Friday, October 28, 2011

Wild Coast by John Gimlette

John Gimlette has written a well researched book on "The Guianas" (p. 5) comprised of Guyana (formerly British Guiana), Suriname (formerly Dutch Guiana) and Guyane Française (also known as French Guyana). The Guianas lie between the great rivers of South America, the Orinoco and the Amazon. Between these boundaries, over 40 other rivers exist, none navigable more than 90 miles. Once upon a time, sugar cane was king, and created inestimable wealth for Great Britain, Holland, and France. The slaves exploited for this enterprise would rewrite the history books in early abolition efforts. Gimlette's travels originate in Guyana and head east through Suriname to the Guyane/Brazil border. He often jumps between historical details and his present-time travelogue, on the turn of a dime. Most of the book is devoted to Guyana, with much focus on Jonestown and the southern savannah called Rupununi.

Georgetown is given short shrift, despite being a World Heritage site, but we learn some interesting facts, e.g., a "European had to have twenty-five slaves in order to vote" (p. 26). A chapter is devoted to the 1978 Jonestown massacre, an event which really had nothing to do with Guyana, "It was an American matter" (p. 82). The author pays great attention to the Rupununi Savannah in the south of Guyana, below the Rain Forest. He quotes Evelyn Waugh's book 92 Days, who was underwhelmed by a visit in the 1930s, sampling "every variant of Guyanese discomfort: fevers, saddle sores, boils, rashes, 'deep and tenacious' ticks, and bites 'like circles of burning flesh'" (p. 89). He visits a famous resort "Rockview" (p. 89) which had a pet tapir. He mentions Waterton's discovery of curare for blowpipe tips (p. 104). The waterways were filled with nasty critters, not just caymans, but "a vast society of flesh-eating beasts" including "the nine inch perai", "stingrays and electric eels - the 500-volt variety" (p. 106). Land critters also abound, including the labaria, a deadly snake (p. 160). The Guyana section wraps up with Berbice, center of a massive slave revolt in 1763. The Dutch have not forgotten and have an "expression: 'Naar de Barrebiesjes gaan' ('Get thee to Berbice '), the equivalent of "go to Hell'" (p. 171). Berbice nearly became South America's first and only republic of slaves (p. 176). Guyana abounds in old wooden architecture, like the dilapidated 1881 hospital in New Amsterdam (see photo).

Ah, mysterious Suriname, autonomous since 1975. What other country has a banknote for 2 1/2 dollars (photo)? In 1650, the Dutch thought they were clever and swapped the island of Manhattan for Suriname with the foolish British ! After all, "nothing grows up north" (p. 192). Much of Suriname's history revolves around the runaway slaves or "maroons" (p. 202). Suriname had become a "byword for brutality in the name of profit. In Candide, published in 1758, Voltaire's hero arrives here to be robbed by judges and sea captains, and to meet a slave whose been shorn of his limbs...Candide finally renounces his faith in Providence and decides to head for home" (p. 203). Ultimately, the maroons signed a treaty for their freedom. It is glossed over in the book: "It was another five years before the Saramaccaners signed a treaty" (p. 203). Other tribes were among the macaroons: "the Kwintis, N'Djukas, Bonis, Paramaccaners and Matawais" (p. 205). Maroons spoke a form of Creole or "Talkie-talkie" (p. 208).

Most interesting is the recounting of the tale of John Gabriel Stedman who was brought in to lead the quelling of a slave revolt in 1771. Ironically, he became a sympathizer to the slaves and wrote a famous abolitionist treatise Narrative of a Five Years' Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam, in Guiana on the Wild Coast of South America in 1790 (p. 261). It was so explicit, that Stedman feared for himself and burned thousands of copies rather than sell them. In this century, V.S. Naipaul called it a"a nauseous catalogue of atrocities" like those about the Nazis (p. 262). It was recently published by the Johns Hopkins Press in 1988, when Richard and Sally Price found the original drafts.

Which leaves us with Guyane, still a department of France. Historically a penal colony since 1848, this country is perhaps best known to the outside world for the film Papillon, about inmates on Devil's Island. That island, St. Joseph, and Royal Island made up the Iles du Salut (Salvation). The likelihood of prisoners dying in French Guyana was so great that banishment became known as la guillotine sèche, the chop without the mess. The rule of doublage (p. 300) required that every man serve the same period again as a 'free' man in the colony, each man expected to support himself. The Dreyfus Affair was the swan song of the penal colony, when a Jewish Captain was suspected of leaking secrets to the Germans. Dreyfus was sent to Devil's Island in 1895 at the age of 36. The French novelist Emile Zola is outraged and publishes his famous letter 'J'accuse' in 1898. Dreyfus returns to France a year later. His legacy includes formation of the World Zionist Organization as Herzl was inspired by the case. Devils Island continued to house enemies of France including the Việt Quốc in 1931. In 1938, no new inmates were imported as a result of world outrage. After the war, France offered Guyane as a homeland for the Jews and also planned to provide shelter for DPs (Displaced Persons) (p. 315).

Strange as it may seem, since 1968, Guyane is also the site where 50% of commercial satellites are launched (p. 317) from the Centre Spatial Guyanais in Kourou. Launches from the equator are advantageous for geostationary satellites due to the increased velocity of the earth's rotation.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Mr. Sammler's Planet by Saul Bellow

Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970) is the story of a septuagenarian (20 years older than his author) possessed of only one good eye. "The left distinguished only light and shade. But the good eye was dark-bright, full of observation" (p. 4). Mr. Artur Sammler, Holocaust survivor, intellectual, and occasional lecturer at Columbia University in 1960s New York City, is a "registrar of madness," (p. 118) a refined and civilized being caught among people crazy with the promises of the future (moon landings, endless possibilities). He views himself as hors d'usage (out of service) (pp. 136, 307). His Cyclopean gaze reflects on the degradations of city life while looking deep into the sufferings of the human soul.

He is a Polish Jew born in Cracow of Anglophile parents. He lived in Bloomsbury and was friends with H.G. Wells. Arrested by the Nazis during a visit to Poland to liquidate his father-in-law's estate, he was beaten and left for dead in a mass grave with his wife Antonina (pp. 15, 137, 273) dead beside him (p. 92). After killing a German soldier, he was concealed by partisans in a tomb (p. 90), effectively a second burial. In one of the most terrible indictments of the book, the partisans who saved Sammler's life in Poland resumed their traditional anti-Semitism after the war. He doesn't think of himself as a Holocaust survivor: "It wasn't surviving, it was only lasting" (p. 91). Eventually, his nephew, Dr. Arnold (Elya) Gruner, gynecologist, brings Sammler and his daughter to the U.S. in 1947, retrieving them from a DP (displaced persons) camp in Salzburg (pp. 10, 11). The novel takes place over a few days in New York in the 1960s, amidst sea changes in morals and sexuality. "Millions of civilized people wanted oceanic, boundless, primitive, neckfree nobility, experienced a strange release of galloping impulses, and acquired the peculiar aim of sexual niggerhood for everyone" (p. 162). Interesting racial slur for the times. Kiernan (Saul Bellow) points out that Sammler is a kind of Lazarus or Tiresias - a posthuman figure, half-blind, twice-buried, who has survived the worst of the world's horrors. He embraces what seems a doomed planet and species. Symptomatic of a planet of malaise, New York is a wasteland. Criminals work their trades everywhere with impunity.

Chap. I. Most of the novel's sub-themes are introduced in the first chapter. Two of the most noteworthy episodes in the book are in this chapter: the pickpocket and the Columbia lecture gone bad. Sammler starts off with a riveting focus on the artfully dressed black pickpocket who plies his trade on the Riverside bus, getting on at Columbus Circle and exiting at 72nd St. Sammler has a habit of taking this bus after his day spent at the 42nd St. Public Library on his trip home to the apartment at w90th St. (p. 8). Sammler observes this pickpocket regularly with fascination, "illicitly, he craved a repetition" (p. 11) and soon he is observed observing or "seen seeing" (p. 5.). The pickpocket eventually follows Sammler to his apartment, corners him, and exposes his gargantuan penis in an act of total intimidation, in a manner of a geometric proof, effectively stating this contest is unequal. Bellow's description is classic.

The pickpocket unbuttoned himself. Sammler heard the zipper descend. Then the
smoked glasses were removed from Sammler's face and dropped on the table. He was
directed, silently, to look downward. The black man had opened his fly and taken
out his penis. It was displayed to Sammler with great oval testicles, a large
tan-and-purple uncircumcised thing - a tube, a snake; metallic hairs bristled at
the thick base and the tip curled beyond the supporting, demonstrating hand,
suggesting the fleshy mobility of an elephant's trunk, though the skin was
somewhat iridescent rather than thick or rough. Over the forearm and fist that
held him Sammler was required to gaze at this organ. No compulsion would have
been necessary. He would in any case have looked. The interval was long. The
man's expression was not directly menacing but oddly, serenely masterful. The
thing was shown with mystifying certitude. Lordliness. Then it was returned to
the trousers. Quod erat demonstrandum. Sammler was released (pp.

In this chapter we learn that Shula has been abused by her husband Eisen in Israel and that Sammler intervened and brought her to New York (p. 24). Eisen was also a Holocaust survivor, having escaped "from Nazi-occupied territory" (p. 168). "Eisen had been wounded at Stalingrad....Later he had been thrown from a moving train. Apparently because he was a Jew. Eisen had frozen his feet; his toes were amputated" (p. 24). Sammler views Shula as "his only contribution to the continuation of the species!" (p.116). She is a "scavenger...seen hunting through Broadway trash baskets" (p. 21). Shula has been hiring Columbia students to read to her father (p. 35). An ex-reader, Lionel Feffer, invites Sammler to an amphitheater lecture at Columbia Univ., which culminates with catcalling from activists in a manner challenging to his virility (42). He leaves for the street and feels as if he is an impotent caricature of a Henry Moore sculpture, whose hollow and lean figures represented cultivated 20th century mankind (p. 43). This eruption by a student activist was felt to be so out of character, many critics lashed out at Bellow. In many ways, this is reminiscent of T.S. Eliot's objective correlative (or its absence) explored in Hamlet and Eliot's Prufrock (previous posts), in that this outburst seems unjustified by external events.

We also learn that his daughter Shula is convinced that her father is writing a memoir about H.G. Wells, whom he knew in Bloomsbury (central London). When a Hindu biophysicist named Govinda Lal visits Columbia to lecture on moon travel. he alludes to Wells' ideas about interplanetary colonization. Shula promptly steals the manuscript to aid her father in writing the nonexistent memoir. Dr. Gruner's daughter, Angela, is introduced as she is visiting Sammler and revealing all of her details after psychiatric sessions (p. 31). Speaking of manuscripts, Sammler loves to spend the days reading Meister Eckhardt at the Library, a medieval German mystic who believed that God's comfort is achieved in abandoning all God's creatures, viz. humanity (pp. 37, 253). We also learn that Dr. Gruner has been admitted to the hospital (p. 35). In the course of this chapter, Sammler worries about a "second collapse" (p. 33) of civilization based on all he sees in the crazy fanatics surrounding him. Sammler has survived the worst of the world's horrors - "The luxury of nonintimidation by doom - that might describe his state" (p. 134).

Chap. II. Sammler cannot remove from his mind the pickpocket encounter. "What had that been about ?...there was the man's organ, a huge piece of sex flesh, half-tumescent in its pride and shown in its own right, a prominent and separate object intended to communicate authority" (p. 55). Enter a cousin named Walter Bruch, who inflicts a discourse on Sammler relating to Buchenwald and imitations of Hitler, and lurid accounts of masturbation (p. 59), a result of him falling in love with women's arms (p. 58). Bruch mentions Eisen's artistic talent - he paints living people as corpses (p. 65). Walter leaves and Sammler again ponders the pickpocket and contemplates "a sexual madness was overwhelming the western world" (p. 66). Angela's boyfriend Wharton Horricker is introduced (p. 68). We learn that Sammler was only 6 years older than Gruner, his nephew, by virtue that he was the child of a 2nd marriage, and that Sammler was his uncle through a half-sister (p. 76). Angela's brother, Wallace, tells Sammler that their father hid money in their New Rochelle home, money earned from doing abortions on the rich and famous (p. 101), hoping Sammler will learn something from Gruner in hospital before he dies.

Chap. III. Lionel Feffer brings Shula's theft of the "moon manuscript" (p.106) to Sammler's attention (p. 112). Sammler reveals that he was concerned Feffer was taking advantage of him in a money-making scheme (p. 108). Feffer makes an insightful observation about Sammler: "I know you are trying to condense what you know, your life only said that you would like to boil down your experience of life to a few statements" (p. 114). Sammler responds that these are the "short views" (pp. 114, 163) of Sydney Smith (1771-1845). Feffer also reveals that he knows about the pickpocket (p. 119). It is revealed that Sammler's blindness was from a blow from a gun butt (p. 137). Sammler also reveals escaping from Polish partisans turned against the Jews while he was hiding in Zamosht Forest, after he'd escaped from the mass grave (p. 140). Importantly, Sammler relates his killing of a German straggler in the Forest, where he disarms him and shoots to kill despite the soldier begging for mercy. He reflects: "The thing no doubt would have happened differently to another man, a man who had been eating, drinking, smoking, and whose blood was brimming with fat, nicotine, alcohol, sexual secretions. None of these in Sammler's blood. He was then not entirely human" (p. 139). And more: "to kill the man he ambushed in the snow had given him pleasure. Was it only pleasure ? It was more. It was joy...When he fired his gun, Sammler, himself nearly a corpse, burst into life...When he shot again it was less to make sure of the man than to try again for that bliss" (pp. 140-141). This brief encounter will figure again later in the book when Eisen beats the pickpocket. Sammler will struggle withg the message delivered to him on that day: "that reality was a terrible thing, and the final truth about mankind overwhelming and crushing" (p. 280).

The chapter also relates his 2nd trip to Israel, where he managed to secure a press pass and pose as a 72-year old journalist in June 1967, during the Six-Day War: "he refused to stay in Manhattan watching television" (p. 142). "At the beginning of the Aqaba crisis he had suddenly become excited" (p. 142), when Nasser closed the Gulf of Aqaba (May, 1967) to Israeli ships. He later details his visit to the Gaza strip and the Sinai Desert (p. 250).

Chap IV. Dr. Gruner's hospital room forms the backdrop for this chapter. We learn his son Wallace went to MIT but became a bartender in Cambridge (p. 152). Angela now believes there is money hidden in the house, her father having done favors for the Mafia, namely "performed abortions" (p. 162). Gruner is upset with Angela having learned that she has engaged in group sex (p. 159). She wants Sammler to intercede on her behalf. Sammler cannot bear the sordid details and fears having to depend on Angela when her father dies, yet "he decided that under no circumstances and on no account would he become involved in a perverse relationship with Angela in which he had to listen for his supper" (p. 160). Wallace and Eisen enter the hospital room. There is reference to their doing business together (p. 169). Eisen has a baize (felt) bag full of bronze medallions that he wants to show his Cousin Elya (p. 170).

Margotte calls Sammler at the hospital to inform him that Shula has once again absconded with the moon manuscript (p. 172). Dr. Lal is exasperated and Sammler thinks "This unlucky Lal, who must have been sick of earth to begin with if he had such expectations of the moon" (p. 174). The situation forces Sammler to abandon his passive state: "I don't use my authority often enough,. Believe me, I can control my daughter, and I shall" (p.175). Gruner awakes, disgusted with his offspring: "My daughter is a dirty cunt.....And my son, a high-IQ moron" (p. 177).

Chap V. Dr. Gruner's estate in New Rochelle forms the backdrop for this chapter. We meet Emil, chauffeur who will take us in the Rolls Royce. He is described as having a Savonarola nose (p. 180), a description which will reappear in Humboldt's Gift. Wallace engages Sammler in conversation, starting with H.G. Wells. Sammler prefers the ocean bottom to the moon: "I seem to be a depth man rather than a height man. I do not personally care for the illimitable" (p. 183). Arriving at the house, Sammler finds his daughter in the tub (p. 193). He learns she made a copy of the moon manuscript and "locked them in two lockers in Grand Central Station" (p. 195). Shula feels that the MS theft is justified for her father's creative project: "A creative person wouldn't stop at anything. For the creative there are no crimes. And aren't you a creative person?" (p. 199).

Margotte arrives at the house with Prof. Lal (p.201), whose expression is of shock and disappointment: "The inadequacy of words - the need for several simultaneous languages to address all parts of the mind at once, especially those parts left free by meager communication, functioning furiously on their own. Instead, as one were to smoke ten cigarettes simultaneously; while also drinking whiskey; while also being sexually engaged with three or four other persons; while hearing bands of music; while receiving scientific notations - thus to capacity engage" (p. 202). And so the long discourse between Lal and Sammler is set to begin. Sammler suspects that Shula "had run away with The Future of the Moon in order to create this very opportunity, this meeting" (p. 207). The discussion takes them to philosopy, Schopenhauer, who says "The organs of sex are the seat of the Will" (p. 209). Schopenhauer equates sexual potency with other forms of potency. Sammler's reticence in this area contrasts with the sexual shenanigans of H.G. Wells, Angela, Bruch, and of course, the pickpocket.

Long ago, writers became aristocrats through their skill in words, they felt obliged to go into action. Evidently, it's a disgrace for true nobility to substitute words for acts....You can see Hamlet when he feels that humiliation...saying, 'I...must like a whore unpack my heart with words'" (p. 213), then "Or to Polonius, 'Words, words, words.' Words are for the elderly, or for the young who are old-in-heart" (p. 213). Talk turns to biology: "The biological fundamentals are like the peasantry, the whole individual considering himself to be a prince. It is the cigale and the fourmi. The ant was once the hero, but now the grasshopper is the whole show" (p. 216), then outer space: "outer space is an opposite - personally, an emotional pole. One is born between his mother's legs, afterward persisting outward" (p. 222). Nevertheless, crowded and disappointing though it is, Sammler's own planet is still a home he cannot give up. What Sammler has to offer in place of a defeatist departure into space is the point of the book.

The conversation is briefly interrupted, Sammler enquiring about the whereabouts of Wallace: "Oh, he went up with tools to fix something in the attic" (p. 222). Sammler talks about Nazi Germany: "Shula and I have been in this written-off category. If you chance nevertheless to live, having been out leaves you with idioysncracies. The Germans attempted to kill me. Then the Poles also shot at me. I would have died without Mr. Cieslakiewicz. He was the one man with whom I was not written off. By opening the tomb to me, he let me live. Experience of this kind is deforming" (p. 230). Sammler realizes the "nobility" of history books is no longer an option: "many have surged forward in modern history, after long epochs of namelessness and bitter obscurity, to claim and to enjoy...a name, a dignity of person, a life such as belonged in the past only to gentry, nobility..." (p. 235). The discourse ends abruptly when Shula notices water flooding the floor (p. 237). It's Wallace looking for hidden money in the attic pipes. The chapter ends with Sammler revisiting his trip to Israel during the Six-Day War (p. 262).

Chap. VI. Sammler finds himself alone with Shula at the House as all the other guests have left. He notes the flooding of the attic "was a metaphor for Elya's condition" (p. 259), viz his water on the brain. Wallace is out and about flying his Cessna for his new business venture photogaphing landscapes. On the return to Manhattan, after spotting the "Huntington Hartford Building" (p. 284) at Columbus Circle, which Bruch jokes is the "Taj Mahole" (see photo), Emil notices Feffer and Eisen caught up amongst a crowd of onlookers witnessing a scuffle with the pickpocket (p. 285). Feffer was fighting the pickpocket, who was after his Minox camera, having caught the pickpocket in the act of picking a purse on the bus (p. 286). Sammler coaxed Eisen to rescue Feffer, and he hit him with a bag filled with his crazy sculpture medallions. Symbolically, the pickpocket is no match for history (the weapon being a bagful of medallions celebrating Israel's achievements).

Sammler then felt Eisen was overbearing in his assault and vainly tried to stop the pummeling. Eisen was "amused at Sammler's ludicrous inconsistency" (p. 291). Eisen to Sammler: "If in - in. No? If out - out. Yes? No? So answer" (p. 292). No doubt Sammler was contemplating his own murder of the German soldier in Poland (p. 139). For Eisen, as a Jew, he crushes skulls when reasonable to do so without remorse. Sammler has difficulty with this notion. In the end, Sammler "sympathized with" the pickpocket, viewing him as "mad with an idea of noblesse" (p. 294). "The pickpocket stole because he took the slackness, the cowardice of the world for granted" (p. 47).

Back at the hospital, Dr. Gruner is close to death. Angela is still rationalizing her sexcapades in Acapulco with Sammler. "Wharton got his kicks out of that little broad. He liked her. Better than I liked the other man. I'd never see him again. But then on the plane Wharton perversely became jealous" (p. 299). For Angela, perversity is Wharton's change of heart, not the sex with another couple. Sammler sees that Angela has an "opportunity" (p. 305) to apologize to her father, to ask for forgiveness. In the end she refuses to do so. Sammler slams her: "I don't know what happened in Mexico. The details don't matter. I only note the peculiarity that it is possible to be gay, amorous, intimate with holiday acquaintances. Diversions, group intercourse, fellatio with strangers - one can do that but not come to terms with one's father at the last opportunity" (p. 306). Sammler pushes Angela over the edge, only to be interupted by Shula's call - she found the money stuffed in a hassock. All this time, we note that Wallace never even shows up at the hospital.

Meanwhile, Sammler is struggling to find some "word" (Angela failed) that will comfort his dying nephew. Gruner dies unreconciled. Standing by his nephew's body, he delivers his "word" in the form of a silent prayer: "At his best this man was much kinder than at my very best I have ever been or could ever be. He was aware that he must meet - through all the confusion and degraded clowning of thiis life through which we are speeding - he did meet the terms of his contract. The terms which, in his inmost heart, every man knows. As I know mine. As all know. For that is the truth of it - that we all know, God, that we know, we know, we know" (p. 313). The mere assertion of individuality, the non-negotiable demands for one's own way, the leaps to ecstasy that by-pass commitments to others - such behavior debases the self it seeks to glorify. It is only by loyalty to the "contract" implicit in our humanity that we can safeguard our own sense of the self's value. By signs, by words, we make this planet a home for each other, we make a web of relationships that reach beyond the individual life.