Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Afrikaans Gothic

In the Heart of the Country can be considered Afrikaans Gothic.  This is Coetzee’s  Titus Andronicus, full of blood, fear and violence.  Coetzee goes all out to present a grim and mannerist vision of life in the South African heartland.  

The novel is narrated through the voice of a single unmarried woman, and her interactions with her domineering father, her house servants, all of them colored (i.e. of mixed African and White ancestry). Coetzee does not pull any stops.  It is all here: miscegenation, madness, rape, murder, colonial excesses, abuse of corpses, to name but a few.

While not as subtle as Coetzee’s later works, In the Heart of the Country is an excellent primer for what he would do later with a lighter but no less effective touch. 

Friday, August 26, 2011

Summertime and postmodern games

Summertime is one of Coetzee's finest novels, and is as good as his very best work, including Life and Times of Michael K., Waiting for the Barbarians, and Disgrace.

It is different in tone, texture and style than these works. Here, Coetzee takes a dive into post-modernism, writing about a character named John Coetzee, a dead writer, from the perspective of numerous people in his life, particularly women, by a biographer. In other hands this pomo- trick would fall flat and be derivative, and boring. But Coetzee never misses the mark. The novel is invested with great passion, empathy, searing self-examination and sympathy.

This is not silly, game play postmodern fiction, but an authentic examination of life from a very close and uncompromising angle

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Magna Mater X; Conclusion

Servi climbed up the steps of the Metro, turned down the street, past the last apartments, and was soon on the Via Appia Antica, the tourist section of the road, lined with long, low tombs, and punctuated, here and there, by lovely villas in the Roman country style, with sprays of bougainvillea cascading from their second floor balconies and pots of tumbling flowers surrounded by reproductions of ancient Roman statuary.   
           But like all neighborhoods in Rome, this section quickly changed, and after pressing through a stand of tall cypress trees leaning conspiratorially together over the remains of a crumbled pile of stone, the ruins of a nymphaneum, he was in the open span of the campagna, Rome's fabled open countryside; Rome’s Arcadian suburb and border zone, whose sylvan charms attracted painters, artists, poets, lovers.   
          On Servi’s Penguin Edition of Goethe’s Italian Journey, Germany’s most celebrated bard lays recumbent in a white peasant blouse and drooping tan hat, the hazy ruins of the campagna his graceful backdrop.  There is little left of Goethe’s campagna.  Now, it was a marginal land adjacent to the city, studded with abandoned cars, dump heaps, derelict farmhouses burned and gutted by squatter’s accidental fires, decaying classical aqueducts, and in the distance, the low crouching giants of Rome’s urban housing developments, lumbering into the campagna in loose and chaotic formations, like a unit in the Italian army, creeping uncertainly into possible danger.
            As he approached the broken line of aqueducts, their hazy and irregular contours took on a more definitive shape.  The arches, some standing, and some fallen, were surrounded by weeds as tall as Servi, and in some places, whole trees had sprouted between the crumbling columns, their heavy boughs drooping toward an earth strewn with urban rubbish.  
           In the near distance, Servi could see in the blue tinted darkness small moving shapes, whitely luminous.  From the yapping dog he realized that they were sheep.  As he walked beside the sheep, along a pitted track strewn with broken glass, the arches of the aqueduct were little more than slender columns, like the stumps of burned candles.  In some of the holes along the solid stretches of wall, Rome’s poor made homes for themselves, often supplementing the space with whatever they could find: a piece of corrugated metal, a packing crate, some torn canvas.   
         Then, in the distance, Servi saw the beat up cars.  Some of the prostitutes had their own cars – while some belonged to their customers.  As he walked by , Servi was propositioned by African women from former Italian colonies and women from the former Yugoslavia and Albania: this too was part of the history of the campagna, Servi thought.  It was the area of decay, of malarial swamps and tombs, a zone apart, a place where men came to participate in carnal rites as old as Romulus and Remus.  Here, erotic and artistic license walked hand in hand with decay and its close cousin death. 
            After walking for five minutes, Servi noticed Francesca’s blue Fiat.  It was not difficult to spot: next to the beat up hulks it shone sliver  against the overcast sky and brown aqueduct walls.  No one was around, so Servi tapped on the tinted window, which cautiously lowered.  When Francesca saw that it was Servi, she sprang out of the door.  She was heavily made up, and wore pendulous earrings and, in conscious imitation of the Slavic women, wore sultrily out of date 80’s clothes: a tight halter top, a pair of pastel short-shorts, so tight that Servi could see, even in the dim light, the outline of her labia.  She eyed Servi cautiously.
            “What do you want?” she asked in heavy dialect, gravely, in order to simulate the mock sensuality of a professional.
            “I want to get out of here.  Come on Francesca, let’s go.”
            “You can fuck me in my cunt, my mouth, my ass…”
            “Francesca, come on, it’s dangerous here.  This isn’t funny.  This time you’ve gone too far.  Let’s drive home.  You’ll get out of that stuff, and we can drink some wine on your balcony,” and Servi lightly grasped her arm to bring her toward the car.
            “Hey, no rough stuff.  I’ll scream and the others girls will hit you over the head with bottles.  Five-hundred thousand lire for a fuck.  Seven-hundred thousand for my ass.  Ninety-hundred thousand  for a blow job.”
            “Why is it more for a blowjob, of all things?”
            “Its more work for me.”
            “How the hell do you know that?”
            “I’m a whore,” Francesca looked at Servi mockingly, as if he still did not get the joke.  “I know my business!” 
            “Come on, enough of this shit,” and Servi grasped Francesca’s shoulders roughly, trying to force her into the car.  She started to scream, shrilly, as if Servi was going to kill her; her voice came from some confined spot deep within her throat, as if Servi was trying to take her life during the act of sex, and her passion for live was far stronger than his will to crush the life from her.  
            Servi  Something was dripping down his face.  Rain?  He looked up at the sky to check, but another voice roused him before he could decide.  It was Francesca, screaming again, but this time with a note of desperation --- and Servi did not know why. All of this human drama simply fell around him as if sucked in a hole in the ground.
 Just before he passed out, he rolled to the ground gazing up at the humid campagna sky, and he realized that the vault of the heavens was brighter than the dull, sodden campagna.  These were the electric lights from Rome, of course, but as the world funneled down a long, winding, increasingly narrow tube, Servi felt that he was watching some divine cosmic drama.  There was a battle being enacted between creatures of light descending from this liquid sky, and the forces of dark, enmeshed in this ground and struggling to be free of it and to take up arms against their brethren of light, and Servi had a ring side seat.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Magna Mater IX

Servi continued to sit in the café in the shadow of the Porto d’Octavia.  He drank his coffee slowly, read all the Italian papers he could find on the other table from cover to cover, and when he felt like splurging an extra lire he could ill afford, he walked to the news kiosk near the Teatro Marcello to buy a New York Times.  For the first time in a year, he felt the barest glimmer of loss over his old life.  The lurid banality of the New York City paper comforted him at his deepest level, in the nerves that snuggled right up to his bones.   
            He wandered around the Tiber, crossing the bridge to Trastevere, walking down that side of the river, and then re-crossing to Rome, without any point.  He felt as if he was a piece of detritus strewn along the concrete embankments of Rome’s ancient river.  At night, before he retired, the Slavic prostitutes down near the embankment tried to entice him with sex underneath the storm drain.  Even if he wanted to, Servi couldn’t spare the lire.
            One night he lay on his mattress with a  compress on his head, trying to alleviate a  headache.  The compress was warm now, and had only been tepid when he poured it from the tap three flights down.  There was a gentle knock at his door.  He never had visitors.  He imagined it was one of the Protestant missionaries who plied Rome, the epicenter of Roman Catholicism, with their anti-papal pamphlets.  But when he opened the door, Francesca was standing there in business attire, long legs in hose even in the maddening heat, all piled on high heels.  Servi had not seen or heard from her in nearly four weeks.  He wordlessly stepped backward and fell on his bed.
            “What’s the matter Aarone, are you sick?” she asked clinically.
            “No,” Servi whispered.  “Just a bad headache.”  Francesca sat on the end of the mattress and rummaged through her purse.
            “Here,” she placed something in Servi’s palm.
            “What is it?”
            “Ibuprofen with codeine.  I have a prescription for a toothache.  Take it.”  Servi downed the pill without water.  In a few minutes, he felt the invisible tourniquet around his head ratchet down a notch.  In a few minutes more he was sitting up.  In the dim light of his room he could see Francesca scrutinizing him diagnostically, as if his secret pathology could be discerned by the juxtaposition of his nose to his eyes, his eyes to his forehead, and his lips to his chin.
            “Don’t you think it odd that we have the same last name?” Francesca asked calmly, in her Roman tinted accent.  Servi nodded his head. “We look alike too, you and I.  We could be siblings, don’t you think so?”  Servi just shrugged his shoulders.  “It’s true,” she continued.  “The first moment I laid eyes on you I saw the resemblance.  You did too.  Maybe not consciously, but subconsciously.  That is why you came to live in the Ghetto.  You are obeying the call of your old Jewish Roman name.”
            “I came here because I’m broke, or near broke.  I can live in this room for almost nothing. And I’m not Jewish.”             “No,” Francesca shook her head vigorously.  “You share our history.  The Jews of Italy are a small group, but we all have distinguished pedigrees.  We Roman Jews have been here for two thousand years.  We have always enjoyed accomplishments beyond our numbers.  Writers, scholars, scientists… Moldigliani, Primo Levi, that is what brought you here, a homecoming.”
            “Why are you here Francesca, to draw our family tree?  I can’t say that I like all the branches on it.”  On hearing this, she smiled at Servi’s display of bile.
            “What do you know of my Aunt’s struggles?  What do I know of it?  What would you do if your life was threatened?  My Aunt was a notoriously beautiful woman back then.  She was legendarily loose with her body even before the war.  It was her body, why shouldn’t she do what she wanted to with it?  And then that war.  You and I don’t know what real privations are.  I’ve heard stories about those years from my grandparents.  Trust me Aarone, they aren’t pleasing to hear.”  She stopped talking and moved closer to Servi.  She placed her small hand on his chest, and Servi allowed her ; they looked at each other with mutual self-interest.  She leaned over and kissed Servi.  He let her and they remained that way, connect by a small expanse of lips, for a few moments.  Then she pulled back.
            “That was like incest, don’t you think?  Like a brother and sister kissing.” Servi said no but far too faintly to be convincing.  “You and I are not so dissimilar Aarone.  We do what we want to do.  I bucked my family day one of my life, and you have too, living like this – and here.  The old rules don’t apply to us.  We are survivors, just like my Great-Aunt.  We do what we need to do…”
            “What are you getting at?” Servi interrupted, finally finding a voice.
            “I want you to meet me on the via Appia Antica tonight, just after midnight, near that section where the Claudio aqueduct meets the via Latina.  Do you know the place?”  Servi, on hearing the location, sat up in bed.  He knew the area well: prostitutes solicited men and took them to small, two seat cars to seal the transaction.
            “Why, for God’s sake?  That place isn't safe at night.”             “I want you to pay me for sex,” she said, and on hearing this, Servi at first said nothing, merely allowing the words to ring hollowly through his ears.  “If you don’t have enough, money, I can give you some now.”
            “But why should I pay you for sex,” he heard himself finally say, “when I wouldn’t do it with you for free?”
            “Precisely because you must pay for it.  It will make it exciting.  All this talk of my aunt and what she did.  This is another reason we were brought together Aarone, we were meant to reenact her act, just for once.  Just to see what we learn.  We are both fascinated by it, am I not right?  People learn more about themselves from sex than from anything else.”
            “Stop,” Servi got out of bed.  “My level of self knowledge is fine.  I’m actually crippled by knowing myself too well.  I can’t even buy cheese without deliberating the blessed joy right out of eating it. Don’t say anything more, could you…”
            “Aarone,” she stood up, and squared her shoulders threateningly. “I’ll be at the Aqueduct at midnight in my Fiat.  If you don’t show up, I’ll find some other man, but I’d rather it be you.  If something happens to me there, well,” she raised her eyes to Servi’s low, sooty roof. “It would be a terrible thing to live with.”  After she left Servi did not know if she meant for him or her.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Magna Mater VIII

That night, Servi was sitting on a wall on the Tiber Island.  Across the river, on the Lungotevere d. Ceni, he spied Francesca under a street lamp.  Just after he spotted her, she saw him, and yelled something, but she was too far away for him to hear her.  She backtracked toward the Ponte Quattro Capi behind him.  After a few moments, she was sitting next to him on the break wall.
            “Why the hell are you here?” she scolded. “We were supposed to meet at Enrioco’s.  Did you forget?  What else do you do with your time but remember our rendezvous?”
            “Did you know that your aunt was a whore for the Nazis?  That she revealed the location of hiding Jews?  That those Jews were captured and gassed in Auschwitz?”
            “Of course I know!  What would you like me to do about it?”
            “How about never see her again!”
            “She’s an old woman Aarone.  She’s all alone.  All those people have been dust for over fifty years.  I can’t bring them back from the dead by not bringing my Aunt her morning coffee.  Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Aarone, why should I live in a dead past?  What can I do about it now?  I live in the moment.  That is your problem, Aarone.  You are always postponing things, and for what?  For the day you die, which could be tomorrow?  Why are you waiting to live?  The same restraint that keeps you from fucking me keeps you from living!” and Francesca stood up, and pulling her short skirt down to just below her knees, began to walk away.  But then she suddenly stopped.
            “Yes, my Aunt was a whore.  She was a whore for Italian troops before the Nazis came, and then to the Nazis when they were here.  And from what I can tell, she was one in France for you Americans just before the war ended.  She gave information to the Italians, the Nazis, and to the Americans; information that they requested.  And why not?  She knew lots of people.  Millions of people died in that war; they were going to die with or without her information.  What would her death have proved on top of all the other deaths?  All those people are dead Aarone, they are ash in some forest in Poland and she is still alive.  And trust me, you naïve American, in your suburb with your full belly, there are people who did far worse than my aunt to survive the Second World War.  Take your putrid morality and fold it up you ass…” and she stormed away.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Magna Mater VII

The next Thursday as Sevi was sitting at the café, Francesca emerged with two coffees.  Her long, tense face relaxed a moment when she saw Servi, and as heavily as her small body allowed, she sat down across from him.
            “I’m sorry I slammed the door in your face, Aarone,” she said weakly.
            “I’m sorry I interrupted you.  I should have called first, but I don’t have easy access to a phone.”  Francesca shrugged on hearing this.
            “It was nothing.  It is just a man that wants to marry me.  He’s ten years older than me.  Thirty-two.  I keep telling him I want to have my fun before I settle down.  He says he is too old to just have fun.  He doesn’t want sex without meaning.  He wants to wake up with the woman he makes love to.  Jesus Christ, what is wrong with you men today?”
            “I thought you wanted to be my friend.  When we met, we both said we needed a friend, didn’t we?  You said you were lonely and I told you I was lonely.”  On hearing the warmth in Servi’s tone, Francesca grasped his hand.
            “You bastard, you are my friend,” and she smiled.  “And I am lonely.  But what can I do?” she continued in the Roman dialect, as she often did when she spoke of her corporeal needs. “I want what I want.  And I find you attractive.  Don’t you find me attractive?”
            “Yes,” Servi answered, putting down his coffee like a gavel.  “It has nothing to do with that, Francesca.  We’ve been down this road before.  I’m not sleeping with anyone.  Period.  For now, I’m done with sex.  It has caused me nothing but trouble.”
            “What happened to you?” she pressed. “Did your Mama not love you enough?  Or maybe she loved you too much?  You men are all just big babies looking for your Mama in every womb you stick it in, and when you don’t find her in there, you become little more than sexual cripples.” On hearing this, Servi tilted his head away from Francesca wearily.  As she continued, as she wound down her presentation of Servi’s erotic ills, sighed wearily and sat back, fingering the lip of her cup.  They gazed at each other from a vantage of mutual exhaustion.  Their struggle felt longer and more protracted than it actually was.
            “So when can I meet your Aunt?” Servi asked.  “Why are you hiding her from me?”
            “I’m hiding nothing from you darling.  You must realize that already.  You are the one with the bones under your stairs.  You want to meet her?  Well come.  I’ll introduce you as my virgin fiancé.  She’ll love it; she has become quite traditional in her dotage.  But I must warn you, she had cancer of the throat five years ago.  The doctors removed almost all of her voice box.   She won’t use an amplifier.  Even at her age, and bedridden no less, she is vain.  When she had the cancer, the weight just feel off her.  She looks no bigger than this,” and Francesca help up her tiny pinky.  “Now she is wide as a villa again.”
            Francesca led Servi down the via d’Tempio and into a narrow alley not unlike the one where Servi lived in destitution.  She opened an old and peeling door whose hinges groaned and sighed when closed, as if its very raison d’etre was too much a burden for it to bear.   
           They mounted the dim, narrow staircase.  Like most buildings in the Ghetto, it was tall relative to buildings just outside the old wall.  The Jews had nowhere to build but up, and these buildings, twisted from the weight of ages, appeared to bend and turn as if in agony on their ascent. 
            Francesca’s Great-Aunt’s flat was on the top floor, and when she keyed them into the apartment and they entered, Servi was not surprised at the opulence of the interior.   The landlord-tenant laws in Rome were sufficient illogical to allow such dichotomies as a decaying, uncared for exteriors and splendid, posh interiors. The apartment was cool and dark, smelling faintly of the soft lavender odors where rich old people spend an abundance of time in the repose.  Francesca took Servi by the hand and led him into a back bedroom where the mythical aunt lay, smack in the middle of an over sized, canopy bed.  She appeared to be asleep, and Servi began to back away, but Francesca held him firm.
            “Shouldn’t we leave?” Servi asked in a whisper.
            “No,” she answered in a normal tone, if not louder.  “She is deaf as a stone.  If I’m even a few moments late with the coffee, as I am today, she becomes catatonic.  I can just put the coffee here,” and Francesa placed the drink and the brioche beneath a brass lamp with an ornate leather shade speckled with creases and cracks, dangling with heavy, twisted red fringe. 
            “Let’s go,” Servi whispered, took a step forward, near the Aunt’s head, and suddenly the woman’s eyes opened.  She immediately uttered a few words at no more than a whisper.  Francesca bent down and moved her ear to her Aunt’s lips.  She started speaking to her Aunt in a dialect that Servi had never heard before.  It was similar to the Roman dialect, but with a great many exotic words, and Servi only caught the meaning of what they were saying by the context.   
         Yes, Auntie, Francesca explain, there is a man here.  His name is the same as ours, Servi.  No, American.  No, not a Jew.  The woman lifted her head feebly from the bed to survey Servi, and then emitted a low groan, or perhaps a sigh and her head fell heavily to the pillow.  A round of snoring commenced, which, Servi now noted, once it had begun again, had been present on entering the room.  Francesca grasped Servi’s arm and led him away.
            On the street, Servi accompanied her to the Metro.  Did Francesca know that her Aunt was a whore for Nazi officers, he wondered?  And more importantly, did she realize that she had informed on her fellow Jews, her friends, neighbors, and maybe even family?  Servi continued to think that he would ask her these questions as they approached the Metro stairs, but when he opened his mouth, all he asked was what dialect Francesca was speaking with her Aunt.
            “That’s Italkian, but the old people call it La`az; its Judeo-Italian.  My Aunt can speak Italian, of course, but as I said, she has gotten traditional in her old age.  Only old people speak it now.  She wants to be old.  She had enough youth to last her a lifetime.”  Francesca then stood on her tip-toes to reach Servi’s lips; the kiss lasted a long time, long enough for Servi to be aware of many commuters streaming around them in a confusion of colors and shapes. When they parted, Francesca smiled warmly and gently swiped the moisture from Servi’s upper lip with the tips of her thin fingers, and disappeared down the Metro steps.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Magna Mater VI

That night, when Francesca did not arrive at Servi’s room, he got on the Metro and rode to her apartment.  After a few moments she opened the door in a robe, her hair in uncharacteristic disarray, a sly smile of unknown but pleasurable satisfaction on her face at seeing Servi in her threshold. 
            “Go away, Aarone.  You had your chance.  I found a man to fuck me!” and she slammed the door in Servi’s face.