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The Day of the Owl – Leonardo Sciascia

Sposito had a baby face, but the brothers Colasberna and their associates were in holy terror of his presence, the terror of a merciless inquisition, of the black seed of the written word. ‘White soil, black seed. Beware the man who sows it. he never forgets,’ says the proverb.

All right, then, no flights of fancy. But Sicily is all a realm of fantasy and what can anyone do there without imaginations?

Salvatore Colasberna is unusual, but his end is not. He is an honest contractor in Sicily and on the opening page of The Day of the Owl he is gunned down while boarding the morning bus. The same day, a local man named Nicolosi disappears. Tips begin to pour into the police station about both crimes, most of which suggest that one or both were crimes of passion, with almost no indication that the two might be connected. The detective on the case, Captain Bellodi, is an outsider from Parma and newly appointed to Sicily and suspects that there is something more sinister at work. Bellodi is particularly suspicious of the mafia, much to the chagrin of his local subordinates and influential Sicilians in Rome, all of whom insist that the criminal organization doesn’t exist—-that it is conspiracy dreamt up by the malicious outsiders.

The Day of the Owl is, at its heart, a police procedural that follows Bellodi’s meticulous investigation into the two murders. He rejects the premise that either crime is the result of passion, and begins tracking down leads that might reveal that the two murders are connected by the mafia. He manages to track down the two killers and connect the murders and finds enough evidence to arrest a head of the mafia, but the suspects reject his accusation that this shadowy organization is strangling Sicily. The island runs on family relationships and friendships and nothing more sinister, they say.

For all that civilians stonewall and higher-ups put pressure on Bellodi, the actual investigation is straightforward and goes off without a hitch. The plot builds up to a cordial, climactic exchange between the captain and the arrested mafia boss Don Mariano Areno, who plays innocent and mocks Bellodi for seeing an all-powerful organization running Sicily. Areno respects Bellodi, and their tet a tete develops into a debate about how Sicily ought to operate. Despite himself, Bellodi finds himself in love with the insular, intransigent, and backward-looking island that resists assimilation into the modern world.

This particular climax further indicates what sort of story The Day of the Owl is. Although saddled with the trappings of a detective novel and bearing some of the same pacing, Sciascia’s book is more of a portrait of an unnamed Sicilian town and the operation of the mafia, as seen through the eyes of an outsider. Sciascia himself was a native Sicilian and vocal critic of the mafia throughout his life, and the character of Bellodi seems to take on his role as someone who loves he island and the people, but hates the corruption that pervades its society.

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I am going to read another of Sciascia’s novels in the near future, but next up I am probably going to read Dan Simmon’s The Fall of Hyperion.

The Post-Office Girl – Stefan Zweig

And when at eight in the morning Christine sat down, she was tired–tired not from something achieved and accomplished, but tired in anticipation of everything ahead, the same faces, the same questions, the same chores, the same money.

“Yes, my friend, from down in the muck the world doesn’t look that delightful.”

Christine, the eponymous Post-Office Girl, is an Austrian civil servant in the years after World War One. Her brother died in the war, her father is dead, and her mother dying, and even her married sister’s family is struggling to make ends meet. Christine is fortunate that she has a job, one that is monotonous and regimented, but even allows for moments of stolen relaxation. It does not allow for a life outside of the job and Christine has never had a suitor in all her years, but she keeps her ambitions limited and can take pleasure in those stolen moments. Then her aunt, who left home and eventually married a wealthy Dutch merchant and now lives in America, inviting her to vacation at a resort in the Alps and she is swept into a world of money, luxury, and desire.

Christine arrives at the resort looking like a peasant girl, but mountain air, soft clothing, and attentions of men revitalize her and set her spinning in a world of her dreams. Her innocence of the world nevertheless awakens dormant fears and jealousies, and these forces conspire to eject her back to the drudgery of her job, painfully aware of every slight and every ache. She is somewhat saved when she meets Ferdinand, a bitter, frustrated, and injured war veteran, whose desire fulfills her and who can relate to being down in the muck of society. However, their relationship rubs dirt into her wounds since it reveals how far money corrupts every aspect of human interaction and she feels constant shame at their circumstances. Needing to take care of themselves before they can fix the world, Christine and Ferdinand concoct first one and then another plan to revolt against the society that beats them down.

The Post Office Girl is formally divided into two parts. The first details Christine’s awakening to the world of money. She starts with little, but quickly adapts to the wonders of nice clothing, good food, soft beds, and, importantly a freedom from want. More than that, though, the trip to the resort and the world of money awakens her interest in being desired. Money facilitates a range of human relationships, all of which she embraces. For Christine, money is a heady experience, but her appearance is refreshing to some people, while disturbing the social relationships already in place. For instance, after the initial delight in her niece wears off, Christine’s aunt becomes increasingly worried that her own modest background and questionable means of entry into society will be discovered, ultimately leading to cutting off her family once more. Similarly, Christine interrupts the courtship between a German engineer and a character known as the Mannheim girl, the latter of whom jealously observes this intruder, determining that after “ten or twenty gaucheries like that and it was clear she was poorly versed in the lore of the chic.” The first experience with capitalism does not itself change Christine’s personality, but the brief experience with money and then having it suddenly ripped away leaves her bitter and frustrated.

There are echoes of George Orwell and Joseph Roth in this critique of post-war Austria. (There is also some Kafka, but the bureaucracy does actually reply.) The times are particularly difficult for a host of people whose lives were broken, stolen, according to Ferdinand, by the war and the people are aware of these difficulties. But the major critique of post-war capitalism emerges first and foremost in the contrast between the mountainous land of the gods and the muck of the towns and cities where everyday people live.

I liked The Post-Office Girl a lot, though, admittedly, it falls into a sweet spot for my particular reading tastes and it was not without its problems. Christine is an effective narrator whose arc is easy to follow, but she is also something of an empty vessel reacting to desires who gets swept up in whatever situation she finds herself in. She is not a flapper, who are accounted by the novel as members of the wealthy, and there is a little bit of denigration of her as a woman, sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the context described by Zweig. Christine’s emotional roller-coaster contributes to the raw power of the novel and Zweig contributes canny observations about all of the interactions between people as they struggle through a world that does not care whether they live or die. The revolution is not going to be forthcoming and it seems that only the wealthy have the luxury to enjoy life or to play political games. There is something despicable about the behavior of some, though not all, of the wealthy people in their idyllic retreat, but there is also enough delight that leads Ferdinand to ask the most important of questions:

“I don’t mean ‘why not me instead of him’…Just ‘why not me too.’”

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Next up I am reading The Day of the Owl by Leonardo Sciascia, a murder mystery set in a small Sicilian town where the only honest architect in the region is gunned down in the street on the opening page.

Night Heron – Adam Brookes

Prisoner 5995, a.k.a. Peanut, escapes from a work camp somewhere in Western China after serving nearly twenty years of a sentence, eludes the manhunt and makes his way to Beijing. He finds the world has changed dramatically since his arrest and falls back on his training to evade notice while developing a plan that will punish those who he blames for his incarceration and allow him to get out China. Toward the former, he makes contact with Wen Jinghan, an engineer who had supplied him with state secrets in his former life as a spy, and with Philip Mangan, a reporter who works for the same newspaper that employed his former contact with British Intelligence. Bewildered, Mangan turns reaches out to contacts in the British government, who decide to use him as Peanut’s handler after Peanut supplies the cover page to a report detailing the state of the Chinese missile system.

The tension grows as Chinese are alerted to an intelligence leak and begin to close in on Mangan and his associates, including on his photograph and girlfriend, and the British services change the parameters of the mission. Peanut doesn’t particularly care about the secrets he is peddling and Mangan is more bewildered than dedicated, but both find themselves trapped in the space between agencies, neither of which cares about their wellbeing except to how it serves their impersonal ends.

I picked up Night Heron, Brookes’ debut novel, because of a recent interest in reading more spy/detective thrillers and it appeared on a list of best new books in the genre. There is good reason for this. Brookes, a longtime journalist in East Asia, gives enough detail about China and how it has changed in recent years, both in terms of the relationship between the citizens and the government and in terms of the physical space that there really is a particular setting. He also successfully builds suspense in this sprawling story by showing how many characters are working multiple angles, while Peanut is lost in a modern world, and Mangan is befuddled by the games within games. The lack of certainty does its job.

Brookes describes Night Heron as his “efforts to understand something of what goes on in the world of intelligence,” and this shows through. Mangan takes on the role of author and reader surrogate, trying to understand what is happening so that he can stay one step ahead of the agents trying to stop Peanut. Mangan was also the most fully-realized character, as the large number that appeared led to a number of flat characters such as the beautiful Chinese spy who seduces a married American contractor who fill out archetypes and exist for the purposes of moving the plot along more than adding much to the story in their own right. Similarly, Brookes is more adept at identifying how technology might cause a spy unfamiliar with it to go obsolete than he is at developing the consequences of those themes.

My favorite thriller novels usually raise the tension with a tight narrative that is ultimately a cat-and-mouse game between two entities. Night Heron is a small story with big stakes, but something is lost in that it also stretches to at least four or five distinct locations and with at least three distinct plots. For much of the novel the tension is that of the paranoia of the unknown and is (appropriately for this story, in my opinion) juxtaposed with the chess players back in England whose lives are not immediately at stake. The cats are not awake yet, but the mice know they are there. Toward the end of Night Heron the cats awaken, but this part of the story felt somewhat perfunctory–a frenetic chase that places the mice in danger, causes the arrest of minor characters, and validates their paranoia in spades, but was also a transition that I found jarring. These were all issues I had that were well within the parameters of the story, but that detracted from the pacing and depth of the novel in ways that struck me as signs of a first book while also giving me hope that he can mature as a storyteller.

Night Heron is a good first novel from an author who is worth keeping an eye on and gives plenty to think about, but was to my taste flawed. Hopefully the stories become tighter and more fully fleshed out as Brookes develops his craft and if good reviews continue to come in I will check back in in a few years.

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Next up, I have been slowly making my way through Stefan Zweig’s beautiful The Post Office Girl while doing some recent travel. I also splurged on too many books to list here and as a result have no idea what I am going to read next, but am particularly looking forward to To Each His Own and The Day of the Owl, two short novels by the Sicilian author Leonardo Sciascia.

Some thoughts on translation

In A Splendid Conspiracy (reviewed here), the police informant and intellectual of the streets, Rezk, covets foreign books, which he diligently reads at the pace of a page a day even though he frequently finds phrases that are beyond his comprehension. At the same time, Medhat, who works the for the town’s newspaper, dismisses the idea of reading books in other languages because people are the same everywhere and the books are going to share the perversity in any language so why bother working so hard.

In The Russian Girl Richard Vaisey stubbornly resists teaching courses in translation because the students cannot then claim to read Russian novels, but only a pale image of the real thing.

Years ago I had a conversation with a friend who declared that he doesn’t read books in translation. In contrast, almost forty percent of my non-academic reading in the past four years has been translated into English. My friend’s concern was over the quality of the translation and I must admit that I have read some book where the translation was distinctly antiquated in such a way that it distracted. Sometimes the issues with the translation are with the translator, but sometimes they is with the original text. But even that dichotomy is too simple. To wit, all translation is going to itself be an art, with decisions about how to render turns of phrase, but where some syntax tracks well with English, some languages do not, while some books like Tyrant Banderas flow between multiple different dialects with varying levels of complexity and each with its own external symbolism in its diction.

The proper solution would, for Richard Vaisey, to read the book in the original. There is a value to this, which I can quite attest to in my academic work with Greek texts, but since there are multiple purposes for reading, translations are usually satisfactory so long as it is realized what they are.

I like explanations for particular word choices, as Alyson Waters offers in her translation of A Splendid Conspiracy, but generally trust publishers to employ capable translators. As a rule, cut some slack on purely aesthetic judgements of the text since it is being passed through a medium. The problem is trickier when there are dueling translations, but thankfully Google provides a service that allows easy access to reviews of the different translations. At the most granular level each will probably have its virtues, but, being interested in collecting stories, I prefer readability to a word-for-word translation. While I appreciate authors who have enough English to work closely with their translators like Umberto Eco and Orhan Pamuk have done, but the truth is that I greedily want access to these stories and (usually) lack the facility with the original language so I happily settle for the translation.

I will likely soon pick up one or more novels in French just to work toward fluency with that language, but I don’t consider it necessary to appreciate a book as a work of art. I believe that one of the things reading enables is to unlock all sorts of people and places, world views and experiences that are not normally available, particularly to someone living in the United States. To reject works in translation is to apply blinders to a whole range of cultures, not mention willfully denying oneself great art.

A Splendid Conspiracy – Albert Cossery

Since reading his novel The Jokers several years ago, Albert Cossery, the French-resident, Egyptian-born, Syriac-descended anti-materialist author, I have been an admirer of his work. A Splendid Conspiracy is the fourth of his novel I have consumed. While there is a lot to admire in these books, each successive one has rubbed away some of the shine. None of them has lived up to the promise of the The Jokers and each has further revealed some of the warts that plague Cossery’s striking worldview.

The semi-autobiographical hero of A Splendid Conspiracy is Teymour, the heir to the fortunes of a landowner of a small Egyptian city. Dismissive of the pursuit of material goods, the doddering, illiterate old man is nonetheless overawed by the prospects of a diploma in chemical engineering and therefore sent his son to Europe for an education. Teymour, equally unmoved by material things except insofar as they can be consumed, naturally took the opportunity to indulge in the licentious pleasures of European capitals, but, after six years, his father has summoned him. Being without a degree, Teymour pays for a forged diploma and returns home. Fortunately for him, Teymour is rescued from his boredom by an old friend Medhat and Imtaz, a famous actor whose looks are not diminished by his failing eyesight. This troika is determined to entertain themselves by observing others making fools of themselves. While people’s sexual and materialistic foibles are entertaining enough on their own, Medhat has an elaborate prank planned for the wealthy and lustful Chawki, far beyond the usual ploy of summoning him to risqué parties at the home of his former mistress so that she can berate him. So the conspirators set to work.

At the same time, there is a second conspiracy taking place in town. Rich men from the countryside are disappearing from the streets. They are presumed dead, but their bodies are not found. The authorities are at a loss as to what is happening and suspect that the secretive conspirators with no regard for decency and a tendency to randomly purchase things like a school girl’s uniform are revolutionaries or terrorists behind the murders. This is despite protestations of their informer, the young intellectual Rezk who does not believe that these men who are so decent to him could be guilty of such heinous crimes.

A Splendid Conspiracy unfolds at the intersection of these two conspiracies. Its strengths are common in Cossery’s work: scathing critiques of the pursuit of material wants and an elevation of the pursuit of happiness to a divine mandate. There is even something of a touching love story in the novel between Teymour and a saltimbanque, a street performer who entertains people on her bicycle. Much of the story is imbued with little moments where Cossery magnifies the various greeds of each individual character, with the heroes claiming that title because they are greedy for entertainment rather than sex or money or status. A Splendid Conspiracy also wrestled with the theme of longing to be somewhere else, with the characters divided between those finding the small city to be an exotic land filled with wonders, those finding it a bore compared with the wonders of faraway lands, and those who think people are exactly as entertaining everywhere.

The problems with A Splendid Conspiracy are, unfortunately, also common to Cossery’s work. I largely excused the problems with women when I reviewed The Jokers because the critique remained on materialism. In the rest of his work there is more bitterness toward women in general and a greater obsession with young women. The latter is particularly true in A Splendid Conspiracy. For instance, Medhat keeps an eye out for prepubescent girls who he believes will be both beautiful and licentious when they hit puberty and Chawki lusts after young women and laments that his former mistress is old and ugly in her early twenties. Even in a culture of fetishizing teenagers and sexualizing young girls, this near-universal obsession in A Splendid Conspiracy could be tough to read when the frame of the novel seems to condone rather than condemn this interest. What’s more, this is not presented as a cultural norm, but something for the purpose of the men’s pleasure and the only moral quality to it existing in the motives of the men. Chawki is a miser and a slave to his lust and therefore his obsession is something that can be exploited. Medhat, a married man, is in control of his and only looking out for pleasure. Even Salma, the former mistress and a liberated woman eventually proves desperate to cling to her material things.

The portrayal of women presented enough issues for me that I can’t categorically recommend this novel, but, at the same time, the social critiques of materialism and longing were more substantive than even The Jokers. This is solidly my second favorite Cossery novel and worth a read, even if it is also worth looking in askance at the gender politics.

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Next up is an espionage thriller set in China, Night Heron by Adam Brookes.

The Storyteller – Mario Vargas Llosa

In a gallery in Florence an ex-pat Peruvian writer (Mario Vargas Llosa) comes across a photograph of a gathering of Machiguenga natives and is transfixed by the sight of the storyteller with a conspicuous birthmark. Familiar with the Machiguenga, but not privileged enough to have met a reclusive storyteller, the narrator is certain that he knows that man, in a past life as a student in Peru. The novel unfolds in two symbolically linked narratives. In the first, the narrator thinks back to his days in Peru, remembering the young jewish man Saul Zarutas, called Mascarita, and everything he knows about the Machiguenga while in school or working as a television producer. These wandering peoples only recently came into contact with the modern world through missionaries who translated the bible into their language, but already their ways have begun to change. In the second, he imagines the tales of the Machiguenga storyteller, etiologies for the indigenous environment and Mascaritas transition to the channeler of these semi-divine stories.

The Storyteller, conspicuously told by an outsider looking back on his native land, deals with the issues of identity, particularly with regard to the duality inherent to some extant in all American countries. The chapters dedicated to Machiguenga cosmology offer insight into the tribe of nomadic walkers, as the tribe considers themselves, and work backward toward Mascarita’s transition. The closer to the modern world they come, the more imbued with western symbolism that is nonetheless presented as universal.

I liked The Storyteller and Llosa is an excellent author, but this was one of the weaker stories of his I have read. For one thing, the dual narrative works, but it is not as tightly linked as in The War of the End of the World or The Feast of the Goat. For another, Mascarita’s transition and Llosa’s nostalgia are poignant, but not as powerful as The Bad Girl. More importantly, though, I simply was unable to connect as strongly as I would have liked to the Native American portion of the story—it was interesting, but there was always some distance that I was unable to close.

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My next read is going to be Albert Cossery’s A Splendid Conspiracy.

Dr. Futurity – Philip K. Dick

I picked up Dr. Futurity in a used bookstore recently based on two criteria. First, one of my blindspots in the area of classic science fiction is the work of Philip K. Dick. I am aware of the premises for quite a few books, but I have never read any of them. Second, of the options before me, the synopsis of Dr. Futurity, a future world dominated by the young and fetishizes death, sounded the most interesting. [I should also mention that I believe in the important marketing elements of cover and description when it comes to pre-judging a book.]

Doctor Jim Parsons leaves his wife standing on the porch of their southern-California home one morning in 2010 and takes the expressway north to San Fransisco. On this high-speed commute there is an accident and he is launched four hundred years into the future, into a a world that is barely recognizable. This future world is one in which healing is stigmatized and death fetishized. The population is divided into tribes based on totems, with athletic competitions determining the proportion of the population each tribe gets to have. Men are sterilized at birth and zygotes brought to term through a strict regimen of eugenics; women are without representation and, other than their participation in the competitions, serve to please their male partners and guests as housekeepers and sexual objects. Mars is transformed into a prison colony for dissenters and Venus into a mine, with juvenile delinquents trained to be shupos, violent killers who enforce the government’s positions.

Parsons, with his white skin and hippocratic oath, is dropped into this world and sentenced to Mars. In transit he is rescued by the Wolf Tribe, dissenters of Native American heritage, who need him to save their leader who was killed with an arrow while on a mission to the sixteenth century. Using the time machine, Parsons leaps backward and forward, trying to find a balance between his family back home, a new love in the future, and the vicissitudes of human ambition.

The basic hypothetical Dick poses, the one that caused me to get the book, was the strongest part of Dr. Futurity. In contrast, the plot (and the questions pertaining to time travel) were simply okay, as it hopped forward and back in time. In my opinion, Dick did not add much by way of conversation about history or the paradoxes posed by time travel, and the fact that the story veered away from the future and to these issues weakened the book. In fact, most of the consequences in Dr. Futurity fell back on the question of personalities and power dynamics within human families or societies.

And yet, I had other, bigger issues with Dr. Futurity

  1. Some of the specifics Dick used to place Parsons as the inhabitant of the near future were hilariously out of date. Notably, the inhabitants of the future try to make Parsons feel at home by providing creature comforts of his era, and the go-to taste of home was a Lucky Strike cigarette—a brand that was discontinued in the United States in 2006.
  2. More important was the treatment of women. Where the racial dynamics in the future were refreshing, generally treated just as a fact and not with a moral attached, the book reeked of gender issues. First, while the stay-at-home wife seeing her husband off might have been true of the time of publication (1960), the setting is somewhat in the future and therefore distressingly regressive. Second, in the far future the need for biological mothers is eliminated, and yet the women are further relegated, being sex objects and servants for their men, while it is considered rebellious to even broach the topic of female suffrage. Some of the main characters do not fall into this category, but only because they are exceptional women.

    The first two issues were troubling enough, but could have been explained in the course of the narrative, but, instead, Dick’s writing slips into a third sexist tic. He tells the story through Parson’s eyes, and often has Parson casually ogle the breasts of female characters. To wit, he describes Loris, the leader of the Wolf Tribe and “the most potent human being alive” as “the powerful, full-breasted creature” who has “energetic loins” and “superb breasts” that “glistened, swayed”. Dick does use these moments to establish sexual interest, but while Loris has her uses for Parsons, the interest in principally coming from the other direction. Had there been a valuable narrative purpose to Parson’s wandering eye that would be one thing, but the above quotes come from multiple passages that offer a troubling discourse on the purpose of women in the world of the story.

In sum, Dr. Futurity brimmed with tantalizing potential, but fell short on a number of fronts. It might well be a setting worth revisiting, but this particular story only flashed glimpses, otherwise proving shallow and problematic.

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I just finished reading Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Storyteller, about an isolated tribe being acclimated to modern society as a modern anthropology student becomes absorbed into their traditions. Next up I am going to read Albert Cossery’s A Splendid Conspiracy.

Foucault’s Pendulum – Umberto Eco

True esotericism does not fear contradiction.

People are starved for plans. If you offer them one, they fall on it like a pack of wolves. You invent, and they’ll believe. It’s wrong to add to the inventings that already exist.

Foucault’s pendulum, this novel’s eponymous device, swings in the Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers in Paris and one theory holds that, with the right map, its movements will reveal the navel of the world and allow the user to access ultimate power. But this is only a conspiracy theory, right?

Foucault’s Pendulum is narrated by Casaubon, whose doctoral dissertation was on the historical facts surrounding the Knights Templar, though he insists that everything after the trial of Jacque de Molay belongs in the realm of myth. After graduating, Casaubon goes to work for press in Milan with his fellow editors Belbo and Diotallevi that specializes in the work of self-funded authors—-the realm of obsessives and those who see conspiracies at every turn. One of their potential authors is Colonel Ardenti, who claims to have discovered a message, in code, of course, concerning a Templar plot for world domination that spans centuries. But that contract falls through when Ardenti disappears.

Life happens and years go by, including a sojourn in Brazil for Casaubon, but around every corner is evidence of Ardenti’s Templar plot. By the 1980s all three editors are back in Milan and starting a division of the press that specializes in the occult. Years of reading books on cabala, conspiracies, and the occult has them seeing ever more evidence for the Templar plot until they decide to start feeding facts into a computer that will generate connections between disparate pieces of evidence. What they discover is a grand conspiracy that has been ongoing in its current iteration for more than six hundred years, but has been the principle motivator of world events for far longer.

Most of Foucault’s Pendulum‘s narrative takes place in the imagination of the three editors as retold by Casaubon. Nevertheless, the breadth of their knowledge makes the unfolding of the plot an intellectual tour de force, finding even the most improbable connections.

There was, however, one plot point that did not hold up for me: the computer. Set in 1990, the computer of Foucault’s Pendulum is touted as advanced (since Belbo was an early adopter) and capable of finding connections between any facts, but those data points must be manually entered. The editors use a few locked points (that the Templar plot is real) and call upon the computer to spit out connections to their inquiries. My issues with this plot point are two, one in terms of how the book aged and one in terms of the book itself.

First, the idea of a computer that can process information and return answers is all well and good, but I think that it has aged poorly simply in terms of the computing power currently available and the huge amount of data available through the internet. Similar ideas are at play in, for instance, the t.v. show Person of Interest, but on a more modern scale. This is not to discredit Foucault’s Pendulum, but rather to say that the device seems somewhat quaint at this point.

Second, and more pertinent to the plot of Foucault’s Pendulum is that the editors believe that the computer is producing connections in response to their questions, but answers are always oblique, requiring interpretation. This is probably Eco’s intention, meant to demonstrate a fatal flaw from the outset. The willful ignorance that makes up a significant portion of the plot would have bothered me less had it entirely been the result of human error, but the insertion of a technological wizard behind the curtain struck me as a relatively weak red-herring.

I really liked Foucault’s Pendulum overall. It was a stimulating mystery that also serves as a profound meditation on the foibles of human imagination and power of belief. The novel sprawls out, and only accelerates as it nears the conclusion, but this is necessary since the big reveal relies on a lifetime of accumulating evidence. I might have wished for just a bit more at points, but that should not detract from what is, ultimately, an immensely impressive novel.

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Next up is Philip K. Dick’s Dr. Futurity.

The Seven Madmen – Roberto Arlt

I read a lot, and believe me, all the books from Europe are full of the same current of bitterness and despair you speak of in your own life. Just look at the United States. Movie stars have platinum ovary implants; and there are murderers trying to beat the record for the most horrible crime. You’ve been around, you’ve seen it. House after house, different faces but the same hearts. Humanity has lost its ability to celebrate, to feel joy. Mankind is so unhappy it’s even lost God! Even a 300-horsepower engine is only fun when driven by a madman who is likely to smash himself to pieces in a ditch. Man is a sad animal who only rejoices in wonders. Or massacres. Well, in our society we’ll make sure we give them wonders–plagues of Asiatic cholera, myths, the discovery of gold deposits or diamond mines. I’ve seen it when we two talk. You only come alive when some fresh wonder is mentioned. It’s the same with everyone, criminal or saint.

He tried in vain to concentrate on the two projects he considered important: adapting steam engines to electro-magnetics, and the idea of setting up a dog salon where people could get their pets dyed electric blue, their bulldogs bright green, purple grey-hounds, lilac fox-terriers, lapdogs with three-toned photos of sunsets printed across their backs, little pooches with swirls like a Persian rug.

Set in 1920s Argentina, The Seven Madmen opens with the protagonist, Remo Erdosain, having a very, very bad day. An anonymous tip came in to the firm where he works as a collector alerting management to his skimming cash and he is given an ultimatum. Hunting for six hundred pesos to pay back the company, Erdosain reaches out to The Astrologer, a messianic revolutionary, whose friends willingly lends him the cash. Then Erdosain’s wife leaves him, and he is once again driven into the arms of the Astrologer. In the midst of this cadre Erdosain is inducted into the Astrologer’s plot to bring about a utopian society that will simultaneously liberate people and entirely dominate them. Rationalism, they believe, has enslaved people and destroyed their capacity for pleasure. In order to save the souls, society must regress; in order to take over society they need machine guns and chemical weapons.

The plan, such as it is, will be financed state-sanctioned brothels run by a pimp known as the Melancholy Thug until the mining operations under the guidance of the Gold Prospector and industry under Erdosain can get off the ground. However, to start the first brothel, they need start-up cash. As it happens, Erdosain knows that his wife’s cousin Barsut has inherited money and learns that Barsut was the anonymous informant who cost him his job. Revenge and utility go hand in hand as the revolutionaries decide to kidnap Barsut and take his money.

The Seven Madmen is a novel best described as feverish, in the vein of Dostoevsky or Gogol. The prose is hurried and at times barely coherent, as it flits between delusion, vision, dream, and reality. Its central tension is between enlightenment rationality and the human nature that they argue relies on miracles, wonders, and the divine to have purpose and happiness in life.

“There will be two castes in this new society, with a gap between them…or rather, an intellectual void of some thirty centuries between the two. The majority will live carefully kept in the most complete ignorance, surrounded by apocryphal miracles, which are far more interesting than the historical kind, while the minority will be the ones who have access to science and power. That is how happiness will be guaranteed for the majority, because the people of this caste will be in touch with the divine world, which today they are lacking. The minority will administer the herd’s pleasures and miracles, and the golden age, the age in which angels will roam among paths at twilight and gods are seen by moonlight, will come to pass.”

“But that’s a monstrous idea. It could never happen.”

“Why not? Oh, I know it couldn’t happen, but we have to proceed as if it were possible.”

The plotters believe themselves to taking on the noble burden of truth while they take up the mantle of power. They will give everyone else the gift of lies like those spun by the Astrologer that take on the substance of truth.

The Seven Madmen careens toward the start of their revolution, but ends before the plan can get off the ground. On one level this end point is indicative its incompletion, but on another, it offers the novel as precariously balanced between the broad revolution with cosmic importance and Erdosain’s intensely personal vendetta that he veils with delusions of grandeur. The resultant story is a brilliant study of the Buenos Aires slums, the revolutionary passions of 1920s Argentina, and wider movements (i.e. fascism) circulating at the time, but one that threatens to tip into madness.

I loved this book. It is not an uplifting vision of society, but it is in some small ways prophetic.

ΔΔΔ

Next up, I am finally reading Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, which I am enjoying much more than I did when I last tackled this book. It is certainly helpful that I am more familiar with a lot of its literary and philosophical references than I was the last time around.

Ratf*cked: a proposal

The Fresh Air episode from June 15 had its main segment about the new book Ratf*cked, detailing how the Republican Party managed strategically target state districts in 2010 and then use technology to ruthlessly gerrymander districts after the new census to give an unassailable majority despite losing the overall popular vote. This is a technically legal, but highly suspect process, that I think epitomizes how broken the US electorate is. However, I do not feel sorry for the Democratic party because I suspect that they would–and have–done basically the same thing. The important part, as I just noted, is that the system is broken.

The US electorate is deeply divided and there is a lot of dissatisfaction with both parties. There are a slew of reasons for this, including money in politics, and manipulating the voting regulations. Yet, the only place where this much imbalance between overall votes and representation is in state districts and, by extension, in the House of Representatives: i.e. the places where gerrymandering is made possible in conjunction with the tradition of single-member districts. To make matters worse, both national parties encourage this current setup, in part because it discourages third-party candidates.

There are a lot of things I would change about American politics, including truncating the campaign season, but there is one that I think would fundamentally address gerrymandering. For positions that are elected every two years, change from single member districts to a form of proportional representation, with seats allotted based on the percent of the vote won. I am sure that there are unintended consequences to this proposal (possibly making it even more difficult to pass laws), and leaving alone the Senate Presidential elections while changing the other would raise some hackles, but in those other election there isn’t a deep gap between popular vote and representation. Further, this proposal would bolster third-parties, perhaps empowering voters whose concerns are not adequately represented by the major parties. I don’t believe this would, in the short term, change the makeup of the Senate or lead to a third party president and the result would be coalitions in the HoR not unlike how the Republican party absorbed the Tea Party except, perhaps, that there would not be the same formal annexation.

I realize that there would be wrinkles that would need to be ironed out in terms of the transition and I know why this won’t happen, but why *shouldn’t* it happen?