Conversation in the Cathedral

Truly a Big-Ass Novel, But Worth Every Minute Spent Reading It

Truly a Big-Ass Novel, But Worth Every Minute Spent Reading It

Even though I have so little time to myself this time of year, I still tend to pick at least one gigantic and challenging book to read each month. Last month, it was Tony Judt’s Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. Next month, it will be my third re-reading of Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way. This month, it was Mario Vargas Llosa’s Conversation in the Cathedral, probably the greatest novel to come from Peru.

Conversation in the Cathedral cuts through a broad swath of Peruvian society during the dictatorship of Manuel A. Odria (1948-1956), from the corrupt Zavala family, which is tied in to Odria, and Don Cayo Bermudez, the dictator’s enforcer, to the chauffeurs, Odriista strongarms, mistresses, and whores who are all in on the take. The major characters are Santiago Zavala, nicknamed Zavalita, and Ambrosio Pardo. The first is the eldest scion of the Zavalas; the second, a black former chauffeur for Zavalita’s father and also for the infamous Cayo Bermudez, Odria’s security chief. Ostensibly, the “conversation” of the title is between Zavalita and Ambrosio, who have just met at the dog pound where the latter now works. It takes place at bar called the Cathedral.

For the first third of the novel, numerous conversations between several of the characters are interleaved—conversations taking place at different times and in different places. Then Vargas Llosa continues in a more conventional vein picking up various threads of the story. Every once in a while, however, threads of the main conversation between Zavalita and Ambrosio reappear.

Estranged from his wealthy family after a flirtation with communism as a student, Zavalita breaks free and becomes a reporter for The Crónica, a Lima daily newspaper, where he gets involved with murders, stories about lottery winners, and other lowlife minutiae, to the disgust of his family. He gets married to a nurse who his mother claims is little better than a maid.

In the end we see numerous stories of blighted ambitions and hopes arising from the heavy hand of President Odria and his enforcers—all taking place over a period of approximately a decade.

If Vargas Llosa never wrote another word in his life, I think that Conversation in the Cathedral was sufficient in its scope and excellence to qualify him for the Nobel Prize in Literature, which he eventually won in 2010, over forty years after he wrote this novel.


Tarnmoor’s ABCs: Cleveland

My Home Town

My Home Town

Cleveland has not aged well. When I was a grade school student, it was one of the ten largest cities in the United States, famed for its steel, machine-tool building, and automotive support industries. Now it is a fraction of the size, with a large bombed-out crater of a central business district and suburbs stretching across several counties in Northeast Ohio. When I graduated from high school, there was a regular diaspora to … anywhere but Cleveland.

The “Mistake on the Lake.” The “Worst Location in the Nation.” Perhaps the ultimate insult was when Amtrak pondered whether it was worth even stopping at the large underground station in the Terminal Tower, illustrated above. There was a time when the Terminal Tower was the largest building in the country outside of New York City.

Just being from Cleveland makes one feel humble. Wasn’t the movie that Maynard G. Krebs of The Affairs of Dobie Gillis always going to see The Monster That Devoured Cleveland? Well, Cleveland got devoured all right: The monster that devoured it was rampant unemployment.

I can only talk about the Cleveland that was because, after 1962, I spent most of my time elsewhere, either in Hanover, New Hampshire, attending Dartmouth College, or here in Los Angeles, where I seem to have set down roots.

The last time I saw my native city was 1998, when I attended my mother’s funeral. She had died in Kings Beach, California, on the shores of Lake Tahoe; but at her request, my brother and I had the body flown to Cleveland, where it was buried next to my father. After the funeral, my brother and I spent some time driving around our old haunts.

What surprised me more than anything else were the trees! When I lived on East 176th Street in the 1950s, the neighborhood was still relatively new and bare; and the trees were all tiny. By 1998, they were gigantic and imposing. It was actually rather nice. I should probably go back there again, perhaps stopping in on a visit to New York or Boston. Most of the people I grew up with are either elsewhere or under the ground, especially the older generation. So it goes.

Signor Piranesi’s Prisons

Why Do I Think of Prisons During Tax Season?

Why Do I Think of Prisons During Tax Season?

When I first came to Los Angeles, UCLA had a special program of renting prints and etchings to members of the university community at a low price. I fell in love with a print by Giambattista Piranesi (1720-1778), a Venetian artist known for his series of prints on prisons, or Carceri. I seem to remember having, for about six months, the above print, one of a series of sixteen he did that were to bridge the classical period with the romanticism and surrealism that were to follow.

In his Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1820), Thomas De Quincey wrote:

Many years ago, when I was looking over Piranesi’s Antiquities of Rome, Mr. Coleridge, who was standing by, described to me a set of plates by that artist … which record the scenery of his own visions during the delirium of a fever: some of them (I describe only from memory of Mr. Coleridge’s account) representing vast Gothic halls, on the floor of which stood all sorts of engines and machinery, wheels, cables, pulleys, levers, catapults, etc., etc., expressive of enormous power put forth, and resistance overcome. Creeping along the sides of the walls, you perceived a staircase; and upon it, groping his way upwards, was Piranesi himself: follow the stairs a little further, and you perceive it come to a sudden abrupt termination, without any balustrade, and allowing no step onwards to him.

I still love looking at Piranesi’s imaginative prisons, and I think of myself trapped in one of them—at least until April 15 or thereabouts. Tomorrow is the first of eight Saturdays I will have to work. Oh, well, here are only a little more than fifty days left of this dreadful time. I will probably survive, diminished only slightly.



When Did We Become So Trashy?

Yeah, Eat Plenty of Maggots and Lose Weight

Yeah, Eat Plenty of Maggots and Lose Lotsa Weight

There is a new spate of ads on the Internet aimed at idiots. They are usually aimed to appeal to more ignorant Internet users and are frequently sponsored by DoubleClick and related enterprises that would love to load your computer with malware. Once they have you, you’ll see plenty of ads featuring big-breasted middle-aged women, old codgers joyful at reducing their mortgage debt, and finding ways to get your beanpole to extend to ridiculous lengths.

What I find interesting is, that if you click on one of these, you will be directed immediately toward other bonehead ads that make ridiculous promises. You will probably even forget what you were looking for in the first place. Just follow the pendulous boobs and you will be directed to Pleasure island where, in no time at all, you will turn into a donkey.


Oh, No, Another Bill Nye Debate?!

Look, Bill, Your Heart’s in the Right Place, but ...

Look, Bill, Your Heart’s in the Right Place, but …

Today, my blog is written by Juan Cole. I thought it was really funny, so here it is in its entirety:

David Gregory’s Meet the Press today hosted a debate between Bill Nye the Science Guy and Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) on whether gravity is just a theory.

“Sure,” Gohmert said, “things fall down all the time. But that doesn’t mean gravity is a law. Look at the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It’s still there after hundreds of years. Things don’t always fall down.”

Nye pointed out that Isaac Newton discovered the law of gravity in the 17th century and it is settled science.

Gohmert challenged Nye’s certainty. “The cultists who tout science always speak as though we know for sure that scientific discoveries are true. Gravity has only been theorized for a couple hundred years. It’s too early to tell. How much money do they want us to waste on suspension bridges and other expensive technology aimed at keeping things from falling down, on the basis of a theory?”

Nye tore off his bow-tie and began chewing on it in frustration.

“Wasn’t it an apple that hit Newton on the head?” Gohmert asked. “Well, I’ve read the Bible and I know that an apple was used to tempt Eve. Maybe the Serpent was just tempting Newton with a secular humanist theory.”

Nye said, “What?”

“Besides,” Gohmert went on, “we all saw that movie ‘Gravity.’ Obviously there’s no gravity in outer space. So if the theory doesn’t work everywhere, there must be something wrong with it.”

“The law of gravity says,” Nye replied, “that ‘any two bodies in the universe attract each other with a force that is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.’ Gravity works in deep outer space, it is just that bodies there are distant from the earth. And in ‘Gravity’ they were just falling around the earth, in the grip of its gravity.”

Moderator David Gregory smirked. “That’s a lot of verbiage there, Bill. If you can’t explain something clearly, maybe it’s because there’s something wrong with the theory.”

Gohmert angrily interrupted Gregory. “Besides, we all know that Muslims believe in gravity. That should make you suspicious of it, right there.”

Nye turned to Gregory. “How can you call yourself a journalist? This is a carnival with a bearded lady exhibit!”

Gregory shrugged. “Next you’ll be saying Glenn Greenwald is a journalist. I am not an activist. I don’t know whether gravity is universal. I let both sides tell their story.”

“That’s not a ‘side’! He’s just mouthing nonsense! It doesn’t even make any sense.”

Gohmert pounded the table. “This whole gravity thing is just a way for scientists to get taxpayers’ hard-won money away from them. NASA wouldn’t get all that funding for rocket fuel if people realized that ‘gravity’ is just a theory.”

Gregory turned to the camera and smiled. “There you have it, folks. Next week on ‘Meet the Press:’ A quarter of Americans think the sun goes around the earth. Could they be right? To explain, we’ll be joined by a homeless man who says he is possessed by the spirit of the ancient astronomer Ptolemy.”



The Squid Test

Not the Loveliest of Sea Cretaures

Not the Loveliest of Sea Creatures

If lots of different categories of foods fail to pass your “Yuck!” test, it’s fairly certain that squid is on your “avoid at all costs” list. It’s a pity, because most people have never had any really fresh squid. They’re used to those rubbery breaded rings served with a generic tomato dipping sauce at some restaurants with pretensions to high class.

Today, I went to a new Italian restaurant in Westwood called the Donna Sophia Trattoria Napoletana and decided to give them the squid test. Their daily special was tagliatelle cooked in squid ink with calamari. I had never tried anything cooked in squid ink before, but I was feeling decidedly peckish, so I went for it. It was delicious. The calamari pieces were actually tender, and the tagliatelle was made from scratch. Sometimes it pays to take a chance.

Usually, the only places where I’ve had really tender calamari was in certain of the more ethnic Thai restaurants. It was great to see an Italian restaurant where they knew something about squid above and beyond keeping it in the freezer for several decades.

If Donna Sophia had failed to pass my squid test, I would reluctantly have concluded that the place was not very good. Fortunately, it passed with flying colors. It’s so unusual to see a new restaurant in Westwood that is not exclusively Burgers-and-Fries or rice-bowls.


Pacheco and the Dogs

Another Great Poet Leaves Us

Another Great Poet Leaves Us

It is a well-known fact that poets don’t grow on trees. Belatedly, I am recognizing the death of José Emilio Pacheco, the Mexican poet who just recently died after a fall at the age of seventy-four. I am not familiar enough with Pacheco’s poetry—to be honest, I am not nearly familiar enough with poetry in general. I should read more, even though there is nothing that is more demanding—or rewarding. Take this simple example, called “A Dog’s Life”:

A Dog’s Life

We despise dogs for letting themselves
be trained, for learning to obey.
We fill the noun dog with rancor
to insult each other.
And it’s a miserable death
to die like a dog.

Yet dogs watch and listen
to what we can’t see or hear.
Lacking language
(or so we believe),
they have a talent we certainly lack.
And no doubt they think and know.

And so
they probably despise us
for our need to find masters,
for our pledge of allegiance to the strongest.

Thanks to Fred Runk, here is the Spanish text of the poem:

Despreciamos al perro dejarse
domesticar y ser obediente.
Llenamos de rencor sustanivo perro
para insultarmnos.
Y una muerte indigna
es morir como un perro.

Sin embargo los perros miran y eschucan
lo que no vemos ni escucharmos.
A falta de lenguaje
(o eso creemos)
poseen un don que ciertamente nos falta .
Y sin duda piensan y saben.

Asi pues,
resulta muy probable que nos desprecien
por nuestra necesidad de buscar amos,
poe nuestro voto de obediencia al mas fuerte.