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.
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 71: Kazakhstan (German) – Abai = Абай жолы (Abai’s Way) (Mukhtar O. AUEZOV =Мұхтар Омарханұлы Әуезов)
Beside Kunanbai’s yurts stood, closely-packed, those of the relatives. Multifarious life echoed through the afternoon steppe. Dogs barked; sheep and lambs bleated, blended with the calls of the shepherds, the clip-clop of the horses, which, enshrouded in golden glow-through clouds of dust, pulled to the drinking-trough; foals neighed, having just been released, and now rushed through the steppe, seeking the dams. From the campfires the smoke climbed into the clear evening sky and hung like a dark grey curtain over the yurts… Yes, that is what he had longed for in the city.
I have to admit that my heart sank when this one arrived in the post. Firstly I found that through some slip of the finger I’d accidentally ordered two copies. Secondly that the binding was of such poor quality that the spine was broken – already – on BOTH copies. (Perhaps I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had been from an ex-Soviet publisher, but from a German one I expected a bit better). Thirdly, because it is in German. Well, of course I already knew that. (’Abai’ doesn’t seem to have been translated into English, despite being the, or one of the, key works in Kazakh literature). But how would my German stand up to the fourth point, which is: it’s gigantic – nearly 900 pages. What is it about Kazakh novels, that they’re as vast as the steppes? The Nomads by Yesenberlin (reviewed by Ann Morgan) is also very long. Reading in German slowed me down too, so I ended up spending a whole year on it at the rate of three pages a day, while I ploughed on through other virgin lands in my reading (not a fast year, since three of these were in French, one in Dutch, and four in Spanish – serves me right for trying to read in the original!) Reading this book felt like running a marathon. I should mention that ‘Abai’ was translated via Russian, so I hope it didn’t lose too much seeping through multiple filters. Perhaps my little translation above into yet another language is nothing but a ‘Chinese whisper’.
Mukhtar Auezov (Muchtar Auesow in German spelling) lived during Soviet times and promoted the works of Abai Kunanbaev. He was attacked during the paranoid 1930s for supposedly propagating feudalism in ‘Abai’, but he received an Order of Lenin for it after Stalin died. Ironically, Auezov himself and his hero Abai Kunanbaev were quite Russophile; for him, making Kazakhstan a modern, civilised nation certainly involved fostering elements of its traditional culture such as epic poetry (Abai was an akyn – wandering poet/bard – himself), but also considering Russia as apparently the sole source of modernisation, including introducing high points of Russian culture such as Pushkin’s poetry. Despite his Russophilia he is still the Kazakhs’ national cultural hero. Abai pretty much single-handedly created Kazakh as a literary language. I wonder how much this seminal work has influenced modern Kazakhstan, which seems to be less nationalistic and friendlier to Russia than some of the other new Central Asian nations?
‘Abai’ gives great insight into the dying traditional nomadic life on the steppes. Everything you need to know about Kazakh life in the 1800s and early 1900s seems to be in this book, and it was instrumental in fostering self-consciousness among the Kazakhs. (The divisions among the peoples of ex-Soviet Central Asia, especially between the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, originally were really quite artificial, and several of the nationalities were virtually created by Stalin for divide-and-rule purposes; and the physical borders that resulted are quite crazy. But since the divisions have congealed with the gaining of independence, the national identities are slowly becoming a reality).
Being nomadic, or semi-nomadic, much of the Kazakhs’ culture was portable and verbal. Hence their love and respect for the akyns.
The novel begins with Abai’s life in the aul (a key word which is not defined in the otherwise excellent glossary, but which here means a nomadic camp, though nowadays it can also mean a village, a district or even a touristy ‘traditional’ restaurant). Abai’s father was a powerful regional clan leader, who administers rough justice, and is hated by other clans for his imperialism. Abai spends periods in the cities. He comes back to the aul as a rare educated man – the clansmen think he’s a mullah and can cure illnesses (he doesn’t try to disabuse them). He is happy to learn from the Russians, including exiled revolutionaries. He counters the narrow-minded Kischkene-mullah, since he respects Western civilisation more. He becomes left-leaning and has a feeling of class solidarity with the poor Russians he meets.
Abai ended up with several wives, but he always remained in love with Togshan, whom he couldn’t marry for political reasons. Personally, I felt that his first wife Dilda was not described enough so I wasn’t sure why he didn’t really love her.
Basically, ‘Abai’ is the story of how he becomes a leader for the Kazakhs who is above the petty conflicts of the clans, and the Kazakh literary star by blending the oral tales of the steppes, Islamic literature and Russian literature. It is a fascinating journey into another culture, time and place. But please, someone, translate it into English!
AUESOW, Muchtar (1845-1904), Abai: vor Tau und Tag, translated from Russian into German by Hilde Angarowa, Berlin/Tübingen, Hans Schiler, 2010, ISBN 978-3-89930-262-2
(originally published in Kazakh in four volumes between 1942 and 1956)
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.
So, now that I’ve posted on more than 50 books, I’m about a quarter of the way through my project to read something from all the countries in the world. Since it is so much in the news at the moment, I thought it might be interesting, as my own personal little comment on globalisation (for what it’s worth), to see where the books I’ve been buying for this challenge were actually published – whether in the country in question, or, more usually, in the former colonial power. Of course, many of these books are translations, usually into English, even though I’ve tried to read in the original language wherever I could.
When I began this reading project, one of the minor benefits I was hoping for was to do a little foreign aid to support the local publishers and booksellers in each country. And I do almost always buy books when I’m in a country. But it has proved surprisingly hard to find local booksellers that can ship to Australia. So I’ve ended up buying most from The Book Depository or Amazon. And as for publishers, as you can see it is still largely the former colonial powers that are still in control… although the great collection of exotic lands proves that the USA is not as isolationist as it sometimes seems…
I’ll update this list every now and then.
*Acquired by me in the country itself
(You can see that a large number of the ones under “Published in country of origin” are ones I bought on my travels as souvenirs – books are my favorite and usually only travel souvenirs! Some of these poor books had been waiting patiently on the shelf for quite a while for me to get around to reading them!)
Published in country of origin:
*Swaziland (? No publishing place given)
Sweden [*gift from Swedish person]
United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales)
Not published in country of origin:
Published in Australia:
Papua New Guinea
Published in France:
Published in Germany:
Published in Mexico:
Published in the Netherlands:
Published in the Russian Federation:
Published in Spain:
Published in the UK:
Published in the UK/USA:
Published in the USA:
Trinidad and Tobago
United Arab Emirates
‘“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)]
A simple young man travelled at the height of summer from Hamburg, his home town, to Davos-Platz in the Grisons. He went for a visit of three weeks.
So starts a laboured journey up into the Alps and down into the depths of the human condition. The Magic Mountain is a sort of utopia (or dystopia, since everyone there is sick!) set in a sanatorium in Switzerland. These Olympian heights give Mann (with his suitably encompassing surname) the chance to philosophise on many aspects of life and death. It’s like an Alpine Hotel California, or some weird religious cult (whose god is hypochondria), with the difference that here intellectual inquiry is fostered rather than quashed. Perhaps it’s closer to Hilton’s Shangri-La in Lost Horizon, at least it’s up in the mountains! It is a dense novel of ideas and seems to cover all the big questions like life, love, time and death. Nowadays it seems like no one likes to think about death and sickness, but they are inevitable facets of human existence and ignoring them won’t make them go away.
This is another fairly long work which took ages for me to get through. The long convoluted sentences made it somewhat difficult for me to read in German.
An easier read from Germany is Siddhartha (Hermann HESSE), one of my very favourite books. In a parallel with The Life of Brian and Jesus, at first it seems that Siddhartha is going to be the Buddha, until you find that the latter is another character in the novel. Its majestic prose is to die for.
Mann, Thomas (1875 – 1955), Der Zauberberg, Fischer Taschenbuch, 2008, ISBN 9783596901241
Book 17: East Germany (’German Democratic Republic’) (German): Nachdenken über Christa T. = The Quest for Christa T. (Christa WOLF)
Occasionally I’ll throw in a bonus book for a place you won’t find on the current list of lands in the United Nations. Some of these will be ghost nations, like the late and mostly unlamented East Germany. The title should properly be translated as Reflections on Christa T.
The German word ‘nachdenken’ literally means to think about (or after). And it is the word which opens the book in German.
“To reflect, to think – about her. Of the attempt to be oneself. That is what is found in her diaries, which are left to us, on the loose pages of the manuscripts which have been discovered, between the lines of the letters I am acquainted with. They have taught me that I must forget my memory of her, Christa T. The colouring of memory misleads you.
So do we have to give her up for lost?” (My translation)
Christa T., the subject of this loving portrait, is an extraordinary, ordinary young woman who dies at 35 of leukaemia (heartbreakingly, she is only too aware that she will be one of the last to die of this disease). The narrator first introduces her when a self-sufficient girl appears at her school. She comes to admire her.
In retrospect, the punctuated coming-and-going relationship could be seen as symbolic of the relationship between the Germanies.
The narrator turns Dostoyevsky on his head: “I see now that unhappiness makes people alike, but happiness doesn’t, it makes them individuals”. (123)
She spends her last years planning and building a wonderful little hilltop, lakeside house, but barely gets to live in it. It seems to stand as a symbol of her promising, unfulfilled life.
I couldn’t help feeling that the narrator knows too much about her subject, more than any other human being could possibly know about someone’s inside, even than a spouse or family member. Perhaps a better vehicle for this (almost) omniscience would have been a third person viewpoint. It feels like a biography of a famous writer but with a great deal of speculation. Nevertheless, this is a great book and a fantastic psychological portrait of a candle in the wind.
Wolf, Christa (1929 – 2011), Nachdenken über Christa T., Suhrkamp, 2007, ISBN 9783518459133