Friday, July 18, 2014

Random review: C. Rajagopalachari's "Ramayana"

I'm in Ireland! And I haven't made much progress on Proust, I'm afraid - been too busy finishing other books, including my friend Mark Chaiken's dissertation for our creative writing program. (Trippy heaven and hell cosmic apocalypse novel? Yessiree.)

I'll just take this opportunity to dwell on another book I've recently finished:

This is a short but fairly comprehensive 1957 retelling of the Ramayana legend - Rajagopalachari was a Tamil scholar who was also well versed in the Sanskrit classics: as such he's able to detail at points what happens in Valmiki's Ramayana and then compare it with Kamban's Ramavataram and Tulasidas's Sri Ramacharit Manas, while also dropping comment on modern interpretations of the characters. I believe the chapters were first published serially in a magazine - there's an avuncular voice here, as if he's a grandfather seeking to educate you as well as entertain you, and also to uplift you spiritually.

And yes, he is quite religious. He goes on about the incomparable glory of Rama with no sense of irony or restraint - though he does purposefully leave out the final sequence of the story, wherein Rama banishes Sita for supposed impurity, as he cannot reconcile this cruelty with the character of one so great. (Turns out that Valmiki didn't include it in his version, either. Rajagopalachari does concede that the story may predate Valmiki though... His take on the inviolate divinity of the texts themselves is a little puzzling.)

This book was my constant companion when backpacking through Greece, which made for some pretty crazy on-the-spot musings on comparative mythology - ever notice how the trope of the sinful city brought down by noble barbarians pops up in three different world mythologies: Hindu, Greek and Hebrew? Lanka is burnt up in the Ramayana as punishment for Ravana's abduction of Sita; Troy is decimated in the Iliad and the rest of the Trojan War Cycle because of Paris's abduction of Helen; Egypt's capital is brought down in Exodus because of the Pharaoh's refusal to let his Jewish slaves go.

I got all moody at one point and thought about Singapore's sins, and how we ought to be brought down for our abuses of the rights of migrant workers and prisoners. How we're all rich and civilized, and some of us are even fundamentally good, but the sins of our rulers will be the downfall of us all...

But then I finished the book and everything was better. Hare Rama!

Seriously, this is a good edition for beginners. Plus, it's printed in India for Indian readers, so it's cheap. :)

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Censorship in Singapore

By now, you may have heard that Singapore's National Library Board has banned six books for not being "pro-family" enough. Said books were not sold or donated or archived; instead they are (or were) condemned to be destroyed by pulping.

Said books are:

1) And Tango Makes Three by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson:the real-life story of two male penguins raising a baby chick at the Central Park Zoo; 

2) The White Swan Express: A Story About Adoption by Elaine M. Aoki: about an adoption agency in China, and the couples seeking to adopt children there, including a lesbian couple.

3) Who's In My Family: All About Our Families by Robie H. Harris: a survey of different kinds of families, including single-parent families and gay families.

4) It’s Not The Stork!: A Book About Girls, Boys, Babies, Bodies, Families And Friends by Robie H. Harris

5) It’s So Amazing!: A Book About Eggs, Sperm, Birth, Babies, And Families by Robie H. Harris

6) It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, And Sexual Health by Robie H. Harris

The first three books were withdrawn based on complaints from the public; the last three were disappeared independently.

I'm too upset to say anything much about this. Sorry.


JUST IN: MCI Minister Yaacob Ibrahim has instructed the National Library Board to place two controversial children's books in its adult section, instead of pulping them.

That applies to the first two books, not the next four. And in the meantime, we've discovered that an Archie comic's been banned from sales by the MDA.

There's still a hell of a lot of work to be done.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Book 153, Luxembourg: “At the Edge of Night” by Anise Koltz

We’re at the last and the littlest of the Benelux countries now! Luxembourg’s got a weird history: its half a million inhabitants speak a mix of French, German and Luxembourgish (apparently almost a dialect of German), and its writers produce literature in all three languages.

Koltz, for instance, writes in French – as most of her fellow poets do. But she used to write in German before the death of her husband in 1971 (he was imprisoned during World War II, and she says he was a late victim of the Nazis). Plus, she still writes children’s books in Luxembourgish.

Critics even say Koltz’s French is very German-like – and certainly, in this bilingual compilation of her poetry from the 2000s, her French feels spare, almost schoolchild-simple. It’s full of these stark, Rimbaud-like invocations of hell - fire, bones, wolves, invocations of monstrous mothers and fathers and brothers.

But there’s no jumble – these are brief, devastating pieces of writing, focused on just a few images, like joined-up haiku. And it’s weird, because I don’t think I would advise my writing students to create stuff like this. The title of this collection, for example, comes from this poem


At the edge of night
my mother is seated
her clothes in tatters
two fangs
in her toothless mouth

She throws herself on me
and sucks out my marrow 

It’s a nightmare vision, but you can imagine an angsty adolescent writing it in a I-hate-my-mom kind of way. It does sound better in French, but doesn’t everything?


Au bord de la nuit
Ma mere est assise
ses vêtements en loques
deux crocs
dans sa bouche édentée

Elle se jette sur moi
et me suce la moelle

Some of her short stuff is fantastically clever and awesome, though:


Quand tu marches
tu sens terre
à tes semelles

Elle n’oublie pas de t’oublier


When you walk
you feel the earth
to your soles

It doesn’t forget to forget you

Damn, reading this stuff makes me miss translation work. There’s a marvelous alchemy that happens when poetic language passes from one tongue to another.

The only longish poems here might be the ones from her 2003 collection Fire-Eater/L’avaleur de feu, dedicated to her husband René – though for all I know, these are just glued-together untitled fragments, separated by rows of asterisks and arranged in columns of Roman numerals. It’s hard to digest continuity when you’re reading two versions at the same time: facing pages, parallel texts.

My favourite piece in here is from that collection, btw. I’ve included it below:

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

Representative quote:


Ma mémoire est lourde
comme un vaiseau qui coule

J’ai vogué
dans toutes les parties du mond
les dieux m’égorgeaient
je les égorgeais –

Ecrivant dans leurs bouches
dans leurs entrailles
j’ai oublié la poésie –

je suis devenue poète


My memory is heavy
like a sinking ship

I have wandered
all over the world
the gods slit my throat
I slit theirs –

writing in their mouths
in their entrails
I forgot poetry –

I became a poet

Next book: Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way, from France.