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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.

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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?

The Ministry of Fear – Graham Greene

Pity is a terrible thing. People talk about the passion of love. Pity is the worst passion of all: we don’t outlive it like sex.

Arthur Rowe is a murderer, having spent time in psychiatric care for the mercy killing of his wife, and newly released into wartime London he enters into charity auction that, by mistake, he wins. The organizers of the auction come looking for his prize, a cake, but a bomb destroys the house and the cake. Rowe hires a private detective and begins chasing shadows of an inchoate Ministry of Fear intending to reveal the secrets of public figures and destabilize the British government. However, his search is temporarily derailed when an assassination attempt on Rowe and Anna, the girl who he has fallen for, leaves him with amnesia and placed in a sanatorium run by Nazis. Chaos ensues in his attempt to escape and thwart the members of the ministry.

Like Greene’s other “entertainment” I have read, Stamboul Train, Ministry of Fear is a nonstop riot of happenstance and intrigue, but the premise doesn’t work quite as well when the plot mucks about in a general location as opposed to careening down a track. Published in 1943, the novel does try to capture the paranoia and constant anxiety during the blitz, but the larger themes concerning identity, mental anxiety, and what it takes to have a stable society never really carry through. Ultimately the plot is barely coherent and while there are some good observations and scenes, the novel as a whole did not work for me.

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I just finished reading Roberto Arlt’s The Seven Madmen a feverish, delirious novel of plots and delusions in 1920s Argentina. I haven’t picked out what I am going to read next, but am leaning toward either Dr. Futurity by Philip K. Dick or Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco.

The Far Side of the World – Patrick O’Brian

The serialization of the Aubrey-Maturin series continues, picking up where Treason’s Harbour leaves off. Aubrey had successfully dismantled the French operation in Malta, but the real traitor remains, unknown to him, at large. At the same time, Aubrey is given a lesson in how to report successes through careful revision before being dispatched immediately to the far side of the world in pursuit of an American ship hunting British whaling vessels.

Already in this installment there is a sense of time bleeding together, part of a series of novels where O’Brian had to fudge time to make the chronology line up. In fact, The Far Side of the World effectively puts the world outside the vessel on hold while they sail to the Pacific, and the uncertainty about when the story takes place emerges as a plot point in the struggle between the two vessels. The novel is perfectly fine as an installment because it epitomizes many of the things about the series, but, by the same token, it is particularly unremarkable.

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Next up, I also finished Graham Greene’s The Ministry of Fear while I was traveling last week. Since then, I am most of the way through Roberto Arlt’s brilliant The Seven Madmen, a feverish Argentinian story in the vein of Dostoevsky.

The Russian Girl – Kingsley Amis

This is a somewhat belated review because I finished the book a little bit ago and was then on the road for a bit more than a week.

Everywhere in the world literature is in retreat from politics and unless resisted the one will crush the other. You don’t crush literature from the outside by killing writers or intimidating them or not letting them publish, though as we’ve all seen you can make a big fuss and have a lot of fun trying. You do better to induce them to destroy themselves by inducing them to subordinate it to political purposes…

As soon as originality became important, the days of artistic merit or excellence were numbered. The question Is it any good? had always been hard to discuss, and only to be settled after a lapse of time and by the judgement of the wider public. This irritated intellectuals, who found it easier and more agreeable to ask Is it new?, together with What does it mean? and Is it art?, questions easy to discuss and never to be settled.

Richard Vaisey is a cantankerous but generally respected professor whose academic work is the study of Russian literature. On the surface, his life is great. He has a good job, but is able to live above his pay because he is married to the wealthy Cordelia who, particularly, allows him to indulge in his taste for sports cars. However, this life is turned upside down when the Russian poet Anna Danilova comes to London asking his help. Her brother is in prison, but in the tumultuous years around 1990 she believes that if she can make a name for herself as a poet in London, a public petition would force the government to release him. She just needs Richard’s help introducing her to people and, importantly, making people see the importance of her poetry. There is just one catch: in Richard’s (and most everyone else’s) opinion, her poetry is an offense against literature.

Of course the wretchedness of the poetry does not stand in the way of Richard falling in love with Anna, which leads to the story tumbling toward a potentially explosive conclusion.

The main choice that Richard has to make is between the two women, his wife and Anna. As mentioned above, he hates Anna’s poetry, but falls in love with her force of personality (which he notices at a poetry reading) and with her for more generic reasons. In contrast, everyone in the story considers Cordelia a monster. Richard’s friends repeatedly ask him why he married her since, in their descriptions, she is beautiful, but selfish and talks with a obnoxious cadence that they like to mimic. They repeatedly ask him whether he married her for the money or for the sex. Cordelia and Anna are conspicuously constructed as opposites, but, while some of Cordelia’s actions are genuinely monstrous, the people around her are mean in their own right.

The Russian Girl is a curious book. Like other Amis novels I have read, including Lucky Jim, there is a familiar hook of one “sane” individual amid a maelstrom of chaos. Similarly, it is liberally sprinkled with observations about the decline of the academy and London society. Some of these are insightful or funny, but some cross into mean-spirited or are so specific about a context I don’t know well enough to connect with. The result is that while I liked passages in the novel, I did not like the overall story to the extent that I had hoped.

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Next up, I finished Graham Greene’s The Ministry of Fear and Patrick O’Brian’s The Far Side of the World while I was traveling. I am also nearly finished with Roberto Arlt’s brilliant The Seven Madmen, a feverish Argentinian story in the vein of Dostoevsky.

Treason’s Harbour – Patrick O’Brian

Treason’s Harbour, the ninth installment of the Aubrey-Maturin series, picks up very nearly where the Ionian Mission leaves off, skipping only the denouement Aubrey’s mission to capture a Balkan harbor. This time both his ships, the H.M.S. Worcester and the H.M.S. Surprise, are stuck in harbor and potentially never to set sail again, so the action shifts to the spymaster Maturin and his duel with French intelligence agents in Malta. The scenes there are interspersed with a brief foray to the Red Sea and several port-ventures where the French activity has preceded the British arrival, with Aubrey narrowly avoiding ambush on more than one instance. Along the way there are more mundane concerns as Captain Aubrey worries about his personal finances (which he is dodging) and the future of the midshipmen under his care.

Even more than the Ionian Mission, Treason’s Harbor is a serial installment, picking up where the last left and leaving off in preparation for the next without much care for an individual story arc. For many series this would frustrate me to no end, not least because I often want to see some further resolution in each story, but here I think it works. For one thing, O’Brian is quite good at creating cliff-hangers. For another, the story and recurring cast of characters brings to life the British Navy in a way that is almost domestic. The fighting scenes are well-written and therefore exhilarating, but the bulk of the books are the mundane interactions of swabbing the decks. What’s more, he can get away with this by building affection for the characters through their competence and general goodness in contrasted with other people in the navy. For instance, Jack Aubrey loves his wife Sophie and cares for his crew, even though he is not a particularly good person in many instances. In fact, he is a rather bad husband and, while he is good at keeping his people alive, he is capable of grating with other people who might be annoying but also have legitimate grudges. Yet, Aubrey’s genial benevolence and distaste for corporal punishment endears him to the reader.

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Next up, I am currently about halfway through Kingsley Amis’ The Russian Girl, a farce about terrible people and worse poetry.

The Silk Roads – Peter Frankopan

Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads is an ambitious project, to offer a new global history that offers The Silk Road (the lines of communication and transit between China and Europe) as the spine of the world, not just in the premodern era, but also going forward. He is largely successful in this dizzying, weighty tome.

The book begins with the formation of the Silk Road in the years before and around 100 BCE and each chapter, usually described as a road with a description (e.g. “The Road to Catastrophe”), moves progressively forward until the book reaches the twenty-first century. Topically, The Silk Roads may be divided into the movement of three things: ideas, goods, and influence, the last in terms of geopolitical jockeying. All three types of movement feature throughout the book, but there is a progression such that the movement of ideas are most prominent in the early portions and the strategic concerns toward the end. At times The Silk Roads can be unbalanced, frequently losing one pole or the other in favor of showing how central Asia remained pivotal for developments that are usually considered to be centered elsewhere.

This imbalance is frustrating, but nevertheless understandable given the enormous and unwieldy scope of the book. Likewise, Frankopan necessarily glosses over some particularly heated scholarly controversies, sign-posting his position and moving on. Again, this is a necessary feature of a book of this scope, but in at least one case the decision was abrupt enough that I was led to ask someone more versed in the period in question about whether the scholar being cited was respected. She confirmed that Frankopan was indeed basing his narrative (in this instance) on a respected scholar even if not everyone agrees with the stance. This is to say Frankopan did his homework, but he also picks his fights, which makes The Silk Roads an entertaining read filled with a bevy of observations and declarations (always with citations if one wishes to know more).

As far as a new “global history,” The Silk Roads admirably demonstrates the interconnected world and shows how the roads influenced developments that had consequences far beyond its own narrow confines. Australia, Africa, and the Americas even make cameo appearances, but one might still quibble that this approach is biased, if necessarily, toward the northern hemisphere and has no time to spend on issues of social history. In fairness, these are not what Frankopan is trying to show and this is one of the best global histories I have yet come across, but they nevertheless remain a limit, particularly in the breathless rush through the twentieth century where much ink is spilt (yet again) on strategic concerns.

In sum, The Silk Roads has much to recommend it, being lively and readable despite its ambitious scope and hefty word count. Some inconsistency could have been ironed out and I would have liked to see more inclusion of India and China in the main narrative, though he showed himself attuned to modern developments initiated by the latter in the conclusion, so I can only assume that it was a deliberate choice to exclude these actors. These quibbles should not detract from the overall success of the book.

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I am now caught up on books I finished last week. Up next is Patrick O’Brian’s Treason’s Harbor, which I am about halfway through.

Autumn Quail – Naguib Mahfouz

Isa ad-Dabbagh is a young bureaucrat in Egypt who is flourishing through a combination of nepotism and corruption, and is about to rise to the top levels of government although he is only in his thirties. Then the revolution of 1952 where the army outlawed the political parties takes place. Isa is an early victim of the purges, set adrift, but not killed. In his own words, banished without being exiled from the country.

Autumn Quail follows Isa through his decline over the course of several years, marching through his relationships with three women. At first Isa is engaged to Salwa, a wealthy cousin whose mother covets his meteoric rise through the state bureaucracy. However, once he loses his position the family cuts off the pending engagement and, impotent, Isa has no choice but to relent. Then, while moping in Alexandria, he solicits the services of a young woman Riri, who forces her way into his life as a mistress and cleaning lady until he discovers that she is pregnant and throws her out with nothing. Finally, Isa forces his way into a marriage with a thrice-married and barren heiress and succumbs to boredom and sloth.

The first relationship he dreams would be happy, but only in that it represents all his success, while he sabotages the second two, becoming enraged at a child he doesn’t want and women he doesn’t love as he clings to the past and they look to the future. Isa suggests that he genuinely loved Salwa and it may be interpreted that his relationship with her would have been strong. However, Mahfouz presents her as an immaculately-credentialed empty vessel that perfectly matches the smooth and selfish corruption embodied by Isa. The relationship might have worked, but together they represent everything wrong with the system.

Amid this series of excruciating romantic misadventures is the emptiness within Isa once his purpose in life, politics, has been stripped of him and given to rivals. The emptiness threatens to consume him and there is a lingering question of whether the revolution will bring about meaningful progress. Yet, other than a war with Israel that takes place overhead and is a topic of conversation with Isa’s formerly-political friends, the broad ramifications of the Revolution are not actually felt. The questions of hope and progress are played out, but only in Isa’s head, not in the streets or prisons of Egypt.

Ultimately, I found Palace Walk to be a more powerful story than Autumn Quail, but where the former is a domestic epic, the latter is a small story of quiet desperation.

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I am nearly caught up with things I’ve meant to post here, but still have a review of Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads to come in the next day or two. Next up, I am currently reading Patrick O’Brian’s Treason’s Harbour, the ninth installment of the Aubrey-Maturin series.

Starship Troopers – Robert Heinlein

Robert Heinlein’s 1959 science fiction novel Starship Troopers won the Hugo Award for best science fiction novel, but nonetheless elicits controversy and it is easy to see why. On some levels there is very little to this slim book–few rounded characters, almost no plot—and can be seen as a jingoistic pro-military piece of ideologically-infused drivel. On another, there are sentiments about the world and how bootcamp changes a person.

Juan (Johnnie) Rico comes from a wealthy family and his father has determined his life: Harvard business school and then join his company. They don’t get to vote, of course, because that can only happen through military service, but they have money and that is what matters. Then, right after high school, Juan joins the military while trying to show off for a girl. She has the aptitude and intelligence to be a pilot and another friend has the chops to be an engineer. Johnnie is only cut out for the Mobile Infantry—-a grunt in a highly-advanced suit who drops from space sows destruction.

Most of the novel follows Juan’s travails through first bootcamp and early missions, and then officer training school. The narrative unfolds from his point of view, and between grueling exercises the characters touch upon issues of punishment, discipline, responsibility, and violence, but is not uniformly positive or negative on any one position except perhaps on the necessity of citizenship being a right that needs to be earned. It represents issues as genuine problems and for war as an opportunity to make people into the best versions of themselves. And yet Juan is a shining example of this phenomenon, many other characters standing in stark contrast.

I don’t have too many specific observations about this book, in part because I finished it more than a week ago, but while I did appreciate reading it, it did not live up to some of the more well-rounded science fiction I have recently read. Starship Troopers just came across as flatter and more like a philosophical dialogue than a story. However, I cannot help but wonder if some of the controversy about the militarism Heinlein infused in the story comes not from the context of its initial publication, but from the experience of Vietnam in the next decade. In particular, one of the plot hooks later in the story comes from a sudden, forced mobilization of the human race to fight off aliens and how Juan’s father comes to be proud of his son rather than becoming resentful.

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I fell a bit behind on reviews, so I’ll soon be posting discussions of Naguib Mahfouz’s Autumn Quail, a story about the downward spiral of a fired politician told through three relationships, and Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads, a new global history that was quite good. This afternoon I started reading Patrick O’Brian’s Treason’s Harbor, the ninth Aubrey-Maturin novel.

An observation about the Marvel Cinematic Universe

I’ve consumed most of the recent Marvel content, mostly because it is available and easily watched. Calling it a drug would be too dramatic, but as far as televisual media goes, there are parallels. Some of it is good, some is pretty bad, but there is something that bothers me about the entire extended universe project: there is too much emphasis on the cataclysmic event.

Other people have written on this topic and accurately noted both that the movies are pivoting from this trope and that the material has often been strongest when dealing with the fallout from the events rather than dealing with the events themselves. However, my specific complaint has more to do with the TV show Agents of Shield. The show essentially deals with the relationship between normal people and mutated people. This season’s arc had to do with the unleashing of “Hive,” a being that can control people with mutations–and is the powerful being associated with the Devil that Hydra had been trying to bring to earth. His scheme involves a massive bio-weapon that would destroy humanity. The scrappy heroes have to fight against this thing that is much more powerful than they are. As one would expect, this leads to all sorts of tension and human stories, which, in a vacuum, work. But this narrative isn’t taking place in a vacuum. It is taking place within a larger cinematic universe.

Agents of Shield as a show about the events taking place in the shadow of the ECU movies works. It is a universe that has to grapple with increasing numbers of super-powered individuals and there are many more stories to be told there than simply reducing it to an “imminent doom” arc, but, after a season of doing just that, Agents doubled back down on the action, while nominally being a step down from the movie stories in terms of both resources (for production) and power level (resources and powers to apply within the story). The movies and the shows are doing different things, but still professing to overlap, which, in turn, leads to a dissonance and strains credulity.