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.

Qatari Voices

Qatari Voices is an anthology edited by two people — Carol Henderson and Mohanalakshmi Rajakumar — who organise a writing workshop at a Qatar university, supported by a grant from the US State Department. And the book is essentially a result of that project.

So it is not a book put together by someone who, seeing a vibrant natural growth of Qatari writing, was excited enough to organise an anthology. It is a collection of undergraduate essays written by students who are actually studying engineering, or law, or medicine, or whatever. And I guess there’s no reason why an engineering student shouldn’t have a glittering prose style and a penetrating social insight… but, as it turns out, these ones don’t.

To be fair, whatever the purpose of this book is — which isn’t clear to me — it’s not something they were expecting random people halfway round the world to buy and read for pleasure. It’s not really appropriate to judge it by fierce literary standards.

And it isn’t completely without interest; you do get some sense of the whiplash speed of change in Qatar over the past 60 years, from a poor desert country of fishermen and pearl divers, where girls were expected to get married at about 14, to a fabulously oil-rich nation where women can study to be doctors. But although those changes make Qatar and the other Gulf states one of the most fascinating parts of the world at the moment, these essays do not have the kind of insight necessary to go beyond the obvious.

But it serves as a book from Qatar for the Read The World challenge, so it meets my requirements at least.

» WCMC-Q is a photo of West Cornell Medical College in Qatar. © vobios and used under a CC-by licence.

The Culture of Lies by Dubravka Ugrešić

The Culture of Lies by Dubravka Ugrešić is a book of essays written between 1991 and 1996 — that is, during and just after the wars that resulted from the collapse of Yugoslavia.* It is my book from Croatia for the Read The World challenge, although there is a slight awkwardness to that choice. This is from the ‘Glossary’ which Ugrešić includes at the back of the book:

Identity:

A few years ago my homeland was confiscated, and, along with it my passport. In exchange I was given a new homeland, far smaller and less comfortable. They handed me a passport, a ‘symbol’ of my new identity. Thousands of people paid for those new ‘identity symbols’ with their lives, thousands were driven out of their homes, scattered, humiliated, deprived of their rights, imprisoned and impoverished. I possess very expensive identity documents. the fact often fills me with horror. And shame.

croatpassport

My passport has not made me a Croat. On the contrary, I am far less that today than I was before.

I am no one. And everyone. In Croatia I shall be a Serb, in Serbia a Croat, in Bulgaria a Turk, in Turkey a Greek, in Greece a Macedonian, in Macedonia a Bulgarian… Being an ethnic ‘bastard’ or ‘schizophrenic’ is my natural choice, I even consider it a sign of mental and moral health. And I know that I am not alone. Violent, stubborn insitence on national identities has provoked a response: today many young citizens of former Yugoslavia, particularly those scattered throughout the world, stubbornly refuse any ethnic labels.

So, although Ugrešić was born in what is now Croatia, and so her book counts for my purposes as a book from Croatia, I should be careful not to label her as a ‘Croat writer’. But then it was never the intention for this challenge that the books and writers chosen should be taken as representative of those countries — or not in a straightforward way. In the context of this challenge, that dynamic between books and countries is quite interesting, but I think it needs a post of its own.

The essays are fascinating. They communicate a sense of an overwhelming cultural trauma, not just because of the war itself but because of the whiplash speed of the changes as all the ex-Yugoslavs created new identities for themselves. Streets were renamed, history rewritten, the literary canon divvied up.

And it wasn’t simply an assertion of a new positive identity for, for example, Croatia, it was necessarily a rejection not just of Serbia and Bosnia but of Yugoslavia. So the country where all of them had lived their whole lives, and which had been an imperfect but functional state for over 80 years, became a ‘prison of nations’, and anyone who questioned this was suffering from the dangerously subversive ‘Yugo-nostalgia’.

This is from the title essay:

I know of a writer colleague who claimed to a foreign journalist that he was ‘the victim of repression’ under Yugo-communism, that his books were banned, and that he had been in prison. That colleague was never in prison nor was he ‘the victim of repression’ and all his books were regularly published. I do not believe that he was lying. Exposed to media brainwashing, terror by forgetting and collective compulsion, my colleague had simply forgotten his personal history, he carried out an unconscious mental touching-up, and in the general context the spoken lie became an acceptable truth. And after all, the foreign journalist had come to hear just such a story, in his Westerner’s head he already carried such a stereotype: the story of a repressed writer in the former communist regime and a happy end in the new, democratic one.

I know of a Zagreb Japanologist who terrorised the whole Yugoslav cultural scene for years with — Japan! Throughout the whole of former Yugoslavia there sprang up haiku circles, haiku poets, ikebana courses, anthologies of Japanese poetry, twinnings between Osaka and Varaždin, festivals of Yugoslav haiku poets. Thanks to the activity of the aforementioned Japanologist, the inflation of haiku poetry during ‘totalitarianism’ had given us all a ‘pain in the neck’. Today the famous Japanologist claims that under the ‘Tito regime’ he was exposed to repression because of … haiku poetry!

We have always been at war with Eastasia.

The essays approach this central subject from various directions — the metaphor of cleanness and cleansing, the relationship between eastern and western Europe, the kitschiness of nationalist aesthetics, pop music — and they are all well-written, thought provoking and rather quotable. But instead of typing out long extracts I’ll just suggest you read it yourself.

Oddly enough, while reading it my mind kept wandering to the possibility of Scottish independence (which, for those who don’t know, is likely to be subject to a referendum sometime soon). In some ways it’s a ridiculous comparison; however the referendum turns out, I’m quite sure it won’t result in civil war and genocide. But there’s something depressing about the idea that after 300 years of the Scots and English managing to live together,† not always harmoniously but not disastrously either, we should have reached a point where we can’t bear to share a national border. And the shift from an intentionally inclusive (if ill-defined) identity like British to narrower, more exclusive, more ethnically specific identities like English or Scottish seems more likely to make us, if anything, more inward-looking and more parochial. But hopefully I’m wrong.

*or at least the first, main phase of those wars; there was the whole Kosovo thing after that.

†yes, I know, the Welsh and [northern] Irish live here too. But somehow I don’t think there are many Scots lobbying for independence because they want to get rid of the Welsh.

from The Spectator

The original Addison and Steele version of The Spectator from 1711, that is, which I downloaded from Project Gutenberg to read on my phone. I thought this was amusing: 

As I was walking [in] the Streets about a Fortnight ago, I saw an ordinary Fellow carrying a Cage full of little Birds upon his Shoulder; and as I was wondering with my self what Use he would put them to, he was met very luckily by an Acquaintance, who had the same Curiosity. Upon his asking him what he had upon his Shoulder, he told him, that he had been buying Sparrows for the Opera. Sparrows for the Opera, says his Friend, licking his lips, what are they to be roasted? No, no, says the other, they are to enter towards the end of the first Act, and to fly about the Stage.

[ long passage snipped ]

But to return to the Sparrows; there have been so many Flights of them let loose in this Opera, that it is feared the House will never get rid of them; and that in other Plays, they may make their Entrance in very wrong and improper Scenes, so as to be seen flying in a Lady’s Bed-Chamber, or perching upon a King’s Throne; besides the Inconveniences which the Heads of the Audience may sometimes suffer from them. I am credibly informed, that there was once a Design of casting into an Opera the Story of Whittington and his Cat, and that in order to it, there had been got together a great Quantity of Mice; but Mr. Rich, the Proprietor of the Play-House, very prudently considered that it would be impossible for the Cat to kill them all, and that consequently the Princes of his Stage might be as much infested with Mice, as the Prince of the Island was before the Cat’s arrival upon it; for which Reason he would not permit it to be Acted in his House.

One passing observation: I knew they used capital letters a lot more in the C18th, but I don’t think I realised that they capitalised every single noun, however important or trivial. As German still does, I think.

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