In Ruse with Elias Canetti

In the first volume of his autobiography Die gerettete Zunge (The Tongue Set Free), Elias Canetti writes about his early childhood in the Bulgarian city of Ruse – Canetti uses throughout the book the old name Rustchuk -:

“Everything that I experienced later, had already happened once in Rustchuk…On any one day you could hear seven or eight languages.”

Despite having spent only his first six years in the city of his birth – the family emigrated to Manchester in 1911 and Canetti came back only once for a visit in 1915 – Ruse and its unique multilingual and multicultural atmosphere at that time left a lifelong mark on the future writer.

A small book in Bulgarian language with the title In Ruse with Elias Canetti (В Русе с Елиас Канети) sheds additional light on this early period of Canetti’s life, family background and social surrounding.

In the middle of the 19th century Ruse had developed into a thriving city. Located at the Danube it had by then attracted a lot of trading activities and the port of Ruse was the main artery through which goods were imported and exported from and to the whole region. An additional boost to the economic development was the fact that Ruse had a fast-growing Jewish (Sephardic) community which was one of the driving forces for Ruse’s modernization; this together with a general economic boom in the then revived Bulgarian state (until the Russian-Turkish War 1877-78 it had been part of the Ottoman Empire for almost five hundred years) made Ruse the then most modern and truly European city in Bulgaria.  

The authors give us interesting information about the origin and growth of the Jewish community in Ruse and trace back also the family background of Canetti’s parents. Grandfather Elias Canetti (the namesake of little Elias) came from Adrianopel (Edirne) to Ruse and became a successful trader, first with his partner in Constantinople, later on his own. He reigned his firm and his family like a benevolent despot, a true family man that cared a lot for his grandchildren and particularly his oldest grandson Elias; but at the same time he expected that his sons gave up on their own plans and would be part of the future family business with branches in all other important Bulgarian cities.

For Jacques, young Elias’ father, this was a source of permanent inner conflicts – he was a talented violinist and dreamed of a career as a musician in a chamber quartet. Also Mathilde, his wife and Elias’ mother, was a talented amateur musician (she played the piano); there are photos that show the parents as musicians in a public concert in Ruse. Another photo shows Jacques, then a dashing young man, in a carnival costume – both parents who had spent years in their youth in Vienna loved the theatre and literature, things for which Grandfather Canetti had not much interest and which he might have considered at best as harmless hobbies, but as nothing serious.

Beside this latent conflict between Jacques and Elias Senior, another quite open conflict clouded the childhood of the future Nobel Prize winner. Mathilde’s family, the Arditis, were against the marriage of their youngest daughter with Jacques Canetti. The Arditis, one of the oldest and high-ranking Sephardic families could trace back their origin until the 13th century when some of their ancestors were astronomers and doctors at the courts of the Kings Alfonso IV and Pedro IV. After 1492, the family settled in Livorno and later in the Ottoman Empire, where several of their members became famous rabbis, kabbalists and scientists; the Arditis were among the first Jewish families in Ruse and looked down on Elias Senior and his family as upstarts, who had just arrived from the Orient and were no match for the famous and cultured Arditi family. One of the remaining (and traumatic) memories of his early childhood in Ruse was for Canetti a visit in Grandfather Arditi’s house. This grandfather, who never paid much attention to Elias and never gave him a present, asked his grandson on one occasion, which of his grandfathers he loved more – Grandpa Canetti or Grandpa Arditi. When the poor boy said “Both!”, he was immediately called a liar and hypocrite by his maternal grandfather. 

One of the most interesting chapters for me was the one on the artistic talent of Canetti’s parents, especially that if his father. Ruse had quite an active social and cultural life, and much of it was initiated and kept alive mainly by its Jewish citizens. Ruse has a beautiful theatre that regarding its size and architecture could be as well in Vienna or Budapest. During Ruse’s best times, many famous international troupes visited the Danubian city, the same goes for many musicians and orchestras. There were amateur theatre groups and concerts that raised funds for the education of poor but talented Jewish children, the Bnai Brith Loge played an important role in the social fabric of the Jewish community, and there were also some of the first Zionist organisations in Bulgaria which had their headquarters in Ruse. Other chapters cover the donations made by Canetti’s grandfather and father, the efforts of Jews from Ruse to support the war effort in the Balkan Wars and WWI, either as soldiers or by financial support. Another short chapter describes how Canetti learned some folk rhymes and stories from young Bulgarian peasant girls, stories he later found again in a German book about Bulgarian fairy tales and folk stories and that left obviously a deep impression on him. Philately, the role of the different newspapers in the Canetti household (in Ladino and in German), and the comet Halley are also covered by short but instructive chapters.

The Orator is the title of the longest chapter of the book, and it deals with Canetti’s relationship with one of the most colorful members of the Canetti-Arditi family, Elias’ cousin Benjamin ‘Bubi’ Arditi (Canetti calls him ‘Bernhard’ in a letter addressed to him that is reproduced in the book). Bubi, just a few years older than his cousin, was for some time a strong influence for Canetti and he is explicitly mentioned in the second volume of Canetti’s autobiography Die Fackel im Ohr (The Torch in My Ear).

After Canetti’s parents moved to Manchester with their three sons (Elias, Nissim and Georges), Elias saw his cousin during both visits in Bulgaria; in Summer 1915 in Ruse and in 1924 in Sofia. During this period Bubi had became a fervent Zionist and public speaker. Elias was so impressed by his cousin who engaged himself with all his energy in something much bigger than himself, a cause for the Jewish community, that we find traces of The Orator also in Masse und Macht and in his Aufzeichnungen. For a short time, young Elias seemed also to have considered to become a Zionist. Bulgarian Jews were in those days frequently targeted by the terrorist IMRO (today this extremist right-wing political party that is still proud of its criminal and antisemitic origin and which propagates quite openly violence against ethnic minorities and refugees is part of the Bulgarian Government!), that openly threatened to kill those who didn’t pay hefty sums to them; blackmail, collection of “protection” money and contract killings were the main financial sources of this “patriotic” group – today, being part of the Bulgarian government, they use means that are only slightly more subtle – that was in its high time considered the most ruthless group of assassins in Europe.  – When Canetti fell in Vienna under the spell of an even greater orator, Karl Kraus, this interest in Zionist politics faded away completely. 

The book reproduces several letters of Canetti to his cousin Bubi and to people in Bulgaria who got in touch with him in his later life. He found touching words for his attachment to Ruse and the importance of the city for himself and his development as a writer.

This small book is not only very informative, it is also an important document of the renewed connection of the writers’ birthplace with this extraordinary son of Ruse. Canetti’s daughter visited Ruse for the first time in 1998 and initiated together with Penka Angelova from the University Veliko Tarnovo and other supporters the International Elias Canetti Society, which is now very active to promote the literary work of Elias Canetti, and the values for which he stood. The three engravings that show Old Ruse and that were among Canetti’s most treasured belongings, are now back in Ruse – a donation by his daughter. And there is a chance that not only the former building of the trading house Elias Canetti (Senior) in Slavyanski Street 14 in Ruse will be revived, but maybe also that the author’s birthplace at Gurko Street 13 will be turned into a museum one day. (Interestingly, the English Wikipedia page about Canetti, claims that the building at Slavyanska is his birthplace – a building that the author has rarely ever entered, since it was an office and a warehouse, not a residential building.)   

While the book provided me with interesting, new to me information and is written with real love and devotion to the subject, I have to mention two points with which I had a problem.

The book contains many reproductions of photos and other documents; that’s a good thing since it adds considerably to the quality of the given information and makes the book even more interesting and readable. However – and this really unforgivable – the book mentions absolutely no sources of any of the photos and documents, and therefore also not of the owners of the copyright of these illustrations. That is highly disappointing and doesn’t correspond with the standard of a book publication; it is even infringing the copyright – something that is considered in Bulgaria unfortunately as no offence at all by many people. For me it is a question of honesty and intellectual integrity not to disregard in such a shameful way the intellectual property of others, and it is a real pity that such an otherwise recommendable book has such a very serious flaw. 

I had also a problem with a question regarding a detail in the chapter devoted to The Orator. Bubi Arditi, a lifelong supporter of the revisionist Zionist Vladimir Zeev Jabotinsky, the Irgun, and other right-wing groups, was also politically involved with the last Czar Simeon II (and later Prime Minister Simeon Sakskoburggotski).

Simeon launched a long time ago a campaign to depict his father Boris III as the “saviour” of the Bulgarian Jews during WWII, a claim that has been a long time ago discarded by serious historians. In the contrary, Boris III was the main Bulgarian responsible for the extermination of the Jews in the annexed territories in Macedonia and Thracia. I don’t want to go into the details here regarding this topic, but it is important to know that Bubi Arditi wrote a book that supports Simeon’s revisionist theory.

After referring Arditi’s position that Boris III was the “saviour” of the Bulgarian Jews and his blaming the “Jewish communists in Bulgaria” that they are liars, the book claims surprisingly that Canetti shared his cousin’s opinion on this question. But while there can be no doubt about the fact that Canetti rejected the communist system in Bulgaria with harsh words, he was never a supporter of the thesis that Boris III was the “saviour” of the Bulgarian Jews and the reproduced letter proves – if anything – the opposite. The rather ambiguous wording of the authors in this particular context leaves room for the interpretation that they think that Canetti shared his cousin’s opinion. But Canetti was never ever a supporter of revisionist ideologues and I was rather annoyed by this passage in an otherwise very recommendable text.   

P.S. In case you wonder, the French actor Pierre Arditi is also a member of the Canetti-Arditi family. His father Georges and Elias were cousins.

.В Русе с Елиас Канети

Veselina Antonova / Ivo Zheynov: In Ruse with Elias Canetti, MD Elias Canetti, Ruse 2016

Elias Canetti: The Tongue Set Free, Granta Books, London 1999, translated by Joachim Neugroschel 

© Thomas Hübner and, 2014-8. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Moldauisches Heft (2): Gottsuche


Die beiden Zeugen Jehovas und ihr Stand mit dem „Wachturm“ neben der Haltestelle, an der ich morgens auf den Bus warte, gehören zum Straßenbild in Chisinau wie die Trolleybusse und das Denkmal von Stefan cel Mare. Bei der Vorbeifahrt an verschiedenen Kirchen bekreuzigt sich jedes Mal ein Teil der Fahrgäste in der orthodoxen Art („rechts vor links“). Auf dem Nachhauseweg passiere ich später im Park die Falun-Gong-Leute, die dort ihr Lager aufgeschlagen haben, weiche unterwegs den beiden adrett gekleideten lächelnden jungen Männern aus Amerika aus, die gerne Passanten zum wahren mormonischen Glauben konvertieren möchten, bleibe kurz am Schaufenster der Buchhandlung stehen, wo mir Osho und der Papst auf Buchdeckeln entgegensehen. Vom Turm der nahegelegenen Kirche schlägt es zur vollen Stunde, als ich zuhause ankomme. Während ich in der Küche Kaffee zubereite, sehe ich vom Fenster aus, dass die Hare-Krishna-Jünger heute fünf Minuten später als üblich singend vorbeiziehen. So viel Suche nach Gott an einem Ort, den dieser offenbar längst verlassen hat. 

© Thomas Hübner and, 2014-8. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Moldauisches Heft (1): Bücher und Menschen

Bücher und Menschen

K. und ich sitzen dicht neben dem kleinen altertümlichen Ofen, der auf Hochtouren läuft, aber gerade nur so viel Wärme abgibt, dass man es eben noch so aushalten kann im winterlich kalten Studio des Malers und Dichters D. P. in Chisinau. Uns gegenüber sitzt D., der gerade in einen Katalog eines bulgarischen Malers vertieft ist, den er zu dessen Lebzeiten gekannt hat; zwischen uns ein Tisch auf dem sich Malutensilien, diverse Brillen, Medikamentenschachteln, ein Teller mit Früchten und drei noch halbvolle Gläser mit moldauischem Cognac ein Stelldichein geben. D. strahlt. Der Besuch und das Interesse an seinen Gemälden tun ihm gut und er blüht förmlich auf. Besonders gegenüber der jungen Frau zeigt er sich aufmerksam und charmant und ich wundere mich nicht, dass sehr viele seiner im Studio befindlichen Werke Porträts meist junger Frauen und Mädchen sind. Trotz seiner 74 Jahre flirtet er ein wenig mit K., die es mit gutem Humor aufnimmt. Zur aufgekratzten Stimmung trägt auch bei, dass ich ein Bild gekauft habe, ein stimmungsvolles, schön komponiertes Stillleben mit Früchten und einer Karaffe, welches mir sofort auffiel. D. hat große Probleme mit den Augen und der ausgemachte Kaufpreis hilft, die notwendige Operation zu bezahlen.

– ‚Ich komme aus einer Familie, in der es Bücher gab und in der gelesen wurde‘, sagt D. nachdem er den Katalog zur Seite gelegt hat. – ‚Das war ganz und gar nicht alltäglich in unserem Dorf im Budzhak, dem heute zur Ukraine gehörenden Teil Bessarabiens. Die Liebe zur bulgarischen Sprache habe ich von meiner Mutter, das Verständnis für den Reichtum der Muttersprache und dafür, dass Sprache mehr sein kann als nur ein bloßes Verständigungsmittel; das Wissen, dass man wirklich in der Sprache wohnen und zuhause sein kann habe ich von ihr. Die Liebe zu und der Respekt vor Büchern kommt dagegen vom Vater und Großvater. Zu Anfang des letzten Jahrhunderts hat Großvater angefangen, eine private Bibliothek zusammenzutragen. Darin gab es Bücher in verschiedenen Sprachen, Bulgarisch, Russisch, Rumänisch…viele davon müssen teuer gewesen sein; es waren aufwendig gedruckte und gebundene Bände darunter, viele mit Illustrationen. Er liebte besonders Werke zu religiösen Themen. Auch mein Vater kaufte später Bücher für diese private Bibliothek. Als dann die Rumänen kamen, füllte er eine große hölzerne Truhe mit Büchern in russischer Sprache, die er dann irgendwo vergrub. Wer russische Bücher im Haus hatte, galt den Rumänen als gefährlich, als Verräter, und hatte mit schweren Konsequenzen zu rechnen; mancher verlor sein Leben wegen ein paar russischer Erbauungsbücher im Haus. Später kamen dann die Russen zurück, und wieder wurde eine große hölzerne Truhe gefüllt, diesmal mit Büchern in rumänischer Sprache. Nun wurde nämlich jeder mit rumänischen Büchern im Haus als Verräter angesehen und schwer bestraft, in die Verbannung geschickt oder erschossen. Niemand weiß heute mehr, wo die Truhen vergraben sind; vielleicht hat jemand sein Haus dort gebaut, wo sie liegen, nicht ahnend, was für ein Schatz und was für eine Geschichte dort verborgen ist.‘

Über das Buchenland, die Bukowina, und seine Hauptstadt Czernowitz sagte Paul Celan, dass dort einst Bücher und Menschen lebten; doch dasselbe gilt wohl auch für das benachbarte, am gleichen Meridian gelegene Bessarabien.

© Thomas Hübner and, 2014-8. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Alles nur geklaut…

Die Diskussion über ein zeitgemäßes Urheberrecht ist eine Sache – das Respektieren des geltenden Rechts eine andere.

Was mich ärgert, ist die Unverfrorenheit mit der auf diversen Plattformen im Internet immer wieder ganze Bücher, die urheberrechtlich geschützt sind, zum kostenlosen Download eingestellt werden, ohne dass dem der Rechteinhaber zugestimmt hat oder eine ihm zustehende Vergütung bekommt. Das ist nicht nur in Deutschland, sondern in allen Unterzeichnerstaaten der einschlägigen internationalen Urheberrechtskonventionen unrecht und schädigt sowohl Autoren, Verlage, Rechteinhaber und Übersetzer (sofern es sich um übersetzte Texte handelt). 

Ein besonders krasses Beispiel ist die bulgarische Website, wo es tausende und abertausende solcher Texte gibt – im Moment z.B. 6434 Romane, davon grob geschätzt etwa 40% urhebergeschützt. Chitanka betreibt bzw. ermöglicht geistigen Diebstahl in großem Stil, und wenn sich schon in Bulgarien nur wenige daran stören – die zuständigen Strafverfolgungsorgane offenbar nicht -, sollten sich vielleicht mal die ausländischen Verlage und Rechteinhaber dieses Problems annehmen.

Hier eine kleine Auswahl, die sich auf vollständige auf Chitanka hinterlegte Bücher aus dem deutschsprachigen Raum (in bulgarischer Übersetzung) beschränkt – die Liste ist nicht vollständig und häufig werden abgesehen von kompletten Büchern Dutzende von weiteren Texten eines Autors zum Download eingestellt; es würde mich sehr überraschen, wenn dies auch nur in einem einzigen Fall in Absprache mit dem/den Rechteinhaber/n geschehen wäre:

Günter Grass: Die Blechtrommel
Heinrich Böll: Ansichten eines Clowns
Thomas Mann: Der Zauberberg; Doktor Faustus
Heinrich Mann: Die Jugend des Königs Henri IV
Anna Seghers: Das siebte Kreuz
Erich Kästner: Pünktchen und Anton; Das doppelte Lottchen; Emil und die drei Zwillinge; Die verschwundene Miniatur; Der kleine Mann und die kleine Miss; Der kleine Grenzverkehr; Der 35. Mai; Fabian; Drei Männer im Schnee; Das fliegende Klassenzimmer
Erich Maria Remarque: Im Westen Nichts Neues; Der Weg zurück; Arc de Triomphe; Zeit zu leben und Zeit zu sterben; Der schwarze Obelisk; Drei Kameraden; Station am Horizont; Schatten im Paradies; Die Nacht von Lissabon; Der Funke Leben; Der Himmel kennt keine Günstlinge 
Patrick Süskind: Das Parfüm
Walter Benjamin: Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit
Waldemar Bonsels: Die Biene Maja 
Lion Feuchtwanger: Die Jüdin von Toledo 
Friedrich Dürrenmatt: Das Versprechen 
Arnolt Bronnen: Aisopos
Daniel Glattauer: Gut gegen Nordwind; Ewig dein 
Michael Ende: Momo; Die unendliche Geschichte 
Erich Fromm: Haben oder Sein; Die Kunst des Liebens
Gottfried Benn: Statische Gedichte
Cornelia Funke: Tintenherz 
F.C. Delius: Mogadischu Fensterplatz 
Alfred Bekker: Da Vincis Fälle (6 Bd.) 
Wolfgang Jäschke: Der letzte Tag der Schöpfung 
Wolfgang Hohlbein: Charity (8 Bd.); Der Widersacher; Das Druidentor 
Ildiko von Kürthy: Herzsprung 
Christine Nöstlinger: Wir pfeifen auf den Gurkenkönig 
Jurij Brezan: Die schwarze Mühle 
Geza von Cziffra: Der Tod schießt Tore
Jürgen Roth: Die neuen Dämonen 
Gerhard Holtz-Baumert: Alfons Zitterbacke 
Herbert Franke: Zone Null 
James Krüss: Mein Urgroßvater und ich; Timm Thaler oder Das verkaufte Lachen; Florentine 
Frank Arnau: Heroin AG 
David Safier: Jesus liebt mich 
Otfried Preussler: Das Geheimnis der orangefarbenen Katze
Kerstin Gier: Rubinrot; Saphierblau; Für jede Lösung ein Problem; Ein unmoralisches Sonderangebot 

© Thomas Hübner and, 2014-8. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Loving Vincent

Loving Vincent is the first fully painted animated feature film, and probably many of you have seen it. During my recent holidays, I had the opportunity to watch the movie with some friends in a Sofia cinema.

The story is of course about the painter Vincent van Gogh and the circumstances of his death, allegedly by a self-inflicted gunshot, but possibly that is not the whole truth, as the story of the film implies. A young man, Armand, the son of postman Roulin (who was a friend of the painter) is trying to deliver a letter of Vincent after his death and is meeting several people who were close to the artist in the last weeks and months of his life. He learns more about Vincent and about his relationship with these people as well as with his brother Theo, although the mystery regarding the exact circumstances of his death remains unresolved. 

Almost everyone I know and who saw the movie, and also the vast majority of reviews were raving about this film. Especially the visual effects of Loving Vincent are rather unique: more than 65,000 frames (based on van Gogh’s paintings) were painted by hand by a team of more than 120 illustrators; so when you watch the movie, you have in the majority of scenes the impression that you are actually within a van Gogh painting.

Of course, I was impressed by these visual effects, but it had an overwhelming feeling for me; and after 20 minutes, I had the impression that now it is enough already – the effect was wearing off rather quickly. Also the story was not at all convincing; the plot was rather flat and what different characters in the film say is frequently based on speculation rather than on historical facts. Van Gogh’s life is very well documented, not only because of the number of letters he was exchanging with his brother Theo, and in which he was confiding his very personal convictions, experiences, hopes and disappointments. Why these letters and other remaining documents and witnesses were not used in a more careful way, is beyond me – or was the aim of the film to spread a murder conspiracy for which there is no evidence at all, just to make the story more interesting? The Gauguin episode is just briefly mentioned at the beginning of the movie although it is central to the final crisis in the life of the artist, and a few other things seem not to fit at all to the life and death of the real van Gogh as well. 

The main point for me however for my dislike of this movie is something else. Let’s face it, but Loving Vincent is just terrible, for me almost unbearable, kitsch. A great artist and his suffering is being trivialized, Vincent van Gogh is killed again and turned into a pop art zombie; now we don’t have only the Gustav Klimt porcelain sets, the Andy Warhol bed covers and pillows, but also another kitschy movie as part of the “Vincent industry” (to which we owe already many similar movies, songs, etc.). 

The film is very clever in overwhelming its spectators with visual effects. But the impressive effects don’t make for a good movie in my opinion. 

Loving Vincent, Poland/United Kingdom 2017, 95 minutes; Directors: Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman; Written by: Hugh Welchman, Ivan Mactaggart, Sean Bobbitt; Starring: Robert Gulaczyk, Douglas Booth, Jerome Flynn, Saoirse Ronan, Helen McCrory, et al.  

© Thomas Hübner and, 2014-8. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Reading and blogging plans for 2018

2018 is just a few days old; therefore it is not too late to look into the future and make a forecast regarding what is ahead for the next twelve months here on the pages of my modest (mostly) bookish blog.

First of all, I have decided to embark on a small experiment for this year. I intend to reduce my pile of unread books considerably. Last year my habit of excessively buying books has got again the better of me and I try to dampen this compulsive-obsessive behaviour as much as I can. A radical solution would be probably the best; but to buy no books at all for a year seems to be a very unrealistic aim. Therefore I will allow myself to buy a new book only after I read two books from my TBR pile of unread books on my shelves. 

As for writing about the books I have read, I intend to increase the number of reviews again. My reading is usually eclectic and rather anarchic, so my strong guess is that there will be a little bit of everything, with a preference for books from “small” languages and genres that are usually not so well presented in the sphere of book blogging. I will join again German Literature Month in November and I also have my own small Edith Wharton reading challenge going on, but beside from that I don’t plan to engage myself into any blogging events or readalongs, as much as I like to follow many of them as an interested reader. (I also want to comment more on interesting blog posts of fellow book bloggers again.)  

There will be reviews of poetry as well as of non-fiction. And there will be more reviews regarding Bulgarian and Romanian literature; with a permanent residence in Bulgaria and a temporary one (for at least two years) in the Republic of Moldova, this is probably not a surprising step. I am also looking into literature from Moldova not written In Romanian language; while I read Bulgarian literature in the original, my Romanian and Russian are too limited – but there is fortunately a lot translated into one of my reading languages: German, French, Bulgarian, English. As for Romanian and Moldovan authors, I have presently the following on my TBR list: Mihai Eminescu, Octavian Paler, Nina Cassian, Dan Lungu, Mircea Cartarescu, Nicolae Dabija, E.M. Cioran, Paul Goma, Grigore Vieru, Vladimir Lorchenkov. I will also include a few blog posts related to books by German-language authors from Romania and the Bukovina.

There will be every now and then also some translations of poetry (mostly Bulgarian-German), maybe some of my own poetry, and a few other texts. Since I have a few translation and publishing projects in the pipeline with my Bulgarian partner, this might be also reflected on this blog.  

I wish all my readers a good year 2018! 

© Thomas Hübner and, 2014-8. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

In the Shadow of the Moon

It is interesting how my reading patterns and interests are changing over the years; for example I am reading nowadays much more poetry and short prose as I used to. The short and the very short prose is a little bit of a step child of modern literature. It seems that today everyone wants to read (and write) novels, particularly long novels. But I prefer a small collection of short short stories over most long novels, especially when the prose is crisp and the stories tickle my imagination. Such as most of the pieces in the book In the Shadow of the Moon by Assen Assenov, a book that is only available in a bi-lingual German/Bulgarian edition (original title: Im Mondschatten/В сянката на луната) .

Assenov, born 1942 in Varna, lives since the 1970’s in Germany. For many years, he was the managing editor of the renowned German literary journal Litfass. Litfass was in the last decades of the existence of two German states one of the few outlets that was open to writers from East and West Germany, and therefore it was an important place of communication between writers and intellectuals of both Germanies. Assenov, who works also as a literary translator, published several collections of his own short prose. Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Germany’s most famous (and most feared) literary critic wrote favourably about Assenov’s prose.

Some of the prose pieces (most of them are less than one page long, the longest cover up to four pages) are focused on (auto-)biographical experiences of the author’s alter ego Velin: the description of a journey to Monte Carlo, a holiday with his future wife, a meeting with her years after they have divorced, a letter his ex-wife is writing him after her new partner has died in an accident. But while the events sound ordinary, even banal at times, there is always an element of surprise, something unexpected that stands for the contingency of life and that may in some cases even come as a shock to the readers; such as in the story Until Noon (Bis Mittag), in which a housewife is making the breakfast for her husband, cleans the dishes after he leaves for work, waters the flowers, deposes the garbage, cleans the shoes, dusts the book shelves, until at noon she opens the window and jumps…Most relationships that are described in the book are unhappy and we as readers see them frequently from the viewpoint of one of the involved parties (like in Next Year, in Novel or in Waiting). Dreams are in some cases the basis of stories (such as Winnetou, or Help); the life of the emigrant between two countries and cultures is an implicit topic of many of the texts. Some use the form of the anecdote, some that of the poem; more than a few drift into another, fantastic reality and reminded me sometimes of Kafka (In Line, or Old House). Writing, one of my favourite texts in the collection, may be considered as the credo of its author:

“Word by word I pick up my life. – How many stories do we have to live through, until we make an experience? How many times must something resonate in our consciousness until you realize it, until you understand it. Until you describe it! – I live in a world, in which almost nothing of what surrounds me, was surrounding me during my childhood. Not the people, not the smells, not the language. What I wanted, I have achieved. But it was not, what I needed. – …Locked into a circle of stories, of a Bulgarian mother, an Austrian wife, a German daughter. Stories that define me. The wish to bring order into my life by writing, to break the circle, to finish the stories.” (My translation) 

Assen Assenov is virtually unknown in the English-speaking world, but a collection of his short prose would find its readers!

Assen Assenov: Im Mondschatten – В сянката на луната, Sonm, Sofia 2002

© Thomas Hübner and, 2014-8. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.



King Solomon’s Mines

Sir Henry Rider Haggard was one of the most successful writers of adventure stories in the late 19th and early 20th century. His most popular novels are King Solomon’s Mines (first published in 1885), which I am reviewing here, and several sequels which describe other adventures of the hero/narrator Allan Quatermain.  

Quatermain is a British hunter/adventurer who spent most of his adult life in the wilder parts of South Africa, a region that had recently gained much public interest at the time the novel was published, following the media hype around the Livingstone/Stanley encounter, and also as a result of the growing tension between the British and the Boer settlers who had created their own republics in South Africa. The novel we are reading is disguised as a report of Quatermain to his son, who is studying medicine in England. 

While we learn en passant a bit about Quatermain’s life as an elephant hunter – he is killing them for the ivory -, it becomes soon clear that the meeting with the Englishman Sir Henry Curtis and his friend Captain John Good, and the adventures the three men will encounter, are the core of the book.

Sir Henry’s only brother and living relative has disappeared in an unexplored area in South Africa, while searching for the legendary mines of King Solomon, where according to some old legends and a dubious map by an old Portuguese explorer, an incredible wealth of diamonds is waiting for its discoverer. After some deliberation, Quatermain agrees to guide the men across the desert and the mountain range that isolate the valley in which the mines are supposed to be located, from the region from which the group is embarking; with his knowledge of the area and its dangers, his experience in logistically planning such an endeavour, and his knowledge of local languages and habits of the different indigenous tribes, Quatermain is the only man at hand to guarantee at least a dim chance to find the missing brother of Sir Henry and the legendary diamond mines. After the necessary equipment is bought and several locals are hired as support staff, the expedition into the unknown starts. (A rather odd fellow, Umbopa, is joining them in the last moment, and – as becomes clear later on -, he has his own hidden agenda.)

What follows are encounters with wild and dangerous animals, with extreme heat and cold, lack of food and life-threatening thirst and many more adventures, such as the uncanny encounter with the skeleton of the old Portuguese explorer in a cave. But finally, the group is descending the mountain range and is entering  a “Lost World”, an indigenous culture that was obviously exposed hundreds of years ago to the influence of a highly developed culture from the North, but that has completely lived in isolation ever since. Finally it is revealed that Umbopa is in fact the legitimate contender to the crown of Kukanaland, Ignosi, which is now governed by the cruel and despotic King Twala, his uncle. Twala, together with his even more cruel son Scragga and the old witch Gagool have established a rule of exemplary cruelty, and a bigger part of the novel is describing the preparations and the execution of the big witch hunt festival that every year leads to the arbitrary killing of many innocent people.

Quatermain, Curtis and Good are drawn into the conflict between Umbopa/Ignosi and military units loyal to him and those part of the armed tribesmen that remain supporters of Twala. A fierce and bloody battle ensues between the two parties, which ends in a blood bath but finally Umbopa/Ignosi gains the upper hand and can finally establish his legitimate rule. The journey to the Mines of King Solomon is still ahead of the group, and the question of the fate of Sir Henry’s brother remains still to be resolved. More adventures are waiting for the men, and you better read about them by yourself…

Did I enjoy the book? Yes, because Rider Haggard knows how to spin a yarn and how to keep the interest of the reader. In my younger years, I read a lot of such adventure stories, and although the reader knows already in the beginning that the book ends well (after all, Quatermain obviously survived the adventure, otherwise he couldn’t have written the account for his son in Engalnd), the book contains quite a number of surprises and unexpected twists and turns that will keep you entertained. There are also humorous moments, for which mainly Captain Good with his eye glass, his starched white collars, and white legs is responsible. Although Quatermain’s world is a man’s world, there is also an encounter with a young local beauty, Foulata, but the unfolding love story with Good ends tragic. 

Rider Haggard who had lived himself several years in South Africa, was of course a Victorian and an imperialist. The superiority of the White Race, and particularly the British over the local tribes is expressed implicitly and explicitly. But by late 19th century standard, Rider Haggard may be described as a rather benevolent man in his attitude regarding the natives, and all three main ‘white’ characters show remarkable empathy on more than one occasion. Umbopa especially, who is not only of royal blood but also in other respect a very remarkable man, is accepted more and more as an equal, and the high degree of social organisation Quatermain and his companions encounter in Kukuanaland provides also some interesting lessons for the British, for example:

“Indeed, in Kukuanaland, as among the Germans, the Zulus, and the Masai, every able-bodied man is a soldier, so that the whole force of the nation is available for its wars, offensive or defensive.”

Yes, even from such primitive tribes, the British could learn a thing or two, seems to be Rider Haggard’s message to his readers here…

Another paragraph that made me cringe was the description of a massacre of an elephant herd; while on a quest to find Curtis’ brother, they encounter a large group of elephants, and Quatermain decides to hunt them, because it would be ‘unethical’ not to do so…yes, not to kill as many elephants as possible would be ‘unethical’ – I had to read that revolting paragraph twice…

As for poor Foulata, who so devotedly took care of the seriously wounded Good: Quatermain, who speaks highly of the qualities of the girl, seems to be quite relieved that she died – imagine the complications if she and Good would have started a relationship!  (As an aside: I am not sure how many readers at Rider Haggard’s times were consciously aware of the obvious homoerotic attraction between Quatermain and the younger men.)

Rider Haggard was a child of his time, and some of his views are for readers of today rather unsupportable; but that’s actually true for a lot of the literature of the past. And once you as a reader accept this limitation, you can still feel entertained by his writing. So, all in all, this was not my most favourite book of all times, but it was OK as a quick read without great literary pretensions in between plenty of more ambitious books on my TBR shelf. 

Henry Rider Haggard: King Solomon’s Mines, Collins Classics 2013

© Thomas Hübner and, 2014-8. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

My blogging year 2017 – some figures

2017 was a quiet blogging year at Mytwostotinki; here a few figures, as always at the beginning of a new year (figures for 2016 in brackets):

Posts total: 45 (92)
Post in English: 34 (51)
Post in German: 9 (25)
Posts in Bulgarian: 2 (10)
Number of unique visitors: 78,496 (46,049)
Number of unique visits: 134,525 (117,916)
Number of visited pages: 577,170 (609,624)
Number of page hits: 762,215 (803,912)
Countries of location of visitors: 200 (181)
Top Five countries page hits: USA, Germany, Moldova, China, Russia (USA, China, Germany, Russia, Ukraine)
Number of FB followers: 686 (586)
Number of Twitter followers: 1202 (1149)
Most popular blog post: ‘Logic for Democrats’? (The Devil Within)
Original language of reviewed/mentioned books: Bulgarian 7 (100), German 5 (40), English 2 (49), Turkish 2 (1), Japanese 1 (4), Italian 1 (1) 

© Thomas Hübner and, 2014-8. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Playing the Moldovans at Tennis

Since I am right now living and working in the Republic of Moldova, it will come probably not as a surprise to you, dear readers, when I am trying to get my hands on any books written by Moldovan authors that are translated in a language that I am able to read. There are indeed a few quite interesting authors whose translated books I will feature here in the future. 

Today I am writing a few lines about a rather humorous book by the British comedian Tony Hawks: Playing the Moldovans at Tennis. At the beginning is an eccentric wager: Tony is betting with a friend (after they watched the Moldovan football team in TV losing against England) that he can beat every member of the Moldovan National team in tennis. (It should be mentioned that a short time before his Moldovan adventure he won a bet that included his traveling around Ireland – with a fridge!)

“All I knew about Moldova was the names of eleven men printed on the inside back page of my newspaper. None of them sounded to me sounded like they were any good at tennis…” 

So, the bizarre quest is simply: tracking down the country’s football team, challenging them one by one to play tennis with him – and win! (Maybe I should mention that the loser of the bet is supposed to sing the Moldovan National anthem on a crowded street in London – with his pants down…) 

What follows is the hilarious report of Tony’s adventures mainly in Moldova, with a visit in Northern Ireland (where the football team has a match that would give Tony the opportunity to challenge some players he hadn’t met yet.) and an exciting trip to Nazareth where things seem to go wrong for Tony… 

The guiding principle of the book, the tracking down of eleven football players reminded me of course a bit of The Twelve Chairs. There is plenty of action, unexpected turns of fate, meetings with the Moldovan underworld, gypsies, and every day challenges such as power cuts, huge manholes in the almost unlit streets of the capital Chisinau, adventures in the public transport, but also encounters with plenty of helpful people, especially his guest family with which Tony created a bond of friendship for life. 

A good part of the humour of the book is based on the clash of culture between an over-optimistic Englishman and a local population who seem to be a bit reserved and not particularly surprised about Tony’s plan. In a country where almost everyone is focused on surviving the next day, that is probably not surprising. (The book was published in 2000, but things have not changed a lot and Moldova is still the poorest country in Europe.) 

Usually, I am a bit reserved regarding the genre “Humorous Travel Books”. Too frequently, the humour in the book is of a condescending and disrespectful nature; the content of this kind of books can be described as “Foreigner from a wealthy Western country travels to a poor country about which he doesn’t know anything and doesn’t want to learn anything, with the sole purpose to poke fun at the hapless and primitive natives, in order to entertain other prejudiced and obnoxious foreigners from wealthy Western countries.” The travel prose of AA Gill and some other hacks belongs to that category. I don’t like that at all.

Fortunately, Tony Hawks is a different kind of person. His humour is self-depreciating, and he is genuinely interested in getting to know and understand the Moldovans. He is even questioning if he is doing the right thing with his bizarre adventure, which seems to him rather frivolous as time is passing, considering the living conditions of everyone around him. 

Of course I am not telling you here if Tony was successful and was really able to beat all players. You have to read it by yourself, and I can assure you, it is a very entertaining book. And since there not many books about Moldova, it is still a must-read for anyone who travels there. 

50% of the royalties of this book go into a fund that supports a local children’s health centre in Chisinau, the Tony Hawks Centre. Tony is still traveling regularly to Moldova and is doing additional fundraising for the good cause. If you want to learn more about the Tony Hawks Centre, or about Voinicel, another NGO in Chisinau that supports children with special needs and their parents, visit their respective websites. And maybe you consider also if you can make a donation – it is for a good cause! 

Tony Hawks: Playing the Moldovans at Tennis, Ebury Press 2007 

© Thomas Hübner and, 2014-7. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.