My photo
Berlin, Frankfurt, Paris, Chapel Hill, Boston, Istanbul, Calgary, Washington DC, Austin, Tunis, Warszawa and counting

Monday, November 30, 2009

If Beale Street Could Talk

A great, inspiring title (for a blues aficionado such as me in any case), If Beale Street Could Talk, disappointingly is not followed by a novel living up to its billing. My knowledge of Afro-American writers is cursory at best and picking up James Baldwin's novel was supposed to be a step towards rescinding that. Yet, I did not really enjoy reading it. The story was too simplistic, too clear cut. From the bad white cop, to the fearful Hispanic lady, the young black heroes, no character truly developed any depth. Characters were either bad or good, with no gray in between. Plus, the story was oddly sexist, especially maybe for a supposedly liberal (and homosexual) writer. I felt at times as if all Baldwin was trying to achieve was teach black youngsters the values of sticking to one's family and the virtues of a healthy relationship. All this might be fine and dandy, but I did not find it interesting enough to truly enthrall me. Plus, I feel that the teaching of values in a more subtle manner would be more promising (but that might only be valid for me). In any case, I really believe that this book was geared more towards youngsters and am simply too demanding.

Sunday, November 22, 2009


Never having developed much of an interest for poetry, I had not known of Pablo Neruda before I flew to Chile. Once there and developing an interest in its literature and recent history, it is virtually impossible to avoid him. Someone had furthermore recommended his Memoirs to me before. So I felt it appropriate to bring them along on my trip even when I only managed to read through most of it on my flight out of the country. I really liked it. Quite honestly and in general, Chilean literature and culture based on the little that I have seen and read has made a really positive impression on me and I would love to read more of and about it. Preferably not in translation but in the Spanish original of course, but I guess that's just a pipe dream for the time being.

Neruda is one of those mythic early 20th century characters who seem to have perished from the earth since. A world-traveler, politician, philosopher, poet, bon vivant (in every sense of the word if you get my meaning), a communist and rich man. He spent time in India, China, Europe and of course all over his native Chile. He fled through the mountains into Argentina in order to escape his arrest and was in Spain during its monumental civil war. His life portrayed in broad strokes reminded me of Malraux (whom he fleetingly mentions in his Memoirs).

The book itself is a fascinating portrait of his life and times. I find it difficult to sum up the life of a man of his size in a few short sentences, but he follows more or less straight his development from life in rural Chile (near Temuc), to becoming a down and out poet and student in Santiago, to his career in the Chilean foreign service. His life long dedication to Communism and the people, Chileans and others. In his words: "The poet cannot be afraid of the people." His language is pristine (even in translation, did I mention that I hate having to revert to those?) and the book starts out with one of the most beautiful openings I have ever read: "In these memoirs or recollections there are gaps here and there, and sometimes they are also forgetful, because life is like that."

Again, I will not degrade Neruda to even an attempt on my part to truly reflect here the manifold issues and topics he addresses in his Memoirs. His descriptions are fascinating and the reader feels as if he really begins to understand the people, area and time-frame that Neruda lived with and in. The mistreatment of the natives by the Chileans, the poverty of the miners, the literary scene of Chile, life as an expat in the early part of the 20th century.

There are only two aspects that I would like to point out, cold political scientist that I am (and no poet). The life that Neruda lead is met with envy by the reader, especially his twenties, but his treatment and sexist perception of women served like a cold shower to me. Women are seemingly there to serve him in a subservient position. No equality, no companionship is possible. He shares his minds with friends not with the women in his life. Arguably, his relationship with Mathilde is different, but even here the words that were stuck in my head were that in his life with her, he composed poetry in the morning and she typed his verses up in the afternoon. I wonder whether he even realized what he was missing out on, or maybe partnership as equals were simply impossible to even imagine for him back then (and considering his background). I don't know, but I did feel bad for him on that account.

Finally, last point: Stalin. Neruda died in 1973. He wrote his Memoirs not long before that. Yet, for him Stalin was a great man. The 20th Congress seems to have not tarnished this image much. Maybe realizing in the fall of your life that whom (and what) you believed in was not and had never been the ideal you were looking for is simply too much to ask of a man. Still, I found that problematic.

What else? I need to read some of his poetry now. But for that I should really work on my Spanish a bit upfront.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Juncker Enters the Fray

A bit belated, but here another post I did for the Atlantic Council.

Merkel's Speech Before Congress

Another blog post for the Atlantic Council. This time focusing on the reception of Merkel's speech before Congress.

Travelling in Chile

Most people who know me will be aware of my aversion to travel. This might sound ironic considering my life style but I would beg to differ. I do not usually travel I live in a variety of places. There is a difference. Staying in a place for a few months even, speaking the language more than only in a cursory manner, having a routine and repeatedly going to the same bar/court/whatever, developing acquaintances there are important elements for me of getting to know a place. I feel like a two week visit to a country, residing in a hotel and incapable of communicating with large swaths (if not all) of the population, is a regrettable exercise that I am not a fan of. Yet, here I was going to Chile, my knowledge of Spanish limited to ridiculously few phrases and expressions and I didn’t even have the time nor the money to stay longer than for a bit more than a week. Being a conscientious traveller I did at least organize myself two books by Chilean authors as an introduction to the country, but quite obviously my understanding of the society, its people and the country as such remains rather ludicrous.

Following this theoretical preface I have to admit that I absolutely loved it though. I flew down with an American friend of mine, staying with a French friend who lives there and obviously speaks the language. From a language point of view my stay turned into a crazy potpourri of languages, with Spanish, French, English and sometimes even English intermixed. At times I felt incapable of formulating even a phrase in one language anymore (I sincerely believe that the brain has a hard time adjusting to too many languages intertwining, if you do so too much you end up speaking English with a French grammatical structure and German word choices). The surprise of my trip was the ease with which I could communicate with Chileans (who for the most part simply do not speak English), not that I could say more than a few basic requests and comments but I understood far more than I had expected too (7 years of Latin and fluency in French do some good even in South America I guess).

In general Chileans made an extremely good impression on me. The few more wide-ranging and interesting discussions I had with people (who spoke English or French) were extremely informative and helpful in understanding the country. Even everyday interactions, buying food or asking for directions, led to lengthy (usually rather one-sided) conversations – about what we were doing there, the (then) upcoming match between Germany and Chile, or simply the best way to find the bank across the street.

Santiago de Chile, a city of about 6 million, is in fact not all that jazz. It is at least as interesting as any city of that size, but it’s buildings, its downtown, even its people are just a tad bit too European or Western – business suites, the metro, alcohol-impregnated bar streets, dance parties dominated by bad pop music, an elegant erstwhile artistic barrio (Prenzlauer Berg, Williamsburg, Montmartre…). While globalization hasn’t hit to the same extreme it has in the West the city is not as different as one could expect, differences abound but are more of the nuanced kind than that they are glaringly obvious.

What struck me was the lack of attention I (we) received not only in Santiago but in the country side as well. People were interested once we started talking to them, but for the most part folks didn’t really seem to notice us or care about us being there. We spent one evening in a bar in a very rural area, surrounded by 50-year old, exceedingly wasted farmers who didn’t even flinch at our presence. I did get stared at a few times, especially in mid-sized towns and crappy (down to earth) restaurants, but I had expected more of that quite honestly.

Once you leave Santiago behind the differences to the West become a lot more striking. We drove into the Andes and hiked some in a national park there. In order to get there, we took our (well, my friend’s) trusty VW bus (a bitch to drive, but a sweet car nonetheless) up a dirt road for maybe 45 minutes in the ever dimmer dusk. I was driving along peacefully at 40 k/h when all of a sudden I realized that the pedestrian at the side of the road was actually a guy on a horse. Quite honestly, I never really got used to it, but we saw a lot of those. On the highway the sheer amount of people crossing, biking along, walking on the side, hitchhiking, simply hanging out (ok, maybe not) was quite astounding. Also, the word rural takes on a whole other meaning in some of these areas. When we hiked up El Endrillado we were one of only three groups making it to the top that day, the only foreigners and most definitely the least prepared one.

What else? Incredible dunes on an empty beach (and when I say empty I mean empty, it was just us three on there). Beautiful landscapes in the mountains as well as at the ocean. Valparaiso, a (semi-)picturesque port town built on a variety of hills and boasting (some) beautiful early 20th century houses. Random remnants of boastive fascist/communist architecture interspersed into the cities ensure one never forgets about Pinochet. You smell more weed out in the open and on the street. Why are there so many cops and why do a lot of them wear bullet proof vests? In the same vein why are cop cars equipped as if they could be attacked by a savage mob any minute? Everybody and their momma (seriously) warned us in Valparaiso to watch out and not to get robbed (with knives, even guns), I don’t think anyone even gave us a cross look. Played 2 on 2 against some random kids in Valparaiso, I love this game.

So, after Turkey, my second semi-developing country experience. It was worth it. Next time I need to actually speak the language and stay longer. Travelling just gives one a taste, it’s like an appetizer with no a main dish following. Chile was great though.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


I had found José Donoso randomly on Wikipedia under a grouping of Chilean authors. His book, Curfew, chosen as randomly proved as perfect to whet my appetite while flying towards Santiago de Chile. Donoso tells the story of a popular left-leaning singer, not a hero, no communist activist, not active in any kind of resistance, coming home to a Chile run by Pinochet's government agents after 13 years of a self-imposed exile. The day of his arrival happens to coincide with the wake for Matilde Neruda (the late poet Pablo Neruda's wife) and our hero learns about himself and how Chilean society has evolved through his old friends that he runs across constantly.

Donoso in a novel with autobiographical elements, the author went back to Chile with the dictatorship still very much in place, offers a haunting picture of how every day life in Chile was impacted by the whims of and fears from a dictatorial and corrupt regime. Apart from a disappointing Isabel Allende novel a few years ago, I had never read anything by a Chilean author. This book was not only easily accessible (unlike some of the other books I appreciate) but it also gave me a real taste of (pas) life in Chile and a desire to know more about the country and its culture. While most people undoubtedly will not go to this forlorn country on the coast of South America, Curfew is a great way of exploring Santiago without actually being in the country.