>Why I Don’t Like the Movie The Lives of Others

>http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?t=clasblo-20&o=1&p=8&l=bpl&asins=B000OVLBGC&fc1=000000&IS2=1&lt1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifr

I know that most people adore The Lives of Others and find this movie very touching. I, however, could never get into it because of how wrong it gets many of the most basic details of the characters’ daily existence. I don’t like Cold War rhetoric and imagery because of how reductive and unintelligent they are. It’s always the good versus the evil, and it doesn’t matter which side of the Iron Curtain you are on. The verbiage is the same and the desire to reduce complex realities to a bunch of cheesy stereotypes is omnipresent. Both sides judge each other according to their own, very limited ideology, without ever trying to understand that things might be a little bit more complex.
During the Soviet times, my father always listened to the BBC (secretly, of course) at night. “They are fools, all Westerners are fools,” he would fume in the morning. “Last night they said that there were human rights abuses in the USSR which consisted of people not being allowed to travel freely abroad. They have no idea about who we are and how we live. I have a PhD in linguistics and I have to leave aside my research and spend the entire next week sorting rotten cabbage. But, sure, not being able to travel abroad is my main concern.”
I was reminded of this reductive Cold War mentality as I was watching The Lives of Others. The filmmakers so obviously made their film with the goal of selling it to Americans that it was painful to watch. Take, for example, that scene where the character who works for the Stasi comes to his BARE apartment, where he lives ALONE, eates a plate of spaghetti with KETCHUP and invites a PROSTITUTE over to his apartment. I mean, how much more ridiculous than that can you get? And, of course, if a movie is so careless with the minor details, how can you expect it to deliver anything more reliable in terms of the big picture? The result is this unbearably cheesy Americanized fantasy about what life behind the Berlin Wall was like. A fantasy that has nothing to do with reality.
Advertisements

>John Lescroart’s Damage: A Review

In case you don’t know, John Lescroart is the author of a great courtroom drama series set in San Francisco. Unlike Grisham, who also writes best-selling courtroom dramas, Lescroart actually knows how to write a good sentence in English. For those who love San Francisco (and how is it possible not to love this magical city?), Lescroart’s novels will be especially interesting to read. Even if your vision of San Francisco is different from Lescroart’s, you can’t fail to find his admiration for the city to be infectious.

Lescroart became famous as the creator of the Hardy / Glitsky series featuring Dismas Hardy, a lawyer, and his best friend Abe Glitsky, a police officer. Both Hardy and Glitsky are complex, interesting characters who are often tortured and always far from perfect. A little while ago, Lescroart must have decided that the Hardy / Glitsky series had played itself out and came up with a new protagonist for a new series: Wyatt Hunt. The resulting The Hunt Club, Treasure Hunt (Wyatt Hunt), and A Plague of Secrets were so weak that they almost made me abandon this writer for good. With the Wyatt Hunt character, Lescroart committed what is a huge mistake for such an experienced author: he created a protagonist who is so perfect as to be completely disgusting. Wyatt Hunt is an athlete, a musician, an investigator and a know-it-all whose favorite things to do are to save damsels in distress and rescue abused children under dramatic circumstances. In order to make him even more attractive, Lescroart surrounded him with extremely pathetic characters whose goal was to present Hunt with even more opportunities to shine.
Tonight, however, Lescroart finally released a novel that lives up to his erstwhile standards. Damage finally abandons the inane goody-two-shoes of Wyatt Hunt and his coterie of helpless losers and focuses on Lescroart’s trademark characters Abe Glitsky and the hippie lawyer turned District Attorney Wes Farrell. (Hardy’s fans need to be forewarned that Hardy appears only briefly in Damage.)
I had pre-ordered this novel on Kindle several months ago. Yesterday, I stayed up until 2 am (the time when Amazon sends out pre-ordered new releases) because I couldn’t keep waiting any longer to see how this novel would turn out. Then, I couldn’t sleep because I just needed to read it. Today, I’m happy to report that the novel is definitely worth all that trouble. It’s really good. There are great courtroom scenes which, however, are not excessive. There is a mystery that keeps you in suspense until the end (although, I have to confess that I guessed some of it. Still, that’s not surprising given the extent of my familiarity with this author’s books.) There are personal dramas, power struggles, corruption, and truly memorable characters. In short, this is one of Lescroart’s best novels, and this is saying a lot with such a prolific and gifted author.

V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River: A Review

I want to begin this new year of blogging with a review of one of the most famous books by V.S. Naipaul, a controversial writer and a Nobel Prize winner. Before I begin, I want to warn you that if you are here with the goal of ripping off this review to pass it as an essay at school, you are making a huge mistake. Not only because plagiarism is always stupid and wrong but also because my reading of this novel is very different from what your teacher wants to hear. Feel free to see if I’m right at your own peril.

V.S. Naipaul differs from many other postcolonial writers in that his attitude towards independence is a lot more complex, painful, and honest than the usual starry-eyed “Yippee! We are finally free from the vile, horrible empire” we keep getting from the writers of the postcolonial reality. I am a postcolonial subject, too. Believe me, there is nothing I like more than denouncing the ills of imperial domination. This is why I have to admire Naipaul’s courage in demonstrating the fallacies of an unconditional acceptance of independence.
A Bend in the River describes post-independence struggles of an unnamed African country whose experiences are in many ways similar to those of other newly independent nations irrespective of their geographical location. The process of creating a new, post-colonial identity is central to such nations. Naipaul realizes that the only way of analyzing the workings of identity formation is from a distance. This is why the first-person narrator of this story, Salim, is a perennial outsider in all communities he inhabits. As an onlooker, Salim is in the position to notice and analyze identity-related issues better than others. This capacity, however, results in his marginalization:

A Bend in the River is a story of Salim’s efforts to accept unquestioningly the nationalistic discourse of the country where he comes to reside and his failure to do so. As hard as this character tries, he never manages to escape the realization that independence is a lot more problematic than anybody around him wishes to accept. In the novel, we see a gradual disintegration of a newly independent country that leads to an ever-growing violence.

So from an early age I developed the habit of looking, detaching myself from a familiar scene and trying to consider it as from a distance. It was from this habit of looking that the idea came to me that as a community we had fallen behind. And that was the beginning of my insecurity. I used to think of this feeling of insecurity as a weakness, a failing of my own temperament, and I would have been ashamed if anyone had found out about it. I kept my ideas about the future to myself.
Naipaul’s writings have been very controversial because he verbalizes those feelings and experiences of post-colonial that we don’t want to acknowledge even to ourselves. Salim’s friend who is even more removed from his country of origin by virtue of his European education expresses some of these concerns whose mere existence is unacceptable to many:
I hadn’t understood to what extent our civilization had also been our prison. I hadn’t understood either to what extent we had been made by the place where we had grown up, made by Africa and the simple life of the coast, and how incapable we had become of understanding the outside world. We have no means of understanding a fraction of the thought and science and philosophy and law that have gone to make that outside world. We simply accept it. We have grown up paying tribute to it, and that is all that most of us can do. We feel of the great world that it is simply there, something for the lucky ones among us to explore, and then only at the edges. It never occurs to us that we might make some contribution to it ourselves. And that is why we miss everything. When we land at a place like London Airport we are concerned only not to appear foolish. It is more beautiful and more complex than anything we could have dreamed of, but we are concerned only to let people see that we can manage and are not overawed. We might even pretend that we had expected better. That is the nature of our stupidity and incompetence. And that was how I spent my time at the university in England, not being overawed, always being slightly disappointed, understanding nothing, accepting everything, getting nothing.
“Our stupidity and incompetence?” How dare he? Haven’t we been schooled to proclaim ourselves as owners of alternative and much better forms of knowledge, inhabitants of a different kind of civilization? Haven’t we been told ad nauseam that we have our own Prousts and Hegels? And if nobody knows or appreciates this special contribution of ours, that doesn’t mean anything is wrong with the contribution. It just means the world is unjust and its system of values is all wrong. This is what we defend with everything we have while falling over ourselves in our rush to possess as many attributes of the hated colonial masters. Contempt and desire of that which is apparently so disdained are among the unavoidable attributes of the postcolonial experience.
Naipaul’s analysis of every facet of how national identities are created and imposed is nothing short of brilliant. To give just one example, every national identity requires legitimizing heroic figures that embody the best characteristics of the nation. These figures are invented, distorted, mythologized and contested by groups within the country that struggle for the right to propose their own version of national identity. Naipaul demonstrates with absolute brilliance how such symbols of national identity end up robbing the national subject of individuality:
I studied the large framed photographs of Gandhi and Nehru and wondered how, out of squalor like this, those men had managed to get themselves considered as men. It was strange, in that building in the heart of London, seeing those great men in this new way, from the inside, as it were. Up till then, from the outside, without knowing more of them than I had read in newspapers and magazines, I had admired them. They belonged to me; they ennobled me and gave me some place in the world. Now I felt the opposite. In that room the photographs of those great men made me feel that I was at the bottom of a well. I felt that in that building complete manhood was permitted only to those men and denied to everybody else. Everyone had surrendered his manhood, or a part of it, to those leaders. Everyone willingly made himself smaller the better to exalt those leaders. . .  We have nothing. We solace ourselves with that idea of the great men of our tribe, the Gandhi and the Nehru, and we castrate ourselves.
As much as one might admire Gandhi, it does get annoying to encounter yet another set of pious platitudes every time his (or any other independence leader’s) name is mentioned. Any national identity is based on a set of myths that fall apart under even a very superficial kind of scrutiny. This is why national identities are so bound with emotions: we have to be blinded by our deeply emotional response to our particular piece of painted fabric, venerated independence leaders, mythology of first oppression then liberation in order to buy these poorly constructed myths.
Naipaul has made himself hated by many when he started discussing the problematic nature of each newly-achieved independence, each nationalistic mythology. His honesty leaves me speechless, while his beautiful writing style makes me feel ashamed of everything I have ever written in English. We often believe that a great writer is somebody who makes us nod our heads and think, “Oh, this is so true.” That isn’t greatness, though. A true genius tells us things we never thought of before, makes us angry by an assault on widely-accepted trivialities. This is precisely the kind of writer Naipaul is. A Bend in the River is, in my opinion, his angriest and consequently his best novel.

>Happy New Year 2011!

>Happy New Year to my wonderful, intelligent readers! I wish you all the happiness and joy in the world, my dear friends! I hope we will spend a lot more time talking, arguing, and exchanging opinions in the coming year. I love you all.

As usual, here is picture of the New Year’s feast I prepared.
And it only took two days to make it.

>How I Learned to Speak Spanish, Part II

>

When I was admitted to the university, I was 22 years old. I knew I didn’t have the time to go the usual route of taking Spanish 101, 102, and so on. So I lied to my advisor, told her that I’d studied Spanish before, and enrolled in Spanish Intermediate Intensive. On the first day of class, when our Salvadoran teacher came into the classroom and started prattling in his very difficult Central American Spanish, I realized that I was in trouble. When he announced that we were going to do an overview of the Preterite and the Imperfect, I realized that I was in even bigger trouble because these words meant nothing to me.
I knew that I had to learn to speak and fast if I wanted to get that PhD within a reasonable amount of time. I was an immigrant, I had no money. Any exchange program was out of the question because of the conditions of my visa and money constraints. Besides, my underage sister was living with me, and I couldn’t just abandon her and flee to yet another country. There was no money for a tutor or an immersion program. But there was something a lot better, though: the rich and vibrant Hispanic community of Montreal. I made friends with Spanish speakers from many different countries. That wasn’t easy for me. I have Asperger’s and meeting people is not something I enjoy (to put it very, very mildly). But I made the effort and started visiting all kinds of events where Spanish speakers were present.
I had a neighbor from Colombia who was going through a convoluted drama with her boyfriend. She would ask me over and narrate the story of her life for hours. (I am extremely thankful for the fact that so many Spanish-speakers love to talk.) At first, I understood about 5% of what she was saying. Obviously, I couldn’t say much in return, so I just looked compassionate and nodded. As a result, she started presenting me to her friends as a very kind person and the best listener she ever met. So more people started asking me over to share their stories. And I had even more opportunities to listen, look compassionate, and nod. Later, when I learned to speak and we became best friends I told my very first Colombian interlocutor, “Look, you have to retell me all your stories once again because the first time around I didn’t understand a word of them.” I was extremely lucky in meeting her because Colombian Spanish is considered the most correct in terms of pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary.
 
There was also a language exchange program affiliated with our university. These programs allow people who don’t have money for language lessons to swap their language skills. Say, you want to learn Russian and I want to learn German. We meet, talk for an hour in my language and then for another hour in yours. As a result, everybody gets to speak and listen, the environment is casual and relaxed, and the learning process is enjoyable.
 
To compliment these activities, I also read in Spanish all the time. I had already arived by that time at what would become the basis of my language teaching philosophy: when talking and reading compliment each other, you get great results. So I read. I don’t believe in adapted texts or easy solutions. So I decided to start with reading Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo. For those who know this book it must be very clear why that was an insane choice of the first book ever to read in Spanish. The first time I read this beautiful but extremely complex work of literature that not every native speaker understands on the first reading I had no idea what it was about. But I felt it was beautiful. So I read it once more. And the third time. And then something kind of became a little clearer. So I decided to read Miguel de Unamuno’s Niebla. Again, those who know this novel are now thinking that I am a very crazy person because it’s also a very complex book.
 
I also persecuted my Salvadoran Spanish teacher with questions. He would dread the sight of me appearing at his office yet again to announce: “I don’t understand Preterito and Imperfecto!” He would explain for hours, bring print-outs, activities, transparencies. “Do you understand it now?” he’d ask, desperate for some good news. “No!” I’d respond brightly. Then, he would start all over again. Today, whenever I go back to Canada to speak at a conference, my teacher (who in the meantime went from being a graduate student to a tenured professor) always comes to listen. He sits there looking very proud and then comes up to me after the talk to ask, “So now do you understand the differences between Preterito and Imperfecto?” “Yes,” I say. “But now I have to explain it to students who refuse to understand.”
 
In short, I lived and breathed Spanish for this entire period of time. Within 18 months, I was teaching Spanish at a private language school. In 2,5 years, I walked into my very frist college classroom as a teacher of Spanish. (I’ll blog about that experience one day because that course was something special.) And only 3,5 years since I started learning, I published by very first research article in Spanish. And not in some graduate journal, or anything like that. I published in Anales Galdosianos, a very prestigious, “real” scholarly journal. As I said, I’m very proud of my Spanish and I will boast all I want about it. 🙂
 
It’s been almost 12 years since I said my first words in Spanish. Of course, learning a language is a project of a lifetime, even if you are a native speaker. A language is a living entity, and we renegotiate our relationship with it on a daily basis. Learning a new language gives you access to an entire civilization, to a world of experiences, to a version of yourself that is completely different from what you are when you speak your own language.
 
For those who want to learn to speak a foreign language very fast and very well, I have the following suggestions:
  1. Speak. You don’t need a pricey immersion program, a trip, or an exchange visit to learn. Of course, if you can afford them, that’s fantastic. Have fun and enjoy this great opportunity. Many people, however, simply don’t have the resources to afford anything like this nowadays. My advice to you is to find  in your town a language exchange program like the one I described. If it doesn’t exist, start one. Find a Spanish store or a community newspaper and place an ad for a free exchange of language knowledge. There are many immigrants who would love to teach you their language in exchange for practicing English with you. What should you do, though, if there are no speakers of your target language who live in your area? Not to worry, today’s technological advances have solved that problem, too. How many people in the world would love to improve their knowledge of English in exchange for practicing their language with you? All you need to do is find them and talk to them through Skype or any other similar program. Even though you might have no money, you still have a very valuable commodity: your knowledge of English. Make use of it in your language learning.
  2. Read. Reading in the target language is crucial because it builds up vocabulary and gives you what the Germans call “Sprachgefühl” (an intuitive understanding of how a language works.) When I was learning Spanish, I read for at least 6 hours a day every single day in my target language. As a result, I now have a vocabulary that is extremely rich. Not everybody has the time to read this much, of course, but reading at least a page a day will boost your language learning in a way that nothing else will.
  3. Tell yourself stories. Try to narrate to yourself in the target language things that you see around you. Funny comics, an encounter with friends, a list of things you need to do, a curious blog post you have read: try retelling all this to yourself in Spanish. It’s best to do it out loud, of course, but if that’s not convenient, tell it to yourself in your head. This will teach you to think in the target language, instead of trying to translate every sentence (a horrible practice to be avoided at all costs.)
Good luck!
P.S. I know that these last two posts sound extremely self-congratulatory, but come on, people, it’s New Year’s. A person should be able to celebrate her massive achievements on such a festive occasion. 🙂

>How I Learned to Speak Spanish, Part I

>

The reader Angie Harms. asked me how I learned to speak Spanish. Thank you, Angie, because I love sharing this story. First of all, I have to tell you that my Spanish is really fantastic. Learning this language is my proudest achievement, and I don’t feel that I need to be modest about it. It always takes me a while to convince native speakers that I’m not one of them. And that I never lived in a Spansih-speaking country. And that my parents are not Spanish-speakers.
So it all started back in Ukraine when I was in my late teens. Suddenly, there were all those Latin American soap operas on television all the time. (Yes, it started with watching soap operas in Ukraine and culminated in a PhD in Hispanic Studies in the US.) When I watched them, I always thought, “Here is this entire civilization that I know absolutely nothing about. And nobody I know has any knowledge of it. How strange is that?” I was a university student majoring in English literature then but I decided that I didn’t want to continue with that program any more. I tried learning Spanish on my own, with a textbook, but that was useless. There was not a single Spanish-speaking person in my Ukrainian town. Spanish wasn’t taught at my university (even though it is the oldest university in the country.) There was no scholarship in Hispanic Studies in my country at all. And there still isn’t, unfortunately.
In Canada, however, there was. (The only place to do research of the kind I like in Hispanic literature is North America. That’s just how it is for now.) After we emigrated to Canada, I applied to the Department of Hispanic Studies of the country’s most famous university. As soon as I was accepted, I made a visit to the wonderful person who was then the Chair of the department.
“I want to do a PhD in Hispanic Studies. Eventually,” I said. “And it would be great to teach at this university. I really like these offices and would be glad to occupy one of them.”
“So you like Spanish literature?” the kind Chair asked.
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “I never read a word of it, not even in translation.”
“But you speak Spanish, right?” she said.
“No, not a word,” I responded brightly. “But I will do a PhD in Hispanic Studies and learn.” (Remember that video on the robotic prospective PhD student? As I said, that was me.)
The Chair is a very polite and proper British lady but at that point she laughed so hard, I was afraid she would hurt herself. And if you now want to tell me I made an idiot of myself during that conversation, I will let you know that exactly two and a half years after that conversation I started teaching Spanish at that very department. And one of the pretty offices I liked so much was mine (shared with some other people, of course.) And four and a half years later, I left the department to do a PhD in Spanish after receiving every single award that was ever offered by our program. (As I said, I’m very proud of this and don’t see why I shouldn’t be. I invested a truly Herculean amount of effort into this.)
(To be continued. . .)

>New Year’s Preparations

>

As I mentioned before, New Year’s is the most important festivity in my culture. It is the day when people exchange really magnificent gifts. It also requires several days of full-scale preparations. I’ve been cooking all day long, and this tiramisu with strawberries, raspberries and red currants is just one of the things I made.

P.S. Now I look at the picture, it seems like it looks a lot better in real life.

Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T