Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Book 171, Greece: "Theogony" and "Works and Days" by Hesiod

It's so weird that you can spend your entire childhood and adult life surrounded by references to Greek mythology—from Roger Lancelyn Green's Puffin Classics to Disney's Hercules to references in Plato's Republic in college to hate-watching Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief—and never actually end up reading the source texts those myths are from.

This is one of those source texts. Hesiod's been dated to around 750 and 650 BCE, the same time as Homer; an era before the Parthenon and Socrates and Aristotle and Euripides and Alexander; just around the time folks began figuring out how to write things down. It's Archaic Greece, before even the Ancient Greece we all know, the Classical Age. There's a wonderful little intro to this edition by ML West that explains that the closest parallels to these poems we've got are from Sumer and Babylon and Egypt and Israel and India: testimony to the fact that Greece of that time was absorbing influence from the East.

Which was something I noticed when I was wandering around the museums of Greece in 2014: though Westerners may use Greek civilisation as evidence for European superiority, actual archaeologists in Greece have no problem admitting that many features of their culture were borrowed from beyond the bounds of Europe. Hell, the very alphabet they were using was based on Phoenician.

Anyway, the poems themselves—I was rather surprised to see that they weren't longer, given their legendary status. Yes, this is a prose translation, with only occasional breaks in the verse, but it comes up to just 61 pages without footnotes. Nothing like the Iliad or the Odyssey or even the collected Homeric Hymns.

Also strange is the fact that they're quite personal. While all we know about Homer is that he was a blind man (and that's from legend; we can't even be sure if the same guy wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey), here Hesiod inserts biographical information. In "Theogony", he describes how the Muses "taught him fine singing" as he tended lambs on Mount Helicon; in Works and Days he spends an inordinate amount of time scolding his brother Perses for having claimed a disproportionate amount of the family lands and then having promptly squandered it away through laziness and also consorting with corrupt officials (though wouldn't this have increased the family fortune?). He also happens to mention that he's taken a boat to Crete before. Turns out petty first-person voices found their way into even ancient literature—which we should be grateful for, since it gives us a tiny bit of insight into how folks of that era lived and thought.

"Theogony" itself is the tale of the origins of the Greek gods—a Greek Kojiki, if you will—and it's got the classic tale of how Kronos was born out from Uranus and Gaia (who're called simply "Chasm" and "Earth" here) and how Kronos castrated his dad and swallowed his ten children, except for Zeus, who was rescued by his mother Rhea and replaced with a rock, and how Zeus eventually overthrew the old gods and banished them as Titans. Here also is the tale of how Prometheus stole the fire from the gods and was damned to have an eagle eat his regenerating liver; also how the gods cursed mankind by giving Epimetheus the first woman, Pandora. (The story of the box is in "Works and Days", though. Surprisingly, the translator says it was probably a jug—an amphora.)

Reading the tales in their original form, it's shocking to realise how mediated my experience of it has been—influenced by the genre of the naturalistic novel and short story and TV and film and theatre, so that every moment of the drama is played out with its full horror and consequence. But this is parataxis, not hypotaxis—the events are reeled off quite matter-of-factly, without psychological insight. And why should there be humanity? We're speaking of gods and Titans, after all, not humans.

Most of the poem is a series of begats describing which god or Titan or nymph or monster or winged beast came from where, though. Biblical begats. And Cerberus is described as having fifty heads and a voice of bronze. Why didn't that become canonical?

"Works and Days" is weirder still: it's mostly a list about farming and household chores according to the seasons. Superstitions, too—we're told to "never place the jug about the mixing-bowl when men are drinking; a dire fate is attached to that". Also, "Do not from the fivebranched, at the prosperous feast shared with the gods, cut the sere from the green with gleaming iron," which basically means don't trim your nails. Reminds you of Leviticus, no?

Interestingly, we've got the myth of the ages of Gold, Silver, Bronze and Iron here—an echo of the Jain story of how human generations have degenerated—and our translator suggests that the men of the Age of Silver were regarded with reverence because they were seen as the creators of ancient tombs. Every generation reveres its own ancients, no? And we of the Age of Information honour these self-hating men of the Age of Iron.

But I don't revere Hesiod completely, because damn, this guy is misogynistic. It's not just the bits about Pandora—it's also the way he talks about wives and chattel women. Women are mere tools here, not to loved or respected as human beings. Not to be the audiences of this poem, apparently.

Ah well. I suppose I could close with something elevated and divine from the "Theogony", but there's such weird stuff in "Works and Days" that I've gotta quote that instead. Let us not hold our forebears in too high regard. Let us be better than them.

(From My Maps!)

Representative quote: Do not urinate standing towards the sun; and after sunset and until sunrise, bear in mind, do not urinate either on the road or off the road walking, nor uncovered: the nights belong to the blessed ones. The godly man of sound sense does it squatting, or going to the wall of the courtyard enclosure. And when your private parts are stained with semen indoors, do not let them be seen as you go near the hearth-fire, but avoid it.

Next book: Ismail Kadare's The General of the Dead Army, from Albania.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Book 170, Bulgaria: "The Physics of Sorrow" by Georgi Gospodinov

I had a few options for Bulgaria: the 1981 Nobel Prize-winning Elias Canetti (who didn't write about Bulgaria much, as far as I could tell); or Ivan Vazov, whose 1888 novel Under the Yoke is considered the greatest classic of Bulgarian literature.

However, I ultimately decided on someone more current, who also happened to be stocked in the National Library of Singapore: the poet Georgi Gosponidov. Surely, I thought, reading a book of poetry could be speedily done, putting me back on track for my round-the-world trek.

Alas, the book the library had 283 pages. And it's experimental. Is it a novel or a memoir or both? I dunno.

What I do know is that it's good. Gospodinov looks back at his life—he was born in 1968, stayed in village basements as a child because his dad earned too little on his veterinarian's salary, and witnessed as a young man the fall of Communist Bulgaria and the birth of a new globalised, capitalist nation—and he tries to find in his biography, his father's biography, his grandfather's biography, a meaning for the loneliness and sorrow that have haunted him all his life.

And in that basement he finds the Minotaur. A myth of the Greeks—who are of course neighbours to the Bulgarians—and who was not just a monster but also an abandoned child, a freak left to wander through a darkened labyrinth. He latches on to his grandfather's memory of a funfair full of sideshows in 1925, including (fictionally?) a young, abused Minotaur; he sees innocence in that vegetarian head and his lustful mother Pasiphaë who forsook him and the pages of classical authors who never once gave him words or empathy.

(Empathy is key to all this: he claims that as a child he immediately would go into spells where he would empathise so much with characters in stories, with voices, with animals, that he would tunnel into their lives and it would always be a long time before he could find his way back to his own body. Catatonic. Stopped happening when he was a teenager, which he regrets: not growing up and healing, but growing old and losing a special gift, a faculty of the imagination.)

His life's related in a nonlinear fashion, shifting from his meeting with his grandfather's Hungarian lover from World War II to his memories of burying time capsules and playing cowboys and Indians in the 1980s with the neighbourhood kids (did you know the East Germans made Westerns, but always made out the Indians to be the good guys?) and how the nostalgia for that has faded today, and his own flight from Bulgaria in 1995 after his countrymen attacked him for writing an op-ed about them being, according to a survey, the saddest place in the world, and wandering through the obscure cities of Europe, writers' festival after festival, his daughter being born, and himself growing older and foreseeing his death through his father's death...

Life as a labyrinth. And himself either the Minotaur or Theseus, determined to slay the monster.

It's strange how a writer's story of success ends up being one of sorrow as well (true to the title he considers the physics of it all, the infinite possibilities of the universe, God as a boson or a neutrino). And we've seen this strange way what's externally a good life is summed up with regret in VS Naipaul's A House for Mr Biswas, but the strangeness of this all seems uniquely Eastern European, a thing of Kafka or Gogol or Herta Müller.

The Eastern Europeans really have had an inheritance of the bizarre. I wish to learn from them. But alas, this is the last book from the region we'll be doing.

On to Southern Europe next!

Representative quote: It hurts right here, something down on the left, maybe it's my appendix.
Stop with the self-diagnoses, if you please. The appendix is on the right. There's nothing that could be hurting there on the left.
What do you mean nothing?
Just that. There's nothing there.
Well, it's precisely that nothing that's hurting me.

Next book: Hesiod's Theogony and Works and Days, from Greece.