BookBlast reviews Fireflies by Luis Sagasti, translated by Fionn Petch (Charco Press)
“God, like fireflies, only shines in the darkness, wrote Schopenhauer.” – Fireflies (p. 71)
Fireflies by Luis Sagasti is a brief, existential history of the world in the form of eight essays knitted together by subtle connection points. An eclectic array of highbrow and pop cultural personalities are presented in a seemingly random manner but have common threads that carry an underlying message. Philosophy helps us live our lives, is a consolation: Wittgenstein and Habermas make an appearance; as does the celebrated author of haikus, Matsuo Basho.
An original and stimulating work of experimentalism, Fireflies is in the tradition of fellow Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino (who asserted that “the brain begins in the eye”), Roland Barthes and Michel Tournier. What is true and what is false? Are conspiracy theories grounded in any kind of reality? Is there a relationship between death and black holes? Can words express truth, and is perception reality?
Trauma and Spirituality
Sagasti opens with a wonderfully surreal image of Earth as a great ball of wool around which we crawl or fly, “For hundreds of thousands of years, the ball of yarn has been revolving without pause. This is something the earliest shamans knew, just by looking at the stars.”
In winter 1943, a Russian fighter plane shoots down the Stuka being flown by Joseph Beuys in the skies above Crimea. Beuys is rescued by Tartars, and their shaman, “smears the pilot’s wounds with animal fat and wraps him in felt. Hare skins are the best choice when it comes to protecting someone from the cold.” Some days later Beuys is rescued by a German patrol and convalesces in a field hospital. He is a changed person. Revered and highly decorated when he returns home after war is over, “The scars on his head will be covered by a felt trilby hat. Long leather coats, and sometimes fisherman’s vests, complete his outfit. Very few pictures show him without this uniform. Twenty-five years after the events in Crimea, Joseph Beuys had become one of the most influential artists in the world.”
Kurt Vonnegut survived the Allies’ fire-bombing of Dresden as a prisoner-of-war and later wrote about it in his most popular novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. “In the novel’s first pages, Vonnegut writes that many years after the war, the aeroplane carrying Billy Pilgrim from Ilium to Montreal crashed into the peak of Sugarbush Mountain in Vermont. All those on board died except Bill. The accident ‘left him with a terrible scar on the top of his skull’ . . . After this accident, Billy Pilgrim began to say that he had been kidnapped by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore.”
Compared to the fate of Beuys and Vonnegut, that of the Crimean Tartars is brutal and unjust. After the war they “were unfairly accused of collaboration with the Nazis. Other peoples, including the Karachays, the Kalmuks and the Ingush, suffered the same fate. When Stalin’s troops recovered Crimea, which had been taken by the Nazis in 1941, the Tartars were deported. This happened on the 17 May, 1944. One hundred and ninety thousand people were exiled to Central Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan. The same as the number of Germans who died in Dresden. Mosques and all other buildings relating to their culture were destroyed. The nomads were detained and packed like animals onto trains, just as the Germans had transported the Jews to the lager. Around one third died on the journey.”
A young man called Tomek in one of the wagons survives. Fifty-six years later, he will read The Little Prince in its just-translated Tartar edition to his grandchildren. The book’s author, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, had been shot down by a German fighter plane on 31 July, 1944. Horst Rippert who shot down the author-pilot was traumatised by his action, and secretly drew lambs at night at his desk in his study for the rest of his life. He confessed to his airborne murder in 2008.
What does trauma do to the mind? Recent advances in neuroscience show how the brain structures central to resolution of trauma are also pivotal in various mystical and spiritual states, while unresolved trauma can be passed down through the generations in our DNA.
What if there’s another way of seeing the world?
“Shamans travel into the skies in search of the sick person’s soul in order to return it to their body.”
For centuries, shamans have connected to another level of reality, a “consciousness” beyond the usual one we know. Avant-garde scientists around the world are now making inroads into new and uncharted territory researching our extra-sensory abilities which connect us to the universe, exploring near-death experiences, Akashic fields, synchronicities and coincidences, and other potentially life-changing discoveries.
“The final scream is the same scream as that emitted by the mother at the moment the child is born.”
A Brazilian priest flies up in the sky cluster-ballooning to raise money for a lorry drivers’ shrine: he disappears, never to be seen again. “The orisha spirits have taken him to the forest, or to the ocean, who knows, the lorry drivers whisper.”
Primo Levi falls four floors down the stairwell in his block of flats in 1987. “But how can it be that someone who has been thrown down as low as it is possible to go, who has lived in the abyss – and the abyss is not a place but a state of falling – could fall once more?”
Amelia Earhart disappears into the sky in 1937 on her solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean. The actress Miriam Stefford crashes her plane in San Juan in 1931. Glenn Miller who entertained GIs disappears with his band in a plane over the sea in 1944. Yuri Gagarin’s death is shrouded in mystery after he crashes his Mig 15 fighter plane not far from Moscow on 27 March, 1968.
Richard Drew’s iconic photo of The Falling Man
Did the man in a pink shirt falling to his death from the North Tower of the World Trade Center during the September 11 attacks in New York, scream?
Desaparecidos is the Spanish word for ‘The Disappeared’. For thousands of Argentine families, this word is the carrier of an extended nightmare. After the coup in 1976 when a right-wing military junta seized power in Argentina, a brutal campaign ensued with the aim of wiping out left-wing activists, and terror tactics were used far worse than those employed by the alleged terrorists being combatted. A great many of the prisoners were pushed out of planes flying over the Atlantic Ocean.
Can a flying pig be a firefly?
Night cracks open, the skull cracks open . . . yet there are dancing glimmers of hope in the darkness.
Pink Floyd’s giant inflatable pig escapes in the middle of a concert in 1977 but is more than a disarming quirk, it is a symbol of anti-establishment protest. A firefly of hope.
An ordinary-looking beetle-like creature during the day, the firefly is a superb sight when it glows at night. Its symbolic message is that even though it/we looks like one thing, what is inside us (such as our spirit) makes us glow from the inside out, illuminating all that is around us. Meaning lies in us.
Entertaining, imaginative and clever, Fireflies is a glowing constellation of a book to re-read and savour. Try it and see.
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