Category Archives: Books

What If Our World Is Their Heaven?

Although I’m not a big Science Fiction expert, occasionally I also read books of this genre. My preferences are here mostly with authors from Eastern Europe (Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Stanislaw Lem, and a few others), but now and then I also discover something new – lately often from the borderline between classical SF and “serious” literature or “speculative” fiction, such as the works of China Miéville or the novel The Future of Mars by Georg Klein, or works by authors who are brand new to me such as Arthur C. Clarke or Philip K. Dick.

If I say Clarke or Dick are new to me, then I have to admit that that’s not exactly true, of course. Every moderately informed moviegoer is familiar with their works in their respective cinematographic version. Especially Dick is particularly popular with filmmakers, just think of Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, Impostor, Paycheck, or A Scanner Darkly, to name a few examples.

In January 1982, just months before his death, Dick gave a series of tape-recorded interviews that have been transcribed and published in the book What If Our World Is Their Heaven?

Two of the recordings deal with the movie Blade Runner, which is based on Dick’s book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? During filming, Dick was in the final stages of writing a new novel and so did not accept the invitation of director Ridley Scott to attend the shooting. The two interview clips in the book deal with the relationship between the original novel and the film, and with how Dick judged the result (he saw a not yet finalized version in a private performance, the film was not yet in the cinema at the time of his death). In short, Dick was strongly impressed by what he saw and had the highest praise for both the director and the film crew and performers. Although an essential part of the action of the original book was dropped in the film, Dick saw clearly that this was the only way to realize an adequate film adaptation of his material.

I was also interested in Dick’s co-operation with his agent and the sheer volume of inquiries from various merchandise producers he had to deal with – including a comic book version of Blade Runner. Although Dick didn’t live to see the great worldwide success of Blade Runner, he could at least be glad to know that it was a wonderful film adaptation. Until today, Blade Runner is a milestone in film history.

Of interest to me were also Dick’s comments on the creative process of an SF writer. Dick was at times an extremely prolific writer. When he had made up his mind about the concept of a new book, he sat down, and then literally worked day and night, neglecting everything else, including sleep and the intake of food. We can imagine him as an absolute workaholic, who felt completely drained after the completion of a book under such circumstances. The famous writer’s block, if it ever happened to him, was to Dick – contrary to most other authors – a blessing, not a curse. Literary works rarely served as a source of inspiration to him – he read hardly any novels -, but technical, philosophical or religious works – the latter in particular after a “spiritual revival experience” as a result of a serious illness of his son – triggered his literary output.

The transcription of the tape recordings is true to the original and virtually unedited. As a result, there are many redundancies, and every stutter of Dick or the interviewer is printed in the book. A careful editing would have made the text much more readable. In addition, the interviewer unfortunately repeatedly breaks off the conversation when it gets interesting, or interrupts Dick when he is in the process to explain something important. She is also occasionally inattentive and does not listen closely, often asks for things that Dick had said shortly before, and so on. It’s a pity that the interviewer is rather unprofessional and not very focused at times.

In spite of the above-mentioned objections, this is a book that I can recommend to all readers with an interest in one of the major SF authors of the 20th century. Contrary to my expectation, Dick comes over in these conversations as a rather grounded and sometimes self-ironic and warm person without the usual grandstanding attitude of many successful authors.

Gwen Lee and Doris Elaine Sauter (eds.): What If Our World Is Their Heaven? The Final Conversations of Philip K. Dick, The Overlook Press, New York 2000

© Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki, 2014-9. 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 Mytwostotinki with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Tale of Tala

Tale of Tala is a novel by the young Palestinian-Canadian author and journalist Chaker Khazaal. The book tells the story of three people. Henry, the narrator of the story, is a successful American novelist from a very wealthy family; Fatima – who reinvents herself later as Tala – is a young Palestinian woman from a refugee camp in Lebanon; and her husband Bilal, her childhood friend from the same camp.

Henry, who some time ago has had his first failure as a writer, was brought up according to the values of his businessman-father: you have to be a winner, and of course Henry is supposed to be a winner! His first unsuccessful novel and the public and critical reaction to it is therefore perceived by him to be a shattering defeat. Still under shock, he travels to Amsterdam and later to Ljubljana to distance himself from his life as a writer and media person and to indulge in to him new experiences, a life of drugs and sexual encounters with prostitutes, usually procured with the help of some sleazy hotel managers. But everything changes when he meets the gorgeous Tala, a prostitute of Palestinian origin.

Henry develops a strong infatuation with this woman, who tells him reluctantly her life story. A story that leads her and her later husband Bilal from a refugee camp in Lebanon to Turkey. They fall in the hands of criminals who separate them, with Bilal disappearing somewhere in Anatolia – he has been tricked to cross the border to Syria as it later turns out – and Tala hardly surviving an ordeal that finds her finally forced into prostitution. Henry, who is not only infatuated with Tala, but also hooked to her story which he plans to develop into a new book, a book that will be of course a success again, offers to help Tala to find Bilal. But his offer is motivated mainly by strong self-interest. He travels to Anatolia to find out what happened to Bilal and if he is still alive…what follows is a story full of action and deception.

The book touches on many interesting and important topics that are frequently not highlighted by the media, especially the hopeless situation of the stateless Palestinians in Lebanon. They vegetate there already in the third of fourth generation in refugee camps without ever having a chance of finding work and a normal life. The exploitation of the refugees from Syria and other countries by human traffickers, organ harvesters, and pimps, and the indifference or even hostility of the Western world is also a theme of the novel. The book has his strongest scenes when the author describes Tala’s and Bilial’s lives in the camp in which they grow up, and the ordeal Tala and two other girls have to go through during their attempt to reach Europe, with two of them (probably) dead and Tala forced into prostitution and separated from her husband. The author grew up in a similar refugee camp. He has extensively reported about the refugees and interviewed many of them, and it shows; these parts of the novel are much stronger than the description of Henry and everything he does and says.

With Henry I had several problems. First of all, I didn’t like him. Not a single bit. He is manipulative, has an inflated ego, and thinks of himself as a great writer, and a winner. I am mentioning this again because as readers, we are again and again reminded – in every chapter several times -, that he, Henry, is born to be a winner. If it suits him, he lies, deceives and even gets people that are in his way killed – and why? Just to satisfy his ego and his lusts. And to have another success as a writer.

The other problem with him, apart from being a self-righteous prig without any moral is that as a character in a novel, he is completely implausible. He discovers his talent for writing in his youth just like that, writes a masterful story (or what he thinks is masterful), but gives up writing immediately without sign of rebellion when his father tells him not to write but to become a businessman; then the father dies in an airplane crash, and wham!, Henry starts to write again and his novel is of course a success and bestseller. And so it goes novel after novel, he is just a great, successful writer with a lot of money, although the text we are reading (and which is authored by Henry) is frequently poorly written and full of clichés, very much in the unbearable self-congratulatory pseudo-philosophical style of a Paolo Coelho. The numerous clumsily written sex scenes make the book unfortunately a candidate for the Bad Sex in Literature Award. And the over-simplistic winner ideology of Henry is hammered way too frequently in us readers in sentences such as:

“For a man born a winner like me, every winding path is presumed to victory. For a loser, roads are often blocked by their despair; decisions are frightening things. For those who live between those two routes, doubt and uncertainty are roadblocks to overcome.”

Sigh. Henry is a prig and the author reminds the reader on almost every page of this fact. I was glad when I had finally finished this book.

I could see that the author is not without talent when he feels comfortable with his material; but as a novel the book is a complete failure in my opinion.

Chaker Khazaal: Tale of Tala, Hachette A .Antoine/Al Ahlia, Amman 2017

© Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki, 2014-9. 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 Mytwostotinki with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Christoph Hein und “Das Leben der Anderen”

Christoph Hein ist ein Autor, den ich sehr schätze. Über seinen Artikel in der Süddeutschen Zeitung vom 24. Januar “Warum ich meinen Namen aus “Das Leben der Anderen” löschen ließ” (ein Vorabdruck aus einem bald erscheinenden neuen Buch von ihm) habe ich mich aber sehr geärgert, beim zweiten Lesen sogar noch mehr als beim ersten.

Zunächst: ich will hier gar keine Filmkritik zu „Das Leben der Anderen“ schreiben. Wie bei jedem Film, Buch oder sonstigem Erzeugnis im schöpferischen Bereich kann man bei seiner Beurteilung zu unterschiedlichen Ergebnissen kommen. Ja, der Film ist melodramatisch – das kann man mögen oder auch nicht. Ja, in dem Film gibt es einiges, was sich genauso in der DDR nie hätte zutragen können. Auch das kann man verschieden sehen, entweder als fehlende historische Genauigkeit oder als künstlerische Freiheit des Autors, in diesem Fall des Regisseurs Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. Ich fand den Film gut gespielt und unterhaltsam und sicherlich auch für Zuschauer außerhalb des deutschen Kontexts sehenswert. Aber darum geht es mir hier nicht. Es geht mir hier um Heins Text.

Der Text beschreibt eine offensichtlich sehr tiefe (narzisstische?) Kränkung, die der Autor Christoph Hein erlitten hat und für die er sich mit diesem Artikel mit sehr großer Zeitverzögerung rächen möchte. So lese ich es jedenfalls. Im Fußball würde man von „Nachtreten“ sprechen. Schon die Tatsache, dass er Henckel von Donnersmarck nie beim Namen nennt – es heißt durchgängig „der Regisseur“ – ist auffällig, besonders da er im Gegensatz dazu den Schauspieler Ulrich Mühe, nein seinen „Freund Ulrich Mühe“, mehrfach beim Namen nennt, obwohl dieser für den Sachverhalt von dem die Rede ist nicht von zentraler Bedeutung ist. (Allerdings frage ich mich auch, ob die Freundschaft wirklich so groß gewesen ist, da Mühe anscheinend nichts davon verlauten ließ, dass der Film nicht die von Hein erwartete Hein-Lebensverfilmung werden würde. Ein Freund hätte wohl im Lauf der Dreharbeiten oder schon vorher vielleicht mal angerufen oder darüber gesprochen, wenn – wie Hein es darstellt – klar war, dass dies ein Christoph-Hein-Film werden sollte.) Mit Verlaub, das ist unhöflich und wirkt arrogant, werter Christoph Hein. Sogar ein sehr großer und sehr junger Filmregisseur aus Westdeutschland (offenbar sind all das für den Autor Hein schwere Charakterfehler) hat es verdient, mit seinem Namen erwähnt zu werden. (Der einleitende fettgedruckte Satz stammt wohl von der Süddeutschen Zeitung, ebenso wie die Artikelüberschrift.)

Ich staune auch sehr, wieso Christoph Hein annimmt, dass sich Henckel von Donnersmarck mit niemand anderem als mit ihm unterhalten hat, bevor er den Film machte. Zudem muss man schon ein sehr großes Ego haben, um zu glauben, dass „Das Leben der Anderen“ als Christoph-Hein-Biopic angelegt ist. Henckel von Donnersmarck ist kein Breloer, und es ist für mich geradezu absurd, dass Hein uns allen Ernstes weismachen will, dass der Regisseur eine Verfilmung seines (Heins) Lebens in der DDR geplant hatte. Wenn er schreibt „Im Kino sitzend hatte ich erstaunt auf mein Leben geschaut“, dann nehme ich ihm dieses Erstaunen nicht ab. So grenzenlos naiv und unverständig kann Christoph Hein, der ein sehr intelligenter, kluger Mann ist, nicht gewesen sein. Ich finde diesen Satz extrem unglaubwürdig.

Ob Henckel von Donnersmarck tatsächlich davon gesprochen hat, dass er Hein „unsäglich dankbar“ ist, kann niemand entscheiden. Entweder hat sich Hein diese sprachlich missglückte Ausdrucksweise ausgedacht, oder wenn Henckel von Donnersmarck es so gesagt haben sollte, verstehe ich nicht, warum er diesen offenbaren Versprecher gleich zweimal herausstellt. Es soll wohl heißen: der Regisseur, der es nicht einmal wert ist, dass ich ihn beim Namen nenne, ist eben nicht nur ein sehr großer, sehr junger Westdeutscher – er kann auch noch nicht einmal richtig Deutsch. Mit so einem ungebildeten, unkultivierten Kerl hatte ich, der geniale, unfehlbare Christoph Hein, auf dessen Lebensverfilmung die Welt wartete, es zu tun.

Ganz schlechter Stil, werter Christoph Hein. Ich wundere mich, dass Sie so etwas nötig haben!

Wenn Christoph Hein allerdings davon spricht, dass er vermeidet, Äußerungen von Henckel von Donnersmarck als Lüge zu bezeichnen, weil es neben der Wahrheit auch noch die melodramatische Wahrheit und „alternative Fakten“ gebe, so ist das kein schlechter Stil mehr, es ist infam. Und es fällt auf den Autor Christoph Hein zurück, der zwar behauptet, dass er seinen Namen aus dem Vorspann des Films löschen ließ, der aber jetzt eingestehen musste, dass das nicht stimmt. Diesen Vorspann gab es nie, und im Nachspann ist Christoph Hein als historischer Berater bis heute genannt, zusammen mit vielen weiteren Namen von Personen, mit denen der Regisseur in diesem Zusammenhang ebenso wie mit Hein sprach. Und auch der Dialog zwischen Autor und Regisseur selbst fand zu einem Zeitpunkt statt, als das Filmprojekt schon sehr weit fortgeschritten war. Eine “Kleinigkeit”, die Hein ebenfalls verschweigt.

Ob man den Text Heins daher als Wahrheit, melodramatische Wahrheit oder „alternatives Faktum“ bezeichnen will, ist jedem Leser selbst überlassen. Ich habe mir meine Meinung dazu auf der Basis der Fakten und von Heins Text gebildet.

Christoph Hein schätze ich als Autor nach wie vor, ein Autor allerdings der in diesem Fall jegliche intellektuelle Redlichkeit vermissen lässt; der Mensch Christoph Hein ist mir nach diesem Artikel deutlich unsympathischer geworden. 

© Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki, 2014-9. 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 Mytwostotinki with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Dovlatov – The Film

A film about the Russian writer of the same name, that depicts a few days of his life in Leningrad in the early 1970s. Beautifully shot, this film has received mostly positive reviews. Nevertheless, I am somewhat disappointed; the wit and the power of Dovlatov’s books are almost absent in the film, and the plot is a faint reflection of what the writer himself has described in his autobiographical books, especially in The Suitcase and Pushkin Heights. The Dovlatov in the film is a rather colorless character and the artistic milieu of the film is very clichéd. Who wants to know who Dovlatov was, must read his books. And they are anyway by far more entertaining than the movie.

Dovlatov – Russia, 2018, 126 minutes; Director: Aleksei German jr.; Screenplay: Aleksei German jr. and Yuliya Tupikina; Actors: Milan Marić, Danila Kozlovsky, Helena Sujecka, Artur Beschastny, Anton Shagin, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Elena Lyadova et al.

I read the following three books by Sergei Dovlatov recently, and I can recommend them wholeheartedly:

The Zone, translated by Anne Frydman, Alma Classics 2013

The Zone

The Suitcase, translated by Antonina W. Bouis, Alma Classics 2013 

The Suitcase

Pushkin Hills, translated by Katya Dovlatova, Alma Books 2013 

Pushkin Hills
© Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki, 2014-9. 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 Mytwostotinki with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Ludmila Kaloyanova: East River

Die bulgarische Dichterin Ludmila Kaloyanova lebt in Pittsburgh, PA. Sie veröffentlichte zuletzt den Gedichtband Anadromus (Zahari Stoyanov, 2017). Mit dem hier vorgestellten Gedicht gewann sie den erstmals verliehenen Preis der bulgarischen Literaturzeitschrift „Neue Soziale Poesie“. Der Jury gehörten an: Zlatomir Zlatanov (Vorsitzender), Alexander Nikolov, Ventzislav Arnaoudov, Kiril Vassilev, Christopher Buxton, Krassimir Kavaldjiev, Marco Vidal, Thomas Hübner.  

East River

Am nebligen Nachmittag
im Carl-Schurz-Park
sauge ich Regenspritzer und
den Geruch des Flusses ein
Puerto-ricanische Frauen mit Kinderwagen
führen freundliche
französische Bulldoggen
spazieren
zwei graue Tauben
spähen
vom rostigen Geländer

aus den Strudeln
des East River
winkt mir
angekommen vor hundert Jahren

Onkel Theodor zu
meine Tochter
(die von seiner Existenz nicht ahnt)
knipst sich gerne
vor der Freiheitsstatue

…verblassende Erinnerung
Entropie vererbter Gene
Paradoxien der teuer
erkauften Freiheit…

die Tauben
setzen ihren Seiltanz
auf dem Geländer fort

ich strecke meine Hand aus

Übersetzung: Vladimir Sabourin

——————–

Ийст Ривър

В мъгливия следобед
на Карл Шурц парк
попивам пръски дъжд и
мирис на река
пуерториканки с колички
разхождат приветливи
френски
булдози
два сиви гълъба
надничат
от ръждясалите перила
във водовъртежните ями
на Ийст Ривър
дошъл тук
преди повече от столетие
вуйчо Теодор
ми маха с ръка

дъщеря ми
(която не подозира за съществуването му)
обича да си прави
снимки пред
статуята на свободата

…отронена памет
ентропия на пренесени гени
парадокси на скъпо
платената свобода…

гълъбите-въжеиграчи
продължават своя танц
върху перилата

протягам ръка

——————–

East River

In the foggy afternoon
in Carl Schurz park
I soak up rain spray and
a river smell
Puerto Ricans with push chairs
walk warm-hearted
French
bulldogs
two grey pigeons
are peering
from the rusty railings
in the whirlpool pits
of East River
come here
more than a century ago
uncle Theodore

waves to us
my daughter
(who doesn’t suspect his presence)
likes to take
selfies in front of
the statue of liberty

a crumbling memory…
entropy of transported genes
paradoxes of freedom
dearly bought…

pigeon-puppets
continue their dance
over the railings

I stretch out an arm

Übersetzung: Christopher Buxton 

——————–

East River

In the foggy afternoon
at Carl Schurz Park
I soak up rain drops and
river scent
Puerto Ricanas with strollers
walk amiable
French bulldogs
two grey pigeons
peek
from the rusted railings
into the cyclonic pits of
East River
anchored here more than
a century ago
uncle Theodore waves

to me
my daughter (who doesn’t suspect
his existence)
likes taking photos in front of
the Statue of Liberty

…crumbling memory
entropy of displaced genes
paradoxes of freedom
paid dearly for…

the pigeons–
tightrope walkers–
resume their dance
on the railings

I reach out

Übersetzung: Ludmila Kaloyanova 

——————–

East River

Dans l’après-midi brumeux
du Carl Schurz Park
je m’imbibe de bruine et
d’effluves du fleuve
Des Portoricaines avec poussettes
promènent d’amènes
bouledogues
français
Perchés sur le garde-fou
rouillé
deux pigeons gris
tendent le cou
Depuis les trous de remous
de l’East River
l’oncle Teodor

arrivé ici
il y a plus de cent ans
me fait un signe de la main
Ma fille
(qui ne soupçonne pas son existence)
aime se faire
photographier devant
la statue de la Liberté

…mémoire égrenée
entropie de gènes transmis
paradoxes d’une liberté
cher payée…

les pigeons funambules
poursuivent leur danse
sur le garde-fou

je tends la main

Übersetzung: Krassimir Kavaldjiev 

——————–

East River

En una tarde nebulosa
del parque Carl Schurz
me impregno de gotas de lluvia
y del aroma del río
Puertorriqueñas con carritos de bebé
pasean а sus afables
bulldogs franceses
dos palomas grises
se asoman
por el parapeto oxidado
desde los remolinos profundos
del East River
mi tío Teodor
que llegó aquí

hace más de un siglo
me saluda con la mano
mi hija
(que ni siquiera sospecha de su existencia)
disfruta haciéndose
fotos frente
a la estatua de la libertad

…memoria despojada
entropía de genes transferidos
paradojas de aquella libertad
que resulta tan cara…

Las palomas continúan bailando
sobre el parapeto como en una cuerda floja.

Y yo tiendo la mano.

Übersetzung: Marco Vidal

© Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki, 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 Mytwostotinki with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 
© Ludmila Kaloyanova, Vladimir Sabourin, Christopher Buxton, Krassimir Kavaldjiev, Marco Vidal

Fatherland

Ähnliches Foto

Counterfactual history, i.e. the question “what would have happened if …” the events would not have taken the well-known historical, but another conceivable path, has become in recent years – at least according to my impression – an increasingly popular narrative vehicle in literary fiction. The Nazi era in particular seems to be a prolific territory for this genre, just think of works as diverse as Philip Roth’s “Conspiracy against America”, Timur Vermes’ “Look Who’s Back” or Robert Harris’ “Fatherland”, the work I am reviewing here.

Harris, until then known as a journalist and non-fiction author, reported in detail for the press in the Anglo-Saxon countries about the “Hitler diaries”, which the German magazine “Stern” had “discovered” in the 80s. (These diaries proved of course to be a hoax, and it is difficult to understand how anyone could in all seriousness believe in the authenticity of these amateurishly made up “diaries”.) In the course of his preoccupation with this period, Harris wondered how Europe would have looked like if the Nazis would have achieved their war goals. The result was his first novel “Fatherland”, published in 1992.

Berlin, 1964: The Nazis have won WWII and have created a Europe dominated by the Greater German Reich. The borders of the Reich extend to the Urals, behind which the remains of the Soviet Union, with which there are still border skirmishes, has withdrawn. While 11 million Jews have been “resettled” and then disappeared without a trace (nobody dares to ask questions about this topic), and the Slavic population has been decimated and turned into slave laborers, millions of Germans have taken over the conquered territories in the framework of a huge resettlement program. In these newly conquered territories however, dissatisfaction is rising and partisan raids have reached an increasingly dangerous level. The European Union, a creation of Nazi Germany and of course dominated by it, has its headquarters in Berlin; its members are independent only by name but de facto satellite states of Nazi Germany; a separate peace was concluded with Great Britain and the USA; the only remaining free country on the European continent is Switzerland. Berlin, which has been fundamentally redesigned by Speer according to Hitler’s megalomanic plans, is preparing for the celebrations of the dictator’s 75th birthday (Harris follows in his novel until about 1942 the actual biographies of the Nazi elite and then switches on his “counterfactual mode”.). While some notable Nazi officials such as Goering or Himmler are already dead in the novel, others such as Goebbels – who still requires attractive actresses to come to him for an “audition” – or Heydrich, Hitler’s potential successor, who controls the Gestapo and SD apparatus, are still in office. 

This is the backdrop in front of which the plot unfolds, and in the beginning the reader seems to be in a classic detective novel. The corpse of an old man is pulled from a lake near Berlin. Both the identity of the man and the cause of death are initially unknown and it looks first like a routine case for the responsible investigator of the criminal police, detective Xavier March.

However, the peculiarities accumulate in the framework of the investigation, and the experienced March smells soon that there is something fishy about this case (I want to avoid spoilers and will therefore not convey too much of the plot). Having established the identity of the dead – it is a Nazi of the first hour – and March, thanks to the conspiratorial assistance of an old friend who now works in the gigantic party archives, discovers a startling parallel with the recent deaths of other prominent Nazis. The traces of all these deaths lead back to the year 1942, to a villa on the Wannsee, where the organization of the so-called “Final Solution of the Jewish Question” was discussed. Could it be that Heydrich wants to cover up all traces and kill all surviving participants of this conference? And why is March suddenly crossing paths on more than one occasion with Odilo Globocnik, the sadistic and brutal bloodhound of Heydrich? Why is an important eyewitness suddenly dead? Is it all somehow connected with the planned meeting between Hitler and US President Joseph Kennedy (the anti-Semite and father of John F. Kennedy)? After all, since the announcement of a planned pact between Nazi Germany and the United States, the popularity of the US president in the polls has increased so much that his re-election seems certain. (The US Ambassador in Berlin, Charles Lindbergh, also a Nazi sympathizer, certainly is the right man in the right place in Harris’ novel.) Of course, the sudden emergence of documents that prove the full extent of the Holocaust, would be in such a sensitive situation diplomatically more than inconvenient.

The case is withdrawn from March, who is supposed to not uncover the truth; and he becomes a target of the State Police himself; nevertheless, March keeps on investigating in secret and discovers what is at the bottom of all these cases; the situation becomes increasingly dangerous for March, but he has no choice…

The plot is not all that matters in Fatherland. The protagonist of the book who is formally belonging to the SS, but who in the past has been plagued by doubts about the official party line and politics, is increasingly removing himself from the regime he has served for many years. The description of this process is almost as exciting and convincing as the thriller plot itself.

Fatherland is an absolute page turner; after I started reading, I could not put the book down until I had finished it. I do not want to say that this is a literary masterpiece, but it’s a very entertaining and exciting read and for some readers also the documents about the Wannsee conference in the novel may be something new.

The book has some weaknesses: first of all, the absolutely impossible name of the main character and the very clichéd female protagonist and love-interest of March, an American journalist (here Harris seems to have been already too much preoccupied regarding the later movie) are not convincing.

However, the book is really exciting and you can tell that the author has done his homework regarding the Nazi era and its ideology. The strongest part of the book for me is when Harris describes the leaden, nightmarish atmosphere in Berlin in 1964; the mistrust and fear in which people live in this totalitarian society; the instrumentalization of even the closest family ties (exemplified by the betrayal of March by his own son); the suppression of truth and historical facts and the self-censorship of thoughts. There is nothing great about the victorious Greater German Reich, beyond the dimensions of a deeply inhuman architecture, which aims at intimidation, the demonstration of absolute power, and the reduction of the masses to a mere ornament.

All in all, and despite the weaknesses mentioned, a worthwhile and entertaining book that encourages the reader to learn more about the Nazi era and totalitarian dictatorships in general. 

Robert Harris: Fatherland, Arrow Books 2017

© Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki, 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 Mytwostotinki with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

New Social Poetry: an interview with Vladimir Sabourin

“New Social Poetry” is a Bulgarian literary movement, created in 2016 in Sofia. The first publication of this group, the “Manifesto of the New Social Poetry” has caused a lot of controversial discussions due to the outspoken rhetoric of the text against the so-called “peaceful transition” in Bulgaria, a period after the official end of communism that can be characterized, among others, by a continuity of old elites and their representatives in the cultural sphere.

In an essay collection “Towards a New Social Poetry” by the group’s founder, Vladimir Sabourin, the author offers his analysis of the situation of Bulgarian poetry and the conditions in which it is created today; recent developments related to the prestigious “Literary Journal” (Literaturen Vestnik) were for him obviously the trigger to create this new poetic movement. In the short time since its foundation, the group has held many public readings all over Bulgaria, started a successful journal “New Social Poetry“, and has already a number of book publications in Bulgarian and in translation, of which beside the “Manifesto” and the essay book also an almanach (“New Social Poetry – the Anthology“) are available in English. Reason enough for me (TH) to conduct an interview with the group’s founder, Vladimir Sabourin (VS).

 

TH: Vladimir, you once said that you are not a Bulgarian poet, but a poet who writes in Bulgarian. What did you mean by that and why is this distinction important to you?

VS: I come from a mixed marriage, my mother is Bulgarian, my father Cuban of French origin. I grew up as non-accepted, as stranger, “nichtdazugehörig” as the Germans say, both on the part of the Bulgarians and on the part of the Cubans. Writing, poetry is a homeland that nobody can challenge. I write in a minor language, but I do not share the self-contemptuous image the Bulgarians have of themselves and their language. In the major literary languages, it is perfectly natural to write in a language to which you ethnically don’t belong. I consider the language in which I write a major literary language.

TH: My personal impression as a reader (and occasional translator) of Bulgarian poetry is that many – even well-known – Bulgarian poets write “naive” poetry. I do not mean that in a denigrating sense, but rather as an expression of the fact that it is often not clear to me if these poets are familiar with the spectrum and variety, the history and formal language of modern poetry. Compared to that, your poems left a very different impression on me. Looking at your poetic development, what were the main influences for you? In what tradition do you see yourself as a poet?

VS: Your impression corresponds to a reality, already commented by the first major Bulgarian modernist poet Pencho Slaveykov at the beginning of the last century. It is extremely important to understand however that this is today a reality nurtured by state institutions for both internal and external use. If you like, this can be described as a state-sponsored reality that aims at building a pseudo-identity, just like for exports such as yoghurt. The great modern poets are a problem for this country, they are either just murdered (Geo Milev, Nikola Vaptsarov) or hushed up. Does anyone outside of a small circle in Bulgaria – not to mention outside the country – know Zlatomir Zlatanov or Ani Ilkov? The image of Bulgarian poetry continues to be built on the “naive”, “natural”, even when it is just a marketing trick, adapted to foreign expectation. This expectation is disparaging, and the fitting to it is a testimony of a deep inferiority complex. – In the Bulgarian poetry my teachers are Ani Ilkov and Zlatomir Zlatanov, in the foreign-language poetry in the first place Bertolt Brecht.

TH: Your recent collection of poems “Trotsky’s Remains“, which has been compiling your poetic work since the early 1990s, has been self-published. Why?

VS: My first poetic book was self-published, 25 years later I am again in the position of having to release a collection of my poems myself. From an existential point of view, this is a stoic amor fati. Sociologically, it is a textbook example for the omerta, in which the “naivety” of Bulgarian literature flourishes in a publishing landscape, which is dependent on the initial accumulation of capital with – to say the least – dubious origin. The large publishers are an integral part of the state-capitalist oligarchic model, the small ones are dependent on state subsidies that nurture the ideology of “naivety”. At the end of the day, my conscience as author is clear and none of my books has been published within this framework. For this autonomy, without which there is no modern poetry, I have to thank my parents Jesús Sabourín and Margarita Drenska and my friend and literary brother-in-arms Ventsislav Arnaoudov.

TH: You are not only a poet, but also a congenial translator of poetry. Which poets have you translated and what does translation mean to you?

VS: When I can’t write poetry, I translate poetry. I see translations as an integral part of my own poetry, as Ezra Pound does. And with my translations I am facing the same kind of omerta as with my own poetry, but my personal blog is some sort of “collected translations-in-progress”, including Bertolt Brecht, Fernando Pessoa, Heiner Müller, Jorge Manrique, Nicanor Parra, Rainer Maria Rilke, Roberto Bolaño, Sarah Kirsch, Sylvia Plath, Vicente Huidobro, Virgilio Piñera, Archilochus, Velimir Chlebnikov, Joseph Brodsky, Hugo Ball, Ezra Pound…

Manifesto

TH: Some time ago you wrote a “Manifesto of the New Social Poetry” and a collection of essays “Towards a New Social Poetry: Aesthetico-political Theses”; almost at the same time, a literary group “New Social Poetry” has established itself and there is now also a literary magazine of the same name. What is the “Manifesto” about and what motivated you to write it?

VS: In the summer of 2016 something like “privatization”, in fact another theft of communal property with legal means happened, concerning the most important literary periodical after 1989 – the “Literary Journal” (Literaturen Vestnik). The current editorial team of the newspaper discarded its creators (who in the 1990’s had invited them as editors), ending a long-standing process of corporate academic and literary adhesion, destroying the radical political nature of the “Literary Journal”. As an author, I grew up in the “Literary Journal” during its radical-political phase. Its “privatization” by a corporation of university departments was the drop that made the glass overflow for me. What happened with the “Literary Journal” was another example of the misappropriation of communal property, which characterized the entire “peaceful transition” from socialism to capitalism in Bulgaria. The ongoing deterioration of “Literary Journal” is evident recently in the case of Julia Kristeva – after her unmasking as a former agent of the Bulgarian State Security*, the newspaper should have asked her to withdraw from the Editorial Board of the journal. But they did not. The “Manifesto” turns against this adhesion of unscrupulous academic power and literature.

New Social Poetry

TH: There were – as probably with every new group of poets – a few “faction fights” and splits or resignations within the “New Social Poetry” group. In the meantime, however, the group, according to my impression, is developing a lively activity, which is not limited to just the mentioned magazine. I am thinking of the readings and the book publications. Maybe you can say a few words about that?

VS: The central issue of the “Manifesto” is the revival of literary life after nearly two decades of literary “peaceful transition.” Since the autumn of 2016, when we founded the group “New Social Poetry,” there was a dynamic in the literary field that we had forgotten since the end of the period of political radicality of the 1990s. What’s happening inside our group is part of this dynamics. I like your analogy with the factional divisions and struggles typical of radical political movements. “New Social Poetry” is an avant-garde group that wants to bring back political radicalism to literary life, it is logical to apply this principle within the group as well. Not despite, but rather thanks to the “factional struggles”, we managed to make our first national tour with readings in Varna, Burgas, Plovdiv, Stara Zagora and Sofia in less than a year. At the same time, we issued two anthologies in English and French – at the self-publishing platform CreateSpace – New Social Poetry: The Anthology (translation by Christopher Buxton) and Nouvelle poésie sociale: L’Anthologie (translation by Krasimir Kavaldjiev).

TH: Who are your most important “comrades-in-arms” in the “New Social Poetry“? Are there any interesting young talents beside the established names?

VS: Unlike the predominant economic individualism in the Bulgarian literary circles, which is a reflection of the social misery of personal survival in the poorest country in the EU, we believe in the effectiveness of solidarity. There is no authentic avant-garde without joint action. The word “comrades-in-arms” is accurate – we are in war with the status quo of the “peaceful transition”. I’m mockingly referred to as a Latin American guerrillero, ok, that’s what I am. I am happy to work with Ventsislav Arnaoudov, Kiril Vassilev, Vania Valkova, Christina Vassileva, Alexander Nikolov, Nikolay Fenerski, Ivan Marinov. More recently, the young poet and editor of the magazine A. Nikolov, barely reaching the age of majority, published his debut poetic book “fairness.” Take a look also at his peer, Michaela Angelova, who debuted in our magazine, and whose poem “Time is a Man” is published in the anthologies.

TH: What are the plans for the near future? Your own and those of the group “New Social Poetry“?

VS: We are currently working on the Spanish translation of our anthology, I think in the summer I’m going to have her translated into German. My plan is to blow up the “peaceful transition” with the “New Social Poetry”.

TH: One last question: Which Bulgarian book with poetry would you like to see translated in English?

VS: Kiril Vassilev’s Provinces (Small Stations Press 2015)

TH: Vladimir, thank you for this interview.

 

All three titles (New Social Poetry – the Anthology, Towards a New Social Poetry, and Manifesto for a New Social Poetry are translated in English by Christopher Buxton and were published at CreateSpace in 2018)

*Julia Kristeva denies these allegations; according to her, the whole dossier with several hundred pages, which was published online by the Dossier Commission that deals with the State Security files, is a fabrication with the aim to tarnish her reputation.

Introduction, questions and translation of the interview from the German/Bulgarian original by Thomas Hübner.

This interview was first published at the blog of Global Literature in Libraries Initiative, June 13, 2018 for #BulgarianLiteratureMonth.

© Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki, 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 Mytwostotinki with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 


Two Books on the Ottoman/Turkish Heritage in Bulgaria

The territory of what is today the Republic of Bulgaria was for more than five centuries part of the Ottoman Empire and I think it is fair to say that the fight for liberation from what Bulgarians call either the “Ottoman Yoke“ or “Ottoman Slavery” is until today a defining moment for the identity of most ethnic Bulgarians.

Nations are, as Benedict Anderson puts it in his famous book, “Imagined Communities”. And the community called “Bulgarians” is defined not so much by historical events as they really took place, or by what certain historical figures (such as Vasil Levski or Hristo Botev) really did, and by what it meant in a strictly historical perspective, but more by the image Bulgarians have of these events and personages, the narrative that they learn in school or via the media. Hence the trend to mythologize the fight for liberation in the 19th century, hence the permanent exaggeration and distortion of certain historical facts, and the glossing over of others that don’t fit in the narrative that is generally accepted, but that is maybe not factually accurate. This is of course nothing specific to Bulgaria, it could be said for the national identity of all nation states: they are based on these kind of “constructs”. I have at least read a dozen Bulgarian novels, starting from Ivan Vazov’s “Under the Yoke”, to Anton Donchev’s famous (many say infamous) “Time of Parting”, to the remarkable more recent novel by Milen Ruskov “Uprising”, that deal in one way or the other with the liberation fight, or the relation of Bulgarians and Turks in the time of the Ottoman Empire. And the same can be said of Bulgarian Cinema: three of the biggest Box Office hits of the last years had exactly the same topic – the Bulgarian liberation fight in the 19th century.

But while these events that are formative to the Bulgarian identity seem to be part of the distant past, Bulgarians and Turks live still together in today’s Bulgaria. The material heritage of the Ottoman Empire, in the form of the remaining buildings from that time, as well as the people of Turkic origins (Turks, Gagauz, Tatars) that are living in comparatively peaceful coexistence with their ethnically Bulgarian neighbors in the country, are present, not past. When I say “comparatively peaceful” it means that there have been conflicts, especially in the time of communism when a ruthless policy of forced assimilation was introduced: Muslims (including Roma and Pomaks), as well as the non-Muslim Gagauz had to change their names, celebration of religious feasts was banned as well as the speaking of Turkish, and hundreds of thousands of Bulgarian citizens of Turkish origin were forced to leave Bulgaria and were stripped of their citizenship in 1989, just a few months before the (formal) end of communism rule in Bulgaria. A wave of terrorist acts (at least some of them perpetrated by the communist State Security) and self-immolations took place in the 1980’s, and while after the changes in the 1990’s these people were at least given back their citizenship and their own names, the relation between ethnic Bulgarians and Turks remains still strained and is frequently used by different political groups to incite ethnic unrest or even hatred.

As a country with great religious and ethnic diversity, Bulgaria should consider its material heritage from the Ottoman times as well as the diversity of people, ethnicities and religions that live in the country and are Bulgarian citizens as a treasure, not as a threat to some old-fashioned concept of nationalism.

For English-speaking readers I can heartily recommend two books that deal with the Turkish/Ottoman heritage of Bulgaria. A Guide to Ottoman Bulgaria by Dimana Trankova, Anthony Georgieff and Hristo Matanov (Vagabond Media 2012) takes the reader on a journey all over Bulgaria that leads to the mosques in Sofia, Samokov, Shumen, Plovdiv, Razgrad and Stara Zagora, but also to lesser known Ottoman buildings and traces in Gotse Delchev, Vidin, Ruse, Silistra, Belogradchik, Varna, Suvorovo and Uzundzhovo. A special chapter deals with Ottoman bridges (bridges similar to those described in Ivo Andric’s Bridge over the Drina or Ismail Kadare’s Three-Arched Bridge), and also with Ottoman fountains and abandoned mosques. The combination of highly knowledgeable text and beautiful photographs makes this book much more than another coffee table book. I am quite sure that most readers of this book will feel tempted to immediately undertake a tour to some of these buildings. The cover shows the so-called Devil’s Bridge at the Arda River in the Rhodopes.) Some photos from the book can be found here.

Turks of Bulgaria

While the previous book deals with the material heritage of the Ottomans, The Turks of Bulgaria (2012) is about the non-material heritage of the Ottomans in Bulgaria, the people and their history and culture. Chapters on history, including the forcible Bulgarisation campaigns against Turks already mentioned above; culture; folklore; religion; cuisine; music and dance; language. There is a detailed chapter on Pomaks (Bulgarophone Muslims) and Gagauz (Christian Turks), and the book is like the first one richly illustrated.

Vagabond Media is doing a terrific job in documenting the immense cultural heritage of Bulgaria in beautiful editions that combine high-quality photography with excellent essays that guide the reader. Titles like “A Guide to Jewish Bulgaria”, “The Bulgarians” (a book that I reviewed some time ago here), “A Guide to Thracian Bulgaria”, or “A Guide to Communist Bulgaria” , to mention just a few, make people aware what an incredible cultural richness Bulgaria represents, but they also document buildings that are frequently endangered and in disrepair. And in some cases, like with many of the buildings from Communist Bulgaria, it is rather obvious that in a few years’ time, all that will remain from them will be photos and books.

In any case, the books of Vagabond Media (and the high-end journal Vagabond too) are an excellent source for anyone with an interest in Bulgarian culture and architectural heritage. 

This review was first published at Global Literature in Libraries Initiative, 12 June, 2018 for #BulgarianLiteratureMonth.

© Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki, 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 Mytwostotinki with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The White Coast

Balchik is a small coastal town at the Bulgarian Black Sea coast, approximately 30 kilometers north of Varna. A century ago, it was not much more than a fishing village, but its natural location at a small bay, its Mediterranean climate and its picturesque houses and small streets made it a magnet for the Romanian aristocracy and also for many artists – there was even a rather famous “Balchik School of Painting”. The painters came here during the long summer, hunting for motives and enjoying a carefree and relaxed lifestyle at this small Black Sea town.

Wait a moment, did I say “Romanian aristocracy”? Yes, indeed – some parts of North Eastern Bulgaria belonged to Romania in the period between 1913 and 1940, and therefore Balchik was for a few decades the most popular destination in Romania for these people in summer. Visitors who come to Balchik today – and you should visit the place once you come to the Bulgarian Black Sea coast – will see the impact this Romanian period had on the town until today.

Balchik

Balchik is a popular tourist destination because of the Palace of the Romanian Queen Maria (this Palace is indeed more like a small summer residence), and the small number of buildings attached to it, amongst which a minaret stands out that gives the place a bit of an “oriental” atmosphere. There is also a marble throne on the beach in front of the Palace, a favorite spot of the Queen from which she could look out at the Black Sea, waiting for a particular guest who would come by ship…

It was also the Queen, who – with the assistance of two Italian architects and a Swiss landscape gardener – arranged the whole plot of land as a mix of traditional, Moldovan and Oriental architecture with antique references, and who integrated a wonderful botanical garden (after years of neglect now taken care of by Sofia University); this botanical garden alone is worth a visit, and the part that is reserved for the different varieties of cacti is said to be the second biggest in Europe.

The biographical novel “The White Coast” by Marina Konstantinova (Largo City 2013, tr. Svetoslav Bogdanov) tells the story of Queen Maria and her “Quiet Nest” in Balchik, as she used to call it. Born Marie of Edinburgh as the daughter of Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh (later Duke of Saxe-Coburg) and his wife, Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia, she got married to Crown Prince Ferdinand of Romania, the heir apparent of King Carol I. in 1892 (he became King of Romania in 1914); she had six children.

Marriages within the royal families in Europe were dynastic affairs, and love was not necessarily part of the marriage arrangement. In Maria’s (or Missy’s, as she was called by almost everyone) case, there was a mutual affection that lasted over the decades, but husband Ferdinand was a very different character than his wife, and a process of estrangement triggered by the King’s frequent affairs led to an arrangement that allowed the Queen to lead a comparatively independent life, in which she was allowed to pursue her own interests that were mainly in the field of beauty and art.

Maria was a talented painter and musician, she wrote poetry and published several books of literary value. Apart from that, she took care of her surviving children (her youngest son died at the age of three) and in the building of her “Quiet Nest” in Balchik. The novel describes this period in Balchik, which was the happiest in Maria’s life. The story is told by two narrators, one of them is the Queen herself – the author has of course made use of Missy’s own writings -, the other one is the author. This switching between perspectives is easy to follow (the book is using bold script for Missy’s chapters), and the picture of the main character in the book is gaining more depth by this little “trick” of the author.

The Queen Maria we get to know in the novel, was a romantic, someone who occupied herself with her inner life, with beauty in art and nature, and with spiritual questions. But she took also very practical part in the creation of her small paradise, and took interest in the lives of her neighbors in Balchik. The building of a small port, the incoming guests, the money earned by the construction of the Palace and the garden, it all had a positive impact on the life and economic situation of the people in Balchik, and – if we can believe Missy’s writings – therefore the Queen was genuinely liked by the local people.

The book is also – and probably this is the most important part – the story of a great love. I mentioned the marble throne at the beach in Balchik. Here, Missy would wait after her husband’s death for the arrival of a man whom she had met only once; the enigmatic Arab sailor Ali, who fell in love with the Queen at first sight in Egypt when they were once introduced to each other on one occasion. After their meeting, Ali started to write her letters, and it was the letters that raised the interest of the Queen, who had never met a man who really loved her. I will not give away more, but the love story between Missy and Ali is the true center of the book and the author of the novel has done a remarkable job to tell this story in comparatively simple words but without false clichés.

I enjoyed this small and unassuming book; for later editions a few typos and minor translation errors should be corrected, but these small issues didn’t affect my reading much. If you want to get to know the story behind this truly unique place, reading “The White Coast” is a nice way to inform yourself, especially for those who visited Balchik.

The White Coast” can be bought at the Palace in Balchik, but you could also contact the publisher directly (Email: alfa3@abv.bg). Apart from the Bulgarian and English version, the book is also translated in Romanian and Russian.

Marina Konstantinova: The White Coast, Largo City 2013, translated by Svetoslav Bogdanov

Photo credit: Stefka Vasileva/Creative Commons

This review was first published at Global Literature in Libraries Initiative, 9 June, 2018 for #BulgarianLiteratureMonth.

© Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki, 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 Mytwostotinki with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 


Bulgarian Poetry in English Translation (III/3): the period 1944-1989 – Danila Stoianova

Unfortunately, Danila Stoianova didn’t have much time to fully develop her talent as a poet. She died 1984 at the young age of 23 after a long battle with leukemia. This disease, and a series of deaths in her family left a deep mark on her and one can not read her poems without thinking of her tragic fate.

Ivy Press Princeton published the major part of her small oeuvre in an excellent translation years ago (Memory of a Dream, 2003). You can find some samples of Stoianova’s poems here. Love poems, verses about her suffering, but also about solitude and nature give her poetry a rather wide spectre.

The grand old lady of Bulgarian poetry, Blaga Dimitrova said about Danila Stoianova’s verses:

“The poetry of Danila Stoianova broke open a long-walled-off window on the world. It resonates with early spring and brings the memory of the long harsh winter Bulgaria lived through. It speaks of life and death, of rebirth through the miracle of poetry.”

The translation of Ludmilla Popova- Wightman is congenial and very close to the original. Another gem coming from this small publisher that focuses exclusively on Bulgarian literature in English translation. The edition is bilingual and I can recommend it highly to poetry lovers.

This review was first published at Global Literature in Libraries Initiative, 18 June, 2018 for #BulgarianLiteratureMonth.

© Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki, 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 Mytwostotinki with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.