Understanding pandemic America with William T. Vollmann

Understanding pandemic America with William T. Vollmann

The author who most of all deconstructed the myth of the American dream is the perfect writer to re-read at the time of an emergency that seems to have brought the United States to its knees

(photo: Ulf Andersen / Getty Images ) America (or better say the Americas) remains the center of the global pandemic, with contagions and deaths continuing to rise, complicit in certain questionable choices of President Donald Trump and certain governors, the poor working conditions of many and a climate of emergency . Are we witnessing the end of the American empire? And assuming that the answer is tragic and affirmative, who better than a phenomenal and sui generis author like William T. Vollmann could tell about this United States?

We are faced with a bizarre, self-defeating and deeply desolate and bleak America: the pandemic has emphasized the differences between worlds, societies, even ethnic groups. Where marginal realities are being increasingly beaten by a non-existent health system and dominated by the economic possibilities of few against many, on the other the Covid emergency has exalted racial and political conflicts that have never died.

Hack journalist capable of launching himself in very risky companies, between dangerous trips to places of war (Afghanistan, Balkans) and nights on the streets with hobos and prostitutes - but also one of the last novelists to keep the vein alive of postmodern maximalism with a renewed historical gaze - the entire rich work of the prolific Vollmann seems to be a long speech of destructuring of the American dream, which does not leave aside European history, especially of war, genocide and frontier.

Although alternating, Vollmann is an author and anything else that is neglected in the Italian publishing. Before with the first courageous proposals Fanucci and Alet, and then with Mondadori that the door even in the Oscars, and today, with minimum fax publishing house that has launched the last novels of the author to the Italian public.

the Last in order of appearance, in February 2020, is his famous reportage sui generis during the war in Afghanistan: Afghanistan Picture Show , subtitle: or, how I saved the world for the publisher minimum fax. In the early Eighties, in the height of the war between the Russians and the mujahideen, the young Vollmann launches without a parachute between the areas of the conflict, sticking their nose with zeal and ingenuity among the leaders of the resistance, general, and who helps the refugees of the war, interviewing, and sometimes mashing some banana peel.

A book for usually cheeky, including reportage, bildungsroman, and historical fiction, accompanied by maps and other documents, as told by a Vollmann reviewing, the past few years, its the same I'm a young man, with affection and distance at a time. You have a bold inscription: “This book is dedicated to all those who seek to help others, that they succeed or fail, ” and in the new introduction is a statement almost of false modesty for an author of fireworks: “ I am Not a diplomat or a strategist. My unique talent as an observer of the political is the ability to see and state the obvious. ”

considered By many to be the masterpiece of Vollmann, arrived in the Oscar Mondadori in the new edition of Europe Central . Yes, the novel is about Europe and not of America, but he does it with the look american on the subject, from a strange distance-closeness, which serves the dialogue very contemporary even today in times of communion by the pandemic and new conflicts today, the most strategic within the european community.

The book is a novel-monster full of screw-chase and continuous changes of scene, where an american author has the audacity was able to join one of the conflicts most raw and symbolic to a time of the european nineteenth century: the one between nazism and stalinism. It does so through a amount of unique minimal stories: lives immersed in that history, between the civil war of Spain to the gulags, the death camps of nazi and other borders continuously ritracciate of this conflict is immense, where Europe is the centre of poetic speech, poetic and realistic at a time: “ Europe is a gentle heifer, a virgin, plump, a little girl u or a girl P ready for love, an angel, a prey submissive, ” writes Vollmann.

we also Find the characters and the protagonists really existed, as the poetess Akhmatova, or Shostakovich, which is the story most central to the whole strained by intense love, the one for Elena Kostantinovskaja, which embodies the desire of an epic among the ruins. We find even Hitler in the famous chapter “ The sleepwalker ”, and many other characters, the filmmakers of the regime, generals, politicians, partisans, and telephone agents of war, heroic, or faint-hearted, that contribute to the telling of the joints of the drama and of the annihilation of the two totalitarian regimes, one might say, in flesh and bones.

ideally Continuing between the last exit in Italy, we face two typical products vollmaniani: the story of awkward margins off-limits for the company and a particular innocence of the Stories of the butterfly – part of a Trilogy of prostitution – and the rewriting of the historical roots of America from alternative points of view with The shirt of ice and The rifles , two novels part of the series Seven dreams, which takes the chest and rewrites the american dream.

the Stories of the butterfly could be called a novel-reportage-raw and wild-eyed on the love of a man for a prostitute or, more generally, to the world of prostitution as an “ honorable form of love ”. This love, however, is all played out between the relationship of desire and exploitation (including sexual) between the West and the East, on the abject gaze and the body of the traveler to obtain only a sexual pleasure, which proves to colonial power.

The protagonist, from the lapel almost autobiographical for Vollmann, is an american journalist who, in the first part of the book, travels through a pretext (to chase the khmer rouge) to make the experiences of sex tourism, along with the photographer, between Thailand and Cambodia.

This baby butterfly – being bullied in his early childhood, which is described in the first pages, even in their own sexual education among children – you fall in love, but in the end, among the countless experiences that are not protected baseness in brothels lerci, a prostitute named Vanna. The return to America, or to its reality of maturity immature, he will be devastating: in search of new experiences with prostitutes us, in crisis in black and with his wife and taken in an attempt to bring Vanna in the States, the journalist will find out you have contracted Aids, a disease that will inspire you to return to the East, in a tragic epilogue.

The shirt of ice and The rifles as mentioned earlier dig in the form of the whole vollmaniana, between true documentary and an epic send-in tilt, on the historical roots and the myth of the founding of America, very up to date posture in times of destruction of statues and myths of America.

“ By Ovid, ” said the author, “ I have borrowed the idea that in our continent have followed several eras, each of which is less mythical than the previous. For reasons poetic and educational, I have determined that this succession of epochs to go is divided into seven different moments, and that, therefore, there would have been seven dreams ”.

One of these shirt, the ice , turns to the encounter between the epic and legend, between the vikings and native to the frozen lands to the North America. Vollmann from reportage travels in the places of this clash of civilizations, documentadosi to the bottom of the epic norse and on the legend of Erik The Red, identifying, as always, between the ice and the desolation, and by drawing on the frost, a history of corruption – as is that of every conquest. A story continued, always between novel, documentary and visionary, historical, in The rifles, where Vollmann is identified almost to crazy (stylistically but not only) in the legendary figure of Sir John Franklin, went to conquer the famous North East Passage in the Arctic Circle.

Vollmann is camouflaged in the myth, it takes all the perversions and virtues, destroys him wearing almost the skins in a metamorphosis to the contrary, telling the story of how the advent of guns and gunpowder have transfigured the natives for ever, in a sort of nightmare dream: “ you were so happy to be there, I know, but you were saying that the island had deceived from the beginning to the end, sventolandoti in front of an ocean after another for so long, and even if that land of icebergs in the shape of ships seemed a paradise you suspect that other illusions and deception, you would be besieged in a house of mirrors without mirrors ”, we can already read in the first pages.

You may conclude with a collection of short stories that can appear equally bizarre, but that presents some of the stories the most beautiful of the last years, at least as far as those written in America. This is the collection Last stories and other stories , from the title provocative.

The provocation, the limit touched, the desire to stray from typical of the author here expresses itself in stories from many parts of the world that have the theme: the ghost and its myths and legends . The legends of death, but also the legends of the erotic sublime, those told by Vollmann, with styles sometimes different. Love stories in the midst of the Balkans conflict, but also the stories of the ghosts of the first world war, which hovers around Redipuglia Trieste, ghost stories americans or mexican border, such as those in the horror of the famous Llorona.

Here, Vollmann puts it in a blender, with genius profound echoes of ovid, the stories of ghosts from Japan to Bohemia from America to Bosnia, focusing many of his themes: on all the subtle and universal relationship between love, sex and death.

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