Tuesday, April 29

Who is Raimundo Silva?

Raimundo Silva seems to be a man who is hiding from himself. This is what I see in his flight from the phone on page 49 and his subsequent walk around Lisbon. He never lets his thoughts get very self-reflective, instead ruminating on the “childish” way the woman in the café eats the crumbs of her pastry, pondering over the discreetness of waiters or how the Japanese and American tourists feel about the architectural marvels of Lisbon (53-7). (But wait, is it Raimundo or the narrator who occupies his thoughts this way? Both, because they are one and the same—see below!)

The fact that he dyes his hair is another indicator that Senhor Silva is hiding from himself, especially the way he goes about it, “lock[ing] himself in...he did it in secret, which, as he ought to know, was no secret to anyone, and he would certainly have died of shame were he ever to be discovered carrying out what he himself considered a depressing operation” (90). This points to some essential part of his nature, as he seems to be both totally non-self-aware and at the same time in denial about the fact that he’s getting older and that he’s alone, as we see on page 81 when Leonard Cohen reminds him that he’s alone and that he is missing out on life: “[w]hy won’t you listen to me, lonely man...now [Leonard Cohen] could sing, and sing he did, he sang of things only someone who has lived can sing of...someone who has loved” which causes Raimundo to cry in his darkened apartment.

I’ve been thinking that the reason there are no quotation marks around the dialogue in this story are because the dialogue all seems to be occurring within Raimundo’s memory. Obviously I am right, as on page 96 Dr. Maria Sara asks Raimundo to write his own version of The History of the Siege of Lisbon “in which the crusaders do not help the Portuguese.” The book we are now reading is obviously that same book authored by Raimundo. I love metafiction!

It looks as though this eventual romance with Dr. Maria Sara will make Senhor Silva look back on his life with more penetration than he exhibits currently. Though I think some things are starting to dawn on him, as he says on page 100: “could it be that Dr Maria Sara simply wants to see how far he is capable of going down the path of madness...perhaps one of the symptoms is this impression of alienation, as if this were not my home and this place and these things meant nothing to me[.]” Here we have Raimundo already associating Dr. Maria Sara with the idea that this lonely bachelor life is not the only possible life for him. He also brings in the idea of madness, a word which authors and poets have long equated with both romantic love and divine insight. I can’t wait to see where this goes!

Sunday, April 20

Grenouille and Gollum

I think it really speaks for Süskind’s talent that he can make the reader identify with a character who is so solitary, misanthropic, and inhuman. Part of how he does this is, like I said before, is by setting up foils for Grenouille who treat him like garbage, thus evoking the reader’s sympathy; the other orphans, Grimal, Baldini, and now Taillade-Espinasse. It’s funny that people in class were talking about Grenouille as a super hero, because this section in particular has a lot of comic book elements. There’s the obvious fact that Grenouille can smell humans miles away, but there’s also this quest that he goes on which is a journey into himself.

The description of landscape on page 118 sounds like the post-apocalyptic nightmare landscape of a comic book and its relationship to the comic book anti-hero: “[m]oonlight knew no colors and traced the contours of the terrain only very softly. It covered the land with a dirty gray, strangling life all night long. This world molded in lead, where nothing moved but the wind that fell sometimes like a shadow over the gray forests, and where nothing lived but the scent of the naked earth, was the only world that he accepted, for it was much like the world of his soul.” After reading this, it’s not surprising that Grenouille holes himself up in a barren cave on a barren mountain in the middle of a barren wilderness.

The initial description of Grenouille’s existence in the cave is utterly inhuman: “[h]e also found nourishment in the form of small salamanders and ring snakes; he pinched off their heads, then devoured them whole...he discovered a natural tunnel leading back into the mountain...at the end of the tunnel it was pitch-black night even during the day...no living creature had ever entered the place...He was lying...inside the loneliest mountain in France” (121-22). You know who else in literature exists this way? Gollum in Tolkien’s The Hobbit: “Deep down here by the dark water lived old Gollum, a small slimy creature...as dark as darkness...Goblin [meat] he thought good...he took care they never found him out. He just throttled them from behind, if they ever came down alone anywhere near the edge of the water...They very seldom did, for they had a feeling that something unpleasant was lurking down...at the very roots of the mountain” (Tolkien 67). The difference between the two is, of course, that Grenouille wants to get away from humans while Gollum “lost all his friends and was driven away, alone, and crept down, down, into the dark under the mountains” (Tolkien 68). Gollum develops strange speech patterns because he has only himself to talk to, whereas Grenouille’s speech is strange when he emerges from his cave because he hasn’t spoken at all for seven years.

I find a lot of interesting parallels between Grenouille and Gollum. Gollum is a character who is a grotesque and serves as antagonist for other characters in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The other characters in the story are constantly reminding each other, (and therefore, the reader), to have pity and compassion for Gollum because he can’t help being what he is; he is enslaved by his obsession for the “precious” ring. Grenouille is also a grotesque. He is the protagonist, but all of his relationships with other characters are antagonistic; he and Baldini hate each other but use each other, he and Taillade-Espinasse use each other. I don’t think any character so far has had any compassion for him, and he certainly doesn’t have any compassion for anyone else. He’s a slave to his sense of smell in that he wants to be where he can’t smell humans, but he seems to be more in control of his obsession than Gollum. They are very similar in their reactions to the things that they find precious. Gollum kills to get the ring, and Grenouille kills to get the scent of young virgins; both become utterly focused on the precious and blind to everything else.

The reason I find myself comparing Grenouille to Gollum is twofold. As I said above, Grenouille’s situation is very similar to Gollum’s in this section where he holes up in his cave; they are both unloved, strange, and slaves to their obsessions. The thing, however, that continues to fascinate me about Perfume is the fact that none of the characters are very likeable, yet I am so enthralled that I can’t put it down. For one thing, the prose is beautiful in places, such as the section I quoted above about “[t]his world molded in lead.” If Gollum had been the main character of The Hobbit and The Rings books, I think they would have been very different and maybe not so popular. It brings me back to Zola yet again; La Bete Humaine is full of ugly, dirty, immoral characters who do disgusting things, but it is so beautifully written and so fascinating that I know I will read more Zola in the future. Perfume is the same way; I can’t wait to read the end, (I already know what happens), but I can’t help thinking how little I would care for these characters in the hands of a less talented writer.

Thursday, April 10

Unreal Cities

Of the multitude of themes and patterns I’m finding in Invisible Cities, one thing I’m reminded of are the kind of observations I make when I go on a road trip. I actually wrote about it in a response for To the Lighthouse for another class, discussing the notion that you can never really know anyone. I’m reminded of this idea in Invisible Cities, but as part of a larger idea of what does it mean to know anything: every time I go on a road trip and pass towns that seem isolated or undesirable, I think, “Who actually lives here?” I look at their homes and think how depressed I’d be if I lived in, say, Durkee, Oregon or Winnemucca, Nevada. The entire corridor of I-34 between Loveland and Estes Park, Colorado is on of the most surreal places on Earth to me, probably just from hearing stories about the flood of ’76. (Which reminds me, you should really eat at the Bohemian Cottage, it’s on I-34 west of Loveland. My parents used to eat there when I was a kid. I just typed it up on Google and it gets rave reviews from many Europeans. That place is neat.) I wonder, “What do the teenagers do to occupy their free time?” I wonder, “Do they have derogatory nicknames for their town or their high school and, if so, what are they?” “I’d call it ‘Winnesucca’ if I lived here. Hell, I’m gonna call it that anyway.” I have a friend who hails from “Poopert,” (Rupert), ID, and I used to have a coworker who came from “Hellhole,” (Declo), ID. I can’t imagine that these places exist, much less that people actually live there. It is utterly unfathomable to me. I can be standing in the middle of one of these places, and it’s less real to me than New York or London, even though I’ve never been to either. There is some of this going on in Invisible Cities, and I imagine Kublai and Marco creating the cities out of their pipe smoke (is it opium, or is it just shisha?), and these smoke cities still seem more real to me than say, Burns, Oregon.
I have a friend who grew up in McDermitt, Nevada, which is one of the tiniest, most dismal places I have ever seen. My friend’s family owns the only hotel/casino in McDermitt, coincidentally the first casino I ever set foot in, where my mom made me play a slot for the first time. Across the street from the casino is the tiny grocery store, which also houses a museum of Dutch ovens, something I’d always heard of but had never seen before visiting McDermitt. I was reminded of this when reading about Calvino’s city of Clarice, where, “[items from the past] were now preserved under glass bells, locked in display cases, set on velvet cushions, and not because they might still be used for anything, but because people wanted to reconstruct through them a city of which no one knew anything now,” I wonder if pioneers would scoff at the idea of their kitchen utensils one day being displayed in a museum? (107). The other notable thing about the grocery store is the wall of liquor between the cash registers and the door, consisting of stuff I thought existed only in legend like Thunderbird wine and Everclear. This is perhaps the saddest indicator that McDermitt skirts the Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation.
Places like this have a weird, existential quality, and there is definitely something existential in the way Calvino’s cities all seem to be bound up in some sort of repetitive cycle, like the animatronic puppets of Melania, who do nothing but exchange roles and read scripts, and whose lives are meaningless. A similar city is Eutropia, which reminds me of our board game for The Plague, “[t]hus the city repeats its life, identical, shifting up and down on its empty chessboard. The inhabitants repeat the same scenes, with the actors changed; they repeat the same speeches with variously combined accents; they open alternate mouths in identical yawns. Alone, among all the cities of the empire, Eutropia remains always the same” (65). One of my favorite cities is Eusapia, where there is a city of the dead beneath the actual city. A lot of these stories have funny contradictions in them, like in this one, the fact that the confraternity of hooded brothers tells everyone living about the goings on in the underground city of the dead. It seems to me that a confraternity of hooded brothers would be secretive, but I guess this is not one of those. This story and most of the others remind me of that locked casket riddle in the Dinesen story. Especially the line where Kublai Khan says to Marco Polo, “[p]erhaps this dialogue of ours is taking place between two beggars nicknamed Kublai Khan and Marco Polo” (104). Ouch, that locked casket question makes my head hurt.

Monday, April 7

Hochhuth, He Makes Me Angry

Helga’s situation and Hochhuth’s description of her will not do. If I could find Rolf Hochhuth right now, I would throw a really big rock at his head. I hope he doesn’t have any daughters. Sure, Helga is young and impressionable, but the fact that the Doctor, (Why won’t Hochhuth just say his last name? We all know who he is.), coerces her into bed is not her fault. It is not because she is “totally malleable, like most young girls,” but because she has spent her formative years being indoctrinated with Nazi b.s. in the League of German Girls and doesn’t know any better (229). She may “come to his bed during the lunch hour” by walking there on her own, but as is the case with any young woman being sexually manipulated by an older man, it’s not a case of “lov[ing] this fear more than her soul’s peace” (229, 234); it’s that he knows how to manipulate her, as is seen before they part on page 239. What a bunch of crap! I find it beyond ironic that Hochhuth describes Helga sardonically as an inhuman, vacant-minded sexual robot—she seems more like a victim to me, naive—given that The Deputy deals with how one group of people managed to dehumanize and subjugate another! I understand the point he’s trying to make about ordinary people working at Auschwitz like it’s a normal job and then later claiming to “not know” that people were being killed there. I think he could have conveyed his point without this venomous indictment of women (it reminds me of the passage in Zorba the Greek where Zorba complains that “women can’t help but get children from every man they’re with” or something similar). It’s a difficult enough subject to deal with, a reader doesn’t need to be slapped in the face with this as well. I find Hochhuth to be very heavy-handed and arrogant and I don’t care what the point is he’s trying to make because I resent his method. I also hate the way he inserts his poisonous little opinions about the characters into the text. He obviously never learned how to “show” rather than “tell” when writing.
There’s a movie that came out recently called Funny Games, also by a German, where the whole point of the movie is to disgust the audience enough that they walk out of the theater. In the movie, a wealthy American family is tortured by two young men who invade their home. The director says that anyone who stays until the end credits of the film has something wrong with them. He also says that he made this movie for Americans, to show them that are too interested in violence. Something about this reminds me of The Deputy...
I’m not surprised that in the end Riccardo gets killed and Gerstein gets arrested (obviously because it says so at the beginning of the play). I had hope for poor Jacobson and Carlotta, but they are characters created by Hochhuth to serve as martyrs for his heavy-handed cause, so of course they are doomed. I find it quite merciful at the end that Hochhuth lets the characters and the audience/reader get off rather easy. I was afraid we were going to have to witness the characters being tortured or gassed. This is an unusual work because it leaves you in the end with no hope whatsoever, other than the voiceover stating that the Russians liberated the Auschwitz prisoners in January 1945, which actually makes you feel worse because all you can think is “Why not sooner?” This is the sort of work that gets its point across by pummeling the audience into feeling worse and worse. Like I said before, I understand the point, but I have to question the method and, really, the purpose as well.

Friday, April 4

The Debt to Pleasure

(Spoiler alert! The Debt to Pleasure is a wonderfully evil little cookbook. Don't read this essay if you plan on reading the book, because I give away everything here!)

Going back to our class handout on Brillat-Savarin, there is an aphorism reading, “The order of food is from the most solid to the most light” (145). This is a theme I see Tarquin developing in the progression of his narrative in The Debt to Pleasure, both with the foods he talks about and his revelations about himself. He begins by discussing the heavier, heartier foods of winter and finishes by talking about the lighter fare of summer and fall. The discussion of food works as a kind of cloaking device for what is actually going on in the narrative, with Tarquin uncloaking more and more of his true nature as the story moves along and as the recipes get lighter and more loosely defined.

In the beginning the reader doesn’t know what Tarquin Winot is up to, merely that he has undertaken to write this “unconventional cookbook” and that he is ordering it by seasons. He begins by saying that “winter presents the cook with a...combination of threat and chance,” which is a good metaphor for the book as a whole; Tarquin is a threat to society and there is a chance that you might figure out what he’s up to (3). If you’d prefer, you could say that if you are reading this story, there is probably a good chance that Tarquin is going to kill you, thus the “crisis” that he’s implied in the first line. You won’t know, however, until he’s sent you on your way, that you have been murdered, as he reveals in the novel’s last line.

The recipe for Irish Stew especially brings to mind not only hearty eating but also the addle-brained sluggishness one sometimes feels after a heavy meal. The opacity and solidity of this stew is representative of the fact that Tarqin reveals very little of his present situation in this first chapter. Irish stew also works as a metaphor for The Debt to Pleasure as a whole. It’s a densely layered story, with some of the ingredients being more substantial, (plot, characterisation, backstory), and others which dissolve, (recipes, philosophical musings), but which work as “binding agents” to hold the narrative together (18).

The spring recipes are not only lighter, but consist of items such as “peaches in red wine” which give us a better glimpse into Tarquin’s persona. With the peach recipe not only do we get a discourse on the poisonous possibilities of peach pits, we get our first revelation that Tarquin tried to poison Bartholomew. Tarquin also reveals his nature as someone who is perhaps untrustworthy. Tarquin tells us that he “prefers” Sauternes which is, according to Wikipedia, an expensive white—not red—dessert wine that’s tricky to produce because part of the fermentation process relies on chance: the grapes become infected with something called “noble rot” (which could be used to describe Tarquin and much of what he talks about, if one were so inclined). I also find it somewhat grotesque that peaches are Bartholomew’s favorite fruit and dipping blanched, skinned peach slices into red wine resembles dipping flesh into blood. Tarquin follows this up with a menu for “Luncheon on a theme of curry” in which the term “theme” becomes almost literal, with Tarquin pontificating about the role of curry and spices in life and the cuisine of Europe, but neglecting the recipes. He tells the reader to look up all the recipes herself, opting instead to describe breaking in to the honeymooner’s hotel room to install a listening device. He is revealing more of himself and his plans as he goes along.

For summer Tarqin tells us “[t]his section will not consist of rigidly articulated menus as such,” but rather “suggestions for recipes;” he also starts unwrapping his devious deeds more for the reader (130). “An Apéritif” is something Tarquin describes as a libation drunk to “exchange[...] personae,” from the self’s more controlled daytime incarnation to its less-restrained nighttime form (132). This is the turning point wherein Tarquin begins to get comfortable, loosen his tongue, and tell the reader what he is really up to. It is in this chapter that we hear about the untimely death of Mrs. Willoughby, who so unfortunately “misunderstood” Tarquin’s directions on how to avoid getting shot by Pierre and Jean-Luc. We already know that Tarquin has been spying on the honeymoon couple, but it hasn’t been clear to what extent. At the end of the Apéritif chapter he goes to the trouble of exchanging rental cars in order to follow them; the intricacy of his plan is becoming more apparent. In the following chapter he compares the childhood simplicity of hiding his mother’s earrings under Mary-Teresa’s bed to the more complex adult act of testing his GPS tracking device out on his milkman. At the end of the section he is almost spotted by the honeymooners—it seems the change he effected on himself in the apéritif chapter has made him almost careless, but only almost.

The key chapter in the Autumn section of the novel is the first chapter, titled “An Aïoli.” Here Tarquin states that one of his most-beloved rituals involves eating aïoli because, “one of the pleasures of the dish is its inversion of the relationship between bit part (sauce) and star player” (190). This is Tarquin letting the reader know that from here on that recipes are no longer the “star player” in this book, and that the “sauce” or condiments (the actual story of Tarquin’s interaction with the honeymoon couple plus the details he’s been giving us about his murderous nature) is now taking center stage. Tarquin reveals his parents’ untimely demise in a freak explosion, in the chapter which he cheekily refers to as “A Barbecue,” and goes through a list of dangers to avoid for Laura and Hywl to avoid around his property, including the fatal directions he gave Mrs. Willoughby. By the final chapter, Tarquin is so comfortable that he is gloating; he taunts both the reader and Laura and Hwyl to guess that he is poisoning the honeymooners by relating the story of Bartholomew’s death by poisonous mushrooms and his personal views on the art of absence and destruction whilst he feeds them mushrooms. Just in case you haven’t figured it out, he makes all clear in the novel’s last line.