Sunday, March 27, 2011

Beyond Yakko's World

I'm way behind on my reading, so I'd like to entertain you instead with some good ol' fashioned YouTube!

As an overgrown kid of the '90s, I was thrilled when I first encountered the smart-aleck world of Animaniacs, including the following informative song, featuring all the nations of the world to the tune of the Mexican Hat Dance:

It's a classic, and the lyrics are easy to find on the Net. Unfortunately, it was out of date even before it was televised in 1993 - no former Soviet states (USSR broke up in 1991), an assumption that the Czech Republic and Slovakia were still united (Czechoslovakia dissolved in 1992), that Yemen was still divided (Aden and Sana unified in 1990) and that Cambodia was still Kampuchea (renamed 1990). And of course the writer assumes that San Juan is a nation and Singapore isn't, and Israel is misspelt on the mad as "Isreal". Great song, very shoddy research.

Sadly, most people doing covers on YouTube today don't bother to correct these glaring inaccuracies. Fortunately, there've been some attempts to update the song, some half-hearted:

And some actually pretty good!

What is fundamentally needed, of course, is a complete reinvention. I've been hunting online for a version I once saw: an alphabetical run-down of the world's nations to the tune of REM's "It's the End of the World As We Know It", but I can't track it down. Chaotic, but the video had some pretty good visuals.

The best candidate we've got right now is this very entertaining cover, which of course doesn't include non-UN states like Taiwan or the Vatican or Bermuda, but is nonetheless very pleasing to the ear:

Being from a small country, I aspire towards the ultimate Platonic ideal of a truly comprehensive song that encompasses the entire globe. Any suggestions?

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The 100 Greatest Books in the History of Literature

I'm afraid I'm not yet done with Brazil. I had a change of heart, you see: Augusto Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed was returning to the roots of Western philosophy for its essay and telling me very little about the nation itself.

After a few pages, I began to think, yeah, maybe an epic novel would be better. And what better epic novel could I pick than João Guimarães Rosa's Grande sertão: Veredas, aka The Devil to Pay in the Backlands?

Don't worry if you've never heard of this before. I hadn't either, till I started snooping around. However, you should know that the book appears on this amazing list of the 100 Greatest Books in World Literature, compiled by the Norwegian Book Clubs through a poll of 100 great world authors, many of them Nobel Laureates:

There's loads of other lists like this, but they're extremely Anglo-Americentric: Time Magazine has one, and so do Guardian and Modern Library. Goodreads has one that's topped by Stephenie Meyer, for gods' sake. (See what I did with that apostrophe there? Heheh. Animist pride.)

Anyhoo, I'm trying to read Boal while I'm indoors and Guimarães Rosa while I'm outdoors, plus I've a bunch of deadlines coming up, so things are going a little slowly.

And what the hell; while I'm here I'll advertise an event I have coming up. I'll be speaking on a panel at the Singapore launch of Man/Born/Free: Writings on the Human Spirit From Singapore.

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It was put together for Spotlight Singapore, an event that's currently going on in Cape Town, South Africa. Haven't seen it yet, but the tone seems to be human rights-based (at a government-sponsored event, no less!). Both editor Gwee Li Sui and publisher Ethos Books have been involved in activism and commentary, btw. I'm stoked.

Launch of "Man/Born/Free: Writings on the Human Spirit From Singapore"
Friday 26 March, 11am-12pm
Living Room, Level Two, Arts House

For my other gigs, click here. For more book commentaries, wait a week and I'll see what I can do. :)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Book 52, French Guiana: "Pigments - Névralgies" by Léon-Gontran Damas

Confession time: I didn't understand most of this book. I took French a long time ago, and while I can still read fiction, the surreal poetry of the Négritude movement is a little beyond me.

However, I had the hubris to go out and order a copy of this book via the French department of Kinokuniya bookstore, based on the premise that it's probably good for my brain to read other languages a little more often. Cost me $22.50 in SGD - not bad for an esoteric classic, hein?

And Pigments is actually okay - I used it as casual toilet reading, since the poems are short and a lot of it's about being a black and angry colonial intellectual in 1930s Paris. Loads of stuff about Antillean rhythms and "masques africaines" alongside mentions of Gauloises and the Le Monument aux Morts; civilisation and its discontents. Even some urgent pleas about what Herr Hitler's doing to les juifs en Allemagne, because he can tell that kind of politics don't look good.

Névraglies (trans. = neuralgias) is another story - longer poems, quite a few of them love/sex pieces, but far less political (even though it was published in 1966, a plenty political time as well), so it's harder to figure out the context of these pieces, or really what's going on, given my limited vocabulary. Less of that vivid, obvious imagery I liked so much in the previous section:

But oh, it's good to read. The delicious legato of the French language combined with Damas's magic rhythms: ostinatos of brevity and repetition, odd flourishes of concrete poetry as lines don't cross the page but tumble down it - and then those vivid, visceral images that I don't know how to process: flesh, blood, curtains - although flipping through the book again, there's an awful lot of pieces overloaded with abstract nouns instead. No wonder I'm so confused.

View Around the World in 80 Books in a larger map

And sleepy! Was attending the Singapore Biennale opening today, as well as the opening of Michael Corbidge's show Jus, plus teaching at NTU, then came home to behold the tsunami footage in Japan and helped my mother to rework her Blackberry message to the Tokyo branch of her company in perfect English - nothing compared to what some of you do for a living, but it tires me out.
I think I'll accept my French poetry in translation from now on.

Representative quote:


Ils me l'ont rendue
la vie
plus lourde et lasse

Mes aujourd'hui ont chacun sur mon jadis
de gros yeux qui roulent de rancœur
de honte

Les jours inexorablement
jamais n'ont cessé d'être
à la mémoire
de ce que fut
ma vie tronquée

Va encore
mon hébétude
du temps jadis
de coups de corde noueux
de corps calcinés
de chair morte
de tisons
de fer rouge
de bras brisés
sous le fouet qui se déchaîne
sous le fouet qui fait marcher la plantation
et s'abreuver de sang de mon sang de sang la sucrerie
et la bouffarde d commandeur crâner au ciel.

Next book: Augusto Boal's Theater of the Oppressed, from Brazil.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Book 51, Suriname: “Oroonoko” by Aphra Behn

I tried at first to get find some indigenous Dutch writing from Suriname. No dice! So instead, let’s use an early modern colonial text that’s hot in the fields of women’s and cultural studies.

(I may in fact have read this before and forgotten most of it. I was reading a number of androgynous 17th century gals in college for my own edification: Margaret Cavendish, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Catalina de Erauso, Madame de La Fayette.)

Frankly, this book’s bloody strange. A novella written before the age of the novel; a first-person narrator who describes the horrors of slavery and understands nothing about it; even the sexes of the tigers slain by Oroonoko change sex mid-paragraph – these are what the academics call slippages, signals of the competing agendas in Behn’s 77-page yarn.

A guide for the perplexed: Oroonoko is a prince royal of Coramantien, a trading post in what is present-day Ghana. Because Behn knows next to nothing about Africa, the details of his heroic life here are based on medieval romances a la Orlando Furioso: i.e. they bear utterly no resemblance to historical/anthropological fact.

However, he gets captured as a slave and sent to Suriname – and here’s where things get truly interested. Behn had actually lived in this territory with her former husband, so she can describe the native and colonial habits and flora and fauna with some accuracy – there’s even mentions of Inca-style quipus among the indigenous tribes, and a sequence describing an electric eel.

Behn arranges her tale so neither Oroonoko nor his beloved consort Imoinda have to suffer the back-breaking work of enslaved labourers: the European townspeople actually take to them kindly instead upon discovering their noble origins, inviting them regularly for coffee and discoursing with them on Ancient Roman history (I do not kid: there’s a section where they discuss Hannibal).

But certain details are precisely the things you couldn’t make up: the proud scarification marks on the Africans, the imposition of slave-names, the refusal to convert to Christianity, the automatic assumption that any child of an enslaved woman must also be a slave, the escape into the mountains, the savage tortures and executions that awaited those captured.

Behn – and even Oroonoko himself – are pretty cool with the institution of slavery for lesser mortals. He even offers his sympathetic master 300 slaves of his own in return for his manumission. But the horrors of the tragic ending – seriously, it’s grosser than the way Beowulf amputates Grendel – ultimately prove how the author understood something terribly wrong with this institution that allowed us to dehumanise others, to claim men as objects regardless of their dignity.

Puzzling book. Man, we’re dealing with a craploud of books about slavery, aren’t we? Mary Prince, Cambridge, the Arrivants, and then this.

View Around the World in 80 Books in a larger map

Representative quote:
And why, said he, my dear friends and fellow sufferers, should we be the slaves to an unknown people? Have they vanquished us nobly in fight? Have they won us in honourable battle? And are we by the chance of war become their slaves? This would not anger a noble heart, this would not animate a soldier’s soul. No, but we are bought and sold like apes or monkeys, to be the sport of women, fools and cowards and the support of rogues, runagades that have abandoned their own countries for raping, murders, theft and villainies.

Next book: Léon-Gontran Damas’s "Pigments – Névralgies", from French Guiana.