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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 103: Belarus (English) – Paranoia (Victor MARTINOVICH = Віктар Марціновіч)



He walked over to the Audi and looked inside the windows, black and opaque as metal. He had hoped to catch some sort of movement, some flash of an antitheft system (as if the car needed an antitheft system), but all he saw was himself, and it occurred to him that the sight of your own reflection in glass behind which you were attempting to find something rational to explain your gut fears was a fine metaphor for paranoia. His paranoia was rising in waves from somewhere in his stomach, his common sense telling it: “There is nothing to fear, the car could have come for anyone.” Or, “If they were following you, they would have parked right in front of your entrance.” His “I” was already churning, already whispering, already beckoning him to get the hell out of there and not stop, but he controlled himself. Then, just at the moment when he had convinced himself that the car’s doors were not going to open and no one was going to push him inside… Just when the absence of any discernible movement in the car’s depths had assured him that no one was inside, that the vehicle was deserted… Just when he was about to walk away… At that very second, confirming his horrifying suspicion that while he had been peering into the blackness behind the window, someone, or… or something (he shuddered) had been watching him from inside, studying him with birdlike (raven) eyes, just as he had been examining his reflection and thinking about his paranoia… In short, he already couldn’t remember what had happened first: had the motor, detonated by the ignition, turned over first or had the blinding xenon headlights turned on first? With the sleekness of a cobra the car turned its wheels and slithered off. Making an unnecessary circle through the courtyard, on the lookout, on the lookout for its prey – the circle of a predator, unhurried and ready to lunge – making this circle, the Audi picked up speed, picked up speed and disappeared.

I have to admit that I love occasionally wallowing in the misery of a devastatingly depressing dystopia, and Paranoia is that! With the difference that it is perhaps only too close to the reality in the last Communist dictatorship in Europe. It comes with a great introduction (to the current state under Lukashenko’s Belarus) by Timothy Snyder, and a fascinating preface by the translator.
As for the cheeky warning at the start of the book, it’s worth quoting in full:

“All the events related herein are fictional: the protagonists have never existed in any reality other than that of the present text. Any unsanctioned comparisons with historical figures or persons alive today may be qualified as a criminal offense punishable under international and national law. To avoid unintentionally committing acts prosecutable under the Penal Code, the author – fully aware that, essentially, he should never have written it in the first place – enjoins readers not to read this book.”

– no doubt I am guilty as charged, but you should definitely read this book!
Throughout the novel, we are asking ourselves, like the ‘subject’, Anatoly, is what he is experiencing really paranoia, or just reality?
Much of the novel from the outset consists of the surveillance reports kept by the MGB (Ministry of State Security), still called the KGB by Belarusians. (In the language of the MGB reports, a ‘person’ is called a ‘surveillance object’, and a ‘place’ is a ‘microphone’.) Paranoia has some of the most subtle and chilling descriptions of the spies’ work that I’ve read. For example, the minute description of the eaten pizza found in the subject’s rubbish. There is a report suggesting how to get Anatoly to commit suicide. However the spooks aren’t above making amusing mistakes – this doesn’t come across in the English translation, but a proof-reader had noted that the transcriber had incorrectly written ‘strange (in Russian, страннo) with a letter B’ instead of ‘the country (страна) with a letter B’. Such a shame these puns necessarily get lost in translation.
Anatoly’s girlfriend Fox had a relationship with the Minister of State Security himself, who would send her sinisterly described bouquets. Anatoly (like us) could never be quite sure if she wasn’t working for the MGB herself. The ‘friendly conversation’ with a snakelike interviewer is really, as Anatoly fears, an interrogation in which he is accused of her murder.
This is one that I will definitely re-read and that I highly recommend.
What’s distinctive about the present epoch is that nowadays anti-utopias can be based on entirely factual material. There’s no more need to invent 1984: just look around.

Martinovich, Victor: Paranoia, translated by Diane Nemec Ignashev, Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2013, ISBN 978-0-8101-2876-7

Originally published in Russian by AST (Moscow) and Astrel’-SPb (St Petersburg)

Book 102: Hungary (English) – Fateless = Sorstalanság (Imre KERTÉSZ)


One man… was curious, and this made me smile a bit, as to whether I had seen the gas chambers. I said to him: “If I had, we wouldn’t be standing around talking now.” “Yes, of course,” he rejoined, but had there actually been any gas chambers, so I said, sure, there were gas chambers too, naturally, among other things; it all depends, I added, what type of person was in which camp. In Auschwitz, for instance, you could bet on it. “But in my case,” I noted, “I’ve come from Buchenwald.” “From where?” he asked, so I had to repeat it: “Buchenwald.” “So, from Buchenwald, then,” he nodded, and I said, “That’s right.” “Let’s get this straight, then,” he said in response, with a stiff, austere, yet somehow almost preachy face. “You, sir,” and I don’t know why but I was almost stunned by this very formal and, I would say, somewhat punctilious mode of address, “you have heard about the existence of gas chambers,” so I said, sure I had. “Nonetheless, sir,” he carried on with that same austerity of one who is restoring things to order and clarity, “you personally, however, did not ascertain this with your own eyes,” and I had to admit that I hadn’t. To that he merely remarked, “I see” and after giving a curt not strode away, stiffly, erectly, and as far as I could see, unless I was very much mistaken, satisfied in some manner.

As on the one hand the last survivors of the Nazi Holocaust are leaving us, and on the other hand an increasing number of countries in the world are beset by the rise of rabble-rousing populists or even neo-fascist parties (some of whom deny that the genocide even took place), it seems more urgent than ever that we listen to the horrors that happened then because of hatred – and tragically have happened several times since, as some of the stories in this project tell.
Gyuri is 15. Although he does not at first fully grasp what is happening, his father is being sent ‘away on labour service’, in fact to a concentration camp, and feels compelled to make over his lumberyard business to Sütő, a non-Jew (”completely aboveboard regarding his race”), without a receipt, hoping he will take care of it for the family.
In time, Gyuri himself won’t be spared the concentration camps. Kertész minutely describes what it feels like to be sent to camps. This is not exactly like what people necessarily assume, even those horrified by them.
There are moral dilemmas – what is the right decision, what is the right way to conduct oneself in such a horrifying situation, amidst the uncertainty (and self-delusion?) about what will happen.
This is an uncomfortable read (and not always in the way you might expect), but it’s a great work of literature and highly recommended. Kertész won the 2002 Nobel Prize for Literature.

KERTÉSZ Imre (1929 – ), Fateless, translated from Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson, London, Vintage, 2006, ISBN 9780099502524
(also translated as Fatelessness)
First published in Budapest as Sorstalanság in 1975 

Book 100: Sweden (Swedish) – Hemsöborna = The people of Hemsö (August STRINDBERG)


But the city dwellers’ arrival at the island did not fail to exert its influence on the natives’ feelings and customs in general. Every day to see men dressed for holidays, for whom it was always Sunday, who went strolling, rowed aimlessly, fished without caring about the catch, swam, made music, killed time, as if there was no worry, no work to be done in the world; this aroused no envy at first, only astonishment that life could fashion itself in such a way, admiration for men who were capable of making their existence so pleasant, so peaceful, so neat and fine above all, without anyone being able to say that they did injustice to someone else or plundered the poor. Unnoticed and slowly the Hemsö people began to walk in gentle dreams, to cast long furtive looks at the big cottage; if they glimpsed a light summer frock in the meadow, they stood still enjoying the sight as if faced with something beautiful; if they caught sight of a white veil on an Italian straw hat, a red silk ribbon around a slender body in a boat on the bay from between the forest fir-trees, they fell silent and full of devotion for something which they didn’t comprehend, which they didn’t dare to hope for, but which they were drawn towards.

[my translation]

For Sweden, even though there are so many fantastic works from there, I really wanted to read something by Strindberg. But for present purposes it had to be a novel. Did Strindberg write novels? I have to admit that I didn’t realise that either until I went looking. So here it is. And if you thought that he only wrote gloomy, traumatic plays, here is another surprise.
Here we are in a much poorer, more uncomfortable, more rural Sweden, the one from which so many Swedes emigrated (including some of my ancestors).
Carlsson is a mainlander who comes to put a widow’s farm on its feet, and succeeds, though after his success he tends to ‘lose it’. He feels himself superior to (more cluey than) the locals, but is conscious of his inferiority in a hierarchy to the family of a professor that he brings in as paying guests. When he is rejected by the professor’s attractive daughter, he ends up marrying the widow as consolation prize – mainly for her farm – and earns the eternal enmity of her son Gusten. He gets taken for a ride by a mining company and in the end loses out to Gusten.
It is set on the islands and skerries of the Stockholm Archipelago, loved for getaways then as now by the city people; but Strindberg made himself persona non grata there by his overly close to the bone observations on the islanders in this novel. It is realistic, but shot through with a lot of humour that you might not have expected from this author.
While there is a touch of Rousseau’s ‘noble savage’ in Strindberg’s islanders, they are hardly idealised. It is close to the long tradition of ‘country bumpkin upstages sophisticated city slicker’ but neither side is treated maliciously or without understanding.
We realise at the outset that Carlsson is an awkward fit when the girls come to pick him up from the mainland and he yells that they should raise the jib – which their square-rigger doesn’t have.
The novel is full of beautiful descriptions of nature and folk life. Depressing it certainly isn’t. Even the tragic dénouement has its funny aspect, and doesn’t seem so catastrophic to everyone.
The Swedish book I ended up buying online was rather strange. Almost square, it was a printing from a website (see below), and deceptively thin: only 43 pages (in a normal format it would be more than 200). The page numbers of the original pop up right in the middle of the text.

STRINDBERG, August (1849 – 1912), Hemsöborna, Memphis, General Books, 2012, ISBN 9781236729163; first published Stockholm, Albert Bonniers Förlag, 1914
(printing of Project Runeberg digital facsimile, available at http://runeberg.org/strindbg/hemsobor/)
Translated into English as: The People of Hemsö

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.

 

[My translation]

 

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.

[my translation]

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.

 

 

Book 40: Iraq (German) – Jussifs Gesichter = Yussif’s Faces (صورت يوسف) (Najem WALI) (نجم والي)

‘“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.’

[my translation]

 

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)]

 

 

Book 39: Poland (English) – Quo Vadis (Henryk SIENKIEWICZ)

                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)

Book 33: Catalonia (Spanish) – La Sombra del viento = The Shadow of the Wind (Carlos RUÍZ ZAFÓN)

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.
[my translation]

 

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.

[my translation]

 

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.)