Home Page
Fiction and Poetry
Essays and Reviews
Art and Style
World and Politics
Montreal
Archive
 

***

THE AMERICANS

***

By David Levy

***

WE took Mother to Vegas for her 90th birthday. Booked rooms at the Bellagio, saw a Cirque de Soleil show, drove out into the desert to the Hoover Dam. Only a year and some after 9/11, full access to the facility was restricted.

One of my brothers played some high stakes blackjack. The blackjack dealer was an Asian woman with bleached hair who pretended to flirt with the guys standing at her high table.

I tried the roulette wheel. Was up a few hundred dollars, then started to give it back. Cashed out at about $60, the wheel man making a crack about how it was for the light bill.

In the casino we did the electronic slots, no handle like one on the old-time one-armed bandits. On Saturday night women, not unattractive, in their late forties, early fifties, would move in on a machine with a pot of coins, spend the evening with it, sort of like a date, knowing the machine would be attentive, didn't drink, had little to say, wouldn't demand sexual favours or become suddenly violent.

I scored huge at an Elvis slot at the MGM Grand but gave it all back. A woman observing my losing play explained how to be a slot winner. Hang out, she said, near a machine that keeps producing losing combinations. The player will sooner or later abandon it. That's the machine to play. The machines are programmed to deliver winning combinations after a certain number of losing ones.

Out on the strip undocumenteds, men from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, hand out playing-card sized hooker fliers: "Tanya, $85 Special: Just moved to Las Vegas. Love to be naked for you. I'm new at this.please show me what to do next." One with no name and a lollipop, a hand up her short green plaid skirt: "Can I come & play please. I can be there in 20 minutes or less. $90 Special." The men seemed embarrassed to be doing this work.

The attendant at the Dollar car rental desk said the best time to come to Vegas was when there was a big prizefight on. The hotels would fill with celebrities and the whole place hummed and buzzed and lit up with excitement.

I wanted to visit the grave of Sonny Liston. Sonny was someone my Trinidad friend Tolo and I often spoke about. I asked around, talked to casino dealers and floor executives. People who said they knew all about Sonny, one or two who even claimed they'd known the man personally, couldn't say where Sonny was to be found. A waitress at one of the hotel cafés suggested I ask at the city library. A woman in the library's information unit told me I could find Sonny at Paradise Memorial Gardens, in the Garden of Peace. Look, she said, for the fountain, Sonny is south of it.

Not the resting place of any of the strip's more affluent citizens. Some of the dead were men who'd been to Vietnam.

The grave marker set in the ground said "Charles 'Sonny' Liston, 1932 - 1970, A Man". On the marker a plastic flower stuck in a small metal urn.

In a collection of photographs and essays on boxing edited by Richard Ford is a piece about Sonny "O Unlucky Man" by William Nuck. Sonny's last fight was with Chuck Wepner, the Bayonne Bleeder. Johnny Tocco, Sonny's one-time trainer, got him ready. It was, said Tocco, like blood pouring from a hydrant. The bout, stopped in the tenth round, earned Sonny $13, 000.

Tolo continued to believe the fix was in for both Ali-Liston fights. Maybe Sonny just saw boxing as a source of revenue, only wanted to get in and out of the ring without getting hurt.

After we got back home, I mailed my mother and my brothers copies of the Nuck piece. More or less a valentine with little mention of the bad stuff - Sonny's involvement with the mob, the hookers he put in hospital. A few days later mother phoned, and for a few minutes we spoke about the violent and sad life of Sonny Liston.

* * *

THE American general George Patton believed it was the destiny of the anglo-saxon race to rule the world, certain that one day every son of a bitch would speak the gringo tongue.

A hundred years earlier, anticipating the general's prophesy, Frankenstein, experimental anglo-saxon and original angst-ridden global citizen, saw that human vocal communication used sounds that had "no apparent connection with visible objects." Knowing nothing of the work of Noam Chomsky, Mary Shelly had him conclude from an unorganized corpus of raw data that language was not syntax, that words held the key to verbal communication. Frankenstein set out to discover the "mystery of their reference", to learn the names of objects - fire, milk, bread - and the relationships articulated in the words brother, sister, etc., as well as their pronunciation. From his observations of a young female English language student, Frankenstein created a successful listen-and-repeat self-study method. He believed, incorrectly as it turned out, that learning English would enable him to join a larger community, maybe meet some girls, generally reduce his not unfounded sense of his hideousness and exclusion. Having learned about the American hemisphere, he "wept over the hapless fate of its original inhabitants," unaware that his own hapless existence would end on the ice floes of the American arctic, a hunted and despised immigrant.

Frankenstein's language learning scheme resembled the one Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine improvised in London from street signs and school books, advertisements, dictionaries, factory workmates, the poetry of Edgar Poe, the volumes in the Reading Room of the British Museum, English popular songs, church services, street preachers, conversations with shopkeepers, barmaids, and prostitutes from whom they solicited pronunciation instruction. The poets arrived in London in 1872 and took up residence on Royal College Street, Camden Town. Like Frankenstein, they ignored syntax in favor of lexical enlightenment, and like him they used their new linguistic knowledge to read the classics. Frankenstein: Milton's Paradise Lost , Plutarch's Lives , Goethe's Sorrows of Werter ; Rimbaud and Verlaine: Shakespeare and Longfellow.

Caliban, ungrateful Elizabethan language student, scored a private tutor, Prospero's daughter Miranda. About her instructional method, the Bard had nothing at all to say.

In 1851, the year of Mary Shelley's death, Karl Marx, then barely able to compose an English sentence, was invited to write a column for The New York Daily Tribune. Initially, he persuaded his colleague Frederick Engels to do the columns for him, articles in English on conditions in Germany. Engels, whose knowledge of English was flawless, was only too happy to oblige. For a year he wrote the pieces Marx submitted to the Tribune under his own name. In stage two Marx composed the columns in German, had Engels do translations. Within a couple of years Marx was doing the pieces in English, which Engels pronounced "brilliant", the work of a master of English prose.

During his days in London, Karl lived on Dean Street in Soho. There is a blue and white plaque identifying the building. To indulge his fondness for a glass of beer, he may have after his visits to the British Museum frequented the Museum Tavern across the way on Great Russell Street with companions in revolutionary theory William Liebnecht and Edgar Bauer. Karl was a serious boozer and, in Charles Bukowski's phrase, a capable duker. On one of the trio's pub-crawls along Tottenham Court Road, they were ejected from the last of eighteen pubs. Their response was to smash all the street lamps along the route. Karl's knowledge of the district's backstreets enabled the three to evade the bobbies dispatched to arrest them.

Graham Robb in his biography of Arthur Rimbaud wondered whether Rimbaud might have bumped into Karl at the various lectures the poet attended in London: "Some of the Illuminations can be construed as poetic illustrations of Das Kapital: the alienated consumers of the modern metropolis, the disinherited masses, the resurrectionary mythology of the Commune, and the magic wand of global capitalism."

Rimbaud's Illuminations was published in 1886. Two years earlier a young German student, Paul Nipkov, anticipating the motion picture inventions of Thomas Alva Edison, patented the world's first electro-mechanical television system.

While Europeans were poring in terror over The Communist Manifesto Edgar Poe (1809-1849), conjurer of literary specters was in Baltimore dying of rabies while being dragged between polling stations. In 1847, a year before the publication of the Marx and Engels manifesto, Charles Baudelaire happened on the American writer's work. He spent four hard years on the study of English before offering his translation of Poe's stories, Histoires Extraordinaires, for publication . A exacting translator, Baudelaire confronted by a troublesome navigational term reconnoitred the taverns of Paris in the hope of finding an English sailor who might help.

Baudelaire's fellow poet Stephane Mallarmé discovered Poe in 1860. Two years later, at age eighteen, Mallarmé decided to pursue a career as an English language instructor. A trip to London was planned to groom him in the skills required to teach at a lycee. In 1885, Mallarmé told Paul Verlaine that he had learned English "solely in order to read Poe the better".

T.S.Eliot thought Poe's literary output hardly merited French attention, that the enthusiasm of the French poets was a consequence of linguistic incompetence. T.S. might have gotten the idea from Rimbaud who regarded Poe's work as "puerile". An early globalist, Rimbaud claimed his English lessons were undertaken solely to help him launch a career as a trader. At the time of Poe's birth, the American Republic was itself but thirty-three years old. Perhaps it was Poe's fledgling Amerikanismus that turned the French poets on. For both Baudelaire and Mallarmé, Poe may have been puerile in the way some claim rap is. The mentors of today's Baudelaires, the French banlieues poets, are American rap artists. In the banlieues live the citizens of former colonial possessions, Algeria, Ivory Coast, Mali, Dakar, members of what Chuck D identified as a global ghetto culture originating in Bed-Sty, the South Bronx and South Central L.A. and running through Brixton and Algiers to the outskirts of Paris.

Mao Zedong began his failed attempt to learn English in 1912. He enrolled in a Western-type business school but quit after a month because the courses were mostly in English. The great helmsman resumed his study of English in his mid-twenties. Like Frankenstein and Rimbaud, Mao employed a self-study method, a lesson a day from a simple primer. He turned to self-study because of his hatred of the classroom. As Jonathan Spence explained, Mao was inclined to bristle at the prospect of any form of submission to traditional authority, whether in marriage, in parental relations, or at school. In 1920, Mao attended a lecture given by Bertrand Russell in Changsha. Did he possess sufficient linguistic competence to grasp what the philosopher was talking about?

The previous year, Communist Party officials decided that they too ought to get serious about acquiring English language skills; they thought that by becoming fluent in the language they would have better access to the ideas and knowledge of the West. American soldiers captured by the Chinese during the Korean War reported that their captors forced them to participate in English practice sessions.

After 1949, there were English language study sessions being conducted at the Chinese government enclave at Zhongnanhai. Mao told comrades that he intended to return to his English lessons and appointed his physician, Dr.Li who'd studied in the U S, as his English language tutor. Mao would get hold of the doctor at odd hours, say four in the morning, and demand an English lesson, explaining that he'd really wanted the lesson two hours before but hadn't wanted to disturb the doctor in the middle of the night. The lessons mostly consisted of working with the text of Engels's Socialism: Utopian and Scientific . Not much came of it.

Though Josef Stalin had spent pre-revolution time in London's east end, he didn't learn much English either. His considerable gifts - as poet, vocalist, street-fighting man - did not include language acquisition. The struggle from his teen years to acquire proficiency in English and German was without victory. In 1914, he wrote to Grigori Zinoviev for English journals so he might maintain his minimal English language skills. At Yalta, though overjoyed by his accomplishments on the world stage, the best he could manage was to regale Roosevelt and Churchill with the handful of English utterances he'd mastered including "So what!"

Following a Junior Wells concert in Bamako, Mali, Manthia Diawara went up and spoke to one of the American musicians. That he did this in English, without the assistance of a translator, did not go unnoticed. The next thing that happened, he said, was that ".the news travelled all over Bamako that I spoke English like an American. This was tremendous in a Francophone country where one acquired subject-hood through recourse to francité (thinking through French grammar and logic).. Considered as one who spoke English like Americans.I was acquiring a new type of subjecthood that put me perhaps above my comrades.I was on the cutting edge - the front line of the revolution." For Diawara and his pals, English provided access to an alternate world of music and politics, enabling them to subvert the hegemony of colonial French culture.

Maybe halfway through Terminator 2 (1991) John Connor, the saviour J C as an LA juvenile in a Public Enemy t-shirt, offers the Arnold Schwarzenegger cyborg, descendant of Frankenstein, a language lesson:

Connor: You gotta listen to the way people talk. You don't say "affirmative" or some shit like that. You say: No problemo. And if someone comes up to you with an attitude, you say: Eat me! And if you want to shine them on, it's Hasta la vista, baby!

Cyborg: Hasta la vista, baby!

Connor: Yeah, later dickwad. And if someone gets upset you say Chill out! Or you could do combinations.

Cyborg: Chill out, dickwad!

Connor: That's great. See, you're getting it!

Cyborg: No problemo.

The lesson was directed less at American audiences than at the legions of Arnold's fans from Rio to Bangkok emerging from Cold War bunkers and keen on buying into global American pop with gelt earned in bars and clubs and junkfood joints.

In the film Massoud, the Afghan Christophe de Ponfilly, in conversation with Ahmed Shah Massoud, attempted to point out what would amount to a fatal shortcoming. The unprepossessing Massoud needed to be more of a salesman, that in today's world, it wasn't enough to be a brilliant military commander. You ought, he said to Massoud, to have gone abroad. You would have been applauded by the American congress. If you had learned to speak English you would have appeared on every television station and who knows, you might have changed the course of history: "Night had fallen. Massoud, the Afghan smiled and then he went away." Massoud, who held Charles De Gaulle in great esteem, studied French at a lycee in Kabul. In April, 2001 he addressed the European parliament. On 9 September, Massoud was assassinated by members of the Taliban posing as journalists.

Civilians in uncertain environments who can help identify enemy infiltrators and assist U.S. forces may be less likely to do so when they are shot at checkpoints because they do not speak English. So said Todd C. Helmus, author of "Enlisting Madison Avenue: The Marketing Approach to Earning Popular Support in Theaters of Operation", a 211-page study for which the U.S. Joint Forces Command paid the Rand Corporation $400,000.

In the film Restrepo (2010) Captain Jim McKnight from upstate New York presides over a shura in the Korengal Valley. Little to say that even with the help of an Afghan translator the men with the hennaed beards were able to make much sense out of the captain's locker-room rant or that of a Lt. Colonel ordering a group of elders not to allow their sons to work for the Taliban for small sums of money.

The American military are not unaware of the problem. Contractors are engaged to supply translators and interpreters, to provide the troops with language and culture instruction through role-playing and training exercises. Just as the Afghans have no grasp of English the American soldiers in Captain McKnight's command seem to possess zero competence in Pashto or Dari or any of the Turkic languages of Afghanistan.

* * *

"So listen to this. I'm coming out of the bathroom, right, and these two Orientals, they're arguing, they're hollering, they're - they're screaming at one another - and all in Japanese. So I told 'em - I said, hey, you're in America now. Speak Spanish." From Sean Penn's The Crossing Guard (1996).

"I don't trust a doctor can't speak English." Hyman Roth in The Godfather 2 (1974).

"I don't speak Mexican. Let's keep it in English." Hank Quinlan in Orson Welles's Touch of Evil (1958)

"If you want to really hurt me, talk badly about my language." Gloria Anzaldua, Borderlands - La Frontera: The New Mestiza, 1987.

DRIVING into Manhattan from LaGuardia the Chinese cabbie told us his family had left China after the revolution in 1949. They headed for Cuba where his father opened a grocery store. A decade later another revolution forced them to pack up and move, this time to New York City. The family entered the USA as Cuban refugees, his father hoping and praying America was revolution-proof.

For much of his life he'd worked as a Cuban Chinese cook. Now in his retirement years he enjoyed the freedom of taxi work, no longer imprisoned in a hot, cramped kitchen people shouting orders at him for hours on end...

Unlikely the fellow thought of himself as Latino. Many on either side of that world's ideological divide who did, beaten up by Cold War politics, sought refuge in America in numbers that set the country on the road to becoming a different place.

Hispanic immigrants began arriving in New York City 400 years ago. Currently America's largest minority, one forecast predicts that by the year 2040 there will be a Spanish majority in the USA. For many Cold War veterans and others the fading of gringo America is a distasteful prospect. But that is just what the future is beginning to look like.

For the Latino residents of Washington Heights, most born in the Dominican Republic, 9/11 meant economic damage, loss of family members, grief. Numbers of Washington Heights residents had worked at the Windows on the World restaurant in the Towers.

Ydanis Rodriguez, a teacher and community activist, told me the regulars at a bodega at Amsterdam Avenue and 190th Street at first thought it was some kind of accident. Windows on the World had arranged for chauffeurs from the hood to drive Washington Heights employees back uptown in the early hours after the restaurant closed. Now residents were no longer making the trip.

Ground zero. An enormous construction site dug deep in the ground, bug-sized workmen, mud, cranes. A security cop at the barrier stoops over to sign a kid's Ground Zero sweat-shirt as his father looks on...

A Chechen banker I met who claimed he'd produced a Michael Jackson concert in Moscow believed 9/11 was a consequence of American stupidity. America, he insisted, ought to have supported the USSR in its battle with the mooj in Afghanistan. Backing the mooj was, he said, a idiotic ploy to collect revenge for Vietnam, a colossal error in judgment that empowered Islamic schemers to launch 9/11 .

The late Jacques Derrida thought 9/11 marked the end of the Cold War, the attack on Manhattan the opening round in a new kind of conflict, characterized by unpredictable acts of terror that might strike anywhere . The philosopher otherwise pointed no finger.

PREVIOUS PAGE | 2 OF 3 | NEXT PAGE

***

 
 

Subscribe

Submissions Guide
Letters to the Editor
pdf
RSS
 
 
 
home | past issues | world & politics | essays | art and style | fiction and poetry | links | newsletter
The Montréal Review © 2009 - 2018 T.S. Tsonchev Publishing & Design, Canada. All rights reserved. ISSN 1920-2911
about | contact us | copyright | user agreement | privacy policy