Reading: An Episode in the life of a Landscape Painter by César Aira

When the great scientific-minded explorer, Baron Alexander von Humboldt, set out across the globe hoping to discover and understand every last plant, insect and mountain range, his arduous journeys were broken by interludes of genteel luxury. His title and erudition preceded him, and he moved bearing letters of commendation and introduction to the cream of new world society, bedding down in the mansions of the aristocracy of colonialism, rich planters and ranchers pleased to host eminent thinkers from the old world. And eager to hear their news. The combination of adventure and hospitality must have made the early nineteenth century an amazing time to travel. Von Humboldt displayed a fearless and multidisciplinary optimism, examining everything from the geology, botany, topography and astronomy of the places he visited to the agriculture, social structure and psychological characteristics of their inhabitants.

An important part of this immense chronicling, in the age before photography, was visually to represent these distant landscapes and cultures, and von Humboldt traveled to the New World accompanied by a variety of contract painters mandated to capture scenes of nature and life in as faithful a manner as possible. His travels inspired other artists.

One friend and acolyte of von Humboldt's was the German artist Johan Moritz Rugendas, who seems to have spent a melancholic and almost loveless life moving steadily through latin America, painting abundantly. When he wasn't, he was pacing, impotent, in Europe, wishing only to cross the Atlantic once more and rejoin his subject matter. My meager research has revealed no biography of Rugendas, but when I discovered a novel based on his travels, blurbed and introduced by Roberto Bolaño and written by an Argentine writer, César Aira, I ordered a copy immediately.

I was shocked when Aira's novella, An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, arrived in the mail from Amazon; the paperback was little more than a flimsy pamphlet. Picture the instruction booklet that comes with an electric coffee grinder, or a hair dryer. Reading it took me less than two hours from start to finish. I found it profoundly weird and not only literally thought it lightweight.

Now, some few weeks later, I'm trying to understand why Aira's imagery is so persistent, even in translation. It won't leave my head. I am almost obsessed with the gigantic two wheeled carts, "contraptions of monstrous size, as if built to give the impression that no natural force could make them budge." The shafts by which these could be hitched to a full ten teams of oxen were so long that they "seemed to disappear among the clouds." Their cargo "sometimes comprised all the goods and chattel of a magnate," and they moved at a glacial pace: 200 meters per day. Rugendas, Aira writes, felt that following them "would be like traveling in time: proceeding rapidly on horseback along the same route, they would catch up with carts that had set off in other geological eras...." Philosophically, Rugendas is fixated on the intense flatnesses of the pampas; he seems to think that reaching the flattest place on earth, something like the umbilical of the planet, will help him to reveal great pictorial truths. In retrospect this seems a bizarre metaphorical anticipation of the concerns of modernist painting, the fixation on the flatness of the canvas itself. Are these things and notions Aira's invention, like his recreation of Rugendas' emotional state? This was precisely my problem with the novel; it is such an infuriating, surreal and seamless blend of fact, fancy and imagination that I never once found myself standing on solid ground. The whole tiny book is one quaking, boggy, postmodern uncertainty.

And yet I can't rid myself of vivid visions of Rugendas, trapped in a hellish lightning storm in the pan-flat wastes of the Argentine plains, dragged face down by one stirrup behind his own horse on a black night full of thunder. I can't forget his disfigured retreat back to the comfortable hospitality of Mendoza, and his earnest friend and disciple Krause, who can barely look him in his ruined face. The Indian cattle-rustlers he painted, charging out of the southern mountains, persist in charging through my daydreams. César Aira is a master conjurer, and like a stubborn teenager at a magic show, I won't rest until I have worked out the tricks.


Live Blogging a Slow Roast

11:00 AM
Feeling that in the last two or three days I have been involved in far too little meat eating, I determine to braise. The splendors of having Fairway just down the street here in Red Hook have started to fade, however. It isn't that they don't have perfectly adequate meats, and it is a last-minute gourmet savior, but their tendency to price any vaguely ethnic item at fully double its price elsewhere has grown tiresome, and even insulting. While they stock crucial ingredients like Lebanese pomegranate molasses, Tuscan anchovies, and organic Basmati rice, their prices for these items implicitly recognize that no knowledgeable Lebanese, Tuscan, or Basmatian would actually purchase these items there. The sticker-price tagging guns are permanently dialed to the "hipster" setting.

12:30 PM

I make my way to my newly refavoritized one-stop, the colorful and totally Polish Eagle Provisions, on 5th Avenue and 18th Street. (No, not in Manhattan, silly person.) Here the prices for fresh kielbasa, eight flavors of pierogi and gigantic jars of pickles resemble those one might hope for in Gdansk.

A lonely, and I'm afraid rather ruined, octogenarian woman sits near the potted plant display, outside in the Indian summer sunshine, feverishly scraping away at a square of cardboard with a nickel. I have seen her here on other occasions buying scratch-off lottery tickets, perhaps the closest thing she has to a social life. I hurry in, heading for the artichoke salad in the cold case. A few minutes later, while ordering a sandwich from the stern red-haired matron manning the deli counter, a commotion at the front of the store:

"F@#k you, you a&&H@*e! Don't tell me what to do with my money!"

"What!? You were just thrown out of here last week, young lady, and you talk to me like that? Oh my God, the mouth on you!"

I cringe, although secretly I am glad to be back in the New York of my beloved memories. The place I moved to, years ago. How is it possible to remember fondly the sight of a man deranged by anger, charging shirtless and bloody and barefoot into the middle of Essex Street, wielding a two-by-four studded with nails? What a strange way to relate to such a violent episode. Such moments from the unpublished archives of Joseph Mitchell happen rarely now, and I peer down the dry goods aisle in surprise, just in time to see the back of the alcoholic old crone, fleeing the scene.

1:10 PM
In the meat case, a rack of beef ribs, fatty beyond marbled. Today they are practically giving away a hefty chunk of cow side. Eagle slashes the prices on their meats just before the expiration of the sell-by date. (Rather than mark them down, I suspect Fairway "sells" such meats to their in-house steam table division, where staff cooks decide when they should be turned into tomorrow's fajitas. This is only a theory, however, pure conjecture, as I also suspect they have a libel attorney on retainer.)

At the register, carrying a six-dollar slab of beef hefty enough to work out with, I ask what the hell happened.

"She won a hundred dollars. Scratch-off. You want to buy a ticket? We're hot here, obviously."

"Uh...no. So why the cursing?"

"She has a foul mouth, that one. I asked her if she was going to go over and get a slice at the pizzeria with her winnings, and she said 'I never go in there.' I know why she never goes in there, she borrowed twenty bucks from them and never went there again. So I said 'maybe you should go now, with your hundred, and give them the twenty you owe. She didn't like that one bit."

2:00 PM
These cheap, remnant cuts of meat are every bit as delicious as anything else on the cow, so long as you cook them into submission. I waste no time. Remembering a recipe from Bill Buford's sublime chronicle of cookery, Heat, I lay the ribs at the bottom of my latest eBay score, a voluminous, rectangular turquoise dutch oven. Buford's recipe is medieval, in more ways than one. My gist is likely longer than his original, but the gist is this: put the meat in some kind of pot, pour in a bottle of red wine, cover it up. Cook it overnight, or until your children are fully grown, at 200 degrees. Fine, except I want to eat meat today, not tomorrow or the next. I imagine six hours will do just fine.

2:15 PM
Fancying it up a bit, I salt, pepper and cumin the rack, then bury it underneath some beautiful potatoes and turnips grown just down the street on a former asphalt baseball diamond, by Added Value. In goes a quartered onion, a couple of bay leaves and a full bottle of marginal Carmenere someone brought to a dinner party. I predict the root vegetables will completely disintegrate, but nonetheless add a delicious, rooty flavor to the vinous gravy.

Before putting on the very heavy lid, a layer of foil, to lock in as much of that wine as possible.

2:20 PM

Into the oven, on the lowest setting possible. I love my twenty-inch wide Kenmore gas stove, a spectacular white enamel relic from the 1950s that my friend Dodo discovered in her basement and gifted to me years ago. It does have one drawback, however. The "Robert Shaw" thermostat lacks precision. I don't know how the medievals managed it exactly, but for the ultimate slow braise you should aim for a temperature right around that of boiling water. I can't get the Robert Shaw below 240. On the other hand, I don't think they had oven thermometers in the thirteenth century.

Goodbye, see you in six hours. Note the after-market oven thermometer on the floor of the oven in the lower-right hand corner, a $7 device that has given this fifty-year old stove many years of extra usefulness.

5:00 PM
The temptation to open the oven, lift the lid, and have a peek approaches overwhelming. Despite the foil seal and the closed oven door, the house is filled with the aroma of hot, bubbling beef fat, caramelizing starches and reduced essence of boiling wine. I find it difficult to concentrate on anything, and I leave the house, heading on foot to the Fairway for some Brussels sprouts, which I suddenly feel certain will make a lovely side.

Blanched Brussels sprouts sauteed with shredded zucchini, garlic, and shards of dried hot red pepper, then liberally sprinkled with caraway seeds.

8:00 PM
The moment of truth approaches. My fear with this kind of preparation is that eventually the pot must cook dry, but the aromas, which now permeate the entire house, are divine. Even sniffing around the stove door there are no suggestions of char. Off comes the top. The vegetables, undisturbed where they lay cradled in the hollow of the ribs, have survived completely intact. I gently jiggle one rib-bone, and it immediately separates from its meat, coming away clean in my hand. The thickened remains of the wine lie underneath a thick, clear layer of molten beef tallow. I spoon as much of this rendered fat off as possible, but plenty remains to contribute its flavor to the gravy, which will be spooned over the root vegetables.

8:35 PM
Drool and consume. No knife required.


Reading: Long After Midnight at the El Niño Bien by Brian Winter

For some time now the idea has been swirling around in my brain that Argentina is a country poorly served by the travel literature. There are of course the usual plethora of Lonely Planet guides influencing the movements of gringo visitors through the country. That's not what I'm referring to. Such books have become tired caricatures of themselves, and lately I have more than once caught myself using them for guidance on precisely where not to go, in hopes of avoiding the backpacker hordes. No, what I mean is that I've been searching in vain for a travelogue that lays bare the soul of the vast Argentine nation. After all, Chile, a much smaller and narrower strip of land to the west of the Andes, has one in Sarah Wheeler's excellent Travels in a Thin Country. Tales of Argentina do fill most of In Patagonia, indubitably one of the towering skyscrapers of the genre, but Bruce Chatwin's account rarely ranges farther afield than the boggy wastelands of the remote deep south. It is no more a book about Argentina than an account of frontier life in Alaska could encapsulate life in the United States. What's more, as I've already pointed out, there are scarcely any Argentines to be found between its covers.

I'm still looking, even if Brian Winter makes a gaucho's stab in the right direction with his Long After Midnight at the El Niño Bien. This account of learning to dance the tango in the wee hours of the morning is resolutely focused on Buenos Aires, a city that resembles New York in the sense that, as Winter says, it ought really to be a completely separate country from the rest of Argentina. Nonetheless, both the tango and gaucho culture are right up there with Malbec on the list of things most foreigners would identify as essentially Argentine, and Long After Midnight does a decent job with each. The book is less convincing at forging a link between the two. When he asks where the dance comes from, Winter stirs up an ancient, troublesome debate amongst the group of cronies he frequents in the milongas, as tango halls are known. He apparently sides with "El Dandy," who attributes the origins of the tango to the gauchos, but I say apparently only because the opposing theories are never outlined with comparable clarity. (Winter's posse, always happy to be stood a round by the young Reuters Argentina financial correspondent, are referred to throughout by nicknames like El Tigre, El Chino and El Griego, and for me none of them really emerged from behind these masks of anonymity to become individual characters.)

Mi Buenos Aires, Querido

Winter makes a lot of jokes early in the book about learning to tango in order to meet women and relieve his lonely life in a distant city. He then falls in love with his tango teacher, something he cops to as a major cliché, but it is a savagely unrequited love affair that goes nowhere, and it ultimately feels a bit contrived, a convenient bit of plot paste to glue his milonga adventures together. There are lovely moments of self-deprecation here, however, as when Brian believes his foxy instructress has given him a unique whispered invitation to meet up after class for some serious partnering. Arriving at the dance he discovers only a table full of clumsy dweebs from every corner of the planet, a sort of kaffeeklatsch made up from the lovely Mariela's client list. It's my belief that making fun of oneself is the most effective route to humor in travel writing, and Winter comes up with some zingers. I particularly liked the opening to his epilogue: After I left Buenos Aires, I spent a year living in Mexico City, where I was the most grotesque creature imaginable--a Texan with an Argentine accent. I wore too many sweaters, I couldn't hold my tequila, I insisted on saying ciao instead of adios, and I had a strong urge to kiss everyone I met on the cheek, including men.

Winter dips into Argentine history, giving us Perón and populism, but he glances over the dictadura's more recent decades of horror, which he argues were less fertile ground for the tango. This is unfortunately akin to ignoring the holocaust in a consideration of the two Germanies, circa 1960. He argues that "the parallels between the fortunes of the tango and Argentine politics throughout history are truly striking," and goes on to say that the dark and melancholic tango "rose to prominence amid a time of prosperity almost unprecedented in the world; and then it nearly disappeared during the country's darkest hour." It is an elegant thought, but one which Winter promptly contradicts on the very next page, when he notes that between 2000 and 2004, "the worst years of the Argentine crisis...the number of milongas in Buenos Aires doubled."

A poster in front of the Casa Rosada demands justice

It is cruel but irresistible to point out that Winter, the Reuters financial correspondent covering one of the largest economic meltdowns of all time (at least prior to the United States of the last two years), demonstrates his perfect qualifications for a subsequent job as deputy foreign editor at USA Today when he opts to abandon the "astonishing sight" of thousands of demonstrators banging on pots and pans at 4 o'clock in the morning in the grand plaza in front of Argentina's Casa Rosada, the pink white house. Caught up in history, he succumbs to peer pressure and rushes off with his milongüero cohorts to visit a whorehouse.

Demonstration? There's a football game on...


Reading: Just Like Us by Helen Thorpe

About a decade ago my father predicted, in an entirely non-judgmental way, that by the year 2025 the USA would become a bilingual country, and that soon those unable to speak both English and Spanish will find themselves at a severe disadvantage. This demographic transformation began decades ago and shows no signs of slowing. In cities like Los Angeles and Miami bilingualism has been a functional reality for a long while already; the most enormous shift of the last decade has been the spread of the Hispanic immigrant presence from big city enclaves and the labor-intensive segments of the agricultural sector into every corner of the United States, from villages in Oregon to cities in Maine and horse farms in Kentucky. I view this vast hidden and spreading underclass of Mayan and Incan and Olmec descendants as just the latest of the many waves of immigrants to arrive, struggle, be exploited and dismissed, then ultimately integrate and finally be recognized for helping "to make this nation great." However, the reactionary forces today aligned against them suggest that the Ellis Island paradigm has been definitively abandoned. The country is too full, argue our governors and congressional leaders, some only one or two generations removed from Napolitan gardeners, Polish masons and Irish canal-diggers. The Mexicans, Salvadorans and Ecuadorians are not like our parents were, they say, they don't want to learn English, they don't want to integrate.

Current policy amounts to little more than a war on immigration, particularly the illegal kind. What we have now is an expensive disincentive program based on the notion that if we make it sufficiently difficult to cross the border, live, and work here, by building real as well as administrative fences, people will stop coming. At its most extreme this means that as a nation we now seem to be comfortable provoking aspirant immigrants to more and more dangerous crossings, in the asphyxiating bowels of automobiles, locked in shipping containers, or on foot across the most parched and forbidding corners of the desert, where many routinely die of thirst and exposure. But, like the war on drugs, this war on immigration is doomed to fail, and for some of the same reasons. Like cocaine users, we create the demand. Our comfortable cost of living is subsidized at every level by illegal immigrant labor, kept conveniently inexpensive by its very illegality. The undocumented underpaid have little recourse to collective bargaining and impose less of the costs of taxation and compliance with labor law on employers. Any urge to agitate for better pay or an improved situation is overshadowed by the threat of discovery and deportation. In order for our tomatoes and our remodeling projects and our lawn-mowing to cost us so little (so much less than they do in Europe, for instance) requires both the presence of the illegal immigrant and his lack of status. Furthermore, it is in our interest that wages stay low in the home countries, so that the tee-shirts, bananas, and auto-parts we import from down south will remain almost risibly affordable. It may be a Marxist platitude, but NAFTA removed barriers to the free flow of capital at the same time we were clamping down harder and harder on the free flow of labor. Given institutionalized inequalities like those that see garment manufacturers in Central American free trade zones paying their assembly workers as little as twenty cents an hour, labor will continue to take matters into its own hands, or feet.

We need them desperately. Without this army of Tyson chicken parts packers, Le Cirque pot-scrubbers, country club fairway manicurists and warehouse pallet-loaders, many of America's last remnant industries would grind to a halt. But many of us seem to feel we don't want any more of them, and we don't want to legalize the ones who are already here, and our culture is being eroded, and the other day I went into a grocery store and, goddammit, the whole place, from customers to clerks, was full of latinos gabbling away at one another in Spanish. Let's send them all back.

The raging national debate over immigration, and the public policy to match it, is as self-contradictory and bi-polar as that last paragraph.

In Just Like Us, Helen Thorpe has written a deft and compelling investigation of the current, messy, state of affairs. Her account of the trajectories of four inseparable Latina high-school students, two legal and two illegal, quickly leads us into a zone completely alien to that of the typical complacent Anglo citizen. It is a world in which every time a person gets into a car they need to worry what might happen if they should be stopped; one where inter-state travel is forbidding and dangerous, and international travel out of the question; one in which talented students, the country's future engineers, doctors and inventors--the exact same people who are meant to be innovating us right out of our current crisis and into a sustainable green economy--are stopped dead in their educational tracks for want of a social security card. Imagine a life in which any of the countless situations in which we are asked to show identification, from entering large office buildings, to renting apartments and buying used cars, is freighted with anxiety. No wonder the Spanish-speaking immigrant community turns inward and looks to its own for goods, services, and culture. Since I've never met a Latino laborer, legal or illegal, who didn't intuitively grasp that learning to speak better English would immediately translate into higher wages and better opportunities, it seems clear that right-wing complaints about the failure to integrate ignore the perpetual fear and justifiable paranoia that go along with being undocumented in post 9/11 America. I was reminded more than once of my own harrowing bus journeys in third-world countries, of arbitrary roadblocks where a request for papers might easily degrade into unpleasantness. I had thought such things only happened in countries I visited, not the one where I live. Just Like Us exposes a parallel United States many of us willfully ignore.

The clash between the embracing support system of insular immigrant life and a yearning for access to the opportunities outside it is central to the identity crisis faced by Yadira and Marisela, the undocumented duo who are the heroines of the book. Illegal most of their young lives, they are desperate to assimilate and to integrate, if those ideas include having the same possibilities as the fellow college students from whom they must hide their status. Both of them are strivers who ultimately succeed in attending college in their hometown of Denver, albeit as "international students" (an irony indeed) able to pay out-of-state rates only thanks to scholarship support from various sympathizers. They are, in other words, the elite of their particular underclass, fluent in English and willing to explore every avenue and lead that might help them advance. We realize that these are not representative illegal migrants. The fate of those many others in the same situation who might find the obstacles overwhelming is left implicit. While Yadira and Marisela ultimately graduate, this does nothing to change their situation; they consider going on to law school, but Thorpe suggests that, particularly for Yadira, this is simply a way of putting off the unpleasantness of facing the job market without any documents.

Thorpe spent countless hours hanging out with the girls, their associates and their families over five years, a dedicated, long-term journalistic commitment all the more remarkable because she had to sneak out of the side door of the Mayor of Denver's residence every time she wanted to visit the barrio. That may be an exaggeration, but even after writing this book Thorpe remains married to John Hickenlooper, Denver's popular liberal mayor. Despite his popularity he is far from immune to the political mudslinging that spatters the topic of immigration. He may even be particularly vulnerable to it, given that before going into politics he was a restauranteur. His restaurant company, now in a blind trust, apparently owns most of the eateries and venues in which illegal Denverites (once) wash(ed) dishes and legal ones pass their free time. Thorpe struggles to keep her home life of charity galas and formal receptions separate from her inner-city journalistic endeavors, until mid-way through the project. When an off-duty police officer moonlighting as a bouncer at a Latino disco is murdered by an illegal alien once employed in one of the mayor's restaurants, her worlds collide. I cringed to imagine the pillow talk that must have ensued in the mayoral mansion, although Thorpe swears in her acknowledgments that her husband never wavered in his support for her work, striking out only one word in the finished manuscript. If true it would have been as unsporting of her not to comply as it is rude of me to wonder what the word was.

In the context of blogging, the notion of offering "full disclosure" has a ring of pretension to it, but even though we haven't spent much time in the same social circles in the last fifteen years I will nonetheless mention that Ms. Thorpe is a very old friend of mine. When I knew her well there was no doubt as to her liberal political persuasion; nothing in this book suggests that she has altered course. But Helen is the farthest thing imaginable from a knee-jerker, and in search of journalistic balance she spends far more time than I would have hanging out with the sorts of people who want to build a razor-wire fence between Brownsville and San Diego. There are moments when she almost seems to warm to Congressman Tom Tancredo as he drives her around his old neighborhood, cracking mafioso jokes and telling fuzzy stories about North Denver's version of the San Gennaro festival. Meanwhile, he was plotting the closest thing our most recent elections saw to a single-issue presidential campaign. If it did nothing else, Tancredo's short-lived bid for the Republican nomination forced most of the rest of the candidates further to the right on the immigration issue. And even while the Democrats wrinkled up their noses in disgust they were sticking them in the air to gauge which way the wind was blowing.

With official national joblessness hovering somewhere around the ten percent mark you don't have to be an unemployed rocket scientist to figure out that anti-immigrant populism has a bright future. This is one of the grim lessons of Just Like Us, a book that ought to have a happy ending but instead concludes with its protagonists in much the same place they were at its beginning; after five years of senatorial hand-wringing and congressional pussy-footing, Yadira and Marisela haven't come any closer to being welcomed as productive, legal members of our society, despite their hard-won college degrees. The only really good news I have is to tell you what a pleasure it was to read their stories. Like a well-crafted Hollywood blockbuster, this book anticipates, nay, demands a part dos, and I'm eagerly awaiting the sequel, which I hope will be written in Spanish. Or at least available in a bilingual edition.


Haitian Flavor

I'm back in Haiti teaching sound recording to a fresh incoming class of eager film students at the Sine Lekol de Jakmel. Here are a few snaps, most taken out the window on the clogged drive out through the capital.

The "touch me sweetly" breakfast spaghetti cart

Copyright infringement

Rooftops of old Jacmel

The rebar delivery boy

Remember that you are only dust

The other White House

New York is not actually on my route