Target in the Night (Ricardo Piglia, 2015)

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Target in the Night by Ricardo Piglia, Sergio Waisman (Translator), Kindle Edition, 288 pages, Published October 19th 2015 by Deep Vellum Publishing (first published 2010)

The secrets of the Argentine pampa in Ricardo Piglias clever and allusive novel

Before Ricardo Piglia passed away early this year, he assumed the reputation of being Argentina’s most prominent living writer. Upon his death, his status among the great writers of Argentina, such as Jorge Borges and Julio Cortazar has been the subject of literary debates all over the world. If there is something certain about his legacy, he has established his name as a well-known literary critic in his homeland with critical novels such as Burnt Money (Plata Quemada, 1997). He was for many years, editor of various magazines in Argentina and was also a professor of literature and cinema. He established a reputation as the quaint-essential man of letters whose life revolved around his books and often crosses into his writing.

His world’s center of gravity is Argentina and its forces are what holds “Target in the Night” together.

The book is set in the early 1970s in the countryside of Buenos Aires. Roughly speaking, this society is divided into landowners and farmers and day laborers. There is the factory of the old and sick industrialist Luca Belladonna, whose family and family history is the focus of this strongly male-dominated novel. This only one among many allusions in the novel. Belladonna’s twin daughters once moved out to experience life in the US, from where they brought the dandy Tony Durán. He pretended to be interested in horse breeding, had pockets full of money and a strange relationship with the hotel’s Japanese night porter, where he stayed as a permanent guest. Now Tony Durán is dead and the Japanese night porter is the primary suspect.

From the initially wildly proliferating book, it becomes a kind of thriller, with a headstrong and cross-thinking commissioner, an assistant admiring his boss admirably, and a prosecutor pursuing his own interests and wanting to dismiss the commissioner for his unorthodox theories. And then there is Emilio Renzi, a journalist from Buenos Aires, who was summoned to the province because of the mysterious death of the stranger, Tony Durán. It becomes more interesting at this point, because Renzi is a recurring character. He already appears in Piglia’s novel “Artificial Respiration”, as well as in one of the stories in a volume entitled, “The Goldsmith”, where he is described as: “Emilio Renzi’s passion was linguistics, even if he made a living with literary reviews in the daily El Mundo. ”

It is quite possible that Ricardo Piglia is playing his game with the reader here and moving through his books in the guise of Renzi. Anyway, when Commissioner Croce is condemned to the psychiatric ward, Renzi becomes a substitute investigator. He interferes with one of the Belladonna sisters and learns from her a twist on the curious family story,  In an abandoned factory, he tracks down Luca Belladonna, by installing a highly curious but ingenious system of art, theory and engineering. Target in the Night is an intense and tragic family history reminiscent of King Lear, in which the madness of the detective is integral to solving crime.

There’s a lot more to read from the novel: there’s a well-structured trial, some wry necks and a sacrificial pawn. All these details sound confusing and they are intended to be like that. Piglia never makes it easy for his readers but he rewards them with intense and dense images, with strong characters and an intricate, thrilling story that has never been told like before.

Target in the Night by Ricardo Piglia, Sergio Waisman (Translator), Kindle Edition, 288 pages, Published October 19th 2015 by Deep Vellum Publishing (first published 2010)

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The essay as a novel: Identity (Milan Kundera 1997, reprinted 2017)

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Identity by Milan Kundera, Linda Asher (Translator), Paperback, 168 pages
Published April 21st 1999 by Harper Perennial (first published October 29th 1997)

On Milan Kundera’s novel essay “Identity”

Much does not happen in Milan Kundera’s latest novel, Identity, except perhaps in the imagination. The imagination dominates the action of the characters in the novel and the progress of the story. From the banality of contented life, the characters develop thoughts about disturbances of contentment, about the death of their beloved, about their own past and their own transience. Happiness brings with it the fear of misfortune.

A confusion stands at the beginning of the story of Jean-Marc and Chantal: He seeks her on the beach until he sees a distant figure and believes he has found her. “As he approached her, (…) this woman, whom he thought was Chantal, becomes old, ugly, and ridiculously different.” In this harmless confusion we already see the basic theme of Kundera’s novel, which sometimes reads like a formulated narrative essay, an approach that is common in all of Kundera’s works. All of the following events revolve around the inevitable misunderstanding that exists between two people, especially those who love each other. Behind the misunderstanding, however, is the question of the true identity. The title is therefore to be regarded as a frame of thought.

With his own sense of psychological observation, Kundera describes the gap that lies between the sentences that we speak and the internal processes that accompany these sentences: the preparations that precede the sentences, and the brooding over their meaning, a pondering that only leads to wrong conclusions.

For example, Chantal’s sentence, “Men don’t turn to look at me anymore,” leads to a series of misunderstandings that eventually lead her friend, Jean Marc to conclude that, “what she needs is not a loving gaze but a flood of alien, crude, lustful looks settling on her with no good will, no discrimination, no tenderness or politeness.” Jean Marc invents an admirer and begins to send her anonymous letters describing himself as someone spying on her and finding her “beautiful, very beautiful.” But why does he write these letters? And what is she doing with them? And does he monitor what she does with them? The letters at first serve to rekindle the couple’s lovemaking but as they attempt to see through the actions and motivations of each other, the two eventually grew further and further apart.

The farce is highly entertaining but that’s one thing with the narrative essays. The thoughtful narration, which repeatedly uses the narrative action as an occasion to digress, to derive general considerations from the events described, and to entertain the reader at the same time and to stimulate reflection. This art of writing has made Kundera a successful and respected author. Again and again he described in simple terms complicated interpersonal relationships. He demonstrates how behind the unbearably lightness of events, lies a seemingly deeper tragedy.

Kundera certainly drew a considerable part of this tragedy from his personal life as a dissident and as an exile. It is fair to reproach him for being able to say whatever he wants and for being able to go, wherever he wants. As if with his fame, he has ultimately dried up and has nothing to tell us now, since he is a famous writer. But this book proves that he still has a lot to say to us and he still does it with the thoughtfully ironic style of a great narrator. Between the passages, in which the artful course of the words captivates, one sees the writer, to who does not impose a theme but invites us to t seek them. He no longer artfully assembles them and we are left to construct our own meaning. He still exhibits great skill, but sometimes an overly-burdened bar can be felt from his writing but then, this is how it becomes obvious how the text should work.

Lastly, the reader should be warned not to trust the conclusions made by Kundera, who smooths out the increasing, surrealistic confusion with a lightly meant, but endearing twist.

This is certainly a beautiful book and a pleasantly melancholic reading for a few hours. It is a book that reminds us that we are in dialogue with ancient masterpieces.

Identity by Milan Kundera, Linda Asher (Translator), Paperback, 168 pages
Published April 21st 1999 by Harper Perennial (first published October 29th 1997)

In the digital frame of Heidegger

Basic Writings: Ten Key Essays, plus the Introduction to Being and Time by Martin Heidegger, David Farrell Krell (Editor)Paperback, Revised & Expanded Edition, 464 pages Published February 26th 1993 by HarperCollins (first published 1964)

Basic Writings: Ten Key Essays, plus the Introduction to Being and Time
by Martin Heidegger, David Farrell Krell (Editor) Paperback, Revised & Expanded Edition, 464 pages
Published February 26th 1993 by HarperCollins (first published 1964)

The philosopher Martin Heidegger understood technology (Technik) as a “Gestell” or roughly a “frame”. It was written in the last century but it still reveals something for our digital present.

Martin Heidegger
The Philosopher Martin Heidegger forwarded some ideas on technology that are even more relevant to today’s world. Following his thoughts, even before a Selfie is put online, the smartphone user already lives in the digital frame. (Picture: Martin Heidegger at home in Freiburg/ Wikicommons)

Martin Heidegger speaks of technology as a “Gestell” or a “frame”. This is not a finished construction, but an activity of “ordering”. Modern technology, for him, is the culmination of the “conquest of the world as a picture”. For Heidegger, the word “image” means “the structure of imaginative creation” – an activity “of the calculation, the planning and the cultivation of all things.” The totality of this representational production, the framework, is itself not technical, but a fateful relationship of man to his world and to himself. In the placing and ordering of nature, according to Heidegger, man makes it a “standing-reserve “. Forests, coal seams, oil wells, ore mines belong to the  earth, materials and energies that man has turned into “standing-reserve” in the attempt to make a more efficient output.

The network of transformation

An idea that used to be the domain of science fiction has become more apparent in current reality: human beings are increasingly transformed into data. And the fact that we put ourselves – or what we hold to be true about ourselves – into the networks of information that make up the Internet, our reality is emblematic of our time. Around a third of the world’s population have uploaded their personal details on social media. In 1949, Heidegger pre-figured this idea using the example of the radio: “People are not incidentally a constituent piece of the radio. In their essence, they are already committed to this character of being a constituent piece.” Insofar as our personal information is scattered across, and stored within, various online databases, we are constituent parts of the digital framework. In the frame, all pieces are available, consumable and interchangeable.

This inevitably reminds us of the world of today’s consumer culture, to which Heidegger’s position marks the sharpest possible contrast. Heidegger introduces a seemingly banal object lesson: “Das Ding”. Heidegger’s “Ding” or “Thing” is used in the old meaning: after the meeting, a court meeting (Old High German: “thing”), in which something is negotiated. Heidegger brings the example of the pitcher. The pitcher is “chasing” us. That is, when we drink wine from it, it brings not only people together, but a fourfold: heaven and earth, divine and mortal. To be able to attend such a celebration of the pitcher may seem a bit stiff today.

Nevertheless, Heidegger addresses the contrast between two attitudes, which turns out to be quite contemporary: the contrast of collecting and dispelling. On the “consecration” of the pitcher, it could be emphasized that in certain moments it serves as a vehicle of the collection – not just of the wine, but of our attention to the wine. In this way he sharpened the contrast to the dispelling character of another vessel, the disposable cup. Meanwhile, “dispersion” now means the all-pervasive tendency to disassemble our daily work, tasks, problem solving, need satisfaction in procedures and modules and thus to separate life in a technical context more and more into maintenance, operation, repair functions, and discarding.

Heidegger’s standing-reserve seems muddled in the modern world of life. The total network in which new “body parts” such as smartphones, Google glasses or Oculus headsets entangle us can be viewed as the latest version of Heidegger’s “Gestell”.

A more practical version of Heidegger’s philosophy of technology comes from the American philosopher Albert Borgmann, who is far too little known in German-speaking countries. Born in Freiburg im Breisgau, he listened to lectures by Heidegger and did his doctorate with Max Müller, whose thinking was strongly influenced by Heidegger. For Borgmann, the role of the frame is taken over by the “paradigm of the device” (Paradigma des Geräts). Connected with this is an attitude which subordinates the world to the point of view of what is easily usable, available, and consumable. Device can be anything, and Heidegger calls it “Zeug” or “Equipment”.

In this sense, Equipment not only refers to technical devices, but also to houses, food, landscapes, animals, our own body, other persons. A house can be an Equipment for living and wine for drinking, The self can serve for his own. Such a consumptive attitude towards a device tends to distract us from ourselves, confuse our attention, stifle our everyday skills and abilities.

Borgmann confronts us with a “focal” attitude. Focal practices define literally flocks – the Latin “focus” is the “fire site”, a flock of a different, non-technical handling of things, especially with technical objects. Focal practices always involve the body, such as making music, gardening, eating and drinking, running and walking, but also motorcycling. They can be conceived as the “arts” of everyday life, as a dealings with things, which reverts to the one who cultivates them.

Learning and unlearning humanity

Take, for example, the modern handling of distances (Heidegger points to this). Today, distances are mainly “Equipment” to the journey. There is a departure and an arrival place, in between, there is literally nothing. We are closer to each other by the means of faster transportation. We measure distances in the abstract metric of numbers, and not in the physical metric of steps. This also speaks of the irony of displacement of our body from the distance between us. To develop a focal relationship to the distance, therefore, means that we measure it with our feet. In this way, if we really want to, we can recover an intimacy with the distance, which is actually familiar to every walker and hiker. A closeness to places and things, has been removed via the framework of the technical means of transportation.

The same could be said of the means of communication, generally of all the techniques that “order” us. In spite of this, we should not explicitly interpret Heidegger’s ideas as  hostile toward technology. Contrary to a current criticism, which concentrates on the risks posed by technical objects to humans, Heidegger and Borgmann give us a sense of a completely different kind of risk with their currently antique philosophy on technology. It is not in the use of technology, but in technology as a custom—as a way of life that always “had” us. In the “hopeless frenzy of the unfettered technique” (Heidegger), we learn to conceive of technology as an option: as a choice between “Equipment” (Das Zeug) and “thing” (Das Ding). We can still choose which way we will take, how we want to move forward. If we follow this argument on the human condition, then we can conclude that being human is something that can be unlearned.

Cronopios y Famas (Julio Cortazar, 1962)

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Cronopios and Famas by Julio Cortázar, Paul Blackburn (Translator), Paperback, 162 pages, Published April 17th 1999 by New Directions (first published 1962)

The Argentinian Julio Cortázar (1914-1984) is one of the most dazzling cult figures of Latin American literature.

“I was someone who lived the way he wanted to live, the life of a loner.” – Julio Cortázar.  (Photo Ulf Andersen / Getty Images)

When Cronopios and Famas was published, fifty years ago, Julio Cortázar was already an author admired and praised by critics thanks to his early books of short stories and also his novel “The Winners”. He had not yet published “Rayuela” or “Hopscotch”, the novel that would give him universal fame and would catapult him into the center of a formidable wave of Latin American literature that would be known later as the “Boom.”

Cortázar, an Argentine born in Brussels, had lived in Paris for many years working as a teacher, critic and translator. Before that, he was working as a journalist in Buenos Aires. As a young man, he published a book of poems (that is said to be as rare as the Guttenberg Bible) and a strange manuscript under the name of Los Reyes. Notwithstanding these early forays into literature, Cortazar can be considered a late bloomer. When Rayuela was published, a year after the publication of Cronopios, he was close to turning fifty. The literary circles in which he moved praised his Spanish translation of the works by Poe, which appears in all the anthologies as the best translation into Castilian of the American author.

It seemed, however, as if cosmopolitanism and Cortázar’s extensive literary erudition—an Argentine transplanted to the heart of European culture—that exuded from his Latin American status—threatened to alienate him from the sensibility and appreciation of his linguistic compatriots. Their word games and ideas used the Spanish language as a raw material and they  drank from the same cup with Dadaists. They drew their breath from Parisian life and from a universal Borgesian legacy; lurking in the existentialist cellars of the Latin Quarter. In other words, Cortázar was anything but a literary writer, and even if he could relate to the intellectual elitism of Borges or Bioy Casares, or with surrealism or the surrealist concept of literary fiction, his origins and destiny related more to the recent Central European tradition than with the great narrators of South America.

Homage to intellectualism

Cronopios and Famas was the first book by Julio Cortázar that I read while studying Latin American literature in an undergraduate class in UP. Back then I had the observation that literary criticism in Manila was largely based on reproducing the dialogues done over bottles of beer.

I recently read through the 1999 edition published by New Directions, currently available in Manila bookstores. This edition revives the original structure of the index which is introduced with a surprising phrase, enveloping the mood and the intention of the pages ahead: ‘This book contains the following assortment …’. In editions following the original by Minotaur Books (1962), this notice disappeared. Even in the complete works released by Alfaguara that was used for later editions. I suppose this was caused not only by an oversight, but to the lack of comprehension of the importance of winks and jokes in the works of Julio Cortazar.

Once I started scanning on the advertised assortment, I stumbled upon  “Instructions to climb a ladder” at the beginning of the reading and was absolutely delighted with the text. Later, the chapters “Rare Occupations” and “The Loss and Recovery of Hair” made my jaw drop. I felt so ecstatic that I began to forgive Cortázar for making me wait until the end of the volume before learning of the adventures of the Cronopios, the Famas and the Esperanzas.

These stories, of course, are the culmination of that little symphony of the pleasures for the mind which make up the book: an absolute homage to intelligence, irony and even sarcasm, a melancholic account of human existence, patterned after taxonomy; like a catalog of applied entomology.

I am probably more desperate than most readers to find a precise and concrete description of the classifications (Cronopios and Famas) that lend the title to the book, but certainly the world of definitions fits badly in the world of ghosts, revelations and daydreams which Cortázar is most capable of eliciting. In the end, no one is capable of being indifferent to the short list. As complex as the universe that he proposes, hardly anyone can resist succumbing to the temptation of wanting to be a Cronopio, even if one does not know exactly what it is.

Those who suggested in Cortazar’s time that this was a minor work of a great artist probably do not realize the immensity of the poetic and creative world of Cortázar that resides in these short stories. They are capable of mixing everyday reality with the most dreamlike of contemplations.

One ends up succumbing to the formidable impact that causes, for example, the first of the sentences of his brief instructions for winding up a clock (‘Death is deep down there, but do not be afraid’), perhaps warning us of how useless and perishable our habit of measuring the hours. Like Kafka, like Proust, like very few, Cortázar was able to create a world at once his own and universal that we discover at every step, in every line, in every literary breath granted by him. He is a writer of intimacy and restlessness, whom he himself alone can contradict based on his humor and ironic wisdom.

Life of a loner

Cortázar was born in Brussels in 1914, just as he said. At the age of four, the family returned to Buenos Aires, two years later his father left the house, Cortázar never saw him again. He grew up with his mother, sister, aunt, and grandmother. He took an early refuge in the literature by writing nine sonnets, whom he recalls as “excellent in form, but miserable.” He studied literature and worked for several years as a teacher in the province. Then he passed the examination to become a translator for French and English but more than that, it was an excuse to leave Argentina because he was averse to Peronism. In 1951 he came to Paris with a scholarship.

“I was someone who lived life as he wanted to live it, the life of a loner. Half of the day I study to provide myself the necessary knowledge to for translate at the UNESCO; the rest of the day was spent on reading and writing, ” Cortázar said in 1975.

Cortazar translated Margerite Yourcenar, Edgar Allan Poe, G.K. Chesterton, Walter de la Mare, and wrote essays on John Keats, the novel, the short story, or Octavio Paz, Jose Lezama Lima, Roberto Arlt, and others.

His musical skills were exceptional in classical, jazz and tango. Carlos Fuentes and García Márquez liked to talk about a journey from Paris to Prague, when Cortázar explained the history of jazz in detail, and how they had a hard time sleeping after. He admired Louis Armstrong and wrote a review about a concert in Geneva (“Louis, a tremendous Cronopio”), he lavishly portrayed “Thelonius Monk’s Journey to the Piano”, and Charlie Parker becomes the anonymous protagonist of the grandiose story “The Persecutor”. His love for the tango was reflected in the “Les trottoirs de Buenos Aires” in 1979, in which the quartet Cedrón composed his poems. His music revolved around Carlos Gardel, the Nightingale of the Pampa, Susana Rinaldi and Astor Piazzola. Cortazar notably played the trumpet, which he said was merely a “wonderful exercise”. Of course, with his tremendous skill in the instrument, that was an understatement.

Poetic non-conformism

During a concert in Paris the idea of “cronopios” came to him: they are bristly, untidy and casual, dreamy and intuitive, poetic nonconformists, trusting optimists, humorous life artists, best friends, philosophical nonsense dialogues can be achieved. Many see in them the vital alter ego of the author. Cronopies never use lined paper to write, do not press the toothpaste tube from the bottom up. For all fans the cronopia became the quintessence of Cortázar, his view of the world.

Cortazar himself is the greatest Cronopio. He always looked like a lanky young man, despite his height (almost two meters), and he never seemed to age. His blue eyes were wide apart, registering everything, while he listened modestly, carefully concealing his encyclopedic knowledge. He speaks with a s guttural “r”, a legacy of Brussels,  he once said.

What makes the author’s “fantastic” narrations so distinctive? In an interview (1976) the author explained: “I react to the story with a feeling of fatality and inevitability, (in my case it is always a kind of being hit by lightning. Many of my stories are dreams or daydreams. They are quite common when you are stuck in a metro or streetcar, (suddenly there is a kind of atmosphere, a general situation, and I feel there is a story is there. Normally, I do not know how it ends, but very well, as it begins.”

Readers recognize themselves in many of his situations:  If you are standing in front of a staircase, you may start to think of “instructions before a staircase”. They are emblematic stories that bury themselves in memory, because they describe mystery and fantasy at high noon. According to Mario Vargas Llosa, Cortázar found “the unusual in the ordinary, the absurd in the logic, the exception in general and the wonderful in the banal.”

Many of Cortazar’s stories are classics: “House Taken Over”, “Circe”, “Torito”, “End of the Game”, “Devil’s Drool” (which became the film “Blow-up” by Michelangelo Antonioni). But Cortazar once said: “You say I’m a classic, but you’re wrong. No one is a classic, if he does not want. Teachers can stick this label to you, but he (and his books) spit on it. I am always the same scattered Cronopio, looking for the devil’s zeal, and only after 20,000 kilometers that it has not loosened the handbrake. ”

Gabriel García Márquez commented on the death of his friend: “Idols inspire respect, admiration, affection and, of course, great envy. Cortázar awakened these feelings more than any other writer, but he also aroused a feeling that is less frequent: devoted love. He was, perhaps without wanting to, the Argentinian, who managed to make everyone love him.”

Man Tiger (Eka Kurniawan, 2015)

Eka Kurniawan tells a story of a great rage

Man Tiger by Eka Kurniawan, translated by Labodalih Sembiring Verso Books, $18.95 Published September 15, 2015

Man Tiger by Eka Kurniawan, translated by Labodalih Sembiring Verso Books, $18.95 Published September 15, 2015

The Indonesian author Eka Kurniawan reverts to old folk beliefs in the novel ‘Man Tiger’. It covers not only a psychological drama but also many layers of his native culture.

One day the young Margio jumps to his neighbor Anwar Sadat and bites him in his throat. The victim is quickly bled. When one finds Anwar Sadat in south Java, a Batik cloth is spread over him.

Chronology of a crime

The act of violence, which is at the end of a long process, is already known from the first sentence. But how did it happen? How did Margio, who was considered to be quiet and polite, had let himself be carried away to such an act? This is what the Indonesian author Eka Kurniawan explains in his two hundred high-voltage pages: It is the story of an anger that has grown over the years and  can no longer to be overcome. The author spews the rage through the narrator, who knows the thoughts and feelings of all involved figures and therefore understands the motives for their actions. Or is it perhaps a narrator – Ma Maah, the village councilor who knows all the stories of the environment? She has a short appearance in the novel, and the realistic, precise and sensitive portrayal of an especially female inner world in the novel that seems to comes uncontrollably from the narrator. All of this is ultimately attributable to the 40-year-old Eka Kurniawan, whose psychological perception and linguistic expressiveness is quite extraordinary.

As pointedly as he describes the thinking and experience of his characters, he also so confidently structures his story, which approaches Margio’s violence  circularly and inconspicuously. He describes how, over the years, Margio developed a great hatred for his violent father. Like his once beautiful mother, who after only a few years of marriage, became a shadow of old herself. How she becomes pregnant in the house of Anwar Sadat, but the baby is lost shortly after birth. In a choreographed step by step sequence, the circumstances under which Anwar Sadat came to his death are clarified. In doing so, the author succeeds in revealing the crucial impulse for Margio’s attack forcefully in the very last sentences of the novel.

Margio declares that he has not committed the murder on his own, but the tiger who lives in him.

Kurniawan based his character on Man Tigers who are still alive in his Western Javanese homeland. In Margio’s family, for example, many men were married to an imaginary tiger next to their bourgeois marriage. Margio accepts him from his grandfather and gives his name for the first time in the prayer house. There the animal lays next to him and then slips into his body. This union can be read as folk mythology, but also as a metaphor for a psychological process. It is the depiction of an incarnation which canot be divorced from danger: what if a man cannot restrain the wild power of his tiger?

Almost as blasphemous is the fact that Kurniawan wrote how Margio and the Tiger were merged inside an Islamic prayer house. In fact, the author often underscores the Islamic village day, which not only covers the muezzins’ call and regular prayers, but also beer at the snack bar and sex in the cocoa shop. However, these injections by Kurniawan are not only simple provocations. Rather, he tries to free up cultural depths, which celebrate joyful life under the Islamic surface.

Tigers, ghosts, Hindu gods

For example, the statue of the Sunda King Siliwangi, who once retired with his people into the forest because his son had converted to Islam, is prominent in the village. They all turned into tigers when they lived in the forest. There are also are pagan spirits roaming the minarets in the village, on the land and on the water, which are as familiar to Margo as the figures of Hindu mythology. Hinduism had existed in Java for a thousand years before Islam entered during the fifteenth century. Although a Muslim, Margio compares himself through his inner tiger to the Hindu God Krishna, who could also turn from anger into the giant Brahala.

Fortunately, there have been more translations for Eka Kurniawan’s debut novel, “Beauty Is a Wound”, this 2017. “Man Tiger” will no doubt follow suit. It is strongly recommended for reading: The novel has historical depth, is cleverly composed and also grotesquely funny. The English translation conveys this adeptly. The novel is a masterpiece.  Imagine, how this used to be hidden in a small publishing house!

Man Tiger by Eka Kurniawan, translated by Labodalih Sembiring Verso Books, $18.95 Published September 15, 2015

Proletarian Nights (Jacques Ranciere, 2012)

The Workers’ Dream in Nineteenth-Century France

Proletarian Nights The Workers' Dream in Nineteenth-Century France by Jacques Rancière 478 pages, April 2012, 9781844677788, Verso

Proletarian Nights The Workers’ Dream in Nineteenth-Century France by Jacques Rancière, 478 pages, April 2012, 9781844677788, Verso

Politics occurs when those who do not have the time, take the necessary time to live as a resident of a common space, proving that their mouths do not only speak with a voice but with a language, which signifies the pain. […] Politics consists in the division of the sensible, the ‘commons’ where a community defines new subjects and objects.  Within this, we make visible what is not visible. Speakers who make those voices heard are perceived as noisy animals. – From The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible (page 75)
A glamorous Neo-Communism has conquered the thinkers of the world in recent years. This proves that radical political philosophy can have its quasi-celebrities.  Aside from this, we noticed a trend in the Neo-Marxist re-theorisation of old and new protest movements, as well as a revival of the “utopia” quality of the political.

This is a rather practical development in the the radical-chic jet set of continental philosophy. Slavoj Žižek lectures on social class; Alain Badiou is the metaphysical- religious savior; and in the Italian faction, we have Antonio Negri and Giorgio Agamben, who have become more Catholic than the pope. Jacques Rancière plays the role of meticulous and strict philologist. With his book “Proletarian Nights ” he now enters into intellectual light beyond postmodern political philosophy and aesthetics.

The common belief is that Rancière is mainly a historian. Anyone who asks about the content of his political utopia, will most likely find the answers in this historical work. Rancière reports on “a few dozen, a few hundred proletarians, who were twenty years old around 1830 and who, during this time, have decided not to bear the unbearable” (p. 7). The “night” in the poetically beautiful title of the book is not to be taken literally.  It refers to the nights when Rancière’s heroes do not sleep to reproduce their labor (the ruling order for them), but instead assemble to discuss their ideas.

Rancière’s book is devoted to workers, artisans and small-scale craftsmen, the 1830 June revolution and Saint-Simonism. He reflects on the teachings of Charles Fourier and Étienne Cabet’s travels to Ikaria. He pores through mostly short-lived workers’ magazines by literary and philosophical circles. The book tells the tale of intellectual adventures and reconstructs a situation in which a (political) self-awareness forms among those who had been excluded from social participation until now. Rancières proletarians are the “anteilloses”, which now demand their share in the company s society—a theme which is expressed in later works when Rancière becomes more prominent.

He describes the non-representative ways of life of tailors and writers through the minutely drawn sketches they left behind. He presents mini-biographies of working-class philosophers and worker- writers, whose fate had been, “to become workers but to speak like the bourgeois “(p. 9). The book is devoted to the articulation of the labor force as a collective but not as homogeneous subject.  He asks: what is the relationship between “the extravagances of these ‘artisans’ and ‘bourgeois’ and the solid realities of exploitation and class struggle?”(p. 37).

“The Night of the Proletarians” does not provide a decoupled idea of ​​early socialism. More than that, it traces the formation of concrete utopias ‘such as the workers’ association. In the center of working life during the first half of the 19th century, Rancière writes, there wasn’t so much poverty and misery as one would assume, but precarity. Some craftsmen or small-businessmen proved that it was quite possible to achieve a certain standard of living. “The smallest chances together with irregular work and the off-season were enough to [allow these workers to] live (or create) from these fragile positions” (page 51).

Rancière reconstructs a world in which physical strength, dexterity or professional qualifications “are worth as much as a lottery ticket” (p. 56) and are therefore of little use, for the workers to find their (own) dignity”. Rancières Workers’ Movement is not a professional skilled workforce, not a movement in which “work” and “diligence” are mythically exaggerated. On the contrary: “The word taken in the name of the working class presupposes an internal revolution, the reversal of the hierarchies of power and dexterity. For these hierarchies, which ultimately point to the coincidence of birth or the arbitrariness of social distinction, represent in the heart of the world of the workers, the law of castes, which establishes their subordinate position: “Therefore, the privileged role of the strange avant-garde stems from the mastery of the needle and the small soldering lead”(p. 64).

Rancière brings the work of the early and middle nineteenth century on the formula of “common experience of precarity with heterogeneous origins”. Theirs is a “working class,” which provides “in each stage the impression that is temporary in which the conscious eye loses its focus in wanting to distinguish the true proletarian from the backward craftsman or the unqualified service provider” (page 47). Only, and here lies Rancières pointe: This temporary stage is permanent, it is the ‘real’ feature of the workforce.

A central topic of the book is the analysis of the ‘concrete utopias’ of economic and social self-help. Both their organizational forms as well as their intellectual foundation conceive Rancière as a reflex and intervention in a specific social and economic situation. According to Rancière, Saint-Simonism appealed because it did not preach “the material and moral omnipotence of labor,” but “on the contrary, because of the practical perspective of the association,” which gathered workers, their qualifications, resources, and ways of life that are connected by the same feeling of precariousness and the same will to try out a form of social relations which at the same time offers to the individual a  way out and a model for a solution to collective precariousness “(p. 182).

Jacques Rancières “The Night of the Proletarians” is a pleasure to read. It is a book of literary splendor, not in the least thanks to the excellent translation. The insights that might be expected come in at least three directions. First, there is a need to rediscover the history of labor, which is based on the heterogeneity of historical living and working environments as well as on the plurality of political ideas and forms of organization. In the 1980s and 1990s, this has been done several times, but was not sustained. Second, the challenge of reevaluating the history of the nineteenth century from the point of view of a contemporary social history, for example along the idea of ‘precarity’ (the analytical potential of which has already been suggested some 20 years ago in works on the history of prehistoric craftsmanship). What seems possible here is a renewal of the once-productive alliance of social history and social theory. Thirdly, Rancière’s book can serve as an exemplary case study for an innovative approach for the present: for a social history of (utopian-political) thinking, which conceives ideas as ‘processing’ and ‘appropriation’ of socio-historical situations (and not, Ideas, only as their ‘image’). Rancière’s social history is always a history of experiences and emotions, specifically, a genealogy of the “(worker’s) brotherly camarderie”. Rancière, however, knows that in the sources he finds no ‘real’ feelings, but only their articulation. This articulation, rather than the supposedly ‘authentic’ emotions, is where Rancière declares his position to take on social relations and political programs; such as in the report of a Saint-Simonian missionary, who wrote on April 22, 1837, about a German tailor living in Paris: “A vague nagger who loses himself in a multitude of hypotheses which he spices with old philosophical biographies. Another one who is bored to death. […] I still like him very much, perhaps more, if he listens, which does not happen often” (page 34).

The Enchantress of Florence (Salman Rushdie, 2008)

The Enchantress of Florence, by Salman Rushied, Cape ___ Php, 349 pages, Available in Fully Booked-BGC

The Enchantress of Florence, by Salman Rushied, Cape ___ Php, 349 pages, Available in Manila Bookstores

The female figure in the cover of Salman Rushdie’s eighth novel, the “Enchantress of Florence”  hints on the action that will unfold in the text. But before any of the action occurs, Rushdie loses himself in meandering narrative streams and meticulous details.

The story begins at the end of the fifteenth century where we meet a young blond Italian who succeeds in reaching the legendary Mughal kingdom of Emperor Akbar and his golden city Fatehpur Sikri after after some adventures at sea. The blonde stranger quickly catapults herself into the inner circle of the Emperor and enjoys his favor in exchange for stories about the legendary city of Florence. The contrasting cities stand for two different relationships to reality. In the emperor’s oriental city, the boundaries between reality and desire are fluid and there is no absolute guarantor of reality. Rushdie illustrates this in great detail through a sequence in which Akbar’s mother and his sister visit Akbar’s imaginary other wife, Jodha. They are plunged into a paradoxi wherein they begin to feel their existence more in the vast emptiness.

Rushdie, however, does not succumb to the stereotype of rationality and mysticism between the Occident and the Orient. The reports of the stranger from Florence tells of a city torn by civil war, a city that had just been released from the clutches of the Church and the Medicis. The novel moves us to ponder on the nature of authoritarianism through the discussion of Italy under Niccolo Machiavelli during a short-lived period when it became a republic. It is precisely this Florence that is a place of religious fanaticism and church-led irrationality, that is being painted as opposed to the city of Akbar, the doubter, whose own authority as well as firmness in faith seem to quiver.

Fascinated by the story of a young woman who speaks of legends and her companion, and tales of their adventurous journey to the West, how they finally found royal hospitality, and the attractions of Florence, the legendary ruler lets his imaginations run wild while fantasizing about the enchantress in his palace ,

What Salman Rushdie wants to tell us, though, remains unanswered. He certainly presents a good story of an encounter between agnostics both in the East and in the West; he also touches on the male fascination for femininity as well as of female strength and how they are objectified but in the end, there is remains something perplexing about this splendid and sprawling story that seems to have a peculiar way of getting lost in its own narrative streams.

The Enchantress of Florence, by Salman Rushied, Cape ___ Php, 349 pages, Available in Manila Bookstores