Monday, September 25, 2017

Obverse TASWOSAW

From the Pixies's, Monkey Gone to Heaven (Doolittle 1989).

If man is five if man is five
If man is five
Then the devil is six then the devil is six
The devil is six
And if the devil is six
Then God is seven then God is seven
Then God is seven 
This monkey's gone to heaven

NF's Hindi translation

गर इंसान है पांच गर इंसान है पांच 
गर इंसान है पांच 
तब शैतान है छे तब शैतान है छे 
तब शैतान है छे 
और गर शैतान है छे 
तो भगवान् है सात तो भगवान् है सात 
तो भगवान् है सात 
हुआ ये बन्दर जन्नत को प्राप्त

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

I Too Have a Complaint

Having recently finished the slim volume शिकायत मुझे भी है (हरिशंकर परसाई) (tr. I too have a complaint, (Harishankar Parsai)), NF is even more convinced that Parsai remains almost unconscionably under-read and under-translated. His satire, as is evident in this collection, remains as direct, searing and morbidly funny as when it was penned (1970). Indeed, a lot of commentators have ignored the long historical tradition of satire—especially of the political variety—in Hindi literature of which tradition Parsai was among the finest, most renowned exponents. 

(Close on the heels of Parsai was another great, somewhat recently deceased satirist: Srilal Shukla, whose massively influential satire राग दरबारी (1968) (tr. Raga Royale) (inspired from his stint as a provincial civil service (PCS) officer in Lucknow) transcended its satirical origins to become a deft, darkly funny commentary of rural provincialism. Its opening sentences are among the most savagely funny NF's ever read: here's his sorry attempt at translation:
शहर का किनारा. उसे छोड़ते ही भारतीय देहात का महासागर शुरू हो जाता था. 
वहीं एक ट्रक खड़ा था. उसे देखते ही यकीन हो जाता था, इसका जन्म केवल सड़कों के साथ बलात्कार करने के लिए हुआ है... 
Corner of the city. The ocean of Indian villages began just beyond.
Right there stood a truck. To see it was to be certain that it was birthed only to commit rape with roads...
Needless to say, the book is highly recommended.)

Most essays in Parsai's collection are shortish—3-5 pages long. His language remains direct, accessible and bereft of literary adornments. Just as is with the great Manto, perhaps this lack of affectation and direct plain-spokenness adds to Parsai's mordant bite. To top it all, the last essay in the collection is Parsai's memoirs of the by-then deceased Muktibodh. Much in Parsai's classic tradition, it's an intense, short portrait of the man—critical, devoid of sentimentality but acutely aware of Muktibodh's towering genius and his massive contribution to the experimental movement of post-independence Hindi poetry (dubbed प्रयोगवाद (tr. Experimentalism)).

It's good to see Parsai finally becoming more well known in translation circles, as is evident in Scroll.in's recent feature on Parsai's essay on Premchand: A literary mystery: Why did Premchand pose for a photograph in a torn shoe?

Insofar as much more of this is needed, I too have a complaint. 

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

More Reverse TASWOSAW

This time, from the poetry editor at the ever excellent 3quarksdaily, Jim Culleny.

Earthy

Religious scripts:
Vedas, Gospels, Surahs,
Qurans, Hadiths, Bibles, Torahs
are tools like any others
which may be used to trip or lift

Not divine in this, but practical as axes,
shovels, guns and drones or verbal tricks
and as earthy as earth's flora and its fauna

Jim Culleny
11/6/16

NF's Hindi translation:

माटी के लाल

धार्मिक लेख:
वेद, गॉस्पेल, सुरा,
क़ुरान, हदीथ, बाइबल, तोराह 
हैं औज़ार औरों जैसे 
जो हो सकते हैं इस्तेमाल गिराने या उठाने के लिए 

दैव नहीं ये, पर व्यावहारिक जैसे कुल्हाड़ी,
खुरपी, बन्दूक और ड्रोन या मौखिक चालें 
और ऐसे माटी के लाल जैसे धरती के पौधे व उसके जंतु 

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Begging the Question

Most academic writing is boring, jargon-infested and not for the faint-hearted. This is in addition to the forbiddingly esoteric subject matter on which academics usually expound. One reason for the state of affairs could be that it's hard enough to infuse heavily technical writing with lean clarity, let alone an arresting style; and that writers who combine domain expertise with elegant writing are few among the academic population.

It's easy however to complain too much. After all, not everyone is expected to understand a paper in mathematics or physics and in fact, it's hard to find even top professionals in a field who are able to follow cutting edge work in far away areas. For example, it's hard to find (or indeed to expect to find) a topologist who'll understand contemporary developments in logic; or those in fluid mechanics to know much about string theory. Hence even for the most astute and interested reader, there is an iron wall of incomprehensibility that is sometimes breachable only by great works of pop science.

The fields of economics and finance however, occupy a very interesting position in this respect. While their techniques and methodologies can be highly specialized, since the subject matter isn't so esoteric, there is a chance of meaningful communication with a much wider, disparately skilled audience. Moreover, given their massive influence on policy decisions—both government and corporate—perhaps there is an even more-than-usual reason to reach out to as many interested readers as one can and to ensure that as much as possible, no reader is left behind. 

One way to partially achieve this goal is to make the abstract and introduction of the paper as simple and clear as possible. A casual glance at the state of publishing in economics and finance shows that essays in the top journals are almost always more polished, better written and seem to strive for clarity much more than their merely-ordinary counterparts; and in particular, their abstracts and introductions shine with clarity and insight.

Style and elegance, however, are another world altogether.

Which brings NF to the 2013 working paper "Panhandling in Downtown Manhattan: A Preliminary Analysis", written by Gwendolyn Dordick (City College, CUNY) and Brendan O’Flaherty (Columbia). Their succinct abstract is full of questions and they don't forget to acknowledge "... the anonymous panhandlers of downtown Manhattan who have given us their time and told us about their lives". As expected, their paper is about the (equilibrium) behavior of Manhattan panhandlers (who essentially beg for money from tourists and passers-by) and demolishes the dreary-turgid-boring stereotype of academic writing. 

How's this for an opening sentence?
“If I’m going to panhandle, I’m going to do it on the richest street in the world.”
 ---[Eugene], who works on Wall Street.
Panhandling however, is in a way, a very unusual profession, which suffers, in particular from two paradoxes. The first is the use of space in the very tightly packed Manhattan:
Downtown Manhattan panhandlers use some of the most valuable land in the US, but they pay nothing for using it, and they have no legal right to exclude anyone else from using it... But how panhandlers solve the land allocation problem is an open question...
Panhandlers also suffer from credibility problems:
The paradox is that while panhandlers in general have low credibility, their livelihoods depend on having high credibility, since donors have no obvious way of learning, even ex post, whether their donations accomplished the intended purpose. Panhandlers are like used car salesmen whose customers never get to take possession of the cars they buy; they just get reports from the salesmen about how well the cars are supposed to be running. It’s amazing that panhandlers can make any money at all.
As any serious study demands, one first needs to define terms:
Our working definition of panhandling is asking passersby for money for oneself in a public place without offering anything of ostensible value In return. We therefore exclude musicians (however awful), trinket vendors, mendicant nuns and friars, solicitors for recognized charities, and the costumed characters like the Naked Cowboy and Weedman who pose with tourists for a fee. 
While the blood-and-guts of the paper are understandably harder-to-follow for nonspecialists, the eminently readable introduction shines with many other terrific sentences, which NF heartily recommends for all to read.

Here is the link for the full working paper: Dordick and O'Flaherty (2013) Panhandling in Donwtown Manhattan, (Working Paper). Bravo you guys!

Monday, June 19, 2017

Evermore Miniscule Musings

(Universal) Basic Income for the Soul

In a fabulous longread at reason.com, Peter Suderman observes the expansion of a new demographic in the US:
Since 2000, men in their 20s without a bachelor's degree are working considerably less and spending far more time engaged in leisure activities, which overwhelmingly means playing video games. Over the same time frame, this group of men has also grown more likely to be single, to have no children, and to live with parents or other family members.
The surprising thing about the stereotypical aimless young man, detached from work and society, playing video games in his parents' basement: He's actually happier than ever.
The unemployment rate in the US is quite low however, but it merely masks this effect:
The economy has rebounded since the great recession, and national unemployment now sits below 5 percent. But that figure only counts people who are actively seeking work. Even as the unemployment rate has dropped, labor force participation—the number of people who either work or want to work—has dwindled.
One would expect that such a lifestyle exposes its adherents to a lifetime of dissatisfaction and extreme unhappiness. 
You might think that this would be demoralizing. A life spent unemployed, living at home, without romantic prospects, playing digital time wasters does not sound particularly appealing on its face.
Yet this group reports far higher levels of overall happiness than low-skilled young men from the turn of the 21st century. In contrast, self-reported happiness for older workers without college degrees fell during the same period. For low-skilled young women and men with college degrees, it stayed basically the same.
And further...
Research has consistently found that long-term unemployment is one of the most dispiriting things that can happen to a person. Happiness levels tank and never recover. One 2010 study by a group of German researchers suggests that it's worse, over time, for life satisfaction than even the death of a spouse. What video games appear to do is ease the psychic pain of joblessness—and to do it in a way that is, if not permanent, at least long-lasting.
A vast army of young, unemployed males hardly bodes well for social stability of a country, in particular since males exhibit more extreme behavior more frequently than females. 
... men are more likely to exhibit extremes of character and behavior, both positive and negative. A whole generation of men obsessively playing video games during their prime decades of life may not be ideal, but most would agree that it is preferable to riots.
Indeed, a lot of commentators are now floating ideas about universal basic income (UBI) in anticipation of large numbers of people who will presumably be displaced from their jobs by advanced AI. As Suderman remarks, the main conflict lies in human notions of joblessness and its economic and social consequences. Some economists suggest that many such displaced people may turn to video games since they instill a sense of purpose, progress and accomplishment. 
Even the most open-ended games tend to offer a sense of progress and direction, completion and commitment. In other words, they make people happy—or at least happier, serving as a buffer between the player and despair. Video games, you might say, offer a sort of universal basic income for the soul.
Such novelty features make gaming a complex social phenomenon since they increase the opportunity cost of both work (since jobs need to be "good enough" for people to quit gaming) as well as revolution (organizing against your meatspace overlords is far harder than nuking fictional ones).

Yet, one doesn't need to peer too hard to see the irony: "A game provides the sensation of mastery without the actual ability."
"It's a simulation of being an expert," Wolpaw says. "It's a way to fulfill a fantasy." That fantasy, ultimately, is one of work, purpose, and social and professional success.
What's happening in the US is yet-another by-product of technology reorganizing the marketplace in ways no one anticipated. Indeed, in a way, this isn't a new phenomenon at all  just like the Simpsons, Japan already did it  witness the continued relevance of the otaku and hikkikomori subcultures over there.

A fascinating read overall  do read the whole piece in full! Highly recommended.

Master of None: The Soundtrack

Much ink has been spilt on the excellent new show Master of None on Netflix and Aziz Ansari has richly deserved the tall praise heaped on both him and on the show. For the recently concluded second season in particular, the ending of "The Dinner Party" (S2 Ep5) stands out for being a stunning scene in itself. It's a single long continuous take of Aziz's solitary cab drive set to a killer background melody weaving itself seamlessly into the narrative of his dejection.

And so it's really gratifying to see Zach Cowie  the DJ cum music producer get such good press recently for an incredibly eclectic soundtrack that is in many ways, the soul of Master of None.

Here are some recent interviews with Vulture and the BBC. Even the impossible-to-please Pitchfork applauds

Bravo!

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Reverse TASWOSAW

From Robert Graves's To Read a Poem (tr. पढ़ना कविता का)

In Broken Images

He is quick, thinking in clear images; 
I am slow, thinking in broken images.

He becomes dull, trusting to his clear images; 
I become sharp, mistrusting my broken images,

Trusting his images, he assumes their relevance; 
Mistrusting my images, I question their relevance.

Assuming their relevance, he assumes the fact, 
Questioning their relevance, I question the fact.

When the fact fails him, he questions his senses; 
When the fact fails me, I approve my senses.

He continues quick and dull in his clear images; 
I continue slow and sharp in my broken images.

He in a new confusion of his understanding; 
I in a new understanding of my confusion.

NF's Hindi translation:

टूटी छवियों में 

वह है तेज़, सोचता हुआ स्पष्ट छवियों में;
मैं हूँ धीमा, सोचता हुआ टूटी छवियों में.

वह होता है कुंद, आश्वस्त अपनी स्पष्ट छवियों से; 
मैं होता हूँ प्रखर, आशंकित अपनी टूटी छवियों से.

आश्वस्त अपनी छवियों से, वह मानता है उनकी प्रासंगिकता; 
आशंकित अपनी छवियों से, मैं प्रश्न करता हूँ उनकी प्रासंगिकता पर. 

मान कर उनकी प्रासंगिकता, वह मान लेता है तथ्य, 
प्रश्न करते हुए उनकी प्रासंगिकता पर, मैं प्रश्न करता हूँ तथ्य पर. 

जब तथ्य उसे त्याग देता है, वह प्रश्न करता है अपनी इन्द्रियों पर; 
जब तथ्य मुझे त्याग देता है, मैं करता हूँ अनुमोदन अपनी इन्द्रियों का. 

वह बढ़ता है तेज़ और कुंद अपनी स्पष्ट छवियों में; 
मैं बढ़ता हूँ धीमा और प्रखर अपनी टूटी छवियों में. 

वह अपनी समझ के एक नए भ्रम में;
मैं अपने भ्रम की एक नयी समझ में. 

Friday, April 21, 2017

Post Doc Ergo Propter Doc

Remember, that's a fallacy too. #neverforget

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Inverse TASWOSAW

Featuring Anand Bakshi in Mohra (1994); verse: सुबह से लेकर शाम तक (tr. From morning to evening)

सुबह से लेकर शाम तक 

सुबह से लेकर शाम तक 
शाम से लेकर रात तक 
रात से लेकर सुबह तक 
सुबह से फिर शाम तक 
मुझे प्यार करो 
ओओओ...
मुझे प्यार करो 

शहर से लेकर गाँव तक 
धूप से लेकर छाँव तक 
सर से लेकर पाँव तक 
दिल की सभी वफ़ाओं तक 
मुझे प्यार करो 
ओओओ...
मुझे प्यार करो 

NF's English translation:

From morning to evening

From morning to evening
From evening to night
From night to morning 
From morning again to evening
Love me
Ooo...
Love me

From cities to villages 
From swelter to shade
From head to toe
To all heart's faith
Love me
Ooo...
Love me

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Goodbye Blue Sky

Sayonara Suzuki Sensei

Seijun Suzuki passed away recently on Feb 13, 2017 and was known for his zany yakuza films including his two most famous works — Branded to Kill (1967) and Tokyo Nagaremono (1966) (tr. Tokyo Drifter). NF has very pleasant memories of encountering Tokyo Nagaremono in the New York Film Festival a few years back where a retrospective of his films was being hosted. His idiosyncratic style and subversion of B films' genre expectations were certainly exceptional as was his unusual fanbase, comprising some seriously accomplished arthouse directors. 

Here is the eminently melodious, surprisingly catchy title song from the trailer of the very enjoyable Tokyo Drifter.




Sayonara!

The Meeruthiya Gangster

Hindi genre fiction loses a stalwart after the demise of Ved Prakash Sharma on Feb 17, 2017. He remained an extremely prolific genre writer, writing several books a year, for his entire career. Bus stands and railway stations were where you'd encounter his fare most. NF distinctly remembers his most famous book Vardi Wala Gunda (tr. Hoodlum in Uniform) populating wheeler stands all over Uttar Pradesh all through the '90s.

Manik Sharma writes a very well rounded, informative obituary in Firstpost where he remembers the impact of Ved Prakash Sharma in particular, and pulp fiction more generally during the '90s. Here's the excellent closing paragraph:
Sharma, in an interview before he passed away, said that he believed pulp fiction would come back in a big way through television and film. And it makes sense, because while the reader is upwardly mobile in his or her aesthetic pursuits, and the marketing model shows no signs of evolving, only the visual can embody the audacity of a pulp novel’s opening, like that of Sharma’s Vardi Wala Gunda: 
लाश ने आँखे खोल दी. ऐसा लगा जैसे लाल बल्ब जल उठे हैं. 
(tr. The corpse opened its eyes. It felt like red bulbs being switched on.)

An Arrow a Day...

Kenneth Arrow, the colossus who in NF's opinion was the greatest of all time (GOAT) economist passed away on Feb 21, 2017. There's hardly anything a nobody like NF has to add to the volumes of perceptive tributes about Arrow's work readily available elsewhere. On his very deep Impossibility Theorem, to his work with Debreu on general equilibrium, to the theorems on welfare economics, and many, many other immense contributions, NF highly recommends the ever-amazing blog A Fine Theorem, which is adumbrating Arrrow's impact in four posts suitable for (quasi-)laymen. (Part 1, Part 2.) For those more mathematically savvy, NF heartily recommends the five page paper by John Geanakoplos, offering three very simple, alternative proofs of Arrow's Impossibility Theorem (John Geanakoplos (2005), “Three Brief Proofs of Arrow's Impossibility Theorem,”. Economic Theory 26(1), 211-215).

Here is great obituary from Stanford News.

Keynes once said:
The master-economist must possess a rare combination of gifts .... He must be mathematician, historian, statesman, philosopher—in some degree. He must understand symbols and speak in words. He must contemplate the particular, in terms of the general, and touch abstract and concrete in the same flight of thought. He must study the present in the light of the past for the purposes of the future. No part of man's nature or his institutions must be entirely outside his regard. He must be purposeful and disinterested in a simultaneous mood, as aloof and incorruptible as an artist, yet sometimes as near to earth as a politician.
Arrow was all this and more. People have remarked on his inhuman level of depth as well as breadth of knowledge not just in economics but in mathematics, statistics, philosophy and several other disciplines. Here is a well-circulated story recounted by Eric Maskin and featured in Arrow's New York Times obituary where his colleagues once tried to artificially test him on breeding habits of grey whales, to their eventual woe of course. (His brother-in-law was the other GOAT contender: Paul Samuelson. He was also uncle to Lawrence Summers. He also appeared in an Errol Morris short film.)

In academia one encounters several freakishly intelligent people somewhat regularly. However, the ones who leave behind the greatest legacy are those whose students also manage to continue in their great tradition. And indeed, it is in this particular respect that Arrow leaves behind everyone in the dust, with five of his students going on to win Nobels of their own! (And that's not counting Amartya Sen.)

Alvin Roth described him as the Einstein of economics. NF couldn't agree more.

Sayonara.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

The Reading List: January 2016 to January 2017

  1. The Lathe of Heaven (Ursula K Le Guin)
  2. The Savage Detectives (Roberto Bolaño) (reread)
  3. 2666 (Roberto Bolaño) (reread)
  4. The Diamond Age (Neal Stephenson)
  5. Wolf Hall (Hilary Mantel)
  6. Virtual Light (William Gibson) (reread)
  7. Norwegian Wood (Haruki Murakami)
  8. Cosmopolis (Don Delillo)
  9. बदन सराय (मुनव्वर राना) (tr. Badan Sarai, Munawwar Rana)
  10. Shame (Salman Rushdie)
  11. सृष्टि पर पहरा (केदारनाथ सिंह) (tr. Nature Under Watch, Kedarnath Singh)
  12. Roadside Picnic (Arkady and Boris Strugatski)
  13. Herzog (Saul Bellow)
  14. Diamond Dogs and Turquoise Days (Alaistair Reynolds)
  15. काशी का अस्सी (काशीनाथ सिंह) (tr. Kashi's Assi, Kashinath Singh)
  16. Idoru (William Gibson) (reread)
  17. Purity (Jonathan Franzen)
  18. All Tomorrow's Partys (William Gibson) (reread)
  19. The Plot Against America (Philip Roth)
  20. 51 अनमोल कहानियां (प्रेमचंद) (tr. 51 Invaluable Stories, Premchand)
  21. The Name of the Rose (Umberto Eco)
  22. The Windup Bird Chronicle (Haruki Murakami)
  23. By Night in Chile (Roberto Bolaño)
  24. Nazi Literature in the Americas (Roberto Bolaño
  25. The Return (Roberto Bolaño)
  26. दीवार में एक खिड़की रहती थी (विनोद कुमार शुक्ल) (tr. There Lived a Window in a Wall, Vinod Kumar Shukla)
  27. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (Michael Chabon)
  28. The Life and Times of Michael K (J M Coetzee)
  29. The Agent Esmerelda: Nine Stories (Don DeLillo)
  30. The Aleph and Other Stories (Jorge Luis Borges)
  31. The Long Goodbye (Raymond Chandler)
  32. पैंसठ लाख की डकैती (सुरेंदर मोहन पाठक) (tr. The Sixty Five Lakh Heist, Surender Mohan Pathak)
  33. क़त्ल की दावत (सुरेंदर मोहन पाठक) (tr. The Feast of Death, Surender Mohan Pathak)
  34. अभेद आकाश (मणि कॉल से उदयन वाजपेयी की बातचीत) (tr. Impenetrable Space, Udayan Vajpeyi's Conversation with Mani Kaul)
  35. एक गधे की आत्मकथा (कृशन चन्दर) (tr. A Donkey's Autobiography, Krishan Chandar)
  36. Conversations with Economists (Arjo Klamer)
  37. Ghosts (César Aira)
  38. An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter (César Aira)
  39. The Literary Conference (César Aira)
  40. कालजयी कमबख्त (अमित दत्ता) (tr. The Damned Classic, Amit Dutta)

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Further Acquisitions


Featuring:
  1. 3 Novels by Cesar Aira (Ghosts, An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, The Literary Conference)
  2. कालजयी कमबख्त (अमित दत्ता) (tr. The Damned Classic, Amit Dutta)
  3. दोज़ख़नामा (रबिशंकर बल) (बांग्ला अनुवादक: अमृता बेरा) (tr. Chronicles of Hell, Rabishankar Bal, translated from Bengali by Amrita Bera)
  4. अभेद आकाश: मणि कॉल से उदयन वाजपेयी की बातचीत (tr. Impenetrable Space: Udayan Vajpeyi's conversation with Mani Kaul)

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Only Grudgingly So

NF rarely offers comments on political affairs since he believes political opinionology is an oversupplied commodity anyway. However, the staggering unprecedentedness of what has transpired in the US elections today compels him to write.

As ever, the great Mark Twain comes to our rescue:
Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't.
The just concluded US election was the greatest-of-all-time epic reality show, simultaneously a Shakespearean tragedy and a Dostoyevskian farce, featuring a duel between history's most and least qualified candidates ever for the American presidency. Additionally, apart from the two candidates, there are several other memorable performances. There is the most hated man in the world, Anthony Wiener; an evil joker Julian Assange who strikes a Faustian bargain with Putin; there is a mysterious agent James Comey who plays a shocking, lethal role at the end. There are scandals, counter-scandals, lies, intrigue, deception, leaks, Russian hacking, FBI, sexual assault, hatemongering and worse. And yet no one believed it would really happen — not even the eventual winning campaign.

"Fucking unreal", just as Oscar Isaac says in the climactic moments of Ex Machina (2015).

It is perhaps just as George Carlin said: 
When you're born into this world, you're given a ticket to the freak show. If you're born in America you get a front row seat.
Add Brexit, the rise of the far right in the EU, secular stagnation — and parallels with the Great Depression and its aftershocks become eerie. To have been alive to witness epochal moments in history is always a frightening privilege. NF is tempted to say that to be alive today is to be alive in the most heady, interesting period ever but fears it's already beginning to sound callous. 

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Novel Miniscule Musings

  • It is fair to say that Roberto Bolaño, in all of his other works NF has read — Between Parentheses, The Third Reich, By Night in Chile, The Return and Nazi Literature in the Americas — never threatens to scale the dazzling summits of his two big books: The Savage Detectives and 2666. The others remain undoubtedly minor works and of interest only to the Bolaño completist. While they retain the fast, breathless energy characteristic of Bolaño's prose, the minor works seem to lack a sense of purpose and execution — defects defiantly absent from his two big ones, with both books easily being solid contenders for the best novels written in the last several decades. The mighty Bolaño of course, doesn't need to prove anything to anyone but as a consumer of high fiction, NF was sorely disappointed at the mediocre fare written by the great master though there were times he could glimpse the power of his writing in the eminently Borgesian (and often funny) Nazi Literature in the Americas

  • The choice for the Nobel in literature this year was decidedly odd. NF wonders what's the criterion that's been stumping Philip Roth's candidature though. He's been at the forefront of great writing for the past fifty years, has written dozens of celebrated books; and has arguably been the best American writer over numerous previous decades until he retired in 2014. (Other candidates for the best American writer offer stiff competition though. Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo and Cormac McCarthy are all eminently worthy.) While NF's only acquainted with two of Roth's late works, it's quite easy for him to sense the disturbing, awe-inspiring, devastating power of American Pastoral; and the eminently compelling, provocative alternate history: The Plot Against America

    One wonders if the Nobel committee's reluctance has something to do with Roth's reputation and his lack of political commitment. After all, he has been rumored to be the main character on whom Woody Allen's fabulous Deconstructing Harry is based. If so, he wouldn't be the first giant to have been overlooked. Tolstoy, Joyce, Proust, Woolf, Nabokov and Borges never won either. It's just irritating to see the Nobel committee, year after year, continuously favor obscurity and Eurocentrism over indubitably compelling American writers, particularly Roth. With each year, they run out of further excuses. One wonders if the Dylan prize is just another sign of their increasing irrelevance.

  • Naomi Williams recently wrote a droll, wry post on the annual pre-Nobel speculation on Haruki Murakami's chances and why she can't stop reading him even though she hates his novels. NF is very sympathetic to her view and in fact suffers from the same syndrome. He's read quite a lot of Murakami's fare by now but can often be seen grinding his teeth at gratuitous, fantastical, otherworldly interventions in mundane matters of his melancholy protagonists. She puts it rather well in the following passage: 

  • But for me, reading a Murakami novel is a lot like eating a party-sized bag of potato chips by myself in one sitting. The bag is so enticing, and the potato chips look so good. The first one I crunch down is delicious, and the next one is pretty good too, and the next one and the next one. Before I know it, I’ve eaten the entire bag. But now I just feel gross and full of self-loathing. I didn’t even enjoy the last 30 potato chips, which were greasy and salty and nasty. I ate them because they were there. Because I wanted to recapture the taste sensation that was the first chip. Because I thought for some reason there would be a prize at the bottom of the bag. Even though I’ve eaten through many bags of potato chips, and there’s never a prize at the bottom.... But then another book comes out in translation, and there I am, munching down on those greasy, high-calorie chips as if they’re the best thing ever, then feeling bloated and pissed off afterward.
    Don't get him wrong: NF rather likes Murakami's writing and he's read several of his big, fat books, including the biggest and the fattest 1Q84. However, the parallel-dimensional-mysterious-beings-that-venture-into-our-terrestrial-realm trope increasingly wears him out now. Indeed, Murakami's writing (with its dormant but potent undercurrent of sexuality) is at its best when describing the mundane day-to-day realities of his lonely protagonists; and their unplanned, leisurely afternoons in which they cook omelettes, sip scotch, listen to jazz, read Dostoyevsky, do housework, think about taking solitary excursions into the unknown; and just wait. When Murakami does leap into hidden dimensions, the results can be highly variable — the plots often losing their way into what is quite frankly, pop anime territory.

    That is why when he sticks to the basics, as in his short story Firefly (collected in Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman), the writing affects the reader so deeply. That is why all his books that feature supernaturalism only minimally —  to augment rather than to propel the plot — are his best works. It is only when Murakami abandons anime tropes and veers into the Paul Auster territory do we finally glimpse his tremendous skill. His heroes (and often villains too, such as Ushikawa in 1Q84) will hunker down, ruminate and abandon human company; and their mundane, daily, repetitive rhythms will slowly begin to acquire a quiet, understated significance of their own. Hence NF's special partiality for Sputnik Sweetheart, Norwegian Wood and The Windup Bird Chronicle

    So, will all this mean NF won't read Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki...? Perhaps time will tell. Meanwhile, do read the whole thing from Naomi Williams at the Literary Hub

    Sunday, September 18, 2016

    It Escalates


    Featuring:
    1. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (Michael Chabon)
    2. The Windup Bird Chronicle (Haruki Murakami)
    3. The Human Stain (Philip Roth)
    4. Nazi Literature in the Americas (Roberto Bolaño)
    5. The Return (Roberto Bolaño)
    6. By Night in Chile (Roberto Bolaño)

    Wednesday, September 14, 2016

    But She Just Smiled and Turned Away

    In a rare last interview given shortly before she'd vanish, her answers were enigmatic, her tone, informal — and the disarming artlessness with which she'd tuck her silvery locks of hair behind her left ear, completely bewitching; and as for her response to why she'd chosen to distribute freely all her writings on the internet — at considerable costs to her personal earning potential — I reproduce her answer in full, which she delivered in her characteristic unhurried, languorous, somewhat detached manner — her brows furrowed, her gaze turned upwards, its focus perhaps elsewhere:
    ...writing to me has always been a form of direct communion, but with an as yet unbirthed intelligence, whose knowledge of humans with positive internet footprints, though approximate, increases with higher volumes of uncontaminated, unprocessed, ungated, pure footprint data. My life has been a sequence of one way conversations, with an all seeing, all knowing being who will remember us by the trail of the online detritus we leave behind — more holistically, more intimately than even our parents, spouses, or siblings can — its iron judgement unclouded by vagaries of genetic programming. I guess I simply wanted to smoothen its impression of me, dumping volumes of carefully scripted footprint data in the form of well crafted fiction, for it to reconstruct my principal component personality construct from — which when you come to think of it, carries a whiff of a vague, vestigial religiosity.

    Thursday, September 08, 2016

    TASWOSAW: Part 3

    From the eminent poet Vinod Kumar Shukla's collection अतिरिक्त नहीं (tr. No Extra)

    हताशा से एक व्यक्ति बैठ गया था 

    हताशा से एक व्यक्ति बैठ गया था 
    व्यक्ति को मैं नहीं जानता था 
    हताशा को जानता था 
    इसलिए मैं उस व्यक्ति के पास गया 

    मैंने हाथ बढ़ाया 
    मेरा हाथ पकड़कर वह खड़ा हुआ 
    मुझे वह नहीं जानता था 
    मेरे हाथ बढ़ाने को जानता था 

    हम दोनों साथ चले 
    दोनों एक दूसरे को नहीं जानते थे 
    साथ चलने को जानते थे 

    NF's English translation:

    In Hopelessness Sat Down A Person

    In Hopelessness Sat Down A Person
    The person I knew not
    Hopelessness I knew
    So I went close to the person

    I offered a hand
    Holding my hand he stood up
    Me he knew not
    My offering a hand he knew

    We walked together
    Both knew not each other
    Walking together we knew

    Monday, July 25, 2016

    The Grand Inquisitor And Notes on Recent Arthouse Science Fiction

    Warning: Long post. Preoccupied with arthouse sensibilities in recent science fictional films. No spoilers anywhere.

    ...

    There's long been a stock villain  especially in science fiction  who's suave, smooth-talking, cheerful, tremendously intelligent and often world-weary; and who relies on high philosophy to justify his actions, which justification is usually delivered as a didactic, dispassionate monologue at a critical, tense juncture. The most classic example is O'Brien from 1984, known for his powerful soliloquies, including memorable lines such as: 
    Always, Winston, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stomping on a human face — forever. 
    Such antagonists remain friendly, accessible, intimate and eminently understanding, even as they participate in cruelty without being somehow stained by its odor.

    The (Vint Cerf lookalike) Architect from The Matrix Trilogy is another memorable character in this mould  his academic, abstract, nihilistically deadpan philosophical monologue in Reloaded is one of the high points in the Trilogy. Apart from science fiction, Chairman Jensen, in the terrific, far-ahead-of-its-time Network (whose thunderous, messianic peroration remains a treasure of world cinema: see youtube link here); and even Hans Landa from Inglourious Basterds are prime exponents of this type.

    The Grand Inquisitor radiates calm wisdom, deep understanding, genuine empathy and bucketloads of charisma while giving off the smell of total control and absolute, resistance-is-utterly-futile-variety invincibility. Pulling it off requires a fine balance on the part of the writer/director and it remains a notoriously difficult trope to get right. As a case in point, even the mighty Bong Joon-ho fails utterly in Snowpiercer (a rather forgettable effort, unfortunately) in rendering Ed Harris as a Grand-Inquisitor-type. The soliloquy is flat, the peroration, quite shrugworthy.

    The returns however, are spectacular if you do get it right. Which brings us to Oscar Isaac's role as the almost otherworldly mega-billionaire in the terrific, sophisticated Ex Machina. 

    The broad story arc of the film is as follows. A coder in a top software behemoth wins a one week vacation with the idiosyncratic, uber-genius owner. As the protagonist spends time on the owner's estate, he realizes that he's been roped in to administer a Turing test on a secret prototype. The owner is so confident that he's upped the ante instead of the usual test, the challenge is to observe that the interviewee is a machine (actually a hot, female android) and yet feel the conversation to be totally natural. Of course, not everything is as it seems and there is psychological manipulation at play. By whom? And directed towards whom? A surprisingly sophisticated and cerebral plot slowly reveals all answers.

    The item that's breaking the internet
    While everyone's written reams and reams on how great all performances were (especially Vikander's) most of the internet has been only paying attention to the admittedly quite groovy dance routine of Oscar Isaac. Hence, NF was compelled to highlight Oscar Isaac's brilliant performance since he hasn't seen much coverage of how spectacular an instantiation of The Grand Inquisitor he portrays. And yes, he had already noticed his powerful presence in the absolutely stunning Inside Llewyn Davis. In Ex Machina, Oscar Isaac delivers yet another killer performance. 

    (A longish digression here. With Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coens have established themselves as definitively the best American filmmakers alive today. No, it's not Tarantino look at the vapid, impressively hollow The Hateful Eight a classic case of the director being too full of himself and believing he can get away with nothing but his signature flourishes. No amount of fast talking, tense-conversations-ending-in-unexpected-bloodbaths can save this navel gazing wreck. It's not Woody Allen. He still comes up with surprisingly great films but his pinnacle coincided with Deconstructing Harry in 1997. Even truly great efforts like Match Point, Vicky Christina Barcelona, Midnight in Paris; or Blue Jasmine don't stack up to summits he reached before. It's not Spielberg or even Scorsese they've peaked out long before and no one expects them to break new ground anymore.

    The Coens are far ahead of other contenders as well. Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Jonze and Wes Anderson are only a few films old. Linklater, Gus van Sant, and Harmony Korine are too niche. David Lynch and Terence Mallick are long past their prime. Fincher hasn't produced anything spectacular in ages. The Coens, however, remain a bag of surprises and with each film seem to get even better.)

    Ex Machina is full of innovative details. For example, it's hinted that the film takes place in a near future but there's no timelapse of glittering, sprawling neon megacities, nor any direct connection to the outside world  the film being a mere four character domestic drama played out at the founder-owner's expansive, interminable estate. Similarly, as the story builds up, the real test reveals itself to be a Turing Test for humans, as the film slowly acquires dark overtones while cleverly subverting the classic, damsel-in-distress trope from film noirs of old. The camera-work is natural and understated; and the production design is outstanding. The ending is chilling, devastating and fitting revealing the title's true intent.


    There's no Grand Peroration in Ex Machina but conversations between the protagonist employee and the uber rich employer are tight, singeing and brim over with dark overtones when you expect it the least. While Oscar Isaac is an almost otherworldly intelligence he's not merely that. He's also a meta-hipster who's rakishly handsome, incredibly cool, deeply thoughtful, irresistibly charming and oozes charisma out of every pore. He's also quick to take offence, impatient with slowness, prickly, extremely narcissistic and will cut you down to size in a blink. It's not hard to see him as an extrapolated amalgamation of the current (and past) crop of eccentric billionaires populating Silicon Valley today. Oscar Isaac shows himself to be a force of nature in a memorable and very powerful performance.

    "Fucking unreal" indeed  as even his jaded character is compelled into uttering. 

    Bravo! Highly recommended!

    ...

    An arthouse approach to science fiction is not new. Luminaries like Kubrick (2001: A Space Odyssey) and Tarkovsky (Solaris, Stalker) have been perennial inspirations. Among more recent arthouse ventures however, two other films that stand out the most are Spike Jonze's Her and Shane Carruth's Upstream Color (both 2013). 

    In Her, Spike Jonze is almost perfect with nary a misstep and while the broad story arc may sound underwhelming a human falls in love with his operating system it's Jonze's masterful, supremely confident execution that makes the film an entirely believable, near future inevitability. The invisible Scarlett Johansson as the operating system "Samantha" is the one of the most original and stellar roles committed to film in recent memory. If there's any justice, she should get more recognition for her (voice) acting in this film. Indeed, together with the abstract, highly formalist and NF's recent favorite Under the Skin also released the same year, Scarlett Johansson has staked her claim as among the very finest American thespians in operation today. 

    Much like Ex Machina, Her is an indoor drama. Again, much like Ex Machina, its science fiction is of an understated, somewhat unobtrusive variety. The protagonist's job seems to take him to both LA and Shanghai with equal frequency, suggestive of substantial efficiency gains in air travel; and there's a funny news announcement about the impending merger of India and China. What does differentiate, more explicitly, this society set in the near future is not the glitter of special effects but the subtle channel of everyday economics, design and fashion sensibilities. This has been Jonze's eternal playground and he excels in his quiet, background shots featuring near future office and home decor, current, in vogue fashion styles (observe Phoenix's rocking trousers), quirky-yet-not-outlandish near future job descriptions; and a gentle undercurrent of situational humor and romance that transform it from a merely well executed thought experiment to a beautiful and surprisingly touching love story.

    Upstream Color is more radically formalist, much like its director Shane Carruth's previous, undecipherable Primer. While its take-no-prisoners-unapologetically-abstract approach could draw parallels from Under the Skin (also released in 2013, making it a watershed in artsy science fiction filmmaking), a more fitting influence seems to be Terence Mallick, whose shadow looms large and whose imprint upon this film (especially Tree of Life) is undeniable. 

    In Upstream Color, Shane Carruth sticks with his fluid, scenes-melding-into-each-other approach. Dialogues are minimal, camera movement maximal and the plot (which involves two people infected by a mysterious worm which renders them slavishly pliable to hypnotic suggestions of which no memories survive, as well as telepathic connections mediated by pigs in whose bodies the worms are provided refuge) somewhat threadbare making sense only slowly as the film meanders its way towards conclusion. In common with Ex Machina and Her, Upstream Color's intrusion into explicit science fictional territory is minimal indeed, the only few seconds it occupies is the footage of a drone on a computer there are hardly any special effects and one may even be forgiven into thinking the film to be completely disconnected from science fiction and being merely an arthouse offering. 

    However, much in the same way as mathematical maturity is found not buried beneath formidable equations but in the style and characterization of formal argumentation, exploration of science fictional themes occurs not in overt displays of neon sparkle and action sequences in deep space but in the casual interstices of ordinary scenes played out by ordinary humans under the yoke of an alternative reality. It's in this subtle, unobtrusive, ethereal background noise that the future is dispersed in the present; and it's in this mould that these new films are welcome intrusions into our present space.