Review: Imagine Wanting Only This by Kristen Radtke

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Cover courtesy of pantheon

Agggh! This book has sat on the floor of my bedroom since September of last yearbasically for my entire senior year thus fargoing unread! I made one cursory pass at it sometime during the fall semester, wasn’t really hooked by it, was kind of put off by the art style, and then abandoned it. Well, good thing I didn’t just return it to the library, because now I have read it, and it’s fantastic. (SIDENOTE: I am not a monster. Although my honors student status allows me to check out books for the entire school year without having to renew them, I normally don’t do so unless the book a. is incredibly obscure and clearly not in any demand or b. has multiple copies available. Radtke’s book [probably because she got her MFA here] has multiple copies at the UI library.)

Imagine Wanting Only This is a graphic novel memoir mainly focusing on a period of Kristen’s life starting with her undergrad career and ending shortly after leaving graduate school and moving to Louisville, Kentucky—the “stuck in them 20-somethings” period of life, to borrow a phrase from SZA. As the book moves between major decisions and life events in these years—moves, break-ups, illnesses—Radtke returns again and again to the themes of loss, deterioration, decay, the desire for something more, something new—and the way all these things conflict within her. Is it possible to hold onto the old and gain new relationships, new experiences? Is it possible to hold onto anything at all, when everything is so transitory? What is the value of preserving a ruin versus letting it fall into rot? The strongest through-line of the book is ruins. The urban decay of Gary, Indiana, the devastation of the Peshtigo fire, the volcanic destruction of a town in Iceland, even the mold and water damage in Kristen’s sad college apartment. These images hold the book together, link one event with another, and keep the book feeling cohesive despite the lack of any straight-shot plotline throughout the whole story.

I think one of the things that initially put me off about the book was Kristen and her boyfriend Andrew acting like such creeps (“Really, you can’t say the word ‘yes’ without invoking James Joyce,” Andrew opines at one point), and being unsure whether or not I was supposed to relate to them and feel like their grody behavior was romantic. Because I know these students, anyone getting a liberal arts education knows these students, and they’re the kind of students who I don’t care to be around because I can’t connect with them through their wall of irony and aggressively performed insightfulness. That said, it pretty quickly becomes clear that no, Radtke is not trying to romanticize (for example) the way these two descend on Gary, Indiana in the most exploitative, ruin-pornographer manner. It also becomes clear that a lot of their pretension and surety about the world is covering deep insecurities and internal tensions, which allowed me to relate to them in a way I’m sure I could never, I’m sure they would never let me, if I met them when they were that age at UIowa.Read More »

What I’ve Been Reading, April 2019

Been a while since I did one of these, I guess because I’ve been reading lots of short stories. Anyway, here’s what all I’ve been reading the past few months (my god it’s been four months since I read Heavy where did the time go I’m about to graduate aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa.) Also, I recently read Imagine Wanting Only This by Kristen Radtke, which I had a lot to say about, so that’ll be posted as its own review a few days from now.

Heavy by Kiese Laymon — As the subtitle describes it, Heavy is “an American memoir,” following Kiese Laymon from his childhood up to his early adulthood, returning again and again to themes of abuse, education, body image, racism, and America.

Incredibly, even with these heavy themes, whenever I started listening to this book, I just couldn’t stop. I even listened to it on my airplane ride from Cedar Rapids to Atlanta! Let me tell you, on airplanes I only ever listen to podcasts, or music. Stuff that does not require a lot of cerebral commitment. But when I ran out of saved podcasts, I started listening to Heavy, and the hours just flew by.

Part of the engrossing pull of this book may have to do with how novel-like it is. It’s composed primarily of scenes, scenes that are fully fleshed out with long stretches of vivid dialog, and intriguing, instantly identifiable characters. And the narrative voice shifts to fit the different phases of Kiese’s life. There’s no sense of retrospective distance between the narrator and the events he’s describing, and the result is that as a reader you can be fully immersed in these remembered moments as they play out. That said, Laymon still manages to address more abstract ideas—the book is not just a series of things that happened, it does also pull revelations out of those events, which steadily accumulate and build on one another throughout the book. As I said, it is novel-like, and the novel that it is like is a novel which expertly joins theme with narrative, emotions with ideas, character with critique.Read More »

New Publication: The Ones I Used to Know in some scripts

Screen Shot 2019-02-02 at 11.33.51 AMMy short play The Ones I Used to Know is now available in the inaugural issue of some scripts! I’m so happy to have been included in this project, a magazine founded on the idea that scripts have literary merit, and can be enjoyed and appreciated even in their purely textual form. I’ll refrain from going into my full rant on the importance of reading plays, but basically the core ethos of this magazine is right in line with how I feel about scripts and screenplays as textual objects, and I’m as excited to be published in it as I am to read all the other contributors’ works.

My play is a ten-minute piece about climate change and Christmas music, set in a small town in Iowa. I realize this sounds awfully similar to “Fuck You Pay Me” but 1. Yes, and 2. They are actually quite distinct, and 3. You should check it out anyway!!!

Public Domain Day 2019: A Reader’s Guide to Paul Selver’s Translation of Karel Čapek’s “And So Ad Infinitum”

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“Dolphins in Phosphorescent Sea” by MC Escher. Completed in 1923, enters public domain today!

We made it! At long fucking last, we have made it out the other end, and for the first time in 50 years (with the exception of just two years, 1997 and 1998), works are entering the public domain for the US and almost every other country on Earth. As is tradition on this blog (as of a year ago), every Public Domain Day (January 1st) I write a post related to my love for the public domain, and release one of my own works to the public domain. This year, I’m writing about the first English translation of And So Ad Infinitum, and releasing Tallahassee Ca. 2045 to the public domain! Jump down to the bottom of this post if you just want to read my play, or stick around if you want to hear about insects and bad poetry!

(And if you’re unclear on why today is so special and what the heck the public domain is, you can check out my post from last year.)

Ze života hmyzu (“From Insect Life”) is a play in three acts, written by Karel Čapek in 1920. As such, the original Czech has been in the public domain for more than half a century, and can be read online here. Obscure as it is in the anglophonic world, the play has seen many adaptations and productions, from a 1996 Finnish opera to a 2018 Czech film titled Hmyz (“Insect” in English). It’s been translated into English a few times over the past century, but the earliest translation was done by Paul Selver in 1923—which means it has just entered the Public Domain as of this very day!Read More »

New Publication: “Fuck You Pay Me” in Reckoning

reckoning-3-cover-draft-2-webMy short story “Fuck You Pay Me” is now available in Reckoning 3Reckoning is a non-profit journal that publishes poems, artwork, stories, and essays about climate change and environmental justice. My writing aside, you should absolutely check them out. They do fantastic work and support a broad range of artists, and I’m thrilled to be included in this year’s issue.

As for my story, “Fuck You Pay Me” is a story about two high school seniors who will be graduating soon, facing a world severely effected by climate change, and watching their opportunities dry up before their eyes. So, using an accountability AI to calculate the dollar amount that they are owed by the world, given the damage that climate change has done to them, they decide to balance the scales of climate justice and rob a wealthy family. Other stuff happens, and it takes place around Christmas, so it’s a perfect story for the holidays!

Currently you can buy an ebook of Reckoning 3 here. If you can’t spare the seven bucks right now, everything in Reckoning will be published online over the next six months, so you’ll be able to read my story free in April 2019—and if you want a physical copy, tthose will be available in June 2019.

Happy Holidays all!

What I’ve Been Reading, December 2018

You ever just have a run of really good books? Like, every book you pick up you just enjoy straight away, and love reading it all the way through? That’s what I’ve had these past few weeks. This is what I’ve been reading:

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin — This book follows George Orr, a thoroughly average, inoffensive man living in early 2000s Portland, Oregon (the future at the time Le Guin wrote it.) George Orr is wholly unremarkable, except for the fact that, sometimes, his dreams change the world. When he wakes up from these “effective” dreams, he’s the only who remembers the old world—although he also has new memories from this new world—and otherwise, the new world marches on without missing a beat. When Orr is referred to the psychiatrist William Haber, he tries to get cured of this ability, but soon realizes that Haber is only taking advantage of his effective dreams to try and make a better world as he sees fit—and each attempt only creates a more dystopic reality.

The pacing in the book is terrific, with Haber growing more powerful in each new iteration of the world, and circumstances getting more dire for all of humanity. As well, it lets Le Guin really show off her world-building chops, with all these slightly different futures for Portland and for the whole Earth. The book is largely driven by dialogue, but what prose there is is that clean, cut-glass writing you’d expect from Le Guin. This allows her to establish these new altered worlds quickly, with just a few prominent images to pull the reader in.

What I loved most about this book is the themes it’s dealing with. The idea that the world’s woes can be solved by rational problems, that these can be applied universally without nuance, is completely dismantled—or rather, Le Guin shows what happens when these rational ideals have to face up against the illogic of humanity, of Orr’s dreams. Nowhere did this theme his harder for me than when Haber tries to solve the war in the near east by telling Orr to dream of a world with no more war. The results are, of course, not perfect, and in fact far more frightening. Haber is the perfect image of the bloodless Rational™ Liberal thinker, who believes there is war in the Middle East because middle easterners are foolish religious zealots, and iF onLy tHey CoUld See tHE lIgHT of ReAsoN TheRe wOulD Be No wAR, and by golly I am the man to fix the Middle East’s problems. Le Guin’s stroke of brilliance is that when this rationality meets Orr’s unconscious mind, the result is not a bunch of humans who suddenly love each other, because in a sense humans were never really the problem—the result is unfathomable monsters.Read More »

What I’ve Been Reading, Spooktober 2018

Okay, so I intended for this post to go up in October, but it took me awhile to finish House of Leaves, and honestly, whateverSpooktober can live on in our hearts year round. So yeah. Here’s a ton of spooky stuff that I’ve been reading.

Universal Harvester by John Darnielle Universal Harvester begins with Jeremy, a VHS rental store clerk in the small town of Nevada, Iowa, when customers begin returning tapes and complaining that something has been taped over part of them. When Jeremy inspects the tapes, he finds odd, lingering shots of a farmhouse spliced into the middle of the movies—and the inserted footage only becomes more and more disturbing.

But that’s just where the book begins. As it progresses, the narrative winds its way through various small Iowa towns, backward and forward in time, sometimes leaning more toward horror, sometimes more toward the mundane (which isn’t to say that the two aren’t connected.) Overall the book is very atmospheric, but it isn’t an atmosphere of constant dread. It’s a portrait of the midwest that is loving without being provincial, critical without falling back on the old clichés we all know about middle America and rural communities. That’s really what struck me about the book—its quiet, steady chronicling of the lives of characters dealing with loss, struggling to find home, caught between staying and leaving. It’s a book without climaxes, no do-or-die moments, just endless process, a book about living.

Read More »

New Publications: 20, and 20

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Just as I did last year, here are two collections of all the plays I published in the past year, and all the short stories I published in the last year. I’m now less enamored of the idea of this being a “complete works” series, for various reasons which I explain in the forewords of these anthologies. Mainly, what does “complete” even mean? Regardless, these collections really do have all the pieces I self-published while I was 20, and all the afterwords I published with them. And I will continue this series, because I like having a cheap way for people to buy my stuff—the collections just might always not be annual, or they might not always be “complete.”

20stories-c-120; Two plays and a monologue contains Suggest the EmpireChimaera Cries ON STREAM!!!!!, and Tallahassee Ca. 2045—including a brands new afterword for Chimaera Cries ON STREAM!!!!!! You can get it on Smashwords or Amazon.

20; A collection of short stories contains “A Clash at Grozny Airfield,” “The Wisdom-Goddess Star,” “Beneath Them,” and “ChannelCon ’30.” You can get it on Smashwords or Amazon.

What I’ve Been Reading, October 2018

It’s October, and for the past couple years I’ve taken this month as an opportunity to read some spookier pieces than I normally would. So while this post is only mildly spooky (featuring a flying bear, murder, and an enormous black cat), later this month I’m hoping to put out a 100% haunted “What I’ve Been Reading, Spooktober 2018” post, probably talking about The Grip of It and Universal Harvester and House of Leaves (if the library patron who has it now ever returns it), so look forward to that. In the mean time, here’s what I’ve been reading:

Borne by Jeff VanderMeer — Wow this book is great.

Borne takes place in an unnamed city, which, along with the rest of the world, has been radically changed by civilization-ending climate change. The only power-structure in place is that of Mord, a colossal flying bear which protects the building of an old bioengineering company (always referred to as “the company”), and the Magician, an old employee of the company who is steadily taking control of various parts of the city. In the shadow of Borne, scavenging humans and escaped bioengineering experiments carve out an existence. One such scavenger is Rachel, the narrator of the book, who scavenges for her partner Wick, another ex-employee of the company. On one perilous scavenging excursion, Rachel finds an odd piece of biotech which looks a bit like a sea anemone, and she takes it back to her home and names it Borne.

Borne soon grows, and eventually begins to talk, revealing his powers of shapeshifting and his unnerving lack of waste—he only ever absorbs things, never excretes any waste. It’s hard to pin down the plot of the book to a specific archetype, because it plays off lots of them. It’s a coming of age story, and a kind of parenting story, and a kind of E.T.-esque story. So it’s peak VanderMeer, in it’s ineffability.Read More »

Review: Something New by Lucy Knisley

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Cover courtesy of First Second books

Something New is a graphic novel memoir by graphic novel memoirist Lucy Knisley. Although I’ve read all of Knisley’s travelogues and her terrific culinary memoir Relish (check it out, it’s got recipes!), I put off reading Something New because I knew it was about Knisley’s wedding and weddings in general, and I didn’t think it would hold my interest. I just feel very detached from weddings. I don’t have the kind of money to throw a wedding. I don’t have any attachment to the religious or cultural aspects of it. I don’t have friends who have been married. I don’t foresee myself being married anytime soon (ever?) I’ve been to tons of weddings, but only as an observer, never as part of the groomsmen party (or the bridal party, for that matter.) So even stories of really crazy disaster weddings don’t really connect to me. Like, okay. You did a weird thing with more money than I can ever imagine myself having in accordance with ancient ceremonies, and you put doilies all over it, and then it rained. Like … cool, fun story.

But! I listened to a podcast with Knisley, where she talked about this book as well as her upcoming memoir Kid Gloves, which will detail her pregnancy and fraught-with-difficulties childbirth. I realized that Kid Gloves sounded like a book I would enjoy, as it would present an honest, warts-and-all portrait of pregnancy. And I thought, well, how can I read that book without first reading Something New? Maybe it too will be a different story of marriage than I’m used to seeing. So I checked it out from the ICPL, and dug in. And then I pulled on my socks and shoes and proceed to kick the crap out of myself for not having at least glanced at the first few pages of this book sooner.

The reason I include all this preamble is that, it turns out, many of my feelings toward weddings were exactly Lucy’s feelings, too, before she decided to get married (and even during the process.) And here’s the thing: the wedding itself isn’t all that different from most weddings. It’s not that different from the classical wedding story. However, it’s Lucy’s skepticism and willingness to present the cold, hard facts of marriage that make it such an engaging read. It’s a testament to Knisley’s storytelling that, as she describes her coming to understand why people love weddings, why they are so special, as she sheds some of her skepticism, so did I, to the point that when she finally arrives at the wedding itself, rather than seeing just a bunch of dresses and strings of light bulbs, I was genuinely touched by the emotional sincerity of the moment.

Knisley achieves this in a lot of ways, but mainly by taking her time. The first 70 pages of the book is a love story, detailing the serpentine path that her and her husband took over the course of several years to finally become engaged. Learning who the principal characters (as it were) of this story are in this way is what makes all the wedding planning (which is the majority of the book) engaging, it’s what gives it all depth. And she isn’t messing around with the other 230 pages either, which she uses to address themes that are universal in weddings and marriage, and show how they manifested in her own life. In this way, she’s both informative on weddings in general (with lots of interludes that include facts or statistics about weddings) and insightful in how these things affected her as an individual. One chapter that I found particularly interesting was the one in which she described her experience being bombarded with targeted ads, and how these ads changed her internet experience (and how her fiancé wasn’t targeted at all.)

As for Knisley’s art, she has a very clean, bright style that draws you forward effortlessly, and occasionally provides some great visual gags. She pairs the images and scenes she illustrates perfectly with her narration, underscoring or complimenting the mood, theme, or idea of her words with her drawings. Also, her depictions of food are mouthwatering (another reason to check out Relish.)

Towards the end of the book Knisley writes, “The strangest part I’ve found of being an adult is that I kept waiting for my life to feel the way other people’s lives felt, viewed by me, the outsider.” And although she goes on to explain that we each have to experience our own lives, our own adulthood, for ourselves, I think that with this book she has, in part, granted the reader the ability to look into her life, and the life of a bride-to-be, from the inside—failed DIY projects and all. This book was a terrific, substantial read, and I cannot wait for Kid Gloves.

What I’ve Been Reading, September 2018

Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson — Man I went hard on this book. I essentially listened to the entirety of it over the course of a few days, which, even at 1.5x speed is quite a lot. The book is about a crew of “mistings”—sorcerers of a sort—plotting to overthrow The Final Empire, which is ruled by a god, the Lord Ruler. I’ve heard Sanderson describe it as a mix between a heist novel and epic fantasy, and it seems like those things don’t go together, but Sanderson really pulls it off.

Like any good heist story, the book has a broad cast of characters, each of whom specialize in one aspect of “allomancy”—a form of magic whose users derive their power from ingesting a specific metal or metal alloy. This power is mostly possessed by the nobility, and of course the Lord Ruler, as it is passed down hereditarily. While a system of eugenics has mostly kept the nobility from spreading this ability into the peasant class—the Skaa—some Skaa still end up being allomancers. Most allomancers can only use one metal, but there are some who are “mistborn,” who can use all the allomantic metals (there are ten, and a rumored eleventh, while burning all other metals, or even impure alloys, just makes allomancers sick.) This magic system lends itself well to the heist elements, and gives a very solid sense of progression to Vin, a mistborn and the main character of the book, as she masters the use of all these different metals. The magic also just has a wonderfully tactile feel to it, an almost steampunk-ish brassiness to the language of it—phrases like “Vin flared pewter” or “he rioted her fear” just leap off the page in a way that gives the magic a real sense of weight, even when it isn’t being used to cause some physical change. As the book goes along, and the reader comes to learn the different metals, the action scenes gain a beautiful fluidity, with Vin using a multitude of different metals—flaring tin to see better, then thrusting herself forward with steel and burning pewter to dampen the pain of the impact—and the reader understanding perfectly what all this means. “She burned tin” comes to mean as much as “she squinted,” though again, it has that wonderfully, gritty, imagistic heft to it.Read More »

Review: Rereading Great Expectations

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Engraving titled “Pip waits on Miss Havisham” by Marcus Stone.

A month or so ago I reread Great Expectations in the hopes that it would provide me some nice juicy quotes to pair with chapters of the travel memoir I was writing. That ended up kind of working, but in general I just found myself loving the book, as it more than lived up to my fond memories of it. I actually did review the book on this blog awhile ago, in a What I’ve Been Reading post,  but I only spent a few paragraphs on it, and a lot of stuff struck me that I didn’t really notice the first time around, so here goes.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens is narrated by Pip, an orphan living in a small town in southeast England, presumably near the Thames Estuary, as he multiple times describes “the marshes” and the sight of “hulks”—prison ships. Actually, the Pip who’s narrating things is an adult, looking back on his life, mainly focusing on his boyhood, adolescence, and early adulthood.

The book is broken into three volumes, and each one is really it’s own little universe, with its own specific goals and style.

The first volume mainly focuses on Pip’s boyhood. Pip is raised by his much older sister, the abrasive, violent Mrs. Gargery, and her husband Joe Gargery, a kind, gentle, infinitely likable blacksmith. Pip is given a taste of wealth and status when Ms. Havisham, an old, reclusive noblewoman, calls him to her house to attend on her, and play with her daughter, Estella. And with that little taste, and with his sudden love for Estella, Pip quickly grows distasteful of his low, common life.

That’s really what the first volume does beautifully—it paints a portrait of the steady development of self-loathing, even of disdain for Joe, in this commoner boy. It shows the growth of his unhealthy desire to be a “gentleman,” to escape the profession of blacksmith. One terrific quote comes as Estella and Pip are playing cards:

“He calls the knaves, Jacks, this boy!” said Estella with disdain, before our first game was out. “And what coarse hands he has. And what thick boots!”
I had never thought of being ashamed of my hands before; but I began to consider them a very indifferent pair. Her contempt was so strong, that it became infectious, and I caught it.

Towards the end of the volume though, Pip learns of a mysterious benefactor, who wishes him to go to London, and who has granted him great expectations—expectations meaning, by a now archaic definition, an inheritance. Although the benefactor works through an intermediary, not revealing their identity to Pip, all signs point to it being Ms. Havisham. These expectations only drive Pip further apart from Joe, and the volume ends with Pip setting off for London.Read More »

New Publication: ChannelCon ’30

Right on time for convention season, my new novelette “ChannelCon ’30” is now available on Amazon and Smashwords!

0016d89f1aa203ded0e47304488df88d16e3c368With hours and hours of old movies entering the public domain every year, in the near future curators emerge as a new kind of content creator, culling all this old material and selecting personal favorites to livestream on their channels. Lindsey Xong and Amber Smith are two such curators, Amber focusing on finding movies, and Lindsey focusing on commentary and abridgment. Together, the two form Amber Linz, an incredibly popular channel, poised to sign a major deal to to get exclusive access to old movies a year before they enter public domain. To announce this deal and to engage with the curator community, the two go to ChannelCon, the biggest, greatest curator convention in the world.

But almost instantly, it’s clear that ChannelCon is coming apart at the seams, beset by the growing division between purists (who stream content completely unedited) and cureditors (who stream abridged or even completely remixed movies.) As retaliations and acts of sabotage escalate, the two sides seek to claim either Amber or Lindsey as their own, driving a wedge between the duo and jeopardizing their deal. Finding out which side is perpetrating all the chaos is not only important for purists and cureditors—it could also be the only way to save the Amber Linz deal, and Amber Linz itself.

In addition to this novelette, this publication includes an afterword in which I discuss the real world inspiration for this story, and how little fandom and conventions have changed in the past 80 years.

What I’ve Been Reading, June 2018

Currently I’m catching up on all the issues of Asimov’s that I wasn’t reading while I was over in Spain, and other short stories. As far as books, I’m mostly reading them via audiobooks, but I am still reading them.

The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin — Boy am I late to this party. The Fifth Season is the first in the Broken Earth trilogy, which in itself holds two Hugo Awards for best novel and one Nebula Award for best novel, not to mention three nominations for each of those awards—and it may just clutch a third Hugo Award this August. So yeah, I am late as fuck to a hell of a party.

The accolades are earned. The Fifth Season takes place in a world (Earth?) periodically ravaged by tremendous apocalypses, called “Fifth Seasons” or simply “Seasons.” These global catastrophes usually originate from seismic activity, though grow out of control from there (e.g. an erupting volcano can cause years of winter, a fissure in the earth can release hallucinogenic gas causing a “season of madness” …) The only bulwarks against these Seasons are the orogenes, a subsection of humanity gifted with the ability to sense and quell tremors in the earth, among other things. This first book in the trilogy is split into three narrative strands, each focused on an orogene at a different point in their development, the oldest of which is actually living through a Season, trying to find her daughter.

I won’t talk much more about the story/stories of Fifth Season, because I think it’s the book’s weak point—in as much as healthiness is the weak point of a cake. Fifth Season isn’t really trying to tell a ripping yarn, at least not throughout all of the book. Later on, plot developments start to thicken, but the first half of the book is largely focused on exploration of the world, and of the interior of these characters. In this, Fifth Season excels.Read More »

New Publication: Tallahassee Ca. 2045

Remember this post about the Parkland shooting and representation of high schoolers? The play I was talking about back then is now available, on Smashwords and Amazon.

Tc2045-c-2In the year 2045, a group of politically conscious high school seniors decides to organize a youth rally—a protest to lower the minimum voting age. Just before the protest is scheduled to happen, a massive ice sheet breaks off of Antarctica, causing global flooding. The youth rally becomes a demand for radical change of climate policy, and the politics of the students are put under new pressure. Relationships between the original group of friends strain as the protest grows further and further out of control, and any hopes of changing the world look dimmer and dimmer.

Tallahassee Circa 2045 is an exploration of protest culture, shifting ideologies, and the intersection of youth and politics, set against the backdrop of global catastrophe and an ever-shifting national landscape.

Running time is approximately 120 minutes. The cast is 1M, 5F, 3NB.

In addition to the play, this publication includes an afterword (a large part of which already appeared on this blog in that MSD post) which constitutes an in-depth look at youth rights, representations of high schoolers, and the politically tumultuous period in which the play was written.

Happy summer everyone! #HotOutHere

The War of Paraguay: Chapter XIX, The Question of Commander-in-Chief

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Bartolomé Mitre, as depicted on Argentina’s 2-peso note.

(1) As we have seen from Ferraz’s letter, on 5 September it was not yet thought that the emperor would take part in the siege of Uruguaiana. Tamandaré decided to go and kiss the hand of H.M. in the city of Alegrete (on 2 September), introducing him to General Flores and perhaps General Mitre. With the issue of commander-in-chief Mitre being in one of our provinces, the emperor of Brazil determined to take part in the military operations, especially since he found himself in that province, and not far off. Six days after Ferraz’s letter sent from Passo do Rosário, the emperor reached the encampment at Uruguaiana (11 September).

The question of the allied armies’ commander-in-chief was resolved by the 3rd article of the treaty of Alliance, through which, at the same time that it gave said command to General Mitre, the treaty established reciprocity in the event that military operations took place mainly in Brazilian or Uruguayan territory. However, Ferraz sent the following confidential notice to the governor of Rio Grande on 5 July: “General Osório will always act as chief commander of the army fighting the Paraguayans on the shores of the Plata and the Uruguay. The commander of arms, or anything else, of the forces of that province, in his rank as chief of reserve forces” (it’s best to repeat this to avoid confusion) “will lend to said chief general however much he can lend and however much the general can request, and if need be both forces will operate jointly within the province, or outside of it, if it is invaded; but in this case General Mitre, in accordance with the treaty of the Triple Alliance, will assume command of all the allied forces; and if as consequence of that province’s invasion the allied armies enter your jurisdiction, again General Mitre will exercise command of them.” This notice, taking into account the italicized words, should be interpreted in the following way, according to Ferraz: General Mitre could only exercise command by virtue of the aforementioned 3rd article, outside of our territory; but, the imperial government would waive its right to command in the event that Mitre was carrying out within our borders, having crossed them in pursuit of the enemy, the execution of a strategic plan. It’s clear that the government expected reciprocity in the event that this happened in Argentine territory, according to that article.

Brazil’s generous conduct is quite self-evident. Per the treaty of Alliance, the head of the Brazilian army, Osório, should have found himself under Mitre’s orders, except in the case of war in our territory or in Uruguay. If Mitre had a plan to beat the Paraguayan army, like, for example, the plan that brought to an end the fighting at Yatay, then passing the direction of operations from one general to another, as operations took place on this side and that of the Uruguay, would equate to sacrificing the principal interest of defeating the enemy to the secondary interest of satisfying a formality.Read More »

The War of Paraguay: Chapter XVIII, The Emperor in Rio Grande do Sul. — Letters from Ferraz and Boa Vista. — Ferraz and the Cabinet.

The Emperor’s presence in Rio Grande do Sul during the invasion, and concurrent with the allied troops’ arrival, was an act of great consequences—not only for the strengthening of Monarchist sentiments, especially in Rio Grande, but also for the strengthening of the alliance. The letters from Ferraz to Nabuco, written during the voyage, are noteworthy documents. Nabuco was Ferraz’s closest friend in the ministry, perhaps the only one to whom Ferraz could freely vent, without fear of political mistrust or memories of old disagreements. He shows himself extremely protective of his authority, clothing himself with the regalia that his position as ministerial delegate requires. What things he would’ve done, and how he would’ve had to reign everyone in, had the Emperor not been there!

Reaching Santa Catarina (1) on 13 July, Ferraz writes to Nabuco, “The minister has disappeared. The Emperor intrudes in even the most minor details, and everything revolves around him. He has at his disposal even the employees of my office, he gives orders through De Lamare (2), and through any other means. He is stubborn, but then he changes his mind. It is impossible for me to bear. There is no money here for the troops. Let us hope that Dias de Carvalho (3) does something, or takes some measure. I beg that you tell our colleague Silveira Lobo to order the authorities and subordinates in Rio Grande to obey my orders, and only my orders, or those of the governor of the province …”

On 16 July the Emperor unexpectedly arrives in Rio Grande; on the 18th Ferraz writes from that city: “Today, or better said, within two hours (eight thirty), we march to Porto-Alegre. Everything is going well. Enthusiasm has surpassed what was expected. The Emperor is satisfied and is doing well for the moment. The enemy’s plan is to stir up the Blancos … We have to be prepared for everything and we don’t even have cannons … Rest assured that these people think highly of me and are satisfied.”

On 21 July he complains from Porto-Alegre (4) about the state of the palace, and about the manner in which they were received, and on the 22nd he says:

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Ângelo Moniz da Silva Ferraz, as depicted in Galeria dos Brasileiros Ilústres by Sébastien Auguste Sisson.

“They have put me in a jam. They wanted rich tack (5) of silver for the Emperor and the prince; they want for Cabral, Meirelles, and De Lamare also rich tack of three hundred to four hundred thousand réis (6) each, and all this at the Ministry of War’s expense. The demands are constant. They want horses for everyone, and even revolvers for the servants. The Emperor is fine, but he listens to these people despite the fact that he recognizes their (illegible). Caxias has comported himself discreetly and well. It’s been going around that he will be named chief general. Porto-Alegre’s appointment was done at the Emperor’s instruction, after hearing that Caxias and I were pleased with him, because this way everyone is content. Danger has silenced the partisan spirit to the point of seeming dead. ‘Good riddance,’ people tell me, ‘to arms and munitions. There is no money, our colleague who’s giving timely orders as fast as possible.’ The active troops are unpaid and unequipped.”Read More »

The War of Paraguay: Chapter XVII, The Emperor Resolves to Go to Rio Grande

Meanwhile and almost simultaneously, in Rio de Janeiro, news of the naval battle at Riachuelo (1) and the invasion of Rio Grande do Sul was received. Moved by patriotic impulses, the Emperor resolved to go immediately to the front, not without some resistance from the ministry. This happy resolution, which played out so favorably, seemed to be supported by only one minister, Silveira Lobo, to whom, for this, the Emperor would show himself forever grateful (i).

Nabuco thought that the Emperor in the South would only raise the spirits of Rio Grande province, while in the capital he would inspire the entire country to war. To the emperor, as we will soon see, Nabuco did not betray his feelings. It was necessary to yield before the strict expression of the emperor’s will. With his departure, the issue of adjourning the Chambers remained won, because absent the sovereign, the ministry’s situation before the Chambers was difficult, and it even could have become a case of governmental paralysis, arising at the same time as the invasion of Brazilian territory.

Olinda writes to Nabuco on 4 July: “I receive now a letter from the Emperor, who tells me that to announce the journey to the Chambers and read them the adjournment decree, it is necessary that we be in São Cristóvão at nine in the morning, with the goal of taking precise measures. As such, Y.E., draft the speech to discuss it in today’s conference.”

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Emperor Dom Pedro II, 1865. Photo by Joaquim José Insley Pacheco.

Nabuco drew up the following draft: “I come to announce in the Senate that H.I.M. has resolved to depart immediately for Rio Grande do Sul, with the object of, with his presence, his prestige, and his example, invigorating the defense of that heroic province in case of foreign invasion. The Emperor feels—and he feels with enthusiasm—that such is his duty as perpetual defender of Brazil, and so firm is H.I.M.’s resolution that the ministry has ended up, by yielding to it, assuming the resulting responsibility. How to resist that desire of H.I.M. when every Brazilian vies for the glory of defending and saving their country, insulted and invaded by foreigners? How to leave him alone, when he should be surrounded by everyone? There is nothing to do but admire and show gratitude to this new proof of the Emperor’s refined patriotism; there is nothing to do but ask God Almighty to protect him and return him healthy and safe, and to add to the Emperor’s titles, with which he reigns over Brazilians, that of glory.”

The following letter accompanied the speech: “I am sending the draft of the speech. It doesn’t seem fit to me to announce the closure, but unwittingly we plant this issue in the Chambers, arousing grave difficulties for us. Tomorrow the decree, which we can present him when advisable, will be signed. Who knows if it will be necessary to do so tomorrow? Y.E. knows that the deliberative assemblies want to make themselves necessary, and be present in grave situations, but experience proves that in such situations they are a nuisance. The adjournment should not be debated. Besides, as the speech is only one, Y.E. should deliver it first in the Senate and then in the Chamber—I find it inelegant that Y.E. and I should say and repeat the same words. See you tonight.”

The joint legislative bodies remained closed from 8 July until 4 March of the following year. A law of the same date sets out how best to handle public business, powers of the ministry, and reciprocal succession of the ministers in absence of the head of State, and on 10 July the Emperor embarks for Rio Grande. With him goes Ferraz, Minister of War, and his accompaniment features the Duke Augusto de Sajonia, son-in-law of H.M., and the Marquis of Caxias, his aide-de-camp.

Footnotes

i. It is known that, to the objections made by the Council, the emperor responded: “If I am stopped from going as emperor, no one can stop me from abdicating and marching as a voluntario da patria.” Baron of Rio Branco, notes to Schneider, I, 218.

Translator’s Notes

1. A major naval battle near the city of Corrientes, on the Paraná river. Brazil won a decisive victory, and effectively secured the Río de la Plata river system up to Humaitá, cutting off the Paraguayan forces that were still in Rio Grande do Sul from any supplies or reinforcements.

The War of Paraguay: Chapter XVI, Necessity of Adjournment. — Silveira Lobo, Minister. — Saldanha Marino.

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Lithograph of the Palácio do Conde dos Arcos, published in Robert Walsh’s Notices of Brazil in 1828 and 1829.

Furtado, resentful of Saraiva, reluctantly supports the ministry and gets his friends to contain themselves. “I will give the government,” he says in the Senate, of which he was then a member, in July, “the means of sustaining the foreign war in which the empire finds itself endeavored, and my support, until events come to disavow the words of your excellencies … While events are forthcoming, I will keep a look out to see if the political swallows migrate (1). I have nowhere to which to migrate.”

The rift, the separation between Liberals and Conservatives that they’d sealed in 1862, was evident. The Liberals were getting along better with the pure Conservatives (2), with which they united against the Olinda government, than they did with their allies of yesterday. The more this breakdown of the party affected Nabuco, the further he found himself from wanting to contribute to it; nor did it suit him to aid the opposition in eliminating the Conservative element from the party, of which element he himself was a part.

Considering both halves separately, he still preferred that which represented the doctrine of Paraná, Conciliation, which represented the earliest Liberal tradition; recognizing, however, the insufficiency of that element as a third party, he preferred the government of the Conservatives, who formed an essential party. With the fusion of Liberals and moderates to form the other party not being possible, the Conservative party should have governed, the Conservative party which, since Itaboraí surrendered power to Paraná in 1853, had not returned to power except with the reconstructed Abaeté ministry in 1859, and with the Caxias-Paranhos ministry, also reconstructed, and which even in these two cases of purification had lacked Conservative leaders.

The truth is that the Nabuco’s spirit was objective and practical enough to let itself be dominated, especially during grand crises, by traditions without tangibility, by divisions without distinction, by sides with names that had only personal scope, and by relationships that were purely negative. He considered administration to be a practical thing, that required skill, preparation, the height of vision, and a sense of responsibility; for him there was not but one mode of administration, as in the navigation of waters there is not but one course to follow. Ferraz being at the head of the war chest seemed well to Nabuco, as Ferraz was an energetic, expeditious man, with his own resources and audacious initiatives; Nabuco did not have to enter into inquiries about if in 1860 he had fought with all his might in favor of the Conservative party; he accepted Ferraz’s word of honor of not being already joined with that group, without putting forth clear motives or intentions, nor entering into the examination of the past.

The Chamber’s adjournment freed the government from political minutiae; the recess would be long and would provide time for work. Nabuco would make an effort, would work tirelessly all through this period (almost a year) and then when the Chamber reconvened, if political passions showed themselves to be unyielding, rather than ingratiating himself with one of the sides, he would abandon power. Instead of volunteering to destroy the edifice he had raised, he would leave the work of demolishing it to the architects of ruins, precisely because he was sure that the common enemy would not delay in making a sudden invasion into the house divided, interrupting the work of the internal collapse.Read More »