Sunrise, Cao Yu

425_0Second play of the famous trilogy formed by ThunderstormSunrise and The Wilderness, considered one of the classic trilogies on modern Chinese theatre. In this occasion, Cao Yu tells us the story of Chen Bailu, an educated country girl who has fallen into a downward spiral of corruption and depravation in the city.

She lives in a luxury hotel in the city kept mainly by a wealthy banker and several other men attracted to her beauty. Working as a prostitute but feeling proud of it, with the conviction that she is earning her money honestly, more than those surrounding her because, as she states, she is not stealing from anyone but making money by sacrificing her own body. Similar (even though with different reasons) to the sacrifice done by Bess in Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves. The latter did it for love, the former for social status and recognition.

Chen Bailu’s live is just a constant decadent party filled with visits at her room from so many different characters from the Chinese Bourgeoisie: bankers, wealthy widows, professors… a series of decayed individuals, egotistical and obsessed with money. The perfect portrait of a particular age, of a society falling down, that shows us the grand move forward Cao Yu did from his previous play, Thunderstorm. While in his first play, he focused the drama on the individual with actions close to those staged by Tennessee Williams, in this second play of the trilogy he focuses in society as a whole. The characters become archetypes, the actions reflections of social behaviours doomed to end in tragedy. But humanity is stubborn, entropy is far more present than we want to accept and, despite being falling into a deep well, humanity keeps carrying on, stuck on its lack of scruples and moral values, and unable to change by itself. We need an outsider’s push to change, and we don’t always accept it. In this case, the instigator of change is Fang Dasheng, Chen Bailu’s former friend/lover from the country who aims to marry her and take her back to the country. Thus, the conflict country/city, moral/society becomes the main point of the play. Chen Bailu is surprised by her past and reconsiders her whole life and begins to judge those surrounding her, those that spend every night drinking and playing Mahjong in her bedroom. The clear example of this change of mind is shown through the apparition of The Shrimp, the little girl who is forced to prostitute herself and whom Chen Bailu hides temporarily in her room. When she tries to save the girl, she is in fact trying to save herself. She wants to feel empathy once again, she wants to worry about other human beings, she wants to be a person again. Far from that world ruled by money, treachery and enmities.

In the second act, the action moves from the corrupted luxury of Chen Bailu’s hotel room to the real and moral putrefaction of a low brothel. Here, we meet the squalor and dirtiness that the layers of make-up and expensive furniture prevented us to see on the first act. Here, we see the reality of the tragedy. Here, they force The Shrimp to prostitute herself and we are not surprised that some of the locals of that place are the sames that we had met in Chen Bailu’s bedroom. And this striking contrast between the two acts it is necessary in order to make us realise about the meaningless of it all. Just as one of the side characters says, nothing makes sense, no one is born as broken and sunken as society makes us. There is a problem and we are the only responsible for it.

And, at the end, the long awaited sun arises after Chen Bailu’s sacrifice (once again, running in parallel with Bess’ sacrifice in Breaking the Waves), the beginning of a new life, of a new way to understand the world much more human and brotherly. All in all, enhanced by the symbolic song sang by the workers under Chen Bailu’s window, the move from the individualist life into the collective one. “The sun rises and the darkness is left behind.” 

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Cao Yu, Sunrise (Echo of Classics)

Tender is the night, F. Scott Fitzgerald

tender-is-the-night-original-dustjacketJohn Updike’s Couples and E. M. Forster’s A Room with a view spring back to mind once we start reading about the adventures of these group of wealthy tourists. Rosemary’s love affair, in fact, is very similar to that of Lucy and, little by little, we step into this Sunday-drenched world, full of hypocrisy and backstabbing.

“One of those uneventful times that seem at the moment only a link between past and future pleasure but turn out to have been the pleasure itself.”

“All of them began to laugh spontaneously because they knew it was still last night while the people in the streets had the delusion that it was bright hot morning.” Those nights that we don’t want them to end and that linger until the next day and, when we walked pass the first early pedestrians, we can’t help it but wonder about the completely different day we are having. But Cioran already told us: “Those nights in which we have slept are as though they hadn’t existed. We only keep in our memories those in which we haven’t slept at all.”*

“Tired of friends. The thing is to have sycophants.”

“Trouble is when you’re sober you don’t want to see anybody, and when you’re tight nobody wants to see you.”

“The drink made past happy things contemporary with the present, as if they were still going on, contemporary even with the future as if they were about to happen again.” The optimist power of the alcohol well drunk. The feeling of happiness and of communion with everybody that later on we spent the whole week trying to get over it.

“It’s always a delusion when I see what you don’t want me to see.”

It is rather interesting the change proposed by Fitzgerald on the second part of the book. After we had met an apathetical, almost non-existent, Nicole and having enjoyed Dick’s infidelity with Rosemary, suddenly we are told about Dick and Nicole’s love story and our perception of her changes. We get to see how they managed to meet despite all the difficulties and how they kept on together thanks to their love. We also see Dick’s preference towards younger women, of course. And, little by little, we also see the decay of the couple and, for a moment, we praise again Dick and Rosemary’s affair before we end up admiring Nicole’s strength.

“Either you think -or else others have to think for you and take power from you, pervert and discipline your natural tastes, civilize and sterilize you.” And maybe that’s one of the key messages from the book: one must think for him/herself, act according to one’s will and not to someone else’s imposition. And then, maybe, we can get to be happy. At least, we would remain away from frustration just as Nicole manages to do at the end of the book. And that, for so many of us, may be the closest we will ever get to happiness.

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*The translation is mine

F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the night (Penguin)

White Noise, Don DeLillo

91vWoLBq6VLThe curious and yet worrying image of a vast amount of station wagons packed to the top with all the items money can buy (the necessary ones and the others), open the book. With just the one page, we see the exaggeration of capitalism, the unnecessary accumulation of more and more items done by a new generation that only now begins to emancipate. And, next to them, their parents. “This assembly of station wagons, as much as anything they might do in the course of the year, more than formal liturgies or laws, tells the parents they are a collection of the like-minded and the spiritually akin, a people, a nation.” Crowded in the street in front of the university, dropping off their kids into the university residences, all the parents become one.

“How do you know whether something is really what you want to do or just some kind of nerve impulse in the brain?” wonders Heimish, Jack’s son, the maximum representative of relativism in the book and the one who offers us some of the best reflections as well. How do we know that reality is real? How can we prove that we are not just brains inside a bucket as Putnam puzzled us? (We can’t) Just two pages before, after his father affirmation that it was raining, Heimish began a logical deduction to prove that, in fact, we could not be sure of it at all; maybe our sense tricked us (Descartes); our perception is only conventional, when we say “it is raining now” we don’t know what is the real meaning of “now” because “now” doesn’t exist, when we say it, it is already “before“; we don’t know whether the thing falling from the sky is rain or something else; we can’t be certain that when we talk about “rain“, we are actually referring to the same thing (philosophy of language)… an interesting deductive game that ends precisely where Heimish wanted to go: the absolute relativism.

“Television is just another name for junk mail.”

“To become a crowd is to keep out death. To break off from the crowd is to risk death as an individual, of face dying alone.” That’s why Jack (director of the Hitler’s department at his university) states that Hitler’s followers kept together and followed him unconditionally: they wanted to belong.

“The power of numbers is never more evident than when we use them to speculate on the time of our dying.”

“Society is set up in such a way that it’s the poor and the uneducated who suffer the main impact of natural and handmade disasters.” Natural selection has long ceased to be natural and become economical. I’m almost sure that there were no rich people inside New Orlean’s Superdome because Katrina had blown their houses away. Just as I am sure that there aren’t really rich people amongst the Sirian refugees.

“You reach an age when every minute of sleep is one less minute to do useful things.”

And, of course, the main topic of the book: death. And, above all, the fear of death. The anguish, the preoccupations, the panic it provokes. Sartre’s nausea. Babette attempts to water it down through experimental drugs that don’t work. Jack tries to solve it through reason, through never-ending conversations with Murray about life and death, this White Noise that chases us constantly but which we don’t always listen to. “A person’t entire life is the unravelling of this conflict.” We find distractions, occupations, be build companies, cities, empires… but they are nothing else but “gorgeous evasions” as Murray says. We look with envy at the babies because they live in the ignorance of their mortality and we wonder how do we do it, how do we manage to, despite it all, keep on living.

“A person spends his life saying goodbye to other people. How does he say goodbye to himself?”

Maybe we never manage to do it. We have become apathetical, non-believers, even those who were supposed to believe don’t do it anymore, just as the nun taking care of Jack’s bullet wound says. Believers only pretend to believe because non-believers need someone to keep on believing. But, at the end, we are all lost, waiting, as DeLillo portrays so brilliantly on the final pages of the book, in a sort of massive supermarket where, whenever the rules of the games are changed (they move the items to a different shelf) we feel lost and confused. There, we redeem ourselves temporally, diminish our fears by reading yellow magazines that make us feel, for a second, less alone and abandoned.

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Don DeLillo, White Noise (Penguin)

Hamlet, Shakespeare

Hamlet,_Shakespeare,_1676_-_0001“How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable seemes to me all the uses of this world” complains a melancholic Hamlet in one of his first speeches. After the king reproached his elongated mourning for his father’s death, Hamlet feels more hurt and, mainly, lost facing the existentialist question: what’s the meaning of it all? Sartre mentions a nausea before telling us that, at the very end, it all simply finishes. Heidegger faces us to the raw ending to make us realise that that must be our force to keep on living. Cioran claimed that “We do not run towards death; we flee from the catastrophe of birth.”* And the religious people stick to after lives, lives beyond this one which, apparently, would be much better than this one (not too difficult to imagine) and through which everything will become meaningful. You can match and choose. Everyone can decide his/her own option.. But please, do not impose it upon everybody else.

“Neither a borrower, nor a leader be; for lone oft loses both it selfe and friend.”

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Says Hamlet to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (the side character who became main ones on Tom Stoppard’s play). He exposes the moral relativity, the ephemeral and conventional existence of ethical values, the foundations of our social contract that, unfortunately, is constantly broken depending on our needs.

And, of course: “To be or not to be, that is the question.” The primary doubt about the necessity of keeping up despite everything, about the point of keeping alive after Hamlet finds out that his father was murdered and that the murderer has married his mother. What is the noblest thing to do, “to suffer the slings and arrows of outragious fortune, or to take armes against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them: to die, to sleepe.” To follow the Christian faith and endure the torture and pain that is our earthly life hoping for a better one on the other side, or kill oneself? But, also, the existentialist doubt about what happens when we die. Are we Epicureans and accept that when we die we no are no longer and hence there is no point on worrying about it? Are we existentialists and state that life simple ends? Are we Platonists and return to the ideal world from which we should never have gone? “The dread of something after death, the undiscovered countrey, from whose borne no traveller returnes, puzels the will, and makes us rather beare those iles we have, than flye to other that we know not of.” The fear towards the unknown (as well as the social pressure because we must not forget suicide is a sin just as it is shown after Ophelia’s death when the clowns say that hadn’t she been a rich woman, she wouldn’t have been buried in the graveyard) makes us accept the pains and sorrows of what we know, our life. “Conscience does make cowards of us all.” And if they want us to be cowards, cowards we’ll be. A asleep, tamed flock hit so many times that we do not even dare to raise our head to see who is hitting us for the thousandth time.

But also, and in a meta-literary level, the doubt about the general connection between this monologue and the finding of Yarick’s skull a few scenes later. Why is it that whenever someone mentions Hamlet, we all think about an individual raising a skull while he asks himself: “To be or not to be”? Recently, I had the fortune to be part of a talk about Shakespeare, Cervantes, Inca Garcilaso de la Vega and José Martí and Dr Steve Jacobi (Director of Culture at Wellington College in Shanghai and a Shakespeare specialist) claimed that, in fact, only a few amount of people read Shakespeare. And even less in the UK. Afraid of the archaism of its language, little used to having to make an effort to understand a text that it is not in plain modern English, only few britons approach the original texts. And maybe that is one of the reasons for this confusion. Of course that it is visually better to have Hamlet uttering his monologue while holding a skull, but it is not how Shakespeare intended it. Maybe the popular re-telling of it has improved the original text on this particular aspect. Maybe the general ignorance of the first text has blended the two scenes without anyone taking notice of it. Maybe at some point, some director made an adaptation of the text and chose that new version of the monologue and it was such a success that all the other adaptations have follewd suit… In any case, at the end, just like Hamlet states right before dying, in a sentence that Wittgenstein seems to adapt a few centuries later when he said “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”: “the rest is silence.”

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*The translation is mine

William Shakespeare, Hamlet (Penguin)

Ask the Dust, John Fante

4765262618_f200f8e55e_bWho is the great Arturo Bandini? How come have you never heard about him? Maybe because he is a failure, a blocked, bankrupted author who only managed to publish a short story and barely survives in a decayed hotel thanks to the few pennies he gets from his mother. A damned writer facing the struggle of the artist who has to decide whether to live to have new experiences to write about or being incapable to write. A man who dreams about fooling around with women just to be able to write about love but who doesn’t even manage to get intimate with prostitutes. A failed man who dreams about all what the world is missing from not knowing him, everything he’ll achieve once he is discovered, all that he will become once he gets back to writing. If he ever regains inspiration. A loser alike to Bukowski’s alter ego Hank. No wonder Bukowski wrote the prologue to this edition where he confesses the strong influence Fante´s work had on his own writing. And who is Fante? How come have you never heard about him? Well, maybe because of the same reason I had not: because no one talks about him. Because even though he is well known and appreciated amongst certain circles of literary connoisseurs, his name hardly ever reaches a wider audience. We seem to be too concerned with temporary hypes, with media-famous writers, that we pay no attention to real writers.

Sometimes we find curious ideas within books that, some time later, we find out they were not original from that author, that maybe they were a token from someone else, a sort of tribute, and we are left playing the fascinating game of tracing (or attempting to trace) the series of books read by that particular author. In The Broom of the System, Lenore’s brother hid the drugs he was selling inside his fake leg; here, Benny, Bandini´s friend, has a wooden leg with a hidden drawer to hide the marijuana he is selling. And with David Foster Wallace being such a cult, well-read character, it is highly probable he took this idea from Fante. Si non vero, ben trobatto.

“We were not alive at all; we approached living, but we never achieved it, we are going to die”

The great Bandini, the renown writer with only one short story published and impotent in front of Camila’s fore comings tries to solve his sexual problem with the aid of lower and lower prostitutes. But he can’t. The great Bandini who dreams about love stories, about myths and retellings but who is incapable of enacting any of them. He clashes, once and again, against the unbreakable barrier of reality. If only the world were a bit more similar to the one he dreams about…

“Sick in my soul I tried to face the ordeal of seeking forgiveness? From whom? What God, what Christ? They were myths I once believed, and now they were beliefs I felt were myths.”

The French sociologist Lipovetski, wrote a series of essays about the postmodern society in the 80s and 90s and one of his ideas was exactly that: the postmodern man has lost all his beliefs, we have certainly killed God, but the fact is that no one really cares about it. We have just moved on. From the collective era of faith to the narcissistic era of myself.

In a direct parallelism to his life as a inhabitant in a sordid and decayed rundown hotel who hardly manages to pay the bills, surrounded by weird neighbours and crazy people, Arturo Bandini’s relation with love is also sordid, decayed and rundown. From the initial sexual impotence with Camila to the posterior love/hate relationship full of fights and arguments and days spent apart from one another. A broken love affair right from the beginning between two individuals too lost and damaged who keep on finding each other once and again. No matter how painful that may be, they keep on carrying their own Sisyphus stone throughout their lives.

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John Fante, Ask the Dust (Black Sparrow Press)

Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah-Chimamanda-Ngozi-AdichieThe apparent racial integration in the major cities turns out to be, too often, a lazy indifference towards each other. A racial and circumstantial invisibility that allows us to live together yet keeping us apart. A matter of accepting the new-comers as long as they are far away from us and don’t interfere with our lives. In here, Ifemelu, the main character, shows it all quite well from the beginning: she lives in a white part of the city thanks to her relationships with white men, she doesn’t have problems with anyone because she works and has money but when it comes to having an African hairdo, when she wants to do something remotely linked to her culture and tradition, she has to take a train and go the the black side of the city. It would be unacceptable that someone dared to open an African hairdresser in the centre of an American city! Integrated, yes, but nicely segregated.

Precise description of contemporary novels: “novels written by young and youngish men and packed with things, a fascinating, confounding accumulation of brands and music and comic books and icons, with emotions skimmed over, and each sentence stylishly aware of its own stylishness.” 21 years after, we are still stuck with the Pulp Fiction aesthetics.

There is a feeling felt by the people who move abroad to live in a different country. An strange feeling which is a combination of surprise, illusion, nostalgia, deception, cultural shock and incomprehension. Chimamanda Ngozi describes it perfectly through Ifemelu’s eyes and the patronising, disgusted and ignorant treatments she gets from the citizens of this country which is not hers. Facts that every stranger faces in major or minor degree. But there is also the enjoyment of seeing and living brand new things every day, of experimenting a supermarket (just like Ifemelu explains), of hearing new words (because even though they all speak English, in each country words have different meanings), of seeing different behaviours that you could have never thought possible and that, consequently, make you feel better with yourself. Yes, living abroad is living in a mirage, in a fake world from which you know you can always escape if things turn sour. A game ground where to play this game of living while being aware that there is a reality awaiting for us back home right on the other side of the ocean. But then, when you do go back home and things don’t improve, where can you go? When you find out that the land you had idealised from afar is much worst than you could never accept, where can you find shelter?

“Why did people ask “What is it about?” as if a novel had to be about only one thing.” And the same happens with plays. Every time I have to talk about a new play of mine (or whenever I am introduced to someone new as a playwright) I have to answer to the seemingly unavoidable question “what is the play about?”Well, I don’t know. Honestly. It is not about just one single thing, that’s for sure. Antonio Bones, when it came to review the New York production of my play Los Columpios (The Swings) made a list of up to 27 topics dealt with in it. And maybe he left some out. I’m sorry but that’s the way it is. There is no thrilling plot in my plays, nor a mystery or a crime to be solved. There are no betrayals nor scams or robberies or violence… the play is about everything and nothing at the same time. But you must never say that because that’ll put an end to your conversation and the audience’s interest. It is a matter of relying on topical answers like “it is about universal issues…” Recently, a new version of this impossible to answer to question is coming up too frequently: “what do you do for a living?” Philosopher, blogger, journalist, teacher, playwright, unemployed… there are so many options and the time deployed to any of them so little that it is hard to say. Maybe it is just a wittgensteinean enigma and, consequently, there is no possible answer for it and the question must not be uttered…

“In America, racism exists but racists are all gone. […] Racists are the thin-lipped mean white people in the movies about the civil rights era.” But racists are still around, it is just a matter of, just like Ifemelu says, calling them different names, maybe we should “scrap the word “racist”. Find something new. Like Racial Disorder Syndrome, And we could have different categories of this syndrome: mild, medium, and acute.” Exactly, let’s change the name of the problem and carry on with our sad little lives. A clear example of this can be found in the adjective used by Europeans and Americans to refer to the foreigners coming to our countries: “foreigner“, “immigrant“. With all the pejorative connotations of the words (someone who doesn’t belong, who is strange in the Sartrean sense of the word). But instead, when the one leaving his/her own country is an European or an American, then we are not “foreigners” or “immigrants” but “expats“. With all the good things linked to the word. Words are never just words.

The similarities between the main character of Americanah and the one from the film Dear White People (despite the political activism of the latter) are striking: blogger/radio presenter, both of them tired of the hypocrisy of the American society when it comes to race and integration; using the same examples like the seemingly unavoidable need of American people to touch afro hairdos. But, mainly, their shared irony and cynicism. Two characters alike offering a much needed vision of a reality we pretend it doesn’t exist.

“You can’t even read American fiction to get a sense of how actual life is lived these days. You read American fiction to learn about dysfunctional white folk doing things that are weird to normal white folks.”

“He began to be appalled by the air of unreality, the careful manipulation of images to create a parallel life, pictures that people had taken with Facebook in mind, placing in the background things of which they were proud.” Suddenly, a generation of visual illiterates begins to understand the importance of imagery when they begin sharing them on Facebook. It’s not enough anymore to show our godsons photos to whoever comes to our place, now we must show how we want to be seen, too. We no longer are but we show ourselves, just like Byung-Chul Han told us a few years back.

“We are Third Worlders and Third Worlders are forward-looking, we like things to be new, because our best is still ahead, while in the West their best is already past so they have to make a fetish of the past.”

“There are many different ways to be poor in the world but increasingly there seems to be one single way to be rich.” And, after a couple of months living in China, this sentence becomes even more meaningful. The poverty that you can see on the streets of China is different in every corner and different to the one you can see in the States or Europe but the richness, or the appearance of being wealthy, is exactly the same everywhere. Everybody who is worth something “must” have an iPhone 6s, no matter that it will cost them over a month salary (and that’s the lucky ones who earn more than 4.000 RMB monthly). Everybody must go to Starbucks, even though then they order an overpriced milk tea because they hate the sourness of the sweetened coffee they are giving them. With Globalisation has come a global spread of stupidity and shallowness as well while, at the same time, the frontiers seem to be getting stronger and the visas harder to obtain. For the poor people, of course, if you have over 30 million US dollars in your bank account you can ask for a Chinese residence straight away. In the end, all our problems (and solutions) rely on the same thing. That’s how simple-minded they want us to be and that’s how simple-minded we have become.

Elizabeth Gordon Quinn, Chris Hannan

chris-hannanJoyce McMillan wrote in The Guardian that “Elizabeth Gordon Quinn is clearly a monster of snobbery and false consciousness, pathetically deluded about her own life, denying her working-class neighbours the solidarity they need.” A touch of sink drama but with a main character unable (or rather, unwilling) to take part in it.

“I suppose I think that if I can say we’re having a mental breakdown, then we can’t be. Because if we were having a mental breakdown, we probably wouldn’t know it.” A non-performative action: to name something doesn’t make it real like Austin taught us but, in this case, it is actually the opposite. If we can say that we are growing mad it is, in fact, that we aren’t, that we are still sane enough to feel our sanity slipping away.

“You used to be an individual, of course. That was the great thing about you. You stood out. Now you’re no different to any of the rest of them.” The problem of becoming a mass that Celine Song showed in The Feast. In front of the difficulty of being able to pay the rent that keeps on growing in order to suffragette the war, Elizabeth decides to join the neighbours who are on a rent strike. Or, rather, when she sees that her beloved piano is taken away (symbolical depiction of her grandeur dreams set, in a sort of class anachronism, amongst the misery of her kitchen) she asks their help to get it back and, in exchange, she joins the strike. We can clearly see the monster McMillan was talking about. But for whatever reason, she temporarily becomes mass and that’s exactly what Mrs Black was criticising about her. When we become mass, we stop being human beings.

“You won’t attract a decent man by talking about Hegel.”

“That’s the problem with this family, we’ve got more imagination than we can afford.” Complains Maura after the police arrests her deserter brother to execute him. After a life of pretending, the time has come to face some truths. But Elizabeth refuses to do it and the play ends almost exactly as it began: with her deep down in her grandeur dreams. And it is interesting to point out how we look at her in disdain now, with a certain patronising look: amongst the most stagnant poverty, she plays a role of superiority. She dares to keep her fake daydreaming regardless of everything. And that infuriates us. But, what would happen if her daydreams were not of better class but of freedom, equality, brotherhood? What would we think if the final goal of her dreams, of the fake world she lives in within her mind, was a different one, one that we consider fairer, that maybe wouldn’t have a positive effect upon society as a whole but still had some remnant of positiveness in it? Would we then still believed that Elizabeth was a monster because she just wanted to live her dreams?

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Chris Hannan, Elizabeth Gordon Quinn (Nick Hern Books)