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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 106: Israel (English) – To Know a Woman (Amos OZ)

He sat at the wheel of the car until almost two o’clock in the morning, with the doors locked, the windows rolled right up, the lights out, the radiator grille almost projecting over the edge of the cliff into the void. His eyes, once they were accustomed to the dark, were spellbound by the breathing of the pelt of the sea, swelling and sinking again and again with the expansive yet restless respiration of a giant whose slumbers are periodically punctured by nightmares. At times a sound escaped like an angry gust. At others it sounded like a feverish panting. And again there rose the sound of breakers in the night, gnawing at the coastline and retreating with their booty to the deep. Here and there ripples of foam glistened on the dark pelt. Occasionally a pale milky beam passed high above among the stars, perhaps the quivering of a distant coastguards’ [sic] searchlight. As the hours passed Yoel had difficulty distinguishing between the murmur of the waves and the throbbing of the blood inside his skull.

A jaded, washed-up ex-spy just wants to get out of the game and get on with his life. But is anyone ever allowed to be an ex-spy?
Yoel tries to live retiringly while striving to understand and get on with the women in his life, all of whom seem to be stronger characters than him – his prickly, incomprehensible (to him) daughter living with a syndrome that is apparently epilepsy, his mother and his mother-in-law, and his attractive neighbour (too good to be true?) – not to mention his wife who died in a bizarre accident (or was it?)
He tries to be reasonable with his daughter despite her goading of him but seems to make no headway.
Despite his best efforts to keep out, his former life keeps intruding. He still keeps his old spy habits (such as making sure he parks nose out, ready for a quick getaway). The estate agent Kranz, who also suddenly comes into his life, seems nosy and suspiciously helpful – we can’t help asking ourselves whether those over-eager to help him are plants?
Eventually he is forced to come back into Mossad against his will, and when he refuses to do a messy job, his substitute gets killed in Bangkok – his feelings of anger and survivor’s guilt are so easy to identify with. It seems that he (and Israeli Jews in general?) are compelled to be forever grateful for their homeland – and to be inescapably obligated towards it. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but perhaps Yoel’s unsuccessful relationship with his women is also a metaphor for Israel’s seemingly impossible relationship with its incompatible neighbours.
Oz is someone else whose work I must read more of. Sadly this great Israeli writer, commentator and peace activist died not long before I read his work.


Oz, Amos (1939-2018), To Know a Woman, translated from Hebrew by Nicholas de Lange in collaboration with the author, London, Vintage, 2001 (first published 1991), ISBN 9780099913405.

Book 94: Greece (English and French) – Zorba the Greek (Alexis Zorba) = Βίος και Πολιτεία του Αλέξη Ζορμπά (Nikos KAZANTZAKIS)

He threw himself into the dance, clapping his hands, leaping and pirouetting in the air, falling on to his knees, leaping again with his legs tucked up – it was as if he were made of rubber. He suddenly made tremendous bounds into the air, as if he wished to conquer the laws of nature and fly away. One felt that in this old body of his there was a soul struggling to carry away this flesh and cast itself like a meteor into the darkness. It shook the body which fell back to earth, since it could not stay very long in the air; it shook it again piteously, this time a little higher, but the poor body fell again, breathless.

 

Many people (myself included) have a friend who is their exact opposite, a yang to a yin, someone who is stimulating to talk to and observe precisely because they think and act differently to ourselves. Zorba the Greek is that friend to the narrator, who is a thinly disguised Kazantzakis.
This must be one of the most absorbing portraits of a people, and of a man (who is the apotheosis of that people), in literature.
The bookish narrator, Kazantzakis’ alter ego, learns to live for the moment (what we would now call mindfulness?), and teaches the man he teasingly calls the ‘bookworm’ to ‘dance’. He is always needling the narrator about his ‘books’. Zorba teaches him to understand himself, and the importance of happiness.
It has to be said that he is not always admirable, but he seems always captivating. Zorba only dabbles in being a capitalist (first mining then raping a forest) – but his heart isn’t in this get-rich-quick project (maybe this is symbolic of the Greek economy?) He is like some ancient Greek hero (he is so like Odysseus!) or even god (such as Zeus) – both admirable and flawed (he has even committed atrocities).
He cheats some monks in order to ‘acquire’ a forest to fell. (Isn’t Greece already deforested enough?) Zorba never seems untrue to his nature. He lives for the moment, and the day – nothing is permanent (Kazantzakis’ Buddhist subtext is interesting for such a Christian country). The narrator is interested in Buddhism and has some of its cool detachment but can’t help but be drawn to his charismatic, hedonist friend. Zorba is a mixture of a child, a philosopher, a sensual hedonist, and an iconoclast. He is contradictory, extraordinary, but always believable. He has been everything: (according to himself) a: quarry-man, miner, peddler, potter, comitadji, santuri-player, passa-tempo hawker, blacksmith, smuggler; has married several times, been imprisoned, travelled everywhere… He retains the sense of wonder at everything that the first man must have had, or a child. He asks simple yet profound questions about it like an ancient Greek philosopher.. He is comic, philosophical, brave, sensuous. and a wonderful story-teller.
One of my favourite scenes was the funny expedition up to a monastery. Their shared business venture all ends in ‘the full catastrophe’, also very funny, but somehow in the end it doesn’t matter very much…

Yes, but…
I can’t agree with Zorba’s anti-learning (and, by implication, Kazantzakis’ equivocation about it). If he didn’t despise book-learning he wouldn’t have had to try to reinvent geometry to find ropeway angle. After all, the Greeks themselves are famous since ancient times for their prowess in geometry.

Much as I totally loved the book, I have to admit that the 1964 movie was better in one way – because the narrator is changed from an urban Greek to a repressed Englishman, which makes the contrast between him and Zorba even more startling. So it is a case of the Greek Vs the Geek. (From his amazing performance, it is impossible to believe Anthony Quinn as Zorba isn’t a Greek!)

I was fascinated to find that the larger-than-life Zorba was based on a real friend of Kazantzakis, Alexis Zorbas. According to an interesting (but hero-worshipping) study (1), most of the incidents in the novel – the plot to despoil the monastery forest, the dilettante mine, the trip to communist Russia, the death in the Balkans – were accurate, as was the character of Zorba(s) (and of the narrator/Kazantzakis). The chronology was different, and there were a few other changes (such as their initial meeting).
I loved this novel so much that no sooner had I finished it than I started reading it again. It has added itself to my faves list.

 

KAZANTZAKIS, Nikos (1883 – 1957), Zorba the Greek, translated into English by Carl Wildman, London, Faber and Faber, 2008, ISBN 978-0-571-24170-5
KAZANTZAKI, Nikos: Alexis Zorba, translated into French by Yvonne Gauthier, Paris, Pocket, 1981, ISBN 3-266-02311-X
Originally published in Greek 1946

(1) ANAPLIOTES, John: The Real Zorbas and Nikos Kazantzakis, translated by Dr. Lewis A. Richards, Amsterdam, Adolf M. Hakkert, 1978

Book 64: Sri Lanka (English) – Reef (Romesh GUNESEKERA)

Should you read the blurb on the cover before reading a novel? I can’t help blaming my slight disappointment with ‘Reef’ on the blurb, and its shortlisting for the 1994 Booker Prize. Don’t get me wrong – the story itself is very readable and well-written. But it is quite lightweight and to compare it to Greene, Naipaul, Narayan and even Shakespeare’s Tempest (as in the quoted reviews) seems quite ridiculous. The blurb touts it as a love story – well the protagonist Triton doesn’t get any (unless you include mentoring). In fact it’s basically about his love for being a super house boy, for a marine biologist – although it’s obvious from his intelligence and fast learning that he will have a lot more to offer the world. He seems to totally miss the dangerous currents swirling around him in the ‘real world’ of the island. The endangered reef that the scientist is studying is obviously a symbol for the fraught political situation facing the country.
Its language is simple but sensuous:

Most of all I missed the closeness of the tank – the reservoir. The lapping of the dark water, flapping lotus leaves, the warm air rippling over it and the cormorants rising, the silent glide of a hornbill. and then those very still moments when the world would stop and only colour move like the blue breath of dawn lightening the sky, or the darkness of night misting the globe; a colour, a ray of curved light and nothing else. The water would be unbroken like a mirror, and the moon would gleam in it. At twilight when the forces of darkness and the forces of light were evenly matched and in balance there was nothing to fear. No demons, no troubles, no carrion. An elephant swaying to a music of its own. A perfect peace that seemed eternal even though the jungle might unleash its fury at any moment.

There are pearls to admire such as the Sri Lankan take on the Biblical flood legend.
As one who has experienced how bizarre Christmas is in Sri Lanka (even more so than here in Australia), I couldn’t help laughing at the experimental cooking of the turkey, with the Professor’s scientific input and Triton’s instinct.
Or is the novel like a reef, and did I just miss the profundities hiding beneath the surface? Perhaps I should re-read it… which will be no hardship.

 

GUNESEKERA, Romesh (1954-), Reef, London, Granta, 2014, ISBN 978-1-78378-030-3

 

Book 49: Nepal (English) – Buddha’s Orphans (Samrat UPADHYAY)

Here I am at country number fifty, about a quarter of the way through my quest!

 

Raja’s mother had abandoned him on the parade ground of Tundikhel on a misty morning before Kathmandu had awakened, then drowned herself in Rani Pokhari, half a kilometer north. No one connected the cries of the baby to the bloated body of the woman that would float to the surface of the pond later that week.

 

I couldn’t help being a little disappointed with this book. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy it very much. I just didn’t feel that, despite being a full-length novel, it had the depth of Upadhyay’s “Arresting god in Kathmandu”, a collection of short stories that I found as wonderful as its title. Upadhyay was apparently the first Nepalese writer to be translated into English. It was after reading “Arresting” that I felt I needed to read more of his work, and chose this one when I changed the intention of my reading criteria to exclude short stories.

This is one of those luscious subcontinental family sagas I love so much. It centres on two Nepalis who we first meet as boy (Raja) and girl (Nilu). Only the boy, Raja, is a true orphan – the book starts with his mother drowning herself. He is taken in by a homeless man, Bokey Ba, and a footpath corn seller, Kaki; as he grows, the once unwanted boy becomes the object of a tug-of-war among those who care for him.

Nilu is only an orphan in the sense that she ends up despising and being estranged from her alcoholic, snobbish mother Muwa. Raja and Nilu become friends, are separated, fall in love, marry, separate, come together again…

The story takes place against the background of Nepal’s tumultuous recent history, beginning under the unpopular ‘King M.’ and following through his overthrow. Raja has a part, but only a very minor one, in the events – perhaps foreshadowed by Bokey Ba’s trying to dump him in the palace (leading to his name), and Raja’s chewing on a button with the King’s portrait. Raja takes part in demos against the monarchy without telling his wife, though she spies him at one. When their young son is taken gravely ill she is held up by a demo (which Raja isn’t at) and he dies. This leads to their estrangement.

I found it a totally enjoyable read, so please don’t let my slight tinge of disappointment put you off. I suspect Upadhyay might become one of the great subcontinental writers; as to whether his forte is in fact in short stories rather than novels, well, I’ll just have to read more of him to find out, which will be no hardship!

 

UPADHYAY, Samrat (सम्राट उपाध्याय) (1963 – ), Buddha’s Orphans, Boston/NY, Mariner, 2011, ISBN 978-0-547-46990-4