Archive | Historical fiction RSS for this section

Book 72: Xinjiang (Esperanto) – Loulan [楼蘭 Rōran] (INOUE Yasushi)

 

Within two days Loulan seemed to be a wholly unpopulated walled city. The town seemed to have suffered decades of decrepitude in those two days. This was hastened by, on the one hand, the furious blowing of the wind; earthen walls were destroyed, strata of ash-like sand were deposited on every street, and the whole town went ruinously pale. On the evening of the third day, when the wind had hardly fallen, from across the desert came a Han cavalry of several hundred riders to reside there. The depopulated walled city suddenly became filled with voices and neighing. It was on that day when the water of Lop Nor changed into yellow darkness and waves jumped noisily across the entire surface.

 

[my translation]

 

As mentioned I haven’t yet been able to find a novel by someone from Xinjiang, so to go with my Uighur short story I’ve added this book which includes the novel Loulan and the novella Fremdregionano (as well as an afterword by the translator), by the Japanese author INOUE Yasushi. Inoue was deeply interested in this region. It is an area that I’ve long been fascinated with, but I couldn’t help being disappointed with this one. Both stories read more like straight histories rather than novels. Perhaps that is almost inevitable considering the vast span of time that ‘Loulan’ covers. Loulan itself is the name of an abandoned ancient city on the southern Silk Road which has been reclaimed by the Taklamakan Desert, and also the name of its kingdom (later renamed Shanshan). It had a brief life of half a century, 2000 years ago. Its inhabitants were neither Uighurs (who arose a long time later) nor Chinese, but it seems they may have been Indo-Europeans and did speak an Indo-European language, Tocharian, so related to English. This unfortunate country was squeezed to death by the Han Dynasty Chinese on one side, and the ‘barbarian’ people they called the Xiongnu (who may have been identical to the Huns who later attacked Europe – Inoue calls them Huns ((hunnoj)) here). There was a third destructive force, the desert which finally claimed the city, and perhaps a fourth, the spirit of the Konche River which abandoned it. (Throughout history the rivers, and the mysterious salt lake Lop Nor which they fed – now notorious as the site of China’s nuclear tests, and non-Chinese are almost never allowed to visit the ruins – have moved around the Tarim Basin). In this story, the Chinese force the abandonment of Loulan in 77 BCE for another city called here Shanshan, actually Yixun (which has not been positively identified); in fact more of the tale takes place in ‘Shanshan’ than in Loulan. (Both of these are Chinese names; Loulan’s real name was Kroraina). This is on the pretext of protecting them from the Huns; Loulan becomes a Chinese military base until it is mysteriously abandoned. As Shanshan, the country remained loyal to China but had to struggle to keep the latter’s interest (and eventually failed, leaving them to the Huns). ‘Loulan’ follows how the kingdom tried various survival strategies, trying to keep both powers on side, then trying to get the Han to protect them from the Huns, all unsuccessful.

Fremdregionano takes part of this history and concentrates on one person, Han governor-general Ban Chao (sent to establish a Chinese protectorate but only temporarily successful) and is perhaps more successful for this. Even so, you don’t really get any idea of his character, let alone any character development. He died almost as soon as he returned to the Chinese capital Luoyang, and the Han abandoned what they called the Western Regions within five years.

The trouble with historical novels, while I love both history and novels, for me is that I find it annoying not knowing what is historical fact (or opinion) and what the author has fictionalised. I got the impression that very little was fictionalised, but it is impossible to be certain.

I found it rather jarring that the place and personal names were taken wholesale from the Chinese Pinyin transcription system, and then the Esperanto morphological endings added on. Even sounds that could be easily transcribed (and thus made pronounceable) in Esperanto orthography, such as ‘sh’, were left in Pinyin form. For example, Shanshan-anoj (inhabitants of Shanshan) could easily have been written ŝanŝananoj. There are some typos and (possibly controversial) neologisms. Some of the names are anachronistic (e.g. the kingdom of Former Cheshi). There are some very long quotes from the Chinese Silk Road travellers Faxian and Xuanzang and the Swedish archaeologist-discoverer Sven Hedin, all of whose full accounts are definitely worth reading if you’re interested in this area.

 

INOUE Yasushi 井上靖 (1907 – 1991), Loulan kaj Fremdregionano, translated from Japanese into Esperanto by Miyamoto Masao, Serio Oriento-Okcidento 20, Tokyo, Japana Esperanto-Instituto, 1984 [no ISBN].

Advertisements

Book 58: Australia (English) – Voss (Patrick WHITE)

Time to pop in at home on the way to my next exotic destination!
If you asked many Australians who is their country’s best writer, or especially their favourite one, I doubt if many of them would say Patrick White. In fact not so many of them have read him; he has a reputation for being difficult, and there are so many other great Australian writers, who are easier to read to boot! (It seems like Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet is the default choice for Australia). But I felt the compulsion to give him a go, and now was my chance.
This classic by Australia’s only Nobel Literature Prize winner is a fictionalised account of the last journey of Ludwig Leichhardt, who mysteriously died on his last audacious expedition trying to cross the continent from east to west. It seems to be a close portrait from what we know; White’s Voss (despite his Norwegian-sounding name) is, like Leichhardt, also a German, a loner, more comfortable in the bush than in society, a good bushman but an equivocal leader (as shown by a mutiny), who tried to maintain good relations with the Aborigines (two of whom travelled with him, and from whose skills he undoubtedly profited).

He himself, he realized, had always been most abominably frightened, even at the height of his divine power, a frail god upon a rickety throne, afraid of opening letters, of making decisions, afraid of the instinctive knowledge of mules, of the innocent eyes of good men, of the elastic nature of the passions, even of the devotion he had received from some men, and one woman, and dogs.

The back story of Voss is his unrequited romance-by-letter with a young Sydney girl, despite his cruelty to her (not least in deserting her for his doomed expedition):
With rough persistence he accused her of the superficiality which she herself suspected. At times she could hear her own voice. She was also afraid of the country which, for lack of any other, she supposed was hers. But this fear, like certain dreams, was something to which she would never have admitted.
I did enjoy Voss, which was a great psychological study of a loner who flees society and a loner who stays at home, and the surprising, tenuous but strong bond between them.
Time to finally get around to reading Cloudstreet!

 

WHITE, Patrick (1912-1990), Voss, Sydney, Vintage, 2012, ISBN 978 1 74275 688 2
(first published 1957)

 

Book 49: Venezuela (Spanish) – Doña Bárbara (Rómulo GALLEGOS)

Arid lands, riven by ravines and cut by cracks. Thin cattle, with downcast eyes, were here and there, with a barely believable desperation, licking at the slopes and wastelands of this sad spot. On the ground the skeletons of those that had already succumbed were bleaching, sacrifices of the saltpeter earth which had seized them until starvation, forgetting food; and great flocks of turkey vultures hovered over the stench of the carrion.

[my translation]

 

This is the classic novel of the Venezuelan Llanos (plains, prairies, steppes). It is one of those novels where the landscape seems to be the main character. But the grasslands are peopled by several memorable characters (even if their names seem a bit TOO obvious to contemporary ears) – the saintly would-be moderniser Dr. Santos, his nemesis the barbarous Doña Bárbara, the evil cardboard-cutout gringo with the unlikely moniker of Mr. Danger, and the ’child of nature’ Marisela, on whom Santos performs an Eliza Doolittle-like transformation into a polished lady. The setting is the lawless (yes, that includes the judges and lawyers) cattle country where rustling is a way of life, sanctioned by tradition and ubiquity. There is a Machiavellian power struggle between the great landowners, especially the cousins Dr. Santos and Doña Bárbara, by fair means and foul (and fowl!) Santos’ plan to fence off the llanos is inevitable but will see the llaneros’ way of life fade into history.
Doña Bárbara is an alpha female who dabbles in magic. No doubt if it was written today we would find a more sympathetic portrayal of the women (and city folk). We shouldn’t fall into the trap of extracting a work from the time when it was written. Nevertheless, both of the women are powerful (Doña Bárbara as much so as any of the men) in what must have been a man’s world.
While Gallegos sees the inevitability of progress, he is deeply nostalgic for the disappearing way of life of which he has a profound understanding. His attitude towards the burghers of Caracas reminded me of “Clancy of the Overflow” by the Australian bush poet Banjo Paterson:

 

“…And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended
And at night the wond’rous glory of the everlasting stars.
I am sitting in my dingy little office, where a stingy
ray of sunlight struggles feebly down between the houses tall…”

 

While I think it would be wrong to see this as an early work of magical realism – there is plenty of magic, as practised by Doña Bárbara, in an overwhelmingly superstitions cultural world – the fact that this seminal work is so largely ignored by English readers is a tragedy that leaves a big hole in their knowledge of Latin American literature. The plot is not at all unrealistic.
The author himself is a fascinating character who became President of Venezuela.

 

GALLEGOS, Rómulo (1884 – 1969), Doña Bárbara, Madrid: Cátedra, 2014 [originally published 1929], ISBN 978-83-376-1539-4

 

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 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.)

Book 26: Italy (Italian) – Il gattopardo = The Leopard (Giuseppe di LAMPEDUSA)

“When… he had learned to know Don Fabrizio better he discovered in him the softness and the inability to defend himself that were the characteristics of his pre-formed sheep-noble, but also an attractive force different in tone but equal in intensity to that of the young Falconeri; moreover a certain energy tending towards abstraction, a disposition to seek the way of life which would emerge from within himself and not be grasped from others; he would remain deeply impressed by this abstract energy, although it presented itself as direct and not as reducible to words, as is attempted here; however he noticed that much of this fascination sprang from good manners and realised how pleasing a well-educated man could be, because at heart he is nothing but someone who eliminates the always unpleasant manifestations of so much of the human condition and who exercises a sort of profitable altruism (a formula in which the efficacy of the adjective made him tolerate the uselessness of the noun).” [my translation]

 

My favourite Italian book (and one of my all-time favourite books) is The Name of the Rose (Il nome della rosa) by Umberto Eco. But since I had to choose another title this time, I chose the historical novel The Leopard.
The Leopard is Sicilian prince Don Fabrizio and it’s set mainly at the time of the Risorgimento which resulted in the unification – in a manner of speaking – of Italy in 1870. It was written as Lampedusa was dying, and is pervaded with a strong sense of ‘end of an era’. The Leopard is in fact a pussy cat, but has to accept that the aristocratic world he knew is moving on (in fact doomed, like the realm of the pre-Olympian Greek gods), and that those more in tune with the new Zeitgeist, like his dashing nephew Tancredo, will inherit the future. Lampedusa’s view of both that old aristocracy and of the rising nouveaux riches is equivocal but subtle. Lampedusa’s one great novel truly is a masterpiece. However I found it difficult to read (in Italian). Some of the sentences seem to go on forever and (like the example above) can be a bit convoluted. Some of the anachronisms (such as a mention of World War II and Einstein) I found somewhat jarring. But apart from this personal niggle, it’s an absolutely marvellous book and an unmissable highlight of Italian literature.

Tomasi di Lampedusa (1896 – 1957), Il gattopardo, Milano: Feltrinelli, 2012, ISBN 978-88-07-81028-2 (originally 1958)