I stumbled upon this one by chance while in Budapest for holidays and looking for books by Hungarian novelists...more'Jaguar' is a strange animal of a book.
I stumbled upon this one by chance while in Budapest for holidays and looking for books by Hungarian novelists. I had never heard of this novella and its author before. Thanks to the excellent (and Budapest based) Corvina kiadò for having translated 'Jaguar' into English making it widely available in the bookshops of the Hungarian capital.
Written by the Hungarian journalist, poet and playwright Jeno Heltai in 1914, 'Jaguar' is set twenty-three years earlier.
Now, back in 1891, Heltai's beloved Budapest was quite an exciting place to be. The town itself had been created only eighteen years later by merging the municipalities of Buda and Pest with Obuda. The beautiful Chain Bridge was only forty-two year old and the first line of the Budapest Metro was going to open in five year time. The city was probably at its cultural and economic peak back then within a still powerful Austria-Hungary and sporting a multilingual identity. Budapest in 1891 had an exciting nightlife, excellent theatres, cafes, museums and a number of daily newspapers.
Heltai lived those years working as a reporter for one of those newspapers and sort of romanticises the deeds of his early career in this novella. You'll learn how journalists in fin-de-siecle Budapest were often penniless, spent a good deal of time in coffee houses, lived in furnished rooms and worked til the early hours.
Yes, 'Jaguar' is an odd book. Semi-crime fiction novel, semi-entertainment, semi-spy story, the book revolves around the weird and kaleidoscopic character of Jaguar, a columnist who saves from closure the newspaper he writes for. Jaguar manages to do this by ensuring the publisher one exclusive scoop per week and the way he gets those news is sensational in itself.
Suffice is to say that Budapest will soon discover the existence of the daring 'There is Still Humour in the World Burglars' and Old Soldiers' Association' led by the bold and mysterious Great Nemo.
I cannot imagine a book like 'Jaguar' having been written anywhere else than in Hungary. Fellow Hungarian novelists such as Antal Szerb and Gyula Krudy might have loved this one; I've found it an entertaining quick read.(less)
This review will be a hard one to write for two reasons. First of all, I'm a great fan of Isaac Bashevis Singer to the point I own some of his books i...moreThis review will be a hard one to write for two reasons. First of all, I'm a great fan of Isaac Bashevis Singer to the point I own some of his books in both Italian and English translation. Secondly, I'm not prudish, puritan, Victorian or whatsoever, but still it hurts me to find plenty of gratuitous, nasty and badly written sex in a novel where it's not supposed to be the core of the story.
Alas, as much as I like I.B Singer, I cannot be that biased to give this late novel of his more than a weak pass mark. True, Singer wrote 'The King of the Fields' when he was already 84 year old which is remarkable, but was writing this novel necessary? I'd daresay not.
Let's start by saying that even though Singer spent 56 years in the US, he kept writing books in Yiddish explaining his choice by stating that English couldn't compete with the multilayered richness of his native language. Fair enough, but another reason why the Nobel Prize winning author didn't switch to English is that he was aware that he didn't master that language very well. That's why all the major works by Singer aren't translated into English by himself, but by close friends and relatives of his with the author's supervision. I've always found Singer's choice to stick to the Yiddish language in writing and to leave the English translations to people with a better knowledge of the subtleties of that language quite honest and fitting to a man who kept a modesty and a sobriety unknown to other Nobel laureates. However, as far as I remember, this is the only novel by I.B. Singer that he himself translated from its original Yiddish to English and unfortunately it shows. The language you'll find in this novel is miles away from the sophisticated and engaging narrative of the best works by his author.
The chief problem with 'The King of the Fields' is that it reads like a young adult novel in terms of writing style and that didn't work for me. I mean, there are plenty of dull dialogues and let-down descriptions. And yet, unlike a historical novel for young adults, history is surprisingly blurry here so much that it's never clear what's the period Singer is writing about. On the one hand, we have uncouth heathen hunters living in caves like Cro-Magnon men, on the other hand there is a description of an unnamed town ('Miasto' means town in Polish) which is portrayed like it might have looked like in the 14th-15th century. We have an anachronistic Jewish character estabilishing a sort of cheder school teaching how to read to folks living in a hamlet where people walk barefoot and don't have a clue on how to farm the fields. We have Polish 'kings' looking and behaving like tribal chiefs and German merchants bartering weapons for furs while peasant townfolks buy meat by using groszen coins. Mmmh, all this sounds rather messy. Doesn't it?
What's worse, Singer enjoyed peppering these pages with some of the most disgusting sex scenes I've ever read. I mean something that would make even accomplished mysoginists such as Philip Roth or Michel Houellebecq blush. I understand, I do understand that I.B. Singer wanted to take the reader into those obscure times where shattered tribes of pagan hunters ruled over nowadays Poland so that you couldn't expect fair treatment to women as well as equal opportunities. Nevertheless, there are so many rapes here and so many women falling in love with their rapists calling them 'my god' that I guess how Singer's point on sexual savagery is more than accomplished after the first 50 pages.
Together with rapes, incest, threesomes, pregnant 13 year old girls, choreographic coitus interruptus techniques and cheeky homosexuality (in pre-medieval Poland!), I couldn't bear some of the hyper-sexualized characters. Let's take the awful and cheesy submissive statements of one of the main characters here - Kora - who is countlessly called a miserable whore and a harlot such as: 'I want to wash your feet and drink the water after ward' (sic!) or 'I enjoyed other men as long as I could go from them to you' or the following dialogue: 'He spat at you and you kissed him?' 'Yes' 'It gave you pleasure?' 'Great pleasure'. Marquis de Sade in pre-medieval Poland? But of course!
I don't know what old Isaac Bashevis was thinking about when he wrote this, but he certainly was into a perverted satyrish period of his long life. There are some redeeming and even interesting moments in 'The King of the Fields', but I'm afraid they cannot balance all the needless and overexposed sexual frenzy you get all over the place. I appreciate that a very old Isaac Bashevis Singer wished to detach himself from his usual milieu writing a story which probably meant to celebrate - in its own way - the birth of the Polish nation, but I cannot deny that this is the worst book by Singer I've ever read. (less)
This was an excellent, engaging and quite informative read which happened just when I needed it. I've been interested in the 1956 Hungarian Uprising/Re...moreThis was an excellent, engaging and quite informative read which happened just when I needed it. I've been interested in the 1956 Hungarian Uprising/Revolution for quite a long time, but - by sheer coincidence - one week upon finishing 'Twelve Days' I finally visited Budapest for the very first time.
I guess it might have been rather annoying for my partner (she has just confirmed that it was) being led through the Hungarian capital by me unawaringly lecturing her on events and anecdotes from October '56. And I reckon how more than once I juxtaposed the monumental main streets and squares we were navigating through with the black and white pictures depicting Soviet tanks, urban guerrilla, rubble and destruction dating back to the uprising. Sorry for that, Paulina! And blame on you, Victor Sebestyen.
For reading 'Twelve Days' brought me straight into a Budapest that is no more. I got sucked into a time vortex blowing me away from A.D. 2014 Poland and leaving me stranded but not confused in 1956 Hungary. It took Mr Sebestyen's wizardry only a few pages to captivate me and - much to his merit - once I get into the history whirlwind I was reluctant to get out of it. I'll tell you why.
'Twelve Days' is one of those rare history books where the context is introduced and explained thoroughly, the chronology is always clear and the narration manages to be enthralling, coherent and consistent. It reads like a well-plotted political spy story with a Machiavellian cast of characters, but it deals with one of the darkest pages in recent European history. Despite of the title he chose, the author doesn't rush to the brave and bloody twelve days of the 1956 uprising/revolution. At the contrary, Mr Sebestyen takes his time to explain what happened to Budapest and Hungary during and after World War II. By doing so the Anglo-Hungarian historian skilfully introduces the readers to a place and time they might not be familiar with and gradually builds up the book to its climax.
Each of the main domestic characters who played a major part in the events leading to 1956 and following it - Matyas Rakosi, Erno Gero, Laszlo Rajk, Imre Nagy, Janos Kadar - is carefully disclosed in an unbiased and quite objective way. True, when it comes to villains Mr Sebestyen stresses out Gero's 'sadistic smile' or Rakosi's 'overwhelming cynicism', but one must not forget that these men sent thousands of people to death and are justly remembered as criminals by Hungarians. What I've found interesting is that the author doesn't depict Imre Nagy - now considered a hero and a martyr by his compatriots - as an entirely positive character. In fact, Sebestyen does quite the opposite by showing us an often undecided politician, an excessively cautious man uncapable to cut the bounds tying him to the USSR and reluctant to accept the moral leadership the Budapest crowds granted him. In the same fashion, Janos Kadar - the man who took over the power after the uprising/revolution was crushed to bits by the Soviet tanks - could be included into the villains ranks as he was 'loathed as a Judas' by Hungarians. And yet, Sebestyen doesn't portray Kadar as merely a Muscovite puppet but reckons how in the years following the uprising he actually did something to soften things up leading to the so called 'goulash socialism'.
On a side note, my only criticism to the author is that he might have done a better job on the international stage. The role played in smashing the uprising by a deus ex machina such as Nikita Kruscev in Moscow is explained but not investigated as much as it could have been. Looking Westwards, Sebestyen expresses some mild criticism towards the lack of interest in Hungary from the US and the UN, but eventually justifies both Eisenhower and Hammarskjoeld for their giving priority to the Suez crisis unfolding in the very same days. This point of view is a tad too simplicistic to be accepted completely, but Sebestyen did such an excellent job overall that I can forgive him.
If you are interested in knowing more about the 1956 Hungarian uprising, revolution (or whatever you call it), 'Twelve Days' is a book to get and read soon. (less)
Pets and other animals talking about the bestialities of human communism in the former Eastern Bloc countries. A well-do...moreWhat a great idea for a book!
Pets and other animals talking about the bestialities of human communism in the former Eastern Bloc countries. A well-documented and often entertaining approach to well known and less well known facts that truly happened from East Berlin to Moscow passing through Budapest, Prague, Warsaw, Bucarest.
Giving voice to mice and cats, dogs and bears, ravens and parrots with each animal talking about its own country was indeed a work of genius. Most of those who reviewed this book mentioned either the 'Orwellian approach' or the ' Orwellian inspiration' of Mrs Drakulic, but I think otherwise. She's truly original and independent in her own work here so that the comparison with the author of 'Animal Farm' doesn't stand a chance. To me the closest this book gets to is rather 'The Life of Insects' by Victor Pelevin. But then again, unlike Pelevin, Drakulic doesn't insist on metaphors and camouflages: her animals are actual animals from the beginning to the end of their chapters (with one significant exception). Well done, Slavenka!
And yet 'A Guided Tour Through the Museum of Communism' (let me catch my breathe) falls short of what I expected. Whilst I did appreciate some of the episodes, others were just not at the same level and, in my humble opinion, out of place in the context.
I particularly liked the stories of the mole talking about people digging tunnels from East Berlin to West Berlin, the one about the rabid dogs issue in Bucarest seen from a canine perspective and the musings of General Jaruzelski's pussycat regarding her owner's controversial decisions. One of the reasons why these three 'fables' really work and stand out here is that they achieve a perfect balance between the human-animal narrative and their historical significance.
On the contrary I found unexplicable the choice to have a real woman, Magda, introducing herself as a 'Hungarian pig' in the chapter entitled - sic! - 'From Gulag to Goulash'*. Putting aside the non convincing story itself, why not giving voice to an actual sow? Was that too complicated? The contradiction here with this one and only episode not being narrated by an animal is so evident that I'm inclined to think that Mrs Drakulic did that on purpose. But for what purpose, I wonder? Who knows.
The human-animal denouement is not broken anywhere else, but a couple of stories are just too long a monologue to be consistent (Tito's parrot, the chaperoning mouse in Prague) with the final result of putting their interesting animal perspective at risk with the author's voice popping up.
That being said, I reckon how Slavenka Drakulic did a good job here. I got hooked to this thin but important book and overall enjoyed it. The fables I read taught me some episodes I was not aware of and reinforced my knowledge of other topics I had already heard about.
*The tragedy is that back on 1996 the uncouth leader of the Northern League Party in Italy did call the gulags 'goulash' in a public speech.(less)
I've never been a great reader of poetry, but these nice little poems are helping me out with my Polish vocabulary and understanding.
Some composition...moreI've never been a great reader of poetry, but these nice little poems are helping me out with my Polish vocabulary and understanding.
Some compositions remind me of Szymborska in their apparent simplicity wondering on everyday's life and tiny but significant details, but Anna Swir (Świrszczyńska) deals with post WWII feelings and family as well, focusing on her father who was a painter. Both topics are found in the poem I liked the most, so far. It's entitled 'He Did Not Jump from the Third Floor' and reads like this in English translation.
The second World War Warsaw. Tonight they dropped bombs on the Theatre Square.
At the Theatre Square Father has his workshop. All paintings, labor of forty years.
Next morning father went to the Theatre Square. He saw.
His workshop has no ceiling, has no walls no floor.
Father did not jump from the third floor. Father started over from the beginning.
Bless Miłosz who translated Swir into English (taking some liberties in metric) as well as the publisher who kept the original text in this edition. And thank you to the second hand bookseller in Krakow who found this little gem for me when asked if he had anything in English (this book was the one and only)!(less)
Read in 2006 as one of three novellas included within 'Parlamenti Buffi' ('Funny Parliaments'). 'Lunario del Paradiso' popped up just at the right tim...moreRead in 2006 as one of three novellas included within 'Parlamenti Buffi' ('Funny Parliaments'). 'Lunario del Paradiso' popped up just at the right time inbetween my first experience living abroad (in Norway) and the year I spent in the Netherlands. At that time I borrowed the book from a friend of mine and looked to get my own copy ever since.
Unfortunately - and mysteriously - all editions of 'Lunario del Paradiso' have been out of print for around 15 years. Maremagnum, Abebooks, Bookdepository and even Ebay never helped. Not to mention all the second hand bookstalls, fairs and car boot sales I've been to.
Then I sent an email to an Italian radio programme specialized in bookhunting and booksharing on the excellent Radio3 (which I find much superior to BBC Radio3 culture wise). In two weeks time (today) I was contacted by the programme and told that they found someone who's eager to send me 'Lunario del Paradiso'. Hurrah!
In one hour time - and on air - I will know who this benefactor is and how come he/she chose to say goodbye to this wonderful wonderful novel narrating the disillusioned romantic adventures of an Italian twentysomething going to Hamburg in the late 1950s. An update will follow in due time.
UPDATE So it looks like there was a misunderstanding so that I will have to untag 'A-my-Italian-library' from this book here for the time being. For 'Lunario del Paradiso' has not yet been found, but I had to explain on air the reasons why I have been searching it. Nevermind (but blimey). I just hope my plea will be successful!(less)
Over the last five years I became a great fan of Polish journalism so that every time I skim through bookshelves labelled 'travels' or 'reportages' I...moreOver the last five years I became a great fan of Polish journalism so that every time I skim through bookshelves labelled 'travels' or 'reportages' I hunt for that bunch of authors I know or for any Polish sounding surname. That's how I 'discovered' Tochman and Stasiuk, for instance. And that's how Wojciech Górecki showed up with two books he wrote, one about Caucasus as a whole and this one about Georgia.
Now, the only Górecki I knew was the composer Henryk whose Third Symphony became an unusual worldwide hit in the mid 1990s. The unexpected success for the Polish composer came thanks to the British trip hop band Lamb who sampled a tiny bit of it in their aptly titled song Górecki back in 1996. (I didn't like that song as well as the symphony).
Wojciech Górecki is not related to Henryk. The Italian edition I bought calls Górecki 'the heir of Ryszard Kapuscinski' and Wojciech himself dedicates 'La terra del vello d'oro' ('The Land of the Golden Fleece') to the great Polish reporter.
Are there similarities in writing style and reporting approach between Kapuscinski and Górecki? To be honest I couldn't find many. The dean of Polish reportage liked to write about his own personal daily experiences living in foreign countries and stressing out his fascination for everything local and his distaste for the spoiled reporters gossiping from their five starred resorts. The young dauphin prefers to draw sketches of what he sees around him keeping himself as humble as Kapuscinski, but standing more in the background than him.
The Georgia portrayed and narrated by Górecki in the early 2000s was not at war, for the time being. This state of temporary, if apparent, serenity let the Polish reporter tell the reader about the country's turbulent history, its unique traditions, its multi-layered character. For someone like me who didn't know much about Georgia having read only a single book marginally dealing with it and dating back to the 1960s ('Journey into Russia' by Laurens Van der Post), Górecki's book brought a gust of fresh and precious knowledge.
Even though forty years have passed from Van der Post being invited to a lavish Georgian banquet and writing about its peculiar etiquette, I was happy to read that Górecki experienced the same hospitality and jotted down similar observations. The pages regarding the towerhouses dating back to the 13th century that are still inhabited in some remote and beautiful regions of Georgia are excellent and reminded me of the Albanian towerhouses depicted by Kadare in his novels. Which was a delightful deja-vu.
Whereas the book is thin and somewhat disjointed, it is also very informative and a pleasure to read. My only criticism is that the last chapter might have been placed at the beginning of 'La terra del vello d'oro' as it's extremely helpful in contextualize Georgia and its debated regions such as Abkhazia, South and North Ossetia. But this is only a minor detail. Even though I'd be more careful to call Wojciech Górecki the heir of Ryszard Kapuscinski, I'm certainly eager to read that second book by him that I bought for he knows his topics well and is a brilliant reporter.
*Please note that my review refers to the Italian edition of the book. Unfortunately, it looks like this book is not yet available in English translation. (less)
The chief problem with Andrzej Szczypiorski for foreign readers is that tonguetwister of a surname he bore.
I wonder how many readers out of Poland hav...moreThe chief problem with Andrzej Szczypiorski for foreign readers is that tonguetwister of a surname he bore.
I wonder how many readers out of Poland have heard of Szczypiorski by word of mouth but cannot spell the author right. And how many non-Polish speaking librarians and booksellers might have been engaged in surreal conversations such as the following one:
Reader - Good morning, I'm looking for a book by this guy Sshz…Tzip…something like that. You got it? Librarian - Morning. Well, I'm glad to help you, but it's a bit vague as a hint. Still let me try…Shteyngart? R - What? That guy who wrote that weird stuff about Azer-something and called it 'Absurdistan'? No, no. The author I'm interested in is someone else. L - Spiegelman, maybe? R - Hey, wait! Do I look like I'm interested in comics? L - Well, actually, 'Maus' is more of a graphic novel than comics and it's rather goo… R - Whatever. I don't read comics. And Spiegelman is not whom I'm looking for. L - Ok, then. Fair enough. I had a couple of shots in the dark. Could you please be more specific? Do you remember the nationality of the author, by any chance? R - Polish, I guess. The friend of mine who told me about the book hails from Poland. L - Mmh, let me think about that…Ah! Right. Sienkewicz, perhaps? R - Not quite. The author's name did start with an S, but then there were plenty of consonants straight after that letter... L - Szymborska? R - No, no. Look here, I like Jimb…Zimb…whatever -ska a lot. But the author I'm looking for doesn't write poetry, as far as I know. L - Szpilman? R - 'The Pianist', you mean? No. I read that one. L (looking tired) - It could be Szczygieł, then. R (pleasantly surprised) - Say that again? L - Szczygieł. Mariusz Szczygieł. R - Oh! Shee-gye-aw! Sheegyeaw... Could be the right guy, you know. At any rate, he does sound familiar. Did he write a book with an elegant lady portrayed on the cover? L (sighing softly) - I don't think so, but let me check for a second (looks into an online catalogue). Socialist monuments, Prague's skyline, lions, crosses. No, I'm afraid there are no elegant ladies here. R - Pity. I'm afraid I have to give it up, then. Goodbye. L - (hiding his relief) Goodbye. But please come back once you get more information!
And this is how Andrzej Szczypiorski lost another potential reader.
I was luckier than the unbearable and confused reader above. I've found the Italian edition of 'The Beautiful Mrs Seidenman' midprice and by myself without testing the patience of any bookseller. It was a good and unexpected catch that happened a few days before relocating to Poland.
What did I expect from this novel? I had no idea. But the reputation of its Italian publisher (Adelphi), the synopsis on the inside cover and the somewhat alluring title of the book bought me.
In fact, the title of this novel on the Italian, German, English and French translations doesn't have any resemblance with its original one 'Początek' that means 'Beginning' (or so I was told) thus not mentioning the beauty of Mrs Seidenman at all. Now, is this a stratagem thought up by foreign publishers to win over Szczypiorski's tonguetwisting surname? It might well be. Still, I'd have preferred a better rendition of the Polish title.
For Mrs Seidenman part in this novel is not that relevant as you might expect given its foreign title. Well, to some extent. Irma Seidenman is only one of a cast of well-chiselled and convincing characters created by the author and getting by in their own ways in an already Nazi-occupied but not yet Nazi-destroyed Warsaw.
It's the Spring of 1943 and the pre-war state of things has changed dramatically. Thousands of Warsaw born and bred Jews are either confined in the ghetto or hiding somewhere in town. The Polish population is oppressed by the occupying Germans and gets by day after day. Fortunes are made in a week by cold blooded informers, traffickers and art traders who were good for nothings for years. Fortunes which were made over years by doctors, lawyers and entrepeneurs are lost in a week. And yet, life goes on.
Szczypiorski - who wrote this novel in 1986 - took part in the Warsaw Uprising as a youngster and knew the hard times he depicts here. It's a tough choice writing a work of fiction inspired by events you witnessed forty years earlier, but the author does show plenty of talent and sensibility in doing that. The characters here are faced with moral dilemmas and have to make important choices in the span of a few minutes. They all have either a strengthful motivation (for good or for bad) or a carefully pondered resignation which makes their decisions believable to me. Furthermore, Andrzej Szczypiorski knew when and how to use a subtle bitter irony and is able to give an out of time grace to this novel by the means of a refined language.
At a first glance 'The Beautiful Mrs Seidenman' could look like a belated old-style novel dealing with places and people which are no more. But the fact that Mr Szczypiorski discloses what will happen to each character of the novel in the following years stretching as far as the 1970s tells you something about how modern and innovative this book actually is.
What you find here are indeed beginnings. New beginnings of fictionalised individual lives which - just like the ones of millions of actual people - were very much influenced by the choices and the decisions made in that crucial Spring of 1943.(less)
I might be the only reader of this book who bought 'Highcastle' without having ever read anything by Lem before.
Sure, I heard wonders about 'Solaris'...moreI might be the only reader of this book who bought 'Highcastle' without having ever read anything by Lem before.
Sure, I heard wonders about 'Solaris' and 'The Cyberiad', written by the undisputed Polish master of sci-fi, but never had the chance to get them. To be honest then, the chief reason why I bought the (Italian) translation of 'Highcastle' is that I was interested in its setting, the former Polish and now Ukrainian city of Lviv / Lwòw.
As the story goes, a few years ago, my girlfriend and I were supposed to visit Lviv. A friend of mine living there had already confirmed me that she would have been happy to host us and show us around. In fact, we had already booked two return tickets to reach the city from Krakow by bus.
Unfortunately, we were right in the middle of a particularly harsh winter. The temperatures plummeted down to -25° between Poland and Ukraine so that the railway lines leading us to Krakow got frozen, local coaches got stuck in the icy snow and we were eventually forced to cancel our weekend trip. Which was just a pity.
Even though I didn't visit Lviv at that time, my interest for that place never ceased. Lviv is that sort of once multicultural and multilingual place that was badly treaten by history due to wars, destructions, people displacement, dictatorship and, in recent times, inequality. Suffice is to say that while most of the Jewish population of the town formerly known as Lwòw got deported and killed, thousands of Poles living there were forced to move to Wroclaw (once a German town named Breslau) after WWII when the renamed city of Lviv was annexed to the Soviet Union.
In this respect, Stanisław Lem childhood memoirs are interesting but not fully satisfying. Lem was born and raised in Lwòw and lived there til 1945, when his family had to be relocated to Krakow. He survived the war thanks to false papers and playing a part in the local underground resistance, but you won't find anything about that period in 'Highcastle'.
What Lem does through the pages of this book is narrating episodes of his early and young adult years before the conflict by focusing on objects rather than people. Those who love Proust, might find plenty of exquisite madeleine here, those who find the lack of a plot unbearable, are likely to get bored. I'm somewhat inbetween.
As much as I enjoyed the bits and pieces regarding young Stanisław tyrannizing his parents, destroying carillons and avidly perousing through the illustrations of his father's medical books, I found several pages redundant and repetitive. Lem is not partial to himself, but admits more than once (actually more than necessary) that he was spoiled and lonesome, a dreamy vicious kid without any close friends.
The few lines about life in Lwòw in the late 1930s popping up here and there are excellent and portray a town of great beauty with its hills, its trams, its majestic theatre, its petty bourgeois inhabitants collecting expensive trinkets and sending their sons to study Latin at the Gymnasium. Now, I like this stuff because it reminds me of a lovely bygone age where a Middle European life of that sort could be found as far as contemporary Lithuania (see Miłosz memoirs), Bulgaria (see Canetti's) and Romania (see von Rezzori's).
But Lem is well aware of not being Miłosz, Canetti or von Rezzori thus he doesn't even try to dig deeper into this old world of his ultimately leaving me disappointed. 'Highcastle' is a thin book with some frankly superfluos pages of clumsy introspection and gives you the impression of not having been finished and certainly not developed as much as it deserved.
While the first and the final 'chapters' here are very good, I must confess that I resisted to the temptation of skipping a few pages in the central part of the book; doing that would have not been fair to Stanisław Lem who never pretended to fly higher than he could here. And yet from an author who was that creative and innovative in writing science-fiction making up wonderful stories I would have expected much more in telling us about the day to day reality which influenced him. (less)
I'd like to be indulgent with Stefan Grabiński . For he deserves that. For writing the sort of fiction he delivered in his time and place wasn't easy...moreI'd like to be indulgent with Stefan Grabiński . For he deserves that. For writing the sort of fiction he delivered in his time and place wasn't easy at all, as you will read soon.
The eleven short stories you can find in 'The Dark Domain' are only a tiny fraction of what Grabiński published in his native Poland including five novels and five works for theatre.
And yet, it's with short stories that pan Grabiński briefly touched fame during his short and unfortunate lifetime. And what short stories, I say!
Don't believe Wikipedia and the blurbs: Grabiński is neither the Polish Edgar Allan Poe nor the Polish H.P. Lovecraft. What we have here is odd but fascinating material which might sometimes bear a resemblance or two to other authors but, in fact, doesn't look like anything else that I've read before.
As simple as it sounds, Stefan Grabiński was and still is just the Polish Grabiński. And if that doesn't seem like much to you, please give 'The Dark Domain' a go and I bet you'll understand what I mean.
The quality of Mr Grabiński was that the short stories he wrote between the 1910s and the 1920s were something completely different from what the Polish audience was looking and asking for. Whereas his compatriots revered the historical novels by Sinkiewicz and the neoromantic books by Zeromski, Grabiński didn't publish anything of that sort. At the contrary, he created his own literary (and, alas, unfashionable) genre by putting sinister and introspective short stories in a modern framework.
Only a few of the eleven short stories included in 'The Dark Domain' have a gothic flavour ('A Tale of the Gravedigger', 'Fumes') imbibed in traditional folklore revisited, but most of them will surprise you with either a philosophical or a sensual twist. Grabiński and his characters are clearly fascinated by the wonders of progress - and particularly by trains - but modernity in itself is not a bulletproof shelter against the wicked acts of evil. Well, in fact, quite the opposite.
What astonished me reading this collection is how explicit and sexually detailed Grabiński could be in a time in which Poland was a puritan and a conservative country. To be honest with you a short story like 'In the Compartment' reads more like a chapter of a steamy softcore novel (enters saxophone) than something written by an author devoted to creepy tales. Striking a similar note, 'Szamota's Mistress' is stalking ante-litteram with plenty of frustrated libido to make the readers feel queasy. There's sex, then. And there's even some powerful and rather vivid transgender stuff in 'Fumes'. But to me the mastery of Grabiński lies elsewhere.
Even though daring experimental short stories such as 'Strabismus', 'Saturnin Sektor' and 'The Motion Demon' are very good and will implore for a second reading to be fully appreciated, it's 'Vengeance of the Elementals' that struck me dead. Did you ever watch 'Howl's Moving Castle' by Miyazaki? Well, if you did think about the demon of fire depicted by the Japanese master, imagine it evil and call it an elemental. This story of a hero of a fireman turned an arsonist due to the fire elementals ensnaring him is as scary as engrossing.
There's this famous Italian comic series called 'Dylan Dog' and dealing with horror stories that I read when I was a teenager. If I had to tell what reading Grabiński reminded me of, I would say that it's the scripts of some of the best episodes of 'Dylan Dog'. Just don't call poor pan Stefan the Polish 'Nightmares Investigator' as that womaziner of a Dylan Dog introduced himself.
It's time to give Grabiński some justice, in Poland and abroad. Speaking of which, please translate into English more of his short stories!(less)
In fact, one of the things I like the most since I moved to Krakow is that any given bookshop here includes a prope...moreThey do love reportages in Poland.
In fact, one of the things I like the most since I moved to Krakow is that any given bookshop here includes a properly named 'reportaż' section. Which is something unheard of in Italy and still rare in the UK. Depending on the size and on the quality of the Polish bookshop, the reportage section might host only a handful of titles (most likely belonging to the excellent 'Czarne' serie) on a single shelf or cover an entire wall from top to bottom.
Now put yourselves in my shoes. Just like Polish readers do, I love reportages. However, not being able to grasp written Polish more complicated than what your average 5 year old Pole reads, it's quite frustrating to stare in awe at those scores of potentially fantastic but unfathomable books most of them written by authors I revere. Not to mention that sometimes the top shelf of the reportage section is simply too high to be reached from my glorious 1.70 metre tall.
I'll tell you a funny one here. Once I asked for help to a bookseller assistant in order to check the price of a copy of 'Dukla' by Andrzej Stasiuk placed on a topshelf by saying 'Jestem niktim' which - as far as my memory went - was supposed to mean 'I am short' but actually sounds like 'I am nobody'. 'Short' is translated with 'niski'. She smiled, shook her head a bit, stretched her right arm and handed me the aforementioned book. As it cost too much for my budget, I left 'Dukla' behind but placing it on the penultimate shelf from the top as it dawned on me that 'niktim' didn't exactly mean 'short'. Blush.
If there's a Polish Booksellers Association out there, please pay attention: diminutive people read as much as tall ones do and have their same rights to help themselves in your esteemed bookshops!
Anyways, back to the review. They know how to write reportages in Poland and two generations of Polish journalists have been publishing excellent books spanning the whole world. I guess that part of the merit for the shining health of contemporary Polish reportage journalism goes to success gained by Ryszard Kapuscinski, but the newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza played an important role as well.
Jacek Hugo-Bader the author of 'White Fever' works for GW just like fellow journalists such as Mariusz Sczygiel, Pawel Smolenski, Joanna Bator and many others. Now the good thing of Gazeta Wyborcza is that it's a rare example of a bestselling national newspaper that manages to keep its quality standards high. And employing great reporters giving them the chance to follow their own stories whenever they can helps in making the newspaper an interesting and widely appreciated one.
'White Fever' (Biała gorączka) is introduced to the international readers in its English translation as 'a journey to the frozen heart of Siberia', but it's much more than that. Jacek Hugo-Bader (JHB) will forgive me to state that his crazy driving trip through Siberia from Moscow to Vladivostok on a sturdy customised Lazhik jeep made in the USSR serves as an eye-catcher for those in the UK and the US who are unfamiliar with his foreign sounding and hyphened name. There is indeed very little of Jacek stubbornly driving his Lazhik to and through desolate Siberia in 'White Fever', to be precise these travelogue bits can be found from page 5 to 31 and from page 297 to 320. That's it.
You might wonder what did Jacek write from page 32 to 296 and the answer is: plenty of good stuff. With the pretext of waiting for his second-hand Lazhik to be given an extreme 'pimp my gear' treatment by Muscovite mechanics, say, Jacek Hugo-Bader delves into the very little known Russian hippy community delivering a poignant and hilarious dictionary of their jargon, history, personal stories and beliefs. And this is only the first tasty filling you can find inbetween the 'Siberian driving trip' slices of bread in the surprising flavourful sandwich made up by the Polish journalist.
If all that you know about Russian music doesn't get any further than the raucous chansonnier Vladimir Vysotsky or the thorny (for anoter Vladimir) balaclava-disguised Pussy Riots, Jacek here fills the gaps. Russian hip-hoppers, gangsta-rappers, anarcho-punks, Christian Orthodox rockers, neo Nazi metalheads: you name them and Hugo-Bader interviews them all in his own fashion.
Which brings us straight to a chief point: JHB's writing style. Unlike other contemporary Polish journalists I read and appreciated so far (chiefly Szczygiel, Stasiuk and Gorecki), Jacek Hugo-Bader puts much of himself in his interviews. I mean, he expresses his own opinions in a colourful no-nonsense way that might leave you surprised. I don't know how much of this attitude is genuine and how much is fabricated on editing but I'd daresay JHB is a honest guy.
Writing about an extremely delicate and emotionally touching subject like AIDS and the millions of Russian people infected by the HIV virus due to lack of information, appalling hygienical standards, drug abuse and what calling libertine sexual behaviors might be an euphemism, JHB doesn't beat around the bush. Interviewing 'Miss HIV' Svetlana chosen as the spokeperson for scores of Russian sieropositive youngsters, Hugo-Bader poses just the right questions but is not afraid to include personal remarks such as 'What arrogant bastards', 'Bloody hell!' or scolding Svetlana on her 'proudly telling' him about the 'sexual blitzkrieg' of her HIV-infected husband: 'Sveta, for God's sake!'. Now all this might sound out of place or even patronising but - as surprising as it might look - it works in drawing a portrait of Sveta as the actual person she is thus making the interview utterly engaging.
What follows are mesmerizing pages revolving around the semi-forgotten area of current Kazakhstan where Soviets detonated around 300 atomic bombs both underground and overground between the from 1947 to 1963 keeping the local populace there as guinea pigs. As you might wonder, this is another hard topic to write about involving poor, unemployed and desperate people who have been falling ill and dying by infinite variations of devastating cancer for fifty years. Hugo-Bader is simply masterful here and this 'The Study Aids Store' is the best short reportage I read in a long while.
Far less convincing is the interview with Mikhail Kalashnikov the inventor of the infamous AK-47, the assault automatic rifle that killed millions in the hands of armies and terrorists alike since 1949. I had already read an interview with the same guy (who recently died) written by...David Remnick, I guess, but JHB by clearly showing his distaste for the - certainly distasteful - Russian engineer doesn't do a good job. True, at the time of the interview Mr Kalashnikov was a senile, full of himself jerk and Hugo-Bader lost his temper with his reticence, but I still believe something better could have been written.
The half-failure of Kalashnikov is more than balanced by the fantastic reportage entitled 'A small corner of Heaven' where JHB visits the community founded by one of the three Russian 'living Christs'. In their remote corner of Siberia, Vissarion and his thousands of acolytes have built up a self-sufficient religious community founded on the sometimes crazy (don't piss in the woods! It's forbidden) sometimes reasonable teachings of a former militiaman who discovered to be no other than Jesus Christ. Again, this reportage brought to my mind bits I had read before involving Mormons, Evangelicals and so called New Age communities (Tobias Jones, was that you?), but Hugo-Bader makes it pitch perfect.
To conclude with, just before the second slice of Transiberian bread there's the reportage providing the title to the whole book: 'White Fever'. I liked it and cared about the ill-fated Evenks people, but to be completely honest with you, I've found it a bit long-winded thus losing some of my interest at the end. The story of these Siberian herders who became relentless alcoholics self-destroying themselves in the process due to the low tolerance of alcohol within their organism is incredibly sad and moving, but the stratagem of the countdown used by JHB is ultimately too excruciating to bear.
Which reminds me that this review lasted for too long and it's high time to finish it.
Let me tell you this: if I were you, I would go to the nearest bookshop, look for 'White Fever', buy it and read it. If you live in Poland that is incredibly easy to do. Just hope that your copy of 'Biała gorączka' is not on the topshelf. But I guess you're likely to be taller than me or at least with a better command of the Polish language. (less)
It was a pleasure reading my very first book by W. Somerset Maugham. This guy knew how to write and - what's more - didn't show off. There's not a sin...moreIt was a pleasure reading my very first book by W. Somerset Maugham. This guy knew how to write and - what's more - didn't show off. There's not a single superfluous word in 'The Painted Veil' and every character here speaks with a very distinct and entirely believable voice.
For what is particularly masterful and consistent through this novel is the high quality of dialogues which are just pitch perfect.
Given this as well as the flawless sobriety of his writing style, I find fascinating that Mr. Maugham's mother tongue was actually French, as he grew up in Paris. Furthermore, during his school years in Canterbury young William was teased by his schoolmates due to his shaky English later developing a stammer that stayed with him til the rest of his life.
You might reckon how it's hard to picture someone with such issues in using spoken English writing as well as Maugham did. In the introduction to the edition of this book I own, the author states that he got his 'mastery of technique and ease in writing dialogue' by translating Ibsen. Now, I had no idea that W. Somerset Maugham knew Norwegian and, in fact, I couldn't find any proof that he actually did, but whatever the reason, he certainly became a master himself.
The bygone demi-decadent colonial atmosphere of 'The Painted Veil' brought other British novelists to my mind: first and foremost Graham Greene, but E.M. Forster and Rudyard Kipling as well. Even though the latter two were almost peers of Mr Maugham, I'd daresay that he was well ahead of his time as this work reads as something Mr Greene could have written thirty years later.
'The Painted Veil' was published in 1925. At first the novel meant a lot of trouble for W. Somerset Maugham due to its setting - Honk Kong - some random but unfortunate choice in naming the characters and, last but not least, the plot itself. The author was forced to replace Hong Kong with a fictional Tching-Yen and even had to change the surname of the protagonist from Lane into Fane because of some people bearing that surname in HK who wanted to sue him. In my copy of the book Hong Kong has been reinstated as the main setting of the novel, but - oddly enough - Mr and Mrs Fane were not rechristened Lane. I bet the grandchildren of those angry Lanes in Hong Kong are happy.
Anyway, so here we have a woman, Kitty Fane , who is certainly not a likeable character being, in fact, unfaithful to her husband, coquettish, capricious and rather shallow. No point in hiding that Kitty's affair is with some top-notch guy in Hong Kong as Maugham himself makes that crystal clear from the very first chapter.
But it's what happens later that I won't reveal and that is an excellent, although slow paced, plot indeed. As Monty Python would put it, Kitty Fane will eventually find out that her charming lover is so effing pompous and hasn't got any balls. But it will take some unexpected twists and turns in the story for Kitty to gain that awareness as well as the strength she needs to leave behind the airhead she used to be. (less)
Jean Amery, Tadeusz Borowski, Imre Kertesz, Primo Levi, Boris Pahor, Elie Wiesel…
The list of authors who survived Nazi concentration and extermination...moreJean Amery, Tadeusz Borowski, Imre Kertesz, Primo Levi, Boris Pahor, Elie Wiesel…
The list of authors who survived Nazi concentration and extermination camps finding the strength to tell the world about them could have been longer. Had beautiful minds such as Janusz Korczak, Irene Nemirovsky and Antal Szerb not been among those drowned by the Holocaust, we could have had more masterful first hand accounts on the atrocities perpetrated in the lagers. And who knows how many strikingly important diaries and memories were shattered and burned.
For sixty-five years Chil Rajchman's memoirs were not included in any bibliography about the Holocaust. In fact, they were not even published and were kept in a drawer somewhere between the US and Uruguay where Rajchman died in 2004. Then someone opened that drawer, read those Yiddish written pages and translated them into French. It is likely that what had happened a few years ago with the notebooks of Irene Nemirovsky being rediscovered and becoming an international bestseller played a part in this process.
However, it must be stressed out that whereas Nemirovsky's unfinished 'Suite Française' was a work of fiction (even though deeply interconnected with history in its making), Rajchman's writings deal with the darkest reality human beings could find themselves in.
Rajchman doesn't tell us who he was, what he was doing, how he was taken and put on a cattle waggon on October 1942. What the author tells us is where he was brought: Treblinka. Now, there are still many former Nazi concentration camps which can be visited nowadays. I've only been to Dachau that was the first KZ (Konzentrationlager) the Nazis converted into a death gearwheel and that visit still haunts me. Even though I'll never stop looking for Holocaust and concentration camps related diaries, memoirs, poems and - to some extent - novels, I don't feel like visiting another lager. The wickedness I perceived in Dachau was more than enough.
And yet, if I wanted to pull myself together to go and see the horrors of Treblinka, I would find no barbed wires, no iron gates, no turrets, no barracks, no gas chambers, no crematories. What I'd see is just an ample clearing in a thick forest with a few stone memorials dotting the barren landscape. Unlike Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bergen Belsen, Majdanek and Sachsenhausen which were called 'concentration' or even 'labor' camps where Jewish and non Jewish prisoners had to work themselves to death, Treblinka (and Belzec, Sobibor, Chelmno) was an extermination camp.
Whereas luck, physical strength, inner determination and sometimes scheming could keep you alive in a concentration lager, you had no chances to survive in an extermination camp. 99% of those who arrived to Treblinka were killed within a few hours. And this is the reason why the Nazis were so eager to leave no visible trace of such a hell on Earth. Before leaving Treblinka behind, the executioners meticolously razed the whole camp to the ground, burning hundreds of thousands of bodies and crushing their charred bones with bulldozers. They had the mass graves filled with soil and planted them with lupins. I don't know why the Nazis bothered to cover all that up, but it's a fact that no extermination camp in Poland was left behind untouched.
Chil Rajchman was among those few Jews who were left alive by the executioners to put the evil doings under the carpet. And he spares no unpleasant detail of what he had to do to survive in Treblinka. Cutting the hair of thousands of women on their way to the gas chambers, bringing out the dead bodies, putting corpses into deep graves and covering them with lime, extracting gold teeth and eventually destroying any proof of a gigantic methodical massacre.
As you might have understood this is an extremely difficult book to read through. Rajchman doesn't let you take a single breather and never hides his hatred for the Nazi executioners around him. At a first glance, the author doesn't show any hint of hope for his future, but looking between and beyond the sharp lines he left us, the anger and desperation of Rajchman gradually turn into the willingness to fight back. And that's what eventually happens with the prisoners planning an uprising within the camp leading to Chil Rajchman and others managing to escape from Treblinka.
'Treblinka - A Survivor's Memory' is an extraordinary document on human evilness taken from the bottom of the abyss it could lead us to and - at the same time - an exceptional story of human resilience that everyone might be aware of. (less)