Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Review: Cavalier in the Yellow Doublet. Black History Month Review: Nigger for Life.

Arturo Pérez-Reverte. Translated Margaret Jull Costa. NY: Penguin Group, 2009.
ISBN: 0399156038 isbn13: 9780399156038

Michael Sedano

Happily serendipitously, my tour of Pasadena Public Library's New Book Shelf turned up a "new" Captain Alatriste novel. But curiously, I learned the "new" label is a bit misleading, as the book has a 2003 copyright from a G.P. Putnam's Sons edition. One day, perhaps, I'll make sense of the publishing industry's vagaries. I had not seen the novel heretofore, so it's new enough for my eyes, perhaps yours.

If it's new to you, you're sure to enjoy it. If you read it in 2003, you've already dug it, and can leave a comment below how you took to the story. Arturo Pérez-Reverte fills this fifth Captain Alatriste / Íñigo Balboa novel with the literary ambience of seventeenth century Madrid, less with the swashbuckling action that made earlier Alatriste novels happy exciting page-turning reads.

As the title suggests, the King plays a central role in the regicide plot. The womanizing Phillip IV becomes Alatriste's rival for the same woman, putting the Captain on the collision course plot that ends well, but by the skin of his teeth.

Sadly, the novel bogs down after the first swordfight in the opening pages, but picks up as now-16 year old Balboa accompanies playwright Francisco de Quevedo into the royal apartments, as the artist's scribe. There, Íñigo finally enjoys the pleasures of his scheming paramour and maid-in-waiting to the Queen, Angélica de Alquézar, along with her dagger in his back. Love hurts, the young man learns.

The evil nemesis Gualterio Malatesta returns to the scene, first escaping Alatriste's hands, later capturing Alatriste intending to toss the soldier to the Inquisition's chief torturer and frame the Captain as regicide. Alatriste, bound hand and foot, beaten bloody by hired swords, looks to be at his last gasp. Even Malatesta shudders at thoughts of what the Inquisitor can do.

Readers familiar with Arturo Pérez-Reverte's earlier works will enjoy the character development of storyteller Balboa. A homeless ruffian, boy-soldier, his master Alatriste ensures the boy takes a classical education at the feet of acknowledged literary lions, hence these novels, told by an aged Íñigo decades past the events of the novels.

Those not yet acquainted with Pérez-Reverte's Golden Age of Spain novels owe themselves a treat by reading the series. Start with this one, or go to the first. Any sequence works. Each comprises a stand-alone story, with Balboa's narration linking elements from earlier and, presumably, future tales. In the current volume, Margaret Jull Costa proffers an outstanding translation that reads smoothly absent cultural lacunae that mar so many translated-from works.

Honoring Black History Month. Self-published collection, "Nigger for Life."

When I was in first grade, a clueless child from Arkansas named Ramsey threatened every kid he met with the same refrain, "I'm gonna shoot you with my nigger shooter!" When it was my turn, my response was "that's a sling shot, what's a 'nigger shooter?'" Redlands CA in the 1950s. Gente in my family and in the neighborhood didn't use that word so it was new to me. "You're a nigger," Ramsey informed me, brandishing the weapon. I decided against kicking his ass, instead electing to ignore Ramsey for the rest of his life. Menso Ramsey then thought to menace Lonnie Washington with the stick. Lonnie, one of the tinto kids at Lugonia School evidently had a keen sense of outrage. Lonnie beat the crap out of Ramsey, breaking Ramsey's sling shot in the process. That was the first time I understood just how offensive some words can prove to the wrong audience.

The issue rose its voice last week at La Bloga when a commenter noted, in an unfelicitous manner lacking context, that some folks used "nigger" as a badge of pride. All Hell broke loose in the comments section, some comments reflecting affront, others curiosity, some I thought, verged on a Lonnie Washington response.

Neal Hall uses "Nigger" to vocalize emotions that begin with anger and continue through disillusion, hate, grief, disdain. "Nigger for Life" fills a bereft cornucopia with bitter negativity, not pride, not soul, more a slap in the face.

Hall reflects on the contradiction of celebrating a Black History Month in a nation that continues treating people with the kind of racism that filled little Ramsey's world back in the 1950s, as in Hall's untitled piece, "Martin Luther King's birthday / has been transformed into / a day of atonement. / The one day white America uses to absolve / itself of the previous 364 days of continuous / racial oppression, injustice and exploitation."

On page after page, Hall piles on the outrage of a United States--he uses the hegemonistic "America" to name the country--that purposefully excludes non-white populations, as when Hall observes, "When America cries out for / a return to her days of greatness / memorialized in the still life in / Black and White photos / . . . . / Remember, memorialized in / America's black and white still life, / there is no black life."

Now again he intrudes a ray of hope, or progress, typically filled with sarcasm: "Progress / Today, / they don't call you Nigger. / Well! / not loud enough for you to hear."

It would be simplistic to accuse Hall of voicing puro hatred for whites. His disappointment is balanced, heaping on indictments of exploitation by whites on one side, of abnegation on the other side by middle class blacks or duped masses. Of the middle class black, he says "Judases, / unwilling to reach above their laurel crowns to / lead the multitude beyond the reach / of the task master." That's pretty intense disdain. Of the masses, however, his expression is more sardonic, as expressed in one of the few titled pieces, "Sisters Say." "Accessorized in blue colored contact lenses, / colored girls say they want to be / colored like the motherland; / wear their hair like Africa...colonized."

Sadly, Neal Hall writes trapped by his emotions, sacrificing art for expression. "Nigger for Life" is less a collection of poems than a collection of blood-curdling agonized screams. Most of the pages contain screeds laid out in short lines to resemble unmetered blank verse. His best work comes in short bursts, four or six line epithets expressing a keenly felt insight. The value for Unitedstatesian readers comes in accessing Hall's unfettered raw emotions, nothing cleaned up by an editor or a publisher with an eye on the cash register. Being self-published and marketed, Hall can say whatever the heck comes off his keyboard.

Unlike Lonnie Washington, who got the satisfaction of kicking Ramsey's racist ass, all Neal Hall can do is rage in print. The thoughts and feelings here have been artfully expressed elsewhere, as in the work of Nikki Giovanni ("Nigger, can you kill?") or The Last Poets ("Niggers are scared of revolution"). But we got those a long time ago. Hall's voice speaks from our time today; is the counterstatement to the hope voters invested in the aftermath of electing the first black U.S. president: "I am convinced / that for black Americans, / the look of freedom / has been more detrimental / than no freedom at all." Que plus ça change...¿quién sabe?

That's the final Tuesday of 2010's final February. A Tuesday like any other Tuesday, except You Are Here. Thank you for visiting La Bloga. Let us now see if March comes in like a lion. See you then.


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susan said...

I was involved in the exchange and I hardly say it was "all hell broke loose." If using the word bullshit suggested outrage, trust me that was pretty tame. I thought the speaker had no more right to speak for blacks as I have taking on the spokesperson role. I said what I thought as one black woman.

It would have been more interesting and potentially fruitful if bystanders had actually chimed in.

Maybe you were flooded by emails but what happened publicly wasn't much. I don't think the tie-in was necessary. Some Harvard scholar also wrote a book called "Nigger." The word is polemic but no one is screaming bloody murder over. Well, I'm not.


p.s. I publish two blogs so Color Online/Susan are the same.

colbycolby said...

Part I

When Lonnie Washington beat the crap out of Ramsy because Ramsy menaced a “nigger shooter”, Mr. L. Washington did so out of anger and outrage. Lonnie felt an affront to his pride, his soulfulness, his connection to humanity.

When George Washington and the founding fathers declared their independence from England, Mr. G. Washington et al did so out of anger and outrage of their socio –economic oppression and tyranny they felt they were suffering at the hands of King George III. Out of such “anger and outrage”, Mr. G Washington et al declared war !

Out of such anger and outrage Mr. G Washington et al created a new world order -“America” - with a tyranny and oppression of its own.

For L Washington and G Washington, it is clear that it was “anger and outrage” that “fueled” their defiant actions ( i.e. an ass kicking and declared war respectively) against the indignities they believed they suffered.

While the reviewer celebrates L Washington’s anger and outrage, and fails to indict G. Washington et al’s anger and outrage, the quick to “angry black man discourse”; holding our [black men’s] anger and outrage to a higher standard - less artful, less soulful, pride-less is ironic in response to hundreds of years of hypocrisy and tyranny generated by anger and outrage felt and acted upon by the non-black founding fathers.

People of all colors and ethnicities must never allow anyone to shame nor decrease their anger or outrage over our subjugation.

We should never let anyone quiet or dampen our outrage/anger with “their need” to have it served up soulful, prideful, metered and artfully presented before the oppressor.

To take a metaphor from Malcolm X and the “actions” of George Washington et al, it is critical that we who struggle to be free keep our coffee strong, black and steaming hot.

Embrace your anger and outrage. It is the fuel men of history have used to not only free themselves but, it is what new world orders are created out of.

Nigger For Life is effective and accomplishes one of its objectives - to leave the reader feeling the “anger and outrage” of continuously being seen and treated as a “nigger” first and foremost. Anger and outrage are our fuel to build a new world order where “all” men are created equal and rise and fall on their merits in pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.

Neal Hall, M.D., Poet

colbycolby said...

Part II

The reviewer characterizes the author with disillusion, grief, disdain, negativity, being trapped by emotions and hate.

Having the benefit and insights of a surgeon and physician, I am keenly aware of the stages of grief individuals experience when deeply pained by injurious events in their lives:

1.Shock, Denial
2.Pain, Guilt
3.Anger, Bargaining
4.Depression, Reflection, Loneliness
5.The Upward Turn
6.Reconstruction and working through.
7.Acceptance, Hope

If the reviewer indeed read disillusion, grief, disdain, negativity, trapped by emotions in a Nigger For Life, then the author has more than skillfully and artfully met his objective, i.e. to get the reader to feel his pain, anger and outrage.

While others may need to quickly skip ahead to: The Upward Turn, Reconstruction, Acceptance and Hope, for that -artful happy Hollywood ending - it is the writer’s prerogative to chronicle/write about his stage/station of the grieving process with regards to his believed tyranny.

Regarding the assertion of hate:

I hate no man lest I become the oppressor.
I hate what white people do.
I hate what “any” man does to oppress and exploit another,
irrespective of the ill-reasoned reasoning and reasons.

But rather than narrow me to hate,
let me expand you, by telling you what I love:

That all men are created equal,
endowed by creation to rise or fall on one’s own merit
in search of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness …

Having said such, if “hate” is perceived and felt by the reader, the poems within a Nigger For Life have been written well. Well enough to have the hatred of “man’s inhumanity against man” strongly apparent.

Lastly, the reviewer writes “Unlike Lonnie Washington, who got the satisfaction of kicking Ramsey's racist ass, all Neal Hall can do is rage in print.”

I respond stating that unlike Lonnie Washington, but just as satisfying, my satisfaction … my struggle for freedom and dignity starts with my anger and outrage, deeply assessed and felt, put in print for all to “feel” in their hearts and souls; far more artful than kicking someone’s ass or declaring war or the quick to discourse of the angry black man !

Neal Hall, M.D., Poet

AnnArbor said...

A another reader's perspective on Dr. Hall's "anger and outrage" in his Nigger For Life book.

“Honestly, I am not sure if I would have picked up a book of poetry at the store, especially a book with such a controversial title, but a friend spoke highly of it, so I picked it up. I think I read the whole book from cover to cover over an entire day - I could not put it down! It's not often that you actually "believe" an author; believe his pain, believe his story, his strength, his determination. I can hear the pain in the voice of Dr. Hall and I think it echoes the pain of Dr. King and Malcolm X. This is the type of book that needs to be studied, reread, and taught at Contemporary African American literature classes. What a find!”

Matthew Conant Crystalline Studios "cinevorefilm" (Philadelphia, PA, USA) -

Columbia said...

The review of Nigger For Life by M. Sedano which negatively cites purported shortcomings, mis-interprets the book's message of its author, and is contrary to the recognition appearing below re: Positiveblackimage.com. The review below is consistent with many of the comments re: Nigger For Life to date; including my own.

The poetry is effective in delivering the intended feeling, perspective of the author, and a true reflection of the times Black people live in. The superior writing of Dr. Hall is on par with that of great poets.

"Dr. Hall,

We recently received your shipment [Nigger For Life book]. Upon review we have decided to post your new book - Nigger For Life on PositiveBlackImage.com. Thank you for your positive contributions to our community.

Eddie Williams, Co Founder"