How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone by Saša Stanišić

How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone by Saša Stanišić is my book from Bosnia and Herzegovina for the Read The World challenge. I actually had a different writer in mind — Ivo Andrić, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961 — but when I saw this in the bookshop I switched. Mainly because most of the books I’ve been reading are a few decades old, and it’s nice to find one which is fresh out of the oven (published in German in 2006; the English translation by Anthea Bell in 2008).

How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone tells the story of Aleksandar Krsmanović, a boy who is growing up in the Bosnian town of Višegrad but flees with his family to Germany in 1992 to escape the war. Since Stanišić grew up in Višegrad and moved to Germany in 1992 as a fourteen-year-old, I assume it is somewhat autobiographical.

The blurb on the back cover compares Stanišić with Jonathan Safran Foer and David Foster Wallace, which gives you some idea of the kind of writer he is: a clever young man who isn’t afraid to leave evidence of his cleverness on the page. There are sections written in different voices, stylistic quirks, elements you might call magical realist, a bit of a book-within-a-book and so on. In fiction there can be a fine line between overtly clever and overly clever, and for the first few chapters I was a bit unsure which side of the line this book falls, but it won me over.

Here’s a fairly randomly picked passage:

My Nena went deaf the day Grandpa Rafik married the river Drina, face down. The marriage was legal because Nena and Grandpa Rafik had been divorced for years, something unusual in our town. After Grandpa Rafik was buried, they say she said at his graveside: I haven’t cooked anything, I haven’t brought anything, I haven’t put on black clothes, but I have a whole book full of things to forgive. They say she took out a stack of notes and began reading aloud from them. They say she stood there for a day and a night, and word by word, sentence by sentence, page by page she forgave him. And after that she said no more, and she never reacted to any kind of question again.

Nena Fatima has eyes as keen as a hawk’s, kyu, ket-ket, she recognises me before I turn into her street, and she wears headscarves. Nena’s hair is a secret — long and red and beautiful, she gave the secret away to me as we sat outside her house eating börek in summer and feeding the Drina with minced meat. Cold yoghurt, salted onions, the warmth of Nena rocking silently as she sits cross-legged. The dough is shiny with good fat. Nena rocks back and forth and lights a cigarette when I’ve had enough. I am the quietest grandson in the world, so as not to disturb her stillness and our sunset. Sultry heat gathers over the river and looks attentively at Nena Fatima, who is humming as she plaits her secret into a long braid. I don’t laugh with anyone as softly as with my Nena, I laugh with her until I’m exhausted, I don’t comb anyone else’s hair.

As I do the Read The World challenge, various themes are recurring; this is the third book I’ve read (along with My Father’s Notebook and The Kite Runner) which is written by a refugee, starts with nostalgic memories of the home country, and then describes the country collapsing and the refugee experience. It is much the best of the three, I think; I did genuinely enjoy The Kite Runner, but it is deeply emotionally manipulative, like watching a Hollywood film about a difficult subject by a skillful but solidly mainstream director. The kind of glossy film on a ‘brave’ subject which is daring enough to win a few Oscars but which you look back on a few years later and think… meh. How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone is a more interesting book all round; messier, more personal (I think), funnier, sadder. And while I don’t want to overstate the originality of it — it’s been nearly a hundred years since some bright spark invented modernism, FFS — it is at least less of a straight down the line conventional narrative.

» the photo is of the bridge over the Drina in Višegrad that is mentioned in How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone and is also incidentally the eponymous bridge in Ivo Andrić’s novel The Bridge on the Drina. The photo is © blandm and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

‘Byzantium 330-1453’ at the Royal Academy

The latest blockbuster exhibition at the RA is Byzantium 330-1453. It’s a big show, but then it does survey a millennium’s worth of art from a big empire.

It’s odd; I think most people who have even a general interest in history and culture have some knowledge, however sketchy or inaccurate, of classical Greece, Rome, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance. But the thousand year-history of Byzantium is somehow not part of that, and I was very aware going around this exhibition of how little I knew. It makes you think that perhaps the Great Schism of 1054, which separated Catholic and Orthodox christianity and so in some sense split Europe into east and west, is the pivotal moment in the continent’s cultural history.  

[ Editorial aside: every time I start to say anything I find myself very aware of my ignorance. But even at the best of times I tend to hedge opinions around with qualifications, and for stylistic reasons there’s a limit to the amount of verbiage I can hang onto a sentence. So let me say up front: I don’t want you to think that I think I know what I’m talking about. I don’t. ]

Voltaire apparently described Byzantium as ‘A worthless repertory of declamations and miracles, a disgrace to the human mind’, and there seems to have been a general dismissal of Byzantine culture by a lot of western writers. I’m not sure the exotic and peculiar version in Yeats’s poems is actually any more flattering, either. Perhaps it’s because if you’re from the tradition that sees the Middle Ages as a regrettable regression between the classical civilisations and the Renaissance, Byzantium looks like a bit of a mistake: they started as Romans, spent a few centuries developing a medieval aesthetic and then stuck with that for the next 500 years until the Renaissance came along and moved art forward again.

Or at least, I imagine the ‘stuck in a rut’ theory is a horrible caricature, but there does seem to have been a somewhat rigid artistic culture. The exhibition leaflet explains that between 730 and 843, the Byzantines had an iconoclasm. Which firstly means, of course, that a lot of the early transitional art was destroyed.* But also, to quote the exhibition leaflet, ‘Following the failure of iconoclasm the Triumph of Orthodoxy was celebrated in pictures and with an explosion of artistic activity. … Orthodoxy was declared to be the use of icons; and icons declared the nature of Orthodoxy.’

Whether it’s because of the strong identification of a artistic tradition with a religious identity, or because the icons were seen primarily as devotional objects rather than artworks, to my untrained eye they all look very similar. And indeed if you see, say, C19th Russian icons, they still all look fairly similar. It’s like statues of Lenin in the USSR: originality really wasn’t the point. In fact, when it came to statues of Lenin, originality would probably have been actively suspicious; I don’t know if the same dynamic is at play with Byzantine icons.

Anyway, getting back on to more solid ground: you should go to see this exhibition because it has lots of nice stuff in it. Icons, of course, both painted and in the slightly ridiculous medium of micromosaic; lots of carved ivory; manuscripts, featuring all sorts of attractive scripts, mainly Greek but some Arabic, some Cyrillic and some completely mysterious; chalices and other items inlaid with precious stones and fabulous little enamel designs; jewellery, coins, ceramics and textiles. The first few rooms are chronological, but other rooms are arranged by theme: ecclesiastical objects, domestic objects, icons, the interaction between Byzantium and the West, the influence of Byzantium on nearby cultures and so on. It is, as I said, a big exhibition, and a lot of the items are small, finely worked objects that really deserve close examination, which is never easy in a busy gallery; I don’t think there’s any straightforward solution to that, though.

The exhibition website isn’t very comprehensive, although there’s an education guide in PDF form which has some nice pictures.

* incidentally, there’s a lot of discussion around at the moment of science vs. religion, and whether science is compatible with religion; meanwhile defenders of religion point to the great works of devotional art from the Hagia Sophia and El Greco to Bach. It’s worth pointing out that art and religion haven’t always had the easiest relationship either, which is why so many English churches are the proud owners of statues that have head their heads knocked off.

» the picture is taken from the website of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, although the work, a tiny 9 × 7.4 cm C14th icon of St Theodore Stratilates in mosaic, is in the RA exhibition.

Africa Reading Challenge: finished!

It just occurred to me that I’ve now read six books from or about Africa since I learnt about the Africa Reading Challenge. Links to the reviews:

  1. An African in Greenland by Tété-Michel Kpomassie
  2. Told by Starlight in Chad by Joseph Brahim Seid
  3. Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote by Ahmadou Kourouma
  4. The Wah-Wah Diaries by Richard E. Grant
  5. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  6. We killed Mangy-Dog by Luis Bernardo Honwana

I think Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote is probably my favourite out of those, but they’re all worth a look for one reason or another.

Links

An African in Greenland by Tété-Michel Kpomassie

An African in Greenland is an autobiographical book; as a teenager in Togo, Tété-Michel Kpomassie read a book about Greenland and decided to go there. It took him eight years, working a variety of jobs, to make his way up through West Africa and Europe before eventually arranging a trip to Greenland, where he stayed for about two years (in, if I’ve got my sums right, 1965).

The book’s title implies that there is some kind of different perspective that Kpomassie is going to bring because he’s African, and I have to admit that it was part of the appeal for me when I bought the book. It’s such an immediately striking juxtaposition, this young man from Togo living among the Inuit and eating seal blubber: just the title is like a pitch for a cheesy Hollywood comedy.

In fact, it’s not obvious that his Africanness makes that much difference to the book, after the first couple of chapters that take place in Africa, and in retrospect it’s hard to say what I was expecting, really. There are a couple of occasions where he compares local beliefs (about the travels of the human soul in dreams, for example) with those he grew up with; and his Africanness does make him an instant celebrity in Greenland: the first black person most of them had seen, and several inches taller than most of the locals.

It is, though, an interesting and enjoyable book about Greenland: ice-fishing and dog-sledding and eating of revolting-sounding bits of raw viscera and lumps of animal fat. Whale lung! Boiled sea gull! Yummy. And as with Halldór Laxness in Iceland, endless cups of coffee.

Although actually, I think it’s to his credit that he clearly made a point of eating everything that was put in front of him, and doesn’t spend a lot of time in the book dwelling on the off-putting nature of the food. Perhaps it’s nicer than it sounds; perhaps he just wanted to downplay the potential freak-show aspect of this kind of travel book. He has a fairly clear-eyed view of the harshness of life for many of the people he meets and the social problems he encounters, but he doesn’t dwell on it excessively. Perhaps even more surprising for someone who had travelled for eight years to get there to fulfil a childhood dream, he doesn’t romanticise the country either: not too much of the noble savage stuff.

Here’s a longish passage about life during the time of the midnight sun, with 24 hour daylight:

The oddest thing was that we couldn’t get to sleep any more. To fill in the time I stayed at the school, where I took notes, sometimes until three in the morning. Kield Pedersen, the Danish headmaster, kindly gave me access to the Medelelser of his establishment — many bulky volumes which contained the findings of every piece of research done in Greenland since the days of Hans Egede.

Outside, small orange or red tents sprang up, erected by children whom the endless daylight kept from sleeping. At three in the morning you could still see them playing outside. Sometimes they went on like this for two whole days without going to bed. Eventually they dropped with fatigue, and then might sleep for two days at a stretch. It was the teachers, not the parents, who complained, because most of the time their classes were half empty.

Sleep eluded the adults, too. Everyone was restless. They had hardly set foot indoors before they were longing to go out again, to tramp on and on, to run from hill to hill. They rambled around incessantly, in search of who knows what. All through the spring they’d go wandering like this, building cooking fires in the mountains with three stones for an oven, gathering parnet berries, resting no matter where when tiredness overtook them. both with humans and animals, spring here was the season of tireless frenzies of love. Groups of boys and girls ran laughing and shouting until early morning, and there was the noise of rutting huskies fighting, the deep growls of the males mingling with the bitches’ piercing yelps. The birds sang and the eiders quacked in the creeks.

The landscape seemed excluded from this general harmony, and it changed from day to day. All the filth of Christianshåb was suddenly exposed by the sun’s return and the thaw. Snow melted n the slopes, the street became a river of mud, and innumerable streams riddled the ash-grey earth and brought to light piles of of old bottles and cans, dog shit, household waste, and rotten potatoes. All the garbage which cold and snow had preserved — now swollen with melted water, rotting fast and buzzing with clouds of flies, real flies, come out to haunt us like a bad conscience. Outside the doors and under the foundations, the houses were repulsively filthy. the borrowed coat of spotless white had covered so much offal! A sickening stench hung everywhere. the dogs, some of them now moulting, slunk squalidly about the village. You really wondered whether you were still living in the same land that had once been so clean and white.

An African in Greenland is my book from Togo for the Read The World challenge. Oh, I nearly forgot: it was translated from the French by James Kirkup.

» The photo, Oqaatsut/Rodebay, Greenland, is © kaet44 and used under a CC attribution licence. Rodebay is one of the villages where Kpomassie spent a winter in Greenland.

Charlie boy apparently wants to destroy the monarchy

The Times hints at the gory details:

The Prince of Wales, who celebrated his 60th birthday on Friday, has told confidants he would like his role to “evolve” so that his knowledge and experience are not wasted once he inherits the crown, Jonathan Dimbleby, his friend and biographer, reveals today.

Translation: he wants to have his cake and eat it.

Look, it’s not that fucking complicated. Take all the enormous and unearned benefits of being born into the Royal Family and keep your mouth shut, or abdicate and campaign on your pet issues as a private citizen.

His charity work is generally unexceptionable, and he sells excellent biscuits, beer and sausages and gives the profit to his charity, so those things help me try to feel positive about him; but when he sticks his nose into politics it drives me completely nuts. If the official duties, the charity work, running the Duchy of Cornwall, the painting, the gardening and the polo aren’t enough to keep him busy, he’ll just have to take up knitting.

Democracy: it’s really not that difficult to understand.

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Self-evident

I always thought the US Declaration of Independence had a lovely bit of intellectual sleight of hand. It’s phrased almost as an exercise in logical deduction (various bits bolded for emphasis):

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government … [rhubarb rhubarb] … The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

[long list of ‘facts’ snipped here]

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States….

Quite apart from the awkwardness of reconciling this document with slavery, the phrase I’d particularly  pick out is ‘self-evident’. Jefferson, of all people, must have known perfectly well that over the course of history, it has certainly not been felt to be self-evident that all men are created equal. Or indeed that they are endowed with inalienable rights; or that governments are instituted to secure those rights; or that they derive their powers from the consent of the governed; or that when a government fails in that respect, that it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it.

From Plato to George III, there were an awful lot of people who would have disputed those ideas; it is clearly begging the question to treat them as axiomatic.

As it happens, history has been kind to Jefferson: his revolution went well, and the country he and his cronies set up has become the most powerful on earth. The victory of the democratic way of thinking has been so thorough that it is possible to read the Declaration of Independence and take it at face value, as though it actually was a statement of self-evident truth instead of a piece of political rhetoric. Perhaps that’s for the best: if you believe, as I certainly do, that the principles laid out in the preamble to the declaration are a Good Thing, then it probably helps to have people treat them as an item of faith. But my pedantic soul revolts against it. I’m with Jeremy Bentham on this one:

Natural rights is simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense — nonsense upon stilts.

Those rights — life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, free speech, freedom of religion, fair trials, take your pick — are not given to us by the universe; they are human constructs, things people have chosen and demanded for themselves. All the more reason to defend them.

You may be wondering why I’ve suddenly started going on about C18th political philosophy: well, it’s because I was struck by same process going on right now with gay marriage. There is an attempt by supporters of gay marriage to frame the question as one of simple natural justice: that this is a straightforward case of equal rights* and that the answer is, in fact, self-evident.

Now I’m a supporter of gay marriage, because I think that, all else being equal, we should avoid excluding a large chunk of the population from a social institution which has a central role in the culture; because the evidence generally suggests that having people in committed, long-term relationships is a societal good, and surely having a load of people keen to marry strengthens marriage rather than weakening it; and because it just seems like a way of making people happier with no obvious downside. But any claim that it is obviously a simple question of fairness seems a bit disingenuous.

I mean: has their ever been any society anywhere which has granted full legal marriage rights to homosexual couples on exactly the same basis as heterosexual marriage? I’m no anthropologist, and there may be examples I just don’t know about, but it seems fair to say that most people through history have not thought it was obvious that homosexual relationships are the same thing as heterosexual ones. The people who argue that ‘marriage is defined as between a man and a woman’ have a point: the introduction of gay marriage does redefine marriage in a fairly major way. There’s nothing unique about that; marriage has naturally been redefined over time as society has changed. But if you’re introducing a social change which is almost unprecedented in the whole of human history, it’s hard to deny that it’s a radical agenda.

I’m not suggesting that supporters of gay marriage should present it as a radical agenda; not if they want to get it into law. On the contrary, I think they are exactly right to frame it as a question of equal rights, and tap into the American rhetorical tradition that goes back via the civil rights movement all the way to Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence. But like the Declaration of Independence, there’s a hint of a rhetorical rabbit being pulled out of a hat, as a rather controversial and radical conclusion is presented as though it was a self-evident truth.

*and indeed equal rites

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Kissing’s never out of fashion when the bloom is on the gorse

Surprise sighting of the day in the local park: mistletoe. I mean it’s not that surprising — mistletoe is a native British plant and quite common in some parts of the country — but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it growing in London.

I’d like to think that the seeds were spread there by a mistle thrush which had been feeding on someone’s discarded Christmas decorations.

» Yes, I do know that’s not mistletoe in the picture. holly & mistle thrush  is © Sandy Morrison and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

Links

Links

Renaissance Faces at the National Gallery

Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian is an exhibition that does exactly what the title the suggests: it’s a selection of portraits by van Eyck, Titian, Raphael, Holbein, Botticelli, Dürer, Cranach and their contemporaries. Room after room of rather solemn looking people — no smiling for portraits back then — wearing their most expensive-looking velvets and furs and damasks. So if that’s the kind of thing you like, and on the whole I do, you’d probably like this show.

About half the pictures are from the National’s permanent collection, which sometimes seems a little bit like cheating; but there are some very good paintings they’ve borrowed from elsewhere, it’s interesting to see them all together, and it’s not actually a chore to have another look at van Eyck’s Arnolfini portrait, or the Bellini portrait of the Doge, or Holbein’s Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling.

For me the finest picture in the exhibition is the Titian portrait of Pope Paul III which normally lives in Naples. It really is one of those works which seems transcendent even by the standards of a great artist. The Pope sits there, engulfed in these huge robes, looking physically old but sharp-eyed and full of power. And they have it hanging next to the portrait of Pope Julius II by Raphael from their permanent collection, painted fifty years earlier and an important influence for Titian’s portrait. They are both marvellous paintings and they make a fascinating contrast, stylistically and psychologically.

» The Raphael is the one at the top.

Links

Links

  • ‘In an old stone tank near the house found the decayed head of what may be a dog but I think is a jackal. There are said to be some in this country. In either case a very complete skull, so have put it up on a stick for the insects to get it clean.’ I would never have been able to guess it was Orwell who wrote these diaries.
    (del.icio.us tags: GeorgeOrwell diaries )

Lawks-a-mercy

I really am going to stop posting about the US elections soon, but this was kind of priceless:

The best bit is Bill O’Reilly trying to stick up for her.

[later edit]

And while I’m posting YouTube videos, here’s a bit of The Day Today that seems curiously relevant:

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California says yes to Prop 8…

I was sad to see that Prop 8 (the Californian ballot measure to rewrite the state constitution to ban gay marriage) was passed on Tuesday. I know it’s a big state and more diverse than its liberal image suggests, but you still kind of feel that if California isn’t ready to support gay marriage, it’ll be a long time coming for the rest of the US.

I used to vaguely support the idea of gay marriage as part of a generally liberal view of the world, but after a few online arguments about it I came to the conclusion that if I was suddenly appointed Lord High Dictator of the United Kingdom, it would be one of the first changes I would make on coming into office. Not because I think it’s overwhelmingly important or urgent, but just because it seems like a complete no-brainer. Most political problems are really hard: we all want to improve healthcare and education, reduce crime, help the economy, solve climate change and produce world peace, but it’s not at all obvious how to go about those things.

Allowing gay marriage on the other hand is a really easy decision. Even if you don’t believe it’s a civil rights issue, it just seems like a move with no downside. It’s simple to implement, because all the institutions and laws are already in place for straight marriage, and it makes a lot of people happier without hurting anyone.

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Cheap political point-scoring

I suppose its hardly a surprise, but still… this bit of David Cameron at PMQs had me harumphing. To quote the BBC:

Gordon Brown and David Cameron have clashed in the Commons over the reasons for Barack Obama’s US election victory. The Conservative leader said the change offered by Mr Obama contrasted with Labour’s offer of “more of the same”. He also taunted Mr Brown over his recent claim that with the economic crisis “this was no time for a novice”.

The idea of David Cameron trying to somehow identify himself with Barack Obama as a agent of change is a bit… jaw-dropping.

There is some parallel, in that both are young politicians running against unpopular incumbent governments; but somehow I don’t foresee the world finding his story quite as exciting. An Old Etonian from a wealthy banking family becoming Prime Minister; ooh, what an inspiring story of struggle against the odds.

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The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years by Chingiz Aitmatov

This novel tells the story of Yedigei, a worker at a remote railway junction in the middle of the Kazakh steppes. There’s a refrain which is repeated at intervals throughout the book:

Trains in these parts went from East to West, and from West to East . . .
On either side of the railway lines lay the great wide spaces of the desert — Sary-Ozeki, the Middle lands of the yellow steppes. 
In these parts any distance was measured in relation to the railway, as if from the Greenwich meridian . . .
And the trains went from East to West, and from West to East . . . 

Yedigei is taking the body of a friend to be buried at a traditional cemetery out in the steppes, and his life story is told in flashback. The railway junction is near a rocket launch site, and running in parallel to Yedigei’s story is a strange subplot about cosmonauts making contact with an extraterrestrial civilisation.

Aitmatov was from Kyrgyzstan, and The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years is my book from Kyrgyzstan for the Read The World challenge. In some ways, though, it’s very much a book of the Soviet Union. It was written in Russian and is set in Kazakhstan, and one of the themes in the book is the tension between the traditional Kazakh culture and the Soviet bureaucracy.

Which isn’t to say it’s some kind of radically dissident novel; according to the introduction, Aitmatov (who died earlier this year) was a firmly establishment figure, a correspondent for Pravda, winner of a Lenin Prize and a State Prize for literature, and a winner of the Hero of Socialist Labour medal. The material which is most critical of the government is about things which happened under Stalin; presumably by 1980, when this novel was published, that was fair game.

Incidentally, this English edition was published in 1983 and it’s really strange to be reading all this stuff in the present tense. ‘He is a member of the Supreme Soviet, was a delegate to the last four Party Congresses…’ I wouldn’t say it makes me nostalgic exactly, but it is a bit of a throwback to my childhood.

In 1952 the summer was even hotter than usual. The ground dried out and became so hot that the Sarozek lizards did not know what to do; they lost their fear of people and were to be found sitting on the doorstep, their throats quivering, with mouths wide open, trying somehow to find shelter from the sun. Meanwhile, the kites were trying to get cool by soaring to such heights that you could no longer see them with the naked eye. Just now and again they gave themselves away with a single cry and then once more they became silent in the hot, quivering, mirage-laden air.

I really enjoyed this book. The setting is striking and atmospheric; the steppes of central Asia, punishingly hot in summer and snow-covered in winter, inhabited by foxes and eagles and camels, with just this one railway line running through it. And the fairly conventional human drama which anchors the book is intertwined with the science fiction subplot on one hand and bits of Kazakh folk myth on the other.

Here Yedigei is dealing with his magnificent but difficult camel, Burannyi Karanar:

That snowfall heralded the start of winter in the Sarozek, early and chill from the very first. With the start of the cold weather Burannyi Karanar became restless, angry and irritable, as once again his male instincts rebelled within him. No one and no thing could be permitted to encroach on his freedom. During this time even his master had to retreat on occasions and bow to the inevitable.

On the third day after the snowfall there was a frosty wind blowing over the Sarozek, and suddenly there arose a thick, chilly haze just like steam over the steppe. You could hear footsteps crunching in the snow far away, and any sound, even the faintest rustling, was carried through the air with exceptional clarity. The trains could be heard coming along the lines when they were many kilometres away. And when at dawn Yedigei heard the waking roar of Burannyi Karanar in the fold and heard him trampling and noisily shaking the fence behind the house, he knew only too well that he was in for trouble. He dressed quickly and stepping out into the darkness, walked over to the fold. There he shouted, his voice hoarse from the astringent air, ‘What’s this all about? Is it the end of the world again? You want to drink my blood? You lecherous beast!’ 

But he was wasting his breath. The camel, excited by his awakening passions, took not the slightest notice of his master. He was going to have his was, come what may. He roared, snorted and ground his teeth threateningly and broke down part of the fence.

Really it’s exactly the kind of book I hoped to find during this exercise: one I’d never heard of and would probably never have read otherwise, which introduces me to a part of the world and a culture I knew little about, but which is above all a really world-class novel. I’d recommend you buy a copy without extensive scribbles in biro all over it, though.

And one last thing, since I think it’s important to give credit to translators: translated by John French.

» the photo of a camel in front of Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan is © alexpgp and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence. Steppe eagle, Kazakhstan, posted to Flickr by and © rtw2007.

A European Obama

There’s an Associated Press article you can read all over the web including, for example, MSNBC, titled Europe has a long wait for its own Obama. I’m not going to comment generally on ‘Europe’, or even in detail on the UK, except to say that the most obvious difference is the relative recentness of large-scale non-white populations in Europe. It’s been 50 or 60 years now, so that excuse is wearing thin, but it’s still somewhat relevant, I think; even in a democracy, most people who reach positions of power and authority do so from a solidly prosperous establishment background, which is not the situation new immigrants are generally in. So with 8% non-white population, most of whom have been here for three generations or less, even if the UK was completely free of racial discrimination (which it obviously isn’t), the odds would probably still be against us having had a non-white Prime Minister by now. As a comparison, 6% of the population is Welsh, and we’ve only had one Welsh Prime Minister in 300 years.

And one point I’d take from the way the US election has panned out is that all votes are cast for an individual. It’s not very long ago that the press was busy asking whether America was ready to vote for a black president; the answer seems to be yes, but that wasn’t necessarily obvious in advance. You can only find out the answer by having the election; and until you have a candidate, no-one can know the answer because it’s impossible to judge your own responses until you have a real person with a name and a face and a set of policies and a campaign. America may not be ready to vote for ‘a black man’, but they are ready to vote for Barack Obama.

Similarly, it might be difficult to imagine a black or Asian prime minister, but then it would have been difficult to imagine a woman in 10 Downing Street until Margaret Thatcher came along. Do I actually think it’s going to happen any time soon? No, absolutely not. In fact, given the way the parliamentary system works, you can pretty much guarantee it won’t happen for at least six or seven years. But would the British public be willing to vote for a dark-skinned candidate for PM? It’s impossible to know, but if, like Obama, they were charismatic, eloquent, unflappable and running against a staggeringly unpopular incumbent, I wouldn’t bet against them.

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Flemish paintings at the Queen’s Gallery

I went yesterday to see Bruegel to Rubens — Masters of Flemish Painting at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace. I wasn’t really sure what to expect; you have to love Bruegel, but I’ve always found Rubens easier to admire than to enjoy.

It turned out to be just the one Bruegel on show, with seven or eight paintings by Rubens and a variety of other artists: Teniers, van Dyck, Memling and so on. Or to be strictly accurate, only one painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder; there are a couple by Jan Brueghel the Elder as well. You can see all the paintings on the exhibition website I linked to above.

The Bruegel, Massacre of the Innocents, is a hell of a painting. The biblical story of the massacre ordered by Herod has been painted as set in a Flemish village, with the troops in Spanish costume, making it highly topical, apparently, because the Holy Roman Empire had been cracking down on the Netherlands in brutal fashion. The painting was then acquired by Emperor Rudolph II, who presumably for political reasons had the painting edited: all the massacred babies have been painted over to make the scene one of generic plunder.

So wherever you see a soldier slaughtering an animal, or a woman trying to hold on to a storage jar or a bundle of rags, you know that there was originally an infant. In some places, as in the detail above, you can almost make out what it originally looked like.

It really is one of those occasions when reality seems to be demanding to be used as a metaphor for something, but I shall resist.

The exhibition didn’t persuade me to love Rubens, or at least, not his mythological works or landscapes (though the painting Winter: The interior of a barn pleased me more than most). There were, though, two Rubens portraits which were really fabulous, particularly his self-portrait. Apparently an English nobleman bought a painting from Rubens, and Rubens, not knowing that it was actually intended for the king, fobbed him off with a mediocre work that was mainly painted by his workshop. The self-portrait was the piece he sent to the king as an apology.

It really is a gorgeous piece of work. It doesn’t make me like all those big pink women any more, but this painting at least is very very covetable.

» I got the pictures from this article about the exhibition. The Royal Collection’s website for the show is very good: all the paintings, I think, with commentary, so do check it out.