As a whodunit, the sixth Inspector Chen novel is a vast improvement on the first book. The first book already has elemWarning: possible spoilers ahead
As a whodunit, the sixth Inspector Chen novel is a vast improvement on the first book. The first book already has elements that elevate it above the usual police procedural ---- vivid, at times noir-ish portrait of Shanghai and other Chinese locales; intimate, occasionally gritty observation of the daily lives of Chinese people from all walks of life; commentaries on the oppresive, self-censoring political climate under the Party ---- but the mystery plot felt tentative, and ultimately rather unsatisfactory. In this one, Qiu Xiaolong has finally succeeded in integrating those elements with a page-turning mystery plot.
A common thread that runs through the two novels is the hunt for objects or people who might embarrass the Party or its titular god, Mao Zedong. In this novel, the hunt soon becomes an exploration of Mao's personality through the poems that he wrote. Being a poet himself, Inspector Chen is uniquely suited to such an investigation, and the result reveals that the Great Helmsman was not only as full of hubris as Cao Cao, but also a monster who discarded his women like used-up tissues and betrayed his comrades for the pettiest of reasons.
At the end of the case, Chen ruminates while trying to decide whether to turn over the potentially embarrassing object to the Party authorities:
“It would also be in line with the principle of not judging Mao on his personal life, though as far as Mao was concerned, the personal might not be that personal after all. With T. S. Eliot, the personal went into a poem, into the manuscript of The Waste Land, but with Mao, the personal became a disaster for the whole nation.”
Presumably that's how men and women of Chen's generation feel after the collective madness that was the Wenhua Dageming or Cultural Revolution died off with Jiang Qing and the Gang of Four: betrayed by a demigod that turned out to have feet of clay, or even worse, abused by a father figure they have been taught to worship from kindergarten on. Both have left deep scars in the psyche of the nation, symbolized by the antagonist's pathological Mao obsession. In the end, the possibly incriminating objects remain elusive, but it doesn't matter: everybody already concluded that Mao was a monster anyway.
“After all, it was like a couplet in the Dream of the Red Chamber, “When the true is false, the false is true. Where there is nothing, there is everything.” ...more
What I learned from this book (in no particular order):
1. Don't mess with cannibals, even supposedly reformed ones, especially if they have a particuWhat I learned from this book (in no particular order):
1. Don't mess with cannibals, even supposedly reformed ones, especially if they have a particularly bloody creation myth that they insist on reenacting in real life.
“DESOIPITSJ WAS OLDER and unable to hunt, so Biwiripitsj had to do all the work. One day the boy brought home a wild pig. He cut off the head and thrust a cassowary bone dagger into its throat, pinning the head to the floor. “Bah, a pig’s head is but a pig’s head,” said Desoipitsj, watching. “Why not replace it with a human head? That would be something, I think.”
Biwiripitsj didn’t agree, and anyway, where was he to get a human head?
Desoipitsj was fixated on the idea and said, “Well, you can have my head.” After a lot of cajoling, he convinced Biwiripitsj to kill him with a spear, cut into his throat with a bamboo knife, and press the head forward until the vertebrae cracked. Even as Biwiripitsj removed his brother’s head, Desoipitsj continued to speak, describing the correct technique of butchering humans and initiating boys into manhood, instructions that had to be followed to the letter. Time and space shift in this story, for it is also a charter, a set of instructions on how all Asmat men and women were to act in the future, even though there weren’t yet any other people in the world”
2. Colonial authorities are not to be trusted, especially if they are only concerned with window dressing in their colonies. Claiming that cannibalism is eradicated is not the same as actually eradicating it. Ditto the church.
“It was a stunning moment of geopolitical maneuvering. The world’s eyes were now on New Guinea, including Nelson Rockefeller’s, and it was the Netherlands’ chance to show that its colony wasn’t just some backwater full of headhunters, as President Kennedy’s advisers were arguing, but a nation in the making, with a well-oiled government that could make things happen. For Dutch officials, the search for Michael had become part of a larger strategy: to leave no canoe unturned and no patch of ocean unexamined, and to have Nelson Rockefeller return home, if not singing the praises of the Luns Plan directly, at least saying how great the Dutch in New Guinea were. And the same for the international press—whether Michael turned up dead or alive.”
3. Appropriating other people's ritualistic art without properly understanding their culture may have unintended, fatal consequences.
“Village ambushes were associated with ceremonies meant to restore order in a world of opposites, including the creation of elaborate wooden poles carved from a single piece of mangrove that could be as tall as twenty feet, known as bisj. Each pole depicted a column of stacked ancestors; the pole carried the name of its topmost person. Canoes, snakes, and crocodiles were carved into the base of the pole, and symbols of headhunting extended out in a three-foot-long protrusion from its top. The poles were haunting, alive, often sexually suggestive.
For the Asmat, ancestors are involved in every aspect of their existence. The carvings are memorial signs to those ancestors, and to the living, that their deaths have not been forgotten, that the living’s responsibility to avenge them is still alive and strong, and that the living should not be punished if those deaths haven’t yet been avenged.”
4. Being a member of the white tribe in the colonies might confer certain advantages, but also may bring unforeseen dangers, especially if you are treated as 'the other white meat'.
“The men from Otsjanep who would have been there at about the same time were related—though I wasn’t yet sure exactly how—to the men killed by Max Lapré in 1958, just three years before, and those deaths had never been reciprocated. Seventeen men, women, and children had been killed in the past decade, eight by crocodile-hunting Chinese Indonesians (considered white by the Asmat) and five by Lapré, and Michael had found seventeen bisj poles still in the jeus The Asmat were known to be opportunists, preferring victims to be alone and unprotected, and Michael would have been exhausted, vulnerable in a way they’d never encountered in a white before. And he’d been to the village already; they would have known him and may have remembered his name, an important factor in choosing a headhunting victim.”
5. Having the toilet in the kitchen is an unhygienic arrangement, not to mention an extremely repellent one.
“The air reeked of human shit—the moldy, always wet outhouse was in the kitchen and the hole dropped straight to the ground beneath the kitchen, with those widely spaced boards. There were houses next to Kokai’s, behind it, and in front of it across a small creek, the houses were everywhere, and each one was filled with people shitting onto the ground. The rich, pungent smell pervaded the village, and I never quite grew used to it.”
6. You can create art worth millions of dollars, be paid in worthless trinkets and remain dirt poor.
“They had begun the legal steps necessary to declare him dead within months of his disappearance. Through the Museum of Primitive Art, they’d moved quickly to ship everything he’d collected back to New York—some five hundred objects in total, valued by insurance appraisers in August 1962 at $285,520. It was a stunning sum, a quarter of a million dollars in value created via a few fishhooks, fishing line, axes, and lumps of tobacco, off the talents of men who were illiterate and penniless. As the centerpieces today of the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, their value in attracting visitors and funding is incalculable, not to mention the priceless cache (and hefty tax deductions) their donation to the museum must have brought Nelson Rockefeller and his family. In 2012 the Met hosted six million visitors, with a recommended voluntary entry fee of $25; if the average visitor paid $15, the Met brought in $90 million in entry fees alone, while the grandson of the man Michael regarded as one of the best artists in all of Asmat, Chinasapitch, the man who carved the lovely canoe that holds prominence in the Met, sweeps the floor in bare feet. “Until I told him, he had no idea what had ever happened to that canoe. Had priceless land or millions of dollars’ worth of mineral rights been acquired from illiterate villagers via a few lumps of brown weed and bent wire, cries of injustice might have rung out, with demands that a people unable to understand the deal they’d agreed to be fairly compensated.”
Without physical evidence, say, a skull that had been pierced to allow the brain to drain out or a gnawed tibia, what happened to Michael Rockefeller after his swim in the Arafura Sea would probably remain a mystery forever, but Carl Hoffman builds a persuasive case that he was indeed murdered and eaten by Asmat warriors from the village of Otsjanep. Why? Because he had unwittingly trespassed into tribal territory where natives had been murdered by heavy-handed colonial authorities and had been compelled by their deep-rooted belief to avenge them on a member of the white tribe. He might have sealed his fate when he bought those magnificent bisj poles that now stood in the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art --- these were erected for tribe members who had been killed and must be avenged --- something that Rockefeller Jr. was aware of, Hoffman surmised, in a sort of a clinical way.
The missionary fathers who intimately knew the Asmats and their culture were convinced that this was what happened, but their reports were suppressed by Dutch authorities who would like to present their half of New Guinea as a civilized, cannibal-free colony. The Indonesians who later took over the territory were also not keen to conclude that their new fellow citizens ate an American. Even Michael's twin sister and father, who came to the swamps of Asmat to futilely search for him, ultimately convinced themselves that he drowned. After more than fifty years, Hoffman unearthed the suppressed reports, long buried in the Dutch colonial archives, and interviewed the remaining witnesses. The book ends, rather abruptly, just after a tribal elder dramatically revealed a long-buried secret to the men of his village:
“After we’d eaten, Marco, a man I guessed to be in his late sixties or early seventies, began telling a story in the Asmat language. Everyone listened, some lying down and even falling asleep. I lay down too, noticing a soot-blackened rattan bag at the top of Ber’s roof, round, covered in cobwebs, like it was holding a ball. A skull? I wondered. Although I couldn’t understand the words, and the story wasn’t for me, I watched the drama unfold as dogs scraped around in the swamp below the house. There was the firing of arrows, the powerful side-arm stabbing of someone with a spear. I heard the words Otsjanep and Dombai. Marco walked. Stalked. Stabbed again. Pulled his pants legs up tight, thrust his hips forward, not like he was having sex, but as if he were peeing or having his penis sucked. Men grunted. Nodded. “Uh! Uh!” Finally, an hour into it, I picked up my camera and switched it to video and began filming. But the theatrics were over; he just talked and talked, and after eight minutes, running low on power with no way to recharge, I stopped.”
And that's how the trail ended, cold, in a tale told in an incomprehensible language in a smoky men's house on the coast of the Arafura Sea.
This book's cover sports a suggestive subtitle: "Following Mother Teresa in search of an authentic life", I imagine that an unsuspecting reader who piThis book's cover sports a suggestive subtitle: "Following Mother Teresa in search of an authentic life", I imagine that an unsuspecting reader who picks this book in the Spirituality aisle in a bookstore would probably think that it is one of the seemingly endless books extolling the virtues of 'The Living Saint of Calcutta'. If so, after reading this memoir, he or she will either feel surprised, justified or appalled, depending on what their preconceived notions of the woman whom thousands of her sisters simply called 'Mother' was. According to Mary Johnson, a.k.a Sister Donata, who spent twenty years as a 'spouse of the crucified Christ' in the Missionaries of Charity, Mother was never this woman who 'had no worries and always shone with joy', as others in her order has claimed, instead, she was sometimes 'angry, confused, worried, disappointed and lonely' --- and liked candy --- in other words, she was human, subject to the same human frailties like the rest of us.
One of the most striking of these human qualities is her capacity of doubting the existence of the very God that she so fiercely served, something that only came out in a book written by the priest who was her spiritual confidante years after her death (but prior to her beatification). "Where is my faith?", Mother Teresa wrote, "--- even deep down, right in, there is nothing but emptiness & darkness... --- I have no faith. --- I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd my heart --- & make me suffer untold agony. So many unanswered questions live within me --- I am afraid to uncover them --- because of the blasphemy". This doubt tormented her until the day she died. Who would have known? Those who want to keep her on a saintly pedestal downplay this life-long crisis of faith and spin it into a 'trial of faith', a sort of a final obstacle course towards sainthood. But Mary Johnson, who had extensively studied and taught Mother Teresa's theology as a novice mistress, suspects that "Mother's refusal to uncover those questions may cause her darkness to linger". And not only did this unresolved issue caused great personal suffering for her, but it also gave her an idea that "her feelings of 'torture and pain' pleases God. Over the years, she encouraged her spiritual daughters to become 'victims of divine love'. Mother often tells the sick, 'Suffering is the kiss of Jesus' ". This translated into deliberately wearing sandals that are too small for years until her toes became deformed, harsh 'discipline' (self-scourging with knotted ropes and spiked armbands), deliberate sleep deprivation and other 'sacrifices' for her nuns, and --- if these reports here https://www.facebook.com/missionaries... are accurate --- substandard, even inhumane care in her hospices. If human suffering, even easily preventable ones, pleases God, why should terminal cancer patients get powerful analgesics that can relieve their pain?*
The most interesting part in this book for me is Mary's description of the effect of such ethos on the nuns, including herself. Starved of even simple friendships (the sisters may only love their 'crucified spouse'), some of the sisters, including Sister Donata, got into sexual relationships with other nuns and priests. Required by their vow to obey blindly, some nuns, especially the superiors, became harsh, petty enforcers of dogma and authority. Sisters were encouraged to snitch on priests who betrayed even the slightest deviation from the approved party line --- and on other sisters. Curtains in the basement of a mission house became a fiercely contested isssue. On the other hand, a known sexual predator was allowed to take final vows, a good priest's career was almost destroyed for nothing, and the door towards higher theological education for the sisters was slammed shut because "statistics showed the more education the sisters receive, the more likely they were to leave".
"So much depends on the stories we tell ourselves, and on the questions we ask, or fail to ask".
* There are refutations, or at least justifications, for these accusations. Honestly, I don't know how valid these criticisms are, but if true, how appalling! ...more
There is a lot to be liked in this debut novel, set in post-Tiananmen Shanghai, where people still cook in communal kitchens, personal phones (landlinThere is a lot to be liked in this debut novel, set in post-Tiananmen Shanghai, where people still cook in communal kitchens, personal phones (landlines!) are a rare privilege, and private enterprises are just beginning to sprout like bamboo shoots after a spring rain. Qiu Xiaolong, a Shanghai born-and-bred émigré, ably --- and at times evocatively --- captures the sights and sounds of his native city for a foreign audience, while sprinkling his narrative (originally written in English) with just enough tidbits of Tang/Song poetry and allusions to The Dream of The Red Chamber (one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature --- five if you count the much-maligned The Golden Lotus or Jin Pingmei --- and also the one that I never seem to be able to finish) to give authentic cultural touches to what is essentially pulp fiction. In this respect, he is similar to wuxia writers such as Jin Yong and Liang Yusheng who purposely embed nuggets of Chinese culture in their sprawling swordsman epics. As Qiu writes in English, he explains these allusions, but restrains himself so that they don't turn into clunky info dumps that clutter up the police procedural routine of the story. That said, the police procedural aspect is the weakest part of this novel. The mystery is hardly mysterious and Inspector Chen treats it almost like an afterthought, to be indulged in after he is done with his poetic, gastronomic and romantic pursuits. Likewise, Qiu seems to be much more interested in writing a social commentary about, among others, 'educated youths' during the Cultural Revolution, corruption among high-ranking cadres and urban communal housing, than a mystery. The resolution of the tepid murder 'mystery', as well as Inspector Chen's political problems, is extremely abrupt and seems to come from nowhere. Obviously, Qiu is trying to make a political point here, but it seems to be a pretty ham-fisted one.
The main ingredients of this first novel ---Tang poetry, Chinese culture, both traditional and modern, social commentary on contemporary China, mystery, romance --- are interesting and hopefully Qiu will be able to make more of them in subsequent books. ...more
Updated with pictures and additional excerpts and reflections from reading the different editions of the novel.
"Suddenly, the sound of the zither turnUpdated with pictures and additional excerpts and reflections from reading the different editions of the novel.
"Suddenly, the sound of the zither turned loud and forceful, with the implication of battles and fights, but the flute play remained elegant and graceful. After a while, the zither play also turned mild and gentle, and both the zither and the flute switched between high notes and low notes back and forth. All of a sudden, the sounds of both the zither and the flute changed completely, as though there were many zithers and many flutes playing together in an orchestra. Although the music had changed into something magnificent with many complex florid notes, each tone and cadence stayed clear and meaningful and the melody remained pleasing and moving. Linghu Chong could feel that his mind had been completed captured by the music, and almost couldn’t help standing up. After a while, the tone of the zither and the flute changed again. This time the flute took over the lead and the zither simply accompanied with soothing chords. Soon, the sound of the flute ascended higher and higher. Out of nowhere, feelings of grief and sadness rose and washed over Linghu Chong’s heart. He turned to look at Yilin, only to find tears rolling down her cheeks like streams. A loud ring echoed suddenly, then the zither and the flute fell silent at the exact same instant. Silence swept across in all directions; all that remained was the moon, shining high and bright in the indigo sky, casting still shadows from the endless trees on the ground."
Xiao Ao Jiang Hu or The Smiling, Proud Wanderer* is one of the last wuxia novels written by Jin Yong and is one of the few that is not explicitly set in a specific historical period, although there are internal clues that point to the Ming Dynasty. In his postscript, Jin Yong explains that this was deliberate, as he "intended to employ the characters within the novel to depict certain universal phenomena from the three thousand years of Chinese political life."
Indeed, the vicious politicking and back-stabbing intrigues among the Five Mountain Sword Schools and their enemy, the Sun Moon Holy Cult (Riyue Shenjiao) that form the meat of the novel can be easily transposed to any political stage. However, considering that the novel was written at the height of the Cultural Revolution, it is not hard to see whom Jin Yong aimed to satirize:
“This time, the Sun Moon Holy Cult had come to Huashan and had planned everything meticulously. Not only had all the masters from the cult came out, they had also gathered all the subordinates from each clan, each stronghold, each cave, and each island to force the five mountains sword schools to submit to them. If the five schools didn't want to submit, then they would immediately be annihilated. Then Ren Woxing and the Sun Moon Holy Cult would control the world. They would continue with Shaolin and Wudang schools, and none from among the orthodox path would be able to resist. The business of long live the chief and unifying the Jianghu was to be settled today on the Peak of Morning Sun at Mount Huashan.
Linghu Chong was hesitating in making a decision. But hearing Shangguan Yun praising him with 'Long live Vice-Chief, your benevolence is endless', even though it was still not as much as what Ren Woxing was accustomed to receive, if he really became the Vice-Chief then this slogan would forever follow him. He felt it was very comical and couldn't help uttering a laugh. This laughter sounded like a ridicule and when they heard it, everyone on the Peak of Morning Sun became quiet all of a sudden.
Another person said, "Sacred Chief illuminates the world making our Sun Moon Holy Cult favored by the common people, also like the rain coming down after a long drought. Everyone's happy and they're giving thanks."
The only thing missing are the Little Red Books.
Those who cross party lines are subjected to "struggle sessions" in which people are forced to denounce each other under the pain of death, such as in the scene at Liu Zhengfeng's hand-washing ceremony at the beginning of the book. Even people like him who attempted to retire from public life and thus remain neutral in the fierce factional fighting cannot escape their fate. The hero's quest turns into a search for peace and human dignity, by the means of principled retreat from the corrupt and merciless jianghu, a metaphor for the political life. The theme of disillusionment with politics and ideologies is embedded in the narrative through layers of truths that gradually reveal the true state of the world to the protagonist. His struggle is not against foreign domination, as in earlier Jin Yong novels, but in keeping himself free of "improper" attachment to the corrupting world of power politics. Ultimately, the story is a cautionary tale against totalitarian brain-washing and mindless conformity.
It is not surprising that this book (and other Jin Yong titles) was banned in China during the Mao era.
"Linghu Chong laughed loudly. “Little nun,” he said, “Do you want me to win or lose?” “Of course I want you to win,” Yilin said, “When you fight while sitting down, you are the second best in the world, you won’t lose to him.” “Good!” Linghu Chong said. “Then please go! The quicker the better, the further the merrier!”"
Expelled from his sword school for consorting with the ideologically unsound and falsely accused of stealing a precious martial art manual, Linghu Chong became a jianghu pariah. He spent a significant part of the novel either being imprisoned or gravely injured. Like Dumas’ Edmond Dantes, while detained at the Cliff of Contemplation atop Mount Hua, he met a venerable master who imparted to him the long lost, incomparable sword art of the Nine Swords of Dugu (Dugu Jiujian). His further wanderings embroiled him in the bloody warfare between the “righteous” and “unrighteous”, during which it was gradually revealed that many of the “righteous” were just as morally bankrupt as the other party --- including his master, that shining paragon of Confucian virtues, the “Gentleman Sword” Yue Buqun. Linghu Chong is a particularly likeable, sympathetic hero --- he's like a funnier Yang Guo from Shendiao Xialu without the abrasive cockiness. In contrast to his seemingly easygoing, wine-loving, raffish persona, Linghu Chong was internally torn by his growing awareness of the fact that everything that he dearly held to be true --- the moral and martial superiority of his "righteous” school, the goodness of the master who raised him, the love of his master’s daughter, and the brotherhood that he had counted upon --- were just as illusory as the ideological distinction between the righteous and unrighteous. His desperate desire to return to the filial fold of his master’s family and regain the love of his beloved xiao shimei (apprentice sister) made him a pitiful figure at times.
"The two swords met with a resounding clang and the points of both swords vibrated. Both of them immediately thrusted forward at the same time towards each other's throat. Their speed was unmatched. Looking at both swords thrusting forward at such speed, it seemed that no one would be able to go up to save them and they would both meet common ruin. The crowd called out in surprise. But the crowd heard a sudden ringing sound and saw that the points of both swords pushed against each other in mid air, generating sparks and then bent together to make an arch."
Fortunately, he was fated to meet Ren Yingying, the Holy Maiden of the Sun Moon Holy Cult, who got him through the various low points of his life and taught him the transcendent art of the qin (zither). The uber-competent, shrewd, occasionally ruthless Yingying is a familiar Jin Yong love interest archetype. Their initially tentative relationship gradually blossomed into a redemptive romance that provides a welcome contrast to the dark tale of betrayal and deceit (their banter, which mainly consists of him making innuendoes to the prim and proper Yingying, who invariably blushed with prudish embarrassment, is amusing, if a bit repetitive --- if you like wuxia heroines who blush a lot, Yingying is your girl).
"Half of the girl’s face could be seen from the reflection in the water. Her eyes were shut tight, and her long eyelashes swayed in the breeze. Even though he could not see very clearly from the reflection in the water, he could still tell that she was a gorgeous-looking girl seventeen or eighteen years of age."
Meanwhile, we are treated to the deliciously convoluted plot, highlighted by thrilling sword fights --- which could be both lyrical and brutal at the same time, murder mysteries and intrigues to obtain a perverse martial art manual that requires its practitioners to castrate themselves (Freudian subtext, anyone?).
"Dongfang Bubai pulled out a green silk handkerchief from his side and gently wiped off the sweat and dirt from Yang Lianting's forehead. Yang Lianting became slightly enraged and berated him, "A grave enemy is right in front of us, why are you still wasting time with these useless pleasantries? Beat them away first and we'll still have time for intimacy later."
Grotesque comedy abounds, provided by the cheeky, smart-mouthed Linghu Chong himself, the Six Peach Valley Immortals, who serve as the court jesters of the story, or the hilariously unreasonable Monk No Comandment (Bujie), his student Monk Cannot Have No Commandment (Buke Bujie), and No Commandment's wife, the "mute" Granny. A gag that runs through the story is the bad luck that befalls Linghu Chong whenever he meets "unlucky" nuns, culminating in him inadvertently becoming the first ever male leader of the Hengshan School --- a school of nuns (Yingying promptly relieved him of the embarrassing fact by coercing various male riffraffs under her command to enter the school). The climax is a gory Machbetian bloodbath in which the ideology of good and evil is finally revealed to be no more than a veil for the naked struggle for power.
"The fifteen masked men slowly approached forward, their thirty eyes shone through the holes on their masks like the eyes of fierce wild animals, filled with cruelty and hostility."
The Smiling, Proud Wanderer showcases Jin Yong’s masterful, mature style, with vividly realized, affecting characters, nearly perfect in its blend of page-turning wuxia action, political satire and romance. Read it because it's just a sheer good story.
* The title has been variously translated into English as Smiling, Proud Wanderer, Laughing in the Wind, State of Divinity and Blood Hot Cold Proud (whoever came up with that title deserves to be shot). It literally means “Laughing Proudly at the Jianghu (the World of Rivers and Lakes, i.e. the martial world)." In the novel, the phrase stands for "to live a carefree life amidst the mundane world of strife."
BookFiendUSA: So, how was it? My GR friends’ reviews are all over the place on this one. How does it compare to Virgin Suicides or Middlesex?
SandyBanBookFiendUSA: So, how was it? My GR friends’ reviews are all over the place on this one. How does it compare to Virgin Suicides or Middlesex?
SandyBanks1971: It’s…OK. Not badly written at all, but nothing incredible either. I can’t compare it with Eugenides’ earlier works, as I have never read anything by him before.
BookFiendUSA: Seriously? You’ve never even seen the Sofia Coppola movie?
SandyBanks1971: Nope. But I’ve read the synopses of the earlier books, and I can tell you that there are absolutely no virgins, suicides or hermaphrodites in this one. Instead, we get a manic-depressive, a wannabe Christian and an English major.
BookFiendUSA: No hermaphrodites?
SandyBanks1971: No. But there is a Marriage Plot.
SandyBanks1971: It’s a common plot in 18th and 19th century literature. Typically, there is this girl --- the heroine --- and she has to choose between different suitors, and there will be all sorts of hijinks (pride, prejudices, misunderstandings, madwomen in the attic, etc.) before the nuptial payoff. Austen, Eliot and the Brontes used it extensively in their books.
BookFiendUSA: It’s a romcom!
SandyBanks1971: Something like that. The heroine in this book, Madeline, is an English major (“English was what people who didn’t know what to major in majored in.”) who is steeped in these books and has to choose between Leonard, the brooding, brilliant manic depressive, and Mitchell, the earnest, spiritually inclined sensitive guy. I looked forward to how Eugenides is going to use this sort of plot in a modern setting and how he is going to resolve it. As one of Madeline's professor muses, “What would it matter whom Emma married if she could file for separation later?” “How would Isabel Archer’s marriage to Gilbert Osmond have been affected by the existence of a prenup? ... Where could you find the marriage plot nowadays?” I’m also curious about whether the central romantic triangle is based on any particular 19th century novel (Franzen recently did this in Freedom).
BookFiendUSA: So ---?
SandyBanks1971: Eugenides does use the marriage plot, but the ending is a sort of a deconstruction of its traditional form. After all, in an age of gender equality and easy divorces, how could the Marriage Plot still matter? Leonard is obviously the Heathcliff type, and Mitchell is maybe a mix between Linton and St. John Rivers. Madeline is --- actually I don’t quite know who she really is, especially compared to the male protagonists. Eugenides gives her a pretty extensive biography, and an intermittent ambition to go to grad school and write for literary reviews, but other than that, she seems to be merely a flimsy foil for her suitors. Early on, we are told that she loves Austen and James, but unlike Mitchell and Leonard, whose lives are transformed by the books that they read, there seems to be hardly any connection between her and those books. In a pivotal moment, she reflects on…Madeline. Yes, this Madeline, the little convent schoolgirl from Paris.
Leonard ruminates on Nietzche and Mitchell has his Thomas Merton inspired epiphanies, and Madeline thinks deeply about Madeline? Why can’t she reflect on Wuthering Heights? Or, I dunno, Middlemarch? Or Persuasion? We never learn about what Madeline really thinks of the marriage plot --- and the obvious parallels to her private life --- either (her thesis is, after all, titled: “I Thought You’d Never Ask: Some Thoughts on the Marriage Plot”). If The Marriage Plot is meant to be a modern reworking of an Austen or Bronte novel, this lack of development of her character is big minus.
BookFiendUSA: Okay, so the major female character is lame. I get it. I’d rather read a ton of Madeline books than a Henry James, though. Now, some people think that this novel is terribly pretentious, with its Ivy League setting, WASP characters and lengthy Barthes quotations. Do you agree?
SandyBanks1971: Not necessarily. I mean, he’s writing about life in an Ivy League campus --- is there going to be an egghead or two, trust-fund babies, and academic egotists on steroid? You bet. To be fair, some of the kids are wealthy WASP types, but Leonard needs financial aid, and Mitchell is Greek and strictly middle class. There’s lots of name-dropping, but in most cases, they’re followed by sufficient exposition. The quotes are necessary to understand the characters’ mindset, as they live in books as much as in the real world. And Eugenides is actually poking fun, wryly, at some of the faddish academic theories:
“Madeline had a feeling that most semiotic theorists had been unpopular as children, often bullied or overlooked, and so had directed their lingering rage onto literature. They wanted to demote the author. They wanted a book, that hard-won, transcendent thing to be a text, contingent, indeterminate, and open for suggestions. They wanted the reader to be the main thing. Because they were readers.”
BookFiendUSA: Anything else that you like?
SandyBanks1971: I like how he writes about being in your early twenties, just out of college with your whole life stretching ahead of you. Grappling with issues, intellectual or otherwise. How everything seems to be of looming importance. How stuff happens, sometimes casually, that determine how you life the rest of your life. I think he captures that well, and can be quite eloquent about it. So I guess I’ll check out the suicides and hermaphrodites. ...more
Genghis Khan and his Mongol Horde were good news for the world. Really. Not convinced? Consider the following:
1. Genghis Khan was an advocate of humanGenghis Khan and his Mongol Horde were good news for the world. Really. Not convinced? Consider the following:
1. Genghis Khan was an advocate of human rights, specifically freedom of religion, freedom from torture and free trade (he got two of the Four Freedoms right, which is pretty impressive by medieval standards, especially when they still, like, burned heretics and unbelievers in Europe and elsewhere). GK forbade the use of torture in trials and as punishment. He also granted religious freedom within his realm, though he demanded total loyalty from conquered subjects of all religions. His own immediate family was religiously diverse: besides those who were Shamanists or Buddhists, a significant number were Monophysite Christians --- and later also Muslim converts. As for the free trade thing, it was more of a byproduct of the commercial opportunities that developed along the Silk Road (“history’s largest free-trade zone”), once the interior of the Eurasian landmass became safe enough to travel under the Pax Mongolica. Free trade as human right is still a pretty iffy concept, anyway.
2. GK created a hitherto unprecedented egalitarian society where men and some women (more on this later) advanced through “individual merit, loyalty and achievement”, instead through birth and aristocratic privilege. This egalitarian society was also incredibly diverse, comprising of people of different religions and nations. The Mongols hired European artisans to decorate their HQ in Xanadu, Chinese engineers to man their siege engines, and Muslim astronomers to chart their horoscopes. And they might have hired an Italian guy called Marco Polo to govern the city of Hangzhou --- who knows? But there’s no independent proof of it whatsoever.
3. GK was a proto-feminist --- well, he was sort of pro-woman, in the context of his era. He made it law that women are not to be kidnapped, sold or traded. Through marital alliances, he installed his daughters as de facto rulers over conquered nations. In Mongol culture, when the men went off to war, the women ruled the roost. And since Mongol men in the time of GK went really far away to conquer distant nations and did not return for years, the wives and daughters were the real boss at home (and also at the various Mongol courts, when many of GK’s male descendants turned out to be drunken incompetents). A successful queen like Sorkhothani, the wife of GK’s youngest son, was able to rule in her dead husband’s stead and made all of her sons Great Khans. Failure, however, could doom such women into cruel and unusual punishments, such as being sewed up naked into a rug and then pummeled to death (Mongols abhorred the sight of blood, thus the rug).
4. The Mongols promoted pragmatic, non-dogmatic intellectual development in the countries that they ruled. Although himself an illiterate, GK and his family recognized the value of learning and actively encouraged the development of the sciences. Under the Mongols, learned men did not have to “worry whether their astronomy agreed with the precepts of the Bible, that their standards of writing followed the classical principles taught by the mandarins of China, or that Muslim imams disapproved of their printing and painting.” New technology, such as paper and printing, gunpowder and the compass were transmitted through the Mongol realm to the West and sparked the Renaissance a few generations later.
5. The Mongols were for low taxes. GK lowered taxes for everyone, and abolished them altogether for professionals such as doctors, teachers and priests, and educational institutions.
6. The Mongols established a regular census and created the first international postal system.
7. The Mongols invented paper money (it was soon abandoned because of hyper-inflation, but they got the right idea) and elevated the status of merchants ahead of all religions and professions, second only to government officials (this is in contrast to Confucian culture, which ranked merchants as merely a step above robbers). They also widely distributed loot acquired in combat and thus promoted healthy commercial circulation of goods.
8. The Mongols improved agriculture by encouraging farmers to adopt more efficient planting methods and tools, as well as transplanting different varieties of edible plants from country to country and developed new varieties and hybrids.
Okay. So Pax Mongolica was basically good for the world. But wait, how about all of those terrible massacres, rapine and wholesale destruction of cities? Didn’t Genghis Khan famously stated that “the greatest joy a man can know is to conquer his enemies and drive them before him. To ride their horses and take away their possessions. To see the faces of those who were dear to them bedewed with tears, and to clasp their wives and daughters in his arms?”
Actually, Muslim chroniclers attributed that quote to him and it is highly unlikely that he ever uttered it. Muslims writers of the era often exaggerated Mongol atrocities for Jihad purposes.* The Mongols were very aware of the value of propaganda as a weapon of war and actively encouraged scary stories about themselves.The Mongols decimated cities that resisted them, such as Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate, but they generally let those that surrendered remain unmolested. At the end of the fourteenth century, Tamerlane piled up pyramids of heads outside the cities that he conquered, and as he (flimsily) claimed to be a Mongol, “his practices were anachronistically assigned back to Genghis Khan.” Three centuries later, Voltaire adopted a Mongol dynasty play to fit his own personal political and social agenda by portraying GK, whom he used as a substitute for the French king, as an ignorant and cruel villain. So basically, GK got an undeservedly bad rap.
Yay for Genghis Khan!
* “…more conservative scholars place the number of dead from Genghis Khan’s invasion of central Asia at 15 million within five years. Even this more modest total, however, would require that each Mongol kill more than a hundred people; the inflated tallies for other cities required a slaughter of 350 people by every Mongol soldier. Had so many people lived in the cities of central Asia at the time, they could have easily overwhelmed the invading Mongols. Although accepted as fact and repeated through the generations, the (inflated) numbers have no basis in reality.” ...more
First, I must say that the title is a bit puzzling. I thought that “Visual History” meant something like ‘pictorial history’, but there are too few piFirst, I must say that the title is a bit puzzling. I thought that “Visual History” meant something like ‘pictorial history’, but there are too few pictures in the book to justify it. There is art and architecture galore, but other than that, there is a dearth of discussion about other aspects of culture. As for the personal, aside from a few brief anecdotes about the author's various visits to Rome, there is preciously little. Judging from the contents, perhaps the book should be titled ‘Art and Architecture in Rome, with Brief Historical Asides’ --- or something to that effect.
There is some history in the earlier chapters, which deal with the Roman Empire and its papal successor, but once Hughes gets to the Renaissance, it’s all art and artists. History only resurfaces after the great works of art have dwindled by the 19th century. Then, it’s almost exclusively political history. The dichotomy is at times disorienting --- I’d love to know more about the political and cultural context of the great artistic eras, or about how the city was governed, and how ordinary citizens lived. Instead, we get some tangential history that is interesting in itself, but is not that relevant to Rome, such as the history of the Albigensian Crusade (obviously, it has something to do with the papacy, but it took place entirely in Provence).
The art history/criticism that is the meat of this book is brisk, bristling with interesting details and occasionally memorably phrased: the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling is “almost all body, or bodies. The only sign of a nature that is not flesh is an occasional patch of bare earth and, in the Garden of Eden, a tree”; Caravaggio “thrashed about in the etiquette of early Seicento Rome like a shark in a net.” It is fascinating to learn about the history of all of those obelisks that dot the Roman landscape and the engineering feats that were accomplished to move and erect them. Or about the creative recycling/vandalism that went on through Rome’s history until relatively recent times (the Colosseum, for example, was used as a convenient quarry for the new Vatican, and the ancient bronze cladding of the Pantheon was stripped to make Bernini’s massive baldachino in St. Peter’s). Hughes goes beyond the familiar superstars like Michelangelo and Raphael, covering lesser-known artists like Guido Reni (“There can be few painters in history whose careers show such a spectacular rise to the heights of reputation, followed by such a plunge to the depths.”) and Annibale Caracci, who painted the staterooms of Palazzo Farnese. This was done during a particularly dissolute era in the history of the Church, when it was perfectly okay for a cardinal, later Pope Paul III, to have his private residence decorated with pagan soft porn scenes with a bestial twist like this one (it’s classical! --- it’s from Ovid’s Metamorphoses!):
The Rape of Ganymede by Jupiter's Eagle with Satyrs Ouch!
Hughes points out that “to call such a theme inappropriate for a future pontiff would be a mistake: he had been made a cardinal by the Borgia Pope Alexander VI, whose mistress was Alessandro Farnese’s sister, Giulia Farnese. Moreover, he had four illegitimate children of his own, plus an unknown number of by blows.” As a Jesuit-educated ex-Catholic, Hughes pulls no punches against his former faith, in most cases with some justification --- scathingly denouncing the corrupt Renaissance papacy, the reactionary Church of the 19th century, the appeasement of Nazis and Fascists in the 20th, and the $ 500 “hefty ransom” that the Vatican demanded for a private tour of the Sistine Chapel today. But he’s at his crankiest (and funniest) best when charting the decline of 21st century Rome, where statesmanship has gone down from this
Augustus of Prima Porta
“…a multi-multi-millionaire…who seems to have no cultural interest…apart from top-editing the harem of blondies for his quiz shows.”
and art has degenerated from this
“Opening the can would, of course, destroy the value of the artwork. You cannot know that the shit is really inside, or that whatever may be inside is really shit…so far none has been opened; it seems unlikely that any will be, since the last can of Manzoni’s Merda d’artista to go on the market fetched the imposing sum of $80,000.”
First things first: that wasn’t my real name. The Empress Elizabeth, who was Peter the Great’s daughter (now, tFROM THE MEMOIRS OF CATHERINE THE GREAT
First things first: that wasn’t my real name. The Empress Elizabeth, who was Peter the Great’s daughter (now, that is a man who truly deserves “the Great” after his name!), changed my name to Ekaterina when she converted me into the Russian Orthodox religion. As for that superfluous title that follows my new name, it was prematurely bestowed on me by the Legislative Commission that I convened to give Russia a more enlightened legal code (more on this later). I brought them together to study laws, and they were busy discussing my virtues instead. Imagine that! I still blush with embarrassment whenever I recall the incident, although I cannot say that I’m thoroughly displeased with it.
My real name is Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg. Yes --- I was a German import. Many Romanov royals, including my future husband Tsar Peter III, are actually Germans, specifically Prussians. This caused some awkwardness later when we went to war against Prussia in my reign --- but that was still far in the future. Papa was the ruler of the Anhalt-Zerbst principality. Some people would call him a minor aristocrat, but he was still a prince, nein? Mama was formerly a princess of the house of Holstein-Gottorp (yes, that’s where those lovely cows come from), whose late brother was affianced to the young Empress Elizabeth. He died of smallpox before the wedding, but Elizabeth never forgot him, and when it was time to look for a spouse for the Tsarevich, she naturally turned toward his family.
I was all of 14 years old when Elizabeth summoned Mama and me to Russia to marry Peter III. I was just a tiny slip of a girl then! The entirety of my trousseau consisted of three old dresses, a dozen chemises, a few pair of stockings and a few handkerchiefs. You see, Mama had spent all of the money that the empress sent for me on her own wardrobe. That’s Mama for you. Soon after my wedding, Elizabeth unceremoniously sent her back home for being a meddlesome mother-in-law and a clumsy Prussian secret agent. I never saw her again for the rest of my life.
That’s my husband. As you can see, he’s not much of a catch, but he’s still Peter the Great’s only surviving grandson, and that’s who I married --- the future Tsar of all the Russias. Peter was a sickly man-child who would rather play with his toy soldiers on our marital bed than with me. He was not allowed to play with them during the day, so they were hidden under the bed. As soon as we were both in bed, Madame Krause, our nanny/supervisor, would come in and brought out the toy soldiers. I couldn’t even move in the bed --- they were so many of them! Peter played with them until well after midnight, and every time someone knocked at the door to check on us, we had to scramble to hide the toys under the blanket. It was farcical: a newly married couple constantly on guard lest they be caught playing with toys. But the Empress Elizabeth was not amused when, years into our marriage, we had not produced the heir that she was expecting from us.
The fact is that my husband never touched me for the first nine years of our marriage. There was a lot of speculation as to the reason why. He openly told me that he was in love with another woman --- one of my ladies in waiting --- but it seemed that the relationship was similarly unconsummated. Others speculated that he was just simply too physically and mentally immature to father a child. Some of our learned doctors even diagnosed him with phimosis (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phimosis). Sergei Saltykov, the first of my twelve lovers (oh, how handsome he was!), convinced him to have an operation to correct the condition. You see, once Sergei was involved with me, he became anxious of his own safety. What if I got pregnant? But if Peter had been known to be able to consummate our marriage, who could say that Sergei was responsible? It turned out that my paramour was unnecessarily worried: the empress herself had instructed her minions to provide me with a more reliable male for the purposes of begetting an heir --- and Sergei was one of those considered! Anyway, I soon fell pregnant, resulting in Paul, the long-awaited Romanov heir.
Many people claimed to see a marked resemblance between my son and my husband, not just in looks, but also in their shared hobby of playing soldier. But whenever I wanted to needle my son, I always said that Sergei Saltykov was his father. We never got on well, Paul and I, perhaps because I rarely saw him during his childhood. The Empress Elizabeth whisked him away right after he was born, smothered him with frustrated maternal love and casted me aside. When my first grandson was born, I contemplated bypassing Paul altogether and make him Tsar Alexander I, but it was not to happen.
After the empress passed way, Peter briefly got to be Tsar, before he was forcibly deposed by the army, who made me empress instead. Peter idolized Frederick II, the Prussian king who was at war with us, and wanted to make peace with him. The patriotic Russian people hated this radical change in foreign policy and casted their lot with me instead. My then boyfriend, Grigory Orlov (that’s him below, by the way --- isn’t he dashing?), and his brother made sure that Peter was mysteriously dispatched soon after, and I got to gloriously rally the Russian people on horseback wearing the uniform of a colonel of the Preobrazhensky Regiment.
The reign of Catherine II officially begins!
I believed in the strong Russian motherland and added many territories, 520,000 km2 in all, to Peter the Great’s empire. When he was only able to gain a toehold in the south, I completed his conquest by defeating the ailing Turks (and gaining a warm water port, so crucial for Russia, in the process). The former Ottoman territories around the Black Sea, the Ukraine, and Crimea (which the love of my life, Grigory Potemkin, administered as my Viceroy) became Russian possessions. I also partitioned Poland, after putting my second lover, Stanislaus Poniatowski, on the throne of that country (poor sweetie, he actually didn’t want to be king, imagine that!).
On the home front, I tried my best to drag Russia into the modern age. Eighteen years of boredom and loneliness as an unhappily married woman gave me the opportunity to read many books. I imbibed the best ideas of the Aufklarung through the writings of M. Montesquieu (whose ideas I pillaged for the Nakaz, the new legal code that I envisioned for Russia), Mr. John Locke (what is more important than our children’s education, especially our girls?) and Signore Beccaria (torture is barbaric!). I corresponded with the best minds in France, including M. Voltaire (he called me “The Star of the North” --- such a sweet man!) and M. Diderot, whose work on his Encyclopedie I supported, and whose library I purchased --- on the condition that he got to keep it during his lifetime as I thought that it would be so cruel to separate a scholar from his books. M. Diderot actually visited me in St. Petersburg to express his gratitude, the poor sickly man. Unfortunately, many of these progressive ideas proved to be far too advanced for the country, and I had to reassert my absolute powers as the autocrat of all the Russias to prevent the total collapse of the social order, particularly during the savage Pugachev rebellion. That rough Cossack pretended to be my long dead husband --- what insolence!
The Benevolent Despot in action
Finally, I must say for myself that as a sovereign I wanted nothing other than what was good for my country, and that I had employed all the powers on my disposal to bring happiness, liberty and prosperity for my subjects. I am aware, however, that I have a number of detractors, who do not hesitate to concoct lies and outright fabrications to sully my good name. They alleged, for example, that the so-called “Potemkin Villages” deceived me during my visit to the Crimea in 1787. My darling Grigory (below --- mwah, mwah!) might have put some fresh paint on some of the settlements that we passed through, but he did not construct whole made-up villages for my benefit. And even if he did, do you think that they could have fooled me, and my whole entourage, which included courtiers, foreign diplomats and even Emperor Joseph II?
And as for that unspeakable, much more egregious fabrication--- let us just say that some men were troubled by the fact that there was an accomplished, powerful woman on the throne and would stop at nothing to slander her. Besides, I had had twelve handsome young men at my beck and call --- what would I need a horse for? ...more