Monday, November 24, 2014

Book 162, Poland: "Collected Poems: 1956-1998" by Zbigniew Herbert

One of my favourite poets in the whole wide world is Polish!

I discovered the works of Nobel Lit Prize Winner Wisława Szymborska as a secondary school kid, back in the nineties – loved them so much; huge influence on me, etc. Unfortunately, her output wasn’t huge, so there wasn’t an extra tome of her works I could check out for this project. And I’d already used Czesław Miłosz - Poland’s other Nobel Lit laureate – for my Lithuania book.

Fortunately, there are lots of famous Polish poets. Such as this guy:

I’d heard his name bantered about amongst my friends, so I figured, yeah, why not read something of his? (Yeah, yeah, he was born in Lwow, which is now part of Ukraine, but it was Polish while he was a kid.)

This was the library’s only volume of his works – ye compleat edition, running to 571 pages. But mirabile dictu, it’s good. So good. (I’d considered abandoning it for Adam Zagajewski’s Eternal Enemies, a convenient, skinny little codex, but when I leafed through that, I found myself longing for the lambent voice of my man Herbert.)

We’ve nine different volumes of his poetry packed into this tome:

Chord of Light (1956)

Hermes, Dog and Star (1957)

Sudy of the Object (1961)

Inscription (1969)

Mr Cogito (1974)

Report from a Besieged City (1983)

Elegy for the Departure (1990)

Rovigo (1992)

Epilogue to a Storm (1998)

So we get to follow this man from a post World War to a post-Cold War era; from youth; from the age of 32 to 78. And over the five decades we see his voice develop, shift from focus to focus, intensify and mourn himself.

And it is the same voice throughout – a melancholy, erudite voice, haunted both by the horrors of his own Communist (and pre-Communist) society and the ghosts of classical history. He invokes Hermes, Apollo, Athena, Marsyas, the Minotaur, Elektra, Claudius, Marcus Aurelius, Nefertiti – also Mary Queen of Scots, George Orwell and the Emperor Meiji, come to think of it – but not in a show-off-how-smart-I-am way, but to invoke archetypes of eternal drama to show that the tyranny and torture of his land (of all lands) have ever been thus.

Loads of specific references to his childhood and his Polish contemporaries, too, which were a little harder to get. He calls himself Mr Cogito (therefore he is?) in the latter half of his career, documenting what he sees as his loserly life. But fundamentally, he’s engaged in the same Szymborska-esque mission of mourning for the entire world, for the whole of history.

That hits me, you know? This is poetry that makes me want to write more poetry. To join in the chorus as a testament. Gah.

(Though I personally do like Szymborska better still, because she also finds joy in the senselessness of the universe. But it’s not a competition. Is it?)

Representative quote:

I probably like his prose poems best, but this piece spoke of nation in a way that resonates a lot with me.


For lack of a nail the kingdom fell
- our nannies’ wisdom teaches us – but in our kingdom
there haven’t been nails for a long time nor will there be
neither those handy little ones used for hanging pictures
on a wall nor the big ones with which coffins are sealed

but in spite of this and perhaps precisely because of it
the kingdom endures and even gains others’ admiration
how is it possible to live without nails paper and string
bricks oxygen freedom and whatever else you like
evidently it is possible because it endures and endures

people in this country live in houses and not in caves
factories smoke in the steppe trains cross the tundra
and on the cold ocean a ship blows its bleating horn
there is an army and police a seal an anthem a flag
on the surface it’s just like the rest of the world

it is only on the surface because this kingdom of ours
is not a creation of nature or a creation of humanity
seemingly enduring built on the bones of mammoths
in reality it is weak as if suspended between
the act and the thought existence and nonexistence

a leaf and a stone fall so do all things real
but ghosts live a long time stubbornly despite
sunrise and sunset revolutions of celestial bodies
on the disgraced earth tears and things fall

Next book: Uladzimir Karatkevich's "King Stakh's Wild Hunt", from Belarus? Or Vladimir Kozlov's "Number Ten: A Novella In Translation"? Not sure yet.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Book 161, Czech Republic: "Rossum's Universal Robots" by Karel Čapek

And thus begins my third set of 80 books! This blog's title is getting more and more inaccurate. (Will I actually get to Book 240? Doubtful, but let's see!)

I actually never got round to finishing Kafka's The Castle, because it didn't seem to be going anywhere interesting (and from the intro, I actually know it doesn't go anywhere at all, since the manuscript's unfinished.)

But I did get round to reading one of the great works of Czech drama - the first text in which the word "robot" appeared, in fact. 

It actually took me a while to decide which book to go with:

The Castle
1. is written by a more iconic writer
2. is in German 
3. is a novel (I've written about loads of them)
4. was actually inspired by the sight of a specific Czech castle.

1. is written by a less iconic, but still famous writer
2. is in Czech
3. is a play
4. takes place on an unnamed island, accessible by steamer... perhaps not even in Europe...

In the end, my friends instructed me to go with the book that I actually enjoyed. Still feeling guilty, though.

But really, R.U.R. is fascinating. It takes place in the future - the physiologist Rossum (meaning "reason") is said to have retreated to said island in 1920 (the year the play was written), and invented the synthetic protoplasm for robots in 1932. He's interested in using the protoplasm to play God, more or less, creating grotesque semblances of dogs and humans. It's his son who comes up with the idea of turning these homunculi into efficient substitutes for labour. The entire cast of the play are the inheritors of said project, coming a generation later: the scientists and engineers on the island who're trying to perfect the design and marketing of the robots in the global market.

Plays set in the future are often a little dodgy - even George Bernard Shaw wasn't too successful with it - but this works. Perhaps because the device of the robots is so striking (of course it was novel then, but even now, when robot uprisings are a dime a dozen in print and on screen, the idea of seeing one on stage is still uncanny). 

Yet it's also because the tale is so deeply human - even to the point of farce. Its soul is a woman named Helena Glory, the daughter of President Glory (president of what, we're never told). She comes to the island as a fresh young twentysomething, eager to liberate the robots, whom she feels are being exploited. But she finds them too soulless to understand their condition, and is instead wooed by the very persistent CEO Harry Domin... as well as all the other engineers, who are for some reason all male (hey, it was 1920) and are all passionately, immediately, in love with her.

Ten years pass and surprise surprise, Glory's married to Domin. But now there's something off about the robots: we discover from whispers among the engineers that they've led a bloody revolt to exterminate humans - they had the capability after the nations of the world started using them as soldiers. And though they try to shield Glory from the news - they tell her that their getaway boat is actually a pleasure craft, presented to her on the anniversary of her arrival - they're actually shit-scared.

And it turns out that everything is (or may be) her fault. She's the one who demanded that the engineers improve the robots' intelligence, so she would stop feeling so scared and alienated by them. And she's the one who decides to burn Rossum's original manuscripts, which contain the formula for creating the robots - and is the engineers' only bargaining chip, their one chance of survival.

So Helena is Helen of Troy, Pandora, Eve - the woman to be blamed for everything. The introduction to this volume notes that there's actually notes there's a similar figure in the earlier Czech legend of the Golem: the foolish rabbi's wife who insists on using the Golem to help her with everyday chores, only to discover that she cannot control its power.

And yet Helena doesn't come off as an awful person - she might be dumb, but she's the stand-in for the audience in the show; the only main character who actually has normal human emotions beyond a thirst for progress and wealth and control. And (as with Eve) it turns out to be something of a happy fall in the end, as her improvements to the robots perhaps provide new hope for the renewal of the planet in the post-apocalyptic age...

Ah, I know I'm talking more about the human element of the play than the sci-fi stuff or the way the whole thing's a metaphor for the oppression of workers under capitalism (which really is a big thing, and fascinating in its own right). But mostly I'm intrigued by how the piece actually works as a genuinely entertaining play. 

Lots of humour, by the way - as I might have been able to guess from reading Čapek's other famous work, War With the Newts. Also highly recommended. Also check out Vítězslav Nezval's Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, and of course Kafka's Metamorphosis and The Great Wall of China...

Ahhh, the Czechs have loads to offer. Good for them!

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

Representative quote:

HELENA: But that's appalling, Busman!

BUSMAN: How right you are, Mrs Domin. I too used to have a dream. A Busmanesque dream about a new world economic order; an all-too glorious ideal, I'm ashamed to admit. But while I was working here on the balance sheet, it dawned to me that history is made not by great dreams, but by the petty needs of all respectable, mildly crooked and selfish people, that is, everyone. the only thng that idas, lovs, plans, heroisms, all those airy-fairy things are fit for is to be turned into the stuffing of a figure to be displayed at some Museum of the Universe and labelled; Ecce homo. Full stop.

Next book: Zbigniew Herbert's The Collected Poems, from Poland

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Speakeasy #16: Featuring George Szirtes and Ng Yi-Sheng

I've got another event coming up next next Wednesday! It's a duo poetry recital organised by my friend Pooja Nansi:

Speakeasy #16: Featuring George Szirtes and Ng Yi-Sheng
Date: Wednesday, November 19
Time: 8:00pm
Venue: Artistry, 17 Jalan Pinang, Singapore 199149

A refugee from the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, George Szirtes moved to England as a child. His first book of poetry, The Slant Door (1979), was joint winner of the Faber Memorial Prize. In 2004, he won the T.S. Eliot Prize for his 12th book of poems, Reel. He was shortlisted for the prize again in 2009 (The Burning of the Books) and 2013 (Bad Machine). His translations of Hungarian writings have won various awards. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature (UK) and the Széchenyi Academy of Letters and Arts (Hungary).

Ng Yi-Sheng is a poet, fictionist, playwright, journalist and activist. He is the youngest winner of the Singapore Literature Prize (for his debut poetry collection, last boy). His second collection, Anthems (2014), consists of slam poetry works. His other publications include the bestselling non-fiction book, SQ21: Singapore Queers in the 21st Century, and a novelisation of the Singapore gangster movie, Eating Air. He also co-edited GASPP: A Gay Anthology of Singapore Poetry and Prose and Eastern Heathens: An Anthology of Subverted Asian Folklore. He has recently completed his MA in the University of East Anglia’s creative writing programme.

I'll also have a couple of my poems in the new anthology, A Luxury We Cannot Afford. (It's poems inspired by Singapore's old political patriarch.)

A Luxury We Cannot Afford + SingPoWriMo 2014 Anthology Launch
Date: Sunday, November 23
Time: 4:00pm
Venue: Arts House