If I cannot move heaven, I will stir up the underworld. Virgil, The Aeneid
My reading—and life—were swallowed by subterranean forces in 2019—and I’m all the better equipped to face our civilizational crisis because of it.
Besides the fact that I work out of a collective literary cave called the Writers Grotto, the primary reason for the obsession with underworldly literature is my own book: a reported memoir about my 30-year journey across the 2,500-mile chain of mass graves, forgotten dead, and devalued life. The book takes me from wartime El Salvador to the remote tropical forests, cartel-controlled deserts and other infernal places where underground elements—MS13 and other gangs, as well as governments—have killed, dismembered, and buried tens of thousands of their victims.
Underneath a refugee crisis story conveniently curated to begin at the U.S.-Mexico border is an altogether different reality from that contained in spectacularly shallow headlines that have, at different times, dominated the electoral and news cycle for weeks, as we will soon see again in the coming election year.
The refugees’ epic journeys through Mexico and the United States, my home country, are the closest thing many U.S. citizens will ever come to western civilization’s foundational underworld stories, the Epic of Gilgamesh, Homer’s Odyssey or Virgil’s Aeneid.
Yet, if there was ever an English-language story that could benefit from narrative power of the depths it is the Salvadoran epic. Outside of translations of the virtuoso writing of award-winning journalist Oscar Martinez, the author of the The Beast and The Hollywood Kid (written with his brother, Juan), there are few to no major English language Salvadoran narratives about the ongoing crisis written by actually existing Salvadorans. Scholarly works by Leisy Abrego, Joaquin Chavez, Cecilia Menjivar, and other U.S. scholars do much to fill in the academic void in the English language. Journalism and literature are another story.
My research shows that a similar erasure of Central Americans and the resultant superficiality in storytelling exists in recent media coverage of the ongoing humanitarian refugee crisis. The effects of this lack of a English-language Central American perspective (except, that contained in two dimensional images of pain and sound bites of suffering) can be seen in the controversy surrounding the video of Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez, a Guatemalan migrant who died in a south Texas immigrant prison.
After a news organization failed to ask their permission before releasing the disturbing footage of their boy’s horrific final hours, his parents released a statement in which they declared the following: “It’s been really painful for our family to lose Carlos….but having all these people watching him die on the internet is something we couldn’t have imagined in a movie or a nightmare.”
Left out of the crisis stories is a deeper context that includes the 74 other migrants who died similarly horrific deaths between March 2010 and early 2017. Unlike Hernandez Vazquez’s, these stories and bodies were buried in anonymous media graves by the inconvenient fact that they weren’t killed by Donald Trump.
Desaparecido in the English language is the voice of those hailing from cultures that the great Nicaraguan-Salvadoran poet Claribel Alegria described as a “map of deep mystery.”
In search of a deeper way to tell this perpetually-urgent story, I found the ideal trope with which to explore ideas and emotions in times of such epic and interconnected personal and political crisis: the trope of the underworld.
The magical literary workings of the Great Below are described in Wendy Lesser’s masterful The Life Below the Ground: A Study of the Subterranean in Literature and History. Hands down the best survey of the subterranean in literature, Lesser’s book helped me understand (pun kind of intended) how different authors have used narratives of descent as a way to structure, move and animate fiction, nonfiction and poetry, especially in times of profound personal and civilizational crisis.
Central to the different genres using underworld tropes—noir (i.e. The Maltese Falcon), thrillers (i.e. The Third Man), sci-fi (i.e. The Time Machine), psychological, working-class struggle (Hard Times), racism (Invisible Man)—argues Lesser, is the way such literature contrasts a surface world or reality with a parallel world below. And, more often than not, this contrast serves to attack the existing order. In our Age of the Spectacular Superficiality, dissent necessarily means descent.
To complement the shortcomings of Lesser’s marvelous book, my own reading drew primarily from the wells of a underworldly Latin American literary tradition that includes the Popol Vuh, the Mayan book of creation, Antígona González which uses the Greek tragedy Antigone to tell a story of the search for Mexico’s thousands of desaparecidos, and Yuri Herrerra’s outstanding Signs Preceding the End of the World, the story of a lyrical, hard-boiling journey into the criminal, political and migration depths. The first words of the protagonist, Makina, who works as a telephone operator, make clear the story’s abysmal ambitions: Estoy muerta.
A great 19th-century illustration of how the narratives of descent disorganize the senses of readers in ways Rimbaud demanded of all poets is Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Carroll deployed Alice’s journey, in part, to disrupt and deconstruct Victorian English sensibilities. He did so using a defamiliarizing technique that defines the workings of the underground in literature: literally deforming a character’s (in his case Alice’s)—and everyone else’s—body, their sense of identity and meaning. Also known as “katabasis,” the underworld journey of rebirth also serves to alter notions of time and space, as Carroll does to the spatio-temporal ideas created and enforced by the forces of industrial capitalism.
A more contemporary filmic example of the uses of the underworld trope to disorganize our senses is The Matrix, released at the beginning of the century, in 1999. Neo, the Wachowski sisters’ central character, undergoes an Alice-like descent into the depths of the myths and lies of post-industrial capitalism. These myths and lies are delineated in John Beaudrillard’s epochal Simulacra and Simulation, a book featured in the movie. Both remain relevant.
All the prizes and plaudits recently won by narratives using subterranean tropes appear to indicate that the literary and cultural establishment also believes these tropes can help us to grapple with our astonishing global crisis and inequality. Jordan Peele’s Us used underworld themes to great effect and garnered numerous awards. My favorite award-winning filmic example this year is Korean master Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, a brilliant satire about the class conflict brewing in the nuclear bunkers turned into housing beneath the apartment buildings and homes of post-war South Korea. The film’s acid critique of the Korean “economic success” story has already racked up Cannes’ Palme d’Or, eight Golden Globe nominations, and is generating serious Oscar buzz.
In similar fashion, this year’s Nobel prize in literature went to Olga Tokarczuk, the author of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, a book whose protagonist balances her heavenly pursuit of astrological truths with her love of one of the greatest English language promoters of underworld power, William Blake. The theatrical re-telling of the Orpheus myth of Hadestown won eight Tony awards this year, including Best Musical, while The Ferryman, the story of a former member of the Irish underground, the IRA, won the Tony for Best Play.
On television, HBO’s Westworld series regularly takes viewers on this underworld journey each time its (robot and human) characters descend into the high-tech storeroom where androids, some of which/whom are becoming sentient, have the stories they’re programmed to enact in the amusement park world above erased. This descent into erasure parallels the crossing of the Lethe, the mythological Greek River of Forgetfulness (or, in some interpretations “river of Unmindfulness) that the souls of the dead must drink from before entering the afterlife. The literary treatment of the Lethe is described smartly in Herald Wienrich’s Lethe: The Art and Critique of Forgetting. “Lethe” is also at the center of the adventure and search for truth in the recent His Dark Materials television series based on the Phillip Pullman book series of the same name. The instrument guiding Lyra, the story’s central character, as she navigates a world layered in lies, intrigue and erasure is called a “alethiometer,” a kind of compass that finds the truth behind any question asked of it. This association of of the Lethe with truth also harkens back to the Greeks for whom the search for truth was directly related to remembering forgotten truths.
Our time, our literature require the narrative alethiometer that is the underworld. Recent revelations that 3 U.S. Administrations—Bush, Obama and Trump—lied to the public to keep almost a trillion dollars of our tax dollars flowing to military industrial contractors and others profiteering from death and war in Afghanistan should serve as a reminder to go deep—and then keep going deeper.
For these and other reasons, I let the underworld swallow my attention this year. And, from a glance up at the future, I will continue to follow Blake and and AC/DC in seeking salvation on the highway to hell.
Having a mild fascination for anything to do with Trieste (that magical city where languages flow together and Joyce and Svevo still walk), I devoured a wonderful collection of reader’s reports written by Roberto Bazlen (1902–1965) for the Italian publishing houses Einaudi and Bompiani. The book’s called Lettres éditoriales in French and contains, among other things, a note about Georges Bataille that made me laugh: “Un aspirant loup qui se dandine face à l’irrationnel (…) Petit névrotique esthétisant et bourré d’auto-compassion.” (“A would-be wolf toddling about in the presence of the irrational…A neurotic little aesthete steeped in self-pity.”) He was being a little unfair, of course: I remember how discovering Bataille when I was 20 (L’Abbé C and Madame Edwarda) showed me a new way to think and write about the world. Bazlen, by the way, was the inspiration for another fine novel, Le stade de Wimbledon by Daniele del Giudice, which is about a famous author who never writes anything.
Trieste is also the backdrop for Umberto Saba’s only novel, Ernesto, which describes like no other book I’ve read the awakening of homosexual desire in a teenager. I’ve always liked Italian writers; they create a very special brotherhood with the reader. Spanish and Portuguese writers do this, too. Whenever I feel a bit melancholy, I read Italian, Spanish, or Portuguese writers, to warm myself up.
A marvelous photograph of Winnicott in old age led me to The Piggle: An Account of the Psychoanalytic Treatment of a Little Girl, which gave me the idea of writing a play centered around a little girl who speaks like Piggle. In Winnicott’s book she sounds like Lewis Carroll. It occurred to me that Alice in Wonderland is a sort of psychotherapy session, but without the psychoanalyst.
A friend of mine lent me a novel called Loin des bras by Metin Arditi, a French-speaking Swiss writer of Turkish origin. It’s probably the only novel I’ve ever read that, though written by a man, feels from beginning to end as if it were written by a woman. I don’t know if Metin Arditi was aware of this while writing the book. Probably not. But I think he has a female narrator in him.
I don’t recall how I came to read the Hungarian novelist Ferenc Karinthy’s terrifying Epépé. A brilliant linguistics teacher arrives in a country where nobody understands a word of the many foreign languages he speaks, and where he can’t understand a word of their language either. It was so scary that I couldn’t finish it. A few nights later, I dreamed I was in an alarming country where nobody spoke my language.
One day I wanted to hear the sound of Maupassant’s French again, so I read one of his short stories, “La petite Roque.” It’s a an absolute masterpiece; the language is like Bach.
I came across Les petits chevaux de Tarquinia among my younger sister’s books, in our family house during the holidays. It was the one book by Marguerite Duras I hadn’t read: a tragic love story, set in a sweltering seaside town, which could almost have been written by Sophocles. Some of the characters are unforgettable: a crazy little maid who says out loud whatever comes into her mind, an elderly couple who watch over their son’s corpse, and a grocer who talks about love and kindness in a magnificent language that could almost have been written by Thomas Bernhard.
I also read (in French, and for the third time, though it felt like I was reading it properly for the first time) Dylan Thomas’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog. I like his way of referring to himself in the third person, since the young boy he once was is a kind of stranger to him now, and how he often casts himself as a minor character, a sort of extra, in these stories about his childhood.
Another book about memory that I enjoyed is Souvenirs dormants (Sleep of Memory) by Patrick Modiano. Modiano’s novels are probably the best guidebooks you can get if you’re visiting Paris. A bit like Simenon’s, though with Modiano you’ll get lost because the Paris he describes is a dream, even if the street names are real. Modiano is the master of mental blanks.
I remember a very touching piece in a collection of Susan Sontag stories called Débriefing in French, relating her visit to Thomas Mann, at 14, at his home in Pacific Palisades in Los Angeles.
Then there’s Michel Houellebecq’s latest book, Sérotonine. I admire his way of writing about mental anguish and contemporary solitude, and I like his irony. He can also be very funny. But I don’t understand why he always uses such crude language when he’s writing about sex. It’s an aesthetic choice I always find baffling in his work. If I met him, I’d ask him about it.
I also read Elizabeth Gaskell, a contemporary of Dickens, for the first time. I loved Cranford (in a wonderful French translation by Pierre Goubert), not only for its charm and wit and intelligence, but also because of the peculiar situation of the narrator. The woman telling the story is a friend of the main character, Mathilda, and spends several months at her friend’s home in Cranford. But she tells us nothing about herself; she’s there simply as an observer. Even her name, which the reader discovers at the end, is an empty shell: Mary Smith. She’s like a ghost.
Apropos ghosts, I found myself thinking at one point about the Manckiewicz film, The Ghost and Mrs Muir, so I decided to read the novel it was based on, by R.A. Dick (again in a French translation). A young widow discovers the delights of solitude and starts writing a story dictated to her by a ghost. I couldn’t help wondering if we don’t all write under the dictation of a ghost, and if the solitude you need in order to work isn’t a prerequisite for hearing what the ghosts are saying.