The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa by Yasunari Kawabata (translated by Alisa Freedman)

ScarletGang

My post on “A World of Ulysses” was quite popular, generating a few social media comments, and garnering a higher than usual number of views. Today I look at the “Japanese Ulysses”, as identified by Joshua Cohen, Yasunari Kawabata’s “The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa” (translated by Alisa Freedman), Cohen advising us:

This lurid novel, teeming with teen prostitutes and slumming littérateurs, earned its author the prize that eluded Joyce, the Nobel. Originally published in a daily newspaper—surely one of the strangest serializations ever—Kawabata’s monster is a manic crawl through the dingy Asakusa: Tokyo’s red-light district.

I can assure you this novel does share something with Joyce’s work, it is a difficult read.

The “Foreword” by Donald Richie advises that Kawabata was part of a group labelled the “New Perception School”. His “ambition was to view every incident of the human condition through new eyes….one of the tenets of the new aesthetic movement, modernism.”

The first thirty-seven chapters of the novel originally appeared as a serialization in the Tokyo Asahi newspaper between 20 December 1929 and 16 February 1930, at the bottom of the first page. From September 1930 chapters 38 through 51 appeared under the title “The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa” in Reconstruction (Kaizō, volume 12, number 9), with Chapters 52 through 61 appearing as “The Red Sash Society” in New Currents (Shinchō, volume 27, number 9). This format leads to a repetition, especially in the first 37 chapters, where the “action” is repeated to emphasise the crucial narrative beacons to new readers. In later chapters the narrative flow smooths out and therefore becomes a little more readable.

In a nutshell the story is about the region of Tokyo where the bawdy revues sit alongside the homeless, the young girls of Asakusa who have been tricked into prostitution, and the shady dealings of the inhabitants of this region.

The Scarlet Gang uses votive stickers, but they do it in a way all their own. It’s not that they are curious enough to want to learn that the practice of using votive stickers was begun by Emperor Kazan, who stuck them on all the places of worship he visited, and that stickers were even designed by ukiyoe artists like Utagawa Toyokuni. Also, they don’t believe in the efficacy enough to go around slapping them on shrines and temples just for that reason. I’ll give you an example. One day that little tyke Boat Tokikō (his father is a boatman on the Ōkawa, so he is called Boat Tokikō) said to me: You know the Five Story Pagoda?
– The one at the Sensō Temple?
– Yep. On the third story counting from the top or the bottom on the corner near the Nio Gate, there’s this ridge-end tile sticking out. It’s got a monkey’s face on it, and its eyeballs are all gold. Well I want to stick my sticker flat on the monkey’s face.
So just like that, under the cover of night, they stick their Scarlet Troupe votive stickers at truly inappropriate locations. For example, the middle of the three big paper lanterns at the Nio Gate entrance to the Sensō Temple, or on the black-lacquered bottom of that lantern from Irifune-chō, or the horns of the cow statue in the grounds of the Ushijima Shrine over in Mukōjima. (p6)

As you can see, from this short quote, the dialogue is presented as though you are listening in on a conversation, the different speakers delineated by em dashes, in this example it is a reportage of a conversation, however in other sections you are only glimpsing part of the conversation. To understand who is speaking is very difficult, and at time to know what they are speaking about is even more cryptic.

Unlike other works by Kawabata, this appears as an experimentation, the future winner of the Nobel Prize, honing his craft with different styles, methods of creating, reportage. However the imagery remains vivid, the themes, where sexual undertones float aplenty, are forming in the young writer’s mind.

A young woman in a red dress is pounding the piano in the entryway. The bright red stands out against the black of the piano, and the white of her legs, bare from knees down to feet, is young, fresh. The entryway isn’t much wider than a wooden sandal is long, and from where I stand, just outside, it seems as though I can reach in and give that black ribbon around her waist a tug. This ribbon is the only decoration, but because the dress is sleeveless with a low neckline, it’s something like an evening gown. No, even here at home she’s wearing something for the stage – a dance costume? Traces of white powder cling to the nape of her neck, and above it her hair is cropped close as a boy’s. (p10)

We follow this girl, Yumiko, she does fade from view only to return later, and the sexual references continue, for example where she is on a boat with a “customer” Kawabata advises us “And Yumiko polishes the glass globe, her head lowered, cheeks flushed, lost in thought” (p70).

All the seediness of Asakusa bubbles in the background, as our novelist wanders the streets and parks at night, relaying to us his observations;

Right under your nose, you can find lady bums dressed as men. You just laugh them off. But a man dressed as a woman, face thick with white powder, elaborate Japanese-style wig, all decked out in red, slipping off with another man into the dark alleys behind the temple – this sends chills up your spine like you’ve just seen a peculiar lizard or something. (p51)

The horror of child prostitution is also peppered throughout, young girls from the country taking work, during the Depression, and being tricked into prostitution;

It’s not so surprising that the little girl who rode the holy horse in the May Sanja Shrine festival already now in June has to sell her body to support her family. (p128)

Although a cast of 100’s move in and out of view, it is the seediness, the lure of the erotic, and the area of Asakawa that is the focus here:

Asakusa is Tokyo’s heart…
Asakusa is a human market…
The words of that popular writer Soeda Azenb
ō: Asakusa is Asakusa for everyone. In Asakusa, everything is flung out in the raw. Desires dance naked. All races, all classes, all jumbled together forming a bottomless, endless current, flowing day and night, no beginning, no end. Asakusa is alive…The masses converge on it, constantly. Their Asakusa is a foundry in which all the old models are regularly melted down to be cast into new ones. (p30)

A work that is a dichotomy of styles, the writing is influenced by the modernism of the West, the revues are snippets of the West, but there is a lament for the loss of Japanese culture;

For example, dear reader, have you listened to manzai lately? Manzai used to be funny. But in 1929, because the manzai people have been pushed by the “modern”, by that wild reckless nonsense straight from America, they have become pathetic clowns in both senses of the word. (p93)

There are historical laments too, a section set just after the massive earthquake of 1923 where Asakusa was flattened. And as you can see in the above quote, the direct address to you, “the reader”, occur frequently, as does the theme of Kawabata writing this book:

I tossed around the idea of writing a long, strange novel. And, dear reader, in these pages, after ten years, I have finally begun to do that. (p133)

This edition contains a very useful Foreword and Afterword by Don Ritchie as well as a Translator’s Preface, where the difficulty of translating the slang and references to Japanese culture and literature are explained, as well as an extensive Glossary and Selected Bibliography, greatly assisting academics, and the University of California Press should be congratulated for bringing this little known work into print.

A difficult read given the dialogue style, the lack of character development, and the subject matter, this is a curio in Kawabata’s work, one where he is experimenting with styles and the modernist, as well as serialized approach. It is a worthwhile addition to the world listing of Ulysses, and it is an interesting addition for readers who have enjoyed his more famous works such as “Snow Country”, “The Sound of the Mountain” and “The House of the Sleeping Beauties”, however I would not recommend starting your 1968 Nobel Prize winning journey with this book.

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A World of Ulysses?

Ulysses

As regular visitors here would know, I love a list, it gives me some structure, helps with what to read next. I recently came across an article by author Joshua Cohen, written in 2010, for the 106th anniversary of Bloomsday, in which he identified “12 novels that have been described, whether by critics or the authors themselves, as the Ulyssi of their respective cultures.”

What a great reading list, twelve Ulysses from various nations:

The Russian Ulysses Petersburg By Andrei Bely 1913

The British Ulysses Mrs. Dalloway By Virginia Woolf 1925

The German Ulysses Berlin Alexanderplatz By Alfred Döblin 1929

The Japanese Ulysses The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa By Yasunari Kawabata 1930

The Hungarian Ulysses Prae By Miklós Szentkuthy 1934

The Indian Ulysses All About H. Hatterr By G.V. Desani 1948

The Argentine Ulysses Adán Buenosayres By Leopoldo Marechal 1948

The Turkish Ulysses A Mind at Peace By Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar 1949

The Welsh Ulysses Under Milk Wood By Dylan Thomas 1954

The Brazilian Ulysses The Devil to Pay in the Backlands By João Guimarães Rosa 1956

The Israeli Ulysses Past Continuous By Yaakov Shabtai 1977

The Spanish Ulysses Larva: Midsummer Night’s Babel By Julián Ríos 1983

From there Nathan “NR” at Goodreads has extended the list to include a further fourteen titles:

Tómas Jónsson, Bestseller by Guðbergur Bergsson

Macunaíma by Mário de Andrade

Die Tutoren by Bora Ćosić

Leg Over Leg (all four volumes) by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq

Alastalon salissa by Volter Kilpi

The Bloodworth Orphans: A Novel by Leon Forrest

Rama and the Dragon by Edwar al-Kharrat

Belarmino and Apolonio by Ramón Pérez de Ayala

Dessen Sprache Du Nicht Verstehst: Roman by Marianne Fritz

The Disconnecte d by Oğuz Atay

Three Trapped Tigers by Guillermo Cabrera Infante

La Medusa by Vanessa Place

The Devil to Pay in the Backlands by João Guimarães Rosa

Divine Days by Leon Forrest

It was my reading of The Disconnecte d by Oğuz Atay which alerted me to these lists and then I went on to read the first volume of Luis Goytisolo’s four volume “Antagony” which was compared to Joyce’s work by Mario Vargas Llosa, this got me thinking that a longer world journey of national Ulysses could well be undertaken (of course not back to back!!!)

Amazingly I own eleven of these titles, counting Leg Over Leg as one title even though it is four books, therefore I think a little Christmas reading is in order (along with a serious attempt at getting through another 100 pages of Arno Schmidt’s “Bottom’s Dream”).

Instead of hunting down the various lists each time I go to choose my next read, I thought it prudent to capture it here. Of course, if anybody has any further references to novels which have been compared to James Joyce’s Ulysses then please leave a comment, I’d love to extend the list!!!

UPDATE

Two new suggested titles that have been highlighted to me via social media (I’ll keep adding as titles become known):

The Scottish Ulysses – “Lanark” by Alasdair Grey

“Women and Men” by Joseph McElroy “Big. Difficult. Masterpiece” I’ve been told.

The Last Librarian by Osdany Morales (translated by Kristina L. Bonsager)

Last-Librarian-front

I’ve had a dabble in Cuban literature in the past, and plan to get through Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s, Cervantes Prize winning “Three Trapped Tigers” over the coming months, however a short distraction occurred with the a new release from Dalkey Archives, the 2012 Alejo Carpentier Award winning “The Last Librarian” by Cuban writer, and holder of an MFA in Creative Writing from New York University, Osdany Morales (the book translated by Kristina Bonsager).

A discovery highlighted by recognized, contemporary, cultural liberalness consists of text recycling, not always the classics (and not always belonging to the medium of literature). This process allows the authors to interact with references disinherited from their originality. Movie industry remakes, architectural revivals, and new arrangements of old songs now promote an approach to the rewritten text, but also the proliferation of readings that don’t firmly belong to the original work, but to its replacement. For example, to read Ulysses before The Odyssey. Or “Eldorado,” by Raúl Roasas, before Raymond Carver’s equivalent story, “Why Don’t We Dance?” (p129)

Our narrator, a writer, travels through time and place to discover the Seven Libraries of the World, in each he needs to deposit a single book, having no books he needs to write one in each location. Before he visits the first “library” he discovers two prophetic statements chiselled into the window pane of the guest house where he stays; “The centre is unmoving, but miniscule” and “Everything vanishes, but also endures”. These statements forming part of the banter he uses to gain access to the libraries of his imagination.

The book that we are reading is made up of his journeys and the books that he writes in homage to former writers, and they are numerous. We start off with Boris Groys, art critic, media theorist and philosopher;

“The city per se possesses an intrinsically utopian dimension by virtue of being situated outside the natural order.” Boris Groys, I remembered. (p8)

Groy’s work “Art Power – The City in the Age of Touristic Reproduction”, discusses the move away from the natural order of things into a walled city (Utopia); “Traditionally cities isolated themselves from the rest of the world in order to make their own way into the future. So a genuine city is not only utopian, it is also antitourist: it dissociates itself from space as it moves through time.” More recurring themes to throw into this novel. A disassociation with space and time.

Naturally this leads to Borges, referred to here as “The Great Masturbator”, and his story “The Book of Sand”, Osdany Morales advising that this story of Borges’ “is a direct allusion to a passion for pornography.”

He told me that his book is called The Book of Sand because neither the book nor sand possess a beginning or an end.

These allusions to themes occur before our writer enters the first library and writes his story. This is “The Book of Writing: The Scribe” Set in the 1400’s it recounts his love Becchina, Visconti and being beaten by his uncle Carracci. Alluding to the Renaissance and solitude, isolation and events outside of personal control, this is one of the sketchier references to influential works. There may well be a direct correlation to Dante, Boccaccio, Petrarch or even (later) Machiavelli, if so I missed it.

There is a sudden move to 2008 and Shanghai, where our narrator meets a European girl in a mall. There they discuss Cavafy (specifically the poem “Days of 1908”) and other references from 100 years prior, 1908. “O. Henry wrote “The Voice of the City”, “G K Chesterton published “The Man Who Was Thursday” in 1908 and it was read by the Argentine writer Borges”, Cesare Pavese’s “Death Will Come and Will Wear Your Eyes”, Tristes Tropiques’ “The Raw and the Cooked”, “The Origin of Table Manners”, “From Honey to Ashes”, “The Naked Man” and “The Savage Mind” and then “Unmasking of Robert – Houdin” by Houdini.

In the future a poet will write “Ode To Niagara”. Don’t ask me what that word means. I don’t know – It’s probably another splendid monster. (p61)

As you can now see, this is a work rich with literary and cultural references, only sixty-one pages in and the listing of works across a vast expanse of time are piling up. Book Two is “The Book of Time: Tempo” and the story is set in 1789, where a merchant comes across a magical bell jar that can age whatever is placed in it. Fruit ripens quickly, wine can be produced quickly, and chicks can become roosters in front of your eyes, although the bell jar is also used for evil purposes such as ageing somebody’s head!!! Bending time, a la Borges, however I may add nowhere near as skilfully, we have quotes such as;

I’d add it was like listening to Slipknot in the front row of a concert playing “All Hope Is Gone”.

WTF?

Book Three is the “Book of Perfection: Apropos of the Wet Snow”, exploring “pure fiction” and our story is a la Dostoyevsky, a writer, stolen fiction, street workers, and innocent men caught up in an intricate plot…

“Book IV: The Book of the Beast: Eternal Love for Jim Jarmusch” is an homage to Jack Kerouac, as well as the film maker Jarmusch, a Doctor on a conference in Rio de Janiero, goes on a search , with an Australian called Sydney, for an obscure book for his lost son, a writer. Another fragmentary tale unfolds:

In Karachi I paused in front of a snake charmer. He was taking a break and the cobra rested curled up inside the basket. He admitted to me that tourists weren’t satisfied anymore to just see the cobra dance.
“Now they want to bring the snake home with them,” he said. “If you want to know the truth, the cobra doesn’t actually dance. It follow the movement of the flute with its head. That’s the true charm and it appears to dance because its damn body always ripples.”
He handed me the flute in case I wanted to try it and left me to care for his basket. I looked around to ensure no one would see me making a snake dance in Pakistan. I raised the basket’s lid, lifted the flute without playing it, and the cobra began to rise up. Instead of having it move from side to side, I had it extend upward; the cobra remained straight. Then, it looked away from the flute and stared me directly in the eyes. Flaring its hood like a weightlifter flexes his muscles, it said:
“Has it never surprised you how within a group of friends or a family the memory of a trivial event from years ago lingers and gets brought up every time the group is together? The story can center on a phrase, a nickname, or some word that is incomprehensible to someone outside the group. Have you ever taken a step back and felt bewildered by the absurd repetition that has no humor or impact? These measly efforts are an attempt to resist the passage of time, death’s human vertigo.”
I lowered the flute and the cobra collapsed upon itself.

Three other writers appear in this “book”, César Aira in a short story about virgins and vampires, Samuel Hope the master of the short story who spent his life savings stopping his works from being published, and Higuchi Ichigo who throws away his writings so they are not discovered.

“Book V: The Book of Contemporaries: Fight Club” works with Cuban literature and the struggles of the 70’s and 80’s. One of those writers being our author himself. We also have a taxi driver who loves quotes, and there are pages littered with quotes from famous people. This is the section where the influences of outside literature, on Cuban writing, come to the fore, the black market publications, the passing of titles amongst readers, of course the book we are currently reading is a compilation, a mimicking, of these well-known works.

“Book VI The Book of Fame: Lost in Translation” is a short tale of a taxi ride in Tokyo where the driver happened to be an extra on Sofia Coppola’s film, relaying stories of Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson. The lines of fiction becoming blurred.

“Book VII: The Book of the Book: The Last Librarian”….

Whilst highly entertaining, with the numerous voices, the imitation and the copious styles, I did question the intent. A book that reminded me of a creative writing graduate wanting to prove the amount they had read. The book within a book also reminded me, slightly, of “If On A Winter’s Night a Traveller” by Italo Calvino, something that is catchy and clever but one that doesn’t demand re-reading, actually a re-read makes the original wonder disappear. Maybe too much is attempted, packing the book too tightly? Clever, readable, entertaining but with too much squeezed in, and unlike the Sergio Pitol’s of the world I didn’t feel the need to pick up the referenced books, maybe I’ve read most of them!!!, ultimately though I have to ask, “why?”

theMystery.doc by Matthew McIntosh

Mystery

Consider yourselves travellers climbing a steep, rough path up a mountain, behind which is hidden a delightful plain; it proves all the more pleasurable the harder the climb and the descent that follows.

                                Giovanni Boccaccio “The Decameron” Introduction (translated by Peter Hainsworth)

You could see any book as a mountain, some more difficult to climb than others, some with easy paths but the riches of your travels make the ascent easy, others short sharp craggy climbs, but the view from the top is not always a “delightful plain”, at times I’ve come across vistas cloaked in haze, others very disappointing, and yet others the landscape peppered with resources. Small mountains can be just as rewarding as massive climbs.

Before even opening Matthew McIntosh’s “theMystery.doc”, you know you are about to embark on a “steep, rough path”, somewhat akin to Mount Kilimanjaro, maybe not the highest peak on the planet but one you need to think about before heading off. Weighing in at nearly 2 kilograms and 1,653 pages, on the surface it appears to be a daunting task.

Self-described, within the book itself, as a “post-post-neo-modern mystery story”, the narrative could be simply described as a writer who awakes, having forgotten himself, he doesn’t know the woman getting dressed in the room, he doesn’t know his neighbour’s name, and on his computer is an empty document titled “theMystery.doc”. Through various techniques he attempts to work out his identity, learning that he is a writer who has been working on his latest book for eleven years. Note: Matthew McIntosh’s first, and only other, novel “The Well” was published fourteen years ago, also by Grove Press.

However, this simple narrative ploy would probably make up only 10-15% of the book itself.

don’t try to analyse it…

just report it. (appears on various pages)

The book replicates our current technology driven lives, holding our attention for short periods of time, with various techniques deployed to shift our attention from one event to another, road signs, neon signs, scrolling replicated on a page, the constant distraction. We have .wav files, interviews transcribed, .avi files, movies transcribed, emails, images from various films, home photos, blank pages, computer code, redaction, and (controversially) a transcription of a 9/11 telephone call to 911. All of this is served in what appears to be no linear order

“A book like one of those paintings, Las Meninas, for example, where the key to the composition is found, in fact, outside the frame.” Luis Goytisolo “Recounting: Book 1 of Antagony”

The further you immerse yourself in this multi-media, work, the further the narrator fades from view, and as a reader you are exposed to reality through seemingly unconnected media. It is almost an instillation.

She said, “The journey is very difficult, and the one against whom you must stand will set many obstacles in your path. But the prize is great indeed.

You must be bold, and good and true, and never fear. The water will get colder the closer you get to the end, but you will not freeze. And the fire will grow hotter but it will not burn you. Everything will appear to turn upside down. The sky will be below you and above will be the ground. The one who tries to climb will find himself falling. But the one who lets himself go will rise to heaven. There will come a light, And then a flash. And then darkness. And then the end will appear to come. But do not be afraid. For the end is only a doorway to another world, the real world, which underlies, supports, and sustains this dull reflection. Always always always remember:

                                              .” (p147)

 

This is a brutal, raw, “monologue?” of people dealing with ill family members, premature births, still births, saints and beatification, 9/11, terrorist beheadings, and oh SO much more…

A repeated online conversation with a web bot, which takes unexpected spins and turns, reminds you of the increasingly dehumanised world we live in, these small diversions build to a crescendo of intermingling voices, messages and rapid fire images, the end result a lingering sense of sadness.

But it’s not over (p261)

That quote taking a whole page and being sandwiched between two blank pages.

Despite mingling environmental and indigenous messages of hope, and decay, the overarching feeling is one of loss, a loss of the American Dream post 9/11, a loss of parents, children, innocence, and of course memory.

W: Well, like you said before, the book is the map, you know?

M: Yeah.

W: Maps have symbols, which are representations of things.

As the circular references keep appearing before your eyes, the book itself, the one the writer is apparently writing, begins to appear in the text;

It will break – it will break two hundred years of classification of books.

It’s a big book about America.

It’s gonna be a record of America before the Great Fall.

M: I just gotta figure out Eternal Life. And then I have my ending.

Succumb to the rich canvas that is this book, although it looks HUGE, and is difficult to lug around, it is not a book that will take months to read, it is a work that becomes an immersive experience, dwell on the blank pages, observe the different images and their relevance, absorb the textual tricks and visions.

“We’ve heard that you live in town, that you have a drop-dead gorgeous wife who works with Candy’s mom. That you wrote a book about a decade ago that was praised by quickly forgotten. That you don’t talk to your agent or publisher or anyone who ever knew you, and that you dropped out of society and ran off to the boonies to write mankind’s next immortal masterpiece. The next Divine Comedy or Aeneid or Moby-Dick or Thousand and One Nights….”

Do not be put off by the massive bulk of this work, and do not attempt to understand the riches that it contains, simply allow the images, the experience to unfold, once you reach the pinnacle of this mountain I can assure you the vista is exquisite, even if you can only focus on one element of the view at a time, allow yourself the space, and time to take it all in. It will dwell and haunt you for quite some time.

Congratulations to Grove Press for putting together such a cumbersome and complex work, I can imagine the production would have taken quite some effort.

As W. M. Spackman said “Style and structure are the essence of a book; great ideas are a lot of hogwash,” this one contains more style and structure than you’re likely to come across in any bookstore.

My response to the 2017-18 Seagull Catalogue provocation

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Social media butterflies may have noticed a flurry of excitement about the new Seagull Books catalogue. Every year Seagull Books create and publish a massive catalogue containing original pieces of literature, art and translations from numerous worldwide contributors.  Limited to 1,500 copies and launched at the Frankfurt Book Fair, this year’s edition has an individual cover for each edition. My copy containing one of my works on the cover.

The collection of pieces comes about from a provocation by Seagull Books’ Naveen Kishore, which I have included below.

I submitted two sestinas, a complex poetic form using intricate repetition. As www.poets.org explains;

 The sestina follows a strict pattern of the repetition of the initial six end-words of the first stanza through the remaining five six-line stanzas, culminating in a three-line envoi. The lines may be of any length, though in its initial incarnation, the sestina followed a syllabic restriction. The form is as follows, where each numeral indicates the stanza position and the letters represent end-words:

 

  1. ABCDEF
  2. FAEBDC
  3. CFDABE
  4. ECBFAD
  5. DEACFB
  6. BDFECA
  7. (envoi) ECA or ACE

 

The envoi, sometimes known as the tornada, must also include the remaining three end-words, BDF, in the course of the three lines so that all six recurring words appear in the final three lines. In place of a rhyme scheme, the sestina relies on end-word repetition to effect a sort of rhyme.

I chose not to include words BDF in the final envoi, however both works follow the other strict restrictions.

The first sestina, “White Fella goes to the Red Heart” is a reflection on my journeys through central Australia and more specifically the yearly trek I organise to raise funds for the retention of indigenous women’s culture. The ending a comment on Australia’s political “recognition” campaign, and the recent political stance whereby the Government asked the indigenous “leaders” to come up with recommendations, which they have chosen to ignore. Interestingly Joseph Schreiber also used his trek, with me, for his response, which you can read here.

The second sestina is about Australia’s shameful past (and present) on Manus Island, firstly as a site for post WW2 trials, where 5 Japanese POW’s were hanged and currently as a detention centre for refugees. This second poem is also acrostic (the first letter of each line spelling out my real message). Using snippets of 1940’s/50’s media reports and current Australian immigration propaganda, it is a response to a Government that hides the truth from the electorate.

Here is Naveen’s provocation followed by the two responses that were included in the 2017 catalogue.

Provocation

It begins slowly. Always in slow motion. With just the right pink and gold that the light designer ordered for the occasion. The script as perfect as can be. The director’s genius about to be rewarded. The performance about to, yes, begin. The curtain to rise. An audience seated. Resigned to what they know will unfold. Without change. Like having seen it happen before. Not here. Not at this particular venue. Or at this play. In their lives. They know the drama. The realism. The script. The dance. The moves. They know. Everything.

Drop a bomb. Set off a device. Blow to smithereens. Unless you do. The image that springs to mind when you see a ruin is gentle. Floating into the mind. Sideways. Almost horizontal. A sense of having fallen into something slowly. Over time. Perhaps what you labeled love. Like leaves. The kind that autumn sheds. Those. Very. Leaves. I guess things fall into gentle ruin. They do. That is the phrase I seek. The familiarity of the tragic. The kind that is foretold in every gesture you create. For yes. It is creative. This ruination. How else would it ever have got to the stage it has. One of utter helplessness. Descending into an aesthetically designed. Even overwhelming. Futility.

Embraces like coagulated clots growing. Thickening. Clinging walls. Solidifying layers settling. In an intense and congealed setting for decay to blossom. Into? Dare I say it? Decay. Decay yet to be born so unborn decay. The kind that waits. Waiting to grow. Flourish. Thrive. Open. Unfolding decay. One that matures into full blown decay. Without containment or known boundaries. Therefore spreading. This decay. Decay as epidemic. A decay of ruination. Utter and complete. Defeated decay. Gnawing at the foundations. Of what? Of what once. Was. Eroding decay. Relentless and unceasing. And yes. A committed decay.  

A twilight turned yellow.

 

White fella goes to the red heart

 

This endless horizon, this infinite space, you think you’re alone.

Where ever your eyes wander there appears to be ancient dust.

From afar one cannot help but think; this is devoid of water.

From a distance this landscape appears to be devoid of life,

but peer into the vastness, up close it’s rich and teeming with black

bull ants, brown snakes, cream grubs, dead mulga trees teeming with white

 

ants, red desert peas with their black hearts, red rocks, and no white

clouds to be seen, just a vast blue sky, red dust and me, alone.

Camping under massive night skies, stars outnumbering the black.

Wood smoke enveloping my skin as the campfire burns, ash, dust,

orange flame, and the light flickers, reflecting a pair of eyes, life

in the vastness, an invisible mammal in search of water

 

the life giving substance, small rock holes and pools filled with water,

attracting roos, wallabies, lizards, dingoes, snakes with their white

bellies and camouflaged skins, venomous serpents, takers of life

cold blooded hibernators, living in nooks, under logs, under rocks, alone.

Wind stirs, rustles dead spinifex needles, rustles mulga, raises dust,

sends my wood smoke afar, illuminates embers, amongst the black

 

ash. There is nothing man made in sight, nothing except my black

billy. Beauty in the rock formations, reflections in the water

holes, where black eyed, tan skinned dingoes prick ears, wade and wash off dust

quench their thirst, placate their belly rumblings, the soft down on those bellies white

again. I the only whitefella in this vast landscape, sit and write alone,

no one to distract me, only the constant buzzing of flies signalling life,

 

although I know in the shade, under rocks, in the earth there is more life,

the emptiness is teeming with it. I’m not connected like the black

fella, he is one with his land, one with his country never alone

out here, always accompanied by elders past. Kapi his word for water,

life giving water, keeping us all alive, even pink skinned me, white

fella out of place, misplaced, miniscule like a tiny dust

 

mote, falling in an empty room, you can’t follow it, lost in more dust,

lost like a white intruder in the red heart of a nation. Not life

affirming but life destroying. Lifestyle choices, dreams of white

picket fences, manicured lawns and trimmed box hedges and hot black

asphalt leading right up to the castle’s front door. The water

moat not required as high tech security systems ensure I’m alone.

 

I’m now beyond the pale in the ‘burbs, populated with pale white

middle-class computer activists who will vote to recognize black

fellas and say they’ve done the right thing. Recognize so they don’t feel alone.

 

Manus

 

Sword cutting thick air and necks, whiskey bottle in hand, no dream island

Here, an island of execution, an island where prisoners of war are hanged

Out to dry, hanged by the neck until dead. Tropical heat, no scent of freedom

Under the languid humid sky, five judges, waiting to claim “you are never

Leaving here alive”. Five suspects, found guilty, now simply ghosts,

Dead for their crimes, hanged on Manus, away from the ashamed

 

Battalions, away from the gaze of ignorant citizens, ashamed,

Embarrassed citizens, too busy to learn the truth of this tropical island.

Admiralty Islands, United States occupied, the remnants, the ghosts.

Shinohara hanged, Suzuki hanged, Nishimura, Miyamoto, Tsuaki hanged,

Hanged, hanged. Never to see Japan again, like asylum seekers who are never

Allowed to set foot on Australian soil, never to leave Manus and taste freedom.

 

Marked as peoples never to call a place home, to taste freedom

Enjoy autonomy, play on grass, not fenced in, not ashamed,

Disgraced, dispossessed, displaced. Marked as a statistic, never

Ever getting out of this hell, not knowing if they are leaving Manus Island,

Marked, branded, citizens of nowhere. The protester hanged,

Bowed their head in shame, prayed for the murdered, the ghosts.

 

Asylum seeker Reza Barati, “severe head trauma”, another to add to the ghosts,

Riots blamed, security workers found guilty, five years jail before they taste freedom,

Refugee Hamid Khazaei, lack of medical care to blame, nobody hanged

About this, just a bunch of pen pushing bureaucrats ashamed

Staffers, working in air conditioned offices, far from the notorious island,

Enjoying suburban backyards and freedom in Canberra, never

 

Dispensing blame, simply quoting the party line; “you are never

Tasting freedom, you are never calling Australia home”. Refugees dreaming of ghosts

Of homelands left behind, haunted by ghosts of violent deaths on the island.

Barati died, seventy more sustained injuries, and all they ask for is freedom,

Empathy, a place to call home. Why are we not ashamed

Australia? White Australia Policy Government, retribution, five hanged

 

Up by the neck until dead, five Japanese war prisoners tried and hanged

Secretly, away from prying eyes. And now the mantra is “you are never

To set foot on Australian soil”, we’ve killed and imprisoned, we’re not ashamed,

Refusing to show compassion, refusing to be haunted by the ghosts.

Australia girt by sea, young and free, that rich and rare freedom,

Little shared. Born into freedom we hide our shame on an island

 

In Papua New Guinea, hide our shame, our embarrassment, our ghosts,

Allow media barons to spread lies and propaganda, Ministers never

Never allowing people to taste freedom, we should be ashamed.

 

Sarah Holland-Batt poet interview

Southerly77.1

A few months ago, I had a review and interview published in Southerly Journal (issue 77.1). I looked at Sarah Holland-Batt’s “The Hazards” and quoted few answers that she kindly provided in an interview. If you are interested in the Southerly article you can purchase a copy here

As the interview had a lot more detail that I was able to include in the final published work, today I present the full un-edited version. As always I am extremely grateful to the poet for her time in answering my questions, and with Sarah Holland-Batt being the editor of “Best Australian Poems 2017”  (and in 2016), as well as being a judge for the Fiction and Poetry categories for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards I am amazed that she found the time for my humble blog.

As always I hope you enjoy the insights into the poetic world of last year’s Prime Minister’s Literary Award winner.

Q. Your epigraph is from Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem, taken from the German Luther Bible, ‘For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower therefor falleth away.’ A number of your poems musing on fleeting existence. What drew you to that theme?

For almost half my life I have watched the torturous decline of one of my parents due to their debilitating illness; this made me think about death and mortality relatively early, and it’s a subject that has persisted in various ways for me in my work. When someone who you are close to is in decline—even figuratively, say, insofar as they are losing their memory, or their personality—the idea of death as a gradual process rather than a singular and definitive event takes root and comes to infuse everything in your life.

Q. Poetry has a long association with animal metaphor, and Section II of “The Hazards” are all dedicated to animals, predominantly birds and appear to link to a travel journal of sorts, can you explain this a little more?

I think of those poems (perhaps strangely) as chiefly political poems rather than ‘bird poems’ per se. Several were written in Central America, and chime with recent political histories—juntas, dictatorships, evolutions/uprisings and so forth. I’ve always been interested in animal hierarchies and animal violence; in their often brutal ecosystems and behavioral patterns, I see echoes of certain kinds of human activities and drivers—basest instinct, opportunism, self-preservation and self-interest, but also recklessness, proteanism, opulence, indulgence, contrarianism, and on and on. I suspect all my poems are travel journals of a sort; I tend to write while on the move, rather than while at home; I find estrangement from myself, my mother tongue, my latitude and longitude a powerful inducement to write.

Q. You talk of ekphrastic poetry in the Notes and personally the images from Emanuel Phillips Fox’s The Landing of Captain Cook at Botany Bay 1770 (1902) were extremely vivid. The other poem that really struck me was Reclining Nude after Lucien Freud’s Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (1995), what drew you to this controversial work and can you tell us a little more about the resultant poem?

“Reclining Nude” was simply an attempt to replicate the sheer materiality of the paint in Freud’s painting—which has an incredibly thick, trowelled-on texture—using language alone. It was a challenge I gave myself: work toward that sort of impasto using language. It is also a poem about the inherent class gap between painter and subject, and, of course, about the painter’s gaze, which (in characteristic Freudian fashion) is incredibly unforgiving towards—or perhaps just honest about—the human body. Flesh seems to me Freud’s perpetual subject, a compulsive fascination that approaches that of the Dutch Masters’ obsession with fabric, haberdashery and upholstery; for Freud it is skin, rather than velvet or gauze, that he renders in faithful deeply textural detail.

Q. The collection ends with the title poem “The Hazards”, and images of distance, vulnerability, and finishing with an existentialist refrain. It leaves the collection with a hint of “what next”, so what is next?

Another book of poems, eventually, although I like to take my time between books. I also have a novel manuscript that I’m working on at a snail’s pace; my work commitments make poetry a more achievable form, but I’ve always loved writing prose and am hoping to find time in the near future to recommence work on the novel as well.

Q. Congratulations on winning the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Poetry for 2016, one of the most financially rewarding Awards for poets in the country. Female representation on the shortlist was limited to yourself alone, so congratulations on your work being recognised despite the gender bias. Has winning the award sunk in and do you think this will positively impact your ability to write more poetry? Do you think it will increase your popularity?

This is perhaps a side point, but I don’t particularly believe that because there happens to be only one woman on a shortlist in a given year that the judges’ decision necessarily reveals underlying or systemic bias. I read the books of the other poets—Les Murray, Robert Adamson, Michael Farrell and Simon West—and thought they were all extremely fine collections; I was pleased to be in their company. And as it so happened, women won the vast majority of the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards this year, which was pleasing to see. Winning the award still feels surreal; winning on the eve of Trump’s election to the Presidency made it feel doubly so. It certainly will allow me to write more poetry, and to spend time researching, writing, and travelling—all necessary components of my work. But I do think the establishment and continuation of the PMLAs is important for Australian writers. In the context of the severe budgetary cuts to several state literary awards, the continuing presence of national awards that robustly and generously recognise literature’s importance to Australia, and the part writers play in forging our culture, is heartening.

Q. Finally, I always like to ask this, what are you reading at present and why?

I had a year of the most extraordinary reading as editor for Black Inc’s The Best Australian Poems 2016; systematically reading every Australian literary journal, a large number of anthologies and collections, and thousands upon thousands of individual poems certainly occupied the vast bulk of my reading time. I’m gearing up to do the same thing for the 2017 edition, so I predict another avalanche of poems just around the corner, too. Of the individual books of poetry I read over the past year, I loved Peter Rose’s The Subject of Feeling, Liam Ferney’s Content, Jennifer Maiden’s The Fox Petition, Dan Disney’s either, Orpheus, Michelle Cahill’s The Herring Lass, Michael Farrell’s Cocky’s Joy, and on and on. I have the new (and beautifully produced) Puncher & Wattman Contemporary Australian Poetry on my bedside to read in the new year. And as far as fiction goes, I just finished rereading the unsettling, unrelenting Submission by Michel Houllebecq, which does everything I want a novel to do.

Recounting: Antagony Book I – Luis Goytisolo (translated by Brendan Riley)

Recounting

The Catalan “Ulysses”?

In recent months I have come across a plethora of references to James Joyce’s novel, with comparisons to numerous world literature works, must be the circles I mix in on social media! As frequent visitors here would know, I have recently reviewed part of Oğuz Atay’s “Tutunamayanlar” (“The Disconnecte d”), referred to as the Turkish “Ulysses” and today I look at Luis Goytisolo’s “Antagony”, more precisely “Recounting: Book 1”.

Here’s a few snippets of other reviewer’s thoughts, one taken from the publisher’s foreign rights page, the other from a site I visit often to explore world literature.

In whatever way, like Joyce’s Ulysses or Proust’s In search of lost time, like many others—or few others—you shouldn’t die without having read it (Antonio Martínez Asensio, blog Tiempo de silencio, Antena3.com)

In Spain, it is considered as one of the great works of 20th century literature, compared both to A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time; Remembrance of Things Past). The comparison are certainly valid. Like the Joyce it is a Bildungsroman while, like the Proust, it is a long exploration of the artistic development of a young man. From the site “The Modern Novel” (although a great review it should come with a spoiler warning)

And then we have Mario Vargas Llosa (thanks to The Untranslated for this snippet ):

Besides being an ambitious and complex book, difficult to read due to the protoplasmic configuration of the narrative matter, it is also an experiment intended to renew the content and the form of the traditional novel, following the example of those paradigms which revolutionalised the genre of the novel or at least tried to do so — above all Proust and Joyce, but, also James, Broch and Pavese –, without renouncing a certain moral and civic commitment to historical reality which, although very diluted, is always present, sometimes on the front stage, sometimes as the novel’s backdrop.

Structurally this book does have a Proustian bent, following the life of Raúl Ferrer Gamide, a middle class Catalan, from childhood through army service, law studies, romantic interludes but more importantly his desire to be a writer. All against the political backdrop of Barcelona. I won’t be putting any spoilers in my thoughts here, rest assured if you decide to tackle this massive book I’ll allow you to discover the narrative yourself.

However, it is not the plot that is the main attraction here, it is the novel’s structure, grand sweeping exploration of Catalan society after the Spanish Civil War and the political luminosity that drags you along, through 648 pages.

A difficult book to read, we have ten page paragraphs, generally consisting of a single sentence, dialogue that forms part of the main text, so it is a challenge to understand who is speaking, a cast of hundreds, all with nicknames, some with code names and then broad philosophical debates, including political manifestos.

For example there are three page explanations as to why a door was locked at 3pm precisely, another three pages observing the eating of a ham sandwich, but it is the microscopic examination of Barcelona and the middle class that brings the richness to this novel.

A wonderful example of the craft is the beginning of Chapter IV, where the paragraph opens with “Coming down to Las Ramblas…”, an area of Barcelona, and ends with “their fitful procession heading up Las Ramblas.” In between there are descriptions of all the alleys, the crowds, the flowers, “confusing alleys and side streets with their little dives which stank of hashish, alleys where, as it grew dark, the shining lights isolated the ground floor businesses, the red doorways, the worn, narrow pavement, the filthy paving stones, high-heeled shoes, bulging hips, necklines, long manes of hair, painted eyes, a succession of bars, of turf marked off and intensified by cigarette smoke.”

Each of the players circle in and out of focus, and as we move through Raúl’s maturation from childhood to schooling, to army service, to his involvement with the socialist/communist party, his distribution of clandestine pamphlets, his legal work and dreams of being a writer, we learn more and more about Catalan society.

Classic references to things such as the “caganer”, the defecating figurine in Catalan nativity scenes, blend with discussions on Catalan poetry, literature, its demise and subsequent rise, and further discussions on Spanish speaking Catalonians, this is a detailed expose of cultural life.

In one section we have many pages describing the Sagrada Familia, Raúl simply walking in there to hide from the police, when suddenly the text lapses into descriptive explanations of the iconic Church:

And to the right, the Portico of Faith, enraptured altarpiece centred on the presentation of Jesus in the temple, with an outline of images now solemn and impassive, now violent, like the one of John the Baptist preaching in the desert, foretelling the coming of the Messiah, all that upon an embroidered background of wretchedness and suffering, of an interwoven framework of thorns and flowers, buds, corollas, thalamus, sepals, petals. Stigmata, honeybees drawn to pollen, and superimposed on the bramble-crag crenellations, the lantern, a three-peaked oil lamp, eternal triangle, base of Immaculate Conception, dogmatic effigy rising in ecstasy, like an ejaculatory prayer from within a large cascade of sprigs and grape clusters, all those details one can spot carefully from any one of the points of the belfry towers, as you climb the airy spiral staircases, from the doorways, from the enclosed balconies sinuously integrated on the projections of architraves and cornices of the frontispiece, balconies with bulbous wrought iron railings, small contoured galleries, catwalks, small steps, intestinal cavities, twisted corridors of irregular relief, passages conjoined in a coming and going from the belfries to the façade, four intercommunicating bell towers, harmonically erect. Which, if near their bases appear rather strangely compounded with the parameters of the porticoes, as the separate, each acquiring its own shape, they becomes curving parabolic cones, the two outer pairs equal in height, the two center towers taller.

The more you read of this complex work, the more you realise it is an homage to Barcelona.

Richly packed with snippets of historical data, with references to cultural icons and other books, there are also brilliantly referenced cultural scraps, for example when one character’s father suspiciously dies and the subsequent legal action over his business interests hots up, there is a reference to Goya’s “Trágala, perro”, “depicting some raving monks with a giant syringe about to forcibly administer an enema to a trembling man in the presence of his veiled wife.”

 

425px-Museo_del_Prado_-_Goya_-_Caprichos_-_No._58_-_Tragala_perro

 

Suddenly an obscure etching has made itself into my sphere, and now my consciousness.

We also have a number of references to Marcel Proust, one of my favourite sections talking about a literary endeavour:

…we have a good example of that in Manolo Maragas, with his remembrances and reflections, with the magnified profiles of his memory, when he talks about Alicia and Sunche, when he talks about Magdalena’s grandmother as if she were the Duchess of Guermantes and as if Grandpa Augusto were the duke, and Doña America were Madame Verduin, and that crazy Tito Coll a sort of Charlus, while he, Manolo Moragas, the narrative I, an apathetic Marcel, too sceptical to take the trouble to write anything, the only reason for him not already having withdrawn into his cork-lined cell, becomes a chronicler of Barcelonan society, the literary transcription of whose avatars, for any reader not directly implicated in that world, would awaken the same interest, probably, as the prose of one of those stylists in the Sunday edition of a provincial newspaper who’ve achieved a certain notoriety by the agreeable character of the collaborations, stylists who philosophize like a sheep chewing its cud before the ruins of the Parthenon, not in service of the validity of the ideas developed, but rather, to please his readers’ palates, of the originality of the focus and the graceful exposition, as well as this stylist’s prose, the interest of the specific problems of that world, of the characters capable of inhabiting it, grazing and watering among the ruins of the culture, with the grace and subtlety and elegance of a bull’s head that, like Narcissus, gazes at itself in a puddle.

In a few lines, the depth of characters take on a new meaning, readers of Proust suddenly having another layer to the already complex players. But we are not restricted to Proust, the is a whole section questioning scholars and them not giving enough time to Dante’s Canto 34 in Inferno. Through drunken debates, scholarly discussions, a whole playing field of the author’s views can be spread on this massive canvas.

I must admit, there were many political sections where I tired of the proletariat debate, the roles of the bourgeois, the eternal struggle of the worker, however these political rants were more than adequately balanced with crystal clear observations of daily life, of the existentialist struggle. A Menippean satire? Possibly. A Catalan “Ulysses”, less likely, for a start it isn’t a single day…

A massively complex but thoroughly engaging work, unfortunately we have to wait until August 2018 for Book II to be released in English, and by that time it may mean a re-reading of “Recounting” is required, a novel that would reveal so much more upon every re-read, and so little time!!!

I am hoping to get to a few other world literature “Ulysses” over the coming months, I may tire of that journey but a few books I do have set aside are:

“Leg Over Leg” by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq (all four volumes)

“Three Trapped Tigers” by Guillermo Cabrera Infante

“Adam Buenosayres: A Critical Edition” by Leopoldo Marechal

“All About H. Hatterr” by G.V. Desani

“Berlin Alexanderplatz” by Alfred Döblin

And of course I need to post my thoughts on the remaining section of Oğuz Atay’s “The Disconnecte d”

I am sure there are many many more books that fall into the “Ulysses” category, hopefully I get to discover their riches over the coming years.