his poems — rarely personal, ferociously political, and consistently uncanny — offer apocalyptic visions of European capitalism as a sober corrective
Review by William Braun.
One may be forgiven for expecting a beast of a different sort from Cristian Aliaga’s The Foreign Passion, a collection of prose poems translated from the Spanish by Ben Bollig and published by Influx Press. A book of a hundred and fifteen pages suggests a full length collection, while the number of pages devoted to translations (thirty-six) appears more worthy of a chapbook. Then there’s the title.
Prospective buyers can decide for themselves whether the lengthy introduction and bilingual accompaniment are essential — while a student of Latin American literature may find the entire volume valuable, a casual reader may not — but the expectations elicited by the title seem deliberate. They position readers as tourists, whose attitude toward the cities and sites of Europe as places of cultural edification Aliaga finds dangerously naïve. Against this mentality, his poems — rarely personal, ferociously political, and consistently uncanny — offer apocalyptic visions of European capitalism as a sober corrective.
This vision is certainly apocalyptic in the surreal sense of the word. Grotesque images swirl through Aliaga’s poems — “global butchers” and “blind jaws” and “teeth polishing dark glass”. More often, however, they are apocalyptic in the etymological sense, insofar as they seek to un-cover the violent machinations beneath Europe’s attractive surfaces. ‘Mechanism of Wealth’, for instance, interrogates an exhibit of Industrial-Revolution-era machines on display at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester. Beneath the pristine exterior of these “deities from the tool age”, Aliaga detects the “dead faces and breakable arms” of those who laboured “up to eighteen hours a day” to bolster “someone else’s wealth”, labourers whose existence the exhibit scarcely acknowledges. ‘Other People’s Beauty’, ‘The Photos of the Victims’, and ‘Daily Chore’ indict other institutions for similar atrocities: the British Museum becomes a testament to cultural vandalism, the Imperial War Museum to mass murder, and Harewood House to “precious stones and prejudice”. Colonialism’s legacy scars every monument, every exhibit in this collection.
Coerced by economic necessity or seeking refuge, they become tourists’ invisible doubles, travelling similar routes under vastly different circumstances.
So described, Aliaga’s poems sound like conscientious but unoriginal applications of Walter Benjamin’s observation about cultural documents being documents of barbarism, and it is true that the technique, repeated more often than it is, might risk predictability. But Aliaga’s vision captures more than the barbarism latent in cultural documents. In poem after poem — ‘Face on the Metro’, ‘Password’, ‘The Digital Trace’, ‘Taciturn Professors’ — immigrants emerge from Europe’s shadows, escapees from “the black sites of borders”, victims of police violence, commodities “packaged without knowing their destination”, bodies bought and sold for organs or sex. Coerced by economic necessity or seeking refuge, they become tourists’ invisible doubles, travelling similar routes under vastly different circumstances.
Indeed, their struggles provoke Aliaga’s bitterest (and best) lines. Some are withering observations about the ironies produced by globalization as when, with grim humour, he notes “Immense workshops where docile immigrants package… food for thousands of trusting Europeans who mistrust foreigners”. Others display Aliaga’s ability to twist phrases such that they worm their way into readers’ subconscious, becoming increasingly disturbing the longer they burrow. Consider a line from ‘Taciturn Professors’: “Nothing’s wasted, each bit has a niche on the market.” It seems, at first, a straightforward statement about the efficiency of a free market economy: capitalism on a global scale extracts maximum returns from whatever it consumes. The word ‘niche’, however, provokes unease. It evokes men in trucker hats and extra-large shirts searching flea markets for collectible toys and self-fulfilment, and the dissonance between word and context eventually instigates a disturbing realization: exploitation, for Aliaga, does not originate in any single location or scapegoat. Rather, hydra-like, it spawns from the individual desires and fetishes — the niches — of people who are willing to ignore the suffering of others in their pursuit of happiness. That such lines are memorable for their phrasing testify to Bollig’s skill as a translator: they sound as though they were conceived in English.
those of us privileged enough to travel should do so less as tourists than as pilgrims
Aliaga, in short, proposes a more sober and introspective manner of travel, one attuned to the complex legacies of historical sites and the privilege of travel undertaken for its own sake. As he advises in his final poem, ‘Earn the Path,’ those of us privileged enough to travel should do so less as tourists than as pilgrims, pausing at sites “invisible to those who hurry past toward nothing”, listening to the stories glossed over by museums and travel agencies, the past and present voices of labourers mauled by profit margins. To do otherwise — to obey the foreign passion unquestioningly, to visit Europe’s cities and sites on their own terms — is to overlook what humans like ourselves have suffered and ultimately to be complicit in their erasure.
William Braun lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. A graduate of the Master’s program in English at the University of St. Thomas, he is an adjunct literature and writing instructor at several area universities. His translations have appeared in Exchanges Literary Journal. Follow him on Twitter @blessmekerouac.