Monthly Archives: April 2014

Bektashism in Albania


The Bektashi Order is a heterodox Sufi dervish order that is nominally a part of Shia Islam but that has incorporated elements that are close to Christianity and other religions. The order was founded probably in the 13th century in Anatolia. Contrary to the information you find in some publications (including Wikipedia!), Hadji Bektash, a Persian wali living at that time, was not the actual founder of the order but a kind of patron saint that was chosen much later by the sect as a spiritual inspiration.

In the Ottoman Empire, Bektashis have had for a long time a very influential position. Possibly due to their seemingly less “strict” interpretation of Islam, they seem to have attracted quite a lot of converts from the ranks of the Janissaries, the elite soldiers of the Sultan that were recruited among young Christian boys in the Balkans (also known as devshirme).

In the 19th century, following the purge of the Janissaries, the Bektashi order lost a lot of its influence and after Atatürk declared the Turkish Republic, he banned all dervish orders and the Bektashis transferred their headquarter to Tirana, Albania. This transfer was also due to the fact that many leading figures of the Albanian independence movement, including the Frasheri brothers, came from the ranks of the dervish order.

Bektashis are famous for their religious tolerance and hospitality. They don’t keep Ramadan (instead they fast during Nowruz), they don’t reject alcohol and the women are not veiled. They have a kind of confession of the sins that seems close to the Catholic faith. It is because of these syncretistic habits together with their very unique history that make the Bektashi a frequent object of scientific research.

During Enver Hoxha’s dictatorship, Bektashis suffered just like the Christian and Sunni Muslim believers from the paranoid politics of the “First Atheist State in the World”. People who prayed could end up in front of a firing squad or in Burrel, a concentration camp, in which most prisoners didn’t survive for long.

After the fall of the Communist regime, the Bektashi, like the other religious communities enjoy again full freedom of religion, but the times have changed. Bektashism is facing the big problem of all religious groups and especially of heterodox sects: should they stick to their traditionally very little institutionalized organization or should they – in order to survive as a group – develop into a new orthodoxy.

The last aspect is the main topic of an interesting study by the Albanian scholar Albert Doja, “Bektashism in Albania – Political History of a Religious Movement”. Doja, who is a renowned Professor of Sociology and Anthropology, is coming in his very instructive work to the conclusion that when members of a previously persecuted religious minority is acquiring a degree of religious and political respectability within society at large, the doctrines of heterodoxy and liberation theology that were in the case of the Bektashis such a strong undercurrent in the time of the Frasheri brothers, fade in the background.

“In the end, the heirs of the heterodox promoters of spiritual reform and social movement turn into followers and faithful defenders of a legitimate authority. They become the spokespeople for an institutionalized orthodoxy whose support is sought by the political regime.” –

Just like Saudi Arabia was instrumental after 1990 to try to bring the “folk” Sunni Islam in Albania in line with the much stricter Wahabi ideology by providing money and “training”, Iran (via the Saadi Shirazi Foundation – officially an organization that is promoting Persian language and culture, unofficially believed to be a branch of the Iranian Secret Services) is trying to get a hold on Bektashism in Albania, a development that is seen with great skepticism in the Bektashi communities outside Albania (and also by a big group inside Albania).

The future will show which faction will prevail: the orthodox or the tolerant Sufi faction of traditional Bektashism. Doja’s study is the first to ask this question so clearly and is therefore very valuable.

Albert Doja: Bektashism in Albania – Political History of a Religious Movement, Albanian Institute for International Studies, Tirana 2008


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



Mission London

Maybe Varadin Dimitrov, the new Bulgarian ambassador in London should have announced his arrival at his duty station earlier. But he prefers to catch his embassy staff by surprise and much to his dismay he realizes that a lot of things are not going too well in this important outpost of Bulgarian diplomacy.

The cook, a crucial person in each embassy as it seems, is not only caught in dubious business deals with a failed actor and his even more doubtful associate of probably Siberian origin; he has also a true Xanthippe as a wife and even worse: he obviously had never access to the treatise “On the hierarchy of the diameter”, a never published dissertation which makes its rounds secretly in diplomatic circles because it explains the difficult art to make sandwiches of the right size – as the Ambassador learns from a guest at his first reception. – We will never know for sure if this guest was poking fun or if he is dead serious.

Also the other embassy staff is quite remarkable: the technical staff is spinning intrigues against the diplomats and vice versa, an important speech is almost lost due to the incompetence of a stagiaire, the embassy building is used as a kind of cheap hotel by Bulgarian guests (such as the mayor of Provadia) and even by fired former embassy staff that rejects to leave this cozy and cheap place.

But the worst are the phone calls that the Ambassador receives from Bulgaria from a certain person that was instrumental in his being posted to this attractive location – this individuum is obsessed by the wish to have an opportunity to meet the Queen in person and is reminding poor Varadin very urgently to pay back for this favor.

Fortunately for the ambassador, there are also a few things that seem to make his stay in London at least partly pleasant: there is Katya, the attractive student that is cleaning his office and who as it turns out has also many other talents, and there is also this nice British MP, a true friend of Bulgaria who gets him acquainted with a seemingly very discreet and efficient PR agency that can resolve his major problem with the Queen…

It would spoil the fun of reading this novel which is full of surprising developments, funny situations and satirical moments, if I would say more about the plot. Alek Popov knows how to develop a story and how to keep his reader’s attention. This is the kind of story that asks on every page to be turned into a movie, and indeed “Mission London” was successfully adapted into a film by Dimitar Mitovski and which was a box office hit in Bulgaria in 2010 (outperforming even Avatar).

In the second half of the book Popov is doing a little bit too much, some developments are too forced and exaggerated for my taste and one or two loose ends are not properly tied up. But it is definitely a lot of fun to read this novel that has plenty of tempo and offers excellent entertainment during the biggest part of the book. Some critics compared him with John Irving or T.C. Boyle. That’s aiming a little bit too high, but Popov is definitely a very talented author. It will be interesting to read more from him.

And, by the way, after I read this book I am glad that I didn’t aspire to go for a career in the diplomatic service. 

Mission London

Alek Popov: Mission London, Istros Books 2014, transl. by Danielle and Charles de M Gill

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

A Brief Introduction to Modern Arabic Literature


The Middle East is one of the most important geo-strategic regions in the world. This is due to its geographical position, its richness in oil and gas but also due the nature of the conflicts that are taking place in this region and that have a deep impact on a very big number of people even outside this region. It is therefore reasonable and even important to have an understanding of what is going on in this region that is again very much in the media focus after the Arab Spring and several armed internal conflicts.

What surprised me most when I started to live in the Middle East for several years was that the reality I was facing there is so much more complex and interesting than what an average informed citizen of a western country would expect if he would only follow the media reports in his or her home country. There is a comparatively small number of journalists or political analysts in the West that have the knowledge, the access to media and the ability to explain the complexities of life and politics in the Middle East to the public in their countries in a way that is free of a patronizing attitude and also unbiased regarding the “official” narrative that is always dividing the world neatly into the “good” and the “bad” one’s, i.e. those that are considered worthy to be supplied with the most modern military technology and those who are on the receiving end of this annihilation machinery. The reality is unfortunately more complicated than this Manichean world view suggests: there are no “good” one’s – it’s frequently just about which of the groups involved in a conflict is serving our interests better. Nothing personal, it’s all just about oil, gas and political influence.

In order not to leave the field exclusively to those “experts” who still perpetuate the Orientalist perspective about which Edward Said was writing long and controversial books, it would help already a lot if we would perceive the Middle East as a region where people live that are not really different from us. And what would be easier than to perceive them in the way they are expressing themselves, for example by art, literature, cinema and all other kind of cultural activities. There is a thriving cultural industry in all these countries and since I am dealing here in this blog mainly with literature, I just want to point at the fact that there is an extremely interesting contemporary Arabic literature that is to a growing part available in other languages (some of it is even written in English or French).

In my last blog I wrote up on an interesting novel by Ibrahim al-Koni. I am absolutely convinced that reading his books or the excellent books of Hisham Matar (he writes in English) can give a reader a much better understanding of what’s going on in Libya nowadays. The same is true for the writings of Algerian writers like Boualem Sansal or Yasmina Khadra. The Palestinian/Israeli conflict is presented in western media usually in a very partial and biased way. Those who read Ghassan Khanafani’s stories or the poetic books of Mahmoud Darwish, one of the greatest poets of our times will understand that there is also another side of the story. Readers of Alaa al-Aswany’s “Yacoubian Building” or Edwar al-Kharrat’s novels will have a deeper understanding of the problems of the Egyptian society.

And these are just a few examples. I am not saying that reading novels, stories and poems can replace the serious study of history, political science and other relevant subjects. But great literature can give you an insight in a culture that goes indeed very deep and sometimes much beyond rather dry textbooks. And beside from that it is just sheer pleasure to discover great works like the “Cairo Trilogy” by Naguib Mahfouz, the “Diary of a Country Prosecutor” by Tawfik al-Hakim, the autobiography of Taha Hussein, or the dark masterpieces of Abdurrahman Munif, especially his “Cities of Salt”.

Those who want to have a short overview about Arabic literature have now an excellent opportunity to discover this interesting literary continent. David Tresilian’s “A Brief Introduction to Modern Arabic Literature” gives on less than 200 pages a very reader-friendly overview on the history of Arabic literature. In several chronological chapters we learn about the main epochs in modern Arabic literature and are presented the main writers with a very short presentation of their major works.

Tresilian also pays special attention to poetry, the problems of the diaspora, and the development of a publishing industry in a surrounding where authors and publishers are always threatened by censorship or even worse (many Arab authors have been in prison at least once or have been threatened in one way or another for expressing themselves in their books). Book distribution is also a challenge that is hampering the outreach of contemporary Arabic literature in the Middle East, especially outside the capitals. On the other hand, publishing houses in Beirut (the main publishing place in the Middle East) and Cairo seem to thrive and there are a growing number of book fairs and bookstores that attract a growing number of readers. After the Nobel prize was awarded to Naguib Mahfouz, there has been also a (modest) translation boom in the English and German speaking countries at least.

Unfortunately the book is not covering the Maghreb region, although some of the most important Arabic authors origin from there. Literature that is written in other languages than Arabic is equally not considered, even when the authors come from the region. (That excludes for example the excellent novel “Beer in the Snooker Club”, by Waguih Ghali) These limitations were obviously necessary in order not to exceed the size of a “Brief Introduction”. Within these limitations the book is highly recommended to those who wish to discover one of the most interesting literary “continents”.

David Tresilian: A Brief Introduction to Modern Arabic Literature, Saqi, London San Francisco Beirut 2008

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

The Bleeding of the Stone

“The desert is a true treasure

for him who seeks refuge

from men and the evil of men.

In it is contentment,

In it is death and all you seek.”

This muwwal, a traditional song, performed by the Sufis in the community at Uwaynat is quoted by Asouf’s father in Ibrahim al-Koni’s novel “The Bleeding of the Stone”. And this muwwal seems indeed to express perfectly what the desert means to the hero’s father.

Asouf grows up somewhere in the Libyan desert, living the traditional life of Bedouins who are the only inhabitants of this great landscape that seems so hostile to any outsiders and that is therefore the perfect place for people like Asouf’s father, a loner. When some other bedu families move to their valley, he forces his own family to move to an even more remote place simply because he can’t stand the vicinity of other people, much to the regret of Asouf’s mother who seems to be considerably more sociable and probably also to Asouf himself, who never had other children to play with and who is of an age where his interest in girls is growing. But the Tamba sandals that Asouf is receiving as a present and that are

 “embellished by the nimble fingers of the girls of Tamanrasset, who poured into the designs their passion and their longing to meet the knight of their dreams”-

that’s as close as he ever comes to a girl.

Asouf is taught by his father how to survive in the desert, how to hunt, how to always treat his camel with respect and even tenderness, and how to spare water and bullets.

“In the desert, he’d go on, water and bullets were like air, the very foundation of life. If you ran out of the first, you’d die of thirst, and if you ran out of the second, some enemy, man or beast or snake, would strike you down. Water and bullets were the life blood of a lone man.”

Hunting is not a sport in this traditional society – it is simply necessary to survive. To kill more animals than necessary, or to kill a pregnant animal, is therefore out of the question. Asouf’s father, as a true Sufi, admires the beauty of the gazelle and he is suffering from the fact that he sometimes has to kill one of these creatures because it is necessary for the survival of his family.

Also with the waddan, a kind of desert moufflon, he has a special mystical relationship and one of the worst moments of his life is the moment when he has to kill a waddan because his family is starving and the meat of the waddan the only available food. The waddan is also instrumental in the death of Asouf’s father who would see in this outcome probably the deserved fate of someone who broke his oath to never hunt and kill a waddan.

Asouf is at the time of his father’s death already a young man who knows the secrets of the desert. He is tending his goats and knows the places where the rare waddan, already extinct in most other regions where it used to live, is hiding. Asouf has become a vegetarian, a true son of his Sufi father. But his quiet pastoral lifestyle is threatened: “civilization” and its agents are slowly trickling into Southern Libya (the Italian war against Abyssinia is mentioned, so the story is taking place in the 1930s as it seems). Government officials arrive and declare Asouf to be from now on the custodian of the prehistoric rock paintings that have started to raise some interest from the side of archaeologists and other scientists; small tourist groups from abroad start to visit the place. Asouf sees these visitors and their (to him) very strange behavior with some interest but he keeps a careful distance, partly because of his great shyness. He hides his blushing and embarrassment behind his veil, one of the typical adornments of the male dress in the traditional Tuareg culture. The government employees are surprised that Asouf is rejecting their salary – but for Asouf, money is worthless because everything he needs he can find in the desert.

These mild “clashes of civilizations” are unfortunately only the harbinger of worse things to come: one day two hunters with a big hunger for meat – they take pride in having killed the last gazelles in the north just for the fun of it – are arriving with their jeep and ask from Asouf to help them to find and hunt the waddan…the reader can already imagine how this encounter between a traditional culture and a “modern” civilization will end – with the victory of the party that has the bigger firepower and no moral qualms on its side, i.e. with the victory of the “modern” and “more advanced” party.

The desert is the setting of most of the works of Ibrahim al-Koni, and it is of course also a metaphor for (among other things) the human power to resist. This novel also raises ecological questions, questions related to the lessons we can learn from traditional societies in terms of how to lead a sustainable life that is not based on the short-sighted over-exploitation of natural resources. It is a book that breathes the air of the desert and the deep respect the people living traditionally in this habitat feel for everything that lives and even for the stones and sand that is surrounding them.

Ibrahim al-Koni was born 1948 in Southern Libya and grew up in a traditional Tuareg family. He started to learn Arabic at the age of 12 and studied later literature at the Maxim Gorki Institute in Moscow. After having worked as a journalist in Russia and Poland, he is living since many years in Switzerland.

For those who don’t know his work, “The Bleeding of a Stone” is an excellent opportunity to discover this extraordinary author. It’s a wonderful book.

The Bleeding of the Stone

Ibrahim al-Koni: The Bleeding of the Stone, transl. by May Jayyusi and Christopher Tingley, Interlink Books, New York Northampton 2002

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





Poetry: the Abyss

“The Abyss” is the name of the journal in which the young would-be poet Karl Eugen Eiselein is publishing his works – and the name seems to be program since this journal is publishing the works without paying royalties and only after Eiselein is renewing the yearly subscription. It is Eiselein’s shopkeeper parents who pay for their only son’s education and his expensive fancies…and who have to throw more and more money into this abyss called “poetry”.

In a moment when he starts to doubt his vocation, young Eiselein is writing letters to the two symbolist poets he admires – and they answer, one of them in the “symbolist” style of his poems, the other one surprisingly bold and direct: he is asking for a loan from the young admirer (and reducing Eiselein’s illusions regarding the life style of a poet considerably by telling him that his object of admiration is surviving rarely by doing some hackwork as – a sports journalist!).

Hesse’s early story is balancing between the two possible outcomes: tragedy and comedy. His ironic description of the life of the Eiselein family with a benevolent but weak father and a strong and more realistic mother who shifts the “power balance” in the family to her favor as the story enfolds, his acerbic remarks about the literary fashions of the time (his particular targets are Oscar Wilde and the not explicitly mentioned but easily recognizable Stefan George) and his sympathy with (and ridicule for) the hero who has a lot in common with the young Hesse himself make this 60-pages story still a nice read for an evening.

The story was originally published 1903 in the “Neue Zuercher Zeitung” and later included in Hesse’s collection of stories “Neighbors” (1908). Suhrkamp published the story a few years ago as a separate book with the reproduction of a neat Hesse watercolor on the title. It seems that there is so far no English translation. It would be worth it. The story is one of Hesse’s best early works.


Hermann Hesse: Karl Eugen Eiselein, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1985

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

“And so they are ever returning to us, the dead”

Is it fiction? Is it documentary literature? It’s a little bit of both and the impression of something hybrid is even strengthened by the many black-and-white photos that are inserted into the text without explanation or description. W.G. Sebald’s book “The Emigrants” (“Die Ausgewanderten”) is maybe the masterpiece of this author who came to England in 1966 and who spent the rest of his life as a lecturer and professor teaching at universities in England. His career as a prose writer (in his native German language) started when he was already in his mid-forties.


The Emigrants” is a collection of four long stories. Dr. Henry Selwyn, born as Hersch Seweryn in a shtetl near Grodno in Lithuania has come to England as a child and has against all odds made a career as a surgeon. The narrator, whose living conditions, opinions and favorite books coincide with W.G. Sebald’s gets to know Dr. Selwyn as a retired doctor leading a secluded life mainly in his garden when he is renting a flat in Dr. Selwyn’s house. A distanced friendship between the author and Dr. S. is developing and finally the doctor is telling the author the story of his life. The marriage of S. with a girl from Switzerland where he studied is not happy, maybe because S. kept his Jewish origin too long hidden from her, maybe because they just lost the love that was between them in the beginning. The happiest period of his life was according to S. his study times in Switzerland, when he used to go hiking with an old Swiss alpinist (who disappeared in the mountains one day). S. seems to be strangely detached from life, melancholic and living for his memories.

After a return from a visit in France, the narrator receives the message of the suicide of S. Years later, during a sojourn in Switzerland, a local newspaper reports that the body of an alpinist was found that was missing since more than 70 years. It turns out to be the missing hiking partner of Dr. S.  

“And so they are ever returning to us, the dead. At times they come back from the ice more than seven decades later and are found at the edge of the moraine, a few polished bones and a pair of hobnailed boots.”

The story “Unexpected Reunion” (Unverhofftes Wiedersehen) by Johann Peter Hebel comes to mind, an author with whom Sebald was familiar since early childhood because his maternal grandfather introduced him to this Alemannic writer.

Hebel plays also a role in the second story that was inspired by one of Sebald’s school teachers. In the story his name is Paul Bereyter, a “born” teacher who was able to turn every school lesson into something interesting and who was known for his unconventional but very inspiring way to teach. The narrator mentions for example that he introduced Hebel’s “Calendar Stories” to the pupils instead of the textbook lessons that he seemed not to consider as worthwhile for the children.

Bereyter knew already in his youth that he wanted to become a teacher and nothing else and he succeeded to achieve his aim in the 1930s. But as a “quarter-Jew” (one grandfather was Jewish) he lost his position during the Nazi era. After the war (which he survived as a soldier) he was re–installed as a schoolteacher, but something had changed within Paul, as everyone called him.

“The seasons and the years came and went…and always…one was, as the crow flies, about 2,000 km away – but from where? – and day by day, hour by hour, with every beat of the pulse, one lost more and more of one’s qualities, became less comprehensible to oneself, increasingly abstract.”

In his later years, Paul is haunted by memories. After his early retirement he is spending more and more time in France (where he lived for a few years as private teacher in the 1930s). There he makes friends with a Mme Landau who shares his interest in literature (Paul is approaching her after he sees her reading a Nabokov biography). From Mme Landau the narrator receives more information about the later years of Paul – also he was an emigrant, haunted by the ghosts of his past and by the fact that nobody in his small home town pretended that something had happened to the “disappeared” Jews even decades after the war was over.

Also the last two stories seem to be based on the lives of real persons. One is the story of a granduncle of Sebald who emigrated to America and who became a butler in a rich Jewish family. With the son of the family he traveled around the world shortly before WWI and they have obviously had a homosexual relationship. After the outbreak of a mental illness and the early death of his friend, the author’s granduncle devotes his life to the family of his friend until in his last years he is retiring to a mental hospital (without actually being ill in the classical sense – Robert Walser comes to mind), even wishing to be completely annihilated by an extreme form of electroshock therapy that was en vogue in the 1950s.

The last story, about the German-British painter Max Ferber (inspired by Frank Auerbach, whom Sebald met when he was a young student in Manchester – in the first German edition the name of the character was Max Aurach), doesn’t end with the death of the protagonist but since Ferber who came to England without his parents (who were killed in the Concentration Camps in the east) gives the narrator a diary of Ferber’s mother which she kept until her marriage, the narrator decides to undertake a study tour to Bad Kissingen, the home town of Ferber’s mother, which is not really a homecoming but a very disturbing experience.

In the meantime, Max Ferber has made a name of himself in the art world, but he almost never leaves his studio in a dilapidated area of Manchester. Only once he goes on a visit to Colmar to see the Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald. The work of this strange man proves to be the intuition of the extreme power of pain in Ferber’s oeuvre.

Beside the already mentioned literary influences, the reader has also to think of Thomas Bernhard (especially when Sebald is describing his visit in Bad Kissingen in the last story), but also of Georges Perec and of Vladimir Nabokov.

The passionate butterfly collector Nabokov is making an appearance in all four stories (in the last one even twice), and here Sebald is in my opinion doing a little bit too much. This “running gag” is not necessary for the dramaturgy of the stories and a bit of a cheap effect. But this is a minor flaw in this extraordinary collection of stories that has great qualities. Sebald is an excellent prose writer that is clearly inspired by Stifter or Gottfried Keller. The hybrid mixture of documentation, diary, photo novel and story seems to be the appropriate form to speak about the fate of these “emigrants” (Goethe’s “Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten” echoes also in the title of the book). And indirectly the book is also a book about the friendship of Sebald with his maternal grandfather because in all four stories a friendship between a young and a much older man plays an important role (Sebald’s relation to his father seems to have been strained in the contrary).

The book received very high praise by literary critics and was also a big success on the German and international (especially English-speaking) bookmarket. Susan Sontag, Antonia Byatt, Michael Ondaatje or Salman Rushdie considered Sebald as one of the most important authors of our times.

Very few critics, like the German novelist Georg Klein have voiced their reservations about Sebald’s books. Klein was speaking about Sebald’s “sweet melancholic masochism towards the past”, which claims a “false intimacy with the dead”. Sebald also seems not to have noticed the changes in Germany following 1968 (he visited the country very rarely after 1966) which made some of his statements regarding his home country a bit out of time and place and for my taste sometimes a bit too self-righteous.

But be this as it may, Sebald was a very important and excellent writer and “The Emigrants” is definitely one of the great books about the historical and personal disasters of the 20th century and therefore I recommend it very strongly.


W.G. Sebald: The Emigrants, Harvill 1996 (transl. by Michael Hulse); Die Ausgewanderten, Eichborn 1993

A very interesting essay about Sebald’s biographical sources of his work by the American germanist Mark M. Anderson sheds additional light on “The Emigrants” and other works of Sebald: 

Other Reviews: 
Tony’s Reading List 

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


There Goes Kafka

There Goes Kafka” is a small but interesting collection of essays related to Franz Kafka and the circle of friends in the early 20th century Prague to which also the book’s author, Johannes Urzidil, belonged. Although a strictly biographical reading is not appropriate for an understanding of Kafka’s works, it helps to know about the background of his life and work and here Urzidil can add quite a lot of material that seems to be interesting to me.

Kafka is asking a friend in 1916, shortly after the publication of Metamorphosis (“Die Verwandlung”):

“What have you to say about the dreadful things going on in our house?” –

There Goes Kafka” is full of such details and it sheds also a light on some lesser known literary figures of the “Prague Circle”, an extremely interesting and productive group of (mostly Jewish) German-speaking authors. Ok, now we have the ultimate biography on Kafka by Reiner Stach, but I still like the small work by Urzidil – his “Goethe in Bohemia” is also excellent.


Urzidil’s style was very elegant and elaborated. Unfortunately the English translation is so awkward that it sounds sometimes almost like a parody. That’s a real pity. So, if you can, read the German original and let’s hope a publisher will give Urzidil’s work a new chance in the English-speaking world by commissioning a new – and better! – translation.

Johannes Urzidil: There Goes Kafka, Wayne State University Press 1968; Da geht Kafka, Langen & Mueller 2004

Da geht Kafka


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

The first painting

Comics and Street Art are among the major influences of contemporary art in Indonesia.
One of the most influential groups in this field was the (now defunct) Apotik Komik, created in 1997 in Yogyakarta.

Yogyakarta is the art capital of Indonesia. The most prestigeous art school, the ISI (Indonesian Institute of Art) is located there and young artists from all over the country come to the old capital of Indonesia to study. And most of them stay in Yogya afterwards. Art is therefore present in everyday life in this city, and not only in the many museums, galleries and art spaces, but also in the streets. Hundreds and hundreds of mural paintings are scattered all over
the city.

The members of Apotik Komik (Samuel Indratma, Popok Tri Wahyudi, Arie Dyanto and a few others) are now well-established artists in Indonesia and also well-known abroad.


Popok Tri Wahyudi, The Chosen, 2005, oil on canvas, ca. 68x120cm, Collection Thomas Huebner 

When I was living in Yogya, I was therefore already quite familiar with the style of Apotik Komik and other street and comic artists, when I one day saw the above painting in an auction in Jakarta. It became the first artwork I bought in Indonesia.

The work is typical for the style of Popok Tri Wahyudi (born 1973, lives in Yogya). It is strongly influenced by his comics, but compresses a whole story in just one picture. As is usual in his work, he is not so much interested in depicting individual persons, but shows more the archetypical features of people by their gestures and movements, mimic or color that is used.

The central figure, the ‘Chosen’ is surrounded by a group of people that react differently to his obvious suffering (or gift). The man in the blue shirt seems to be curious and is stretching his hand in the direction of the flames, like to see if they are for real or maybe in order to warm his hands. The person left to him seems in the contrary to be shocked and frightened. The other men in the background turn away their faces from the event, one of them as if in embarrassment, the other one looking to the ground but bringing also a towel that might later be used by the ‘Chosen’. Also the man in front of the ‘Chosen’ turns away from him in order not to see his suffering. But he seems ready to help the man with the burning hands by providing a tub with water. The woman right next to the ‘Chosen’ is the only one that has physical contact with the ‘Chosen’ and tries to comfort him by touching his head who is placed in her lap.

The yellow and red colors are dominating and the impression you get looking at the painting
is very strong. How would you react if you were one of the people on the painting?

Recently the artist has been travelling quite a lot, e.g. he stayed at Schloss Solitude near Stuttgart/Germany as a participant of a residency programme. He published also the comic ‘The Light House’ in 2009 in which he is describing in a humorous form his experiences with the difficulties of multidisciplinary cooperation between artists from different cultures during his time as a Solitude stipendiary.

Popok The Lighthouse

Popok Tri Wahyudi: The Light House, Schloss Solitude, Stuttgart 2009


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


The Best Chess Novels

There are more than two hundred belletristic works in my library in which the game of chess plays a more or less important role. Here I have chosen the – in my humble opinion – thirty best novels with chess as one of or the main topic (randomly sequenced):


The DefenseEine gefaehrliche BegegnungTactics of Conquest

  1. Vladimir Nabokov: The Defense
  2. Fernando Arrabal: The Tower Struck by Lightning
  3. Rudolf Jakob Humm: Spiel mit Valdivia
  4. Stefan Zweig: The Royal Game
  5. Ichokas Meras: Stalemate
  6. John Brunner: The Squares of the City
  7. Barry N. Malzberg: Tactics of Conquest
  8. Walter Tevis: The Queen’s Gambit
  9. Robert Löhr: The Chess Automaton
  10. Bertina Henrichs: La joueuse d’echecs
  11. Elias Canetti: Auto-da-fe
  12. Paolo Maurensig: The Luneburg Variation
  13. Thomas Glavinic: Carl Haffner’s Love of the Draw
  14. Fabio Stassi: La rivincita di Capablanca
  15. Ronan Bennett: Zugzwang
  16. Wilhelm Heinse: Anastasia or The Chess Game
  17. Gustav Meyrink: The Golem
  18. Samuel Beckett: Murphy
  19. Guillermo Martinez: Regarding Roderer
  20. Andy Soltis: Los Voraces 2019
  21. Ernst Jünger: A Dangerous Encounter
  22. Friedrich Dürrenmatt: The Chess Player
  23. Yoko Ogawa: Swimming with Elephants
  24. Ilya Ilf/Evgeny Petrov: The Twelve Chairs
  25. David Szalay: The Innocent
  26. Jesse Kraai: Lisa
  27. Jennifer DuBois: A Partial History of Lost Causes
  28. Michael Chabon: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
  29. Ignacio Padilla: Shadow without a Name
  30. Arne Danielsen: The Highest Rank

Just for the record, there is at least one excellent novel available in English translation that is featuring the game of Go: Kawabata Yasunari, The Master of Go (trans. by Edward Seidensticker), Vintage.


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

Republic of Fun


Today is election day in Indonesia. The voters in one of the biggest democracies of the world (and also the country with the biggest Muslim population) elect a new parliament. It will be noted in the Western media if the political parties close to SBY or Jokowi (Indonesians love to call their politicians by short nicknames) have won and if the election process went on without major problems and irregularities.

But beside from that there is usually not much in our media about the biggest archipelago in the world, a country that resembles more a continent in terms of its variety of cultures, religions, languages, or (endangered) biodiversity. We hear from this country normally only after another big natural disaster (tsunami, earthquake, volcano eruption) has struck it or when holiday time is approaching and we are presented another report about the “exotic” island of Bali, also an endangered paradise. Only recently two new topics have popped up that made it to our news: the Indonesian childhood of the present US President and the ruthless activities of the palmoil and extraction industry that is destroying the livelihood of millions and the natural habitat of many endangered species like the Orang-Utan.

I admit it: when it comes to Indonesia I am a bit emotional. After I arrived in 2009 for the first time in the country, I almost immediately fell in love with this tropical country and its warm and genuinely friendly people. And after two very happy years in Yogyakarta, the center of Javanese culture, it was clear to me that I will come back to this place as frequently as possible.

Of course it is impossible to describe the fascination of Indonesia in a short blog like this. Nor is it possible to give an impression of the life of contemporary Indonesians here in general. But considering the fact that Indonesia is somehow a success story in recent years: a 250-million people of incredible variety got rid of a corrupt authoritarian regime in a comparatively peaceful way and without military intervention from abroad, established a quite robust democratic system with citizens that are no longer afraid to voice their opinions, with millions of Indonesians nowadays moving slowly up the social ladder into an emerging middle class, with arts, literature and any other form of human expression and creativity booming, and with media that don’t shy away from touching topics that were taboo for a long time, such as the excellent “Tempo”, or with documentaries such as “The Act of Killing”, touching on the genocide following the putsch against Sukarno in the mid 1960s which killed a probably 7-digit-number of people, most of them completely innocent of communist sympathies or with the intention to plot against Suharto’s government. Even regarding the colorful personality of Tan Malaka, a more differentiated public discussion is possible nowadays. Considering all this and also the general very fast shifting of economic and political power to South-east Asia, I think it is worth it to start reading a bit about this country.

A small book called “Republic of Fun” (and it is really fun to read it) is now on my table that gives an excellent insight in the daily life of contemporary middle-class Indonesians. It is a collection of pieces that was written by Butet Kartaredjasa for the Sunday edition of a newspaper in Semarang, Central Java. Butet is in Indonesia a very well-known actor, not only on stage but also in countless movies and TV productions. He is also a director, a painter (his father Bagong Kussudiardja was a famous dancer and painter), a successful businessman (he founded several advertisement companies) and a journalist and writer as well. “Republic of Fun” and its predecessor “President of Ridicule” introduce to us the Blurt family (obviously shaped on the basis of the author’s own family): Mr. and Mrs. Blurt and their three children “Brother Chubby”, “Miss Tomboy”, and the youngest, 12-year old “Miss Trendy”. Problems within the family, education issues, health problems, but of course also politics and everyday occurrences form the backdrop of the short pieces that have titles such as “Stopping Violence”, “Scary Statues” (on the fake policemen statues that remind drivers to stick to the traffic rules), “Free University”, “Indonesian Obama”, “Steel Chastity Belt” (on the new Anti-Pornography Bill), “The Koi Tragedy”, and others. Once the cast is introduced, the reader likes to come back because he feels already connected and kind of part of the Blurt family. How is the friendly quarreling between Mr. and Mrs. Blurt going on, which of the children will create a problem this time, and what foolishness or corruption of the country’s political elite he will expose this time? Of course it is not the soap opera quality of these pieces and the admittedly very relaxed attitude of this family man (the people from Yogyakarta, Butet’s hometown seem to me to be the most laid-back people on this planet) alone that make these pieces such a nice and entertaining read. It is the ability of the author to catch a problem precisely and to put it in the form of a witty dialogue or funny little story.

But there is also something very serious behind these pieces. “Steel Chastity Belt” for example starts with a dialogue between the usually ironic Mr. Blurt and his more positively-minded wife. But just this once, Mr. Blurt seems to be satisfied with his politicians.

‘Wow, my representatives in parliament are really something. Top class’, Mr Blurt said, putting on a serious expression. So – what’s going on then, that suddenly he’s so positive? It seems he’s been shaken by the ‘achievements’ of the Members of Parliament who have just finished drawing up the new Anti-Pornography bill that will be ratified soon. And if those MPs are spending time managing things that need no managing, then doesn’t that mean that real problems have all been solved? And doesn’t it also mean that more important, pressing matters have been wiped from the face of Indonesia? Crucial issues to do with the people and the State – like the rise in numbers of the poor, rampant corruption, the collapse of the legal system, the totally chaotic public services, the injustice of mining contracts, the collapsed health system – all these have to been solved.’

In the second half of the piece Butet comes to the really shocking content of this new bill that seems so extremely important that for many months it made the headlines in Indonesia: the first clause of the bill says that

‘anything that is categorized as inciting lust has to be wiped out…It’s not clear just how the bill measures someone’s ‘lust’. And who or which institution will do the measuring, and using what scale.’

Tight women’s clothes, even the use of lipstick or a smile, not to speak about any work of art that deals with the human body, can fall under this incredible law.

‘So, in readiness for this disgusting bill, Mr Blurt is preparing two things. Number one, he wants to order a steel chastity belt for himself to protect his sacred ‘family jewels’ from displaying any untoward aggressive excitement. Number two, Mr Blurt just wants to pray. ‘Please let those who drafted this bill based on such disgusting thinking, which insults all women, be cursed by their own mothers for what they have done.’

“Reading Republic of Fun makes me hear again the voice of Indonesia I remember from my childhood”, claims a certain O. Bama, and an obscure S.B. Why has “Three thumbs up”.

“Life is just dropping by for a laugh.”

Butet Kartaredjasa: Republic of Fun, translated by Jennifer Lindsay, Red and White Publishing, Jakarta 2011


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