At the tender age of eighteen, on the cusp of adulthood and having been expelled from his last school, young Patrick Leigh Fermor decided to go on a wAt the tender age of eighteen, on the cusp of adulthood and having been expelled from his last school, young Patrick Leigh Fermor decided to go on a walkabout through the pre-war Mitteleuropa wonderland, all the way to the distant minarets of Constantinople. These are some of the people and things that he encountered along the way:
1. Goose-stepping Brownshirts and beer-swilling S.S. officers
“The song that kept time to their tread, “Volk, ans Gewehr!” ---often within earshot during the following weeks was succeeded by the truculent beat of the Horst Wessel Lied: once heard, never forgotten…”
2. Village stores stocked to the gills with Nazi paraphernalia
“…swastika armbands, daggers for the Hitler Youth, blouses for Hitler Maidens and brown shirts for grown-up S.A. men; swastika button-holes were arranged in a pattern which read Heil Hitler and an androgynous wax-dummy with a pearly smile was dressed up in the full uniform of a Sturmabteilungsmann.”
3. Brueghelian winter idylls
“A minute later, it was a faraway speck, and the silent landscape, with its Brueghelish skaters circling as slowly as flies along the canals and the polders, seemed tamer after its passing. Snow had covered the landscape with a sparkling layer and the slatey hue of the ice was only becoming visible as the looping arabesques of the skaters laid it bare. Following the white parallelograms the lines of the willow dwindled as insubstantially as trails of vapour. The breeze that impelled those hastening clouds had met no hindrance for a thousand miles and a traveler moving at a footpace along the hog’s back of a dyke above the cloud-shadows and the level champaign was filled with intimations of limitless space.”
4. Friendly peasants in clogs and lots of cows
“In the barn on the other side, harrows, ploughshares and scythes and sieves loomed for a moment, and beyond, tethered to a manger that ran the length of the barn, horns and tousled brows and liquid eyes gleamed in the lantern’s beams.”
5. Gemutliche gasthauses with kind proprietors
“…for in the end someone woke me and led me upstairs like a sleep-walker and showed me into a bedroom with a low and slanting ceiling and an eiderdown like a giant meringue.”
6. Party-loving, pretty Frauleins
“When I woke up on the sofa---rather late; we had sat up talking and drinking Annie’s father’s wine before going to bed---I had no idea where I was; it was a frequent phenomenon on this journey.”
7. Kooky aristocrats and fascinating pedants with a yen for the glorious days of the Kaiser and the Austro-Hungarian Empire
“The Count was old and frail. He resembled, a little, Max Beerbohm in later life, with a touch of Franz Joseph minus the white side-whiskers.”
8. A Shakespeare quoting, enterprising tramp
””Ah, dear young!” he said, “I am of ripe years already! I would always be frightening them! You, so tender, will always melt hearts.””
9. Balkan Ghettoes full of living Hasidic Jews
”…Talmudic students of about my age…their cheeks were as pale as the wax that lit the page while the dense black lettering swallowed up their youths and their lives.”
10. Grunewald’s horrific crucifixion
“…the special law of gravity, tearing the nail-holes wider, dislocates the fingers and expands them like spider’s legs. Wounds fester, bones break through the flesh and the grey lips, wrinkling concentrically round a tooth-set hole, gape in a cringing spasm of pain. The body, mangled, dishonoured and lynched, twists in rigor mortis.”
And most importantly:
11. Grand architecture --- to wax poetic about in a sensory-overloaded, vertigo-inducing manner.
The painted ceiling at the Melk Abbey
“...rococo flowers into miraculously imaginative and convincing stage scenery. A brilliant array of skills, which touches everything from the pillars of the colonnade to the twirl of a latch, links the most brittle and transient-seeming details to the most magnificent and enduring spoils of the forests and quarries. A versatile genius sends volley after volley of fantastic afterthoughts through the great Vitruvian and Palladian structures. Concave and convex uncoil and pursue each other across the pilasters in ferny arabesques, liquid notions ripple, waterfalls running silver and blue drop to lintels and hang frozen there in curtains of artificial icicles. Ideas go feathering up in mock fountains and float away through the colonnades in processions of cumulus and cirrus. Light is distributed operatically and skies open in a new change of gravity that has lifted wingless saints and evangelists on journeys of aspiration towards three-dimensional sunbursts and left them levitated there, floating among cornices and spandrels and acanthus leaves and architectural ribands crinkled still with pleats from lying long folded in bandboxes...”
Fermor’s writing is as marvelous as the brooding castles and baroque palaces that he encountered along his journey, but at times so dizzyingly rich and dazzlingly erudite that it is best taken in measured doses at a time. European culture and history is an open book in his hands and what a wonderful and profoundly strange place it is!
Prepares sturdy boots for the remaining trek to Constantinople.
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
Long before Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal for his beloved, there was a Great Moghul who began it all: Babur, a descendant of both Genghis Khan and TaLong before Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal for his beloved, there was a Great Moghul who began it all: Babur, a descendant of both Genghis Khan and Tamerlane who first established Mughal rule over India. His claim to fame rests on three things: the story of his death, the controversy over the mosque that he built, and the Baburnama, the first and only autobiography in Islamic literature until the 19th century. It is a vast, complex narrative of an extraordinarily eventful life, full of battles and conquests, as befit his status as a Timurid prince in search of a realm, but also of moonlit drinking parties filled with poetry and music. The first Mughal emperor is both a sensitive man of culture deeply versed in Persian classical literature and a ruthless Ghazi (‘Slayer of the Infidels’) who reveled in erecting towers of skulls from the severed heads of his enemies. He sees no contradiction whatsoever between these different aspects of his personality, and is disarmingly frank, even at times confessional, about his weaknesses, such as his fondness for wine and the narcotic ma’jun, which he often indulged in between bouts of hunting and military expeditions.
Born as a minor prince in what is now Uzbekistan, Babur is a scion of the Timurids, a dynasty established by Tamerlane, which had ruled over much of Central Asia since the 14th century. The Timurid princes were constantly engaged in territorial battles, and from his early teens, Babur had been embroiled in the complex, ever shifting intrigues between his blood relatives. More than once he had succeeded in holding and losing Samarkand, and on several occasions, desperately holding on to his life after being defeated by stronger rivals. Necessity turned him toward the north, to Afghanistan, which he conquered at the age of 23. Several years later, he made his first foray into Hindustan, a much larger and wealthier realm that he finally conquered more than two decades later. He famously loathed his new realm, complaining about its heat and dust, pining for his beloved Kabul, where he was eventually buried. A man of lively curiosity, he wrote about the flora and fauna of India, its landscapes and rivers, and of its native princes and their palaces and temples. He destroyed naked idols that offended his Muslim sensibility, and allegedly built a mosque in Ayodhya, which later became a bone of contention between Muslims and Hindu extremists (who believed that the mosque stood on the birthplace of Rama, an avatar of Vishnu).
He died at the age of 47, not long after conquering India. The following is Amitav Ghosh’s retelling of the legend of Babur’s death.
“Of the many stories told of Babur none is more wonderful than that of his death. In 1530 Humayun, Babur’s beloved eldest son and heir-apparent, was stricken by a fever. He was brought immediately to Babur’s court at Agra, but despite the best efforts of the royal physicians, his condition steadily worsened. Driven to despair, Babur consulted a man of religion who told him that the remedy "was to give in alms the most valuable thing one had and to seek cure from God."
Babur is said to have replied thus: "I am the most valuable thing that Humayun possesses; than me he has no better thing; I shall make myself a sacrifice for him. May God the Creator accept it." Greatly distressed, Babur’s courtiers and friends tried to explain that the sage had meant that he should give away money, or gold or a piece of property: Humayun possessed a priceless diamond, they said, which could be sold and the proceeds given to the poor...
Babur would not hear of it. "What value has worldly wealth?" Babur is quoted to have said. "And how can it be a redemption for Humayun? I myself shall be his sacrifice." He walked three times around Humayun’s bed, praying: "O God! If a life may be exchanged for a life, I who am Babur, I give my life and my being for a Humayun." A few minutes later, he cried: "We have borne it away, we have borne it away."
And sure enough, from that moment Babur began to sicken, while Humayun grew slowly well. Babur died near Agra on December 21, 1530. He left orders for his body to be buried in Kabul.”
Baburnama is a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a medieval warrior and emperor, especially for those with interest in Indian history, but parts of it is also a challenging read for the general reader. As E.M. Forster observed, the greatest difficulty in reading it is not caused by the language (which had been translated into modern, even colloquial English), but is caused by the seemingly relentless onslaught of unfamiliar names of people and places. ...more
A fascinating record of a vanished world replete with details that are made even more poignant by its imminent passing: the elaborate meals, the hand-A fascinating record of a vanished world replete with details that are made even more poignant by its imminent passing: the elaborate meals, the hand-embroidered imperial gowns, the oft-flogged eunuchs who were both lackeys and powers behind the throne, the dizziness-inducing kowtows, formal court ceremonies that were contests of physical endurance, the sickly Emperor and his concubines, all which were soon to be rendered obsolete by the 1912 revolution. Der Ling's account of her two years as a court lady/translator in the Empress Dowager Cixi's court had been dismissed by some, largely because of her own questionable reputation and also because of its divergence from the widely-accepted view of Cixi as the evil witch that brought down the Qing dynasty. Der Ling might have had exaggerated her importance at court, but the little details of her account ring true --- perhaps Cixi was both a monster who poisoned her nephew/Emperor and an old lady who loved gardening and Pekingese dogs. Who knows?
4 stars for the fascinating subject, 3 stars for the somewhat artless writing....more