False Dichotomies

LITERATURE HIP-HOP ISRAEL INDIA LOVE MISCELLANY

My Favourite Reads of 2012

1.      Broken April (Ismail Kadare) – For its evocation of the bleak and yet principled of world of the Kanun, and its descriptions of the landscapes of northern Albania.

“Just as he had done many times before, Gjorg brought the rifle to his shoulder and took aim at the man’s head. For a moment the head seemed to resist him, trying to elude his sights, and at the last instant he even thought he saw an ironic smile on the man’s face. Six months before, the same thing had happened, and so as not to disfigure that face (who can say whence that touch of pity came at the last moment?) he had lowered the front sight of his weapon and wounded his enemy in the neck.

The man came closer. Please not a wound this time, Gjorg said to himself in a kind of prayer. His family had had great trouble paying the fine for the first wound, and a second fine would ruin them. But there was no penalty for death.”

2.    The Kindly Ones (Jonathan Littell) – For its unparalleled ambition, and its dark, devastating humour.

“There, in the brightness of summer, I thought about that decision we had made, the extraordinary idea of killing all the Jews, whoever they might be, young or old, good or bad, of destroying Judaism in the person of its bearers, a decision that had received the name, now well known, of Endlosung: the ‘Final Solution.” But what a beautiful word! It had not always been a synonym for extermination, though: since the beginning, people had called for, when it came to the Jews, an Endlosung, or else a vollige Losunge (a complete solution) or also an allgemeine Losung (a general solution), and according to the period, this meant exclusion from public life or exclusion from economic life, or, finally, emigration. Then, little by little, the signification had slid toward the abyss, but without the signifier changing, and it seemed almost as if this final meaning had always lived in the heart of the word, and that the thing had been attracted, drawn in by it, by its weight, its fabulous gravity, into that black hole of the mind, toward the point of singularity: and then we had passed the event horizon, beyond which there is no return. We still believe in ideas, in concepts, we believe that words designate ideas, but that’s not necessarily true, maybe there aren’t really any ideas, maybe there’s really nothing but words, and the weight peculiar to words. And maybe thus we had let ourselves be led along by a word and its inevitability.”

3.    Soldiers of Salamis – Javier Cercas – For having Roberto Bolano as one of its characters, and for its understanding of heroism

“I saw my book, whole and real, my completed true tale, and knew that now I only had to write it, put it down on paper because it was in my head from start (‘It was the summer of 1994, more than six years ago now, when I first heard about Rafael Sanchez Mazas facing the firing squad’) to finish, an ending where an old journalist, unsuccessful and happy, smokes and drinks whisky in the restaurant car of a night train that travels across the French countryside among people who are having dinner and are happy and waiters in black bow-ties, while he thinks of a washed-up man who had courage and instinctive virtue and so never erred or didn’t err in the one moment when it really mattered, he thinks of a man who was honest and brave and pure as pure and of the hypothetical book which will revive him when he’s dead, and then the journalist watches his sad, aged reflection in the window licked by the night until slowly the reflection dissolves and in the window appears an endless and burning desert and a lone soldier, carrying the flag of a country not his own, of a country that is all countries and only exists because that soldier raises its abolished flag; young, ragged, dusty and anonymous, infinitely tiny in that blazing sea of infinite sand, walking onwards beneath the black sun of the window, not really knowing where he’s going or who he’s going with or why he’s going, not really caring as long as it’s onwards, onwards, onwards, ever onwards.”

4.    Genesis (???) – For birthing a people, and – in the Babel narrative – for the greatest short story ever written.

“Everyone on earth spoke the same language. As people migrated from the east, they settled in the land of Shinar. People there sought to make bricks and build a city and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for themselves, so that they not be scattered over the world. God came down to look at the city and tower, and remarked that as one people with one language, nothing that they sought would be out of their reach. God went down and confounded their speech, so that they could not understand each other, and scattered them over the face of the earth, and they stopped building the city. Thus the city was called Babel.”

5.    Ancient Light (John Banville) – For proving once more that John Banville is the greatest living English-language stylist.

“And yet for all that, always, at the back of my mind, there was the suspicion that my efforts, and redoubled efforts, were not as welcome to Mrs Gray as they might be or as she repeatedly assured me they were. I have a notion that all men worry that all women do not really care for the physical manifestations of love, and only acquiesce to them so as to indulge us, their overgrown, needful, insatiate infants. Hence the unwavering hold over us of the myth of the nymphomaniac, that fabulous creature more elusive than the unicorn or the unicorn’s lady, which, once found, would allay our deepest fears. There were moments when, fastened to her breast or rootling about in her lap, I would chance to glance up and catch her smiling down on me with a fond benevolence that was nothing less, and nothing more, than maternal. At times too she was as impatient with me as any mother would be of her endlessly importuning child – ‘Get off me!’ she would grunt, and tumble me aside and sit up scowling crossly, looking for her clothes. Always I could get her to lie down again, though, simply by touching the tip of my tongue to the chocolate-brown mole between her shoulder-blades or walking two fingers up the soft, fishbelly-white inner side or her arm. Then she would shiver, and turn to me with something that was more than a sigh and less than a moan, her eyes closed and her eyelids fluttering, and offer me helplessly her open hot slack mouth to kiss. She was never so desirable to me as in such moments of reluctant surrender.”

6.    HaCol Zeriz (Sarai Shavit) – For its ridiculous, addictive plot, and for reminding me of my Hebrew when I thought I had forgotten it.

7.    The Book of Disquiet (Fernando Pessoa) – For giving us a glimpse of what Kafka might look like without the mystique.

“Even I feel almost mystical when I speak of them but I would be incapable of being more than these words written under the influence of a chance mood. Like all of humanity, I will always belong to Rua dos Douradores. In verse or prose, I will always be just another employee at his desk. With or without mysticism, I will always be parochial and submissive, the slave of my feelings and of the moment in which I feel them. Beneath the great blue canopy of the silent sky, I will always be a page caught up in some incomprehensible ritual, clothed in life in order to take part in it, and blindly going through the different gestures and steps, poses and mannerisms, until the party or my role in its ends and I can do and eat the fancy food from the great stalls they tell me are set out at the bottom of the garden.”

8.    The Bible Unearthed (Israel Finkelstein/Neil Asher Silberman) – For making the complicated debates of biblical archaeology exciting to the layman.

“The story of how and why the Bible was written – and how it fits into the extraordinary history of the people of Israel – is closely linked to a fascinating tale of modern discovery. The search has centred on a tiny land, hemmed in on two sides by desert and on one side by the Mediterranean, that has, over the millennia, been plagued by recurrent drought and almost continual warfare. Its cities and population were miniscule in comparison to those of the neighbouring empires of Egypt and Mesopotamia. Likewise, its material culture was poor in comparison to the splendour and extravagance of theirs. And yet this land was the birthplace of a literary masterpiece that has exerted an unparalleled impact on world civilization as both sacred scripture and history.”

9.    Strong Opinions (Vladimir Nabokov) – For Nabokov imposing his own rules on the interview genre.

“I pride myself on being a person with no public appeal. I have never been drunk in my life. I never use any schoolboy words of four letters. I have never worked in an office or in a coal mine. I have never belonged to any club or group. No creed or school has had any influence on me whatsoever. Nothing bores me more than political novels and the literature of social intent.”

10.    Bloodlands (Timothy Snyder) – For the dead.

“It is true that Germans sometimes avoided shooting younger children, instead throwing them into the pits with the corpse, and allowing them to suffocate under the earth. They also had at their disposal another means of killing that allowed them to avoid seeing the end of young life. Gas vans roved the streets of Minsk, the drivers seeking stray Jewish children. The people called the gas vans by a name that had been used for the NKVD trucks during the Great Terror a few years earlier: ‘soul destroyers.’”

The girls and boys knew what would happen to them if they were caught. They would ask for a tattered bit of dignity as they walked up the ramp to their death: ‘Please sirs,” they would say to the Germans, “do not hit us. We can get to the trucks on our own.”

11.    Public Enemies – Bernard Henri-Levy/Michel Houellebecq – For an inevitably addictive read.

“All this to say, Bernard-Henri, that I have no trouble believing you when you tell me that your fame was in no way premeditated.  It is all the easier to believe since almost nothing in my life has been premeditated (or, to be more precise, everything I premeditated failed). The only thing I have ever managed to plan, more or less, have been my novels (well, at least the beginnings; after the first hundred pages, it goes downhill). And moreover, it was because I never wanted fame. It is true that I wanted to earn money through my books; fiercely wanted it, for the reasons I’ve already given, as soon as I realized it was possible (which is to say sometime around September 10, 1998). Perhaps, had I been rich, I would have wanted fame as well; but that is not the way things went in my life. I became famous in September 1998; I became rich in May 1999 when the royalties arrived. Well, I say rich, it’s all relative. Let’s say, rich enough to be able to think about giving up a job that simply paid the rent – but that, in any case, always seemed to me the only meaningful benefit of being rich.”

12.    Delta of Venus (Anais Nin) – For telling some unpalatable truths.

“Women, I thought, were more apt to fuse sex with emotion, with love, and to single out one man rather than be promiscuous. This became apparent to me as I wrote the novels and the Diary, and I saw it even more clearly when I began to teach. But although women’s attitude towards sex was quite distinct from that of men, we had not yet learned how to write about it.”

13.    The Third Reich  (Roberto Bolano) – For its hints of what was to come.

“Such is life, I concluded, I’m sure your friend never imagined that he would die far from his homeland. Death and Homeland, he whispered, two tragedies.”

14.    Anna Karenina  (Leo Tolstoy) – For the way Tolstoy keeps moving things along.

“Vronsky and Kitty waltzed several times around the room. After the first waltz Kitty went to her mother, and she had hardly time to say a few words to Countess Nordston when Vronsky came up again for the first quadrille. During the quadrille nothing special was said: there was disjointed talk between them of the Korsunskys, husband and wife, whom he described very amusingly as delightful children at forty, and of the future town theater; and only once did the conversation touch her to the quick, when he asked her about Levin, whether he was here, and added the he liked him very much. But Kitty did not expect much from the quadrille. Her heart thrilled in anticipation of the mazurka. It seemed to her that in the mazurka everything must be decided. The fact that he did not during the quadrille ask for the mazurka did not trouble her. She felt sure she would dance the mazurka with him as she had done at former balls, and refused five young men, saying she was engaged for the mazurka. The whole ball up to the last quadrille was for Kitty an enchanted vision of delightful colors, sounds, and motions. She sat down only when she felt too tired and begged for a rest. But as she was dancing the last quadrille with one of the tiresome young men whom she could not refuse, she chanced to be vis-à-vis with Vronsky and Anna. She had not been near Anna since the beginning of the evening, and now again she saw her suddenly quite new and surprising. She saw in her the signs of that thrill she knew so well in herself; she saw that she was intoxicated with the delighted admiration she was exciting. She knew that feeling and knew it’s signs, and saw them in Anna; saw the quivering, flashing light in her eyes, and the smile of happiness and excitement unconsciously playing on her lips, and the deliberate grace, precision, and lightness of her movements.”

15.    Open City  (Teju Cole) – For bringing the spirit of Sir Vidia into the post-9/11 world.

“And so when I began to go on evening walks last fall, I found Morningside Heights an easy place from which to set out into the city. The path that drops down from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and crosses Morningside Park is only fifteen minutes from Central Park. In the other direction, going west, it is some ten minutes to Sakura Park, and walking northward from there brings you toward Harlem, along the Hudson, though traffic makes the river on the other side of the trees inaudible. These walks, a counterpoint to my busy days at the hospital, steadily lengthened, taking me farther and farther afield each time, so that I often found myself at quite a distance from home late at night, and was compelled to return home by subway. In this way, at the beginning of the final year of my psychiatry fellowship, New York City worked itself into my life at walking pace.”

16.    The Honey Gatherers (Mimlu Sen) – For being as enjoyable as I hoped it would be.

“On the banks of this river of life,/My heart swings and my life swings,/I drown and gulp in the currents/Beyond the reach of grand thought/My heart swings and my life swings…/No one will stay with you for ever,/We will all go down the same path/Old or young./Who are we? Where are we from?/Where will we go to?/We deceive ourselves, Bhaba the madman says,/Exulting in moments of laughter, tears and play./We’ll drown in endless waters/Caught in this earthy mandala of illusion and desire./My heart swings and my spirit swings.”

17.    Behind the Beautiful Forevers (Katherine Boo) – For its original approach to India’s slums
“Abdul rose with minimal whining, since the only whining his mother tolerated was her own. Besides, this was the gentle-going hour in which he hated Annawadi least. The pale sun lent the sewage lake a sparkling silver cast, and the parrots nesting at the far side of the lake could still be heard over the jets. Outside his neighbors’ huts, some held together by duct tape and rope, damp rags were discreetly freshening bodies. Children in school-uniform neckties were hauling pots of water from the public taps. A languid line extended from an orange concrete block of public toilets. Even goats’ eyes were heavy with sleep. It was the moment of the intimate and the familial, before the great pursuit of the small market niche got under way.”
18.    The Map and the Territory (Michel Houellebecq) – For being Houellebecq’s most moving work

“I read in an article that, since the end of the Second World War, eighty percent of the cafés have disappeared in France,” remarked Franz while looking around the place. Not far from them, four pensioners were silently pushing cards around on the Formica table, according to incomprehensible rules that seemed to belong to the prehistory of card games (belote? piquet?). Farther away, a fat woman with broken veins on her face downed her pastis in a single gulp. “People have begun to spend half an hour over lunch, to drink less alcohol as well; and then the coup de grâce was the smoking ban.” “I think it’ll come back, in different forms,” Jed said. “There has been a long historical phase of increased productivity, which is reaching an end, at least in the West.”

19.    The History of History: A Novel of Berlin (Ida Hattemer-Higgins) – For its first hundred pages, and for trying but not quite managing to reach the heights.

“If the second version of Magda’s motivation were to be believed, then Magda was the only Nazi parent, indeed, the only tribunal in the world, to understand and confirm the Nazi crime – as a Nazi, for she was the only one to inflict upon her own family the Nazi penalty: death for the crime of evil-in-the-blood.”

20.    The Country Without a Post Office: Poems (Agha Shahid Ali) – For taking me back to the summer of 2011

“Don’t tell my father I have died,” he says,/and I follow him through blood on the road/and hundreds of pairs of shoes the mourners/left behind, as they ran from the funeral, victims of the firing. From windows we hear/grieving mothers, and snow begins to fall/on us, like ash. Black on edges of flames,/it cannot extinguish the neighbourhoods,/the homes set ablaze by midnight soldiers,/Kashmir is burning:”

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