Serendipity: Paul Theroux in Guatemala

The Rail Line Between Tecun Uman and Guatemala City

I have read Paul Theroux’s The Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the Americas several times. It got me interested in visiting South and Central America in the first place; and I keep tryi9ng to relive the experience of reading it the first time. Back in the 1970s, there was still passenger rail service in Guatemala. Now there are only railroad museums with rusting locomotives. The following is the author’s take on recent Guatemalan history—which is still largely true.

I had a political reverie on that train [the one between Tecun Uman and Guatemala City]. It was this: the government held elections, encouraged people to vote, and appeared to be democratic. The army appeared to be impartial, the newspapers disinterested. And it remained a peasant society, basically underfed and unfree. It must perplex any peasant to be told he is living in a free country, when the facts of life contradict this. It might be that this does not perplex him; he has every reason to believe, in accordance with the evidence, that democracy is feudal, a bureaucracy run by crooks and trigger-happy vigilantes. When one sees a government of the Guatemalan sort professing such high-mindedness in its social aims and producing such mediocre results, one cannot be surprised if the peasant concludes that communism might be an improvement. It was a Latin American sickness: inferior government gave democracy an evil name and left people with no option but to seek an alternative.

 

At The Mall

The Westfield Mall in Culver City

As the heat of summer has descended on Los Angeles, I have increasingly been spending more time at the air-conditioned Westfield Mall in Culver City. There are places to sit and read, plenty of perfectly acceptable restaurants, and—very important to me—not a large number of smelly bums. Oh, did I sound not too terribly Progressive with that last line? Perhaps it’s because I¹m not 100% Progressive.(Especially as there is a bum encampment across the street from my apartment.)

If you think I should be ever so much more understanding than I appear to be, I urge you to see a 1932 French film director by Jean Renoir called Boudu Saved from Drowning (Boudu sauvé des eaux). A used bookseller played by Charles Granval rescues a tramp (played by the great Michel Simon) from drowning in the Seine. Out of a total lack of gratitude, Boudu opens a rare edition of Honoré de Balzac, spits in it, closes the book, and returns it to the shelf. If someone were to spit in one of my Balzacs, I would gladly perforate his spleen and any adjacent internal organs.

One interesting thing about sitting in a mall is the variety of people who pass by. It is incredible to me how many Americans are grossly overweight. Also, since the mall is located in Culver City, I am amazed by how many drop-dead gorgeous young African-American women there are. Also, at least during the day, people are unusually nice to one another.

Among the restaurants, there are some interesting Asian choices, such as Bibigo (Korean), Dot Saigon (Vietnamese), 101 Noodle Express (pan-Asian), and Panda Express (Gringo Chinese). If I wanted to go more upscale, there is an Oliver Garden and a Wokcano at the ground level.

Next week, the temperature is supposed to be particularly heinous (with temps going up as high as 108° F in the interior, probably higher given the unusual Southern California conservatism in predicting high heat).

 

Outliers: Czeching Out the Women

Miroslav Tichý (1926-2011) with Home-Made Junk Camera

This is one of an occasional series on alternatives to the “giants” of modern art, particularly the abstract expressionists whose work I so dislike. Today I write about Miroslav Tichý of the Czech Republic, who made his own cameras. His subject? The women of Kyjov, the town where he lived. None of the pictures for which he is noted are sharp. He seems to be intent on seeing how fuzzy his pictures can be and still communicate what he wants them to.

Women at Swimming Pool

The above photograph is a good example. It shows three young bikini-clad girls walking around the edge of a swimming pool.  It is framed by surrounding foliage including the trunk of a tree at left and bushes and leaves on three sides.

Nude with Frame

Here we have what, in the hands of a realist painter, would be a classical nude partially obscured on the lower left by an unidentified object. At first, I thought it was her leg; but it couldn’t be.

Looking at his pictures, I cannot deny that they have a certain elegance and beauty. Tichý described his methods tersely in two unconnected sentences:

  • “First of all, you have to have a bad camera”
  • “If you want to be famous, you must do something more badly than anybody in the entire world.”

As American urban slang shows, you can be bad and good at the same time.

 

Farewell to Icon

On His Last Full Day

On Sunday, I drove to Altadena to visit Bill and Kathy Korn. Also to see Icon on his last full day in this life. Icon was Kathy Korn’s seeing-eye dog, who, in his thirteenth year,had developed a serious shortage of red-blood cells. He had trouble digesting food, and his breathing was alarmingly shallow.

Although I have had no pets since my elementary school days in Cleveland in the 1950s, I have always developed friendly relationships with my friends’ pets. I can have no animals in my apartment because (1) it would be a violation of my lease and (2) I am allergic—sometimes more, sometimes less.

Whenever I visited the Korns, I looked forward to Icon’s onslaught, in which recently he has been joined by Duchess, Kathy’s current seeing-eye dog. (Icon has been retired for upwards of a year.)

Icon’s “Diploma” from the Seeing-Eye Dog Program


I got a little teary-eyed as I petted Icon for the last time on Sunday evening. I mentioned that we would see each other again in the next life. Who knows?

Capitale de la Douleur

The Poet Paul Éluard’s Most Famous Collection of Poetry

Yesterday, I wrote about Jean-Luc Godard’s film Alphaville (1965), one of my favorites. In it, Eddie Constantine carries with him a 1926 collection of poems by Paul Éluard called Capitale de la douleur. In several of his scenes with Anna Karina, he quotes from it to remind her of concepts about love and tenderness that are forbidden in her society in Alphaville. Here is one of my favorite poems from this collection entitled “The Word”:

I am fortunate: mine is an easy beauty
I slide over the roof of the winds
I slide over the roof of the seas
I’m sentimental these days
I no longer know who’s in charge
I no longer move silk over ice
I am ill laughter and pebbles
I nakedly love whatever is most Chinese
I love what’s most naked the darting of birds
I am old but here I’m beautiful
And the shadow coming down from the depths of the windows
Every evening spares the dark heart of my eyes

Here is the same poem in the original French, where it is called “La parole”:

J’ai la beauté facile et c’est heureux
Je glisse sur les toits des vents
Je glisse sur le toit des mers
Je suis devenue sentimentale
Je ne connais plus le conducteur
Je ne bouge plus soie sur les glaces
Je suis malade fleurs et cailloux
J’aime le plus chinois aux nues
J’aime la plus nue aux écarts d’oiseau
Je suis vieille mais ici je suis belle
Et l’ombre qui descend des fenêtres profondes
Épargne chaque soir le cœur noir de mes yeux.

 

 

Morose Delectation

Anna Karina and Eddie Constantine in Godard’s Alphaville

I have begun my re-evaluation of the films of Jean-Luc Godard, beginning with one of my favorites, Alphaville: Une Étrange Aventure de Lemmy Caution (1965). One thing hit me between the eyes right away: I am and have always been in love with Godard’s then wife and star Anna Karina. Those almond-shaped eyes! That beautiful face! For some reason, I had always assumed that she was Russian, probably because the similarity of her name to Anna Karenina, the Tolstoy heroine of the novel of the same name. Instead, she is Danish, born Hanne Karin Bayer.

Long one of my favorite Godard films, Alphaville lurches between two genres: the spy film and science fiction. The original Lemmy Caution was an FBI agent, the creation of a British novelist named Peter Cheyney. Between 1936 and 1945 he wrote ten novels starring Caution, all of which have him speaking a rural dialect in which and was always written as an’ and coming as comin’. I tried reading This Man Is Dangerous (1936), but gave up quickly. Godard took obvious liberties with the character and placed him in another galaxy far far away. Curiously, the French films based on the Lemmy Caution novels usually starred the same Eddie Constantine who played the role in Alphaville.

In the Alphaville of the future (which looks suspiciously like Paris circa 1965), a massive computer called Alpha 60 controls in detail the lives of all its denizens. As a homage to Orwell, Godard has a “Bible” in every room, which is none other than a dictionary of approved words. Words that are dropped out include such terms as “conscience,” ”love,” and “tenderness.”

Could This Be the Most Beautiful Face of the 1960s?

Lemmy Caution falls in love with Anna Karina (playing the role of Natasha Von Braun), whom he refers to as a beautiful sphinx (“Joli Sphinx,” which he repeats twice). Lemmy pulls the old Captain Kirk trick of talking the computer into destroying itself, and while the residents of Alphaville are stricken and dying, drives off with Anna Karina to the Outlands of Nueva York.

Sigh! I think I’ll see some more Godard films with Anna Karina in an act of what one of my old friends called “morose delectation.”

 

 

Frustration

Russian Writer Kirill Kobrin

There is an Italian saying which applies here: “Traddutore, traditore!” Or, in other words, to translate is to betray.

Today I finished reading the Dalkey Press Edition of Kirill Kobrin’s Eleven Prague Corpses. It was a work that hovered on the edge of brilliance. The author was even conversant with G. K. Chesterton, one of my favorite authors. The only problem was that I had a feeling that one of two things was happening:

  1. The work was badly translated from the original Russian.
  2. The author has problems following a story through to its conclusion.

I tend to think the Option 1 is the case here. Each of the eleven stories that make up this volume aroused my interest, but usually stumbled before the close. Throughout, I had this feeling that Kobrin is the kind of writer I really like, at least from what I have been able to determine.

Old Soviet Poster: “I Redeemed My Guilt Before the Motherland. There Will Be No Return to the Past.”

The above poster was from Kirill Kobrin’s Twitter feed. It caught my eye and I include it here for no particular reason except that I like it. So there!

As for following Kirill’s work in future, I am hopeful that he will take a more active role in translating his own work as he now lives in London and knows English. And presumably, his own English will improve.

I certainly hope so, as I think he has a lot to say.