For Shakespeare Fans, Two Sequels by David Henry Wilson

On the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s departure (exit stage left), a treat for all you Shakespeare fans. Playwright David Henry Wilson had the temerity to write sequels to The Merchant of Venice and Othello. What’s more, he pulled it off. How? How could any contemporary writer inhabit Shakespeare’s world and language? Wilson himself asks something similar: “How dare any playwright ask to be bracketed with Shakespeare? In my defence, I would point out that the Bard left the stories unfinished.”

MerchantTextCover index

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wilson’s sequels are masterpieces of plotting, language, and characterization. He finds connections between the Shakespeare originals, so that in Iago, the Villain of Venice (the Othello sequel) characters from The Merchant of Venice appear and play a full role in the plot.

Naturally, Wilson immersed himself in the two Shakespeare originals. While he claims no startling interpretive discoveries, his sequels do highlight one of Shakespeare’s major themes: disguises and the gaps between appearance and reality. (Just how many cross-dressers and dissemblers are there in Shakespeare?)

David Henry Wilson

David Henry Wilson

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

 

 

 

 

 

 

In 2015, The Royal Shakespeare Company just happened to be putting on productions of Othello and The Merchant of Venice in Stratford-upon-Avon. The stars were aligned, and Michael Friend Productions took Wilson’s sequels, Shylock’s Revenge and Iago, the Villain of Venice, to the Attic Theatre in the same city and mounted script-in-hand stagings. This double-bill of Doubling Bill proved to be a tremendously enjoyable evening, full of humor, surprise and brilliant performances.

The productions can be viewed here, and the scripts downloaded here.

 

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Review of “Damnificados” in World Literature Today

I’m thrilled that Damnificados has just been reviewed in World Literature Today, one of the world’s most venerable literary journals. WLT was founded in 1927, and was originally called Books Abroad.

The founder, Dr. Roy Temple House, was Chair of Modern Languages at the University of Oklahoma. House believed that the United States was becoming insular and isolationist, both politically and culturally. His idea was to broaden the outlook of North American readers. In his letter asking the university president for a start-up fund (the princely sum of $150), he wrote:

“. . . I know our little magazine will be useful in various quarters. A good many of us … are coming to feel strongly that the University of Oklahoma must begin fostering contributions to the scholarly and cultural activities of the nation.”

Dr. Roy Temple House - image from World Literature Today

Dr. Roy Temple House – image from World Literature Today

The first edition came out in 1927 and was 32 pages long. By 1977, it had grown to 256 pages and had a truly international scope, so the editors renamed it World Literature Today.

The journal has won numerous awards and The Nobel Prize committee described it as one of the “best edited and most informative literary publications” in the world. Its numerous activities include organizing literary events, administering prizes, and working with schools, among many other good deeds.

Here are some snippets from the review of Damnificados:

“Wilson takes this real-life story and molds it into a fantastic fable about the collision between the haves and the have-nots in a fictional South American city.”

“The end of the novel is not a dispersal of victory for the damnificados but a diaspora of hope: “There’ll be other towns and other places to call home.””

Damnificados is a great read … [It] can also be read as documentary literature, which illustrates and predicts that social justice will prevail in the end.”

Thank you to Yang Jing, of Nanjing Normal University, and WLT for the review.

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The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail – by Oscar Martinez

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If you want to know what hell feels like, try holding onto the outside of a train moving at thirty miles per hour in icy weather for eight hours, knowing that if you fall you’ll be sucked under the train and you’ll lose either your legs or your head.

Even if you make it, chances are the gangs will send someone to rob you. Or kidnap you. Yes, hell has many rooms. Rape, theft, murder, torture, imprisonment. If you’re an undocumented Central American immigrant trying to get to the U.S.A via Mexico, these are your hurdles, and rare is the traveler who gets over them unscathed.

The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail (Verso, 2014) is about as harrowing as books come. A work of stupendously intrepid journalism, it describes the journey to “freedom” from the viewpoint of the migrants – Nicaraguan farmers, Honduran factory workers, Guatemalan peasants. Their hard-acquired wisdom and terrifying escapades are given shape by Oscar Martínez, a Salvadoran journalist in his twenties, who goes along for the ride.

Every chapter follows a different group of migrants and every chapter shows us the breakdown of systems set up to protect people. Kidnap victims escape, go to the police, and are promptly sent back to the kidnappers. Military squads march on by as scores of migrants are robbed at gunpoint. Just as bad is the labyrinth of lies built by the Mexican government and its agencies. They deny the problems or turn a blind eye.

Horror piles upon horror as Martínez details the violence and depravity in Mexico’s badlands. Something has gone very wrong with humanity when bandits prey on the desperate, robbing, raping and kidnapping.

Oscar Martínez

Oscar Martínez

Why do the migrants keep coming when faced with these perils? Because they have no choice. Not one of these travelers is untouched by tragedy. Some have witnessed family members murdered by gangs, others been sexually abused, others seen a price on their heads. So they flee their homelands. Even the jaws of the Beast – the lethal train that traverses Mexico towards el norte – are preferable to the hellish lives they leave behind.

As a piece of reportage, The Beast is exceptional. But it’s more than that. The prose reads like the best war novels: vivid and perfectly understated (who needs literary fireworks when you have this story to tell?). While kudos goes to the translators, Daniela Maria Ugaz and John Washington, I’m reminded of a Teddy Roosevelt quote: “The credit goes to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.”

Oscar Martínez will never write a greater book. And those of us interested in border issues and social justice may never read one.

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[Settled Wanderers] The Poetry of Western Sahara – by Sam Berkson and Mohamed Sulaiman

In Macedonia they sing of Alexander the Great. The Yoruba of Nigeria sing of the warrior king Onikoyi. In Western Sahara they sing of the folk heroes who have struggled and are struggling now for statehood while the world ignores them.

In 1975 Morocco invaded Western Sahara. Since then, half of the population have been left to rot in refugee camps. The UN has singularly failed to help, becoming mired in geopolitical issues involving Morocco, Mauritania and ex-colonial power Spain, and then succumbing to the usual indifference when there’s no prize – oil, gold, minerals – to be won. Indeed, the plight of Western Sahara is barely known in the west.

At least Noam Chomsky knows about it. He told an audience in Gaza:

“The Arab Spring began in November 2010 when the people of Western Sahara revolted against their Moroccan occupiers. The uprising was crushed by Moroccan troops.”

But, as usual, his is almost a lone voice in the west. How fitting then that Sam Berkson, a British poet, and Mohamed Suleiman, a visual artist and translator, were able to visit the region, befriend local poets and then translate their work for a wider audience, thereby bringing the two cultures together.

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How fitting and how challenging. Berkson, who does not speak Arabic, went on two trips to the region. There he recorded local poets reciting their verses. Suleiman wrote the words down and the two of them went through the laborious process of trying to make poems in English from the originals. It was a process of back-and-forth, of listening to tone as well as words, and of constant questioning as to meaning and intention.

Berkson writes: “Eventually, we would have a draft of a fairly literal translation, splattered with asterisks, footnotes, transliterations in Roman alphabet, alternative readings.”

Remarkably, the spirit of the poems comes through. The work is more political and declamatory than literary, but even shorn of the performance and the immediate context, the poems are appealing and occasionally stirring. Here’s a taut, economical poem called “The Berm” (a berm is a military wall) by Al Khadra:

 

The King built the Berm

staking his claim behind landmines and snares

but the army evaded it

and together took back

what was already theirs

 

Most of the work by the Western Saharan poets consists of homages, as above, to those involved in the struggle, and the book is organized into sections such as “War” and “Heroes.” At times, the translation lacks consistency in tone, mixing the heroic with bland phrases like “‘we stand opposed to your brutal attitude'” and “it’s my firm opinion that you should be with them!” Such problems attest to the difficulties in translating work that belongs to an oral tradition.

Sam Berkson

Sam Berkson

Part Two, which consists of original poems by Berkson, while similarly stirring, is artistically more successful. The voice is fully fledged and the poems full of telling detail: “Berlin 1884./Epauletted men recline in mahogany chairs” (from “Landscape”); “Squares of light across the carpeted floor/hint at that glasstop glare/ of the engulfing desert” (from “Tea with Beyibouh”). Of these poems, I particularly enjoyed “Friday Afternoon in Smara” and “Landscape”, a poem about the region’s history that somehow manages to evoke both W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot.

In addition to the poems, the book contains evocative artwork by Sulaiman and excellent introductory essays by Stephen Zunes and Jacob Mundy, Mustafa Kattaba, and Berkson. The essays provide the background to both the region’s troubles and to the project that culminated in Settled Wanderers (Influx Press, 2015).

Overall, the book strikes me as more than a poetry collection and less than a critical history. As a hybrid, it works. It’s an invaluable primer for raising awareness of the people of Western Sahara – their struggle and the poetry that both commemorates and supports it.

 

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RIP Elie Wiesel 1928-2016

“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” (Night)

According to the Nobel Prize committee, who awarded him the Peace Prize in 1986, Elie Wiesel was “The Messenger to Mankind.” His experiences as a Holocaust survivor meant he had the worst messages imaginable about his species, but he delivered them with grace, and he lived an exemplary life as an activist, writer and intellectual.

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Born in Romania, Wiesel was 15 years old when he and his family, along with other Jews, were sent to Auschwitz. There he lost his mother and one of three sisters. At Buchenwald, he lost his father. He later wrote movingly of the shame he felt at hearing his father’s cries and being unable to help.

In 1945, Buchenwald was liberated, and Wiesel, who had become inmate A-7713, went to live in France. He studied at the Sorbonne and began his writing career as a journalist. For a decade he didn’t talk about his war experiences, but his friend and fellow Nobel Laureate, François Mauriac, eventually persuaded him to write about them. The result was La Nuit, published in English as Night in 1958, a harrowing account of his time in the concentration camps.

On the surface Wiesel was an old-style European intellectual. He was a man of letters, extraordinarily well-read and conversant in several languages including Yiddish, Hebrew, French, and English. He was a much-garlanded writer and served as Professor of Humanities at Yale, Columbia and Boston Universities. He published over forty books.

But the thrust of Wiesel’s life was the pursuit of justice and the act of remembrance rather than personal honors. (“To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time” – from Night.) In later life he turned his attention to other atrocities around the world, notably apartheid in South Africa and violence in Nicaragua.

Wiesel was an exceptional man. He somehow forged a productive life from the tragedies of his youth, and shone a light on the darkest period in human history. That light shines on.

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Ten Great Latin American Novels

It’s all here: magical realism, characters as big as gods, social (in)justice, love and death and the depredations of colonialism. Ten masterpieces from that gorgeous and perennially troubled continent.

1. The War of the End of the World by Mario Vargas Llosa

53925Llosa wrote several great novels – Aunt Julia and The Scriptwriter is probably the best-known – but none better than this tale based on a revolutionary community in a backwater of 19th Century Brazil. Prostitutes, beggars and bandits build a town called Canudos – their Utopia – and find themselves besieged by government armies.

 

 2. The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector

thLispector’s final work is a luminous novella about a slum-dwelling typist from the northeast of Brazil, who dreams of being as beautiful as Marilyn Monroe. As always with Lispector, the stuff in the margins is what counts: whimsical observations about God and the universe and writing, aphorisms, and memories that flicker as briefly and brightly as shooting stars.

 

3. The Death of Artemio Cruz by Carlos Fuentes

thFrom his deathbed, the tycoon Artemio Cruz recounts his breathtaking journey through modern Mexican history, from his heroic stand in the Mexican Revolution through to his relentless and ruthless climb up society’s ladder. As the narrative jumps around in time and perspective, the novel becomes an unforgettable, kaleidoscopic portrait of a man and a nation.

 

4. The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

thA literary blockbuster that began life as a letter to Allende’s dying 100-year-old grandfather. This multi-generational saga, full of romance, desire, political upheaval, and a delightful dose of magical realism, is a love song to Latin America.

 

 

5. The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño

thBolaño was a dyslexic poet-vagabond who died at fifty after traipsing around Chile, Mexico, France and Spain. He was also the heir of Borges and García Márquez in terms of richly imagined characters and labyrinthine tall tales. This, his first full-length novel, is a dazzling tragicomedy – a quest story that satirizes the writing life even as it memorializes it.

 

6. The President by Miguel Ángel Asturias

thThis 1946 novel brilliantly exposes the corrosive effects of a Latin American dictatorship. Set in an unnamed country that strongly resembles Asturias’s Guatemala, The President uses bizarre dream sequences and black humor to satirize the oppressive, murderous regime. If a Hieronymous Bosch painting could be turned into a lyrical, haunting novel, this would be it.

 

7. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

thThe joyous masterpiece that broke open literature. Full of color, riotous humor, vivid characters, and the sheer richness of García Márquez’s setting – a town called Macondo – the novel is lauded for its astonishing inventiveness. But its author always insisted the so-called magical realism was just reality for Colombians.

 

8. Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon by Jorge Amado

thA superb novel by a Brazilian master about a beautiful, innocent girl thrust into a society on the cusp of modernity. Perhaps Gabriela is Brazil itself. Like García Márquez with Colombia, Amado renders the northeast of his country so real, so tangible, so full of sound and smell and taste that you almost touch it as you read.

 

 

9. Memory of Fire by Eduardo Galeano

thHow to describe Memory of Fire? This trilogy is a history book, extended prose poem and novel rolled into one. Perhaps it’s enough to say that it’s a masterpiece that captures the history of the Americas in all their gory glory. As a dissection of greed, racism, and conquest, it is unmatched – a Biblical epic bathed in blood.

 

10. Three Trapped Tigers by Guillermo Cabrera Infante

thA Cuban treat. A dazzling tour de force of puns, wordplay, lists, wild humor, and postmodern excess. Cabrera Infante borrows from Joyce, Sterne, Robbe-Grillet, Cortázar and numerous others, but the work has a life of its own, recalling 1950s Havana with its high jinks and jazz. This is one long, tall mojito of a novel.

 

*A version of this blog post appeared in Bookwitty in June 2016.

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The Most Important Publication of 2016

Nope – it’s not Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Some Rain Must Fall or Annie Proulx’s epic novel Barkskins or even Zero K by the master, Don DeLillo. It’s not the timely tomes Rio de Janeiro by Luiz Eduardo Soares or The Games: A Global History of the Olympics by David Goldblatt. It’s not Postcapitalism by Paul Mason or Thomas Mallon’s biography of George W. Bush, although we’re getting warmer.

It’s the Chilcot Report.

Seven years in the making (that’s a deadline missed by six years), 12-volumes, 2.6 million-words. This  investigation into Britain’s involvement in the Iraq War is a massive and damning indictment of the British Government and particularly Tony Blair.

The investigations were led by an unassuming former civil servant, Sir John Chilcot. His demeanor and prose style are calm, measured and bureaucratic – just the opposite of media hysterics – which only serves to accentuate the dreadful findings. No one can accuse Chilcot of stirring up trouble or of following a political agenda; the report was commissioned by the government, which means this is the establishment view.

The major conclusions are as follows: the intelligence used to justify the war to a skeptical public was deeply flawed; the supposed “national security threat” posed by Iraq was not proven; Bush and Blair had not exhausted all diplomatic options before going to war; and the post-war planning for Iraq was pretty much non-existent.

The report will not bring back the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives taken or ruined by the war, nor the lost lives of 4,982 US, British, and coalition soldiers, but at least we now have an honest, spin-free, historical record of how this utterly preventable tragedy came to pass.

 

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