Monday, June 11, 2012

Goldoni's 'A Servant of Two Masters'

'The Shakespeare Theatre Company revives a grand Tradition.'

The extraordinary production of “Servant” by Christopher Bayes at the Shakespeare Theatre is a fresher-upper for that august institution in Washington. It is full of stylized acting, the great dance of real commedia performances. It mixes this so-called classic text with perfect modern references – which was the spirit of Commedia when it was played in town plazas – fast and perfect physical timing, extreme dynamics, from yelling and sung lines to whispers which are, absurdly, barely audible to the audience. It has mock opera, popular dances, rap performances (in mask and renaissance costume). It is full of slapstick – the term in comedy we inherit from Commedia itself – as Harlequin (or Arlecchino) hit others with his “slapping stick” or was himself beaten with one. Arlecchino’s close cousin is the star of this play: Truffaldino. He is, as usual, played exactly as Arlecchino. Traditionally he had one clear objective: he was eternally hungry. That simple character “objective,” in Goldoni's text, works here to uproarious effect.

The design for most of the play brings across the feel of the “poor theatre” which Commedia really was. There is the reproduction of bare floorboards, and a touring company’s back curtain on a cheap wood frame where characters make their exits. Live musicians are seated at the side so recorded really is superfluous. This is a bit of a relief at STC, which has the “big guns” speakers systems that rival Cinemax 3D.

In the end a great deal had to be poured into this “poor theatre” appearance. Not only in the astonishing costumes and masks, but in stage elements that both rise up and fall apart – there is even one great disaster that occurs to the set. Katherine Akiko Day’s scenography is astonishing in the ways it can be used to mimic the tradition as it provokes jaded moderns in the audience. The adaptation is both loyal and flexible in the spirit of the tradition. Adapter Constance Congdon has herself written some breathless frantic comedies in her time (“Tales of the Lost Formicans”) and has served Goldoni with panache.

But it is the acting – the acting – I mean the acting – which holds us in thrall. It is akin to circus and dance. The actors have such a heightened awareness of each others' moves that the lifting of a mere finder or he scratching of a crotch will get an instant reaction overblown reaction from either one or eight other actors on stage.

Clarice (Danielle Brooks) is to be married to Federigo, but on the report he is dead her father Pantalone (another great stock character of Commedia, performed by Allen Gilmore) has now been promised to infantile Silvio (Andy Grotelueschen), and the engagement is celebrated with a vivid company dance. Alas, Federigo appears in town and the wedding is off. But all is not what it seems, since Federigo is dead, and is being impersonated by his cross-dressed sister Beatrice. She has come to find her lover Florindo, who is responsible for her brother’s death and has fled to Venice. Brooks as Clarice seems to channel characters from three different eras and cultures, each distinct, and adds her operatic voice to her delivery.

Our real protagonist, however, is Truffaldino, played with acrobatic dexterity by Steven Epp –who is costumed in the time honored patched ”Harlequin” duds and mask. Due to his immense hunger he agrees swiftly to serve this young master “Federigo.” But when this master leaves him for too long without a meal, another traveler shows up near Brighella’s tavern who has means to hire a servant. This is the flamboyant Florindo, who is in fact Beatrice’s lover. He is, in this version, quick with his sword, and and absorbed by his ego. Jesse J. Perez’s version of this character is very much akin to the infamous Commedia figure Il Capitano. Actors who specialized in this character were present in all Commedia companies—he is a descendent of the swaggering soldier (Miles Gloriosus) in the Roman comic tradition. In fact this is not really evident in Goldoni’s text. Still, between director Bayes extraordinary understanding of Commedia style, and Perez's own acting choices, this Florindo is endowed with the boastful soldier's affected machismo. In Goldoni's script he can be seen as one of “los inamoratos” – the two “innocents” or lovers who do not have masks as they are not buffoons normally. But what is "normal" in Commedia? In this version they have an extra dose of foolishness and buoyancy. Beatrice has her own moments bravado and ego. In short, on stage, we really see the human beings as they often are, looking out for number one.

Truffaldino proceeds to pick up mail for one master and deliver it to the other. Unfortunately, he can’t read. He takes Federigo’s (that is, again, Beatrice's) letter of credit—the forerunner of a check – for a great sum of money and tears it into 8 pieces to demonstrate to Brighella, just where each dish should be placed on the tavern table when a feast is to be served. And that meal – well, what a meal. This is one of the greatest and most remembered scenes in the history of comedy, due to the almost impossible demands placed on the Truffaldino. He must rush about to get servings to two impatient masters like he is two people, scampering and whirling between their two rooms and the frantic kitchen staff. You will remember this hyper-theatrcial sequence possibly all your life, as it is done here. And you will understand at that moment the direct line that runs from Commedia, to Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers.

Actors in Commedia were freed up to perform "lazzi," or comic pieces of business, which they refined and brought to a peak of perfection. In this case these are often quite contemporary moments done with a wink to the audience. Here Epp as Truffaldino, when confronting an impossible set of choices, stopped the “text” to say, “Select all. Copy. Delete all.” Then he goes into a terrible panic. “”No! History! Retrieve.” (Well, at least he did so the night I was there.)

As Truffaldino gets himself into deep stress serving both masters in the hostel and tavern of Brighella, he meets Pantalone’s servant girl Smeraldina (one of the best known Commedia fantescas, or female clowns.) She is brought to life by Liz Wisan who captures all of Smeraldina’s insecurities as she tres to show she is deeply enamored of Truffaldino. He must get permission from his master to marry her. But which one? This question becomes even more complicated as the plot progresses. Trufaldino also has increasing trouble blaming all his mistakes (to each if his bosses) on the fictional servant Pascual he created for that purpose.

There are great moments of self-conscious theatricality. Truffaldino spends the first half continually asking when the play will start. He finds a steel switch on stage and experiments with it, turning out every single light in the theatre for two minutes of total darkness. In a moment of self-referential theatre Clarice’s hapless wooer Silvio, with sword drawn and ready for combat is poked in the rear end by the percussionist (was it a drum stick?)

Gilmore, as Pantalone has one of the best lazzi of the evening after a recognition scene when he realizes Federigo is a woman. On the words “She was dressed as a man,” he starts a slow build, beginning with several obscene gestures, to a series of he most absurd conniption fits one can hope to see on stage. With legs in the air and back end bouncing on the floor boards, he gets to the point that he claims has ironed out his sphincter, and makes hopeless efforts to stand up despite his broken bum. It culminates with the comment: “I’ve done a lot of things up here I am not proud of.” You get the idea.

His confidant, Il Dottore (the Doctor), costumed by the consistently fanciful Valérie Thérèse Bart so that he comes close to a character out of Alice in Wonderland or even Yellow Submarine, plays the “pedant” doctor like a beer-bellied puppet. He shrinks down and springs up in implausible ways.

Will Florindo get his Federigo (Beatrice?) And will Truffaldino get his Smeraldina despite his lies and deceit? How? You must go and see. By the end even the set at the Lansburgh Theatre, that Truffaldino has wrecked, helps to show us what love is.

The Shakespeare Theatre Company, at the Lansburgh. Directed by Christopher Bayes. Set by Catherine Akiko Day. Costumes by Valérie Thérèse Bart. Live music by Chris Curtis and Charles Coes. Running through June 24. Tickets 202-547-1122 or

See more theatre and book reviews by Joe Martin at

Shamans on the road: 'Round Earth, Open Sky' by Kirpal Gordon

'Round Earth, Open Sky'
'Round Earth, Open Sky'
Photo credit:
Kirpal Gordon URLn
 There are not so many authors with minds immersed in shamanistic worlds that can summon up a raucous and outrageous sense of humor. It is equally difficult to find one with the ability to write “road novels” (think Kerouac) Southwest Gothic (think Sam Shepard) and mix these together in a chile pepper and tequila mélange with those other ingredients.

The enthusiastic narrative language and wild thought patterns of the characters in the prolific author Kirpal Gordon’s new novel "Round Earth, Open Sky," also call forth memories of Leonard Cohen’s "Beautiful Losers" – another frantic guru novel imbued with a the spirit of an Indian holy person, Catherine Tetakwitha. Round Earth too presents a driven and frantic spiritual quest that culminates in Canada.

In this case the Native American holy man is not Native American at all. He is a “sky man” who has fallen through an opening in the heavens, and in his Earthly body behaves in a manner similar to the shamanic teacher in the works of Carlos Castaneda.
This is a tale that may lead one to ponder the notion of native shamans – and to wonder if they are what we think they are. The shamans and sorcerers, this book suggests, may just be intangible beings that fall through the sky and take on human form, which then insert themselves among the native population as either guides or troublemakers.
Befriended by an American Sephardic Jewish photographer, Moses, on his “hunt” for material—the Sky Man indicates Moses’ totem is the wolf. Sky Man is making his way across the American Southwest to find his way back to the point where he can find the opening in the sky to return to his “people.”

In the process he conducts what we beings of limited consciousness consider to be antiquated healing practices, while speaking to those he befriends in telepathic “picture language.” Sky Man sees into the energies and sometimes the destinies of people around him. He enters into dreams to get at the past and map out future plans: his own and everyone else’s.

When early on, Sky Man brings Moses in his car to a screeching halt, as he carries a partly dismembered wolf over his shoulder on the side of the road, he tells Moses exactly why he was destined to find him and why Moses himself stopped to pick him up. Of course he is not believed. That said, it is not long before Sky Man’s driver will cease dismissing outrageous prophecies from his travel companion, no matter how implausible they may be.

Moses is somehow remarkable himself—neurotic, in big trouble with love, and desperate for subjects as a photographer. He amiably takes the “Luftmensch” on board, and the man with powerful “medicine” from the other side becomes his technical assistant and gofer, setting up the photographic equipment at every important stop they make in their quest. Their trail takes them ever farther North to Native territory in Canada.

This may sound complex, but in fact Sky Man’s back-story is blessedly simple. He simply fell through the sky from the other side, takes on a human body and set off to find his way home. The really puzzling back-story is actually that of the body he lives in. “Maurice,” a suicide, who leapt from a boat in desperation, has a history so immensely complicated—in terms of his love affairs, his engagements with violence, his middle class Detroit family, his strange abilities at native “healing” apparently at the age of 11, plus his encounters with a strange shamanic figure when he was a child – that the reader and Moses and Sky Man himself, whom everyone takes to be Maurice, for the obvious reasons, are almost completely stumped.

For much of the novel it is impossible to grasp who this man is--who is still a kid to those who remember him—this former owner of this body, a healer and a suicide, can possibly be. (Moses too lives under a pseudonym due to past infractions of the law.)

So with Maurice, or at least his body, accompanying the pair all the way, they enlist the help of Maurice’s former flame, Tot, and Rainie, an attorney who is Moses’ own abandoned lover. Add to that a crew of characters steeped in native shamanic couture deep in Ontario, all of them trying to clarify the confounding past of the man whose body Sky Man inhabits.

Resurrection tales go back well beyond that of Osiris, and aptly, Sky Man also goes by the name Heysus Kristay – which is what a Latina woman calls him when he heals her son. In a sly way this modern myth seems to suggest that somehow we are following a Jesus and Moses on the road.
At no time does Sky Man try to hide his identity. It is quite acceptable to everyone in the story, which gives it a flavor of the absurd. He speaks of his origins and visions quite matter-of-factly to everyone they meet, uttering the refrain—“Nothing to it.”

The inevitable humor of his unabashed discussions of his easy reading of people’s thoughts can be found in exchanges such as the following, in which Sky Man, picking up on Moses’ ancestral vibrations asks: “What does it mean, crying alone in the desert to a strange god?” His driver responds: “That’s what I am, a Jew dude.”

Sky Man reaches the logical conclusion: “Then I am a Jew too, Moses Dude.”
The scenes leading to the climax see characters taking part in grand spiritual rites and dream events that seem to have little or nothing to do with their characters.

In terms of character—many of them pass through altered states quite abruptly. What successful attorney, to investigate a situation, throws off her clothes and follows a mass of slithering snakes down into a cave knowing they are in fact a supernatural being which she has never seen? (She brings back a shedded snakeskin as proof of where she has been.)

This clash of worldly types with the mystical realities they must investigate may indeed pose a challenge for some readers to “suspend disbelief.” Nevertheless there is plenty of farce and a lot of the grotesque for those with a taste for either. None of the characters in this novel have trouble suspending disbelief and there is a great pleasure in joining them.

Such novels of the imagination emerge from a tremendous act of will. They are even further from the mainstream now than they were in the '50s, '60s and '70s. It is for fans of the outrageous, who reject our simple notion of reality, and who like to laugh at the absurdity spiritual beings making contact with us mundane humans. It is also for those who appreciate deconstructions of the idioms of modern English. Sky Man applies them as soon as he picks them up.

Though the byzantine back-story of Maurice’s corpse, (that is, Sky Man’s body) is a challenge, it works as it does in Noir novels. What we have here is supernatural detective work. Gordon’s novel gives one the sense of being back in Ixtlan, with a more disoriented version of Yaqi guide Don Juan, but just as full of insight—cracking jokes in hip idioms he learns from his Jewish-American companion all the way to the mountaintop.

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Wednesday, October 5, 2011


The recent application by Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas to have Palestine recognized as a state was predictably met with a collective gasp of apprehension and much scurrying about to convince the Palestinians to give up their “unproductive” request, or at least to neutralize the impact of the request.  President Obama decided to take a clear cut decision that the application for statehood was unacceptable and lacked rationale, as it would somehow undermine the process of peace talks which has continued for the last quarter century, concerning the occupation of Palestinian territory by the Israeli military forty four years ago.  That is, the American President bought the argument of the current Israeli government. Most significantly, after Abbas’ speech Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu bristled at the notion that stopping the burgeoning settlements in Palestinian territory was of any immediate importance.  In his UN speech he stated that "settlements are not the issue."  Only further negotiations, he said, are the issue. Maintaining such a long tradition of “peace talks” without real action is certainly a hard habit to kick.  We have grown used to those bursts of hope in trying to get talks started again so we can ignore how the situation is deteriorating.

Each new American administration seems to develop amnesia about the failures of previous administrations to achieve positive movement in negotiations concerning these people without a state and rapidly dissolving territory. The Palestinians have a bottom line: self-government, a small state with borders with its capital in East Jerusalem.  Israel has had a bottom line for decades, which the PLO long ago signed on to – recognition of the state of Israel. Mr. Netanyahu says that Palestinians have held up negotiations by refusing to recognize a Jewish State.  It seems he will say anything the American public and politicians will believe to be true, and history be damned.  In fact, the Oslo agreement of the 1990s features PLO acceptance, in black and white, of “a Jewish state” of Israel.  (Even though it is not yet accepted by one party, Hamas, it has long been accepted by the entities enjoined to negotiate with Israel: the Palestinian Authority and the PLO.) The Palestinian bottom line is time sensitive, for Israel as well.  More than anything else, the most urgent problem is the settlements, a problem Mr. Netanyahu has actively exacerbated.  He has just thrown more gas on that fire by punishing the Palestinians for their application to join UN bodies by ordering the development of more settler housing in Arab East Jerusalem.  The other burning issue is the impossible system resembling Apartheid that the occupation has inexorably led to.   

The status quo in the long-running Israel-Palestine tragedy feels safer to US politicians, even those who are normally advocates of human rights and international law.  For hawks in Israel the “status quo” has meant the continued encouragement of Israeli settlements inside the areas of the West Bank formed by the pre-1967 borders – which from the Palestinian point of view means 22% of the original Palestine.  That is, the land which until 1948 fell within the borders of the British Palestinian mandate created by the Balfour accords.  The Palestinian authority today is permitted to administer 17% of that 22%, which on any realistic map looks like drops of olive oil on a platter.  These are the “Bantustans” that Edward Said long warned about.

Now, however, history has brought dramatic changes – and Israelis are in real danger that their governing politicians will be the stiff twig that breaks in high winds, instead of the reed that knows how to bend.

The facts on the ground: Walls not bridges

Having just spent this last summer on an arts and peace project in East Jerusalem and the West Bank I would like to share a few observations on the state of things there.  The actions and utterances of the Netanyahu government is causing Israel to become increasingly isolated, causing deep anxiety in his own country.  Everyone knows it, almost everyone is saying it – but no change in policy results from that. Israel’s leaders doggedly pursue policies which in almost every instance can be seen as shooting themselves in their collective foot.  Increasing numbers of people in Israel know it is time to take action which would lower the anxiety threshold, and many Israelis, even those who don’t read Haaretz, are hoping for leadership that can work in the spirit of enlightened self-interest if not respect for international law—something which can lead to a two state solution.  Otherwise, as Israeli President Shimon Peres recently cautioned, they will be heading for a “one state solution.”  

Peres left out the illusory option that those who envision a greater Israel including the Biblical "Judea and Samaria" are promoting: to move forward slowly but steadily squeezing the borders of the proposed Palestinian state down to almost nothing – leaving only  scattered communities of Palestinians which will never be able to govern anything even if such a state were granted to them. In fact, we have almost arrived at that point already.  But this is not a good solution for thinking Israelis, especially due to demographic issues, which was Peres’ point.

Still, that untenable option is being slowly but doggedly pursued by the Israeli government. As it has turned out, the settlements have been made to work hand in hand with the so-called security wall and is breaking up Palestinian lands. The wall stretching throughout the Palestinian territories is much more expansive than most Americans and Europeans imagine from the photos of segments of the wall they see on the news. The justification for the wall was the terrorist acts committed by radicalized Palestinian resistance groups, mostly after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin when all bets were suddenly off and the powerful Israeli army was in. The wall in the end is a grotesque scar on the broader landscape, something that might emerge comes out of a story by Kafka (Kafka did in fact write a sequence of short works on the absurd construction of an endless wall.).  It has been built inside the borders of the “Palestine” envisaged in the endless negotiations of recent decades, sometimes reaching a hundred meters into Palestinian land, sometimes more than a kilometer.  It circles around settlements built on land previously designated as a potential part of Palestine – some of which intrude far more deeply into the West Bank. 

The wall is now being built in the north to cordon off the proposed Palestinian state from Lebanon by a wide swath of land, supposedly intended as part of the future Palestinian state. The plan is to continue the wall till it reaches the northernmost point of the Jordan valley in the east.  The valley is in the complete control of the Israeli military from the north to south down to Sinai.  Its width is close to a quarter of all the tiny West Bank. Thus, the people of this 22% of British Mandate Palestine would be surrounded, as they are now.  Their piece of land would be yet smaller.

The wall is twelve meters tall (four meters higher than the Berlin wall was). It is made out of mind-numbingly oppressive grey concrete, with large guard towers with surveillance equipment along its vast length, giving the impression of an endless prison wall. If a one walks around the towns of Alazaria and Abu Dis, one will take a turn left, and in a few blocks come up against the wall.  If you choose to turn right instead, then after ten minutes you will come up against the wall again.  In fact the wall snakes through the region of the territories facing the Israeli border everywhere.  It is not one bold line like the old familiar Berlin wall. Beyond the two cities just mentioned, there is the open desert.  However, out on that arid zone is a large, white gleaming settlement on a high hilltop to which the wall leads.

Behind the wall: Life in the "A, B and C" zones.

Abu Dis, home to the Palestinians’ largest university, is by and large dusty, in many places lacking sidewalks or street names, as the Palestinian Authority is not permitted to administer things there. It is designated as a “B” zone, which the Israeli’s can’t regulate or police, but neither can the Palestinian Authority.  They may regulate and police “A” zones.  “C,” zones in their land the Palestinians cannot touch, so out beyond the wall in a “C” zone no construction of any kind is allowed by any Palestinian. (This arrangement, once intended as a short term measure in the Oslo Accords prior to expected to be a very temporary arrangement in the Oslo agreement on the road to Palestinian state hood, over time have begun to evoke Kafka again. Or perhaps Orwell provides the better model.)  Villagers in ancient Palestinian towns face police action by the IDF if they try to build additions onto their houses or even driveways or a barn. Thus “C” zones for Palestinians are unregulated no man’s land now placed on hold for Israeli "settlers."  In these areas, among Palestinian communities, old tribal habits and frauds of cyclical revenge break out.  What is in fact happening there is the construction of Israeli settlements and various Israeli military posts.  

As said, the “A, B and C” areas were once intended, in the Oslo agreements, to give Palestinians a step by step approach to administer their own land, but it depended too much on “good will” from the side with all the power.  Hence the Orwellian outcome.  Palestinians still living there have no recourse for protection or emergency assistance.  They cannot improve their lives in any way.

Not so long ago the lawlessness of this unregulated zone became apparent when villagers poured over this portion of unguarded wall in Abu Dis and into the university campus as part of an old fashioned vendetta fight.  The students were put in lock-down and quickly ushered out of the university – which must hire its own guards and police to cover every gate as no police are permitted in the town.  Some businesses on the University side of the wall were burned down. Meanwhile, the Israeli settlement on an unassailable hill above Abu Dis is surrounded by its own wall, designed to keep people out, rather than to keep people in.  It is a secure and quiet place.  A Palestinian Muslim friend of mine, who has secretly been driven into that settlement by an Israeli friend (yes there are many Palestinians who number Jews among their friends, and even enjoy scheming together for little jaunts like this) was astonished to see well watered greenery everywhere, and more astonishing yet – a variety of swimming pools.

What is Jerusalem?  And where is it?

From these two Palestinian towns, which comprise the “East Jerusalem” that Ehud Barak’s last  Labour Government was proposing to cede to the Palestinians at the Camp David talks, one can see Jerusalem not far off, even the Temple Mount and Dome of the Rock. From the edge of town it used to be a three minute drive or ten minute walk to Jerusalem proper. Now it takes an hour and fifteen minutes by car or bus. Not that most Palestinians can get into Jerusalem’s Arab “old city” at all. The majority do not have the passbook that would allow them in. There are families where one spouse has permission to go to Jerusalem, and the other, even if born in Jerusalem, does not have the right to enter.  They are turned back at the military checkpoints.  Any Palestinian resident of Jerusalem who leaves and takes up residence elsewhere is generally never permitted to come back.

Palestinians, struggling to find financial means to build a decent hospital system (the University at Abu Dis is struggling to build up its medical school) have to go to Jerusalem for major procedures, and Israeli government spokespeople proudly point out that Palestinians use their hospitals for such procedures.  Indeed, the Israeli physicians and hospital staff have proven to be among the most even-handed, unbiased and humane people in the region. But for a Palestinian to get an appointment in a hospital there takes going through perhaps several long visits, and sometimes appeals, at the Israeli consulate. Many are simply turned down. A few of the latter can scrape together the money to get to Europe.  For most this is not possible.

A wall that unites and fortifies "urbanized" settlements

Meanwhile, the wall has been built down the center of busy market streets when it hits various commercial centers, killing the social and commercial life in this areas.  This is true in Alazaria where a long busy former market street faces the monolithic structure – all the storefronts are dead, shuttered.  The people have moved out.  There is another such street in the ancient town of Beit Jala adjoining Bethlehem – though there are now quite cheap apartments to be had in the area where the wall is all that can be seen from the front windows of any home or apartment.  Even in the temporary capital of the Palestinian Authority, Ramallah, the wall cuts parts of the town off abruptly from the countryside around it.

Above Bethlehem itself on the hillsides one can see the wall snaking around another white gleaming mini-metropolis – which is the look of the larger permanent settlements built by the settler movement and protected by the IDF forces. There has been lobbying by the travel industry in Israel to name this new bright settlement which glows in the sun on Palestinian land, and which will include a number of fine hotels, “Bethlehem” as well.  This will encourage tourists to stay in the hotels being built there if they want to visit the Church of the Nativity and Manger Square in the real Bethlehem – offering guests Israeli style comforts and almost complete separation from both Muslim and Christian Palestinian communities, especially when they come in large numbers to celebrate the long Christmas season.  The real Bethlehem itself has many good hotels.

As a tourist or visitor to Israel and the occupied territories, one moves from place to place swiftly on four and six lane highways, limited to cars that have the yellow Israeli plates.  (Green or white Palestinian plates are not permitted.) Often, on both sides of these highways there is yet another security wall – even though the Israeli roads often pass directly through Palestinian territory.  If there is an Israeli community on one side, the wall protecting it often sports an attractive brick design reminiscent of the sound barriers used in American suburbs to keep out the noise adjacent highways. But for Palestinian areas – it’s the same old monolithic wall crested with razor wire keeping people in.  These are straight fast roads that do not weave about over ridges and down into valleys – like the one this writer customarily took at night after working in Bethlehem to return to Abu Dis. In my case, in a car with Palestinian plates, the driver had to take the harrowing one lane road down the cliffs into the "Valley of Fire." No, that is not something drawn from the Old Testament, it received that name centuries ago to warn off travelers not to take that tortuous route, but to use the more sensible one.  That is, the route, which today only Israeli drivers and tourist vehicles use through the West Bank.

The problem of Hebron

In the ancient city of Hebron, or Al Khalif in Arabic, the final resting place of the patriarchs and matriarchs of the lineage of  Abraham—figures who are therefore great prophets of the both the Jewish and Islamic traditions—the settlement movement for many years has taken on a more aggressive approach. Though Hebron has been a primarily Palestinian town from times even before the advent of Islam in the region, a group of 500 settlers following one zealous “pioneer” leader organized an effort to populate the town with Israelis. They moved in to the heart of the ancient city.  Some of it was done through legal purchases, much by seizures and occupation of property without redress to the owners. 

Many of these settlers live above the old and large central market of the town.  One of the former main streets of the market has been almost completely walled off to protect a stack of Israeli abodes, creating one of those dead streets with shuttered buildings.  It goes on that way for a quarter kilometer, beneath the upper floor apartments of the newcomers—many of whom are dual-citizenship Americans. 

The central street of the market also lies below these buildings.  It became the habit of settlers living above the souk to throw household garbage, debris and even human waste down into the market streets, so that these days there is a net of metal mesh permanently in place above the market to protect the people there. The netting always holds lots of junk and rubbish which lies in its wire hammock over people’s heads during market hours. Some settlers on occasion have gone on excursions to break the windows of the Palestinian homes in the narrow streets around the center, and on several occasions beat large numbers of people, even to death. These settler communities are apparently unregulated by the IDF units occupying parts of the town. Some years ago a group seized control of a multi-floored Palestinian school near the Ibrahmi Mosque, and turned it to uses for the settler community.

This is not to say that all settlers are engaging in this sort of violent intimidation and violation of the rights of locals, nor are all of them unrepentant bigots. However there is no doubt that settlement activity has been stoking anger and polarization on both sides, and this is only the most visible example. Netanyahu says that settlements are not the issue – but wait, there is more.

The spread of settlements inside the "future" Palestine 

The road to Hebron-Al Khalif from Bethlehem (if you take a car with a yellow plate) opens up into broad vistas of sandy mountains, flat-top mesas, and in the area of the ancient fortified hill built by Herod during Roman times, one will get a glimpse of another “gleaming city on a hill” a massively developed settlement. This is not the most worrisome element.  Thereafter one sees small thriving gated communities with bursts of greenery around them in the desert.  Then another, and yet another.  These turn out to be part of the network of many dozens of small established Israeli settlements throughout the West Bank.  In fact, they are everywhere.  If the Israeli government often points to its traumatizing forced withdrawal of settlers in a small area from Gaza as their greatest act of good faith  (one which brought them only bad results, they complain) is it even possible to imagine the IDF one day surging throughout the Palestinian territories to the great and small settlements everywhere, to forcibly withdraw people from these well-fashioned homes and their civic infrastructure (with twenty four hour security provided by Israeli and, indirectly, American taxpayers).  Not likely. Once again we must ponder Mr. Netanyahu’s assertion.  Can it be true that settlements are not the issue?

The siphoning of West Bank water 

In Bethlehem and Beit Jala this summer, the hottest of all summers in memory, it became doubly difficult to work and do business when the water disappeared. In the parts of Bethlehem struck by the water “outage” young people began to throw rocks at municipal building in futile protest. The oldest washing well in Beit Jala, at the Orthodox Club, went dry.  Taps produced nothing.   Bathrooms began to stink.  At first a visitor might think this is some new tragic twist of fate or nature, befalling the unfortunate Palestinians.  Hardly.

The West Bank aquifer, lying below the desert and arid lands there, is large.  But 80% of the water drawn from it goes to Israel, 20% to the Palestine side.  Water pressure is very low throughout the territories. This affects water taps, showers and toilets in the best of times.  There has been much research recently indicating the uncontrolled use of water in Israel will result in a drying up of the supply. After one of the Israeli government's all too typical acts of anti-diplomacy—the helicopter and marine raid on Turkish aid ships in the flotilla to Gaza a year ago, including the killing of a dozen Turkish volunteers (some of whom, yes, were wielding metal rods against the IDF's automatic weapons during the pre-dawn assault be)—Israel lost Turkey as its only powerful ally in the Middle East aside fromthe Egypt of Mubarak, who is now gone. This may have other ramifications.  Turkey in the future was expected to become an important source of water for Israel. For the moment, the Palestinians are experiencing what Israelis themselves may one day experience, if water is not more mindfully regulated and a peace settlement does not bring about procurement of other regional water sources.

Non-violence and violence

Is there a solution to this mayhem?  As of this writing the Palestinian territories are one of the quietest places in the Middle East. That is indeed an exceptional circumstance in the area, and provides no cause for comfort for Israelis. The results of the Arab spring are taking root all around them. At the same time, a lot of Palestinians will admit openly that the second intifada—or the “Al Aqsa intifada”—brought them the opposite results of the first intifada, in which military weapons were not employed (though many rocks were).  The second intifada, most Palestinians agree, brought down their international prestige. They lost the moral high ground, and most people I have spoken with want to regain that. 

Like the Egyptians and Tunisians, there are many people studying non-violence. They are trying the methods out. The IDF will still sometimes still shoot to kill, as it did on unarmed demonstrators walking toward the Lebanese border in a civil disobedience action this year. Hamas has not made pledges to stop targeting civilians in the south, and neither has the Israeli army. It is still raiding Palestinian neighborhoods, regularly, and at regular intervals the innocent get killed in the process.  

One of my colleagues in Ramallah had to hang off quickly during a phone conversation, as she had to "attend to" some problem. She sent an email to apologize.  One of her students had just been shot and killed in a refugee camp by Israeli security forces when they conducted a night time raid to apprehend a suspect—another person entirely.  Families who have had a member shot and killed by the IDF cannot expect to get redress or even an investigation leading to a remedy. The things most Palestinans have to attend to during their normal day-to-day lives, even when there is no open conflict, are much different than those of most Americans, or most Israelis for that matter.

The occupation authorities do allow all opinions to be expressed and published in the territories: for after the intifadas they no longer try to control the towns, but only surround them. That said, they also reserve the right to arrest and sequester, after the fact, without warrant, anyone whose opinions make them suspect. The term for this is “administrative detention,” and it allows for no courts of law, nor even approval from a judge. Thousands of young people who have served time in Israeli jails, in special areas for political prisoners, having been arrested without notification to their families.  Some may well be guilty of crimes—but it is hard to say when there is no need for trials.  Most are only suspects, and have done nothing more than associate with the wrong people, including university clubs. This has worked out badly for Israel – the prisons are breeding grounds for underground networks and much more open defiance. This modus operandi is increasingly giving Israel a bad reputation in the West, and among a large circle of Jews in the US.

Another story illustrates this phenomenon. In Jenin in the north of the Palestinian areas last June, the Israeli director and actor Juliano Mer Khamesh, much loved by Israeli artists and the Palesinians of the Jenin refugee camp, was shot to death in his car outside his Freedom Theatre by unknown assailants. Neither Israeli nor the Palestinian authorities have “managed” to find any suspects, though the theatre’s fans at first believed it might have been a fundamentalist cell opposed to their innovative theatre. The Freedom Theatre then continued to receive threats – from unidentified sources, though terrorist groups tend to identify themselves. They moved their rehearsals to Ramallah and became a touring company.  However, in early August this year two members of the production team were seized from their cars by Israel’s security forces, and in the usual fashion were blindfolded and taken to an unknown place.  Two weeks later, a young actor from Freedom Theatre who had just made a name for himself in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot was taken from their touring vehicle by the IDF, in the same manner.  If these artists were engaged in something illegal, there are many people who would have liked to know what--especially artists and intellectuals both in Israel and Palestine. There were no statements to the press, as usual.  According to the law – or lack of law in an occupation – Israeli security operatives did not feel they had to tell anybody. The theatre company put out a sad press release, trying to be as polite and unprovocative as they could.  The final line read, “Please, we want our clown back.”  

This is the manner in which the occupation authorities continue to fumble along with a high-handed use of the powerful army and security force. The result, in the case just cited, is that there are more than a few people—both Jews and Arabs—who look back on Juliano Mer Khamesh’s murder and now doubt that it really was Islamic extremists who were behind it.  It looks like the Israeli authorities are on a campaign against this small and courageous theatre company.  Like the wall, like the support of settlements, like the lethal military attack on unarmed aid flotilla, like the recent killing of five Egyptian security personnel while chasing a handful of terrorists at the Sinai border—the Israeli government continues to shoot Israel in the foot over and over again. They have become their own negative publicists– and have isolated the country in a calamitous way. Now even for many who believe the Jewish people should have a homeland and a state, the issue is how to save the Israeli state from itself. 

Advocates of nonviolent resistance in recent decades are not really respected more by Israeli authorities – as philosopher and Al Quds University President Sari Nusseibeh has described in his unique historical memoir Once Upon a Country.  In fact, he argues that, perversely, the security apparatus has had a habit over the last couple of decades of coming down harder on them, as if more violent people and groups don’t disturb the status quo as much. The violent ones are a clear perceived enemy to the Israeli people, and justify “Fortress Israel” policies which they want to preserve. Nusseibeh traces the origins of Hamas in the 80s to the Israel’s facilitation of funding to Hamas leader Sheikh Yassin’s charitable foundations in order to create an organization that would be in continuous conflict with the PLO.  

For the first four years Yassin engaged in almost actions in opposition to Israel, in fact. Scholar Rashid Khalidi in his history of the conflict from its earliest origins, The Iron Cage, points out that Yassin offered a traditional Islamic truce with Israel for one hundred years at this time—when the ancient tradition in fact is always to offer ten.  After Yassin and Hamas turned their guns on Israel as well as the PLO, Israel took out the quadriplegic Yassin on a Gaza street with a heat seeking missile, killing members of a couple random families at the same time as collateral damage.

Dignity before statehood?

Without positive action to engage Israel and move things forward, Palestinians had, until Abbas’s recent appeal to the UN, found themselves either in despair—accepting the idea of a long term but morbid end to their community – or they have become exasperated as Palestinian leaders have found no leverage against the asymmetrical advantage of the Israeli government, which itself clings to a rigid ideology of territorial advance. Thus Abbas’s recent move at the UN is has the approval of 85% of the population.  (In Gaza it was illegal to follow the events on television, as like the Israel government, Hamas too, for now, has a stake in maintaining the status quo.)  Quite a number of Palestinians see it as the first imaginative act of non-violent action. Others who disagreed with Abbas, do so in the name of memory, dreaming of the powerful but unviable idea of “return” for all the dispossessed families of 1948.  

Not one state, not two states: protecting the rights off all

Taking into account the dismal facts on the ground for both Israelis and Palestinians, it is possible to envision something that might in fact take the best features of the so far unsuccessful “two state solution” and the so-called one state solution—the latter of which is too frightening for a majority of Israelis despite the small number of Israeli writers and politicians who have raised the idea. As President Peres has pointed out, however, if the two state solution is abandoned and Israel must simply rule the West Bank denying millions of people civil rights, that will be a one state solution.  

In his new book, What is a Palestinian State Worth? Sari Nusseibeh, who has been an advocate in recent decades of the two state solution, outlines the consequences. It will not be long before the next struggle will be a civil rights movement as Palestinians demand their rights under the Israeli state. In addition, this will mean that up to 45% of the population ruled by Israel will be Palestinian, the group with the higher birth rate. 

Palestinians and Jews are already living in each other’s designated homelands.  Accepting our facts on the ground, it is not impossible to envision the evolution of a new versions of the old options (the one state and two state solutions.)  Nusseibeh has tossed out some new ideas such as a "federation" or "confederation" as possible outcomes.  Perhaps a “dual citizenship option” might be proposed for the Palestinians families already living in Israel, and the Israeli families already living in settlements in Palestine. 

Let us suppose that Palestinians comprising 20% of the population of Israel now were to be granted guarantees against discrimination and an end to “second class citizenship,” and with a dual citizenship rights to travel back and forth freely to and from a new Palestinian state -- with the right of return for the Palestinian diaspora transformed by negotiations into some form of compensation (and a review of special circumstances allowing some to return).  

Suppose as well that Jewish settlers and other Jews who live in Palestine currently (there are a few sparse ancient communities who never left) were allowed to choose to leave with compensation, or to remain in a Palestinian state with a guarantee of their rights by that duly constituted state.  They would have to abide by Palestinian-made laws, but with citizenship in both regions they would be free to come and go to Israel (as they are now). 

In such a circumstance both groups might rule their own state, there would indeed be a Jewish state that would be viable -- without having to impose an apartheid system throughout the areas of its rule. Both groups would have members of their communities, with their rights guaranteed, living throughout the Holy Land -- even in the territory ruled by others. They are already doing it – but not in a productive way.

The option of offering dual citizenship to both Israelis in Palestine and Palestinians already living in Israel, in a confederation or some form of association, might create more security for each, and better protect their rights. The idea of compensation is one of fairness: both for Jewish settlers wanting to return to Israel if they are not comfortable with Palestinian self-government, and Palestinians not able to return to the lands of their families and origins: the descendants of the 700,000 refugees of 1948. 

A Palestinian state with a protected Jewish minority, and a Jewish state with a protected Palestinian minority seems to be the future in any case, unless Israel's leaders want to try to rule it all.  That, however, only brings us back to the simple one state solution which would no longer be one democratic state at that point.  It’s a matter of how much blood and pain leaders are willing to tolerate among their peoples.  Perhaps it is best that both the one-state and two-state solutions be reviewed for their flaws. If we agree with the premise that in some way there must be two countries, side by side, is it possible to go a bit beyond that somewhat simplistic idea, which has not worked thus far. The future, if there is to be one, might well be that of two states that are in many ways interlocked, allowed thereby to have their national aspirations, but with both groups being a presence throughout the Holy Land: with legal borders, rather than being walled off from one another. 

A change is coming and is painfully overdue. The question is whether anyone will make a move to channel these simmering energies of frustration among Palestinians and fear among Israelis into something productive and realistic.  The alternatives are, as so many are now saying in Israel and Palestine, unthinkable. 

Joe Martin is an author and Fellow in Arts and Peace at the Center for Peacebuilding and Development in Washington DC. In 2011 he has worked on theatre and peace projects in Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories.

Funk, Nathan C. and Abdul Aziz Said.  Islam and Peacemaking in the Middle East.  Boulder and London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2009. 
Khalidi, Rashid.  The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood. Boston: Beacon  Press, 2007.

Nusseibeh, Sari (with Anthony David).  Once Upon a Country: A Palestinian Life.  New York: Picador, 2007.
__________.  What is a Palestinian State Worth?  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011.

Thursday, August 18, 2011


This segment will serve as a new section of the blog which, hopefully, will be a place where expressive work will continually be added. If you are a lover of exploring the human condition through the direct-pointing of parables and poetry, page back to Parables and Poetics at any time.


So many roads lead to the open heart
You may enter through the ventricle
of dead blood to be revived
by the breath of the great wide atmosphere
You may ride down the auricle
which will then send you out
to the very ends of the body
This road is the life-giver
The open heart draws in
the weary the tired the used and abused
and pours forth
the essence we call oxygen

Find that oxygen you bloody fool

The open heart is attached
to the small body
the great body
and the infinite body
and sends that good air
round and round
so the whole thing might thrive 



On the road I stop to light a fire
No other place is right to set up camp
And so I sit and so I play my lyre
And nestle by that heat from the dark and damp

No other place is right to set up camp
The morning far off yet and there’s time to think
I nestle by that heat far from the dark and damp
And arm myself by song and spilling ink

The morning far off yet with no time to think
A caravan comes rumbling up the hill
I arm myself by song and spilling ink
Actors leap from carts and drink their fill

A caravan comes rumbling up the hill
A zanni puts his patchwork costume on
Actors leap from carts and drink their fill
An audience with torches comes with song

A zanni puts his patchwork costume on
The children dressed in rags surround my fire
An audience with torches comes with song
And fantesca dances a fondarelle and expires

The children dressed in rags surround my fire
The authorities march in all wearing blue
A fantesca dances a fondarelle and expires
The cops prepare for knocking down the queue

The authorities all march in wearing blue
Protest absurd injustice if you can
The cops prepare for knocking down the queue
They gas the actors till they go down to a man

Protest absurd injustice if you can
Beware the gas but be a woman or man
Amid the fray I sit and so I play my lyre.
On that road I stop to light a fire




A small angular house with gables and add-ons
Made of wood in nineteenth century patterns
And railings lined up beneath its high windows
Built in the gap between the great wars
It has an air of a primitive vestry, with a small chapel
On one side and a gate within a small trellis
Windows face in every-which direction
With the rising sun their sheen is white
A gleaming rose against a field of dirt
Rocks and pebbles and sudden grass.

The angled house takes in light from one angle in twenty places
And gives out beams from yet twenty more
The house blooms outward like a rose
From many different angles
That cut up sun rays into beams
So they shine like living angels
This is the how all forms come to be



Love makes mistakes
Like the man who writes a letter
When his beloved is stricken with a terminal disease
And he signs off with the name of the dying one
Instead of his own

Love makes mistakes
Like the man who seeks a woman red in lights
In place of his true love
And embraces her pretending he’s found his way home
When his center and circumference
His fire and his light
Waits at home

Love makes mistakes
Firing its guns into the night of stars
Lighting the night with
Its inevitably crazed shots of light
The target is so hard to hit
But the target at its center
Draws the love fire to it without a trigger
So the shooter dies.

Love’s many errors meanwhile
Light up the sky day by day
They travel all around in search and in quest
Love’s many arrows are fire
Which sometimes go straight to the beyond
And are lost in the white glow of the sun



The eye is there
The eye is real
a deep source sensing
between a mind in formation
and a jaded brain
How can this understanding
be so profound
this seeing into each other
This eye this eye
is the heart
the eye of blood
the heart of sight



The child on the other side of the city
pulls at me in my sleep
draws my inner compass needle
toward his magnetic field and points it

Awake, walking the autumn colored lanes
of the city hills I feel the pull
to that raft-sized bed
where he pulled my arm around him
to better read a book
“so I am protected”
At such moments one is perfected.


Monday, October 11, 2010


Some say it’s not serious literature. Others say it goes to the heart of our times. In any case, there is no question that Stieg Larsson’s three volume work, the Millennium trilogy has brought the high flying movement of Swedish crime fiction to its pinnacle, becoming one of the most discussed literary works on the planet. It is understandable that some people are asking whether these books of crime fiction, with their forays into violent worlds and one famous exploitation scene deserve all this attention, from radio talk shows, to major book reviews, university courses and in book clubs everywhere. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Men Who Hate Women, in the original Swedish), The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest constitute a new world view and a new perspective: a post-modern sort of macho feminism. They are hard-hitting enough that on the Diane Rehm show on NPR, the book discussion was criticized by at least one caller who criticized the host for featuring a book that she termed “exploitation,” and indicated that furthermore this genre of fiction is not real literature.

Before we begin our discussion of this disturbing and engaging trilogy, let us put that part to rest. In Stieg Larsson’s writing, at the end of his life, there is much use of paradox, and a sense of potent style which evades either Dan Brown or Steven King, never mind that his post-humus sales have now equaled theirs. A close look at the Swedish and not just the allegedly more “ornate” English version—dabbled with by a famous publisher (causing the translator to change his name in the credits)—bears out the assertion that this strange combination of brashness and literary style works in both languages.

For those who know Swedish and Scandinavian writers, the switch from the high literary sensibilities of August Strindberg and Pär Lagerkvist, Selma Lagerlöf and even the films films of Ingmar Bergman – the screenplays for which had high literary pretentions – the works of the driven recently deceased Swedish investigative journalist and author are brashly hard hitting. They take us into the shoes of outcasts, the outsiders, and places under a microscope the hypocrisy of major media in its prurient chase after marketable news and the collusion of the media with powerful economic interests. By exploring the dark underbelly of that “innocent small country” of Sweden we love to hate (for its medical care, social services and sheltering of refugees) and alternatively idealize (for the same things) we gain some lightning insights about our not-so-innocent selves here in the heart of a world empire.

Larsson’s fiction has something much in common with the genres of the crime novel and the international intrigue (as in the works of John Le Carré). The fact is they are a different subgenre. A regular crime novel of international intrigue is a puzzle, usually with some very strange psychological quirks residing in the detective, or spy, added in. Larsson's novels are not centered on the detective or the crime solvers. The investigators are a team of sorts in the first book – but they are not police nor decetives. They are rebels, and exquisite experts in their fields, but they think outside the box. In fact, they are out and out renegades. No more Swedish Ikea milquetoast. (In each novel Ikea gets a mention in a sort of nod to its pervading bland influence. Ironically, the renegades use it most – including the muckraking Millenium magazine.) Mikael Blomkvist, is a writer for a magazine similar to Larson’s: the former exposes corporate influence in politics, the latter exposed neofascist organizations in Europe and their links with powerful sources. Blomkvist's accidental partner in all of this, Lisbeth Salander, is a highly sensitive and iconoclastic computer and hacking genius, perhaps living with Asberger’s syndrome in a highly creative way. She is a victim of horrifying abuse, which is both generated by her family life – and in an astonishingly creative leap on Larson’s part – international geopolitics.

Unlike Conan Doyle, or that other contemporary genius of crime novels from Sweden, Henning Mankell—whose long series about the obsessive and neurotic master police detective Wallendar, has already won world wide acclaim for the masters of the “Swedish genre” – these investigators are not authorized by anyone to be such. Blomkvist goes to jail in volume one for his correct evaluation of the activities of a high-powered corporate CEO – his proof is just not conclusive enough. Salander is a neo-punk ward of the state, deprived of usual rights for a supposed past of uncontrollable violence. Together these two will solve the first set of crimes of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, forming an unlikely alliance, and a mysterious bond that will last through the series.
These are books that go to the shadow side. Literary fiction and modernism often takes us to the refined side of consciousness . These novels are the shadow side – the dark side if you will – much more than the conventional crime novel. This is a place we need to go to see the truth about ourselves and our world.

These novels strike me as being of the most serious intent: they are neither pure entertainment, nor exploitation books. Larson managed, with increasing success in these books, to become something of a real stylist, and poses a lot of provocative puzzles and paradoxes about life in these, our times. The attitudes toward women are a barometer of our progress or lack thereof.

Yet, in addition, the truth belongs to those, according to Carl Jung who can look at the shadow side. If one critic here commented that the Swedes in their apparent social paradise “Look a lot more like us” in these books – it’s not that we aren’t a society more beset by violence and hatreds than Sweden. Almost any objective sociologist would say we are. Yet the fact that these phenomena exist everywhere, and seize control of our behavior, our politics and our sense of “right conduct” in business and politics is something that cannot be denied.

Stieg Larsson seems to have come to believe – as a journalist or editor like Mikael Blomkvist (though he did exposes on racist, skinhead and Nazi organizations rather than corporate criminals and various mafia networks) that one can probe and measure the degree to which society is violent or corrupted in the way women are seen.

An interesting corollary to this is the theatre--or circus--that is playing out aorund these books in Sweden.

Sweden does have a more compassionate approach to care of the elderly and sick than we do. But they have a little oversight buried in their laws. Common law spouses have no rights. Eva Gabrielson, who supported Larsson on his magazine of exposés while living with him for about three decades, was denied all rights and royalties to his works. Larsson’s father and brother have set up shop marketing and making millions of the trilogy. Many Swedes are shocked. One journalist at TTB (Sweden’s equivalent of Reuters) has perhaps gone too far when he remembers Larsson as a graphic journalist who had terrible difficulty writing, and publically suggested that Gabrielson may have been the main writer. Most Swedish critics think this goes too far. It is true that, as home and work partners, and with Gabrielson as a talented writer and journalist, the likelihood that she assisted or advised on the manuscripts are great. Larsson’s father and brother have claimed they made her a good offer: that she could keep the apartment. They find her unreasonable. Why? There is most of the draft of a new novel by Larsson on her laptop, and she will not give it up. “All they want is to make lots of money,” she complained. That’s how simple it is, in fact.

She seems to have a strong sense that Larson was on a broader mission. He wrote all three books on spec, they were not published while he was alive, and he hadn’t the slightest clue they had the potential to make him as rich as his two relentless relatives have become now. They have no interest in the deeper significance of these books. For his part, Larsson’s father said a while back that Gabrielson will never get anything in all of this because “She has no testicals.” Gabrielson is holding onto the laptop in some secret place – it will not see the light of day, she says. She also warns there is something coming: a book of her own covering her own life during those years. There is something of Lisbeth Salandar in Eva Gabrielson. The firm and more grounded part of her resemble Kalle Blomqvist’s editor and lover in the trilogy.

To my mind the central phenomenon in these books is the social outcast Lisbeth Salander. She begins as an ambiguous character, with a tough attitude bred of necessity – a punk goth anarchic streak that makes her fascinating. We soon discover that she is a genius – in even the genuine sense of the word (when she flees Sweden and roams the world in volume two, for a good while she is reading a volume on higher mathematics for pleasure). By the end of volume two, The Girl Who Played with Fire, we see that she is a force to contend with. In that second novel she will be absent from the lives of the central characters including Mikael Blomkvist – for maybe 400 pages in the Swedish version. Yet, in her very absence, her character, without being any sort of portentious punk Jedi knight (well, she has a few of those traits, and she toys with the dark side occassionally) – hovers over the book, dominates lives, moves in, tries to take control. She is faster on her feet – mentally but also physically – than most. She is explosive. She has reasons to be. But she is loyal – she doesn’t know it or admit it, but deeply loyal.

We see the first signs of this in book one. But she comes too close to something that will make her vulnerable – and breaks off all contact with Mikael till the end of the second book. The tentacles of her online research and ability to hack into secret police, criminal and corporate systems, makes her a forerunner of the “wiki-leaks” phenomenon of 2010, in which one Swedish prosecutor attempted to arrest the editor of Wiki-leaks on behalf of the US authorities whose secrets he leaked, and then was overruled by another who swiftly took over her position in the case. This is so close to the intrigues of the Millennium trilogy it raises hairs on the back of one’s neck. She helps reveal state secrets, and autonomous organizations within the security apparatus with their own agenda.

This will become the main action of the socio-political themes in the final book, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. She is one of the victims of an autonomous organization created inside the Security Police who need to keep certain state secrets, and feed distorted news to the media. This echo of Dick Cheney’s independent organization within the CIA, which amassed the information fed to Colin Powell for his Iraq war justification speech is too close for comfort. There is a profound and intricately depicted warning in the narrative for all democracies who maintain secret services: they may have offspring that take on a life of their own. Yet Salander and Blomquist through their non-official investigative techniques employing extreme research skills (more than extreme violence) and all post-modern technology, manage to bring them down a reveal a rot in a democracy that reaches back to the Cold War. Still it is the diminutive “girl” – an expansive, with her expansive genius-like mind, who is the heart of these novels. Her hero’s quest, as Joseph Campbell would have put it, gives shape to everything. We may have thought that Blomkvist was Holmes in book one, but by the end we understand he is just a very industrious Watson to the central victim and investigative master, Lisbeth Salander.

By the final chapters of that volume, in an attempt to align with the elusive Lisbeth Salander, Mikael Blomkvist convenes a meeting of those who know her. Blomkvist, in a rare moment of true levity says: “When this is all over I’m going to found an association called ‘The Knights of the Idiotic Table’ and its purpose will be to arrange an annual dinner where we tell stories about Lisbeth Salander. You’re all members.” I want to be a member, for perhaps the books have made me a sort of idiot, like those who adopt a series of novels as the foundation for a transitory cult (See Tolkien, Lewis Carroll, Lawrence Durrell, Jens Bjørneboe in Norway, Paul Auster and others). I feel I became a member of that club without paying dues.

Perhaps the members of the “Salander table” can convene for the third and final film of the trilogy from Sweden this year, before Hollywood puts out what might well be an adrenaline pumping action film version (I hope my fears are unfounded) of the first novel next year. In the end, I think the best thing we can do, however, is read and tell tales of Lisbeth Salander, the outcast, the abused, the renegade, rebel, and the secret spirit of withdrawn generosity – who whose very life till she realizes her full powers, is that of an easy target of blame and abuse for a society that can’t look beyond appearances -- as presented to them by an elite of power-mongers, marketers and liars.