American Monster III: The Soundtrack to the Fall of the West

When I first visited Berlin, in 1981, it was a place of darkness. The streets were black, it was always night time and it was always raining, razor wire and walls cut the city in half. Junk was everywhere and everyone was on it. Punk rockers and anarchists seized neglected apartment buildings and fortified them with cop-killing devices like sharpened rams and nets full of broken concrete. The west was finally collapsing and Berlin was the orchestra providing the soundtrack.

As a kid from rural Oregon I was absolutely petrified at the time. But afterward, I had Berlin to think about. I had my own private derangement of the senses, an at-hand phantasmagoria of perversions and apocalyptic terrors that captured my heart, as it would any red-blooded American boy. Berlin was a little puppy you could cuddle up close to that would eat your guts.

When I returned to Berlin this summer I was stunned. Where had all the darkness gone? The wall was down and Berlin, I am sad to say, had become Frankfurt, a place for making money. A new building went up every day. Well-adjusted Germans looked frankly at their past and practiced nodding thoughtfully. Humboldt University had begun to regain some of its former glory.

One night S. and I decided to cross over into the former east Berlin and see an early Brecht play, “The Petite Bourgeois Wedding” at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, where the ensemble had been in residence since Brecht returned to Berlin after the war. Although the façade of the building looked rather sterile and the foyer looked like a rock venue, the theatre itself was an exquisite rococo masterpiece: gilded finials, carved shields, bejeweled pilasters and red velvet.

The play, though early Brecht, was Brecht nonetheless, a farce about a wedding in which everything, from civility to romance to the stage itself winds up in pieces by the end. But that was not what struck us. What struck us was the smell.

It was an exhalation so heinous we almost left. And it was relentless. And, like the play on the stage, despite its obviousness, everyone pretended that everything was fine.

Perhaps it was a stage instruction. “Every five minutes, stick a piece of rotten meat behind a fan and blow the putrescence into the audience to underscore the rottenness of their bourgeois values.” Then we thought it was one man in particular, ahead and to the right, a gone-to-seed academic with bad hygiene. Gas? A mouth full of rotten teeth? A bag of spoiled melons? S. took to holding a perfumed handkerchief over her nose like a courtier at Versailles.

It was only later we figured out what it was. The nightmare in the theatre, which was repeated later on the street, in a barber shop, in the foyer of our hotel, in department stores and museums, was not the result of one man, nor of theatrical convention, not even of the propensity of Germans to eat nothing but pork sausage. It was the West, rotting from the inside out.

After we left Berlin we rented a car in Frankfurt and drove to Buchenwald concentration camp, where S.’s father was liberated on February 16, 1945. S. and I toured the 400 acre site in the cold rain. We were the only ones there. Hours later, wet to the skin, we stood at last outside the wire fence of the camp, in front of the last historical marker. It was placed on the road that led from the make-shift train station to the prisoner processing center. The marker said that 1500 meters, through the thick brush and not visible from where we stood, was the palace of the widowed duchess Anna Amalia of Weimar and her son, the future duke Karl August. There, Goethe had debuted many of his plays and poems and Weimar had become a byword through Europe for civilization and enlightenment. “In two hundred years,” I whispered, exhausted, to S., “from there,” and I pointed toward the palace and Goethe, “to there” and I pointed at the wet gray clay of Buchenwald.

American Monster II: We Dream of What We’ve Lost

Since before I was born what came to be known as the Eastern Block was off limits to Westerners. I don’t mean it was simply impossible for most to travel there. I mean something more insidious. I had a picture of every place I ever traveled – Wales, Spain, Germany, Canada, West Covina. Those pictures were incomplete, sometimes ludicrous, but they existed. Italians talked with their hands and ate pizza. The French talked with their hands and drank wine. In England they didn’t talk, ate fish and listened to Pink Floyd.

But I had no pictures of the Eastern Block countries and I certainly did not have pictures of the individual countries within it. In fact, the notion that there were countries radically different from each other behind the Iron Curtain was not a notion that occurred to us at all. They were all gray places and they had tank parades. Traveling with my wife to Latvia, the land of her father’s birth, a land he turned his back on after surviving the concentration camps that eager Latvian collaborators helped the nazis put him in, was a revelation.

Latvia was like wandering into someone else’s fairy tale. from the road sides, chest-tall luminescent green grasses waved in constant motion, groves of white birch trees spiking skyward, great gray rivers rolling into unknown seas, high-stalked flowers doting the fields with color. You half-expected a hero in leggings and embroidered tunic to step out from behind a birch bole and fire a magic arrow into a supernatural deer who would then turn into a rival prince, whom the hero finally realizes too late is his long-lost brother.

Traveling to Latvia’s capital Rīga was also like stumbling onto a powerful empire that you never read about in school, with guild halls as tall as skyscrapers, rich merchant houses in yellows and blues, cobbled streets with cobbles as big as cantaloupes. on one narrow street you would find a plaque marking Wagner’s tenure as music director of the symphony. Berlioz and Mendelssohn were also in residence here. dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov and filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein also came from Riga. but all this history is hidden, and to see it suddenly laid out before you is unnerving.

In Riga, which is on a parallel with Aberdeen, Scotland, the sun set after midnight and rose again before six. I would sit on the wide sash of the window in our room – the hotel was a convent for widows and, before that, the dining hall of the sword nights – and peer, going slowly mad, into the night sky, willing it to burn out my rods and cones so I could sleep. But sleep… Never came.

The Latvian language sounds like a Norwegian speaking Italian. It is round and tonal. It has the lilt of a vaguely Scandinavian tongue, although it is neither a Germanic nor a Slavic language. It’s only living relative is Lithuanian. When a Latvian speaks, what with Estonia and Finland right up the road, it sounds like the recitation of some unknown epic influenced by the Kalevala. “Atvainojiet, es nerunajat latviski,” you’d say. “Ludzu, kafiya ar piem. Cik tas maska?” you’d ask. Looking at a sign or a menu or the front of a newspaper was vertigo inducing. You couldn’t even figure out what part of speech a given word belonged to. It felt funny. And dirty. And you loved it.

I’ve been in El Salvador and Guatemala and Latvia is, hands down, the most foreign place I’ve ever been. I experienced a relentless ecstasy of otherness. I was constantly on the verge of a magnificent psychosis. These feelings were, to her surprise, shared by S. I think she expected, at least in part, to come back to the land of her father, her grandfathers and grandmothers, and feel some ownership, some familiarity. But she really did not. One day we spent walking around the city from one hideous restaurant to another trying to find something edible in a city whose questionable culinary heritage was further compromised by 50 years of soviet rule, under which every hint of culture was suspect. It culminated with us sitting outside on the patio of a Russian-run restaurant on the banks of the slate-gray Daugava. It was, as close as we could figure, a Cuban restaurant. The waitresses, pale Russian girls in turquoise miniskirts (you know, like they wear in Cuba), mottled by the cold, delivered an alleged crème brulee wobbling menacingly that had the taste and consistency of whale meat and eggrolls so suspicious and malicious we almost burst into tears.

Finally we had had it. We retreated to this once elegant city’s best restaurant, the Otto Schwarz, which sat on top of the soviet era Hotel de Rome. Although the hotel was the apogee of late Soviet design – cheap and mirrored, with yellow metal instead of gilding, like one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces – the restaurant was another page out of a different part of the past. It was lodged in between the World Wars, a time before that line had been crossed that can never be uncrossed. Sitting virtually alone, the gorgeous city was spread out beneath us: the parks, the canal, Vecrīga, the old city wandering downhill toward the river, the “new” suburbs of the 1800s with their jugendstil buildings, iced and ornamented with stone pine cones, caryatids and atlases, the stylized onion domes of Svētās Pētera and the Doma. Inside, amid white table clothes, walnut wainscoting, silver service and crystal, an old man played jazz standards and chanson on the grand piano, short-coated waiters delivered lamb shanks, potato croquettes and spinach shrimp soup and marzipan. It was loss made physical. It was the drifting back to a time before the glass broke and was scattered. It was a monument to the death not only of six million Jews but of a whole way of life. It was the eulogy to a Europe that was once whole. It was the period that marked the last full sentence Europe ever spoke to the world.

We went to Rumbala, the forest where S.’s grandfather, a cantor, and grandmother, along with 25,000 other Latvian Jews were shot, the Kaiserwald transit camp and ghetto where her father was imprisoned before the long ride to Stutthof, near Gdansk in Poland, and to Buchenwald. When her father was freed in 1945 he was contacted by his brother, Simi, who, with his blond hair and blue eyes, had been hidden in plain sight by a Latvian family. “Come back to Latvia,” Simi said to Israel. “It is a new place. It’s free.” “Nonsense,” said Israel. “The Russians are as bad as the Germans.” S.’s father went to America. He moved to San Francisco. He was a young man, free for the first time, single, handsome, European, in the best city in the world at the time, a city full of cocktail bars and movie stars. Simi became an officer in the Soviet Army.

I sat there in the Otto Schwarz restaurant in Riga and watched S.’s eyes wander out of time over the city of her father’s memories. I listened to the echoes of that lost time, feeling it pass over me. We dream of what we’ve lost. I saw Europe dreaming.

American Monster I: Europe Was Our Ideal

Europe was our ideal. Europe at one time was not merely a place, not simply an economic or political entity. It was not even just an idea. In Europe one found an atmosphere of free inquiry, a prerequisite for scientific and philosophical activity that was largely absent elsewhere in the world. Europe had developed and implemented the powerful notions of individual worth and political liberty, of democracy, of the free pursuit of one’s own fate, or the freedom to change that fate, to move from one place to another, one profession, class or religion to another. It was the richest place on earth, both in economic terms and in artistic ones. It held the reins of world governance, both through dint of moral authority and power of arms. What happened in Kinshasa or Chicago meant little. What happened in Paris or London meant everything.

The picture the American media presents of Europe is that of an undifferentiated mass, dead-set on going toe-to-toe with the U.S. as an economic, political and military force. To American conservatives, Europe is a tourist trap filled with indulgent, unrealistic sybarites; a Greece to America’s Rome. To liberals, it is a promised land, bathed in the golden light of reason and peace; a Judea to America’s Babylon. But Europe is a fiction that we change to fit our needs.

And Europe is no longer our ideal. I discovered this recently during a month and a half spent traveling with my wife, SJ, through Latvia, Holland, Germany, France and England. We traveled in a post-9/11 world and at the time of the expansion of the European Union, the time of the elections for the European parliament, during Euro 2004, the European football championship, which, for the first time, featured Latvia as a contender and Greece as the winner.

Europe was my ideal. I first went to Europe when I was 17 on an unofficial student exchange put together by my high school German instructor. The liberation of walking around Cologne, West Germany (already you can sense how it’s changed, just from the names), fresh from rural Oregon was a watershed moment in my life. My father was a sailor and had seen Vietnam, Singapore, Korea. The wide world, in other words. Europe opened up the world for me like Asia did for my father. I would never again confuse Oregon for the world. Though much later I would realize Oregon too was part of that wider world.

There is no substitute for travel to get at the truth of a place. Like the peripatetic Indo-Irish novelist and poet Lawrence Durrell, I too believe most truths are truths of place. In the American media, the picture of Europe is one of a thriving, coherent and threateningly swanky though slightly irrelevant culture, full of proud, even belligerent, Euro-citizens dead set against the U.S. and determined to go toe-to-toe with it as a world force. But that picture is incomplete, perhaps even altogether wrong.

My experience is best illustrated by the encounter SJ and I had with a waitress in Berlin. We had stopped into a traditional German restaurant in Berlin in a side street off the Ku’damm – all Thüringer wurst, glüwein and Berliner Weisse mit Schuss – for an early dinner. Berlin is a city I had last visited before the wall fell. The Potsdamer Platz I remembered was an eerie, gargantuan concrete wasteland surrounded by Stalinist apartment houses and dotted like a de Chirico painting with vague, paranoid figures emerging from and returning to the shadows. In the last five years the building in Berlin has reached a fevered pitch. The Potsdamer now resembles, in the early summer evening, a cheery version of Blade Runner, full of curved glass walls, blued steel and tiled passageways, stuffed to the gills with modern, lively German citizens. When I hailed this new Germany to the waitress we had been talking to, she shook her head. “No,” she insisted sadly. “Germany is dead.”

Another example of how this Europe I walked around in differed from the one I had watched on CNN and read about in the New York Times was the build-up to the elections for the European Union’s parliament. Considering that the parliament was responsible for trade, labor, environmental and cultural issues for the 25 countries of the Union, one would think the elections would be a major concern. The EU had just expanded, adding 10 countries only two months earlier. But every European broadcast media, from France’s TV5 to Italy’s RAI to the BBC reported a wide-spread apathy. Euroscepticism, as they termed it, was everywhere. Interviewees from Porto to Aberdeen, from Den Haag to Naples complained that the enormous 732-seat parliament was expensive and corrupt and that the Union took huge amounts of money out of the member states’ coffers, returning virtually nothing in return. One report outlined the travel scheme for the parliament, in which members were allowed to claim reimbursement for up to eight times their travel expenses.

In fact when the election did take place, from the 10th to the 13th of June, the turn-out rate was only 45%, very low for a region in which voting rates regularly approach 80%. And those parties that did get elected were protest parties. The Eurosceptic UK Independence Party won in Britain. When the BBC asked new UKIP European Parliament Member Robert Kilroy-Silk what his party intended to do in the European Parliament, he replied, “”Wreck it – expose it for the waste, the corruption and the way it’s eroding our independence and our sovereignty.” The other members’ Ministers almost all came from parties in opposition to their sitting governments. So much for a united Europe.

SJ and I sat in the Leche Vin, a bar off the Place de la Bastille in Paris with David, an old photographer friend from Boston who had just finished an assignment to illustrate a new edition of the best-seller “The Da Vinci Code,” which is set in part in Paris. As SJ and David talked about… well, whatever photographers and painters talk about, I chewed the fat with Roland, a Frenchman who had spent time living, as I had, in San Francisco. “I love America,” said Roland. Hold tight. A Frenchman who loves America? “I love it so much I can hardly say.” He talked me through his time as an engineer in the bay, how he had, alas, fallen in love with a French woman, followed her back to Paris and promptly broken up with her. He asked me what do the American people think about the war? What do the American people feel about the election? Who do they think will win? What did I think about John Kerry? What did I think about France? I loved it, I said. Unreservedly, wildly, I loved it more in person than I did reading about it in books, which can scarcely be imagined.

The Europe I encountered was not much of a Union. It was not the X to balance out America’s Y in the equation of global power. Europe remains a collection of sovereign countries, each not farther away from the other than one U.S. state is from the next, but each holding within its borders, as though within the covers of a book, a different chapter of the world’s continuing history.

Post-Historical Guatemala

Guatemala is a country of left-overs – left-over cultures, left-over churches and temples, left-over wars, houses and stores made out of discarded billboards, scavenged packing crates and sheet metal, governments made of discarded ideologies. A trash heap of a country where every spot touched by human hands sprouts a deadly, ineradicable mold. It is a country of people leaning in doorways, sitting on steps, peering from windows, milling on corners, waiting for something. But long ago, in the dead of night, when no one was looking, history passed by for the last time. Now the only thing that passes is the time.

Ciudad de Guatemala is a city made up entirely of outskirts. The whole city is an approach to itself that never materializes, every road a siding road, every house an outbuilding, a city waiting for itself to show up, a city that never was and never will be in a nation that never quite was and won’t be again.

Crows flutter and perch in the hot brush on the border where Indians fry meat in black pans and all the dogs are ill and all the men are sullen and all the children dirty. Ghosts in white dresses walk barefoot down the ditches at night.

Claiming the Victims

Since the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center there has been a insistent effort to excuse perpetrators of violence against innocents. Not simply by conservative Muslims, but by many Westerners. The line of Muslim thought has been examined exhaustively. (Whether it has been examined competently is another matter.) This line of Western thought, however, has been either ignored or reacted to with frenzied flag-waving.

The line of Western thought I’m speaking of goes like this: Every action, especially by people or peoples with less power, is a function of historical forces. Identify the historical forces that have “caused” an event and you will explain that event. The US has made political decisions (specifically in the Middle East) and these decisions have “forced” other groups or entities to do what they have done (kill 3,000 people in the Trade Towers, for instance). There is no personal will, therefore no responsibility. The US, it is reasoned – despite, presumably, being itself no more than a function of still other forces – is therefore guilty of its own victimization. Perhaps the desire to be fair to those with less power has blended with the desire to identify with “victims,” thereby ironically absolving oneself of guilt.

An example of this thinking is from a British reporter who was attacked by a mob of Afghanis in a village just inside the Pakistan border. “I later found out,” he was later quoted as saying, “that the village housed lots of Afghan refugees, whose relatives had been killed just last week in the American bombing of Kandahar. It doesn’t excuse them for beating me up so badly but there was a real reason why they should hate Westerners so much.”

It was perfectly reasonable, the reporter testifies, for a mob of people to attack him, because they had been attacked previously, by a polity to whom the reporter did not belong but to whom they believed he bore some resemblance.

But the “real reason” the reporter was attacked was not due to his guilt, not due to historical forces. He was attacked because the particular individuals that constituted that particular mob did not possess sufficient reason, self-restraint and perspective to allow them to stop their own base impulses. They attempted to murder a man they had never seen before not because they were compelled to by historical forces or by the policies of the United States but because they chose violent retribution; they believed it to be more desirable than restraint.

On the larger world stage, the fiction is also larger, but essentially the same: Because of America’s policy decisions, it brought about the murder of its own citizens. The wives, husbands, sons and mothers of the 3,000 murdered secretaries and attorneys, stock brokers, chefs and fire-fighters have only their own government, and, by association, themselves and the deceased, to blame for their loved ones’ deaths. The men who hijacked the planes and crashed them into the buildings, those who planned, funded, trained and arranged for this event to happen, are victims.

That political decisions contribute to political atmospheres and that political atmospheres effect those in them, is beyond argument. To assert however that political decisions by a polity justify the murder of innocents (or in the language of the times “make it understandable”) is faulty and should attract more critical attention than it has, especially when those political decisions are objected to based not on their effects but on their ideological appropriateness.

The two most commonly referenced excuses for the attacks are America’s support for Israel and American military presence in Saudi Arabia. However, America’s support for Israel is objected to not because it is hurting Arabs, which it may be, but because Israel is thought of as a ritually unclean intrusion into the Arab world. Likewise, American military presence in Saudi Arabia is not objectionable because it has compromised Arabian sovereignty but because it is ideologically undesirable.

But regardless of the nature of the objection, the murder of innocent people, non-combatants in the clearest expression of the term, is not “understandable” as a function of historical forces. Historical forces do not excuse the guilty or indict the innocent. And, naturally, this is a knife that cuts both ways.

The Easiest Virtue

As far as money goes, if the mere not-having of it were a virtue, every trailer park would be a light unto the world and every silly hippy with food stamps a Martin Luther King, Jr. I just can’t muster anymore that special blend of self-deception, self-justifying crackpot sociology and nervous energy necessary to produce art in the face of the extensive empiric experience of disinterest. If you can find a way to do it, I’ll be the first one out of my seat for a standing ovation when they call your name at the Booker Prize banquet.

But for me, my nightmare image: a 22-year-old, would-be poet at my feet adoring me for my sacrifice at the altar of poetry. “You’re life is so pure, Curt, you kept doing it even though you never got published — you did it all for Art.” *boom* “Oh, my God, he’s dead! Why! Why!? Oh, me! Oh, life!… He was a great man, though the world never knew him. You see he lived in a tiny apartment urinating into his long underwear and writing poems on the back of stolen Denny’s menus and the dry parts of adult diapers. He died happy, because he didn’t mistake the point of life for accumulation of material possessions like pants and stereo equipment and SUVs and potatoes. He died happy because he wasn’t a Yuppie!”

The First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All the Book Peddlers

So-called “independent” bookstore owners have far more in common with the large chain stores and online booksellers they denigrate than they have differences. Small bookstore owners have as little respect for both writers and readers as do the chains, they exploit both the writers’ work and the readers’ money with as much avarice and single-mindedness as the chains.

What they do differently is a matter of marketing. They use language that glorifies their own situation and belittles the chains, pseudo-political language which attempts to rhetorically frame the issue of competition in terms of morality. Patronize the chains, they say, and you support exploitation, you support global cultural homogenization, you support limitation of free speech. These are the same people who treat their customers like cattle, who staff their businesses with glib, half-educated, self-satisfied bureaucrats who have as much in common with the writers whose books they sell as do the CFOs of the book chains, and who candy-coat the gouging they inflict on their customers.

So instead of the spreadsheet-driven homogeneity of the chains, we get the petty tyrannies and nepotistic clubhouses of the book peddlers. Because the “independent bookseller” and the corporate chain are different only in size, I go to whichever source – book peddler, corporate chain, corporate website, “independent” website – offering the book I want at the lowest price.

America Vs. Europe

I wonder why I find the notion of living “simply” in a place like Eugene or Taos or whatever unappealing. I thought the isolation was unappealing, and the inability of doing some things I like (traveling, not living in a “subculture” fashion) due to lack of money, the sense of being outside the swim of things and therefore producing things (writing) that betrayed that lack of sophistication.

Then I realized that although those things are important, that was not really it. If I could live in Paris, say, and Be A Poet, at the cost perhaps of money, I might very well do it. Well, why? It’s not just the romance of it, which is a factor. It’s because just like Cowley and Stearns and his crew thought (then later backtracked on), America is a simply terrible place to be a writer. Why? Because if you say, “I am a poet” then Americans will think — even if you truly are pretty good — that what you really said was: “I am a fool, a nobody; I have no real role in society; poet is just another word for someone who lacks the self-awareness to do something with himself.”

The problem is that this is usually right. In France though, and in Spain, and probably other countries, if you say, “I am a poet” what they hear is: “I have dedicated my life to understanding our humanity, God and death, and making beautiful things that improve people’s lives; I will act out of the ordinary — bohemian — because that’s necessary for me to do my job, for me to fulfill my socially-recognized role.” And they nod. Ah, ha. I see, that makes perfect sense. It’s sensible.

That’s not to say that you are the same as an insurance salesman. Far from it. But you are not a bum. Those societies are much more likely to recognize what you’re doing as worthwhile and allow you latitude. Maybe that’s because unlike America you didn’t have to work-or-die, society developed more slowly, letters were part of the sense of self of peoples across Europe. I don’t know. But I know that no matter where I was I would want the capacity to live like a human — buy clothes, food, travel, have savings — but here in America you do not have an identity — well, not one that I would want — without money. Also, as a grown up, I am unsatisfied merely imagining. Still, I would be more satisfied somewhere that imagining and imagination were not so perilously smeared together.

In other words, what I need is significance. It is impossible to gain significance from writing that no one ever sees. It is possible to gain significance in America through your work, your clout and the way you physically manifest your culture. The problem is, significance has two sides, outer and inner. Work in America — well the work I currently do anyway — can only provide the outer significance. When I told S.P., for instance, who is a smart fellow, that the job I interviewed for in Seattle could lead to a permanent job with Microsoft he thought that sounded top drawer. Why? Because it had outer significance. Working at Microsoft was something someone who had their shit together did, not something a loser did. But since I don’t find a reward in the work itself, it is only half the necessary daily requirement of significance. However, as I said, there is not outer significance in writing stuff that no one sees, and after a while the inner significance fades, then fades out. Why? Because although writing is an internal art in its composition, it is external in its use. One writes in order to be read. Now, I write for myself as well. Why? Because it straightens out my thoughts, releases pressure. That’s useful to me. But its not significant. I cannot in good conscience face the wind at sunset and proclaim (in voice over to a swelling Mendelsohn concerto): I am a writer! I am not a writer. I wrote, that’s demonstrable. But I’m not a writer. A writer is a position. I do not have that position.

Well, I could go on and on. My point again, distilled, is, yes, I hear what people are saying about not trading one’s health for money (No Blood For Oil!) and I will watch out. Unfortunately what I really want — a good living or maybe “life, lived well” — is only available in America with proof of purchase. What do I like? Travel, wine, good shoes, conversation, good food, music, nature. In the Europe I imagine it does not cost much to get these things. In America, it costs a great deal. Except for real conversation. That is unavailable for any price.

American Monster IV: The City of Light and the Cités of Darkness


On the night of the gay pride parade in Paris, S. and crossed the river to meet our friend David for drinks. We walked across the place de la Bastille, which we later discovered contained 600,000 revelers. On the way we saw a man beating on two drag queens. The crowd followed the assault back and forth across the square with the kind of unpredictable ebb and flow of which only a mob is capable. S. plunged into the clot of 600 observers to pull the drag queens away from their victimizer. Panicked, I plunged in to pull S. away from the mob.

This was only the first of four brutal assaults we saw that night. A common element of every fight was the participation of northern African immigrant youth. I am mentioning this not to indict Muslim immigrants as congenitally criminal, but to point out what has become the defining issue for 21st century France, for Paris in particular, and for Europe in general: immigration.

France, a country of fifty-nine million, nine of whom live in Paris, has an non-native population of six million. Most of this immigration has happened since the Second World War. It is not there was no immigration prior to that, but decrease in European populations due to war, and the need for post-war rebuilding, made it desirable to import workers. Afterward, especially as the European powers gave up their colonies, commonwealth agreements made it possible for the formerly colonized to immigrate to the lands of the colonizers.

Although the Seventies saw a clampdown in the generous immigration rules in Europe, the immigration itself did not slow, especially immigration from non-E.U. countries. Among other things, family members joined immigrants in their adopted countries. For another thing, most countries make exceptions for “asylum seekers,” people fleeing “persecution” in one form or another. It is this asylum exception that may account for the increase in non-E.U. immigration in the last twenty years. Certainly the Europe I first visited in the early eighties was not nearly so ethnically diverse as the one from which I have just returned. The city of Frankfurt, for example, one of Europe’s financial centers and not a traditionally diverse city, now has a foreign-born population of 30%.

For France in particular, two issues have made this latest wave of immigration very difficult to deal with: cultural dissonance and the lack of a technology of assimilation.

Most immigrants to the wealthier European countries, such as the UK, Germany and France, used to be southern Europeans; Italians, Portuguese and Spaniards mainly. There was a shared culture in that all peoples were citizens of Europe. But today’s immigrants, especially to France, come mostly from Islamic countries, from the Maghreb, the Levant, from Mali and so on. So the culture of the immigrants and the culture of France are frequently at variance.

There is one important way in which the European countries differ from a country like the United States, whose national consciousness has been built, however imperfectly, by immigration. The notion of being French, or German, or English, is based on ideas and structures that were created long before today’s immigration became a reality. How can one be a Frenchman when one speaks Berber? When one wears a hijab? In the case of France, the notion of a “minority” is not even legally recognized. Everyone is simply French. The census does not break down citizens using any criteria of ethnicity or national origin.

The French government set up their immigrants with everything they need – subsidized rents, food, utilities, medical care, child care, education – everything except the one thing that can make them real citizens: inclusion. The overwhelming majority of immigrants that settle in the Ile de France are housed not in Paris, but around it, in public housing apartment blocks. In this respect Paris is similar to most other large cities of France, where the suburbs, not the inner cities, are the “ghettos.” Police frequently refuse to go in to these cités, as they are called, as do firemen and ambulance drivers, since all three are routinely attacked by the inhabitants. These suburbs are underserved, sometimes completely unserved, by public transportation. Work, one element of social life that forces people from different backgrounds together, is hard to find for immigrants in a country that is both paternalistic and has a 9.5% unemployment rate.

Considering the difficulty European immigrants face in becoming an integral part of the societies they find themselves in, it is small wonder that they make up a disproportionate population of European prisons. Over 29% of French prisoners are immigrants and over 50% are Muslim. When Muslim clergy exhort their parishioners to outbreed their hosts, when they maintain their host countries are immoral and therefore legitimate targets of violence – one popular imam in Amsterdam issued a fatwah against Dutch homosexuals encouraging his parisioners to throw them down into the streets from the rooftops – we can object, but we cannot credibly pretend to be shocked.

All of my prior knowledge about Paris came from books and most of those books were written fifty to eighty years ago. When I ordered wine I ordered Sancerre, because I had read it. When I ordered an aperitif I ordered a kir, because I had seen it in a book. And the thing is, Paris is every book you’ve ever read. It has an amazing ability to absorb, to contradict and to harmonize. Paris is bigger than anything that happens to it. Standing on the balcony of our little hotel on the rue de l’Abbe de l’Eppe between the church of St.-Jacques and Guy Lessac, I looked out over Paris, first toward the Pantheon, then toward the Luxembourg Garden. To look at Paris, to walk through it, is as the writer Adam Gropnik said, to move constantly from the monumental to the intimate. But it is also to move from time to time, from the death of Danton to the life of Abelard, from the studio of Modigliani to the penthouse of Catherine Deneuve, from the Deux Magots of Hemmingway to the Montmartre of Berthe Morisot. The question for the future of Paris is: will the City of Light be able to absorb the cités of immigration? Perhaps that question is not for Paris alone. Perhaps that is the question for Europe.

El Salvador in the End-Time

The one thing that everyone in El Salvador told me – the professor, the ex-mara, the former guerilla – everyone but the very rich and the hardcore ideologues on the left, is that everyone wants to leave. That El Salvador is unfixable, and unworthy of being fixed. That everything of value has been looted from the country – the land, the money, the panthers and monkeys, the hope, the future. Now, all that’s left is to leave. El Salvador is not worth even a memory. What they wish to do is to go to the United States, to become Americans, to forget forever that there was ever such a place as El Salvador. The only salvation is flight and forgetting, the only future an admission that there is nothing left here to hope for.

And they’re right, beyond doubt.

El Salvador is a nation of cruel children whose affection for lies sharpens their appetite for hate. The oligarchs are without remorse. They are ape-kings, still ruling by force, who have death squad assassins on their domestic staffs. The leftist ideologues have let nothing – not history, not pragmatism, not love of their people or the evidence of their own eyes – interfere with their faith in theory and, so, have become preposterous and impotent. Meanwhile, the gangs in the streets shoot each other, the cops beat suspected gang members to death in empty lots, nine year old junkies kill their own parents, bandits rob and kill rural travelers and traffic altercations turn into occasions for the expression of El Salvador’s only consistently enforced law, the law of the jungle.

The Right and Left have effected no conciliation, despite the superficial changes in the government. They remain two armies of the worst kind – True Believers. One group has money, guns and the connivance of the rich, the other has self-righteousness, a devotion to the intoxication of rhetoric and recalcitrancy. A poll conducted by the University of Central America asked people to place the two main political parties on a scale of 1 (Marxist-Leninist) to 10 (National Fascist). FMLN scored 2, ARENA 8. And 50% of the people located themselves at 5, where there is no viable party. Those 50% are packing, most of the rest are biding their time.

Although the FMLN took a majority in last year’s legislative and mayoral elections, they could not push through to take the presidential election, El Salvador’s third since the Chapultapec Accords put an end to the country’s decade-long civil war. In the end, both of the primary candidates, the FMLN’s Schafik Handal and ARENA’s Tony Saca were unappetizing to the mass of the country’s voters. The 38-year-old Saca was the poster child for the young, shiny, re-invented ARENA: Docker-clad and free of visible blood stains. The 73-year-old Handal was the archetype of the humorless Marxist dinosaur.

Salvadorans have lost heart. What they would like to see is not their candidate triumphant, for the simple fact that, for most Salvadorans, none of the candidates can ever be theirs. What they wish to see in front of them is their own three-bedroom, split-level, single-family home in Fremont and behind them, a country being subsumed into the jungle, where insane industrialists in decaying mansions and mad leftists in crumbling gymnasia devolve back into some sort of life more fit for the animal world, like an H.P. Lovecraft story, feeding on each other until there is nothing left but the growl of catamounts, the screech of parrots, the crystal burble of hidden waters and the stars, where, after they devour each other, sometime in the distant future, men can return and, with only a couple of shots, dispatch the eerily human-looking panthers and monkeys, and plant the again-fertile sod with bananas, coffee, pineapple and sugar cane, without a human in sight to trouble them.

What they wish for is a world where the name “El Salvador” cannot even be found on a map.