Month: June 2010

Is Vladimir Putin Russia’s Teddy Roosevelt?

Why does Vladimir Putin not only personally but historically remind me of Teddy Roosevelt?



Both men have very interesting, intimidating former lives: Putin was a KGB spy, and Roosevelt was, among an insane amount of other things, a Rough Rider, rancher and NYC police commissioner.

The blogosphere has already made one connection for me: apparently, both Vladimir Putin and Teddy Roosevelt are/were martial arts experts, or something. Which totally doesn’t surprise me about either of them: Putin has a black belt in judo and Roosevelt was skilled in ju-jitsu.
President Roosevelt knifed a cougar. Vladimir Putin saved a TV crew by shooting and sedating a charging tiger.

Politically, both men have been successful at manipulating the media and retained great popular favor while terrifying their enemies. Both men were accused of oppressing other, less powerful countries, and of pursuing imperialist policies. Both men left office eight years into the century, turning the reins over to a hand-picked successor who was accused of being a puppet (Taft and Medvedev) while maintaining a strong public profile. Both men later expressed displeasure with their handpicked puppet successor (Roosevelt, of course, vocally enough that he ran for president against him and split the vote enough to put Woodrow Wilson in the White House and deprive the world from seeing how Roosevelt would have potentially handled a World War – ’cause you know there wouldn’t have been any “isolationism” from ol’ invadey.)

By the way, what got me thinking about this was this article and a series of other unusual articles in the Times this week about a spy ring that seemed to spend a lot of time and energy collecting readily available information.


A new chess opening to be obsessed with

The Grunfeld Defence! (or Defense.)

This one’s hypermodern, which means it’s going to take me a couple weeks and multiple failed playing attempts to understand it. I started learning chess from a classical guy who taught me to play toward the center. Basically, chess is a little like literature – everything was based around old, rarely challenged structures and rules until the first few decades of the 20th century, when everything changed, when the structures were seen as unable to support the revelations of war, disease, revolution, and changing social and class mores. In literature, it meant stuff like this:

I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?
London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down
Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam ceu chelidon—O swallow swallow
Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
Shantih shantih shantih

– the last few stanzas of “The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot

In chess, it meant stuff like this:

which is the starting position of the Grunfeld defence, in which black is about to fianchetto and hasn’t even moved his king’s pawn! Crazy, huh?

Basically, what this means is that black is giving up a strong pawn center (seen as a must since the Paul Morphy days and earlier, as far back as I know) in favor of building a fianchetto castle (sometimes called the King’s Indian) that leaves very few options for White in pursuing a mate that’s not spottable half a dozen moves in advance. The Exchange Variation, one of the most progressions in the Grunfeld defence, sees that crowded-looking center with the knights and pawns being completely massacred and leaving the Queen sitting in the middle or black’s knight threatened by a well-defended pawn or knight from white.

The exchange variation is TOUGH. I get slaughtered when I play it with white. There are some other variations which are a little easier, but risky.

David Mitchell, British Sensation

I’ve heard a lot about this guy, David Mitchell, and I expect this Times article that I linked to is going to mean I’ll be hearing a lot more about him. “Cloud Atlas” is supposed to be the kind of fuzzy, silly, David Foster Wallace-ish metafiction that pop-lit-lovers like me eat up.

But this quote from the article caught my eye:

Mitchell’s writing has been compared with that of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Twain, Sterne, Joyce, Nabokov, Pynchon, Salinger, Chandler, DeLillo, Murakami, William Gibson and Ursula K. LeGuin.

That’s, uh, impressive. Mitchell’s been getting a lot of attention from the literary world lately, but when a list that varied (and contradictory, in places) is piled onto one writer, it can seem more like publishers are framing him as a “grab bag” (or straw man, if you like – here, you like books! Here, like this guy! He’s just like all the other authors you love!)  Too many writers just like Mitchell come and go over an 8 or 10-year span, get dubbed a “sensation,” and then never become Updike or Roth or Pynchon. Their books just don’t get read. A few of them deserve to be rediscovered (Paul Theroux, for one) but most just languish on bookstore shelves until they disappear into the system and flatline somewhere in an Amazon warehouse, to be pulled out once or twice a year for someone who vaguely remembers reading “this guy” on a trip fifteen years ago.

Primer #4: For Comparison,

let’s talk about Natsume Soseki, who wrote a couple wonderful books at the turn of the 20th century including, “Kokoro,” “Kusamakura” and the intriguingly-named “I Am A Cat,” which Wikipedia only makes sound more intriguing with the addendum:

a more literal translation would read “We are a Cat”, using the English royal plural form.


Anyway, I picked up “Kokoro” today, thinking it’d be nice to read something from the Meiji era (pre-WWI, or pre-modern Japan) and I got to thinking about how different Meiji literature is from the post-war stuff I’d been reading all year.

The Meiji era lasted from the end of the feudal era (in 1854, Commodore Matthew Perry showed up with his black ships and demanded Japan open itself; in 1858, Meiji took the throne) until the beginning of World War I (well, technically, 1912, when Taisho became Emperor). Japan was quickly modernizing, and “Kokoro” reflects this with its two main characters: a carefree, Westernized student and a traditionalist teacher.

“Kokoro” is a little like Fitzgerald or Melville in its insistence on character identification. In fact, from the beginning, it’s impossible to enter this world without feeling a little like an accomplice to the unnamed student’s drive, which feels like a character on its own. Soseki was a stodgy traditionalist in the Meiji reformers’ era, and despite his familiarity (like, it seems pretty much everyone else in Japan at the time) with Western culture, he is careful to err on the side of Japanese orthodoxy.

As such, the only thing it’s really comparable to is Akutagawa. This is Japan without a sense of guilt or disappointment or the feeling that a thousand-year-long promise has been abandoned: this is a book written for an audience still ready to invest in the personalities of its characters. But even Akutagawa’s characters are usually representative of ideas, like the thief in “In a Bamboo Grove” or the old man in “Rashomon”; “Kokoro,” (at least so far), has connected two fully-fleshed out people. Of course, they are connected to perspectives in Meiji-era Japan, but they’re more than ideas; they’re people with ideas.

Next time I’ll get back to talking about the passive protagonist in contemporary Japanese literature, but I thought a note on Soseki and the Meiji attitude was necessary before I move on.

Speaking of contemporary Japan, surrealism, and bright colors…

Here’s a beautiful, beautiful photo set using high dynamic range imaging to bring out the hypercolorful fantasy world that is today’s Tokyo. It’s like a very vivid dream.

I understand HDR photography is considered pretty tacky. Fair enough. These do look a little like blacklight posters. But it’s so rare and so wonderful to see someone actually nail what feels like the spirit of Tokyo – the same way gritty projector-reel film seems to nail NYC.

This actually ties in a little with what I was talking about regarding Japanese observation. There’s a wonderful quote in my new Akutagawa collection (thank you, Motor City Books!) about Akutagawa’s ability to distance himself and treat a normally awe-inspiring scene – something with fantastical elements, over-the-top action or reality-bending – with a sort of detached scientist’s attitude. To me these pictures speak with Akutagawa’s tongue.
And remember what I said about Murakami’s film-noir non-sequiturs? What better captures them than pictures like these, where the joke seems to be that there isn’t a joke?
Despite the flashiness, there is a sort of matter-of-factness to them – “This is Tokyo, you know,” they say, “and don’t be surprised if you come across a giant robot in the middle of a field.”
I love them.

Primer #2: Murakami and American Scifi

Although Murakami has a connection to the wider trend of Japanese literature through writers like Kenzaburo Oe (the Nobel-prize winner whose work, like “A Personal Matter,” mostly revolves around learning to relate to his disabled son) he also obviously draws a lot from contemporary American science fiction, especially the hyphenpunk subgenres that sprung up in the 80s and are most closely associated with William Gibson, although I think Gibson was one of the most cliched and obvious cyberpunk writers (I’d get tarred and feathered for saying that in certain literary company, though.)

That’s why I call Murakami a pop writer – he draws heavily from American pop culture (moreso even than Japanese pop culture, some would say) not just in his subject matter – jazz, rock and roll, drugs, the sixties, and the film-noir urban pastoralia of seedy nightclubs and boozehounds – but from the imagery and frames of emotion of his Western cousins like Neil Stephenson, China Mieville and Bruce Sterling (probably the three true grandfathers of cyber/steam/whateverpunk science fiction in the 80s and 90s). Now, these three Westerners also drew from Japanese pop-culture references and style, most obviously Stephenson in novels like “Snow Crash” with its kitana-waving hero/protagonist named “Hiro Protagonist,” but they also adopt what I just called frames of emotion, the way characters are likely to emotionally react to an event that tells us a lot about an author, hinting at both what that author might be like in real life (authors, unlike musicians, are sometimes unable to hide the fact that they’re raging jerks) and what that authors expects from his/her fiction.

Look at a typically Murakamian frame of emotion. I mentioned in my last post that Murakami is a master of the drawn-out non-sequitur, something he shares with American geek culture. I’ll use an example here from the opening of “Kafka on the Shore,” a novel, filled with surreal imagery like talking cats and spirits, that won a seriously ridiculous number of awards. The book opens as the teenage protagonist, Kafka Tamura, has just stolen a decent chunk of money from his dad’s bank account to finance a solo elopement. He’s talking to his buddy Crow here about life on his own:

“I’ll think about that when the time comes,” I say.

“When the time comes,” Crow repeats, as if weighing these words in his hand.
I nod.

“Like getting a job or something?”
“Maybe,” I say.

Crow shakes his head. “You know, you’ve got a lot to learn about the world. Listen – what kind of job could a fifteen-year-old kid get in some far-off place he’s never been to before? You haven’t even finished junior high. Who’s going to want to hire you?”

I  blush a little. It doesn’t take much to make me blush.

“Forget it,” he says. “You’re just getting started and I shouldn’t lay all this depressing stuff on you. You’ve already decided what you’re going to do, and all that’s left is to set the wheels in motion. I mean, it’s your life. Basically you gotta go with what you think is right.”

That’s right. When all is said and done, it is my life.

What a passive main character! And that’s what you see a lot in Murakami: passive main characters.

I’ll talk some more next time about the history of the passive protagonist as it ties traditional English fantasy together with postmodern (I hate that term, but it’ll have to do) literature like Murakami, Auster and the contemporary scifi movements.

Primer: Japanese Literature, Modern (#1)

Just started reading Shusaku Endo’s “Silence” this week, so I’ve been thinking a lot (when I do have free time) about the Japanese writers of the 20th century. Obviously, it was a complicated century for the Japanese, and while I can’t claim to be able to speak to the Japanese experience, I can talk a little about their really great writers of the past hundred years or so, which run an incredible gamut.

This primer is intended to let you know the basics to be able to carry a halfway decent conversation about 20th-century Japanese literature. You’d make a fool of yourself if you tried to use it to talk to Jay Rubin (Harvard professor who translates Murakami and Akutagawa) but it should serve you well in a conversation at a party with someone who’s seen “The Seven Samurai” and likes Miyazaki films.

Like 20th century British literature, most important Japanese writers wrote about two things after 1900: the decline in importance of the monarchy, and the devastation of war. But unlike the Brits, the Japanese didn’t come out of WWII with the pride of being able to say they weathered a ferocious attack, but rather a deep shame in having associated with the Nazis and a big “LOSER” stamped on their forehead in radioactive ink. While the British handled the transition from Monarchical, imperialist power to plucky underdog nation with a great sense of humor and awesome music, the Japanese had to come to terms with the fact that no, their emperor was not a god, and that their traditions, very similar to those that carried the British through the war (read: tea and apologizing), had not helped them. Also, Japanese pop music was awful.

So the subjects may be similar to the British, but in sentiment, the Japanese writers of the 20th century more closely align with, and I’m sorry but it really is the most appropriate comparison, the Germans. Hesse and Grass, the two great German writers of the 20th century, were most obviously inspired by the Easterners. Just as important but not as well-known, sadly, is the German children’s fantasy writer Michael Ende, author of “The Neverending Story” and “Momo,” two of the best books ever written.

The Germans turned East for their inspiration; the Japanese turned west. Even the first and most important Japanese writer of the 20th century, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, drew from American influences. Today, Haruki Murakami writes noirs about jazz music and hippies. Speaking of Murakami:

Important piece of information #1: Haruki Murakami is probably the only non-manga Japanese writer most Americans know.

"Hi, I'm Haruki Murakami, and I'm standing in front of exactly what you'd expect me to be standing in front of."

“The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles” and “Kafka on the Shore” and “After Dark” are a little like if Paul Auster and Philip Roth tripped acid and wrote novels to the Flaming Lips, directed by Michel Gondry, but, you know, Japanese. Which means you get a lot of rumination on technology and humanity, the most pesky recurring theme in Japanese lit since 1945, or at least since “Gojira” came out.

Isn't this a great cover?

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is probably his best-known book, and it’s a ridiculous, disjointed but undeniably entertaining epic following a hapless suburbanite as he loses his cat, his wife, his job, and ends up trapped in the bottom of a well – and that’s just the first half. Some people call Murakami a post-modernist, which is a completely ridiculous term to label a fiction writer and is basically a way of saying he’s a pop writer with a strong command of the extended literary non-sequitur, and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle could be called one huge non-sequitur – an extended joke with no punchline, or a really silly punchline, leading you on and on on a wild goose chase (no relation to Murakami’s book A Wild Sheep Chase). More about Murakami in the next post, and then I’ll move on to Murakami’s bane and one of his biggest critics/rivals, the Nobel-prize winning Kenzaburo Oe.

How is Viswanathan Anand so awesome?

One of the best World Championship games of the century so far.

This was on May 11 in Sofia, with Anand playing black. Lately (the past 5 years or so) World Champions have loved the Queens Gambit Declined, which is good because I’ve been studying it myself and I have a lot of examples to work with. Here Anand uses the Lasker defense and it really makes for an epic game with a good long opening and fights all over the board.

I really wanted to make it out to the US Championship tournament in St. Louis (wrapping up right now) to see if some other GMs are using Queens Gambit Declined and hang out at the absolutely gorgeous St. Louis Chess Club in the absolutely gorgeous heart of the absolutely gorgeous Central West End, but alas. Probably for the best anyway, those 1600-2400 guys could tear me apart.