lundi 30 mars 2009

Vietnam - 26 February 2008

I read The Princess and the Fisherman in less than a day – a page-turner, as they say. It wasn’t bad. Not brilliant, but not bad. Some Mills-and-Boon intrigue, at first: the heroine is a shy girl, secretive, without friends, but then a confident and seductive man approaches. He knows how to see her true beauty, but thinks of her as a sister, etc. Then things turn dark: he mysteriously disappears, leaving her a strange notebook. She learns that the life of this man is, in fact, far more difficult than she could have believed. All of this built around ethnic confusion, demanding parents, a conniving grandmother, and the Vietnamese tale that serves as a counterpoint (can I say “counter-framework”?). The book works well enough, formally: a story within a story, elegant sentences. More than anything, the book made me think.

Ethically speaking, the text and I are miles apart. Its main character is a proud melancholic. She constantly repeats three Japanese words (that I’ve forgotten) meaning: “the infinite melancholy of things.” Even in her adolescence the heroine is saddened by the idea of a lost childhood, by an unrequited love story, by a kiss never exchanged. In short, she’s a young old woman who sees her life in retrospect, apart from one great moment as she listens to the piano, feels uplifted by love, and becomes fully embodied to... Für Elise.

Alongside this melancholy there’s a kind of diffused Buddhism. When her grandmother consoles her by saying “in another life,” she means it literally – not in the above-and-beyond, in paradise, but another life on this earth. For ultimately the lovers seek each other from one body to the next, over successive reincarnations, and sometimes cannot find each other, but continue their search. And running parallel to these ever-returning spirits there is the cult of the dead, ancestor worship, and the anguish of the grandmother who has not correctly buried her husband. A strange mix of everlasting life (we can relax and take our time, we shall return) and immense loss (we lose more and more, every second, we leave beautiful moments behind us). In short, the antithesis of the existential position that Christianity adopts.

It is also marked by the implacable strength of fate. The tale that forms the counterpoint of the story is placed under the sign of destiny: two orphans consult an oracle, it predicts that the brother will marry the sister, and the prediction is realised. But the brother first attempts to kill his sister, to prove the oracle’s falseness (he is thus responsible for the initial rebellion, unlike Oedipus), then learns the truth by chance (not seeking to know, like Oedipus). Minh allows for some uncertainty in the story of her heroine and Nam, but there is nonetheless the impression that a kind of destiny is behind it. And the coldness of the characters is the consequence of this, of the destiny that acts by itself, that completes what it creates. Faced with this, it’s better to adopt a calm and detached attitude. The stoicism of Minh, then, is like that of old – noble resignation faced with an implacable lot. Contrast the panic of Julien, that lost
fugitive of Berlin Traffic. The second of the two pagan responses to the world’s disorder.

Should we see in this tale a literary genre that belongs to Vietnam? Where destiny holds the reins. Where determinism acts openly, through arbitrary and chance actions. Where nobody is responsible for anything, because everything is scripted in advance. Where the only possible choice is to enjoy oneself, or to suffer, before the spectacle of the world. A mode of existence that is aesthetic, before anything else.

We might amuse ourselves by contrasting the Vietnam of Minh with that of Stallone. Rambo IV opens with a scene of military cruelty, then Stallone hunts a serpent in the jungle. Cruelty of people and of nature, the aesthetic of horror – projected by the West onto Asia, where the horror is practiced, perhaps not just aesthetically. Another Julien said to me: “I would have loved to fight in Vietnam,” when we were children – “over there, they were real men.” Rambo, man of strength, but also the region of Asia, until recently, dominated by strength and arms – a place of the right. Is this because it’s between two worlds, between China and India?

lundi 23 mars 2009

Poland - 25 February 2008

Poland, the nation of a kind of mad dream. Gambrowicz, Andrzejewski, the superb dancer from Krakow whom I hosted for several days in Paris, the figures of Chagall and their magical creatures, the gypsy-Jews on their violins, the land of eccentrics. And John-Paul the Second, whose diary I read almost every day in 2006, and whose tomb is venerated in Rome like that of a saint. The Polish come en masse to World Youth Days and the prayers of Taizé. They will descend on Sydney, this year. This is where Central Europe and its joyful absurdity begins – here in Poland, not in the kitch of "alternative" Berlin.

Characters: that Polish girl who danced the salsa in Philip’s house in York, and who said about an ill-fated love story that “people can be so fake.” And another one, a vegetarian from Warsaw, who visited a Chinese supermarket in Belleville where they sold living crabs and had the idea that she could save one, grab the creature from the aquarium and start running, pursued by an angry clutch of Chinese. Both of these women belong to the same Polish literary genre: the comic!

Is this because Poland is the antithesis of Germany? A Judeao-Christian land, an anti-pagan land. And therefore a place where the comic is preferable to the tragic. An odd sequence to enthrone Benedict XVI after John-Paul II if we see things in this way – it marks a sad return to nature after a detour via the Baroque and joyful artifice.

Germany - 25 February 2008

The protagonist of Berlin Traffic flees Paris to escape the old-fashioned city with its symbolist cameos and enamels, the corpses in its catacombs, the capital’s eerie ghosts. In Germany, what does he find? An activist dancer, some work as a gigolo, and finally a role in an adaptation of Solaris. Still old things, then, only somewhat less old.

Berlin should make us suspicious. The city is too cool to be straight. Previously, it was a battle ground; we now see its struggles recycled as kitsch. I’ve noticed a very dangerous Berlin kitch that dominates today’s European culture under a yodelling air and wir wollen alle wider kinder sein. One doesn’t even need to work, here – life is cheap, one can always squat. In short, there’s an ethic of easy recycling, reaction to the more noble art of keeping things in shape. Out of which comes, no doubt, the anguish that Julien brings very clearly to the scene: Berlin, the city where old age is terrifying; for Berlin caters only to a youthful ethic, a sort of laziness marked by gluttony and lust.

Now, when young we’re expected to produce something beyond our own needs, for we must also consider the elders and the children. But in Berlin the ethic is just-enough-for-yourself. “I live in a great apartment,” said Martin – “it’s heated by coal.” The coal needs to be carried, then – fine for the young, but later?

I will resist the temptation of the Berlin model. I will not become an honorary citizen of Prenzlauerberg, where I drank beer as a nineteen-year-old.

What is the genre of this novel? Somewhere between pornography and noir. An erotic spy novel. Berlin, city of spies – a legacy of the cold war, no doubt. The genre entails secrecy, but also false identity, fake name, gadgets, money; legitimate things become blurred. Theft itself is in a dance of death with the law.

The protagonist of Berlin Traffic moves from Paris – city of sterile poetry in a rigid and decaying style – to Berlin, the city of the spy thriller. It’s an attempt to reconcile the cheeky pop of Les Halles or Belleville with the rarified salons of the Left Bank, and recycle all of it in a cosmopolitan crime novel, with erotic salons and the traffic of stolen artworks. Excellent – after all these years we still haven’t finished with kitsch. As for espionage, how boring! The Pagny sur Moselle affair was already a spy story. Between France and Germany could we not find something beyond secret intelligence?

I also notice that, once in Berlin, the character finds a new form of seriousness. Because Germany is a peasant country, even in Berlin; because we believe in Mother Nature, here; because in Germany we can enact a neo-Greek melancholia. (Crista Wolf is an excellent example – for all her talent, I could never get beyond the first chapter of Cassandra).

There is something to consider in this fascination for antiquity and the displaced Mediterranean, that forms one of the motives of literary history in France as well as Germany, from Racine’s Iphigenia to that of Goethe, passing via Du Bellay's Roman Antiquities and Goethe's Roman Elegies. Something of the kitsch of Berlin, of Paris and of Julien’s book resides in these museums of the northern plains full of Greek fragments and Egyptian gods, thoroughly nationalised, source of a richness “immemorial.” I remember a retired teacher in Alsace speaking with emotion of the “Island of Museums,” in Berlin, before her smorgasbord of stoneware from Soufflenheim. It’s another form of recycling or recuperation that is at stake, here. Recycling somebody else’s past, which we take for our own. Another kind of theft. Now, the Biblical commandment tells us: “thou shalt not steal.”

Pondering these words, I might almost inscribe the commandment as the motto of my landed and nautical notebooks: “thou shalt not steal.”

samedi 14 mars 2009

Australia - 24th February 2008

Australia as anti-American. Like it, “a land of opportunity,” “young and free.” Like it, massacres of Aborigines, ghosts, cemeteries of unknown ancestors, nature’s extremes. And the language shared, the culture shared. But when Europeans fought to leave for America and then kept on longing to return, it was by force that they were sent to the Australian colonies at first, and later via assisted passage. Like America, it’s a land of immigration, but without a globalised mythology. This is not the land where all needs are met; it was never seen as the hope of the nations. And yet, when Philip tells his students that he is Australian, most of them say: “oh, Australia – my dream!”

Cambodia - 24th February 2008

Hinduism – Trimurti: Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva – a new religious world !

Germany - 24th February 2008

It was at the Australian embassy in Berlin that my visa application was processed. It was there that the administrative decision was made about the possibility of my journey and my settlement in a new nation. Berlin, place of transition. We’ll need to ritually celebrate that when we arrive.

vendredi 13 mars 2009

Cambodia - 22 february 2008

Cambodia was a part of French Indochina. My language is still spoken there, they still cook baguettes, and French groups visit to see the ruins of Angkor.

Philip went there in the summer, for a fortnight, sent by ICB as an international volunteer to train local teachers of English. For him, Cambodia is a country of South-East Asia – it’s on the big map that he stuck to the wall of the living room, just beneath Laos, to Thailand’s east. And it’s also the home of an Australian friend, political refugee with her parents after the persecutions of the Khmer Rouge. They were part of the Chinese minority, and practised Christianity. Different visions of Cambodia, then. I could add that of Marc: Angkor Wat, a masterpiece, a marvel that you have to see to believe.

Then there is geography: lowlands, swamps, the jungle. There are freshwater dolphins – the guides claim that you can sometimes spot them in the capital! I consult a map, and see that Cambodia (unlike Vietnam) is not oriented from mountains to the sea, but centred rather on the lake of Tonle Sap, in the centre of the country, slightly to the west. A coastal range the “Cardamom Mountains” blocks the flow of water to the west in the direction of Thailand – and all the water of the basin that forms the body of Cambodia flows into Phnom Penh along the Mekong, which later seems to become a marsh. The great temple of Angkor Wat is located just north of Tonle Sap, and Phnom Penh at the confluence of the river into which it drains and the Mekong.

Vietnam - 22 February 2008

Yesterday afternoon I bought a second-hand copy of The Princess and the Fisherman from Gibert, at the same time as Berlin Traffic.

Belarus - 22nd February 2008

We might end up stopping in Belarus: the couple that hosted us in Rennes last weekend – organised via the hospitality club – suggested that we contact one of their friends who lives in Minsk, and has the username “Benjaminsk.”

jeudi 12 mars 2009

Germany - 22nd february 2008

In his first book, Julien tells the story of a homosexual and depressed Parisian actor who leaves for Berlin to grieve the loss of his friend Matthew who has killed himself after having contracted AIDS. So far I’ve only read the first fifty pages. The main character has already decided to leave, but before this he describes a dream to his psychiatrist. He spends a night in a trashy club in the first arrondissement, gets smashed on beer, then vomits in the Seine and falls asleep on a merry-go-round in front of the town hall, where he finds the horses ugly. What comes out of this drunken night? An illumination. Paris smells of death; this character wants a city where the blood runs freely – Berlin!

The other day Jean-François said: "things happen in Berlin." Martin, too, the dancer friend of Rosie, claimed that "something was happening" in the city, and that he wanted to be a part of it. The marriage of the east and the west? A fascinating cross between capitalism and communism? Yes, maybe; and indeed the city seems very rich in sensations for queer artists with piercings. But isn’t it also a bit sad, too, this city for which all of Europe longs because life is not too expensive, there, because unemployment benefits go a long way? It’s a remnant of the Cold War, perhaps: back then, living in Berlin exempted people from military service in the ex-RFA. Conscientious objectors and alternatives gathered, developing a way of life that the state recognised as military preparation, a kind of war against the communist enemy: "art!"

Vietnam - 23rd January 2008

Wikipedia links to an animated map of the Mongol empire. At the height of its influence the empire reached the Polish border - in 1279, the time of the Crusades. The whole route of my journey will take place within this medieval Mongol empire until I cross the border of Vietnam. I will need to wait for Hanoi, then, before I find the real Other, a non-neighbour of Europe.

mercredi 11 mars 2009

Belarus – 23 January 2008 – What is a country?

We are going to cross Belarus, or Belorussia – an almost non-existent country.

Its territory has been part of Lithuania, Poland, Russia, then the USSR. No independent tradition, then: a place always dominated by a more powerful neighbour. But Belarus is a country, officially, and you need a visa to cross it.

The name itself – “Belarus” or “White Russia” – also designates those Russian aristocrats who migrated through Europe after the Bolshevik revolution. Thus it was that my father had known a family of “white Russians” during his childhood: musicians and photographers for whom he worked at Grau du Roi. “Princes of Kiev,” if I recall correctly – Ukrainians, then. (Or were they an aristocratic family from Belarus, princes of Minsk rather than Kiev?) For my part, I’ve inherited a nostalgic fascination for those images of excessive spending, that myth of Russian restaurants, and a bizarre association between Belarus and a man called Daniel – postcard-maker at Grau du Roi, living in a marina at Port Camargue, and brutally dead from a heart-attack a few years ago.

On the map, Minsk sits between two catchments: that of the Dnieper along the north-south axis of the old Russia, where Smolensk, Lyubech and Kiev are found, and that of the Niemen, which today marks the border between Lithuania and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. This last river is historically important for relations between Russia and France: Alexander and Napoleon signed the treaty of Tilsit on a raft here in 1807; in 1812, the Great Army crossed it, marking the start of a Russian campaign interrupted by winter and the Berezina.

Therefore Belarus and its capital form a kind of summit region, unsure which way to lean – towards the Courland and the Baltic, or towards the Black Sea and Crimea? These regions served as pathways in former times – for Vikings, Byzantines – and they are still linked by canals. It’s the heart of the last European isthmus.

mardi 10 mars 2009

Germany – 19 January 2008 – the place of firsts

Cologne is the last Roman city before the eastern plans, and on the same bank of the Rhine as Strasbourg. I stop to consider the itinerary: where to cross the Rhine? Cologne or Strasbourg? Argentorate or Colonia?

Cologne is important for me, symbolically. It’s in Cologne that I entered a sauna for the first time, for the Christopher Street day, a local pride event named after the New York protest.

Generally speaking, Germany has been important for my homosexual self-awareness. It was at Baden Baden that as a youngster I visited the Roman baths; I can remember, among the mists of confused memories, seeing naked men there, perhaps for the first time, in the corridors of the sauna. And there was Berlin – Germany is a place of firsts – Berlin, where I bought my first pornographic magazine from a station kiosk, the summer of '97, while working for a Franco-German institution in the castle of Genshagen. Then Body Art, exhibited next-door to my own apartment in a building on Neuköln square, where for the first time I saw a man’s penis on the stage, a stripper who performed a full strip – elsewhere, there were workshops of tattoo-artists and body-piercers, plus a blond hiker and nudist who ran a “tantric massage” group and performed a naked massage on the stage.

But I never responded to the newspaper ad from the man who presented himself as a Lohengrin in search of his cygnet.

Germany - january 10th 2008

When I was young, Germany wasn’t a country. On the map, there were two Germanys – FRG, GDR; West, East; Federal Republic and Democratic Republic. The words didn’t mean much, but the colours were different.

Vietnam - january 10th 2008

Yesterday on YouTube I saw an interview with Minh. I knew Minh from College.

We were friends, we often had lunch together – she even came to eat at my place
when I lived with my father. On my twenty-first birthday we had dinner with
Julien and Clémence at an Indochinese restaurant. It was a bit silly – Julien
suggested it, I invited Minh; I thought that I’d rediscover the Indochinese cuisine
that I’d first tried with Edith and my father in Holland. But Minh laughed at the menu:
“it’s just like being at home!” I was embarrased; it was only then that I'd realised
that Vietnam was in Indochina.