Sunday, December 26, 2010

Review: If a Man be Mad by Harold Maine

The decision to post this review, which I wrote a while ago, was made after receiving an unexpected email on Christmas Day: A stranger, who has ties to Mr. Winslow, stumbled upon this review on Amazon and decided to contact me. An artist herself, a wonderful painter, she sent me a few kind words which reminded me of the importance of Mr. Winslow's work, both in clinical and in literary sense. If a Man be Mad, is unfortunately out of print, but those who make the effort to find a used copy will be rewarded with a stunning literary experience not easily found on today's mass-market bookshelves.

As cruel as the world itself

If a Man be Mad...there couldn't have been a more appropriate title for this gem hidden amidst the American literature. Walker Winslow, writing as Harold Maine, had written this fascinating book while living in Big Sur, at a time when other great writers, such as Henry Miller resided nearby. Whether it was Winslow's gift or the proximity of some of the greatest in modern American literature, Mr. Winslow has achieved what only but a few writers are capable of. He shook my world.
Comprised of two separated books, before and after, shall we say, the story follows Winslow on his quest to find himself. A man torn apart from early childhood, he struggles not only with his own shadows, but also with the society at large; mainly its arrogance and ignorance, lack of understanding and its unwillingness to change its ways, no matter how wrong they may be. Writing in first-person, Winslow recounts stories of men and women on both sides of the fence separating the insane from the sane, yet, he clearly portrays the malicious nature of the so-called sane, which the insane are incapable of. At times a psychological thriller, at times a downright horror, a human horror, the story moves swiftly away from childhood innocence to the first day in mental institution. An alcoholic, but above all, a vulnerable human being, Winslow experiences his first awakening -- the institutions are not meant to cure people, they are merely put in place to prevent them from being free. From the inhuman indifference the guards and caretakers display without any regard for the patients, to the accounts of brutal beatings when a patient gets out of hand, Winslow portrays his first stay at a mental institution with cruel honesty. When he gets out, uncured, yet a changed man, he goes from institution to institution. Touched by death more than once, Winslow recounts his hopes after discovering AA and his first pleasant experience at a hospital in NY, where the staff seems to care, giving the reader hope that the world is perhaps not as screwed up as it appears.
Bouncing between near-death incidents, (brought about by his drinking), marriages, divorces, struggle to be the artist he wants to be (not the artist he has to be to get paid), schizophrenia and consciousness, Winslow walks a dangerously thin line. When he tries his luck on the other side, whether to help himself or others, as an attendant in one of the dreaded institutions, he discovers that the whole system is flawed. His descriptions of the inhuman treatment of veterans returning from the war seemed almost unbelievable, until the recent scandal regarding a VA hospital broke out. It is sad to see that 60 years after this book was published, we, as a society, are still doomed by the same mistakes.
Without spoiling anything for the reader, Walker Winslow's story may not be unique in its core, but it is a uniquely told story. I have never read another book quite like this one; so poetic, so disturbing, so timeless. A mad man's account of the mad gathering we call civilization, a cry for help lost amidst the applause for politicians, a light of hope lost in the darkness. If a Man be Mad is a story worth reading over and over, for it does not get old, it does not get boring, it does not cease to disturb. One man's humanity against Humanity at large, philosophy, psychology and drama -- mixed together in a deadly cocktail of words -- bled onto the pages by an amazing author.

Friday, December 17, 2010

El Teide

This second installment in the unofficial poetry series about special places features two poems inspired by locations in the Canary Islands archipelago.

El Teide

I come to you in awe
a humble visitor 
in your paradise.

You welcomed me so many times before
giving me more
than what I had hoped for.

Amidst your rocky plains
I, just an ant
bowing before your magnificence. stand proud
letting me see you naked
while I walk through your pumice sands
and gnaw at your sides.

When Columbus came to refill his supplies
on the way to discover the New World
you disagreed with his quest,
spitting out lava and smoke
side by side with Guanche warriors.
You didn’t allow his fleet to land,
you knew the consequences.

It is a shame nobody ever listens to volcanoes,
to the messages you whisper at each dusk
as the clouds descends to cover your wounds
for the night.

A sacred place

The tide retrieved
behind La MontaƱa Roja
stripping the lava rock
of cold Atlantic waters -
- the impenetrable veil
thrown by Mother Nature
over your beautiful curves.

Walking alone
my steps resonate
through the empty caves
untouched by human hands.
Alone for centuries
You stand proud
casting your shadow
in the setting sun.

Paradise on Earth
they call it
but how many of them
come to see your real beauty
the rough tidal waters
carved in your face

Monday, November 8, 2010

Alone in my solitude

Time to share another poem. This one was written in 2006, when I thought I would complete a second poetry collection. Somehow, however, life had taken a different path and I ended up concentrating on fiction instead. 


Alone in my solitude

It's Christmas...
for some reason,
people call it the happiest time.
Yet I,
alone in a hotel room.
My face in the speckled mirror
a reflection,
almost unrecognizable.
An empty room
small bed, two tables
even the sheets are rented.

Alone in my solitude
strange Spanish coastal town
whose name sounds so unfamiliar. 
I roll it on my tongue.

Alone in a hotel room
solitude amidst rented objects
do I belong?
Seeking answers
but the bottle of Scotch
doesn't want to talk to me.
The small barred window
only eludes escape
still, the only view
is just another concrete wall.

Alone in my solitude
I walk down the promenade
so many years after the Moors
traded on these beaches,
so many years after the British and French
fought over this land.
I cannot relate.

It's Christmas
and there was no truth at the bottom
of my bottle,
only more solitude.

The bars are full of people
faces red with happiness and tears
I am not capable of either.

Alone in my solitude
right after you said goodbye
only a hundred miles away.
Still, unreachable
as if a thousand years separated our path.

Alone in my solitude
listening to the Andalusian women
singing Flamenco
on this glorious day.

Copyright 2006 by Henry Martin

Saturday, October 23, 2010


It is, perhaps, uncommon these days for people to embrace poetry, especially in the fast-paced world we live in. Poetry requires one's full attention, it requires time and devotion to be savored fully, and to be understood. Poetry, however, offers something more beyond fiction - it offers greater flexibility and creativity, both on the part of the poet, as well as on the part of the reader. Poetry allows us to delve deeper into everyday scenes, encounters, and experiences. It allows us a greater understanding of who we are, and of how we react to not only the extraordinary but also to the mundane. For me, poetry plays an important role in my life - it enables me to reflect and to appreciate the 'superficial' experiences which would otherwise have gone unnoticed.

The following poem, La Ibizenca, was inspired by a brief encounter with a woman on a small Mediterranean island. When I met her, a mere sight on a trip to somewhere, I assigned no importance to her whatsoever, busy with everything else as I was. Ten years later, while writing this poem, I could not longer recall where I was heading that day or what I did there. Yet, the woman, so trivial at that time, came alive in my memories.

La Ibizenca

Strolling through the dry countryside
thorny flowers scratching my feet
the heat, almost unbearable,
the Mediterranean sun beats on my back.

In the shade of Pomegranate tree
stands a woman,
proud, dressed all in black.
Her features unclear
soften by the veil of mystery,
her linen shoes seems so soft
against the rugged terrain.

My eyes wander...
the long lines of her rough black dress.
Her tired deep eyes
stare at me from the shade
crafted by the edge of large black hat.

Her face is the map of humanity
deep wrinkles the ridges and valleys
blue veins underneath her skin,
the rivers and streams of life.
Thick lines circling her eyes
remind me of the eyes of sailors,
the eyes seeing over vast distances,
the eyes of reality
absent of any concrete color
pressed together, dry from the sun.

For the first time I see a woman
like this, so brute, so ancient
as if the time froze in its path.

She looks at me, emotionless
as if I was observing
an old photograph.
So unreal, so mysterious.

A magnificent woman,
unchanged for centuries
standing there so proud
the mother of a nation.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Proud Beggars by Albert Cossery

In August 2010, I was approached by Dactyl Review, a literary fiction review site, with a request to feature some of the reviews I previously posted on Amazon. Since it's been a while that I haven't been active in the literary circles,  this came to me as a great surprise. I gladly accepted, and offered to review additional works of literary fiction to be featured on Dactyl's site. Here is one of those reviews:

The Proud Beggars by Albert Cossery. Translated by Thomas W. Cushing.

I often wonder about sentences – about their impact, their purity, their necessity of being. I wonder about wasted words, wasted pages, and wasted stories. I wonder every time I read.
Yet, whenever I reach for The Proud Beggars (Black Sparrow Press, 190 pages), I find myself in awe, mesmerized, a captive to Cossery’s mastery of language, his scenes, his characters, and his ideology. If there ever was the perfect literary book, for me, it is this one.
No matter how many times I read this book, it never fails to grab me anew and bring me to my knees.
Through his easy flowing, imagery-rich writing, Cossery breathes life into his main characters: Gohar, a wealthy, respected philosophy professor, who leaves everything to become a beggar; Yeghen, a hideous derelict poet, who values friendship above his own life; El Kordi, a government clerk, who is too occupied with noble ideals to actually perform any work; and Nour el Dine, a pederast police inspector, who wonders whether all he serves and believes in is only a sham.
Cossery’s mastery of language (and Cushing’s excellent translation) delivers an astounding experience, both visual and emotional. His writing is renown for giving voice to the least fortunate of men, and he continues this tradition in The Proud Beggars. Using the Cairo slums as a background, Cossery is not satisfied with merely painting the surroundings…he delves deep and bores through the fabric of societal hierarchy all the way to the deepest bottom, to circles where one does not need to pretend anymore. A world of men only a modern society is capable of producing, a world where misery seeps from every pore ad infinitum. An obscure world of cigarette-butt scavengers, prostitutes, secret gay lovers, street vendors, drug dealers, and the worst of the scum, while across the river the lights shine brightly on the most exquisite merchandise.
Although the story takes place in pre-WWII era, Cossery’s philosophy proves itself timeless and remains relevant today: A man is only free when he has nothing to lose. Society, and the middle class in particular, is merely tied down, chained by its priced possessions, and forced to forfeit liberties in exchange for meaningless artifacts. Can we argue with such a view? Certainly, and we should. But how different are we really? How different is life in these ‘glory days’? We might not have the need to scavenge for food, but we continue to chase after the coolest gadgets, the latest fashion, the shiniest jewelry, and the best living spaces. We continue to sell part of ourselves for these comforts.
This book, however, is not about the absurdity of modern-day society. (Nor am I standing atop a soapbox.) It is, first and foremost, a human story — a story of dignity, of man’s weaknesses and strengths, of enlightenment and perversity. It is a story of the blind tearing off their veils and seeing, for the first time, what really matters. And from there, we are on our own, as Cossery, after a spectacular ending, leaves to us the choice to see or not to see.
I would recommend this book to any one who enjoys deep psychological dramas.
–Henry Martin, author of The Mad Days of Me (2007).

…He hurried now, slipping through the maze of alleys, passing innumerable huts made of boards and empty gasoline tins. He had regained his martial, conquering air, but in this quarter of ill-repute his police inspector’s uniform didn’t impress anyone. To fear the police you had to have something to lose, and no one here possessed anything. It was total, inhuman poverty everywhere, the only place in the world where an agent of authority had no chance of winning respect. Nour El Dine knew the mentality of the inhabitants of this area; he knew that nothing could terrify them or shake them from their strange somnolence. There was neither rancor nor hostility in them, simply silent contempt, an enormous disdain toward the power he represented. They appeared not even to know that a government, a police force; and a progressive mechanized civilization existed. The characteristic state of mind of these illiterate people wounded Nour El Dine in the deepest part of his being, showing him the futility of his efforts. He couldn’t help taking this stubbornness, this refusal to collaborate as a personal insult. With every step, he had the feeling that they were spitting in his face. Prey to a growing uneasiness, he perspired. His nervousness soon turned to panic and he stupidly began to run. But immediately he slowed down again, cursing himself and feeling like an imbecile. Anyway, these bastards weren’t going to scare him. He composed his nerves, resolved to walk with an easy stride and fixed his eyes straight ahead, with the air of a thinking man who moves on a higher level above the crowd.
This would-be superior attitude was almost fatal. Looking straight ahead, he stepped in a puddle of water, slipped, and nearly fell on the ground. Stunned, his movements ungainly, he took refuge near a hut and inspected his shoes and the mud-spattered bottoms of his pants. The feeling of shame, of irreparably having lost his prestige, made him stand a moment without moving, not daring to lift his head. What a laughable spectacle he must have offered to these wretches! Furry gripped him and he swore in a low voice. Then, panting with rage, he straightened up, expecting to hear jokes and laughter fly. But no, no one laughed. Yet it was worse than if they had made fun of him. The vexations of Samir, still present in his memory, were nothing in comparison to these gazes fixed in eternal dismay that rested on him as though to tear away his supreme justification, to strip him of the only clothes that rendered him inviolate. He could, at least, defend himself against Samir’s hate and sarcasm, but how could he respond to this monstrous indifference, more ferocious than the most implacable hate? Nothing in their behavior expressed aversion or revolt. They seemed to look at him as a mangy dog, or vermin. Why didn’t they throw rocks at him? Nor El Dine waited for a movement, but nothing happened. Still, his immobility this deadly indifference. It was only as he resumed his walk that something astounding took place. Standing in the middle of the alley, a little six-year-old girl with features blurred by dirt, lifted the bottom of her dress and showed him her sex in a gesture of moving simplicity. Nour El Dine blushed and, for a moment, seemed to totter on his feet, then turned his head away and escaped as quickly as possible.
He wondered about the meaning of this hallucinatory scene. The young girl’s gesture seemed to belong to a savage, incomprehensible universe. It was a fantastic act that went beyond intelligence, coming straight from the accumulation of rubbish and age-old decay. “Cursed breed! Am I condemned to spend my whole life among these pariahs?” Thinking of the role he played in this grotesque drama, a wave of bitterness rose in his throat. What an inept role! What was the government thinking about, entrusting him with such an ungrateful job! What justice could dawn in this trash heap, this field of death and desolation! To look for a criminal – even a first offender – in this gray and sticky mass was an absurdity. He would have had to imprison all of them. Nour El Dine didn’t fool himself; he knew that they were stronger. Fro years he had learned this from sad experience. Their inalienable misery, their refusal to participate in the destiny of the civilized world, concealed such a strength that no earthly power could exhaust it.

This review originally appeared on Dactyl Review on August 01, 2010. Please visit Dactyl Review to learn about other notable works of Literary Fiction by clicking here: Dactyl Review