The Palace of Dreams by Ismail Kadare

This is a novel written in communist Albania in 1981 but set in a fictionalised version of the Ottoman Empire in, I guess, the late 19th century. The protagonist, Mark-Alem, is from a family, the Quprilis, who are originally Albanian but are living in Istanbul and are prominent, powerful players within the Ottoman Empire.

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The book follows his career working at the Tabir Sarrail — the Palace of Dreams — a huge office devoted to collecting, sifting and interpreting the dreams of people from all across the empire. Once a week, a single dream is chosen as the Master-Dream and delivered to the Sultan, along with its interpretation.

“The world has long recognised the importance of dreams, and the rôle they play in anticipating the fates of countries and of the people who govern them. You have certainly heard of the Oracle of Delphi in ancient Greece, and of the famous soothsayers of Rome, Assyria, Persia, Mongolia, and so on. […] Now this long tradition undoubtedly has its own importance, but it pales into insignificance beside the operations of the Tabir Sarrail. Our imperial State is the first in the history of the world to have institutionalized the interpretation of dreams, and so to have brought it to such a high degree of perfection.” […]

“The task of our Palace of Dreams, which was created directly by the reigning Sultan, is to classify and examine not the isolated dreams od certain individuals — such as those who in the past were for one reason or another granted the privilege, and who in practice enjoyed the monopoly, of prediction through the interpretation of divine omens — but the ‘Tabir’ as a whole: in other words, all the dreams of all citizens without exception.”

The Palace of Dreams was apparently banned in Albania on publication, and you can see why. As a piece of political commentary, it is necessarily somewhat oblique, as this quote from Kadare points out: “dissidence was a position no one could occupy, even for a few days, without facing the firing squad. On the other hand, my books themselves constitute a very obvious form of resistance”. Still, the vision of a government trying to reach right into the minds of all its subjects, of a huge sprawling bureaucracy devoted to tracking and recording people’s thoughts, the brutal interrogation of people who are unlucky enough to have ‘significant’ dreams, and the way the process is undertaken with great seriousness but seems to be completely arbitrary: it’s a pretty good metaphor for a totalitarian government.

I find it quite hard to think of this as a book written in my lifetime; it’s not just the setting, but tone and style.  The most obvious comparison would be Kafka — there are descriptions of getting lost in the corridors of the Tabir Sarrail which are particularly reminiscent — but also someone like Bruno Schulz, perhaps. Early/mid C20th, anyway. Although this edition, which I picked up in a second-hand shop, was translated from the Albanian via the French, so I don’t know how that may have affected the nuances.

Still, it’s a striking fable. It’s very much built around one central concept, but it’s short enough that that’s not a problem.

The Palace of Dreams is my book from Albania for the Read The World challenge.

» The postcard is, as the caption says, of the central post office in Istanbul. Which is at least a big Ottoman bureaucratic building. I found it via Ottoman Imperial Archives on Flickr

Stamping Grounds by Charlie Connelly

Full title: Stamping Grounds: Exploring Liechtenstein and Its World Cup Dream. It’s Connelly’s account of following the Liechtenstein national soccer team during their qualification matches for the 2002 World Cup. After my previous book from Liechtenstein for the Read The World challenge turned out not to be from Liechtenstein at all, this one is at least about the country, even if it’s written by an Englishman.

Tartan Cephalopod

You can see why he thought it would be a good subject for a humorous football book; there is something fascinating about these tiny countries, fielding largely amateur teams that lose nearly every game they play and almost never score a goal. On the one hand, if you were an amateur playing your club football in the third tier of the Swiss league (Liechtenstein isn’t big enough to have its own league), it would be a terrific opportunity to play against some of the finest players in Europe in front of tens of thousands of people. But how do you cope, psychologically, with playing for a team that almost literally never wins a game?

The answer, perhaps not surprisingly, is that they adjust their expectations about what ‘success’ means. If they make their opponents work really hard to score, that’s a success; scoring themselves is a triumph. They didn’t in fact score in that campaign; their greatest moment in the book is losing only 0-2 to Spain at home. Which is admittedly impressive for a country with only 30,000 inhabitants, 10,000 of whom are foreigners who aren’t eligible for the national team.

In the end, though, the book was underwhelming. Liechtenstein just isn’t very interesting: it’s a tiny, mountainous country with an enviable standard of living, thanks to its healthy financial sector (i.e. it’s a tax haven); basically a microscopic Switzerland, without that country’s famous flamboyance. Connelly spends much of the book trying to work out what it means to be Liechtenstein, what distinct national character there is to separate it from Switzerland or Austria; it turns out there isn’t anything.

I think Connelly does a reasonable job with weak material; he gets chummy with some of the players, and interviews all the key members of the Liechtenstein FA, and tries to dig up a few local characters, but it feels a bit like squeezing blood from a stone.

» The photo is of a Scottish fan in Liechtenstein for their Euro 2012 qualifier. Tartan Cephalopod is © Robin Skibo-Birney and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

Nora by Ferdinande von Brackel, translated by Princess Marie of Liechtenstein

This was supposed to be my book from Liechtenstein for the Read The World challenge. It was listed as Nora: A Novel from the German by Marie, Princess of Liechtenstein. All the companies selling it are ones that do ‘reproduction’ copies of scanned out-of-copyright books, complete with slight scanning errors and blemishes; which is a useful service, but the metadata tends to be a bit sketchy.

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I did some googling, but couldn’t find any information about the book. But when sitting down to write this post I had one more go. And I discovered I had read a 360 page novel that was only translated by a Princess of Liechtenstein; and that the reason her English was so excellent was that her maiden name was Mary Fox. She actually sounds like an interesting character; she was a foundling adopted by Henry Fox, 4th Baron Holland who met Prince Louis of Liechtenstein in Naples. The Princely Family of Liechtenstein ‘initially refused to approve the marriage’.

Meanwhile the actual author is Ferdinande von Brackel, who doesn’t have much presence on the anglophone internet; her German Wikipedia page, via Google Translate, tells me:

The contemporary literary criticism she judged as the most talented and most important of the Catholic authors, whose creations […] at the best achievements of female literacy at all included (Hinrichsen, 1891). [5] As a writer with a strong interest in social questions, it published first During the war years 1864, 1866 and 1870 prussia friendly minded time poems.

So my novel from Liechtenstein is a novel from Germany, translated by a writer born in France and raised in London. All of which is slightly annoying — I wish I’d managed the detective work before reading it — but thankfully I rather enjoyed it. It’s a sentimental melodrama about a pair of star-crossed lovers, and it’s very dated — snobby, silly, and occasionally offensively anti-semitic — but I like a bit of soapy melodrama from time to time.

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The lovers are a young German count and Nora, the daughter of a circus-rider. So that’s the social divide; but obviously that’s a bit radical, so her father is from a French noble family, has gentlemanly airs, and is very wealthy, as proprietor of the circus. And her genteel mother asks on her deathbed that Nora should be sent to be educated at the most exclusive convent school in Belgium.

And Nora, despite the stain of her background, is an absolute paragon of piety and decorum. She’s such a paragon that you might think the message of the book was: character is more important than earthly status, and that ancient names and noble titles are petty baubles next to a pure heart. But actually, even though most of the noble characters are fairly unpleasant, we’re left in no doubt that social class is Very Important. And while the nobles might be unsympathetic, the circus folk are positively subhuman with their vulgarity of taste and mind and morals.

It’s a lot of twaddle, really.

I was interested to learn some of Marie Fox’s biography though: as a Catholic foundling brought up in an aristocratic household whose marriage to a Prince is opposed by her husband’s family, you can see why she might see parallels to her own life in the story of a circus-rider’s daughter educated in a convent whose engagement to a German count is opposed by his family, and why she would like the idea that upbringing can triumph over humble origins.

Anyway, I will provisionally count it for the moment as my book from Liechtenstein, even though it’s a bit of a cheat. I mean I could spend twenty quid to read Prince Hans-Adams II’s thoughts on the place of the nation state in the C21st century, or sixty quid for Sieglinde Gstöhl’s The Neighbours of the European Union’s Neighbours, but I’m not enthused. Perhaps I’ll just read a jokey outsider’s book about Liechtenstein’s football team and call it a day.

» The poster is from this V&A article about Astley’s Amphitheatre.

The Teacher of Cheops by Albert Salvadó

Albert Salvadó is an Andorran novelist; The Teacher of Cheops is the only one of his books to be translated into English, and it is, unsurprisingly, my book from Andorra for the Read The World challenge.

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It is, as the title suggests, a historical novel set in ancient Egypt. It tells the story of a slave, Sedum, who gains his freedom and rises through the 4th Dynasty equivalent of the Civil Service; along the way he is tutor to the young Pharaoh-to-be, Cheops.

It was OK. I can’t get very excited about it, but apart from a rather self-indulgent plot twist at the end, it was fairly inoffensive.

» The photo is from the British Museum: ‘view of a road lined by trees, with a river next to it (the Nile), leading to the pyramids, Khafre, Khufu [i.e. Cheops] and Menkaura, which are visible in the background; Giza, Egypt, 1920s’.

The Maltese Baron… and I Lucian by Francis Ebejer

The Maltese Baron… and I Lucian is my book from Malta for the Read The World challenge. It’s a novel narrated by an old man called Lucian which begins with the return after decades of his childhood friend, the Baron. It is the story of their fractious relationship, and Lucian’s relationship with a woman called Katarina, cutting back and forth between the present and their youth.

It has quite a successful unreliable narrator thing going on — Lucian portrays himself as an upright, moral, dignified man in contrast to the Baron’s promiscuity and vulgarity, whereas we can see that he’s a pompous selfish prick, and that the Baron, despite a few flaws, is practically heroic in comparison.

Otherwise, though, it doesn’t have much going for it. The opening chapter has some prose which is so convoluted that it was practically incomprehensible, and I initially couldn’t tell whether this was supposed to be a way of characterising the narrator, some kind of advanced literary technique that I just wasn’t grokking, or just very badly written. In the end I decided it was a combination: Ebejer was trying to characterise Lucian as stuffy and self-important, but just wasn’t quite good enough to pull it off. The main narrative is more readable, most of the time, but it’s never any better than ordinary.

» Good Friday 2007 – Malta is © Antonio Caselli and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.

Treading Air by Jaan Kross

Treading Air is an Estonian novel which, to quote the blurb, ‘follows the life of Ullo Paerand through thirty years of violent upheaval in Estonia’. I’ve actually had it on my to-read list for some time, but to be honest I kept putting it off because the back cover made it sound a bit depressing. And while it’s perfectly reasonable that a book telling the story of Estonia over the twentieth century would be a little gloomy, I didn’t particularly fancy it.

I’m glad I finally read it, though; it’s a fine novel and not nearly as depressing as it could be, although partially because it chooses not to dwell on the bad stuff. In fact, it is mainly about Paerand’s life as a young man before the Soviet occupation, which is handled quite lightly and with a good deal of humour; the bulk of his adult life under the Soviet regime is skipped over in a few short chapters. I don’t know whether this is supposed to be symbolic of Estonia itself: a closing down of the possibilities of life, a kind of hibernation for the whole country.

Anyway, it’s a fine novel which deserves more attention than I am going to give it in this post. And it is my book from Estonia for the Read The World challenge.

» Tallin, Estonia – St. Olaf Church / Iglesia de San Olaf is © Claudio Alejandro Mufarrege and used under a CC by-nc-sa 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.

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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.

The Golden Boat by Srečko Kosovel

According to the dust jacket, Srečko Kosovel is ‘often called the Slovene Rimbaud’.* Mainly, as far as I can gather, because he wrote all his poetry very young; not, like Rimbaud, because he decided to run off and do something else, but because he died at 22.

I found The Golden Boat: Selected Poems of Srečko Kosovel while I was browsing through the Salt website, looking for something I could buy to support their ‘Just One Book’ campaign. I decided to kill two birds with one stone and buy it as my book from Slovenia for the Read The World challenge. As a point of geographical and historical pedantry, Kosovel wasn’t actually born in Slovenia. As far as I can gather from the Wikipedia article, Slovenia never existed as an independent nation before June 1991, so anyone born in Slovenia is still under 18 today. Kosovel was born in 1904 in Austria-Hungary and died in 1926 in the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (which became Yugoslavia three years later).

EDIT — Just to add to the historico-geographical confusion: Tom points out in the comments that Kosovel’s home town was in the part of modern Slovenia that was annexed by Italy after WWI. So he actually died in Italy.

Kosovel wrote in free verse from the start, and if I’ve understood the introduction correctly, he was the first person to do so in Slovenian. But in subject matter and language, as far as one can tell in translation, the early poems are fairly conventional: low-key, atmospheric lyrics which are rooted in the Slovenian landscape, and particularly the Karst,† a rugged limestone plateau where a wind called the burja blows down from the Alps. I rather liked this early work, but I can see that if he had died even younger and these were the only poems that survived, he might not seem to be a particularly significant poet.

On a Grey Morning

On a grey morning
I walk the streets downtown,
the fog cuts into my burning eyes,
it cuts into my throat,
and is cold around my heart.

Then, from the bakeries,
the smell of fresh rye bread,
but the bakeries are still dark,
the street silent, nobody yet around
and I feel tight in my soul.

It is the memory of the Karst:
a village strewn among the rocks
that this black bread reminds me of,
this healthy scent from the bakeries
that smells so much like a caress.

Later his poetry became more avant-garde. He called himself a Constructivist, although apparently the connection with Russian Constructivism is not especially close.‡ Whatever the terminology, he is certainly part of the broader movement of European modernism, of Dada and Surrealism and Futurism and God knows what else. The poems become more fragmented, more opaque, more aggressive, there are sprinklings of mathematical symbols and typographical experimentation with different sized text and vertical text. There is some continuity of theme; the night and moonlight which are such a feature of the Karst poems are still constantly present, the Karst landscape and the burja still appear from time to time. But the poems become wider-ranging, more political. The death of Europe becomes a recurring theme, no doubt a response to having lived through the First World War: Kosovel was too young to fight, but he didn’t have to go war because the war came to him, or the town where he lived as a teenager.

Delirium

A martyrdom of thoughts.
Blue sea.
Grey prison.
A soldier is impaling
hopeless thoughts
on his bayonet
in front of the window

Pardon me. ‘O, nothing.’
Sigaretta.
Eine Edison.

I hear the blue sea
butting monotonously
into my skull

And another example:

The Red Rocket

—–I am a red rocket, I ignite
myself and burn and fade out.
—–Yes, I in the red vestments!
—–I with the red heart!
—–I with the red blood!
—–I am escaping tirelessly, as if
I alone must reach fulfilment.
—–And the more I escape, the more I burn.
—–And the more I burn, the more I suffer.
—–And the more I suffer, the faster I fade out.
—–O, I, who want to live forever. And
I go, a red man, over a green field;
above me, over the azure lake of silence,
clouds of iron, o, but I go,
I go, a red man!
—–Everywhere is silence: in the fields, in the sky,
in the clouds, I’m the only one escaping, burning
with my scalding fire and
I can’t reach the silence.

I enjoyed the poems enough, and found them interesting enough, to be glad I bought the book, though I don’t know that many of them will really stay with me. As ever with poetry in translation, you never quite know what you’re missing, although at least with free verse you don’t have the added complication of the translator having to produce some kind of rhyme and metre in the English. Not that I have any reason to doubt the merits of this translation, by Bert Pribac and David Brooks ‘with the assistance of Teja Brooks Pribac’; I just have doubts about the whole exercise of translating poetry. But perhaps that’s a subject for another day.

*Not, as I keep hearing inside my head, the Slitheen Rambo. Though poetry written by the Slitheen Rambo might be quite interesting, as a piece of xenoanthropology if nothing else.

† Or indeed Kras. Rather like the book about Cyprus I was reading the other day, this is one of those regions where everywhere has several different names in different languages. The translators use Karst, the Germanised form of the name, perhaps for its associations with the kind of geological landscape that is named after it.

‡ I’m just repeating what it says in the introduction at this point. I don’t know enough about Constructivism or its relationship with the many other isms of the time to make that judgement.

» The photo is Škocjan, © inyucho and used under a CC attribution licence. inyucho says: ‘A large collapsed doline, typical for the Kras region from which the term “karst” is derived.’

Links

  • 'Europe may become a significant source of "exported" measles in poor countries that have done a better job eliminating the virus.
    A study in The Lancet this week finds that the WHO is unlikely to meet its goal of eliminating measles in the European region by 2010 because vaccination rates in many countries, including Germany, the UK and Italy, are too low to stop the spread of the virus. In contrast, Latin America eliminated measles in 2002, but has since suffered outbreaks "imported" from Europe. While measles rarely kills in Europe, in poorer countries malnutrition and limited healthcare make the virus far more lethal'. That's actually the complete story, so don't follow the link. It just seemed worth flagging up. It would be nice to think that all the anti-vaccine people, the conspiracy theorists and homeopaths and fruitcakes of various persuasions, would see this news and feel deep shame, but no doubt they have their self-justifications ready.
    (del.icio.us tags: measles vaccination Europe )

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.

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.

smoke-filled rooms

I do think it’s funny that the British, so temperamentally disinclined towards conspiracy theories that they even assume that referees are incompetent rather than corrupt, seem ready to believe in a shadowy international conspiracy to fix the result of the Eurovision Song Contest.

EDIT: and after posting that I read that Richard Younger-Ross, the Lib Dem MP for Teignbridge, has tabled an early day motion calling for the voting system to be changed, with the support of three other MPs. Thus proving there’s no subject so trivial that a pathetic, desperate MP won’t wrap it around himself if he thinks it’ll get him ten seconds of media attention.

Galileo satnav

The first satellite of Galileo, the EU’s competitor to GPS, was launched yesterday – initially to test out the kit, with the service planned to go online in 2010. One of the explicitly stated aims is provide independence from reliance on the US government, since GPS is a military system that is made available for civil users at the discretion of the government and, presumably, the Pentagon. I’m always intrigued when interaction between Europe and America slips into rival-Great-Powers mode, rather than the usual closest-allies shtick.

In practical terms the project sounds pretty sane to me anyway (not that that I know much about these things). In future, I’m sure all the devices that currently use GPS will be designed to use both – Galileo is designed for compatibility with GPS anyway – and the number of GPS-equipped things will increase for some time yet. The combination of GPS and Galileo will provide better accuracy than either of them alone and will provide backup if either goes offline for whatever reason. So it’s not a redundant system just reproducing the functionality of GPS.

Whether all that justifies the cost is another question. €3.4bn sounds a lot, but it pales in comparison to the €50bn for the Common Agricultural Policy this year. I think it’s probably a good idea, but then I am a bit of a geek.

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