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Nafisi

A View of Anglophone Literature


Este fue mi intento por enlazar los cinco libros que leí para mi curso World Anglophone Literature.

Mi punto es demostrar que hay una conexión entre la lectura de grandes obras y la escritura de grandes obras. Que la calidad de lo que uno lee se manifiesta en lo que uno escribe. Ese es uno de mis objetivos al decidir estudiar literatura inglesa. Se puede hablar de la originalidad de un gran escritor pero no se puede negar que ellos tomaron esa magia creativa de las grandes obras que los formaron. Hay trazos de Dickens en el Middlemarch de George Eliot, hay rastros de Faulkner en Cien Años de Soledad y en la obra de Vargas Llosa. Hay Kafka en Coetzee y Shakespeare y Sófocles en todos los grandes escritores que alguna vez leyeron al dramaturgo inglés o al griego y se identificaron con los grandes temas de sus obras.

En los Versos Satánicos creí haber encontrado un homenaje de Rushdie a Othello, sin embargo resulta que también es un tributo a La Tempestad, a Hamlet, a Macbeth y a Julio Cesar. Y si hubiera leído más Shakespeare seguro que seguiría encontrando similitudes con los personajes, los temas y los escenarios del libro de Rushdie.

Los escritores que hemos leido este semestre se agrupan en lo que algunos intelectuales denominan el post colonialismo, como si la literatura inglesa fuera un yugo del que hay que liberarse para poder crear. Este trabajo prueba que una de las caracteristicas que agrupa a estos cinco autores, es precisamente su admiracion por autores “coloniales”, por los maestros ingleses, cuya influencia se puede trazar con cierta facilidad.

Volvi a mencionarle a la clase que Garcia Marquez se sentiria ofendido si lo etiquetan de escritor post colonialista. Ya es bastante malo que lo consideren parte de un movimiento con un nombre tan feo como el Boom.

En la primera línea de Mitad de un sol amarillo de la nigeriana Ngozi, encuentro una línea que me lleva directamente hasta Don Quijote y en el principio de Dios de las cosas diminutas de Arundhati Roy, encuentro el homenaje no tan en clave a The Waste Land de T.S. Eliot.

Another Way of Criticism
By Ulises Gonzales

George Steiner says that the best answer to a work of art is another work of art (8). He says that “each performance of a dramatic text or musical score is a critique in the most vital sense of the term: it is an act of penetrative response” (7). He calls that “responsible criticism.” The five books that we have read for this class echo Steiner’s theory because they are creative answers to other books that the authors have read before.

Through the texts written by Azar Nafisi, we can find traces of the author’s readings. We can feel the love of Nafisi for Henry James and Vladimir Nabokov, her passion like her students for The Great Gatsby. We can feel the poetry of T.S.Eliot and the lyricism of English poets and Indian traditions in the world of Arundhati Roy. We can trace the passion for Robert Browning and the whole English literature in the books that Odenigbo gives to Ugwu to read in Ngozi’s Half of a Yellow Sun.

We can feel how Coetzee builds his own world starting from that images given in the original poem by Kavafis. And trough Salman Rushdie and his Satanic Verses, we can feel the powerful images of The Tempest when the plane crashes; we can see the witches of Macbeth operating under the disguise of demons and archangels and feel the hate of Iago coming trough the body of Saladin Chamcha calling the jealousy of Othello to destroy the life of Gibreel.

In reading these five books, certainly we are reading the books that inspired these authors, the ones that helped them to accomplish the task of writing their novels. Steiner writes that if there was a world without critics, the criticism would be practiced by the artists. These five authors, choosing their subjects, the voice to tell their stories, the structure of their plots and even the description of their characters; are exercising the task of a critic.

Nafisi judges the violent repression of women during the Fundamentalist regime of Iran, using the voices of Lolita and Daisy Miller. The freedom of Daisy is the example that she chooses to represent the possibilities of a woman with the freedom to defy the authority of society and the “rules” imposed by a certain society. Humbert is compared to the Ayatholla and their accomplices who hate what they love. Humbert can’t convince Lolita to love her, and then he uses his strength, and his power, to try to make her docile.

Roy starts her novel-poem with “May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month” (Roy, 3). Like an echo to “April is the cruellest month” of T.S. Eliot. Her description of that world of Rahel’s childhood, the allusion to the river as a source of life and death, to the water, to the rain, to Nature and the wilderness where the children play, is a direct translation from The Waste Land. Later in the book, Lenin is forced by his dad to recite: “Friend Roman countrymen” (Roy, 260). and many centuries of English scholarship enter in the story through the lines from Julius Caesar, as if literature were the tentacles that keep the world of Kerala attached to the Western world, as if Shakespeare was also one of the Gods of Roy’s universe. We should not forget the permanent references to Heart of Darkness, to Kurtz, to Conrad. Even the topics of Conrad’s novel are present in Roy’s book: love for humanity, madness, and the craziness of politics.

Ngozi is called the daughter of Chinua Achebe. Her topics, her description of Africa, follows the steps of that great African writer, but when Ugwu needs to read literature Odenigbo does not give him an African author but a poem by A.E. Housman (Ngozi, 77). Ngozi even starts her novel linking Odenigbo’s character and positive influence among his people with his experience with English books: “Master was a little crazy; he had spent too many years reading books overseas”(4.) On the other hand, the mention of “crazy” and “books” together in one sentence is not an accident either. From the very first paragraph of the novel, Ngozi is giving us a glimpse of the Quixotesque adventure of her characters.

J.M. Coetzee establishes his little world of Waiting for the Barbarians, following certain rules and images given by Kavafis. But his Barbarians belong to the universe of Kafka. There is an absurdity to the situation: criminals that nobody can see and a crowd betrayed by a powerful empire that acts like an invisible force creating fear among its inhabitants. The poems is from Kavafis but the whole creation is a product in the line of Kafka’s The Castle where nobody can see the ruler of the castle but he seems to be watching everybody’s actions.

The Satanic Verses is one of the finest tributes to the magic of Shakespeare’s characters. Certainly we can trace Rushdie’s readings and find similarities to Milton, the battle for the Paradise, and the fight of the angels against God: “challenging God’s will one day they hid muttering beneath the Throne, daring to ask forbideen things: antiquestions” (94). We can’t forget that in the Satanic Verses there is a permanent play with mutations and transformations. It seems to be a permanent conversation of Rushdie with Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

The references to Shakespeare’s plays are the core of the most important passages of the Satanic Verses. Among the crisis of the plane crash, Gibreel and Saladin manage to get to an island. Rushdie’s irony is that, in this case, the island is England: “these were the first words Gibreel Farishta said when he awoke on the snowbound English beach” (10).

Here the beautiful Miranda is transformed into an old cranky woman, who seems to have found the beauty of a perfect human being in Gibreel, imagining that he is her gaucho from a forgotten kingdom in the Argentina’s pampas. Julius Caesar and Othello are mixed when Gibreel has his first attack of uncontrollable jealousy. Allie tells Gibreel: “The picture of an honourable man” and Gibreel shouts violently: “Tell me at once who the bastard is” (326).

Postmodernism allows the writer to build a world using the fragments of the reality. Satanic Verses is Rushdie’s plan to build a world using fragments from many different sources. It is a “responsible criticism” to the world where he lives. There are references to television programs and to Bollywood movies, there are myths from popular culture and myths from the Eastern world.

There is also the possibility that Rushdie is trying to find the way to tell us a new story, knowing beforehand that “in an ancient land like England there was no room for new stories” (148).

Works Cited

Coetzee, J.M. Waiting for the Barbarians. New York: Penguin, 1980.
Nafisi,Azar. Reading Lolita in Tehran. New York: Random House, 2004
Ngozi, Adiche. Half of a Yellow Sun. New York: Knopf, 2007
Steiner, George. Real Presences. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1991
Roy, Arundhati. The God of Small Things. New York: Random House, 1997
Rushdie, Salman. Satanic Verses. New York: Picador, 1988

Rupac.Taking Paths


Dangling my feet from the top of the mountain, I wondered how my life was going to be back in the city.

There is a certain magic in the way that Rupac looks at night. Lost in the middle of the jungle, its gigantic stones looking to the East, it seems to be the perfect place where one could stay and nobody would dare to tell you ever to leave.

My brothers and friends are gathered around the bonfire we made inside one of the ancient stone houses. I have tried to walk a hundred feet away, but it feels dangerous among the vivid sounds of insects, a distant brook, and the moving leaves of the surrounding forest. After dangling my feet over the abyss for a few minutes, I walk back.

The morning after, I was among my brothers and my friends descending the path to the small town of Pampas, leaving behind the ancient stones of the perpendicular city that touches the clouds. The soles of my muddy boots were gone, and I preferred to descend bare foot. It was a three mile path beside a waterfall that transformed the light into a luminous rainbow.

Four hours later, I throw myself over my bed and tried to summarize the trip in my school notebook.

I have discovered this morning, in a forgotten drawer of my Lima’s bedroom, the brief sentence that I wrote about that weekend on a piece of yellowish paper: “We left to see the light and through the light to guess who we are.”

All the pictures that I took of that trip, including the zoom to a condor standing over a stone and gazing into the curious lens of my Canon camera, are lost.

But my memory is rigid. Among the ruins of Rupac, running down the muddy path towards Pampas, I discovered a piece of an eternal truth.

My brothers know how difficult it is for me to lie. Everytime, I prefer lying to myself.

Written after reading Henry James’ description of the horrors of WWI, and the execution of Nafisi’s student, Razieh, by the Revolutionary Islamic Republic of Iran, in the book Reading Lolita in Tehran

Reading Lolita in Tehran

Esta es la respuesta a la primera parte del libro de la escritora iraní Azar Nafisi. Es un conjunto de memorias acerca de un grupo de lectura conformado por mujeres iraníes, estudiantes de literatura inglesa, a comienzos de la década de los 80. La lectura se realiza mientras se implementa en Irán el riguroso control “moral” del regimen del Ayatholla Khomeini.

Algunas de las obras discutidas en Teherán: Lolita de Nabokov, Daisy Miller de Henry James, El Gran Gatsby de Fitzgerald, Orgullo y Prejuicio de Jane Austen, Madame Bovary de Flaubert. De cierta manera, este libro está escrito desde un punto de vista parecido al de una muy buena novela gráfica que leí hace algunos años: Persépolis de Marjane Satrapi.

Response paper to Reading Lolita in Tehran
By Ulises Gonzales

The idea of putting The Great Gatsby on trial made me think about the whole idea of criticism, particularly recent criticism about the whole idea of a Western Canon. When critics take on the task of criticizing a novel, aren’t they starting a new trial on the literary works of the masters?
Even the trial by the Iranian people at the time of the Islamic revolution was an exercise of criticism. Although the tools where not the old ones established by Aristotle—and all the classical critics who followed him—but by those of fanaticism and religious ideas. There are novels and poems that have stood many trials, survived them, and come out stronger than before, such as Sophocles, Virgil or Shakespeare. Others, sometimes enthroned as the sublime expression of literary achievements, have succumbed to those trials and have been forgotten.
From my point of view, Nafisi is doing the same that the British critic Leavis did when he named Eliot, Conrad, James and Austen as the greatest novelists of English literature. Nafisi is using Fitzgerald and Nabokov’s novels as a way to interpret the years he lived in Iran after the Islamic Revolution. Picking us those authors—and leaving others in obscurity—Nafisi is also acting as a critic. As George Steiner claimed in Real Presences,, if there was no criticism, then creators could be considered critics. This is so because when a writer decided to use a novel or a poem as his or her influence or to follow a certain writer’s style, that writer is exercising criticism. Even when I picked Leavis or Steiner to write this paper, I am exercising criticism and putting these authors on trial, once again.
Nafisi’s book is a memoir of the hardest years of the Islamic Revolution. Iran is not as it was when Nafisi was teaching at the University of Tehran , but her book stands as a valuable recollection of those times. Through her book, we could understand how literature helped her to survive all those years. Also, in reading her book we have a powerful demonstration of how to use literature as a way to analyze a society. Iran and its leaders are analyzed through fictional characters like Professor Humbert or Gatsby.
The answers given at the trial of Fitzgerald’s novel could summarize the different points of view of Iranian society at that time—its doubts and contradictions.
I agree with Roland Barthes when he writes in Criticism and Truth that a novel is eternal not because it gives just one meaning to many different men, but because it suggests many different meanings to a single man. I would like to think that Reading Lolita in Tehran has also many different meanings according to the many interests of its author and readers.
Some of the readings and interpretations in Nafisi’s private classes are strongly attached to the feminism, and the analyses I like the most of Lolita came from that specific point of view. There are other meanings that the reader picks up on when Lolita is analyzed through the historical events happening in Iran at that time. Some comparisons with the new regime place the novel against totalitarianism. Another reading has to do with the profession of the author and her deep love for literature. She uses Nabokov, Austen, James and Fitzgerald because she admires those novels as art.

Those different layers of interpretations and readings are what is most captivating for me. The complexity of different loves: her students, her books, her country. All of them are (re)interpreted through a bunch of novels that she loves.

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