Friday, August 30, 2013

Our Kind of Traitor by John le Carré

Source of book: Book on CD borrowed from the library.

Originally, I wanted to listen to one of le Carré’s earlier works, preferably The Spy Who Came In From the Cold or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Unfortunately, our library didn’t have these checked in when I need them, and really only had a few of his most recent works. This particular book was published in 2010, and is the author’s next-to-most-recent novel.

A bit about John le Carré. (Pronounced like “carry.”) His real name is David Cornwell, and he did indeed serve in MI6 before his books sold well enough for him to write full time. He draws on his experiences in intelligence work; a few books are believed to be partly autobiographical.

In contrast to Ian Flemming’s James Bond books, le Carré’s are morally ambiguous, and tend to feature everyday people. His spies wrestle with the ethics of what they do, and truly untainted good guys are pretty hard to find. These books are not really action books either. Sure, action does occasionally happen. Sometimes the action even involves the main characters. But they are not superhumans like Bond.

These books are also completely different from those written by another author believed to have spent time in the intelligence world, Patrick O’Brian, whose novels are set in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, rather than the present time.

I’m not sure how representative this book is of le Carré’s other works. After reaching the thoroughly abrupt and unsatisfying ending (more on this later), I did a little poking around on the web, and it appears that it has some unique characteristics. Also, the time difference between this book and the most famous works of the author is significant. Le Carré was a much younger man when he started writing. (He is now 81.) The world has changed dramatically from the height of the Cold War, alliances have shifted, and politics look much different. Certain social morés have changed as well, and I wonder if this book reflects that. I’m sure that, even in England, an unmarried couple would be less likely to vacation together in the 1960s; but the language may or may not have been different in a book set in those earlier times.

With respect to the language, there is a significant amount of vulgarity and profanity in this book. (See note below for the difference. Yes, I care about this.) It is mostly limited to two main characters, but it is pretty constant with them. There is also some (non-graphic) sexual content. Less, in my view, than in James Bond.

The basic plot is this. (No significant spoilers.) English professor (actually a don, but that is a British distinction) Perry Makepeace is vacationing in Aruba with his girlfriend Gail when they meet a mysterious Russian, Dima. (Short for Dimitri.) After a tennis match with Perry, Dima decides to take Perry into his confidence. Dima is a big time money launderer, who has decided to cooperate with British intelligence after his friend and protegé is whacked by his fellow Russian mobsters. He thinks that Perry either is a spy, or knows one. Perry is talked into seeing what he can do.

Dima’s information implicates several important banking officials in England, including a member of parliament. Thus, the case is assigned to Hector Meredith on a semi-unofficial basis. Perry and Gail assist in the attempt to provide Dima and his family protection in exchange for his information. That much of the plot is on the back of the book, so I don’t mind revealing it.

Even from that bit of summary, it is pretty clear that the moral issues are as murky as they are in the real life version of intelligence. Dima is clearly a criminal, but he is also oddly sympathetic. His family, particularly the minor children, are even more so. They will likely be collateral damage if Dima’s gambit fails. One could certainly dislike the British government for multiple reasons. Its complicity with the big banks that were largely responsible for the near-collapse of the Western financial system is loathsome, of course. (Not that our own government was innocent - or that much of any government was. Is it okay to hate them all?) The dithering and political infighting that delays everything while lives hang in the balance. Actually, it is details like this that are the most realistic thing about this book. Anyone who has had to deal with an unresponsive bureaucracy will recognize the difficulties.

The two truly likable characters are Gail and Perry, the innocents who get in way over their heads in the whole caper. Unlike the others (the apparatchiks, as Dima calls them), they care about the humans involved as people, rather than just cogs in the machine of statecraft. (Not that the actual spies are callous, just that one can’t let personal stuff cloud one’s judgment.)

Things I liked about this book? Le Carré is a good, skilled writer. He has excellent command of the language, a great feel for pacing, and the ability to draw the reader into the world. I also loved that he is able to differentiate his characters using their dialogue. Each person has his or her own voice, vocabulary, favorite words and phrases, and so on. He is able to sustain pages of dialogue without identifying each speaker more than occasionally, but you always know who is speaking, because of how they talk. (All it takes is a book where the author fails to do this for one to realize how difficult yet crucial this is.)

I also thought that the events of the plot were interesting (and relevant). Russian capitalism and Russian gangsterism have been enmeshed since the fall of the iron curtain, and dirty money will always need to be cleaned in such situations. Even decades after his stint in the intelligence world, le Carré is able to capture the feel of the situations that develop.

Things I didn’t like as much? I thought that the first part was very strong, but that it got bogged down a little when the author had to fill in the backstory on the international stage and also on the agency’s internal politics. I suspect that it would have been easier to follow if I hadn’t been driving, or if I were British myself. Still that one is a minor quibble.

The one thing I really hated was the ending. Because it wasn’t an ending! It’s like the author just decided to end the book two chapters before he finished his plot. [Spoiler warning.] A disaster occurs at the end, but it only directly affects two characters. Sure, the fallout will affect everyone. But we never learn how. No loose ends are ever tied up. There are plenty of loose ends, too. What happens? We’ll never know.

Another book that ends like this is Giant by Edna Ferber. I wondered when I read that one if she couldn’t figure out how to end it, or if she just got tired of the book, and decided to stop abruptly.

The worst part of it is that, since both books had characters that I cared about, it was horrible to not know what happened to them. I mean, if you are going to kill them off, kill them off. Don’t just leave them dangling. 

I should mention a few lines worth remembering. (And I had to, since I was driving.)

One is by Gail, after a peculiar experience with Dimo’s wife, who is shell shocked and irrevocably damaged by the torture she underwent in the past, and has become compulsively religious. Gail notes that she has gone from being an Anglican atheist to being an Orthodox atheist.

Another line comes from a very minor character, one of Perry’s academic colleagues, who Perry seeks out when he wants to give his information to MI6, but has no idea how to start. This colleague has connections. He asks for Perry’s cell phone number, and writes it down. He says, “I never commit anything to memory. It’s insecure.” I love that! Paper can be shredded, but memories endure.

The unforgettable Hector gets the final line. Perry is trying to feel out exactly how truthful Hector is being as he tries to recruit Perry and Gail to assist in the case. After Perry suggests that he may be lying to save the country, Hector states that Perry is mistaking him for a diplomat. He then goes on to say that he also would not lie to save his own skin, which is the behavior of a different creature altogether: the politician.

This was an engrossing book. Perfect for driving. Just realize that the ending is missing, and enjoy it, I suppose. (I could also imagine that the author died before finishing it.)

Note on the audio:

This book is read by Robin Sachs, who was in Galaxy Quest and Ocean’s Eleven, among others. I think he did a really fine job with this book. He adopts different voices for each character, male and female, and he is convincing. The sounds fit the language (see above) and the personality in a marvelous way. A truly delightful book to listen to. 

Note on vulgarity, obscenity, and profanity:

Maybe it’s a lawyer thing. It bothers me when people use “profanity” when they refer to vulgarity or obscenity. So here are the distinctions.

Something is “obscene” in general when it offends the basic prevalent morality of its time and place. Thus, obscenity changes from time to time, and from place to place. Generally “obscenity” refers to the sexual, but it could conceivably apply to other things.

Legally speaking (here in the US), something is “obscene” if it appeals to the prurient interest and lacks artistic, literary, political, or scientific value. So, generally sexual.

Thus, references to sexual parts or acts might be referred to as an “obscenity. F---, for example.

An obscenity can also be a vulgarity, but there are vulgarities that are not obscene. Vulgarities can refer to sex, but also to bodily functions. Thus, “crap” is a mild vulgarity, but is not an obscenity.

Profanity, on the other hand, is language that is desecrating to the sacred. References to deities, holy things, and holy symbols are all profanity. (My favorite obscure profanity is “zounds,” which I discovered a few years ago to be an old word referring to “His (Christ’s) wounds. Who knew?)

So there you are. Whether you indulge in “colorful metaphors,” as Spock put it, or not; use the right word to describe it.

In this book, Dima and Hector are the two profane and vulgar characters. Dima’s language sounds menacing, but is also oddly comical. Swearing sounds more sinister in a Russian accent, just as it sounds completely laughable in French. But Dima also hasn’t really figured out the idiom in English. (“Jesus God!” Only Russian gangsters swear like that.)

The other is Hector, whose casual British vulgarity rolls off his raspy tongue naturally. (And, it is much more imaginative than Dima’s version. Nobody does vulgarity like the Brits. Americans pick a favorite word or two, and use it early and often. The Brits occasionally make one gasp with the audacity and creativity of their usage. And then you want to take a shower.)

Note on string bass players:

String bass players? Actually, I thought of this because one of our Symphony players is from Russia. Igor just looks like a gangster, with his bald head and thick neck. Igor is a fun guy, actually, with a delightfully dry sense of humor. He is also a great musician. But, if you needed someone to play a Russian gangster in your play, just paint a tattoo or three, and he would be ready to go.

It’s not just him, though. John looks like the long lost twin of my cousin-in-law Todd, the professor of theology. They could switch places, I’m sure. John just looks like he could be a priest, given a proper cowl.

And then there was Keith, who used to play for the orchestra when I was a new player. I swear, he looked like he belonged in the days of Sir Walter Raleigh. Except he would have been the evil duke. The beard, twirled mustaches, and the curly hair. It was amazing.

So there you go, within one string bass section, we had the Russian mobster, the evil duke, and the priest.

(I hope you guys don’t mind a little teasing. We rely on the bass section to keep us all together…)

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

In Which I Post Some Questions and Answers Because I Am In the Middle Of Several Really Long Books

I stole this from a fellow blogger friend Carrie, and figured I would use it because a) it looked fun and b) I am in the middle of Daniel Deronda, The Stuarts, and Goethe's Faust Part 2. In other words, around 1700 pages. As usual, I reserve the right to give completely non-responsive answers to the questions. What can I say? I'm obviously a rebel.

1. Favorite childhood book? Asking a reader this question is a little unfair. I'll list a few:

I probably read All About Electricity more times than any other book during my childhood. I also loved The Phantom Tollbooth. I read Tom Sawyer over and over as well. The Great Brain books. Perhaps the most influential may have been Watership Down, which I read multiple times during my teens.

2. What are you reading right now? The three books above. Also, I am reading some Tennyson, and am listening to Our Kind of Traitor by John LeCarre while traveling for some out of town cases this month.

3. What books do you have on request at the library? None at the moment, because I have promised myself that I WILL finish Daniel Deronda and The Stuarts before I order any more. I recently returned Pablo Neruda and The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

4. Bad book habit? I'll just copy Carrie's answer: "Buying books faster than I can read them." Um, yes. And faster than I can find shelf space.

5. Do you have an e-reader? Yes. Actually, I use a Kindle app on my tablet. It comes in handy while waiting in court.

6. Do you prefer to read one book at a time or several at once? Definitely multiple books at once. I try to always be reading fiction, non-fiction, drama, and poetry. I'm just better at the multitasking than trying to finish one at a time. Also, I like something I can fit in a small time period. A short poem, or a short story, for those days when I don't have much time.

7. Have your reading habits changed since starting a blog? Again, Carrie's answer is as good as anything I would write: "Having the blog pushes me to read for deeper meaning. I think I get more out of books as a result of having a book blog. I stop and consider passages for longer and allow time for things to sink in." Also, blogging about books has made me think about counter arguments for my points, and has made me pay attention to how I sound to my friends and readers across the political, theological, and religious (or not) spectrum.

8. Least favorite book you read this year (so far)? I'm looking at my list, and I can't really find one I didn't like. Some better than others, though. I wasn't sure about Black Swan Green at first, because the arc of the story wasn't apparent until later in the book. On reflection, it made more sense. Also, I spent too much time in the first few chapters looking up the British slang, so it detracted a bit from the sense of flow.

9. Favorite book you’ve read this year? This one is tough. Probably the two non-fiction books that I liked the best this year were Railroaded and Iron Curtain. The fiction book that provoked the most discussion was The Scarlet Letter.

10. How often do you read out of your comfort zone? It depends. Occasionally I will read popular fiction or genre fiction, but usually only if a friend recommends a particular book. I never read "bad political screed of the day" type books or trendy fiction. I am unlikely to read a book by an author known to fabricate (see James Frey) or use laughably shoddy research or investigation (see Peter Duesberg). Authors who write books intended to be read only by those who share their views (preaching to the choir), particularly if they take advantage of the lack of skepticism to fabricate or distort. (see David Barton and Al Franken) Also, no conspiracy theories. There are probably a few more I am forgetting, but I do try to read books from a wide variety of eras, cultures, viewpoints, and genres. I like to learn new stuff. So if it is well written, suggest it and I might just read it when I get time.

11. What is your reading comfort zone? I love classic literature. I am fond of poetry in general, but particularly of Frost, Dickinson, and Rosetti. I love well written non-fiction on a variety of topics. I can't abide poorly written books of any sort, and have a particularly low tolerance for navel-gazing female non-fiction, (I would absolutely use Eat, Pray, Love as kindling) pop-political or pop theological books, particularly if they skew toward "self-help." 

12. Can you read on the bus? Yes. Except on curvy roads. But I am usually driving, so I do books on CD instead.

13. Favorite place to read? Sometimes in the library, but the chairs don't quite fit my posture. More often, propped up in my bed, with the kids in bed and a glass of wine on the nightstand.

14. What is your policy on book lending? I only lend books to certain people. If you lose a book, you won't borrow from me again. I'm not fond of damage either, but usually people just lose my books rather than damage them. If you are on my list of borrowers, I WILL write down your name, the book, and the date, and nag you about when you are going to finish it. Yes, I am insufferable. But if you lend me a book, I will return it in good condition.

15. Do you ever dog-ear books? Have you ever heard fingernails on a chalkboard? Stop saying that! Gah! My preferred method is to write the page and enough words to refresh my memory so I can consult it when I blog. I could see sticky notes too.

16. Do you ever write in the margins of your books? No. And it annoys me when I note someone has written in the margin. Particularly of library books.

17. Not even with text books? No. I'm not a big note taker anyway. But if I wanted to note something, I would use a sticky note in the margin.

18. What is your favorite language to read in? English, because that's all I've got. But I really like reading aloud in Spanish or Italian, because it sounds so amazing. Try reading The Divine Comedy out loud. Yeah. Now if only I could truly understand it rather than just get a word or two here and there. I wish I could actually pronounce French and German, because that would sound cool too.

19. What makes you love a book? For fiction, three dimensional, memorable characters. I prefer it when the plot and the characters are in harmony. For example, a character should behave how he or she actually would, rather than just in service to the plot. Does that make sense? I love creative and witty use of language in all genres. Bad writing will absolutely kill a book for me, even if it makes good points. I love books that don't dictate to the reader, but allow the reader to come to his or her own conclusions. If you have to preach, it is because you didn't do a good job telling the story (fiction) or because your facts and presentation were unconvincing (non-fiction). I love books that shed light on the experience and truth of life. Books that help one see life through other eyes, that can transport you through place and time without making you painfully aware of that fact. And, of course, books that make me think. That's a big plus.

20. What will inspire you to recommend a book? If a book has been influential to me, or was enjoyable, I will recommend it. That's a lot of books right there. I might recommend someone who has trouble seeing the opposite viewpoint read a book from that viewpoint.

21. Favorite Biography? I need to read more biographies. Two that come to mind are Ronald Reagan's autobiography. Whether you agree or disagree with him politically, the man was full of witty zingers and self-deprecating humor. The other would be William Manchester's series on Winston Churchill. (Hey, another wit. Surprise!) I'll confess I have only read the first volume, so that needs to go on the list as well.

22. Have you ever read a self help book? Yes. Which is why I don't tend to read them.

23. Favorite cookbook? Ones that I use the most: The Joy of Cooking, which has how to do everything. Seriously. Chinese Cooking for Everyone, which I have owned since my teens. I love my extensive Frugal Gourmet collection. Julia Child. I am a Food Network junkie, which is why we don't have cable TV. I would waste too much time...

24. Most inspirational book you’ve read this year (fiction or non-fiction)? The Wind in the Willows, which I read with my kids. Wait, I should have included that in my favorite childhood books list!

25. Favorite reading snack? I try not to read and eat at the same time, because I am a klutz. And I get sticky fingers or splatter food and... well, it's like eating spaghetti while wearing a white shirt. Things happen. Let's just say I love my books too much to risk food. I've gotten reasonably good at setting the book down out of the way before taking the sip of wine. It works for me.

26. Name a case in which hype ruined your reading experience. I've had the opposite problem. I deliberately avoided books which certain people liked because of how they "hyped" it, only to find out later that the book was fine, but the person had no clue about it. Best example of this is Wuthering Heights, which I identified with the sort of fluffy teen girls who would actually moon over Heathcliff. Um, yeah. Amazing how someone can read a book and COMPLETELY miss everything about it except the dark hair and wild eyes. And fall in LOVE. Okaaay.

27. How often do you agree with critics on a book? It depends on the critic. Mark Twain's critique of James Fenimore Cooper is hilarious. And also accurate. I also have generally liked books recommended by Ron Rosenbaum and Marvin Olasky, who are completely opposite politically and religiously; but both appreciate well written books. For example, they recommended, respectively, Why Does the World Exist and The Cypresses Believe In God, both of which I highly recommend. I obviously ignore critics who like certain chick-lit books.

28. How do you feel about giving bad/negative reviews? I would hate to give a negative review to someone that I know personally, which is why I will read books written by friends, but will not blog about them. For people I don't know and will likely never meet? I'll be brutally honest. If the author is dead, even more so. Go ahead and haunt me, Tobias Smollett!

29. Most intimidating book you’ve ever read? I think that honor would go to my UCC textbook in law school. Although there were plenty of others. For regular books, I would say Winston Churchill's six volume World War II set. Five thousand pages. But it was actually really fun. Or, I might go with The Allegory of Love by C. S. Lewis, which is all about the medieval romance. Lots of Middle English.

30. Most intimidating book you’re too nervous to begin? I really want to read War and Peace. Or maybe Anna Karenina. 

31. Favorite poet? Robert Frost. But Emily Dickinson and Christina Rosetti are really close behind. And there are so many more I love. Take a look through my blog for some more favorites.

32. Favorite fictional character? Favorite in what way? I identified with Nicholas Nickelby as a teen. I tend to like memorable humorous or loathsome characters best. Obadiah Slope from Barchester Towers. The title character from H*Y*M*A*N  K*A*P*L*A*N. Walter Mitty. Athelstane from Ivanhoe. Captain Wragge from No Name.

33. Favorite fictional villain? I must admit that Obadiah Slope is one favorite. Does Gollum count as a villain? Perhaps I like the complex villains, that you feel just a tiny bit sorry for at the end.

34. Books I’m most likely to bring on vacation? Something by Alan Bradley or Patrick O'Brian. Something I can put down and pick up without losing my train of thought.

35. The longest I’ve gone without reading. I'll say four or five days while backpacking. Sometimes I bring a book, but not always. Last time I spent my time watching meteors instead.

36. What distracts you easily when you’re reading? My five children. Which is why I do most of my reading after they go to bed.

37. Favorite film adaptation of a novel. The BBC version of Pride and Prejudice. Honorable mention to the BBC version of The Barchester Chronicles.

38. Most disappointing film adaptation? I kind of vaguely remember some movie that was so bad we turned it off. Since I don't remember what book was involved, I think I repressed the memory.

Okay, two have come to mind. First is the Shirley Temple version of Heidi. Which had nothing to do with the book, as far as I can tell. Except the alps and a grandfather. (This is really too bad, because I actually admire Shirley Temple (Black). I first heard of her through her involvement in the Rose Parade, and she seems to be a real class act, which is unusual for a child star. But this movie sucked.)

The second is A Girl of the Limberlost, which is definitely a repressed memory. It contains the absolute WORST violin faking of all time. My psyche has scars from this. Deep scars. Okay, I'll vote for this as the worst movie adaptation of all time.

39. The most money I’ve spent in the bookstore at one time? I am a used book junkie, so my total cost is usually low. Probably under a hundred bucks. Actually, one of the ways I limit my book purchases is to limit myself to used hardbacks except in unusual circumstances.

40. How often do you skim a book before reading it? What's the point? I read for the details, not the broad sweep of the plot.

41. Do you like to keep your books organized? Yes. Someday, the kids will let me accomplish this.

42. Do you prefer to keep books or give them away once you’ve read them? I rarely if ever buy a book I don't want to keep. Another bonus of limiting myself to hardbacks. If I am unsure, I will borrow it from a friend or the library.

43. Are there any books you’ve been avoiding? I don't know if I would put it that way. My list is so long right now that any book that I might think about avoiding has probably given up trying to bust into my queue anyway.

44. Name a book that made you angry. Here are some that did this year and why: The Scarlet Letter, because I discovered how vicious John Winthrop was to Anne Hutchinson. The Souls of Black Folk because of how the allegedly Christian doctors let Du Bois' infant son die rather than treat a person with black skin. Iron Curtain because of Stalin's letter condoning the rape of German women. I hate it when people are callously cruel and hateful to others. In all three of these cases, it was because the victim was first dehumanized.

45. A book you didn’t expect to like but did? If I pick a book, I expect to like it. If someone I trust recommends a book, I give it the benefit of the doubt. If I really think I will hate it, I don't bother to read it. Life is too short.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Selected Poems of Pablo Neruda

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

Actually, this book has a bit of a library backstory. My wife originally picked this up for me back in May, but I was unable to get through it in the three weeks I had it checked out. It should have renewed, but somehow the request missed by a day, which meant it had to be returned. Fine. But then, despite showing in the computer system, it didn’t make it back to the shelf. After a few attempts to find it on different days, we finally decided that it had to be ordered online so they would make the effort to locate it. Thus, after a few weeks, it finally appeared, and I could check it out again. By then, I was deep into a series of vacations, and it just took me a while to finish.

I am not fluent in Spanish, so I checked out a translation. This particular edition is translated by Ben Belitt, and contains the original Spanish on the opposing page, so that they can be compared.

This is both a good and a bad thing. Good, in that one can see the decisions that the translator made (I can read a number of Spanish words, and many others have common Latin roots); but bad, in that it is obvious that the sound of the original language is so much more melodious than the English version.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that this particular translation had some problems. In a couple of cases, I noted that the translator used rather large words to translate what looked like simpler words in the original. In others, it seemed as if he went out of his way to make the English version “sophisticated” rather than sticking to the more fluid and unpretentious original. Since this translation was done in 1961, one wonders if the translator were trying to make the poetry fit the style of the times.

Of course, all translation is a compromise. As I noted in my discussion of Inferno, the poetic feel and form and meaning often compete with each other. In that case, the prose translation conveyed the meaning of the words best, and preserved the terza rima form, but not the rhyme or rhythm. The older poetic translation also preserved the terza rima, and captured the rhyme and rhythm, but took great liberties with the meaning of the words, and often stretched syntax to the point where it became nearly unintelligible. Robert Pinsky’s translation was true to the words and story, and made the rhymes come out, but broke up the original tercets in order to do that. It’s all a compromise.

In a weird coincidence, a few days after I started this collection, the Chilean government announced that they would exhume Neruda’s body, and investigate whether he had been poisoned by the Pinochet regime. 

Huh? What’s that? Well, Neruda was a bit of a communist, and didn’t exactly keep his mouth shut about it. He was a friend of Salvador Allende, the socialist president of Chile, who was deposed (and probably murdered) by Augusto Pinochet during his coup d'état in 1973. Neruda had the audacity to criticize the new ruler, and was planning an escape to Mexico at the time of his death. (It is generally agreed that he died of advanced prostate cancer, but, obviously, others have other theories.) Whatever the case turns out to be, it was interesting to see his name in the news.

 Neruda recording his poems for the Library of Congress. Photo Public Domain.

This collection contains excerpts from Neruda’s major poetic works from 1925 through 1958. In general, I found that I enjoyed the later works more than the earlier ones. Neruda’s poems tend to focus on love and freedom, along with a hatred of inequality and oppression. Political issues find their way into some of the poems. (There was an interesting reference to the Spanish Civil War in “A Few Things Explained,” for example. His language evokes the same emotions that I felt reading The Cypresses Believe in God, a wonderful novel set in that period.) I loved his strikingly unusual metaphors, and attention to unusual details - the ones often overlooked.

Here are a few excerpts from the ones that stood out to me.

The opening of “Nocturnal Collection” from Residencia en la Tierra.

I had vanquished that angel of sleep, allegorical
mourner; but his travail went on and his ponderous footfall
came closer, sheathed with snails and cicadas,
sea-born, and brackish, smelling of fruits.

Also from that same early collection, “Ars Poetica.”

Between dark and the void, between virgins and garrisons,
with my singular hear and my mournful conceits
for my portion, my forehead despoiled, overtaken by pallors,
a grief-maddened widow bereft of a lifetime;
for every invisible drop that I taste in a stupor, alas,
for each intonation I concentrate, shuddering,
I keep the identical thirst of an absence, the identical chill
of a fever; sounds, coming to be; a devious anguish
as of thieves and chimeras approaching;
so, in the shell of extension, profound and unaltering,
demeaned as a kitchen-drudge, like a bell sounding hoarsely,
like a tarnishing mirror, or the smell of a house’s abandonment
where the guests stagger homeward, blind drunk, in the night,
and the reek of their clothes rises out of the floor, and absence of flowers-
could it be differently put, a little less ruefully, possibly?-
All the truth blurted out: wind strikes at my breast like a blow,
the ineffable body of night, fallen into my bedroom,
the roar of a morning ablaze with some sacrifice,
that begs my prophetical utterance, mournfully;
an impact of objects that call and encounter no answer,
unrest without respite, an anomalous name.

For some reason, I really liked Neruda’s poems on food. For example, this early one from the same collection.

“Apogee of Celery”

From an innocent center never dinted
by sound, from the waxes’ perfection,
the linear lightnings break clear:
doves with a spiral’s propensities
whirled over indolent streets in a odor
of shadows and fishes.

These are the veins of the celery; the spray and the humors,
the hats of the celery!
This, the celery’s signature, its firefly
taste, its cartography
soaking in colors:
its head droops, angelically green,
its delicate scallops despair;
its celery feet range the market-stalls
in the day’s mutilation, sobbing:
doors close at its passing
and delectable horses kneel down.

Crop-footed, green-eyed, it flows
to all sides, and within it, the droplets,
the secret things, sunken forever:
the tunnels of ocean, whence arises
the stairway proscribed by the celery.
the disaster of shadows submerged,
the proofs in the middle of air,
the kiss in the depths of the stone.

At midnight, someone beats at my door
with drenched hands in the mist
and I hear a deep voice, a voice barbed
with prohibitive wind, the voice of the celery:
wounded, it rages against water and root
and plunges its bittering sheen in my bed;
the blades of its turbulent scissors strike at my breast
seeking a way to my heart under smothering water.

What would you have of me, crack-bodiced
guest in my funeral dwelling?
What ruinous ambit surrounds you?

Tissue of darkness and light and lugubrious fibers,
blind rivets, ringleted energies,
river of live, indispensable threads,
green branches beloved of the sun,
I am here, in the night, and I listen to deathwatches,
solitudes, secrets,
and you come in the midst of a lowering cloud-rack,
to root in my heard and grow great and make known to me
what is dark in the brightness, the rose of creation.

This is crazy and genius rolled up together. Who gets poetic about celery? (Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes maybe, but oatmeal was more his thing.) And yet, somehow, it becomes a metaphor for alienation and creative inspiration.

Much later, in his Odas Elementales (Elemental Odes), Neruda would find inspiration in a wide variety of simple, everyday objects and incidents. If I were to pick a favorite collection, it would be the Odes.


The artichoke
of delicate heart
in its battle-dress, builds
its minimal cupola;
in its scallop of
Around it,
demoniac vegetables
bristle their thicknesses,
tendrils and belfries,
the bulb’s agitations;
while under the subsoil
the carrot
sleeps sound in its
rusty mustaches.
Runner and filaments
bleach in the vineyards,
whereon rise the vines.
The sedulous cabbage
its petticoats;
sweetens a world;
and the artichoke
dulcetly there in a gardenplot,
armed for a skirmish,
goes proud
in its pomegranate

Till, on a day,
each by the other,
the artichoke moves
to its dream
of a market place
in the big willow
a battle formation.
Most warlike
of defilades-
with men
in the market stalls,
white shirts
in the soup-greens,
field marhals
close-order conclaves,
commands, detonations,
and voices,
a crashing of crate staves.

with her hamper
make trial
of an artichoke:
she reflects, she examines,
she candles them up to the light like an egg,
never flinching;
she bargains
she tumbles her prize
in a market bag
among shoes and a
cabbage head,
a bottle
of vinegar; is back
in her kitchen.
The artichoke drowns in an olla.

So you have it:
a vegetable, armed,
a profession
(call it an artichoke)
whose end
is millenial.
We taste of that
scale after scale.
We eat of a halcyon paste:
it is green at the artichoke heart.

The original Spanish ending is better:

la pacifica pasta
de su corazón verde.

See what I mean about translations being a compromise? But still, an amazing picture. Really, after reading that, can you think of a cabbage as anything but sedulous?

One more from Odes.

“A Lemon”

Out of lemon flowers
on the moonlight, love’s
lashed and insatiable
sodden with fragrance,
the lemon tree’s yellow
the lemons
move down
from the tree’s planetarium.

Delicate merchandise!
The harbors are big with it-
for the light and the
barbarous gold.
We open
the halves
of a miracle,
and a clotting of acids
into the starry
original juices,
irreducible, changeless,
so the freshness lives on
in a lemon,
in the sweet-smelling house of the rind,
the proportions, arcane and acerb.

Cutting the lemon
the knife
leaves a little
alcoves unguessed by the eye
that open acidulous glass
to the light; topazes
riding the droplets,
aromatic facades.

So, while the hand
holds the cut of the lemon,
half a world
on a trencher,
the gold of the universe
to your touch:
a cup yellow
with miracles,
a breast and a nipple
perfuming the earth;
a flashing made fruitage,
the diminutive fire of a planet.

As a child, I used to eat lemons right of our tree, much to my mother’s consternation. (My teeth actually survived pretty well. Apparently, despite common belief, sugar is worse for teeth than lemons...)

It wasn’t just flora, however. Fauna inspired this one, from Canto General.

“Some Beasts”

It was the twilight of the iguana:

From a rainbowing battlement,
a tongue like a javelin
lunging in verdure;
an and heap treading the jungle,
monastic, on musical feet;
the guanaco, oxygen-fine
in the high places swarthy with distances,
cobbling his feet into gold;
the llama of scrupulous eye
that widens his gaze on the dews
of a delicate world.

A monkey is weaving
a thread of insatiable lusts
on the margins of morning:
he topples a pollen-fall,
startles the violet flight
of the butterfly, wings on the Muzo.

It was the night of the alligator:
snouts moving out of the slime,
in original darkness, pullulations,
a clatter of armor, opaque
in the sleep of the bog,
turning back to the chalk of the sources.

The jaguar touches the leaves
with his phosphorous absence,
the puma speeds to his cover
in the blaze of his hungers,
his eyeballs, a jungle of alcohol,
burn in his head.
Badgers are raking the river beds,
nuzzling the havens
for their warm delectation,
red-toothed, for assault.

And below, on the vastness of water,
like a continent circled,
drenched in the ritual mud,
rapacious, religious
gigantic, the coiled anaconda.

“The Twilight of the Iguana” sounds like an excellent title for a B movie, actually. Fun stuff.

I won’t quote it in full, but as a cat person, I enjoyed “Oda al Gato.” Here is the best part:

Men wish they were fishes or birds;
the worm would be winged,
the dog is a dispossessed lion;
engineers would be poets;
flies ponder the swallow’s perogative
and poets impersonate flies -
but the cat
intends nothing but cat:
he is cat
from his tail to his chin whiskers:
from his living presumption of mouse
and the darkness, to the gold of his irises.

Like many poets, Neruda was also interesting his choice of objects of derision. “Poets Celestial” takes a direct swipe at Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke, and the whole idea “pure beauty” as idolized by the Europeans of the Fin de siècle. I liked what little Rilke I have read, so this whole thing smacks a bit of the feud between the partisans of Brahms and those of Wagner. Both were masters, and their works in retrospect have more in common than either would have admitted.

More understandable was Neruda’s hatred for dictators. Given Latin America’s bloody history of megalomania, to say nothing of the slaughters elsewhere in the world throughout the 20th century and millennia before, I can’t say I disagree.

“The Dictators”

An odor stayed on in the cane fields:
carrion, blood, and a nausea
of harrowing petals,
Between coconut palms lay the graves, a stilled
strangulation, a festering surfeit of bones.
A finical satrap conversed
with wineglasses, collars, and piping.
In the palace, all flashed like a clock-dial,
precipitate laughter in gloves, a moment
spanning the passageways, meeting
the newly killed voices and the buried blue mouths. Out of sight,
lament was perpetual and fell, like a plant and its pollen,
forcing a lightless increase in the blinded, big leaves.
And bludgeon by bludgeon, on the terrible waters,
scale over scale in the bog,
the snout filled with silence and slime
and vendetta was born.

In many ways, I found myself agreeing with Neruda, rather than disagreeing, despite my general distaste for communism (and Stalinism in particular). Perhaps it is because Neruda, as a poet, rather than a politician, reacts to and writes about injustice. In his world, the dichotomy was between the military dictator and the more democratic socialism. I suspect he would have had plenty of scorn for Hugo Chavez and his ilk as well, given his belief in basic freedoms.

One final quote made a big impression. This is from “The Poet.”

I ranged in the markets of avarice
where goodness is bought for a price, breathed
the insensate miasmas of envy, the inhuman
contention of masks and existences.

I am reminded of a few things with this quote. First and obviously, the sale of indulgences in the Middle Ages. One could buy “holiness” or even escape eternal punishment for a price. (This practice was one of the main causes of Luther’s break with the Catholic church.)

Second, and beyond the scope of this post, is the present association in Evangelical circles of certain middle class privileges with “godliness.” (I’m thinking particularly of the veneration of the stay-at-home mom, but there are many others. I’m hoping to do a future blog post on this subject.)

Anyway, I did enjoy my exploration of Neruda. Thanks to my English teacher cousin-in-law Jennifer for suggesting his works, and that of Auden as well, for my reading project. I would like to find, at minimum, a good translation of Odes for my permanent collection.