The Republic of San Marino by Charles de Bruc

… or to give him his full Ruritanian title, ‘Comte Charles de Bruc, Chargé d’Affaires de la République de St Marin à Paris, Grand Croix de l’Ordre Équestre de Saint Marin, Officier de l’Ordre des SS. Maurice et Lazare, etc.’ Although I guess even that’s not his full title, because it ends with ‘etc’. This book was translated in 1880 from the French*, which is presumably why his title isn’t given in the more obvious choices of either English or Italian.

184685773_5234117058_o

The fact that a Sammarinese diplomat should write a self-serving history of the country isn’t really a surprise;  it’s perhaps more surprising that an American writer should feel the need to translate it. I mean, it’s interesting that an independent republican city-state should survive, independent, all the way through the middle ages, the Renaissance and the unification of Italy into the modern age; but this book is not a particularly riveting account of how it happened. It doesn’t help that it tends to flatter itself; here’s an especially unsubtle example:

Their perseverance in good works, their energy in adversity, their manly love of liberty, the scrupulous loyalty with which they had kept their engagements, their immovable fidelity to their obligations, their tenacity, and their valor inspired the respect and esteem even of their enemies.

The whole book makes it sound like they managed to preserve their independence through the sheer force of their courage and virtue; presumably it was actually because they were inaccessible, strategically unimportant and just lucky.

Reading the Wikipedia article, it sounds like potentially the most interesting period of their history occurred after this book was published. The country had a fascist government from 1923, and was a single-party state from 1926, but still chose to remain neutral during WWII; then from 1945-57 they had the first elected communist government in Europe, which in turn fell in a constitutional crisis/revolution. There must be some good stories to be told about that lot.

However, I can’t be too grumpy about this book, because it was never going to be easy to find a book from San Marino for the Read The World challenge, and this was available, short, and downloaded for free from these guys. Cheap at the price.

* Saint-Marin : Ses Institutions, Son Histoire. Comte Charles de Bruc blah blah blah, Paris, 1876. The translation is by William Warren Tucker.

» San Marino is © Trent Strohm and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

Books of the year 2012

Now I list (most of) the books I read on Goodreads, it’s pretty easy to glance back over the books I read in 2012. And I can report the sad fact that I didn’t give a single book a five star rating last year. As the person who gives those scores, I know exactly what a crude measure of quality they are; but still, it suggests that there wasn’t anything which absolutely blew me away, and looking over the list, that seems about right.

Plenty of good stuff, though. At the less literary end, there were two books about public health issues which I found particularly thought-provoking: David Nutt’s Drugs without the Hot Air, which assesses drugs policy in the light of the evidence, and Ben Goldacre’s Bad Pharma, about institutional sources of distortion in drug research.

Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now – As Told by Those Who Love It, Hate It, Live It, Left It and Long for It is a good compilation of interviews with Londoners by Craig Taylor. The other London book I particularly enjoyed this year was Birds in London by W.H. Hudson, from 1898; but that might be sitting at rather a niche intersection of interests to recommend for general readers.

Sporting memoirs are a particularly frustrating genre. You always hope that they will offer some genuine insight into the backstage world, and they turn out to be anodyne pap. Andre Agassi’s Open is unusually honest and unusually good.

The Read The World challenge meant yet more first-person accounts of political upheaval. A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution by Samar Yazbek is immediate, raw, and a bit rough around the edges; From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey by Pascal Khoo Thwe is more literary and polished.

More far-flung politics in The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah; Ghana this time, and dense, spiky fiction rather than memoir.

One of the absolute stand-out novels that I read in the past few years was Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, so perhaps it’s not surprising that Gilead couldn’t quite live up to it; but it’s still a very fine novel.

Other novels worth at least a mention: The Lighthouse by Alison Moore; The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst; Chinaman: The legend of Pradeep Mathew by Shehan Karunatilaka. None of them are perfect but they’re all worth reading.

And I don’t seem to have read much poetry this year, but I particularly enjoyed Patricia Lockwood’s Balloon Pop Outlaw Black.

Beyond the Islands by Alicia Yánez Cossío

Beyond the Islands is set in the Galapagos. It’s a novel in the form of a set of eight stories, each about a different character. Each picks up from where the previous one left off, and there is continuity and overlap, but they are somewhat separate stories; eight narrative arcs rather than one overarching one.

The translation, by Amalia Gladhart, is new, but the novel was originally published in 1980. And so, not surprisingly, there is a bit of the old magical realism going on. That term probably now gets used too widely to be helpful — if it ever was — but this is a late C20th South American novel in which magical things occur, so it’s probably fair to use it here.

And although I get annoyed by some of the novels that seem to show magical-realist influence — novels that insert fabulous or improbable events as a rather lazy way of trying to seem more interesting — in this case it works pretty well. Perhaps because it is central to the whole structure and tone of the book: it’s not just being used as a decorative flourish.

Anyway, I don’t have anything very interesting to say (it’s too close to Christmas for thinkfulness), but I did enjoy it, on the whole. Beyond the Islands is my book from Ecuador for the Read The World challenge.

» The picture of the flightless cormorant is by me.

The Soul of the Rhino by Hemanta Mishra

Hemanta Mishra is a Nepali conservationist who, among other things, was part of the campaign to set up Nepals’ first national park, primarily to protect what is usually referred to as the Indian Rhinoceros, but which he refers to, for understandable nationalistic reasons, as the Asian one-horned rhinoceros.

This book is a memoir and is primarily a book about people rather than rhinos; that is, about the practicalities and politics of conservation, rather than the behaviour and habits of Rhinoceros unicornis.

So he has to deal with farmers whose crops are being damaged by rhinos; deter poachers; encourage tourism; work with bureaucrats and foreign NGOs; to learn from the practical experience of rangers and trackers; to capture rhinos for captive breeding programmes overseas; and after a brief battle with his conscience, he organises a ritualistic rhino hunt for the new king to kill a rhino for traditional symbolic purposes.

For most of the book he is telling a conservation success story; the population of rhinos in Nepal increases from about 100 to 650, including some relocated from Chitwan to a new national park elsewhere in Nepal that established a breeding population. Depressingly though, it ends with the country being thrown into chaos by the Nepalese Civil War, and poachers taking advantage of the power vacuum to kill about 270 rhinos in a few years. The book was published in 2008; as far as I can tell from a bit of quick googling, the situation has been stabilised and the rhinos are once again better protected, but it is a reminder of how fragile these populations can be.

I commented that 88 Days was a book with interesting material, but written by someone who wasn’t primarily a writer; The Soul of the Rhino is both more interesting and better written than 88 Days, but it has something of the same quality. Mishra certainly has enough interesting stories from decades of conservation work to fill a book, and he does a solid enough job of telling them, but it doesn’t transcend the subject matter; it’s not one of those books I would recommend to people just for the quality of the writing. However, if you’re interested in conservation, or rhinos, or Nepal, you will probably find it worth reading.

The Soul of the Rhino is my book from Nepal for the Read The World challenge.

» The photo of tourists on safari in Chitwan National Park is © Nomad Tales and used under a CC by-sa licence.

88 Days – A true story of Somali Pirates in the Indian Ocean by Francis Roucou

This is a first person account of being kidnapped and held for ransom by Somali pirates. Roucou was the captain of the Indian Ocean Explorer, a boat from the Seychelles which was chartered by tourists for diving and fishing — although only the crew was on board when the boat was captured.

It’s what you might expect: quite an interesting story told by someone who isn’t primarily a writer. He does a perfectly good job of telling what happened, but it’s not full of amazingly evocative description or profound psychological insight.

Still, it is an interesting story, and it does give an idea of the incredibly difficult situation he was in, being the man who had to interact face-to-face with the pirates while only having a very limited sense of what negotiations were happening in the background, and very rarely being given a chance to call the Seychelles, but only with the pirates listening in to his calls.

88 Days is my book from the Seychelles for the Read The World challenge.

» The photo, Royal Marines on Counter Piracy Operations Near Somalia, is © the Ministry of Defence and used under a CC by-nc licence. It’s not directly relevant to this book — no swooping in by Royal Marines was involved in the story — but at least it’s a CC licensed image related to Somali piracy.

A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution by Samar Yazbek

A Woman in the Crossfire is, as the subtitle suggests, an account of the Arab Spring-inspired uprisings in Syria; or at least the first few months of them.

This is my book from Syria for the Read The World challenge. Because of the rules I’ve set myself, that the books should be written by people from the countries in question, I often find it frustratingly difficult to find books which are up to date, and which engage with life in those countries as it is now: usually if a book is only twenty years old I’m doing quite well.

This book is certainly up to date. Or at least, as a piece of journalism I suppose it’s already slightly out of date; it covers the period from March to July last year, and the situation in Syria has moved on since then. But it still feels very fresh and raw.

Like A Poet and Bin Laden, this is journalism (in a broad sense) written by a novelist. And although it is much less ‘literary’ in form — it’s written in a pretty straightforward diary form, plus interviews she did with other Syrians — there are certainly bits that don’t quite read like standard journalism. Most obvious is the amount of emphasis on her own emotional and psychological experience. It rubs against the normal assumption of journalism that keeping the journalist out of the story is evidence of objectivity.

But actually, the psychological pressures on a dissident living in a police state which is cracking down violently on protests is a fascinating subject in its own right. The sleeplessness, the panic and uncertainty, the fear that the regime will take revenge, not just on her but on her daughter: this is an important part of the story of what it means to live in a dictatorship. And it makes it all the more admirable that she kept on putting herself in danger by going out to observe protests and conduct interviews; and completely unsurprising that after a few months she chose to leave the country, taking her daughter with her.

At times it starts to feel a bit repetitive because, well, events were repetitive: there are an awful lot of protests and massacres. Generally, though, the quality of the writing is enough to keep up the interest. The book does a particularly good job of providing a sense of life as it happened; it’s not just the facts, it’s the texture of experience.

» The photo Banyas Demos – / Syria سورية مظاهرات /صور بانياس, from 6th May 2011, is © Syria-Frames-Of-Freedom and used under a CC attribution licence.

My Urohs by Emelihter Kihleng

This is my book from Micronesia* for the Read The World challenge. It is apparently the first collection of poetry by a Pohnpeian poet. I have to admit, I didn’t pick it up with a great deal of enthusiasm; my main reaction when it arrived in the post was oh well, at least it’s short. Because picking books for this exercise is always a bit of a lottery, but the smaller the country, the worse the odds. And the track record for slim volumes of poetry is not great either.

However, I was pleasantly surprised. The poems have the local focus suggested by the title — an urohs is a Pohnpeian skirt decorated in appliqué — but it’s a contemporary version of it, with Facebook and ramen and Destiny’s Child as well as breadfruit and paramount chiefs. It’s built up with simple effective details and the English is interspersed with phrases of Pohnpeian, some of it footnoted and some of it not. The poems touch in various ways on the issues of globalisation, identity, modernity and so on, but usually without being too heavy-handed.

I don’t want to oversell it — it’s good rather than amazing — but I did genuinely enjoy it and in the end would have been happy for it to be longer.

* Strictly speaking, the Federated States of Micronesia, or FSM, which I just find confusing because it makes me think of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

A Poet and Bin-Laden by Hamid Ismailov

This book tells the true story of Belgi, an Uzbek poet who fled the brutal regime in Uzbekistan and ended up in an Islamic militant/terrorist/dissident organisation up in the mountains of Tajikistan, just at the end of the 90s: in other words, as part of the same broad cultural movement as the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden, just before 9/11.

The value of the novel is that it provides a more intimate perspective on that movement. Not that Hamid Ismailov was part of it himself — it’s not an insider’s view — but he’s an Uzbek poet and novelist who fled the country and ended up working for the BBC World Service, writing about an Uzbek poet who fled the country and ended up fighting with Islamic militants. There’s a cultural empathy there which is quite different to reading a book written by, say, an American diplomat or academic.

It’s more nuanced, more human, messier. The militants are not a faceless mass, they are a group of individuals. The religious cause is the primary motivation for some; but others are mainly concerned with opposing a particular Uzbek regime, or with personal ambition. And those who got caught up by accident and know that they are likely to be shot if they try to leave.

Belgi is well suited to being the human face of islamism, because his poetry offers the most direct possible contradiction of the stereotype. Most of the chapters start with an extract of his poetry, and it is modern, elusive/allusive… it is not the poetry of zealotry or violence. For example, picking one essentially at random:

Has summer come?
In your life you’ll still write another
Twenty-five books in the little square
among the mass of stone, ugly memorials.
Some concrete piece, the existence of a memorial
left by the builders,
turns into the absurd
as though, yes, say as though, in as far as
even if the thought ends
the yearning to continue it
does not end.
Shall I go into the dining room
and soak my hardened
brains in tea
so as to pour into my thought?
Here no one needs you,
but this is just the width and the length
of the fact that you need no one.

The poetry is not contemporary with him being a militant, it’s a different phase of his life; but still, the two things seem strikingly at odds.

So there’s a lot which is interesting about the book. But I do have some issues, mainly to do with form rather than content. The publisher’s blurb refers to it as a ‘reality novel’ and says that ‘in this book Hamid Ismailov masterfully intertwines fiction with documentary’. I don’t have a principled objection to mixing fiction and non-fiction, but in practice I found it confusing: I just wanted to have some idea of what was definitely true, what might be true, and what, if anything, was pure invention. No doubt the people who tried to teach me literary theory at university would despair at my naivety, but there you go.

What I found particularly confusing was that the book is an odd mixture of what reads like fiction with documents reproduced verbatim: press releases, transcripts of radio interviews and so on. And I was reading it thinking, well, the ‘documentary’ stuff must be genuine because anyone inventing it as fiction would make it a bit livelier; but the ‘fictional’ bits include events where the author wasn’t present, told as though from direct experience.

I ended up trying to google Belgi to find out whether or not he even existed; and to add to my confusion, couldn’t initially find any trace of him (I did eventually, once I worked out what to search for).

It’s not until chapter 32, halfway through the book, that Ismailov writes:

I think the time has arrived for me to interrupt my story and put in at least a brief word of clarification. Everything that I have written so far is documentary, and not only in those sections where I cite documents or eyewitness accounts, but also – even more importantly – in the parts where I tell the story of Belgi-Yosir, or rather, where I reproduce reality as seen through his eyes.

This is the point at which I must say that I have not made anything up, and while I am open to the reproach that I have not seen it all with my own eyes, nonetheless I have made it a rule in every case to rely on the words of those who did see things for themselves. Many of these people will never admit what happened to them: for instance Alisher, or Umar, who told me himself how he and Belgi came to be in Hoit, now works in a foreign cultural delegation.

If that explanation had appeared in the first few chapters it would have saved me a lot of fretting.

In fact I personally would have liked a generally simpler narrative. Inevitably there are a lot of unfamiliar names to keep track of — people, places, organisations — but it seemed to be made harder than necessary by the way it kept shifting around; not only the stylistic shifts between the documentary, ‘fiction’, and Ismailov’s first-person accounts of his own experiences, but also it felt like it kept hopping around in time and place.

So in various ways I found the model of a ‘reality novel’ awkward; it felt like the two impulses were fighting each other a bit, and I would have preferred either one thing or the other: a novelistic narrative or straight non-fiction.

But it’s an interesting and valuable book, despite that.

[Just in the spirit of full disclosure: the publishers, Glagoslav, sent me a review copy because I previously wrote a review of Ismailov’s novel, The Railway. Which was a first. So thanks to them for that.]

London Film Festival 2012, personal roundup

I do enjoy the LFF: interesting films, cinemas full of largely well-behaved audiences, and no ads or trailers. I went to five films this year, this is what I thought of them. Obviously.

Reality

An Italian film about a Naples fishmonger and petty criminal who becomes dangerously obsessed with appearing on the reality show Big Brother (or, strictly speaking, Grande Fratello). It’s funny and odd and well acted, and it looks terrific, with Naples providing a backdrop of decayed grandeur. I wasn’t completely convinced by the ending, but overall I thought it was really good.

Helter Skelter

A film about a hugely popular model with a dark secret: her looks are entirely produced by a radical, dangerous form of plastic surgery. On one level it’s a satire, but it does the classic exploitation movie thing of supposedly decrying our cultural obsession with youth and beauty while the camera lingers lasciviously on the face and body of the star.

The messaging is clunkingly heavy handed, and it’s stylistically and tonally very uneven, but it was good salacious fun. Personally I think it needed to be even more unapologetically salacious and exploitative; you could surely cut half an hour of the more ponderous stuff to give a tighter focus on the sex, violence and body horror.

Tey [‘Today’]

A Senegalese film about a man who, for reasons which are never explained, knows that he is going to die at the end of the day. Someone has seen it in a vision or something, and it’s somehow an honour, but it’s never made clear: all we know is that he’s not going to wake up the next morning. I don’t know whether this is a cultural trope that a Senegalese audience would find familiar, or if it’s intended to be as strange as it seems to me.

The film is then about what he decides to do with his last day; some of it mundane, some parts more profound, and all of it freighted with extra significance. Odd but quite effective.

Midnight’s Children

The film of what must be Salman Rushdie’s most popular novel, if not his most famous (somehow I don’t think that one is going to be made into a film any time soon).

It started off well, but lost me along the way. It’s a big fat complicated novel that takes place over multiple generations, and the film failed to hold it all together. It didn’t help that for much of the film, a lot of the heavy lifting is being done by child actors. And because the lives of these children, born at the moment of Indian independence, are supposed to parallel modern Indian history, we get that history explained to us with big dollops of expository voiceover.

Overall, though, it just seemed a bit one-paced. And considering the richness of the original novel and the fireworks of Rushdie’s prose, it was just a bit tame and conventional. Perhaps it was a mistake for Rushdie to write the script himself, or perhaps it needed a different director.

Village at the End of the World

An Anglo-Danish documentary about a village in Greenland. It’s a brutal environment, and life is marginal at the best of times, but also they are dealing with the closure of the small fish-processing plant that was their main source of income, and global warming is making the ice treacherous for hunting in winter.

It’s funnier and warmer than that makes it sound, mainly because they found some great characters. And it helps that it just looks amazing: bleak but beautiful, glowing in the summer, and of course completely dark in winter, with just the windows lit up against in the night.

It’s partially an environmental documentary, and partially a film about tensions between tradition and modernity, and a record of a life that will no doubt be very different, again, in a few years time. But above all it’s beautifully made and enjoyable to watch.

Whispering Death: The Life and Times of Michael Holding by Michael Holding with Tony Cozier

I enjoy watching cricket, so when looking for books from the West Indies for the Read The World challenge, it occurred to me that a few cricketers must have written books. But I had previously resisted that temptation; because it seemed like an unimaginative choice and, let’s face it, because sporting memoirs tend to be pretty dull.

But in a moment of weakness I ordered Michael Holding’s autobiography from 1993. Holding is one of my favourite cricket broadcasters these days: he seems like a thoroughly nice man, he talks well about cricket, and his rumbling Jamaican accent is one of the great voices in broadcasting. And Tony Cozier, who is a great radio commentator, is a good person to have as a ghostwriter.

Sadly, this book is indeed fairly dull. It’s not a bad book — in fact it’s probably better than average for a sportsman’s memoir — but it’s not one of the rare examples that transcends the genre. There are all kinds of ways one of these books could stand out: it could be funny, or psychologically insightful, or gossipy and indiscreet. But instead this is just a solid, professional bit of writing. Perhaps some of the opinions expressed were controversial at the time, by the mild standards of sporting controversy; but it’s no Ball Four.

In the last chapter, he mentions in an offhand comments that he has three children by three different women, only one of whom had been his wife; and you suddenly get a sense of all the things he hasn’t been telling you. Not that I particularly need to know about his love life, but it’s part of a broader professional discretion. And ‘discreet’ is not the most exciting quality in a memoir.

Michael Holding is from Jamaica, but Whispering Death is my book for Barbados, where Tony Cozier is from. Mainly because there are lots of good choices for books from Jamaica and not so many from Barbados.

Complete Works and Other Stories by Augusto Monterroso

Complete Works and Other Stories by Augusto Monterroso is my book from Honduras* for the Read The World challenge. It is a book of playful, idea-heavy short stories; the influence of Borges is mentioned in the introduction, but I think I would have made the connection even without that.†

It’s actually a translation of two books, Complete Works and Other Stories (1959) and Perpetual Motion (1972) which are somewhat different in character; the ‘stories’ in Complete Works are indeed actual narratives, however short, elliptical or open-ended, whereas many of those in Perpetual Motion are more like essays or aphorisms.

I’d got a bit stuck on reading my way around the world, basically because I had two or three books waiting to be read which didn’t appeal to me: I think I’m going to need a plane journey to Australia before I can face the enormous fat modernist novel, and I need a break from Very Serious post-colonial novels from Africa.‡ On that basis, the Monterroso was an excellent choice: well written, intelligent, serious enough but with a sense of humour and, let’s be honest, short. A nice easy tick to get the list moving again.

And since that’s a bit damning-with-faint-praise: I did enjoy this book. To make the invidious comparison, I think there’s a reason that he’s much less famous than Borges; he doesn’t have quite the distinctiveness or surprisingness. But if you like that kind of thing, you will probably like these too.

* As is so often the case, my boring pedantic soul requires me to clarify on nationality: Augusto Monterroso is usually described as a Guatemalan writer. But he was born in Honduras to a Honduran mother and spent his childhood up to the age of 15 moving between the two countries. And spent most of his adult life in exile in Mexico.

† And indeed before reading Monterroso’s essay about reading Borges.

‡ Not that I necessarily dislike serious post-colonial African novels, you understand. I’m just not currently very excited about picking up another one.

» Monterroso’s most famous story is ‘The Dinosaur’, supposedly the shortest ever written. The photo of an origami triceratops is © Emre Ayaroglu and used under a CC attribution licence.

Read The World challenge: status report, 2012

August 1st marked four years of the Read The World challenge. Last time I did a status report was two years ago: at that point I calculated that, at the rate I was reading them, it would take me another four years to finish.

Well, I’ve done the sums again, and at the current rate it’s going to take me… another four years. Hmmm.

However, leaving aside the fact that I don’t appear to be getting any closer to the finish line, I have read a few good books in the meantime — as well as some that were a bit of a chore.

The two outstanding books were Voices from Chernobyl, which is a fascinating, moving and poetic piece of non-fiction, and The Ice Palace, which is a poetic short novel about childhood and loss and winter.

The fact I use the word ‘poetic’ for both of my favourites says something about my literary biases. Or the poverty of my vocabulary.

Other books that stand out in my memory when I look back over the list (which may not be the same as saying they were the best books):

Born in Tibet and The Sands of Oxus were both interesting from a cultural tourism point of view more than for their literary merit.

Noli Me Tangere and This Earth of Mankind are good old-fashioned novels from the Philippines and Malaysia respectively. The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born and Cities of Salt are somewhat more contemporary examples from Ghana and Jordan.*

Three good childhood memoirs: Shadows of your Black Memory is about growing up caught between Catholicism and traditional religion in Equatorial Guinea; The Devil that Danced on the Water is written by the daughter of a politician in Sierra Leone who spent much of her childhood in exile in the UK; and From the Land of Green Ghosts is about growing up in a remote part of Burma and being involved as a student in the 1988 political uprising that was brutally crushed by the government.

* Stylistically contemporary at least: I thought I should check, and was surprised to find Beautyful Ones was actually published before This Earth of Mankind. But even apart from the fact that This Earth of Mankind is set at the end of the C19th, it just feels like a much more traditional novel.

» The Mappa Mundi game is from the V&A.

Songs Of Love by Konai Helu Thaman

Full title: Songs Of Love: New And Selected Poems (1974-1999). This was going to be my book for Kiribati for the Read The World challenge, but it turns out I misread the listing: the illustrator is from Kiribati, the poet is from Tonga. But I didn’t have a book for Tonga, so that’s fine.

I’ve read some underwhelming books from the Pacific for this exercise — which is no surprise, really. Tonga has a population of just 104,000, so picking a book from Tonga is like picking a book from Colchester — if Colchester* was a fairly poor country in the middle of nowhere with little literary tradition and English as a second language [ESSEX JOKE].

I would love to be able to say that this was one of those unexpected treats that make the whole exercise worthwhile… but it’s not. Sorry. It’s OK, I’ve read far worse poetry, but I couldn’t get very excited about it. Here’s a short poem that I quite liked:

EARLY MORNING SUN

the early morning sun steals
through the tightly closed windows
touching last night’s leftovers
leaning low against the light

there is the kettle boiling
and still you will not come

It’s all lower-case, btw, even place names and ‘i’. Which is a stylistic choice I personally find a bit irritating, but hey-ho.

* or pick your local equivalent: Langley, British Columbia; Launceston, Tasmania; Burbank, California; Nancy in France; Siegen in Germany, Bolzano in Italy, etc.

» The photo of Tongan rugby fans is © Nick Thompson and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence. There is no rugby in this book of poetry.

Translations From The Night by Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo

Rabearivelo was a poet writing in Madagascar in the 20s and 30s — he killed himself in 1937 at the age of 36. He wrote in French; some of his later poems claimed to be translated from Malagasy, but according to this anthology’s introduction, the evidence suggests it was the other way round: that he wrote them in French, produced Malagasy versions, and then lied about it.

Initially at least he wrote squarely in the mainstream of French poetry at the time — again this is according to the introduction, I don’t know enough about early C20th French poetry to judge — but later he took more influence from local traditions, as evidenced by the way he pretended his poems had been translated from Malagasy.

This anthology includes a few examples of his early work but is mainly selected from three later books: shortish free verse lyrics from Presque-Songes (‘Near-Dreams’) and Traduit de la Nuit (‘Translated from the Night’); and short prose pieces from Vieilles Chansons des Pays d’Imerina [‘Old Imerinan Songs’].

The Madagascan influence is not especially obvious, to me at least, in the lyrics; there are a few references to lianas, cassava, coral, and so on, but most of the imagery seems to be very universal: twilight, stars, birds, flowers, bulls, the sun, the moon. I’m sure I’m missing things, since the book is blissfully free of footnotes; which is nice, because footnotes can feel a bit naggy and joyless, but on the other hand, when it says something like

What invisible rat
out of the walls of the night
is gnawing at the milk-cake of the moon?

it could for all I know be a reference to some Malagasy folk-story, or it might just be a ‘normal’ poetic image. And ‘gateau lacté‘ might be some kind of local dish, or it might just mean that the moon is round and white (if it is a real dish, a quick googling provides no evidence for it).

The local influence seems more obvious in the prose, which not only has more local colour but has something of the flavour of traditional story-telling to it. Here’s an example (this is the entire piece):

 – Who is there? Is the Woman-whose-footsteps-echo-the-livelong-days? Is it the Woman-who-is-hard-to-question?
– It is not the Woman-whose-footsteps-echo-the-livelong-days nor the Woman-who-is-hard-to-question! But I am the wife of another, and the livelong days I must know my place. Besides I am the wife of another, and when someone tells me our secrets I am not at all pleased. So plant one root of a fig-tree: perhaps its shadow would make me come. Plant a few roots of castor-oil tree: perhaps then you might be able to hold me. I would rather walk a long way to get my pitcher filled than take away a half empty pitcher with no waiting!
– Offer me green fruits and I will offer you bitter ones.

Questions of ethnology and influence aside, I quite enjoyed it as poetry, although I always struggle with poetry in translation: I assume I’m missing something and try to give everything the benefit of the doubt, but it does feel like watching TV through smoked glass sometimes.

At least in this case I had the French parallel text, but my long-withered schoolboy French was never good enough to assess poetry. It is good enough to find a few spots where the translation seemed a bit odd: repetition in the French which wasn’t reproduced in the English, long sentences in French which were broken up in translation, slangy dialogue in English which seemed less slangy in the original. Small things, really, but they just undermine your confidence a bit.

Still, it was interesting and enjoyable enough to be worth reading.

Translations From The Night: Selected Poems Of Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo is my book from Madagascar for the Read The World challenge.

» Because it’s a book from Madagascar, I decided to use a picture of a lemur. There are no lemurs featured in Rabearivelo’s poetry. More’s the pity.

Funny Lemur is © Tambako The Jaguar and used under a CC by-nd licence.

Damien Hirst at the Tate

So I went along to see the big Damien Hirst show at Tate Modern.

It rather lacked the element of surprise; whatever Hirst’s other qualities, he is a great self-publicist, so anyone living in the UK with an interest in art is already very familiar with his work. His earliest student pieces were new to me; apart from that I think there was only one work in the whole exhibition which I didn’t immediately recognise.

I didn’t come out of this feeling very enthusiastic. Sometimes you go into a big retrospective, and seeing all the work together makes it more powerful: because you can see the threads running through the work, or the development, or you absorb the artist’s aesthetic and gain a deeper sense of what they’re trying to do which you don’t get from individual paintings.

I think the opposite is the case with Damien Hirst. His work often works well in a mixed exhibition: it has a clear, simple quality to it and a designery aesthetic which helps make it stand out when it needs to compete for your attention. But when you put a whole lot of his pieces together, it starts to seem obvious and corporate and a bit dull.

You can see why Hirst became so commercially successful: his work is instantly recognisable, easily produced in large quantities, and looks modern without being too difficult or threatening. Just as Abstract Expressionism was the perfect art for big corporations in postwar America, when they needed something modern looking to hang in the lobbies of their shiny new glass and steel office buildings, so Hirst was the perfect artist for the time before the crunch. Ideal for people who find themselves with a startling amount of money but who don’t have much confidence in their own taste. Like Prada or Bentley or Patek Phillipe.

And why not, after all. He didn’t create the madness of the art market, he just did a very good job of exploiting it. And he’s used his money to build up his own big collection of contemporary art, which I believe he’s planning to open to the public. So I approve of that.

And despite the grumpy tone of this post, I don’t dislike his work — but seeing a whole load of it one place made me like it less rather than more.

» The picture is Psalm 23: Dominus regit me. Butterflies and household gloss on canvas, 2008.

To Sir, With Love by E.R. Braithwaite

I knew that To Sir, With Love was a book about a black Caribbean man struggling with racial prejudice in 1950s London, so I was quite amused that the opening — his description of travelling on a bus full of East End women — reads so much like a white colonial Briton describing the natives of a third world country. It’s the combination of effortless cultural superiority and an anthropological eye.

The women carried large heavy shopping bags, and in the ripe mixture of odours which accompanied them, the predominant one hinted at a good haul of fish or fishy things. They reminded me somehow of the peasants in a book by Steinbeck – they were of the city, but they dressed like peasants, they looked like peasants, and they talked like peasants. Their cows were motor-driven milk floats; their tools were mop and pail and kneeling pad; their farms a forest of steel and concrete. In spite of the hairgrips and headscarves, they had their own kind of dignity.

They joshed and chivvied each other and the conductor in an endless stream of lewdly suggestive remarks and retorts, quite careless of being overheard by me – a Negro, and the only other male on the bus. The conductor, a lively, quick-witted felllow, seemed to know them all well enough to address them on very personal terms, and kept them in noisy good humour with a stream of quips and pleasantries to which they made reply in kind. Sex seemed little more than a joke to them, a conversation piece which alternated with their comments on the weather, and their vividly detailed discussions on their actual or imagined ailments.

There was another particularly fine example of the type later on the book:

I did not go over to him: these Cockneys are proud people and prefer to be left to themselves at times when they feel ashamed.

It could be a conscious literary decision to subvert expectations, but firstly Braithwaite doesn’t particularly strike me as that kind of writer — he’s generally pretty direct — and also I can imagine a white British writer with a similar educational background writing in much the same way; like Orwell’s representation of the proles in 1984.

In other words it’s partially a class thing; Braithwaite was from a very educated background; both his parents went to Oxford, which I assume was pretty rare in Guyana at the start of the C20th, and he studied in New York before serving as a pilot in the RAF during the war and then doing a Master’s degree at Cambridge. But then race is always partially about class. The class structure is one of the ways that racial status can be monitored and enforced. And it was only because of Braithwaite’s race that he was doing what no similarly educated white Briton would be doing: working as a teacher in a grotty East End secondary school. He was rejected from all the engineering jobs which he was better qualified to do, often on explicitly racial grounds in the days when it was legal to tell people that to their faces, and fell into teaching because it was the only option available.

So that’s the set-up: educated, well-dressed black man takes a job teaching in a run-down East End school full of problem teenagers. And if you’ve ever seen a movie where an inspiring teacher goes to work in a deprived inner city school, you pretty much know how the rest of it plays out: he is stern but wise and passionate, and he overcomes their initial hostility and prejudice to teach them the value of education and good manners, and above all he teaches them self respect. And he in turn learns his own lessons, about not being such a snobby prude (although he doesn’t learn the lesson that if you’re a grown man writing about fifteen and sixteen year old girls, there are only so many times you can mention their breasts before it starts to seem a bit creepy).

I’m being a bit glib; there is a lot that’s interesting about this book, and it’s well written. But when I say it’s like a Hollywood movie: it really does read like that. And of course you wonder if it’s too good to be true. Clearly he is an impressive man, and I can believe he was an inspiring teacher, and I expect the broad outlines are all true… but for something which claims to be non-fiction, it just seems like it was written by someone who was willing to burnish the truth for the sake of a good story.

It’s not that I fetishise historical accuracy for its own sake — I don’t have much objection to things like characters being composites of several people — but I do worry that I’m getting a less perceptive, less insightful book if too many if the complications and contradictions have been tidied away.

To Sir, With Love is my book from Guyana for the Read The World challenge. I seem to have been harder on it than I really intended. I think it’s probably fairest to say it’s a good book which has aged badly. But there’s still plenty to like about it.

The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born by Ayi Kwei Armah

The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born is a novel set during the last days of the Nkrumah government in Ghana. It’s about a man resisting corruption, quixotically in the view of most of those around him. The scathing portrayal of a corrupt society is all the sharper because of the contrast with the optimism that came with independence; it’s a novel, among other things, about the loss of hope. A kind of Animal Farm of post-colonialism.

It’s a slim book, less than 200 pages, but it took me quite a long time to read because it required focussed attention: eventually I took it on a long train journey where there were no distractions. It’s just densely written, with detailed, closely observed descriptive passages that are very effective; but also with some convoluted sentences that simply do not allow for skimming. This is the kind of thing:

But along the streets, those who can soon learn to recognize in ordinary faces beings whom the spirit has moved, but who cannot follow where it beckons, so heavy are the small ordinary days of the time.

I know it’s hardly Finnegans Wake, but it’s a bit of a speed bump when you’re reading.

Incidentally, the cover of the Heinemann edition really seems like a terrible choice for a novel which is dark and spiky and intricate. I should know by now: don’t read too much into the cover design. But I think it’s unavoidable that it affects your expectations, and I was really startled by the mismatch between the cover and the content.

The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born is my book from Ghana for the Read The World challenge. I tried to find a short passage to quote to give you a flavour, but it doesn’t really lend itself to quoting. So I’ll just say it’s sharp, bitter, evocative, sometimes for my taste slightly overwritten, but more often beautiful.

» The picture is a detail of a cloth printed in the 1950s to commemorate Ghanaian independence, from the British Museum collections.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

I’ve had this on my to-read shelf for some time (the one in my bedroom, not the one on Goodreads), basically because I thought Housekeeping was a really magical book.

But I knew there was a long gap between the two — 24 years, apparently — so I didn’t quite know what to expect. And it is a rather different book; more conventional, really. Housekeeping is very descriptive, impressionistic, elusive; it’s a book where not much happens but it happens in a beautiful way. Gilead is more direct, not least because it’s told in character in the first person, and while it’s not exactly action-packed, it has a much more defined plot, with unexpected twists and things being revealed and everything.

I don’t want to exaggerate — it’s still a novel of nuances which works by the accumulation of impressions, and the narrator interweaves past and present, so it’s not a simple linear narrative — but it’s a less overtly poetic book. And I was less blown away by it. But I still think it’s a very fine novel. Most impressive, perhaps, apart from the general quality of the writing, is the characterisation of the narrator: it really does feel like a story told from the viewpoint of an individual, who seems to be an honest witness but whose perspective is partial. In both senses.

One measure of the quality of the writing is this: it is told from the perspective of a preacher, with a lot of religion woven through his telling of the story, and it left me feeling more sympathetic to the idea of a religious life than anything I’ve read for a long time. And sympathy for religion is not something that comes very naturally for me.

The Book of Khalid by Ameen Rihani

I heard about The Book of Khalid because last year was the centenary of its publication, and there was a burst of publicity to celebrate it as the first Arab-American novel. There’s a fuller biography of Rihani here, but here’s the snapshot version: Ameen Fares Rihani was born in Lebanon, but the family moved to New York for business when he was eleven. He moved back to Lebanon at 23 for health reasons [and later back to New York and back to Lebanon again] and he wrote books in both English and Arabic — The Book of Khalid being one of those written in English.

Obviously it occurred to me that I could read The Book of Khalid as my book from Lebanon for the Read The World challenge, and it’s out of copyright, so I downloaded the ebook from Project Gutenberg. But there are quite a few contemporary Lebanese writers available in English translation, and I was also considering those. So I didn’t get round to reading it until a few days ago when I was looking at my Kindle, wondering what to read, and thought I might as well give it a go.

And I have to say that I was immediately quite impressed; it struck me as more interesting and more modern than I was expecting.

It is the story of Khalid. He grows up as a muleteer in Baalbek in Lebanon, and raises enough money to move to New York; while living there he becomes an autodidact, reading literature and philosophy from second-hand books, and moving in various interesting New York circles; later he moves back to Lebanon and becomes a bit of a philosopher and political activist. Quite a lot of it is clearly somewhat autobiographical from Rihani: self-education in a basement in Brooklyn, and a period of asceticism in the mountains of Lebanon, for example.

The book is written in the voice of someone who has found an autobiographical manuscript written in Arabic by Khalid, but who is also working from another account written by Khalid’s friend Shakib. Large chunks of the novel are supposedly directly quoted from these manuscripts, but they are tied together by the unnamed ‘Editor’, who (i) is presumably responsible for the translation into English; (ii) tells quite a lot of the story as a third person narrative; and (iii) provides a certain amount of running commentary, which is frequently sceptical or at least slightly sardonic.

So you have Rihani writing the ‘autobiography’ of a character who is clearly a poorer, less sophisticated version of himself, with commentary provided by that character’s more conventional, earnest, slightly comical friend, and then commentary on both of them from a worldly and distinctly patronising Editor. You can see why I think it feels modern.

It also makes me unsure how to unpick the prose style. It is distinctly flowery by modern standards; this obviously reflects changing literary fashion, but I wasn’t sure whether it was also a stylistic device as part of the characterisation of the Editor. Some of the vocabulary in particular — umbrageous, stivy, nephelococcygia, propylon, steatopygous, edacious — makes it seem like a parody of a certain kind of writing. Or take these little passages. This is commentary from the Editor:

This leisure hour is the nipple of the soul. And fortunate they who are not artificially suckled, who know this hour no matter how brief, who get their nipple at the right time. If they do not, no pabulum ever after, will their indurated tissues assimilate. Do you wonder why the world is full of crusty souls? and why to them this infant hour, this suckling while, is so repugnant? But we must not intrude more of such remarks about mankind. Whether rightly suckled or not, we manage to live; but whether we do so marmot-like or Maronite-like, is not the question here to be considered.

‘If they do not, no pabulum ever after, will their indurated tissues assimilate’ is a particularly magnificently baroque sentence. This is a bit from Khalid himself:

“Here, where my forebears deliquesced in sensuality, devotion, and grief, where the ardency of the women of Byblus flamed on the altar of Tammuz, on this knoll, whose trees and herbiage are fed perchance with their dust, I build my athafa (little kitchen), Arab-like, and cook my noonday meal. On the three stones, forming two right angles, I place my skillet, kindle under it a fire, pour into it a little sweet oil, and fry the few eggs I purchased in the village. I abominate the idea of frying eggs in water as the Americans do.1 I had as lief fry them in vinegar or syrup, where neither olive oil nor goat-butter is obtainable. But to fry eggs in water? O the barbarity of it! Why not, my friend, take them boiled and drink a little hot water after them? This savours of originality, at least, and is just as insipid, if not more. Withal, they who boil cabbage, and heap it in a plate over a slice of corn-beef, and call it a dish, can break a few boiled eggs in a cup of hot water and call them fried. Be this as it may. The Americans will be solesistically simple even in their kitchen.

Now surely it’s an intentional bit of mock-heroic styling to counterpose the highflown stuff about ‘women of Byblus’ and ‘altar of Tammuz’ and the kvetching about American eggs. Especially since the passage is footnoted thus:

1. Khalid would speak here of poached eggs, we believe. And the Americans, to be fair, are not so totally ignorant of the art of frying. They have lard—much worse than water––in which they cook, or poach, or fry—but the change in the name does not change the taste. So, we let Khalid’s stricture on fried eggs and boiled cabbage stand.—Editor.

Apart from the tricksy book-within-a-book structure of it, the other modern echo is political. It is an account of a young Arab man visiting the West, becoming disenchanted with it, returning to Middle East and calling for a return to a purer, more spiritual form of Islam: he sees Wahhabism as the great hope, which slightly startled me. Not that Khalid shows any signs of becoming a terrorist or even, really, a religious extremist; but still, that parallel is there. Of course it’s a pattern which has repeated many times over the centuries: responding to a decadent society by calling for a purer form of Islam to come out of the desert.

The most striking coincidence comes when he is advocating the overthrow of the oppressors and says “It is the beginning of Arabia’s Spring” — even if in this case the oppressors are the Ottoman Empire rather than Mubarak or Gaddafi or American imperialism.

It’s an interesting book. I found it a little hard going in places — there are some long discussions of religio-politico-spiritual-cultural matters where the elaborate prose style really started to drag, and bits where the book loses forward momentum a bit — but there were also bits which were lively and clever and engaging. It was certainly worth reading.

» The watercolour of the Temple of Bacchus at Baalbek in Syria is by John Singer Sargent and is from the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the advertisement for the Bayrooty Troupe is from the New York Public Library.

Noli Me Tangere by José Rizal

Noli Me Tangere is described on the back cover as ‘The novel that sparked the Philippine revolution’. Which sounds a bit hyperbolic, but apparently the publication of the novel in 1887 was an important moment; even more so, Rizal’s subsequent execution for rebellion, sedition and conspiracy.

So it’s a political novel, an unusually early example of a colonial novel written from the perspective of the colonised. In this case, the main representatives of colonial power are from the church rather than the civil authorities. That’s not unique; religion has often been an important tool of empire and post-colonial novels are full of priests and nuns and, above all, church schools. But the Philippines does seem to have been an extreme case, where the religious institutions were more powerful than the civil authorities.

Which means that the book is peopled with villainous friars — cruel, vindictive, scheming, manipulative, hypocritical, lustful, oleaginous — and it reminded me of those early gothic novels which always seemed to have sinister, black-hearted monks in them.* Especially since it’s never shy of a bit of melodrama.

In fact, it’s a rather lumpy mixture of melodrama, satire and long, wordy political discussions, and I can’t say all of it held my attention equally. I liked it most when it was at its most exaggerated — ferociously satirical or floridly gothic — and I found it fell a bit flat when it aimed for genuine sentiment.

A mixed bag for me, then. Bits of it are genuinely brilliant, though. There’s a scene with gravediggers at work in a badly over-crowded cemetery which is wonderfully morbid, for example; and a grotesque portrayal of an ageing Filipina who is so determined to marry a Spaniard and be ‘Spanish’ herself that she marries a useless, feckless man whose only quality is that in the Philippines his nationality gives him an ersatz respectability, then insists on only speaking broken Spanish.

Noli Me Tangere by José Rizal, translated by Harold Augenbraum, is my book from the Philippines for the Read the World challenge.

* In my memory they do, anyway, although glancing through a few plot synopses on Wikipedia, they were just as likely to be sinister, black-hearted aristocrats. Perhaps I’m just thinking of The Monk.

» The memorial of the execution of José Rizal is in Rizal Park in Manila. Rizal is apparently a full-on national hero in the Philippines, so there were many statues to choose from, but this is the most dynamic; the most in keeping, perhaps with the tone of the book.  The photo is © Joshua Bousel and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work! by Douglas Coupland

Pointless fact about Marshall McLuhan: he has always been oddly tangled up in my mind with Malcolm McLaren, he of the Sex Pistols and Buffalo Gals. The lingering after-effects of a youthful misunderstanding. Malcolm McLaren, in turn, gets mixed up with Malcolm McDowell.

I’m a fan of Douglas Coupland’s novels — they’re not all masterpieces, but they’re always worth reading — and his fascination with media, pop culture and technology made him seem an intriguing person to be writing a biography of McLuhan, based on my vague idea of McLuhan’s work.

And I think it’s true that there’s a real meeting of minds there, and this book is quite readable, but I was left wondering if biography was the best form it could have taken. It might have been more interesting to read a book in which Coupland responded directly to the work; i.e. by taking a couple of essays and surrounding them with commentary, annotation and footnotes. A bit of playful fisking.

Still, the book served well enough as a short, light, introduction to McLuhan’s life. It made me think I ought to pick up one of McLuhan’s own books, so it clearly worked on that level.

From the Land of Green Ghosts by Pascal Khoo Thwe

From the Land of Green Ghosts is an autobiography. Pascal Khoo Thwe is from the Padaung ethnic minority in Burma — best known for the brass neck-rings worn by the women which elongate their necks — and was brought up with both the local animist traditions and Catholicism; the two religious traditions seem to have coexisted rather more easily than a strict reading of Catholic theology might allow.

He went to a Catholic seminary but later decided he didn’t want to be a priest, and instead went to university in Mandalay, where he studied for a couple of years before witnessing some of the political uprising of of 1988 and the government’s brutal response. He was briefly a political activist before it became clear that the revolution had failed, when he was forced to flee across country, initially to the area held by the longstanding ethnic Karenni rebellion and then across the border to Thailand. Eventually, thanks to an earlier chance meeting with a Cambridge professor visiting Mandalay, he was offered the chance to go to England to study literature at Cambridge.

The early parts, about a childhood in the backwoods of Burma with traditional customs and a Catholic education, are interesting and atmospheric; but it really comes into its own with the uprising. He was a relatively unpolitical youth confronted by staggering government violence, and he communicates something of the shock and the anger.

I’ve read quite a lot of books about dictatorships and government repression and civil war and so on as part of the Read The World challenge — mainly I think because it’s a subject that appeals to English language publishers — but this is one of the better ones. Above all because Khoo Thwe is a good writer. But what I particularly like is that it’s the opposite of self-aggrandising. He’s clearly a fairly impressive individual; at various times his actions show intelligence, courage and resourcefulness. But he constantly undercuts any hint that he’s the hero, even of his own story; he presents himself as naive, uncertain, and always at the mercy of events.

I’m not suggesting this is mock humility; I’m sure he genuinely felt those things. And after all, it’s basically a story of failed revolution and exile, although that’s hardly his fault. But another writer might have been less willing to be so frank, and the story would have been less interesting as a result.

From the Land of Green Ghosts is my book from Myanmar/Burma for the Read The World challenge.

» The photo is from Burma but admittedly only tangentially relevant. Lion Taming For Beginners 101 is © Taro Taylor and used under a CC by-nc licence.

‘Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination’ at the British Library

I went round this exhibition of illuminated manuscripts from the Royal collection today. Any of you who follow me on Twitter will know that I got a bit distracted by finding birds in the margins. I found 17 species in total*, which is pretty good. And I mainly started looking for them because it was fun, but I do think it’s interesting that birds of clearly identifiable species seem to outnumber the invented, whimsical ones.

Admittedly, quite a few of the species were found on one particular page that seemed to have been illuminated by a genuine enthusiast, a medieval birder. Not only did it have a crane, a jay, a green woodpecker and a kingfisher, which are all striking birds, and the most unexpected bird of the lot, a seagull; it also had a pair of bullfinches. The brightly coloured male is an obvious choice to liven up a margin, but including the female seems like the work of someone who actually liked birds.

The exhibition is certainly worth a visit, even for non-birders, although personally I think I would have enjoyed it more with half the number of exhibits (as long as they didn’t discard any good birds, obviously). I just found that by the end I was losing concentration a bit.

*Great tit, chaffinch, goldfinch, robin, jay, crane, peacock, green woodpecker, kingfisher, bullfinch, common gull, pheasant, hooded crow, redpoll, magpie, hoopoe and blackcap.

Close Menu