Tag Archive | European literature

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 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 98: Portugal (Portuguese) – Ensaio sobre a Cegueira = Blindness (José SARAMAGO)


The signal finally went green, suddenly the cars sped away, but then it became obvious that not all of them had raced off like that. The first one in the middle lane was stopped, there must have been some mechanical problem, the accelerator loose, the gear lever stuck, or a breakdown in the hydraulic system, locked brakes, a fault in the electrical circuit, if not simply running out of fuel, it wouldn’t be the first time that that had happened. The new gathering of pedestrians on the footpath sees the driver of the immobilised car gesticulating through the windscreen, while the cars behind it honk madly. Some of the drivers have already sprung out into the street, ready to push the broken-down car to somewhere where it won’t block the traffic, and beat furiously on the closed windows, the man inside turns his head towards them, to one side, to the other, they can see him yelling something, from his mouth movements they gather that he is repeating one syllable, no not one, two in fact, from what they will find when someone, finally, manages to open a door: I’m blind.

[my translation]

And so it all begins, a pandemic even stranger than covid-19. Here is a novel which is unique. In an unnamed place, a mystery illness starts striking everyone which causes them to go suddenly blind. The panicked government starts to cruelly sequester the victims. We follow a group isolated into a mental institution, one of whom appears inexplicably immune (and is here only because of her loyalty to her newly blind husband). We basically see the scenario through her eyes, just as she effectively becomes the group’s eyes. The group quickly revert to basic instincts and reveal (if that’s the right word) their good or bad natures. The institution basically degrades into a Lord of the Flies of adults.
The narrator is an omniscient observer, but doesn’t know everything, for example speculating as to people’s motives, and sometimes seems to be channelled through the eyes and knowledge of the victims. The characters are unnamed, but are described, as if we (at least) can see them. The writing style has very long flowing sentences but for once I didn’t find that annoying but rather a very effective technique with a mesmerising rhythm.
Blindness made me aware of how fragile the veneer of our civilisation and infrastructure is, how it could be unexpectedly thrown into disarray (as has happened to all of us since my reading), and how we might suddenly have to make real moral choices outside a philosophy class. You can’t help asking yourself, how you would act in similar circumstances – would you be a good human being, to what extent would you try to help your fellows and to what extent would you fight for your own survival?
This is a totally moving and thought-provoking story by a master writer. I will definitely be reading more Saramago (a worthy winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature).

SARAMAGO, José (1922 – 2010), Ensaio sobre a Cegueira, Porto, Porto Editora, 2017 (first published 2014), ISBN 978-972-0-04683-3

Book 96: Czech Rep. (English) – The Good Soldier Švejk = Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejka (Jaroslav HAŠEK)


The members of the commission… were remarkably divided in their conclusions about Švejk. Half of them insisted that Švejk was a ‘half-wit’, while the other half insisted he was a scoundrel who was trying to make fun of the war.
’It’ll be a bloody miracle,’ roared the chairman of the commission at Švejk, ‘if we don’t get the better of you.’
Švejk looked at the whole commission with the godlike composure of an innocent child.
The senior staff doctor came up close to Švejk:
’I’d like to know, you swine, what you’re thinking about now?’
’Humbly report, sir, I don’t think at all.’
’Himmeldonnerwetter,’ bawled one of the members of the commission, rattling his sabre. ‘So he doesn’t think at all. Why in God’s name don’t you think, you Siamese elephant?’
’Humbly report, I don’t think because that’s forbidden to soldiers on duty.’

The commission’s dilemma about the good soldier Švejk is also our dilemma. It’s impossible to know which Švejk is the real one. What is beyond doubt is that he became one of the greatest and most lovable characters in literature.
I don’t think there’s any need for a spoiler alert that the Austro-Hungarian Empire lost the First World War and was soon to be no more; and after reading this hilarious account of its wartime activities there’s no need to wonder why.
It always remains ambiguous as to whether Švejk is a pure idiot or hard at work sabotaging the war effort.
He spends the war ‘trying to catch up with his battalion’ – or is he evading the war? And the same goes for his people – the Czechs were marched off by their Austrian and Hungarian masters to a war they had no interest in winning; it was not their empire. A lieutenant compares being Czech to being a member of a secret organisation. Czechoslovakia was one of the many captive nations that escaped when it disintegrated in 1918.
Švejk is always loitering around the periphery of the war, but that doesn’t stop him from changing its course.
Like Catch-22, the novel satirises the ridiculousness of the army system, if anyone should actually try to take it seriously. And I wonder if he inspired Forrest Gump?
Some of my favourite moments were the ciphers debacle, the blown up chauffeur who goes to army heaven, the army poster that Švejk takes literally, the woman whose every whim he obeys… No matter what the situation, Švejk has a story to tell and at one time even when asleep answers ‘Present!’ and starts to tell another tale, like that other great Czech invention, the robot…
Hašek died before finishing his masterpiece; but I like to think the war would have finished just as Švejk finally rejoined his batallion.

HAŠEK, Jaroslav (1883 – 1923), The Good Soldier Švejk and his fortunes in the world war, translated by Cecil Parrott, London, Penguin Classics, 2000, ISBN 978-0-140-44991-4
(originally published in Czech, 1926)

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 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 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 36: Ukraine (English) – A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (Marina LEWYCKA)

I thought you might be interested in a list of my favourite discoveries from my reading challenge so far, things that I hope you will enjoy as much as I did without the efffort of having to read the whole world to discover them.
I mostly haven’t included the great classics here (such as To Kill a Mockingbird) since so many people are already familiar with them. One exception I’ll mention is Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky. I was expecting it to be as frosty and difficult to get through as a Russian winter, but instead found its relatively light style and quirky viewpoint delightful (despite the morbid subject matter).
Maaza Mengiste’s devastating Ethiopian novel Beneath the Lion’s Gaze was another unpleasant subject but a searing indictment of dictatorship and military rule.
Pamuk’s Snow was such a brilliant portrayal of Turkey’s travails at the faultline between Asia and Europe that I want to read all his works.
Please Look After Mother (or Mom, if you have a US edition) by Shin Kyung-Sook really touched my heart.
I think my biggest personal discovery so far is the Albanian Ismail Kadare (post still to come) – I definitely want to read him out!
But one of my favourites – and certainly the funniest so far – is Marina Lewycka’s A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian.

 

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (Marina LEWYCKA)

“Two years after my mother died, my father fell in love with a glamorous blonde Ukrainian divorcée. He was eighty-four and she was thirty-six. She exploded into our lives like a fluffy pink grenade, churning up the murky water, bringing to the surface a sludge of sloughed-off memories, giving the family ghosts a kick up the backside.”

Reviewers often claim that a book is “laugh-out-loud funny”. I don’t know if there’s something wrong with me, but I never find myself laughing out loud. But this one (along with Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books) is the exception. It is the hilarious story of a zany, dysfunctional English Ukrainian family. The eccentric father falls for a gold-digging vampish younger woman (Valentina) from Ukraine, and his two very different sibling-rivalry-smitten daughters alternate between trying to save him from himself and pecking at each other. The “eighty-four-year-old teenager” is happiest living in his own private world, “furrowing up trails of gleaming brown ideas” (take that, Chomsky!), and when his real soul-mate turns up (also from Ukraine), it turns out to be platonic (for it is a ((slightly younger)) man who is also under the spell of Valentina) but similarly obsessed with engineering inventions.
And yes, you will learn all you need to know about the history of tractors (don’t worry, it’s not very much!)
I love the Communist-style cardboard cover design of this edition! and also the wonderfully quirky title, which manages to be both pseudo-boring and intriguing at the same time. I don’t think you will forget the wonderful, quirky characters in this novel. And it’s very, very funny. This is one that I can’t recommend too highly.

 

LEWYCKA, Marina (1946 – ), A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, London, Penguin, 2006 (first published Viking, 2005), ISBN 978-0-141-02576-6