Saturday, May 28, 2016

A Monk, a Fox, a Bitter Man and the Three Goddesses of Destiny

Sometimes I enjoy revisiting the same books. A good language experiment is learned from reading a book in a new translation and then thinking of the subtle differences in expression relative to the original language. Recently I re-read “The Sandman: Dream Hunters” by Neil Gaiman, with illustrations by Yoshitaka Amano. I was fascinated by this book for the first time some 16 years ago in its original English edition and now I bought it in a Spanish translation.
My second reading of Neil Gaiman’s tale made me think about the power relationship between men and women. In the story a monk and a fox with the spirit of a woman fall in love, but their idyll is disturbed by a powerful wizard who wants to rob the monk’s happiness. The wizard commands three witches to aid him, one is an old woman, the second a beautiful and naked youth, and the third is a woman neither young nor old. He asks the witches why he suffers with fear and cannot feel tranquility. The young woman, who possessed an eerie beauty for one could not say whether she was alive or dead, answered that the magician was afraid because he was alive. The old woman replied that men only achieve peace in the grave or for a brief moment while contemplating the sunset. The woman who was neither young nor old offered a solution to the magician, pointing out that a young monk who had no wealth or power nevertheless enjoyed all the tranquility of this world. The wizard must therefore kill the young monk to rob him of the tranquility and love in his heart!

It is a beautiful tale, full of meaning, and it captured my imagination all these years. I am particularly fascinated by the intense relationship of the male characters (the monk and the wizard) with the women (the fox and the witches). In my personal interpretation Gaiman’s story is a dreamy and emotional retelling of the difficult choices men face when dealing with beauty and loneliness. In ancient cultures men use their power and strength to get what they want and desire, but it is not the same to possess something out of force or fear than receiving love freely. Men, especially the most powerful, dominate their women, first their mothers (the old woman), then their wives (the woman neither young nor old), and finally their daughters or second brides (the young woman) whose youth shows a vigor that instills awe and jealousy in the older men who fear death. But what does the Wizard get out of his power? The Beauty in his captive witches (for they are his servants) is enthralling and yet it feels as something terrible for it is devoid of any real affection. Instead of love the master wizard only receives spite, resentment and hatred. The wizard understands this, but it is different knowing the truth and relinquishing control to free one’s destiny. Power is too seductive and no person in its possession gives it up freely. Kings, but also parents, spouses and each one of us experiences such temptations.

The old woman’s reply that Man only lives tranquil briefly while enjoying the dying sunlight at day's end is also an implication on how Beauty relates to us. The sunset is beautiful and yet it is a beauty outside the influence of men. It shines for everyone equally, poor or rich. Yet the monk owns things even more prized than the radiant sun. One, the buddhist peaceful enlightenment. Two, he is loved by the fox spirit who never wishes to abandon him. Unlike the sun which shines independently of our merits these loving gifts are only received from others’ free choice and that makes them even more precious. Generosity and love are more prized than sunlight!

Neil Gaiman wrote an epilogue that erroneously claims the story to be based on a Japanese folk tale, which was a joke intended to deceive those who dislike giving the due worth to modern authors. However, the love story between the fox spirit and the monk does resemble some Japanese and Chinese folk tales, which remain popular even nowadays and have been adapted to the cinema. Other elements of Gaiman's book do differ a lot from these eastern stories, so one cannot state the book is a simple adaptation of an old tale or that its inspiration is based on a single source. What matters is that The Dream Hunters is my favorite book by Neil Gaiman and it is definitely an original work and one deeply imbued with lessons, passion and dreams.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

A Night Train to Lisbon, a House of Spirits and a Sailor between Chile and Portugal

As a Portuguese arriving to live in Chile seven years ago my first thoughts were entwined on the coincidences between both countries’ cultural, political and cinematic experiences. My embracing of this country was entirely unplanned and the result of a twist of fate (or “fado” as the Portuguese call it). As I was completing my studies in the United States, the economic crisis in Europe gave me the idea of looking at another continent for prospects. I and my Chilean supervisor thought “why not Chile” and a life changing project was born to answer such question. I had never been in Chile before, had met only three Chileans in my whole life until that moment, and I realized with some mixed feelings of anxiety and expectation that Chile is the farthest country on Earth from Portugal. I had no clue then that I would stay so many years in Chile, but afterwards each single second here inspired me with passion, serenity and an eagerness to embrace a new life born equally out of destiny, random chance and my deep inner self.

My airborne thoughts in that cloudy grey May morning as the plane descended over Santiago turned to the subtle links between Chile and my birth country. Both countries lie at the extremes of their continents, giving the feeling of lands at the end of the world, where poets contemplate the dark foamy sea and drown their thoughts in the sound of the waves. Interestingly, there is a very famous Chilean novelist, Luis Sepúlveda, who lives in Spain and sells millions of books in Portugal and Spain, and yet is completely unknown in Chile. Thinking about this I wondered if I too could be more successful in Chile than in Portugal. Want to listen to Fado/Destiny? My favorite place as a child - 8 to 12 years old - was the big supermarket Jumbo in Lisbon! I didn't know then it was a Chilean supermarket, but I was in love with its design, the elephant logo and its books section. One could say I loved Chilean grocery before I knew it.

Most strikingly, Chilean and Portuguese political culture were joined together four decades ago. In the early 1970s a Portuguese underground political movement flourished even under a brutal repression of a nationalistic right-wing regime. Two consecutive generations of Portuguese reached adulthood without a local model of what a democracy and its leaders should be. The oldest of the repressed generations had a cynical view that nothing would ever change, but the youngest – among them my parents and cousins – saw the world as a blank state where all kinds of communities and ideas were possible. Young people were fragmented in different political parties and groups. Many such groups sought inspiration from other political movements in the wider world, including Latin America. Chile was taken by some as a cultural model with songs borrowed from Víctor Jara, poems from Neruda and fiery speeches from Salvador Allende. Brigada Víctor Jara is of the most famous Portuguese folk music groups of the last 40 years and was directly inspired by Víctor Jara’s brave resistance and death. In 1973/74 Chile changed from a democratic regime to a dictatorship, while Portugal became a free nation, although one confused by the many possibilities offered by freedom. The Portuguese had to learn that not all free choices are good and that beautiful pipe dreams only flourish if sustained by hard reality.

However, even more surprising is that both countries are symbiotically linked through the cinema. Chilean director Raoul Ruiz used Lisbon to create Valparaiso in his movies, since his long political exile blocked him from filming in Chile. One example is the movie Three Crowns of the Sailor, where a drunken sailor in a ghostly ship travels from Valparaiso to other ports, living strange fantasies. Also, Ruiz' last movie "Mysteries of Lisbon" adapts a Portuguese novel by Camilo de Castelo Branco and again shows how much Portuguese culture impacts Chilean art.

Another movie on my mind that day was the celebrated adaptation of House of Spirits from Chilean novelist Isabel Allende, which was filmed in Lisbon and Alentejo in Portugal. Two generations of a Chilean family: one lives in a democracy plagued by wealth and land inequality, the second is crushed by a military coup. More recently, a movie by the same director Bille August adapts the novel “A Night Train to Lisbon” by Swiss author Pascal Mercier. The movie is about a Swiss literature professor who travels to Lisbon in search of a little known Portuguese writer and ends up finding how the Portuguese dictatorship broke his friendships apart. One of the major scenes in “A night train to Lisbon” shows a Portuguese communist activist, João Eça, being captured by the secret police at his home. João is forced to play the piano in front of his torturers, only to have his hands broken and his fingers smashed. I cannot remember such an incident being reported against a Portuguese musician during the dictatorship times, but it is quite possible that Bille August and Pascal Mercier may have been inspired by a similar incident which happened to Víctor Jara, who was forced to play and sing by his torturers after having his hands and finger nails broken. Again Portugal and Chile are united through dark political events and their experiences were mixed to form a great novel and cinematic piece.

Now Bille August is perhaps the only director who can claim to have made movies about both the Chilean and the Portuguese dictatorships, with both movies being filmed in Portugal. And both works feature a stellar acting by Jeremy Irons! Let’s hope Bille August and Jeremy Irons return to Portugal and film a third movie as passionate, enthralling and literary as these.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Keynesian and Monetarist Policy of Alexander the Great

Archaeological evidence shows that interest rates for business loans hovered around 30% in the ancient world. Gold and silver currency were hard to find and many merchants had to trade goods for other goods. Just think how hard the life of an ancient merchant was without good and widely accepted coins. Instead of using money to pay for his items, the merchant would have to carry goods (say, cereal) and then trade such goods for his new merchandise (say, pottery) somewhere else. Obviously, this involved having to carry heavy goods in horse-pulled wagons both ways. This changed after Alexander’s conquests.
Perhaps without intention, Alexander the Great was a revolutionary in economic policy. After capturing an enormous quantity of gold and silver talents from the Persian Empire, Alexander the Great sponsored temple reconstruction, road building, monuments and art. This was a Keynesian policy in the style of an ancient conqueror! However, Alexander also implemented a monetarist policy, issuing huge amounts of gold and silver coins, which lowered interest rates from 30% to 6%. This differed from the Persian policies regarding currency, since they preferred to accumulated gold and silver in huge reserves in their treasuries. Money went from treasury keepers to the business men. City-states however had to borrow at slightly higher interest rates, perhaps because lenders were afraid that city governors (which at the time could control small armies) would refuse to pay unless by force.  Entrepreneurs in trade, art and construction projects benefited from the new coins issued by the Hellenes all over the Western Asia and the Middle East. Artists and builders could get funding for their projects. Merchants found currency easily available to buy their merchandise in other countries, without pulling heavy wagons with goods on their way, which saved their troubles for at least half of the path. A new age of Hellenistic art and economic prosperity started.

Of course, anti-cyclical policy or concerns about unemployment or potential GDP were far from Alexander's concerns. His reign coincided with a big increase in expenditures, because he had a concern for grandiose projects. The increase in money issue was certainly only driven for two reasons: one, to finance his expenditures in military (Alexander had to repay a big debt inherited from his father Phillip II's Persian expedition preparations) and big monuments, and second, because new coins were a good way to celebrate the glorious events of a new reign. Still, in ancient times just as now, monetary expansion has an inflation cost. Historical evidence shows that in cities such as Tyre, Gaza and Babylon, there was an increase in prices, perhaps by twice as much, and the economic boom ended in a recession. However, the economy and trade did boom back again after the Diadochi conflicts subsided into a relatively more peaceful era.