged on by the allegedly infallible wishes of customers and voters, scientists and engineers devote more and more energies to these liberal pro­jects. Yet what the scientists are discovering and what the engineers are developing may unwittingly expose both the inherent flaws in

 

If the economy doesn’t grow, and the pie therefore remains the same size, you can give more to the poor only by taking some­thing from the rich. That will force you to make some very hard choices, and will probably cause a lot of resentment and even violence. If you wish to avoid hard choices, resentment and viole­nce, you need a bigger pie.

Modernity has turned ‘more stuff’ into a panacea applicable to almost all public and private problems, from religious funda­mentalism, through Third World authoritarianism, down to a failed marriage. If only countries such as Pakistan and Egypt could maintain a healthy growth rate, their citizens would come to enjoy the benefits of private cars and bulging refrigerators, and would take the path of earthly prosperity instead of following the Fundamentalist pied piper. Similarly, economic growth in coun­tries such as Congo and Myanmar would produce a prosperous middle class which is the bedrock of liberal democracy. And in the case of the disgruntled couple, their marriage would allegedly be saved if only they would buy a bigger house (so they don’t have to share a cramped office), purchase a dishwasher (so they stop arguing whose turn it is to do the dishes) and attend expensive therapy sessions twice a week.

Economic growth has thus become the crucial juncture where almost all modern religions, ideologies and movements meet. The Soviet Union, with its megalomaniacal Five Year Plans, was as obsessed with growth as the most cut-throat American robber-baron. Just as Christians and Muslims all believe in heaven, and disagree only about how to get there, so during the Cold War both capitalists and communists believed in creating heaven on earth through economic growth, and wrangled only about the exact method.

 

Evolutionary pressures have accustomed humans to see as a static pie. If somebody gets a larger slice of the pie, so else inevitably gets a smaller slice. A particular family may or may not prosper, but humankind as a whole is not going to produce than it produces today. Accordingly, traditional religions Christianity and Islam sought ways to solve humanity’s pro with the help of current resources, either by redistributing the existing pie, or by promising a pie in the sky.

Modernity, in contrast, is based on the firm belief that economic growth is not only possible, but absolutely essential. Prayers, good deeds and meditation might be comforting inspiring, but problems such as famine, plague and war can o be solved through growth. This fundamental dogma can summarised in one simple idea: ‘If you have a problem, you pro ably need more stuff; and in order to have more stuff, you must produce more of it.’

Modern politicians and economists insist that growth is vital for three principal reasons. Firstly, when we produce more, we can consume more, raise our standard of living and allegedly enjoy a happier life. Secondly, as long as humankind multiplies, economic growth is needed merely to stay where we are. For example, in India the annual population growth rate is 1.2 per cent. That means that unless the Indian economy expands each year by at least 1.2 per cent, unemployment will rise, salaries will fall and the average standard of living will decline. Thirdly, even if Indians stop multiplying, and even if the Indian middle class can be satisfied with its current standard of living, what should India do about its hundreds of millions of poverty-stricken citizens?

The most important question in 21st-century economics may well be: What should we do with all the superfluous people, once we have highly intelligent non-conscious algorithms that can do almost everything better than humans?

This is not an entirely new question. People have long feared that mechanization might cause mass unemployment. This never happened, because as old professions became obsolete, new professions evolved, and there was always something humans could do better than machines. Yet this is not a law of nature, and nothing guarantees it will continue to be like that in the future. The idea that humans will always have a unique ability beyond the reach of non-conscious algorithms is just wishful thinking. The current scientific answer to this pipe dream can be summarized in three simple principles:

  1. Organisms are algorithms. Every animal — including Homo sapiens — is an assemblage of organic algorithms shaped by natural selection over millions of years of evolution.
  2. Algorithmic calculations are not affected by the materials from which the calculator is built. Whether an abacus is made of wood, iron or plastic, two beads plus two beads equals four beads.
  3. Hence, there is no reason to think that organic algorithms can do things that non-organic algorithms will never be able to replicate or surpass. As long as the calculations remain valid, what does it matter whether the algorithms are manifested in carbon or silicon?

True, at present there are numerous things that organic algorithms do better than non-organic ones, and experts have repeatedly declared that some things will “for ever” remain beyond the reach of non-organic algorithms. But it turns out that “for ever” often means no more than a decade or two. Until a short time ago, facial recognition was a favorite example of something that babies accomplish easily but which escaped even the most powerful computers. Today, facial-recognition programs are able to identify people far more efficiently and quickly than humans can. In 2004, professor Frank Levy from MIT and professor Richard Murnane from Harvard published research on the job market, listing those professions most likely to undergo automation. Truck driving was given as an example of a job that could not possibly be automated in the foreseeable future. A mere 10 years later, Google and Tesla can not only imagine this, but are actually making it happen.

99 percent of human qualities and abilities are simply redundant for the performance of most modern jobs.

In fact, as time goes by, it becomes easier and easier to replace humans with computer algorithms, not merely because the algorithms are getting smarter, but also because humans are professionalizing. Ancient hunter-gatherers mastered a very wide variety of skills in order to survive, which is why it would be immensely difficult to design a robotic hunter-gatherer. Such a robot would have to know how to prepare spear points from flint stones, find edible mushrooms in a forest, track down a mammoth, coordinate a charge with a dozen other hunters and use medicinal herbs to bandage any wounds. However, a taxi driver or a cardiologist specializes in a much narrower niche than a hunter-gatherer, which makes it easier to replace them with AI. AI is nowhere near human-like existence, but 99 percent of human qualities and abilities are simply redundant for the performance of most modern jobs. For AI to squeeze humans out of the job market it need only outperform us in the specific abilities a particular profession demands.

As algorithms push humans out of the job market, wealth and power might become concentrated in the hands of the tiny elite that owns the all-powerful algorithms, creating unprecedented social and political inequality. Alternatively, the algorithms might themselves become the owners. Human law already recognizes intersubjective entities like corporations and nations as “legal persons.” Though Toyota or Argentina has neither a body nor a mind, they are subject to international laws, they can own land and money, and they can sue and be sued in court. We might soon grant similar status to algorithms. An algorithm could then own a transportation empire or a venture-capital fund without having to obey the wishes of any human master. Before dismissing the idea, remember that most of our planet is already legally owned by non-human intersubjective entities, namely nations and corporations. Indeed, 5,000 years ago much of Sumer was owned by imaginary gods such as Enki and Inanna. If gods can possess land and employ people, why not algorithms?

So what will people do? Art is often said to provide us with our ultimate (and uniquely human) sanctuary. In a world where computers have replaced doctors, drivers, teachers and even landlords, would everyone become an artist? Yet it is hard to see why artistic creation would be safe from the algorithms. According to the life sciences, art is not the product of some enchanted spirit or metaphysical soul, but rather of organic algorithms recognizing mathematical patterns. If so, there is no reason why non-organic algorithms couldn’t master it.

There are some safe jobs: the likelihood that algorithms will displace archaeologists is only 0.7 percent.

In the 19th century the Industrial Revolution created a huge urban proletariat, and socialism spread because no other creed managed to answer the unprecedented needs, hopes and fears of this new working class. Liberalism eventually defeated socialism only by adopting the best parts of the socialist program. In the 21st century we might witness the creation of a massive new unworking class: people devoid of any economic, political or even artistic value, who contribute nothing to the prosperity, power and glory of society. This “useless class” will not merely be unemployed — it will be unemployable.

In September 2013, two Oxford researchers, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne, published “The Future of Employment,” in which they surveyed the likelihood of different professions being taken over by computer algorithms within the next 20 years, and they estimated that 47 percent of US jobs are at high risk. For example, there is a 99 percent probability that by 2033 human telemarketers and insurance underwriters will lose their jobs to algorithms. There is a 98 percent probability that the same will happen to sports referees. Cashiers — 97 percent. Chefs — 96 percent. Waiters — 94 percent. Paralegals — 94 percent. Tour guides — 91 percent. Bakers — 89 percent. Bus drivers — 89 percent. Construction laborers — 88 percent. Veterinary assistants — 86 percent. Security guards — 84 percent. Sailors — 83 percent. Bartenders — 77 percent. Archivists — 76 percent. Carpenters — 72 percent. Lifeguards — 67 percent. There are, of course, some safe jobs. The likelihood that computer algorithms will displace archaeologists by 2033 is only 0.7 percent, because their job requires highly sophisticated types of pattern recognition and doesn’t produce huge profits and it is improbable that corporations or government will make the necessary investment to automate archaeology within the next 20 years.

Most of what kids currently learn at school will probably be irrelevant by the time they are 40.

Of course, by 2033 many new professions are likely to appear — for example, virtual-world designers. But such professions will probably require much more creativity and flexibility than current run-of-the-mill jobs, and it is unclear whether 40-year-old cashiers or insurance agents will be able to reinvent themselves as virtual world designers (try to imagine a virtual world created by an insurance agent!). And even if they do so, the pace of progress is such that within another decade they might have to reinvent themselves yet again. After all, algorithms might well outperform humans in designing virtual worlds, too. The crucial problem isn’t creating new jobs. The crucial problem is creating new jobs that humans perform better than algorithms.

Since we do not know how the job market would look in 2030 or 2040, today we have no idea what to teach our kids. Most of what they currently learn at school will probably be irrelevant by the time they are 40. Traditionally, life has been divided into two main parts: a period of learning, followed by a period of working. Very soon this traditional model will become utterly obsolete, and the only way for humans to stay in the game will be to keep learning throughout their lives and to reinvent themselves repeatedly. Many, if not most, humans may be unable to do so.

The coming technological bonanza will probably make it feasible to feed and support people even without any effort from their side. But what will keep them occupied and content? One answer might be drugs and computer games. Unnecessary people might spend increasing amounts of time within 3D virtual-reality worlds that would provide them with far more excitement and emotional engagement than the drab reality outside. Yet such a development would deal a mortal blow to the liberal belief in the sacredness of human life and of human experiences. What’s so sacred about useless bums who pass their days devouring artificial experiences?

Some experts and thinkers, such as Nick Bostrom (TED Talk: What happens when our computers get smarter than we are?), warn that humankind is unlikely to suffer this degradation, because once artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence, it might simply exterminate humankind. The AI would likely do so either for fear that humankind would turn against it and try to pull its plug, or in pursuit of some unfathomable goal of its own. For it would be extremely difficult for humans to control the motivation of a system smarter than themselves.

Even preprogramming an AI system with seemingly benign goals might backfire horribly. One popular scenario imagines a corporation designing the first artificial super-intelligence and giving it an innocent test such as calculating pi. Before anyone realizes what is happening, the AI takes over the planet, eliminates the human race, launches a campaign of conquest to the ends of the galaxy, and transforms the entire known universe into a giant supercomputer that for billions upon billions of years calculates pi ever more accurately. After all, this is the divine mission its Creator gave it.

as time goes by it becomes easier and easier to replace humans with computer algorithms, not merely because the algorithms are getting smarter, but also because humans are pro­fessionalising. Ancient hunter-gatherers mastered a very wide variety of skills in order to survive, which is why it would be immensely difficult to design a robotic hunter-gatherer. Such a robot would have to know how to prepare stone tools, find edible mushrooms in a forest and track down prey.

a more sinister note, the same study implies that in future presidential elections Facebook could know not only the polit­ical opinions of tens of millions of Americans, but also who among them are the critical swing voters, and how these voters might be swung. Facebook could tell that in Oklahoma the race between Republicans and Democrats is particularly close, iden­tify the 32,417 voters who still haven’t made up their minds, and determine what each candidate needs to say in order to tip the balance. How could Facebook obtain this priceless political data? We provide it for free.

And this is just the beginning. Today in the US more people read digital books than printed ones. Devices such as Amazon’s Kindle are able to collect data on their users while they are read­ing. Your Kindle can, for example, monitor which parts of a book you read quickly, and which slowly; on which page you took a break, and on which sentence you abandoned the book, never to pick it up again. (Better tell the author to rewrite that bit.) If Kin­dle is upgraded with face recognition and biometric sensors, it will know how each sentence you read influenced your heart rate and blood pressure. It will know what made you laugh, what made you sad and what made you angry. Soon, books will read you while you are reading them. And whereas you quickly forget most of what you read, Amazon will never forget a thing. Such data will enable Amazon to choose books for you with uncanny precision. It will also enable Amazon to know exactly who you are, and how to turn you on and off.”

And this is just the beginning Today in the US more people read digital books than printed ones. Devices such as Amazon’s Kindle are able to collect data on their users while they are read­ing. Your Kindle can, for example, monitor which parts of a book you read quickly, and which slowly; on which page you took a break, and on which sentence you abandoned the book, never to pick it up again. (Better tell the author to rewrite that bit.) If Kin­dle is upgraded with face recognition and biometric sensors, it will know how each sentence you read influenced your heart rate and blood pressure. It will know what made you laugh, what made you sad and what made you angry. Soon, books will read you while you are reading them. And whereas you quickly forget most of what you read, Amazon will never forget a thing Such data will enable Amazon to choose books for you with uncanny precision. It will also enable Amazon to know exactly who you are, and how to turn you on and off.”

Yet even if we take into account all human species that ever existed, that would not come close to exhausting the mental spec­trum. Other animals probably have experiences that we humans can barely imagine. Bats, for example, experience the world through echolocation. They emit a very rapid stream of high-frequency chirps, well beyond the range of the human ear. They then detect and interpret the returning echoes to build a pic­ture of the world. That picture is so detailed and accurate that bats can fly quickly between trees and buildings, chase and cap­ture moths and mosquitoes, and all the while evade owls and other predators.

Bats live in a world of echoes. Just as in the human world every object has a characteristic shape and colour, so in the bat world every object has its echo-pattern. A bat can distinguish between a tasty moth species and a poisonous moth species by the different echoes bouncing back from their delicate wings. Some edible moth species try to protect themselves by evolving an echo-pattern similar to that of a poisonous species. Others have evolved an even more remarkable ability to deflect the waves of the bat radar, so like stealth bombers they can fly around without the bat knowing they are there. The world of echolocation is as complex and stormy as our familiar world of sound and sight, but we are completely oblivious to it.

One of the most important articles about the philosophy of mind is titled What Is It Like to Be a Bat?’ In this 1974 paper, the philosopher Thomas Nagel points out that a Sapiens mind cannot fathom the subjective world of a bat. We can write all the algo­rithms we want about the bat body, bat echolocation systems and bat neurons, but that won’t tell us how it feels to be a bat. How does it feel to echolocate a moth flapping its wings? Is it similar to seeing it, or is it something completely different?

Trying to explain to a Sapiens how it feels to echolocate a but­terfly is probably as pointless as explaining to a blind mole how it feels to see a Caravaggio. It’s likely that bat emotions are also deeply influenced by the centrality of their echolocation sense. For Sapiens, love is red, envy is green and depression is blue. Who knows what echolocations colour the love of a female bat for her offspring, or the feelings of a male bat towards his rivals?

Bats aren’t special, of course. They are but one of countless possible examples. Just as Sapiens cannot understand what it’s like to be a bat, we have similar difficulties understanding how it feels to be a whale, a tiger or a pelican. It certainly must feel like something; but we don’t know like what. Both whales and humans process emotions in a part of the brain called the limbic system, yet the whale limbic system includes an entire additional part that is missing from the human structure. Maybe that part enables whales to experience extremely deep and complex emotions that are alien to us? Whales might also have astounding musical experiences that even Bach and Mozart couldn’t grasp.

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Forbidden Territory (Coto Vedado): The Memoirs of Juan Goytisolo

FT 2The author is a connoisseur of experience but not of commitment. He fantasises a lot.

In the light of current events in Catalonia, it is very relevant now. We wanted to know more about Franco’s Spain but it’s an interesting history of dissidents.

It might have been more interesting had we read some of his novels – he alludes to things and then says that he has dealt with them elsewhere, in such and such a book.

His name means “The Garden of Secrets.” At one stage, he describes himself as n extrovert but it is quite clear that his schoolboy behaviour was extremely introverted, bordering on Asperger’s Syndrome.

He one slept through a whole day, not sure whether it was 8.00 am or pm; an experience I have also had.

Spanish writers tended to censor personal failings – maybe as a result of the confessional which wipes the late clean.

The translator has done a good job at creating some evocative prose – particularly at the end of this volume. There are beautiful descriptions and he is good at putting across what a child might feel but his style is impenetrable in places. There are too many long sentences with lots of sub clauses.

Goytisolo is a ruthless critic of Spain and its upper classes and no less a ruthless critic of himself. He was struggling with the stranglehold of a family in a fallen and irrelevant aristocracy that welcomed Franco, with the emergence of his homosexuality in a culture rigidly opposed to any sign of it, to the censorship of books that were his lifeline to becoming a writer, to bad Argentine translations of American literature — so many things that say so much about Spain during that period.

He recalls a childhood that included the Civil War when his mother travelling into Barcelona and was killed by bombs from an air raid. Was it this blow or a combination of it and being molested by his grandfather that gave him such an entrenched feeling of not belonging? He shook off the influence of religion and Franco early on and eventually emigrated to France to write. He was a communist in spirit but never fully a member, became a long-time lover of a French woman despite knowing of his own latent homosexuality. Only in his 30s does he reconcile his sexuality and find a certain peace within himself.

It is in some sense very clinical, and the sense that Goytisolo may be a clinician studying Goytisolo, is emphasized by the occasional switching of tenses. Sometimes he speaks of Goytisolo in the third person, more often the second (addressing the actions of a “you” which is actually himself). In some passages this appears to be done as a way of taking a certain amount of distance from personal ownership of actions.

He deals with the complications and micropolitics surrounding the doomed journal Libération and those concerned with getting the records straight, family, relationships, consciousness-raising, and sexuality.

In 1963, Goytisolo was cited by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as the Spanish author most translated into various languages, second only to Miguel Lopez de Cervantes. Some consider De Biedma to be a worthy heir to Federico Garcia Lorca. His new approach to writing poetry, influenced by T.S. Eliot and W. H. Auden, made him bridge the gap between the old Romanticist Spanish writers and the post-Franco avant-garde movement called the Movida, which he prefigured.

It is said that Goytisolo’s theme is moral decay and in a powerfully violent prose he conveys his belief that literature should be committed to social progress. Kessel Schwartz describes him: “A disoriented victim of his own idealism …, he denounces with nightmarish intensity the system which falls so much short of the impossible paradise he once visualized….”

FTQuotations:

spinster, who looked like a guardsman according to Leopoldo, surrounded by a small band of curates and canons. They accompanied her in her life of leisure and benefited from her generous charity. In decorative lapdog role, they would come to her society gatherings, her an arm when she crossed the street and obsequiously hold her sunshade. In this way, Uncle jokingly concluded, these pious leeches inherited all her wealth when she died.

A much-handled copy of a Prayers to St. Joseph, which I just happen to have with me as I write these lines, meticulously gathers er a series of miracles in which Divine Justice fulminates indiscrimi­nately against freethinkers, blasphemers, trade unionists, Repub­licans, masturbators, and enemies of the Pope: “In one town there was an ple of Heaven taking revenge. At about midday the priest was taking holy Communion to a sick man. After leaving the church he walked in front of an inn where there were three men seated at a table. Two got up and took their hats off as they saw the most holy sacrament. The third man, rather than imitating them, began to mock them, and, as an example of his courage and wit, he blasphemed horribly against Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. Hardly had the wretched man uttered his blasphemy than he fell unconscious to the ground in the presence of his terrified companions. A doctor was called, so was the parish priest, but all to no avail: on three separate occasions the priest came to confess the dying man, but always in vain. That blasphemy was his last word on earth. He shook with horrible convulsions for ten hours; delirious, he cut his tongue with his own teeth and then expired. … Another individual who was very fond of reading immoral newspapers saw his daughter, dressed in white about to go to a neighboring village where the bishop was administering the sacrament of Confirmation; flew into such a rage that he tore off her veil, snatched away the bouquet she was carrying and shut her up in a room. After a few days a wild horse ran through the village without hurting anyone, went in the thoughtless father’s house, knocked him down, and stamped on him till he was dead.”

While the idea of the family has for years ceased to have any meaning for me, the strangeness of our surname and a purely atavistic reflex action can explain my mania for consulting the telephone directories of the cities I visit in the vague hope of happening upon a remote member of the clan. However, except for Mexico City and New York, I have never discovered any trace of distant relatives by this means.

My unhappy contribution to his second death fills me today with sadness and embarrassment. Little, very little, survives of the work of this rebel thrust by an untimely birth into a society traditionally hard on dissidents and whose harsh therapy in times of crisis would find an unfortunate complicity within the heart of his own family. His Notes poetiques, subtitled Poesia is llibertad, printed at the beginning of the century, have never reached my hands and I know nothing about them apart from the odd passing reference by his nephew, my mother’s first cousin, Professor Josep Calsamiglia. In spite of that, the few details I have to construct his history and character convert him into one of the few ancestors with whom I feel affinity and a moral closeness beyond the fortuitous, uncertain ties of blood, an affinity stained in his case with remorse and melancholy. The writing destroyed and torn to shreds by me as a child has perhaps unconsciously infected me and insi­diously emerged in all I have written and write. Whether true or not, the idea of that possible transmigration consoles me for my unredeemable action, which it transforms into a rebirth if not a gentle form of afterlife.

How could the second, hidden existence have tolerated the pedestrian, mediocre life of the first? The compromise between the two must have been real, since I can see nothing to indicate that she endured marriage and domestic life as an annoying burden. She had probably fashioned for herself an inner, spiritual life where she could take refuge through writing and reading. My father and the rest of us were no doubt the pillar of her life: but it was a life with its hiding places, havens for rest and meditation, pleasant, protective shade.

a priest came in civilian dress and, before celebrating mass and giving communion to the adults, he called me to his side and said he wished to hear me confess. Although I followed to the letter his instructions and searched out, bewildered and confused, anything that might give cause for reproach, I never conceived the idea of establishing a connection between that act and the nebulous notion of sin. I evoked or invented some theft or fib and received absolution from that man without feeling any emotion.

Ar times, with the help of the very few photos of the period, I have to reconstruct our busy day-to-day existence in those first squalid months. My brothers and I unfailingly appear badly dressed—I’m wearing castoffs—with my hair cut almost to nothing, dirty knees, in my shoes, a strange mixture of orphan and street urchin. Our status was confusing because of its ambiguous, imprecise character: were surrounded by pupils from bourgeois families but the experience, manners, and clothing of everyone else were clearly different from ours. Viladrau period—with the rather wild freedom we had got used to, a ferocious fondness for reading, a liking for solitary life, self-taught its—separated and would always separate me from the rest of my friends. Although the school life we were entering tended toward uni­formity and discipline, the centrifugal attraction of our tribal existence was more forceful and won out in the end.

I already felt the true harshness of life: their childishness, sociability, affected ways were totally incompatible with my love of solitude and wading contracted in Viladrau. Except for geography and history, in which I immediately shone to the point of correcting my teachers, at least mentally, my marks were usually average. At recess, I would retreat to some corner or hidden spot with a novel or an illustrated geography book. Efforts to make me play football always failed miserably. In the annual psychopedagogical reports they made to parents, the fathers would anxiously emphasize my isolation, lack of enthusiasm for games, disin­terest in my classmates, my furtive reading. My odd appearance, reserved character, and surliness did not help to integrate me into the class Referring to the excessively long sleeves of a jacket that was already quite old, one of these elegant, refined boys had remarked sarcastically: “You’re so young, are you already inheriting?” This comment left me with a feeling of humiliation and helplessness and intensified my misanthropy. The childish hobbies of my schoolmates, their social code, which I did not share, brought me back to my personal world: the house in Pablo Alcover,

a victim of my own timid, antisocial ways, I ingenuously sought out opportunities to astonish others with sudden demonstrations of largesse or daring. My grandmother used to leave her purse in her room while we were eating, and I would use any pretext to leave the table and casually pinch her money: first, five peseta notes; then, twenty-five peseta notes—a big amount in those days. With the fruit of my thefts, I used to walk up Calle Mayor in Sarria and go to the sweetshop that still belongs, I believe, to the Catalan poet I most admire today, the surrealist J.V. Foix. There, my grandmother’s notes were exchanged for big bags of sweets, which, once at school, I gave out condescendingly to my peers. This lavish generosity—highlighted by the fact that my own lack of pleasure in sweets kept me, scornfully, on the edge of the subsequent scramble—earned me interest and friends and flattered my feelings of vanity and revenge.

Any revelation of my religious agnosticism, Marxist ideas, sexual behavior would have been an unbearable blow to him. It would have been gratuitously cruel to lead the conversation around to any of these topics. Condemned to dis­simulation, I remained emotionally distanced from him, not worrying too much about his sad, frustrated life, mentally prepared for the time when t would disappear completely. Only after he was dead, after the unexpected meeting with him, alive, real, almost flesh and blood, the night I delirious after taking too much majoon, could I judge him more objectively.

One night, when the whole house was in darkness, I had a visitor. Grandfather, wearing his long white nightshirt, came up to the head of my bed and made himself comfortable on the edge. In a voice that was almost a whisper, he said he was going to tell me a story, but began straightaway to tickle me and cover me with kisses. I was surprised by this sudden apparition and above all by its furtive character. “Let’s play,”

Grandfather would say and, after putting out the bedside lamp by which I sometimes read before falling asleep, and which I had switched on upon hearing his footsteps, he stretched out by my side on the bed and gently slipped his hand down my pajamas until he touched my penis. His touch was upsetting but I was paralyzed by fear and confusion. I felt Grandfather leaning over my lap, first his fingers and then his lips, the viscous trickle of his saliva. When after several unending minutes he seemed to calm down and sat down again on the edge of the bed, my heart beat rapidly. What was the meaning of all this playing around? Why did he make a kind of groaning sound after fingering me? I had no answers and while the unwelcome visitor tiptoed back to the adjacent room where Grandmother was sleeping, I lay there for a while sunk in a state of anxious confusion.

The incident with grandfather and the reaction it aroused in the family certainly had a traumatic effect upon me. My father’s visceral hatred of homosexuals—Grandfather provided the nearest loathsome example—sometimes reached morbid extremes. He once related with great satis­faction to Jose Agustin—who wasted no time in repeating to me—that Mussolini ordered the summary execution of “all queers.” Although at that time I had not the slightest idea about my future sexuality, the news, rather than exciting me, filled me with unease. Of course, I thought that Grandfather’s behavior toward me was reprehensible; but  his punishment, cheerfully trumpeted around the house, awoke my sense of injustice and earned my condemnation. Mussolini’s crude therapy must have been mentioned by my father, just as a simple piece of information, in the presence of my grandfather, who accepted it without protest—as usual. His submission to other people’s judgments, his passive acceptance of his pariah state as natural, his inability to react against the attacks he continuously suffered much later provoked in me tremendous pity for him. His compulsive pederasty, shamefully hidden for decades, had been lived out as a secret tragedy: a vice condemned by the religion he believed in and the society that surrounded him Since he did not have the moral temper necessary to control it, he had no choice but to offer his head to the executioner’s axe each time he had the misfortune to give in to it and was then exposed to public pillorying. The memory of this self-contempt resulting from the scorn of others, of the shame that was accepted and transmuted into inner guilt, weighed very heavily in my decision to affirm my destiny whatever the cost, and to set everything out clearly for myself and others. When Monique published her first novel, entitled Les poissons-chats—a work that describes the love of the heroine for a homosexual—Grandfather Ricardo read it, two or three years before he died, and was terribly shocked. Luis told me how he had explained in tears that the passions explored in the book were a hateful sin, that he had suffered from them throughout his life, and that whenever he yielded to them he had most deeply offended God. The idea that I might follow in his tracks, that I too might resign myself to a miserable, broken existence was the best antidote for my doubts and hesitations when, not entirely surprisingly, I found myself in the con­tradictory position of enjoying an intense emotional relationship with Monique and discovering the physical happiness I had not felt till then with a Moroccan construction worker living temporarily in France. With wise timing, death saved my father from this final cruel blow: the rea­lization of his secret fears, perhaps his darkest forebodings, had finally been expressed in me.

My sister used to buy the film magazines of the time and to ‘d the tiresome, annoying business of describing characters, I got the of cutting out photos from them and sticking them on the pages of my exercise book with simple captions indicating their identities. This vice—the discovery and use of which would no doubt have modified the novelistic art of such conscientious authors with an eye for detail as Balzac and Galdos—allowed me to get on with the ins-and-outs of the exploration of the Amazon, which I was describing, without worrying about useless character sketches or tedious particulars. I was a most pre­cocious author of photo-novels and was also pioneering a way into that soon-to-be-fashionable world of behaviorist narrative. No commentaries or digressions—straight to the point! With a similar facility and enthusiasm, I wrote a sentimental novel about Joan of Arc and introduced some anachronisms into it. I am unsure if they were unconscious or not but they would now no doubt be greeted by the most prominent critics as examples of a daring, outspoken desire to innovate: rather than die on Bishop Cauchon’s bonfire, she died on Robespierre’s guillotine after a dramatic confrontation with him I have a much vaguer memory of my other fifteen­year-old creations: I think there was one about the French Resistance to the Nazis, another with new scenes in the life of Kit Carson, in an episode of my own making. The films shown in the two Sarria cinemas that I visited regularly with Luis were a source of second-rate ideas, characters, and settings for the proliferation of plots. Fortunately any notion of originality and plagiarism was not yet part of my personal literary baggage.

Not one of my teachers or masters played a role in the development of the literary tastes I have just mentioned. My reading evolved exclusively within the family, without the slightest connection with what they taught or tried to teach us at school. The idea of giving us texts of the classics to read rather than stuffing our heads with dates of births and deaths and the titles of their many works had not yet even penetrated the brains of the ignorant, small-minded priests in charge of our literature classes. The only book that deserved the honor of being read in class throughout my secondary school life was a volume of Father Coloma’s stories, in my last year with the Jesuits. We didn’t even get that at the Bonanova school: the good brothers of the Christian Doctrine referred body and soul to the learned critical judgments and proven knowledge in the subject of Guillermo Diaz Plaja. Considering the educational system we suffered, it is not surprising that my love and interest in literature derived from other sources: first, Uncle Luis’s advice and then my mother’s library. Self-taught like almost all the men and women of my generation, my culture, which was tentatively shaped, would for a long time retain the mark of the prejudices, gaps, and insufficiencies of barren, sunbaked Spain choked by the censorship and rigors of oppressive regime. It is very significant that the books I would soon upon would be almost without exception by foreign authors. I read novels that I devoured between eighteen and twenty-five either in French or in the second-rate translations that were smuggled in from Buenos Aires.

When I began to masturbate at the onset of puberty, the incredible new pleasure casually discovered on a summer’s day became one of the centers,’ if not the epicenter, of my life. This potential for enjoyment sited in my body overwhelmed at once, with raw strength, the religious or moral speeches that stigmatized it. In bed, in the bath, at Torrentb6, I regularly surrendered to respect for a material law that, for the space of a few seconds, confirmed me in my isolated, private existence, my irreducible separation from the rest of the world. However, I do not mean that traditional Catholic doctrine on sex, which was drummed into us in classrooms, confessionals, pulpits, religious manuals, made no impression on me. The idea of sin—of mortal sin with its hair-raising consequences—tortured me for several years. Dozens of times, kneeling opposite one of the local parish or church priests, I confessed my guilt and tried to reform myself. I knew full well that hours or days later that vital source of energy bursting out of me would impose its law and would imperiously destroy the fragile framework of precepts that condemned it in vain. Aware of this I escaped the reproaches of the same confessor or spiritual director by regularly changing my church and confessional in a kind of hide-and-seek, the absurdity of which was only too obvious.

It is only the content of books that attracts me, they are an object for immediate consumption: once read they get in my way and I’m happy to get rid of them provided I can buy them again whenever I may need them.

I feared, quite rightly, that wretched time in the lecture theatres might make me hate what I made for, the precious field of my future vocation and inclinations.

As bitter as crab apple: that’s how the boy defines his own region, the boy who, lying on the sand next to you, vaguely flourishes his arm toward the harsh, burnt countryside, the beach blurred by the mist, the plain, white town sunk in the lethargic depths of the siesta: ravaged, bloodless land, abandoned mines, ruined chimneys, blackish profusion of stag: evidence of past euphoria aggravating the unwelcoming impression of poverty: horizontal lives, yawning caves, calcareous desolation, ancestral stubbornness: women in mourning, prematurely worn out, laden with pitchers next to the freshet: sleepwalking peasants, strings of mules, sad, silent men peacefully sheltering under a sunshade: no change nor likelihood of change: solitude, repetition, monotony, desire to escape, to throw the dust off the soles of their shoes: emigration to Madrid, Barcelona, France, wherever: the price of a bus ticket and a suitcase with their only inheritance: their brutal life-sentence and also their hope.

A drowsy, decrepit, colonial city: police dressed in drill and wearing white tropical hats: horse-drawn carriages sway indolently: the marketplace bustles pro­miscuously: the Hotel Simon with its ancient rooms.

Discovery of rhythms, smells, voices, sweet apprenticeship in idleness: tentative exploration of the urban scene, horror and fascination intermingle, inner civil war, insoluble contradiction: plurality, alternating current: creative, spermal spark, product of a simultaneous collision: an exercise in ecstatic contemplation of a world that in another way wounds your defenseless moral sensibility.

The harsh, guttural or singsong accent of the south, through which your love for your language will perhaps mysteriously be filtered: territory conquered inch by inch, listening to the dull tones of resignation and poverty, gradual dual appre­hension of a possible belonging and of the uncertain, chance nature of the doubtful identity granted to you.

Your indifference to Spain—that incomplete, fragmentary entity, which is sometimes obtuse and pigheaded, at other times brutal and tyrannical—in whose negligent bosom you have grown, will suffer the impact of the brief fruitful trip through the region of Almeria: to your youthful tiredness with the pobre, brut, trist, dissortat native town beautifully evoked by Espriu, and to the dreams of escaping to some place in the north where the people are neta i noble, culta, rica, lliure, desvetllada i felic will be counterposed henceforth to the image of a radiant, captive landscape whose power of attraction will divert your compass and draw it toward the tormented configuration of its tracks, hills, and steppes: your first holidays with Monique, on the eve of your journey to Paris, will thus be cause for an unforeseen, fertile combination: source and subject of nostalgia, compensatory vision of a frustrated homeland, glimpse, hint, forerunner of a world that is still fantastic but already present in your mind, silent, near, lying in wait for you.

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Realms of Strife (En los Reinos de Taifa): The Memoirs of Juan Goytisolo

FT 3For Spain to join the EU, despite the latter being a capitalist club, would be a socialist move in that trade union would have to be recognised.

A lot of it is tedious name-dropping, with the exception of the long section on Genet.

The subtitle misleadingly suggest that the memoirs cover the period 1957 to 1982 in Goytisolo’s life. In fact, this volume deals almost solely with the 1960s and early 1970s, only briefly touching on later times.

Goytisolo’s approach is also different from that in Forbidden Territory. Neatly divided into longer chapters (seven of them), Goytisolo offers chunks of his life, focussing around specific events and people.

Living mainly in Paris with long-time companion Monique, Goytisolo achieved quick critical success with his first novel. Though Goytisolo mentions his books at various points, in particular to point out what life-experiences later influenced his work, he writes surprisingly little about the success and reaction to the various books, acknowledging only that his first book was the only one that was practically universally acclaimed. He is surprised by his initial success — which was indeed fairly impressive: My name appeared after Cervantes in the list of most-translated Spanish writers published under the auspices of UNESCO in an annual survey of world literary activity relating to 1963.

He acknowledges that “The phenomenon entirely omitted specific literary factors: it developed exclusively from the world of publishing.” Nevertheless, it made him a man of note in the literary world in which he then moved.

Much of Goytisolo’s early time in Paris was centred around the French publishing house, Gallimard, where Monique worked and where he also was involved in finding Spanish authors and books to translate. Goytisolo moved in illustrious literary circles, including Sartre and de Beauvoir.

Trips abroad to Cuba and later the Soviet Union are among the more significant events offered. Goytisolo remained a soft sort of Marxist, critical but supportive. He had disappointments in Cuba, but seemed genuinely taken by the Soviet Union.

Politics play a large role. One longer section on the troubles surrounding the magazine Libre may be of literary-historical interest but, to those not familiar with Spanish and Latin American literary and political concerns around 1970 and the petty (and not so petty) infighting among the various characters, it is largely baffling and boring.

Goytisolo also continues to move towards acknowledging his sexual inclinations. He and Monique (and her daughter) live together as a nice little family, but Goytisolo finds that he is irresistibly drawn to a certain type of young Arab male. He finally admits his yearnings (and that he acted on them) to Monique in a letter, most of which he prints here verbatim. Monique isn’t too shocked and they continued to live happily together, finally getting married in 1978, fourteen years after he revealed his secret lustings. (Goytisolo explains a lot regarding his sexual preferences, but it does not seem quite enough.)

There is a fair amount of introspection — especially regarding sexual preferences, but also about having children (Goytisolo adamantly refuses to have any), and his own stature and place as a writer. Though not necessarily honest, Goytisolo is certainly brutally frank, especially towards himself.

Goytisolo’s adventures in what he calls the ” Sotadic zone,” or the world of macho Arabs who swing both ways. The term seems top have been coined by Richard Burton, who asserted that there exists a geographic zone in which homosexuality (referred to by Burton as “pederasty”, at the time a synonym) is prevalent and celebrated among the indigenous inhabitants. The name derives from Sotades, a 3rd-century BC Greek poet who was the chief representative of a group of writers of obscene, and sometimes pederastic, satirical poetry.

Realms of Strife is an interesting document, though it lacks the power of the first volume of his memoirs. The shifting foci makes for a more episodic read. The details are good and well-presented, but they do not fit together to provide the big picture. Gaps remain.

Quotations:

As far as I am concerned, the mismatch between life and writing was not resolved till some years later, when hand-to-hand combat with the latter, the exploration of new areas of expression and conquest of sub­jective authenticity, gradually integrated the former in a universe of text: the world conceived as a book ceaselessly written and rewritten, rebel­liousness, struggle, excitement fused in life and script as I was consumed by the delights, white heat, torments of the composition of Don Julian.

Seven months later I embarked with Monique on the visit to Almeria, postponed because of Octavio Pellissa’s arrest; we left her daughter in the Valencian village of Beniarjo and paid a return visit to our friends in the pension Zamora in Garrucha. In – a small four-horsepower Renault we drove round the villages and communities of the area: Huercal Overa, Cuevas de Almanzora, Mojacar, Palomares, and Villaricos. Monique was deeply impressed by the forlorn poverty we saw: she did not share the personal motivation nor secret affinities which drew me to that land, and she was horrified by the idea of vacationing, sunbathing, enjoying life with the reptilian indifference of a Swedish blonde in a landscape that was luminous and beautiful while harsh and poverty stricken. That was the starting point for our frequent discussions of the subject: Monique would reproach me from then on for my aesthetic fascination for places, regions, and landscapes where living conditions inevitably offended anyone with a minimum of social awareness. I was more hardened than she to the spectacle of poverty and strangely attracted by human qualities and fea­tures that have been inexorably swept away by the leveling commercia­lization of progress: my attitude was indeed ambiguous

The attacks directed at a writer are very often the proof that his work exists, that it wounds the moral or aesthetic convictions of the reader-critic and, subsequently, they provoke his reaction: in short, they enter a dynamic relationship with him: you yourself see them usually as a paying of respects and, fortunately, there is no lack of professional swashbucklers: an innovative work stirs up a defensive response from those who feel threatened or under attack from its power or novelty: the phenomenon is as real today as in the day of Gongora.

The novel that avoids the easy well-trodden paths inevitably creates a tension, collides against the unformulated expectations of readers: the latter are suddenly faced with a code they are not used to, and this code poses a challenge: if that is accepted and the reader penetrates the meaning of the new artistic system, the victorious hand-to-hand combat-with the text is itself the prize: the reader’s active enjoyment.

If your books were one day welcomed with unanimous praise, that would show they had become harmless, facile, and anodyne, very quickly they would have lost their power to repel and their vitality.

an unsettling sense of alienation and detachment in respect to our milieu: a furtive awareness of being an impostor, a result of not matching up to the role you were playing; the tedium of nighttime living, only tolerable thanks to the use and abuse of alcohol. My recent political disappoint­ments and the bitter certainty that I had created a work that had perhaps satisfied my civic responsibilities but fell totally outside that dense, purifying, initiatory zone forged by literature was now joined by the sudden realization of my homosexuality and the distressing clandestine nature of relationships, which I will describe later. The combined essence of all this could be summed up in one word: weariness. Weariness with the bustle of literary publishing,- political militancy, functional writing, my ambiguous image and usurped respectability. So I felt more and more sharply and clearly the need to concentrate my physical, intellectual, and emotional energies in those areas I deemed vital and to throw all else overboard.

Journal du voleur, which a friend had lent me two years before on my first brief stay in Paris. The reading of that book had an enormous moral and literary effect on me. The author’s strange, per­sonal, fascinating style accompanied an introduction to a world totally unknown to me; something I had sensed darkly from adolescence but that my upbringing and prejudices had prevented me from verifying. I can remember the person who gave me the grubby copy of the work once pointing out an individual in his thirties, looking defiant and insolent, heading for the cafe terrace exactly, opposite ours—it was called and I think it’s still called La Pergola, next to the Mabillon metro station—and muttering knowingly: “That’s Genet’s friend.” Days later, when I returned the book, he asked me whether I had masturbated as I read it. I said I hadn’t, and he looked taken aback, a mixture of disappointment and incredulity. He said, “I did dozens of times. Every time I read it, I jerk myself off.”

I have never liked this kind of confidence and I cut short the con­versation. As Genet told me years afterwards, he found nothing more irritating than the inopportune homage to the pornographic virtues of his work: he gave no credit to the opinion of homosexuals and appreciated only the praise of those outside the ghetto described by him, who took his novels for what they were, that is, an autonomous world, a language, a voice. As for the so-called friend singled out by my initiator into the novels, it must have been Java or Rene, considering the date. “But neither of them used to go around Saint-Germain-des-Pres,” Genet observed when I mentioned the incident to him, “both of them were pimping in Montmartre or robbing queers in lavatories or in the Bois de Boulogne.

on social inequality a very similar role in the interplay of the complementary and opposites to that normally played by difference of sex, would later deepen, become sexual, as it reached out and went beyond the limits of my language and culture into the incandescent brilliance of Sir Richard Burton’s Sotadic Zone. But at that stage it represented only a strange trait perceived by some third person as a whim or eccentricity.

Monique was passionately drawn to the world of masculine friendships: to the extent that she did not feel rejected, she was attracted by my ambiguity. On the beach at Peiliscola she had once seen me tipsily caress or let myself be caressed by one of our fisherman-friends who had stretched out next to me by the side of the boats, and the spectacle really stirred her up: it didn’t go any further and I made love to her in the hotel—still smelling of him, she said—while my friends drank and dived in darkness, drunk and naked. The Sunday meals in Rueil-Malmaison went on for some months: once or twice, in response to our friends’ invitations, we invited them to the rue Poissonniere. Monique’s diary for 2 December 1956 pinpoints a detail: seventeen Spaniards in the house! Vicenta and Antonio prepared paella for everybody, and the banquet went on till very late, much to the excitement and happiness of Carole, spoiled and entertained by those nostalgic expatriates separated from wives and children.

Along with this chance invasion by Jose’s worker-friends began another, slower, more furtive, and interstitial: Vicenta’s brothers, sisters, and relatives gradually disembarked in Paris, appearing at our flat with their bags and big old suitcases. We had to help find them jobs and accommodations and, through Jadraque and Monique’s friends, we managed to salvage some of them. The fresh migrants from Beniarjo trundled leisurely along from the rue Poissonniere to the Piles bar and from there to the vast pavements of the rue de la Pompe. Sometimes, Vicenta extended the sphere of her recommendations to other villages in the region: the girl dressed in mourning who came to our flat asking after her, she’s from Benifla, Vicenta said, but she’s a good soul. After a time, we had combed the entire field of our friends and acquaintances, and closed down our free employment agency with a feeling of relief. The untimely appearances and visits became less frequent. We had been drained by those months of intense Spanification and, as we admitted to each other, laughing at the end of a particularly hectic, rowdy day, we’d about had enough of it.

Your immense vitality allowed you to ride roughshod over the needs of sleep, take on the boreal rhythm of arctic nights: writing a novel or following the timetable at the publishers, reading for pleasure or out of duty, chatting at length after supper, drinking calvados in your favorite bars, going to transvestite haunts, getting drunk and making love. While you devoted the weekends to visiting Rueil-Malmaison or towns on the Normandy coast with Carole, you finished off your respective days with a tour of the cabarets on the rue de Lappe, next to the hotel where Genet was then staying, or with dinner in one of those modest Vietnamese eating-houses in the environs of the Gare de Lyon. Then night seemed young and somnambular, and you did not notice the first signs of aging and wrinkles till the early morning. Your body obeyed every caprice and decision without rejecting any, as if it were a mere appendage or instrument of your will. There was no such thing as tiredness, and you bravely fought off the impact of alcohol with Alka-Seltzer in the course of the long evenings. At that time Monique professed a real worship of queens. Guided by her cousin Frederic, you began to explore their lairs and hiding places: you sometimes went to dine at Narcisse, a restaurant where you joined in an extravagant reveillon with streamers, confetti, and hysterical shouts from a group of Spanish males decked out in mantillas and combs, as if on the lookout for the hero of Sangre y arena or some remote, improbable Escamillo; at other times, you dropped in on the dance at the Montagne de Sainte-Genevieve, where a huge, brazen queer, also from your country, performed a number of acts with a profusion of obscene gestures, propelling, whirring his tongue round as fast as an electric fan. Genet later told you that the most audacious, provocative queens he came across in his wanderings and stays in the prisons and red light districts of Europe were always Spanish. Whether beautiful repellent, pathetic or derisory, their rejection of any notion of decency, their defiance of all norms and good manners, the waggles and grimaces their laboriously recreated bodies endowed them with an exemplary moral hue. The fact that Spain forged and exported the most outrageous specimens was no product of chance: it revealed the great power of the social stigma that marked them. Their excessive response was directly related to that excessive rejection. Unlike the Sotadic Zone; where extended, diffuse bisexuality erases and removes the frontiers of illicit and becomes secretly and implicitly integrated in the marrow of society, the gravitational pull of the Hispanic canon determines existence of centrifugal, extreme, disproportionate reactions. The plentiful numbers and aggression of the queens, Genet explained to you, response to the oppressive atmosphere that shaped them: it was the of constrained official machismo, its lower, lunar, cleft face, its visage.

In the company of Frederic and Violette Leduc, who had been discharged from the sanatorium where she had been held, you the rather sordid haunts by the Gare de Lyon or Montmartre

unable to take reality by the horns, I sought refuge in militancy as if in a protective religious order: but neither Marx nor Lenin nor the working class had anything to do with my real worries. In truth, my case was quite similar to those middle-class youths who, as Octavio Paz would later write, “transformed their personal dreams and obsessions into ideological fantasies in which the end of the world takes on the paradoxical form of a proletarian revolution without a proletariat.”

My previous homosexual experiences were negative, and from the time we started to live together up to a year ago, I had no relationships with men, nor did I even contemplate one except fleetingly. Your love had inspired me with a self-confidence that I lacked, and for a long time I thought my homosexuality was a thing of the past. You attracted me physically and I felt secure in myself. Things began turning sour when  came by, when my cycles of depression and impotence started as a result of my jealousy and loss of that previous certainty—in spite of the ephemeral nature of your adventures and my conviction that you preferred me to everybody else. Consequently, I lived through some difficult years and, on the rebound, I made you suffer them too. Don’t think I attribute to you the least responsibility for what then happened: circumstances, as I see now, only contributed to showing the precariousness of my physical relationship with women. You should think rather that without you I would probably never have known a female love that was requited. There were many ups and downs, periods of calm and relapses. The jealousy got worse in my case because after the first cycle of depression I again fucked women but with difficulty, and two out of three times I was impotent. For months, as you know, I went to bed with whores from Saint-Denis until repeated failures made me bring the experiment to an end. In those circumstances, the feeling you were in love, even only transitorily, with other men was unbearable for me. I seriously contemplated suicide and loathed myself for not having the courage to go through with it. Afterwards there was Cuba, the need to hold on to something, to find another door. With_____, I reached a point of intense jealousy, depression, desire to throw everything overboard. I had no release with women and lost control of my actions: the only things I am ashamed in my life are a product of this phase; I was not responsible for myself yet was nevertheless aware of the moral degradation. Then, gradually, I had the impression I had touched rock bottom, realizing that henceforth I could not jealous of you. The day I saw Luis, I explained the situation to him and told him the only possible way out was some kind of homosexual life. It was then that spoke to you, and you mentioned the conversation to me, but I was still probing was unable to respond with any certainty.

It must be about a year ago that I started to go out with Arabs and I ne few weeks to recognize the evidence: I did recover my equilibrium and coal with you once again; but I also discovered that I was totally, definitively, vocably homosexual. From then on, as you must have realized, our relationship improved; although differently, I began to love you more than before and reached a kind of happiness that I had not attained in the past. I felt at peace, pl share life with you, to have you and Carole at my side. As you can imagine, I wanted to tell you what had happened; but our well-being seemed so fragile was afraid of undermining it. Then there was your need to leave Galli write about your mother: I wanted to support you on both fronts, not to decision that was central to your future. Despite my secret, life in 1964 was happy the year when our relations firmed up and I recovered my lost peace of mind decided to keep my silence, to help you cut loose from Paris and the to support you as you support me. I went to Saint-Tropez prepared to the new life I had discovered, content to dedicate myself to the novel, you, Carole. The months we have spent together have shown me how far I feel ly and emotionally united to both of you.  But they have also shown me I cannot do without real homosexual life. The (ambiguous) friendships I have are not enough and, although I am happy in your company, I am choked by chastity toward my own sex. In Paris I could have kept my secret without creating suspicion; in Saint-Tropez it is impossible, and if at times I wanted to go with _____, I put the idea to one side because of you, your status in the the possible scandal that could flare up, the gossip. The reality of life there rendered impossible the dual sexual life I was leading and confronted me with need to confess the truth to you fully. 1

I could not care less about what others think. Since I have been sure of my homosexuality, the only problem worrying me is in relation to you and Carole—the damaging impact that its discovery would now have on her. I am the opposite of an exhibitionist, and my sense of shame and attachment to secrecy are deeply rooted; but I am not afraid of the truth, and the few people I can rely on are you, Carole, and Luis. I told him all about this on my last trip. It remained only to tell you.

This letter explains my anxiety. I know too well what effect it will have on you, and yet I am forced to write it even with the risk. I am thirty-four, I love you, and I love Carole, I cannot live without you, I feel a boundless affection for you. What should I do? The void that life alone would be terrifies me, but I will accept it if that is what you decide. I would have wished from deep down that things could have been different, that my deviation had not happened but what I know of myself now is eating me away and, surrounded by our Saint-Tropez friends, I am suddenly aware that I am a usurper, that our friendliness is fictitious and based on deceit, that I must cast off the esteem of those who would be disgusted if they knew the truth. How often I have wanted to walk out slamming the door behind me when they were talking about me as if I were one of them, toclear off and live friendless in a country where no one understands me, in total isolation. I am obsessed by the destiny of Jean (Genet). Sometimes when I wake up at night I want to shout out. I then say to myself that this is my truth, that all the rest is fabrication, facile deceit. That if I am to do anything morally valid, I should make a clean break with everything. I am now on a knife-edge. I can suggest nothing, promise nothing at all. Your reaction fills me with anguish, but secretly I want to know. I realize I am destroying my happiness close to you, yours when you are close to me, which I feel to be so strong. I have begun the letter time and again with a timid heart. I pray you do not see it as a breakup although I am powerless if you do. I am afraid of life without you: your face, your capacity for love, your eyes, your affection. I have never been closer to anyone than I have to you.

“Which country are you from?”

“From Spain.”

“Where did you say?”

“Spain.”

“Spain, Spain .. Whereabouts is that in the Soviet Union?”

One observation that will interest you: while European homosexuals usually reveal themselves by imitating women, here, in contrast, they take on an extra layer of exaggerated virility. That’s what attracts me to them and helps me to distinguish them without fail, since naturally there are plenty who aren’t.

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Back of the Throat – Yussef El Guindi

bott-2We chose this arising out of a discussion about Guapa by Saleem Haddad, whose author’s experience as a Muslim in America was unrealistic.

We don’t think we’ve anything to hide but what’s on your bookshelf’? in your room? Anything can be misconstrued. People can incriminate you without thinking, based anything they seize on to create and justify a belief.

The Patriot Act gave carte blanche to the authorities to override the human right to freedom and privacy. Now Europe, with its current, paranoid obsession with surveillance, desperately needs this play. What’s in your emails? A copy of everything is kept for perusal.

Shelly, the librarian is stereotyped, worrying about a rare map she’d fold duo in order to defend herself.

The women are sexually insecure and project this on to Khaleed; wondering if he is gay. The incident in the men’s room more than hints at it. Gays, like Muslims, have shared the experience of being marginalised.

 During a Nazi interrogation of suspected Jews in France, a stunning rumour begins to circulate: “They’re going to look at your penis.” Forty-five years later, not only has the offstage rumor become an onstage reality, but in Back of the Throat reality is also allegory. Our protagonist’s penis is more than merely an organ: It is a metaphor for all the privacy that Americans have lost in the aftermath of the World Trade Centre attacks on 9/11.The playwright’s instruction to ‘play it light’ doesn’t mean that we don’t feel intimidating, menacing threat from right the very beginning.

The playwright: “I wish there were more political plays,” he said. “The problem with the American theatre is it’s not addressing what’s going on.”

“Friends were questioned, friends of friends,” he said. “The Patriot Act came in, and suddenly you didn’t know what your rights were. You started hearing these stories of people getting stopped for what they were reading at airports, of the F.B.I. going to galleries and questioning the artist if the exhibit was politically charged.”

“I began to look at my apartment. What do I have in my apartment if an F.B.I. agent came in? I have books on assassins, guns, Islam, research materials, the Koran, that would identify me as interested in the Middle East. In my paranoia, I started to imagine what could happen.”

bott-3Quotations:

“person of interest”

“extraordinary rendition”

“When you thought I was at work. (To Carl) I should also tell you that I thought he was having an affair. I’m still not sure he wasn’t . . . . He certainly was at the computer a lot. It must have been something steamy because every time I approached him he would do something to hide the screen”

I would point to something, sand, and you would repeat it—sand.—Sea—and then you: sea.—Sky…sky.—Family…family. Airplane…airplane…America…(slight beat) And I showed you in which direction. And you said, where? And I held you up high on my shoulders… and I pointed. (Hold for a beat. Blackout)

My family worked damn hard to make this country the place it is. And if you came here to do the same, I will personally roll out the red carpet for you . . . . But if you’ve come here . . . . To take from us. Pick all the good things this country has to offer and give nothing back . . .. Then I don’t think you’re making a contribution, not at all.

“I have rights, I do have rights.”

“You hate everything that this country stands for.”

No. No, this isn’t normal. I have to tell you, Khaled, none of this is normal. Right about now I would place you a few feet outside of that category. . . . I am frankly amazed at just how abnormal everything is in your apartment. I have been growing alarmed by what we have been finding. More: I’m getting that uncomfortable feeling that there’s more to you than meets the eye and not in a good way. I wouldn’t be surprised if we were to turn on that computer and find plans for tunneling under the White House

“New information about a person suddenly makes you see that person in a different light.”

“You’re a Muslim and an Arab. Those are the bad-asses currently making life a living hell and so we’ll gravitate you and your ilk”

Yesterday the Irish and the Poles, today it’s you. Tomorrow it might be the Dutch”

One more thing: at no time should you think this is an ethnic thing. Your ethnicity has nothing to do with it other than the fact that your background happens to be the place where most of this crap is coming from. So naturally the focus is going to be on you. It’s not profiling, it’s deduction.

“I personally hate this, you know that” he says. “I hate it when I have to beat the shit out of someone because then by an act of willful horror, whose effect on my soul I can only imagine, I have to shut out everything good about me to do my job to defend and protect.”

BETH. (Interrupting.) Just everything. He never seemed to come clean about anything. Always keeping things close to his chest, like he had another life going on. It wouldn’t surprise me if he was involved. Though I can’t imagine he was high up in whatever struc­ture they have. I could admire him if he was. But he’s too weak for that. More like a wannabe. Like someone who would be quite will­ing to take instructions, if you know what I mean.

CARL. I don’t; can you explain that?

BETH. Like he knew his life was for shit and something like this would give it meaning. He had that writerly thing of never feeling solid enough about anything. Of being woozy about most things. Of course when you imagine you’re in love with someone, all their faults feel like unique traits that give them character. It’s disgusting how love can dumb you down. Anyway, what else do you want to know? So like I said, it would just make sense. He never would tell me what he was working on or what he did when he went out. He just shut me out after a while. Could you turn around, please. (Beth has finished drying her hair and now selects a dress from the closet. She will proceed to put it on. Carl turns around.) And then there was that quarrel we had soon after the attacks.

CARL. What quarrel would that be?

BETH. I almost flipped out because I thought he was actually

gloating.

KHALED. That’s enough, stop, stop, this is bullshit. BARTLETT. (Consulting notebook.) That’s the word she used: “gloating.”

KHALED. I never “gloated,” that’s insane.

BARTLETT. (Consulting notebook.) She went on to say that she

felt you were almost ‑

BARTLETT/BETH. Defending them.

BETH. Praising them even.

KHALED. That’s a lie.

CARL. Are you sure about that?

BETH. It sure sounded like that to me.

KHALED. She’s twisting everything.

BETH. (To Carl.) I don’t think that would be an exaggeration.

KHALED. (To Beth.) That’s not what I meant.

BETH. (To Khaled.) That’s how it sounded.

“We’re trying to get direct feedback from the public. Especially from our target audience.”

When first I come to this country—I not know how to speak. How…even to say anything. […] I say, I must learn language that is everywhere. Language that has fallen on our heads and made us like—like children again. What is this power? […] I want to write. I want to write a book. In English. […] And one day, I say […] I might even teach it… I will teach language back. I will make them speak their own language differently. I will have them speak words they never spoke before. I will make them like children too, speaking words over and over to make sure they understand it. And soon my language will also fall on their heads. Like theirs falls on ours. Exploding in our brains ’til we can’t even dream in peace. (Slight beat.) And so they sent me … They send me. (Asfoor draws closer to Khaled. Khaled does not look at him.) And now … my tongue … it wants to rise. Soar. As it used to. It wants to take off in this new language and conjure up brilliant words. It wants to do things in English that seemed so impossible for so long. I can help you find your voice too … You’re stuck. I know you are. You’ve lost your way. I can feel it. I can help. Most of all … above all else, Khaled … I know how to inspire … I know how to inspire. (Beat. Blackout.)

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What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell

wbty

As with the author of Guapa, the book we read in October, the author visited the city to give a talk, previous to our meeting, which once again provided us with some valuable insights to the book and the author.

The book divided opinion on this occasion, but there was no particularly enthusiastic response to it.

Perhaps unusually, a supporting character, Mitko, the protagonist’s sexual interest, provided more of a talking point than the lead character. However, whilst one member commented that they felt the lead character seemed sad by the end of the novel, another admitted to feeling very sad for Mitko by the end; that they felt sorry for him.

The dynamic between the the foreign teacher and his hustler associate, with, as one member noted, his coterie of clients, was poignant and an almost constant throughout the story. Yet it was commented that the power between the two characters remained unexplored and was notably absent in the descriptions of their sexual encounters, which lacked detail and clarity of who did what to whom.

Although their relationship was, at it’s very base a sexual and financial transaction, both characters seem inexplicably drawn to each other and their relationship is limited, by and large, to an ongoing series of transactions. One member voiced his lack of understanding of why the lead was involved with Mitko, asking “was it love or lust, or something else”? Considering the numerous suggestions of and allusions to Mitko’s violent temperament, it appears that the teacher may be attracted by the danger.

One member felt the interaction between the lead character and Mitko was interesting, but  that the main bulk of the story detracted from that part of the story, that the main narrative was perhaps a distraction to the meatier side story.

With one member proclaiming Miko to be “a blackmailing shit”, another felt they warmed to to the character as the story progressed. Another chipped in that they found Mitko to be “vile and not even attractively so”.

Our proclaimer went as far as suggesting that the character of Mitko was the cause of them not enjoying the book, or that he made the book “bad”. They added that they were “appalled” by their inability to read the novel, which he did so in fits and starts as a result.

They did however concede that there were bits of the novel that appealed, such as the bus trip taken by the teacher to a city neighbouring Sofia, for the purpose of obtaining treatment for an STI. Another noted about the trip that the hospital staff treated their patient, who was quite open about his homosexuality, like filth. There was general surprise that he would be treated in such way in 2012, when the novel was set.

The lack of a homosexual nucleus for the lead character was highlighted. In the group’s previous novel, Guapa, the protagonist and his circle of friends congregated and sought refuge in the liberal and accepting titular bar, whereas the setting of this novel contained no gay scene or any other gay characters. As such, it was felt we didn’t learn anything of the culture or politics of Bulgarian gay society; perhaps due to both lead characters being quite isolated. This was perhaps borne out of the notable sense of shame which runs through the novel.

The amount of Bulgarian the author includes in the book was raised. A member, who attended the recent talk with the author, mentioned that he was interested how the sound of the Bulgarian language appeared to non-speakers. He believed the cadences of the language couldn’t be successfully translated, so included Bulgarian in the novel to illustrate that point.

There was appreciation of the author’s distinction between ‘you’ in the formal and informal sense of the term, which added an interest to the linguistics of the book.

That the story was told in the first person was commended, as the reader never knew what the other characters thought. It was claimed that it would have been a completely different novel had it been told by an omniscient narrator. The long passages used by the author were frustrating to some, while others didn’t enjoy the writing style as a whole the author employed.

A member felt it reminded him of a Hollinghurst novel, feeling that the author was trying to convey consciousness. Another likened it to Mann’s Death in Venice.

For some members, who read the novel for the second time, felt it made more of an impression the second time around, as there was a lot in the novel which can easily be missed.

Whilst some enjoyed the novel, with one adding that not all of it was good, some felt it was very much a ‘first novel’ and not great, but they did enjoy reading it. However others felt a lot more strongly about it, with someone stating that they just didn’t care about the novel; that it failed to make him care.

The three part structure of the novel drew criticism. One member found the second part of the novel difficult to follow. But it was thought that was the author’s intention; being a very traumatic time for the lead character. Another made reference to the “list” part of the novel as “utterly boring” describing it as completely different to the other two parts of the novel. Another added that the third part of the novel was self-conscious and another described it as “something to love or loathe”.

A member who attended the talk with the author stated that the author had been interesting, but added that they don’t know what he might write next.
The title comes from Thomas Mann’s ‘Death in Venice’

Greenwell wrote the novel while teaching in Bulgaria himself, though he says the book is fiction and “the narrator is not me”.

Greenwell is unabashedly a “queer writer”, one who is interested in articulating a specifically gay experience.

Cruising has been central in my life since I was 14 years old. It was the first gay community I found in the pre-global internet in Louisville, Kentucky, where I grew up. I do think “community” is the right word for those places, which have not disappeared. When I found this cruising bathroom in Bulgaria where the novel begins, I immediately knew what it was. I barely spoke Bulgarian, but I descended into this place, and I suddenly had a complete fluency.

The latest proof of Greenwell’s genuine interest in  Bulgaria’s reality is called Mitko – an award-winning novella about the romantic relationship between two men, who meet in the bathrooms of the National Palace of Culture and travel emotionally between desire and intimidation all the way to a hotel room in the Black Sea city of Varna.

In its article, “Of LGBT, Life and Literature,” the Sofia Echo credits Greenwell’s publications with bringing much needed attention to the LGBT experience in Bulgaria and to other English-speaking audiences through various broadcasts, interviews, blog posts, and reviews

What Belongs to You really started with a place. I moved to Bulgaria in 2009 and spent four years there, teaching high school at the American College of Sofia. Bulgaria is a fascinating, beautiful, difficult country, and I fell in love with it. I think the spark of the novel came from the weird experience I kept having there of foreignness and familiarity. On the one hand, my first months in Sofia were a time of intense disorientation: I had never been to that part of the world before; I could barely speak the language; everything seemed strange to me. At the same time, though, and especially as I started meeting gay men and exploring queer communities, both online and in person, I found myself forcefully reminded of my adolescence in Kentucky in the early 1990s. This was especially true of the cruising places I found in Sofia, where all the sudden I found I could communicate fluently: all the codes I learned as a kid cruising the parks in Louisville were the same in Sofia. And when I started to talk to gay men in their thirties and forties, I found they said many of the same things that I heard gay men that age say when I was an adolescent. It seemed to me that there was a similar horizon of possibility, a similar set of assumptions about the world and what it offered.

A Grave – stream of consciousness – a very long chapter – 56 pages. The middle section, “A Grave,” is a departure both from the character of Mitko and from the style of the rest of the novel. Some news from home triggers a flood of memories and associations that the narrator experiences while he walks through the Bulgarian city where he lives. While the first and last sections are concerned with action as it unfolds.

“A Grave” came very much as a surprise. I wasn’t intending to write it—I had ideas for other things I wanted to work on. But then, one hot day when I was walking around Mladost, the part of Sofia where I lived, I was seized by a voice that demanded I follow it. I really don’t know how else to put it, and I haven’t had an experience quite like that before or since. It was a really angry, importunate energy, and I remember I went to coffee shop and started writing on the backs of receipts, on scraps of paper—on trash, really. I wrote the first draft very quickly, and it ended up being a long block paragraph, much longer in that first version than it is in the book. I stuck it in a drawer and couldn’t look at it for more than a year; it made me nauseous to think about it. Once I could look at it again, I rewrote it by hand several times, something that I didn’t do with the other sections of the book. It was really hell to write. And as I said before, it wasn’t until I was halfway through that I realized how it was responding to the story told in “Mitko” (and later continued in “Pox”), that the exploration of the narrator’s childhood was a way to try to investigate some of the weird things about him, especially in his approach to intimacy, the way he seems to disclose everything while actually hiding a great deal of himself away. I think the middle section is the part of the book where the narrator is most vulnerable and available. And I hope the block paragraph format gives a sense of the simultaneity of his memories, how he’s thrown back and forth between various times: his early childhood, his adolescence, the landscape he’s walking through and the landscape he has fled.

The only character who is fully named in the book is Mitko, and even he isn’t given a full name: Mitko is a nickname, short for Dimiter, and his family name is never disclosed. In the first scene the narrator is stripped of his own name, when we learn that Mitko can’t pronounce it, that it’s unpronounceable in Bulgarian. I wanted Mitko to be the only character in the book with a name, which felt to me like a kind of spotlight illuminating him throughout the book. Like a spotlight, it felt like a way of giving him a kind of privilege, of foregrounding him and making him the most vivid thing on the page. And, again like a spotlight, it’s also a kind of vulnerability: he’s stripped of a protection, or the semblance of a protection, other characters are afforded.

In the novel’s final section, “Pox,” the narrator has overcome some of his internal hurdles and formed a healthier relationship with a man from Portugal called R. At the same time, he can’t quite let go of Mitko — or is it that Mitko will not let go of him? Greenwell poignantly evokes the narrator’s inability to resist the draw of Mitko’s erratic neediness. Much (but not all) of the sexual charge of their relationship has dissipated for the narrator, yet a mysterious feeling of responsibility for Mitko’s increasingly grim fate remains.

wbty-2From the author, whom some of us met recently: For him, this is related to being asked repeatedly whether he would consider himself to be a “gay writer”. This, he understands, is a fraught question for many writers, who for decades have been told “if you write books centred on queer lives, where the gay guy isn’t just one strand, or a friend, then there are straight people for mainstream readers to identify with – but if a book really is centred on gay lives, you’ll be in this gay ghetto”.

But, he says, he has never accepted that – in fact, he thinks quite the reverse. “Absolutely I am a gay writer. And not only that, I want to tell gay stories about gay communities for gay readers, because I think that this incredible progress that queer people have made in things such as marriage equality have come at the cost of a mainstreaming narrative that has homogenised queer lives in a way that has sacrificed far too much and, tragically, has further marginalised the most vulnerable members of the queer community.”

He talks further about marriage equality as “really a marketing battle: it was about packaging queer lives in a way that allowed the value of those lives to be seen by people who are disgusted by queer lives” – although his point is also that this is probably an inevitable and necessary stage that any minority rights movements has to go through. Where that becomes problematic, he insists, is when those at the edge of the movement become further distanced, as when human rights campaigners “at their rallies in front of the supreme court in support of marriage equality, said, Oh trans person get off the stage.”

Ultimately, he says, “any project of liberation has to have as its goal the multiplication of legitimate models of life”.

much in the book turns on the gaps between English and Bulgarian, and in particular the word priyatel, which Mitko deploys to mean friend, boyfriend and client. Some of it is structural: while the narrator appears to control the story, and we are never granted direct access to Mitko’s consciousness, Greenwell shows enough to allow us to empathise with him. It is a novel of transactions, of inequalities, and of fine moral judgments; the narrator, it is clear, could leave Bulgaria whenever he wished, while Mitko, who becomes increasingly frail, is trapped.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/mar/26/books-interview-garth-greenwell-what-belongs-to-you-gay-rights

Reviews by two who couldn’t attend the discussion:

 This book has been heavily trailed on the social media circles I hang around; twitter, Facebook etc of writers I tend to follow.

I found the mid-way switchback to his early life an unwelcome distraction; it was clunky and seemed to hold the story up for me. I understand that this book had originally been a novel and I suspect that this was bit stitched in. I’m not sure that worked.

I did like visceral nature of the attraction, which drew then together and continued to hold them together. I think that was a good reason, but I then felt the descriptions of the sexual attractions could have been even more visceral.

I was often asking myself how old the American was, I imagined older, but not so much older, and I’m sure the writer was trying to steer away form it just being an age thing…as there was foreigner/local,  richer/poorer, seller/buyer thing going on. He explored those things but not age, interesting decision.

As the world becomes smaller and less friendly (e.g. Russia) to westerners and especially gay men the exploration of this subject (the western gay man abroad) and his loves and losses I think are an interesting area for gay writers.

I think this was a very good first novel, better than Guapa I think.

=======================================================

I enjoyed the pace of this book, and the rich descriptions and vocabulary.  I went back and reread the first section I had enjoyed it so much but felt I had missed details from the first reading: I wanted to slow down and immerse myself more in the atmosphere of the book. I enjoyed the reread.

I loved the character of Mitko, and felt like he was real and present. This was unsettling by the end of the book when I realised I actually knew very little about him. We were seeing Mitko through the experience of the narrator and I felt a lot of empathy with his superficial knowledge of Mitko. The development of their relationship was fascinating and the rich writing helped me feel immersed and close to it. I felt the desire and the need to have a human connection, but how this was not going to be successful. It was a simple set up, and a complex emotional relationship that I hope you get a chance to discuss.

The book ended bleakly and with little hope. The beautiful, confident Mitko was almost at his end, the narrator was alone in a difficult foreign country, isolated from his mother and his new partner and seemingly not further on than when the book started. I saw no happy ending for him either.

SUMMARY: I loved this book: I found it a strong experience emotionally (even though the characters were not deeply emotional) and I really enjoyed the writing (I know some of you didn’t).

It wasn’t all great though:

The Bulgarian words thrown in became annoying and self-indulgent. Early on this did help establish that the narrator was struggling with the language and the culture. I would have phased out most of these after the first 1/4 of the book.

At times the descriptive and detailed writing got a bit wearing: e.g. the bus trip to the out of town hospital and the fly: Why?

Quotations:

I was there not as guard but as audience. I was there to see how different from me he was.”

“You disgust me, he said, do you know that, you disgust me, how could you be my son?”

“I wouldn’t answer, I wouldn’t see my father again, I wouldn’t mourn him or pour earth on him.”

Even as I descended the stairs I heard his voice, which like the rest of him
was too large for those subterranean rooms, spilling out of them as if to climb
back into the bright afternoon that, though it was mid-October, had nothing
autumnal about it; the grapes that hung ripe from vines throughout the city
burst warm still in one’s mouth.

As I knelt there, still tasting the metallic trace of sink water from his skin, I felt my anger lifting as I realized that my pleasure wasn’t lessened by his absence, that what was surely a betrayal (we had our contract, though it had never been signed, never set in words at all) had only refined our encounter, allowing him to become more vividly present to me even as I was left alone on my stained knees and allowing me, with all the freedom of fantasy, to make of him what I would.

Suddenly I was enraged for him, I felt the anger I was sure he must feel that futile anger like a dry grinding of gears. But from a distance Mitko didn’t seem to feel anything at all; these were only my own thoughts, I knew, they brought me no nearer him, this man I had in some sense loved and who had never in the years I had known him been anything but alien to me.

I understood his desire to be naked before the world, his madness, as he says, to be in contact with it. I even felt something of that desire myself, though it was nothing like madness for me, in my life lived almost always beneath the pitch of poetry, a life of inhibition and missed chances, perhaps, but also a bearable life, a life that to some extent I had chosen and continued to choose.

how helpless desire is outside its little theater of heat, how ridiculous it becomes the moment it isn’t welcomed, even if that welcome is contrived.”

“…always I feel an ambivalence that spurs me first in one direction and then another, a habit that has done much damage.”

I said, come on, tasting him and tugging at his shoulders. He tried at first to put me off again, he said we could take our time, the night was long; he was counting on a place to spend that night, and no doubt had experienced hospitality withdrawn by men whose desire dissolved immediately to disgust.

He did speak of the terrible     boredom he felt in the hospital, where he was confined to a bed, without a computer or even a television for distraction, since the one mounted in his room would only play if fed constantly with coins. Nor were books or magazines a diver­sion, since he read Cyrillic with difficulty; he had left school in the seventh grade, and was more comfortable with the Latin characters used in Internet chat rooms.

But he was still detached, he kept glanc­ing at the television, and when I asked him what was wrong he just shrugged and answered that he had already had sex that afternoon, which seemed like a breach of contract, though I suppose I had no real basis for complaint.

It’s not like there were that many of them, she said, seeing the dismay I felt, I didn’t even have sex with all of them, I just liked being with them, I liked the attention. I don’t know why I cringed at her stories, when I had done so much worse at her age, having sex in parks and bathrooms, dan­gerous and indiscriminate sex; but I was troubled that her history seemed to parallel my own, that we shared what I had thought of as my own gnawing affliction. And I knew she would outgrow the satisfactions she had found, that soon she would desire other and more intense experiences, drawn forward by those appetites we share, that humiliating need that has always, even in my moments of apparent pride, run alongside my life like a snapping dog.

It would be years before my father spoke the words that finally severed the bond between us, but there were no more showers or games. Nor could I find anywhere else the closeness I had taken for granted: the friends I turned to were scared off by the need I felt for them, and soon the best I could hope for was their indifference.

“As I walked along that path,
I felt drawn from myself, elated,
struck stupidly good for a moment
by the extravagant beauty of the world.”

“I fell back from him then, I lay next to him thinking, as I had had cause to think before, of how helpless desire is outside its little theater of heat, how ridiculous it becomes the moment it isn’t welcomed, even if that welcome is contrived.”

“You can’t speak to him, he said, if you speak to him, if you give any sign to him at all, he will come back; he has to stop existing for you.”
“What would it mean to do enough, I wondered, as I had wondered before about that obligation to others that sometimes seems so clear and sometimes disappears altogether, so that now we owe nothing, anything we give is too much, and now our debt is beyond all counting.”
“He had always been alone, I thought, gazing at a world in which he had never found a place and that was now almost perfectly indifferent to him; he was incapable even of disturbing it, of making a sound it could be bothered to hear.”
“the poorly typed lines, the symbols and abbreviations of Internet chat that make such language seem so much like a process of decay. As”
“There was something in his manner of seduction, no show of desire at all; what he offered was a transaction, and again he showed no disappointment when reflexively and without hesitation I said no to him. It was the answer I had always given to such proposals (which are inevitable in the places I frequent), not out of any moral conviction but out of pride, a pride that had weakened in recent years, as I realized I was being shifted by the passage of time from one category of erotic object to another.”
“I realized that my pleasure wasn’t lessened by his absence, that what was surely a betrayal (we had our contract, though it had never been signed, never set in words at all) had only refined our encounter, allowing him to become more vividly present to me even as I was left alone on my stained knees, and allowing me, with all the freedom of fantasy, to make of him what I would.”
“He caught me and held my gaze without welcome or warmth or any hint of what we had shared, and my sense of having violated something, of having looked where I shouldn’t have faded, as I understood that this was what he wanted me to see all along, that I was there not as guard but as audience. I was there to see how different from me he was, how free of the foulness my father had shown him; and now that I had seen it, I knew our friendship had run its course.”
“But I’m your son, which was my only appeal and the last thing I would say. He made a dismissive sound, almost a laugh, and then he spoke again, with a snarling voice I had never heard before, he said The hell you are. He went on, he spoke without stopping, A faggot, he said, if I had known you would never have been born. You disgust me, he said, do you know that, you disgust me, how could you be my son? As I listened to him say these things it was as though even as I laid claim to myself I found there was nothing to claim, nothing or next to nothing, as though I were dissolving and my tears were the outward sign of that dissolution.”
“I grew up at the height of the AIDS panic, when desire and disease seemed essentially bound together, the relationship between them not something that could be managed but absolute and unchangeable, a consequence and its cause. Disease was the only story anyone ever told about men like me where I was from, and it flattened my life to a morality tale, in which I could be either chaste or condemned. Maybe that’s why, when I finally did have sex, it wasn’t so much pleasure I sought as the exhilaration of setting aside restraint, of pretending not to be afraid, a thrill of release so intense it was almost suicidal.”
“I had been sick before, of course, but this felt more than sickness, like a physical confirmation of shame.”
“That’s all care is, I thought, it’s just looking at a thing long enough, why should it be a question of scale? This seemed like a hopeful thought at first, but then it’s hard to look at things, or to look at them truly, and we can’t look at many at once, and it’s so easy to look away.”
“Sometimes we talked the whole night long, as one does only in adolescence or very early in love. I was happy, but also I felt an anxiety that gnawed at me and for which I could find no cause, that gnawed at me more deeply precisely because I could find no cause.”
“Love isn’t just a matter of looking at someone, I think now, but also of looking with them, of facing what they face.”
“As we joined the line of people getting off at the last stop before Sofia, I looked once more at the little boy, whom I felt I would never forget, though maybe it wasn’t exactly him I would remember, I thought, but the use I would make of him. I had my notes, I knew I would write a poem about him, and then it would be the poem I remembered, which would be both true and false at once, the image I made replacing the real image. Making poems was a way of loving things, I had always thought, of preserving them, of living moments twice; or more than that, it was a way of living more fully, of bestowing on experience a richer meaning. But that wasn’t what it felt like when I looked back at the boy, wanting a last glimpse of him; it felt like a loss. Whatever I could make of him would diminish him, and I wondered whether I wasn’t really turning my back on things in making them into poems, whether instead of preserving the world I was taking refuge from it.”
“… my mother reached over and laid her hand on my arm, saying that was true, … and I felt something twist in me, the motion of some unthinking thing when it is gripped too hard, and I had to resist the urge to pull away.”
“He stopped then, as if he realized he had gone too far, had leaned too hard on the fiction of our relationship and felt the false surface give way.”

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