воскресенье, декабря 31, 2006

New Year's Premonition















Friday afternoon, as I passed in front of some fancy café on 58th St. near Fifth Avenue, I began to think about how hard it is to find a café, or any sort of cozy spot near where I live, except for Starbucks, which, alas, does not have enough personality to become my place of choice.

(Truth be said, the Starbucks near my home has a beautiful view to the Metro-North trains, which run quite often in the morning rush hour, making that café the perfect place-to-be before going to work. But I rarely go there, because it is out of the way to my subway station.)

In fact, the problem is really finding a café where I would enjoy going often, for the drinks, for the location, for the decoration. It doesn't have to be close to home, it just has to be a place where it would make sense to go to in order to spend well a few dollars, as well as a few minutes of my life. As it is nowadays, minutes of my life are gladly spent in many locations, but hardly with so much pleasure at cafés in general.

This made me think about a certain charming café in my hometown. At Dom Soccatto I spent not a few minutes, but many pleasant hours of my life talking to friends and drinking espressos. It was not my only café of choice in Petrópolis, but it is the one whose image returns most vividly to my mind when I think about these adorable corners of my city.

And, since we are talking about Petrópolis, I feel I should point to my readers a wonderful page I found a few months ago (it was in Summer, to be less vague), from which the image above is taken, and where visitors will find a few more beautiful mementos from long-past ages in that foggy and nostalgic city set amidst the mountains. I wonder if, one day, reminiscences of that café on Irmãos D'Angelo Street will arouse the same nostalgia for an unexperienced epoch that these faded postcards summon to one's mind nowadays.

среда, декабря 13, 2006

A Few Facts About My Grandfather

On the day of my parents' wedding, my grandfather Solon disappeared. Not a very unusual occurrence (read below), and then it was very clear that it was meant to show he did not approve of the marriage. His brother walked the bride to the groom inside the church. Guests at the wedding thought that "Solon" looked younger.

Once he discovered he had to undergo an eye surgery. Not a very big deal, but it would scare my grandmother. So he disappeared, and a couple of days later, when my grandma and my mom were thinking about calling the police, he re-appeared, his eyesight corrected.

Before anyone could think about chatting online, he - and many other people around the world, obviously - used a short-wave radio to communicate with users far away, in his case as far as Argentina. He kept the radio in a shack in the back of the house, which functioned as a sort of office. On the wall, a poster of the winner of the National Soccer Championship in 1989: the glorious Clube de Regatas Vasco da Gama.

He had one of the most awesome things mankind could invent: a typewriter that used a different font, something more akin to a very correct and uniform cursive handwriting.

Since I had come here, he had started sending me postcards occasionally. He and my grandma. They are postcards from the seventies, the eighties perhaps. Some of them still show the old differential diacritics that were used before the reform in 1981 (e.g., "Govêrno Abreu Sodré - Secretaria do Turismo"). Some of them show roads, bridges, buildings of concrete, very uninteresting things perhaps; to me, they are beautiful mementos of a strange-looking Brazil, one in which new roads were novelties that figured in postcards, and one in which people wrote "periòdicamente" or "relêvo" like this, with accents.

четверг, ноября 30, 2006

Postcards (III)

In the end, I forgot to publish the last part of the "Postcards" series (of which you can read parts I and II here and here), which I suppose nobody but a very important person had the opportunity to read. I think that, at the time when I wrote this, I still wanted to continue this very erudite text, but my good GRE results quenched the need to further study elaborate, one might even say exquisite, words such as "tyro" and "nostrum." So, here it is, the last paragraph of that text, at which we find out what happened at last once our hero has shaven his face.

And now, I'll just sit and wait for a call from the Swedish Academy.


At the end of the shaving ritual, it looked as if an artist had just limned the outsider's face: he had no more qualms about his now clear-cut features and his appearance in general. Nevertheless, his state of mind did not jibe with his external appearance. His inner tyro apprised him of the growing anxiety within his soul. The stranger realized the shaving of his face had been nothing more than an extemporaneous nostrum, losing its effect as quickly as it stirred his fallow self-respect.

суббота, ноября 25, 2006

A Nice Quote, or The Melancholy of Air Travel

Since last year at least, Lufthansa has been running some ads in the United States under the slogan "All for this one moment." I first saw then on the Metro-North trains, then on the subway in NY. Some of them are nice, one of them not so much: it shows a man from such a bad point of view that his nostrils, frankly, take up almost two-thirds of the ad. OK, maybe not two-thirds, but more room than a nostril should take up in an ad (unless you are advertising some sort of nostril-cleaning product).

I found a photo of this ad online, so here it goes:



It is a reasonably good campaign, in spite of the big nostrils in the image above. One of the pieces, and the one whose character I could not help identifying with, shows a kid looking out the window of an airport, and in the reflection on the window we see a Lufthansa airplane. The captions in this ad read

"Hundreds of destinations, none of them more welcoming than home."

I apologize for not being able to reproduce this ad, unfortunately I could not find it online. Anyway, a witty vandal in the Boston subway decided to cover some of the letters in this ad, and so the meaning of the ad was considerably changed. I could not help identifying with this new "ad," and I should say I really admire the anonymous writer who created such a fine example of urban poetry:

"Hundreds of nations, none welcoming me."

пятница, ноября 10, 2006

A Village

(Inspired by Matsuo Batsho's "[A village without bells – ]")

The first thing I realized when I arrived at the village was that there were no bells. The sun was setting, shedding its last rays on earth and sky. The upper and farther clouds shone with a red and orange glow. Yet, the clouds above the small village were dark. Some stars were appearing shyly above the horizon. Apart from the stars and the clouds, the sky was empty. No bird was seen flying to its warm nest. The air was still. And so was the village.

I walked through the main street, which wound up and down a smooth hill. A few houses were scattered along the sides of the street. On the summit of the hill, a small square was perched in the middle of the path. There were a few empty benches and an old oak, its long branches spreading from its thick trunk. The leaves shed a greenish shade upon the grass.

Night was falling, and it was about time the bells would ring announcing the overcoming darkness. However, I heard nothing. I looked around, gazing at the small village scattered on the green hill. I did not see anybody. I asked myself in a low tone of voice, "How do they live?"

Somebody answered: "We do not live."

As I stared openmouthedly around me, the secret inhabitants of this strange village began to surge from their abandoned houses. They moved in my direction, shouting from the top of their terrible voices. I ran away, as fast as the wind that blows away the flowers in Spring. Then, I was alone.

пятница, октября 20, 2006

"The Dream Life of Sukhanov"

Thanks to a recommendation from Pliable, I recently read Olga Grushin's first novel, "The Dream Life of Sukhanov." It is a good novel, in spite of a few flaws: an overpopulation of metaphors and adjectives that occasionally clog a narrative otherwise very well structured, a certain obsession with describing things in a different or unexpected way à la Nabokov, and a slightly anticlimactic conclusion, one of the few moments in the book when a more precise, detailed description of events would actually do good to the text.

In fact, the mention of Nabokov over there is not accidental: from the gloating quotation by some critic on the cover of the book to the obsession with descriptions and patterns, it seems that Grushin is trying to be a new Nabokov, and the fact that she is already in the U.S. should make things easier for her. But, alas, she is not - yet - Vladimir Vladimirovich, and she had better use her talent to create something more original perhaps. Or maybe what I describe as mimicry of Nabokov is actually the ever-renovating set of themes in Russian Literature used in a less inspired way by a first-time novelist, and one who is writing in English. For language, in this case, counts a lot, and I suppose the book would be more beautiful, and less artificial, if it had been written in Russian - in which case it would have taken me far more than a week of subway rides to read it.

The book has many merits, of course, and, to name but one, there is Grushin's thoughtful observation of late-Soviet-style mid-age crisis, such as in the following excerpt:

" 'No, I dreamt of a holy mission in life.' Her words were again well practiced, and cold. 'Living in close proximity to art, religiously watching over its creation, assisting at its birth with a thousand details that were in themselves mundane and yet would add up to a great, sacred trust, a short footnote next to my name for all eternity: 'Nina Sukhanova, born Malinina, the daughter of a hack, the wife of a genius.' Pathetic, isn't it - all those young Russian girls raised on nineteenth-century novels, searching for an idol at whose plaster feet they might sacrifice their own aspirations, only to wake up decades later, aged and bitter, to find their visions of vicarious greatness shattered, their husbands average, talentless nobodies...Only that's not exactly how it turned out with us, is it, Tolya - and to tell you the truth, I sometimes think I'd prefer such a trite, unambiguous ending to...to...' "
(Grushin, Olga. The Dream Life of Sukhanov. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 2005, p. 234.)

суббота, сентября 23, 2006

The Pope, Russians and Goths

Everyone already knows about Pope Benedict XVI's rather tactless statement on Islam, quoted from "a Medieval text which [does] not in any way express my thought," as he said last Sunday.

Well, well, if it doesn't express your thought, then why did you say that, Joseph?

(In fact, reading Pope Benedict's statements in context, it seems that Manuel II Paleologus's position is simply that holy war, as preached by certain muslims, is incompatible with religious precepts. Which leads us to the conclusion that, if Pope Benedict does not agree with such a position, he agrees with the concept of holy war as a way to convert people to religion through use of force. Maybe that would justify the whole idea of the Crusades as well.)

Whatever conclusion we reach about Joseph Ratzinger's apology, it stands to reason that it is not a very good thing to insult (or to appear to insult) a religion - any religion - during such convoluted times as the ones we are living in. No, it is not a very good thing, particularly if one's own church is being attacked in a certain powerful, rich and very hypocrite country for having preachers who are pedophiles, and for hiding that information from everybody.

Now, reading one of the news articles on this whole imbroglio, two things caught my attention:

1) "Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier urged world religious leaders to show “responsibility and restraint” to avoid what he called “extremes” in relations between faiths.

“We understand perfectly how sensitive this sphere is. I think it would be right if we call for responsibility and restraint from the leaders of all world faiths,” he said during a meeting with parliamentary leaders from Group of Eight nations in the Russian resort city of Sochi."

When I say that Putin is a very likeable former secret agent, I really mean it. He rules over what once was possibly the largest Christian (Orthodox) country in the world, which overnight became the largest atheist country in the world (until Mao's revolution in China at least), and he still manages to sound convincing and diplomatic when teaching rules of behavior to the Pope. Ok, his is a somewhat bland statement, but still praiseworthy.

2) "Italian Interior Minister Giuliano Amato said he believed tensions over Benedict’s remarks wouldn’t result in any further heightening of security concerns. He told Italian state radio that suspected terrorist cells under surveillance inside the country were considered to be focused on targets “outside of Italy.”"

We all know that Italy's biggest resentment is over what happened in the Middle Ages. Before that, everyone was happy building Roman temples, with Roman columns and Roman friezes. But then the Middle Ages came, and by the year 1000 or 1100 those huge and heavy Gothic churches were being built all over Europe. "Those barbarians, the Goths, Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Franks, Germans, they don't know how to build churches and temples, all they can make is high towers and stained-glass rose windows." Europe had to wait until Palladio was born in order to bring back good taste to its buildings.

So, it comes as no surprise that the Italian Interior Minister doesn't seem very concerned with the risk of terrorist attacks in places like St. Peter's Square or the Coliseum. In other words, what he said is: "The terrorists we host want to attack places abroad. As long as they do not touch the Duomo in Florence and the Sistine Chapel, that's fine with us. I think Italy will live without Notre-Dame-de-Paris, the Houses of Parliament, or Austria's wedding cakes. It's about time someone cleaned up the house."

четверг, июля 20, 2006

The Importance of Looking at the Sky at Night

I haven't been walking around at night. Plus, in New York City it is practically impossible to see stars, or at least it is impossible to see a decent number of stars. It is possible to see the Moon, but moonlight is virtually unnoticeable except in Full Moon nights, when the city lights dwindle a little bit.

All this together can lead people to bitterness, pessimism, despair. It is sad to live under a blurry window into the outer world. One can never see clearly what lies beyond and, not seeing this clearly, how can someone aspire to infinity?

***

Cassio once told me about a trip he took to the area around his college, the summer after having graduated. "First of all, being there again, in a lazy summer day when the whole campus was empty, gave my entire day a sense of irreality. Then, in the evening, when it was time to drive back to New York, we took the wrong direction on the road and ended up going North instead of South for about half an hour, driving through an almost totally deserted parkway. The ride back on the same road was even stranger, it felt for the first hour or so that all other cars had vanished from sight. Suddenly, a white flare shone from the side, so bright it filled the whole car with a silvery tone, only to vanish the next second, and then return again. It was the Moon, a gigantic, Full Moon, shining through the tallest trees by the road. Lena looked so mysterious under that light. Those long, unending minutes when the rays of silver light cut through the car window were one of the most mysterious, and because of that most beautiful and poetic, moments of my life. It is easy to understand why the Moon is so often related to madness, to unquenchable passions, after being exposed to its inexorable glow for so long."

понедельник, июля 03, 2006

Postcards (II)

One morning, however, all these endlessly repetitive and imprisoning nights of self-indulgence reached an end: the foreigner woke up and realized the enormity of his experience. All he had done, his desultory innuendoes to girls and fatuous jokes with newly-made acquaintances, amounted to a heap of dross that he could not brook for another minute. His still inchoate self-respect began to stir and lumber about in his soul, as if it were preparing to depart from the fell where it had been hiding for so long, hiding from both the inoportune tyro and the overwhelming pseudo-self that took over the exile's spirit upon every sunset.

The stranger looked at himself in the mirror, tamped his unshaved face, and felt it was time to withdraw his razor blade from the desuetude that victimized it. Curiously chary of cutting himself while shaving his beard, at first he parried the movement of the blade even before it touched his skin.
Its sharp end turned into a grin, the metal blade stared at him with flip impatience. The foreigner realized it was fruitless to rail against the arrant sharpness of the blade. Removing the foliage that hid his face was the fundamental reason for the blade to exist, although he did not know yet what his own fundamental reason to exist was. His self-respect could assert, however, that removing his facial hair was the first action of a truly free spirit.

суббота, июля 01, 2006

Postcards (I)

An expatriate often sees the reality surrounding him as a sodden landscape. Just as the present becomes a mere trifle, a deviation in the route leading the past to the mysterious future, the space in which the foreigner exists is not a true physical space, but rather a mixture of the various worlds that inhabit his memory, brewed together inside his mind. He knows, however, that, no matter how suppliant his eyes may look as he repines for his homeland, wending his way through streets where the dulcet sound of foreign tongues is an anodyne for his overweening spleen, he will never slake the anxiety of a froward tyro who, from the depths of his mind, insists on adumbrating the yearned-for return to the homeland. And so, in order to survive outside the ingenious idylls of this fledgling imagination, the exile must abjure his inner, everlasting tyro, whose energy has not yet been sapped by the endless maundering through unknown streets and villages and the mental welter at the end of a day spent in a stygian boarding house in winter.

As the foreigner quaffs a pint of beer, recumbent at a godforsaken tavern, he knows he will rue the simpers he inveigled from natty girls throughout his journey, as he recounted with insouciance his disadventures abroad. The glib approach he took to his condition would often cause these girls to feel salacious, and occasionally he too found their physiognomies to be piquant. Nonetheless, their gossamer sensuality, achieved after hours of preening in front of a mirror, would soon become as sere as the barren landscape the foreigner saw outside the window. He suddenly quailed at their provocations: pluck vanished from his labile spirit. He realized he was incapable of cozening his soul, no matter how much he vaunted his own stoicism. The gamboling at bars and parties having toadies as his companions did not help him reach the pith of his problem. Instead, the din of endless toasts and bad music only caused him to become more distrait, unable to hear his conscience averring that his behavior was quite feckless.