World Literature

Book Review – The Arabian Nights Volume II Published by Signet Classics

I recently experienced the pleasure of reading Signet Classics’ sequel to the popular Arabian Nights saga. Once again Jack Zipes modernized Sir Richard Francis Burton’s translation of the tales. The first installment included the more popular stories; such as “Sinbad the Seaman and Sinbad the Landsman”, “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” and “Aladdin and the Magic Lamp”. Volume II exposed Western audiences to some less familiar yarns. The pieces in this collection weren’t as ribald as the ones in the first offering, either. It still made for an entertaining read.

This is a great book for those who like the “story-within-a-story” format. The “The Craft and Malice of Women” served as the highlight of this approach. This series included 26 separate stories on the same subject. I suspect those reading have already guessed the content of that theme. While lengthy, that string kept me interested in discovering the outcome. “The Ten Viziers” series went on a bit long for my taste. It engage for a while, though.

For those (like me) with shorter attention spans, this volume also included much briefer tales in the form of fables. I’m familiar with Aesop’s contributions to the genre. I enjoyed the opportunity to read ones from a different culture. The moral on leadership in “The Crows and the Hawk” struck me as very contemporary and universal.

These stories contained some memorable lines. My favorite included:

“Indeed, it is the custom of envy to fall upon the fortunate.” (Page 289)

“Whoever prefers haste will live to regret it.” (Page 383)

“He who speaks of things that do not concern him will hear things that do not please him.” (Page 57)

I also discovered outstanding alliteration in the following expression: “Sullied by the soils of sex.” (Page 287)

The similarities with Greek myths surprised me. Several tales contained the moral: those who attempt to escape their fate end up creating it. In the interest of not divulging spoilers, I won’t provide the titles. I’ll let first time readers share the same surprise I experienced.

Of all the tales in this collection, I enjoyed “The Story of King Ibrahim and His Son” the most. I found the conflict exceptionally well crafted. The king heard a prophesy that at the age of seven his son would be killed by a lion. However, if his son survived the attack, he would end up killing the king. What a basis for a story!

I’m glad Signet Classics opted to produce a second volume of tales from the Arabian Nights. Even though the characters and tales wouldn’t be familiar to most readers, it’s well worth taking the time to embark on this literary journey. And you can leave your magic carpet at home.

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Book Review – Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich

If you’re not moved by this book, you’re not human. Ms. Alexievich delivered a powerful narrative of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. As opposed to delivering a dry history of events populated with statistics, she explored the aftermath through the human cost of the tragedy. The author achieved this through personal interviews with those affected.

The hardest task for an historian is to present readers with a realistic portrayal of time and place. Through the book’s structure Ms. Alexievich did. Voices from Chernobyl consisted exclusively of the words of those directly involved. She spoke with former Soviet military personnel who worked on the clean-up as well as former government officials. While that presented an accurate perspective, the most haunting comments came from those who lost loved ones in the tragedy.

I’ve read volumes of history books in my time. None contained the emotional impact of this one. Ford Maddux Ford began his The Good Soldier with the line, “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” I doubt few people come away from Voices from Chernobyl not saying the same thing. I’m not sure how I managed to finish it and I can’t imagine how Ms. Alexievich persisted through writing it. I really have to applaud her commitment to getting the story of the Belorussian people’s suffering out to the world.

To be sincere, I’m struggling to write this review. The stories Ms. Alexievich included really moved me: and I’m not an emotional person. She began and ended the book with stories of men who responded to the disaster and passed away from radiation poisoning. The author allowed their widows to tell their stories in their own words.

One that will remain with me forever involved a woman’s ordeal at the hospital. She concealed her pregnancy so they would let her in to attend to her husband. One of the nurses told her: “He’s not your husband anymore. He’s a radioactive object.” (Page 16) Her daughter passed shortly after birth: another victim of complications from radiation poisoning.

For those managing to hang in there and continue reading this review, there’s much more graphic information in the story. The man who passed away at the end of the book succumbed to a horrendous form of cancer. The widow recounted a conversation with two hospital orderlies.

“We’ve seen everything,” they told me, “people who’ve been smashed up, cut up, the corpses of children caught in fires. The way Chermobylites die is the most frightening of all.” (Page 231)

There are a lot of very disturbing personal reminiscences like this in the book. Once more, that’s what made it so powerful. Approximately 340,000 members of the Soviet military worked at Chernobyl following the disaster. (Page 140) One of them recalled the following.

Before we went home we were called in to talk to a KGB man. He was very convincing when he said we shouldn’t talk to anyone, anywhere, about what we’d seen. When I made it back from Afghanistan, I knew that I’d live. Here it was the opposite: it’d kill you only after you got home. (Page 41)

One observer described the Soviet Union as a “country of authority, not people.” (Page 209) Government officials weren’t spared the effects of Chernobyl, either. One former First Secretary of the Stavgorod Regional Party Committee indignantly defended his reluctance to evacuate the area after the disaster. His response elucidated the mindset of Soviet officials during the Cold War era.

In the papers—on the radio and television they were yelling Truth! Truth! At all the meetings they demanded Truth! Well, it’s bad. It’s very bad. We’re all going to die! But who needs that kind of truth? When the mob tore into the convent and demanded the execution of Robespierre, were they right? You can’t listen to the mob, you can’t become the mob…If I’m a criminal, why is my granddaughter, my little child, also sick? My daughter had her that spring, she brought her to us in Slavgorod in diapers. In a baby carriage, it was just a few weeks after the explosion at the plant. There were helicopters flying, military vehicles on the roads. My wife said: “They should go to our relatives. They need to get out of here.” I was the First Secretary of the Regional Committee of the Party. I said absolutely not. “What will people think if I take my daughter with her baby out of here? Their children have to stay.” Those who tried to leave, to save their own skins, I’d call them into the regional committee. “Are you a Communist or not?” It was a test for people. If I’m a criminal, then why was I killing my own grandchild? (Goes on for some time but it is impossible to understand what he’s saying.) (Page 198)

The Swedish Academy honored Svetlana Alexievich with the 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature. After reading this book, I understand the choice. Some experiences in life deeply affect a person. They shape his view of the world around him in new ways. For me, one of those experiences will have been reading Voices from Chernobyl.

Book Review – Lazlo Krasznahorkai: Seiobo There Below

Perhaps a better title for this offering from 2015’s Man Booker International Prize winner would’ve been Seiobo There Beyond Me as I struggled to follow this series of short stories that encompassed subjects from Japanese culture, Baroque music and the creative process that all artists work with and then the author added to that bizarre syntax, in fact even as a series of short stories comprised this book, I think the author only used two or three periods the whole time!? This made the reading very hard to follow both for content and presentation now that’s strange because the author repeated himself many times throughout the book which led to some dull reading and that could explain his liberal use of repetition but still I struggled to follow even though Krasznahorkai repeated himself over and over!? Funny I wrote that because one of the things that he really enjoyed overusing happened to be the !? punctuation mark and I don’t know why !? A period would’ve been nice once in a while but, this author for some reason disdains them for reasons known only to him, which is strange since I read myriad commas and semi-colons, that makes me guess the !? is more interesting looking in his mind and that’s his artistic call; since the book addressed numerous themes dealing with the arts maybe that works; well, whatever, that was almost the most engaging element of the entire book !? I know that’s mean, and not entirely fair since the author did have a few interesting lyrical flourishes, because of the book’s tone, the cryptic nature of all of them didn’t surprise me, such as “the Baroque is  the artwork of pain” (Page 354) and “he had attained what he dreamed of, and yet had not attained it at all” (Page 141) I’m not sure what the last one means, and from reading the context, I couldn’t figure it out which made me wish the author could have returned to that theme since he wasn’t averse to repeating himself in the book, oh yes, did  I forget to mention that !? Krasznahorkai repeated himself a lot, and I mean a lot, in Seiobo There Below which I suppose if he wanted to have sentences run on for pages that sort of thing is inevitable; but still Seiobo There Below made for extremely challenging reading between the esoteric approach to stream of consciousness writing and the obscure references that I knew nothing about; not that I should complain, the book kept me occupied for several days right up until every story’s Nihilistic end that came abruptly !?

Drama Review: No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre

“Hell-is other people!” Garcin exclaimed. To be trapped it a room until the day-after-the –end-of-eternity with the three characters from No Exit, it would be. In this iconoclastic play, Jean-Paul Sartre constructed a complex paradigm for eternal damnation. His version lacked the expected fire, brimstone and horned guy with a pitchfork. Inez observed: “We’ll serve as torturers for each other.” (Page 17) How’s that for perdition?

“A drawing room in the Second Empire style” comprised this “hell”. (Page 3) It contained three sofas, a “massive bronze ornament” on the mantelpiece, and a door with a bell. Sometimes the latter worked, other times it didn’t. I applaud Sartre for coming up with a unique take. Most authors and playwrights would’ve “borrowed” Dante’s version from The Inferno.  This dramatist brilliantly exercised his imagination. (Let this be a lesson to the rest of us authors out there.)

The depth of the characters impressed me. The playwright didn’t resort to clichés or banalities, here. Each one entailed a great deal of intricacy and thought. In life Garcin ran a pacifist newspaper. Inez’s lesbian sexual orientation no doubt shocked audiences when the play premiered in 1944. Estelle showed her vanity upon realizing the room lacked a mirror. The drama developed as these characters attempted to discover why they ended up in Hell. I really liked the layers the playwright added to their stories. I thought the development outstanding, also. I didn’t read any bland exposition in the text.

I don’t like to give away spoilers, but I really enjoyed Garcin’s painful moment of self-discovery. I might be guilty of some schadenfreude here. I take solace in the fact I experienced it because of a fictional character.

Garcin: Can one possibly be a coward when one’s deliberately courted danger at every turn? And can one judge a life by a single action?

Inez: Why not? For thirty years you dreamt you were a hero, and condoned a thousand petty lapses—because a hero, of course, can do no wrong. An easy method, obviously. The a day came when you were up against it, the red light of real danger—and you took the train to Mexico. (Page 43)

Ouch! That was raw; but, then again, this was Hell.

I also enjoyed the interesting plot twist near the final curtain. Throughout the play the characters couldn’t open the door. This added to the theme that each couldn’t escape each other’s company. Near the end of the drama the door opened. None of the characters chose to leave. It made me wonder if the playwright included a “Hell is ourselves” subtext.

I did have one issue with No Exit.  Several times characters referred to the bronze ornament on the mantelpiece. At no point did anyone describe it. My curiosity piqued as to what it was, exactly. I’m not sure if Sartre left it vague so the show’s directors had some leeway with it. At any rate, based on the distinct personality types the characters showed, I would’ve liked a vivid depiction of the bronze ornament.

No Exit is just as inimitable today as it was when it premiered in 1944. I’d encourage those interested in either drama or literature to experience it. After all: unlike the characters, readers have the option of leaving the room should they find it too unpleasant.   

Book Review: The Family of Pascual Duarte by Camilo Jose Cela

Camilo Jose Cela crafted an outstanding novel about the results of a sorrowful life. He presented his tale through the writings of the protagonist as he awaited a death sentence. It enabled me to really connect with Pascual Duarte and understand his mindset and motivations. I applaud the author on his excellent choice of narration.

I found the beginning of The Family of Pascual Duarte the best I’ve ever read. Cela opened with a “Preliminary Note from the Transcriber”. He followed up with “Duarte’s Letter to the First Recipient of His Manuscript”. The author wrote both of them so convincingly that I initially thought this a work of non-fiction. That’s not an easy feat to achieve.

While Duarte freely resorted to violence, I could still empathize with the character. During his youth, his father died from rabies. (Page 41) When his 10 year old brother passed away his mother didn’t cry. This event fueled his anger and resentment. (Page 46) Things didn’t get much better for poor Duarte. A horse threw his pregnant wife off its back. This caused his first child to abort. (Page 80) His second son passed away at 11 months. (Page 88) Before killing the man who seduced his wife, the victim asked if Duarte thought his wife still loved him. (Page 129) You’ve got to think the guy had it coming to him just for being stupid.

The blurb on the back of the book mentioned that critics have compared Pascual Duarte to the narrator in Albert Camus’ The Stranger. I disagree. While the author told the story through the protagonists’ eyes, I could understand his motivations for his violent behavior. For instance: Duarte returned to his wife after an absence of several years. Upon his return he discovered the same man who “ruined” (Page 122) his sister impregnated his wife. While I don’t condone violence, I can understand why the narrator resorted to it in this case.

From my reading, it seemed as though Duarte felt some regret over his violent actions throughout the story. At one point he wrote, “A past spent in sin is a heavy burden.” (Page 102) Later he commented that he longed to “put ground between many things.” (Page 150) I didn’t get a sense of that from The Stranger’s protagonist.

With that acknowledgement, the narrator also delivered the following chilling thoughts on conscience.

My conscience did not trouble me. There was no reason why it should. Consciences bite and prick only when an injustice has been committed, such as a drubbing on a child or potting a swallow on a wing. But when hate leads us by the hand, when we are in the throes of an obsession which numbs and overwhelms us, we need never feel the pangs of repentance, and our conscience need neither bite nor prick us. (Page 153)  

I did have an issue with Anthony Kerrigan’s translation, though. I caught a number of clichés in the text. Some of the most egregious included “thorn in my side” (page 37), “turn tail” (page 65) and “if the shoe fits…” (pages 74 – 75). He even wrote three clichés in a row in one paragraph. It read: “Fish get in trouble for opening their mouths, as they say, and whoever talks much errs much, and a shut mouth swallows no flies…” (Page 74) I understand the narrator wasn’t a Nobel Laureate in Literature; but the author was. Cela earned a more dignified translation than this one.

The Family of Pascual Duarte deserves to be more widely read. I’d strongly recommend it to fans of great literature. I encourage others to read it along with Camus’ The Stanger and draw their own conclusions regarding “similarities”. Whether one sympathizes with Duarte or not, I’m sure they’ll admire Cela’s awesome story telling ability.

Book Review: Lust by Elfriede Jelinek

Do not be fooled by the title. Lust is not a summer beach read. In fact, I’m not sure how I would classify it. Some reviewers have called it “pornographic”. I would disagree with that characterization. Typically, pornography excites an individual. It makes him/her want to act on the feelings of lust it arouses. This book made me ashamed of being human. Confused? Please allow me to explain.

The language in this story jolted me. Let me just write I found it unique. Lust certainly wouldn’t end up in a book store’s erotica section. I’ll cite the more memorable descriptions I read. As a life-long male, I’ve heard people use vulgar expressions in reference to women’s breasts. I have to admit the expression “big warm steaming cowpats of breasts” (page 17) was a new one on me. The author described the conclusion of a sexual act as follows: “The Direktor withdraws from the woman, leaving his waste behind.” (Page 19) Possibly the most troubling line in the book: “They say a fire burns within women. But it’s only dying embers.” (Page 67) Not the kinds of expressions one would expect in a novel titled Lust.

The author didn’t limit her criticisms to relationships between the sexes. Lust also served as a vehicle to critique capitalism.

For the Direktor, people count simply because they are people and can be used or else can be made into consumers who use things. (Page 62)

Ms. Jelinek used blatant language in the above passage. Here’s one where she attempted to connect with readers on an emotional level.

The poor go walking along the banks with their children, where chemicals corrode the waters. The main thing is to have a job at all. And to come home from work with a suitable industrial disease. (Page 110)

The quote below combined the two.

What people live on, apart from their hopes, is a mystery to me. They seem to invest everything in cameras and hi-fis. There’s no room in their houses for life anymore. (Page 114)

The author presented her view of men’s treatment of women as something akin to genocide. Capitialism turned all people into objects. Surely, Ms. Jelinek couldn’t utilize Lust as a means to blast anything else? Actually, no. She also took shots at the Catholic Church. Here’s an example.

Now all of us in this Roman Catholic country will go down on our knees for a while so that all can see us washing the blood of innocence off our hands, the blood that God, making a superhuman effort has transformed into himself (no capital H in the original text): man and woman, right that was his work, his doing. In readers’ letters to the paper they are true to the spirit of Christian architecture, forever striving heavenward. There is nothing to be said against the Pope. Who belongs to the Virgin Mary. (Page 106)

Due to passages such as these I totally lost focus on the story. It had something to do with a woman in a dehumanizing relationship with her husband. For succor she began an affair with another man. I thought this a bit odd and out of synch with the book. If relationships between men and women caused nothing but suffering for the latter, why would the protagonist seek another one?

My main criticism dealt with the scope of the book. Ms. Jelinek’s took an egregiously negative tone throughout the work. I didn’t read any redemption or sense of hope in the entire novel. I would suggest that the author determine an “ideal state” for humanity to live. Let her characters strive towards it. Get away from the construct that life is unbearable, but can only get worse. It made for some agonizing reading.

In 2004 Elrfriede Jelinek received the Nobel Prize in Literature for: “her musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that with extraordinary linguistic zeal reveal the absurdity of society’s clichés and their subjugating power.” I’ve read other works by the author. Because of that I can understand the Nobel Prize Committee’s citation. Due to the insufferable way the author expressed her views in Lust, I’d have to recommend reading her other material instead.

Book Review – The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

In The Autumn of the Patriarch, Gabriel Garcia Marquez delivered a gripping narrative on the regime of a Caribbean despot. With creativity, sagacity and erudition he presented a disturbing story about the corrupting influence supreme power brings. At times I felt like I sat in on meetings with this ‘leader’ at his palace. I got so nervous I might displease him, that I debated whether or not to write this review. In the end, the interest of free speech won out.

The author structured the book in a manner reminiscent of Beckett’s Molloy and Simon’s The Flanders Road. Chapters consisted of one long, rambling paragraph. The sentences went on for several lines. The approach worked well in this story. The narrator informed readers early on that the general couldn’t read or write when he came to power. (Page 13) I figured the person relaying the story would have had a similar educational background. (Not many dictators enjoy the company of their intellectual superiors, after all.)

While a bit challenging to adjust to Gabo made the reading lucid. Unlike the other works I mentioned, I didn’t have any trouble following the story.

This ‘leader’ possessed absolute power. At one point he asked an aide for the time. The gentleman replied, “Whatever time you command, General, sir.” (Page 86) As Lord Acton told us, “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

I must warn readers that The Autumn of the Patriarch depicted a vicious, brutal, sadistic tyrant ‘warts and all.’ And then there were the awful things he did. Sensitive audiences should avoid this one. I really hope that most of these actions were a product of the author’s imagination. It would really trouble me if Gabo based them on real-life events. Here’s why. I’ll cite the most egregious. The Minister of Defense fell out of favor with the leader. Here’s a description of his entrance to a party hosted by the dictator.

The curtains parted and the distinguished Major General Rodrigo de Aguilar entered on a silver tray stretched out full length on a garnish of cauliflower and laurel leaves, steeped with spices, oven brown, embellished with the uniform of five golden almonds for solemn occasions and the limitless loops for valor on the sleeve of his right arm, fourteen pounds of medals on his chest and a sprig of parsley in his mouth, ready to be served at a banquet of comrades by the official carvers to the petrified horror of the guests as without breathing we witness the exquisite ceremony of carving and serving, and when every plate held an equal portion of minister of defense stuffed with pine nuts and aromatic herbs, he gave the order to begin, eat hearty gentlemen. (Page 119)

And I thought Petronius’ Feast of Trimalchio in The Satyricon pushed the limits of garishness.

While the book chronicled a reign of extreme violence and bizarre behavior a few sections struck me as amusing. They reminded me a bit of American politics. At one point the general engaged in a, shall I say, Clintonesque use of asparagus with a young lady. (Page 206) Earlier the dictator declared his age between 107 and 232 years. (Page 82) Government service must facilitate longevity. That’s about as long as some current members of the U. S. Congress have served in the House.   

I hope the dictator in The Autumn of the Patriarch doesn’t take issue with my review. If he sentences me to “one-hundred years of solitude” I’ll smuggle some of Gabo’s work with me. With a lot of time to read great books like this one, it won’t be a punishment.

Book Review – Herta Muller The Land of Green Plumbs

Ayn Rand wrote something to the effect that “people who praise communism never lived under it.” Herta Muller has done an outstanding job expressing the same thoughts through her fiction. Similar in style and tone to The Appointment and The Passport, The Land of Green Plumbs presented another dystopian, yet believable, view of her native Rumania during the Ceausescu years.

I really liked the narration. The author chose a nameless narrator to present the story. The lack of a name created a sense of distance from the character closest to the reader. I interpreted this as a parallel for social relations in Rumania under the Communist Party. In Gao Xingjian’s One Man’s Bible, he described how living in a totalitarian state—in his case, China– impeded normal emotional relations between men and women. A fear that anyone could be an informer prevented it. I got this same sense of Ceausescu’s regime from the exposition in The Land of Green Plumbs.

Unlike so many ‘political’ novels, I found Muller’s prose outstanding. Her writing style reminded me of Cormack McCarthy and Ernest Hemmingway. The author preferred the use of nouns and verbs as opposed to modifiers. With that acknowledgement, she used adjectives and adverbs at the proper places. This method didn’t diminish the impact of the story at all. Here’s the narrator’s description of a discussion with her hairdresser. Like just about every scene in this book, it contained upsetting material…and this is just a trip to a hair stylist!

I stayed with my hairdresser as long as I could and told him everything I knew about my father’s life.

In this tale of death, my father’s life began at a time I knew best from the books of Edgar, Kurt, and Georg and least from Father himself: An SS-man who came back from the war, who had made graveyards and left places in a hurry, I told the hairdresser. Someone who had had to make a child and always keep an eye on his slippers. As I talked about his damn stupid plants, his dark, dark plumbs, his boozy songs for the Fuhrer, and his swollen liver, I was getting a permanent wave for his funeral.

            Before I left, the hairdresser said: My father was at Stalingrad. (65 – 66)

In spite of her minimalist approach to language, Muller still populated the book with lyrical flourishes. She used simile very well in the following line:

Hate was allowed to trample and destroy. To mow the love that sprang up in our closeness like long grass. (Page 75)

Here’s another great passage.

The world hasn’t waited for anyone, I thought. I didn’t have to walk, eat, sleep, and love someone in fear. (Page 34)

With beautiful albeit dark language like this, it didn’t surprise me that the author included poetry throughout the work. The tone of it surprised me even less. The Land of Green Plumbs included the most troubling poem I’ve ever read.

He who loves and leaves

Shall feel the wrath of God

God shall punish him

With the pinching beetle

The howling wind

The dust of the earth. (Page 153)

In 2009 the Swedish Academy awarded Muller the Nobel Prize in Literature for works such as this one. The version of the book I have included her Nobel Lecture. In it she discussed her life in communist Rumania. Some of the things she mentioned made it into The Land of Green Plumbs. The fact the author based the story on true events made the book that much more disturbing.