Finding the Ultimate Peace
I was wondering what to write about today, when I saw this poem quoted on Facebook by my friend Lynette Cahill. At that point, I said to myself, “Yep, that’ll do it!” It is called “The Peace of Wild Things” and was composed by Wendell Berry.
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
German Author W. G. Sebald (1944-2001)
Below is a list of my favorite books from 2017. Most are fiction, with some occupying the in-between zone, and only two are outright non-fiction. The only name which is repeated from 2016 is that of Patrick Modiano, about whom I posted yesterday. The 14 books listed below are in alphabetic order by the names of their authors. This year, I have also included the country of origin.
- Rudolfo Anaya, Bless Me, Ultima (US). I was tempted to also include The Milagro Beanfield War by John Nichols, but of the two New Mexico novels, I think Anaya’s is the better.
- Teju Cole, Open City (US). Cole’s Nigerian-American viewpoint is incredible. I am keeping my eye on this writer.
- Ry Cooder, Los Angeles Stories (US). Granted, Cooder is a great musician; but he’s also got the makings of a great writer. I would love to see more from him.
- Antonio di Benedetto, Zama (Argentina). This New York Review title introduces a writer unknown to Americans, but well known to South Americans. A Spanish government official in Paraguay finds his ambition is constantly being thwarted.
- Joan Didion, South and West, From a Notebook (US). This is an old title that is just now being released. Didion’s 40-year-old observations of Dixie are still relevant.
- David Goodis, Dark Passage (US). A noir masterpiece, far better even than the Bogart movie based on it.
- Indriðason, Arnaldur, Reykjavík Nights (Iceland). Indriðason is a world-class mystery writer, and he seems to be getting better and better.
- Patrick Modiano, After the Circus (France). A young man falls for an older woman he first sees at a police interrogation.
- Natsume Soseki, The Gate (Japan). A real find: This quiet writer is a deep one. Even if he died early in the 20th century, his books read as if they were written yesterday. (This writer is not outside of alphabetic order: Natsume is his family name)
- Raymond Queneau, The Last Days (France). A coming-of-age story with seven characters set in the 1920s.
- Jonathan Raban, Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings (US). Ostensibly a travel book, but a great one. Real life intervenes twice in the author’s solo sailing voyage up Alaska’s Inside Passage.
- W G Sebald, The Emigrants (Germany). A book about people who have for various reasons emigrated from their home countries (like Sebald himself), and find themselves in a strange in-between place.
- Marina Tsvetaeva, Selected Poems (Russia). By far the best poems I have read last year.
- John Williams, Stoner (US). No, nothing to do with drugs. Professor Stoner is an English instructor at a Midwestern college, and we see how his life plays out.
Patrick Modiano in 1968, the Year His First Novel Was Published
I have just finished reading the book whose cover is shown above. It is an autobiographical essay by a Nobel-Prize-winning (2014) author that covers the years from his earliest childhood to the publication of his first book in 1968. I believe I have mentioned elsewhere that Patrick Modiano is by far my favorite living French author. He is approximately the same age as I am, and I feel a unique kinship with him and his work. So far I have read six books by him, and I am just getting started.
His autobiographical essay Pedigree: A Memoir is painful to read. The author was raised—or I should rather say neglected by—two parents who did not particularly care to see him and shunted him off to various boarding schools, the farther apart from Paris the better. Below is a savage description of his mother, who was a small-time actress:
She was a pretty girl with an arid heart. Her fiancé [after her divorce from Patrick’s father] had given her a chow-chow, but she didn’t take care of it and left it with various people, as she would later do with me. The chow-chow killed itself by leaping from a window. The dog appears in two or three photos, and I have to admit he touches me deeply and that I feel a great kinship with him.
Grave of Miguel Ángel Asturias at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris
It was almost twenty years ago that Martine and I were wandering through Paris’s gigantic Père Lachaise cemetery in the 20th Arrondissement. There were a number of surprises, one of which was the grave of Miguel Ángel Asturias, who died in 1974. Rising above a bronze funerary plaque is a Maya stela similar to the ones found at the ruins of Quiriguá in his native country. To this day, he is Central America’s lone winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, which was awarded to him in 1967.
I have been interested in visiting Guatemala for many years. During the time I was most available to go, Guatemala was in the middle of fighting an armed insurrection by a mostly Maya peasantry who were tired of being forced off their land, enslaved, or massacred. Between 1960 and 1966, some 200,000 Guatemalans died fighting, mostly Maya campesinos. I have just finished re-reading Asturias’s first major novel, El Señor Presidente, set during the presidency of Manuel Estrada Cabrera, who ruled from 1898 to 1920. I have been a big Asturias fan since 1975.
Miguel Ángel Asturias
Now that I am pretty much decided on Guatemala as my next vacation destination, I will add at least two or three more Asturias novels to the ones I have already read. To date, I have finished:
- El Señor Presidente (1946), his most famous novel
- Men of Maize (1949)
- Strong Wind (1950), the first volume of the United Fruit Company trilogy
- Mulata (1963)
I plan to finish the other two volumes in the trilogy—The Green Pope (1954) and The Eyes of the Interred (1960)—both of which were translated by Gregory Rabassa, one of my favorite translators from the Spanish.
Although Asturias is so identified with the Maya, it is interesting to note that he comes from a well-to-do Creole family that could trace its origins back to 1660.
Arco de Santa Catalina and Agua Volcano in Background
If asked what is the capital of Guatemala, it is best to turn your answer into another question: At what point in history? Today, Guatemala City is the capital of Guatemala. In 1524, Pedro de Alvarado founded the Ciudad de Santiago de los Caballeros de Goathemalon [sic], near the present town of Iximche. After a Kaqchikel Maya uprising in 1527, the capital was moved to Ciudad Vieja and retained the same name as the original. In 1541, that city was destroyed by a gigantic mudflow from the Volcano de Agua (illustrated above). Two years later, the capital was moved five miles to the Panchoy Valley to the present city of Antigua Guatemala.
In the 18th century, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions caused one final move, to the capital’s present location. That does not mean that the city of Antigua Guatemala, despite all the ruined churches, is not one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country. In fact, when I go to Guatemala for my vacation, I will take a shuttle directly from the airport to Antigua, about 45 minutes away.
Guatemala City has a reputation of being a big, ugly city with a couple of good museums, but otherwise devoid of major tourist attractions. So, I will base myself in Antigua.
Intact Façade of Nuestra Señora de Merced, Otherwise in Ruins
With Antigua serving as a kind of tourist ghetto, there are a multitude of private shuttles to major tourist destinations—all originating in Antigua. One can treat the town as if it were the capital except for one thing: The airport is in Guatemala City. As Guate, as it is called, is the largest city in Central America, I think it would be more restful to base myself in a well-connected town with a population of only about 50,000.
Postcard View with Brazilian Scenery by Tarsila do Amarol (1886-1973)
As you may or may not know, I am fundamentally opposed to non-representational painting. Abstract expressionism leaves me cold and even slightly hostile. I don’t even like Pablo Picasso. When I was in Paris last time, I deliberately decided not to visit the Picasso Museum even though I was in the neighborhood between Les Halles and the Bastille, where it is located.
So when I heard of a Brazilian painter who has been called the Picasso of Brazil, I was less than impressed—until I saw some of her works. I was suddenly reminded of Xul Solar, the Argentinean painter whose work was much loved by Jorge Luis Borges (before he became blind, of course). Tarsila de Amaral calls herself simply Tarsila. There is a n exhibit of her works opening at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City.
“Brazilian Religion” (1927)
If you want to see a representative selection of her paintings, click on WikiArt’s website about her. Included there is her self-portrait (see below). Tarsila becomes one of a select group of Latin American artists of the 20th century whose work I think ranks with the best of American painting during that period, and in many cases surpasses it: Fernando Botero of Colombia; Benito Quinquela Martin and Xul Solar of Argentina; and Frida Kahlo, José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Alfaro Siqueiros of Mexico.
“Self Portrait” (n.d.)
Poster for The Death of Stalin (2018)
In my retirement, I have been seeing more current films than I usually do. Today, I went in the rain to see Armando Iannucci’s dark comedy of the transfer of power in the Soviet Union when Stalin suddenly died in 1953. Predictably, the movie was banned in Russia and several other of the former Soviet Socialist Republics. In fact, I think that in many instances the truth was stretched a bit to make a better film.
Steve Buscemi plays an ambitious Nikita Khrushchev; Jeffrey Tambor, a delightfully cowardly Georgy Malenkov; Simon Russell Beale, an incredibly evil State Security chief Lavrenti Beria; and Michael Palin, an indecisive Vyacheslav Molotov. The actor who practically runs away with the show is Jason Isaacs, playing Marshal Zhukov, who is the only member of the government who is willing to take on Beria.
Jason Isaacs as Marshal Zhukov
One of the weaknesses of the Soviet Union was that the fearless leaders were too fearful to arrange for a peaceful transition of power after their deaths. In fact, according to Simon Sebag Montefiore in his book The Court of the Red Tsar (2003), Stalin’s sudden death caused a such a crisis, so that the staff in his dacha were afraid to confront the body for fear that it meant some sort of trick that would lead them to execution or a gulag.
Georgy Malenkov is initially selected to rule because of his rank in the Politburo, but his cowardice is such that, by the end, Khrushchev is holding the reins of power.
This film is loaded with violence. Beria’s NKVD carry out executions using their sidearms with alarming regularity. There are at least several score of these executions taking place during the film.
So far, this is the best film I have seen this year.