Saturday, July 9, 2011

Greg's Haitian adventure part 4: Hispaniolan reading material

I'm about halfway through my time here in Haiti, which is a good thing because I'm missing my family intensely. Amid my varied workload, I've been reading a fair amount. I hadn't anticipated this, but once I got to the shared house my coworkers all live in (I'm in another individual room elsewhere in the complex), the collection of fascinating, erudite reading called back memories of my first trip to Haiti, almost ten years ago. Then I'd been staying at a visitor center run by a peasant group in southern Haiti, and there as here various worldly, left-leaning visitors had left an impressive collection of literature and nonfiction.

Actually, until today I hadn't read much for leisure. The only non-work book I'd gotten to was "Cod: A biography of the fish that changed the world" by Mark Kurlansky. It is a fascinating treatment of an animal and a food that I've scarcely ever eaten, and whose worldwide significance I'd certainly never considered. Kurlansky jumps between history, personal narratives, and recipes. The mix sometimes feels awkward and contrived, and the book peters out with an inconclusive ending followed by forty pages or so of historical recipes. But I learned a lot, and it stoked my desire to cook with salt cod in the future.

Today I had a mammoth reading day. I probably should have gotten to a number of small, non-urgent, but important tasks I'd laid out in a list, but after an early-morning market run, I got sucked into "The brief wondrous life of Oscar Wao" by Junot Diaz, finishing the few hundred pages that remained after I'd messed with it a few days ago. The narrative is fascinating, the ambiance of different times and places so well-evoked that I felt like I'd been in and gotten to know a number of situations I've never actually experienced. The protagonists' lives are a far cry from my own, but thanks to a fortuitous collage of my own experience (my growing up in a 1980s inner city, my surrogate extended family's being roleplaying freaks, my grasp of the Spanish language, my U of Illinois attendance, and my familiarity with Latino and Caribbean culture and history), I think I got most of Diaz's odd mix of references to ghetto lingo and realities, state university life, science-fiction and roleplaying games, and Caribbean culture. But Diaz casually throws out so many allusions, from such a wide range of cultural spheres, that I wonder how many readers are equipped to appreciate many of them. I guess a fair amount, since the book was popular among readers and critics. Though my (non-Hispanophone) coworker here did say that many of the extended passages in Spanish went over her head. Conversely, some of the footnotes or drawn-out explanations of Dominican or Latin American culture or history seemed overly expository, an awkward interruption to the fast narrative pacing and allusions thrown out as if everyone should know them. I also felt like Diaz's unique narrative voice, that mix of uneducated slang and flexible grammar with hyper-cultural literacy, sometimes feels contrived, too self-consciously idiosyncratic.

One other book I started today (and might finish tonight!) is Jon Krakauer's "Into the wild". It pieces together the true story of a young man, Alex, who left his family to tramp about in the West and the wilderness in order to find himself, to suck the marrow from life, and who ends up dying from starvation in the Alaskan bush. The protagonist's asceticism and quest for moral purity reminds me of myself around his age. His seeming aversion to deeper human relationships is misled. Alex espouses that the majesty of nature and self and constant new experiences can bring more fulfillment than mere human relationships. But ultimately this self-centered focus on the new, on sensory experience, isn't a far cry from the seeking of happiness in new electronic goods or the latest fashions; a sort of natural consumerism, with all the problems of shallowness and emptiness associated with any consumerism. Such an attitude misses out not only on the majesty of the human, but also of the mundane. Following a daily routine, appreciating the small details of one's quotidian surroundings, is also a way to transcendence and self-knowledge. Even the details of one's routine are never the same twice; new experiences abound on your walk to work as in a trip to the Grand Canyon. That said, I don't begrudge Alex the value he ascribes to solitude and nature over humanity. Like all of us he was an evolving, changing individual, and the intellectual moment he happened to be in when he died is only his final thinking due to happenstance. According to what the author is able to surmise, had Alex survived his foray into the wild, he was thinking of moving onto other things, perhaps love and a family. His reflections on what is good in life should not be seen as a negation of our own reflections, but as an enrichment of them.

Aside from reading (and working a lot), in these past days I've discovered two new dreams for when I'm older and richer. One is to ride someday in the Singapore Airlines Suites class. This is a feature built into the airlines's long-haul routes from places like Sydney and Los Angeles to Singapore. They are essentially little private rooms on the plane, complete with bed, armchair, and private TV. You can even join two together if you're a couple. Apparently a round-trip ticket costs some $15000! I've never been one for luxury in air travel. I figure travel is inherently uncomfortable, so why try to doll it up and pay more in the process? But this Suites thing has really captured my imagination. It would be cool to try it once.

My other fantastic aspiration is someday to follow the St. John's College masters programs in Liberal Arts and in Eastern Classics. The school centers its undergrad and graduate courses around the Great Books of the Western canon (or the Eastern, in the case of its other masters program). You study science with Pasteur and Darwin, philosophy with the ancient Greeks and Aquinas and Kant, mathematics with Euclid onward, etc. A coworker here did her undergrad at their Santa Fe campus, and it sounds like a really cool experience. A chance to reflect on the larger questions of life, after so much effort dedicated to agronomy and eminently practical issues. Maybe when my wife and I are retired, or simply have a few calm years, we could attend together. Maybe we could push our son to go there for undergrad, and sponge off of him for reading materials!

Those are my cerebral musings for now. Not much to do with Haiti, but if I weren't here, I wouldn't be exposed to all these other cultural influences. I'll be writing more soon about more explicitly Haitian topics.

No comments:

Post a Comment