Thursday, September 4, 2014

Cold War II

Henning Mankell’s second Kurt Wallander mystery, The Dogs of Riga, finds our hero, a Swedish police officer, trying to solve a crime in Latvia.  Don’t ask.  Remarkably thin explanation for why a Swedish police officer would be running around covertly in Latvia trying to solve a crime.  The story wasn't bad once you lump it into the Ludlum-esque genre of “This is so absurdly implausible, I’ll just think of it as an alternative reality where things like this happen” and then go along for the ride.  One hopes the authors of books like this know that their plots are absurdly unrealistic, but alas, one suspects this is some sort of fantasy life for authors in which the hero is standing in the for author’s fantasy of being himself a better version of James Bond if only fate had not been so cruel and condemend him to being a writer of fantasy novels.. 

So, as a novel, perfectly acceptable schlock fiction.  (Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy reading perfectly acceptable schlock fiction if it is done well—and this book was done well for that genre.  Mankell writes better than the average schlock fiction writer.)

But, the setting of the novel was Nostalgia City.  Latvia here is 2001 Latvia.  The Soviet Union has just disintegrated, and Latvia is in the midst of struggling to figure out if it is going to remain a police state or not.  Lots of old-style Soviet oppression going on in this novel.  In other words—this is a Cold War novel set as the Cold War was dying.  Ah, the good old days when there were villains in this world.

Except that the Good Old Days are back, but for reasons I cannot fathom, nobody seems to be noting.  And I am not talking about Russia and the Ukraine here—which has perfectly obvious Cold War overtone.  (Hey President Obama—The 80’s called: The Cold War is back in fashion.)

I am more puzzled by the way we are discussing what has been euphemistically called The War on Terror.  It’s not terror we are fighting here.  It is a particularly nasty, large and growing number of people with beliefs that result in things like beheading people and flying planes into skyscrapers and setting off bombs at marathons.  That part doesn’t puzzle me: there are lots of evil people in this world.  What puzzles me is this:  After  the skyscraper incident, we decided it might be a good idea to go do something about this, so we sent our military out and did something.  Then, we apparently got tired of doing something , so we stopped doing anything.  Now people are being beheaded.  And we are doing what exactly to stop this?

Where did we ever get the idea that a war against the type of people who fly planes into skyscrapers and kill people watching a marathon and behead journalists would be a war that lasted a decade or so and then we can all just go home and have a nice party or something?  Imagine we had taken the same approach with the Soviets.  Long about 1955, we get tired of the whole thing and go home.  The world looks really different today.  It’s a good thing we settled in for a 60 year war.

Why is it so implausible to imagine the same thing happening here?  Does anyone really think that those Islamic State types are going to vanish from the earth in the next year or two?  Does anyone really think we won’t be fighting those types of people in a decade?  Or two decades?  It seems pretty obvious that this is a battle we are either going to be fighting for quite some time or we are going to lose.  And losing here—well that isn’t a very pretty world—maybe we don’t want to do that.

But, to fight a 60 year war, we are going to have to stop trying to declare victory and come home.  In the Cold War, we had large numbers of troops stationed in Germany and South Korea for decades.  We fought active wars in Korea and Vietnam and Central America.  We funded allies all over the world and tried to destabilize enemies.  We used covert operations and tried to kill heads of state.  It was a long, involved war.  And we won.  Ad the world is better for it.

Isn’t it time we got serious about Cold War II?

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

End of the Line

Summer ended yesterday.  Convocation was this morning.  Time to change to Semester-Mode.

But, first:  one of my summer goals was to read Faulkner’s Snopes trilogy.  Finished it Sunday night.  Mission Accomplished.  I didn’t make it to every book I wanted to read this summer—Emile, poor Emile, will have to sit forlorn for another year.  Hopefully that won’t stunt his educational prospects.  Not sure why Emile is always a low-grade “Probably should read that book” but never gets to the level of, “I’ll read the first page.”  Always a bridesmaid, I guess.  Maybe, if it is lucky, it will eventually graduate from bridesmaid to Plane Book.

But, Snopes.  The final volume of the trilogy, The Mansion, seemed not just a wrap up of the trilogy but a wrap up of Faulkner’s career.  When Jason Compson shows up for a perfectly gratuitous scene, you know Faulkner is just tying up loose ends before he ends his career as a chronicler.  (The book was published in 1959; Faulkner died in 1962.)  (And, Faulkner did write one more novel after this, so while the book does feel like a summation of his career, he wasn't quite done yet.)

In one of those strange moments when the time in which you are reading a book coincides with the book you happened to be reading, the end of the Chronicle of Flem Snopes had the same sort of finality as the end of the summer.  Both end with the thought that while it is the end of the line, somehow, oddly, what just ended becomes a part of what comes next.  Our lives sink “down and down into the ground already full of the folks that had the trouble but were free now.”  The parts of our lives do the same thing, and stepping back to see the Snopes clan evolve over these three novels is a lot like stepping back to see your own life evolving in semi-predictable ways bringing you to the place where you are now.  Why should  you should be here now reading these thoughts?  Why should your life be the way it is?  In the end, does the path of your life really make sense?

In the second best author preface I have ever read, Faulkner explains:

This book is the final chapter of, and the summation of, a work conceived and begun in 1925. Since the author likes to believe, hopes that his entire life's work is a part of a living literature, and since "living" is motion, and "motion" is change and alteration and therefore the only alternative to motion is unmotion, stasis, death, there will be found discrepancies and contradictions in the thirty-four-year progress of this particular chronicle; the purpose of this note is simply to notify the reader that the author has already found more discrepancies and contradictions than he hopes the reader will—contradictions and discrepancies due to the fact that the author has learned, he believes, more about the human heart and its dilemma than he knew thirty-four years ago; and is sure that, having lived with them that long time, he knows the characters in this chronicle better than he did then.

When I ran into that at the outset of the novel, I thought it was admirably bold.  Having finished the novel, I realized it is not as much bold as making a statement about the way we put together our own lives.  I tell a story to give my life meaning and a narrative.  Decades later, I tell a story to do the same thing.  Those stories will not be the same.  Why not?  Because the story I tell now, having lived with myself for that many more years than when I told the story the first time, involves knowledge I simply did not have decades ago.  I like to think I know myself and those with whom I interact better now than I did decades ago.

But, do I?  If we take the three novels in this trilogy as an example—which one is accurate?  Are the contradictions there because mistakes in earlier books are corrected in the later telling?  Or was the original correct and the later books introduced inconsistences because memory fades and facts are invented to create a narrative storyline when there is none.  This is not an idle rumination when it comes to these books.  The central figure in this trilogy is Flem Snopes.  But there is nowhere in any of the three books a chapter which gets inside Flem’s head.  We see Flem only thought the narrators which surround him.  How well do we know Flem?  We speculate about what motivates him, we see his actions, or at least things we are told are his actions, and from that, we, and the narrators, infer motives and a story of Flem’s life.  Is it the right story?  How would we ever know?

In the end, the South Faulkner has created throughout these novels, throughout his whole life’s work, is dissolved into dust.  And what emerges?  It’s not clear—but whatever comes next will certainly bear no resemblance to the South which Faulkner created and destroyed and not even like the South which the destroyers intended, but rather it will be a South unimaginable from either the South before the destroyers or the South of the destroyers or even the wreckage of the South which was destroyed or the wreckage of the South as it was being destroyed.  Flem lives and dies (not much of a spoiler there—there was really no way to end this trilogy before the end of Flem Snopes’ life) and it isn’t clear at the end what changes were caused by his life—it isn’t even clear if the arrival of the Snopes in the county had a measurable effect or whether the changes—what is to come—were going to happen Snopes or no Snopes.  Ratcliff and Gavin spend much time trying to figure out and guard against Snopism—but in the end, do their efforts matter?  Young Charles grows up and it isn’t clear who he will be other than that he will be, in some strange way, the future, but what sort of future?

Part of me wants to make sense of this trilogy.  Part of me realizes that if I tried to do so, I would just be falling into the trap of providing an authoritative narrative which simply isn’t there.  I don’t know why Flem and Eula and Linda and Mink and Gavin and the host of minor characters act the way they act.  Why did I ever think I could understand them?

So, why do I pretend I know the reasons I act the way I act?

But, it’s Convocation Day.  New chapter.  Same unreliable narrator.