Archive for February, 2005

More democracy (and chess)

Author Tim Krabbe (there’s an accent on the e, but I can’t get it to show up) has a chess site called Chess Curiosities. In his Open Chess Diary (anyone interested in chess who hasn’t seen it before should go all the way back to the beginning) notes that at his website, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Iraq has posted information on what is Halal (permitted) or Haram (permitted)in Islamic law. Although cricket, anal sex and oral sex are permitted, playing chess is “absolutely unlawful” and “absolutely forbidden”, even when you don’t bet and have no bad intentions playing it.

Since Krabbe is interested in chess problems and puzzles, he wrote to ask if composing and solving them were permitted, since, as he says, it is “more like inventing riddles and creating poetry” than playing.

He was sent this reply:

So all those people who were cruelly forced to play chess during Saddam’s regime can now rejoice in the fruits of American-sponsored democracy.

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There's been an interesting story circulating the Greek blogs the past couple of days, and I was going to write about it here in English, but I've discovered that Academia Nervosa and Histologion have already done a fine job of it, so I'll direct you to them in a minute.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Greek (un)reality, let me give you a brief introduction.

Nothing in Russian literature and Kafka can compare with the absurdities of Greek bureaucracy. To give you an example, I once saw a documentary about a guy who, in the 1970s, had invented a car that ran — albeit somewhat slowly — on hydrogen. He lived on Paros or Naxos, and it was perfect for life on the island. He went to the government for support and there the whole thing ran aground because in Greece you're taxed on your car, based on the size of the motor. (They figure you're lying about your income, so they'll get you on something else.) Since this car didn't have a motor, or at least not the same kind as other cars, the government refused to go any further because they didn't know how to tax it. The entrepreneur ended up selling about 700 models of his car to England for experiments, though apparently nothing ever came of it there either.

The dream for many people in Greece is to get a job in the public sector. Civil servants are more difficult to fire than tenured professors, so they can sit on their asses all day, drink coffee, dangle cigarettes from their lips as they stamp papers right underneath a no smoking sign, and be as rude and incommunicative as they want — all with total impunity. The pay isn't always great, but they retire early and get a good pension.

These positions are usually obtained through an uncle, whose best friend's dentist plays cards with a guy who went to school with some Member of Parliament, and the positions are an easy way for politicians to get votes and to fill the public sector with "their people".

When the conservative New Democracy party was elected last year for the first time in twenty years (with the exception of a three-year term in the early 1990s, and a brief minority government in 1989) they began, of course, to plant "their people". Since you can't fire supporters of the other, socialist, party, the most you can do is transfer them to some God-forsaken corner of the country, or some island without running water. Also, a few children of newly-elected officials had managed to get transferred from universities in places like Crete to the central campus in Athens, closer to mumsie and daddy. At least one official had to resign when this came out.

Recently, a sculptor named Dimitrios Fotiou put up a satirical webpage which offered to find people good positions in the civil service, or to get them favourable transfers.

Now, for the rest of this unbelievable story, check out Academia Nervosa and Histologion. (The latter also provides links to English-language coverage of this story in the Greek media.)

This sort of over-reaction reminds me of when, a few years ago, the government passed a law to prohibit gambling video games in cafes and such. For some reason, internet chess servers came under this law, which made Greece the laughing stock of chess players the world over. Histologion also provides a BBC link about this.

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Democracy is coming

Does anyone remember wanting to puke during that Kodak moment when Safia Taleb al-Suhail, leader of the Iraqi Women’s Political Council, proudly held up her ink-stained finger, after Bush’s State of the Union address?

Well, try to keep your gorge from rising when you read how the times are a-changing for women in Iraq, at Baghdad Burning.

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Conflict of Style

In university I barely read novels. I only read what I studied, and I believed only poetry could stand up to the intensive sort of study I went in for. I could find more to say about a single page of poetry than I could about an entire novel.

Ironically, when I went to university I also gave up all pretension of being a poet, and started writing fiction. I wrote two massive, unreadable and incomplete novels back then, which combined would probably come out to half a million words.

It was only when I was approaching graduation that I began to read novels more seriously. In 1991 I read Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea and loved it. A couple of years later I found a couple of her books in the library and read them too. The first was The Italian Girl, one of her slighter books. Then, immediately after, I read A Word Child, one of her best. I enjoyed it so much I decided to read everything of hers that I could get my hands on.

I decided to search through used bookstores in Toronto till I had found and read all 25 of them. (I had read them all by the time her 26th book, Jackson’s Dilemma, came out, already showing signs of the Alzheimer’s disease which she would be diagnosed with two years later, and which would hasten her collapse and death after another two years.)

What drew me to Murdoch’s books was how crammed they were with the mess and unmanageability of life. (A recurrent word in all her work is “muddle”.) She spent long paragraphs exploring what was going on inside her character’s heads – sometimes even the heads of her characters’ pets.

If I had been born in England, I probably wouldn’t have liked her books as much. For me, the setting alone was fascinating. Even her admirers have complained that the mundane world of labour, or even that of the regular 40-hour week, was completely missing from her books, that she concerned herself with characters wealthy enough to devote themselves exclusively with the plots she spun for them.

The plots, however, put these characters through various kinds of humiliation, or at the very least a great deal of stress. A typical Murdoch novel involves somebody who might, say, have some dark story in their past, which they want to escape and which comes back suddenly to haunt them. Somebody they don’t want to see appears from the past and demands that something be dealt with. At the worst possible moment, various other people show up unexpectedly, all making demands on the main character (or even on each other). A Murdoch novel could take place over one hectic weekend. I’ve always admired this relative unity of time and place. It created a surprising amount of suspense.

Most writers, I’m sure, write the kind of books they would like to read. For years I wanted to write Murdoch novels. (I have one completed/abandoned manuscript, however, which bears no resemblance to her work.) I still do, in some ways. I have a natural inclination to let my imagination sprawl and to explore the psychology and motivations of my characters, and to place the story in a some kind of domestic setting.

I’d be ready to sacrifice a wider readership if I could produce those kinds of books (naturally with my own personal stamp, something I take for granted and am not able to discuss objectively), but it’s very difficult to achieve this apparently rambling style of hers and still be interesting, or even, at times, relevant. If we think of Murdoch’s discourse with the reader as an aside, it’s very difficult to bring it to a satisfying conclusion and return to the story.

One also needs to sound authoritative (it’s no coincidence that an author is an authority) so that the reader doesn’t feel he’s wasting his time. Where this authority comes from is something I’ve been giving a lot of thought to lately, although I don’t have an answer yet.

In more recent years, my tastes in fiction have changed dramatically. The sort of book I want to write has changed. Two writers I admire very much now are Bruce Chatwin and J.M. Coetzee, especially the latter, since he’s written more novels, or more conventional ones. Their style is more impersonal, spare and unostentatious. Readers who are not particularly interested in style are probably hardly aware of them as authors, as voices. The details speak for themselves, and often at barely more than a whisper.

It’s difficult to talk about their style, or even to grasp what it is that defines it, because essentially they do very much with very little. With Coetzee in particular, I’m baffled by how he manages to convey so much intelligence and authority and still be so impersonal. I might even have thought that authority itself is composed of these features, except that writers like Delillo and Roth establish it with a voice that is almost the direct opposite of Coetzee’s.

The novel I’m writing now is giving me a lot of trouble. I have a clear enough idea of where it’s going, and what happens in it, but on every page I’m faced with problems of execution. I still haven’t exorcised the influence of Murdoch, nor do I feel sure I want to. I rend my clothes and gnash my teeth, but I know that I’ll have to reconcile these two different approaches, if they can, in the end, be reconciled at all. Can I open my characters up and allow the reader a glimpse? Can I portray the unmanageable muddle of life with Doric precision?

Just as I wrote those words, it occurred to me that Anna Karenina, which I’m currently reading, might just achieve this effect.

So all I need to do is write like Tolstoy.


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Last year I read an interesting novel by Carlo Frabetti called Los jardines cifrados. I heard the following excerpt (which opens the book) read on the radio late one night,* and bought the book a few days later.

The book is not available in English. I have translated the excerpt from the Greek. I found it tonight as I was poking around in my computer, and decided to post it here. People often drop by here when they’re searching for something on Google (I’ve had many find me while searching for the Kemal lyrics). Perhaps someone will be running a search on Epimenides and end up here. The internet produces these sorts of ripples, where one thing leads to another in unexpected ways. Perhaps that person will become interested in Frabetti, and I won’t have to feel too bad about any possible copyright infringements.

They say that Gertrude Stein, on her deathbed, asked her companion, “What is the answer?”

And when she received no answer, she said, “In that case, what’s the question?”

She was not the first who asked this question. The Greeks, who wondered about everything, must have arrived at this meta-question, even if by various routes.

Epimenides the Cretan, the mythical poet of the sixth century BC, of whom it was said that he had once slept for fifty-seven years running (even if Plutarch claims that he was only fifty), is chiefly known for the paradox of the liar. Strangely enough, the phrase which is attributed to him (“All Cretans are liars”) – although it shouldn’t be confused with the perverted sense that a liar is someone who lies all the time – establishes an authentic paradox in itself: it will suffice to think that Epimenides is lying and there is some truthful Cretan, in which case it’s simply a false statement. The phrase constitutes a paradox only if it is assumed to be true, as Paul did in his Epistle to Titus: “One of themselves, even a prophet of their own, said The Cretians are always liars […] This witness is true.” If Epimenides’ phrase is true, then he is a liar, because at least one Cretan (Epimenides himself) is telling the truth.

In any case, the paradox of the liar, in its various versions (the simplest is the statement, “This statement is a lie”), tormented the Greeks and their descendents in the art of thought for centuries.

Chrysippes the Stoic, a student of Zeno, living in the third century BC, wrote six treatises about the paradox, none of which has survived, and Philetas of Kos, of whom it is said that he was so thin that he wore shoes of lead so that the wind would not carry him away, died prematurely, due to the unbearable anxiety which this paradox had caused him.

Epimenides himself must have been deeply bothered by the infinite regression (of which the paradox is both an emblem and the epitome), since it is said that he went on a long and dangerous journey to the East to meet with the Buddha, to ask him what the answer was. In the end (according to the legend) the poet philosopher found the philosopher poet, and it was as if someone had placed two mirrors in front of each other. “What is greatest question that can be asked, and what is the greatest answer that can be given?” Epimenides asked. And the Buddha answered: “The greatest question that can be asked is the one you have just asked me, and the greatest answer that can be given is the one I am giving you now.”

*Στην υπέροχη εκπομπή του Μενέλαου Καραμαγκιόλη Πού παει η μουσική όταν δε την ακούμε πια;

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