Honestly, though, I loved the fish...

The new Georgia Aquarium in downtown Atlanta is billed as the world's largest. It is spectacular, a place you absolutely must visit if you pass through. The tanks are so massive that one seems to be walking through a tunnel burrowed through distant oceans. It is also a Godawful, horrid representation of everything wrong with our consumerist, market-driven culture, an opportunity to stand in a long line like mutton at the abattoir, waiting to spend $27 to be assaulted by the sights and sounds of the food court at your local mall.

The customer, relieved of their entrance fee, enters a vast hall teeming with schools of people, like fish. The ambiance is one of shopping mall. Immediately across from the entrance is the café and snack shoppe, so situated that the public will waste no time yielding up more of their cash. Prominent dioramas proclaim the corporate sponsors of the different exhibits. Home Depot, or its materials, built a part of an exhibit, for instance. UPS flew in the whales for free, and they aren't shy about telling you. Enormous, flashy, three dimensional graphics dangle in the grand hall, as if no contemporary child could possibly enjoy an experience that does not present itself with the aesthetics of a Disney DVD.

Worse, the educational component of this incredible institution seemed limited to a few of the usual platitudes about not wasting water and helping to keep the oceans clean, posted here and there in unlit corners of the walkways on bits of colored cardboard. Any educational awareness I might have taken away from the experience was certainly overshadowed, in terms of prominent graphics, by the announcement that the freshwater meander was sponsored by the Southern Company, a vast hydroelectric and nuclear power concern. Call me a curmudgeon, but this is blood money. To propose to me that I might save the world by remembering to turn off the water as I brush my teeth, while simultaneously providing a greenwashing for a massive power company is, pardon the pun, a damming indictment of the whole affair. It leaves a muddy, brackish taste in the mouth. I know, I know, why not just accept that this is entertainment, not an educational opportunity?

Apologists will tell us that without the corporate sponsorship by companies trying to link this simulated wilderness experience to their brand it would be impossible to build such spectacular exhibits. I'm unwilling to accept that trade, even if the vastest of the tanks seems to be an almost ocean-sized affair, crammed with multiple species of sharks, dense schools of fish of a multitude of species, and, most impressively, no end in sight. The giant nurse sharks look small in it, and they have enough room in the adept underwater architecture to swim away and out of view. We have no sense that these fish have boundaries, that somewhere deep beyond them is another wall. The public ride through an undersea tunnel on a slow-moving conveyor-belt.

Only the Beluga whales seem confined, circling in repeated patterns, like inmates doing pushups in their cells. A whale in a tank, however spacious, is like a goldfish in a shotglass.

Only in the most pristine conditions could one hope to have comparable views in the wild.

For an additional fee customers can arrange to go diving with the nurse sharks.

At the aquarium shop you can buy this creepy, burkaesque dolphin mask, along with thousands of delightful dolphins, simpering sharks, baby belugas and other stuffed, fluffy variants on the cuddly, but we could not find one inch of shelf in this vast store, in the world's largest aquarium, given over to even one serious book about fish, oceans, or ecosystems


The Reptilian Series

Antarcticiana's Zimbabwe correspondent is safely back in Harare after a hair-raising and homesickness-inspiring vacation abroad on various continents. The farcical business of life in the late Mugabe period continues, a total systemic collapse best illustrated, as usual, by the government's continued insistence on printing money faster than it can obtain paper. Soon, furthermore, there won't be enough room left on a standard bill for all the zeroes.

Only a few weeks ago the complete collection of Zimbabwean billion-dollar bills landed on my desk. Imagine our reporter's consternation and amazement (minimal, actually) to discover upon returning to the former breadbasket of Africa that the printing presses were already deep into the trillions. The latest currency report from the front lines of hyperinflation:

We now have the trillion series, The 10, 20, 50, and 100 trillion dollar notes. The trillions were basically printed to pay the military. The notes never made it into the bank and the soldiers were paid in barracks so they didn't have to stand in a queue or be seen to be taking over any queues. Later that day they were seen trying to convert their trillions into US$.

On the day the trillions were introduced, 16th January, the rate was 600 Billion Zim to US $1. 4 days later, on 21st January, the rate is 25 Trillion to US $1. The general public is still waiting to see the trillions in circulation. I have obtained one 10 Trillion dollar note, and when the others are worth nothing I will be able to buy them for $1 each. Notice the shortage of ink color choice. [These colors are identical to the billion-dollar notes and have the same "pile of rocks" graphic, ed.] Luckily there is no confusion as no one really accepts Zim dollars anyway. The problem now is how to pay military and civil servants next month. Coupons and South African Rand are being talked about.

If you add 13 zeroes to 100 trillion you get a reptilian.

Meanwhile, functionaries have announced that passports will only be issued on an emergency basis, at a cost of $650 (US). The Harare Tribune reports that "an official at the passport office said the suspension in issuing of ordinary passports was due to shortage of material needed to make passports. 'There is no paper to print passports so we can only entertain emergency cases which give us foreign currency. The only way to give everyone passports would be to charge a flat fee in forex [hard currency], but that would embarass the government,' he said."

And what would embarrass this government, as my grandpappy used to say, would shame a hog to death.



After enjoying the overwhelming hospitality of Atlanta for a long weekend of art openings and book reading, Laura and I hit the road. We were looking forward to a slow and relaxed three days of tropical camping along the sultry gulf shores, en route to New Orleans. Back-roading it, we headed for the Eufaula National Wildlife Refuge, on Alabama's easternmost edge. At a viewing platform overlooking distant flooded fields dotted with gabbling waterfowl, we gobbled sandwiches under the grey and wintry luncheon sky, noting the unseasonable chill in the air. Not to fear, we thought; there will be many more miles of driving south and sunward, before we pitch our tent in the balmy Caribbean breezes.

At Opp, just above the Florida panhandle, we sought out the Frank Jackson State Park campground. Signs warned of alligators, but not of the weather. After choosing a campsite, we drove back into town. Opp seems to have once stood for "opportunity," but perhaps the town lost the rest of its letters when it was discovered that, to be honest, there were few opportunities to be had there. The only supermarket was a squalid, discount affair clogged with cut rate corn syrup and nonperishable items made from refined flour. It was as dismal a shopping experience as capitalism has to offer. Settling for couple of packages of ramen, we drove back to Frank Jackson, discovering that with nightfall, and in our brief absence, the wind had begun to blow, hard, directly off of the lake and towards our campsite. The advertised alligators all seemed to be safely hibernating. Worse, had the wind not been churning the surface of the water into a series of choppy, standing waves, it was cold enough outside that the lake would certainly have frozen.

Much colder than it looks

Pulling on the skimpy windbreaker I had packed "just in case," I set to getting the tent up. Soon my fingers were as frigid and chilly as the cold aluminum tent poles. The wind was so violent that the stove would not even light, until Laura, freshly returned from a visit to the toilet block--"wonderfully heated, unlimited hot water, you really ought to try it sometime"--suggested putting it deep under the camper top of the pickup. Stomping our feet, we took our mugs of instant noodles back into the cab, where we had been sitting all day, driving and "looking forward to parking this thing and getting out into nature."

Outside, the wind was whipping the rainfly of the tent, and I watched it anxiously from inside the car, fearful that the whole mess might blow away. I had faith however, in my staking skills, learned in Antarctica while preparing to head out to camp at Mt. Boreas. After checking the stakes I gloated to Laura that the tent was as safe as a house. All plans for an evening stroll were abandoned, and with the temperatures in the twenties, and the wind chill doubtless far lower, we bundled into the tent and battened down the zippers.

Dawn arrived, crisp and calm and frigid. "I'll make tea, while you take a hot shower," I announced, magnanimously. I put water on to boil and began stuffing the sleeping bags in their stuff sacks and taking apart the tent. My toes are chilly, I thought. Perhaps I'll start the car, let it warm up for our departure. Maybe I'll just sit in it, for a moment.

Ice hockey, anyone?

When Laura returned to the half-dismantled tent she found me sitting in the truck clutching a cup of jasmine tea, the heater blasting. "What's all this nonsense about Antarctica you are always spouting?" She asked, when I rolled the window open a tiny crack. "You're nothing but a big wimp."


Walking to Atlanta

Walking to Guantánamo, the photographs, opened last night at Whitespace Gallery, Atlanta. Despite the Montreal style winter temperatures there was a fabulous turnout.

Better pictures of the show itself to follow, once I get the camera up on a tripod. It is an incredible space, with pristine white panels floating in front of the unretouched brick walls of a hundred-year old carriage house.
Big John and Mom flew down to Atlanta for the evening. (Mom not pictured).

Here is a picture of one person actually looking at the photographs.

Mustard is the "it" color for winter '09. Note Big John's shirt, two images above, and Laura's scarf.

John "Mr. Suave" Otte

Matt Chenoweth of Atlanta rock act the Goldest, rediscovered on facebook 26 years after my Princeton High School graduation, chatting with Ms. Mustard and master mojito-slinger Alison "177" Mayer, who provided a punch-bowl full of a fresh-ginger mojito variant for the thirsty masses.


Reading: 2666 by Roberto Bolaño

I've always avoided the trendy book or film, the one that everyone says "you absolutely must see," preferring to convert any shame or embarrassment I might feel at not being up to date into a diatribe about the outrageousness of the fickle promotional machine and the gullibility of the masses, who turn their muttonlike focus to one particular cultural offering of the moment. This may be because I've never forgotten a favorite joke of my father's. Neither has my college roommate, Christian Crumlish, who reminded me of it once again by dropping the punchline into a recent facebook thread, some twenty years after he must have heard it.

It's a true story, and It goes like this: A learned medievalist (my father) is at a cocktail party, chatting with a society grande dame. The society lady soon finds she has little in common with the tweed-jacketed scholar. Doing her best to keep the small talk from shriveling away to nothing at all, she turns to literature, imagining it to be fertile ground for a conversation with an English professor. "Have you read John Updike's latest novel?" She asks, hopefully.

"I'm afraid I haven't," says the eminent PhD.

"Oh my," says the lady, stressed into aggression by this thwarting of her best effort at interclass chit-chat. "I'm quite shocked. It's been out for about six weeks already."

"Have you read the Consolation of Philosophy, by Boethius?" Asks the rumpled but unruffled professor.

"No," she says. "I can't say that I have."

At which point my father actually said to the woman: "Really? How surprising. It's been out for almost fifteen hundred years."

This is all by way of illustrating that under normal circumstances I would never have picked up a novel by Roberto Bolaño. At least not right now. The gushing reappraisal of his oeuvre in the New Yorker, the deluge of translations and editions and awards, boxed sets and even posters, and the numerous friends wondering how "someone like you" with an interest in Latin America could possibly not yet have read this stuff, all should have conspired to keep the late Chilean author definitively off of my bedside table. At least, if he were a movie, until he came out on DVD.

I'm not sure what came over me. Perhaps it was one too many mojitos, but at the end of a fabulous book party for Walking to Guantánamo, caught up in the infection of book-buying but thinking it absurd to lay down the cash for my own book, I picked up the boxed set of Bolaño's new novel and paid for it. The lesson is: sometimes it's worth believing the hype. The posthumously published 2666 clocks in at a staggering 900 pages, but after reading the first ten of them I wanted to abandon any and all commitments and appointments in order to feverishly read through to the end. Not because this is what is traditionally known as a page-turner, but because I was impatient to uncover the next literary revelation. On almost every page I found myself stunned into submission by at least one sentence, buried somewhere in a paragraph, with which Bolaño managed to double or triple the weight of the meanings or sentiments he was conjuring. And this despite reading in translation. Indescribably diverse, reeking of a real and painful ambivalence and entirely unconcerned with traditional notions of resolution, 2666 ends by answering only one small and insignificant question posed so many, many pages earlier: Why does the elusive author Archimboldi travel from his Mediterranean stomping grounds to Sonora, in the north of Mexico, as an octogenarian? But between the posing and the answering of this herring, this flimsy excuse, Bolaño grapples with more of the really big questions than one novel ought to be able to contain.

Bolaño, who was nearly prevented from writing any books, was born in Chile and then moved with his parents to Mexico. After Allende's election, he returned to Santiago at age twenty, a place that then must have been, at least for leftist expats, like Havana in 1960, or Caracas a few years ago or La Paz today, a place worth going back to, a place to join and celebrate the struggle. I imagine it was one of those moments in history attractive to those eager to contribute and be a part of something bigger than themselves, the kind of moment we so desperately need to have in this country. The euphoria, as we know, was short lived. Briefly jailed after the Pinochet murder / coup, thought a terrorist and an enemy of the state, Bolaño survived, avoiding the fate of so many other long-haired austral idealists only because two friends from his youth at the colegio were among the prison guards. Freed, Bolaño fled the abundant savageries of Latin America for Spain. The combination of gratitude and cynicism he must have felt at his arbitrary, chance release informs many of the moments in 2666.

This gigantic novel is divided into five semi-independent book-like sections, but its landscapes are almost uniformly savage wildernesses, from the civilized sterility of the quadrilateral romance between the four literary critics of the first part to the wasted battlegrounds of the last, those forgotten eastern european fronts, muddy frozen places somewhere beyond Romania where the book's only hero, a German writer named Archimboldi, clawed his bulletproof way through the war.

Worst of all are the killing fields of Juarez, thinly veiled as the invented Sonora border town of Santa Teresa. In Bolaño's vision this is a place of such entrenched horror that nobody in their right mind would want to visit it. Naturally, he makes it the focus of our attention, and however improbably, all the characters will asynchronously converge on this bloodied city.

I would like to think that there is no one left who is unaware of the murders of Juarez. The unsolved, unexplained, ongoing serial slaughter of young, generally poor women in and around that city has been going on for years. The killings had been going on for years before Bolaño began his novel, and he died half a decade ago. They should be an international scandal. "No one pays attention to these killings, but the secret of the world is hidden in them," someone says in 2666. If we have all now heard of them, that has done nothing to prevent them; it has done nothing to change the dynamic of them, which is that when the victims are drawn from the South's infinite, disenfranchised pool of factory workers and would-be illegal immigrants, just so many fleshy cogs in the industrial machinery that makes our absurdly underpriced t-shirts and underwear and cleans our houses and picks our tomatoes, only the most very limited resources will be brought to bear to solve their disappearances, their violation and disposal.

Should we be upset, then, to find at the heart of this novel what amounts to a numbingly graphic list of the abuses perpetrated against the women of Santa Teresa, a partial list only, but one running to the hundreds of pages? This fourth book, "The Part about the Crimes," is something like a police blotter, but one devoid of any sense of humor. Here there are no cats stranded in gutters or umbrella-wielding grandmas successfully defending themselves against purse-snatchers, only an interminable accounting of the most violent, inhuman murder-tortures, one after the other. This is not easy stuff to stomach, particularly given the clinical, documentary detachment with which Bolaño catalogs the horrors. The list drags on. Just when you feel it is all too much Bolaño lengthens an account, digresses into the invented minutiae of the victim's life, recounts an episode from the history of one of the countless squalid "colonias" that make up the exurbs of this seething city. Sucked into the narrative, you read on. The cycle repeats, until you realize you've emerged out the other side.

You are breathless, after your orgy of gory page-turning. You feel dirty, complicit. And this, of course, is one of Bolaño's many points. For him the Juarez murders could not happen anywhere else but in the brutal borderlands between the first and third worlds, a place where NAFTA has erased any impediment to the free flow of capital while the fences for preventing the free flow of labor are built taller and longer. The dollars we save by buying cheap goods are reinvested to prevent the pseudo-enslaved from following their fabrications across the frontier. In 2666 the border is a spectral presence dominating the imaginary city of Santa Teresa, a wound, like the wounds inflicted on the once anonymous women victims to whom Bolaño has given names. The pressure of this vast yearning, the smashed, misplaced aspiration, and titanic exploitation make for an infected, explosive pustule on the back of capitalism. This is the trash-heap of globalization; is it any wonder the wasted corpses of its expendable workers pile up here?

In the final of the five "parts" Bolaño turns to Archimboldi, inventing, essentially, a complete biography. We have heard almost nothing about him since the obsessed, fornicating academics trailed the aged author to Santa Teresa back at the end of "the Part About the Critics." (I'm not sure if the joke, that critics are a bunch of fuckers, would work quite the same way in Spanish). Offspring of a one-legged man and a one-eyed woman, the young Archimboldi, born Hans Reiter, wants nothing but to dive to the bottom of the sea, so predisposed is he to escaping our savage world. It is not just the pun that makes us aware that there is a lot of Bolaño the writer in Archimboldi. Sometimes we are privy to insights like this one, which might serve to summarize the novel's central point: "it's common knowledge, thought Archimboldi, that history, which is a simple whore, has no decisive moments but is a proliferation of instants, brief interludes that vie with one another in monstrousness." Archimboldi is a guy who stumbles his way through life. He takes his pseudonym on the spur of the momentary meeting with his Hamburg publisher, and takes as his woman and only love of his life the tubercular Ingeborg, a waif he re-encouters at random in the aimless wanderings of devasted post-war Germany. (We know when Ingeborg is about to die, after coughing, for "when she took the handkerchief away from her mouth the stain of blood was like a giant rose in full bloom.")

It takes a brilliant writer to make such a compilation of bleak visions compelling across so many pages. Bolaño is such a writer, and we can only lament his premature death at fifty, and wonder what more marvels he might have delivered had he lived, like Archimboldi, into his ripe and spry eighties. Don't wait fifteen hundred years to read him.