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Thursday 26 February 2015

The Origin of Books: Writing and Desire

Some years ago, I wandered around the Tropical Greenhouses of Hamburg's Botanical Gardens. On the way out I bought a book, Die Goldene Äpfel, a history of citrus fruits edited by Carsten Schirarend and Marina Heilmeyer.

I discovered that books had been written about citrus fruits as far back as 1178 when the Governor of Wenchou City in China, Han Yen-Chih, published Chü Lu. His preface about the Origins (Entstehung) of his book is translated in my German botanical publication. I was touched by it, and tried to render it (freely) into English. Here is what I wrote, followed by the German I was using.

The Origin of Books

Ich bin ein Mann aus dem Norden - I am a man from the North
He wrote. Und mein ganzes Leben lang - And my whole life long
I had never seen a land where the Orange Trees blossom

Strolling in our Northern markets I would always buy the fruit
But it was never of the best kind which comes from Ni-Shan -
- I already knew though barely able to imagine

Last year it was my luck to be made Governor of Wenchou
I travelled South - yes - to the land where the orange trees bloom
I slowed my journey - gazed like a lover - tasted the fruit


The Governor must not leave his City - that is our firm Rule
Not even to walk among Ni-Shan's fragrant orange groves
Where others drink wine among the trees of which I must dream

A friend brings me their fruit, tells me about scholars' studies of
the Li-Chee, the Mu-tan, the Shao-yao - though none of my fruit
Gently he jokes that the Orange Tree has waited for me

Also schrieb Ich das Buch - And so I came to write this book


German text (page 46 of Die Goldene Äpfel):

Ich bin ein Mann aus dem Norden, und mein ganzes Leben lang habe ich es bedauert, nie ein blühenden Orangenbaum gesehen zu haben. Immer wieder habe ich auf dem Markt Orangen gekauft, aber nie waren es die besonders wertvollen, sog. Ni-shan-Orangen. Letzten Herbst kam ich als Gouverneur hierher (nach Wenchou), und ich hatte das grosse Glück, endlich Orangenbaüme blühen zu sehen und auch ihfre Früchte zu essen. Da es dem Gouverneur nicht erlaubt ist, sich von der Stadt zu entfernen, war es mir leider nicht möglich, mit meinen Gästen zu den duftenden Orangenhainen von Ni-shan zu gehen und mit ihnen dort Wein zu trinken. Deshalb hat ein Freund die Früchte zu mir gebracht und mir gesagt: "Die köstliche Qualität der Chü-Orange ist nicht geringer als die der Litchi-Frucht. Jetzt gibt es ein Buch über die Litchi, ebenso wie über die mu tan und die shao-yao. Nür über den Orangenbaum, den Du so liebst, gibt es kein solches Werk! Ist es nicht so, als hätten die Orangen auf Dich gewartet?"
Also shrieb ich das Buch ...

Reblogged from where it was published on 5 February 2012

Sunday 22 February 2015

Review: Tim Parks, Where I'm Reading From

Tim Parks is a prolific writer across a variety of genres and in two languages – and that may be three reasons why he is less appreciated than he should be. I encountered his work first in two excellent novels (Europa, Destiny) and then in fun non-fiction treatments of life in Italy (Italian Neighbours – there are more in the same genre). 

I picked up this new book of 37 short essays, originally contributed to the New York Review of Books - of which I am only an occasional reader – expecting to enjoy his reflections on what might be thumbnailed as “Literature Today”. And I did. 

They are fluently written in unpretentious prose (Parks has little patience for modern academic literary criticism) and range over many topics though returning to a few core themes, notably the tension between literature as something (necessarily) rooted in a particular place and time – its cultural and linguistic context – and literature as something which we are told should be accessible to all in a global marketplace of fictions.

Some of the essays are expressions of emotions not recollected in tranquillity. Parks wears his irritations on his sleeve, though they are the irritations which any writer will experience when dealing with the apparatchiks of modern literary production. Thus, at pages 202 – 205 he has to deal with the inevitably American copy-editor who wants to dumb down his new book about Italy so that it doesn’t appear – well, Italian. Most Americans don’t possess a passport and  believe that when in Rome the Romans do as Americans do in America. Mr Parks must not be allowed to disabuse them.

But Parks does not tell us the end of this story of writer’s woe. Did he give in to the copy-editor in the interests of American publication and money or did he say to this functionary, in his best English voice, “Sorry, but I feel you are just too stupid to copy edit my book – I think I’ll publish it myself on line”?

[Note added 25 March 2015: American editors are not a new problem. When Eric Ambler's 1938 spy fiction novel Cause for Alarm was published in the USA it was minus the whole of chapter 17 which not only has a Latin title "Reductio ad Absurdum" but is a portrait of an Italian mathematician who has lost his mind - that's to say, three things against his palatibility! A modern editor of the novel, John Preston, says that, arguably, chapter 17 is the "moral crux of the whole book"]

Tim Parks is obviously a writer who has worked very hard and read very widely – he deploys a remarkable range of literary references and clearly has a memory which allows him to call up an apt quotation or summary. One thing he does not do is set out his own stall for what he thinks writing (the novel) is about by asking us to contrast it with the views of other writers who have written about writing – from his near-contemporaries, for example, Milan Kundera (reviewed on this Blog, 5 November 2014) . 

Saturday 21 February 2015

Review: Stephen Kotkin - Stalin, Paradoxes of Power 1878 - 1928

Nowadays, I find the decision whether to buy a 949 hardback tome a weighty one: Will it be worth the effort of reading in a semi-reclining position which allows the two or three kilos to be propped up on my stomach? I can see that Kindle is not far off.

I bought it and read the 739 pages of text - the footnotes are in too small print for me. As a youth, I would have read them.

It's a good book. Very long history books can be very dull but Kotkin divides his into chapterettes and cleverly splices a history of Russia into his history of Stalin - of which this is the first of three volumes. Additionally, he is very selective and often chooses to foreground lesser-known episodes from the 1878 - 1928 period he is dealing with. So though I have read the other big books - Richard Pipes, Orlando Figes, Sebastian Montefiore - I frequently had the sense of reading things I didn't already know.

A lot of the text is devoted to stories of the leading Bolsheviks fighting like ferrets in a sack which - as Stalin perhaps realised - is no way to run a country (or even a world revolution). Stalin actually emerges as no worse and sometimes better than some of the others, with a clear grasp of central strategic questions. Some lesser known figures, like Sokolnikov, also understood central issues. But there were many at the top who could not get beyond speechifying and plotting and Kotkin lets you see that.

Kotkin raises, in forensic detail,  interesting questions about the authenticity of Lenin's "Testament" which dogged the Bolsheviks after Lenin's death - maybe I had read all this somewhere else but I don't think so. The finger points to Krupskaya, Lenin's wife, putting together things Lenin may have said to her privately before he was incapacitated but which he certainly didn't dictate from his death bed.

What is perhaps more interesting is the way in which the Bolsheviks continued to look to Lenin, like some spiritual leader or Pope, even when he was too ill to lead and when he should have been ignored. They would have done better to look at the country they supposedly led.

The prose does not quite have the verve of Orlando Figes but it's decently written and my interest was sustained all the way through.

Saturday 7 February 2015

Review: Richard Sakwa, Frontline Ukraine

This is an unsatisfactory book. Described by the publishers as "The Authoritative Account of the Ukrainian Conflict" it is no such thing. It is a review of news reports and academic discussions, informed by a perspective sympathetic to Russia. The author has made no visits, conducted no interviews and throws no new light on disputed topics like the shooting down of MH 117. There is a lack of detail - generalisations are frequently repeated but few concrete situations are described in a way which would allow one to say "Ah ha!" and see what the Ukrainian conflict means on the ground in Ukraine. 

In some areas, it deepened the understanding I had gleaned from reading newspapers. Sakwa does have interesting things to say about the weakness and corruption of the Ukrainian state apparatus which since 1991 has simply failed to deliver a better future for Ukrainians. He does bring out the continuing role of Ukraine's oligarchs - unlike those in Russia, the power they acquired in the free-for-all of the 1990s has not been curbed by the state. President Poroshenko is himself one of the oligarchs ("The Chocolate King"). And Sakwa draws justified attention to the dark side of Ukrainian nationalism with its roots in the racism and fascism of the 1920s and 1930s.

Having no future, and scarred by the past, too many Ukrainians look back - the heroes, the myths, the banners - all of which are simply unhelpful in solving any actual problems which Ukraine faces. They are not alone - in Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Austria .... there are plenty of people living in the past and dreaming of an unpleasant future for their neighbours.

The United States, perhaps unduly influenced by the Ukrainian diaspora, simply doesn't see - or doesn't care about - the dark side of the people it has promoted to power. Not for the first time, the US has been fooled by people who know that if you say "Freedom and Democracy" or "NATO" then America will not enquire too closely into your credentials. It happened in Iraq and it is happening in Ukraine.

On the language question, Sakwa adopts the right position against the language nationalists and language purists who want to impose Ukrainian everywhere but has little detail on how Ukrainians actually communicate with each other. It's compressed into half a page on page 10. At the very least, there should have been more discussion of the role of Surzhyk (a Russian - Ukrainian language mix) and whether it has any future as a lingua franca - I don't know the answer to that question and I would like someone to tell me. The imposition of state languages on sometimes reluctant populations has sometimes worked (France, Israel) but often fails (Republic of Ireland with its Gaelic fantasies, Wales with a resistant population which eventually forced the British state into acceptance of bi-lingualism)

In Ukraine, the language conflict is caught up with economic and political issues. In 1991, the Donbas (and even Crimea) voted for Ukrainian independence. The Donbas is now in revolt because the Ukrainian state, in over 20 years of corrupt existence, has not delivered a future to its population.