Sunday, April 25, 2010

Charles Bowden,Lock-Picking, Slavoj Zizek, and Manuel Rivas

Charles Bowden, who lives in Tucson, a few miles from the Mexican border, and who writes, as one publicity piece pretty accurately puts it, about living a moral life in a culture of death, is a Thoreauian crank nature writer, essayist ,scribe of memoirs on the hazardous but beautiful life on the Mexican border and teller of true tales of drug- dealing and beautiful death in Chihuahua and Ciudad Juarez. Altogether a brilliant scribe of the dark side of life.
He has written several books on the southwest desert, a piece on Edward Abbey, numerous essays and now a multiple series on Juarez, culminating this year in Murder City, published by Holt and Dreamland, with black and white graphic drawings by Alice Leora Briggs, published by the University of Texas Press in Austin. He was recently in town to accept at an art gallery in Chelsea the Orion magazine award for book of the year, for Some of the Dead are Still Breathing, published in 2009 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

In this book, there are a number of excellent essays, but my favorite is an essay called "Serpent" in which he describes his life with a blacktail rattlesnake named Beulah that coiled up one day and settled next to Bowden on his porch rocking chair.

"I am clumsy...she can see that with her eyes, though she hardly relies on sight.And I am warm... I become a shape with a field of temperatures of different intensities, one so finely felt that she can perfectly target any part of my body. And I am irrelevant unless I get too close- She will ignore me if I stay six feet away. She will ignore me if I become motionless for 180 seconds.

If I violate the rules of her culture, she will work through a sequence of four tactics. First, she wil pretend to be invisible and hope I do not see her.If that fails, she will try to flee.If that fails, she will rattle in hope of frightening me away. And finally, if I am completely ignorant of simple courtesy and get within a foot or so of her, she will attack me.

...She herself is cultured. In her lifetime, she will attack maybe thirty or forty times.She will never attack a member of her own species. She will never be cruel. She is incapable of evil."

This is a wonderful essay on, as Bowden puts it, a man trying to get outside the cage of his DNA by living with a snake.Highly recommended.

"A Casual Introduction to Lock-Picking" was the title of one of the workshops at the 4th Annual Anarchist Bookfair, held last week on the premises of the Judson Church in Greenwich Village, which has served as a beacon light for civil rights for almost two hundred years now. I missed this intriguing course, sandwiched between the usual offerings dealing with globalization, radical parenting,the politics of disaster and other choice offerings. In fact, I missed all the workshops and only managed to attend the bookfair itself, which some have described as a "good knock-off" of the annual San Francisco anarchist book event, although somewhat smaller in scope.But I was intrigued by the course description-which reads in part:
"We will.. explore the mechanical components of pin tumbler locks in order to develop
an understanding of how subtle mechanical imperfections in the meshing of the components can be manipulated so as to bypass the need for a key."

Whoever wrote this could graduate to the course catalogue at Oberlin or Swarthmore Colleges , to be sure, or certainly the Advanced program for a Masters Degree in Pickpocketing, said to be taught in several Southern Hemispheric port cities. And ,one might add,surely coming to our own semi-depressed Northern climes soon as well.

Slavoj Zizek is by now the most famous cultural critic and philosopher in the Western world. A native originally of Slovenia, he now divides his time between academic assignments in London and in Ljubljana. His writings are the most prolific in virtually any corner of the arts and aciences, barring only Joyce Carol Oates. And on top of that, to see him in person, this unreconstructed mix of Hegel, Marx and Jacques Lacan,is to watch an inferno of a mind in operation.
His books are worth the price alone for their sizzling and unexpectedly wide -ranging criques of film and the popular culture, let alone politics and religion. There's a new one out from Verso,Living in the End Times - and I have already made the plunge into its endlessly fascinating pages.

Manuel Rivas is Galicia's most famous novelist, and northwest Spain's candidate for some serious literary prizes. Three of his works of fiction, beginning with Carpenter's Pencil, a brilliant novel of the Spanish Civil War, and two other works containing much folkloric poetic content, have been published here by Overlook Press. But his latest-"Books Burn Badly", just out from Harvill Secker in London, has been almost uniformly praised as a masterpiece- with comparisons in brilliance to Joyce and Marquez- But here is a writer who combines skillful prose on the day the Falangists burned libraries in Galicia - August 19, 1936, and also executed Garcia Lorca- with a poetically brilliant style of writing on the peoples and life of urban and village Galicia.
Here is a sample:

"Things spoke and fell quiet.Here were two perceptions that made a picture or a poem special.One speaking of things.Capturing the speaking of things, their expansive aura,their meaning and translating it into the language of light or sounds.The other, the falling quiet of things.Their hiding.Their being absent. Their emptying.Their loss.Relating or relecting that was another shudder.The first caused a frontal shudder. The second, a lumbar tremor."

We'll have more to say on Rivas, but this is a writer still comparatively unknown in this country, although his writings have been translated into many languages.Pay him heed and be uncommonly rewarded-the latest book is just delicious.

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