Damian Nenow


In the course of daily life on-line today I found “Paths of Hate”, an animated short film by Damian Nenow. Nenow is a Polish creator who works for the Platige Image company in Warsaw, a large studio which produces graphics, 3D art and digital special effects. According the info page on this particular film, “Paths of Hate” (2010) was short-listed for an Academy Award nomination, received a Special Distinction at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival, and was honored at Comic-Con. It also received the Best of Show award at the 2011 SIGGRAPH festival.

I think overall that it’s an amazing work of art, although I have to admit that I really hated the pop music inserted at the end of it. It distracted me from the animation at the worst moment, when the point of the imagery was at its most lucid, and the director was making his final point about the nature of hatred, and the nature of hell.

This serious and thoughtful bent to Nenow’s work and his powerful, spiritually charged images appear even in a 30 second short, like this brief ad spot, “Hunger is a Tyrant”.


And the same commitment to serious subject matter and political issues looks to be followed up in his first feature film, “Another Day of Life”, based on the book by the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński. I’m actually very grateful to have stumbled across Ryszard Kapuściński’s books this way, many of which have been translated into English. They look absolutely amazing, and I think this film is going to be amazing too….although obviously it won’t be light viewing.

Like many animators, Damian Nenow also has a lighter side, however. One of his early efforts in 3D, “The Great Escape”, is probably just the palate cleanser you need to get back to your day.

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Maps of the North


I’ve been working lately on a story for a famous tabletop gaming franchise, which includes a detailed Arctic/”People of the North” setting. There’s always a bit of ethnographic research that goes into any story I write, especially if it which involves a culture very different from my own.

I like to have as clear an image as possible about daily life for the characters I’m writing about, and how they’re likely to react under stress. So needless to say I was pretty thrilled when a friend of mine linked me to this little article about how the Inuit people of Greenland carve detailed coastal maps made of driftwood!

This detail doesn’t apply perfectly to the situation I’m writing about at the moment, but it’s still such an elegant solution to a problem of life in the North that I found it very inspiring. Here is a method of mapping a region when you don’t have a written language, paper/hides or ink…and a map you can easily use without a light source, or even having to take off your mitten.

This is the kind of detail that reminds you that every culture is full of brilliant solutions to common problems.

I love humankind. We’re a great species.


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Norwescon Is Coming!


Preparations are underway for Norwescon 39! I’m doing research and compiling notes for all my panels, trying to connect with my fellow panelists through social media, and having some new cards made with free Steam Keys for my awesome indie games.

I don’t hit too many conventions a year, but I will always make time for Norwescon if I can. It’s an amazing convention and the mix of people and pros is fantastic, particularly in the horror track.

I’ll be posting my convention schedule later today and let you know where you can find me and the infamous Sword of the Stars adult colouring pages later today. For now, I’m geeking out on my panels on Cannibalism, Body Horror and the Horror Couture Fashion Show–which I’m hoping is going to be a super cool cosplay extravaganza. :)

Friends of Kerberos should also note that my fellow dev and former COO/Executive Producer Chris Stewart will also be at Norwescon for a couple of days, and you should keep an eye out for his panels on Ghostbusters and Old School RPG’s on Saturday afternoon!


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Irony is…

…being confronted on Twitter by a kid who doesn’t think that geek culture needs any more “diversity”, or that anyone needs to work toward it.

The irony is that his avatar is an anime figure, which he drew himself. It’s fan art. He lives in a world saturated with Japanese art, animation and games. He grew up in the last twenty-five years, after the walls separating North American culture and Japanese culture came down in the 1990’s.

The benefit of being over 40 is that I remember a time when the only animation you would see in North America were Warner Brothers and Hanna Barbera stuff on television, and Walt Disney on the big screen. Live action shows for kids typically had a large cast of puppets.

I remember when there was no such thing as a video game. The first arcade games imported from Japan started to appear when I was around ten, lined up along the wall of an old pinball alley, plugged in next to the pop machines at a grocery store, or stashed in the underground lounge beneath a fancy restaurant.

The embarrassment of Japanese riches that children born in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s have grown up with is not something I take for granted. I was there when these things were new–when the first seeds needed rain and shelter to make them grow. I remember when we had to embrace something strange, foreign and outside of ourselves, and give it a chance.

I have been not just a witness but an active accomplice to increasing diversity in North American art for almost thirty years. Food, music, games, cinema, television, textiles, painting, books and poetry–a lot of my favorite things in life come from outside my parent culture of traditional North American whiteness. That’s not an accident and it’s nothing I’ll apologize for. To this day I believe that diversity is right, and monoculture is wrong…or at the very least, boring as hell.

What pains me about this ongoing argument with the younger generation is that so often, the people pushing back have already benefited visibly from diversity in their popular culture. The irony of their position is apparent without even having to look beyond the avatar attached to a Tweet. The person speaking is someone whose life is already better and richer because Diversity won, and continues to win.

If your favorite cartoons and games growing up were Japanese imports, or influenced by Japanese imports, Diversity is already your friend. Diversity already makes you happier than monoculture and entrenched white privilege do. Maybe you should have your buddy’s back on Twitter once in a while?

I’m just saying.


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Doing Diversity


Insert face-palm emoticon here.

Today a quick word about diversity in our arts and media, and the why’s and the how’s of “doing diversity”. There are three highly important, very distinct concepts which people have a tendency to conglomerate into one awkward lump when they use this word. And occasionally the word “diversity” needs to be unpacked, especially if you’re professionally involved in a creative field like film, television, game development or writing.

Doubly so if you happen to be white.

1. Diversity of representation.

Whether you are a creator or a consumer of various media, diversity of representation is important. The real world around us is a crazy quilt of incredibly different people. They have all kinds of sizes, shapes, colors, cultures, religions, philosophies, and sexual identities.

Good art is rich, and complex, and teaches us something about the world. Good creators are capable of crafting characters and exploring experiences from a variety of perspectives. The struggle to empathize and humanize is a lot of what art is about.

So diversity of representation, as stated above, is something that many writers (and creators of all media) strive for. Anyone might find it useful to open up and enrich their art and expand their audience by opening their eyes, and trying to empathize and portray more of the world and its people.

Diversity of representation also matters from the point of view of the audience and its mental health. It’s arguably the case that constantly consuming imaginary worlds which erase a sizable percentage of the world’s population and shine a spotlight only on a tiny sliver of humanity is…kinda crazy-making. Both for the people who are in the spotlight, and those denied any right to exist.

Ultimately, though, creators should not embrace or attempt diversity of depiction for any agenda other than the personal. You’re not doing anyone ELSE any favors. You’re doing diversity of depiction because it feels right to you. These are the people you find interesting. This is a human story you want to understand.

2. Diversity of authorship

The above being said, “doing diversity” of representation as a creator is ABSOLUTELY NO SUBSTITUTE for having an entire industry “Do diversity” of authorship. Yes, we need all authors to write all characters as well as they can, and to make their characters real and their worlds feel real, relate-able, and richly drawn.

But creating diverse characters for the sake of your audience and yourself, as a creator with a singular viewpoint, is absolutely no substitute for lifting up and celebrating the creative works of diverse people. Writing female characters well, as a man, is no substitute for having female authors working in a field, adding their own voices.

This is a huge issue in Classical scholarship, which I studied in university. The vast majority of Classical sources which deal with the lives and experiences of women are written by men ABOUT women–the woman involved is an object rather than a subject. She may be held up as laudable or ridiculous, worshiped or reviled, but ultimately she has no voice–she is not expressing her own point of view.

You actually have to go to ancient epigraphy–inscriptions from the period–to capture a real woman’s voice, writing about her own experiences, feelings and concerns. And the difference is night and day. The same difference will be seen in shows, movies, comics, novels and games which are made BY people who are not straight white males, rather than just ABOUT them.

To diversify authorship is to open up your professional world and share wealth, attention, fame, fortune and awards with people different from yourself. It takes work and it yields tremendous rewards. You do it by diversifying and integrating creative teams for an art form like film or television whenever possible. In other fields you create shelf space and screen space, and you share power, laurels and air time with a Gaze and Voice which is not white, not male, not straight, not Christian or atheist.

Doing so changes the world. And it’s a good change.

3. The Open World

The last hurdle of diversity is not just for creators in a position of privilege to attempt diverse characters, or for editors, publishers and consumers to support a diversity of talents…but for the world to be truly open, with flow and feedback possible along all possible channels.

As a white person who has never traveled to Africa, Asia, India and Mexico in person, I can definitely enjoy a show like the recent science fiction drama Sense8 by the Wachowski Brothers. It has the combination of persuasive depictions of places I’ve visited in real life–Germany, Paris, San Francisco–with glimpses of places I’ve never been, and may never go, like a Korean women’s prison, a bus route in Nairobi, or the Mexican television and film industry, or the elite upper circles of India’s new tech companies.

It’s an exercise in Diversity of Depiction from a well-meaning white creative team. And that’s okay.

On the other hand, I also immensely enjoy living in a world where the voices of real men and women from India, and Africa, and Mexico, can critique these shows and characters as FICTION in real time, often with immense humor. Because while it is charming to attempt to draw a sketch of someone, or write a poem about them, it is also immensely powerful and worthwhile to have the object of the art become a subject in real time.

Especially when they laugh and say, “That’s ridiculous. And hilarious. What Africa is this? What Mexico is this? What India is this? Who are these paper-thin imaginary people of yours?”

When I was studying Classical epigraphy, I often found the real voices of women offering the same humorous rebuttal to the voices of men. One of the most common endearments of a Roman man to the woman addressed in a love poem is “Mea Domina”, for example–“Mistress of my heart”, the woman who enslaves me with passion. But in the graffiti scrawled on the walls of Pompeii, you find the woman who laughs at “Mea Domina” and says, “Valens, (you call me) Mistress. Valens, would that I was a woman who owns slaves!  We (low-born folk) ask (only) for good health.”

Romantic worship, particularly without consent, is just another objectifying relationship. “Stop looking at me like that–you’re being goofy” is a valid message–whether it comes from a woman speaking to a man waxing googly over her beauty, or from non-white person speaking to foreigners waxing googly over their “culture”.

An open world gives us both artistic freedom and accountability. And we’re better and stronger for it.

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Shadow of the Vampire

shadow_of_the_vampire_ver4_xlgI don’t often re-post old material, but I recently had reason to think of this film again, as the director, E. Elias Merhige, will soon be making a guest appearance on Scott Nicolay’s The Outer Dark. Since I am a fan of ALL the creators involved, I am definitely going to catch that podcast–recommend that you do as well. But I also decided to dig up the review I wrote for Entertainment Tomorrow after I saw it at the Vancouver Film Festival years ago.

When it was first published fifteen years ago, this is what I said:


Of all the new horror films I’ve seen in the year 2000, none has  impressed me as much as E.E. Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire.  I had the privilege of catching this soon-to-be-classic at the Vancouver Film Festival on the dark and stormy night of September 28th, 2000.  Very simply put, it blew me away.  It’s been a very long time since any horror movie hit the screens of North America with such an impressive cast, such a rich historical backdrop, or such a subversive and fascinating premise.

Shadow of the Vampire revolves around the making of 1922’s Nosferatu, one of the most important horror films of all time; all the major players in the production of Nosferatu are characters in this movie.  Since Nosferatu is widely regarded as a turning point in the history of cinema, one of the top ten films of the Silent Era and very possibly the most powerful and influential movie ever made in Germany, it’s really not surprising that so many top-quality personnel stepped forward to be a part of this production.  This is a movie that a lot of film fans will want to see just for the quality of the cast, which reads like a roll call of modern cinema’s best, bravest and most avant-garde actors.

The lightest weight player we have here is Cary Elwes, who’s cast as the famous cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner; most of us will recognize Elwes for his role as Wesley in The Princess Bride.  But the art director and producer, Albin Grau, is played by veteran German actor Udo Kier, who has worked for some of the world’s most controversial and talented directors:  Paul Morrisey, Dario Argento, Wim Wenders, Gus Van Zandt, and Lars Von Trier.  The actress Greta Schroder is played by her modern-day counterpart Catherine McCormack, who made a name for herself a few years back when she was cast opposite Mel Gibson in Braveheart.  The great character actor who originally played the part of Count Orlok, Max Schreck, is here played by Willem Dafoe—who has starred in so many top quality films that he surely needs no introduction by now!  And the director, F. W. Murnau, is played by none other than John Malkovich.

Assembling a list of names like this is probably all the review that this movie needs; casting Willem Dafoe, John Malkovich and Udo Kier all in one movie is more than most of us would dare to ask.  But there’s also a unique twist for horror fans, because Shadow of the Vampire is not just about the making of the real life  Nosferatu.  Instead, the makers of this film offer a unique homage to the source material by giving us a fabulous “what if” premise:

What if director F.W. Murnau, notoriously obsessed with achieving “realism” in his films, had hired a real vampire to play the part of Count Orlok?  What if Max Schreck wasn’t really wearing any make-up?

This is a motif which horror fans have seen many times before:  the film-within-a-film setting is not only a favorite theme for directors like Wes Craven, but it’s also been explored in mainstream movies which use famous horror directors as characters.  Tim Burton’s Ed Wood and Bill Condon’s Gods and Monsters have recently taken us on the set of 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein and 1958’s Plan 9 From Outer Space, and these were both field trips well worth taking…but the mix in those films was far more heavily weighted to fact than fiction.  Even the surreal dream sequences of Gods and Monsters were all in the protagonist’s head, and understood to be the result of the numerous strokes he had suffered.

Shadow of the Vampire is a bird of a different feather, and all the more interesting for it.  Embracing its dark premise without hesitation, this is a picture which drives straight out of the blue and into the black, dragging the audience with it.   Like the classic film which inspired it, Shadow is a movie about contrast and contradiction, about how we can traipse merrily into the maw of disaster with the best of intentions, and how we can accidentally cross the border from reality into nightmare while traveling on other business.  Horror and humor, light and darkness, truth and fiction:  the movie screen is a landscape where opposites attract, and the word “paradox” has no meaning.

It is very dark little film, unsettling to say the least.  The central conflict is between the characters of Murnau and Schreck, who in this alternate reality have struck a bargain for the making of Nosferatu:  while Schreck plays the vampire in the movie, Murnau will provide him nightly with food…live animals in cages, and wine bottles full of blood.  Schreck, in turn, will refrain from devouring the various members of the cast and crew while the movie is being shot.  The ultimate bargaining chip and carrot-on-a-stick for Shreck is the film’s leading lady, Greta Schroeder…a beautiful woman who is as much an object of obsession for the undead in this film as the character of Ellen was for Count Orlok in the original.

How does the rest of the cast and crew accept Schreck into their midst, despite his hideous appearance?  Murnau passes him off as a Stanislavsky-inspired “method” actor, driven to remain in character and full make-up at all times.  The irony of many scenes that follow is very intense, as all characters pursue their own ends in a black comedy of errors; the difference between what the audience knows and what the characters know is sometimes too extreme to be anything but funny.  More than once we laugh out loud…but the laughter is uneasy, and there’s less of it as time goes on.

Schreck is more than the director bargained for.  He’s not just a vampire; he’s an old, blasted, half-senile vampire, living in an ancient crumbling monastery and eating rats in the dark.  He may promise not to hurt Murnau’s people, but he’d find it difficult to keep that promise, even if he wanted to…which he doesn’t!  He’s the ultimate unmanageable star, lying as necessary to get the part and then turning the screws when the money men are breathing down his director’s neck.

Willem Dafoe is absolutely incredible in this movie; his make-up is only slightly less over-the-top than the makeup that Schreck wore in the original Nosferatu, and the costume is identical.  The minute he walked out on screen I forgot completely about Platoon and The English Patient; by the time the film was over I’d even forgiven him for New Rose Hotel.  This is a great performance, with Dafoe so into his character that I had to remind myself, repeatedly, that he wasn’t really a degenerate old vampire.  He’s as good in the role of Schreck as Martin Landau was as Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood…with the possible exception of the one or two lines lost to his heavy German accent.

Ultimately, the audience is left with the question:  who is the real monster here?  Schreck and Murnau are both selfish, corrupt creatures, driven by their appetites; Schreck kills to satisfy his thirst, and Murnau is willing to kill for art, but morally speaking it’s hard to distinguish the two.  In the final analysis, Murnau will do just about anything to get the perfect shot, the perfect reaction from an actor, the ultimate realism on film.  In the end he doesn’t care who gets hurt, so long as he creates a movie which will stand the test of time…and he won’t be turned aside from his course, even if it costs him “A lot of sweat, and maybe a little bit of blood”.

In short, this movie is a great homage to F.W. Murnau, a genius of the Silent Era, and all that he achieved in the making of his most famous film.  And it is also a brutally honest look at the character traits that all truly great directors have in common!  You see, directors are unique among artists, in that all the sacrifices they make for art are not their own.  On the contrary…  It is the director’s job to demand sacrifices from other people, and the more coldly and ruthlessly he manipulates his cast and crew, the better his art is likely to be.

Alfred Hitchcock tortured his leading ladies unmercifully to extract those performances that we all so admire today; William Friedkin slapped a real priest to give us the powerful scene at the end of The Exorcist.  Stanley Kubrick was notorious for exhausting his performers with dozens of takes and no breaks.  James Cameron plunged his entire cast and crew underwater in the cooling tower of a nuclear reactor for twelve to sixteen hours a day, while making The Abyss.

It takes a bit of a sociopathic streak to drag your crew to hell and back to make a picture, and use the people who trust you as logs to fuel the bonfire of art.  Is it worth it?  This particular movie has no final answer to that question, and the ending is morally ambiguous at best.  But it’s a rich and worthwhile experience in its own right, and a fine feature-length debut for writer Steven Katz and director E. Elias Merhige, and I sincerely hope that many more horror movies of this caliber are made.  Cleverness, complexity and decadent beauty like this are all too rare in any genre, much less horror!  Shadow of the Vampire has much to recommend it…including this reviewer.

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The Eerie Art of Thomas Kuntz

I am constantly fascinated by the Art and Science of the past, and I am particularly interested in the strange and beautiful gadgetry of earlier times. Automata are especially impressive, from any era, because they always combine the arts of sculpture and puppetry with the science of engineering to produce a wondrous effect.

The ancient art of the automaton is still alive in the workshops of some modern artists, and one of the best is Thomas Kuntz. Born in Phoenix, Kuntz is the son of a surgeon and a folk art doll-maker. Since 1986 he has been creating models and art inspired by the icons of the Silent Film Era and the occult history of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

His garage kits are some of the finest ever made, and he has sculpted wonderful busts of Aleister Crowley and John Dee. Since the turn of the 21st century, his Automata have been becoming more and more beautiful, complex and polished. Like the Automata of the 18th and 19th centuries, they are highly prized collectible art made by individual genius–wonders that cannot by nature be mass-produced.

To see a few videos documenting his amazing and disturbing work, you can follow his channel on Youtube. To see far more of his work, visit his website.

Perhaps the world’s first blood drinking automaton. Babylon regally stands 33.5″ tall, including the base. The figure endlessly pours fresh blood from the severed head of his victim into a glowing tankard and drinks it delightfully, while the headless drummer continues the beat of all who came before him, and those doomed to follow. Designed, sculpted, painted and mechanized by Thomas Kuntz. The mechanism consists of brass cams, levers and assorted components, all machined by the artist. Costume made by specialty costumer Blake Bolger…

The French poet and notorious absinthe drinker Paul Verlaine sits in the late night Parisian cafe sipping his “Humble Ephemeral absinthe”. No words flow from his quill. It’s nearing closing hour and through his blurred vision the Green Muse appears to him offering inspiration and a kiss…

“L’Oracle du Mort” (ORACLE OF THE DEAD MAN) The Fortune Telling Magician depicting an 1800’s magician from the French occult revival. This automaton was made from scratch by Thomas Kuntz. It has a very complex mechanical system consisting of hand cut cams gears levers springs, sprockets and pulleys. Such automata involve great precision and many months of intense work after a preparation time that can often be years. It requires skill sets in all disciplines including sculpture, painting, mold making, machining, engineering fabric work and cabinetry. The case is made of solid oak. It tells 7 fortunes and if one attempts to fool the magician a cheeky devil appears in the window…

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Edward Curtis, Ethno-photographer

Great photo-essay on Mashable, on the photography of Edward S. Curtis, the American photographer who spent twenty years from 1904 to 1924 engaged in documenting the lives and material culture of the First Nations people of the USA.

Included in the Mashable article were some amazingly clear and beautiful images of dancers engaged in the Hamatsa ritual here in the Pacific Northwest, wearing the masks of the Skull-breaker and Crooked Beak of Heaven, the companions of the Cannibal from the North End of the World.

Other images of the Kwakiutl people in this article are equally fascinating, including the shamans and dancers representing other spirits and legends, some of which are not familiar to me.

Who, for example, is the forest spirit known as “the Bringer of Confusion”?


A Kwakiutl shaman

A Kwakiutl shaman

In general, the impression I got was that the 20-volume series commissioned by J. P. Morgan, The North American Indian, must have been one of the most significant anthropological works of the 20th century. I think it’s a pity that the majority of anthropology programs don’t encourage students to develop any technical skill and artistic finesse with things like photography, cinematography and audio recording. Sometimes a picture really is worth a thousand words.

I’ll have to see if there’s a copy of these somewhere in the stacks of the local university and city libraries. It looks like a gold mine.

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Five Decades

Five Decades cover


Pablo Neruda was in the news again recently, as the press has begun to openly speculate that he was murdered. Accordingly I decided to re-publish this old review, as it still represents both my feelings on his life and work and my feelings about his death–even when I did not believe it was foul play.

Years ago, one of science fiction’s Golden Agers told me a strange story. This writer was a child in Europe during the 1940’s, and he clearly remembers the summer day when a great army of liberation came marching through his home town. The people lined the streets, waving their handkerchiefs and cheering. They reached out to touch the soldiers as they drove past, blessing them, thanking them, pressing flowers into their hands. He remembers his own mother lifting him high above the crowd to a smiling man in the command car, and how the soldier bent and kissed the crown of his head…and then laughed and tousled his golden curls with rough affection, as if he had kissed his own son.

That soldier’s uniform was black as coal, and his collar sported a pair of bone-white lightning bolts. Those friendly eyes, blue as the summer sky, belonged to a member of the Waffen SS Division “Totenkopf”, the Death’s Head. The great liberator was also a stone killer, taken directly from duty as a concentration camp guard to serve on the Eastern Front. He was a man far more likely to have been gassing babies than kissing them, on any given day of his military career.

In July of 1941, his unit was marching through Lithuania on a red carpet of public enthusiasm. So far as the locals were concerned, the Germans had come to beat the Devil! Under the leadership of Wilhelm von Leeb, Hitler’s Northern Army was driving Stalin out of the Baltics, and the people simply could not have been happier.

Why do I keep thinking of that story now? Because every time I turn on the television these days, I’m confronted by an ugly reality: I haven’t got a team to root for, in the latest war. We’ve been conditioned to look for right and wrong, good and evil, whenever two armies meet. But the truth is that Darkness often wars with Darkness, in this world, and all is not necessarily well afterward, no matter who wins. When I have Hitler on one side of a battlefield and Stalin on the other…who the hell do I cheer for?

It all depends on where I’m standing, and what I have at stake. If I’m Lithuanian in 1942, still reeling from the Russian assault in 1939, and I don’t happen to be a Jew or a gypsy? I might very well think “Go Hitler go.” And sadly, horribly, it doesn’t make me a bad person to cheer for the Waffen SS on that day, or even to let a murderer kiss my baby. Queasy-making as the memory might be, fifty years later, to the man that little boy became.

We all make the best calls we can, given our circumstances. Even the best, brightest and strongest among us can do nothing more than fight the Devils that we know. In the thick of the battles we’ve chosen, the enemies of our enemies will always become our friends; it’s not only natural, it’s inevitable. We may regret our choice of allies later on, but when our backs are against the wall in a stiff fight against a known evil, we’ll take whatever aid or comfort is offered–we don’t play Twenty Questions.

Once this basic principle of human struggle is understood, it becomes very easy to understand the Communist Revolution, and its history as a counter-culture of the 20th century. And it was a hell of a powerful counter-culture, we can’t kid ourselves on that score. Regardless of how strong our stance against this movement may be, or how much we personally love playing on the capitalist team, we have to give the opposing side its due. They had a rotten coaching staff and corrupt management, but the Communists got some AMAZING draft picks over the years.

Let’s just take a look at this team roster, shall we? George Orwell. Bertolt Brecht. Albert Camus. Diego Rivera. Pablo Picasso. John Steinbeck. Upton Sinclair. Even Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Einstein played a season for these guys. How can all these people have fallen in league with a Revolution that was ultimately directed by men like Joseph Stalin? What does it all mean? Were all these artists, poets, scholars and scientists really? evil? Or stupid? Or terminally gullible?

Personally, I think they were just unlucky. When I want to know how so many intellectuals could be duped into supporting the cause of Communism over the years, I have to turn my eyes away from the Soviet Union, the Maoist purges and the madness of Pol Pot. I don’t concentrate on the Devils that I know–I turn and look over my shoulder to see the Devils that THEY knew.

Imagine what Steinbeck felt when he watched a ten-ton pyramid of fresh oranges being soaked with kerosene and torched in front of a crowd of starving families. Lie down with George Orwell in a flophouse full of broken indigents who’ve been made to work from dusk ’til dawn picking hops, and have been paid for that work with nothing more than a louse-infested cot and a piece of bread and margarine. If these men dared to dream that there might be a better answer than the cold equations of supply and demand, can I really blame them?

The appeal of Communism in the 20th century is not a mystery but a tragedy, and no one person embodies that tragedy more perfectly than Pablo Neruda. In a movement that sported many great poets, Neruda is still the most universally revered. Even before he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971, his work was read around the world in a dozen languages. The intensity of his political vision had an enormous influence on the history of the Communist era. He was a key inspiration for Che Guevara in the 1940’s, among others. But even for those with no interest in the revolution, Neruda’s poetry can easily transcend his politics: the blazing passion, unearthly beauty and sensual power of his verses cannot be concealed by even the clumsiest translation.

Fortunately for us, Ben Belitt has not made a clumsy effort here. Neruda himself described Belitt’s work as “faithful and lovely translations that have done much to make my poetry better known in your country”, and Five Decades, despite Belitt’s modest denial in the preface, IS in fact a definitive volume. Not because it collects all of Neruda in one place (that’s an impossible task, outside of a library edition), but because it gives the reader a rich cross-section from fourteen different books of his poetry, and serves as a biography-in-verse of the author.

In some ways, Five Decades is actually superior to Neruda’s prose memoirs, the Confieso que he Vivido, in much the same way that a shot is superior to a beer. Same kick, same content, but a poem is stronger stuff; it goes down faster, and it’s a lot more likely to knock you out.

This man was born in Chile in 1904, and given the mellifluous name of Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto by his impoverished parents. His mother was a schoolteacher; she died of tuberculosis when he was a baby. His father was a railway worker. Neruda described him in a poem from Black Island Memorial:

The brusque father comes back from his trains…Wind entered in gusts with my father; and between the two advents, footfalls and tensions, the house staggered, a panic of doorways exploded with a dry sound of pistols, stairs groaned and a shrill voice nagged hatefully on in the turbulent rain.

The closing lines of “Father” are also very moving, as the unhappy son of an unhappy man tries to offer some absolution to the dead:

Poor, durable father, there on the axle of life, virile in friendships, your cup overflowing: the whole of your life was a headlong militia…Then, on the rainiest day of them all, the conductor, Jose del Carmen Reyes, boarded his death train and has not come back to us since.”

The son of the conductor began writing poetry at the age of 10, published his first magazine article at the age of 14, and his first poem at the age of 15. At 17, he took up the pseudonym Pablo Neruda so that he could publish more poems without upsetting his family. They disapproved of his literary ambitions. Very few poets in history can match Neruda’s meteoric rise into his artistic powers; by the time he was 21 he had achieved international fame as the author of 20 Love Poems and One Song of Despair, and by twenty-three he had become a diplomat, appointed by the Chilean government as their consul to Burma.

This is actually not an uncommon practice in Latin America, although it may mystify some Americans. When a writer is declared the Voice of his people in a Spanish-speaking country, he tends to become that Voice quite literally. He’s expected to travel the world as an avatar for his nation, a living embodiment of their dreams, ambitions, and yearnings.

In any case, Neruda’s early experiences in the far East are reflected in some of the poems collected here. Some of the best are about the exotic animals of a foreign clime: “Black Pantheress” is included, in which he invokes Singapore as “a blood heat of rain on the mouldering white of the walls, bitten with wet and the leprous kiss of humidity“, and describes his encounter with a panther in a cage: “Saw the surge of her body that shaded to velvet, the flexing perfection…a barbarous queen in a box, midway on the trash of the street“. There’s also “Elephant”, a gentle meditation on the beauty and dignity of a creature which we seldom see outside the humiliating servitude of a circus tent:

“Make no mistake: that endeared and enormous sojourner of jungles is nobody’s clown; he is patriarch, father of emerald lights, the innocent and ancient sire of the universe.”

More interesting to me personally are the lessons he learned about humanity in Asia. “Opium in the East” is a powerfully political poem, sinking its teeth into the hypocrisy of those Europeans in the 1920’s who would decry the rise of opium addiction in London and Geneva, even while they raked in a tidy profit peddling the stuff on every street corner in Singapore. And “Religion in the Orient” is an even more powerful statement:

It came to me there in Rangoon…all gods are our enemies…

It was also during his early years as a diplomat that Neruda began his long pas de deux with Communism. During the 1930’s, Communism was considered the antidote to the rise of Fascism in Europe; many of Neruda’s friends during that time were members of the Party, including the great Spanish poet and playwright Frederico Garcia Lorca. Neruda was also living with the painter Delia de Carril at the time, a woman whom he deeply loved and respected, and who encouraged him to become involved in politics.

When the Spanish Civil War began in 1936, the die was cast for Neruda. Violence erupted all over the country, and Fascist soldiers dragged his friend Lorca out of a house and shot him, without trial, in the streets of Granada. It was a shot heard around the world–and the straw that broke the camel’s back, for a small-town boy from the mountains of Chile. In fairness, however, Neruda was not the only one to be deeply moved by Lorca’s death. People from every corner of the globe joined the cause of the Spanish Republicans out of sheer outrage. To them, the death of Lorca was not just a senseless murder, but an appalling act of spiritual vandalism. He had been the best-known Spanish writer of his generation, and the premiere poet of Andalusia and its gypsy sub-culture; the men who silenced his deep songs were seen not just as political bully-boys, but as the enemies of all mankind.

Neruda expressed his rage and anguish over the war in Spain, and the loss of everything he had loved in that country, in a poem called “A Few Things Explained”. There may not be another poem in this entire book which more perfectly answers the question: why? Why did this poor, sad, gentle man, who would have infinitely preferred to spend a lifetime writing poems about the beauty of nature, or the love of women, or the quiet suffering of the poor, end up spending so many years writing angry, polemic verses? Even with a casual glance at his life and work, it’s clear that he was never cut from a warrior’s cloth; he had no great joie de guerre, took no pleasure in the use of his pen as a weapon.

Neruda answers:

“Would you know why his poems never mention the soil or the leaves, the gigantic volcanoes of the country that bore him? Come see the blood in the streets, come see the blood in the streets, come see the blood in the streets!”

He was not given a choice. The Devil was staring him in the face, and he had to fight in the cause of Life–regardless of what flag Life was flying that day. So he struck what blows he could. He wrote poems about United Fruit Company. About dictators laughing in their palaces while the innocent rot in their graves. About beggars dying and entire districts starving. About Madrid burning, and fascist planes descending from the skies, and children bleeding.

And all those poems are here, along with the sweeter murmurs of his spirit. Poems about his wives, especially the third and most beloved, Matilde. Poems about volcanoes, about jungles, about red clay and lemons. Poems about leaves, and vines, and beasts:

“on the vastness of water, like a continent circled, drenched in the ritual mud, rapacious, religious, gigantic, the coiled anaconda.”

He fought to the end; even days before his death, Neruda would not give up. The last words he ever wrote were a description of the death of his friend Salvador Allende, the President of Chile. On September 11, 1973, Allende’s democratically elected government was overthrown by a military coup. Neruda gave the last of his failing strength to the final words of his memoirs, and wrote a description of Allende’s last moments, and of the sad funeral which only the President’s wife was permitted to attend.

I can only hope that Neruda was too ill to be told what happened next. Because six days later, Pinochet’s thugs repeated the horror of 1936. They took a group of political prisoners into a stadium, among them the great Chilean folk singer Victor Jara; Jara, like Lorca in Spain, had committed the crime of supporting a left-wing cause with his songs. And after the soldiers had broken the bones of his hands, they taunted the musician cruelly. “Sing your songs now, Victor! Play the guitar for us!”

When Victor Jara found the strength to rise above his pain, and lifted his voice to sing a few lines of his anthem for the Popular Unity Party, they ended his final performance with a bullet. In another six days, Pablo Neruda had slipped away, dead at the age of 69. Decades of oppression followed, years in which Chile suffered in silence, the passionate Voices of its people dead and buried. A great and enduring victory for capitalism: hip hip hooray!

Tell me that the Devil didn’t dance in Pinochet’s palace, and I’ll spit in your eye.

4 stars

–originally written for The Official Anti-Oprah Book Club of Joe Bob Briggs

Five Decades: Poems 1925-1970
Written by Pablo Neruda
Translated from the Spanish by Ben Belitt
ISBN: 0802130356
Grove Press, 1983, $15.00 USA

Related Links:

Neruda’s Biography at the Nobel E-Museum

© 2003 Arinn Dembo All Rights Reserved

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The Sea Organ

Filed under “beautiful and strange”, the photo above is an image of the Sea Organ in Croatia, an architectural wonder which allows the tidal rhythms of the Adriatic Sea to create music.

Carved into the steps of this 230-foot long sea wall are channels that lead to 35 organ pipes, each tuned to create chords. As the waves strike the steps, they drive air through the pipes, and play random musical arrangements.

The Morske Orgulje was built in 2005 in the city of Zadar, a 3000-year-old metropolis on the coast of Croatia. The architect, Nikola Bašić, wanted to revive the city which had been devastated by World World II, many of its ancient monuments lost forever. The design and function of this musical instrument is probably inspired by the Wave Organ of San Francisco, which was built in 1986, and the later Blackpool Tide Organ constructed in England in 2002. That said, although it is not the first wave organ in existence, it is undoubtedly the largest, the most beautiful and the most musical.






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