Tent of Miracles was written three years after the military overthrew Brazilian democracy, and it is part of a series Amado called “The Bahia Novels”, works exploring the region’s past. The novel chronicles the chaos that results when a prominent Columbia University professor arrives in Brazil, with nothing but praise on his lips for a long-forgotten local Bahian writer and self-taught social scientist named Pedro Archanjo. The year is 1968, which Levinson announces is the centennial of Archanjo’s birth, setting off a media stampede to figure out who Archanjo was so that they can profit from a celebration of his life. When a few people finally uncover who Arcanjo was and what he espoused, media barons and advertisers are horrified to discover that he was an Afro-Brazilian social critic, womanizer and heavy drinker who died penniless in the gutter. So, they invent their own Pedro Archanjo, which they hype in various advertising-driven events, enlisting some Brazilian academics who are as superficial and self-promoting as Levinson.
The novel moves back and forth between events in the life of the historical hero, Pedro Archanjo, and the present. Most of the characters are types that lend themselves to the author’s relentless satire. The historical setting is the colorful old Pelourinho neighborhood of Salvador, Bahia, that flows down the hill from the main plaza, where Archanjo works as a lowly runner at the School of Medicine adjacent to the cathedral.
THE SPIRIT OF SCIENCE FICTION
By Roberto Bolaño
Translated by Natasha Wimmer
It’s sometime in the early 1970s, and a blond, lanky, 17-year-old poet named Jan Schrella is writing a fan letter to one of his literary heroes, Ursula K. Le Guin, describing his living situation. “I was born in Chile, but now I live on a rooftop in Mexico City, with views of incredible sunrises,” he tells her. “There are a number of rooms on the roof, but only five are inhabited.” Cold-water shower stalls and outhouses form a ramshackle central corridor on the rooftop, bordered by flowering planters that lend a “cheerful tropical air.” Anyone who has seen Alfonso Cuarón’s nostalgia-drenched film “Roma,” named for a Mexico City neighborhood north of Jan’s and set in the same era, can picture the scene. But this is not a movie, it is a book, “The Spirit of Science Fiction,” written by the Chilean author Roberto Bolaño around 1984, when he was 31, but not published until 2016 in Spanish; and now in English, in Natasha Wimmer’s superb translation. With words alone, Bolaño summons a visual world, creating in this book, as in his others, what Mario Vargas Llosa has called “images and fantasies for posterity.”
Jan sleeps in the nude on a bare mattress on the yellow and brown brick floor of his rooftop room, which he shares with a fellow writer named Remo Morán and where, he tells Le Guin, he writes “letters and drafts of something that one of these days might become a science fiction novel.” Jan and Remo’s friends drop by at all hours: the charismatic Torrente sisters, Angélica — a prizewinning poet at 17 — and Lola, her “powerful shadow” older sister; and the literary roustabout José Arco. José Arco rides his motorcycle to Jan and Remo’s “at 3 or 4 in the morning, waking us up with a long cry, like a wolf.” By day, while Jan reads, Remo and José Arco ride around town on the motorcycle, Remo perched on the “precarious” rear seat, investigating the sudden proliferation of literary magazines in Mexico City — from 32 to 661 in one year. They track down a publisher who dismisses the phenomenon; the magazines are “photocopied sheets, mimeographed sheets, even handwritten sheets,” he scoffs, as ephemeral as a “distant jet trail” (a concept Bolaño would revisit in his 1996 novel “Distant Star”).
Bolaño’s admirers will find in these themes and players a satisfying proleptic glimpse of his picaresque masterpiece, 1998’s “The Savage Detectives” — a circuitous hunt for vestiges of an underground “visceral realist” literary movement and its muse, the poet Cesárea Tinajero, which starts in Mexico City and detours to the Sonora Desert, Paris, San Diego, Barcelona and elsewhere.
Angélica and Lola Torrente prefigure Angélica and María Font, José Arco anticipates Ulises Lima and a toothless Tiresian poetess named Estrellita gives a foretaste of Tinajero; but these characters, archetypes for Bolaño, are integrated here into a narrower time frame. At the Torrentes’ house, Remo falls in love with a girl named Laura, and a chapter about their visits to Mexico City’s bathhouses, which appeared out of context in Bolaño’s posthumous poetry collection, “The Unknown University,” forms a natural coda here. It can be reckless to draw connections between an author’s life and his work, but this book invites such comparisons. Late in the novel, when Jan writes a letter to another sci-fi hero, he signs it with the pseudonym “Roberto Bolaño.” The reader thrills at this revelation, one of many “coded messages” in this playfully difficult, gem-choked puzzle of a book, and the most nakedly exposed. “The Spirit of Science Fiction” serves as a key to Bolaño’s later work, unlocking clues to his abiding obsessions.
What can Tomioka Tessai teach you about work-life balance?
Look after your dear ones, bake, and don’t worry about business too much.
It is the winter of 1902. Imagine Tessai, who is this giant of art, this supreme artist, and this ingenious calligrapher. He has to put away the paper, put down the brushes, and put aside the Sake. Instead he has to take care of Haruko his wife. Haruko is sick, but getting better. Taking care of her could take all of Tessai’s attention. But he finds time to bake himself a cake; and he finds time to write this elaborate letter to Kondo Buntaro (1839-1918), one of his oldest friends, one of his major patrons, and one of his big collectors – and Buntaro is the manager of a sea food company. It may be surprising or not, that Tessai for once did not worry about his business at too much. – Look after your dear ones, bake, and don’t worry about business too much. That is what this letter stands for.
“The winter is rather warm at the moment. We enjoy such a season. At your home, your family must be fine… this is because of your good deeds, congratulations! My wife has been very sick, and she still is. However, gradually, she seems to be getting better. I am concerned that she doesn’t eat well. I have just received your kindness in the timely delivery of your presents. Everybody is happy. The other day, my older sister came to my house to see my wife. On her way home, so I heard, she visited you. Then, through her, you sent me a letter. Thank you very much. Kyoto is silent. As usual, I am busy. I have to take care of a sick person and I am spending my days in a tizzy. So, for now, quickly, I am writing this letter to thank you.” – With best regards, this 25th day of the 12th month, Tomioka Hyakuren.
The funori [glue plant, an edible alga] you sent, I have used it thankfully. The fish-shaped sponge cake was just splendid. I showed it to the one who is ill [Haruko, Tessai’s wife].
Regarding Mr. Ishizaki [Ishizaki Heihachiro, the owner of the sea food company Kondo Buntaro was working for a the manager] and his query about folding screens, I explained the method to him. Was he satisfied or not? – He never let me know. I don’t mind.
Folklore archivist William Ferris is among the nominees for next week’s Grammy Awards for his album: Voices of Mississippi — a collection of rural church gospel hymns, Delta blues and work songs.
Deluxe box set with a 120-page hardcover book edited by William Ferris. The set features essays by Scott Barretta, David Evans and Tom Rankin; Two CDs of Blues and Gospel recordings (1966-1978); One CD of Interviews and Storytelling (1968-1994); One DVD of Documentary Films (1972-1980). Also included are transcriptions for each track and a download/streaming code. Nominated for two Grammy Awards: Best Historical Album and Best Liner Notes.
Voices of Mississippi taps into the rich world of southern musicians, storytellers, and writers. Their beautiful voices touched my heart. Bill Ferris is a profound historian. I am his biggest fan! –Quincy Jones
The combination of William Ferris and Dust-to-Digital is so important in preserving the cornerstone of our musical American history, and this collection is extraordinary. While listening to the amazing sounds of these tracks and paging through the brilliantly done book, it s clear that a lot of care and love went into the making of this project. –Lucinda Williams
Going from farm to front porch across the American south in the 1960s, William Ferris recorded everything from praying pigs to haunting blues a political act, he says, at a time when black voices were being silenced.–Rebecca Bengal, The Guardian
A portrait in the Half King of the photojournalist Tim Hetherington, who died while on assignment in Libya. Credit Photographs by Caitlin Ochs for The New York Times
By Derek M. Norman
It was a late-April evening in 2011 when news broke that two photographers were killed by a mortar blast in the besieged city of Misurata, one of the last anti-Qaddafi rebel strongholds of the Libyan civil war.
Calls were made. Texts were exchanged. Word spread that these two seasoned conflict photographers, Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, were killed in action, and their closest friends and colleagues were meeting to regroup and attempt to digest the tragic news together at a familiar spot: a small bar nestled just below the High Line on the corner of 23rd Street and 10th Avenue.
“We’re meeting at the Half King,” a text would read. Before long, the shocked and devastated had arrived to grieve at this impromptu meeting place by the hundreds. Friends and colleagues cried together. Acquaintances embraced in grief. And strangers shook hands, bonding over tragedy.
“It seemed like there were hundreds of people there, without exaggeration,” said Timothy Fadek, a New York-based photojournalist who was close with Mr. Hondros. “But when I think about who was there, I can’t even remember it. It was all such a blur. We were all just so enveloped in our grief. That was really telling about the Half King — how it organically developed into a locus for war photographers and photojournalists.”
A spotlighted portrait of Mr. Hetherington equipped with his camera and standing in front of armed Liberian rebels has since hung alone on a portion of the wall at the far corner of the bar.
The Half King, a bar and restaurant in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, has been for the better part of two decades a watering hole for writers, photographers and filmmakers. On a given afternoon, you might have seen journalists and their editors discussing projects over coffee at one of the pub’s wooden booths. You may have passed publicists sharing baskets of jalapeño poppers with prospective authors in the adjacent dining room. You may have overheard war-hardened combat photographers swapping violent scenes of faraway places over $5 happy hour draft beers along the lengthy stretch of bar top.
But after Jan. 26, the Half King, along with its in-house reading series and photography exhibits, will permanently close. With the bar’s rent having nearly tripled since it opened almost two decades ago, the market value of the neighborhood’s commercial real estate had finally caught up to the owners, and the bar, according to them, had become financially unsustainable.
“For the last few years, the only reason this place still existed is because we loved it,” said Sebastian Junger, a co-owner of the Half King, longtime war journalist and author of “The Perfect Storm.” “We wanted to take one last stand against the ‘generification’ of New York City. It finally got to the point that we were actively losing money and we just couldn’t sustain that for very long. I can’t imagine opening another bar, because we’d face the same headwinds that this one is being forced closed by.”
While not the only bar in New York City that caters to the arts — KGB Bar still hosts regular readings and bars like the Arts and Crafts Beer Parlor in Greenwich Village organize art exhibits — it filled a unique niche.
I woke up this morning to discover a tiny birch tree rising amidst my city quasi-garden, having overcome unthinkable odds to float its seed over heaps of concrete and glass, and begin a life in a meager oasis of soil. And I thought, my god*, what a miracle. What magic. What a reminder that life does not await permission to be lived.
This little wonder reminded me of a beautiful passage by Hermann Hesse(July 2, 1877–August 9, 1962) — one of the most beautiful I’ve ever read — from his 1920 collection of fragments, Wandering: Notes and Sketches (public library).
* As Anaïs Nin wrote in her correspondence with Henry Miller, “I spell ‘god’ with a small ‘g’ because I do not believe in him, but I love to swear by him.”
For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured. And every young farmboy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow.
Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.
A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life. The attempt and the risk that the eternal mother took with me is unique, unique the form and veins of my skin, unique the smallest play of leaves in my branches and the smallest scar on my bark. I was made to form and reveal the eternal in my smallest special detail.
A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers, I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live.
When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts. . . . Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.
A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening. If one listens to them silently for a long time, this longing reveals its kernel, its meaning. It is not so much a matter of escaping from one’s suffering, though it may seem to be so. It is a longing for home, for a memory of the mother, for new metaphors for life. It leads home. Every path leads homeward, every step is birth, every step is death, every grave is mother.
So the tree rustles in the evening, when we stand uneasy before our own childish thoughts: Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.
Bringing you ad-free Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If it brings you any joy, please consider supporting with a small donation.
Images above: King is ready for a mug shot (left) in Montgomery, Alabama, after his 1956 arrest while protesting the segregation of the city’s buses. His leadership of the successful 381-day bus boycott brought him to national attention. Right: In 1967, King serves out the sentence from his arrest four years earlier in Birmingham, Alabama.
In April 1963, King was jailed in Birmingham, Alabama, after he defied a state court’s injunction and led a march of black protesters without a permit, urging an Easter boycott of white-owned stores. A statement published in The Birmingham News, written by eight moderate white clergymen, criticized the march and other demonstrations.
This prompted King to write a lengthy response, begun in the margins of the newspaper. He smuggled it out with the help of his lawyer, and the nearly 7,000 words were transcribed. The eloquent call for “constructive, nonviolent tension” to force an end to unjust laws became a landmark document of the civil-rights movement. The letter was printed in part or in full by several publications, including the New York Post, Liberation magazine, The New Leader, and The Christian Century.
The Atlantic published it in the August 1963 issue, under the headline “The Negro Is Your Brother.”
My Dear Fellow Clergymen:
While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling my present activities “unwise and untimely.” Seldom do I pause to answer criticism of my work and ideas. If I sought to answer all the criticisms that cross my desk, my secretaries would have little time for anything other than such correspondence in the course of the day, and I would have no time for constructive work. But since I feel that you are men of genuine good will and that your criticisms are sincerely set forth, I want to try to answer your statement in what I hope will be patient and reasonable terms.
I think I should indicate why I am here in Birmingham, since you have been influenced by the view which argues against “outsiders coming in.” I have the honor of serving as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization operating in every southern state, with headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. We have some eighty-five affiliated organizations across the South, and one of them is the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights. Frequently we share staff, educational and financial resources with our affiliates. Several months ago the affiliate here in Birmingham asked us to be on call to engage in a nonviolent direct-action program if such were deemed necessary. We readily consented, and when the hour came we lived up to our promise. So I, along with several members of my staff, am here because I was invited here. I am here because I have organizational ties here.
But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century b.c. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.
Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.
You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.
In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action. We have gone through all these steps in Birmingham. There can be no gainsaying the fact that racial injustice engulfs this community. Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States. Its ugly record of brutality is widely known. Negroes have experienced grossly unjust treatment in the courts. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than in any other city in the nation. These are the hard, brutal facts of the case. On the basis of these conditions, Negro leaders sought to negotiate with the city fathers. But the latter consistently refused to engage in good-faith negotiation.
“There is no such thing as Chicano hippies! And playing Mexican music??”
That was my father’s reaction when I described seeing five honest-to-goodness Chicano hippies with beards and ponytails playing mariachi music at a Chicano student leadership retreat at UC Davis in 1975. Los Lobos del Este de Los Angeles, the group called themselves.
Three years later, there was a bright yellow album cover with a drawing of a nopal plant and an inlay photo of those very same Chicano hippies that proclaimed themselves as ‘Just Another Band from East LA.’ They were still playing Mexican folk music and that record was a staple of Chicano activist parties during my college years in Fresno, Calif.
Then, nothing. For five years. Until they came roaring out of the LA punk scene with electric instruments turned up to 11 rocking corridos, a Richie Valens song and the first three originals by David Hidalgo and Louie Perez, a song writing team that would redefine Chicano musical expression and win legions of fans around the world.
Good Morning, Aztlán : The Words Picture and Songs of Louie Peréz (published by Tia Chucha Press) has just been published and it is a breathtaking examination of Perez’s masterful storytelling in the name of sharing the lesson that we have more in common than we are different.
This week, Louie Peréz sits down for a wide-ranging interview about the book, his own story, his creative bond with David Hidalgo that stretches back to the 11th grade and his commitment to telling the stories of the world as he has seen it from countless tour buses.
Good Morning, Aztlán has songs as well as short stories, poetry and philosophical riffs all written by Peréz and we selected a few to include in the show. (Big thanks to Alt.Latino contributor Marisa Arbona-Ruiz‘s multi-talented acting skills for the dramatic readings on the show this week. Get your tissues out for her reading of “Little John Of God” one of Peréz ‘s most powerfully emotional songs.)
With David Hidalgo as his writing partner and the rest of Los Lobos as the vehicle that brings those stories to life, Louie Peréz has created an imaginary world full of real life joys and pains and wonder that seems worlds away from the hippie mariachi I saw. But the through line going back to 8-year-old Louie Peréz of East LA has been his fascination with the written word. And we all have benefited from that.
Louie Pérez is a master musician and innovative visual artist who has spent the last forty years as a founding member and principal songwriter for the internationally acclaimed group Los Lobos. Working with his songwriting partner, David Hidalgo, Pérez has written more than four hundred songs. Many of those songs, along with previously unpublished poems and short stories as well as paintings, sketches, and photos, are collected in this deeply personal, yet universally appealing volume. The book also features essays by musicians, artists, and scholars who artfully dissect the significance of Pérez’ work. Good Morning, Aztlán is, without question, a different kind of memoir.
About the Author
Louie Pérez is an American songwriter, percussionist, and guitarist for the multiple Grammy Award-winning band Los Lobos. Pérez songs have been showcased on every Los Lobos recording, beginning with “And A Time To Dance” and continuing through the band’s most recent album, “Gates of Gold.” Pérez also co-wrote songs with his writing partner David Hidalgo for two critically praised albums by Latin Playboys.
In addition, Pérez wrote songs for Tony Kushner’s 1994 adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s “The Good Person of Szechwan” at the La Jolla Playhouse in California. He co-wrote the book for About Productions’ play “Evangeline, the Queen of Make Believe” which premiered at the Bootleg Theatre in Los Angeles. Many recording artists, including Waylon Jennings, Jerry Garcia, and Robert Plant, have covered Pérez’s songs. His prose work has been published in a number of periodicals, including the Los Angeles Times Magazine, LA Weekly and the New York arts journal BOMB. As a visual artist, he has exhibited his paintings and sculpture in many prominent galleries and museums in Los Angeles and New York.
“I’ve been blessed to watch Louie Pérez evolve from a beginning songwriter who mimicked the traditional yet inspirational lyrics of American rhythm & blues and Mexican corridos into a damn good ‘serious’ songwriter whose best work stands equal to that of those two master songwriters of spiritual exploration—Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan.”
—Dave Alvin of the Blasters