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

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Der Boxer und der Tod

Mein erster polnischer Autor Józef Hen und seine Kurzgeschichtensammlung Der Boxer und der Tod waren eine sehr schöne Entdeckung. Hen berichtet von der Front aus der Sichtweise eines Roten Armeesoldaten, beschreibt sein Dasein im Gefangenenlager, sowie die Situation im Nachkriegspolen. Schön geschriebene und spannende Geschichten (vor allem eine über einen polnischen Boxer sich mit dem Lagerkommandanten messenden sowie eine versuchte Polygamie in einem kleinen polnischen Dorf), abwechslungsreich und mir eine vollkommen neue Sichtweise darbietend. Was weiß ich schon über Polen? Die für mich ungeklärte Frage am Ende war bloß in wie weit Hen als Journalist arbeitet oder ob er literarisch Gerüchte bzw Erlebtes verarbeitet. Sein Stil ist sehr beschreibend/journalistisch und faktisch nüchtern, aber das muß wenig heißen. Wirklich lohnenswert.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Gravity Rainbow

Thomas Pynchon. Probably the intellectually most renowned American writer still alive. Salingeresque in his lack of media interaction, yet much more prolific in his - published at least - output. I had shied away from him for the longest time, simply because his stature seemed to be overpowering and almost impossible to live up to. Gravity Rainbow is his third novel. An 800-page, convoluted, complicated, technical, fantastic absurd tale set in London during the blitz and then chaotic post-war France and - especially - Germany, specifically the Zone.

I will not try to give a recount of the characters in the novel or even its plot as both are at once too many, too complicated and too absurd to make much sense to anyone not having read the book. When thinking about the novel I came up with an allegory that I intend to stick by, simply because of its (vainly maybe) perceived originality: Try to compare books and stories to waterways. There are tiny, little streams that almost sparkle in the sunlight, then there are dark sombre romantic mountain streams, well build-up, clean and effective canals, rivers that pass by dirty and fast without one even noticing them, long, winding ones that never seem to find an end and so on and forth. You get my point. Well, Gravity Rainbow is the Mississippi (or make it the Amazon if you want less US-centrism), the father of rivers, he who calls his own small bayous, wild dangerous spots, and simmers out into the delta, who stands for life itself (you don't want to be sold down the river, take my word), who feeds and nourishes but who also takes (see Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi, ask Huck's father). The Mississippi is everything at once, it is dominating and wild, hard to understand and follow, yet you get swept up into it and come out with a feeling of elation without being able to pinpoint where exactly it came from or how it developed even while you know it is there. A great fuckin book.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Austin reconsidered

My second stint in Austin is over. I was only there for two weeks this time around, but seeing how many people I knew there before showing up, it really was like going back to an old life once more. For better and for worse. Mais peu importe...

Steven Erlanger in Beyond Paradise and Power has a great quote on Germans in particular and Europeans in general who 'seem to live in a postwar, postconflict geopolitical fantasyland, where the greatest threat to existence, it seems, is the mixing of green glass with brown.' Maybe, but my argument would in fact be that sociologically and culturally speaking it is Americans who live in a consumer fantasyland where the the greatest threat to fast, mind-numbing, and - contradictorily in way, I know - safe fun is reality. Actually, let me rephrase that, it's not Americans in general of course, but rather it's economic middle class. While those at the bottom might strive for this utopian consumer culture, they are far removed from ever attaining it. I've talked about the mind-numbing aspect of this and coupled with Hartmut Rosa's theories that makes for a worrying development (as far as I am concerned and may normatively state that here). Yet, this time around, let's focus on the utopian character of American life.

This plays out in a number of ways. Living downtown Austin, I had the privilege of shopping daily in a gigantic, expensive supermarket boasting numerous food counters, a myriad of regular and rare healthy groceries and a classy outdoor seating area. It's a little island of safety, organic food and well-meaning people. The food is healthy and far less meat-heavy than the regular American diet, employees are genuinely nice, and the whole place is reeking of healthy and content individuals imagining themselves to save the world while they are busy shopping, sipping a buffalo grass milk shake. If you sit outside, you will be exposed to ever-present loudspeakers blasting muzak, a fake stream beneath fake, metal palms that are shielding the seating area. It's one of the best examples of the pretense of an ideal, problem-less, capitalist world I have ever seen. Hands down. Note, that one of the biggest aspects of this fantasyland is its exclusion of the outside world though. Thus, there are no poor people to distract you from your food, the music outside coupled with the lights and the fake stream allow you to enjoy the evening breeze without really being exposed to nature. It's the the sophisticated hippie's equivalent of riding a 4x4 in the wild and savage nature.

These attempts at de-naturizing outside areas are in fact the most fascinating and interesting part of middle-class Austin existence (that I noticed this time around in any case). My apartment building had a big patio to be used by all inhabitants of the building. It consisted of a fake waterfall, leading to a pool, ever-present (and always running) fans, lights and muzak impossible to turn off (trust me, I tried), and two couch areas centered around two big flat-screen TVs constantly blaring (except when I turned them off). What's the point? Well, you can meet with your friends watch TV, hang out and drink beers. Sounds like fun? Of course, but that's kind of the point. It's another example of how fun is to a large extent defined by cutting yourself from the outside world aka reality.

Now, the ironic thing for me is that I love being in the US of course. Yet, what I adore about it, is not the clean-cut world of the interchangeable department stores and food chains (that bore me to death). Nor the bars, playing their music too loud, offering cheap crappy bear and a chance at a busty blonde who is as unique in her going-out version (because ironically she could be interesting during the day) as the aforementioned food chains, these don't even bore me to some extent I abhor them. No what I like about the US in general and Austin in particular are the run-down, dirty places. The unsigned, badly paid musicians who rock a joint somewhere far away from 6th Street. The Hispanic only bars where communication in English becomes difficult. The basketball courts dominated by economically disadvantaged African-Americans who play ball all day, drink beer, smoke weed, have their wives and kids with them and talk shit to anyone currently playing especially if he is white. The conversations on American literature and the dirty undercurrent of American politics and history (Texas fought for slavery twice!). The fast-running banter between friends used to mocking one another in a way that would at best be considered impolite in most of Europe....

In one sentence: I will never understand this desire to exclude oneself from the outside world and immerse oneself into this clean, safe, interchangeable consumer fantasyland that makes up everyday life for most middle-class Americans and is a dream for much of the rest of the population.