Monday, January 18, 2010

Dragan Aleksic's novel "Chiaroscuro" and My Home Town

I have just read Dragan Aleksic's novel "Chiaroscuro" in English translation (originally published in Belgrade). In an earlier post, I quoted a piece of a poem of his printed in a book of German translations of Serbian writers, edited by my friend Zarko Radakovic.

Here the image on the cover of the novel:

And here the passage, near the end of the novel, that has my mind reeling:

Maybe it told him: ‘There, your town is dead, you’ve heard the music, and now you can leave peacefully, with calm in your heart. Everything has died, the bitterness has run dry, and you have nothing to do with it any more, you can go, go.’

The music did not stop, the record played again and again; the invisible orchestras were wondered along the streets and hooted their sorrowful tones towards the sky.

Suddenly Emil Farnik felt a need to void his bowels. He smiled a sour smile and thought that maybe it was another message from his destiny. He turned and walked two or three steps, thinking that perhaps he would not need to do it. But he had to: the urge was getting stronger and stronger.

He thought: ‘Why don’t I vomit, since I am sick of everything, since that is why I came here?’

He pulled his trousers down and his underpants; he turned his back to the streets, churches, houses, trees to everything that was down there. He turned his back to his twenty nine years.

While squatting and waiting to be relieved, Emil Farnik felt tears in his eyes.

‘I shit on you, my home town,’ he said aloud and tearfully.

The music stopped.

On Friday, I presented a short paper at the UVU conference honoring Martin Luther King. It was a series of memories about my own home town, Farmington, New Mexico, a town that played a large role in shaping who I am. Unfortunately, I pointed out in my paper, part of who I am is a racist.

Let me quote a piece of my history, a part that makes me, like the character in Aleksic's novel, need to (not want to) shit, tearfully, on my home town, and thus on myself:

15 October 1998, Provo

A couple of days ago, a Wyoming student named Matthew Shepard was beaten and left to die in Laramie. One of the killers was raised as a Mormon. Shepard was gay.

Laramie has always reminded me of Farmington.

21 October 1998, Provo

Laramie residents deny that their town is a homophobic place. We live and let live here, they keep saying, a western mantra that rings true until you bring homosexuals into the equation.

Or Indians.

In 1974, thousands of Navajo marchers packed Farmington streets after high-school boys tortured and killed three Navajo men. I ask Mom about that tense summer.

I didn’t understand it, she says. We had never had any trouble with the Indians before.

Aside from the nervous night I spent on the Reservation guarding the Cactus Drilling Company equipment, I have little memory of what happened.

Like the other good citizens of Farmington, you simply went to work? No impulse to march with the Navajos? No desire to end the violence and discrimination?

None whatsoever. Not much curiosity beyond a quick read of the newspaper.

19 November 1998, Provo

I’ve been trying to cut through my culturally induced amnesia. Rodney Barker’s book about the murders and civil unrest, The Broken Circle, has been enlightening. Most surprising has been a 1975 Civil Rights Commission assessment of the events called “The Farmington Report.”

Early in report, the authors quote Philip Reno’s essay in The Nation, August 31, 1974 to the effect that “various services have bound Indians and border towns together in the same ‘relentless reciprocity’ that Jean Paul Sartre saw binding colonized to colonizer in Africa.”

Sartre and Farmington in the same essay!

Reno argues that “now the old reciprocity, which was based on inequality and dependency, is breaking down and a new reciprocity, based on more equal rights and power, must be established.”

He’s right about the need, naïve about the future.

22 November 1998, Provo

Marlo Webb was Mayor of Farmington in 1974, just a few months in office when the marches began. Mayor Webb did what he could to manage the situation. He held meetings with the protestors. He tried to explain that the three boys didn’t represent the rest of Farmington’s Anglo population. Their families had moved in from elsewhere and didn’t have a history with Navajos. The boys were unfortunate aberrations. Their abbreviated sentences to juvenal reform school were not evidence of racism, but products of technicalities of the law.

Mayor Webb could not understand why the Navajos were so riled up. To understand, he would have had to oppose the society he represented, the culture that had made him. That made me.

When “The Farmington Report” finally appeared, concluding that investigators had found ample evidence of racism, discrimination, and brutality against Navajos, Mayor Webb’s frustration was manifest:

This is a typical example of how the ever-growing cancer of bureaucracy is dominating and directing our country and the lives of its citizens. . . . This commission would appear to want to drag each of us down to the level of the lowest common denominator and obviously is advancing the cause of socialism in this country. They advocate that government fill all of the needs of the individual rather than achievement through individual effort. This would be impossible to finance and completely contrary to the American way of life, and the greatness achieved through the free enterprise system and self-achievement of the individual.

Sterling Black, chairman of the Advisory Committee, responded with frustrations of his own:

There appears to be little awareness on the part of the general population or elected public officials of the complex social and economic problems. . . . Navajos are aware of the indignities and injustices, and want something done to better the situation. . . . [Unfortunately, they hear only that] there are no problems existing, people in this town get along very well with each other, there are no indignities, there are no injustices, and there is nothing to be done to remedy these complaints.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Winter Light, Starting with the Solstice Sunset

And ending with a sunset a week later, already creeping north.