Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Ayaan Hirsi Ali : Infidel


As I learned from a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, at it's root Islam is violent and totalitarian.  And just for making that observation, or any other criticism, one would be marked for death by the prophet himself.   That's why Ayaan Hirsi Ali has been a fugitive from Islamic justice for over a decade.

In our Christian culture, we think of religion as more true and pure at the root than at the branches. In Islam, as in Judaism,  the reverse appears to be the case.  There are mystical  or syncretic variations of Islam that are quite appealing.  But the moment that Mohammad became a warlord as well as prophet, cruelty and hypocrisy were incorporated into religious practice, and have been there ever since.

Recent American interventions not withstanding, it's not  America's job to secular humanize Muslim societies.  They've got to do it themselves.

But harboring refugees (like my forebears)  and then letting them speak their mind is a fine American tradition, and in the marketplace of ideas, the only way Muslims have found to defend their treatment of women is to kill or threaten those who  criticize it.

So I'm proud that Ayaan has ended up being an American - though it's too bad she has ended up as a spokesperson for an aggressive, right wing, pro-Israel foreign policy.

For me, this book primarily serves as a window into the Somali clans and the Dutch political parties, representing the contrasting social structures of pastoral and modern Western civilization.

It was remarkable that our heroine  could receive support from distant relatives all over the world. In my family, kinship does not extend beyond  first-cousins - and even then it can be problematic. But  Somalis recognize kinship relationships that go back at least ten generations.

It was also remarkable that our heroine could be elected to the Dutch Parliament within a few years of becoming a citizen -- thanks to an electoral system where voters choose parties rather than candidates.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Raymond Chandler: The Little Sister

Thought I'd take a break from inscrutable South Asian literature for a while, but this pulp fiction from the '40's in America was even more difficult to comprehend.

I could make no sense of any of the conversations.  I suspected that the hero, Marlowe, was figuring out the case and making wise cracks - but I could never figure out how he knew what he knew and why he was said what he said.

He appears to be a deeply depressed loser with a Quixotic sense of doing good deeds but no capacity to help anyone, including himself.

Everyone in the story is either cynical or criminal -- and the physical world he  describes is dismal.

"The corridor had a smell of old carpet and furniture oil and had the drab anonymity of a thousand shabby lives"

It's not surprising that the author was known to be alcoholic.

His only achievement is staying alive -- which, I suppose, is remarkable considering how often he blunders into dangerous situations.

But the unrelenting doom is occasionally interrupted by charming metaphors:

"She has a low lingering voice with a sort of moist caress in it like a damp bath towel."

And some beat-poetic descriptions:

"I drove on past the gaudy neons and the false fronts behind them, the sleazy hamburger joints that look like palaces under the colors, the circular drive-ins as gay as circuses with the chipper, hard-eyed car hops. The gritty counters and the sweaty greasy kitchens that could have poisoned a toad"

And this three-page ode to the sensation of being drugged:

"Then it wasn't Napoleon's tomb any more. It was a raft on a swell. There was a man on it. I'd seen him somewhere. Nice fellow. We'd got on fine. I started towards him and hit a wall with my shoulder. That spun me around. I started clawing for something to hold on to. There was nothing but the carpet. How did I get down there? No use asking. It's a secret. Every time you ask a question they just push the floor in your face. Okay, I started to crawl along the carpet. I was on what formerly had been my hands and knees. No sensation proved it. I crawled towards a dark wooden wall. Or it could have been black marble. Napoleon's tomb again. What did I ever do to Napoleon? What for should he keep shoving his tomb at me"

By the way, Chandler's Marlowe is quite different from the Marlowe enacted by James Garner in the film adaptation.   Garner made him light hearted, happy, and pleased with himself.

The original Marlowe was periodically cautioning himself to "stay human"

Tale of an Anklet

This ancient Tamil epic is just about as weird as the South Asian anklet pictured above. (recently seen at a special exhibit at the Art Institute)

Such anklets served as portable safe deposit boxes -- where a woman could carry her valuable gem stones with her at all times.

In this story, the woman, reunited with her wayward husband, takes the anklet to a jeweler to get the contents appraised so she can raise some cash.  The jeweler turns out to be dishonest - the husband is accused of theft and  executed on the spot by order of the king. Upon the subsequent proof of  his innocence, the king dies of shame and the woman, in her fury, rips off her own breast and throws it in air -- where it explodes into a firestorm that destroys the entire city.

If the  execution of the husband was a great injustice that demanded retribution -- what about the slaughter of an entire city's innocent population? 

Yes -- it's a whacky story -- and it gets even whackier -- and bloodier -- when a neighboring kingdom recognizes the woman as a goddess and wages a protracted military campaign to obtain blocks of stone suitable for statues in her honor.

The final episodes of this epic are tedious accounts of pointless battles.

But the  first episodes are drenched with sub-tropical sensuality, as you get the feeling that all of nature is copulating, or about to.

Here is a passage, selected at random from the opening verses:

The lake of sweet waters seemed a woman,
The swan's elegant gait, her walk,
The redolent water lilies dripping with honey,
Her fragrance. The lotus, her red lips.
The cool, black sand, her thick hair.
To the notiram raga of bees singing
With the voices of poets, the lake opened
Her eyes of radiant blue lotuses