Book 88: Belgium (Flemish/Dutch) – De Intrede van Christus in Brussel = Christ’s Entry into Brussels (Dimitri VERHULST)
In recent years, when travelling abroad, it had struck me that I was having to explain ever more frequently that there was no civil war raging here. The disconnect between political discourse and civil life could hardly have been more obvious. Flemings and Walloons weren’t staring each other down with swords drawn; our bricklayers worked together on the same sites, and what they built stood nice and straight; the Mint Orchestra consisted of musicians from north and south, and nevertheless they could play La Finta Giardiniera in the same key; people married each other across the language borders, and in their households they fought the battle of doors and pans neither more nor less than anyone else, they found the same warmth, the same chill in each other’s arms. But the populist slogans of our loudest dog-whistlers gave some outside observes the opposite impression, and kept important investors away.
I had been intending to reserve Belgium in order to finally get around to reading that most prolific of thriller writers, Georges Simenon, but meanwhile I had stumbled onto this fascinating novel, and it became my choice.
It was no doubt inspired by fellow Belgian James Ensor’s famous Symbolist painting, “The Entry of Christ into Brussels, 1888”, although as Verhulst points out, the Holy Family would seem to have a special affinity with Belgium going by the number of their visitations (especially by the Virgin Mary).
Like the painting by Ensor (and Bosch before him) it has a deliciously misanthropic view of humanity. It gets off to a depressing, workaday, cynical start, not what you might expect for such an epoch-making event, with nondescript weather. The people of Brussels can speak every language – but won’t talk to one another. (And the Messiah’s return leads to a frantic search for an Aramaic speaker). Jesus’ second coming is pre-announced in the news feeds, but apparently no one believes it, certainly they don’t communicate it to anyone else. Ironically, the most worried about it seems to be the Church, over sins like priestly paedophilia.
Since the whole novel is taking the piss out of Brussels, I was expecting the Maneken Pis to put in a cameo appearance, and I wasn’t disappointed.
The Belgians’ self-deprecating nature stops the rest of the world (and Belgians themselves?) from realising what a wonderful country they’ve got. It was almost too unremittingly jaundiced for me, maybe too much for some.
If you don’t like sarcasm, steer away from this book. But in the end I loved it – the best satire I’ve read since Jonathan Swift. It is often very funny – such as the Life-of-Brian moment where despite his denials a hippie is mistaken for the returned Christ, is mobbed and ends up in an institution convinced of his divinity.
For such a slim novel, I learnt an enormous amount about Belgium (reality and stereotypes), which Verhulst calls ‘geography’s hypochondriac’.
VERHULST, Dimitri (1972 – ), De intrede van Christus in Brussel (in het jaar 2000 en oneffen ongeveer), Amsterdam/Antwerpen, Contact, 2011, ISBN 9789025437534
English title: Christ’s Entry into Brussels (in the year 2000 and something, or thereabouts), London, Portobello, 2014
Book 65: Romania (German) – Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet = I would rather not have met myself today (translated as:) The Appointment (Herta MÜLLER)
I have been summoned. Thursday, ten on the dot.
I get summoned more and more often: Tuesday, ten on the dot, Saturday, ten on the dot, Wednesday or Monday. As if years were a week, it already surprises me, that after the late summer it is so soon winter.
On my big trip around almost all the countries in Eastern Europe a few years ago, one of the several in which I embarrassed booksellers by asking for something by a native that I could read for this project, one of the difficult ones was, surprisingly, Romania. No one could come up with anything in English for me. Finally in the rather charming Saxon town of Sibiu in Transylvania (I fell in love with its lidded dormer windows in the rooftops, like crocodiles peering out of a river), a German bookshop was able to come to my rescue. I thought this was an appropriate choice because a) Herta Müller wrote it in German, b) she is Romania’s only Nobel Prizewinner, c) there are actually a lot of German speakers in Romania, and d) my Romanian is rather limited. (And, e) my ancestors on the German side were also Müllers).
The original German title caused a lot of cogitation on my part, hopefully I’ve managed to twist it into equally convoluted English! The English translator avoided the issue, coming out with The Appointment, which is has the advantage of being snappy, and factually what it’s about, but loses all the unfortunate, sinister trepidation of the original. Perhaps The Summons would have been a better short title so that it didn’t sound like a mere doctor’s appointment.
The novel is set during Ceauşescu’s Communist dictatorship, during a single day, as the young woman narrator travels interminably on the tram (which is allowed to not follow a timetable, unlike her! and seems as lost as the Communist system itself) to an interrogation by the Securitate (secret police). She has a premonition that this time may be different – she’s packed a toothbrush. She originally got into trouble for the ‘crime’ of sewing ‘Marry me!’ labels onto men’s suits being exported to Italy, as a stratagem to escape from her country.
The terrifying sense of foreboding is overpowering. The ugliness of a society where everyone is watched and dissected by not only a secret police but also by one’s neighbours is really terrifying.
MÜLLER, Herta (1953 – ), Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet, Frankfurt/M., Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 2011, ISBN 978-3-596-18822-2
Translated into English as The Appointment.
‘“Why is such importance attached to identification cards? Since when do papers determine people’s fate?” Yussif still kept these words, which Uncle ‘Assim had once said, in his mind. Where could he now find his father-in-law, in order to be able to contradict him: “Yes, papers do determine people’s fates.” For years he had tried to rely on Uncle ‘Assim’s words. Now he had voiced what he had been frightened of all those years: that remembering would one day awaken, and he would become abruptly aware of how vain of his argument was. “Who carries whose guilt?” He carried this phrase with himself, since he had eaten and watched television together with Uncle ‘Assim , in this house in the Baladiyat Quarter, to which Sarab moved back to live with her father. For a long time he had pushed it into the back of his subconscious. Only from time to time this phrase appeared, in the last year continuously and since last night ever more strongly and urgently.
If people had their past paraded before their eyes, they disavowed it. If someone showed them documents carrying their names, they said: “Are there any people without a past?” This question was not easy to answer. “Oh past, what have you made of my life?” He could imagine how millions of men constantly repeated this phrase everywhere in the world, in east and west, north and south. Always there was a past; it was the hindrance. Whoever adopted a new name, also adopted a new past. No, this question was not as easy to answer as Uncle ‘Assim had thought. He who did not believe in the past would also not believe in the evidential power of documents. He who carries a document with him, must therefore be X, son of Y, he was born on this date, in this place, in this country; he has to add to the document the following phrase: “Who carries whose guilt?” Tell me your name, and I will tell you which history you carry with you, which history you have left behind you – or want to leave behind you.’
Iraq has just about the longest literary history of any country in the world, but I’m ashamed to say that the only other book I had read from there was from right at the other end of its timeline – the wonderful Epic of Gilgamesh. I read this one in German as, although it has apparently been translated into English, I found it hard to get. It was originally published Beirut/Casablanca, 2005, in Arabic. Anyway it’s appropriate as the author has lived in Germany for a long time. Najem Wali (نجم والي) was born in Iraq but in 1980 had to flee during the war with Iran to Germany, where he has lived ever since.
You won’t find much local Iraqi colour in this work; its themes are universal, although you could see the brothers’ identity and existential crisis as symbolic of the plight of this cradle of civilisation, which at the time of my reading was tearing itself apart and barely still existed. One of the continual refrains in the book (another is the description of the murdered girl) is the characterisation of the country as ‘The Land of the Triumphant and the Humiliated.’ Hopefully it won’t all end in a madhouse.
Wali asks the eternal question, ‘What’s in a name?’, but comes to a different conclusion from Shakespeare: Quite a lot. Here is a whole book’s worth. It is the story of two brothers, Jussif (Joseph) and Junis (John), who when they were young fell in love with the same girl. She preferred Jussif, so in revenge Junis gave her a cake with nails inside to eat and killed her. Junis opposes Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship and disappears; Jussif adopts his name, identity, life and even wife. He only discovers too late that his brother is sought as a traitor. No one will believe his story, or his innocence. A dangerous struggle over names and identities follows. Even as kids, the brothers had played with their identities, with masks.
Yussif and Yunis are, of course, Koranic (and Biblical) names. (The Qur’an has surahs (chapters) named for both of these names). It is a complicated parable about names, identity, the past, and… Just what is reality?
For someone fascinated with translation, it’s interesting that the title in Arabic, s̪urat Yussif (صورت يوسف) ‘the Picture of Joseph’, which must be a play on the Koranic connection Surat Yussif (The Surah – Chapter – of Joseph) (سورت يوسف) has been cleverly translated into German not as ‘Jussifs Geschichte’ (Joseph’s Story) but as the almost identical-sounding ‘Jussifs Gesichter’ (Joseph’s Faces). For ‘Jussif’ (the name) has two faces – those of the two brothers who bear it at different times. The English title is ‘Joseph’s Picture’ (ISBN 978-1596923508), which is literal but not as imaginative as the German title.
Yussif asks the central question, ‘Who carries whose guilt?’ You are a prisoner of your past; if you adopt a new persona, you adopt a new past as well. He is totally alienated from the world. There is no truth and there is no past. Everything is a mirage (Fata Morgana). In fact, everything is a story.
A major theme is remembering and forgetting: ‘With the end of remembrance, pain comes to an end as well.’ Maybe, at least in some parts of the world, there is too much remembering, and it would be more peaceful if there was more forgetting, at least of the blandishments of history? But these separate histories are too much a part of each community’s identity for that to be able happen.
Wali’s novel is a dark, thought-provoking, well-written, exhausting and profound parable that deserves a much wider audience.
Wali, Najem (1956 – ), Jussifs Gesichter, Roman aus der Mekka-Bar, translated from Arabic to German by Imke Ahlf-Wien, Deutscher Taschenbuch-Verlag, München, 2010, ISBN 978-3-423-13850-5, [originally published in Arabic as Surat Yussif (صورت يوسف)]
Light from the burning city filled the sky as far as human eye could reach. The moon rose large and full from behind the mountains, and inflamed at once by the glare took on the colour of heated brass. It seemed to look with amazement on the world-ruling city which was perishing. In the rose-coloured abysses of heaven rose-coloured stars were glittering; but in distinction from usual nights the earth was brighter than the heavens. Rome, like a giant pile, illuminated the whole Campania. In the bloody light were seen distant mountains, towns, villas, temples, mountains, and the aqueducts stretching toward the city from all the adjacent hills; on the aqueducts were swarms of people, who had gathered there for safety or to gaze at the burning.
I found it surprisingly hard to decide what to read for Poland! Finally I defaulted to Sienkiewicz (1846-1916), who justly won the 1905 Nobel Prize for Literature. Quo Vadis (Latin for ‘Where are you going?’) is his best-known work, except perhaps in Poland itself, where his trilogy on 17th Century Polish history, With Fire and Sword, is more famous.
Now normally I try to choose a novel which will teach me as much as possible about the country it represents here. This majestic tale of the Roman Empire under the emperor Nero (in the first few years of the Christian Era) might seem to have nothing to say about Poland, which didn’t even exist at the time (and was one part of Europe which the Empire never reached), but you can see the persecution of the early Christians as a symbol of the suffering of this most Catholic of countries under the boots of its surrounding empires. Like the Christians under the Roman Empire, the Poles have had to fight long and hard to maintain their distinct culture, language and religion under constant occupation (or threat) by their neighbours, and have miraculously succeeded.
The main characters are the true-life novelist and courtesan (and finally victim) of Nero, Petronius, who seems able to control him for a time; the mad mercurial emperor himself who is infamous for having set his city alight and blaming the Christians for his crime; and the fictional young lovers Lygia and soldier Marcus Vinicius – she converts him to Christianity. If you know anything about Roman or early Christian history you know that this is not going to end well…
You get a fine feeling for the precariousness of life lived under a dictatorship (or even democracy?) under the whims of a demented despot, even for those close to the source of power. Perhaps not so irrelevent to our times after all? What a pity that this great, majestic work isn’t read enough any more.
SIENKIEWICZ, Henryk (1846 – 1916), Quo Vadis: a tale of the time of Nero, translated by Jeremiah Curtin, Mineola NY, Dover, 2011, ISBN 978-0-486-47686-5 (originally published in Polish 1896)
I still remember that dawn when my father took me for the first time to visit the Cemetery of Lost Books. The first days of spring, 1945, had worn off and we walked through the streets of a Barcelona trapped beneath ashen skies and a steamy sun which streamed out over the Rambla de Santa Mónica in a garland of liquid copper.
‘Daniel, what you’re going to see today you mustn’t tell to anyone’, my father warned me, ‘not even your friend Tomás. No-one.’
‘Not even my mum?’ I asked, at half volume.
Catalonia isn’t independent, though many would like it to be, according to the controversial vote last month. So here’s a bonus read from one of my favourite cities, Barcelona (which here always seems to be shrouded in fog, like Holmesian London). A boy called Daniel uncovers a lost library and is permitted to extract a single title, which ends up changing his life, culminating in the obsessive search for a lost book and a forgotten writer. This beautiful novel is a paën to the world of books and to bibliophilia. As one who loves books for their own sake, working in a library which seems all too willing to discard books willy-nilly, I wish there really was a Cemetery of Lost Books where every last book is saved from oblivion! Ruíz Zafón is an addictive writer. If you haven’t yet discovered this wonderful book, I envy you your future joy!
Ruíz Zafón, Carlos (1964 – ): La Sombra del viento, Barcelona, Planeta, 2002, ISBN 84-08-04364-1
Book 32: Spain (English/Spanish) – (El ingenioso hidalgo) Don Quijote (de La Mancha) (Miguel de CERVANTES)
In a place in La Mancha, whose name I have no desire to recall, lived not long ago an hidalgo, one of those with a lance in the rack, an old leather shield, a skinny nag and a greyhound…
Having lost his wits, he stumbled upon the strangest thought that has ever occurred to anyone in the world, and he fancied that it was just and fitting, both for the furthering of his honour and for the service of his country, to make of himself a knight errant, going forth into the whole world with his arms and horse in search of adventures, and to put into practice all that he had read of what knights errant did – righting wrongs, and putting himself in peril and danger, and from these, having accomplished them, he would cover himself in eternal renown and fame.
I read this through in English, and also in Spanish (which I’m still plodding through – the Spanish is not too difficult, but it’s a big work).
How often does it happen that the beginning of a new endeavour seems to remain the greatest? Don Quijote is one of the first novels, and is still one of the best. It seems like a miracle that this work was written at the time it was. Though it looks back the dying age of chivalry (to the extent that it ever existed), in some ways it seems an incredibly modern (even Post-Modern) work. I love the way Cervantes does not take himself, or his creation, too seriously – there’s a lot of fun in the way he editorialises and sends up all and sundry.
The basic plot, where the eccentric would-be knight sallies off seeking adventures and is dragged home by his more prosaic friends, is too well-known to go into here. It is a satire of the chivalric romances which were on their last legs, but this spoof turned out to be the greatest of them all. Courtly love, which was really a ridiculous conceit when all is said and done, was just begging for a send-up. There is still the danger of taking literature too seriously (I have to plead guilty in the case of Tolkien) and living in a dream world which is more colourful and beautiful than the reality (instead of just visiting it), of seeing world as we want it to be.
Here the narrator can see all points of view, like us he clearly loves Don Quijote despite making fun of him, and takes him seriously. There’s a lot of tension between the narrator’s editorialising and the exciting tale. For example he cheekily interrupts the thrilling duel between Quijote and the Basque traveller in full flight because, he tells us, the narrative breaks off there. Fortunately for us, he does ‘find’ the ending later!
Cervantes has created three of the loveliest characters in literature. Though he lives in a dream world, is impractical and crazy, it’s impossible not to love and feel compassion for Quijote, the man who dares to dream the impossible dream. His page, Sancho Panza, is steady and steadfast, the mascot for all those priceless people in the world who sacrifice themselves to care for someone unable to look after themselves. And lastly, there is the ennobled nag Rocinante.
It is funny, touching, very clever. The main question I kept asking myself as I read this wondrous work was, why did I wait so long? If you haven’t tackled it yet, don’t deny yourself the pleasure any longer!
CERVANTES, Miguel de (1547-1616), El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha, Ediciones Cátedra (Letras Hispánicas), Madrid, 1982, ISBN 84-376-0116-9 (2 vols.)
The silence of snow, thought the man sitting just behind the bus-driver. If this were the beginning of a poem, he would have called what he felt inside him ‘the silence of snow’.
He’d boarded the bus from Erzurum to Kars with only seconds to spare. He’d just come into the station on a bus from Istanbul – a snowy, stormy, two-day journey – and was rushing up and down the wet, dirty corridors with his bag in tow, looking for his connection, when someone told him that there was a bus for Kars leaving immediately.
When the remote eastern town of Kars is snowbound by a blizzard, turning it into a microcosm of Turkey (and, to some extent, the world as a whole), a showdown takes place between the secularists and Islamists who are tugging at Turkey’s soul, culminating in an explosive confrontation between two imperfect worlds. Neither the heavy-handed secular authorities nor the Islamic radicals come off well, but neither are portrayed superficially or without understanding. This novel seems to become more relevant by the day, given the recent election, for this country that is a bridge between East and West, enriched by both but endlessly skewered between the two.
You can read this moving, thought-provoking novel just as a thriller if you like, but there is a variegated landscape under the snow cover and it would be a shame to miss it. This is an important book for everyone.
Incidentally, if you don’t know Turkish you might miss the puns: ‘pamuk’ means ‘cotton’, and ‘kar’ (the title of the book in Turkish) means ‘snow’, so the poet-hero of the book (Ka) should not have been surprised to find the city of Kars in the grip of a snowstorm!
PAMUK, Orhan (1952 -), Snow, translated by Maureen Freely, London, Faber and Faber, 2005, ISBN 0-571-21831-8 (originally published in Turkish, 2002)