Month: March 2019

Friday Favorites: Jorge Luis Borges

This week’s Friday Favorite is the various fictions of Jorge Luis Borges, which kicked off a period in my own writing where I wanted desperately to sound like him. I am especially sorry to anyone who was around for the Peak Borgesian period of my fanfiction career. (There were one or two successes–mostly when I wrote straight-up Borges fusions–but let’s be real, I was being a terrible tryhard for the most part. In fact, I just checked the depths of my google drive and there is totally an outline for a BBC Sherlock fanfic that is 75% intended as a riff on “Death and the Compass.” No, I never wrote a word of it, but you are free to imagine it, which is the most Borgesian way possible of reading it in any case.)

In addition to Borges’ various Cool And/Or Mindblowing Ideas, which he is justly famous for, I would also say that one of his great skills was cramming his writing full of faux-throwaway references and digressions and sly asides to everything under the sun: literature, history, his contemporary writers, and of course the occasional false references, few of which exist in my mental index. Yet those stories and their digressions were still strangely, compulsively readable. It reminds me of scholarly works, only of course these are imaginary histories. On brand. (It’s probably also why attempts to emulate him are best made by those who are extremely well read and educated, i.e. not myself.)

Borges’ influence on me was not so much in his ideas, although I do share some of his obsession with trying to explore infinite possibilities within our finite lives. Rather, more than any other writer, Borges made me say “you can do THAT?” And the next thing I said was, “I have to try it myself!”

For the record, though, my favorite of his stories is “The Secret Miracle.”

Many times, when an author is the first to exemplify a genre or a concept or at least to bring it to mass attention*, their work looks like flat clichés if you come to, or revisit, them after exploring more of the rest of the genre. Borgesian stories, by contrast, has never lost their particular magic for me. I think it is because of how absolutely grounded his fantasies in the time and space that he occupied, and in the immense library inside his head. Like his story, “The Book of Sand,” Borges’ work continually and infinitely yields newness to me.

* I maintain that Borges invented the concept of the Choose Your Own Adventure books in “The Garden of Forking Paths.” You can read it in translation, along with other stories including “The Secret Miracle” and “Death and the Compass,” in this pdf.

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New Old Translation: “The Chinese Restaurant In The Middle Of The Desert” by San Mao

First, credit where it is due: I learned about San Mao (三毛) from Morporkia, who is about 100x as well-read as I will ever be.

San Mao (1943-1991) was the pen name of a famous and popular Taiwanese author who wrote many clever and sparkling and quite humorous short stories. They’re lighthearted pieces shot through with witty observations and the occasional wry, subtle insult. Naturally, I gravitated toward her.

San Mao, who also went by the English name Echo, moved from Taiwan to Madrid for college and there met her eventual husband, Jose. They moved all over the world to places such as the Western Sahara and the Canary Islands, where Jose drowned in a diving accident in 1979.

After that, San Mao returned to Taiwan. She continued writing and became friends with many other Taiwanese writers including Chiung Yao (瓊瑤/琼瑶). I’ve read some of San Mao’s later works, and the vivid grief in there brought me to tears. She took her own life at 47.

Before Jose’s death, San Mao wrote about their life together in the Western Sahara in a collection called Stories of the Sahara 《撒哈拉的故事》which at the time had not been translated (but there is a volume coming out in November 2019).

So in 2011, I translated one of the stories, with assistance and editing from Morporkia. Then I forgot all about it, until I saw the delightful news on Twitter today (March 26, 2019) that San Mao was being honored by a Google Doodle.

She deserves wider recognition than I feel she has in the English-reading sphere, and so, I am posting my translation, which contains San Mao’s original text as well:

“The Chinese Restaurant In The Middle Of The Desert” by San Mao

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Friday Favorites: “After Life” by Koreeda Hirokazu

Screen capture from the opening of “After Life”. Image from Mubi.

This week’s Friday Favorite is the reason that I write reviews in the first place: “After Life,” a film by Koreeda Hirokazu. As a note, the original Japanese title was ワンダフルライフ, “Wonderful Life.”

The premise of the film: a group of people walk into something like an abandoned schoolhouse somewhere in Japan. A counselor greets each of them to explain: you are dead. This is the afterlife. And there is no heaven or hell. There is, instead, a film crew.

This is a makeshift movie studio. You have a week to pick your favorite memory from your entire lifetime (and if you need your memory jogged, you can watch your entire life on tape, one for each year). Once you decide, we will do our very best to portray that moment on film. You will then spend the rest of eternity watching that film, forever and ever …

The dead are ordinary people running a gamut of ages and life experiences: a teenager, a call girl, a salaryman, a grandmother. Some know what they want to remember. Some change their minds after self-reflection. Some lost their memories in life. Some feel they have nothing worth remembering. (What happens if you don’t or can’t choose? That’s answered in the film, too.) And as the crew shepherds their charges through the week with more or less art therapy, old memories awaken–and collide.

This is a beautiful and quiet and devastating but above all, life-affirming movie, even though it is about the dead. It’s about love, how we touch people without knowing it, how we live our lives, how memories change as we change, and how in the end, yes, all we have are memories … but that’s not nothing. That’s everything.

This movie changed my life, and I don’t remember who told me about it.

I didn’t used to be the kind of person who seeks out reviews. So I don’t even know how I stumbled on someone’s blurb describing the premise of the movie. I can’t even guarantee that it was a recommendation. I just remember a one-line précis that made me think “huh, that could be actually interesting” and then I ordered it from Netflix, and it broke my heart wide open.

If I am ever able to write something that touches someone else, it will have been in part because someone took the time to jot down a few words about this movie that barely grossed anything at the box office.

So here I am, jotting down my own little reviews in a similar hope that I will help someone. Probably not as much as the anonymous reviewer helped me–but a bit, I hope.

But back to the point, because this is a recommendation post: this is an amazing movie and I hope you will give it a chance.

If my review hasn’t convinced you, maybe that of the late, great Roger Ebert will.

(And I hope that he is there now, in that schoolhouse, watching everyone’s memories on film, forever and ever.)

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Friday Favorites: “Hokkaido Green” by Aidan Doyle

This week’s Friday Favorite (yes, I’m back!) is a short (1600-ish words) story that stabbed me through the heart when I first read it year ago: Hokkaido Green by Aidan Doyle.

Like everyone, I have my Things, my Tropes, my Narrative Kinks, my Stabs In The Heart. One of the topics nearest and dearest to my soul is asking the question: what are memories worth? What do they matter? And what is worth more: the thing itself or your memories, your feelings, your sentiments, about the thing?

There is, of course, no definitive answer to that question, and Hokkaido Green doesn’t pretend to give you one. It just lays out the story for you, like a photograph that you come back to over and over again.

The language is spare and quiet and a little sad, like Hitoshi, the worn-down salaryman at the center of the story. He’s lost his family. All he has of them are photos and memories. His father, who ran a restaurant, had been hoping to pass a certain recipe on to Hitoshi before he died.

After his brother dies at the start of the story, Hitoshi takes a trip to Hokkaido, a place that his father had spoken of. There, he gets a chance to make a trade … and has to gather and sift and weigh and measure one set of memories against another, with quietly devastating consequences.

In the end, I’m not really sure that I am able to explain exactly why this story makes me smile and cry and then stare off into the distance, thinking about what memories weigh inside my heart. But that is okay, because the story is all about the ineffable:

“Colors are like dreams,” his father replied. “If you try and reproduce them, you’ll only be disappointed.”

Fortunately, in this case, we are able to dream the same dream—read the same story—and find out for ourselves, should you wish to do so.

Hokkaido Green by Aidan Doyle.

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