Tuesday, February 20, 2018

On being there

I flick a switch and zoom in to my childhood home, which I sold recently after my parents were taken ill. I look into our former backyard and see my father there. I try to get closer but I am repelled by the absolute limits of the zoom function. Dad’s face is duly blurred but he is walking purposefully. There is no sign of the broken hip that made him reliant on a walking frame, no sign of the rapidly advancing symptoms of dementia that now afflicts him. He is frozen in time-sickness.

– Simon Sellars, ‘Journey to the Centre of Google Earth’

You find yourself in the middle of a long stretch of road. On either side, fields of what looks like young wheat. There are no cars in sight. The sun is shining – isn’t it always? – but of course you aren’t warm. You can choose to proceed in either direction. Eventually you will come to a road sign, or cross paths with a vehicle whose markings might shed some light on your whereabouts.

Car plates are illegible so I look out for trucks, which often provide clues such as the address of the company. Trucks can come from quite far away, so the information is no absolute guarantee you’re even in a particular country. It’s just a hint, a clue.

Or sometimes you find yourself on the outskirts of a village. When it happens to me, I like to explore the place a little bit before getting down to the business of figuring out its exact location. That is where the pleasure of the game lies: to seek information not from the shop or road signs – which is easy enough – but from the aspect of houses and people. You quickly learn to tell if you’re in a hot country or a temperate one, in a rich town or a poor one. There are unmistakable signs, things we already know at a subconscious level about the shape of people’s lives.

The earliest and most popular game in this genre, GeoGuessr, is nearly as old as Google Street View, on which it is overlaid. There are mobile apps that do the same job, but GeoGuessr is just a website. Every game of GeoGuessr takes you to five locations chosen at random from a given selection, or ‘map’. Some maps are quite specific: you can choose to be transported to urban environments only, or to specific countries. Others span several continents. In any case, after a certain number of moves, you’re going to want to make your guess by placing a pin on the world map at the bottom right corner of the screen. The game will reveal your actual location, and give you points based on the accuracy of your guess.

As Street View has evolved and expanded to cover more and more regions of the world in ever-increasing detail, so too GeoGuessr has become more difficult and interesting. Although it is possible to pit yourself against other players, I don’t play competitively, or keep track of my scores. I suspect treating the game as a pastime is the most common approach. Commentators have remarked upon its addictive nature. To me, it is a palimpsest of what the internet could be: a place of places, an infinitely interactive map of the world. A tool for transporting yourself, as opposed to grasping at whatever pieces of detritus happens to gravitate toward the orbit of your interests on any given day.

For the internet has a double nature: it connects us across time and space, and in doing so produces the illusion that those distances don’t matter, compressing all of history and geography into the here and now. I click on a link that somebody has shared on Twitter: it speaks of things and in a language I understand, but I don’t always bother to find out who wrote it or where and when. Even if I wanted to, digital content from the first decade of the World Wide Web is seldom even dated, and is often unsigned. Context is the first casualty of our unprecedented capacity to instantly access what seems at times like the entire store of human knowledge. But loss of context also impoverishes that knowledge.

Playing GeoGuessr, as I do quite often, I am reminded of these erasures even if the game makes erasures of its own. Africa is very poorly covered at a street level. So is China. But I don’t play the game to be everywhere. I play it to be somewhere.

Occasionally, the game takes the player to a location that cannot be guessed. Street View has a surprising number of such places, which are glitch-like in their appearance. You couldn’t access them from the map, so you wonder why they are even there. Once, for instance, I found myself inside somebody’s office in New Delhi. Off the reception was a utility room with concrete floors and myriad electric cables. I couldn’t tell what kind of business it was, nor was I able to exit the building and access the street.

Another time I ended up in a grass field north-west of Beneficente, Brazil, next to a donkey and some farming implements. I could see a human figure in the distance, but could not get close to it. The frustration of not being able to move past the invisible barriers around me resembled the experience of moving inside a dream.

At one level, GeoGuessr is just that: an illusion. It creates the sense of being there – wherever there is – without the means of responding to the environment. It also reflects the limits of Google’s gaze, notably its proclivity to map businesses ahead of everything else. Yet even in the unique way the internet has of turning uncanny experiences into the banal texture of the everyday, the game also acts as a reminder of how vast the world is, and how both similar and dissimilar other people’s lives are to our own. And that is no small thing.

Originally published at Overland

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

My fucking food bag: Mantuan Carnival cakes

The rough translation of frictilia, I suppose, would be ‘fritters’. This is the term that ancient Romans used to describe strips of dough fried in lard, a popular treat during the yearly Saturnalia, or feast of Saturn, a direct precursor of the modern carnival. The sweet – which exists in many cultures – has survived in Italy until the present day, with small variations and under an almost bewildering number of regional names, including merveilles (‘marvels’) near the French border, bugie (‘lies’) in Piedmont, frappe in Rome, strufoli or cenci (‘rags) in Tuscany, crostoli in the North-East and from there into Croatia and as far as Poland. In most other regions they are chiacchiere, or chit-chats.

My grandparents lived near Mantua so for my family they were the lattughe, literally lettuce leaves. Nonna made them every Spring and it was one of my favourite sweets but it’s only recently that I tried to re-create them, and only this year that I finally got them exactly right. It’s not because they’re hard to make, on the contrary: but I wasn’t just trying to make any one of the many variants. Rather, the one from my childhood. The one I would recognise.

This is a very humble dish. it is not difficult nor expensive to make but it takes labour and time, as befits its origins. As I’ve said many times before, the cuisine of the Mantuan province is historically ‘of the Prince and the pauper’, and festivals in particular required that the same rituals and dishes be accessible by rich and poor alike. None more so, perhaps, than Carnival.

To make lattughe you need to prepare a dough that sits halfway between pasta and pastry: a mixture of eggs and flour enriched with relatively small amounts of butter and sugar and flavoured with lemon peel, Marsala wine and vanilla, which you will then need to roll very thin. That last aspect in particular is what sets the lattughe apart from other variants, along with the frying in beef dripping – another pauper’s ingredient that is still found in many dishes of this region, including bread.

On we go. These are the ingredients:
300 grams flour
3 eggs
30 grams of butter
50 grams of sugar
5 grams of baking powder
Pinch of salt
1 vanilla pod (or essence)
1 lemon peel
1 shot of Marsala wine or equivalent liquor
Beef dripping (or vegetable oil) as needed

Sift the baking powder and flour, mix with salt and sugar, form a well in the middle in which to break the eggs and add the butter, peel, vanilla and Marsala. Mix, then knead until the dough is hard and smooth. Mine ended up looking not unlike like a cauliflower.

Leave it in a bowl covered with a tea towel for half an hour or so.

As I made a double batch, I helped myself with a pasta machine to roll it, but you can use a regular pin, so long as you aim for pasta-like thickness. This is more or less what we’re looking for.

Cut the pasta into strips. The traditional shape is a rectangle of 10x5 cms in size, with two parallel incisions in the middle.

You now have the option of feeding one of the corners into the opposite slit, to make a sort of bow – it has no other function than to give some of the lattughe an interesting shape.

I did about half that way, the other half I left as rectangles.

To cook, heat up the oil or dripping in a saucepan or frying pan. It needs to be hot enough for the dough to cook instantly. Dunk a strip and count to 4 Mississippis (or, in this case, “Fiume Po”), then turn it over for a split second on the way to taking it out of the pan and into a dish or bowl which you previously lined with a paper towel. They should look something like this.

And taste something like this.

No wait that’s still how they look. But you know what I mean. Enjoy, and buon carnevale.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Are we running out of poems?

Originally published at Overland

According to the Daily Telegraph, the Hope Bourne prize is a prestigious poetry competition whose chief requirements are that the each entry be ‘original’ and ‘inspired by Exmoor’. Determined to fulfil at least one of these requirements, a chap by the name of Christian Ward took a published poem by Helen Mort entitled ‘The Deer’ and handed it in as is own under the title ‘The Deer at Exmoor’. As the Telegraph explains:
Mr Ward is believed to have changed only a handful of words from Miss Mort’s poem, replacing ‘father’ for ‘mother’ in the first line, ‘river Exe’ for ‘Ullapool’ in the second verse and changing the reference to a ‘kingfisher’ near Rannoch Moor in Perthshire, Scotland, to a peregrine falcon on Bossington Beach, Exmoor.

I am admiring of Mr Ward’s scheme, which would allow someone to localise with little effort practically any work of literature – and not just in Exmoor. But literary types are very sensitive about attribution, and once the matter was put to him, some time after he won the prize, he didn’t help matters by making some rather feeble excuses:
I was working on a poem about my childhood experiences in Exmoor and was careless. I used Helen Mort’s poem as a model for my own but rushed and ended up submitting a draft that wasn’t entirely my own work. I had no intention of deliberately plagiarising her work. I have begun to examine my published poems to make sure there are no similar mistakes. Already I have discovered a 2009 poem called The Neighbour is very similar to Tim Dooley’s After Neruda and admit that a mistake has been made. I am still digging and want a fresh start.

I can also reveal that whenever I sit down to write an essay or a blog post, I use somebody else’s as a model. Especially if it’s supposed to be about my personal experiences. Then, as soon as I’ve changed enough words, I post it or send it to my editor. Is there any other way? But you really can’t be so careless as to forget to make the changes! Now it seems that Mr Ward may have been equally careless in the past, and so there he is now, at the forefront of the campaign to uncover his own acts of plagiarism, a task for which he seems eminently qualified and can already boast some early success.

A further incident last week – involving British ‘poet’ David R Morgan – has prompted the Guardian to come up with the headline, ‘Another plagiarism scandal hits poetry community’. Apparently this ‘community’ is now ‘searching its soul’ and ‘asking itself just how widespread plagiarism is’. I am always doubtful when such sharply defined feelings and intentions are attributed to a vast and diverse group of people, but it may be true that the issue of plagiarism is causing a degree of anxiety that is to some degree peculiar to our times. It’s even got its own, zeitgeisty how-to guide: How to Find Plagiarism in Poetry.

It is a variation on a classic contemporary paradox. On the one hand, the internet has greatly increased the human capacity to disseminate texts, including plagiarised ones; on the other, it has given people unprecedented tools for textual matching and analysis over a corpus that – thanks to repositories like Google Books – is approximating the totality of what was published in print before the internet came along, plus all the digital content. Obscure books that could once be trusted to slip further and further into oblivion are now constantly threatening to resurface as searchable texts. You could practically hear them thumping loudly through the plagiarist’s floorboards, like the tell-tale heart in that story by Poe.

I don’t intend to ask why we even care, nor the degree in which the idea of authorship is called into question – some years ago, after one of New Zealand’s foremost writers was caught in the act, I proposed using the term ‘authoriety’ to describe its current slippages – but rather reflect on the peculiar character of this anxiety. How it is bound with the fear of being caught doing what we all must, as we engage in that form of serial theft otherwise known as culture. How it ultimately points to the exhaustion of our capacity to say and mean things originally, which is centuries-old and yet always poses itself as new. Perhaps it’s a question that each generation has to ask: are we running out of poems?

In 1961 Raymond Queneau tried to answer this question, or rather ensure that humanity would never have cause to ask it again. His book, Cent mille milliards de poèmes (sometimes translated as ‘One hundred million million poems’) consisted of ten 14-line sonnets of identical rhyme scheme and matching line endings, with each line printed on an individual strip so as to enable the ‘reader’ to produce up to 10, to the power of 14 different combinations, each one equally valid from a formal point of view, but likely of different semantic and aesthetic value.

I never had the pleasure of physically handling the book, but there are a number of websites that strive to replicate the experience in a computational environment (including some in French and English). Ironically, the base-sonnets are protected by copyright, which all the sites are in breach of. Wikipedia tells me that a French court has so decreed.

Legalities aside, the problem with Cent mille milliards de poèmes is that it’s very boring. It may be a little nicer to play with the print book, but I found shuffling the lines at the touch of a button (or by hovering over the sonnet) so distracting that I had to stop at once. However, this is in fact a reframing of our media paradox: you can have the statistical certainty that the text you just composed has never been seen in this world before, and it still won’t be your poem, or new, or a piece of art (may Dada forgive me). To do poetry the customary way always involves retreading somebody else’s ground. And that’s fine. If there really is such a thing as a ‘community of poets’, it should worry less about running out of words, or about its capacity to catch the odd thief, whose presence should in fact reassure us that the culture hasn’t reached a dead end; that our canons aren’t yet so small that they can be recited by heart.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The trial of Victor Emmanuel III

The President of the Senate, Pietro Grasso, called it ‘an act of compassion’, although it’s not very clear that it in fact was within his powers to prevent it. What seems clearer is that the dead king didn’t need to return on a special army transport: we could have been spared both the official act and the final expense, along with the deference that they implied.

The remains of Victor Emmanuel III, Italy’s de-facto last monarch (he reigned for a full 46 years, while his successor lasted less than one month), were flown last month from Alexandria, Egypt, to a military airstrip in Cuneo. They were then transported to the small sanctuary of Vicoforte, there to be reunited with those of his late wife, Queen Helen, which had arrived the day before from France. Their exile was self-imposed: they left in haste in May of 1946, leaving their less tarnished son Umberto in charge, in the hope that it might persuade Italians to vote for preserving the monarchy in the June referendum. It did not. Following the referendum, a ‘temporary rule’ of the newly drafted Republican constitution banished the male heirs of the family from the Italian soil, lest they tried to seize power again. The rule was finally abrogated in 2002, opening the door to the return not only of the living members Savoies, but also of the dead ones.

So, why does it matter?

The ‘act of compassion’ might have been just that, were it not for the guard of honour provided by our armed forces and – more importantly – for the fact it opened the door to new claims from the descendants of the last king. Namely, that Victor Emmanuel and Helen be buried not in the modest chapel that houses their famous forebear Charles (d. 1630), but at the Pantheon in Rome, the burial place of the few other kings and queens of our short-lived monarchy. Such a move would have a much greater symbolic significance, going a long way towards rehabilitating the Royal Family and amending the historical judgment on the role it played in a great many crimes.

Albeit initially more moderate than his parents, Umberto and Margherita, Victor Emmanuel has a lot to atone for. He is principally responsible for the country’s disastrous participation in the First World War, having invoked the extraordinary powers granted to him by the Albertine Statute to override the will of parliament. After the war, he presided over the government’s turning a blind eye to the campaign of violence of the nascent fascist movement. Most extraordinarily, he turned the farce of the ‘March on Rome’ into a successful coup d’état, elevating Mussolini to the prime ministership just as the army was poised to regain control of the capital. From that moment, he rubber-stamped every measure introduced by Mussolini not just to legalise Black Shirt violence (beginning with the abduction and murder of socialist MP Giacomo Matteotti) but gradually abolish all democratic freedoms, and ultimately hollow out the powers of the monarchy itself. In the 1930s, he was the figure-head who accepted the titles of Emperor of Ethiopia and King of Albania, and who signed off on the racial laws that targeted the Indigenous population in the African colonies (1936) and the Jewish population in Italy (1938).

That’s not all. Having given his enthusiastic assent to Italy’s late entry into the Second World War in the June of 1940 – when it looked to like the tiniest of helps to Hitler’s seemingly inexorable advance would translate into big gains at the peace-making table – the king behaved just as disastrously three years later, when he was left with no choice but to oust the Fascist leader. It was then that, after putting Marshall Badoglio in charge of the government (and it was no progressive choice: the man was a butcher), he fled to Brindisi, to spend the rest of the war under the protection of the Allied command. Left without orders, the Italian army units stationed both overseas and in the Italian regions not yet under Allied control were swiftly captured by the German army. Those who didn’t surrender, ended up fighting on the side of Mussolini’s soon to be formed puppet regime. The rest – some 600,000 men – were deported to German labour camps.

It is at this time that the deportation of the defenceless Jewish population began. And it is the Jewish community that has been most vocal in opposing any move to transfer Victor Emmanuel and Helen to the Pantheon, a short distance from the historical sites of those mass abductions. Their response has included a full-blown mock trial of the late king.

The trial, ‘written’ by Viviana Kasam and Marilena Francese, featured the testimonies of survivors of the Shoah and descendants of deportees and forced exiles, in front of a judging panel that included a former minister of justice and a prominent anti-mafia prosecutor. Focussing on the passing of the ‘racial purity’ laws of 1938 – which Victor Emmanuel had the power to veto – it found the late king, of course, guilty. But its value was primarily as a creative intervention, within a media environment structurally disposed to present historical events as a contest between opposite and equal sides.

Recorded at a theatre in Rome ahead of Holocaust Rememberance Day, the trial of Victor Emmanuel III was televised in prime time on that, which in Italy goes by the name of ‘the day of memory’. But memory, again, implies a contest: the averaging out or mediation of sometimes opposite recollections. The forensic setting of a trial – while founded in part on the institution of the testimony – constitutes instead an attempt to (re)establish a knowledge of history, as a truth determined by civil institutions that cannot be called into question barring new evidence, and a further trial.

Italian Fascism never had its own Nuremberg, and the new Republic – which was formally founded on the repudiation of the old regime – chose to proceed, both culturally and politically, by means of amnesties rather than trials. And so here we are, having to metaphorically exhume the dead not so we can defeat again Fascism back then, but prevent its deep roots from sprouting again.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

National standards

This one is straightforward: it’s a collection of my mother’s primary school reports, or rather of the four out of five that survived. But it still comes with questions. Above all, this: when is a school not a school? What are the criteria to assess the value of state education, and what distinguishes it from its opposite – indoctrination?

My mother turned six in February of 1937. Her formal education began therefore when Mussolini’s reform of the school system was well and truly complete. Two disciplines in particular – “General knowledge and fascist culture” (grades 1 to 3) and “History and fascist culture” (grade 4 and above) – had been introduced in the 1932-33 school year. Alongside existing ones such as “Hygiene and personal care” and “Manual and female work”, they give us more than a mere glimpse of the model student that the Fascist school sought to produce.

To make this totalitarian project even more overt, the school reports from this period are elaborate affairs with very high production value and obvious propaganda intent. This is the cover of the first report that Mum took home, in June of 1938.

Note that the name of the Ministry of National Education is smaller than Gioventù Italiana del Littorio – the Fascist youth organisation in which all pupils were signed up upon enrolment – and the acronym of the National Fascist Party (PNF). As for the picture, it features the M of Mussolini over a stylised axe, above a rifle resting over a book – the latter symbolising the motto “book and musket make the perfect Fascist”.

At the back, the year is given according to the fascist notation (year XVI of the Fascist Era, ie 1937), above a reminder that of the advent of the “Second Empire”.

This is the far-less-remarkable inside, resembling pre-Fascist reports in most respects.

At the end of her second year of primary school, in June of 1939, my mother took home this report.

We’re at the eve of the Second World War, and the book is gone, to be replaced by a wholly martial imagery. The Fascist year notation is now to be found on the front cover, and there is no back cover.

The report from June of 1940 is the most remarkable of our small family collection, and a lesson in military history and geography. The scarlet M of Mussolini links Libya with Ethiopia, which the regime had brutally invaded in 1935.

At the back, the Italian colonies are shown in greater detail, within the silhouette of those still-resisting countries. For them, it’s apparently Year One of life under Italian rule.

The report from Mum’s fourth year at school has gone missing. Her final one dates June 1942, one year and one month before Mussolini was to be deposed. Italy has joined the war by now. An unusually winged and armoured allegory of Italy, her shield decorated with an imperial eagle and the M of the still-boastful Duce, is seated above the word VINCERE (“To victory”). Reader: we were about to lose.

At the back, a gun rests on a stylised Axe, below the standard of the Fascist Youth.

I cannot really imagine what Mum’s school was like, nor what it was like to grow up in a small village in a totalitarian country. I know that she was a good student, which is why the reports were kept in the first place. And I know that one of the books she loved (and that was not part of the syllabus) was a collection of the Greek myths that form the prologue to the Iliad, adapted for a young audience by Laura Orvieto: a Jewish writer that in those years was hiding first from persecution, then from deportation. Those stories, I think, were the spark that ignited her love for a culture that had other things to offer than a virile ideal of colonial conquest, and helped her forge a path towards secondary education and eventually a life outside the small village, in a country that strived in complicated and sometimes ambiguous fashion to leave Fascism behind.

But that’s another story. These are just documents, relics of a time when children were taught not what they should love, but whom they should hate.