Saturday, November 26, 2016

Book 166, Ukraine: "The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol"

I'm still here!!!

Yeah, I've been terrible about keeping this blog. But I'm still reading furiously (as you'll see from my Instagram tag), and about a week ago I got round to finishing this:

Gogol was ethnically Russian. He wrote in Russian and enjoyed literary success in St Petersburg, Russia. Most of his best-known stories are set in Russia, too, such as The Diary of a Madman, The Portrait and The Nose.

Yet he was born and raised in Ukraine, and that's what he drew on when he published his first short story collections, Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka and Mirgorod. In Richard Pevear's preface, he explains that these stories are exotica, in many ways, following a fashion of the times for stories of "Little Russia", a part of Ukraine which was then being Russianised. They're not super-accurate: Gogol often claims stories he dreamt up himself are old folktales, and he had to write back to his mother for all those luscious ethnographic details which he'd failed to note when he was actually resident in Ukraine. Nevertheless, these yarns of Cossacks and witches and ancient curses and fat landowners have nonetheless been embraced by Ukrainians as part of their heritage—as is Gogol himself to this day.

And damn, this stuff is fun. Some of it is straight up Gothic horror, like The Terrible Vengeance and Viy (which has been turned into a movie recently!), though there are also comic supernatural tales with blessed fools like The Night Before Christmas and Austenesque minor nobility stories like Old World Landowners and The Story of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with ivan Nikiforovich. Tall tales of the outback, the margins of the empire where anything can happen.

And what's fascinating to me is how, as a 19th century writer, Gogol straddles both genre horror and surreal modernist slipstream—the The Nose and The Overcoat presage Kafka in their portrayal of how the dehumanisation of big city life can only be expressed through stories of the impossible. Meanwhile, the ravings of insane clerks and artists in "Diary of a Madman", "The Portrait" and Nevsky Prospekt feel like the miracles of the margins, transposed into modern settings that can only medicalise them...

And I love it, since I'm trying to write magical realism in a first world country, drawing on our third world roots of folk horror. I'll end with a quote from "Viy".

Representative quote:
He paused for a minute. In the middle, as ever, stood the motionless coffin of the terrible witch. "I won't be afraid, by God, I won't be afraid!" he said, and, again drawing a circle around himself, he began recalling all his incantations. The silence was dreadful; the candles flickered, pouring light all over the church. The philosopher turned one page, then another, and noticed that he was not reading what was in the book at all. In fear he crossed himself and began to sing. This cheered him somewhat: the reading went ahead, and pages flashed by one after another. Suddenly... amidst the silence... the iron lid of the coffin burst with a crack and the dead body rose. It was still more horrible than the first time. Its teeth clacked horribly, row against row; its lips twitched convulsively, and, with wild shrieks, incantations came rushing out. Wind whirled through the church, icons fell to the floor, broken glass dropped from the windows. The doors, tore from their hinges, and a numberless host of monsters flew into God's church. A terrible noise of wings and scratching claws filled the whole church. Everything flew and rushed about, seeking the philosopher everywhere.

Next book: Bessarabian Nights, by Stela Brinzeanu, from Moldova.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Multicultural Singapore? Really?, 23 July 2016

So I'm still diligently reading Nikolai Gogol (which is fun, since his Ukrainian stories are ripping stuff). But I figured I might as well fill you in on one of the events I'll be doing:

Date: Sat 23 July, 2016
Time: 2pm-8pm
Venue: The Projector, 6001 Beach Road #05-00 Golden Mile Tower, Singapore 199589
Tickets: $40 from The Projector

Cultural diversity has long been a hallmark of Singapore society. We boast about being a bustling global city with a multiracial and multireligious society. But just how deep is our cultural diversity?

To what extent do our different groups and cultures understand and accommodate each other? Do our daily intercultural encounters lessen or harden social prejudices? Join us for a thought-provoking day with heartfelt poetry, insightful discussion and a screening of the award-winning film, Dheepan.

Keynote Speaker:
Assoc. Prof Daniel PS Goh

Asst. Prof Imran bin Tajudeen
Assoc. Research Fellow Mr. Pravin Prakash

Divya Victor
Karisa Poedjirahardjo
Ng Yi-Sheng
Shivram Gopinath

1.45pm: House opens
2pm - 3.15pm: Poetry Reading
3.15pm - 3.30pm: Intermission
3.30pm - 4pm: Lecture
4pm - 4.45pm: Panel Discussion
4.45pm - 5.15pm: Audience Q&A
5.15pm - 6pm: Intermission
6pm - 8pm: Screening of “Dheepan”

Another event organised by the Singapore Advocacy Awards. Find us at

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Book 165, Chechnya: "I Am a Chechen!" by German Sadulaev

I know Chechnya isn't a recognised state by any international bodies. But while Russia and the UN don't recognise self-determination, that's no reason I shouldn't.

And anyway, this book is amazeballs.

Interesting fact: German Sadulaev didn't even mention the Chechens in his first book, Radio Fuck. And why should he have? He was a lawyer in St Petersburg, writing in his first language, Russian. He passed as Russian; indeed, his mother's ethnically Russian.

But he was born in Shali, a village in Chechnya. And he only escaped the violence there because he'd gone off to study in Leningrad at the age of 16. From a distance, he watched his idyllic hometown descend into war and chaos, brought on by the onslaught of heartless Russian bombers...

It's hard what to make of the text, actually. The first few chunks are written as dreamlike memoirs, clearly using autobiographical material, but with tonnes of magical realism thrown in: he claims all these portents of madmen and bleeding cattle that foretold the destruction; empathises with the agony of the swallows who saw their nests bombed to bits (the souls of unborn children, according to Chechen tradition), associates the race of the Chechens with the kshatriyas who were expelled from India in the age of the Upanishads... yet always returning to the detail of the "I" whose biography corresponds with that of his own: half-Chechen, half-Russian, suffering from the survivor's guilt and the weight of traditional machismo that prevents him from weeping out his pain.

And as the book progresses, we get more into the realm of fiction: in "When the Tanks Awoke", he confesses to the common childhood fantasy of having a twin, which eventually develops into a tale of himself as two boys, Zelik and Dinka, one with a Russian father and a Chechen mother, one with a Chechen father and a Russian mother, playmates and rivals who eventually end up facing one another on the battlefield. Later, clear fictions: "Victory Day", about an old Chechen World War II Soviet soldier who beats up a Neo-Nazi in Lithuania; "Snuff", about a phantom lover in New Orleans.

But always the sadness, always the sense of exile, always the sense of a kingdom lost—not just the Shali of his childhood, but the Soviet Union that he grew up proud to be part of.

It's strange to be reading this as Chechen literature, really. He's from Chechnya but not part of it, able to separate himself from the horrors of the war. But his family has suffered through it, been nearly killed by the sniper fire; he's had to demand that Russian flight crew allow his paralysed sister the right to stay on a plane because Russians have only read the state media that claim only terrorists have been attacked, when in reality, it's everyone, all the innocents, all those who once believed they were one people.


Representative quote: In the combat report from the front I heard that during the battle of Urus-Martan the Shali tank regiment had been eliminated. An enemy formation. When Russians die, they talk of 'losses', or even say they've 'fallen'. When Chechens die, they describe them as 'eliminated'. Because Chechens are the enemy. I too am Chechen: the enemy. And when I die, they'll describe me as 'eliminated'.

Next book: The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol, from Ukraine.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Book 164, Russia: "War and Peace", by Leo Tolstoy

Guess what? I'm reviving my blog after a year and a half of inactivity! Because I've finally finished this bloody tome.

(I've decided on a new format for the pictures, btw—instead of just covers, I'm using the Instagram images I've posted at #yishreads. New year, new apps, y'know?)

Why did it take me so long to finish this? Hard to say. Part of it is that it moves really really slowly, so slowly that one forgets names and attributes and events.  It's hard to really feel like one's making progress, though the division into fifteen separate books and an epilogue helps—there's little dramas that begin and finish within an individual book.

There's no obvious main character either, which is why I suspect it would've been easier to get through Anna Karenina. The closest thing we've got is the innocent Pierre, who starts off as an impoverished illegitimate twenty-something.

Then he inherits money and a title, becomes a fat, cuckolded aristocrat who's scorned by all good society (and can't even exercise his well-intentioned reforms on his peasants without them suffering for it). And then the French invade, and he sees the city of Moscow collapse utterly, and he fails so utterly in his foolhardy attempt to assassinate Napoleon that the French see him as a loyal friend, but then he tries to save a girl from rape and gets captured as a prisoner-of-war and is marched through the steppes in deadly bitter frost before finally coming back into his title and comfort in the end, a better man for his suffering...

That's about the only plot I can hold onto. There's loads of other characters, but the only one I've got a strong impression of is Natasha, a foolish girl who plans to elope with a scoundrel but is saved when someone tells her he's already married. Pierre buys his silence. It sounds like a trivial little tale, but it's pretty vivid.

And you can tell from the contrast of these tales that this literally is a book about war and peace—it's got the horrors of a war diary (there are intense descriptions of the battlefield, limbs being torn off and everything), and the very next chapter may well be princesses in palaces worrying about gossip and respectability, and each is treated with equal importance. It's Pride and Prejudice meets Saving Private Ryan, I tell you.

We've seen some of this before in Walter Scott's Waverley, but that was a romance. This is a beast of a different nature—also a historical novel, but with a philosophy based on the randomness of history rather than some great narrative of the rise and fall of Scottish culture. Tolstoy has whole chapters of theory mixed in with the fiction, pointing out the folly of historians for telling the story of history as led by Great Men, or by the ideas of the intellectuals of the time, when really, in battles, everyone's just scrabbling around with no idea what they're doing, and every individual person's exercising his or her own will all the time.

He even punctures the popular myth of Muscovites burning their own city rather than letting the French have it by pointing out that any city with wooden houses, if left unattended in a battle, is going to be in danger of a mass conflagration. Not a romantic at all.

I think you can tell that I am fond of this book. It's nuts that it's so long and so disperse, but it does have great ideas and great moments embedded into it. Was it worth the time? I don't know. At least when I boasted about having finished this text, folks got that it was a big deal. More obscure texts just don't register.

Honestly, however, another reason this took a long time is because I borrowed the book from the library and kept having to return it, then switched over to the Kindle edition (which felt even more interminable, since you can't see the pages moving), only discovering a month or so ago that I actually had a copy on the shelves of my house....

And part of it was because once you stop trying to finish a book every week, you kind of enjoy being open to loads of other reading options, and going back to your original goal is kind of a chore. So I'm no longer going to force myself to read one book every week. I'll just update this site whenever I please.

Representative quote: "People speak of misfortune and suffering," remarked Pierre, "but if at this moment I were asked, 'Would you rather be what you were before you were taken prisoner, or go through all this again?' then for heaven's sake let me have captivity and horseflesh! We imagine that when we are thrown out of our usual ruts all is lost, but it is only then that what is new and good begins. There is much, much before us."

Next book: German Sadulaev's I Am a Chechen!, from Chechnya.