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
So it was that eight centuries after its founding by a general of Saladin’s army in 1189 A.D., Ein Hod was cleared of its Palestinian children. Yehya tried to calculate the number of generations who had lived and died in that village and he came up with forty… Forty generations of living, now stolen. Forty generations of childbirth and funerals, weddings and dance, prayer and scraped knees. Forty generations of sin and charity, of cooking, toiling, and idling, of friendships and animosities and pacts, of rain and lovemaking. Forty generations with their imprinted memories, secrets, and scandals. All carried away by the notion of entitlement of another people, who would settle in the vacancy and proclaim it all – all that was left in the way of architecture, orchards, wells, flowers, and charm – as the heritage of Jewish foreigners arriving from Europe, Russia, the United States, and other corners of the globe.
This is a novel of bewilderment and betrayal.
In the year of the creation (or recreation) of Israel, 1948 – called here by the Palestinians the ‘year without end’ – the Abulheja family is bombed out of their home and village, and forced to live in the squalid Jenin refugee camp. One of the Israeli soldiers, Moshe, steals their baby Ismael (a name as close as you can get to ‘Israel’) for his infertile wife, renames him David, and they lovingly raise him as a Jew.
His mother goes crazy. As the hopelessness of the Palestinians’ cause drags on, Jenin becomes more permanent with the years. Youssef meets and is abused by the Jewish soldier who is his brother (now David), and his outrage leads him to join the PLO though he later leaves it, cuts himself off from his family and becomes more radical. Will he become a terrorist?
Most of the story is related through the eyes of the third child, Amal, the daughter born in Jenin. She later moves to the US where, although appreciative of the more comfortable and peaceful lifestyle there, can’t help feeling somewhat resentful of those born into a luckier world free from suffering.
Understandably, there is a lot of resentment expressed at the Palestinians’ unfair treatment. Why should they have to pay for the Germans’ sins against the Jews? Why should the latter treat the people living there so cruelly, throw them out and not even let them visit their ancestral homes?
Like in any good novel, the characters measurably change during the story. It’s a sign of hope that real people can change too, for the better.
The novel is interspersed with quite a few quotes from non-fiction sources documenting the history.
I only noticed one typo, but it was a whopper. On page 285 the azan (Muslim call to prayer: I proclaim that there is no god except Allah) is quoted in Arabic, but ‘illa’ (except) is left out which leaves an unintentionally blasphemous remainder!
Despite the roles the characters seem to be forced into by the political situation, there is still hope that they can recover their humanity and empathy. And for me both of these are what is most absent in the region at the moment and the only hope for the future. And thankfully Mornings in Jenin, which is mostly but not entirely seen from the Palestinian side, ends with a glimmer of hope for reconciliation. It is a beautifully written, powerful novel which won’t leave you as a bystander.
Abdulhawa, Susan (1970 – ), Mornings in Jenin, London, Bloomsbury, 2010, ISBN 9781408813553
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)
One man… was curious, and this made me smile a bit, as to whether I had seen the gas chambers. I said to him: “If I had, we wouldn’t be standing around talking now.” “Yes, of course,” he rejoined, but had there actually been any gas chambers, so I said, sure, there were gas chambers too, naturally, among other things; it all depends, I added, what type of person was in which camp. In Auschwitz, for instance, you could bet on it. “But in my case,” I noted, “I’ve come from Buchenwald.” “From where?” he asked, so I had to repeat it: “Buchenwald.” “So, from Buchenwald, then,” he nodded, and I said, “That’s right.” “Let’s get this straight, then,” he said in response, with a stiff, austere, yet somehow almost preachy face. “You, sir,” and I don’t know why but I was almost stunned by this very formal and, I would say, somewhat punctilious mode of address, “you have heard about the existence of gas chambers,” so I said, sure I had. “Nonetheless, sir,” he carried on with that same austerity of one who is restoring things to order and clarity, “you personally, however, did not ascertain this with your own eyes,” and I had to admit that I hadn’t. To that he merely remarked, “I see” and after giving a curt not strode away, stiffly, erectly, and as far as I could see, unless I was very much mistaken, satisfied in some manner.
As on the one hand the last survivors of the Nazi Holocaust are leaving us, and on the other hand an increasing number of countries in the world are beset by the rise of rabble-rousing populists or even neo-fascist parties (some of whom deny that the genocide even took place), it seems more urgent than ever that we listen to the horrors that happened then because of hatred – and tragically have happened several times since, as some of the stories in this project tell.
Gyuri is 15. Although he does not at first fully grasp what is happening, his father is being sent ‘away on labour service’, in fact to a concentration camp, and feels compelled to make over his lumberyard business to Sütő, a non-Jew (”completely aboveboard regarding his race”), without a receipt, hoping he will take care of it for the family.
In time, Gyuri himself won’t be spared the concentration camps. Kertész minutely describes what it feels like to be sent to camps. This is not exactly like what people necessarily assume, even those horrified by them.
There are moral dilemmas – what is the right decision, what is the right way to conduct oneself in such a horrifying situation, amidst the uncertainty (and self-delusion?) about what will happen.
This is an uncomfortable read (and not always in the way you might expect), but it’s a great work of literature and highly recommended. Kertész won the 2002 Nobel Prize for Literature.
KERTÉSZ Imre (1929 – ), Fateless, translated from Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson, London, Vintage, 2006, ISBN 9780099502524
(also translated as Fatelessness)
First published in Budapest as Sorstalanság in 1975
Then the guitarist began strumming the chords of another song. They do sing songs like this, Man said. It was Yesterday by the Beatles. As the three of us joined in singing, my eyes grew moist. What was it like to live in a time when one’s fate was not war, when one was not led by the craven and the corrupt, when one’s country was not a basket case kept alive only through the intravenous drip of American aid? I knew none of these young soldiers around me except for my blood brothers and yet I confess that I felt for them all, lost in their sense that within days they would be dead, or wounded, or imprisoned, or humiliated, or abandoned, or forgotten. They were my enemies, and yet they were also brothers-in-arms. Their beloved city was about to fall, but mine was soon to be liberated. It was the end of their world, but only a shifting of worlds for me. So it was that for two minutes we sang with all our hearts, feeling only for the past and turning our gaze from the future, swimmers doing the backstroke toward a waterfall.
I posted on Vietnam back in October 2014, on the long poem The Tale of Kieu, but since then I decided to limit myself to novels, so I had to re-read Vietnam. No hardship, for I discovered this wonderful book which deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
It begins with the chaotic US evacuation as Saigon fell to the communist North Vietnamese in 1975, the end of the Vietnam War as it is known in the West. The protagonist, a captain, flees to the US with his general, who little suspects that the captain is spying for the communists. He becomes enmeshed in and apparently enjoys the American way of life. The captain is split in many ways – half French half Vietnamese, a communist who lived under capitalism in South Vietnam and the US, a Vietnamese and an American. In fact he is a symbol of the split personality of Vietnam itself – North/South, Communist/Capitalist, not to mention of the US, whose double standards of the time are also on full display. There are some unforgettable scenes – the desperate last snafu days as the US fled South Vietnam, the murder, the interrogation, and the Hollywood war movie for which the captain is a reluctant and ignored consultant, and which ends up like a mini war in itself.
Nguyen’s writing is spectacular, dripping with all the irony the situation begs for (his handler is literally a ‘faceless man’, and I’m sure that a ‘sleeper’ agent would find it difficult to sleep!) It was maybe the hardest book so far to choose just one quote to showcase, I wanted to share so many! I can’t recommend it too highly.
NGUYEN, Viet Thanh (1971 – ), The Sympathizer, London, Corsair, 2016, ISBN 978-1-4721-51360 (first published 2015)
Before midnight, the old man’s leaf fell gently from the tree on the moon. It was a most gentle death. Hush. And the soft falling of the withered leaf didn’t even tease the well of Karin’s emotions, nor did it puncture the lacrymatory pockets. She didn’t cry, didn’t announce the departure of the old man’s soul to anyone until the following morning. She stayed by him, keeping his death all to herself. She lay by him in reverent silence, he dead, she alive – but you couldn’t have told the difference, so quiet was she beside him.
This is the first novel in the Blood in the Sun trilogy.
It is basically an in-depth study of the evolving relationship between the Somali orphan Askar and Misra, an ethnic Ethiopian lady who comes to look after him. It takes place at the time of the largely forgotten Ogaden war (1977-8) between Somalia and Ethiopia. The Ogaden Desert is inhabited by Somalis but was (and is, after the Ethiopians reconquered it with the help of their then sponsor the USSR and its allies), occupied by Ethiopia. In what looks like a continuing theme for the world’s twilight nations, or regions, “it is easier ridding yourself of a colonialist from beyond the seas than it is to oust an African one.” (for ‘African’, insert ‘Asian’ or any of the other possibilities). However, I’m not convinced that Namibia should have been listed as an exception – by the time of the setting, the German colonialists were long gone, but the future Namibia was finding it very difficult to escape from its neighbour South Africa.
As is usual in war, Misra is accused of treason. Meanwhile, Askar’s relationship with her becomes both intimate and testy. He feels that he is faced with the impossible choice of having to betray either her or Somalia. Farah explores the psychology of this complicated link.
It took a long time for the significance of the title to be revealed, but maps become a symbol of the way that ‘truth’ is not one and unchangeable, just as the country’s borders are not immutable. It is not as easy to pin down as it should be. Going back to the map, the one hanging on your wall probably has something called ‘Somalia’ (and something called ‘Ethiopia’) separated by nice confident red lines. But one country blends into another, both in space (geographically and culturally) and time (historically). Since we started drawing neat lines across the landscape, it has never been the case that everyone belonging to a certain people will always find themselves on the ‘right’ side of the border. And as for Somalia itself – all nicely coloured yellow on my map – it currently doesn’t exist as a single entity. Somaliland (the part colonised by the British rather than the Italians) is de facto independent, as is Puntland, while violence-torn Somalia proper is in fact the most tenuous part of the land.
At the time I read it I was in the mood for something with a faster and more intricate plot. But it is a very good and thought-provoking novel.
FARRAH, Nuruddin (Nuuradiin Faarax) (1945 – ), Maps, New York, Arcade, 2016, ISBN 978-1-62872-585-8
‘The sea looks the same as in the moving pictures, only bigger.’
Camila had heard about the moving pictures which were being shown at the Hundred Doors, close to the cathedral, but she had no idea what they were like. However, after what her cousin had said, she could easily imagine them as she stared at the sea. Everything in motion. Nothing stable. Pictures mingling with other pictures, shifting, breaking in pieces to form a new image every second, in a state that was not solid, not liquid, nor gaseous, but which was the state of life in the sea. A luminous state. Both in the sea and in the moving pictures.
This is a stunning portrait of a dictatorship. It is a place of betrayal – no one can trust anyone (especially not the President!) The whole country is at the whim of one mercurical person. He acts like a cat toying with a mouse. He runs a state of lies, where the weapon is false accusations – the ‘truth’ must be made to fit what is convenient for the regime. On the one side is his cruelty; on the other, sycophancy.
One of the most chilling sections is a frightening interview with the incoherent, drunken president:
‘Do you know, Miguel, that the man who discovered alcohol was looking for an elixir to produce long life?’
’No, Mr President, I didn’t know that,’ the favourite hastened to reply.
’It would be odd, certainly, for a man of such wide knowledge as you, Mr President, who has every right to consider himself as one of the foremost statesmen of modern times, but not for me.’
His Excellency dropped his lids over his eyes, to shut out the chaotic vision of his surroundings that his alcoholic state was presenting him with at the moment.
’M’m, yes, I do know a lot!’
While anyone familiar with any of the world’s too numerous dictatorships will find so much that is familiar here, mirrored in the highest literary style, it also reminded me of Trump’s White House – and I find it impossible to imagine anyone with a more towering egoism.
All in all, a chilling, masterly novel.
ASTURIAS, Miguel Angel (1889 – 1974), El Señor Presidente, Guatemala, Piedra Santa, 2000, ISBN 99922-5-024-0
In English: The President.