The War of Paraguay: Chapter XXVII, The Count of Eu Desires to Go to War

One of these inquiries was born from the Count of Eu’s insistence on being sent to the theater of war (i). On October 12th (1866) the following question was submitted to the Council of State’s deliberation: “His Highness senhor Count of Eu expresses a deep desire to take part in the Paraguayan War as chief of artillery. Is it best, from the political perspective, to accept or reject his desire?”

Gaston_Count_of_Eu
The Count of Eu, ca. 1882

Here is Nabuco’s pronouncement: “Senhor, I recognize that the prince could accomplish, as he has already accomplished, acts of bravery, and that military glory gained by him will produce prestige for the future empress, because glory is the most powerful stimulant of the enthusiasm and admiration of a people. At another time I professed the opinion that appointing H.H. to be commander in chief of our army would be appropriate and politically sound, because his quality as imperial prince would prevail over political influences and the generals’ rivalries; but this post having been designated for senhor Marquis of Caxias, that general’s prestigious and dominant status completely fulfills that condition. Today it seems to me unsuitable that H.H. should join the campaign; or that H.H. go as a subordinate, which would not suit his high class; or that he hold an independent command, which would be contrary to the unity and direction sought by appointing the Marquis of Caxias. In any case, and having taken into account the physiology of human passions, I fear problems of pride, so likely to arise with the general and the prince finding themselves in the same army and in such related positions. The etiquette and considerations owed to the prince can disturb and hinder operations. The general will listen to the prince in deference; he will be able to, and on occasions should, contradict him; here are so many other reasons for trouble, on which conspiracy will speculate. It is my opinion, then, that the prince should not go to war.” (October 13th.)

In March of 1867 the Count of Eu addressed the counselors of State personally with the following letter:

“Most illustrious and excellent senhor counselor of State José Tomás Nabuco de Araújo: In view of the circumstances that oblige the imperial government to make, by decree 3,809 of the 13th of this month, a new appeal to the patriotism of a good number of citizens, I feel myself compelled to renew the petition that at other times, verbally and officially, I addressed to the imperial government, to lend my services in the theater of war. The government responds to me, in a communication dated yesterday, that the Council of State has agreed to hear about this matter. For this reason I believe myself obliged to express to you that from the moment the nation saw itself forced to declare war, this was my most ardent desire.

“I understand that it is also my duty, from the instant the legislative power honored me with a post in the Brazilian army, admitting me, by this act, into Brazilian society, and for that, those desires of mine cannot fade away as long as our fight against Paraguay lasts, even when it is necessary to mute them, at the times when they may run counter to the nation’s interests, for which interests I must sacrifice everything.

“With things having changed quite a bit, both beyond and within Brazil, since last time, when the imperial government believed it best to reject my offer, I supposed that some of the factors which could’ve determined the government’s resolution may have disappeared now as well, and because of this I hope it will not surprise Y.E. that I persevere in this aspiration.

“God save Y.E. — Paço Isabel, 17 March 1867. — Gaston d’Orleans.”

The Council of State is heard once again (March 18th), and Nabuco expresses himself for a second time, against the wishes of the prince:

“The ardent desire to face the perils of war, shown by the prince, is surely worthy of the Brazilian people’s applause and recognition; already I have had the opportunity to say that the glory which H.H. may, by fortune, attain, returning victorious, would be a new fount of popularity and prestige for the future empress. But the Council of State’s rationale when deciding against the prince’s petition still stands. The council did not base its decision on the idea that the prince’s services were no longer necessary; if it had, perhaps today it could adopt a different agreement, taking notice of new circumstances that could have suddenly come up. But the council based its decision on the prince’s presence being incompatible in the army, either together with another general or under the orders of another general. And this incompatibility persists.”

Footnotes

i. Regarding the Count of Eu becoming commander in chief, the emperor had written: “I didn’t consider my son-in-law except as an afterthought.”

The War of Paraguay: Chapter XXVI, The Zacharias Cabinet’s Part in the Paraguayan War. — Minister of the Navy. — Appointment of Caxias

It can be said that the period of time when the Zacharias ministry governed (3 August 1866 to 16 July 1868) was the most difficult and disagreeable of the Paraguayan War.

Not long after their formation, the allied armies suffered the great reverse of Curupayty (22 September 1866), and only days after the cabinet’s dissolution did the Humaitá fortifications, the final trench lines of the formidable Quadrilateral, fall under our power. No truly decisive military action from this period, except the passing of Humaitá (19 February 1868), lifted the public spirit, which was so awakened, so enlivened in the initial moments of the war, from the apathy it had fallen into.

Duke_of_caxias_1877
Photograph of the Duke of Caxias ca. 1877.

The campaign appeared endless. Caxias seemingly wanted to defeat the enemy by means of patience. Only after the fall of the Zacharias ministry could that general launch rapid assaults on López, ushering the greater part of the Brazilian army along the road constructed through the Chaco, fighting alongside them personally in Itororó like Bonaparte at Arcole (a 65-year-old Bonaparte), annihilating the military power of Paraguay’s army in Avay and Lomas Valentinas (December 1868) and drawing the remains of López’s army into the Azcurra Cordillera, with López repelled, expelled, and starving.

Caxias had certainly not allowed politics to influence his military plans; the waste of time that follows the defeat at Curupayty, and continues until the siege of Humaitá, ending when the remains of the troops that garrisoned it surrender (5 August 1868), was imposed by the difficulty of organizing the army, which was mainly composed of conscripts, decimated by cholera, poisoned by the waters and miasmas of the swamp on whose shores it camped, under the rays of the scorching sun.Read More »

The War of Paraguay: Chapter XXV, Diplomacy of the War. — Bombardment of Valparaíso. — Reconciliation with Great Britain

Given the reality of the war, the Brazilian government’s denunciation of the Spanish bombardment of Valparaíso (1) continues to be important.

On 31 March 1866 the Spanish fleet bombarded Valparaíso from nine in the morning until the afternoon. It is said that the value of the goods burned in the port’s storehouses surpassed 8,000,000 pesos (2). Mr. Layard, speaking on behalf of the English government in the House of Commons (15 May), laid the most solemn condemnation on Admiral Méndez Núñez’s conduct in “the bombardment of a perfectly defenceless city, which contained a large amount of neutral property.”

The communication Saraiva directed to our representative in Madrid, with the order to read it to the Minister of State, is enough to rectify the idea that the empire, due to its different institutions, had not felt solidarity with the rest of the continent. Precisely at that time, Peru took leadership over a campaign against the Triple Alliance by the Pacific Republics. The protest by Peru, and the other republics that followed it (Chile had not yet come to occupy first position in the Pacific), did not produce any effect. The supposed fear of Western America’s republican spirit yielded before the firmness and resolution of General Mitre. Having ensured that two republics joined the empire in the war against Paraguay was no minor result of the May 1st treaty. Without that, the situation would have been grave for Brazil. This was, indeed, the same time as Napoleon III’s and (another Hapsburg) Maximillian of Austria’s endeavors in Mexico, and the abolitionist cause’s victory in the United States: nothing could pose a greater threat to the strengthening of Brazil’s prestige and ascendency. It can be said that Latin America’s hostility towards us was the norm; and if, instead of having had the Argentine buffer, Mitre had been against us, aided by Prado, Pérez, and even Johnson (3), the empire’s isolation would have proved fatal. Chile was not close with us at that time, and it can be said that their only foreign policy was nothing more than a vague continental sentimentalism, shown in its acceptance of all the ideas of the Pan-American congresses, and in its chivalrous defense of America against Europe, the latter being the sentiment that brought it to intervene in the conflict between Spain and Peru.

William_Dougal_Christie
Sketch if William Dougal Chrisite ca. 1840, by George Richmond.

The diplomatic history of the war is linked in a certain way with the reestablishment of our relations with Great Britain, interrupted in 1863 due to the reprisals for the frigate Forte, in the mouth of the bay of Rio de Janeiro. With the pressure of this blockade, the Brazilian government was made to pay, not without protest, the compensation the English government demanded for the shipwreck of the Prince of Wales, later accepting the Belgian king’s arbitration, regarding the treatment of the officers of the frigate Forte (4). The empire’s eminent diplomat in London, Carvalho Moreira, later Baron of Penedo, requested of the Court of Saint-James: 1st That it show its regret for the events that occurred during the reprisals; 2nd That it demonstrate that it had no intention of violating the empire’s territorial sovereignty; 3rd Compensation for the interested parties. The English government having refused everything, our minister in London resigned. On 18 June 1863, with the arbiter Leopold, uncle of Queen Victoria, chosen, the dispute was decided in our favor. England was left in debt to Brazil, and morally condemned by the arbiter, because of the force that it employed in retaliation against—in part due to the reprisals—actions that were proven to not intend any offense to the dignity of the British navy.

Read More »

The War of Paraguay: Chapter XXIV, The Treaty of Alliance

When news of the May 1st treaty arrived in Rio de Janeiro, the Furtado cabinet did not exist; and Otaviano, negotiator of the pact, had been named Minister of Foreign Affairs, a role that Saraiva undertook in the interim, Saraiva being the man that brought us closer to Argentina, and who understood better than anyone the necessity of the alliance and the impossibility of going to war with Paraguay without it. The treaty was the kind that, once signed, would inevitably be ratified, because if one of the parties refused to do so, distrust and prejudice of the other would be aroused, making difficult any renewal of candidness and cordiality.

But the Argentine government believed, like the Brazilian government, in a soon end to the war (Mitre didn’t give it more than a year in duration), and in 1865 it formulated a draft of a peace treaty, which Otaviano presented to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. That draft by Mitre brought the government’s attention toward the necessity of approving the treaty’s various clauses. Saraiva heard about it in the Foreign Affairs Department of the Council of State (1), of which Pimenta Bueno and the Viscount of Uruguay formed a part, Pimenta Bueno the representative of our traditional policies in Paraguay, and the Viscount of Uruguay a man of the past, but an oracle of the doctrine that he had played a principal role in creating in the Plata. The third member of the department was Jequitinhonha, an itinerant politician, of proverbial inconstancy, and at that time the most exalted representative of conservative jingoism.

After criticizing the various clauses of the treaty, they said: “What truly saddens us is the stipulation in article 16. The Argentine Republic becomes owner of the entire left bank of the Paraná up to Iguazú, and what’s more, of the entire right bank of the Paraguay up to Bahía Negra, near the fort of Coimbra. By this article, at the same time that Brazil is fixed with limits beyond the realm of reasonability, a large part of South America is conceded to the Argentine Republic, a part it aspired to possess before, but without daring to openly expose its ambitions … The act of leaving in the power of the Confederation the territory that Paraguay holds on the left bank of the Paraná up to Iguazú would, instead of favoring Brazil, damage it. If we were to open a military path crossing the River Iguazú, we could, with or without the consent of the Argentine Republic, invade Paraguay by Candelária and Itapúa. How could we do so now? Only by going down the Iguazú, because above it the shore of the Paraná, facing Candelária and lower, is composed of rough mountains and unpopulated lands … we have lost much, as such, and we also have, instead of a weak neighbor, another strong and ambitious one on the border of Iguazú, San Antonio and Pepiry (2), a border which until today we have not liked to recognize. But that is not as bad as the calamitous ceding of all the right bank of the Paraguay up to Bahía Negra. The Confederation did not have a single pretext for desiring such a thing. It ought to have contented itself with the right bank of the Paraguay, from the confluence of the Paraná up to Pilcomayo, a little below Asunción. Paraguay never recognized any claim to this territory by the Argentine Republic, except up to the River Bermejo, a little above Humaitá. By way of this article, the Confederation acquires 740 miles of coast on the Paraguay, above the river Bermejo, with an immense hinterland around the Gran Chaco, that is, the territory of a great fertile state, scored with navigable rivers and ready for a grand colonial future. The alliance is turned as much against Paraguay as against Brazil, and in exclusive favor of the Confederation.”Read More »

The War of Paraguay: Chapter XXIII, Mato Grosso

The Olinda ministry could do nothing in Mato Grosso.

Furtado decided to send an expedition to that province “with the purpose” (as he said in the Senate, in his speech on 13 August 1867), “of reinforcing the threatened capital’s defenses and, later, taking the offensive if possible.” Colonel Drago, named as civil and military governor, was put in command of the expedition, and marching through Santos, São Paulo, and Campinas with large heights along the path, he reached Uberaba where he incorporated the Mineiro brigade commanded by Colonel Galvão. Not abandoning Mato Grosso province, Furtado obeyed the demands of the general public; but any expedition sent from Rio de Janeiro with the purpose of taking the offensive would have had the same end as this one, since nothing had been organized to sustain the vast extension of unpopulated terrain that had to be crossed. Drago’s delay in marching to Mato Grosso exasperated the government, who ended up dismissing him and ordering he be charged (Ferraz).

According to Furtado, the cause of the disaster was not Drago’s delay, which allowed the rainy season to grow nearer without beginning the march; nor was it that chief’s abandonment of the road of Sant’anna do Parnaíba, where deposits of provisions had been established, because he believed it was exposed to the Paraguayans. Furtado attributed it to the column’s change of objective (a change decreed by Saraiva, interim Minister of War), by virtue of which the expedition, instead of directing itself to Cuiabá and joining that capital’s forces there, had to come to Cuiabá’s defense by situating itself in Coxim.

Mon_herois_laguna_dourados_detalhe_colericos.jpg
Detail from the Monumento aos Heróis de Laguna e Dourados in Rio de Janeiro. Photo courtesy of Carlos Luis M C da Cruz. 

The appraisal of the suffering and privations experienced by these troops until their withdrawal from Coxim merits attention; but not even Drago’s delay, nor his column’s change in objective in 1865, can be blamed for the outcome of the impracticable attempt, in 1867, to cross the Apa and invade Paraguay with such meager forces. In August of 1866 the Olinda Ministry had left power and on 23 March 1867 Colonel Camisão joined the war council which agreed to cross the enemy border. The endeavor of attacking Paraguay with less than 2,000 men would never have entered the thinking of the Furtado Ministry, who assigned an army of at least 12,000 men for this goal, nor of its successor. It was born from the replacements that death or sickness produced in the column’s command, bringing it into the hands of General Camisão, who, burdened with an excess of military pride, wanted to erase from his record, at any cost, any stain from the abandoning of Corumbá, in which he was implicated. Drawing on the power to invade Paraguay if conditions were favorable, a power granted to the expedition’s chief given how formidable this force was expected to be, Camisão makes a per fas et nefas command. The consequence was that sad and heroic retreat of Laguna up to the left bank of the Aquidabán, related in one of the most beautiful books of military literature (1), and in which our soldiers saw themselves closely pursued, at times across flooded plains, at others between burning scrub, decimated by hunger and by cholera, which at the same time protected them against the enemy.

Translator’s Notes

1. Nabuco refers to A Retirada da Laguna (“The Retreat of Laguna”) by French Brazilian writer and military engineer, Alfredo d’Escragnolle Taunay, Viscount of Taunay.

The War of Paraguay: Chapter XXII, The Minister of War. — The May 12th Cabinet’s Part in the Paraguayan War.

The Olinda Cabinet’s Minister of War, tireless, always at his post, consuming himself in it, fighting against the prejudices of party, military pretensions, and the general inertia that irritated him and increased his fatigue, keeping himself in perpetual excitement, is a figure of grand proportions. Just as before in 1860 he had, according to Nabuco, been entirely dominated by the fiscal spirit, now he was absorbed completely by the war.

The opposition holds it against him that he forgot past offenses in order to figure in the same ministry as Saraiva. Whenever he speaks one takes note of the mysterious intuition of a near end, the shadow of another life. The emperor, now quite practiced in the treatment of ministers, appreciates Ferraz’s qualities so much that he keeps him at his side, as will be seen later on, having him pass from one ministry to another.

Ferraz’s error, if there was error in him, was not having thought of Caxias, or not having withdrawn, as he later did, if it was Caxias that did not enjoy his company. But would Caxias, who after Curupayty (1)  became indispensable, and acquired the status in the campaign that he deserved, would he have had the same authority at Paso la Patria and Curuzú if he had found himself at the orders of Mitre like Osório, Porto-Alegre, and Polidoro (2)? What’s certain is that whenever Mitre was in Paraguay, or, as it occurred at the time we refer to, in Corrientes, the May 1st Treaty would withdraw that highest title from Caxias, the only man who could grant it the full extent of its merit, leaving him without freedom of action and without responsibility. As well, until Curupayty the operations of war did not give cause for discontent or division.

The military action of the Cabinet of 12 May can be summarized in this way: it annihilated the Paraguayan Army in Rio Grande; it made the army in Corrientes cross back over the Paraná; it brought the war to enemy territory and in so doing destroyed the army of Paso la Patria. If the honor of Riachuelo and even of Yatay can and must still be attributed to the Furtado Cabinet, the glory of Uruguaiana and Paso la Patria, and even the 2nd and 24th of May, must be accorded to the Olinda Cabinet. At the time of its resignation, our military is left dressed in glory, the alliance has had nothing but victories, and with better luck, the campaign could be practically decided in that same year of 1866. It cannot be made responsible for the discord that arose between the generals of the alliance, which resulted in the profound disaster of Curupayty. When this occurred on September 22nd, the Olinda Cabinet was no longer in power.

What the cabinet did was unite the elements that, with different direction, could have broken López’s lines in that same month and cut off the retreat of his army, giving the Paraguayan dictator’s military power the coup de grâce that he came to fear after Curuzú. Its policies concerning the war could be nothing other than leaving to the generals the responsibility of operations.

Translator’s Notes

1. The battle of Curupayty was a major military defeat for the allies, costing heavy casualties and halting the steady progress they had been making for months afterward.
2. Polidoro da Fonseca Quintanilha Jordão, Viscount of Santa Teresa, general in the Brazilian army during the Paraguayan War.

The War of Paraguay: Chapter XXI, Military Measures

Absent the emperor, the ministry endeavored to begin recruiting volunteers all over the country. The foundation had to be the National Guard, and the government appealed to this organization. For the war in the south, Furtado had raised from the different corps 14,796 national guards (decree of 21 January 1865) and for Mato Grosso 9,000 from the corps of Minas and São Paulo. But it was necessary to find those men and organize battalions. The ministry resolved to draw on all the means of attracting the National Guard to service. Nabuco drafted every decree from the Council of ministers given with such goal, namely: making the volunteer corps equal to those of the National Guard (4 August 1865); conceding to the national guards the same favors as the volunteers received (30 August); exempting from recruitment and active service any national guard that could be replaced (12 September); extending the enlistment of volunteers until the end of the war with Paraguay (4 August).

Except in Rio Grande do Sul, where there were counted 23,574 men on campaign (1863), and in Bahia, which sent a battalion and later 2,000 men in loose detachments, the National Guard showed itself generally resistant to the war. On paper it was a force of 440,000 men; in reality it was a nuisance. Nabuco tests the waters of the National Guard of the court, addressing the following communication to its commander in chief, which gave rise to a curious incident:

“Minister of Justice, — Rio de Janeiro 10 August 1865. — Most illustrious and excellent senhor. — Sending Y.E. the attached decree, number 3,505, dated 4 August, regarding the National Guard, I should recommend Y.E. to make the greatest efforts in its execution. The decree says: ‘The corps of the National Guard that, with its current organization, with its officers and soldiers, march voluntarily to war, will be on the same level as the volunteer corps and will enjoy all the advantages conceded to those.’ Y.E. will make the National Guard understand that its cooperation is critical for our army to save and avenge our invaded and defiled country; that the empire’s constitution and its very institution impose this duty on it; that no national guard can, without dishonoring the Brazilian name, cease to follow its emperor, who finds himself in Rio Grande do Sul amidst the dangers of war, making a great sacrifice to give a great example. In effect, it is essential to defeat Paraguay and defeat it soon, so that the victory is not, being late, as disastrous as a defeat; so that the victory is not, being late, attributed to the time and resources of the Empire, instead of the patriotism and spirit of the Brazilian nation. Y.E. will give the commanders of the corps under your orders information of said decree, and propose to the government the conducive measures to make the National Guard, for its own honor and glory, and that of the country, the army’s true and effective aid in time of war. — God protect Y.E. — José Tomás de Araújo. — Senhor commander in chief of the National Guard of the court.”Read More »

The War of Paraguay: Chapter XX, Uruguaiana

On 17 August the Battle of Yatay was fought. Receiving news that Duarte’s column, which operated on the right side of the Uruguay (3,220 Paraguayans against 8,500 allies, of which 1,450 were Brazilian) had been completely destroyed, Estigarribia tried to pull back by way of the Itaquy road, but with Canavarro’s division having closed the pass he did not dare to attack it. That very day (19 August) Flores, who was still in Correntino territory, made the first offer of capitulation to him, which, although honorable, was rejected. From the 25th on, with Flores’s and Pauneros’s troops, as well as Tamandaré’s fleet, having arrived, the siege begins to tighten in the presence of Porto-Alegre, who takes command of the Brazilian army.

On 2 September the allied generals renew their proposition offering Estigarribia free escape for him and his officers with all the honors of war and liberty to go wherever they want, and on the 5th Estigarribia responds in the manner of Leonidas at Thermopylae: “All the better; the smoke of the artillery will give us shade.” The motives for this second proposition were that the allies wanted to avoid destroying Uruguaiana by bombardment, not to mention the fear that Estigarribia could be aided by the Paraguayan army if the siege was prolonged. The forces at our disposal were still not enough for an assault on the enemy trenches. A little while later (10 September) Ferraz and General Mitre (with whom Tamandaré, having gone to Concórdia in search of more infantry, returned) arrive, as does the emperor the following day. The situation of the besieged was desperate: they could not expect aid from Paraguay; they lacked provisions, were beginning to suffer hunger, and were under the fire, from land and from ships, of 54 cannons.

The military forces brought together by the three nations, that allied army which the emperor of Brazil looked over, must have seemed even greater than it really was in the eyes of those 5,000 some men, wearied, poorly equipped, starved, besieged, and in an unfamiliar country, the final remains of the army of Itapúa and Candelaria. And even the compensation of making the ultimate sacrifice, the only thing to which they could aspire, depended on the generosity of the enemy, since the enemy could reduce the intensity of their attacks, and defeat them through starvation.Read More »

What I’ve Been Reading, July 2019

Ah summer break is here at last, the summer break that will never end because I’ve graduated now, Forever Summer—and I’ve been reading a ton of books!

Kid Gloves by Lucy Knisley — Kid Gloves is the latest graphic novel memoir from Knisley, describing her experience of pregnancy, and everything leading up to it. What’s great is that, in addition to the conception-to-birth pregnancy narrative that we’re all fairly familiar with, Knisley also describes the process of trying to get pregnant, of having miscarriages, and, crucially, her internal state through all of this. Kid Gloves is a very vulnerable, honest book, which spends a great deal of time getting across how Lucy feels about the pregnancy at various stages. Just viewed externally, pregnancy is a pretty dramatic process, but (as Knisley discusses in the book) the experience of the person actually carrying the child is often sidelined in mainstream pregnancy narratives. Not so here.

In addition to her own narrative, Knisley adds in interstitial bits of pregnancy research, trying to debunk some of the misconceptions around pregnancy, and shed light on some lesser known truths. Sometimes this research feels very integral to the personal narrative (the section focusing on miscarriage myths, for instance, spends a lot of time trying to assuage the irrational guilt women who have miscarried often feel), while other sections of research feel kind of inconsequential. Like, pregnancy superstitions or the medicalization of labor might be interesting, but they seem disconnected from the rest of the book in places. Something New had sections like that too, but overall the tone of that book was a lot lighter, so it all felt of a piece.Read More »

Review: Island Book by Evan Dahm

island book cover
Cover courtesy of First Second

How have I not talked about Evan Dahm before? Evan Dahm is one of those creators I just can’t get enough of. I’ve read all his graphic novels at least twice, and that includes this, his latest completed graphic novel, Island Book.

Island Book tells the story of Sola, a girl living on an island in a vast, unexplored ocean. Many inhabitants of the island believe she is cursed, because of her strange connection to a giant creature simply called “the monster” which lives in the ocean, and which devastated the island when it attacked years ago. So one night Sola steals a boat and sets off into the ocean, hoping to discover the mystery of the monster, and why it seems drawn to her, for herself. She soon learns that there are other islands out there, populated by different peoples, some of whom join her in her quest to find the monster.

By different “peoples,” I mean different fantasy races. If you’re familiar with Evan Dahm’s work, you’ll know what I’m talking about. I believe he refers to them as “kinds” rather than species or races. Basically there’s no humans or elves or dwarves (though Sola’s island’s islanders are fairly close to human.) The character/kind design is an outgrowth of the island they live on—or maybe it’s the other way around. Anyway, this means all the islands are incredibly uh guess what insular, on a design level. Motifs of shape and color are repeated in the look of the land, the island’s ships, and the islanders themselves. For instance, “Fortress Island” is inhabited by these big, hulking turtle people, with ships that look like ironclads. Likewise, the cultures of the islands harmonize with their iconography, and the whole color palette of the book changes from island to island.Read More »

Review: Imagine Wanting Only This by Kristen Radtke

untitled
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.

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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 »