By Sam Mills
The late capitalist era was punctuated by the lives of four great artists.
First came the collagist of Lahore. She wore a grey kurta. In those days, the collage as an artform garnered only peripheral interest in what were usually dismissed as the crafts. Such a reputation served to its advantage. The collagist of Lahore’s work, being neither high art nor popular, was saved from the commodifying that had ruined other artforms. Smelling slightly of PVA glue, the collagist of Lahore worked for several years on a single work. Pressed for the purpose of this commitment, she said: “It is not enough for the collage to be an assemblage of references fulfilling some aesthetically prescribed whole—the collage must start with these references. It must say something about the way they are linked together and demand new future circumstances. My collage will tell the entire story of history. It will elucidate the inevitable conclusion of everything. The collage, being the only meta-artform, can dictate events without participating in them. My collage will orchestrate the revolution whilst preserving me wholly inculpable.”
Next came the sashimi master of Yokohama who made his name mastering the delicate preparation of bluefin tuna. It was said at the market that the sashimi master of Yokohama could tell the entire life story of any specimen brought before him. “Three-quarters of the skill is in choosing the right fish,” the sashimi master of Yokohama would say. “And they call me an artist for that?” Still, the sashimi master of Yokohama prepared bluefin tuna like no other, which he served on polished black discs of obsidian glass. Flesh that knew not one colour: that shimmered across the spectrum with a hallucinatory lustre, bursting on the tongue to reveal a thousand treasured secrets of the sea.
Overfishing spurred on by self-effacing greed and an insatiable appetite for growth threatened to end the sashimi master’s trade, as bluefin stocks depleted to near extinction. With his restaurant set to close, the sashimi master of Yokohama ruminated bitterly on the system that had betrayed him. The momentum of previously fulfilled artistic ambition transferred to a taste for rice wine, as the sashimi master of Yokohama thought vengeful thoughts over the demise of his art. Thoughts that soon corrode the soul if they are not quickly made productive.
Fortune came in the form of three businessmen visiting the restaurant one lunchtime who—failing to notice the depleted glass cabinets, the lingering smell of sake in the air—ordered the fish of the day. “Coming right up,” said the sashimi master of Yokohama, only afterwards remembering his predicament. Searching the fridge, he was relieved to find that the boy Kaito had dropped by that morning. There was one last fish left in the cabinet. A fugu fish. The sashimi master of Yokohama had never prepared fugu before.
Fugu (or pufferfish) has both poisonous and edible body parts. The entrails of the fugu fish contain deadly tetrodotoxin, which when ingested can lead to paralysis and eventual death from respiratory failure. A license is required to prepare fugu. Poisonous discards are collected and disposed of in sealed containers to avoid contamination. The flesh is said to taste like raw chicken. Prepared by a trained chef, there is an extremely low risk of poisoning from fugu.
The liver is said to be the tastiest part. High in tetrodotoxin, it is also the most lethal. It is possible to survive eating fugu liver, since certain varieties of the fugu fish contain naturally lower amounts of the toxin. In the 1950s, a tiny guild of Japanese chefs prepared fugu liver for special fugu soirees, where the wealthy and fearless gathered to sample the delicacy in its edible form. At these soirees, fugu livers were served containing enough toxin to induce a psychedelic high when the poison briefly kicked in. The practise died out in the sixties, as legislators cracked down on this highly decadent and risky method of eating fugu.
The sashimi chef of Yokohama had never prepared fugu before, although he had been taught how. He knew, for instance, where to cut the fish. Now rice wine fogged his mind such that he forgot other things. He performed the necessary incision along the latissimus dorsi. He performed three underbelly cuts. He formed a pile of entrails next to a pile of flesh. Delicately, he prepared the meal with the accompaniments of wasabi, strips of gari, and a saucer of rice vinegar. “Bon appetit,” he said, plating the table.
The ambulances arrived in minutes. The sashimi master of Yokohama was taken to the police station for questioning, but was later released without charge. That evening, he phoned the hospital to learn the three men were in critical but stable states. The sashimi master of Yokohama was relieved to find out he hadn’t killed anybody.
A week later, heavy snow fell on the city. The sashimi master of Yokohama sat alone at his bar, sipping rice wine, staring blankly out on the empty street. His thoughts took him back to his mother and the old country, when suddenly the letterbox opened and an envelope came through the door. The sashimi master of Yokohama tore the envelope open and read the note inside:
That was wonderful. Please, let’s do it again.
The men you hospitalized.
The sashimi master called the phone number printed on the back of the note. The voice that picked up was shaky. “Is this the sashimi master of Yokohama?”
“It is, are you one of the men I put in hospital?”
“I am. Now listen carefully.” The man explained how eating toxic fugu liver in a dose just short of deadly had provided him and his business partners with an intense, albeit brief, sense of transcendental clarity they were anxious to repeat. “A sensation that consumes the mind when it stops and thinks: there, that’s it—this is all there is! Truly it was the most focused experience of our lives. Now, we wonder, can you get us any more?”
The sashimi master of Yokohama was uneasy. “I don’t have a license to prepare fugu,” he said. “When the FSA finds out what’s gone on, I’ll be ruined.”
“All the better,” the man hushed him. “The risk is two-thirds of the fun. We’ll wire you something to get started, think of it as an advance. We’re prepared to be very generous.” Then the line went dead. The sashimi master of Yokohama tried calling back but was sent to voicemail. He wondered if this had something to do with the weather.
The first fugu soiree was held a fortnight later for the three men and several of their associates. The boy Kaito was at hand with adrenaline shots and a defibrillator. He was uncomfortable with the men’s presence. They had loud dumb laughs, he thought. They wore expensive suits and wiped their mouths on the sleeves. “Sake!” one man boomed, downing his glass. Kaito went around the table refilling the sake glasses. A bell rang. Kaito cleared away the plates of entrees. The sashimi master of Yokohama announced that it was time for the main event.
The sashimi master of Yokohama brought out the tray of glistening fugu sashimi. The men looked on greedily at the presented assortment. The sashimi master of Yokohama explained what order the dishes should be eaten in, with the fugu liver to be eaten last. For two weeks he had trawled the markets of the city in search of the perfect specimen, which now lay carved open on the polished centrepiece. The sashimi master of Yokohama bowed and left the room. He could already hear the scratching of chopsticks on crockery as the door swung shut.
The sashimi master of Yokohama checked on the men every twenty minutes for two hours, each time finding them in oscillating states of sedation and frenzy. The boy Kaito mopped up sick and swept away smashed glass as they went along. When they were finally done and sobering up, the sashimi master of Yokohama appeared with glasses of cold water, which they sipped slowly, sucking on the large cubes of ice as they quietly meditated on the evening.
Every week in this way, a growing crowd of businessmen came to the restaurant to eat fugu liver. From all around the world, the men came to spend good money on the asphyxiation-induced high of tetrodotoxin. The sashimi master of Yokohama was beginning to earn a new epithet: the Poison Fugu King. The Poison Fugu King indulged his clients’ eagerness by embellishing the history of the fugu soiree—recasting it as a spiritual tradition as old as Japan herself. But fugu was not the art with which he was in love. We shall see shortly how the Poison Fugu King played his part in the monumental events that were to come.
Third came the flâneur of Paris. There is indeed an art to the flâneur. Flânerie is wandering without purpose, although there is more to it than that. There are good flâneurs: those flâneurs are talked about in the cafés. But these are not the best flâneurs. The best flâneurs cannot possibly be talked of too long, known too well, or, god forbid, benefit in any enduring capacity from their art, as doing so would create a contradiction in the intended purposelessness of the artform. It would turn their art into commodity and art with purpose that the flâneur despises. We will be brief with the flâneur of Paris to dignify their legacy.
The flâneur of Paris practised the art most definitionally antithetical to the sentiments of late capitalism. In the streets and at the station, the flâneur of Paris could be found making artwork from the meaningless occupation of space. Art the significance of which would only later be appreciated by the popular consciousness—which like all great art in the time of its fruition earns the artist derision and scorn. Some of us asked the flâneur of Paris: “How does it work?” The flâneur of Paris said between puffs of a Gauloises: “The goal is inspiration. The method is to enter dreams. Not as a character or an event, but simply to tinge that dream with different feeling, become a moment of light or colour that makes the dream different, special.”
Last came the knife-fighter of Rosario, who went by the name ‘El Caligrafo’ - the calligrapher - for he commanded his knife with the grace of a fine writing pen and, like a writing pen, authored stories with it. The legend of El Caligrafo travelled to the four corners of Argentina and, like the best legends, his was an indiscernible blend of the supernatural and the facts.
The son of a notorious gaucho, El Caligrafo was raised by the harsh, nearly extinct code of honour practised in the last true wilderness of men. To those less versed in the code of the gaucho, it may seem brutal; senseless. Those who wrote about El Caligrafo and the gaucho way of life made criticisms by pointing out digressions from their own imperfect systems. But they could not appreciate how their ideals were mostly the same. That ideals manifest in systems explicated in their own vocabulary: how the gaucho code carved its own path to the universals of truth and freedom desired by all men.
In his younger years, El Caligrafo fought wildly at the bars. Now in middle age, his was an art that respected the knife-fight as parley. For the dishonouring of Martina Martinez, he shanked Laurato in the square, then carried the boy’s body to his mother. With the corrupt priest, Father Camões, he slit the throat mercifully away from the eyes of the congregation. El Caligrafo was no torturer. To duel was an impersonal consequence of a breach of honour. When it came to matters of right and wrong, the knife had the first and the last word.
A knife fight will usually last a fraction of a second. A good knife artist will have sized the situation up before then. Between two elite fighters, there are one or two moves. The one who strikes first wins, and failing that, loses on the counter. To win, the fighter must draw blood. A good fighter will strike down at the gut. A bad but great fighter, at the chest cavity and heart. The great fighter will kill the other man. Two bad fighters produce more work for the surgeon, but the great fighter kills the man where he stands using only necessary incisions.
Juan the welder had one thing on his mind and that was revenge. For the death of his cousin Francisco, he had talked all afternoon at the bars of having it. The others had laughed: “For god’s sake, you’re worse than these old petanca dears with all this chit-chat! Why not go stick the man? No one in the villa is even half your size, yet you moan here like some crusty vieja.” But it was not so easy. The man Juan the welder sought vengeance on was none other than El Caligrafo. A week earlier, Francisco had been murdered by Thiago, brother of the notorious calligrapher. Because Thiago’s wife was expecting, Juan could not take his vengeance on him. Only El Caligrafo could provide the justice Juan so violently craved.
Now—a steady wine drunk flowing through his veins—he had decided it was time for action. His blade sheathed, his thirst for blood giddying, he staggered to the home of El Caligrafo, rapping on the door, the warmth of the summer evening attracting others out onto the roadside, to watch with wild interest the proceedings between the bloodthirsty welder and the master of knives, who opened his door and bowed a solemn bow that respected Juan’s wishes and agreed that he would.
This is what happened.
First came the collage. The collagist of Lahore revealed her collage in the square. There was much to look at—some of us watched for weeks. A massive four-dimensional sculpture; we ourselves were participants in the game.
The collage told the story of the recurrent oppressions that never disappear but are simply co-opted into different forms. We saw ourselves not as individuals but as parts of a great web. It is horrible to be in a web—the very metaphor conjures up a sense of inevitability of circumstances. A predictive order in which it is impossible to be free. Her collage confirmed we were not. The collage plotted the trajectory of where things were headed. Those who saw the collage described it as an awakening. This was the first step to achieving our freedom.
They shot the flâneur of Paris in the street. Defying their warnings, the flâneur of Paris went on doing nothing, which caused them unease. They shot the flâneur of Paris and left his body where it fell. The collage had referenced this in some way. Now everyone saw its inevitability. Eschewing a riot—for a riot reaffirms order in its reactivity—the people practised the art of doing nothing. To do nothing is considerably more difficult than doing the same as before, which is sometimes mistaken for the same thing. By doing nothing rather than something, there was nothing that could be done. The universe became unbound. It was as if all the tiny particles suddenly stopped exerting forces, fragmenting instead into a billion silent shards.
As a consolidatory dinner for the executives of the Master Bank of Japan, who had seen their share prices plummet, the chief executive took them to dine at the Poison Fugu King’s restaurant. Incidentally, this was the final soiree the Poison Fugu King intended to hold. The liver chosen to mark the occasion swelled and quivered at the touch. Poison seeped from its pores. The Poison Fugu King cut the fugu liver into thick slices and served them up alongside strips of tangy gari.
The men who were well versed in the taste and onset of effects of fugu liver knew quickly what had been done. One charged at the Poison Fugu King but found his legs seized up. She fell and hit her head on the table, which frightened the other diners. Some begged for mercy, others gnashed obscenities as the poison took hold. “What is the meaning of this?” they shouted. But the Poison Fugu King was not in the mood for explanations. The collective gaggle gradually muffled until all executives of the bank lay dead on the Poison Fugu King’s floor.
The deaths of the Master Bank executives caused an international cascade of events dealing a death knell to the sector and very paradigm to which they’d been committed. Things didn't end well for the Poison Fugu King either. In the getaway car, in the frantic rush of the moment, he wiped his brow with a dishcloth—the same dishcloth used to clean his knife. Through the pores of his skin, residual tetrodotoxin took effect, causing a loss of motor control that sent the Poison Fugu King veering off the highway into a deep gorge.
Juan the welder turned, taking several paces into the middle of the road, inviting the calligrapher to join him. El Caligrafo shut the door of his home and walked out onto the dusty pavement. He drew his blade, standing to face the welder, who drew his blade too, assuming a stance that was etiquette for such a duel.
The sensation of unsheathing his weapon, holding it in his hand, steadied the welder, who had been all afternoon at the wine. Two hateful green eyes, set deep within his head, sized the calligrapher up, who gazed back with characteristic calm. “For Francisco’s murder, I shall see you slain,” the welder spat.
“Thiago’s reasons were honest,” El Caligrafo replied. “Francisco defamed him. Their meeting settled that one.”
“It settled nothing.”
“Then it comes to this,” the calligrapher smiled. “Every man has his right to trial. Are you capable?”
“More than capable.”
“Then we shall see how you fare.”
“We shall see how you die,” Juan the welder growled, as his eyes took on new and demented focus.
The welder lunged.
The calligrapher recoiled, shifting his weight to the balls of his feet. Twice more, the welder jabbed at the calligrapher’s stomach. The calligrapher narrowed his stance and switched feet. The welder’s reach was huge: the calligrapher could easily step and counter a smaller man, but a man this size left him vulnerable.
Jab, move. Jab, move. Parry and duck.
The welder quickly tired of his heaving thrusts. Realizing he would not hurt the calligrapher this way, he stood straight—his shoulders slightly hunched—with his left leg leading the other. The calligrapher would come to him, then he would feel the tremendous power of his hook. He dared El Caligrafo: how fast can you come and go? The calligrapher needed to be fast to see past an armour of chest muscle, before the welder’s blade came down on him like a shutting bear trap. The calligrapher knew what he needed to do and that was to counter on the attack. Shuffling and shifting, he would only hurt the welder if Juan made a mistake.
That mistake came shortly.
Dummying a straight thrust, the welder sidestepped and threw a right at the calligrapher’s shoulder. The move was predictable and gave El Caligrafo too much time. The calligrapher parried the blow to his left, then followed with the shank: stabbing the welder through the forearm, splicing it along the bone and out at the hand, where it fell apart like a slow-cooked lamb.
The fight should have ended there. It ended shortly after.
With his good hand, the welder swung at the calligrapher, who, thinking the fight finished, was caught unawares. A hook to the chin lost his footing. The welder tried to take the match to the ground. The calligrapher sank his piece into the welder’s abdomen, removed it with a twist, then plunged the blade through his ribcage.
A look of confused hatred set on his face, Juan the welder knew he was finished. With a last charge of power, he flung himself at the calligrapher, catching his head with his huge hands, as the two men fell to the ground. Atop the calligrapher, his massive bleeding body pressing him down, Juan the welder inserted a thumb into one of El Caligrafo’s eyes. Then, with a gasp, he keeled over, erupting a bloody discharge on the floor as he finally lay still.
When everything was done, some of the crowd came to remove the dead man’s body from atop the master of knives. They helped El Caligrafo back into the house, where they tended to him through the night. In the morning, the sun shone brightly. A new day hailed new things all around the world. But El Caligrafo, blind in one eye, would never duel again. Some men muttered: “It is improper to depend too much on rules.” Others said: “You never know what the other man is thinking.” We took the events as a warning for our new era (although, annoyingly, there were many versions of what happened). Legends of El Caligrafo travelled far and wide and, like the best legends, his were an indiscernible blend of the supernatural and the facts.
These are the four artists who punctuated the late capitalist era.
Sam Mills is a writer from Berkshire, England. He is the author of Nightmares, an illustrated short story collection. His work has been published in a handful of places online.