How I’m Spending Winter Break

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Emil Filla, “Reader of Dostoevsky” (1907)

“In short, our gentleman became so caught up in reading that he spent his nights reading from dusk till dawn and his days reading from sunrise to sunset, and so with too little sleep and too much reading his brains dried up, causing him to lose his mind.”
— Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote

RIP International Herald Tribune

The International Herald Tribune is no more. The paper’s owner, The New York Times, is rebranding it as the International New York Times — which makes sense from their point of view, but brings to a nominal end a tradition with many happy associations.

Many of us who lived abroad for any period of time over the last 45 years found the IHT (and the Paris Herald Tribune before that) a pleasant reminder of home, especially in the pre-Internet days. And for those of us from the New York City area, it was also a reminder of the old New York Herald Tribune  (d. 1966), a journalistic mainstay and, in the early 1960s, the place where writers like Tom Wolfe and Jimmy Breslin turned the craft in an exciting new direction.

The content isn’t going to change that significantly, but another link to the journalistic past has been severed. Here’s the front page of the final issue.

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In Praise of Musicality

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“Aristotle maintains that, more than color or smell, rhythm and melody ‘resemble dispositions.’ It is musicality, in other words, that most strongly conveys sensibility, communicates emotional intelligence. If Aristotle is right, then we prose writers can enhance the effects of our writing by paying more attention to the sounds of our sentences. We can heighten the effectiveness of our sentences if we imagine writing not so much for readers but for listeners.”
— Barbara Hurd, “The Sounds and Sense of Sentences”

Having a Raskolnikov Day

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“One new, insurmountable sensation was gaining possession of him almost minute by minute: it was a certain boundless, almost physical loathing for everything he met and saw around him, an obstinate, spiteful, hate-filled loathing. All of the people he met were repulsive to him — their faces, their walk, their movements were repulsive. If anyone had spoken to him, he would probably have just spat at him, bitten him…”

Too True

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“Intelligence is often the enemy of poetry, because it limits too much, and it elevates the poet to a sharp-edged throne where he forgets that ants could eat him or that a great arsenic lobster could fall on his head.”
— Frederico García Lorca

Journalist Roberto Herrscher on the 30th Anniversary of the Falklands War

       Today marks the 30th anniversary of the outbreak of the Falklands/Malvinas War, that Thatcher-era misadventure in which Argentina invaded and occupied the Falkland Islands and the British navy and air force retook them by force.
     Not long ago I sat down over breakfast with Roberto Herrscher, Argentinian journalist and author of The Voyages of the Penelope: The Three Lives of a Legendary Wooden Vessel in the South Atlantic and Tierra del Fuego (Südpol, 2007), a work of literary journalism that deals, in part, with his own service in the Argentinian military during the Falklands/Malvinas conflict. Herrscher is now director of the master’s program in journalism at the University of Barcelona. He is currently working on a book about banana plantations in Central America.

Michael Serino: We’re approaching the 30th anniversary of the Falklands War. What do you see happening there at this point?

Roberto Herrscher: I don’t want to try to be a geopolitical expert, but I see a retrenching of positions. Because of the origins of the president [Cristina Fernández de Kirchner] and her late husband, who was the president before, in Argentina this is an important issue for them. And now, after a long time, the same party of Margaret Thatcher is also back in government in Britain.
Unlike the time when I did the rounds of the media five years ago for the 25th anniversary when my book was out, and I thought not only my book but other things that were in the media at the time pointed in the direction of dialogue and understanding and trying to listen to the Other, now it’s a bad time.
There’s one thing that the Argentine government is doing: They’re saying, “The only people we have to talk to are the British authorities, not the Falkland Islanders. They don’t exist, they were just implants.” And I’m uneasy with that. I understand the feeling of most of my compatriots that think that this is sort of sacred land that should belong to the Fatherland, that we are incomplete. But that shouldn’t be sought in detriment of the rights and the lives of people that live there.

MS: In your opinion, what is the best solution?

RH: I think that, unlike in other situations involving the word that is used for the Falklands, which is ‘colonialism,’ I think that time can soothe some of the wounds and bring dialogue. And there is time, because every day in the Middle East people are dying, people are suffering. And in Africa. And there is an urgency to solve many of the problems of the world today. But in this case, apart from the help and the recognition that the veterans who suffered mental and physical wounds deserve on both sides, the conflict, I think, can be solved with time. In a way it’s probably a good conflict for sitting and talking, because right now there is not a population that is suffering in a colonized group.  Some people in Argentina think that the Falkland Islanders have been brainwashed and they like their colonizer, but they think they are British.
So I’m really concerned, first — because it’s my country, it’s my identity — for the millions of Argentines, for what the Malvinas mentality does to us. I think that, in terms of bigger populations, it’s returning to [Leopoldo] Galtieri’s idea of Argentina and Margaret Thatcher’s idea of Britain that is the bigger problem. Warmongering not only produces war and death in foreign fields, it produces self-censorship in people’s minds. The war mentality goes against the democratic mentality in life. A country in war cannot be a true democracy. So in a country in permanent war, or permanently on the verge of war, like George Orwell described in “1984,” outside war is a wonderful weapon for inside uniformization. This idea that, “If you disagree with me you are with the country’s enemies,” has happened in both countries. The Falklands conflict served Margaret Thatcher to tell the miners who were on strike, “While our soldiers are dying for the country, look at you.”

MS: From your point of view, what is the ideal endgame here?

RH: I have a commitment to my friends, and to the sources of my book, who want different things. For a lot of the people in my book, this is the only place that they go public. It’s not Sarah Palin, it’s Finlay Ferguson or Oscar Luna, the noncommissioned officer. So I don’t know if I’m doing right or wrong, but I’m in a difficult situation.
Really, I think there is some truth in that the history of Latin America has to do with the fight against colonialism, and I think the Falklands are a very unique situation there. I would like this to be something where everybody gains, but it’s impossible. There was an idea to have that territory with a United Nations flag. In an ideal world — in a John Lennon world, with no flags — we would have little communities and not huge countries or empires. If my compatriots have it their way, and their dream of recovering the islands, I think that, for me, it will have to be with the will of the islanders themselves.

MS: That seems unlikely.

RH: Before the war, it was something that was far, but much closer than now. As I got to appreciate these people, going to them … of course, everybody that had an illness that could not be solved in a local hospital went to Argentina. And lots of islanders went to study at the British schools in Buenos Aires. There’s a very large Anglo-Argentine community in which I think there’s not even a hypen — “Angloargentine” is their identity.
These are the people with whom I studied: I went to an Anglo-Argentine — a Scots-Argentine — school…. But you can’t make somebody love your country, at least until they know you and know you have good will towards them. But the whole American continent is a continent of people who have come from all over the world and they do negotiate dual or shifting identities.
[The Falkland Islanders] strongly defend that geographically they’re islands and not in South America at all, because they feel attacked and threatened and some there also use that for political gain.
I don’t think that, “We will strangle you until you love us” — that’s not the way. Never! For me people go before countries or nations, so if they are comfortable I would like to have them in, but they are living their lives the way they want now, which you can’t say for many other places in the world.
But again, I’m not a politician or a diplomat or a political science expert. I mean, bringing in the human dimension for others to see it is, I think, my role.

MS: When and how did you make the decision to get into journalism? Did it occur to you before the war?

RH: I wanted to be a writer. I liked writing, and I wanted reading and writing to be part of my life in some way.
My first contact with the media was as a victim. I came back from the war, I was a veteran who was part of some outspoken movements.… The most well-known veteran movements were for, “We are heroes; they should recognize us as such, and let’s go back and fight again, and the war was the time when we were united, and that’s the best of us.”
I belonged to another group, saying the war showed the worst in us. There had been a military dictatorship for years before the war, but the war allowed them to stamp on dissent with the approval of almost everybody. If it’s wartime and you are against the government, it’s not a political debate: You are an anti-patriot and you’re a traitor.
And I specifically got in movements against compulsory military service, and also after the war there were British and American media looking for veterans to talk to, and sometimes the people who flew to Buenos Aires could not speak Spanish, and I could speak English.
Again and again I saw that when they interviewed me they already had the moral, and they wanted anecdotes to fit with the model they brought from home. Sometimes I saw in the Sun and the Argentine paper my same anecdote meaning opposite things. And I said, “No, I want to tell my own story, and I can do it.” I’d wanted to be a writer, and I wrote this piece in a national newspaper, and they said, “Why don’t you write about other things?” And really I started … and I don’t know if it was a good way to start … I mean, ever since I’ve tried to move away from talking about myself, but I think it helped me a lot to not to treat others as I was treated when I was a source.

MS: What did you think you were going to do before you started engaging in journalism as a profession?

RH: I studied sociology. I was a sociology major.

MS: You attended university after the war?

RH: Yes, yes, yes. I finished high school and I went into the military service immediately. And then the war came. Not to be too hard on my naïve 19-year-old self, I suppose I wanted to write and express myself and get my soul out, which is the writing vocation, and I wanted to save the world. That’s why I entered sociology. The war was one of the things that made me think that the world is a cruel, violent and unfair place. And so I studied sociology. I was thrilled by the books I read and the discussions I had in class, and I wish the professors had told me what they did for a living. And I prefer to use what I studied and read in my sociology career, to put that to use as a journalist.

MS: Was there a point where you saw yourself as a college professor teaching sociology?

RH: Yes, yes. Almost at the beginning of my university years, I started working as a journalist before I started studying journalism. I supported myself doing English language classes and working as a journalist. I already knew that I liked the thrill of the street. I mean, it was a very convulsive time in Argentina, and I wanted to be out there, interviewing people and going to demonstrations, and I specialized in the environment. I traveled around the country and I tried to combine my two things, to say meaningful things and tell stories about injustices and to use literary techniques and skills to write journalism.

MS: Let’s talk about that. When did you get interested in literary journalism?

RH: It took years. I think it was by reading. But it was rather late, first in Argentina, and then when I moved to Costa Rica — I lived for five years in Costa Rica covering Central America.
As I was an editor and reporter, I was asked to teach journalism as a visiting or assistant professor at the University of Costa Rica, which is the largest, and I think the best, in Central America. So in order to teach my courses I started reading a lot, and that is where I rediscovered New Journalism and a wealth of Latin American nonfiction writing. And that was not only the material for my classes, but it changed the way I wrote.
After some attempts at writing fiction, I found that this was what I wanted to do and to be. But it had a lot to do with reading. Many times I don’t look for books about things that interest me, but for the way they are written and the way they were researched. I mean, I’ve read and enjoyed many nonfiction books about things that, if they were not literary journalism, I would never … I mean, I’m not interested in that, but I’m interested in the way it’s being told.

MS: I do the same thing. Who are your primary influences in literary journalism?

RH: I’d say a very important one is Ryszard Kapuscinski. He’s sort of a hero to me, and I’ve read all of his that has been translated into Spanish. And I think he combines history and anthropology, or sociology, and travel writing.
Some people I love to read, but I wouldn’t want to go that way. I think I’m a more complete professor after having read a lot of Hunter Thompson’s writings, but I don’t know if I would say that it has influenced my writing. I enjoy reading him, but I wouldn’t go that way. I would go more Kapuscinski, or more John Hersey. I like the people who go to the other side, who try to understand the Other. I like the writings of Ted Conover and Alma Guillermoprieto, and people who travel and try to understand how others think and how others live. But not only journalists. I mean, sometimes historians or anthropologists are very good masters of storytelling.
One I’ve discovered in the “banana book” I’m writing now is an anthropologist from the University of Pennsylvania, Philippe Bourgois. I first knew him because he wrote his thesis and a book about the banana industry, specifically in Costa Rica, where he did his research. But now he is with both drug addicts and drug petit-lords in the streets of New York and San Francisco, and his books are a lesson — and he’s not a journalist.

A New Medium for Narrative Journalists

New York Times critic Dwight Garner recently touted Amazon’s “Kindle Singles” as a medium uniquely suited for literary journalism. “These Singles allow real writers a chance to stretch their legs,” he said. “They’re the literary equivalent of a week’s sailing trip, not a Thor Heyerdahl slog across an ocean, with reader and writer lashed to the mast.”

In the Zone

Reading the announcement of a new Geoff Dyer book is like getting an invitation to a party. You can be sure there will be a lot going on, that most of it will be interesting or entertaining, and that you’re bound to have a good time.

In his latest effort, Dyer invites readers to join him in the Zone, the locus of AndreiTarkovsky’s 1979 film, Stalker. The book, Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room (Pantheon, 2012), journeys scene-by-scene through the film with the characters Stalker, Writer and Professor in Dyer’s attempt “to try to articulate both the film‘s persistent mystery and my abiding gratitude to it.”

First things first: If you haven’t seen the film, watch it immediately.  The screenplay was written by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, based on their 1972 novel Roadside Picnic (Chicago Review Press is reissuing the book in a new translation in April). But what Tarkovsky created for the screen is a challenging work of art that is very much his own. As Dyer puts it, “Stalker has long been synonymous both with cinema’s claims to high art and a test of the viewer’s ability to appreciate it as such.”

Then turn to the book. Going scene-by-scene through a film that is, as even its admirers acknowledge, slow going itself, may not sound all that inviting. But right about the time the wisdom of this approach begins to raise doubts in the reader’s mind, Dyer brings it up himself by raising the question of why Writer is going to the Zone:

“He [Writer] wonders why Professor is going to the Zone but then launches into his own explanation of why he’s going there, what he’s looking for. Inspiration, it turns out. He’s washed up. Finished. Maybe by going to the Zone he’ll be rejuvenated. Man, I know how he feels. I could do with a piece of that action myself. I mean, do you think I would be spending my time summarizing the action of a film almost devoid of action — not frame by frame, perhaps, but certainly take by take — if I was capable of writing anything else? In my way I am going to the Room — following these three to the Room — to save myself.”

Dyer’s elaborations, asides and ruminations appear in what nominally are “footnotes,” many of which go on for pages at a time. They form a kind of parallel text that Dyer manages to interweave seamlessly with his main exposition of the film. He is remarkably attuned to the reader’s limitations of attention and patience, digressing into background on the film,  anecdotes on film history and, as his readers have come to expect, what’s going on in his own head. But, as always, his insights lead the reader to a deeper understanding of his subject matter.

Take, for example, his reflections on Tarkovsky’s use of wind. “Tarkovsky is the cinema’s great poet of stillness. To that extent his vision is imbued with the still  beauty of Russian icons, like the ones painted by Andrei Rublev. But, as he himself explained, this stillness is the opposite of timeless: ‘The image becomes authentically cinematic when (amongst other things) not only does it live within time, but time also lives within it, even within each separate frame. No “dead” object — table, chair, class — taken in a frame in isolation from everything else, can be presented as [if] it were outside passing time, as if from the point of view of the absence of time.’ Tarkovsky’s stillness is animated by the energy of the moving image, of cinema, of which the wind is the expression and symptom. Out of this comes the most distinctive feature of Tarkovsky’s art: the sense of beauty as force.” Dyer’s appreciation for the metaphysics of Tarkovsky’s art comes through on every passage of analysis.

All in all, Zona is a worthy addition to Dyer’s enjoyable and enlightening body of work. Watch the film, then read the book. You’ll learn something.