Posts filed under 'Democracy'

The Miracle Born of Everyday Reality, Or What We’ve Learnt About Ourselves

Yet, against all the odds, Čaputová prevailed. What does this mean for the future?

Image credit: Mikuláš Galanda

In an exclusive for Asymptote, Slovak writer Jana Juráňová reports on last month’s groundbreaking presidential election in her country.

It took just two weeks since Zuzana Čaputová was elected Slovakia’s first woman president for the press to stop talking about this astonishing event and pivot to other domestic issues. As our media are preoccupied with things like the malfunctioning ruling coalition, which insists on clinging to power come what may, the population has slowly reconciled itself to the fact that this gang will continue lining their own pockets and haemorrhaging Slovakia’s economy, even if it bankrupts the country. Robert Fico, the former Prime Minister and chairman of SMER-Social Democracy—the senior partner in the coalition government whose links with real social democracy are actually rather tenuous—keeps promising new “social packages,” like some freshly crowned fairy tale king tossing gold coins from a carriage, making economists shudder at the thought of how much all these “free” handouts will cost. A lot of coverage has also focused on the creation of a new party, announced by outgoing President Andrej Kiska after extensively agonising over whether to stay in politics or not. While he kept the public guessing with vague statements, two smaller parties emerged, including Progressive Slovakia, which nominated its deputy chairperson Zuzana Čaputová as its candidate in the presidential election (she resigned from her previous position after accepting the nomination). At that point, the party’s ratings were quite low and she was a relatively unknown environmental activist and lawyer. Despite losing ground, SMER-SD remains the strongest party in parliament, polling 20% support, a figure all the more remarkable in the wake of the murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée a little over a year ago, and given the endless supply of scandals involving the party’s top officials. In this set-up, Kiska’s new party is likely to attract the mainstream electorate, currently composed of reluctant voters and non-voters. No wonder that passions are running high within the panicking coalition following the news of the President’s new party, as well as among opposition parties worried that the newcomer will take away their votes. Amidst this turmoil, the fact that the first woman president in Slovak history will take office almost 100 years since the day women’s suffrage was won in postwar Czechoslovakia in 1920 seems to have slipped people’s minds.

We have been plagued with so many problems that we regularly forget the most pressing of them. That the greatest scandal of recent years—the murder of Ján Kuciak—has not been forgotten is only thanks to the huge effort on the part of journalists who have managed to publish a steady trickle of news on the criminal investigation, as well as the young activists behind a new movement, For a Decent Slovakia. Other burning issues have been rapidly cooling off, as Slovakia returns to the state of the proverbial frog that didn’t manage to leap out of the boiling kettle in time and is slowly getting used to living at boiling point without even realising it’s been cooked.   READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: “Provided we have a soul” by Zsuzsa Takács

We stand under the surveillance / cameras with a starved look, but will not eat.

Jelenkor is one of the most prestigious literary journals in Hungary. As often happens with small languages, literary prestige does not quite translate to a very wide reach: apart from the print version, Jelenkor‘s poems and short stories are read by a few hundred people at best. As the end of 2017 was approaching, journalist Péter Urfi set out to find the closest Hungarian equivalent to the success of “Cat Person,” Kristen Roupenian’s short story that took the internet by surprise. To Urfi’s astonishment, the winner was not only a poem instead of prose, it was not written by a writer with a significant online presence. It was Zsuzsa Takács’s “Provided we have a soul,” published in Jelenkor. More than 70,000 people read the poem and over 1,200 liked it without any significant publicity effort. The humanism, measured dignity, and accuracy of the poem might account for some of this popularity. It also speaks of the frustration many feel at the gradual, relentless dismantling of democratic institutions in the country, at once experiencing it and able to adopt the slight condescension of the token catastrophe tourist. Ultimately it is not incredibly important to pin down the reasons, as resonance is an elusive matter. The sheer power of the poem shall speak for itself.

Provided we have a soul

He’s not known to have one shape. That’s the rub.
Can we trust the one who keeps constantly changing
his appearance—Blind Hope? Now a beggar
on the corner, now a young woman, the servant who
follows her masters to Auschwitz, the Danube
Delta, Vorkuta, serving them even there: digging
up with her bare nails the roots from under
the snow, or scavenging in the dumpsters
for them. A decrepit old man telling stories to keep
our body and soul together, provided we have
a soul, and are not copulating animals only.

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Milton Hatoum’s The Brothers and the Politics of Forgetting

Oppression builds insidiously, explodes in all its terror, and then slips quietly back under the surface.

I stand in my basement facing stacks of cardboard boxes, the remnants of my last cross-country move out to Boulder, CO. If you were to take a cross-section of each box, you would see the sediments of everyday objects: a top layer of clothes; the occasional sweater enveloping a ceramic mug; a layer of miscellaneous household necessities (clothes hangers, desk supplies, etc.); and finally, a thick deposit of books.

At the bottom of one of these boxes I found a thin book, barely visible between the thick spines of a heavily annotated copy of Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives and a fat collection of Pushkin short stories. I pulled out the paperback, which turned out to be a Brazilian novel, The Brothers, written by Milton Hatoum and translated into English by John Gledson. I couldn’t be sure if I had actually read the book before rediscovering it in the crevice of a cardboard box.

I flipped to the copyright information. The original was published in 2000, with the English translation released two years later. Milton Hatoum is a Brazilian author of Lebanese descent, born in 1952 in Manaus, a city in the Amazon. I flipped to the blurb, which promised the story of a Lebanese immigrant family, focusing on the rivalry between two twins, Yaqub and Omar, who live in Manaus in the latter half of the 20th century.

It’s an intriguing premise, one that draws on the age-old trope of brotherly rivalry, harkening back to Cain and Abel, to The Brothers Karamazov, and to Machado de Assis’s Esaú e Jacó. The novel promised to capture the author’s own experience as a man of Middle Eastern descent from a peripheral region of Brazil. I couldn’t remember how it went from my bookshelf to being snugly packed, which made me curious to investigate further. I left my final box unopened, sat down on the pillows and blankets I had piled on the floor, and began reading. The novel opens with an epigraph, a quote from a Carlos Drummond de Andrade poem:

 

   “The house was sold with all its memories

            all its furniture all its nightmares

            all the sins committed, or just about to be;

            the house was sold with the sound of its doors banging

            with its windy corridors its view of the world

                        its imponderables.”

 

The narrative then begins with Yaqub’s homecoming to Manaus from Lebanon, where he had spent some years of his youth, and the reuniting of the two twins under a single roof. Hatoum unveils ever-mounting tensions amongst members of the family through their domestic alliances and conflicts, and the touching and torrid backstories that define those relationships; rich descriptions of setting provide a fascinating portrait of Manaus, albeit one that is devoid of exoticization; and the complex exploration of character in simple, quotidian situations calls upon the wide-ranging tradition of the family saga in literature.

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Reevaluating the Urgent Political Relevance of 20th Century Brazilian Novelist Lima Barreto

"He’s the author who picks a fight with the republic, demanding more res publica."

Authors forgotten in their lifetimes sometimes resurface decades later, telling us stories that resonate far beyond their original historical moment. One such writer is Lima Barreto, whose poignant renderings of working class Brazilians from the turn of the twentieth century reverberate with contemporary relevance. Today, anthropologist Lilia Moritz Schwarcz tells Asymptote about her experience researching and writing the new biography of Lima Barreto, Lima Barreto, Triste Visionário, released in Brazil in July 2017.


Lara Norgaard (LN): In the biography you recently published, Lima Barreto, Triste Visionário, you read Lima Barreto’s fiction through the lens of history and anthropology. How was the experience of studying literature from that perspective? Why is historical context important for reading Lima’s work?

Lilia Moritz Schwarcz (LMS): Disciplinary contact zones are engaging spaces, but they are contested. I place myself at the intersection of anthropology, history, and literary criticism. It was a great concern of mine not to see literature as a direct reflection of reality, since we know that Lima Barreto, while reflecting on reality, also created his own. At the same time, Lima said he wrote literaturamilitante, a term he himself used. That kind of committed literature dialogues with reality.

Lima even suffered for that approach in his time. What we now praise as high literature used to be considered unimaginative. Can you believe that? His contemporaries said that because he referenced reality and his own life, he didn’t have imagination. For me, that was a big step. I thought, I’m going to write this life by engaging with the reality that Lima lived, just as he himself did. Take his first novel, Recordações do EscrivãoIsaias Caminha, which is the story of a young black man, the son of a former slave who takes the train to the big city, as Lima did. In that city he experiences discrimination. And the second part of the book is entirely a roman à clef, as it calls attention to journalism as the fourth estate. The novel was so critical that the media blacklisted Lima, and the book was terribly received. His story “Numa e a Ninfa” critiqued politicians and his second novel, The Sad End of Policarpo Quaresma, critiqued president Floriano Peixoto. Peixoto is part of the book. History enters the novel. And in that sense these novels dialogue with reality and invite the historian.

I also read the excellent North American biographer of Dostoevsky, Joseph Frank, who calls attention to how it’s possible for novels to structure a biography, not the other way around. So I tried to include Lima Barreto’s voice in my book. He’s the writer, and rather than explain something in his place it would be better to let him say it. And so, looking at the biography, you’ll find that I often intersperse my voice with Lima’s. Those were the methods I used working in the contact zones between disciplines.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Your literary update from Romania, Cuba, and the UK

This week, we dock first in Romania, where Editor-at-Large MARGENTO updates us on the political climate and how it’s influencing literary output. Then we sail southwest to Cuba, where we’ll hear from Blog Editor Madeline Jones about the foreign diplomats barred from an awards ceremony, as well as highlights from the International Book Fair in Havana. Finally, back across the Atlantic, M. René Bradshaw, Editor-at-Large for the UK, maps out the best literary events taking place in and around the capital throughout March and April.

MARGENTO, Editor-at-Large for Romania & Moldova, catches us up on the Romanian literary scene:

The recent wave of rallies that have swept Romania, where hundreds of thousands took to the streets to protest the government’s decrees decriminalizing certain corruption-related offences, has sparked reactions both on social media and in literary and creative circles.  The “light revolution” received huge global media coverage when tens of thousands of smartphones converged their glows outside the government building in Bucharest, sending a blinding anti-graft message while also forming the image of a huge national flag.  The true hallmark of this revolution has been internationally perceived as the deployment of digital apps and catchy, pun-filled slogans in both English and Romanian, inundating social and mass media with what hip-hop star Călin “Rimaru” Ionescu has termed the new “OUGmented reality” (OUG being the Romanian acronym for a governmental decree).  As #Rezist has gone viral across digital media channels, it is apt to share from our past archives a celebration by Asymptote contributor Ruxandra Cesereanu of what she sees as a revival of the anti-Soviet and anti-communist rezistance, a Romanian partisan movement that heroically lasted from the late 1940s through the mid-1960s.

In a similar vein, American poet and translator Tara Skurtu—currently in Romania on a Fulbright grant—has revisited the Romanian gulag in a poem inspired by the recent protests and published in the Huffington Post. A couple of days later, the same publication ran an interview on similar issues with Radu Vancu, also an Asymptote contributor.  Still, one of the authorities on modern and post-communist history Mircea Stănescu, who has consistently and shrewdly chronicled and analyzed the protests, maintained a cautionary stance, pointing out the generation gap strongly manifest in the current movement and warning about deeper political and educational issues that might remain unaddressed and resurface later.  Yet it seems that the ongoing rallies and sense of solidarity are a breath of fresh air that has already inspired a great deal of writers. Poet, novelist, and essayist Cosmin Perța has already announced a forthcoming #Rezist literary anthology.

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