Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Bai Ganyo

Bai Ganyo: Incredible Tales of a Modern Bulgarian, by Aleko Konstantinov

Everybody's doing 2017 halfway posts!  And that sounds like a really fun thing to do, but I'm going out of town for a few days, and rushing around getting ready, so perhaps I'll manage one when I get back.  Meanwhile, imagine me on a beach, and enjoy the single post I'm able to write before I go.

Aleko Konstantinov was a Bulgarian political journalist, and he wrote this comic novel around 1895 (two years before he was assassinated).  As far as I can tell, Bai Ganyo became an instant popular classic and has been a favorite ever since.  It's a collection of stories about Ganyo Balkanski, a seller of rose-oil.

Bai Ganyo is everybody's embarrassing uncle.  He blusters and barges in where he isn't wanted.  He is a master at mooching off anyone and everyone.  He pinches respectable shopgirls and propositions honorable matrons.  He needs to bathe more often, and he's vocal about his suspicions of people who want to steal his rose-oil, but he's kind of lovable -- in an awful way -- anyhow.  The first half of the novel consists of people telling about their run-ins with Bai Ganyo in the capitals of Europe.

The second half, after Bai Ganyo returns home to Bulgaria, takes a darker turn as he gets involved in politics and journalism, rigging elections and bribing people with aplomb.  Konstantinov uses his creation to satirize the thoroughly corrupt Bulgarian political process (Bulgaria was still quite a young country at this time, having previously been part of the Ottoman Empire; Russia helped it gain independence.  So there's a lot about those two powers).

It's an interesting read, with lots about Bulgarians' ideas about themselves and their national character.  I can see how Bai Ganyo became such a popular 'scrappy little guy' character -- a bit like Svejk with the Czechs, I guess.  In fact, in 2003 Konstantinov was put on the 100-lev note, with his masterpiece on the opposite side.
Bai Ganyo has been translated into plenty of European languages, but apparently this is the first time it's appeared in English (to my surprise).  A team of four Slavic translators worked on it together. 

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Faerie Queene, Book VI, Part I

I'm almost there!  Almost finished!  I'd get finished a lot quicker if I was more on the spot with these posts.  They're so long I tend to put them off.


But now we're on Book VI, which is really pretty strange.  Book V consisted mostly of allegorical versions of recent events in Elizabeth's time, and Book VI kind of goes off the rails.  This is the Book of Courtesye, which Spenser partly defines as the art of appropriate speech (or, you might even say, rhetoric?).  The Knight of Courtesye is Sir Calidore, known by all the court as a naturally gentle knight, mild, gracious, comely, and muscular.  He always knows what to say and loves truth and honesty.  But he is sent off upon his quest without a clue of how to accomplish it.  He wanders aimlessly, confused and overwhelmed by his task...and in the end, his quest is actually undone.  All of the Faerie Queene project seems to unravel under Spenser's embittered pen.

Yeah, OK, it's been a year
Calidore's quest is an exciting one; he is to capture the Blatant Beast, a terrible monster.  Of course, the Blatant Beast is also scandalous, lying rumor -- backbiting, reputation-ruining, evil speaking.  In other words, it is language gone wrong, and Calidore's quest is to redeem language and make it clear, useful, and honest.  It is also an impossible quest, and it takes place in a world that is getting more unreasonable, frightening, and violent.

When we meet Calidore, he already has his quest, and he meets Artegall coming home.  Calidore confesses to Artegall how confused he is, but Artegall is able to comfort him by relating his recent meeting with the Beast.  He then meets a Squire tied to a tree, who tells him about an evil castle that demands a toll: ladies' heads are shaved and knights' beards are pulled off.  Briana (shrill) collects the hair to make a cloak for her lover Crudor.  Maleffort, the seneschal, chased the Squire and his damsel, tied up the Squire, and is now seen dragging the girl away.  Calidore gives chase and kills Maleffort right in his own castle gate.  Briana scolds him, and Calidore returns a speech about civility, which she doesn't buy at all.  (This brings up the perennial question: how can we defend civilization from brutality without becoming brutal ourselves?)  Crudor attacks, and Calidore wins through luck -- not skill.  He makes Crudor promise to marry Briana, which makes her happy, and all is well.

Calidore finds the tied-up Squire
Calidore is so charming that nobody notices how clueless he is.  He next meets a youth fighting with a knight, plus there is a lady in soiled clothing.  The youth kills the knight (!) -- he is a handsome youth in green, and explains that he met the knight riding and kicking the lady along the way.  When the youth upbraided the knight for his behavior, the knight attacked.  The lady then explains her story: she and the knight were riding along peacefully enough but, in a glade, met another knight and lady 'sporting' together.  Her knight became jealous, wanted a turn too (!), and attacked the other, unarmed knight. The lady hid, and when she could not be found, the knight became angry and took it out on his own lady by booting her along.  The youth is Tristan; Calidore makes him his squire, and Tristan takes the dead knight's armor and leads the lady away.  Calidore then goes and finds the other unlucky knight, who is only wounded, and they go to the knight's home castle to seek aid.

The castle belongs to Aldus (old knight), father of Aladine, the wounded guy.  The lady who hid from the rotten (and now dead) knight is Priscilla, a guest there; she loves Aladine but her father wants her to marry up, so she is worried that he will discover their tryst.  Priscilla nurses Aladine so well that he awakes, and they ask Calidore for help.  He covers for them by fetching the head and telling an edited version of the story.  Calidore then leaves....only to promptly interrupt two lovers in a glade.  He sits down with them to tell him all about his adventures, which is a little bit tactless.  Serena, the lady, wanders off to look at flowers, and is attacked by the Blatant Beast!  (Wandering around is never a good idea in the Faerie Queene; it implies carelessness.)  Calidore gives chase, whereupon the Beast drops the lady and runs off.  Calidore continues after the Beast...and at this point the story switches to the lover knight, Calepine.  He tends to her and seeks aid; they see a knight and a lady about to ford a river, and he begs for help, but gets only abuse.  Taking Serena (who is bleeding profusely) across alone, he then challenges the rude knight, who simply laughs at him.  They go to the nearest castle, but oh no -- it belongs to the rude knight, Turpine, who refuses them entry (!).  What to do?


As Turpine is chasing Calepine around, a wild man comes by and feels natural pity.  He takes care of Turpine and then takes the lovers to his forest home, where he heals them with herbs.  One day Calepine goes for a walk unarmed (oops) and meets a bear carrying a baby!  He chases, and when the bear rounds on him, he shoves a stone down its throat.  Thus he saves the baby, which is swaddled and unhurt.  Lost, he wanders aimlessly with the baby until he meets Matilda, who sorrows because she and her brave husband Sir Bruin have no child. (This seems suspiciously fairy-tale like to me.)  Calepine hands the baby off and wanders away, hoping to find Serena in the forest.

The wild man can't find Calepine, and Serena is so upset that she's killing herself with woe and bleeding.  (She bleeds a lot.)  She decides to leave on Calepine's horse, so the wild man tries to put on the armor and go with her -- although the sword is missing.  They meet Arthur and Timias (who is friends with Belphoebe again) and we get some news of what they've been up to.  Timias has three great enemies, brothers.  They sent the Beast after Timias, who was in big trouble until Arthur arrived to help and drove the Beast away.  Serena then tells her plight to them; she's getting infected, and Timias is wounded too, so when they all reach a hermit's chapel, they stay there.

Wounds inflicted by the Beast, being infamous accusations, hurt much more than regular wounds.  The hermit has to treat them carefully.  He must cure their infections by teaching them to behave properly, so as not to invite easy slander.  Cured, they leave together, and meet a maiden in a mess.  But now we switch to Arthur and the wild man, who are searching for Calepine.  Instead, they find Turpine's castle standing open.  In a massive fight with the castle folk, the wild man is so enraged that he kills a lot of them, while Arthur chases Turpine right into his lady's chamber, where he is humiliated and loses his knighthood for his awfulness.  The lady is Blandissa, and she gives a peace feast but is in fact all false courtesy.


So that's the story so far, and I'm interested to see where this goes!  What has become of poor lost Calidore?  Who is the messy maiden?  And Spenser is bringing up all sorts of questions and challenges to courtly thought.  The handsome youth is assumed to be noble because he's handsome and nice, but is he?  Does gentle blood really confer generosity and nobility?  The wild man is 'naturally' noble.  There are also questions about truth vs. social ease in Priscilla and Aladine's story; Calidore is courteous and honest, but he lies for them.  Is courtesy really the same thing as honesty?   Oh, so many questions!



Wednesday, June 21, 2017

To Destroy You Is No Loss

To Destroy You Is No Loss: The Odyssey of a Cambodian Family, by Teeda Butt Mam and Joan D. Criddle

I found the follow-up to this memoir, Bamboo and Butterflies, at my library, where it was being weeded because it's falling apart.   Once I figured out that it was a follow-up, I went looking for the first volume, and thus I have my #3 summer read.

Teeda Butt was 15 years old and part of a fairly well-to-do Phnom Penh family when the Khmer Rouge won its war against the Khmer Republic government (which had itself come into power through a coup only five years before).  Everyone was just happy for the war to be over; they figured that China seemed to be doing okay under Communism, so it wouldn't be too much worse than the last few governments.  The Khmer Rouge, however, was run by radicals who planned to remake society entirely.

Phnom Penh was emptied and the people told to leave for ancestral villages.  No supplies were given at all: no water, food, or anything.  Teeda's large family was determined to stay together, and they had stashed food pretty carefully, so they did make it to the village where her father had once been an official.  He was taken away for 're-education.'  The next four years would consist of utter poverty, slave labor, and constant fear, always subject to the Angka Loeu, the High Organization that issued all orders.  Angka was the wall that Pol Pot and his fellow despots hid behind; instead of a cult of personality, like so many Communist regimes have imposed, the Khmer Rouge leaders stayed anonymous, purposely giving an impression of remote mystery.

Teeda's story is spellbinding and terrible.  The whole time, I kept thinking of how the Khmer Rouge illustrated the dangers inherent in radicalism and group-think.  Here you had a group that allowed no disagreement or debate whatsoever, and certainly not any criticism.  In their self-inflicted echo chamber, they imagined a society to fit some very strange ideals, not to fit human beings.  They got away with as much as they did because they cut the whole country off from the outside and used classic tactics to keep their population off-balance, hungry, uncertain, and afraid.  In their madness, they were prepared to murder millions; in fact, they eventually planned to kill everyone who had been over the age of twelve at their victory.

The family story goes up to the invasion by Vietnam, which Cambodians saw as a liberation (albeit one not to be trusted very far) because it freed them from Angka.  Teeda's family walked to Thailand in hopes of crossing the border, which they did -- only to be transported back when the Thai refugee camps overflowed.  So they did it all again, determined to get to America.  Teeda finishes with an account of how all her family members did for the next several years, and it's a dizzying story of hard work and accomplishment.

Every time I read about Cambodia, I realize again how very much worse the Khmer Rouge was than I manage to remember.  (And I just read about Cambodia....).  The scale and nature of this murderous regime is just mind-boggling; in only four years, they managed to murder a good 25% of their own people, probably around two million, but it could be three.  Not wishing to waste bullets, they did it mostly by hand (or by starvation and lack of real medical care).  Everyone was enslaved.  And they destroyed most of the country's material cultural heritage too.  Their attitude was exemplified by the slogan that inspired the book's title: "To keep you is no benefit; to destroy you is no loss."

This is a really good memoir of a point in history that everyone ought to know about.  I'll be reading the follow-up soon, too, which is about their adjustment to American life.



Friday, June 16, 2017

The Widow Killer

The Widow Killer, by Pavel Kohout

I've been reading this book forever, or at least that's what it feels like!  Despite being a quite exciting murder mystery/thriller set in Prague at the end of World War II, I had a hard time getting into the story and was very slow about reading it.  It was good, though.

We follow three men: Jan Morava, young Czech detective in occupied Prague, Erwin Buback, disillusioned Gestapo agent, and the murderer himself, who is a serial killer insanely obsessed with widows.  Over the months it takes for the case to unfold, the Russians move ever closer to the city and both Jan and Buback find love.  The killer just finds new victims and drives poor Jan mad with frustration.

It's a long, intricate story and I was glad I read it, slowly though I went.  I partly grabbed the book because of the author; Kohout was a Czech Communist who became a dissident -- a leader of the 1968 Prague Spring, expelled from the Party and the country, and one of the architects of Charta 77, along with  Václav Havel and others.  Kohout is still around today and has written poetry and plays as well as novels.  So I was intrigued by that and wanted to see what he had to say.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Bad News

Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship, by Anjan Sundaram

This one has been on my wishlist for some time, since Jenny at Reading the End talked about it (go read her version, it's more eloquent than mine).  Boy howdy, is it good -- if by 'good' we mean 'riveting, important, and depressing.'

Anjam Sundaram, living in Rwanda, is teaching journalism classes to train Rwandan journalists as part of a general grant.  Rwandan journalism is in deep trouble, as is speech in general, because the president of Rwanda is a dictator and getting more controlling all the time, rewriting reality and exchanging lies for truth.  Journalists are alternately threatened and bribed, or just plain jailed, and the few who do not break down and become fawning lackeys usually end up fleeing the country and going into hiding. 

The situation just gets more and more grim through the book.  The Rwandan government uses all the best DDR tricks to keep surveillance on every citizen all the time.  No one dares to speak out, and with the inability to speak or criticize comes, eventually, an inability to imagine anything different.   As Sundaram sees his closest friends and colleagues hounded into escape, paranoia, or jail, he wonders how the future of the whole country can be salvaged.

Riveting, as I said, and I recommend it.  This is also my #2 Book of Summer, but I'm not counting it for the Reading All Around the World project as it is not written by a Rwandan.  I'll have to find something else for that!

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Blue Sky

The Blue Sky, by Galsan Tschinag

Dshurukuwaa is a young Tuvan shepherd boy in Mongolia.  His nomadic family lives in the Altai mountains; there are a few relatives in their remote settlement, but the little boy's world mainly consists of his immediate family, his beloved dog Arsylang, and the flocks of sheep.  He is closest to his adopted grandmother, who cares for him, and he has a happy life deeply rooted in Tuvan ways.  Through the story he suffers loss after loss, as his older brother and sister are sent to a Soviet boarding school, his grandmother dies, and, most shattering of all, Arsylang is killed by poison meant for marauding wolves.

This is the first of an autobiographical trilogy of novels.  The next two are The Gray Earth (which I will be sure to pick up soon) and The White Mountain, which will only be published in English later this fall.  Tschinag, having lived the Tuvan life and then forcefully educated as a Soviet, spent years in East Germany and chose German as the language he would use to write about his Mongolian homeland.  He is a prolific writer, but few of his books have been available to English-speaking audiences.  Tschinag is now a writer and shaman who travels between Mongolia and Europe, working to preserve his Tuvan culture, which was ravaged by Soviet rule.

It's a short novel, simple and profound in its story, and lovely in execution.  Really, it was wonderful to read.  With all its loss, this is the most pleasant part of the trilogy, as Dshurukuwaa will grow up to be oppressed in a Soviet school and struggle with living in two radically different cultures.  I'll definitely be reading the next two books.

And, bonus material: here is Tschinag singing a shamanic song.




Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Stolen Words

Stolen Words: The Nazi Plunder of Jewish Books, by Mark Glickman

[Aside before this Very Serious Book Post: Last time I blogged, over a week ago, I was all pleased because I had actually cleared my desk of books to write about -- for the first time in at least a year.  Then I had a busy week that involved a whole lot of driving around.  I even went out of town for a few days, which was fun, especially since I really had nothing to do except deliver a kid and then listen to her perform two days later, so I went to a bookstore and generally goofed off.....and now I have six books on my desk and haven't posted a thing for days.  Summer is eating up my time in an even more odious manner than usual; I'm not working, there's no school, and yet I have less free time than before.  How does that work?  We haven't even gone swimming yet!  Well, anyway...]

We all know that the Nazis had every intention of destroying all vestiges of Jewish culture and influence, and in early days they would collect 'Jewish' books and stage book-burnings.  Book-burnings were a lot of fun and made great night events, but had the disadvantage of drawing the scorn of every civilized nation and showing the Nazis up as brutish thugs -- plus books are hard work to burn anyway.  So their ideas changed a bit, and -- here is the bit you probably didn't know -- they decided to collect Jewish books instead and build massive libraries which were going to showcase the great culture conquered and demolished by Aryan might.  So as Nazis plundered treasures and artworks all around Europe, they were also deliberately plundering Jewish libraries and making Jewish books of all kinds disappear.

Glickman starts out with a short history of Jewish literacy and writing, starting with Moses.  In a fascinating couple of chapters, he'll whisk you through a few thousand years of Torah scrolls, Maccabee revolts, rabbinic teachings, amazing books combining texts and commentaries -- conversations that stretched over centuries -- and the constant threat of losing those books when various powerful types decided that Jewish learning was dangerous stuff.  (NB: In one of those coincidences that pop up in a reading life, I learned that the extremely pious French king Louis IX planned to burn Jewish books at the pope's behest, was dissuaded by a sympathetic cardinal, and then did it anyway after the cardinal dropped dead, since that was obviously a sign of God's wrath.  Louis IX, and his psalter, is also the subject of Picturing Kingship, the book Harvey Stahl, Jewish himself, spent his life writing.  I have it right now on ILL, though it's much too large and scholarly for me to really read properly.  And of course, I got it after reading Last Things a few weeks ago.)

After this introduction, we move on to Nazi theory and the importance of Jewish books.  The Nazis started off with lots of emotional appeal and mob action, and early book-burnings were part of this, but even more than they wanted to be masters of whipped-up mobs, the Nazis wanted very badly indeed to be modern, respectable, and above all, rational and scientific.  So pretty soon, they turned from haphazard, slapdash book-burnings to systematic, intellectual efforts to justify anti-Semitism.  They would use anthropology and biology to design "a science of supremacism."  This was hugely appealing to an awful lot of people, who jumped right on the bandwagon, and it gave rise to two organizations within the Nazi power structure (which was in fact not rational at all, since it was based around vying for Hitler's attention) which focused entirely on collecting Jewish books for a massive institute of anti-Semitic research.  Even as the war machine ripped through Europe, officials came right behind them and packed up innumerable Jewish libraries for shipping back to Germany.

Plate tipped in to repatriated books
OK, I'm getting waaaay too wordy here, but the rest of the book is just as gripping as the first few chapters.  Hiding books in ghettos!  Post-war warehouses of books to sort through!  How do you repatriate a library, and what if that library's former home is now in Stalin's also-anti-Semitic grasp?  Hannah Arendt!

I found this book to be utterly fascinating; it illuminated a corner of World War II that few noticed at the time, but which had massive cultural reverberations.  It's well-written, and I kept reading bits aloud to whoever was handy; my 16-year-old daughter was quite intrigued as well.  I do kind of wish I'd read this book before I read Outwitting History, because chronologically they would have gone better that way, but it doesn't really matter.