Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Autumn Leaves in Beijing


Autumn Leaves in Beijing
by Armando Ortiz
Two shadows were following me last night, giving the body a shivering fright. I turned around to see who was behind, but it was the street lights casting two shadows in the night. Walking home, and hearing noises scattering from the sides, the breeze sweeping the autumn leaves on the floor, but out of sight.

At a distance a black cat ran, crossing my path looking for cover, becoming a discarded newspaper twisting, scattering, and making my thoughts stutter. Discarded rubbish blown along, like dark ocean waves, became black tarantulas that crawled on the ground.

Later, I woke up in a cold sweat to the clanging of the metal door- 
late October, 
when winds shake pots and pans past the midnight hour. 
Traffic lights and flag poles shaking and resonating like a lone drumstick that lands on a snare drum.

On that crisp and starry night, 
I was afraid that death would soon take hold, 
and blind me with nightmare dreams while locked inside an endless dawn. 
Even if living on an island I would not be at peace, 
because something was haunting, 
but the mind remained clueless to what that could be.

In Beijing, 
amongst retired folk that woke up early to do their morning taichi is where I lived, 
frosty breaths blending with dawn’s flowing air. 
They seemed unfazed with nature’s change that was in the air, 
and moved their arms as if spinning and mixing clay-wares.

It was like being in a Bergman film, 
where I was supposed to see my body stiff, 
but then the next day the heater came on, 
and the warmth of my home, 
became a shelter of safety from the cold crawling into every corner of the city.

The last days of autumn, 
when the warm colors that trees wear
fall to the ground, 
and brown dead leaves 
announce the blistering winter’s arrival, 
who with sweeping broom sounds, 
rakes away all that has passed, 
bringing a stiffening cold season 
that will refuse to move fast.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

One Day You Will Remember: Short Piece


One day you will remember
By Armando Ortiz
One day you will remember my love and kindness. Seasonal winds will begin to shift south, heading toward distant reserves, and a misty drizzle will be heard from the window, but outside a sun brighter than light will breathe a baking wind on to you. Then a mountain of butterflies will appear on the date when you should recall my words.

On that day, pine trees will become bouquets of orange poppies that hang from every branch, and the hands of our giving mother will unfold as monarchs that rest on green needles sharing memories of us with every flap of their wings.

It will be a clear autumn day, where delicate yellow like leaves will remain suspended in midair, never to touch ground, under a noon sun. Despite this broken heart, harvester butterflies will pass you bye, and then, when I’m no longer here, they will whisper these words, “My love for you was an endangered phenomenon.”

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Tao Lin's Taipei: Review

"Mandala 15" by Tao Lin

Tao Lin’s Taipei: Review
By Armando Ortiz
If novelist were to be rappers then the one writer that stands out above all rappers today is Tao Lin. There have been some people in the internet that have compared his current novel, Taipei to Drake’s Nothing Was Same, but I won’t be doing that here. Nope, Tao Lin is the equivalent to an underground rapper like Pimp C, Curren$y or Danny Brown. Lin is a great story teller like many that tell their stories of drug infused orgies and adventures. In Taipei, the main character, Paul, is a young up and coming writer who embarks on various trips to promote his book, taking road trips to other nearby cities or traveling to visit family in other states and outside the country. Paul’s drugs of choice are pills of the prescription kind that are used today, but tend to be highly addictive. He takes excessive amounts of Adderall, Xanax or other anxiety and depression type prescription drugs. He also infuses these drug trips with mushrooms, LSD, and excessive marijuana smoking, activities which most rappers talk about these days.
Tao Lin
I had come across Tao Lin while reading an article in the Wall Street Journal a couple of years ago, it must have been the book review section of the newspaper. I was impressed by what I read, prompting me to look his name up using Wikipedia, discovering his blog, which I briefly read, and leading me to purchase a copy of Taipei. Paul is trying to make a name for himself and is enjoying relative fame amongst the literary and art crowd of New York. In addition to being a writer, Paul is going through a bad breakup that has kept him in the pits for the last few months. Despite that he goes to various gatherings that his friends organize where he mingles with other up and comers. Swimming through the house parties that he’s invited to, Paul ends up meeting a new chick at one of these events, and suddently his wit and conversational prowess are revived. In many ways she becomes his new, yet elusive, muse. The tension that sprouts between this new and emerging relationship is what truly drives the story, since this new and relative unknown is what gives Lin’s novel another level of interest, engaging the reader not only through his creative and long descriptions of dinners and city life, but giving the reader a glimpse into the tensions in dating and relationships in our contemporary world.
Paul seems apprehensive about the relationship, displaying his fear that what is happening might turn into a disappointment and lead to a breakup. Nonetheless there is a glimmer of hope that emerges within the story and we see instances of general happiness, and satisfaction with his new partner. On the other hand, both characters like to engage in some heavy recreational drug use which results in hours of sleeping in his tiny room or simply spending hours together but on each other’s computers and communicating via text, email or instant messaging. Their excesses signals that their relationship might end up being toxic, but Paul and his girl still don’t know what will happen with them even after returning from a trip abroad.
Taipein by Tao Lin
In many ways Lin describes not only contemporary life in an American city, but also shows the realities that come with being connected to the internet, having a portable electronic devices, which in many ways depersonalize people. On the other hand, Paul has a broad selection of drugs at his disposal- instantly. Some of these drugs, because they are prescription drugs manage to leave the country with him becoming an intricate channel. At some point in the story Paul and his girlfriend spend a few days in Taipei, Taiwan wandering the malls and spending a memorable drug infused trip inside and outside a McDonald’s all of which is captured in their digital camera.
The reason why Lin could be considered an underground rapper is because throughout the story his character keeps true to himself, albeit a bit depressive and more than half of the time on some pill. Yet what he describes is no different than what rappers, like Danny Brown talk about in most of their songs. Brown, like Lin, tells stories about his life in Detroit and his surroundings in the many mixtapes, Detroit State of Mind 3, Detroit State of Mind 4,It’s A Art, Hot Soup and albums XXX, and Old that have been released via internet. His body of work describes life in such detail that its undeniable that he has lived those tales or else why would he be sharing them to the public. This same logic follows other better known rappers like A$AP Rocky who describe life in New York, though a slightly different version of it but with the same amount of drugs and though they might not frequent the bars and hangouts of highbrow writers their experiences are very similar.
Rapper Danny Brown
One immediately might wonder how it is that a person being a writer can in any way have similar experiences as rappers that claim to come from the hood. Well, aside from the idea that with a demand there is a supply or vice versa it creates a fringe where all worlds meet. Either way, both seem to make a dynamic that is both experienced by those walking in the realms of high or low culture. At the end of the day a lot of what Danny Brown talks about is very similar to what Tao Lin manages to paint in his novel. The individual living in the city surrounded by all kinds of different realities, and yet despite their drug infused bodies at times being numbed by the drugs, have a persistent desire to write and to publish, putting in the ground work required of any emerging writer or rapper.
The crowds that Lin brings, are the same size of many of the underground rappers, so why is it that these people, these writers manage to bring crowds that maybe in their everyday life pass each other as they walk down a side walk, each going their own way, maybe shopping at corner stores for snacks like Cheetos and sodas or patronizing places like Wholefoods or Lawsons. These underground artists like Danny Brown along with Tao Lin talk about things that affect everyone on a daily basis, from the teenager that attends secondary school to the published author walking his dog, they experience love and heartbreak which is intimately connected to an individual through aloneness and loneliness, and is either suppressed or intensified by heavy drug use. 

Saturday, January 2, 2016

James Joyce's Dubliners: Essay


James Jocye’s Dubliners: Essay
By Armando Ortiz
           I learned about James Joyce through a classmate. We were taking the same Biology course at Los Angele City College back in the late 90’s. Just mentioning that seems a bit frightening, since it was almost twenty years ago. We were inside a Salvadoran restaurant, eating pupusas, sharing stories. He’d traveled through Russia and Eastern Europe, enjoyed drawing what he saw, instead of writing. He’d been born in South Korea, and was planning to transfer to UCLA.  Somehow he began to talk about James Joyce’s Ulysses and how it was the best novel he had ever read. Since then I kept coming across Joyce’s name, and more importantly I became somewhat familiar with the book, so while reading Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey I knew that there was some link between those epic stories and Joyce. It took several books and years, and tackling several of Pynchon’s novels and reading several of Roberto Bolano’s novels before arriving at Joyce. I’d been challenged by Bolano’s writings, and the interviews that you can see on YouTube, so I made it a point to finally read Joyce. Ever since then I’ve read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, and more recently Dubliners. This essay will mainly be on Dubliners, and will focus on a few themes presented in Joyce’s collection of short stories.

Dubliners
            We live in a time where everything seems to have a quick solution despite the fact that many things require time and energy to maintain, the main one being our bodies which over time deteriorates. If you turn your computer or television on, in less than thirty minutes you will come across advertisements that promote renewed and prolonged virility, natural hair regrowth, more testosterone, Botox, plastic surgery, skin whitening creams and so many other things related to aging and our bodies. For a few years now some have looked into what steroids to take before beginning a bodybuilding workout program so that in a few months they can bulk up and be a completely different person. Different fad diets also claim to have unimaginable results that guarantee healthy but drastic weight loss in just a few weeks. In light of all these promises James Joyce’s Dubliners becomes ever more relevant today than when it was written back one hundred years ago.
            Dubliners is a collection of fifteen short stories that contains characters who vary from elderly men to children, and of people who fall in love or are tricked into relationships. These stories all contain their own plots and internal allegories, so it is difficult to explain each one, and doing so would wipe away any chance for future readers discovering for themselves the magic of Joyce’s story telling power. After reading his stories there is a greater awareness of the overall cycle that life offers to every person on this earth. While reading his stories one cannot help to see that what he shares with the readers is relevant and that the themes have much more to do with human nature than anything else. Although some claim that these stories have a nationalist bent he reveals an intimate and human side to these stories. Joyce captures the general social atmosphere of Ireland during the early years of the twentieth century, but it generally serves as a backdrop to the stories that he has to tell about people’s lives and the feelings, thoughts and emotions that they experience.

James Joyce
            The first story has a scene where an old man sits relaxing, reflecting on life when he sees some children that most likely cut school. He engages them in conversation, and the generation gap is obvious, but that is the general trend in every society, yet it gives a glimpse into something that rarely happens, except maybe in schools or hospitals. You have an elderly person questioning and talking to youth in a manner that seems almost day to day. Another story has several memorable instances, but only one will be discussed here. There is a party that takes place in a house, and the ladies, all well past their youth are busy serving people and trying to help out with the dinner party. They are described in such an elegant and lively manner that makes getting older an experience of further maturity, but also of a meaningful expression and engagement with people of all ages. Though the story ends on a different note that will not be discussed here there is a sense within Joyce’s writing that there is a wrestling of ideas and manners of expression with every passing generation. This might be one of his overall themes in all his writings, since most of the novels deal with memory, aging, youth and the generation gap between those that have lived life and those starting their lives. Everyone is trying to claim their right to existence, but it is done in a manner that allows the reader to appreciate the society that they live in. Yet, when you look around today, most of the messages that we get is that aging is bad, and that there are ways to remedy that instead of a message that states that with age comes wisdom, but also further engagement with society.
            Dubliners is more relevant today than in the past because it seems that in today’s world there seems to be this desire to sweep the idea of growing, especially in Los Angeles, under the floor and ignore the fact that it is one of the more longer and more memory filled times for all people. Aside from the passing of time that everyone has to come to grips, Joyce also focuses on love, and all its different manifestations, from a person using love as a way to get the other person’s money, or making the relationship between mother and father, where love has been slowly vanishing, but commitment to the relationship remains strong it to make a covenant in staying away from deviant behaviors, yet again we have the idea of love and what the other person who is currently committed had experienced previously, things like love and happiness.
Joyce certainly had a knack is capturing these moments in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man where Stephen Dedalus has an amusing conversation with one of the main teachers of the school he attends, and there one sees the struggle between letting the will of youth dictate decisions and the wisdom of will experienced to guide the youth. Along those same lines, in Ulysses Stephen reappears, spending a day in discussion with various people throughout Dublin, ending up in Leopold Bloom’s living room in conversation. Later Mr. and Mrs. Bloom are in bed and the story quickly turns the tables on the reader to take on a different perspective of reality. Finally, Dubliners brings into focus the reality that ultimately our lives are lived individually and our experiences remain only within us, be it a memory of a past moment in time that we cherish and never share with anyone else, even our intimate lovers. However, it is through our interactions with people around us that we end up having our most treasured and cherished memories.
Illustration by Chip Zdarsky

Monday, December 28, 2015

Aldous Huxley's Crome Yellow: Review

Aldous Huxley’s Crome Yellow: Review
By Armando Ortiz
“That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.”-A. Huxley

A young Aldous Huxley.
Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) was born in England and is best known for his novels Brave New World, Point Counter Point, Island, and numerous essays that touch on topics of culture, society, the human body, medicine and religion. At some point in his life he saw his house and everything in it burn to the ground. He continued to write all the way up to his last days. Though he is not widely discussed in our perspective society he’s had a significant impact on the way many of his readers approach life.
 In Crome Yellow there is a story that is told by one of his characters where a dwarf ends up inheriting the family house along with the family fortune. What was strange about the dwarf was not his size or the fact that everyone around him was regular sized. It was the manner he went about transforming everything around him to conform to his inner ideals and desires. His parents loved him and gave him the best education that was possible. Then his family began to die, making him thinking about his life and the legacy, if any, that would be left after he died. The dwarf’s preoccupation with marriage and having children made him start dating, but in his mind stature was a problem. For a time he dated a woman that was of normal height and they got along well, but that still didn’t satisfy him. He didn’t want to live in a world that reminded him of his short stature. So he paid a match maker to go out and look for a woman that was about his height and came from a respectful and decent household.

Chrome Yellow.
The matchmaker ends up finding a fair woman who also was also a dwarf, and soon she was brought back to the estate. They soon married and managed to live two years together without having children, since he was preoccupied with the fear of having regular sized kids or worse, dwarf kids. The man of the house went about reducing everything inside to fit their size. The tables and chairs were reduced in height, and the doors and beds as well. He also proceeded to slowly fire his servants and replace them with servant dwarfs. The couple also found ponies to replace the regular horses. By the time their first and only baby son was born the whole mansion and people living there had been transformed.
The baby grew, and by the time he was a few months old they knew he would be a regular sized person. What had kept them from having children in the first place came to be. All the work that they had put into their house thinking that they’d live a dwarf’s life became a bit problematic. Nevertheless, the kid grew and went to school and by the time he was eight years old was as tall as his father. Instead of dealing with the problems the child would face living in a dwarf’s house, the parents decided to send him to boarding school. The kid’s primary and secondary education were spent studying somewhere else, but of course the kid returned home for the holidays and for summer vacation. As time passed, his visits and his attitude grew more and more aggressive towards them. He’d purposely break things and mistreated the dwarf servants. The story continues to unfold and eventually leads to some very unfortunate and sad events, but I will let the reader finish the story themselves.
In the book, Huxley briefly mentions the Nazi, but this short story found in the novel Crome Yellow can be seen as an allegorical allusion to what the Nazi would do in the years to come. The Nazi government and everyone that took part in all the atrocities during World War Two tried to change their society to the extent that they began removing Jews from the general population, then the handicap, then gypsies, then homosexuals, and even then some Jehovah Witnesses. They were moved into ghettos and then into concentration camps to be separate from the German population initiating the attempt at the slow eradication of their populations.
The Nazi believed in a pure and strong race where every German idealized quality that was prized could be seen in its people. Yet, Huxley’s allegory begs a question- what if they would have been successful in their attempts, and they would have cleansed their society of every perceived ill or threat? Would evil and prejudice itself have disappeared from society? What would have become of their society? Would less criminal activity exist? Would prostitution have been eradicated? Would everyone have had equal access to goods and services? Would poverty have been wiped out? Would the violent and mentally ill no longer exist? Would the chronic poor no longer exist? Huxley points to the son that the two dwarves produced and says no. Human beings are too complex to define them as this or that. Yes, there are people that have different cultural backgrounds, but to have the certainty that by ridding society of certain groups of people for the sole reason that they have some marked difference or strange tradition will never be a valid reason to exterminate other humans. Though, of course, history is riddled with such events and not one piece of land on this earth has been immune to this reality. Instead of focusing on the things that mattered in life, the dwarf focused on changing things around him, though he could not control how his own son would grow up to be.
Drawing of Huxley
Trying to alter your surroundings in such a way that it meets your idealized vision of how the world should run will never work. Even today with all the technological advances that we have has proven that humans still need to go out and work, and be active or else they turn into something disturbingly unnatural. One thing remains certain, and that is the randomness and serendipitous nature of life and human nature and the human spirit. Good and evil cannot be walled in or put into an ivory castle because no matter how good a society might be or think it is there will always be an element of evil and deviance in human nature.
Huxley suggests that things ought to be left alone and that we ought to just live life. Living with the aim of being aware of what is going on in our society and being the change we want the world to be. 1921, when he wrote Crome Yellow one could only gather hints as to what would happen in Europe in the next few decades, yet he was able to embed his criticism of society within his writings and look ahead to the oncoming problems.
Metaphorically speaking cannibalism does exist in our societies, and everyday people are being exploited and used for economic and political gain, more specifically undocumented immigrants, the chronic poor and women. The machine continues to churn and devour those whose voice is not heard. In the past, concentration camps segregated certain segments of the community, which in turn were sent to gas chambers and pyres. In Europe, Jews were seen as expendable, and these days its people that are deemed illegal aliens and have no rights. There will always be oppressed and ignored people and those in power will try to rid themselves of the unwanted by using force or nowadays the media with its endless entertainment will create a collective stereotype and amnesia of people that lack political and economic power.
In the past, Empires exercised force, and everyone knew empire was being created at the expense of other societies. In the 20th century empire and conquest began to take a new shape, being that the media became more refined via film, radio, magazines and newspapers. During the first half of that century those in power knew what was going on and Huxley suggested that force and elimination of the unwanted solved nothing.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Roberto Bolano's 2666: Review

Roberto Bolano’s 2666: Review
By Armando Ortiz

No one pays attention to these killings, but the secret of the world is hidden in them.” Roberto Bolano, 2666, p.348

Roberto Bolano (1953-2003) was born in Chile, but spent part of his life in Mexico, and briefly visited El Salvador before moving to Spain. There he had several odd jobs before having success with his writing. In between his travels, temporary jobs, and writing he became addicted to drugs, but managed to get himself clean. All throughout his time he managed to create a new literary are not your common every day folk. Of course, characters that are made up by writers will usually be out of the ordinary, though in this case it seems that Bolano has purposely chosen these characters to bring home his message. At times, society can also be oblivious to the life of their marginalized population. Huxley talks about changing our surroundings, while Bolano focuses on how our contemporary surroundings and the margins of society are affected by society at large. It is either society or the powers that be that create a collective amnesia, making us blind to what really is happening to our communities.
An aspect of Roberto Bolano's 2666 is that he makes us see characters that we usually over look by presenting characters that are not your common every day folk. Of course, characters that are made up by writers will usually be out of the ordinary, though in this case it seems that Bolano has purposely chosen these characters to bring home his message. He focuses on how our contemporary surroundings and the margins of society are affected by society at large. It is either society or the powers that be that create a collective amnesia, making us blind to what really is happening to our communities.
In 2666 you find that one of Bolano’s main characters that he creates is the handicap, professor Morini, who is an expert on the literature of the elusive German author, Benno von Archimboldi. He also happens to be the chair of one of the academic circles that oversees which papers make into the academic journals. Morini seems to have an interest in outsider art and is particularly interested in the life of a marginal artist who at one point in his artistic career decides to cut off his hand and turn it into an art piece. In the novel, the artist briefly appears in a dialogue with the professor, and explains to him that the reason for chopping off his hand was for shock value and monetary gain.
            Bolano’s characters are people who we usually don’t think about and in many ways are the forgotten people of a community that is stereotyped. When we think about authors, when we think about experts, when we think about status or power we don’t consider the characters he writes about. The novel is riddled with writers of all sorts. These are struggling writers that are barely making ends meet, but they are publishing books and articles- though in small time publications. Life for these artists is tough, but they have committed themselves to the life of a writer.

Oscar Fate is an American from the east coast, and works for an African American magazine. Though he isn't big on writing investigative articles circumstances force him to explore the seedier side of Santa Teresa's criminal underworld. On one occasion he visits the training compound of a boxer and there he finds another black man that’s from Los Angeles and is working sparring partner. Though much isn’t said about him one gets the impression that he prefers Mexico to the US. There are several Chicano characters that appear in the novel. There is the writer, Josue Hernandez Mercado, who was born in Mexico, but raised on the US side of the border and works for a small community newspaper. The books he's written and published are a written in an unorthodox manner, with a strange mixture of Spanish and English, making him an intermediary character on the crossroads of two cultural fringes. A small time literary company from Texas has published two volumes of his poetry and two novels.
Though both these men never meet they take it upon themselves to uncover the murders and atrocities that are happening on the border city of Santa Teresa. Oscar manages to escape in time with Rosa, but it seems that Josue has been murdered. The person who picks up from where Josue left off is a Chicana writer from Phoenix, who is also a writer for a small time newspaper, Mary-Sue Bravo. All of these characters point to a larger and more serious issue. The problems of a society though intimately known by the marginalized ghetto dwellers will never get resolved and understood unless the powers that be take action and find practical solutions to the ills that affect the poor.
Bolano, being the clever author that he was, reveals that this might not be possible, because in the end it is the powerful that are letting the murder of women and the disappearance of males happen. Nevertheless, one of the broader themes that he deals with is precisely the life of the poor and wanderers who live on this earth. The over looked are left to fend for themselves and to find some type of concrete solution to their daily survival, which turns into fear of being involved in anything that might jeopardize their lives.
Though there are crimes and violence being perpetuated in Santa Teresa it is mostly ignored and usually gets the attention of sensationalist magazines or simply too taboo to talk about the subject. It makes one wonder how many crimes really happen in marginalized areas of our contemporary cities that never get solved or get the attention they deserve. Witnesses to crimes prefer to run away so as to not get involved and be implicated in a crime. Cops and doctors rarely show up on time, preferring to let time pass so as not to have to go through the whole process of questioning people around or not hear anything that the dying victim might say.
It seems that there is an abundance of jobs in Santa Teresa, but not enough time to get stuff done, and not enough income; pay minimal at most or delayed at worst; to rest. There is a sense that people are able to sustain themselves, but not in the manner that is intended for humans to further develop ie socially, communally and culturally. There is also a constant influx of people into the city, partly due to its proximity to the border with the US, and due to the demand for cheap labor. In essence, the fictional city of Santa Teresa is representative of the pressures that developing nations confront in their societies. The need to make enough income to survive for the day, but also finding the ways and means to make ends meet.
Another example that he uses towards the end of the book is of the soldiers that are used to fight in the Russian front. Most of them are descendants of the very same German peasants that fought the wars of the powerful and returned to their hometowns maimed and handicap attempting to resume their “normal” peasant lives. Just like some of the cops that are members of the police force in Santa Teresa that come from the chronically poor parts of Mexico, and whom allegiances fluctuate between government officials and powerful narcos, both groups are given food, pay and gun to kill or protect higher ups. In the end these cops are also powerless.
Somehow, we are also accomplices to this problem, because ignore certain ills that exist in our perspective societies. At times we fail to see the big picture and the forces behind why people migrate and why the poor fight wars for their countries. Why is it easier for the media to talk about a girl that was kidnapped somewhere in the Mid-West, yet not talk about the numerous women that get disappeared in South Los Angeles? Why does a hot dog eating contest winner get more air time on television than a war veteran who’s returned from abroad? There are those that do look at the other side of life, the grimy and overlooked side, but those eyes are few and the voices have yet to reach the ears of the general population. The people that are out there trying to serve the underrepresented come across the characters that Bolano describes.
When 2666 was published, Bolano, though no longer alive, managed to touch on many issues that are over looked these days, pointing to something that ought to be considered when thinking about trivial matters such as the end of the world or humanity's collective destruction via nuclear war or some type of catastrophic religious or race war. As long as humans walk this earth the greatest concern and fear is not what might become of us, but of what we are now and have been for centuries - human. 
Bolano shows us where the ills of society are. People in the Americas know that the economy of the US is what moves us and that it dominates most economies in the Americas. Yet what happens to people outside of the US becomes the insignificant collateral damage of something that is beyond our present realities The Oscar Fates of the United states have no idea that we are benefiting from the fruits of the terrible exploitation of human and natural resources around the planet, but there comes a time when chance and time reveal these things, but the irony is that all around the world, the poor and marginalized, the invincible, are the ones who become keenly aware of the forces that affect the lives of other invisible populations. To them what happens in the streets in nothing new, but what was happening in Santa Teresa and is happening in real life in parts of Mexico is shocking.


Friday, December 25, 2015

Fyodor Dostoevsky's The House of the Dead: Review

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The House of the Dead: Review
by Armando Ortiz

 “This utterly new world, hitherto unknown, the strangeness of some of the facts, some of the particular observations on this lost tribe of men fascinated me, and I read some of what he had written about it with curiosity. It is, of course, possible that I am mistaken.” -Dostoevsky

House of the Dead
This short piece will focus on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel The House of the Dead, and will discuss the symbolism that both carry and mesh well with the overall message that humanity is the same wherever you go. Despite the fact that every valley has its own unique history, we remain stuck here with each other in the same home that we call earth.
The roots behind my decision to pick up another Fyodor Dostoevsky novel is quite simple, but of course things do not just happen that easy, they have a life of their own, and one is influenced by all that revolves around here, there and everywhere, but to make things a bit to the point explanations will be brief. I have read several Dostoevsky novels, initially being exposed to him via a professor while studying in South Korea’s Yonsei University back in 2001. The first novel that I tackled was Notes from the Underground and quickly moved on to the Brothers Karamazov. Fast forward to 2015, where I found myself listening to A$AP Rocky songs on YouTube, wanting to see if there were any interesting videos that I could find, before acquiring his albums, and long behold came to discover one video where the characters were dressed in classical Victorian fashion of the 1800s. At first I was confused, thinking that what I saw was odd, but at the same time the track that played, Palace, matched the scenes that were used in the film clip. Yet, even Rocky’s track from his album Live.Love.A$AP  is also in many ways a tale of the topics that will be discussed on this essay.
Scene from the film Russian Ark.
The name of the film used is called Russian Ark and was done by Alexander Sokurov. Hence, I ended up watching the film soon afterwards. The two main characters wander around a massive palace where a huge party takes place. In the film, a French composer and a Russian soldier wander around St. Petersburg’s Hermitage or in other words a Russian national monument. It turns out that the museum contains pieces of art that are 300 years old and have survived despite the epic invasions of Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler. I was enchanted by both the scope and ambition of the film, but also the many practical messages that people could gather from the film, one being that meaning depends on the perceiver and one’s views of how life and culture are not necessarily be absolute.
A$AP Rocky
As a result of listening to A$AP Rocky’s track, I ended up going deeper into the rabbit hole of Russian culture and history, but this generally happens with anything we find fascinating or interesting. I went on to read about St. Petersburg, learning about the art festivals that are still held during the summer, the biggest being called White Nights, which turned out to be the title of one of Dostoevsky’s short novels of the same name, White Nights, which further fed the flames of inquisitiveness and made me read a bit more on his life in the northern most European city of Russia. So, as a result of those serendipitous discoveries, I once again found myself wandering around Downtown Los Angeles and walking into The Last Bookstore, where by chance I found The House of the Dead. I had gone there in hopes of finding something written by him, yet not knowing what that would be. As soon as the purchase was made I walked the 6 blocks back to where my car was parked in Little Tokyo, and on my way there began reading the introduction to the novel. I found the moment compelling, and during my walk about reflected with surprise how a simple music track was changing the direction of my literary currents.
White Nights in St. Petersburg
Dostoevsky’s novel House of the Dead is fascinating and enlightening, because it touches on life inside a prison colony, but in many ways the story seems to be an allegory of how humans live on this earth and our time here together creates all kinds of good and bad situations. It tells the story of a nobleman who’d become a prisoner as a result of murdering his wife after only one year of marriage. Soon afterwards, Aleksandr Petrocvich is sent to a colony in Siberia to do hard time for a couple of years. After serving his sentence Aleksandr settles in the neighboring town and keeps a journal telling of his life in the penal colony. The person who introduces Aleksandr to the readers is the narrator retelling what the author wrote in his private journals, which the landlord was already dumping in the trash. He’d shown interest in Aleksandr, as a person, but had been refused any chance to strike a friendship, and finds his death as an opportunity. He tries to find out more about this mysterious character who’d stayed behind in Siberia to work as a tutor/ teacher and goes to the ex-convicts home to learn more about him and ends up finding his writings. He then proceeds to share this information to the reader, in this case, me.
The novel in many ways deals with mercy and kindness expressed between the people and those in charge of life and death. Even amongst prisoners there was a silent code that gave respect to people who did their time and took responsibility for their actions. 

Russian Ark film.
In the House of the Dead a panoramic view of Russia’s realms of control is quickly explained in detail and amongst prisoners with different cultural backgrounds and traditions. It’s in that melting pot of ideas and customs where the main character learns about humanity and human nature. These people were fearless, and tyrannical with one another, but on the other hand it was terrible being alone, so they all compromised to keep the peace. Even though they had to serve their time, they had to do it amongst others that had been damned and punished to the penal colonies, so though not alone, it was a time of great aloneness of the mind. Even in the insanely dirty circumstances they all lived in they had to make communion with others. It was in the moldy atmosphere of condemned human bodies where he discovers the limits of humans and their resilience.
In Russia those in power had no real contact with the common so the head wardens generally had to be fair, treating inmates just slightly above the level of inhumanity and dignity to keep the peace. Again, the warden could not be too cruel with the people he was in charge of keeping locked up. And in general there was a compromise between the work that prisoners did, the food they ate, and with the minimal things that the prison provided. In many ways they were the direct slaves of those in power or in other words property of the state. In Russia, these criminals, worthy of hard labor, were made up of Russian peasants, vagrants, nomads and of people from other kingdoms recently conquered by Russia. Christianity, Islam, Jewish and other religions were practiced in the prison, and though religious expression was generally tolerated it was Orthodox Christianity that permeated all customs. These criminals came from the different realms of Russian power and their crimes ranged from murder, thievery, and vagrancy to political subversion.
Golden eagle.
Historically the eagle has had a strong influence over the human psyche with many cultures around the world revering this creature of flight as being one of the few animals that is able to reach the highest points in the sky. The symbolism of the eagle is a powerful bridge between allegory and life that is pointed out in the story, and this only came into focus while watching the play La Virgen de Guadalupe. At some point in the play Aztec eagle warriors dance right before the appearance of the virgin de Guadalupe. As the performance unfolded inside the Los Angeles Cathedral, which was mainly made up of dialogues between Diego Garcia, and those in his daily life, a sense of awe came over; it might have been the religious space where the place was taking place, but Dostoevsky’s allegory was coming alive before my eyes. The indigenous dancers brought to mind a scene in novel where an injured eagle appears within the prison walls.
In a similar, but more powerful fashion we have an eagle that appears in Dostoevsky’s novel that has been injured and despite its broken wings it fights to the death not knowing anything else but to battle, between life and the next life. The inmates are keenly aware that the eagle is injured, so they try to feed it, but the bird of prey puts up a fight. They throw kolaches at it, and though it fights off the presence of these incarcerated men, it hungrily goes after the chunks of bread that land on the ground. In similar fashion, a human will fight to the end, but hunger can break their humility and their pride, and the battle between life and death becomes a real boxing match of the mind. The eagle, having broken wings, kept fighting, and not until the prisoners left it alone did it hop towards the food that lay on the ground.
Eagle dancer.
 Again, in the novel, the prisoners notice that the bird is dying but decide that an eagle dying inside the prison was out of the question because the animal had been born and lived in total freedom before its misfortune. So the decision was made to take the eagle out of the prison so that it could at least die in freedom. Likewise the eagle in the story is a representation of nature’s greatest symbol of power, independence, and freedom but its in an injured state, fighting to the death, limping towards the handouts thrown to it. It fights because of its inherent dignity, but hunger defeats it and we see that as it limps out to get the bread.
In the Russian story there is a wide range of characters from Muslim, Jewish to shaman like and Christian, and within that everyone learned to live with one another and to give homage to the one in power. There is even have a character that despite being under the presence of the prison warden engages in his ceremonial ritual and even glorifies his god in the face of the man in charge of the prison. In conclusion, The House of the Dead not only sheds light into the syncretism that happens with people over time when in communion amongst each other. They share and diffuse their traditions amongst each other and learn to live with one another in the house we call earth. Furthermore, Dostoevsky signals to us that a prisoner on a daily basis runs the risk of dying within the prisons that we humans create whether it be religions or political systems, because in the end even ideas or beliefs box people in to systems of power, which further accentuates A$AP Rocky’s track Palace, because despite the track’s name the lyrics point to a different prison, that of material possessions, but to Dostoevsky freedom comes from the determined hope that one day the shackles placed on our ankles purposely or unbeknownst to us will come off.
Prisoner being shackled for hard time.