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Book 109: Austria (German) – Radetzkymarsch = The Radetzky March (Joseph Roth)

The Emperor was an old man. He was the oldest emperor in the world. Around him death was circling, circling, and reaped and reaped. Already the entire field was empty, and only the Emperor, like a forgotten silver stalk, still stood there waiting. For years, his clear and hard eyes had been looking forlornly into a lost distance. His cranium was bald, like a vaulted desert. His whiskers were white, like a pair of snowy wings. The wrinkles on his face were an untidy undergrowth, wherein dwelt the decades. His body was lean, his back slightly bent. He walked around at home with tripping little steps. But as soon as he went out onto the street, he tried to make his thighs firm, his knees flexible, his feet light, his back straight. He filled his eyes with artificial benevolence, with the true characteristic of imperial eyes: they seemed to see everyone who saw the Emperor, and they greeted everyone who greeted him. But in reality the faces only glided and flew by him, and they looked straight ahead at that delicate, fine line which is the border between life and death, out to the edge of the horizon, which the eyes of old men always see, even when houses, forests or mountains hide it. The people believed that Franz Joseph knew less than themselves, since he was so much older than they were. But maybe he knew more than many. He saw the sun going down on his empire, but said nothing. He knew that he would already be deceased before its descent. Sometimes he stood there innocently and was glad when someone explained things to him at great length which he already knew very well. Since, with the slyness of children and old men, he loved to mislead people. And he was pleased with the vanity with which they proved to themselves that they were more clever than he. He concealed his cleverness with simple-mindedness: since it was not seemly for an emperor to be as clever as his advisers. Better for him to seem simple than clever.

[my translation]


That was Roth’s genius description of Emperor Franz Josef I of the doomed Austro-Hungarian Empire, which ruled a large part of eastern Europe and which some see as a sort of proto-EU while others as a prison of nationalities. In any case, it was due to disintegrate in defeat in the First World War, going (as the author describes it) into glorious dirty defeat, with its vain banners flying. It is the moment in history when people’s loyalty was to be no longer to a monarch but to a nation.
The novel follows the fortunes of three generations. The first is a baron who fortuitously becomes the hero of the Battle of Solferino (a battle which heralded the decline of the Habsburgs), saving the Emperor’s life by pushing him down just as he’s about to be shot. He is subsequently angered by a school book which makes him out to be more heroic than he was – he couldn’t stand to be exploited for propaganda purposes.
Regardless of the truth of the legend (like that of the Habsburg Empire itself), the succeeding generations do not come up to the standard. His son works as a government official. As for the third generation, Carl Joseph gambles away his money, gets the District Commissioner to look for money, and cadges money from the Emperor himself by reminding him about his ancestor at Solferino. For Carl Joseph, it is easiest to die (in the First World War) to the sounds of a military band, especially playing the jaunty Radetzky March of Johann Strauss (the novel’s leitmotif, so well-known to us now from the end of the Vienna New Year’s Concerts).
Austria-Hungary was obviously doomed, but the Austrians didn’t (or didn’t want to) see it. Those at the centre held strange ideas about the outer parts of the empire (where much of the story takes place) which they may never visit.
The novel is full of vivid images and wonderful descriptions like the one above. It is one of the great historical novels of the 1900s. I was certainly glad I chose it.

Roth, Joseph (1894 – 1939), Radetzkymarsch, Köln, Anakonda, 2012, ISBN 978-3-86647-866-4

Book 108: Tajikistan (English) – Hurramabad = Хуррамабад (Andrei VOLOS)



What was the thing called exile?
Where had he met the word before? Only in novels he had read in his youth. There it had had a fine, noble overtone of fortitude and courage. Now it seemed clear enough that neither courage nor fortitude were involved, only fear. One day something had broken in his heart under the sheer weight of fear, and everything that had been dear and familiar to him became foreign and threatening. He suddenly found himself in exile without even having to move anywhere, because that is where you are when everything around is foreign and dangerous. He had become a foreigner. He had sensed that the change was irreversible, and that as a foreigner there was nothing to be ashamed of in being afraid.

When the Soviet Union suddenly disintegrated, a huge number of Soviet citizens who were Russians, or Ukrainians, or Armenians etc. living in other ‘Soviet Socialist Republics’ like Tajikistan, found themselves overnight treated as foreigners in newly independent countries. They were no longer at home in these countries, if not actively discriminated against, and a large number of them felt compelled to go ‘back’ to their home republics like Russia (even though some had never been there). And in their new ‘homelands’ they were also not at home.
After Tajikistan, the poorest of the SSRs, found itself in an independence for which it was totally unprepared, it fell into a long civil war (at the same time as the far better known one in neighbouring Afghanistan) between fundamentalist Muslims and supporters of the secular leftist dictatorship.
Hurramabad is called a novel, so I’ve included it here, although for me it had more of the feel of a collection of short stories (or ‘facets’ as the author called them).
Volos himself was born in Dushanbe to a family that came to live there along with Soviet rule in the 1920s, and had to leave in the 1990s when life in the new land became intolerable for them. Great as this book (and no doubt its translation) was, I finished it feeling the need to read something written by an ethnic Tajik writer, in the hope of some balance or seeing the situation from the other side, or merely hearing a Tajik voice. (Let’s not forget that what is now Tajikistan was conquered and colonised by the Russians, and suffered what any colony suffered). In any case Hurramabad is excellent writing and totally recommendable reading, and gave me a stunning view of injustice from a different perspective.

Volos, Andrei (1955 – ), Hurramabad: a novel in facets, translated from Russian (?) by Arch Tait, Moscow, GLAS New Russian Writing, 2001, ISBN 5-7172-0056-0

Book 101: Azerbaijan (English) – Solar Plexus (Rustam IBRAGIMBEKOV)


When he was a child, nothing had given him greater pleasure than the sea. But he had abandoned it for a very serious reason: of course it was hard to accuse an inanimate medium of treachery, but as he gulped down the water in terror, feeling with his foot for the bottom that wasn’t there, it was precisely the bitterness of betrayal that he had tasted as he sank down into the water’s bottomless depths. That was the summer he thought he had learned to swim.


For Azerbaijan, I would have liked to have read Ali and Nino (said to be by Kurban Said), which has received some great reviews. But as the author, and whether or not he definitely was Azerbaijani, is uncertain, I had to rule it ineligible here. Hopefully I’ll get around to reading it some day!
So my choice was Solar Plexus by Rustam Ibragimbekov, a prolific writer, scriptwriter and playwright, and there were no regrets. It’s a family saga in four parts following three generations (1940s to 1990s) and four friends living in the same house compound through Azerbaijani history under the USSR from Stalin’s reign of terror and WWII to Azerbaijan’s newly attained independence. The vagaries of life and history throw up some serious moral dilemmas for the group. What to do when your friendships make you have to choose between your loyalty to those friends as a group; as individuals; and to truth? It is told from each of their points of view.
The cosmopolitan city of Baku must be fascinating, and so is this trip through its difficult last century. I felt like I missed a lot of its depth, but still got more than enough enjoyment from the narration of the story.

IBRAGIMBEKOV, Rustam (1939 – ), Solar Plexus: a Baku saga in four parts, translated from Russian by Andrew Bromfield, Glagoslav, 2014 (originally published 1996), ISBN 978-1-78267-116-9

Vietnam (English) – The Sympathizer (Viet Thanh NGUYEN)

Then the guitarist began strumming the chords of another song. They do sing songs like this, Man said. It was Yesterday by the Beatles. As the three of us joined in singing, my eyes grew moist. What was it like to live in a time when one’s fate was not war, when one was not led by the craven and the corrupt, when one’s country was not a basket case kept alive only through the intravenous drip of American aid? I knew none of these young soldiers around me except for my blood brothers and yet I confess that I felt for them all, lost in their sense that within days they would be dead, or wounded, or imprisoned, or humiliated, or abandoned, or forgotten. They were my enemies, and yet they were also brothers-in-arms. Their beloved city was about to fall, but mine was soon to be liberated. It was the end of their world, but only a shifting of worlds for me. So it was that for two minutes we sang  with all our hearts, feeling only for the past and turning our gaze from the future, swimmers doing the backstroke toward a waterfall.

 

I posted on Vietnam back in October 2014, on the long poem The Tale of Kieu, but since then I decided to limit myself to novels, so I had to re-read Vietnam. No hardship, for I discovered this wonderful book which deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

It begins with the chaotic US evacuation as Saigon fell to the communist North Vietnamese in 1975, the end of the Vietnam War as it is known in the West. The protagonist, a captain, flees to the US with his general, who little suspects that the captain is spying for the communists. He becomes enmeshed in and apparently enjoys the American way of life. The captain is split in many ways – half French half Vietnamese, a communist who lived under capitalism in South Vietnam and the US, a Vietnamese and an American. In fact he is a symbol of the split personality of Vietnam itself – North/South, Communist/Capitalist, not to mention of the US, whose double standards of the time are also on full display. There are some unforgettable scenes – the desperate last snafu days as the US fled South Vietnam, the murder, the interrogation, and the Hollywood war movie for which the captain is a reluctant and ignored consultant, and which ends up like a mini war in itself.

Nguyen’s writing is spectacular, dripping with all the irony the situation begs for (his handler is literally a ‘faceless man’, and I’m sure that a ‘sleeper’ agent would find it difficult to sleep!) It was maybe the hardest book so far to choose just one quote to showcase, I wanted to share so many! I can’t recommend it too highly.

 

NGUYEN, Viet Thanh (1971 – ), The Sympathizer, London, Corsair, 2016, ISBN 978-1-4721-51360 (first published 2015)

Book 86: Rwanda (English) – The Past Ahead = Le Passé devant soi (Gilbert GATORE)

Is murder unforgivable because the only person from whom rightful forgiveness could come is no longer there?

 

In 1994 I went on holiday in South America. I was totally shocked that in the short time I was away, up to a million people were massacred in an intentional genocide in faraway Rwanda. I still suffer a strange feeling of guilt over that.
This novel is the story of two characters struggling to deal with the trauma from that time. The young woman, Isaro, had to flee the country for France after her parents were murdered. She comes up with the ‘modest’ research project of interviewing all the survivors and putting their stories into one book. What she does come up with is a novel, which centres on the other main character, Niko – we don’t find out that he is only her creation until right at the end. Niko is a sociopath and a mute, who has banished himself to a nose-shaped island in a lake, populated by monkeys. While he was not popular, he was a peaceful blacksmith until the day the genocidal army came and he is forced to club to death another man who may – or may not- be his own father, or else both of them will be shot; and he must decide whether to die or become a murderer in a split second. He chooses to kill and to live, and becomes the enthusiastic leader of a band of thugs.
I would have loved to have had the inexplicable explained – that is, why the genocide happened and how apparently normal decent human beings could carry out such heartless brutality on those they had lived with peacefully. I didn’t feel that I did get it. Maybe it’s some disease of collective madness that infects a group. Before we look down on the Rwandans – or Germans – or Turks – or anyone else collectively, we need to remember that few of our countries or peoples haven’t committed injustices to others (certainly my country has); and if as individuals we are sure that we would never commit such atrocities – well, can anyone who hasn’t been guilty of cruelty to a cockroach, for example, ever be certain of that? All of us are guilty if we knew what was happening in a ‘faraway African country’ and didn’t care.
Nowadays, Rwanda is doing quite well economically, and is even very progressive in some respects (banning plastic bags and percentage of women in parliament). An astonishing number of victims have even forgiven their tormentors. It has come at the price of putting a blanket over much of what happened. Nowadays, officially, people can’t call themselves Tutsi or Hutu.
I can’t imagine what it must be like every day to see someone who murdered the whole rest of your family walking the streets. I can’t blame any country for deciding that, when a choice has to be made, reconciliation or at least peace is preferable to justice, but I wish we could have both – not only due process for those who ordered the crimes, but also for the torturers, the people with the machetes, and the bureaucrats.

 

GATORE, Gilbert (1981 – ),The Past Ahead, translated from French by Marjolijn de Jager, Global African Voices, Bloomington & Indianapolis, Indiana University Press, 2012, ISBN 9780253006660
(Originally published as Le passé devant soi, Paris, Editions Phébus, 2008)

Book 82: Zimbabwe (English) – Bones (Chenjerai HOVE)

Today the sun has set. It will set again tomorrow. But you are not here to see it. That is the difference. Even the birds and the insects that sing, they sing the same way as they sang when you were here. But now that you are not here to hear them, that makes the difference. Suns will set, birds will sing, insects will sing, but the difference is in the ears that will hear them. Today your ears are not here to hear them with me. Your blood is not here to tell me what all the songs of the forests of the farm say.

 

‘Bones’ is the story of the vain search of a woman (Marita) for her son, gone to fight in the guerrilla war against the racist white Rhodesian regime that was to lead to Zimbabwe. Everyone seems to be obsessed with her. Her story is told by Janifa (who has been wooed by her son); the herbalist Marume; Chisaga, the white farmer’s cook (about whom we get a totally different impression from his own words than from Janifa’s); ‘the unknown woman’ at the mortuary who Marita tries to give a decent burial; and the more omnipresent view of ‘the spirits’. The farm owner is foul-mouthed and hated even if probably far from the worst that could have been pictured. What is might be his real name is never revealed, but he is called Manyepo “because you think we are always lying to you”.
The novel is all the more powerful because Hove doesn’t spell out or labour the differences between blacks and whites, or the history between them. They are there, but they are there for us to extract. Hove’s anger and revolutionary fervour are there and we feel them, but as if it were the heat from a furnace under the floor:

 

“A people that fears death will never enjoy freedom from the heavy chains of being called boys by people of the same age, men and women.”

 

If you expect a novel about a revolutionary war to be about men fighting the unjust regime, ‘Bones’ is not like that. It is about those left at home, and is told mainly through the women’s voices. And what shines through is that they are at least as heroic as the male soldiers. It is, as far as I can judge, another masterly success of a male writer writing about women with understanding, compassion and admiration.
The language of the novel, which is apparently rooted in Shona idiom, is quite wonderful, not poetic but as controlledX as poetry, majestic as a religious text but hypnotically readable, and scattered with delicious proverbs and phrases (I can’t tell if they are traditional or original), e.g. “A closed mouth is a cave in which to hide”. ‘Bones’ was yet another discovery of a great novel and a great writer who deserves far wider acclaim. One of the Heinemann African Writers Series, it is not very weighty (I read it in one day, coincidentally on Robert Mugabe’s 93rd birthday) but it is concentrated brilliance.
Published in Harare!

 

HOVE, Chenjerai (1956 – 2015): Bones, Harare: Baobab Books, 1988, ISBN 0-908311-03-6

Book 83: Rhodesia (English) – The Grass is Singing (Doris LESSING)

She realized, suddenly, standing there, that all those years she had lived in that house, with the acres of bush all around her, and she had never penetrated into the trees, had never gone off the paths. And for all those years she had listened wearily, through the hot dry months, with her nerves prickling, to that terrible shrilling, and had never seen the beetles who made it. Lifting her eyes she saw she was standing in the full sun, that seemed so low she could reach up a hand and pluck it out of the sky: a big red sun, sullen with smoke, like a shining plow disc or a polished plate, ready for plucking. She reached up her hand; it brushed against a cluster of leaves, and something whirred away. With a little moan of horror she ran through the bushes and the grass, away back to the clearing. There she stood still, clutching at her throat.

 

Nobel laureate (2007). Doris Lessing is an amazing writer. The breadth of her writing genres is breathtaking. She was born in Persia (now Iran), grew up in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), which qualifies her to represent that defunct country, whose racisim would have been anathema to her, and later lived in Britain. Apart from needing to give Rhodesia some representation, as one of the countries that has existed during my lifetime, Lessing is simply too important to ignore, although modern Zimbabwe is so different that I wanted to choose a ‘Black’ writer to represent it (hence, ‘Bones’ by Chenjerai Hove).
This, her first novel, is a murder mystery which begins and ends with the crime, while all the rest of the book fleshes out what caused the killing. The victim, Mary, is a city girl who should never have left her satisfactory urban life but (due to the needling of her contemporaries) marries an eternally struggling farmer, Dick Turner, who seems congenitally immune to success, and she buries herself on his isolated farm. So isolated are they that she does not even know about the war. The (distant) neighbours despise these ‘poor whites’, who in turn hold themselves aloof from them. Dick treats his land a bit better than the other rapacious ‘Whites’, likewise his ‘Black’ labour force (although partly because of the difficulty of acquiring and holding onto them). But Mary becomes an ever more virulent racist – yet we can understand (although not sympathise) because we have seen how she has come to be this way. Despite this, she is drawn into a highly charged relationship with her final male servant (having driven off a string of predecessors), Moses, who she had once abused.
Mary’s mental disintegration stands as a symbol for the inevitable breakdown of the racist Rhodesian regime. Lessing masterfully describes her boring life, yet I couldn’t keep from eagerly turning the pages. I would definitely say this is one of the best novels I’ve ever read.

 

LESSING, Doris (1919 -2013 ), The Grass is Singing, New York, HarperCollins, 2008, ISBN 9780061673740

Book 79: Senegal (French) – Les Bouts de bois de Dieu = God’s Bits of Wood (Sembene OUSMANE)

In this way the strike established itself in Thiès. An endless strike which was, for many, along the whole length of the line, a time of suffering, but, also for many, a time of reflection. When the smoke finished floating over the savanna, they came to understand that the time had finished, the time of which the old people had spoken to them, the time when Africa was a kitchen garden. It was the machine which now reigned over their country. In stopping its motion over more than fifteen hundred kilometres, they became aware of their power, but also aware of their dependence. In truth, the machine was in the process of making new men of them. It did not belong to them, it was they who belonged to it. In halting it, it taught them this lesson.

[my translation]

 

This novel is set in three towns along the French-built railway from Dakar (Senegal) to Bamako (Mali). As the interminable 1947 railway strike drags on, the railwaymen and their families suffer intolerably from hunger and thirst and injustices by the colonial authorities, and eventually their destitute women also become more militant. The action takes place in three cities: Dakar and the railway town Thiès (Senegal), and Bamako (Mali).
The workers’ struggle represents the larger struggle for the people to overturn the power relationship with the French colonial administration. In the end, solidarity triumphs. This is not without a terrible cost, to themselves as well. Even their own social order is challenged. Different people have different ways of attempting to deal with the situation and the colonial régime. When a relative becomes a strike-breaker he is put on trial by them, despite being an elder and so traditionally worthy of more respect. Payments for polygamous families also cause conflict. As so often in revolutions and wars, it is the women who become prominent in keeping day-to-day life functioning and in forwarding the struggle (and, it has to be said, are sadly often suppressed back into their former roles afterwards). The high point is their protest march from Thiès to Dakar.
There is the cruel irony that, although there is no water to drink, the authorities use a but water cannon to disperse the protesters (who call themselves ‘God’s Bits of Wood’).

A great study of the price people have had to pay to achieve freedom, and still have to pay to get adequate working conditions.

 

OUSMANE, Sembene (1923 – 2007), Les Bouts de bois de Dieu, Paris?, Pocket, 2013 (originally published 1960?), ISBN 978-2-266-24581-4

Translated into English as: God’s Bits of Wood (Harlow, Heinemann, 2008, ISBN 9780435909598)

Book 77: Zambia (English) – The Smoke that Thunders (Dominic MULAISHO)

‘So I say to you that if you have an axe, sharpen it. If you have a spear, sharpen it. If you have a gun, prime it. For the hour to win that which we cherish, even by force, has come’. He threw up his arms. ‘Yes, I am proposing violence. Violence for the cause of peace. For even as I speak, innocent people and children are dying at the behest of the colonial and racist God of destruction.’ [speech by future President Kawala]

 

One of those incandescent African novels about the struggle for independence, this novel was published in 1979 (the year in which negotiations in London were to lead to the end of ‘White’ rule in Zimbabwe.)
It is set in the fictional colony of Kandaha, which is not in Afghanistan but is the world’s largest riverine island on the Zambezi (I thought that was Marajó in Brazil?) between Zambia and Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and bordering Victoria Falls (Mosi-oa-tunya – ”The Smoke that Thunders”). Kandaha seems to be a mixture of the two Z-countries, perhaps with a bit of apartheid-era South Africa thrown in, and is on the cusp of independence. The ‘White’ colonists are trying to create their own racist regime like Rhodesia, and their equivalent of Ian Smith is Sir Ray Norris.
Personally I felt that the characters were not very deeply drawn, and that none of the main actors were really sympathetic apart from Norris’ son (who is the opposite of his racist father – you might be able to predict what happens with his marriage and his life). Neither of the ‘Black’ leaders (Kawala and Katenga) are likeable, nor the ‘White’ ones. I found the style rather choppy (not helped by jumps from scene to scene not separated by a blank line or any other device). The plot leaps all over the place too. There are some minor inaccuracies (Scipio Africanus wasn’t an African but a Roman – he received his nickname in honour of his victory over Carthage in Africa). Also, of course it was of its time, but the racist language (and attitudes) – on both sides – was rather uncomfortable.
It was not one of my favourite novels, but is an interesting insight into feelings during the decolonisation of sub-Saharan Africa. My favourite part was Kandaha’s equivalent of Rhodesia’s Universal Declaration of Independence, with its bigotry couched in the impeccable constitutionalese of ‘WHEREAS…’ and ‘RESOLVES…’, which is very funny.
The author, Dominic Mulaisho, was a bureaucrat in the Zambian government.

 

MULAISHO, Dominic (1933 – 2013), The Smoke that Thunders, London, Heinemann (African Writers Series), 1979, ISBN 0-435-90204-0