Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Death of the Rant Machine

I promised I'd update at least one more time, and here I am. I find myself in the port of Amsterdam at the moment, on a ship which has just arrived here from Copenhagen. We do not have many breaks but there is time enough for a quick note before dinner.

My good readers, my beloved friends, I do no longer have the time to keep and update a blog. I do not even have enough to expose myself to the popular culture which frequently becomes the topic of my writings. I have little free time, and that which I have, I spend it all in my cabin, reading the books that I have taken with me, or going to see me girlfriend in her own cabin (yeah, I'm in a relationship with one of the waitresses on board, a Brazilian who is a true girl of iron).

So this leaves little time for the Rant Machine. To all those who are reading me and have read me, thank you for your time and attention. It was nice to have a blog and it has been useful and gratifying in more ways than one, so I'm sorry that I cannot keep it up.

I belong to the sea now. Until next time we meet on dry land, and until an improbable (who knows) resurrection of the Rant Machine, farewell, and stand me now and ever in good stead.

John Silver, a.k.a. Andrea Tallarita.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Showing it by the style

O Brother. I'm tired. I just spent the entirety of a night writing an essay for a poetry magazine and it turned out to be 2700 words. I might try and slim it down tomorrow. I can't believe people in academia still whine about having to write a 5000 words essay every four weeks or so, what do you do with all your free time, construct cathedrals?

So this may be the chronicle of the 'aborted ideas for blog-posts' in the head of Andrea Tallarita, where there's enough space for a couple of dancing soirees anyways. Firstly, I intended to write a nice post about Blood Meridian. That's a novel about some guy you might have heard of, you know, William Shakespeare? Hello?? No wait it's Cormac Mc Carthy actually - what the fuck have I been reading all the time? Did that lady at the bookshop screw me up, like when I asked her for an edition of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason without the philosophical bits?

It would have made for a nice good book review or something, and though this may have twisted the panties of all those who saw their nuts falling onto the floor-tiles with tedium after I ejaculated my mumblings about Ulysses (incidentally that didn't feel like ejaculating at all, I've had better orgasms when my adolescential wet-dreams still failed to distinguish between hot and tumescent and they got me in bed with my math teacher, who was a fat reef of such proportions that when she sat in the sea, mussels started building homes on her ass), though it may have caused pain, I was saying, it would nonetheless have been a safe bet.

Unfortunately this possibility was taken away from me. For one thing, the novel is the most violent thing I've ever read in my life and it made as morose and depressed as Sid Vicious. You're basically following this kid who runs from his house and within the first chapter he's jamming a broken bottle into the eye of a guy whose ears have been ripped off. You'd think that would be the climax, but it's only the climax to the extent that being found out downloading porn on the week before your grandparents catch you humping your stuffed dolphin while wearing a scuba mask and fins can be called a climax. I mean, you'd think this is a joke or something, but the book goes so far as to have a slaughtering of puppies! Goddammit, what the fuck did McCarthy's parents show him before bedtime, videos of Abu Ghraib?? But it must also be said that the novel is gorgeously, gorgeously beautiful, not to mention intelligently clever, remarkably notable and unbelievably incredibly, and a really sophisticated historical novel. Arguably one of the best American novels of the 20th Century, and I didn't feel like I could do it justice in a quick blog post. (Of course I could write another epic as I did for Joyce.... the fuck I will! I'd rather cock-fence with the snout of a sawfish than do that again!).

So onto more banal subject matters, I went to the cinema today to see Robin Hood. Not bad, but this is the last time I'm buying popcorn and pepsi at the movies. Seriously, for what fucking reason do they serve the Pepsi in double-pint size glasses?? What do they assume I am, an elephant? I wasn't halfway through the glass when my bladder started sending acute alarm bells and I had to jog out of there for the toilet. This wouldn't have been a problem per se, but in a cinema which could have accommodated 250 people no sweat, we had all for some reason decided to sit on exactly the same line. As a consequence, in a surreal atmosphere like something out of the vacuum scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, I stepped over the knees of eight different swearing couples to walk outside. And then, back. At which stage my father had to go of course, because he doesn't exactly have a bladder as a dragon-heart, and I sat there waiting in the vague fear that he may get lost and I'd have to go and look for him.

I could have written a proper blog entry at least on Robin Hood, but this was made impossible by my level of fatigue. I'm so tired, dude. I think it shows by the style. Then again, everything about me shows by the style.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010


It’s ten minutes to midnight on the 4th of May as I write this, and tonight is my birthday. Twenty-five, kiddos. There’s a lot of yack I could put down about my feelings on this day and all that, but I find this kind of talk works much better when I’m getting drunk, so I’ll leave it aside for next time I meet you. Because if you’re reading this, then the odds are, we’re going to meet, or meet again. I’m like a bad penny, you know.

I’d like to discuss a couple of things that have been going on in my life, something which I normally don’t do on this blog if not in humorous terms, because they’re relevant to this page. For a long time I have wished to work on the sea. Not necessarily as a career for life, but at least for a few years, I wanted to become acquainted – personally – with that entity by the side of which I have grown up. It is true that I spent most of my early life in Rome; but it’s also true that my grandmother used to live in the countryside by the sea, and since we’d go to her place almost every summer, my childhood was spent in touch with the Mediterranean. When I grew up and came back from Spain, the score did not change. I used to spend my summers at my grandmothers, an exile which allowed me to spend all my time reading and writing. Again, the sea was always by me, be it in the early-morning walks after a night spent writing, or breaking on the rocks where I’d sit with a copy of some obscenely hard and boring book, battered by sunlight and obstinacy.

Though it took a while before I could put my aspiration into practice, when coming back from the glitz of Paris I decided it was time to give it a shot. I gave myself the time for the journey through India, which had the effect (among others) of utterly draining my finances. Then I started looking for jobs at sea. It was an incredibly frustrating task and I went through several ordeals which I really have no patience to recount, but finally, and mainly by luck, I was offered a place as steward on a cruise-ship (I look so snazzy in those suits it’s something you would not believe).

I have no idea what the hell this is, it looks like a Julia set with marine colours (a notion I find really, really beautiful).

I am saying all this because working on the ocean, all sources agree, is hugely taxing, especially on a cruise ship. It does pay very well, but it leaves little time for much else. I am giving up my football journalism for it; hell, I won’t even be able to see the matches of the upcoming World Cup. My cooking is going down the drain as well. I will cut down on all of my writing but the poetry, which I do not intend to give up. There will be no articles for any sites, no opinion forums, sparse letters to my friends. And there’s good chances that I’ll have to shut down this blog as well.

I’m hoping that this is not the case; and I reserve judgment for when I actually get on the ship, that is to say, the 17th of May. I embark in Portugal. I have a plane to Lisbon in just about two weeks from now, and from there, we sail across the seas of Northern Europe: North Germany, Denmark, Scotland, Iceland, and all of Scandinavia (a personal dream of mine). Then the second season will take me to South America, assuming of course that I’ve survived the trial period of the first two months.

Once I do embark, I promise to post at least once more. I will see how life is like on the crest of the spume, and I’ll find out whether it allows me to keep posting on this page, for the which I have developed no small measure of affection. If I can, then I shall continue posting from the surface of the waves. If I cannot, then I shall put up a farewell post, and it will be time to shut down the blog.

In the meantime, I hope you are all well. I am enjoying these last days of vacation, and I am looking up at the stars a lot. Astronomy is one of the few things I will not have to give up once I’m on the sea. If anything, I should see clearer skies than anywhere else in the world.

Friday, 23 April 2010

James Joyce: Wrapping up, and a nod to the Wake


Of course, this is the right way to write. It’s better to add ‘it seems’ to the sentence ‘the author is saying such and such’ because you can never be sure of what the author is saying. But as long as the nature of the interpretation remains untouched, it remains pure rhetoric. Brilliant theories expressed in anti-intellectual rhetoric (Nietzsche, Baudrillard) remain every bit as influential. Whether you are respectful or not, whether you add ‘it seems’ or not, is almost completely irrelevant, because all the ethical weight of the idea is carried by the way and extent to which said idea changes the world around you. You may be ostracised by the intellectuals if you don’t follow their rhetoric and write like an unsubtle oaf (see Terry Eagleton’s response to Dawkins), or you may be called an incomprehensible snob if you do follow those conventions, but the personal reputation of the speaker (i.e., which ‘club’ he belongs to) is not the measure of the idea’s value. If the idea is useful and finds its applications, it will exert influence in ways which are not necessarily in harmony with the rhetoric used to express it. In other words: if you’re willing to pass for an idiot, you can really change the world.


For what it's worth, and if anyone has failed to notice, I’ve been writing in exactly the above style for all of these meditations.


The type of rhetoric employed has no bearing on the validity of an argument. You can employ intellectual rhetoric and be wrong, and you’ll still be an intellectual. But then, in the humanities, where propositions lack verifiability, there is no such thing as being right or wrong. There is only the power of your statement and position, and the degree of said power.


The virtue of saying ‘I don’t know’ is humility. But we must be careful here: there is a very important difference between humility and what is only the rhetoric of humility.


And so we may go back to our old friend:

The correct answer is D. You do not ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ Ulysses. You belong to it, or you do not. You belong to the culture, the education, the preparation which allowed for and are simultaneously the product of Ulysses. And that’s what you’re really answering when you say ‘I like…’ (Besides, going by my personal memory of it, if I had to choose an adjective to describe the novel it would be neither ‘beautiful’ nor ‘outrageous,’ neither ‘boring’ nor ‘clever'. I think what I’d go for would be ‘bizarre’ – very bizarre. Maybe that will count for something).


According to Rorty, Kant did the same thing before Joyce but in another discipline, because you could no longer claim to be a professional philosopher if you hadn’t mastered the first critique. He institutionalised philosophy.


I should close this long sequence of meditations with the great absentee from all of my discussions: Finnegans Wake. Did I like it? Well, I have not yet read this one. I’ve been asked whether I’ll ever deign to read it. Why wouldn’t I? Not because it’s hard work, because I’ve already undergone that preparation, and not out of lack of interest, because it looks like a really intriguing text. In fact, I probably will read it, but not in the near future, and this for a reason very different from my not wanting to. The actual reason is, much more simply, that it has some tough competition to get on my reading list. Finnegans Wake, like Ulysses, belongs to a genre we may refer to as the Great Classics, or the Great Bores – those books which are simultaneously pillars of our culture and also very long and very hard. I am estimating that there’s fifty to one-hundred and fifty such books in Western literature, depending on how strict your categorization is, of which I have read perhaps ten. Now all of these books are very well publicised and all of them elicit my interest, so the question for me is not ‘should I read Finnegans Wake,’ because my answer is an unconditional yes. My question is, ‘when should I read it, and why should I read it before its peers?’ Unfortunately, there’s a few Great Classics/Bores which have been given more and better publicity than the Wake, and the ignorance of which leaves greater holes in my general intellectual culture. Consider me a consumer convinced by the competition, then, because Joyce’s masterpiece is going to have to wait. If you support this book, then maybe you should reconsider your sales policy.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

James Joyce: Ulysses and rhetoric


There is no innocent position. Even those who claim that it is possible to say ‘I do (not) like Ulysses’ without taking positions, are already taking positions. They belong to the group who are ‘for’ Ulysses. They deny the idea that Ulysses requires preparation, because they already have that preparation – and therefore they are claiming that what they have is not ‘preparation’ at all, but the normal condition of things. People who are against Ulysses claim that they are the normal guys, who should not be expected to do the ‘hard work’ of reading it, while those who are in favour claim themselves to be the normal ones, because you don’t need anything in particular to enjoy Ulysses.


Ulysses is a mark of belonging. It asks, ‘do you belong to our clan?’ And saying that you do or do not like the novel is one form of answering yes or no. Ulysses is the keyword one needs to give to the gate-keepers to be allowed into the village. Those outside form their own clan. They need it to survive.


As an aside, one may complain that it took me more than twenty ‘chapters’ to actually start discussing the text itself, rather than its reputation. But what could I possibly write as a way of close-reading that has not already been said, and better, by the academics? As I mentioned, Ulysses has given way to a golden era of academic criticism and analysis. Other than Shakespeare, I don’t know if there’s an author in the English language with more books of criticism behind him/her than Joyce.


The intellectual world has been given a gold-mine by Joyce – that, and a password. If you read Ulysses, then you are or aspire to be an intellectual, implicitly. And so this is the clan to which the novel gives access. Of course this is why it is so flustering to an undergraduate, above all others. S/he is, after all, an aspiring intellectual. Joyce poses the conditions for that. There’s other novels which are ‘hard work,’ but they are not hard work which you are expected to do, because they are not keywords for being an intellectual. And undergraduates are expected to become intellectuals (once they graduate). After all, these other books are only ones among several; they are not the final book, they are not the key book, and therefore they are not the key-word. Ulysses is the final book; and what is beyond the final book? The reward of the books, the one you have always been seeking in all the books you have been reading, and after all, this one contains them all. The covers of Ulysses are like the gates. You can be before it or beyond it.


‘Intellectual’ is not to be confused with ‘intelligent.’ That is not what I am talking about at all. Intelligence is not a club; it is an aristocracy. As with ‘talent’ and ‘looks,’ you do not gain access to it, regardless of the keywords or exchange items you may possess. If society sees you as an intellectual, that is a position of power; if they see you as intelligent, that is a position of privilege.


The intellectual is defined by his/her rhetorical register, one which is a direct reflection of Ulysses (and, to some extents, one which was produced by that selfsame novel). This rhetorical register is one of the things they teach you in academia, alongside the critical skills (in the literary departments, anyway). It is the register you find in the writings of Derrida or Barthes. Much like Ulysses does not settle on a final anything, so the rhetoric of the intellectual mitigates all forms of finality or conclusiveness. You do not say, ‘this statement is wrong.’ You say, ‘the statement seems incautious.’ The verb ‘to be’ is consistently replaced with verbs of appearance: it seems, it appears, it would look like this author is stating such and such. When speaking of a poem or a novel, the most general and widespread synonym you can find for ‘good,’ and the only one which will always apply to all texts regardless of period or genre, is ‘subtle.’ The Aeneid is incredibly subtle, Eliot’s metaphors are particularly subtle (I have never encountered ‘clear’ as a statement of merit).

Default academic register is the first person plural. ‘We shall now consider,’ ‘we shall go on to discuss,’ ‘we cannot help but notice…’ It is the same mark of belonging as that of Ulysses. ‘Perhaps’ is the queen word of intellectual discourse. This is perhaps the greatest poem of the modernist period, perhaps the greatest intellectual paradigm shift of the century was psychoanalysis, no theorist compares to him other than perhaps Aristotle. Clearly, statements of deferral abound: I can’t give a complete answer to the questions this raises, we do not have the space to discuss the full implications of, and shit yo. It’s also custom to say that ‘the boundaries of these two issues are blurred.’

If you cannot choose words other than ones with ‘final’ implications, you suspend their value by means of quotation marks (as I’ve just done). So Joyce will be writing an ‘epic,’ and tragedy will be a discussion of the ‘truth,’ and we will be the ‘spectators’ for the unfolding of ‘history’ (this trend was very much in vogue a few years ago, but thankfully it seems to be dying out). There is never such a thing as a final, discernible reason or social use for starting a thesis. Rather, it is attributed to a candid emotion: what interests me or intrigues me or fascinates me about this proposition… (or, when you condemn it: this concerns me).

One general term to say that a text is bad is to say that ‘it is problematic.’ This leads to some extraordinary rhetorical turns. In the great tradition of deconstruction, the act of identifying the problem is already the solution. Generally, the ‘problems’ of a text are posed by the act of analysis in the first place. As ‘problems,’ they do not have solutions: but they allow for the act of staging the ‘interpretation’, which is already the redemption to the problems posed by the text. The problems themselves are retrospective products of their own solution. In fact, this is why they do not have solutions: because they are solutions in the first place, albeit disguised as problems. A rhetorical question is its own answer. Rhetorical problems are just one version of rhetorical questions. And this kind of intellectual rhetoric employs problems, questions, issues, fallacies of all sorts.

And so on so forth. A person who masters this rhetoric is an intellectual.

The last entry is coming tonight or tomorrow, fellas. A brief post to wrap it all up.

James Joyce: Ulysses and teleology


On a simpler level, a difference between Ulysses and One Hundred Years of Solitude, and the reason why I prefer the novel by Marquez, is that the latter makes its teleological statement through canons which are far closer to the traditional way of reading the novel – the old ideas of adventure novels, or romantic novels, or war novels. The stories within One hundred years, if enucleated from their original text and stylistically re-polished, could well become the substance for works by Robert Louis Stevenson, Alexandre Dumas or Emily Bronte. From this point of view, Marquez’s masterpiece does exactly what I am looking for in a novel, as it takes me to lands and times I could never imagine and showers me with constant wonders. Perhaps this accounts for the ease and the success with which magic realism has been picked up in South America. From Allende and Esquivel to Sepulveda and Coelho, I have yet to read a South American novelist without finding the fingerprints of Marquez everywhere. Notably, these authors are also very successful, and their books are international bestsellers (not always deserving their honours, in my view, but then the same is true of many acclaimed writers).


Mark Harkin asks, ‘What about the spawn of Ulysses, the fiendishly difficult novels that came in its wake decades after, those which weren’t really worth the reader’s effort?’ This is a funny comment – I’ve never encountered these novels that he is talking about. I know of writers who have clear debts with Joyce, but these are people whom I very much enjoy (Faulkner) or who are held in very high esteem (Gadda, Pynchon). That said, if the above statement is true, then it makes for a very obvious point of divergence between Marquez and Joyce – as I mentioned above, One hundred years kicked off a golden era for the South American novel, with astonishing peaks of popularity in the ‘offshoots’ of his writing. I’m not sure what to make of this difference either way.


Besides, there is no doubt that Ulysses kicked off a golden era for literary and academic criticism. Again, much like the Divine Comedy.


I mentioned that ‘what binds [Ulysses and the Divine Comedy] is the teleological intent, the writing of a text that includes all possible texts, and is therefore final.’ Of course, the Divine Comedy was anything but final. It inaugurated Italian literature in every way that matters, including the fact that Dante chose to write in the vulgar tongue rather than in Latin. Now this was seen as scandalous only because it grated with the teleological intent (and the apocalyptic power of this choice must have been apparent even back then). When the Divine Comedy is the final text, the language in which it is written becomes the final language. This officially sanctioned the death of Latin.


One hundred years and Ulysses are both ‘final’ texts. They represent landmarks, simultaneously ending and inaugurating literary seasons. But One hundred years does not compel you to respond. You do not hear undergraduates ranting out loud about ‘who’s crazy enough to read One hundred years from cover to cover’ or wondering why Marquez can’t just write ‘about the simple life, about expressing his feelings’. There are two possible reasons for this. 1.) Obviously, the fact that One hundred years is a novel in the more traditional sense, one which can be read by a child, and arguably an easy and entertaining read throughout. It’s not ‘hard work,’ so what is there to rant about? 2.) More likely, a cultural question. The ‘responsibility’ of Ulysses is far weaker outside of the English-speaking world. Students in France feel a greater compulsion to respond to Proust, for instance. It is plausible to imagine that One hundred years is expected reading in the intellectual world in South America, albeit with lower resistance on account of not being such hard work.


Ulysses is a story which includes all possible stories. This is, of course, what makes it hard to criticise it: your criticism is already included in the novel.


The thing is that Ulysses brings together specification and generalisation. It includes specific rhetorical registers which seem to ‘say’ something, but it immerses them in a generalised collection of voices. This means that none of the voices in Ulysses is the ‘final’ voice, the authoritative one. This is what makes the novel itself final. Any ‘final’ statement made by another novel will be included, as a possibility, in Ulysses, while any other ‘collection of statements’ will be no more than a repetition of Ulysses. Naturally this is only theoretical; the novel doesn’t actually say all that can be said, but it stages singularity on a neutral plane (specification/generalisation), and this act of ‘staging’ is what makes the novel final. Ulysses is the final stage where all voices can come and play out, even the ones which are potentially not included in the novel.


And the specification/generalisation duality makes any final judgment on the novel impossible (or ‘rash,’ as we put it in ii.). I am using ‘judgment’ as a loose term to refer to acts of categorisation. Whatever you say about it (or against it) cannot be conclusive, because the novel includes the opposite of itself. It is at once mundane and heroic, modern and classical, constitutive and satirical, normative and destabilising, idealistic and pragmatic, romantic and cynical, transcendent and immanent. This is what makes it so difficult to say ‘I don’t like Ulysses’. Because you cannot possibly qualify such a statement: whatever you bring up against it, it can be pointed out to you that the novel is saying (or doing) the opposite.


More: saying ‘I don’t like’ a novel is usually just a form of qualifying your taste. But saying ‘I don’t like Ulysses’ is never a neutral comment. It is a statement of ideology. The undergraduate who says that this novel is ‘rubbish’ is so adamant and pejorative because he is identifying his ideological position – he is waving his flags. As we said, one is for or against. There is no innocent position.


Ulysses compels you to respond. Virginia Woolf famously bashed the novel after she finished it (the prototype of the undergraduate). But the question is, why did she finish it? Depending on your edition, Ulysses is 700 to 900 pages long. Usually, if you find a book as intolerable and worthless as she claimed it to be, you don’t go on beyond the first 100 pages – not when it’s so uncompromisingly bulky, anyway. Her story is common. It is not surprising that, when the novel was published, it was given some very scathing reviews. What’s surprising is just how many reviews it was given. In their numbers, they are simply not commensurate to a novel as bad as the reviews almost concordantly claimed it to be.

Part 4 coming tomorrow. Yep, I'm still not done.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

James Joyce: Ulysses compared


Did I think that Ulysses was hard work? Yes, very much so.

Did I think that Ulysses was boring? I cannot say this of the book as a whole. There were some chapters which I thoroughly enjoyed (Aeolus, Sirens and Nausicaa, off the top of my head), and others which I did find very tedious (Scylla and Charybdis, Wandering Rocks, Circe). I had a similar experience with the Bible, another very irregular text which alternated sequences of great beauty and entertainment with real mud-ponds where movement was close to impossible.


I’d like to go back to that statement I made on people enjoying this novel intellectually rather than emotionally. Rash as it was and way off as a generalisation, I don’t feel like revoking it completely. I think what I was talking about was the way in which I enjoy novels. My favourite novels are usually brief or semi-brief ones which pack a powerful emotional punch. Animal Farm, A Broken Woman, Of Mice and Men, All Quiet on the Western Front, Portnoy’s Complaint, One Hundred Years of Solitude. These books made me cry, or they made the hairs on my arm stand on end, or they made me laugh out loud, or they sent shivers down my spine. Animal Farm made me visibly morose and depressed for a full week from the moment I put it down. (Notably, longer novels by the same authors, like The Grapes of Wrath or I Married a Communist are not quite so high in my estimation). Now the point is that I never got anything of the sort from Ulysses. My intellect was very much involved with the material, but there was never a scene where I wept, or laughed out loud, or felt my heart accelerating. At no point did the reading translate itself into visible signs on my body, other than a couple of erections in the Penelope chapter. Perhaps I’m just talking about physical reactions, but these are usually the result of extraordinarily intense emotional feelings, which are very rare when I read literature (less so with film, which appeals directly to the senses), and I didn’t get them from Ulysses. But then, I recognise that this is very subjective.


Of course, the reason why one may find Ulysses boring goes straight to the question of ‘the way in which we enjoy novels.’ Personally, I like novels which can turn me into a child again, and give me the sense of transport I experienced fifteen years ago when reading the adventure books by Willard Price or the thrillers by Michael Crichton. I want a novel to take me to far-away lands, or in distant epochs, or in the middle of bizarre and unusual characters, or at the crossroads of history. If I want more inspirational reading, stuff which makes me feel like an adult, usually I turn to poetry. Ulysses is about exactly the opposite of that type of novel. Of course the idea of adventure is in there by metaphor and intertext and reference, but the story itself (in terms of the contents of the actual diegesis), is the most mundane thing you can imagine. As one of my friends put it, “I read the novel as simply the best Everyman story there is. Leopold Bloom is even better than Homer Simpson.” This is an appreciation which I’ve heard and read many times, but alas, what works for some people doesn’t for others. I read novels to get out of the everyman and the everyday, not to revel in it. This is the reason I’m also quite indifferent to novels by Jane Austen or EM Forster, which also deal with very ordinary events. Or if a novel really has to be about situations in which nothing really happens, then I like it when it can do something like Fight Club or Nausea, and distil shock from flat waters. The funny thing is that the referent for Joyce’s novel, that is to say, the Odyssey, is the mother of all adventure novels, and one of my very favourite stories out there.

Stand me now and ever in good stead


But the fact that I’m indifferent to Austen and Forster doesn’t mean that I’m indifferent to Joyce. As I said, one has to take a stance. The only way to be indifferent to Ulysses is by not knowing it. This implies not having done the ‘preparation’ which is required to read the novel. Which brings us back to point ix: it’s unfair to criticize Ulysses for requiring hard work, because if you’re interested in reading Ulysses, then it means you’ve already undergone the hard work.


You can draw an interesting comparison between Ulysses and my own favourite novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Joyceans likely scoff at the idea that you could compare Marquez’s novel with the monumental work of Joyce, and there’s no doubt that the Irishman’s work is much broader in scope and technical execution. But both novels are kaleidoscopic attempts to tell a story that includes all possible stories. Both novels, too, have been enormously influential. ‘Stream-of-consciousness’ and ‘magic realism’ have become household items even outside academia, and traditions of ‘experimental’ and ‘historical’ novels have dominated the scene in the English and Spanish language respectively.


Of course, in terms of sheer complexity, Ulysses far outdoes One hundred years. In fact, the only work of literature I know which compares to Joyce’s novel for breadth of aspiration and achievement is the Divine Comedy, another ‘story to end all stories,’ also heavily and carefully structured, drawing all mythologies, real or imagined, into its single narrative. What binds these two texts is the teleological intent, the writing of a text that includes all possible texts, and is therefore final.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Meditations on James Joyce. Part 1

A sequence of reflections on the question 'Do you like Ulysses?' that will probably take me the whole week. Here goes!


There’s no way of writing this as a cogent article without falling into academic discourse. I think that aphoristic mini-chapters will prove more appropriate (if nothing else, more entertaining).


Do I like Ulysses, the novel by James Joyce? I recently had a remarkable discussion on facebook with some friends (students of Joyce, all of them), and there seemed to be a tacit assumption among my interlocutors: that I do not like Ulysses. At the core of this assumption was a rather rash statement I once made at the pub, reported as follows: ‘No-one actually enjoys Ulysses emotionally, do they – just intellectually.’ I’ll discuss this statement further on. I’m not retracting it, but it’s definitely rather rash. Though of course any judgment made on Ulysses is rather rash, by default. Including this one.


Did you like Dubliners? Yes. A very solid collection of short stories, technically brilliant, very colourful and consistently enjoyable.

Did you like A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man? Decidedly disliked it. But then, I am normally averse to autobiographies unless the writer has spent twenty years in Tibet or been in a war, because I honestly can’t think of any other reason why I should give a fuck about the guy’s life. The Portrait gives no such reason, because Stephen Dedalus spends the entire novel doing nothing, and eventually decides to withdraw from religion, politics, nationalism, and everything else. Exactly what he’s going to engage with is unclear. For all of the linguistic pyrotechnics, the assumption behind the book remains, ‘my life is so important because I am an artist.’ To the point of writing an entire novel dedicated to nothing but the ‘Portrait of the Artist’, aka a self-portrait. There’s probably plenty of people who find the book’s passages beautiful, but for my own part, the feeling of circularity and narcissism (and the typical, misleading confusion between artistic maturity and spiritual fulfillment) that belie the plot are just too disturbing to overlook.

Did you like Ulysses? Well, now...


Consider the following image.

Which of the answers is the right one?


Why would I not like Ulysses? Without plunging into denial: because it’s boring. Wait – is it? There’s plenty of passages in the novel which I read with a sense of great enjoyment. It may be more accurate to say that it has a reputation for being boring. Is this reputation deserved? That depends. There is a difference between something being ‘boring’ and something being ‘hard work.’ Anyone who sees the two things as synonymous will think, legitimately, that Ulysses is boring. But regardless of the kind of work it implies, we may answer the original question: one reason why I may not like Ulysses is that it is hard work. Is that a good reason?


Be it or not a good reason, something immediately jumps to notice– just the act of discussing the novel has led me to question my ideas and standards of literature. What is it that I enjoy in novels, and what are the ethical responsibilities of the reader (why should he engage in the ‘hard work’?) – these are both natural follow-ups to the above. This points to one of the major identifying features of Ulysses – its responsibility, intended as, its capacity to call, evoke, or demand a response. You must respond to Ulysses. Whether for or against, you must take a stance on it.


This leads to the continuous jack about Joyce that you get among undergraduate students of literature. Your first two years at university are usually the age you’ll get in contact with Ulysses (even read the whole thing, if you’re the smartass type). It’s one of the most common discussions in the hood – not on the novel’s meaning or its significance, but on whether it’s good or not. The most vocal of the students are usually those who insist it is rubbish – and in my five years within academia, I’ve met quite a lot of them (did my share of protesting too, I won’t hide). Not just mediocre or generally not very good, but outright rubbish, nonsense. They rebel, even fiercely, to the idea of having to do the ‘hard work.’ But this is the point – they have to respond. They need to qualify their rejection. And the pressure goes both ways – students are pressured to justify themselves because they are also pressured to read it. The problem is not that Ulysses is hard work, but the fact that it’s hard work that you’re expected to do. Ulysses compels you to respond.


Let’s examine for a second this notion that Ulysses is hard work. Is it true? One thing is certain – it presupposes a lot of background reading, even without counting the Odyssey, and if you haven’t gone through that, then you can’t read Ulysses. A child cannot be expected to read Ulysses, and people who don’t read much or even dislike reading can’t either. So preparing yourself to read this novel is hard work, if you are not already prepared.


If you are not the kind of person who is ‘prepared’ to read Ulysses – then you probably wouldn’t be trying to read it in the first place. So the argument is moot.


Those who have nothing to do with art should have nothing to do with art (Stanislaw Jerzy Lec). Similarly, Ulysses is NOT hard work only to those whose profession is literature (or art) in the first place. (And even then, of course, it’s not necessarily an easy ride. But more on this later).

Part 2 to follow tomorrow.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Journal of India: Jaipur, Agra, and last call at Delhi

Here's the last two entries. I made my way back North on a plane, reaching Jaipur first, then Agra, then back to Delhi - the Golden Triangle, as it is known. Jaipur and Agra are popular tourist destinations, and I'm glad I saved Agra for last. Oh yeah, the Lariam (mentioned in the Jaipur entry) is a pill I was taking every week to protect myself from malaria. There's no vaccination against this particular disease, alas.

City Palace


I reached Jaipur late at night and left it early in the morning, which allowed me for only one full day of exploration.

Jaipur is lovely, though the Pink City should be renamed Orange City (either that or I need a test to figure out whether I’m colour-blind). This was a real tourist town, with camels and elephants everywhere. I went to the City Palace, which was nice, and then to the Amber Fort, which was much more remarkable. No photo can ever do justice to that place. It is a huge complex of walls and buildings, red or white, climbing up and down the hills. I tried to walk to the nearby forts as well, but eventually decided the enormous distance was not worth the effort.

I went shopping instead. I purchased a pasmina for my mother and a silver ring for myself. Now I have to find something for my father.

I went to bed early, given that my train was at 06:10 the next morning. Even so, I got little sleep. The Lariam, for the first time in a few weeks, gave me such a strong nausea that I had trouble drifting away. The price to pay to protect oneself from malaria. Amen.

Taj Mahal


I cannot think of a monument which left me as breathless as the Taj Mahal. A truly astounding work of architecture. The three-dimensional effect which it produces upon walking towards it is hypnotic. The appearance of the monument itself, white like a bride, is a highly unusual combination of straight-angled shapes and domes, and the harmony of scales between these figures is something quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. But I see that I am already slipping into rhetoric. It is hard to impress me with buildings, because I know little of architecture and, also, because I have seen so many. The Taj must go down in memory as one of the most outstanding. More than that cannot be said.

Similarly, little can be said about the rest of Agra, though in this case the legitimisation lies in the fact that there’s fuck-all to do in the city. The Taj Nature Walk is a waste of time – a handful of flowers arranged around a path, then you can climb over the fence and keep walking into a wasteland of dirt and bushes. I went to the Agra Fort, but by then I was really starting to run low on money (the Taj costs an insane 750 rupees to visit, about three times as much as most other monuments). I saw the Fort from the outside and it was really beautiful, but it also looked identical to all the other forts I’ve seen from Delhi to Hyderabad, so I chose to save my money and get back to Delhi in tranquillity. This I did, after a few hours reading Twilight at the train stations. Thank God for books. Journeys of this kind would really be impossible without them.

It looks like I am at the end. Tonight I have a dinner with Ashwini, Callie and Winnie. I spent the whole day resting. Tonight my plane is at 03:00 a.m.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Journal of India: Sunlight in Goa (Part 2)

Second entry on Goa, straight on from that monstrous first night.


I did wake up, and though I didn’t eat anything until nightfall, I found the strength to drag myself to the beach. There, I took unexpected pleasure in the local water rides – basically balloons on which you sit as a boat tugs you over the waves for two minutes. A modest roller-coaster on water. One of them was called ‘the banana boat’, and you’re supposed to let go of your grip when it capsizes on the waves, so as to enjoy a dive in the sea. I did this, and my head was slammed against the water with such violence that, when combined with the hangover, it gave me the most epic migraine you can imagine.

At night we went to a music bar called Curlie’s. The music was excellent – powerful techno/house stuff – but no-one was dancing. The only exception was this bald, bare-chested, heavily tattooed, Tibetan-looking guy who was obviously out of it like a balcony. When Ashwini started going frantic again because we didn’t have any weed, I asked the Tibetan and he duly supplied us with some hash. I talked Ashwini out of his suicidal aspirations (the guy wanted to smoke there and then, but we’d come on a rented bike, and I told him that riding back in the dark, without helmets, a double load, in unfamiliar roads and furthermore high was not my idea of how best to reach old age), then we went home and smoked: on the roof of our house and, later, on the beach, watching the stars. At my insistence, we sat on a sort of natural step made of sand, which the sea had sculpted as a natural confine between dry and wet land, and where, I declaimed, ‘no wave could surely reach us.’ When the first surge of water rocketed onto our ridge at forty miles an hour as we happened to be holding our necks craned backwards to look at Orion, I barely managed to leap away like a puma, but Ashwini was not quite so fortunate, and he ended up soaked. He was slightly incensed thereafter.

As in Mumbai, I was taken off-guard by how strong the stuff was. Maybe it was just a variety that my body is not accustomed to, but after two joints I couldn’t hold up a conversation with my partner. It felt as though every word he said to me came with a time-lag of twelve seconds.

The next day was much a repeat of the first, with air-borne parachutes taking the place of balloons to be tugged by boats. As the sun went down we smoked, and Ashwini wanted to go to Curlie’s. I was uncomfortable with the idea of riding on the newly-rented scooter when high (I even took it around a bit myself during that day, proving what I have always argued: that even though I don’t possess a licence, I am perfectly capable of driving), so I suggested we let our heads clear on the beach for half an hour. There, we took two beds and started ordering beers, and that was the end of it. By the end of the night we’d imbibed so many Kingfishers and played so many drinking games that A. started feeling ill, couldn’t eat the food he’d just ordered, and we went home, where we collapsed without even smoking the second joint. The next day I was kind of sick again, though not nearly as bad as two days previous.

My impression of Goa has little of original, if anything at all. It is a land of dirt tracks and low houses, heavily oriented towards the outsiders, full of palm-trees and sunlight, and with a robust sea, thick and Indian, giving away the Caribbean garbs for what they are: camouflage.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Journal of India: Sunlight in Goa

Next stop after Mumbai were the beaches of Goa, which - I'd been told - were the best beaches within a thousand miles as well as a stoner's heaven. I'd planned it with Ashwini to get to this place during a weekend so he could join me for it, and we made this a proper time to relax. For once I didn't spend six hours a day roaming about, instead I just sat on the beach for three days straight, bathing, sunbathing, reading, getting massages, playing around and partying at night. I was so chilled for three days, in fact, that I didn't even update my journal - that's why the current entry was written in Jaipur.

It wasn't very culturally edifying, but it was probably the best three days of my three weeks in India (in fact I came back saying that next time I'd just spend all three weeks in Goa). I wrote two entries about Goa because I had to retrospectively sum up three full days, this is the first one, the next will be up tomorrow.

This is what a gas station looks like in Goa. Yeah, the bottles hold fuel.


So long without updating!

After an extensive walk through Mumbai, at a rate rather ponderous due to the fact that I was carrying my luggage on my back, and inclusive of a brief visit to the Bazaar (larger in its presentation but otherwise not very different from the other markets in India), I hopped on my train and headed to Goa. Or, Magdaon, as the station is called.

Goa is a tropical paradise. I felt as though I’d returned to the Caribbean, but with a more picturesque setting and a less crystalline sea. It was also full of Westerners – apparently February is a good time to visit Goa, just after the peak season of Dec/Jan. On the bus to Calangute Beach I met some tourists (Indians in this case, from Mumbai) and asked for their assistance in finding a place to sleep, seen how they were looking for one too. It turns out to be an easy task; a man is waiting for us practically the moment we step off the bus.

Once I have the place, I take a walk to learn how to orient myself. Then I purchase a swimming suit, get changed at home and plunge in the sea. It is lovely. At home, I wait for Ashwini as the evening deepens, reading. He arrives, and immediately gets into an argument with the owner because he deems the price is too high. We decide to stay there two nights (as I’ve already paid) rather than the full three.

Ashwini is very eager to get hold of some weed, but the stuff they try to sell us in town looks bad. He suggests that we get drunk instead, and I acquiesce – something I’d come to regret, later. We purchase a bottle of whisky (‘One hundred pipers’) and walk home. By the beach, where the view of the stars is grandiose and pristine, I tell him stuff about the constellations, though in this sky I can only find Orion. Cassiopeia and the Great Bear make but brief apparitions to the North.

We do get drunk that night, mixing the whisky with water. We walk back to town, meet some drunkards on the beach, chat for a bit, go home and get to sleep. What a hellish night that was. I slept three hours, then woke up in pangs of stomach pain, went to vomit, went back to bed, slept fitfully, woke up to vomit again, froze under the covers due to the air-conditioning, and repeatedly woke up again to take a shit – I had, at last, contracted a real diarrhoea. The next day, I felt like I didn’t even want to wake up.

Esoterically holding a silvered beer bottle with a rose coming out of it, and a candle. I'm sure there's some symbolic meaning to that.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Journal of India: And now, Mumbai

The Gate of India, at the dock

I cannot discuss Mumbai without first sending out a huge thank you to Ratul Chakraborty, who hosted me for two nights while I was there. You made my permanence in that city immensely easier and more enjoyable. Said it once, I'll say it again: I owe you one, bro.

My entry for this city closes kind of in medias res. I was at a beach when I wrote it and after that I spent hours walking around the city (carrying my bag AND with the sprained ankle - bloody hell). I would have written something about that walk, which was wonderful despite the fatigue, but after Mumbai I ended up in Goa and I had a four/five-day break from my diary, so I kind of flew over that. I also give a very rough account of that night out in the city, which was pretty crazy (once I was drunk I pretended I was a medium here to exorcise a ghost, and I gave a spiritual reading to a recently-wed couple who were sold on it so completely that I began wondering if I didn't really possess occult powers). But it wasn't much different from many a fun night I've had back in old Europe, so I liquidated it with a couple of lines and concentrated on the day journeys instead. I still think that's very much for the best, given I must have tens of thousands of words in other entries on this blog about times in which I get tanked.

The central station. As British/Victorian as you can get


Mumbai is the most beautiful of the cities I have seen so far, or at least so it seems to me. It is certainly the most Western. I felt very comfortable in this city, and even the food was excellent. Upon my arrival at Ratul’s offices (an impressive rectangular curving building made of dark glass and steel), he took me to a restaurant at a nearby hotel. Increasingly I get the impression that hotels here serve a purpose similar to that of commercial malls in Europe. The restaurant was a classy and expensive self-service and the food was delicious, and Ratul took the bill – as he did that of the taxi, and, later, that of the beers. His kindness was mind-boggling, and also exceedingly welcome – I am running low on money and his contributions did a great deal to help me.

The next day I purchased some food in the streets. Some kind of a bread-ball with spicy mashed potato as filling – a small, fist-shaped sandwich, basically. Absolutely fantastic. I had two and then some sugar-cane juice.

On the first day I chilled out with Ratul and we went out that night for some beers with a few friends of his. I almost got carried off by an American and his own group of Indians to spend the whole night drinking, but when the guy lost his wallet and the night seemed to lose impetus (at the same rate as I sobered up, just about), I chose to take a taxi and go home.

On my second day, I took the local overground – even more cramped and combative than the tube in Delhi, it’s like a war-zone over here – down to Churchgate Station, whereupon I walked towards the docks, surprised at how Western everything looked. Even the traffic seemed slightly more urbane.

I saw the Gate of India and the gigantic Taj Mahal Hotel, then took a boat to the Elephanta caves. I landed on an island full of monkes, goats, dogs, some cows, and an infinity of tourist-stands. Climbing the island, I could visit the famous caves, where effigies from more than 1300 years ago had been carved in stone. The place was beautiful and felt very primal.

It took me two hours and a half to get home. Very boring. Ratul suggested we watch the Arsenal – Liverpool game, which was on at one a.m. local time, and he offered me some dope in the meantime. His friends had monopolized the laptop and were putting bland Pink Floyd or death metal videos. I’m not sure what to make of the local grass. I smoked half the joint on my own and I could barely feel it at first, but a few hours later I was so fucked that the air-waves from the fan on the ceiling were freaking me out because I couldn’t understand what they were when they brushed on my skin.

Eventually I passed out before the end of the match.

Today I woke up and watched the American tournaments of ice-skating while having breakfast. How graceful the girls were.

I left after that, picked up my bag at Ratul’s office, and now I’m here, in Chowpatty beach. The view is beautiful, as the beach is ringed by the city’s skyscrapers, but the sea looks horrendous to bathe in. It is brown and muddy.

My train tonight is at 11 p.m. I’ll spend the rest of this day walking around in the general direction of the station, as I usually do.

Sent some postcards today. They should get home about the same time as myself.

A picture of the first night out in Mumbai. Just for good measure. That's one lovely lovely glass.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Journal of India. The heart of the country: Hyderabad

The entry on Hyderabad is a bit thin - I didn't have much time since I was tending to the foot injury (see below), but I felt that a more accurate representation would be no more than a report of the various monuments/museums I saw, and that seemed a bit arid. The text was written on the train taking me to Mumbai, called the Mumbai express - hence the title. For the record, this was the most central point of arrival in my journeys, geographically speaking. Hyderabad is one of the largest and most ancient cities in India, and it bore some similarities with Delhi and Mumbai - huge, bustling, and not really oriented towards tourism (which is exactly what made it so beautiful).


Mumbai Express.

As for Hyderabad, the city was beautiful. The Charmindar, the Chambawalla palace and the Golconda Fort were all phenomenal. The Salaar Jung Museum and the Buddha statue were a little less memorable, but overall the city was definitely worth the visit.

It also proved rather unlucky. On my first day, while hopping down the final steps of the Charmindar, I twisted my ankle. Very painful. The people working at the monument helped me treat the injury, and were exceedingly kind. Furthermore they would not take any money, something which impressed and surprised me – I thought I was in their bad books because they’d offered me a guided tour for 250 rupees and I’d argued it down to 100. I purchased some medication at a pharmacy and went back to the hotel.

I’d booked a tour with a driver for the next day. Walking the extense of the Golconda Fort with the strain was a bitch, but I took frequent pauses and managed to limp my way through most everything, including the hill.

As in Delhi and Chennai, I was often stopped by groups of local young men who asked me to take a photo with them. What an odd thing – are we Europeans really so rare here? When walking down the steps of the Fort, I crossed a school-trip. Literally hundreds of girls in their little blue uniforms. I paused and sat on a boulder to rest my sore foot, and as the procession streamed by, they repeatedly asked me my name and country of origin. A group of them grew bolder and stopped to make further enquiries. Soon I was surrounded by these twelve-year-old girls eager to speak with the local attraction. It was one of the most amusing conversations in a while. They taught me a few words in their language and squeaked collectively whenever I pronounced one of them correctly. They asked me what I thought of India too, and suggested a local dish which I should try – the Biriani, if I’m spelling this right. In the end their teacher succeeded in her breathless effort to wrench them from me, and they walked away upwards with me still laughing.

In Hyderabad I slept at a real hotel. Needless to say, the moment that I step into a place with a Western toilet, my metabolism – which in the guest houses and sleeper trains had been going at a rate of three turds a day – declares itself on strike and for 48 hours I don’t need to use the toilet. I should have known.

Mumbai is a few hours away. Next stop is with Ratul, a reader of my blog and articles online who offered me a place to stay. Who says that Internet writing doesn’t pay off?

I'm so damn pretty everyone in town wants a photo with me.

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Journal of India: The big leap South to Chennai

Marina Beach

On my first night out in Delhi, I met this guy called Cartak who lived in Chennai and was going down there in a couple of days. Since I still didn't have a trajectory ready to go through India, and since the guy said I should go visit him so that we could go out again (the advantages of my personal charm!), I decided to make it my next stop after coming back from Haridwar. I booked a plane for a massive change in location (from far North-center to far South-East), but first I had things to attend to near Delhi...




I was hoping to make it an early night yesterday in view of my morning flight to Chennai, but it was Callie’s birthday, and we took her and Winnie out to celebrate. Ashwini brought his driver, so we chanced an evening of binge drinking in Gurgaon, a small town outside of Delhi, notable for being highly ‘commercial’, as my friends put it. Essentially this meant that it was full of large office buildings. We went inside some kind of hotel or commercial centre and it felt like being in New York, but with Indians.

On our way home, we dropped Winnie and then Callie, and on this second instance I went to stand by a tree, stuck two fingers into my mouth and vomited whatever alcohol was left in my stomach. I really wanted to sober up quickly: I had decided to go home, pick my bag and go straight for the airport, without pausing for the flimsy single hour of sleep I was going to get. I managed to sleep an hour and a half at the airport and almost three on the plane.

I landed in a lush tropical scenario. Chennai is mightily warmer than Delhi, more verdant and clearer in the air. I took a room in a guest house which had been suggested to me by a friend. 400 rupees a night and a rat-hole of a place which legitimated the cheap expense (cheap in European terms, at least – the one in Haridwar had been free of charge).

I chilled out for a half hour and then walked outside. The beginning was disorienting. We are already in the centre of the city and people seem uncertain as to what’s worth seeing here. As a way of giving myself an objective, I am now seeking a tourist office for some info. I am also seeking a cap and a pair of sandals, as an alternative to being cooked alive by the local sun.



Superficially, Chennai strikes me as the most Christian of the cities I’ve seen in India. Several churches announced the rhetoric of Jesus, which resonated oddly in this place. Apparently one of their central monuments is a cathedral, that of Santhome (which I have not seen). There must have been a different emphasis in terms of colonization, here.

Sleeper class coach, from the inside


Hyderabad Express.

On a train as I write these lines, in what is known as Sleeper Class. The cheapest of them all. There is nothing in these blue carriages other than sleeping benches sticking out of the walls, three tiers per wall, no sheets. It is fine by me. As long as the temperature stays clement, as it is now (much due to the tissues of wind that whip into the coach through the blue metal bars at the windows), I will call myself content. I call in at Hyderabad at 5:45 in the morning, discounting delays, and I’ll need to find myself an hotel.

Yesterday Cartak invited me to his place for lunch – there was a housewarming function and I joined them after the prayers. I sat on the floor by Cartak and a broad leaf was spread on the pavement before me. We sprinkled it with water, rubbed it clean, and food was poured upon it.

I will not deny that it was very trying. Eating with my hands was laborious as the food was more liquid than solid. Mostly it was rice mixed with vegetables and creamy stuff until it became some kind of porridge. The food at Ashwini’s place had been spicy to the event horizon, but it was always good. Here, the taste was unwelcome to my tongue and eating proved more of a chore than it was a pleasure. I finished the meal to avoid insulting my hosts.

One of the local uncles gave me a ride home on his bike, and I subsequently went to Marina Beach, where I sat reading for a few hours. More than a hundred metres of sand, then a green and troubled sea. It felt strangely foreign, as though even these waters spoke a different language than mine, in contrast with the ripples of the Mediterranean, so dear and close to me in memory. Cartak later called and we joined some friends of his cousin’s at the local university hostel. It is superfluous to specify that the conditions were not even remotely comparable to what we get in Europe (though they bear a vague resemblance to what I saw in the Caribbean). We all went on the roof, twelve of us, on a night of few stars. We were all men. The point of the gathering, as I understood it, was that of sitting in a circle and getting drunk together while sharing cigarettes. Not an unfamiliar experience. I wonder to what extent we may speak of contamination from the Western ways, or if instead this is no more than a universal drive towards state-of-consciousness alteration in the young.

Stealing the scene was as easy as it gets. I was aided by the fact that their transgression, as such, was just a case of ‘been there, done that’ for me. Also I had the sexual seniority – I was stunned to find that only two of these eleven kids were not virgin. One of them was Cartak, who was the only one aged 25 rather than 21, the other had fucked a prostitute. After a few hours my friends found me an auto and Cartak and his cousin escorted me home on their bike (rigorously without helmet, and with alcohol in their bodies, as seems to be the custom over here).

It took a while to fall asleep – the room in this guest house becomes an oven in the night, and it’s a good thing I don’t suffer mosquitoes (nonetheless, more than fifteen bites on the right arm alone).

I was allowed to sleep until late hours. The train on which I’m on departed at 16:45, and the guest house was no great distance from the station.

The sun is declining and a fat man is sleeping at my right, his soft hair brushing on my elbow. The Indian countryside, which seems immense, is tranquil and flat. The sight of human settlements, however, is desolating. Images of lacerating poverty, and mountains of garbage with encampments flourishing over them, and polluted rivers with cows and Indian buffalo wading through them, are set against a backdrop of ponderous Industrial development. Everywhere there seem to be factories or cities in construction.

The man on my right has begun to snore. My fellow travelers look rather bristled by the fact, and this gives me the quirky impression that there is a comical side to this situation, one which I can’t identify.

PS. I should add that the bats which soar over the local campus at night are the biggest flying objects I’ve ever seen short of aeroplanes. If it weren’t for the wings, I would have thought I was finally seeing the elephants.

Out in the streets of Chennai!

Monday, 29 March 2010

Journal of India: North towards the Himalayas

After Delhi, I took a train North to Haridwar, which is just below the Himalayas. Regrettably the mountains were too distant to really absorb much of them, but the city was beautiful, since I ended up there in the middle of a religious festival. The next day I went back to Delhi for a brief pit-stop before my plane, which would take me to Chennai.

Click on the photos to see them in full size!


The train took me to this small river town across curtains of grey mist. It appears that Delhi is not the only place where transparent air makes for an uncommon good.

I took my first Rikshaw to find my guest house. A delightfully refreshing ride, but a single hole in the road will make these things swing like a rolling bell.

As soon as I was free, I walked out into the city, and I spent the best part of the next six hours walking. I occasionally sat down with some local gurus, mostly old men with long rasta hair. They didn’t strike me as particularly illuminated, more like a bunch of people who have smoked way too much weed over their lives. One of them offered me food, which I thought very kind (though I put my brake to my appetite due to the dubious hygiene). I made some efforts at communication after that, but he did not respond. He seemed more interested in attempting to seduce this local lady of thirty-odd-something, who in fact did possess some beauty. I excused myself, and as I left he ‘blessed’ me by printing a thumb of paint onto my forehead.

There were a great deal of these figures around because today the Kumbh was taking place, a festival involving the holy Gunga river. It is not unlike baptism in that you plunge in the current and are washed out of all your sins. Ashwini, on the phone, told me that I should jump in the river, and I suggested that he throw himself in the lake. Interested as I am in these religious rituals, I had a whole day of walking ahead of me and the logistics of bathing were very much in the way. I guess it’s going to be hell, after all.

At one stage I took a funicular up to a temple. The view was stupendous, the temple on the other hand was not. A couple of statues surrounded by a clusterfuck of souvenir shops. I was blessed (again), and this time they asked me money for it. Dream on, Siddharta.

One thing that impressed me greatly about this place was the fauna. After the cows, dogs, goats and pigs, this time it was the turn of the monkeys. Small grey apes that roamed all over the place and climbed on just about anything. They were even at the station. I also saw the usual eagles, and – amid the assortment of birds – a number of beautiful green parrots. Didn’t know they belonged in this place.

I walked down the temple by the steps, all the while thanking God that I hadn’t found this track upwards when looking for it (it was one of those legendary temples with an infinity of vertical steps climbing over the mountain, and the way down was enough to dehydrate me like a camel).

I then went to the house and ate (a meal based on six Kit Kats, such was my level of exhaustion). I walked out again later for a breath of fresh air before going to sleep. En passant, I popped into a temple where this group of a dozen kids and a crone were sitting cross-legged and chanting. One of them motioned to me and I walked in. The temple was small and clearly quite poor, yet it felt ever so much more sincere and appeasing than the one at the top of the mountain. I left early though – I was tired, the singing was getting repetitive, and I was anxious someone would steal my shoes, which I had left outside in the haste.

It is barely nine o’ clock, but I shall get myself ready for bed. My train is at 6.10 a.m. tomorrow and I feel exhausted. I am going to need a holiday when I come back from the holiday.

The funicular, with my glossy new glasses...

Delhi (briefly)

I wonder why in Delhi taking the metro feels like going to the airport. Scanners, bag-checking and soldiers with machine-guns.

About those ‘gurus’ with long hair, I wonder what I was expecting. Probably nothing, which is why I’m not feeling disappointed. They were the guys who coined the term ‘illumination’ (whatever the original word may have signified), one which I find much more appropriate to indicate a wo/man’s goal in life than ‘happiness’ (the European telos).

So perhaps I was wondering what it would feel like to come in touch with other ‘illuminated’ people. But of course I felt nothing, other than the simple pleasure of sitting in peace with other people (and that doesn’t require illuminated companions). After all, if illumination is no more than realising that you don’t need illumination, what could these people possibly give me – other than their company – or tell me?

...and the view from it.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Journey through India: Walking through Delhi

My trip through India was officially inaugurated with a couple of days spent in Delhi, at the house of a friend of mine called Ashwini. The first five entries were written at that time, including the two which I am omitting from this blog.


A bit more considered, now. I left from Kanhaiya Nagar and took a stop at Chandni Chow. Very impressive. A crowded, old part of Delhi, all markets and hustle. I took a glance at the Red Fort, chose against visiting it inside for questions of time, repelled the onslaught of paraphernalia merchants, and got back on the metro for Connaught Place. Decidedly less impressive – an open circle of grass surrounded by rings of traffic. The place was empty and dispersive, and for some reason Indians find it superfluous to put up signs with the names of roads, so the map was as good as useless. A bird shat on my shoe (perhaps some other animal – if it was a bird, it must have been a real juggernaut to leave a plop that size), so I had it cleaned and was charged 1500 rupies. I only paid 1000, but it’s still obvious that I let myself be swindled. Never without a blooper, the first day in a foreign country.

From there I walked to India Gate, despite multiple warnings (including Ashwini’s earlier that day) that it would take 40-60 minutes. I did it in 25, and with breaks for photos and road-crossing. I regret not contributing to the local private transport business, but I reckoned I’d done enough for that of shoe hygiene.
India Gate was good. I felt I should have taken someone with me to take pictures. But of course the most altering sights were those which could not be put on camera. Two children, a boy and a girl under the age of ten, came to sell me trinkets. They were dressed in the most gorgeous robes and they were heartbreaking. I purchased nothing from them – it’s not a business I want to encourage – and obviously I didn’t take a photo.

After a brief detour around the stadium, stopping at a park of ruins for my first journal entry, I came to the Muslim monuments of Indra Prastha and Pirana Qila (the Owl Fort), assuming that I’m reading this map correctly, which were set in rather solitary parks. Nice, but run-of-the-mill. When deprived of its people (and the constant fresco of power which they project), the sceneries of India become ever so much more bland. Besides, ‘monuments’ are not exactly the kind of items we are lacking in Europe.

Local metro is efficient but crowded. Have never seen anything like the shove-fest that took place to get on the trains after six. Not in a violent way – the men there seemed to be amusing themselves, and in truth so was I.

Taking the tube in India generally involves more controls than taking a plane. You can just see the metal detectors in there. Just after I took this photo, a soldier came up and told me pictures weren't allowed. (why?)


Woke up late (as per schedule), enjoyed a tasty breakfast, then set off. Ashwini was free today, so I wandered about with him. We picked up Callie with the car, then went to the ruins of Qutub Minar. Lovely, despite my status as ‘veteran of monuments.’ Perhaps it was yesterday’s fort which was kind of unremarkable.

The temperature was sweltering. Once finished with the stone relics, we went to the temple of Iskcon, dedicated to the worship of Krishna. As per yesterday, the best part of the trip was that which eschewed the camera. The inside of the temple, with its worshippers and esoteric art, was very moving (soothing, as all religious places). Its art seemed centered around a sweet, lovely and ambiguous smile which immediately made me think of the Mona Lisa (I don’t know whether this stuff is representative of truly Hindu art or not).

Outside the temple was a small altar surrounded by an open space. On the marble floor were painted flowers – red, then blue, then yellow – which drew a spiral and led from the outside of the altar. A spiritual ritual involved stepping on each of the flowers, reciting a formula with each step, until reaching Krishna in the centre. I walked the path of flowers and stood before his enigmatic smile. Every step felt like a metaphor, charged with meaning and events (being overtaken unlawfully by a little girl, receiving advice from Ashwini, seeing the seemingly mocking smiles of two youths by the terrace). When I reached Krishna, I spontaneously knelt before him. Then I stood and left him to his silence. I did all this with a garland of flowers around my neck. I hadn’t sought after it, but when the local priest started distributing flowers, one of the guards smiled at me (not without some irony) and tossed me a garland. Real flowers, mostly white with a few red and yellow islands, sweetly scented. Perhaps it’s not hard to move the heart of an outsider, but I was touched.

We later went for a meal from a street kitchen. Momos, which are a kind of chicken tortellini, Panipuri and Golgappas, the latter being sort of crunchy balls with a hole filled with spices, dunked in sauce. All lovely, and obviously all spicy. We closed with some pretty bland ice-cream.

Currently got home, finished booking flight to Chennai, working on how to get to Haridwar.

Delhi – Chawni Bazar.

Here’s everything that India is supposed to be. An agglomeration of street commerce, housing, education and transport, each street a scarf of chaos that runs through, across, below and around the buildings. Nothing is taller than three storeys. There’s so much stuff around that the eye struggles to embrace it all. Boxes, tyres, sacks of all varieties, building material, sand, scooters, sleeping dogs, cows and calves, and all kinds of goods to be sold, from food and clothes to jewellery, tools, vehicles and raw materials. Bikes, scooters and pedal-propelled carriages dart across the concrete, beeping their way through the crowds and the carts. Above, cables hang across every building and from thick poles, often limply, often tied together to form a single fat rope of electrical wire. The sky is hazed here in Delhi, even in this temperate season. The air is dense and quickly makes you feel like your mouth is full of chalk.

People frequently gaze at me, especially when I’m writing. As I jot these lines down, the eyes of almost all passers-by turn to me before looking down at my notebook. It appears that I’m the greatest tourist attraction. From hunter to hunted, if you will.

The Red Fort, from the outside

Friday, 26 March 2010

Journal of India - A prologue

So I came back from India with a notebook full of writing about the things I saw, and for a few weeks I wondered what to do with it. I was originally a bit too shaken to share (and very much exhausted after the long journey), and I needed to let things sediment in my mind. Yesterday I felt that I was at a relatively safe distance and I went back to my original booklet, seeing whether some of this material was worth putting here. I re-read the whole thing and I decided it was.

The diaries are actually rather irregular. The first two entries I'm not going to transcribe, because they're frankly too chaotic - I was still adapting myself to the new situation and I couldn't write cogently for the life of me. A brief sample:

The initial euphoria of exploring a new setting is ebbing, and now the multitude of signs and histories with which I have brushed flanks – perceiving a little of the local reality and a great deal of my own stupor – is pressing in my skull. There is so much to learn, and so little time and energy to do so. The resulting sentiment is one of a drowsy indifference, a certain affability when faced with the surroundings’ unfailing tendency to make you wonder.

The wall of the ruin is mottled, dug into by time and tourist gazes. History’s own version of acne (or that of stones). No doubt the sentiment of ‘indifference’ will prove as passing as the euphoria. It is so hard to put order in one’s thoughts when one is presented with such an array of experiences (all variations of the same one – a sight that screams ‘remember me’).

The rest of the entry consists in a few lines on local traffic and the eagles that fly over the sky of Delhi, but it's not particularly insightful. So my chronicle is going to start from the third entry, throwing in two or three entries a day, depending on what city they're describing. I've tried to edit and cut the least possible, though the odd word here and there has been added or changed when clarifying the text seemed really necessary.

So from tomorrow, and for a few days, the Rant Machine is going to be touring India. Hope you enjoy it. Peace out.

Friday, 19 March 2010

Cruising the Caribbean, Part 2

The following day is probably the most adventurous. We have decided to go and visit the Moon Springs, a set of small waterfalls lost within the pluvial jungle. The bus trip alone gives new meaning to the word ‘tight’ as I am crammed in a bus where I literally cannot move, since I am crushed between the wall, the abysmally low roof, and a woman the size of a shark from the Jurassic. I am cemented in a position which is almost comfortable what with the fact that I am bottled and curled up without having to stress any of my own muscles, until more or less halfway through the trip my left testicle sees just how much more fulfilling its existence will be if it starts itching like a maniac for as long as my bag is kept between my arms and my legs. Delightful. Thankfully the trip is not that long and I manage to extricate myself from the bus half an hour later (by which time the testicle has stopped itching, of course). I step down, so does the gigantic woman (to the driver’s relief – throughout the journey, he looked doubtful that his vehicle would make it up the mountain), and so does Calum.

We take a trip through the springs, and they are indeed beautiful, but also very hazardous. At one stage I’m climbing under a waterfall to reach a beautiful lake and my feet are trying for holds on the submerged rocks. ‘Watch out for the hole,’ Calum tells me from behind, and one second later I hear a sound as of a large animal crashing into the pond, and I turn to see Calum sitting down within two feet of water in the position of a Zen monk with the waterfall drumming on the back of his neck, looking strangely meditative as he tries to get the camera out of the water. I find the view hilarious, and I laugh protractedly and with gusto, so hard in fact that I end up losing grip from those bloody stones and my legs go wheeling under me as I slip nipples-first into that tadpole-bonanza. When me and Calum step out of the water, we get in an argument. I cannot remember what the reason was, but that’s some wrung underpants if I’ve ever known any.

We go back to the ship, change, and spend the rest of the day on the beach.

We repeat the latter process for a few more days. It seems that the best way of spending your time in whatever island of the Caribbeans you’re sojourning in, is to spread a towel on the sand, lay your back on it, and get roasted like a cod for six hours. Absolutely amazing. After the fourth day of this I’m feeling quite tired so I go to sleep early.

It is a silent, lovely night. Calum has gone to enjoy some air on the deck while the ship sails through the darkness. Stars are gleaming through the night and I doze off to sleep with the gentle message of the waves whispering in my ears. At around two a.m. I am woken with a start by the sound of a giant walrus vomiting in our toilet while banging its head on the walls, or something which sounds very much close to it. ‘What the hell?’, I think. The door to the bathroom opens, and Calum staggers out, looking three sheets to the wind. The fact that he has awakened me seems not be a cause of concern for him, the pecksniffian bastard..

Despite the bags under my eyes, the curiosity gets the best of me.

‘Well, what’s up with you?’ I enquire, slurring.

‘Those English girls are fitbirds of the prime category... Oh Christ, I’m dying...’ he says, beating me to the slurring competition.

‘You pulled?’ I can’t believe it.

‘Aye, commander.’

‘With those English girls I was speaking with the other day?’

‘Yeah. The very ones.’

‘Well, I’m not surprised you vomited, then.’

‘Oh, that’s right, I forgot I was speaking with Erik Von Markovik.’

‘Bloody hell. You must have been drunk like an Irishman to snog one of those. Even the sea-gulls stay away from our ship when they’re taking a walk on deck.’

‘Bitter grapes, eh?’ he sneers. The son of a bitch. It’s true I wouldn’t have minded some salsa while on this cruise, but certainly not with those warthog-faced gals I met the other night. They looked like they had been pulled out of Warhammer. I’m about to tell him that when he reaches his bed and dozes off in the space of six seconds.

I am thinking of getting a proper eight-hour sleep now, especially as the next day we are expected to dock and reach home at last, so there should be no further reason to get up early and go exploring, yet at seven in the morning a bell goes off like a thermal nuclear alarm and everybody gets up and starts yapping. Me and Calum sort of stagger towards the bridge, and a sailor explains to us that it is a drill, selected for this day in a ‘clever move’ by the captain, who did not want to interfere with our holidays when we were coming to the new islands. We should wear the inflatable jackets, we are told, and wait by the rail. I turn down to work the fiddle, and when I look up I realise that my comrade is nowhere to be seen. ‘Hullo,’ I think. ‘I wonder where he is.’

I discover the answer five minutes later, when the same sailor drags him by the arm to my side, him looking very pale.

‘Where have you been?’ I ask.

‘I was vomiting,’ he says, almost out of breath, ‘off the other rail. Then this idiot came along and started ranting that I was supposed to stand on the opposite side of the ships. I almost threw him overboard when he grabbed my elbow. Never heard anything so absurd in my life.’

I tell him: ‘If the ship is sinking, you think they’d wait for you to finish vomiting?’

‘If the ship is sinking and I vomit in the safety boats, I’m going to be thrown to the fishes anyway. Might as well close in dignity.’

He has some logic himself, the poor lad. So that’s pretty much how we closed with our own cruise – high-flying our flags of dignity. Oi begorrah! Onward ye masses!