SOUNDTRACK: VAMPIRE WEEKEND-Contra (2010).
I absolutely loved Vampire Weekend’s debut album (and still do). It was my favorite record of last summer and always makes me think of summer fun and hijinx. Critics trotted out the “world/ethno/Paul Simon” vibe when discussing the album. But I really didn’t hear it. I mean, yes I suppose it was there but the album felt more like a punky ska album of fun.
On this, their follow up, it’s as if they took all those critics to heart and decided to make the album that everyone was describing. This disc emphasizes all of the ethnic music sounds, and downplays the guitars and more rock elements. I was a little disappointed by this on the first listen or two. However, subsequent listens showed me that the songwriting was still there and it was just as strong.
There’s still lots of rocking elements, it’s just that they are hidden under the other divergent influences. But for the most part, the album is still bouncey and full of fun summer tunes. There are three songs that slow down the pace, “Taxi Cab” and “Diplomat’s Son” (at 6 minutes, it’s a little long). And the final song “I Think Ur a Contra” is a bit too divorced of beats (it works as an end to the disc, but I’d never listen to it on purpose).
The rest of the disc however, is very enjoyable, and I find that the 7 other songs work just as well as anything off the debut. “Horchata” is a delightfully fun world music treat (I hear Paul Simon, yes, although come on, Graceland came out 24 years ago!). “White Sky” has delightfully catchy falsetto screams. “Holiday” is practically classic ska and “Cousins” has a delightfully tricky guitar riff.
This feels like a band who has matured and experimented and yet not lost track of who they are. I’m really looking forward to their next release.
[READ: Week of April 12, 2010] 2666 [pg 702-765]
Last week I concluded that
It almost seems as though Bolaño is saying that even Nazi Germany is better than Santa Teresa.
Oh how wrong I was. Despite the fact that I found the bulk of this section enjoyable and fascinating (twisted and dark certainly, but fascinating nonetheless), the ending killed me. The opening’s entire writers among writers, within writers, with communist party members and secret diaries was completely captivating. And then it is all shattered by the reality of WWII.
The second week of readings about Arhimboldi see Hans Reiter still fighting in the war, but caring a lot less abut his safety. And this leads to a discussion with Wilke about suicide. “Good Christians masturbate but we don’t commit suicide” Wilke said (701). Suicide seems to run as a thread throughout this reading, and comes into sharp focus a number of times.
And so, Reiter starts acting more and more reckless…running and walking in the battlefield instead of crouching. Generally, he is seen as behaving far more bravely that he had in the past. He was almost killed three times. The first time, he was saved by a fellow soldier who tackled him before he could be shot. The second time he was shot in the arm while invading an occupied building. He busted down the doors and removed the weapons from the place, essentially forcing the house’s surrender.
The third time he was seriously wounded. Fighting had died down and he stood up, took off his helmet and gazed at the stars. Just as his commander yelled at him to get down, he was shot in the throat and the chest.
Hans was hospitalized, and although the wounds healed, he found that he could no longer speak (although he did receive an Iron Cross for bravery). When he was well enough to leave the hospital, they didn’t know if they should send him back to the front. And, with no orders to do so, they basically let him (and other released soldiers) loose, to the village of Kostekino on the banks of the Dnieper. Kostekino was deserted. There were many explanations as to why it was deserted, but the most convincing was that the Einsatgruppe C was sent to physically eliminate all of the Jews.
The first few days, he slept with other soldiers in a brick house. But that proved to be very unpleasant so he set out to find a more suitable house. While looking at the houses in the village, he tried to determine if indeed any of the residents were Jewish. Finally, he selected a house and settled down. It seemed that everyone had forgotten that the soldiers were there.
One day Hans inspected the house he was in and discovered an excellent hiding spot behind the fireplace. It contained a cache of papers that belonged to Boris Abramovich Ansky. Remember that name as we’ll be with him for a while.
Ansky was born in 1909. At 14, he enlisted in the Red Army, but the recruiting soldier said there was no one left to fight. When asked if he was Jewish, he answered yes. The recruiting soldier said he knew a Jew in the army, and that he was now dead. Ansky was less sure about joining now, but signed up anyway. He spent the next three years traveling as far as the Arctic Circle. He also attended to several affairs, including reading and visiting museums, political lectures, and other intellectual pursuits. Around this time, Ansky met Efraim Ivanov, the science fiction writer. Remember that name too, as he is also pretty important here.
The vast bulk of the rest of the week’s read comes from Ansky’s diary. And he begins with Ivanov.
Ivanov was a Communist party member since 1902. He had tried to write many different types of stories, mostly copying other writers. And then one day he was asked to write a story about Russia in 1940. He tossed off a science fiction short story in about three hours. And, it was a huge hit! No one was more surprised than the author (and his publisher). And thus began his life as a science fiction writer.
He wrote a series of stories along the same lines as that one: a bright future plus a hero who helps bring about the bright future and a boy or girl in that future (1940’s Russia) who enjoys the fruits of the labors of the hero.
And yet he felt empty writing this formula. When he met the young Jew Ansky, something stirred inside him which inspired him to become a real writer, a real artist, a creator.
Ivanov convinced Ansky to join the party. After all of the procedures were followed, Ansky was accepted. And on the night of his welcome, one of Ivanov’ s ex-lovers, Margarita Afanasievn, grabbed Ansky by the balls and told him that to be in the party they needed to be made of steel.
Ansky tells her a true story (while she is still holding him) about a man he had met. The man had his penis and balls cut off. The man spent most of his time scouring the forest for his organs. And yet despite that he seemed to be youthful and virile. Then one day he gave up and seemed to age 30 years. Four months later Ansky’s troops were passing through the village again, and Ansky learned that the man was happily married and looked as young as he did before he stopped looking for his organs. Afanasievna (letting go now) says it’s a pretty story but she’s been around too long to believe it.
Ansky then began a literary life, although not as a writer per se. He founded magazines. He conducted interviews for a newspaper that never published an issue. He wrote a series of aphorisms titled Reflections on the Death of Evgenia Bosch (pseudonym of the Bolshevik leader Evgenia Gotlibovn). And he read many more writers. He also got involved with Maya Zamyatina, a doctor ten years older than himself. Of course she was also seeing a doctor whom she seemed to think was Jesus Christ himself.
While that was going on, Ivanov published his first great, well-regarded novel called Twilight. It garnered the devotion of his fans, as well as a letter of praise from Gorky himself. The novel was a hodge-podge of stories from Ansky (as well as a group of extraterrestrials who look like strands of seaweed (described the same way that Hans himself was described at his birth).
The summary of Twilight I found a little confusing, but in a twisty nutshell: a boy of 14 leaves his family to join the revolution. He is injured and left for dead on a battlefield. However, a spaceship takes him into orbit around the earth.
The boy is deposited in New York where he falls for a hypnotist. When she goes missing he hires a detective from Mexico City to find her.
This novel, contains the fantastic line: “Fucking masochistic chickens, they have our leaders by the balls” (719).
The eventually find the hypnotist in Kansas City. He asks her to hypnotize him back to the battlefield or to accept his undying love. She can do neither.
When the boy turns 25, he begins working for a Moscow Newspaper and is sent to interview a Communist leader in China. He helps the leader escape, even though they are both fevered from the germs in the dungeon. They make their way across a snow-covered plain. The Chinese leader falls from his horse, but the Russian boy returns him to his mount and they ride on into the darkness, fevered and foolish, with no future in sight.
The book was positively received and made him quite famous (although some critics did not like it). And yet he suffered from the fear that all writers have: fear of being no good. Fear of forever dwelling in the hell of bad writer. And so he had dark clouds over his head. (Although when asked if his novel was the Don Quixote of science-fiction, he did say yes).
By 1932, Ivanov wanted to write a new novel, so he sought Ansky and wrote Midday. And then a third in 1934 called Dawn.
Then in 1935 he was expelled from the party. In 1936 he was arrested. He used Gorky’s name to try to save himself. But to no avail.
Soon, then, Gorky himself became ill and died. When Ivanov went to the funeral he was mocked and reviled and asked to leave. He stated that he could not physically move from the site. A young girl, Nadja Yurenieva, took pity on him and helped him walk home.
While looking at his books, Ansky walked in. Later that evening she and Ansky had wild sex like so many Muscovites in 1936. When he awoke she was gone, and he spent the rest of the next few days looking for her. And he found her listening to a bad poet prattle on at a university lecture. Ansky and Ivanov talked about her, and sex, and the future, but Ansky never saw her again.
In 1937 Ivanov was arrested once again. This time he made friends with a rat named Nikita. After a week he was interrogated a second time. He signed a confession and was shot.
All of this, mind you is still being recounted in Ansky’s notes that Reiter found.
After Ivanov’s assassination, Ansky’s notes grew chaotic and he started talking about writers: “The only viable writers…are those from the underclass and the aristocracy. Proletarian and bourgeois writers, he says, are merely decorative figures” (728).
But most important for Reiter is that it is in this notebook that he reads about the Italian painter Arcimboldo (Giuseppe or Joseph or Josepho or Jospehus Arcimboldo or Arcimboldi or Arcimbloldus 1527-1593). Sadness and tedium flee Ansky when he thinks of Arcimboldo’s paintings.
Ansky also really likes Gustav Courbet, specifically The Return from the Conference.
Then we learn “officially” that Ansky wrote Ivanov’s books.
And then he remembers a lengthy “joke” about natives in Borneo. When a French party, arrives they are very concerned that the natives are cannibals. The natives (after much translation) state that they are not. After a lengthy setup, the joke comes down to the Frenchman aggressively shaking the native’s hands in a gesture of camaraderie. After much distress, a native leaps upon the Frenchman and smashes his head open. The jokes sort of drifts away in a misunderstanding of a word that could mean either “cannibal” or “man who rapes me.”
But back to Arcimboldo: Ansky felt his technique was happiness personified. (Although The Roast and The Lawyer are horror paintings).
Eventually Ansky returned to this very house, where his parents still lived. But Reiter has to wonder who made this hiding place? Ansky’s father died soon after Ansky returned. But surely they had made the hiding spot before then?
Inevitably Ansky himself was soon killed. Reiter dreamed that he was the one who shot Ansky and labored under that mis-belief for some time.
And thus endeth Ansky’s diary, which Reiter carried with him and read and reread from time to tome during his travels.
By 1942, officials remembered about Reiter’s troop, and they were all sent back to their division. He was reunited with his previous mates: Wilke and Kruse (who was killed soon after). Reiter and Wilke took to examining the bodies of the other soldiers after they were slain (the troop called them the vampires) looking for food or other useful things.
As the war progressed, Reiter thought about his family’s letters including one in which his sister Lotte says, “You’re a giant”…Your steps echo in the forest” (741). This is an interesting tie back to Haas in jail speaking of the giant walking through the woods.
Reiter’s troops marched across the lands once again. And his platoon (apologies for the interchange of words here, I don’t know enough about military squadron size to keep this straight) was slowly depleted. Eventually the soldiers returned to Kostekino and he decided to stay once again in Ansky’s house rather than the barracks with the other men.
When he eventually entered the barracks he saw that the soldiers had painted drawings all over the room, including one of him, living by himself with a parade of animals following him. He decided once and for all to leave Ansky’s notebook back in its hiding place and get back to his platoon and continue marching on.
During their march, they encountered a regiment of Romanian soldiers whooping and hollering. The German soldiers saw that the Romanians had killed and crucified a man. Reiter immediately recognized him as General Entrescu (12 inch penis swaying in the breeze). He asked about Captain Popescu and was told he must be in Bucharest by now. He did not ask about the Baroness [Is there even the remotest possibility that we will see her again? Maybe one final character that is returned from the missing?]. The Romanian soldiers were deserting their captain, and decided to leave this crucifix as a statement. It was wondered aloud what the Russian soldiers would think of it. Although no one offered a suggestion.
In 1945, at the age of 25, Reiter surrendered to some Americans. The black soldiers, with help from the Germans, built prisoner of war barracks in Ansbach. Amidst the talk of Hitler’s death, and the joking/teasing/mocking of the American soldiers, Reiter tried to stay by himself . And yet next to him was a 50ish man whose name was Zeller. Zeller was writing things down all the time, and naturally, Reiter grew curious.
Reiter learns that Zeller’s wife and two children are dead from the raids. His two grandchildren are dead as well. And that his son-in-law also died from grief at losing his family. He has no one left.
The black soldiers taunt the Germans, asking them if they enjoy the food. When the GErmans says yes American beef is the best in the world, the soldiers inform them that they are eating dog food. And they all laugh and laugh.
The soldiers were interrogating everyone alphabetically. After Reiter’s turn, Zeller asked him what had happened and what they asked. Zeller was skittish through the next few days of interrogations until he revealed that his names was actually Sammer, not Zeller (had Reiter heard of him? No, he had not).
And Sammer tells a story that makes the deaths in Santa Teresa seem like a day in the park.
Sammer’s story is not like Zimmer’s: his wife is alive, although his son is dead. His wife has lost her senses over her son’s death, and so Sammer threw himself into his job to avoid going crazy himself. Sammer is a civilian, in charge of nothing important. And yet unexpectedly one day he was sent a group of 500 Jews from Greece. He was not told what to do with them. And over 13 or so pages, we watch as Sammer initially tries to put the Jews to work for him (even though some of the them died right there in the barracks). He display minimal decency, treating the Jews more as an inconvenience, although, given the circumstances, he treats them better than they would be treated anywhere else.
Sammer spends most of his times trying to find out what he is supposed to do with the Jews. And, as in many bureaucratic hells, he is mostly inconvenienced at having this parcel deposited ion his possession without him knowing wha to do with it. But each day with no answer means he has to try to feed them or house them or do something with them. He tries to send them somewhere else, but who would take them? No one. Eventually, he speaks to someone in command and learns that the 500 Jews he received were headed for Auschwitz.
And from there, he moral center dissolves. And agonizingly over the next half a dozen or so pages he has a group of Jews executed every day. But not by his own hand. Rather, he asks the police and the local officials to take part on the executions. And eventually, he asks the drunken Polish boys, who spend all of their time drinking and playing soccer in the streets to take over the guns. They dig holes and fill them just as quickly.
And since they keep meticulous records, Sammer eventually knows that he still had 100 left, and nowhere to put them.
Suddenly, there were orders that all Germans were to be evacuated from the region. He told the surviving Jews (none of whom were aware of what was happening, he thinks) that they were free to go. And then he got in his car and left.
And I wish I could have too.
After the horrors of The Part About the Crimes, I thought (naively of me) that somehow a section about Nazi Germany might not be too horrific. Ha! Of course, details aside, the most horrific thing is that Sammer believes that he was somehow above the fray because he couldn’t actually kill the people himself. True, in his small way he did give them comforts that they would not have received elsewhere, but ultimately all he did was prolong the agony.
Aside from the Jewish problem, this chapter was intellectually fascinating and multileveled. I kept forgetting just how many layers of remove we had from the action when we were reading about Ivanov (and I find that stuff ever so much fun!). And, frankly by this point who even knows who is responsible for Ivanov’s stories (I was also amused at the very closeness in titles of Ivanov’s trilogy and Stephenie Meyer’s little vampire trilogy).
I also very much enjoyed the art section. In the very beginning of the book, someone had pointed out the connection to the painter Arcimboldo. At the time I didn’t realize that that insight was accurate not just speculation (or may be it was speculation, but very good speculation). I rather wish we learned a little more about Ansky’s take on the man (his paintings totally fascinate me).
We also could have learned a little more about Courbet who sounds equally fascinating. In doing a little Wikipedia research, I learned that he is the creator of a painting that I have known for years (it is quite notorious) called The Origin of the World. Among many other notorious ones.
Both artists seems to keep quite in line with Bolaño’s theories about, well , everything.
So there’s some 100 pages left in the book. I have no idea how this book will end (this theme seems to be consistent at least). I am fairly certain that there will be no connection leading back to any of our friends. Although I do have to wonder if we may be able to fit in pieces together from what we have. On even that I am doubtful.
Oh yes, and there’s more prostitutes. Man, I don’t know if this is me as an American speaking, but are prostitutes really this busy? And are there really that many? The amount of sex that goes on (both paid and unpaid) is staggering (and so casually frequent). And, let’s not forget suicide. So many discussions about suicide! And yet, despite all evidence pointing to its liklihood, very few seem to do it. That must says something yes?
Anyone reading here lately knows that I have immersed myself in Bolaño of late. This book certainly seems like an explosion of all of the things that he has been working with, and yet somehow an 898 page book that ends cryptically is less satisfying than a 120 novella that ends cryptically. I am not expecting Satisfaction, but I hope I feel something when I’m done.
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