Book Review: Death Café by Harold Jaffe

51eorpiNq7L._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_Death Cafe
by Harold Jaffe

Anti-Oedipus Press, 2015
ISBN: 9780990573357

Reviewed by
Andrew O’Clancy

Making space for the difficult realities of the oppressed in stunning language that echoes across different generations, numerous geographic spaces, and the layering of multiple narrative points of view, including victims, their loved ones, and the torturers themselves, Harold Jaffeʼs widely translated earlier volumes reflect not only the painful space of negotiation and history of oppression, but frequently interrogate extreme transgression, revealing distortions and the conflicting ethos evident in the structures of a culture that both censures and consumes extremity beyond extremity on a daily basis. Eliding genre codes, like all deviations, Jaffeʼs unrivaled disruptions have revolutionary potential. Those searching for similar permutations in Jaffeʼs latest collection will not be disappointed. Both alarming and playful, Death Café is accessible;8o9 readers seeking escapist value or grands récits need not apply.

Jaffe offers relations, not resolutions. However, although no facet of his novel can be safely identified or controlled, and Death Café offers no human fixity or easy definitions, the novel may be viewed as defamiliarizing official ideology in the sense that Jaffe obliterates counterfeit universals reflected in traditional figures, the underscoring of a structural system of social inequality reflecting just one significant aspect of this. Scavenging at extreme margins, Death Café mimes the interstitial opacity of “official” culture’s surfeit information intended to interdit humans from real time, while inscribing mines that blast large enough holes into the fault lines of its ostensible genres for profit to question and re-imagine the ways much of modern society persists in being seduced by the distorted “truth” or “reality” of new medias. In a chapter titled “White Death,” for instance, Jaffe offers a montage of images reflecting the ongoing rapid production of less and less “real” time, of less and less flesh and blood. An unorthodox, shape shifting, contrarian character with a crooked smile named Qa, who is as “wealthy as a Saudi Prince,” has reclaimed “an enormous gutted Walmart,” provisioned the retrofitted construction “with all the appliances of pleasure and medical imperatives,” and installed “an extensive 40-foot-deep ditch filled with poisoned Gatorade” in order to “let the external world suffocate on its own vomit.” Qaʼs inhabitants, the “dispossessed and homeless, dayworkers, the incapacitated, stock animals, dogs and cats from the death houses,” are in that respect “contra the ʻWhite Deathʼ” that has “paralyzed what remains of Real Time.” Guy Debord’s notion of the spectacle permeating the body politic, as well as the body itself comes to mind, and, indeed, following a brief dialogue with Qa, Death alleges, “Your techno-Reich mean to live forever. Or at least for a thousand years.” Dramatizing the proliferation of contradictory informational systems and virtual reality into for-profit entertainment, this chapter arguably functions as a broader palimpsest made of detrimental effects and actions due to human lack of compassion, and plays with the readersʼ capacity to make associations between these events and other privileged discourses of fictionality, colonial, and neocolonial practices.

For Jaffe, language is to the felt mind what law is to justice. Like a grief-song of haunted whispers reclaiming muted narratives, landscapes, and cultures, Death Café casts the sort of reading spell involving all five senses. In a disarming manner, his employ of relatively accessible, hyperbolically vertiginous linguistic forms produces an echo of the vibrant space between the words. In this sense, nothing about the novel seems calculated. In the chapter titled “Zen à Paris,” for example, Jaffe offers a first-person list of seven things done “in Paris yesterday,” drawing spatial links as startling in unexpected connections as they are in content. From Primo Levi’s unflinching Auschwitz poems in the anthology Against Forgetting to Apollinaire to World War 1; from Giacometti to “the actress-activist Jean Seberg’s attempt to throw herself under a train” and subsequent rescue “by a visiting player from New Zealandʼs All Black rugby squad” to “her political association with the Black Panthers” and J. Edgar Hoover; from Vincent Van Goghʼs self-description as a “simple Buddhist monk” to Antonin Artaud’s “maddeningly astute apercu in Suicided by Society” that “Van Gogh ʻpreferred to become ʻmadʼ rather than forfeit a certain superior sense of human honorʼ” to Bataille’s “similar formulation that Vincent severed his ear not as a compassionate Buddhist, but to demonstrate his deviation from an insupportable world;” from contemplating how many Japanese are visiting Paris, and wondering “how close they lived to Fukushima,” to pondering again “the complex aesthetic connection between Japan and France, insofar as complex aesthetics can any longer exist in this fatally debauched planet” to “admiring the spaniels, le chien a la mode” to Godard’s Notre Musique and addressing “the Palestinan struggle without apology.”

In an earlier chapter titled “PoMo Warr,” Jaffe himself addresses the effects of the Israeli Defense Forceʼs (IDF) recent application of postmodern theory to war. He points out that, along with innocence, “space is relational, subject to interpretation.” From “small commando units” bursting “through the walls of apartments” to the IDF waging “warr on their computers,” Jaffe makes it clear that “PoMo battle-space is various. Situational. A network of interfacing but also unlooped spaces, offline/on.” He makes it clear that “battle-space is inseparable from living space.” This notion may also be seen In the chapter titled “Dolphin,” where Jaffe likewise makes it clear that creatures undergoing deletion by human actions do not extort surplus labor for surplus value, they do not wage war, exile, or murder the innocent for money, but, nevertheless, the death of even one “severely endangered dolphin could devolve into an actual war between China and Japan.” Moreover, Jaffe does not simply contemplate what might constitute a casus belli; in “Camp Kill Yourself,” for instance, he maps the traces, spaces, and gaps “between coming home—parades and hot dogs, backslaps–and the blackness that leaves so many veterans homeless.”

These sort of asymmetrical associations linger throughout Death Café, encouraging, at the very least, meditation, if not direct action. At the close of “Zen à Paris,” Jaffe recounts a visit to a small Zen garden in the eighth quarter that is “a miniaturized version of the acclaimed Ryōan-ji rock garden in Kyoto.” Here, readers are confronted with Jaffeʼs interrogations of the correspondence between the constructed nature of “real” time and its relation to architecture not only through descriptions of “variously shaped rocks unevenly spaced on a bed of raked sand” within the small Paris garden, which unlike Ryōan-ji, “has 7 not 15 rocks asymmetrically arranged,” but also by “the elegant facade of a Haussmann-era building” it faces. Chosen by the Emperor Napoleon III, Haussman, who reconstructed 70 percent of Paris with capacious boulevards, parks, and buildings, forever altered the look and lives of Paris. “Unexpected space signifies emptiness, or Śūnyatā, from the Sanskrit,” Jaffe points out In “Zen à Paris.” He reminds readers that “emptiness as the West understands it implies lack, nothing else. Śūnyatā is void, but not dissolution.” And, by means of his text, one wonders how the unexpected can ever be calculated.

Jaffeʼs negotiations in Death Café indicate fiction as a form of fact, and indeed much regarding his confrontations with “ritual and the human condition,” with human predisposition for myth making, illuminates the ways, from individual to groups to the world at large, under threat of repression, torture, or death the most unfeasible myths must be accepted as fact. Within the ersatz garden, his linguistic sketches do not shy from “the hectares of graves, each marked by a cross,” from “assassination-drones” patrolling the skies, from “Muslims. Snatched off the street. Detained without counsel” in “a thousand black detention camps” spreading “across our dying planet.” At the close of “Zen à Paris,” he admits that, “like you reading this, I’ve known lack, the lineaments of despair, agony of nothingness. That isn’t Buddhist emptiness. The Bodhisattva’s maxim is void and compassion.” It is at this point that Jaffe disrupts the narrative once again:

I’ll rip this high-toned arrondissement apart.

I’ll rip smartphoned Paris apart with my teeth.

I’ll rip to shred those pious world leaders mouthing democracy.

Iʼll rip open those hundred “black sites” spread across the globe and free the innocent.

Peace is Buddhist, rage enforces peace.

Read the graffito on Paris walls in rundown sectors.

L’amour est mort. Vive la rage!

Call me guardian of the Doctrine.


Remind me–what doctrine are you referring to?

Void and compassion.

But, perhaps the most impressive aspect of Death Café beyond Jaffeʼs extraordinary, singularly individualized prose, with its innovative blend of lyricism, range of erudition, and its unexpected revelatory counter-narratives disembodying largely unseen global relations between disasters of war and emerging technological meaning systems, is its ability to turn this torment into a way to rethink political and rhetorical authority and see to the side of the ceaseless buzz of spectacle, hashtags and retold truths, all while somehow suggesting a profound sense of compassion without resorting to sentimentalism.

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