My last blog post dealt with the anthology Contemporary Bangladeshi Poetry, an extensive selection from the work of Bengali poets from Bangladesh over the last few decades. Today I would like to refer to another poetry anthology from Bangladesh, in which the focus of the selection is set differently.
Monsoon Letters – Collection of Poems is a small selection of poems written in English, mostly by younger authors. The brochure contains one poem each by 36 authors and is therefore much less extensive than the selection I discussed earlier. However, here too the spectrum of voices and topics is diverse, and the approach to poetry by most authors is noticeably different from those contributing to Contemporary Bangladeshi Poetry. One can agree with the literary critic Fakrul Alam, who rightly points out the somewhat uneven quality of the poems, but also emphasizes that
„the anthology shows that most of these poets appear as if striving to be distinctive, and with the dare of youth, attempting to strike out in new directions. A handful of the poems suggest to me that new poetic voices are emerging, and we would soon be welcoming these Bangladeshi writings in English.”
An example from the collection:
An Unnoticed Kite
by Kohinur Khyum Tithila
The sky was bright and blue,
The meadow was full of happy children.
They gathered to fly kitesBlue, red, green, pink
Colorful the kites were!
Happy, free children
And their kites.
The sky was bright and azure.
But I saw what one kite saw
The sky seemed gray forever.
Then came the twilight.
The unbridled playtime was over.
They went back to home.
They and their kites.
But I saw one kite, She tore up the string
But not to fall down,
Her heart got wings.
Higher, higher and higher.
Then I saw what the kite saw.
The sky was bright, blue and free.
I am looking forward to reading more Bangladeshi poetry in the future. Stay tuned!
Monsson Letters, eds. WRITE Foundation/The University Press Limited, Dhaka 2014
Samuel Beckett is one of the most discussed and reviewed authors of the 20th century. The pessimistic, often hopeless view of the world that the author shows us in his work appears unbearable at first glance, but the apparent senselessness and absurdity of existence is softened by the black humor typical of Beckett.
For the audience of his pieces in the 1950s, this was an unusual, and for many also shocking, approach. Beckett, the deeply private and shy man, unwillingly turned into an existentialist author par excellence – even if he rightly saw himself as a literary loner – his plays became enormous theatrical successes, their author received the Nobel Prize (one of the few cases in which the committee in Stockholm was right), in many countries his work is read in school and the author has become a modern classic.
So, there is nothing more obvious than making Beckett the subject of a modest blog post. Especially since Beckett was – and is! – a very important author for my own intellectual development. And because, after everything I know about him, he must have been a very likeable person. As is well known, this is something exceptionally rare among writers …
Since so incredibly much has been written about Beckett’s works – comparable only to Kafka in this respect -, it is difficult for me to choose one of his works for a review. The danger of repeating something that some other and possibly more erudite mind has already written in a more interesting way seems too great to me.
Instead, a few lines will follow about a book that deals with a certain, rarely noticed, but nevertheless very important aspect of Beckett’s work: his relationship to Germany and to the German language and culture.
From November 2017 to July 2018, an excellent exhibition entitled German fever, Beckett in Deutschland took place at the Literaturmuseum der Moderne (Modern Literature Museum) in tranquil Marbach am Neckar in Germany. Documents from various archives and collections were made available to the public for the first time in an excellently curated form, including the so-called German Diaries, Beckett’s notes during his extensive trip to Germany from September 1936 to April 1937.
Marbach, Schiller’s birthplace, is the seat of the Deutsche Schillerstiftung (German Schiller Foundation) and the Deutsches Literaturarchiv (German Literature Archive), in which the bequests (and pre-bequests) of many German authors are stored and scientifically edited. In addition to various other series of publications of these institutions, the Marbach catalogs and the Marbach magazine appear on a regular basis. They showcase and document the exhibitions of the museum. A fantastic treasure trove for anyone interested in German literature and I can also highly recommend a visit to the museum itself.
The double volume of the Marbacher Magazin discussed here contains, in addition to the carefully compiled catalog section with images of the exhibits and their transcription and explanation, a longer essay by the authors of the volume, Mark Nixon and Dirk Van Hulle. The result is an attractive volume of almost 250 pages. It is particularly gratifying that the band is bilingual (German / English).
In the summer of 1928, the young Beckett – at that time a poorly paid lecturer in Paris who was working on his first publications and occasionally assignments as an assistant and researcher for James Joyce – met his cousin Peggy Sinclair during a stay in Dublin and fell in love with her. At the end of August, Beckett traveled to Kassel for the first time, where Peggy lived with her parents, who were tremendously interested in art. Even before meeting Peggy, Beckett had begun to systematically study German literature and to learn German.
In the period up to 1931 there were numerous, sometimes extensive, visits to Kassel. Beckett was a welcome guest with the Sinclairs, who introduced the cultured young man to German-language literature and music. Peggy’s father was an art dealer and found in Beckett an inquisitive listener who, under the influence of the experienced Sinclair, got more and more interested in German art. Beckett was particularly fond of Dürer and his contemporaries, but also in contemporary art. Additionally, he used his stays in Germany to improve his German language skills and to deal more systematically with modern literature.
It may come as a surprise that Beckett’s all-time favorite novel (and not just in German) was Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest. Even in later years he read the novel again and again with never-ending enthusiasm and recommended it to friends and colleagues. The fact that Effi Briest was also Peggy’s favorite novel may have played a role here, although admittedly it is an excellent novel.
Of course, Beckett also read the classics Goethe and Schiller. While he was not particularly impressed by Schiller, whom he found slightly too emotional and idealistic, he valued Goethe far more – which did not prevent him from breaking off reading Goethe’s Faust at a certain point. On the other hand, he was enthusiastic about Walther von der Vogelweide and especially Hölderlin, who was much closer to him as a person than the classics.
Beckett’s love affair with Peggy ended as early as 1929, but his regular visits to Kassel lasted until 1931. In 1932 he visited Peggy, then terminally ill with tuberculosis in a sanatorium in Bad Wildungen. Peggy died there a year later, just 22 years old. Beckett processed his experiences in Kassel in his novel Dream of Fair to Middling Women, which was written at the time but was only published posthumously.
In addition to art and literature, philosophy also played a major role for young Beckett. For Joyce, who was working on Finnegans Wake at the time, he tracked down a volume of Fritz Mauthner’s work on the critic of language. It would be an interesting subject to examine Mauthner’s influence on Beckett’s work, which should not be underestimated. For Beckett, Schopenhauer’s pessimistic worldview became an antidote to the idealism of the German classics. In addition to Hölderlin’s Gesammelte Werke (Collected Works), Beckett also acquired the entire Schopenhauer in German and kept both editions throughout his life, reading and annotating them extensively.
Beckett was rather active as a writer in the 1930s, but much of what he wrote remained unpublished until after his death. During this time Beckett was more and more in doubt as to whether it was even possible to adequately express his thoughts in English. In addition to the influence of language-critical philosophy and a French-speaking environment, the fact that Ireland – and the English language associated with it – was traumatic for him also played a role. His recurring painful arguments with his mother, a woman who can easily be imagined in a play by Strindberg, also made it appear necessary for Beckett to radically free himself from this influence by “emigrating” into another language. The natural choice for this was French, although the exhibition makes it clear that Beckett also attempted writing in German.
In this situation critical for his development, Beckett undertook an extended trip to Germany, which he documented meticulously in diaries, the originals of which were also shown in the exhibition. From September 1936 to April 1937 he visited Hamburg, Berlin, Dresden, Halle, Weimar and Munich, among others.
The journals of the trip are on the one hand extremely interesting because the foreign visitor recorded and commented on the situation in Nazi Germany without illusions, but on the other hand they also provide information about the aesthetic development that Beckett went through during this time. In every city he visits he has a plan of which museums and exhibitions he wants to visit, he takes notes, finds intellectuals who quite openly flaunt their disgust for the Nazis. Occasionally, persuasion and a small bribe also helps to see works of the so-called degenerate artists, which, however, are also shown in special exhibitions by the Nazis – before these works are destroyed, sold or hidden in some storage room. Beckett knows it will be the last opportunity in a long time to see it all all over again. Here, too, it would be interesting to demonstrate in detail how Beckett was influenced in the post-WWII stage designs he had in mind for his plays by the art that he experienced during these years, especially during his visits to Germany.
A special surprise for me was the information that Beckett wrote his first play Mittelalterliches Dreieck (Medieval Triangle) in 1936 – in German! The play remained a fragment, but it becomes clear that Beckett toyed with the idea of becoming a German-writing author. He also translated his poem Cascando into German and created long lists of German words that document his seriousness with this undertaking.
Beckett, who had joined the French Resistance during the occupation of the country, soon sought contact with Germany again after the end of the war. With the publishers Peter Suhrkamp and later with his successor Siegfried Unseld he established a relationship that lasted for decades and that went well beyond the usual author-publisher business relationship. This relationship was to become of central importance for the worldwide outreach and success of his work. Beckett’s plays appeared in a trilingual edition (French / English / German), an idea that appealed tremendously to Beckett. It is also significant to note that Beckett played a major role in the German translation, which was a real co-production. Beckett was not very satisfied with Elmar Tophoven’s first attempts at translation and suggested that the young man, who was just in Paris, visit him and work on the translation together. The manuscripts in the exhibition show how painstaking Beckett’s work with the translator couple Elmar and Erika Tophoven was.
A nice character trait of Beckett was his personal loyalty and integrity. He made for example sure that “his” translators should translate everything from him and he also campaigned for this at Suhrkamp, his publishing house. Although Beckett was an extremely meticulous worker to whom every detail was important, the correspondence, especially between Beckett and Unseld, is warm and friendly, even amicable. Although both men were known to be averse to sentimentality, Unseld, who immediately recorded important writers’ meetings afterwards, was visibly touched when the seriously ill Beckett kissed him on both cheeks when they last met. (I imagine Unseld had to see Thomas Bernhard after that, and anyone familiar with the Unseld-Bernhard correspondence knows that Bernhard was infinitely more difficult to deal with).
The last two chapters of the catalog deal with Beckett’s work as a theater director of seven(!) of his own plays with the Schillertheater Berlin and his collaboration with the Süddeutscher Rundfunk on various television productions. Here, too, Beckett shows himself to be a hard worker, who always goes to great lenghts to prepare himself precisely, who learns his plays by heart in German and also uses German to a large extent at work. For each of his productions, he wrote a separate director’s book beforehand with detailed comments on the planned production. Occasionally he also changes little things in the text, still tweaking every little formulation. And again remarkable: his friendly treatment of a well-coordinated team that he trusts, above all his favorite actors Horst Bollmann and Stefan Wigger. His openness to the new medium of television and the possibilities it offers – and the freedom that Süddeutscher Rundfunk gives him for it – is all very well documented in this beautiful catalog book.
German fever opens up an unfamiliar view of an author you think you know. A book that I can recommend to anyone who is even a little interested in Samuel Beckett and his work. Kudos to the people in Marbach and elsewhere who make such meaningful exhibitions and publications possible.
Mark Nixon/Dirk Van Hulle: German fever. Beckett in Deutschland, Deutsche Schillergesellschaft, Marbach am Neckar 2017, Marbacher Magazin 158/159
The story of Forty Steps by the Bangladeshi author Kazi Anis Ahmed (a.k.a. K Anis Ahmed – the name is in this form on the book cover and title page) begins with an end: Mr. Shikdar, a respected citizen of the sleepy provincial town of Jamshedpur somewhere in Bengal after the partition of India in 1947, has just been buried. Now he is waiting for the angels Munkar and Nakir, who, according to Koranic tradition, question the deceased about their lives and register the good and bad deeds and then decide if the departed will go to heaven or to hell – but not before the mourners have moved at least forty paces from the grave . As Mr. Shikdar counts the slowly receding steps in his grave, he lets his life go by once more in his mind…
How is it possible that a dead person can have such thoughts? Well, maybe he’s not really dead and after a faint he was quickly buried without a prior medical examination of the corpse – but why? Or is he – like Schrödinger’s cat – both alive and dead in his grave, at least until he has counted the forty steps? Or maybe we readers are just victims of a literary joke by the author?
Be that as it may, the reader takes part in Shikdar’s life confession, in the course of which we not only witness the unrealized dreams and disappointments of his life, but also get to know the most important people who determine his fate.
There is the Englishman Dawson, an unsuccessful art student, whom Shikdar befriends during the latter’s studies at medical school. Dawson arouses Shikdar’s interest in art. Later, Dawson tries to gain a foothold in his home country for a while, but returns disappointed – rejected by English society as an outsider who has “gone native” – back to Bengal to open a furniture business.
Then there is Molla, the nominal religious leader of the small town, who is a quite enterprising fellow and who finds in Shikdar an unexpected business partner. Shikdar “knows” a lot about documents, i.e. how to falsify sales contracts from real estate transactions well, so that land goes smoothly from the hands of the real owners to those of more capable people (= Molla and Shikdar) – a practice still a common practice in contemporary Bangladesh.To Shikdar’s defense it has to be added that the person with the criminal energy here is Molla, with Shikdar giving in reluctantly – because he is weak and loves to have a bit luxury in his life.
Then there is the beautiful Begum Shikdar, significantly younger than her husband and not averse to erotic adventures. When she finally gets pregnant, her blond child unfortunately dies during birth and is buried hurriedly at night almost without witnesses – with the exception of Molla, Shikdar’s partner in this suspicious enterprise as well. Dawson, on the other hand, is spending more and more time in the neighboring town, where he allegedly has an illegitimate daughter…
And then of course there is Mr. Shikdar, a good-natured person with no outstanding talents or particular energy, whose leanings for comfort and lack of resolve often stand in his way during his life. Small and large events such as the hustle and bustle of the fish sellers or the occasional senseless violence that flares up between Muslims and Hindus in the community are accepted with the same devotion to fate as something that has not changed in living memory and will not change in the future.
All in all, a rather uneventful life that the people we meet are leading and which is shown to the reader with humor and gentle irony. An example: Mr. Shikdar comes home from the big city without a diploma. But since there is no medical assistance in town, he is still often visited as a healer and asked for advice. For all sorts of actual and imagined ailments, he usually administers harmless medication, the sale of which ensures his livelihood; He also promotes birth control – but only until he takes on the part-time job of the ninety-year-old midwife, who has gone completely blind. After that, the issue of birth control loses all appeal for him …
The ease with which the author jumps back and forth between realism and fantasy in this narrative is amazing. As relentlessly as the obvious weaknesses of their main characters are shown, however ridiculous they often appear – they are portrayed with sympathy and warmth. The trivial and the fantastic, the real and the sublime, in this masterful story they are interwoven in the most beautiful way.
It is also worth mentioning that the story was written in English. Bangladeshi writers write mainly in English and Bengali (Bangla); however, texts in English often differ from texts in Bengali in regards of their sociocultural context: texts written in English tend to deal more with the educated and relatively wealthy class – the common people and especially the rural population often only appear marginally. Kazi Anis Ahmed, together with several other authors, has made a significant contribution to breaking up this traditional dichotomy with his literary work.
In recent years there has been a flourishing of English-language literary publications in Bangladesh – both in the original and in translations from Bengali. Magazines such as Six Seasons Review, the literature pages of English-language daily newspapers such as The Daily Star and New Age and the publications of the publishers Bengal Lights Books, Bengal Publications and Daily Star Books, as well as Dhaka Lit Fest, an annual international literature festival, are an expression of this development.
A word about the author: Kazi Anis Ahmed was born in 1970 in Dhaka. Forty Steps was originally published in 2001 in Minnesota Review to great critical acclaim. The World In My Hands, a collection of stories, followed in 2013, and in 2014, he published his first novel, Good Night, Mr. Kissinger. Apart from regularly contributing to international media such as The Guardian, TIME or The New York Times, he co-curated also a special Granta edition on Bangladesh. Ahmed is the co-founder of the University of Liberal Arts in Dhaka, as well as the publisher of the newspaper Dhaka Tribune and other media outlets. He is the co-director of the annual Dhaka LitFest, as well as the director of Gemcom, a group of businesses founded by his father. He is to my knowledge the only writer who owns a successful organic tea estate – Kazi Tea is exported to many countries.
The book edition I used is bilingual. The English original text is followed by the Bengali translation by Manabendra Bandyopadhyay – the typeface of the Bangla version alone is a pleasure! A nice initiative by Bengal Lights Books to make this masterful narrative accessible to those Bengali speakers who do not speak good English.
In summary: this story is a small gem that I like very much!
K Anis Ahmed: Forty Steps, Bengal Lights Books, Dhaka 2014 (bi-lingual edition English/Bengali, tr. Manabendra Bandyopadhyay)
The year 2019 is almost over and it is time to look back at my reading and blogging experiences.
After a hiatus, I started again to blog more or less regularly and I hope this will be also the case for 2020.
As for my reading, I didn’t keep a diary to track down the books I read this year, but the number is approximately 130, so roughly two and a half books per week, of which around 60% were fiction, 40% non-fiction. Almost all books I read were “real” printed books, only one book was read electronically.I read books in four languages (German, English, French, Bulgarian).
Every book year brings interesting discoveries, pleasant surprises, some re-reads of books I enjoyed in the past, and a few disappointments. Here are my highlights of the last year:
The most beautiful book I read in 2019: Arnulf Conradi, Zen und die Kunst der Vogelbeobachtung (Zen and the Art of Birdwatching)
Best re-reads in 2019: Michel de Montaigne, Essais; Karl Philipp Moritz, Anton Reiser; Salomon Maimon, Lebensgeschichte (Autobiography)
Best novels I read in 2019: Marlen Haushofer, Die Wand (The Wall); Uwe Johnson, Jahrestage (Anniversaries); Jean Rhys, Sargasso Sea
Best poetry books I read in 2019: Thomas Brasch: Die nennen das Schrei (Collected Poems); Johannes Bobrowski, Gesammelte Gedichte (Collected Poems), Franz Hodjak, Siebenbürgische Sprechübung (Transylvanian Speaking Exercise); Yehuda Amichai, The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai; Anise Koltz, Sich der Stille hingeben (Surrender to the Silence); Mahmoud Darwish, Unfortunately It Was Paradise; Vladimir Sabourin, Останките на Троцки (Trotzky’s Remains); Rainer René Mueller, geschriebes, selbst mit stein
Best Graphic Novel I read in 2019: Art Spiegelman, Maus
Best SF novel I read in 2019: Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, The Doomed City
Best crime novel I read in 2019: Ingrid Noll, Halali
Best philosophy book I read in 2019: Ibn Tufail, The Improvement of Human Reason
Best non-fiction books I read in 2019: Charles King, The Moldovans; Charles King, Midnight at the Pera Palace; Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom; Adriano Sofri, Kafkas elektrische Straßenbahn (Kafkas Electric Streetcar); Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost; Lucy Inglis, Milk of Paradise; Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole, Sacred Trash; Sasha Abramsky, The House of Twenty Thousand Books
Best art book I read in 2019: Hans Belting, Der Blick hinter Duchamps Tür (The View behind Duchamp’s Door)
Best travel book I read in 2019: Johann Gottfried Seume, Spaziergang nach Syrakus (Walk to Syracuse)
Biggest book disappointment in 2019: Elena Ferrante, Neapolitan Novels
Favourite book cover in 2019: Ivo Rafailov’s cover for the Bulgarian edition of Marjana Gaponenko’s Who Is Martha? (this edition is upcoming in January 2020)
Most impressive translator’s work: Jennifer Croft’s translation of Flights by Olga Tokarczuk; Vladimir Sabourin’s translations in his Bulgarian poetry anthology Радост на Началото (The Joy of the Beginning)
Most embarrassing authors in 2019: Peter Handke; Christoph Hein; Zachary Karabashliev
Good as always: Vladimir Sorokin, The Blizzard; Clarice Lispector, Near to the Wild Heart; Ismail Kadare, The Traitor’s Niche; Jabbour Douaihy, Printed in Beirut; Georg Klein, Die Zukunft des Mars (The Future of the Mars); Phillipe Claudel, Le rapport de Brodeck (Brodeck), Kapka Kassabova, Border; Naguib Mahfouz, The Midaq Alley
Interesting Authors I discovered in 2019: Samanta Schweblin, Mouthful of Birds; Olga Tokarczuk, Flights; Isabel Fargo Cole, Die Grüne Grenze (The Green Border); Hartmut Lange, Das Haus in der Dorotheenstraße (The House in the Dorotheenstraße); Erich Hackl, Abschied von Sidonie (Farewell to Sidonia)
And which were your most remarkable books in 2019?
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
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
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.
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
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
Penguin’s Little Black Classics Series introduced me to number of authors I hadn’t read before; among them Edith Wharton – admittedly a rather embarrassing omission from my reading list until now. The Reckoning, a small booklet that contains apart from the story of the same name only one more piece, Wharton’s first ever published story Mrs Manstey’s View.
Mrs Manstey’s View appeared 1891 and marked the beginning of the career of one of the most important American author’s of the first half of the 20th century, and although Wharton was later very critical regarding her early stories – most of them are not reprinted in her Collected Stories -, it is of course very interesting to get a first-hand impression of her writing before the novels that made her famous, following the publication of The House of Mirth.
Mrs Manstey’s View is one of the most devastating portraits of lonely widowhood I have read. When the view from the window of her rented room in a boarding house to which the title is referring and which is her only joy is threatened by the construction of an extension building, the elderly Mrs Manstey, practically forgotten by her daughter who lives far away and considered as mad by her few social contacts because of her obsession about her view and her inadequate attempts to stop the construction work that will destroy this view for good, comes up with a last desperate idea to put a halt to the extension plans, an idea with catastrophic consequences…
While the language and the setting of the story are rather conventional, and while the story is too short to get a really deep inside into the character and psychology of the protagonist, this piece works nevertheless well as a short story, and although the more mature author found certain flaws in her early stories, it is already with this first work that appeared in print that the author made a mark in literary circles in 1891, the date of the first publication.
The Reckoning, first published in 1911, shows Wharton already at the height of her powers as an author. It is considerably longer than the first story, and is also more elaborated in more than one respect.
The story’s main character, Julia Westall, is married to her second husband Clement since ten years. Her marriage can be considered a “modern” one: in a time when divorce was – especially for a woman – a social stigma, Julia has left her first rich husband without regrets. Too socially awkward, too “impossible” was John Arment, and the friends of the Westall’s, among them the upper-class Van Sideren’s consider this, together with Julia’s obvious disinterestedness (her second husband is moving slowly upward the social ladder, but is not a really wealthy man) as something that makes an otherwise in such circles scandalous divorce acceptable. When Westall, a verbal advocate of “modern” ideas also regarding the institution of marriage, takes a serious interest in the daughter of the Van Sideren’s, Julia finds herself from one moment to the next in a situation where her orderly and seemingly happy life collapses. The surprising climax of the story sees Julia in the home of her first husband. But I will not reveal more details here…
With its six more elaborated characters, and especially with a heroine that has considerably more depth than the protagonist of the first story, The Reckoning is a really fascinating story. It is also a strong, almost brutal analysis of the power balance between men and women in the society in which Wharton was living. Once a husband decided to discard his wife, it meant for her usually that she lost everything, including her position in society (which considered women mainly as an adornment of their husbands). What is additionally tough for Julia is the fact that she doesn’t exactly understand why it happens, the marriage having been over ten years a happy one (at least by superficial standards), and her visit at her first husband is acknowledging the fact that now she knows that he also didn’t understand what happened when she left him ten years ago…
Altogether, The Reckoning is a remarkably fresh story that resonates long in the mind of the reader.
I am glad that I started my personal Edith Wharton Reading Challenge with this teaser; now I am curious to read not only her most accomplished novels but also her Collected Stories!