Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Book 172: The General of the Dead Army, by Ismail Kadare

I'm kind of flabbergasted. How did I neglect this blog for over half a year?

Yes, yes, I've been busy: I've published a new collection of poetry and started on a PhD programme. But the truth is, I finished this novel in July, and just got distracted from blogging about it—partly because it was due at the library and I had to return it, and out of sight, out of mind... 

And it's a pretty interesting book: the author's first novel, written in 1963, not from the viewpoint of Albanians but from their former oppressors: our protagonist's an unnamed Italian general returning to the country to recover the bodies of his World War II soldiers who were slain there.

It's a pathetic, Sisyphean task, dealing with unlabelled coffins and stadiums built on top of graveyards and angry locals and memories of weeping mothers and sexy lady-friends and his own grumbling wife—but while he's from a nation defeated in the war, he has reason to disdain the Albanians too, this hickish uncivilised collectivist farmers on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. He travels with a priest, whose remarks on faith just underscore how hollow the ritual of recovery is. He even meets a German general on the same mission, and they bond, two losers stuck in the middle of nowhere.

And there are the voices of the dead here too: stories of shame and betrayal and dumb heroism, last thoughts in italics intruding on the narrative and loose diary pages from a defector hiding out in a farm, at the mercy of both sides of the war. We might be in Southern Europe, but there's a deep sense of Eastern European fatalism suffusing this text.

It makes me think of the books I've been reading for my PhD: postcolonial works of the Indian and Atlantic Ocean diasporas, Amitav Ghosh and Michael Ondaatje and Olive Senior and Derek Walcott and Caryl Phillips. They're writing about history, how the long shadow of colonialism refuses to go away even after the promised liberation of independence. And that's happening here, too. The scars of the war alive two decades later. The dead soldiers still haunting the land.

Of course, now it's seventy years later, and Fascists and Nazis are no longer ghosts, but walking and legislating among us. Sympathy for the losers of history is all well and good, but dead ideologies have a habit of becoming undead. Which spells some mighty trouble for those of us who just wanna stay alive.

(From My Maps)

Representative quote: 

I have a whole army of dead men under my command now, he thought. Only instead of uniforms they are all wearing nylon bags. Blue bags with two white stripes and a black edging, made to order by the firm of "Olympia". And those bags will now be inserted into their coffins, tiny coffins of precisely determined dimensions, of a size stipulated in the contract signed with the local governments' association. At first there had been just a few sections of coffins, then, gradually, companies and battalions were formed, and now we are on our way to completing regiments and divisions. An entire army clothed in nylon.

"And what shall I do with it, my army?" he said between his teeth.

Next book: The Legend of Kalesh Andja, by Stale Popov, from Macedonia.

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.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Book 169, Romania: "The Land of Green Plums", by Herta Müller

I'm feeling a little bad for choosing this work. Yes, Herta Müller is a Nobel Prize winner who was born in Romania, and yes, The Land of Green Plums is set in that country, describing the experience of state surveillance and paranoia under the regime of the Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

However, the story doesn't represent the experiences of the average Romanian, but that of the Banat Swabians, i.e. the German minority. These guys were scapegoated in society, due to the role of Germany during World War Two—sometimes almost rightfully: the protagonist (and Müller herself!) had fathers who had loyally served in the SS.

And yet they were also privileged in a sense: Germany was an important political and cultural power, which they could (and did) escape to as refugees. Even ordinary Romanians wanted to learn German. So they had a double consciousness, rather like the Chinese or Jewish diaspora across the world.

The book itself is quite wonderful: it's a dreamlike, poetic vision of a nightmarish world, narrated from the viewpoint of Müller (it's partly autobiographical, and the protagonist is never named). She's a student in an academy where her wayward classmate Lola hangs herself—or is she murdered by the Secret Police? (That theme of suicide and/or political murder will return.)

She befriends three other boys, also Swabians: Edgar, Georg and Kurt, and they find themselves questioned and persecuted by the authorities, hiding their poems, writing letters in code to each other as they enter the working world, in factories and offices and schools across Romania. How they're losing their souls, losing their minds as they're questioned by the insidious Captain Pjele.

Their mothers write to them from their villages, where their bones are aching, chiding them for getting on the wrong side of the political system, reminding them of their suffering. Their other friends may or may not be informants or traitors. They find themselves fired, or so depressed they can't work, so they have to fake illnesses—not so difficult to do, since you can bribe doctors in the dysfunctional Communist economy.

It's a wrenching, Kafkaesque view of another world—and it's pretty damn strange to read, when under late capitalism, I have friends who are advocating a return to Communism as the ideology that will save us all. The Communist states of Eastern Europe and East Asia are bad examples, they say. A true Communist state has never existed yet, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't keep trying.

But then again, even today, in Singapore and Malaysia and Trump's USA, me and my friends rightfully fear persecution for our activism. I watched 1987: Untracing the Conspiracy recently, and afterwards I had to ask my boyfriend what should I do if the authorities took me in and cowed me with threats that they would harm him?

And how strange that Kafka was able to inspire an image of dystopia in Eastern Europe, even before the Communist revolutions took hold. Back when it was all a beautiful utopian dream that we thought might work.

Representative quote: 
As I wandered, I didn't only see the demented and their dried-up belongings. I also saw the guards walking up and down the streets. Young men with yellowish teeth standing guard at the entrances of big buildings, outside shops, on squares, at tramstops, in the scruffy park, in front of the dormitories, in bodegas, outside the station. Their suits fitted them badly; they were either too loose or too tight. They knew where the plum trees were in every precinct they policed. They even took roundabout routes to pass by the plum trees. The boughs drooped. The guards filled their pockets with green plums. They picked them fast, their pockets bulged. One picking was supposed to last them a long time. After they had filled their jacket pockets, they quickly left the trees behind. Plumsucker was a term of abuse. Upstarts, opportunists, sycophants and people who stepped over dead bodies were called that. The dictator was called a plumsucker too.

The young men walked up and down and reached their hands inside their jacket pockets. They took the plums out a fistful at a time, to attract attention less often. Only when their mouths were full could they close their fists. 

Because they always took so many plums at once, one or two always fell on the ground or rolled down their sleeves while they ate. The guards kicked the plums that fell on the ground into the grass, like little balls. They fished the other plums from the crooks of their elbows and stuffed them into their already bulging cheeks.

I saw the foam on their teeth and thought: You can't eat green plums, the pits are still soft, and you'll swallow your death.

Next book: The Physics of Sorrow, by Georgi Gospodinov, from Bulgaria.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Literature of the World map by Backforward24


Not perfect (e.g. the Reddit commenters are complaining about how she didn't put down Don Quixote for Spain, and why is The God of Small Things in the pride of place for India instead of the Ramayana? But the creator is still in school, judging from the comments.

Click here for a zoomable image.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Book 168, Transnistria: "Siberian Education" by Nicolai Lilin

Yup, we're doing another contested nation: Transnistria, aka the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic! The UN claims it's part of Moldova, and only three other contested states recognise it: Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh. (Lord knows if I'll be able to find literature from or about those nations.)

But you know what? I'm hella glad I tried to find an author from this country that doesn't even send delegates to Miss Universe, because Siberian Education is pretty damn amazing.

It's a memoir (with admitted creative licence) written by a young writer who grew up in the organised criminal society of Bender, descended from gangsters and other outcasts deported to Siberia during the Soviet Union. He describes its intricate culture, with all its codes of honour and formality about guns and crucifixes and taboos against speaking directly to cops and its own effing criminal language—a culture which makes rival gangs, such as the oft-maligned Black Seed, seem like barbarians in comparison.

There’s several chapters to this story, detailing the gifting of his ceremonial pike (switchblade) at the age of six, his harrowing journey into enemy territory on his thirteenth birthday, a stint in a filthy juvenile detention facility, a teenage mission into other neighbourhoods to destroy the perpetrators of the rape of a neurodivergent girl (he claims that his society always respected the crazy and disabled as God’s children)—and it’s not in strict chronological order because he keeps diverging into other memories and family legends and folktales before returning to the main thread, Arabian Nights style, so that the whole thing’s a series of nested matryoshka-style tales. It’s really incredibly well told.

…In fact, the whole thing may be a little too incredible, full stop. He does come across as a bit of an all-star Mary Sue, an excellent fighter with a natural brain for poetry and archaic religious Russian, not to mention his phenomenal skills as a tattoo artist (which are legit; Lilin runs a tattoo parlour IRL). And Donald Rayfield, a professor of Russian and Georgian, straight-up calls the whole thing "a fantasist's ravings". Huge factual holes are being found in Lilin's sequel to this book, Free Fall: A Sniper's Story, about his military service in Chechnya—and the odd thing is, Lilin replies to most of these objections with an admission that he made most of it up for literary effect.

So how much of the core of these tales is true? Maybe not much—he wrote these tales in Italy, in the Italian language, far from his hometown, and he says that the Moldovan invasion's destroyed the society he documented. So there aren't that many people around who can directly contradict him.

And told up—upon further Googling, I've discovered that the book was never translated into Russian (although it was into about 40 other languages) and has been dismissed by a Russian journalist as a hoax. And even after that hullabaloo,  a 2013 film was made. Now I'm starting to wonder if Lilin actually is Transnistrian.

Ah well, it's still a hell of a book. If nothing else, it's a tale of what happens on the fringes of Russian culture, making it clear that the former Soviet Union was never as united as it seemed, with huge rivalries between those from the western, Moscow and St Petersburg-dominated side and Georgians, Armenians, Ukrainians and—of course—the Siberians. Makes you wonder about that upcoming superhero movie, Guardians, with heroes from different former republics, including a bear-man from Siberia. Would they all really have been friends?

Representative quote: "And now tell me why we should trust those who have spent their whole lives killing our brothers, locking us up in prison, torturing us and treating us as if we didn't belong to the human race? How is it possible, tell me, to trust those who live thanks to our deaths? Cops are different from the rest of humanity, because they have an innate desire to serve, to have an employer. They don't understand anything about freedom, and they're scared of free men."

Next book: Herta Müller's The Land of Green Plums, from Romania.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Book 167, Moldova: "Bessarabian Nights" by Stella Brinzeanu

Happy New Year! And yes, I'm still chugging along slowly with my reading program. This one was tricky: there's not a lot of Moldovan literature translated into English. Most of what I found on offer at the library were books about the sex trafficking of Moldovans, which is of course an urgent issue to discuss but also seems kind of voyeuristic and creepy when explored from a foreigner's point of view...

Luckily, I managed to find a Kindle book about sex trafficking of Moldovans by an actual Moldovan...

And you know what? It's really not very well written. The English is hella awkward, and I don't know if there was even a proofreader involved. I'm kind of shocked to discover that the author describes herself as a writer, rather than just a well-meaning citizen who wanted to share the problems of her nation.

The flip side of the coin is that the book is a very compelling portrait of Moldova itself. It's got three young women as main characters: Doina, Larisa and the ill-fated Ksenia, who plans to be an artist but is trafficked abroad to Italy by her no-good-boyfriend Boris.

These girls are from country villages but educated enough to work in Western Europe, joining the huge migrant work force that emerged when Communism collapsed. And besides the horrors of sexual slavery, there's a detailed depiction of all that being Moldovan entails: growing up amidst rustic poverty, machismo and alcoholism, selling lice as folk medicine (inspired by Roma folk), a village witch who's really just a charlatan, the growing religious conservatism, a skilled diaspora reduced by their government's financial incompetence to manual labour in Italy and the UK...

Also the strange problems of identity—the main trio, like the population, are a mix of the different races that make up the nation, Roma and Romanian and Russian. The Moldovan national language is, in effect, Romanian, in spite of all their valiant desires to be known as a separate country.

And though these women are depicted as the talented tenth who can rise above the problems of their people, starting overseas companies and newsletters to unite the diaspora, the ending is hella depressing. Brinzeanu evidently doesn't feel it's honest—or in the character of a Moldovan—to project an optimistic future, where good triumphs over evil and maybe someone who's been rescued from sexual slavery can actually be a survivor.

I don't want to give away too many details, but suffice to say that there is actually a worthwhile story in these pages. This author just needs an editor and a few redrafts. As most of us do, you know.

Representative quote: "The tragedy is that we are a starved nation. We are starved for food and like you say, Ichim, we are starved for assets too, slaving away blindly without a vision whatsoever beyond the immediate betterment of our material situation."

"We work so hard and despite it all, we are still poor — the poorest people in Europe, according to some sources," the surgeon-labourer hastened to add.

Next book: Nicolai Lilin's Siberian Education, from Transnistria. (That's right, it's another unrecognised state!)