Remnants: The Way of the Womb by Hagop Oshagan

This is my book from Armenia for the Read The World challenge. Oshagan was born in 1883 in what is now Turkey — then the Ottoman Empire — and this novel is set in the Armenian community in Turkey before the genocide. ‘The Way of the Womb’ is actually just the first volume of a three volume novel; the third, unfinished volume tells the story of the genocide itself.

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The Way of the Womb works well enough as a stand-alone novel, but obviously it would be a very different experience to read the whole work. Even without any explicit references to the approaching horrors, the context is unavoidable. It creates both dark foreshadowing and an elegiac note for a lost world. Not that Oshagan presents the lost Turkish-Armenian life as a golden idyll — his characters are feuding and manipulative — but there’s a certain amount of stuff about straight-limbed, strong Armenian youths living simple, honest lives among the olive groves, contrasting with an (understandably bitter) representation of weaker, more degenerate Turks.

This volume tells the story of a woman who, desperate to produce a grandson to continue the family name, is scheming to persuade her daughter-in-law to sleep with the hired help. That is used as a framing device to look back at the history of her family, the Nalbandians; once wealthy and powerful, built up by one man, Hajji* Artin, and in terminal decline in the generations after his death.

I would like to be more enthusiastic about this book. The story itself, the characters, and the setting, are striking and interesting. But reading it was really hard work. The prose is quite dense and difficult anyway; I often found myself having to reread sentences several times. But it is made much harder by a lack of white space. The framing story has some pretty long paragraphs, but at least it’s frequently broken up by dialogue. The flashback to tell the story of the Nalbandians is 60 pages without a single paragraph break. 60 pages! I assume that’s a reflection of the original Armenian, but it was a real struggle to get through it.

It’s a pity. I can see why this is an important book for Armenians, and there really were things I liked about it; but it was just too much of a chore. It’s possible that’s the fault of the translation, rather than the original text… but either way, I won’t be picking up the next two volumes, if they get translated. For once I can see the appeal of a Reader’s Digest Condensed version, just for sake of the story, if anyone feels like producing one.

* ‘Hajji’ is obviously a term they picked up from their muslim neighbours, but in their case it was apparently used to refer to someone who had made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

» The photo is of the Armenian Cathedral of the Holy Cross on Akdamar Island, Turkey. It was abandoned at the time of the genocide; it was restored and reopened as a museum in 2007. The photo is © Adam Jones and used under a CC by-sa licence.

The Colonel by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi

Gosh, this book is grim. It starts with the colonel being summoned from his house in the middle of a rainy night to collect the tortured body of his daughter from the secret police, and he is told to bury her before daybreak to avoid any kind of attention.

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The story of that night and the following day is combined with flashbacks, and we learn of one child after another lost to violence: being tortured by the Shah’s regime or the Islamic Republic, or dying in the Iran/Iraq War. Each of his children belongs to, and represents, a different political movement: different flavours of communism and Islamism. But they all fall foul of the government sooner or later, as the political tides change. Except, I guess, for the one who dies in the war, who is celebrated as a martyr — but is no less dead.

I don’t know enough about the politics of Iran in the 70s and 80s, so the historically specific detail is lost on me, but it still works as a portrayal of a country suffering political turmoil and violent repression. Certainly an effective novel, if not an enjoyable one.

» The photo is of ‘the acoustic ceiling of the rooftop music room of the Ali Qapu Palace in Isfahan, Iran’. Not particularly thematically apt, but it’s a nice picture. © David Stanley and used under a CC-by licence.

Tales in Colour and Other Stories and Bhutanese Tales Of The Yeti by Kunzang Choden

Two collections of short pieces by the same writer, which I read as books from Bhutan for the Read The World challenge. I was intrigued to read the yeti stories but also wanted something more contemporary; in the event Tales of Colour is the more interesting book.

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It was certainly interesting to read some yeti lore: I learned that they smell horrible and have hollow backs, for example. And it’s clear that they are regarded as magical/folkloric creatures rather than just another species of wild animal; people may believe they are real, but they are not just another wild animal like a bear. There are stories of women bearing them children, for example. But although I was pleased to get some sense of the yeti’s place in Bhutanese culture, the stories themselves were not especially fascinating; a selection of four or five of the best ones would have been enough for me.

Tales of Colour is a collection of short stories about everyday life for women in rural Bhutan, touching on alcoholism, illness, infidelity, the lure of the city, age… universal themes, really, and simple stories, but very well told and with a strong sense of place.

» The photo Chimi Lhakhang 01 is © Buddhist Fox and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War by Svetlana Alexievich

Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl was one of the best books I have read for the Read The World challenge, and so I thought I would read this as well. It is, again, a compilation of verbatim transcripts; presumably somewhat edited, if only to remove the interviewer’s questions and comments, but with the rhythms and untidiness of normal speech. This time, it is people associated with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan: soldiers, nurses, bereaved mothers and widows (although no Afghan voices). The title comes from the zinc coffins that were used to deliver bodies back home.

Helicopter-tank operation in Afghanistan.  Courtesy of Soviet Military Power, 1984.   Photo No. 130, page 116.

The English edition was published in 1992, and the introduction stresses the comparison with the US experience in Vietnam; soldiers returning home from an unpopular war and being told it was all a mistake, and the impact on the country’s self-image. There are of course also many differences. The USSR kept an iron grip on the news coverage, at least initially; this book’s publication in 1990 is symptomatic of the loosening up of the glasnost/perestroika era. It’s depressing to think how Putin’s government might respond to a similar book about Ukraine or Chechnya.

The other obvious parallel, of course, is with our own recent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. There is never a shortage of wars to write about, after all. In the end, that made this a less remarkable book, for me, than the Chernobyl one; it is not quite as unique and weird. But it is still fascinating and insightful, and I recommend it. I would just suggest trying to read it in small doses; I found when I read too much in one go, the individuality of the voices started to blur a bit.

» The photo of a Soviet helicopter-tank operation is from the Department of Defense publication Soviet Military Power, 1984, via Wikipedia. It’s a public domain image because it was created by the US government.

The Radiance of the King by Camara Laye

This is a novel from 1954 about Clarence, a white man who, finding himself broke and stranded in Africa, decides to approach the king and ask him for some sort of job. Clarence’s only qualification is that he is white — which admittedly was no small thing in colonial Africa — and after he fails to contact the king, he is taken under the wing of a beggar and two boys, and begins a journey south, hoping to meet the king again later when he visits that part of the country.

UNICEF’s director for West and Central Africa, Gianfranco Rotigliano, visited the office. He does not care much for meetings so we went straight out to get a better understanding of the situation of children. Over three days we drove from Conakry to Bamako in Mali. Along the way we visited schools and health centres in towns and villages. It was abundantly clear that the health system is not working and that major reform is needed. The education system also needs reform, but fortunately for that we have, with a coalition of donors, a solution.

It’s a dreamlike, sensual narrative; I’ve noticed before that novels from Francophone Africa (Guinea, in this case) seem to be more stylised than those from former British colonies. It echoes and subverts the tradition of white men’s adventures into darkest Africa. Africa seen through Clarence’s eyes is a world of fetid scents, impenetrable jungle, and the buttocks and breasts of the women; but he is completely ineffectual and naive, dependent on and manipulated by those around him.

My first impressions of this were really good; I enjoyed it for the characterisation and description, atmosphere, nuance. For me it didn’t sustain that level of excitement though to the end, but it was still a very good read.

» The photo, ‘Washday on the Niger’ is © Julien Harneis and used under a CC by-sa licence.

Alexander McQueen at the V&A

I went to see the McQueen show at the V&A — ‘Savage Beauty’, the same one that was previously at the Met — and it was terrific: enormously varied and inventive, with loads of striking and interesting stuff to look at. Being a bit sleep-deprived after staying up late to watch the election results come in (and what a depressing vigil that turned out to be), I did find it all a bit oppressive by the end; too much visual stimulus, loud music, dark rooms and spotlights. It’s the feeling I get when I’ve been in a supermarket for too long.

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Still, the frocks were great. Like a lot of haute couture, much of it is spectacular but barely wearable, and it’s tempting to call it ‘theatrical’, although in fact theatre rarely has this kind of spectacular costume; and film perhaps even less so. It reminded me how terrific the Jean-Paul Gaultier costumes are in Fifth Element; it would be great if more films had that kind of extravagant visual aesthetic. Imagine a superhero movie with the costumes designed by Alexander McQueen, instead of the blandly, generically ‘cool’ versions that the studios manage to produce. Or one of the new Star Wars movies, or the Lord of the Rings; movies set in alien worlds where anything is possible, and with enough money to actually make these kind of incredibly labour-intensive costumes… wouldn’t it be great if they were just able to be a bit stranger, and more extravagantly individual?

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I was slightly uncomfortable with some of the tribal-influenced collections though; I’m generally a bit wary of claims of cultural appropriation, just because throughout history, culture has always been invigorated by the mixing together of influences from different traditions. I understand why people are uncomfortable with white European fashion designers using ‘exotic’ influences in their designs in a rather unthinking way, but I think it can be done in a way which is fairly innocent — although as a white European man perhaps I’m just showing my biases.

However: taking a load of imagery from indigenous African and South American peoples, lumping it all together as ‘tribal’, combining it with animal imagery and throwing around a lot of rhetoric about primitivism and the noble savage… that is definitely the wrong way to do it.

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» Images all from the Met website for the exhibition and © Sølve Sundsbø / Art + Commerce.

 

Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos

I picked this up because it was around the house and I was looking for something to read, but it turns out the author is from Mexico, so I guess it’s my book from Mexico for the Read The World challenge.

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This is a very short novel — 67 pages — narrated by Tochtli*, the young son of a drug dealer. He lives entirely surrounded by adults — a maid, a cook, two armed guards and a tutor — all of whom indulge his eccentricities out of fear of his terrifying violent father. He has a collection of hats and a desire to own a pygmy hippopotamus to go with his father’s various exotic animals, including two tigers.† The story really is of a child’s mind being warped by his surroundings; by his father’s lessons about how to be macho, and above all to avoid being ‘a faggot’, by his conversations with his father about how many shots it would take a to kill a man in different parts of the body, and by the evidence of corruption and sex and violence around him.

So at the start, although it’s disturbing the way he parrots his father, he still seems rather innocent; by the end you are wondering if it’s already too late for him, if he’s damaged beyond repair.

Having this horrible situation told in a child’s voice is an effective and creepy device. It’s also genuinely funny in a dark grotesque way. I enjoyed it.

*‘Tochtli’ is the word for rabbit in Nahuatl, and all the Mexican characters have Nahuatl animal names; so the father is called Yolcaut, ‘rattlesnake’, and so on.

† Hippopotamus is, somewhat famously, now an invasive species in Colombia after some escaped from the ranch of the drug baron Pablo Escobar.

» The photo is of the original entrance to Pablo Escobar’s hacienda. The plane is a replica of the one Escobar used to carry his first shipment of cocaine to the US. The hacienda is now a theme park; you can see the entrance in the background. “Pórtico Hacienda Nápoles” by XalD – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyŏng, translated by JaHyun Kim Haboush

This is a properly remarkable book. It is, as the subtitle explains, ‘The Autobiographical Writings of a Crown Princess of Eighteenth-Century Korea’. Lady Hyegyŏng* was married into the royal family; she married Sado, the Crown Prince, when they were both nine years old. Sado never became king — he was executed in 1762 at the age of 27 — but their son inherited the throne as King Chŏngjo. Remarkably, Hyegyŏng outlived him as well, and three of these four ‘memoirs’ were written after 1800, during the reign of her grandson King Sunjo.

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So she had a long and eventful life, and it makes for fascinating reading. It’s sometimes a little difficult keeping track of who’s who: there’s a large cast of characters, the court intrigues are confusing, and the family relationships are complicated by the fact that the kings and princes have children by multiple women; some wives, some consorts. And because I’m unused to Korean names they all sound a bit the same to me. But it has a list of characters and some family trees, which helped.

The other complication is that these are four separate memoirs which overlap with each other. So the first (‘The Memoir of 1795’) is closest to the modern idea of a memoir, starting with her childhood and covering most of her life, but it carefully avoids any details about the single most important event: the execution of Prince Sado. The execution of the crown Prince by his father is so politically charged that she only alludes to it in the vaguest terms. Then the memoirs of 1801 and 1802 are more directly political; public advocacy aimed at defending the reputation of her father and brothers, who had fallen out favour after the death of Chŏngjo. And in the Memoir of 1805, she finally returns to the story of Sado, explaining that 40 years of silence has allowed false versions of events to take hold, and she believes it is important to tell what really happened.

And the story of Prince Sado is extraordinary. I don’t want to give all the details; I’m sure I enjoyed this book more because I was surprised and shocked by it. But the central fact of his execution is this: he was suffering from some kind of mental illness, and it progressed to the point that he was thought to be a credible threat to the life of the king. But because he was royal, custom forbade any method of execution that would disfigure the body, and poison would have implied he was a criminal; so he was shut into a rice chest and left to starve to death.

As you might imagine, this event traumatised the entire royal family in various ways; hence it being taboo to talk about it for four decades after it happened.

But although it was an extreme example, it also gives a hint of the brutality of court life. There are an awful lot of people who get banished to remote islands, or tortured or executed; usually for saying something which is perceived to be disloyal. That ‘disloyalty’, at least at this cultural distance, often seems to be based on terrifyingly slight nuances of speech.

So I found it fascinating as a portrayal of a time and place, and the whole story is positively Shakespearean.† But it is also much more readable than you might expect. If you skipped the two middle memoirs it would be a positive page-turner; not that they aren’t interesting, but they are harder work.

The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyŏng is my book from South Korea for the Read The World challenge. I’d still like to read some contemporary Korean fiction, it seems like a really interesting country at the moment. But this caught my eye, and I’m glad I read it. It’s fascinating.

*Or Hyegyeong, in the newer Revised Romanization which is the official standard since 2000 (this is all according to Wikipedia, obviously). Similarly, Chŏngjo = Jeongjo, etc. The book was published in 1985, so it uses the older McCune–Reischauer system. 

†Genuinely, it was reading books like this, whether about historical kings or modern dictators, that helped me see Shakespeare’s plays in a new light; I always read them as psychological studies, family dramas that just happen to be set against a more glamorous background. But life in the court of an absolute ruler, like Stalin or King Yǒngjo or Elizabeth I, is really not a normal family situation. Unfortunately I only arrived at this insight after I finished studying Shakespeare at university.

» The portrait is of King Yǒngjo, Prince Sado’s father. I took it from Wikipedia.

Exhibition roundup: History is Now, Marlene Dumas, & Cotton to Gold

The South Bank Centre is marking 70 years since the end of WW2 with a collection of events entitled Changing Britain. The Hayward Gallery’s contribution is an exhibition History Is Now: 7 Artists Take On Britain.

Filtering collective history through their individual perspectives, seven British artists of different generations and backgrounds – John Akomfrah, Simon Fujiwara, Roger Hiorns, Hannah Starkey, Richard Wentworth and Jane and Louise Wilson – each curate distinct sections of the exhibition and provide their unique ‘take’ on recent British history.

As you might imagine, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. John Akomfrah has selected a whole range of films from the Arts Council Film Collection, which I pretty much skipped, because who has the patience to watch seventeen different pieces of video art in a row? I hope some people do, but not me. Roger Hiorns has put together a whole exhibition of material related to the BSE crisis, arranged chronologically, and I found it really interesting to go back and revisit that period but I’m not sure I was responding to it as art — whatever that means. The only reason it couldn’t have been an exhibition at the Science Museum is that contemporary art has a willingness to be more boring — or at least dense and text-heavy — than a traditional museum would dare.

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The two I enjoyed most were Hannah Starkey and Richard Wentworth. Hannah Starkey selected 70s, 80s and 90s photography from the Arts Council Collection, which she juxtaposed with commercial photography in a somewhat heavy-handed but still effective way. So glossy ads for fashion and booze were contrasted with grimy, peeling 1980s unemployment offices and so on. I don’t know if that contrast was absolutely necessary — the photographs would have been effective on their own — but it was still good. Richard Wentworth’s was the most crowd-pleasing section. To quote the blurb: ‘Through his eclectic selection of objects, artworks and artefacts Wentworth takes us from post-war austerity to the optimism of the 1950s and into the gloom and paranoia of the Cold War.’ So there was some art by people like Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, and Henry Moore, lots of press clippings, lots of old books which were thematically appropriate but also appealing for their mid-century graphic design, various objects like a 1950s TV, and most dramatically a decommissioned anti-aircraft rocket launcher out on the balcony.

Meanwhile at Tate Modern they have Marlene Dumas: The Image as Burden. Marlene Dumas is a South African artist who paints rough, blobby paintings, nearly all of people. I enjoyed it much more than I expected because the Tate have done a terrible job of marketing it. Or at least a terrible job of marketing it to me. All the pictures I’d seen made her work look dismal and unattractive, and quite a lot of it is a bit like that: lacking immediate visual appeal (which is not the same as being bad, but doesn’t make me rush to go and see it). Particularly, there are paintings in black ink which are dark and grey and miserable looking. But actually her larger oils are much more likeable, and some of them are even quite colourful. I didn’t come out of the exhibition as her biggest fan, but I certainly liked it more than I thought I would.

And at Two Temple Place is Cotton to Gold: Extraordinary Collections of the Industrial North West. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, there were some people in Lancashire making a hell of a lot of money from cotton mills and other industry. And some of them put that money into collecting historical manuscripts, or old coins, or beetles, or Turner watercolours, or Japanese woodcuts… With the result that there are apparently some particularly notable regional museums up there. But for the moment a lot of those coins and beetles and whatnot have been lent to Two Temple Place.

It’s an enjoyable kind of exhibition to visit: the building is attractive, entry is free, and if one cabinet leaves you cold, well, the next one will have something completely different. Last year they had a similar exhibition of items from the various University of Cambridge collections; I think that one was better, with more varied and more remarkable exhibits, but Cotton to Gold is enjoyably eclectic in the same way.

» The painting is Evil is Banal, Marlene Dumas, 1984. Collection Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, The Netherlands. © Marlene Dumas. Photo credit: Peter Cox, Eindhoven, The Netherlands.