Blog 14 Bookends

Blog 14:   Bookends                                                               February 1 2013


               The mandarin tree is producing fruit faster than we can eat it. Male bridled sparrows have begun to stake out nesting territories in the scrub above the Casas Encantadas. Helen and Joe, from Rhode Island, no less, are here for a ten-day trial run and have taken our place in the Casita.

We had a delicious lunch yesterday at Biznaga, one of Oaxaca’s top of the line restaurants, just below the Santo Domingo monastery-museum: a cream and black bean soup dotted with freshly fried totopo strips (crisp tortilla pieces), chunks of avocado, toasted bits of chile pasilla, and salty white cheese cubes; a beef strips and goat cheese concoction structured to look like a log cabin; a sampler plate called 

trilogía mixteca bearing  a creamy tamal wrapped in hierba santa leaves, a small memelo (fried round tortilla) topped with a bean spread, avocado, and pico de gallo; and a lightly fried pastry horn filled with diced pickled onions and beets, a dab of guacamole, and another of spicy refried beans with freshly grated queso fresco cheese.

Tomorrow is the Virgen de Candelaria, and all over Oaxaca  in the late morning people will be gathering to eat tamales, drink mescal, and watch the rockets exploding in the air. They’ve started tonight at sunset: if you listen hard you can hear the thudding booms and see the puffs of white smoke in the fading tangerine sky over the grey ridge line across the valley.


Not to worry. It’s not Aleppo; it’s not car bombs in Ankara; gunfire in a Connecticut school; narcotraficantes in Ciudad Juárez; Israeli planes laying waste to an unconventional weapons facility. These rockets, says Virgilio, the gardener-philosopher who keeps the Casas Encantadas trimmed and verdant and with whom I spend a few minutes chatting every morning, Estas cohetes son de alegría. These are rockets of happiness.


               This was a week for bookends. Tuesday night, Judith’s informal movie club (she’s a film critic I think of some note, and can get first run features) showed “Zero-Dark-Thirty” to a tight-lipped, stomach-churning, fingers-clenched audience of seven of us. Seven at the start; five at the closing credits. Thursday I went to the Museo de Pintores Oaxaqueños Botero exhibition: “Testimonios de la bararie,” (Witnesses to Barbarism). Linda opted out of both events: she doesn’t do violence. She won’t even watch “Bambi.”


               I expect that some of you have seen the film. If you haven’t, and can stomach it, it bears watching. It opens, in the dark, with the sound track of passengers in the doomed 7/11 plane. It cuts to torture, barbaric torture, worse than anything performed in the interests of truth and justice by the Spanish Inquisition. I’m not exaggerating, or whitewashing: the Inquisition is something I know a lot about. It’s Bush era “enhanced interrogation techniques” exposed for the cruelty and sadism and dehumanization (of both tortured and torturers) that underlies the pious purpose of preventing savage attacks against the “homeland.” The interrogation elicits torrents of lies, half-truths, nuggets of what turn out to be truths, or near truths, and the long sequences are punctuated with enough acts of terrorism to provide a justification, of a sort, for what we are watching on screen. I thought the most chilling moment was a brief, interspersed TV clip of Obama saying that the US “does not torture,” that our country will always strive for the moral high ground. Naíve? Deceitful? Or just beyond the control of an idealist, even one who is president and presumably the Commander in Chief. One who has not yet closed Guantanamo. One who has not brought accused terrorists to open judicial trial. One who has expanded the drone program of targeted assassination.


               The film’s strength, it seems to me, is that it does not attempt, at least very hard, to resolve the moral ambiguities. It seems to be saying, on the one hand, that torture can produce valid information that can lead to the achievement of tangible goals. Like “getting” Bin Ladin. But it also seems to be saying that the torture is so morally repugnant, so destructive of human dignity (on both sides of the waterboarding jug), and so unreliable as a tool, that in using it we are abandoning the moral high ground. Or I may just be watching through my own lenses of bias: that torture is not justifiable on any grounds. Any grounds; ever.


               And then there is Botero, a contemporary Colombian painter whom most of us know and many of us love. Pudgy, colorful, middleclass people, engaged in colorful, largely happy, everyday activities. A touch of irony here, a slightly sharpened skewer there, with hypocrisy –of the individual, of institutions, of the collective will that invests society with coherence- a ready, amusing, sometimes unsettling, but never chilling target.


               Not these paintings. No sir. 67 canvases – oils, pastels, charcoals – that unremittingly reflect the horror of the decades of violence that Colombia suffered in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, and from which finally, in the last few years, seems to be emerging. The pudgy figures are there, but dark tones predominate, and the figures are holding knives, bloodied machetes, and sometimes guns. There are pairs of men, pummeling each other with their fists. Gangs of men, beating one man senseless, their faces a study in nonchalance. Victims and perpetrators, their eyes lit with anger, fear, despair. Women crying over corpses, leaning over coffins, accusing the viewer with their eyes. Ordinary people, fat middle-class people, well-dressed working-class people, tearing each other to pieces in ordinary, everyday ways. It reflects the Colombian reality of those years, of course, made more powerful, and more poignant, by being the mirror images, the evil doppelgangers, of the people we are used to seeing in Botero’s work. Goya’s nightmares in the 21st century, not his cartoons for the tapestries: the black paintings, Saturn eating his children, the dining room in the Quinta del Sordo. Like Goya’s dark abyss, which was not really, or not entirely, about the carnage strewn by Napoleon’s troops, this collection has a universality to it that is numbing, and profoundly disturbing.



Bookends. As the cohetes de alegría go boom in the sky, now gone black, on this erev Candelaria, 2013.