Magical Realism, Writing, Fiction, Politics, Haiku, Books

jueves, enero 25, 2007

Prime Time

Yesterday I returned from two weeks in Paradise. Paradise is always 84 degrees F; here it will be -10 F tomorrow. In Paradise I can sleep with all the windows open and the fan on, and still hear the waves and wind on the reef; here I wonder whether there is such a thing as too many blankets. These are contrasts that distort my perceptions and make me feel as if I've been awake for 3 days. I half expect inanimate objects to have neon green auras.

In the middle of the night here, I see a large, digital alarm clock. I look at it and see what 3-digit number, between 100 and 600, might be on the screen. Then I wonder about the number. No, not just it's augury or numerological significances. Not whether I should play it in Lotto. No, something more likely to stir avalanches of calculations. I wonder, is it prime? If it isn't, what are its factors. If it has factors, are they in some way unusual? Figuring out all of this while squinting at the clock and wandering across a frozen floor half asleep is a challenge.

There are some numbers like 323 that look prime but aren't (17 x 19). There are numbers like 349 that look like they aren't prime but are. There are strange even numbers like 120, which is 2 x 3 x 4 x 5, and 256, which is 2 to the 8th power. The list of oddities and coincidences is enormous.

This has led to a chart of the prime wee hours
101 103 107 109 113 127 131 137 139 149 151 157
211 223 227 229 233 239 241 251 257
307 311 313 317 331 337 347 349 353 359
401 409 419 421 431 433 439 443 449 457
503 509 521 523 541 547 557

I haven't memorized this chart. And I haven't made copies of it. I'm aware that the numbers I encounter most often are between 307 and 443. In this realm of the dark, cold night, prime numbers are more than 37% of the odd numbers, and recognizing them in the dark, like evanescent shooting stars, requires a mental agility I just don't have. Things like knowing the 17 or 19 times tables would be of help in this, but probably in nothing else I can imagine.

I stand surrounded by these numbers and these thoughts. I recall reading recently that a man begins to age at the death of his mother. My mother was a math teacher. She passed away 2 and a half years ago. As I feel the cold floor on my feet, I wonder how my nightly search for these primes might be a way of honoring her. And I wonder at the strange cerebral pleasure I find in trying to complete these mental calculations while the persistent veil of sleep tries to shroud me in fog and pull me into forgetting. And I wonder whether waking and calculating is a badge of aging.

jueves, enero 04, 2007

Some Wonderful Writing

I've had stacks of books since I was a kid. In the beginning I used Funk and Wagnalls small, dark blue encyclopedias to build skyscrapers on the living room floor. Later in my life, the stacks became furniture. A nice, even pile of textbooks served as a small night table. A low, wide structure of art books made a nice ottoman. And now, now the books are malleable, disorderly hillocks at my side of the bed. They're there to stub a toe in the small hours of darkness, or to rummage when new reading material is wanted. Or maybe to heat long winter nights liked stacked firewood. I rummage because I'm not really sure what's there.

Tonight, across the top of my hill, I have novels by Juan Rulfo, Jose Donoso, Cabrera Infante, Alejo Carpentier, Jose Lezama Lima, DH Lawrence. These aren't books that were part of the justifiably worshiped canon I (and probably you) read in college. They are nonetheless some wonderful writing.

I'm immersed in Jose Lezama Lima's Paradiso. I'm at the beginning of what promises to be an eleven course feast. The soup hasn't even arrived. And I find this paragraph in the hors d'oeuvres
The Colonel's books: the Encyclopedia Britannica, the works of Felipe Trigo, spy novels of World War I in which female spies had to engage in prostitution and the boldest male spies had to acquire wisdom and an ice-coated beard on geological expeditions to Siberia or the Kamchatka. Such books filled up spaces, and were never given a second thought by those literal-minded, portly people who read a book overnight as soon as they buy it. Their books are always displayed in the same inconvenient and irregular order in which they are acquired, unlike the books of more cultured people, also put on bookshelves, where they must wait two or three years to be read -- an immediate and almost unconscious effect, not unlike the new trousers of elegant English gentlemen, worn for the first few days by their butlers, until they acquire a stylish simplicity. Paradiso, page 5.

I know books aren't people. They're objects, they don't breathe. Are mine, stacked as they are in piles with no discernible relationship, and no clear theme, part of someone's story about me? Is somebody reviewing the books in my piles and drawing conclusions about me from what books I have and what they think these books might mean?

Like people, books don't have a detectable soul. And they indulge in mysterious communications with each other. So if the Colonel's books tell us something about the Colonel, what do my books, piled up next to my bed, some of them still wrapped in cellophane, tell about me? I have no real idea. Do the stacks mean that I'm hoarding novels in case there's a literature famine? Are they a sign that I find television and more recently, radio, and especially NPR, impossibly annoying? Are they just a cheapskate's evening escapism and a benign substitute for intoxicants?

Most important to me, books, especially these books, gossip to each other. What are these books saying to each other during those long transitory afternoons of bedroom stillness and gurgling radiators, when the sun is faint and low in the sky, and you can hear the clock ticking down the hall? And what fables and anecdotes are they telling my dog and cats, curled up next to them or on them, about me? What stories do they tell each other? I imagine that they each speak in distinctive voices and accents, like the chapters in Cabrera Infante's Three Trapped Tigers, in which he imitates 5 Cuban writers' styles, and that their opinions, whatever they are, are delivered with style and craft, as if they were some wonderful writing. Only more evanescent because they are not written down before silence again fills the room.

A list of what's presently at the top of my stacks (not necessarily in order of wonderfulness, by altitude):

*DH Lawrence, The Plumed Serpent. A novel set in Mexico in the 1920s, complete with the resurrection of Quetzelcoatl.

*Juan Rulfo, Pedro Paramo. A surreal masterpiece from a great Mexican writer. A book that has had great influence on Garcia Marquez, Vargas Llosa, Fuentes and Donoso. I love this book.

*Juan Rulfo, The Burning Plain. Rulfo published only two books. This is the second one.

*G. Cabrera Infante, Three Trapped Tigers. A tremendous Cuban novel full of word play, lists, palindromes, and puns set the pre-Castro Cuba. A fantastic book.

*Ariel Dorfman, Death and the Maiden. A play about Chile after Pinochet's coup, harrowing and brilliantly written.

*Jose Donoso, The Obscene Bird of Night. A masterful novel from Chile that is full of great writing, horror, and energy. The story is a puzzle; each piece is remarkable and surprising.

*Alejo Carpentier, Reasons of State. A great Cuban novel about a military dictator. I think this might be Carpentier's best. If it's not, maybe his best is

*Alejo Carpentier, The Lost Steps. Magical realism fully realized. The further from civilization the characters travel, the further back in time they go. Brilliant. And highly recommended.