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Culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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zzz

The Radiance of the King by Camara Laye

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

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

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

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

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

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Culture

Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos

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

Pórtico_Hacienda_Nápoles copy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Culture

The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyŏng, translated by JaHyun Kim Haboush

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

King_Yeongjo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Culture

The Epic of Askia Mohammed by Nouhou Malio, trans. Thomas A. Hale

This is an interesting one: a piece of oral poetry, transcribed from a performance by a griot*, Nouhou Malio, in Niger. To quote the introduction:

The Epic of Askia Mohammed recounts the life of the most famous ruler of the Songhay empire, a man who reigned in Gao, an old city in present-day eastern Mali, from 1493 to 1528.

Although to be strictly accurate, it recounts the life of Askia Mohammed and some of his descendants. I was interested to learn that the events were recorded in contemporary written chronicles, so we have some sense of how the stories have changed over the centuries: the genealogies have been compressed a bit, and some historical events seem to have been conflated, but the people and events are clearly identifiable.

The griot speaks

The subject matter fits comfortably into what you might expect of epic poetry: kings, conquest, revenge, wrangling over succession. But of course it also has cultural specifics; for example, Askia Mohammed is remembered for spreading Islam in West Africa, and one of his notable achievements was a pilgrimage to Mecca. Similarly, some of the second half of the poem is the story of Amar Zoumbani, one of Askia Mohammed’s descendants, and his ambivalent social position as the son of a king and a slave woman.

It’s enjoyable as a story — if you skip over some genealogies of the Bob begat Fred begat Kevin variety — but it doesn’t seem particularly remarkable as a piece of literature. It seems to be fairly plain, direct storytelling; there’s some interesting use of repetition for emphasis, but otherwise the way the language is used seems straightforward; with the inevitable caveat that some amount has been lost in translation. Most notably, the original switched occasionally from Songhay to a version of Soninké used as an ‘occult language’ by Songhay griots, healers and sorcerers, a language which is apparently sufficiently obscure that many lines are just marked as ‘undecipherable’. There’s also some suggestion in the introduction that Malio switched between dialects of Songhay, though I may be misunderstanding; what effect any of this code-switching might have is left unclear.

I kind of feel I should be drawing comparisons with other oral/epic poetry: Greek, Haida, Norse, or Anglo-Saxon, which is the only one I’ve actually studied. But nothing insightful is coming to mind, tbh.

Anyway. The Epic of Askia Mohammed is my book from Niger for the Read The World challenge.

* The local word in Niger is actually jeseré, apparently, but it’s the same kind of poet/storyteller/musician/historian role.

» The griot speaks is © Julien Harneis and used under a CC by-sa licence. It was taken in Guinea, but that will have to be close enough.

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Culture

Kvachi by Mikheil Javakhishvili

The original title of this book was Kvachi Kvachantiradze; presumably the publisher of the English edition thought that was a bit intimidating. With names like Javakhishvili and Kvachantiradze, it is of course my book from Georgia for the Read The World challenge.

21620u

It’s actually my second attempt for Georgia; I tried reading Avelum by Otar Chiladze, but didn’t finish it. I wondered at the time if it was a problem with the translation, but this had the same translator, Donald Rayfield, and was much more readable.

It’s a big fat novel — 523 pages; my heart sank slightly at the sight of it — but the blurb was promising:

This is, in brief, the story of a swindler, a Georgian Felix Krull, or perhaps a cynical Don Quixote, named Kvachi Kvachantiradze: womanizer, cheat, perpetrator of insurance fraud, bank-robber, associate of Rasputin, filmmaker, revolutionary, and pimp. Though originally denounced as pornographic, Kvachi’s tale is one of the great classics of twentieth-century Georgian literature — and a hilarious romp to boot.

And on the whole it lives up to that blurb. Obviously it’s not actually ‘hilarious’ — it is after all literary fiction — but I’ve long since learned that literary reviewers have very low standards for humour, and I know to make allowances. I would describe it as lively and entertaining.

21500u

Kvachi is quite an appealing character just for his dynamism and inventiveness, but he is a complete shit: he makes his way in the world entirely by lying, cheating and stealing, and has no redeeming qualities. The narrative largely consists of one swindle after another and a sequence of seduced and betrayed women, which would be too repetitive to sustain a 500 page novel; what keeps it interesting is the regular changes of backdrop.

So he starts from a humble background in Georgia in the 1890s; works his way up, via university in Ukraine, to the highest circles of Russian society, and ingratiates himself with Rasputin; things get difficult, so he moves on to France; he returns to Russia in time for the Great War and the Russian Revolution; he initially works within the revolution but in due course flees back to the briefly independent Georgia; soon revolutionary politics catches up with him and eventually he flees again.

21691u

The author, sadly, did not manage to escape Soviet politics himself. He was not sufficiently willing to keep to the party line, and was tortured and shot during Stalin’s Great Purge. It’s tempting in fact to see Stalin as a model for Kvachi; a Georgian, Ioseb Jugashvili, of humble origins, with intelligence and charisma but a complete ruthlessness, who worked his way to the top of Russian society.

But perhaps that’s a bit facile; there are no shortage of literary and historical models for a character like Kvachi. The blurb mentioned Felix Krull; you could think of Jonathan Wild or even Becky Sharp. A more recent parallel is Rácz from Peter Pišťanek’s brilliant (and genuinely funny) Rivers of Babylon.

» The photos are all from Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky’s amazing colour photographs of the Russian Empire in the 1910s, created using three separate black and white images, each taken with a colour filter, which can be recombined into a full colour image. You can find them at the Library of Congress website [woman, fish, bamboo]. I picked examples from Georgia, although the woman is stretching the point: she is in Armenian national dress and from a town which is now on the Turkish side of the border.