28.5.12

The Egg of Choice

A plastic egg
fell down from a hidden
nest
from branch to branch it
bounced over
meeting ground - terrain -
at the very end.

I found the egg
one morning
while cycling straight to work
and picked it up by chance
mapping its white cold shell I
was uncertain
on what to do next.

That's a plastic egg - I thought
an alien
poured down from a random tree
uncrashed, unspoiled, untouched
and yet not in its right place.
What I did? I put it back
and left.

22.5.12

Slawomir Mrożek - Słoń (The Elephant )

Rating 7.5


The Elephant is a book collecting forty-two short stories where Slawomir Mrożek pokes fun at politics, bureaucracy and social life of Poland in the 1950s. Although Poland is never named here what the author wrote had a very clear goal: hitting the daily comedy of a life ruled by what the Party and its hyerarchies said.

It's a fact that most Polish people at that time had to follow the line (or at least pretend to do it for their own sake). And that Party line was far from being straight and drawn after logic, but rather bent to the left with the final result of blazing a turning spiral into either sad or ridicolous endings for those who walked along it.

Mrożek understood this and decided to amplify and enhance the spiralling process to its extreme consequences. Therefore, the style he chose here is sober and precise miracolously suspended in midair between fairytale telling and a political statement with punchlines delivered just at the right time and with a flawless aplomb.

The comparison with Kafka chosen by the British editors of the English translation of this book is a bit simplistic. First of all the short stories written by Kafka have very little humour in them and secondly, Mrożek is way more direct and concise than the Czech master. Moreover, unlike Kafka, the Polish author employs a first person narrative with sparingness and doesn't investigate over the moral dilemmas, psychologic idiosyncrasies or overwhelming victimism of his characters.
Mrożek is what I may call a clever situationist or better an artist of witty situationism while Kafka joined a very different club and the complexity of his conclusions are by far harder to grasp in a single draught.

If Kafka is a strong drink, not a schnapps but a fruity liquor, to sip and taste thoughtfully, Mrożek is prosecco, dry white wine with sparkling on the top you can freely indulge yourself with.

It looks like this sparkling Mrożek believes that human beings, after all, are not complicated but predictable creatures and it's rather the situations they deal with which transcend into extraordinariness.
In fact, the short stories collected into The Elephant are populated by common people and mostly revolve around plausible situations with some unexpected twist or decision turning on the table into absurd realism. This technique makes the subtle but strong message delivered by Mrożek even more powerful leaving a pleasant taste in the readers' mouth.

My favourite toasts here? The Elephant, The Swan, The Co-operative, A Citizen's fate and In the Drawer with the last one reminding me the idea behind a little gem of a Polish movie of some 25 years ago, Kingsajz. Na zdrowie!


PS: A final special mention goes to the few but carefully chosen illustrations by Daniel Mroz here. These drawings perfectly fit and add up something magic to what Slawomir Mrożek wrote.

20.5.12

Penalty Fees

Washington 5 PM, 19th May 2012.

The G8 leaders celebrate the rescue of the Euroz...ehr no, actually they were watching the Champions League final.
They work for us. Cheer up.


17.5.12

Czesław Miłosz - Proud to Be a Mammal


Rating 6.9

This is a collection of essays and writings by Czesław Miłosz with a colorful cover and assembled with a clear commercial purpose by Penguin.  Well that's better than nothing, I guess.

Perhaps I should have picked up The Captive Mind by the same author rather than this one, but while facing the decision I confess how the pinkish cover of this book with its leaning belltower in Vilnuis (portrayed above) won me over.
I thought I needed some sort of lightweight Miłosz introduction.

Proud to Be a Mammal kicks off in a very promising way with a couple of unforgettable essays. Engrossing pages where the author recalls his early bohemian and literary life in then Polish Wilno (currently Lithuanian Vilnuis) and his runaway to Warsaw while his hometown was annexed to the USSR with a bogus referendum.

Milosz has a very engaging style and a soft spot for the vanished Wilno/Vilnuis cast of characters, stressing out the cultural and cosmopolitan mood of the town in the 1930s. The way of writing here reminded me a couple of other self-biographies: Speak Memory by Vladimir Nabokov and Polish Memories by Witold Gombrowicz.
Also the following pages are very interesting with Miłosz talking about the bureaucratic oddities and the terror of living in "the GG" a term which stands for "General Government" the part of Poland ruled by Germans after the Nazi invasion and the Molotov-Ribbentropp pact.



Overall, 155 pages of Proud to Be a Mammal are pure gold. At least for me.
Unfortunately, the remaining 120 pages of this collection of essays and written thoughts are not at the same level. Perhaps it's just me looking for something different and thus skipping over most of the letter to the author Jerzy Andrzejewsky and being not really elated from all that follows it included the essay naming the book itself Speaking of a Mammal.

I think the publisher made a little mess here mixing up disjointed writings in order to have a thicker book. I believe that less and more carefully chosen stuff would have made a better introduction to Miłosz.

13.5.12

Cormac McCarthy - The Road

Rating 5.9

There are 156 "okay" in the 307 pages of The Road.
One hundred and fifty-six. I mean, it's a substantial number.

307 divided into 156 is 1.967. Hence, the term "okay" appears each 1.967 pages in this book.
I know you will call me weird or simply very silly for counting how many "okay" you can find in this novel, but I was too curious to desist; thus, I counted them.

Please note that the 156 "okay" I found and reported are those included only in the dialogues here, not the ones popping up a few times in the narrator brief and usually brilliant descriptions of a barbarized US.

Now, if you consider that "okay" counts many effective synonyms like "good", "fine", "alright" or - to some extent - "correct", you begin to wonder why Cormac McCarthy was so monotonous in The Road.
True, the worl..ehm the United States is a mess. Scores of innocent people got killed due to some unfortunate war and among those who survived many started to kill each other in order to survive.
True, life became a perilous, violent, hungry affair. Not only human beings were caught in the destructive process but apparently all others forms of animal and vegetal life leaving no choice to scrap a living from tinned foot, the occasional stray dog and - why not? - cannibalism.

Gangs of armed villains patrol the desert Interstates killing at will and barbecuing on toddlers. Nothing edible grows from the soil. The occasional shower of grey ashes doesn't help in improving the mood.
In this worst case scenario made true, a man and a kid get by. The kid is the Son. The man is his Papa. Isn't that biblical enough? Isn't that the perfect cast of characters of an end of the world dark fairytale?

Father and Son walk along the pot-holed, ash-full road pushing a shopping trolley carrying all their meager possessions: a broken toy, rags, tarpaulin, tinned peaches, tinned pears, tinned beans, a flask of water, some fuel in a can, a gun.
Yes, the man got a gun and he knows how to handle it. Sometimes he gives the gun to the kid. The Son learnt how to use the gun too.

The road leads to the sea or that's what the Papa keeps on telling to his Son. They have to reach the sea. Then, things will start to get better. You must believe this. Now that's nothing new. What we have here is just a very depressing version of the usual American Dream pulled upside down. Gun included.

Needless to say that the reason why Papa needs a gun is self-defense the worl..ehm the US being (scarcely) populated by the above mentioned human BBQ maniacs. Father and Son are the good guys. They don't shoot for fun. They could never kill a stray dog for the sake of eating it. They walk. They talk.
Yes, they talk. The problem is that together with human beings, pets, wild animals, fish, birds, crops, flowers and trees something else fell dead in the cataclism: language and its variations.

The Father, the Son and the few guys they meet on the road speak all in the same way. A 90 years old wayfarer says "okay" and "I don't know" just like a kid one tenth of his age does.
Dialogues between Papa and his so are dry, repetitive, monotonous always following the same pattern.

I think I understand what Mr McCarthy wanted to tell us with this poor choice of terms: beware of a de-humanized world, a world where basic needs win over synonims and the love for the spoken, written and read word. Yes, this choice makes sense.
But, hey, what we have here is a Father and his Son. These two don't have anyone else and almost anything else left in this world. They stick together and they obviously love each other although they are somehow incapable to show it.

And yet, the kid is a sensitive one as his horror, fear and dismay for anything violent happening around him in that dilapidated apocalyptic world he marches on are always very clear. How on Earth the Son could get this sensitiveness living in a dog-eat-dog society stricken by atrocities, and with a Papa answering either "okay" or "I dont know" to all of his questions is a mistery this novel fails to explain.

Okay (oh no!), Father and Son are tired, hungry, disillusioned and merely trying to catch tinned goods from wrecked buildings escaping the villains who wish to broil them, but what's wrong with their relationship, the holiest of all the family bonds? Why these two speak to each other like a broken record?
Why Papa keeps the language so simple and basic with a kid being 9-10 years old? Shouldn't he try to teach him something or does he simply treat him like a moron?

Let's take this dialogue at page 105. (McCarthy abhors quotation marks, commas and unnecessary apostrophes):
You think we're going to die, dont you?
I dont know.
We're not going to die.
Okay.
But you dont believe me.
I dont know.
Why do you think we're going to die?
I dont know.
Stop saying I dont know.
Okay.
Why do you think we're going to die.
We dont have anything to eat.
We'll find something.
Okay.
How long do you think people can go without food?
I dont know.
But how long do you think?
Maybe a few days.
And then what? You fall over dead? Yes. Well you dont. It takes a long time. We have water. That's the most important thing. You dont last very long without water.
Okay.
But you dont believe me.
I dont know.
Someone may say that this is the way common people speak and that McCarthy understood it alright, but I would disagree. This is awful writing.
Could anyone explain me in a convincing way why "don't" which is already shorter for "do not" became "dont"? No, seriously, I'm waiting for an answer!

If common people speak like McCarthy wrote here, well I'm sorry but we deserve an apocalypse to restart all over. Perhaps that's what The Road suggests, after all.
This is certainly an absorbing novel, but not a work of literature.