Reviews

In Review: Conversations (Volume 3) by Jorge Luis Borges and Osvaldo Ferrari

“Ferrari and I tried to let our words flow through us, perhaps despite ourselves" - Jorge Luis Borges

“What else remains for an 85-year-old to do but repeat himself?” asks Jorge Luis Borges in the first volume of these conversations between the author of Ficciones and the poet and essayist Osvaldo Ferrari. Still playful a mere year before his death in 1986, Borges then offers a sly nod to the listener of these radio dialogues that can now reach English readers: “Or try variations, which comes to the same thing.” Such a remark recalls a classic Borges piece like “The Library of Babel,” with its intricately intertwined ideas of repetition and variation, and in his preface Ferrari even alludes to Borges’ “zenithal perception of everything,” suggesting that the author of  “The Aleph” or “The Zahir” might resemble his own creations. Detecting such subtle intersections between page and personality can certainly serve as one entertaining way into this newly released—and both occasionally and charmingly repetitive—third volume of radio conversations published by Seagull Books. But these pages become truly fascinating as we encounter not one Borges but many: the poet, the critic, the writer of fictions that tend toward the philosophical, and, perhaps most importantly, the attentive reader capable of discovering some delight or insight on every page.

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In Review: Xtámbaa—Piel de Tierra by Hubert Malina

Paul Worley reviews the first volume of poetry to be published in the Me’phaa language of Mexico.

In a 2015 Washington Post article on the state of world languages, Rick Noack and Lazaro Gamio note that of the roughly 7000 languages currently spoken on the planet, almost half that number—some 3500—are expected to die out by 2100. Although the authors themselves do not make such a connection, when they state that “Linguistic extinction will hit some countries and regions harder than others,” the areas they designate as those that stand to be hardest hit (Native American reservations in the Western and mid-Western US, the Amazon rainforest, sub-Saharan Africa, Oceana, Australia, and Southeast Asia) coincides roughly with a map of where global capitalism has increasingly sought to expand its reach into indigenous communities during the first few years of the 21st century. As evidenced by conflicts such as #NoDAPL in the US and the dynamiting of a sacred Munduruku site to make was for a dam in the Brazilian Amazon, the extinction of languages and cultures all too frequently goes hand-in-hand with state sponsored development projects that forcibly eject indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands in the name of national progress. When one comes to an understanding that language death is as much an economic as it is a cultural phenomenon, where do indigenous peoples, cultures, and languages fit within 21st century nation-states, if at all?

In comparison with many other countries in Latin America and the rest of the world, contemporary indigenous literatures from Mexico are notable precisely for this delicate dance between the Mexican state, a major sponsor of indigenous literatures since the late 1970s, and indigenous authors whose literary, linguistic, and political aims tend to diverge from those of their state-sanctioned patrons. In particular, the bilingual format of virtually all indigenous literatures published in Mexico during the past 40 years speaks to the realities of a complex relationship in which authors seek to represent themselves to themselves and their communities in their native languages, while simultaneously making these same selves intelligible to non-indigenous outsiders living in their same country.

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In Review: Nanni Balestrini’s Blackout and the Poetry of Radicalism

Radicalism itself thus gets subverted, in the sense that any possible single-minded version of it is blown up.

Written in the mid-through-late seventies, Blackout was released in the wake of the 1968 moment, which involved a wave of radical students and anti-capitalist workers’ unrest surging throughout Western Europe. But unlike in France, that “moment” lasted in Italy for over a decade. And it is the prolonged endurance and mostly tragic ramifications that inspired Nanni Balestrini to write this outstanding algorithmically-experimental work.

It is perhaps useful to note from the very beginning how Balestrini’s radical allegiance gets in fact filtered through, mixed with, and ultimately shaped by the various cacophonous kinds of discourse he feeds into his algorithmic procedures. He is not the first to inform digital poetics with radicalism—in the US for instance, a father figure of algorithmic/digital poetry, John Cage, had professed Maoism as the ideology consistent with his own “m: writings” and “mesostic”-generating operations as early as the 1960s—but he is indeed a singular case of focusing a whole book of algorithmic writing on a radical movement. Balestrini in this respect is a pioneer, since if 21st century digital poetry can be partly characterized by a radical, anti-capitalistic ethos (albeit diffused by lingering postmodernist reflexes), back in the day digital poetics focused a lot more on the method rather than the political implications of its subjects.

Balestrini’s “how” therefore enacts a remarkably nuanced view on the “what.” Perhaps the most relevant if intriguing paradox of this book is its unrelenting focus on the radical movement and related events, expanded by an inclusive, democratic perspective that invites diversity and a discordance of viewpoints and voices—all of which is eventually turned on its head, political stance included. Radicalism itself thus gets subverted, in the sense that any possible single-minded version of it is blown up by the most uncompromising—and therefore inclusive—radicalism of all: that of the (politically and commercially unsanctioned) algorithm.

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Huda al-Attas: A Writer Who Speaks for the Women of Yemen

In her stories, Al-Attas documents Arab women’s lives in general and Yemeni women’s lives in particular.

This essay is the first of a series of three which will highlight three women writers from Yemen, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia who never before have been translated into English. The series was catalyzed by Asymptote’s call this past winter for a Special Feature for the Spring Issue dedicated to literature from the countries covered by Trump’s travel ban on certain predominantly Muslim countries. One of Asymptote’s core goals is to provide a platform for work from regions generally underrepresented in translation. Yemen, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia have long been marginalized in the realm of translations from Arabic to English. The contributors have chosen to focus on women writers because they tend to face greater hardships in getting published, particularly in Saudi Arabia.

Yemeni writer and journalist Huda al-Attas, born in 1971, is a pioneer of women’s short-story writing in Yemen and other Arab countries. Al-Attas has been writing for more than two decades. She was born in Hudarmut, in southern Yemen, and was raised in Aden with her brothers by her mother. Her family members are her biggest fans and greatest supporters. As a journalist, she is a regular Yemeni newspaper columnist. Her short stories have been published in Yemen and all over the Arab world.

Al-Attas has a broad fan base, consisting of not only conservative middle-aged literary readers but also a new generation of young, liberal readers. Contrary to stereotypes about the Arab world, Yemeni culture has been hospitable to writers, male and female alike. Interestingly, Al-Attas’s Yemeni audience can be divided into two parts: a liberal, secular audience that desires progressive change and a conservative audience that does not believe in women’s rights and even goes so far as to believe that a woman could not be the author of such daring work.

Well regarded by writers around the Arab world, Al-Attas is known as a liberal advocate of human rights and equality between people. She was well known before the Arab Spring as a bold writer who shed light on religious, social, sexual, and political taboos in a conservative society that shackles both men’s and women’s rights and prevent progress. Her personal bearing is as daring as her literary work: for example, pictures of her not wearing a scarf (a breaking of taboo in her culture) appear frequently in newspapers. She has received awards from many different Arab countries, such as Yemen and UAE. Her collections of short stories include Obsessed Spirit…Obsessed Body (hājisrūḥwahājisjasad, 1995), Because She (li’annaha, 2001), and Lightning Training to Be Light (bariqyatadarrabalada’, 2003). Her work has been translated into many languages. Topics that she addresses include incest, patriarchal ownership of women’s bodies, child brides, child begging, child labor, and khat addiction, to name a few. She explores these topics through innovative literary techniques that are as liberating as her subject matter.

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In Review: Doomi Golo by Boubacar Boris Diop

Jessie Stoolman on the first book ever to be translated to English from Wolof, an indigenous language of Senegal.

Doomi Golo is the first book to be translated into English from Wolof, an indigenous language widely spoken in Senegal. In its interesting linguistic journey, the Francophone author Boubacar Boris Diop has also personally translated the novel from Wolof to French.

The protagonist Nguirane Faye’s six notebooks written for his grandson compose the heft of the novel. One of the many iconic passages in the book tackles a central question facing the decolonizing world:

I am perfectly aware, Badou, that turning one’s back on the outside world is tantamount to the kiss of death.  It’s bound to be a good thing if a nation lets the winds that are blowing from all corners of the globe expand its chest, but not unless we do what we can to preserve the crucible destined to receive its breath when they are blowing.  Life, after all, is not born out of the void.

Every aspect of Diop’s masterpiece, from its content to choice of language to its translation, addresses this struggle to preserve marginalized identities in a globalized context. It is unsurprising that this pioneering novel was a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award 2017, founded by Three Percent.

Interestingly, Diop decided to translate Doomi Golo from Wolof after being “inundated with requests,” according to Vera Wülfing-Leckie, one of the two translators of the English version. Adding intrigue to the situation, Wülfing-Leckie notes in her captivating introduction that some scholars argue that the French version, entitled Les petits de la guenon, “was a new novel that merely bore close similarities to the original.“ As for the English translation, Wülfing-Leckie mainly worked with the French version. However, El Hadji Moustapha Diop, Boubacar Boris Diop’s son and the second person in the translating duo, consulted the Wolof version as well.

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The End of Eddy Review: Édouard Louis’s story of rejection, queerness and trauma in working-class France

He tried with such violent passion and self-betrayal, even self-degradation, to fit in with these people—his people

Édouard Louis’s debut novel The End of Eddy gives voice to a demographic often excluded from mainstream literature—the elusive “white working class” so frequently cited by politicians and publishers lately—while also telling the story of a young man who is completely rejected by that same group. In this apparent contradiction lies the work’s most remarkable achievement: to illuminate the lives of, and even empower, the narrator’s own antagonists—without forgiving them.

Bear in mind this is a work of autofiction, á la Knausgaard’s My Struggle opus or Sergio del Molino’s Lo que a nadie le importa, completed when the author was just twenty years old. Any editor would expect a manuscript so early in a writer’s life and career to lack “perspective,” to need some “distance,” especially given the drama and violence in this story in particular. Most memoirists don’t like to be too close to the time and people they’re writing about—and I did have to continually remind myself I was not reading a memoir while falling headfirst into Louis’s story. The lumps the character Eddy has taken have certainly not gone down, but that they are still swollen and purple is just what makes the read so engrossing, and makes the strange duality of the characters’ sympathetic and reproachable natures believable.

The book was first published in France in 2013 to great acclaim, making the now 24-year-old something of a literary star. Out this month in the U.S. with Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, and translated by Michael Lucey, the work has begun to receive a lot of attention in English, too. Louis has had his critics, however, particularly regarding the work’s believability—a plight that perhaps inevitably threatens the autofiction writer. There is something inherently uncomfortable about reading such a novel; you can’t settle in and let the story carry you to a made-up place and time, but at the same time you can’t walk away feeling you know something for sure, something you can report to a friend later. One can’t help but want to know after all, is it real or not?

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“Old Seams of the Ancient World”: Reading Patrick Chamoiseau’s Manifesto Against Borders

“The dream and the political vision must arise, and that is when the poetic word is as fundamental as that of experts or economists.”

In our Spring Issue this year, we ran a special feature covering literature from countries affected by President Trump’s infamous “Muslim Ban.” This was in recognition that literature is reflective of political conditions and that it is a powerful form of protest against oppression. In today’s piece, Fiona Le Brun looks at the manifesto against the Muslim Ban penned by Patrick Chamoiseau, a Prix Goncourt recipient and notable figure in Créolité literature. As France emerges from a divisive election against the backdrop of the unprecedented European refugee crisis, reading Chamoiseau reminds us that literature enables us to conceptualize cultural openness. 

This February, Martiniquais author Patrick Chamoiseau, whose previous works include the Goncourt-winning novel Texaco (1992. Translated into English by Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinokurov in 1997),  launched a call for solidarity with migrants of the world. Not only was this call a reaction to President Trump’s executive order blocking citizens of six predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States, but also a reaction against Europe’s palpable fear revealed by Brexit and the several manifestations of the rejection of migrants.

A couple of months later in May 2017—between the two rounds of the closely watched French presidential election—his essay Frères migrants: Contre la barbarie (Migrant Brothers: Against Barbarism) was released. This invitation to resist intolerance, racism, and indifference is concluded by his manifesto, Les Poètes déclarent (Declaration of Poets).

Today Chamoiseau’s manifesto is more relevant than ever, for both the United States and France. While the French are rejoicing in the victory of the youthful, moderate and well-read Emmanuel Macron over the far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen, the latter still gathered over 10 million votes, mostly motivated by immigration topics. This temporary relief must not have us overlook the fact that France, whose leaders never miss an opportunity to cast the country as the nation of human rights, has welcomed only a little over 25,000 refugees last year, far less than Germany or Sweden over the same period of time. The results of this election sure bring a glimmer of hope, as the winning candidate seems interested in real change and wants to work hand in hand with fellow EU countries. He also appears to be ready to wipe the dust off our old colonial shelves: back in February, while on a trip to Algeria, Macron called France’s colonial past a “crime against humanity,” and stood firm in the face of attacks by right-wingers. But his task remains difficult. He still has to convince millions of French citizens to support his agenda. The upcoming parliamentary elections will be decisive for Macron’s mandate in a very divided country, as well as for the uncertain future of the EU.

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What’s New in Translation? May 2017

We review three new books available in English, from Yiddish and Hebrew poetry to an extraordinary Russian account of exile.

 

golden_cockerel_600x600

The Golden Cockerel & Other Writings by Juan Rulfo, translated by Douglas J. Weatherford, Deep Vellum

Reviewed by Nozomi Saito, Senior Executive Assistant

Juan Rulfo’s prominence within the canon of Mexican and Latin American authors has been undeniable for some time. Regarded by Valeria Luiselli as one of the writers who gave her a deeper understanding of the literary tradition in Mexico and the Spanish language, and depicted by Elena Poniatowska as a figure deeply rooted in Mexican culture, it is clear that modern Mexican and Latin American literature would not be what they are without Rulfo. Indeed, Rulfo often has been credited as the figure to whom the Latin American boom of the 1960s and ‘70s is indebted, and Gabriel García Márquez has said that it was because of Rulfo’s works that the former was able to continue writing and ultimately produce One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Yet for all the recognition that Rulfo’s works have so rightly earned, there has been a persistent misconception that he only published two works of fiction, The Plain in Flames (El Llano in llamas, 1953) and Pedro Páramo (Pedro Páramo, 1955). The Golden Cockerel (El gallo de oro, c. 1956) for too long remained excluded from Rulfo’s oeuvre, even being miscategorized as a text originally intended for the cinematic screen. To reclaim and secure its position in Rulfo’s canon, Douglas J. Weatherford has brought forth The Golden Cockerel and Other Writings, which provides deep insight into the work, ruminations, and personal life of the legendary writer.

The result is a text that is refreshing and diverse. The titular story follows the rise and fall of Dionisio Pinzón, an impoverished man whose crippled arm prevents him from farm labor, the only viable work in the town, and whose destiny changes when someone gives him a golden cockerel that has been badly beaten, having comprised the losing side of a cockfight. While the majority of the story follows Pinzón’s migration in pursuit of wealth, his path eventually intersects with that of the singer Bernarda Cutiño, familiarly called La Caponera, whose own migratory wanderings lead them from one town to the next, to various cockfights throughout Mexico.

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In Review: Abdulai Sila’s novel confronts the future of Guinea-Bissau

She wants to create a school unlike those she attended, which were born out of the “civilizing” arm of the colonial regime.

“It was the first time the Sepoys had seen such a cowardly Chief of Post. It left them very disillusioned. They told everyone in the tabanca what had happened, adding a little salt of course.”

No “salt” appears to be lost in Jethro Soutar’s translation of The Ultimate Tragedy, which is the first Bissau-Guinean novel to be translated into English.

Reflecting the Bissau-Guinean oral traditions that influenced Abdulai Sila’s writing style, the novel reads like an uninterrupted conversation about what the future holds for this nation, seemingly on the verge of liberation.

Indeed, it is not difficult to imagine protagonist Ndani’s life (re)told in an oral narrative as she transforms from cursed outcast to abused servant, to the wife of a wealthy régulo in whose village she will meet her true love. With every change in Ndani’s environment, we are introduced to a different facet of colonial-era Bissau-Guinean society: rural, under-served poor; white, colonial elite; powerful, indigenous leaders; and finally, Church-educated citizens.

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What’s New in Translation? April 2017

We review three new books available in English, from Hebrew poetry to haunting fairy tales.

milk of dreams

The Milk of Dreams, by Leonora Carrington, tr. by the author, New York Review Books

Reviewed by Beau Lowenstein, Editor-at-Large for Australia

Leonora Carrington grew up listening to folktales told by her Irish nanny in Crookhey Hall. She spent most of her life in Mexico City and became renowned as a Surrealist painter, artist and novelist. Her children recount how they used to sit in a large room on whose walls their mother’s fantastical stories were brought to life. There were deranged creatures and wild forests, and mystical persons standing amid steep, clouded mountains. Carrington’s breath as a storyteller was as broad as her genius for painting and imagery, and the paring of the two resulted in a small notebook she called The Milk of Dreams (New York Review Books, 2017) – perhaps the only surviving relic of that enchanting time where, each day for her children, she opened the door to a realm of fantasy and wonder.

We are introduced to Headless John on the first page, which immediately sets the tone:

The boy had wings instead of ears.

He looked strange.

“Look at my ears,” he said.
The people were afraid.

Her stories, which are often not much more than a few lines in length, give a sense of whimsical creativity; the kind that is not just rare in literature but exceedingly so in children’s stories. Meet George, who enjoys eating walls and eventually grows his head into a house; Don Crecencio the butcher and his goat’s meat roses; and the monster Chavela Ortiz, who has six legs, a golden jewel, pearls, and a portrait of Don Angel Vidrio Gonzalez, the head of the Sanitary Department. There is a freedom in Carrington’s tales that is both outrageous and unpredictable, and yet underlying is the realness of raw experience. These are not watered-down shadows of a story like so much of fantasy writing seen today – they delve into genuine emotions, which are often dark and complex.

And yet Carrington imbeds a wicked humour in her stories, too. In “The Horrible Story of the Little Meats,” an old and ugly woman is nicknamed Lolita by her friends and captures three children, imprisoning them and cutting off their heads. They are saved by a Green Indian who, in his ignorance, reattaches their heads to their hands and feet and buttocks, though, “the children were happy in spite of having their heads stuck on such funny places.”

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In Review: Jorge Argueta’s Bilingual Memoir About Fleeing El Salvador for the States

a brave country / a strong country / a country that shouts

“When I left El Salvador running, I didn’t know where I was heading, but I ran.” Despite the apparent simplicity of its prose, this passage encapsulates the author’s harried flight from his war-torn country in a moment where facing the complete unknown of exile was the best alternative to remaining in his homeland. In a particularly cruel twist, the country he is running from, El Salvador, translates into English as, “The Savior,” and the country the author eventually comes to, the United States, is responsible for fanning the flames of El Salvador’s Civil War (1980-1992) in an effort to win its own Cold War against the former Soviet Union.

With this story of fleeing in the face of conflict at its core, Jorge Argueta’s brilliant En carne propia: Memoria poética/Flesh Wounds: A Poetic Memoir (Arte Público Press, 2017) emerges as a text that challenges straightforward narratives surrounding immigration to the United States from Latin America, and remains highly relevant despite taking place in the 80s. Those readers already familiar with Argueta’s work through his award winning children’s literature may be shocked to find the author’s personal history laid bare in a genre-bending poetry-prose narrative (in Spanish with an accompanying English translation) that does not shy away from his childhood environs “teeming with drunkards, prostitutes, servants, popsicle vendors, mechanics—the working class or the poorest of the poor” nor “an entire generation disappearing” during El Salvador’s Civil War. Those unfamiliar with Argueta’s previous publications or with contemporary Latinx literature in general will find themselves grappling with a text that at times appears both intimate and alienating as it guides the readers through the lasting consequences of a Central American Civil War that most Americans have long forgotten if they have heard of it at all.

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In Review: Can Xue’s Frontier

[Grace] thought one of the frontier’s major characteristics was that the scenery outside exerted tremendous pressure on people.

Luijin lives in Pebble Town, a place that lies between two peripheries. People often travel there from the interior, as her parents once did, moving farther and farther north until they arrive at the border of the frontier. The Snow Mountain, eternally white, watches over the townspeople in the slight distance. ‘Surreal’ and ‘mystical’ can perhaps describe the lives of those who live and work in Pebble Town, with its disappearing, floating tropical gardens, the grove of Poplar trees, roaming snow leopards and the impalpable Design Institute.

The narrative unfolds through a dozen or so perspectives, each a unique unveiling of the subtle yet marvelous flow of life that plays out in the mind of its author, Can Xue. And here is where our plot summary ends, at least in the typical sense. The narrative arc is perhaps the least helpful point of reference for a reader of Can Xue, and it would do no service here, to either reader or subject, to continue. That is not to say the story lacks structure (more on that later), but that to focus on it here would be to disregard what makes her work so unique. It is what lies behind the walls of narrative and concrete plot points that interests Can Xue: the intangible is valued over the material.

As with much of Can Xue’s translated work, people and things, time and space, all tend to envelope each other like a mist. Perhaps most notable in her short stories, her ability to find careful footing in the space between the real and the surreal is unique and achieves a balance that is both remarkable and often unsettling. In Frontier (Open Letter, 2017), her newest novel to appear in English, this balance is penetrating and comes through most forcefully in the town itself. In a letter to her parents, who have left Pebble Town to return to the city, one of the primary characters, Luijin, writes, “she felt that Pebble Town was a slumbering city. Every day, some people and things were revived in the wind. They came to life suddenly and unexpectedly.” For the reader, Pebble Town both grounds and disorientates us at the same time, without interruption. It serves as neither a character nor a place, but magnifies what is around it; enhances and completes it. Can Xue leaves no landmarks or way points to light the path when navigating this curious place, except to remind us “on snowy days, one’s field of vision widens.”

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What’s New in Translation? March 2017

Our team reviews some of the newest translations published in English this month

heretics

Heretics by Leonardo Padura, tr. by Anna Kushner, FSG

Review: Layla Benitez-James, Podcast Editor

Leonardo Padura’s novel, Heretics, has finally made its way to North American shores and English speakers everywhere thanks to translator Anna Kushner’s work for Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Originally published by Tusquets Editores of Spain as Herejes in 2013, Heretics is a startlingly, and in many ways disturbingly, relevant work for 2017—as rising levels of xenophobia and nationalism are straining already tense relationships across many borders and affecting refugees throughout Europe and North America. Padura’s novel opens in the Havana of 1939 with the rejection of the St. Louis, a German transatlantic liner sailing from Hamburg whose 937 almost entirely Jewish passengers were fleeing the Third Reich. Their tragic return to Europe—a effective death sentence—is watched by Daniel Kaminsky, the first character introduced and the namesake of the first of the novel’s four sections. Daniel has high hopes in his nine-year-old heart that his parents and sister aboard the ship will make it to land.

At 525 pages, Padura has ample space to leap through an ever thickening plot as his characters become more and more entangled in a seemingly unlikely series of events. Yet the read is a quick one, driven forward by drastic jumps between Havana and Amsterdam and a narrative structure which throws the reader several curveballs in the pages where a more traditional detective story might feel the need for resolution. It’s especially relentless in its final two dozen pages. This book, addicting in and of itself, will also compel readers to dive into the real history of the events on which it centers; they are oftentimes much stranger than any fiction could hope to be, even though Padura tells us right before we embark that “history, reality, and novels run on different engines.” However, to describe the work as a historic thriller, or even to focus on the mystery of a stolen Rembrandt that is woven throughout the larger plot, only hits at one level of Padura’s game. He lets us fall through history almost effortlessly, revealing the inevitable repetition of human cruelty from biblical times through the 17th century, the 20th and up through our own muddy 21st. He neither sugar coats nor exploits these horrors, to his credit.

While the novel takes one of Padura’s recurring characters, Mario Conde, as its hero, a reader uninitiated into this Cubano’s world will have no trouble becoming quickly acquainted. His prose style is elliptical; events and ideas are repeated by different characters as if Padura holds each piece of plot up to the light like a precious stone, turning it this way and that to appreciate its different angles and facets. Though Salinger undoubtedly receives the most attention, influences from Chandler, Hemmingway, Murakami, Kundera, and the occasional phrases from Voltaire’s Candide, which perhaps even inspired the name of Conde’s most pious friend, Candito, also find their place. Readers will note quite a bit of Nietzsche, too, as our hero is forced to try and make sense of the emo subculture springing up on the Island, not to mention a healthy dose of Blade Runner and Nirvana references to even things out.

Perhaps one of the most delightful plays between reality and fiction is the one Padura plays with the genre itself.  Despite some dark passages, the work is deeply humorous and self-reflective, especially in the periodic wish of our narrator to compose his own hard-boiled thriller as he continually feels trapped in one himself. No stranger to taking on huge historical figures (from Adiós Hemmingway to The Man Who Loved Dogs, which stars Leon Trotsky), Padura’s Rembrant is compelling and once again does that work of blurring fact and fiction that inspires a desire for the work to have come wholly from the real world.

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In Review: The Sound of the One Hand: 281 Zen Koans with Answers

“Our Greater I”: Teachings of Zen unity for divisive times

For many around the world, 2016 was a turbulent year of political and social unrest that brought into the limelight issues of rampant nationalism and ethnocentrism: the refugee crisis, Brexit, the “alt-right” white supremacist and nationalist movement in the US, and the election of Donald Trump are just a handful of examples. The hierarchies of difference and the rhetoric of divisiveness that give power to these issues reflect the danger of an I-versus-the-world dialectic that insists the lives of the citizens of one nation[1] are more important the lives of another. Against the divisiveness of these times, the re-issue of Yoel Hoffman’s The Sound of the One Hand: 281 Zen Koans with Answers provides a breath of fresh air with poetic teachings from Zen masters on the universal one-ness of all existence.

While it may sound like a paradox, the sound of the one hand in fact illustrates the Zen notion of a universal one-ness that stands against divisions of any sort, be they nationalist, linguistic, ethnic, gendered, racial, or other. Resistance to the idea that the self is separate from the other, that the individual is separate from the world, rests at the core of Zen Buddhist philosophies. As Dror Burstein explains in his introduction, the individual in Zen is nestled in a network of interconnected actions, reactions, and processes. The individual in such an existential view resembles what the twentieth-century Zen master Shunryu Suzuki called a “revolving door,” where inner and outer, the internal world and the external, are at all times connected. An understanding of the self in such a way, Burstein suggests, “can define our more expansive self, our ‘greater I,’ as opposed to the “I” circumscribed by our national, social, professional, and ethnic identities”.

The koan, or riddle, from which the book takes its title is a lesson in universal harmony. It begins with an exchange between master and pupil when the master demands, “In clapping both hands a sound is heard; what is the sound of the one hand?” According to the Inzan school, the correct answer is, “The pupil faces his master, takes a correct posture, and without a word, thrusts one hand forward”. Various Zen schools follow this same discourse, but for the Takujū school, the pupil’s answer may be “The sky is the one hand, the earth is the one hand; man, woman, you, me are the one hand; grass, trees, cows, horses are the one hand; everything, all things are the one hand”. Both the insistence of the non-verbal one hand thrust forward and the eloquence of the voiced response embrace the same notion of universal connectivity and one-ness. The one hand thrust forward represents the essence of all hands, one being no better and no less than any other hand, so that the sound of the one hand is also the sound of every hand. The hand’s representativeness of a universal hand-ness is akin to the cosmopolitan spirit of humanist universalism while also upholding diversity through the uniqueness of the one hand.

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