Wolf Haas: Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren

Haas, Wolf (2008), Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren, dtv
ISBN 978-3-423-13685-3

There is a German TV show called “Wetten dass“, which is one of the most successful shows in Europe, I think. The principle is quite simple. Ordinary people come on and propose outrageous bets, do strange things like drag a car through the room while balancing an egg. Oddities like this. A celebrity then bets on the outcome (will the contestant manage to do what he proposes to do?), and agrees to do something silly in case of losing that bet. In Wolf Haas’ latest novel, published in 2006, Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren (The Weather 15 Years Ago) a man appears on the show who bets he can remember the weather in a remote mountain village in Austria during the last fifteen years; that is: he bets he can remember how on every single day during those fifteen years the weather was. The host, Thomas Gottschalk, then picks five random days and the contestant really comes through, guessing all five correctly.

That miraculous contestant is called Vittorio Kowalski. The delicious incongruity of that name may not be immediately apparent to someone who doesn’t speak the language, but in German, the name Kowalski, though it is of Polish origin, connotes a grimily working-class background, someone who comes from a very particular area in Germany, the so-called Ruhrpott, one of Germany’s most active and traditional coal mining regions. The contrast to the Italian scent that is exuded from “Vittorio” couldn’t be stronger. It is from this character and his odd bet, that this book’s involving plot is spun. An engaging story about love and death, thwarted desire and crime unfolds in its pages. Ah, but wait. You don’t yet know the strangest thing about the novel. It’s an interview.

No, really, it is. The whole book is written as an interview: an anonymous critic, known only by the term Literaturbeilage (which basically means “Book Supplement”) and Wolf Haas discuss his latest book, “Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren,” not to be confused with Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren, the book that I actually read. It looks exactly like an interview (or a play, for that matter), and the fictionality of it all is the only difference to an actual, journalistic interview. It’s a mammoth, in-depth interview that takes place over several days. The book they discuss doesn’t really exist, but in their discussions of minutiae from the non-existing novel, they recreate it for the reader (as much as you can “recreate” something that doesn’t exist), or a simulation of it. The critic takes it slowly, discussing the fictitious book bit by bit, not summing up events, not fast-forwarding. Thus, as far as pace and structure of the plot is concerned, the interview behaves like a novel, but through a dark and strange looking-glass.

We happen upon ‘quotes’, complete with a discussion of word choice and implication, we are told why Wolf Haas (or should that come with quotation marks, “Wolf Haas”? I think it should) chose to tell the story as he did, what his intention was in using certain symbols and allusions, and so on. The light banter between the critic and “Wolf Haas” is great fun to read, as is the whole book. If you have ever read another book by Haas, that should not come as a surprise. Wolf Haas is an Austrian writer, who became famous as a writer of crime novels centered around an inspector called Brenner. These books are smart, funny and very readable; what’s more, he got started as a writer of humorous radio dialogues, in a way, he returns to his literary origins. What did surprise me, however, was that the whole construct actually works. As we read on, we are really getting caught up in the story, in the tumultuous final events and may even be moved by its conclusion.

Although we are told right at the beginning that the story will end with the kiss that Kowalski waited 15 years for, the end does affect (and may even delight) you. I called this surprising, and it is, because the book seems so clever, so self-involved with its gadgets and tricks, but the story, that’s scattered all over that lively interview, is a good yarn, a truly entertaining tale of passion. And to Wolf Haas’ credit, although his fictitious alter ego and the critic do reflect upon the story a lot, and joke about many parts of it, he does not caricature the genre, I think. He does not take cheap potshots, or not very often. That story is affecting and it’s framed as being affecting as well, and the author may poke fun at many things, but the story isn’t one of them. Both the general method of the book and the very genre that the fictitious novel is written in (a genre which borders on caricature anyway) invite a certain danger of satirizing the book.

Haas has evaded this by imbuing the fictitious novel with an air of authenticity. Within the confines of Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren, “Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren” is based on an actual contestant, it’s the fictional nonfiction account of Kowalski’s exploits, and “Haas” himself has been part of these events, as an observer. Haas has himself a great time with the whole idea of authenticity, throughout the book. Additionally to what has already been mentioned, Haas presents “Haas” as a writer who’s open to others’ interpretations, who would not want to claim sole ownership of a book’s meaning. “Haas” may have a personal reading of the novel, but he does not necessarily accord it a special status. But in the actual book, Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren, we only get “Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren” as read by the critic and “Haas”, we only, so to say, get his side of the story.

It’s a neat reversal: early in the novel we learn that “Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren” had been written from Kowalski’s perspective, so that many aspects that concern only him are not raised. As Wittgenstein said, you can’t see your own eyeballs. Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren, in contrast, is written from Haas’ perspective so we only get his reading of the story. The aspects he selects to make the fictitious novel palpable, are those that his individual critical mind would consider relevant. The discussion of the limitations of Kowalski’s point of view are allusions to this. Thus, the book becomes a Chinese box of poetological reflections. All kinds of sections refer to all other kinds of sections, and any aspect must be read with reference to the particular filter you’re using. Are we talking about the real events that “Haas” witnessed, the childhood events that “Haas” can only guess at, the fictitious novel or the actual novel that you can read in the actual world. The ease with which Haas handles these levels puts many other, more serious writers to shame. And this despite the fact that the whole business of levels is but a background issue.

The two most important themes of the book are the story on the one hand, and the ongoing discussion about the limits of authorial control over their material which may be the most dominant part of the interview. “Haas” is frequently confronted with lewd readings of passages that he considered proper and not sexual at all, he is struggling both with those parts of “Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren” that are fiction, and with those that are nonfiction. “Haas” bases much that he has not observed himself on interviews with Kowalski (see, different levels, iterations again) that he himself had conducted. All this is, as I said, great fun, moving, smart and much more. The only downside to this is the actual writing. Having written an interview, Haas has had to use a language that sounds colloquial, that recreates the authenticity of an actual interview. But a whole book of artificially blanded language can be taxing, and does reduce the enjoyment of this book to an extent. It’s a good thing then that it’s so clever, even on the level of language. Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren may be somewhat bland, but it also contains the occasional pun and intriguing observations about characteristics of the Austrian variety of German. If anyone who reads this has any pull with translators: do translate it. I cannot imagine Das Wetter vor 15 Jahren to be less than terrific in French or English. It’s simply a good book, one of the few books I know that is a complex, genuinely experimental novel, and at the same time a quick, fun, light read. That’s why it both became a bestseller and won a prestigious literary prize. Highly recommended.

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Dana Spiotta: Eat the Document

Spiotta, Dana (2008), Eat the Document, Picador
ISBN 978-0-330-448229-1

One of James Merrill’s best and most affecting poems is “18 West 11th Street“, a poem where he mourns the destruction of the townhouse in New York where he once lived as a kid. His family moved away and eventually the house came to belong to a family called Wilkerson. Unfortunately for that family and the house, their daughter, Cathlyn Wilkerson, was a member of the Weather Underground (or just: Weathermen), an organization of the American radical left and used the house to gather and build bombs. The Weathermen specialized in bombing buildings and statues without harming people. On march 6, 1970, they accidentally blew up themselves; three of the Weathermen died. Reading scholarship on Merrill’s poetry can be quite amusing with regard to this specific poem, with eminent scholars such as Stephen Yenser misreading the text in order to extract a condemnation of the Weathermen from it. Yenser is such a profound reader of Merrill’s work, why the gaffe here? The simple answer is that left wing terrorism is still divisive, causing people to react strongly, revealing their convictions and biases in the process. And books dealing with the period are no exception. In Germany, the past year had seen a wave of contentious books about 1968, some praising, some damning the movements of the time. In English speaking countries, too, the amount of recent books consecrated to that time is remarkable. Three novels in particular stand out. Peter Carey’s His Illegal Self, which I’ve yet to read, Hari Kunzru’s remarkable My Revolutions and Dana Spiotta’s Eat the Document, which was nominated for the National Book Award in 2006.

This upfront: for much of the book I was thoroughly bored. The first fifth and the last are very readable, but the book is at least a hundred pages too long. That said, this is not a bad book. Eat the Document is the tale of two terrorists, Bobby and Mary, lovers, who, after a bombing designed to destroy an empty house kills someone, go underground, zigzag across the states, and finally assume new identities, living for years undisturbed. The bombing itself is not described until the end of the book, which is largely concerned with the aftermath of the revolutionary violence. Eat the Document is set in two distinct periods. One part of the book takes place in the present, which is 1998-2000, the other charts Mary’s getaway and her attempts at constructing a new identity for herself. These two building blocks are interlaced, so that actions and events in the present reflect on and are in turn illuminated by events and actions in the past. This structure means that the author does not need to directly comment upon the ideologies that led to the bombings and the destruction of the lives of the two terrorists, she can leave it to the events in the present. This sort of device recurs a few times in this novel which is too clever for its own sake. It frequently mistakes cleverness for smartness, without having a writer deft enough to make all the subterfuges and mirrors work. I may mention some of them subsequently. Some are subtle, some are more heavy handed; the two time levels is one of the latter.

In the chapters dealing with Mary’s odyssey through the 1970s and 1980s, Spiotta spreads before us a compelling portrait of a left underground that is rife with conflict, with jealousies, with hopes and fears. Fear, especially, seems to be a commanding factor. Since all this is channeled through a personal narrator which means, in this case, through Mary’s point of view, the fear could be Mary’s, but there’s no indication within the narrative that this would be the case. Instead, Spiotta delivers a few convincing, if slightly satiric characterizations of people active in different leftist communities, spinning the aura of fear from their personal anxieties. This has been done before and probably better. What’s really worth noting here is that this portrait is of a female left. It’s no accident that Spiotta has chosen to follow Mary rather than Bobby. The left project has always been one of emancipation, one of giving voice and lending power to the voice and powerless; it’s failures can often be charted on this exact point. The extent to which left movements have failed to live up to their intentions and ideals are numerous.

Spiotta spends quite some time showing us these ideals. She doesn’t explore anything, in-depth, since she drags her protagonist out of these situations soon enough but through the aforementioned juxtapositions and her miniature portraits she does manage to demonstrate to the reader a landscape of female utopias. What is most striking, and most damning about the communities depicted, is to what extent they are dominated by authoritarian figures and structures, nipping true equalities in the bud and reinforcing harmful tendencies of the larger society around them; also, the dependency on the monied establishment, by having much of it funded and supported by daughters with rich parents (Ms. Wilkerson comes to mind), undermines claims for autonomy and illustrates the dependency on the vilified US society. As standalone chapters, these parts of the book would read like harsh, and sometimes unfair criticism of what was, after all, a movement with enormous potential; unfair because it’s done with hindsight, it’s the typical criticism of the comfortable writer in the 00’s, looking back on a movement that failed in its larger designs, using that failure to attack the designs themselves.

The fact is, however, that these are not standalone chapters, that they are interspersed with sections that deal with the present. The present is divvied up between four (later: five) persons, who alternate in telling their story. One of these characters is Nash, a left-over leftist from the 1970s, who heads an ‘alternative’ bookstore, where he allows and encourages local kids to hold rebellious or subversive meetings. In his chapters we get to know how the present day left scene works, how young rebels think and work in the present, and suddenly, the 1970s chapters begin to glow. Suddenly, the perseverance of many women portrayed in these sections becomes admirable, and suddenly, too, having coherent, forceful ideals is something that is valuable instead of ridiculous. All this is interesting yet it is all done rather heavy-handedly. These points are made through very simple parallelisms (which do make an interesting, further point about psychogeography, but I can’t go into that here). To Spiotta’s credit, she doesn’t usually smack her readers about the head with the points she makes. Frequently she hands him an interesting chunk of something and leaves him to draw conclusions. This is the case with Jason. Jason is the son of Louise (who is another of the contemporary voices), a suburban widow, who is calm, friendly and boring. Jason’s chapters are the only ones narrated in the first person singular; they are different in other ways, too, most significantly: they are sections from his journal. Expressly written accounts.

These chapters, headed “Jason’s Journal” represent the core of the book, in two ways. The most simple one is this: Jason starts to hunt down all knowledge he can get at of Bobby and Mary’s whereabouts. His frantic search brings about the eventful climax and finale of the book, he is the catalyst that helps bringing together the two time levels at the end. He is probably the least political person of the whole book, mostly what he represents most is a narrative device. Not just in terms of plot. The novel has not been called Eat the Document on a whim or because that phrase sounded so nice. “Eat the Document” is the name of a 1966 movie about Bob Dylan’s UK tour with the Hawks, shot by D.A. Pennebaker, capturing, as Pennebaker’s infinitely more famous “Don’t Look Back” movie does, a pivotal moment in Dylan’s career as Dylan moved from acoustic to electric guitar, from performing alone on the stage with his guitar, to being backed by a full band. “Eat the Document” is a rarity, a so-called bootleg, circulating among fans, without seeing official publication. Bootlegs are interesting, in that they are part of the knowledge created by a society, but the means of diffusion are different; bootlegs are usually deviations, that sometimes but not always or most of the time violate some important aesthetic or political norm. I think the central issue here is decentrality, deviation. Bootlegs circle the center of knowledge, I think, most of the time they do not contradict or attack the norm that structures or dominates the center, they rather reproduce it with slight variations. The deviation is important not because of the content, but because of what that means for the diffusion. A deviation opens up spaces for opposition, and underground channels of diffusion of knowledge, while not necessarily transporting oppositional content, open up the opportunity to do so, create space for voices where none before existed.

Jason is addicted to bootlegs, even those where the bootlegged music is redundant and worse than what was officially released. It’s the aura of bootlegged music and films that draws him in, and his desire to collect everything that can be collected of a given artist’s works. He’s a collector, and in a further sense, an archivist, who assembles a library of odds and ends; I said that bootlegs are not part of an alternative knowledge but that they are paraphernalia of the main body of knowledge, providing not a different lens but contributing to and refining the dominant lens. And true to this, it is Jason’s archive that helps him uncover the present identities of Mary Wittaker and Bobby Desoto, the terrorists. But Spiotta’s project goes further, I think. By presenting an American culture that functions as a set of iterations, of repetitions with subtle and not so subtle deviations, she textualizes her history, stressing textual mechanisms such as narrative. Thus, Spiotta emphasizes, I think, history both as something made and as something picked up, found on byways and in dark alleys. Like “Eat the Document”, Dylan’s slightly jarring movie, Eat the Document provides an account of a tour that catches a country and a culture as it changes, as it grows up, shedding illusions. This passage near the end is illustrative of how much has changed:

A commune and a corporate community are not all that different. A corporation is merely a commune with different vales. But like a commune, everything is organized around a collusion of interests. It creates an inside and an outside. And let’s not forget, all communities are exclusive. By definition you exclude all that is outside the community. A corporation has rights and privileges that are distinct from its individual owners’, just as a commune has collective interests that supersede each individual’s interests.

And there are many more mirrors and tricks in the book. There’s a discussion of cultural memory that runs through it, of Jungian ideas, of punishment and guilt. But you never get the feeling that Spiotta’s heart is in it, and her writing is not good enough to balance all that coldly clever structure. A blurb on the back of my book compares her to Delillo, but here’s where they differ. I hold Delillo to be a consummate writer, a bit too caught up in his obsessions, so that he falls into self-parody now and then, but generally, he has the language he needs to make his cleverness work, at least for me. Spiotta doesn’t, and what’s worse, in her attempts to lend feeling, authenticity and power to her book, she frequently lapses into sentimentality. As I said before, this book reminded me a lot of Hari Kunzru’s stunning 2008 novel My Revolutions (which I herewith recommend to any- and everyone). Kunzru gives his protagonist quite a lot of leeway to speak and worry, as well. It frequently borders on sentimentality, as well. But Kunzru focuses on commitments. Kunzru politicizes sentimentality, he points out how people can be driven to action, how one’s experience of a society, everyday, embodied experience, can rally a person, can make concepts make sense. Kunzru defends political action and political commitment. He does not accept anger and action as a given, he shows where that may come from, how it might work, and the sentimentality is instrumental here, in order not to lapse into cold analysis, into anatomy, which My Revolutions isn’t doing.

Dana Spiotta, however, is different. She cuts out the personal commitment, her discussion of revolutionary ideals stays on a general, anatomical level as outlined earlier. Basically, she de-politicizes the movement, using sentimentality as a way to just show human frailty (blah), human troubles, human hopes, dreams and fears. To do that she indulges in short phrases and sentences and effectual ends to chapters and paragraphs. As one, where an old man tells his younger lover-to-be: “Be careful”, goes on to mention a possible interpretation of that sentence and ends the paragraph like this: “But what he meant was be careful with me. Please. Please.” The italics are Spiotta’s. In a way, Spiotta is an archivist like Jason, she’s as removed from the revolutionary fervor powering groups like the Weathermen as he is from the experience of hearing “Pet Sounds” when it appeared. He listens to it as a curiosity, and this is how he treats his bootlegs, too. And the feelings are just odds and ends found in the archives, as well. It’s a bit like that poet (clearly meant to be Merrill) in a novel by Edmund White, who “forgets” to put some feeling in his poem, heads upstairs and then writes a truly moving passage. Only Spiotta does not have the chops to make this work. Frequently the book drags with dreary conventionality, and quite often it is slow-going, and this despite all the clever tricks of the book. It’s her writing that makes it so dull (see, like this review is dulled by my writing), which is a disappointment in a book that is clearly full of good thinking.

In the end, the simple act of choosing a name, that is part of the novel’s interest in texts and textual gadgets, may be one of the most significant acts of the book. Eat the Document is to a large extent about identity, and while not as committed, as My Revolutions, it takes its topic seriously. Whatever you think of Spiotta’s writing, her characters stand by their convictions and they say it aloud. Even when you’re in hiding, sometimes you just need to bare yourself, when you can’t bear the subterfuge any longer. Like you real name. This is one of the best passages in the book:

“Cheryl,” she said aloud. No, never. Orange soda. “Natalie.” You had to say them aloud, get your mouth to shape the sound and push breath through it. Every name sounded queer when she did this. “Sylvia.” A movie star name, too fake-sounding. Too unusual. People might actually hear it. Notice it, ask about it. “Agnes.” Too old. “Mary,” she said very quietly. But that was her real name, or her original name. She just needed to say it.

Loving Acts

I don’t have a problem with death. No more than anyone else has. My problem is living. […] I look at my dead friend and all I want to do is understand why, if his death is so absolute, my life can’t be absolute, too. I want to know why I can’t be wholly living. Christ, it would take so little, so fucking little to do it, to let me be here properly. […] And don’t say that I should not look for contentment outside myself. Don’t fucking say it, because no one who fucking suggests that knows the first fucking thing about being lonely. A human fucking being cannot do everything entirely fucking alone, we’re not made to be sealed units, we’re meant to look outside ourselves, we’re meant to find joy in that, If there’s agod, he fucking made us that way. And don’t even start to tell me that was a loving act.

from A. L. Kennedy’s amazing novel Everything You Need.

German Critics in Action

I’m German and I live in Germany and read German newspapers and German book reviews. I wish I didn’t. Reading reviews can be so much fun, like a silent conversation with vaguely like-minded people about books we like or even love. German reviews, however, are something else. Oh, German critics in action, what a sad spectacle. I’m not sure who allowed them to write and publish reviews and who pays these fools money hand over fist, but someone did and they should be punished. Generally speaking, German reviewers have no taste. None. And you can point to all sorts of evidence for this. You can point to truly atrocious writers like Pascal Mercier, whose day job is to be a mediocre Swiss philosopher who goes by the name of Peter Bieri. Mercier writes terribly sentimental books about Important issues and Big emotions and he does that with the language of a tired teenager. But his books never fail to garner praise in the German press. Or take Ingo Schulze, that curly haired hack. Ah, but we’ll return to Schulze.

Let me point out first that this sort of tastelessness is not just an unpleasant fact of German culture. There are a few unpleasant facts, why get all hot and bothered about this one? Well, it can be harmful. One instance are translations. Writers like Philip Roth who, like him or not, wield a deft and elegant pen, are translated into a German that Mercier would be embarrassed to use. Clunky, full of Americanisms and cheap idioms, the German Roth nary resembles the original. Complaints from the reviewers? Au contraire. They tend to praise all kinds of questionable decisions. Like Inés Koebel, who is probably the most celebrated German translator at the moment; she is currently translating the complete works, it seems, of Fernando Pessoa. I don’t speak Portuguese, but apparently, she takes great liberties in rendering his poetry. German reviewers recognized it and heaped praise on her for that, especially for clearing up passages that were obscure in the original. Am deutschen Wesen soll die Welt genesen! The German reviewer tells his readers that a translator has to produce a good text, clearly, he need not care much about the source text. German reviewers could do much to amend the sorry state of German translations but they won’t. Instead they praise a German translation of and English translation of a Bengal novel, because, apparently, it is a much better and lighter read than the original. There are countless examples like that. Nobody who has read a decent amount of books in translation can deny that in Germany, you can tell from the goddamn language what the original language was. Give me a page, purged of names, and I can tell you with 80% accuracy from which language it was translated. German translations resemble sloppy interlinear translations more than anything else. Unless critics are deaf and blind, they have noticed this. And this will never change. Unless reviewers, who have a certain clout, step up and complain about crap, nothing will change. Because the reading public sure as hell doesn’t care. The crap they buy, the crap that’s flying off the shelves, it’s beyond comprehension.

So, yes, on the negative side, reviewers could use their influence to clean up the mess that German translations (with a few notable exceptions!) are, but they don’t. On the other hand, they could use positive pushes to promote good literature. In Germany there are many literary prizes and some, like the Döblinpreis and the Büchnerpreis keep being awarded to worthy writers and exceptional books, maybe because the reviewers’ influence is not as strong as in other important prizes. One of those is the newly established Deutscher Buchpreis, an award which has consistently shown itself to be a joke. Julia Franck wins in the year that Köhlmeier, Menasse and Düffel are nominated? Really? Marcel Beyer may be one of the five most brilliant German novelists, but Schulze is a scourge. His language and characters are consistently flat and clichéd; he attempts by turn to be hip and pensive, he fails on both accounts. Schulze is awful in so many ways – but he’s a darling of German book sections. Why? Because German critics don’t care how a book is written: if they can empathize with it, it’s good. If it sounds Important, it’s good.

This was never as clear as when the other major prize was decided this year: the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize. This one is awarded for short prose, either short stories or excerpts from novels; the nominees read their submissions publicly, not just before an audience but the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize is televised, as well, and all the texts can be read online here; is remarkable in that not just the texts are public, but that the jury debates the text in question in public, too. We hear them discuss the merits and demerits of the text, and can see on what their final decision will be based, even though the final deliberations are not public. And it is revealing every time. When I heard this year’s winner, Jens Petersen, read his text, an excerpt from an upcoming novel, a Swiss, 33 year old writer who has already published a novel, Die Haushälterin, in 2005 (longlisted for the deutscher Buchpreis), I groaned. His text (read it here) is written solely for effect, he attempts to squeeze the utmost sentimental feeling from his material, bashing the reader over the head with faux-archaic vocabulary, overused, overly symbolic images, but without the verbal staying power that is needed to make these set pieces work as part of a larger whole, as part of a text that works as a text and not as a statement of intention. The text is about someone dying, and embeds its characters and events in a dire wasteland that makes McCarthy seem subtle. The protagonist’s voice was fittingly, predictably disaffected and jaded.

The jurors immediately praised the text, declared that it had lots of symbols and a landscape that expressed the inner landscape of the protagonist. They pointed out that the author was a doctor and surmised that he must have come into contact with lots of people in dire straits. One single critic resisted, Paul Jandl. He said that all this was well and good, but the actual writing was terrible, the actual writing was “kitschig”, i.e. cheesy, chintzy, corny, but his voice was drowned out by all the other critics who were so very moved by what evidently was a harsh life and a difficult situation. All of those fools could have been talking about a movie or a picture, even. These are the people our newspapers pay to review books. And when I heard, the next day, that Petersen won, I didn’t even get mad. It was just as expected, really. Business as usual. German critics in action.

Grant Morrison: Batman: The Resurrection of Ra’s Al-Ghul

Morrison, Grant; Paul Dini, Peter Milligan et al. (2008), Batman: The Resurrection of Ra’s Al-Ghul, DC Comics
ISBN 978-1-4012-2032-7

I’ve said this before but it bears repeating: I am not well read as far as graphic novels are concerned, and I find the vast universe of DC and Marvel to be somewhat confusing. However, a few of my favorite writers in comics have written for DC and Marvel, and worked with some of the most famous characters, so I keep dipping into their books. The fact that the major characters have a history that is decades old, can be among the most confusing parts. While reading Mark Millar’s two excellent Ultimates books, I constantly felt left out, suspecting hints and allusions that were totally lost on me (which is why my review on these books is still on hold…) everywhere. I met many characters which were clearly not new to the universe for the first time in Millar’s story, trying to keep up as best as I could. This, at least, is not a problem in Batman: The Resurrection of Ra’s Al-Ghul, which contains a short list of nine of the most important characters with a brief sketch of their recent history and main characteristics. Wikipedia provides further help. This feature is nice in that it allows the reader to just let yourself fall into the supple folds of this story that is so action packed that I had to read parts of it on the edge of my seat. It presents good writing, an engrossing story, huge amounts of kick-ass, and even some great artwork. I greatly enjoyed it and will definitely read more of Grant Morrison’s work on Bob Kane’s leather-clad icon. At the same time, it was my least favorite of all the graphic novels I read this year, possibly because I expected so much more of it.

One thing I expected, when I bought the book, was that it would actually be written by Grant Morrison and Paul Dini, two excellent writers in the genre. The cover, bearing both writers’ names boldly, may have misled me there. Now, I know that what I buy as a book continues several thinner issues that were published separately and collected into the book I hold in my hand. And I know that a story arc contains stories written by other writers. But Batman: The Resurrection of Ra’s Al-Ghul contains three ‘preludes’ and seven more ‘proper’ chapters, ten all told. Of those, only two were written by Grant Morrison, two by Paul Dini. The rest is divided among Peter Milligan, who penned three chapters, Fabian Nicieza, responsible for two, and Keith Champagne, who wrote one. That means less than half of the chapters were written by Morrison and Dini. Yes, they are pivotal, important chapters, but it’s a fairly long book as far as this genre goes, and all these authors make for very uneven reading. There are dozens of recent Batman titles out, if I wanted a title written by a staff writer of some kind, I could have bought one. I wanted a book by Morrison because I’ve long admired his work. Incidentally, if you ever wondered why some comics writers become superstars and others don’t, you might want to pick up a book like this one, which contains some stunning chapters and some, let’s say: less stunning ones. Grant Morrison’s writing is always great, and Paul Dini’s is good as well, but the others are a mixed bag, to be honest. Most annoying and ultimately disappointing was Peter Milligan.

I do know that Peter Milligan has done some courageous and well-received work in the past, from what I know; he’s done work with Marvel’s controversial X-Force, and he’s garnered a certain fame with mid-1990s graphic novels such as Enigma. So, no, he’s not an unknown, even for me, but, from the evidence provided in Batman: The Resurrection of Ra’s Al-Ghul, he’s clearly a second-rate writer, competent but not more than that. His chapters were originally published in issues of Robin, and they contain a focus on Tim Drake, the current Robin. Drake is a teenager and Milligan, by way of red thought-boxes, lets us know that Drake’s an annoying teen, to boot. This is very well done, and Milligan does have a way of driving the story forward, creating tensions between some central characters. Apart from that, his writing is stiff, especially the dialogue which is almost always awkward and badly written. At times, Milligan even appears to be attempting a parody of the much-maligned dialogue of early superhero comics, except that there’s not a trace of humor in his chapters. No, his chapters are just a huge let-down, although the extent of my disappointment varied greatly depending on the artist he worked with. For his worst chapter he worked with David Baldéon; the result is the most annoying chapter in the whole book and a huge waste of time and space and ink, and what’s worse, it does a great disservice to the marvelous story.

In Batman and Son, one of the story arcs that directly preceded The Resurrection of Ra’s Al-Ghul, Grant Morrison presented to us Damien (I know), Batman’s son with Talia, the daughter of Batman’s sworn enemy, Ra’s Al-Ghul. In a different story arc, Batman killed Ra’s Al-Ghul. Talia and his son now lead a band of evil ninjas, working together with an old assistant and loyal follower of Ra’s, who only goes by the name of White Ghost. This is where the story sets in. Apparently, Ra’s’ spirit has survived but he needs a new body to live on. Ra’s uses a mysterious reservoir with a green liquid, the so-called Lazarus Pit, but it is not enough, this time. This time he needs a full body, and it can’t be anyone else but a male relative, which means: Damien. Early in the book, Talia saves Damien from his grandfather’s greedy clutches and sends him to Gotham City for Batman to take care of him. That doesn’t quite work, as Batman has suspected that his adversary might have survived and follows up hints that lead him straight to Ra’s Al-Ghul’s den. Meanwhile, Damien arrives at Bruce Wayne’s manor where Batman’s friends try to keep him safe. Those friends are Dick Grayson, who used to be Robin but is called Nightwing now that he’s grown up, and the new Robin, Tim Drake. If all these names and titles sound confusing, they are a bit, but what the book does is take a few of them and lend them a voice, thus imbuing the characters with a life all their own. Thus, apart from Milligan’s two Robin chapters, we also get two Nightwing chapters written by Fabian Nicieza, and a most wonderful Damien chapter written by Keith Champagne.

How is all of this significant, you may ask, bewildered. Well, the book is basically a series of chases, of people being hunted, caught and saved, it takes place on several continents and several actions take place at the same time. One writer and one basic point of view may not have done justice to the scope of this book. What’s more, in between the non-stop action (someone is always fighting someone else), the writers manage to fit a surprising amount of thoughtful scenes and difficult decisions. The fact that I needed to look up on Wikipedia why Robin’s not Robin anymore and ephemera like that did not stop me, for example, from feeling Tim Drake’s torment as he is handed the opportunity to bring his dead family back to life. This is no mean success in a book that appears to be mainly about fighting ninjas. But, much more than its more highbrow brethren, even those that work within the DC/Marvel canon, Batman: The Resurrection of Ra’s Al-Ghul demonstrates the basic strengths of a genre that is among the oldest and strongest of modern literature. It needs to provide thrills and action in order for people to buy copies of the original issues that appeared in publications such as Detective Comics # 838 and Batman Annual #26. And it succeeds marvelously (no pun intended) in that area. At the same time, comics always had an educational, moral aspect to it, something that, in a way, justified their existence. Rather than scoff at the high brow literature that it was always contrasted with, it kept borrowing from that, paying homage to it, and, in some cases creating works that have since been accepted into the ivory towers all around the country. You can expect a collection of this length to raise a few weighty questions about memory, about death, but mostly, in this case, about family.

The basic team of crimefighters that Batman: The Resurrection of Ra’s Al-Ghul focuses on, Bruce Wayne/Batman, Dick Grayson/Nightwing and Tim Drake/Robin, they are all orphans, they are all victims of disasters and they are drawn to each other, creating a new family, the identity of which is not determined by blood or tradition, but by what they do. It’s a modern identity, full of potential and change, especially within the narrow frame works of their society. In his relationship to his society, Batman, as the book frequently assures us, is a detective, someone who keeps up the basic order of his society, who looks for solutions within a given framework and who has no intent of widening that (China Miéville has a lot of fun with these conventions in his incredible novel The City & The City). In his dealings with the larger society, Batman is bound to the nation state and other conventions. Thus, in his person, he unites both an almost violent traditionalism and an interesting potential for change, or at least subversion. The same can be said about Ra’s Al-Ghul, the book’s villain, except that his angle is completely different. His insistence on blood relation, his need, even, for keeping up family relationships structured by blood bonds, is in stark contrast with Batman. Although both Batman and Ra’s have a strictly hierarchical family, with leaders and followers, Batman’s is built on free association, on free will, as the book makes unmistakeably clear. Ra’s Al-Ghul’s family, in contrast, seems to work like a feudal society, and you cannot disagree with the head of the family except by fighting the whole family and leaving it completely. But whereas Batman is a child of his nation, and bound and pledged to it, Ra’s has lived for too long to be bothered by that. By way of the Lazarus Pits he has kept himself alive for centuries. He has had already centuries of experience when the nation state rose and may have even influenced that process, as we learn in a few flashbacks at the beginning of the book.

These complexities make for good reading, but they are largely inherent in the material, the writers have just competently executed it, which is quite decent, often enough, especially when you have the art to match that. However, if you find five writers a bit much for one novel, brace yourself for the fact that the book is pencilled by seven different artists. These are, however, much better than many of the writers. The book’s art shines. Tony S. Daniel, for example, who also collaborated with Grant Morrison on Batman and Son, does a fine job, but I have to confess I particularly enjoyed Ryan Benjamin’s pencils and Jason Pearson’s art.

Ryan Benjamin, for me, is a discovery. The way he renders action scenes, finds just the right angle, the right spot, focus and light to make a scene work, to squeeze the most effect out of a single panel is astonishing. All other fight scenes in the book are by contrast completely static, boring, wasted panels. I’ve sometimes flicked through chapters illustrated by one of the other guys and wished that they’d been done by Benjamin. I’ve never before heard of the man, but I’m sure keeping my eyes open now. His pencils are really excellent, the raw instinct he brings to basic elements of comics is stunning (you can check out recent work, including the excellent webcomic Pancratia, at his site here).

For his chapter (which was written by Keith Champagne), Jason Pearson, of Body Bags fame, did both pencils and ink. Pearson’s work stands out, his art is less intent on details and more on the power of broad swathes of color, idiosyncratic rendering of facial expressions and other moods. Keith Champagne’s brief prelude does not directly tie into the main story; Champagne and Pearson took the resultant liberty to create a short ghost story that is creepy, exciting and the only convincing exploration of Damien’s character in the whole book.

Much, really, is excellent here, and the whole of Batman: The Resurrection of Ra’s Al-Ghul is a great read, but it is not on a par with many of the other books I have recently reviewed or read, not even with Brian Vaughn and Pia Guerra’s Y: The Last Man series. Much of that is due to the inclusion of second rate writers, much also to the relentless barrage of fight and other action scenes. After the fifth time that the good guys get attacked by a horde of ninjas, you just want to get it over with. The end is less than satisfactorily, mostly because Grant Morrison’s pivotal chapter is in the middle and is clearly the culmination of much of the book, which makes much of the rest read like an afterthought. The final showdown somehow fizzles away and then, suddenly, everything is over. However, you have to think of this book as one among an ongoing project of Morrison’s. Not only was this novel preceded by Batman and Son, it was followed by Batman: The Black Glove and two of the most highly anticipated stories of the past decade: Batman R.I.P. and Final Crisis. For various reasons, mostly financial, I will have to skip Batman R.I.P., but I do own Final Crisis and look forward to reading it. I know this review was a bit taxing, after all it was too long, too digressive and too boring, but here’s the thing: I do recommend Batman: The Resurrection of Ra’s Al-Ghul if what you want is a great, fun Silver Age read, especially if you like ninjas and the occasional Great Question thrown at you.

Reverence

The Codex Sinaicus has been put online. Incredible. >click here to access the manuscript<

For further information, go here.

Codex Sinaiticus is one of the most important books in the world. Handwritten well over 1600 years ago, the manuscript contains the Christian Bible in Greek, including the oldest complete copy of the New Testament. Its heavily corrected text is of outstanding importance for the history of the Bible and the manuscript – the oldest substantial book to survive Antiquity – is of supreme importance for the history of the bo