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Thursday, October 26, 2006

On language

Warning: the post below is 90%, political, 10% smart ass, when normally I do the opposite, if not excluding politics all together. You could say I was inspired, or uninspired. However you want to look at it.

n these pre-election days, La Vanguardia has been running numerous profiles and interviews with the contenders for
Barcelona’s regional government. Quim Monzó, novelist and regular contributor to La Vanguardia, makes the odd commentary now and then, and yesterday’s edition contained a priceless one.

Monzó took to task ICV [green party] candidate Joan Saura and his reluctance to use the word “immigrant”. Instead, Saura softens the emotive blow of “immigrants” and calls them “of the class of the immigrants”. Of course, only a heartless PP [conservative party] candidate like Piqué would dare call them “immigrants”! But since Saura is sensitive, and an adamantine leftwinger, he can’t be caught saying anything politically incorrect, whatever his intentions are.

The article continued (translated by me):

“Of the class of the immigrants”! Congratulations. If the progressive correction obligates one to talk about “people of skin aesthetic” instead of skinhead, if radios and televisions say “person of gypsy ethnicity” instead of gypsy (as if gypsy were derogatory), how can we heedlessly say immigrant? Call them, then, “person of the immigrated class”. And, above all, let no one get confused and talk about a person of the gypsy class, a person of the skin ethnicity, and a person of the immigrant aesthetic. The boys with the boys, the girls with the girls and every noun with the adjective that the prudishness has well appointed."

And there’s the controversial CiU [Catalan nationalist conservative party] plan put forth by their rock-jawed candidate for president, Artur Mas. Essentially it boils down to a points for prizes system in which immigrants (he has no qualms about saying it) are rewarded based on their degree of assimilation - and as is the usual case in Catalunya, that means learning Catalan. The other parties fired back, and angry readers (probably party hacks) are writing into the daily papers, accusing them of hypocrisy. I don’t see what the big deal is, personally. It’s merely another way of saying the same thing: “Learn Catalan, or else.” Whereas the ERC [Catalan nationalist left wing party] - which has an indelibly elitist aura about it - would like to fine or exclude you for not speaking Catalan, the CiU is now proposing benefits for people that are speaking it (and can pass a standardized test to prove it). That means that anyone without the proven linguistic credentials is not eligible for these benefits. It’s just another way of saying the same thing – but, in my opinion, far more intelligent than the ERC’s strategy. If done right, it will attract people rather than repel them. And let’s face it, the issue of Catalan is here to stay. No wishful thinking or liberal democratic posturing will erase this hotbutton issue.

Speaking of the ERC and language: their campaign slogan has now transformed into “Humans com tú” or “Humans like you”. This from “Som com som” or “We are like we are”, which, in my humble opinion, is a far more accurate way to describe the party. The greatest common good, demographic realities, are not their concerns. It’s power and whatever cheap symbolism it takes to retain it.

So, “We are like we are” and if you don’t like it fuck off is the basic message. Realizing their pithy slogan was bound to raise undesirable controversy, they soon changed it to “Som com tú”, or, “We are like you”, which also rubbed the wrong way, especially here in Spain where “no me toques los cojones” or “don’t bust my balls” is about as close to the national sentiment as you can get. And the ERC does nothing but bust balls, constantly. If it’s not Carod-Rovira taking it upon himself to secretly meet with armed terrorist groups to single handedly bring about peace, or posing for a photo with a crown of thorns on his head, or bringing about a boycott of all Catalan products because of his call for the non-endorsement of the Madrid 2012 Olympic games, it’s Carod-Rovira stirring up support and indignation with emotive revolutionary language. No, aside from their minority of supporters, “you are not like me”, says the average citizen here. “I don’t want to secede from Spain. I just want to be able to pay my rent, and one day make above 1000 euros brutos a month.”

Realizing their language needed to be subtly manipulated again in order to placate the mileurista masses, they changed their slogan to “Humans like you”. And now suffusing subway station walls all over the city is Carod-Rovira’s giant mug covered in shaving cream. “See?” - their marketing strategists think they’re saying - “he’s just an average guy like you”. Oh yeah, despite the fact that his politics are far from pragmatic (i.e. considerate of the whole). I’m not sure if these guys really dream of an independent Catalunya, or if their whole strategy is cynical and dialectic, an attempt to swing things in their favor by further polarizing the electorate. Either way, these guys are not fun to party with unless you adhere to the party line. Sound familiar? Ultra-derechas, ultra-izquierdas, two sides of the same coin. They both scare me.

Carod being “Human like you” is something I entirely agree with. But why Carod’s smug mug on a poster, shaving? Is he human like his upper-crust, university-educated bedroom revolutionary supporters, grizzled and mustachioed? Aren’t you leaving out the rest of the humans? A large part of their constituency probably don't even have to shave! More appropriate would have been a snapshot of him taking a dump. Yeah, we’re all human, we all defecate, we all stink from time to time. It’s a fact of life. He wouldn’t win my vote, if I could vote, but he’d gain my sympathy.

By manipulating language the ICV, CiU, and the ERC are fooling absolutely no one besides their own fanatical militants. I’m not talking about people like my ERC-voting Catalan conversation partner, or my PSC-voting girlfriend, or my CiU-voting ex-bosses, who, in the end, are voting for their own self interests. Calling immigrants “the people that belong to the class of the immigrants” might appease sensitive types who want to fool themselves with faux-solidarity and euphemisms. But, no doubt, these are the same folks who get fired up when the American military behemoth proclaims death by “friendly fire” or “collateral damage”. Neither side is fooling anyone. What this does is further polarize people. Average Jordi is thinking “me están tratando como a un idiota”, or, “they’re treating me like an idiot”, and fuming with rage Average Jordi is even less disposed to commit to intelligent dialogue.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Spanish Miracle Mobile

A "Seis Cientos", circa 2006.

The SEAT 600 is an iconic Spanish car whose 17 year production span coincided with what is called the Spanish Miracle (1959-1973). This was a period when a new breed of Spanish technocrats began making reforms to the infrastructure, and opened Spain to the lucrative guiri economy.

Based on the Italian FIAT 600, the SEAT 600 sold for 70,000 pesetas, or about 420 euros. The modest price tag made it hugely popular with Spain's working class families.

The first version had a 633 cc rear-mounted motor and boasted a top speed of 95 km per hour (that's a mere 59 mph). Not exactly a hotrod. But the 600 is like the tortoise that keeps going while the hare sleeps by the roadside. Despite its wimpy engine and its stripped-down, no-frills package, the 600 was a reliable and unstoppable workhorse. In its 17-years of production - between 1957 and 1973 - about 800,000 models were sold.

Every once in a while you'll see one of these classics.

There's even a bright and shiny Moritz-sponsored 600 tooling around town. Unfortunately, I don't have a picture of the actual car, but I do have the miniature 1/43 scale version that came free with my 6 pack of Moritz:

A mini-Moritz mobile, pimpin' 9 stories above Barcelona.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

A witness to the 21st century

Houellebecq’s, “The Possibility of an Island”

Much has been written about Michel Houellebecq, and much of it isn’t true. Headlines and past critiques often refer to him as a misogynist, an islamophobe, a misanthrope, or even a nihilist - but all this amounts to is a snowball of politically correct epithets - often copied, and without much insight. Yes, he’s more than a brutally honest and provocative writer. He's also - contrary to popular belief - a spiritual soul. He speculates on our interconnectedness, and the possibility of love in the 21st century and beyond.

The Possibility of an Island, his latest novel, touches on these themes, and more.

Daniel, the protagonist of this book, is a well-known comedian at terminal velocity in both his career and his spiritual life. As a comedian he’s a “cutting observer of contemporary reality”. But he’s reached a point where he’s done it all:

“I had dismantled the cogs in the machine, and I knew how to make it work, whenever I wanted. Every evening, before going on stage, I swallowed an entire Xanax. Every time the audience laughed (and I could predict it, I knew how to dose my effects, I was a consummate professional), I was obliged to turn away so as not to see those hideous faces, those hundreds of faces moved by convulsions, agitated by hate.”

Daniel’s ennui is pulling him back from the game of life. Through the course of his career he’s become a millionaire and a controversial celebrity, but something essential is missing.

Two thousand years later, after wars and drought have decimated mankind, Daniel 24 - his cloned descendant - lives isolated in a compound while savages roam the ruins of the earth. He spends his time with Fox - the cloned descendant of Daniel’s dog - in contemplative tranquility, reviewing and discussing Daniel’s life story.

And here we have another running thread in The possibility of an island. What is immortality? Is cloning a way to achieve immortality? Or is it something more than a fortunate genetic repetition? What about our memories? How do we transmit memories to future generations?

In Ethics, Spinoza writes, “The human mind cannot be absolutely destroyed with the body, but something of it remains which is eternal.” This is the essence of the life story, of writing, in The possibility of an island. Daniel, a comedian, and not a writer by trade, takes up the pen to transmit his life story to his future cloned reincarnations. This, finally, is a form of immortality. It also becomes his reason for doing a literary striptease.

Daniel 1, after meeting Isabelle, an editor for a teen magazine called Lolita, moves with her to Almeria, is Spain’s dusty south. There they continue a love affair doomed to end because of lack of physical contact. This is middle-aged Daniel’s first great love, but it is more about a complete connection on a mental level. The relationship deteriorates, ultimately, because there is no “concupiscence”. Sex plays a pivotal role as it does in his other works, notably Platform - his controversial and prescient novel about sexual tourism and terrorism.

Sex, acerbic humor and clear writing. These things keep the pages turning in this complicated, yet engaging read. In one chapter, after his relationship with Isabelle ends, he describes a fellow patron’s car parked outside a sleazy whorehouse:

“Out of all the sports cars available on the market, the Chevrolet Corvette, with its uselessly and aggressively virile lines, with its absence of true mechanical nobility wedded to its overall modest price, is undoubtedly the one that corresponds best to the notion of pimpmobile; what sort of sordid Andalusian macho type was I going to bump into?”

Eventually he meets Esther, a young actress from Madrid, and the tables are turned. Whereas an aged Isabelle had an obsession with a “plastic beauty” which she would never be able to recuperate, and an inability to surrender to “pleasure and ecstasy”, Esther is the opposite. She’s an “amoral animal”, full of lust, youthful vigor and beauty, and Daniel falls deeply in love with her. Whereas one gave him love without sex, the other now gives him sex without love.

The age difference provides for ruminations on today’s youth-obsessed culture. It’s a very personal and at times exaggerated view of the way society treats the elderly, yet at the same time Houellebecq is a keen, involved observer. He understands cultural trends in Spanish kitsch culture, and even tears apart Larry Clark’s misconceived dud, Ken Park. He is, again, a cutting observer.

Esther, the young vivacious beauty, is the stronger of the two, and because of her he thoroughly degrades himself – even, at one point, waking up in vomit and cum-stained pants. Houellebecq isn’t painting an ideal picture of love, or purposely shocking his audience to make his plight more believable. Rather he describes the full spectrum, from its high points to its most miserable depths, in a consistently detached manner through both Daniel 1 and his later commentators, Daniel 24 and Daniel 25.

And that brings us back to the aforementioned “life story”. Interspersed between Daniel’s chapters are commentary by his future manifestations, Daniel 24 and 25. They are genetic clones originating from the founders of the Elohimite church, who Daniel encounters early in the book. Based largely on the real-life Raelian movement, they believe in our origins from space aliens, and the eventual coming of the “future ones”. They are also on the verge of cloning, for the first time, a human being. Cloning is, they believe, the path to immortality.

His encounter with the Elohimites is seemingly ripe with comedic material, but he rightly observes that when something, such as a cult is so deeply faith-driven, comedy just doesn’t have an effect (he somewhat contradicts himself by satirizing the monotheistic religions in Daniel’s comedic sketches, but he is more of an iconoclast who enjoys tipping our holy cows. The Elohimites would be too obvious).

He writes that the Elohimites “didn’t place much importance” on the extraterrestrial origins of humans, but rather on the idea that “the human being was going to disappear, and that it was necessary to prepare for the advent of its successor.” This is the idea of immortality all over again, and the astute recognition of a spiritual void in modern life. But this is a spiritual void that must be bridged by positivism - that is, a spirituality with empirical predominance, and this is how the Elohimites fit in.

Daniel 1 probably reflects Houellebecq himself as a writer, and his own impasse after a decade of provocation and revelation since the publication of Whatever and Atomized. What else is there to do? In this day and age, post September 11, with reality television, internet portals where just about anything can be watched … what is there, for a cynical comedian - a cutting observer - to exploit? Are there anymore taboos?

Houellebecq, in his characteristic voice, says: “To sum up, like all clowns since the dawn of time, I was a sort of collaborator. I spared the world from painful and useless revolutions – since the root of all evil was biological, and independent of any imaginable social transformation: I established clarity, I forbade action, I eradicated hope; my balance-sheet was mixed.”

Houellebecq seems to me a complicated and at times comical character. The dust jacket to Possibility describes him as “The best selling author of Atomised, Platform, Lanzarote and Whatever. He is also a poet, essayist and rap artist.” I can’t help smirking when imagining this slight Frenchman rapping, but at the same time it deepens my respect for what he’s trying to do. He’s not easily pinholed into the category of crude provocateur. His ideas go beyond dogma, whether it is religion or intellectual snobbery. They cut to the essence of who we are today. He’s both ridiculous and profound (that said, I haven’t heard him rap).

If you are to understand this book, or any other by Houellebecq, it’s that his answers are normally negative, in the sense that they do not point to a heroic ideal, which he recognizes as impossible. It’s about getting grounded in this reality, without illusions, and without bringing on any more suffering than is absolutely necessary. Only from there can you find true spirituality. And possibly deliverance.

At one point in Possibility the protagonist muses on maps. At 1:200 000 the whole world seems “happy”. Zoom into 1:1 “and you find yourself back in the normal world, which is not very pleasant; but if you increase the scale even more, you are plunged into a nightmare …” In this sense, Houellebecq also increases the scale with his writing. It’s not poetic justice he’s interested in. He’s interested in the truth, however ugly it sometimes gets.


A slightly different version of this review has been accepted for publication in a future edition of 3ammagazine.com. I'd like to thank the editors for permission to simultaneously publish.