Friday, 26 December 2014

laughable loves [milan kundera]

Kundera's early work is a collection of eight short stories. They all deal with the pleasures and pitfalls of sexual relationships. It feels like a young man's book, but a young man who has a sly understanding of the way in which the domain of the sexual encounter in the human sphere is far more complex than the mere mating instinct. Tied up in the act of seduction or desire is the will to power, the will to survival or the will to just get by. At the same time, the stories offer a sideways view of the complications of living within a totalitarian state. A portrait which is all the richer because it reveals that this state still permits the simple pleasures of flirtation and debate, but impinges at the edges, constantly marking out the limits of possibility, with a fall from grace forever on the edge of the subject's view. At times the preoccupations and worries of these cold-war Czechs don't seem that far away from those of Updike's suburban Yankees or today's harassed first-world capitalists. For all their intelligence, sexuality and charm, they are still neutered by the demands of the system they inhabit. Something which infiltrates the mechanisms of desire, which are conditioned as much by power as Eros. But no doubt it was ever thus, and it's a reflection of Kundera's nascent mastery that he succeeds in revealing how human instincts, especially of the more romantic kind, are always compromised and complex, no matter the ideological context within which they are framed.

Monday, 22 December 2014

murder city [charles bowden]

Murder City

Bowden's book charts events in and around Ciudad Juarez 2008-2009. He grapples with a violence which escalates, from his point of view, into something which is beyond rational explanation. The book is a fierce, quasi-poetic attempt to go beyond the figures and the standard explanations. In many ways, it is a sister-work to the section of 2666 About the Crimes. Like Bolaño, Bowden makes an attempt to de-render literature speechless in the face of the barbarity of the border zone. Both writers insist on documenting the remorseless appetite of the violence, which seems to become almost an entity in its own right, whilst at the same time insisting on the fact that it is something done by and affecting humans, people who in another life might have lived 'ordinary' lives. 

Unlike 2666, Murder City is a work of non-fiction. Bowden seeks out characters and tells their story, from the born-again assassin to the journalist on the run. This journalistic strain goes hand-in-hand with the writer's agonising attempts to find a kind of sense in these stories. In the end he seems to suggest that he sees Ciudad Juarez as a Hobbesian vision of the future, where the daily concerns of modern capitalism are blown away by the anarchic whirlwind of survival and fear. What's the point of fretting about your future when a random act of violence could destroy it at any moment? Ciudad Juarez comes to represent a model of anti-progress, the antithesis of the American dream.  

The book also cuts to the quick about the way in which Mexico has become a narco-state; at the same time debunking the myth of the war on drugs. As Bowden points out, this isn't a war on drugs, rather, it's a war for the drugs trade and its enormous wealth. The army and the police and the state are just as much players in this war as the narcos themselves. Escalante's film Heli depicted this cruel world where the good guys just don't exist. Events in Ayotzinapa only serve to rubber stamp the depiction of Mexico Bowden's anguished book presents. Murder City should be required reading for anyone who wants to begin to get a grip on the hydra-violence which permits the combined forces of evil to not only perpetrate its grotesque crimes, but also do so with a sense of complete impunity.