During WWII, women served in all branches of the military: 225,000 in the British, 450,000-500,000 in the American, and about a million in the Soviet army. The women in the Soviet army contributed to the German defeat, but little was known and little was said about them and the price they had to pay for victory.
Over the course of twenty six years, Svetlana Alexievich sought out many of these women and became the repository for their untold stories. This is part of the body of work that earns her a place as one of only seventeen women out of a hundred and fifteen Nobel Laureates in Literature.
Maybe it’s because Svetlana Alexievich says that she isn’t writing about war nor the history of a war, “but about human beings in a war… the history of feelings.” Maybe it’s because she is what she says she is, “A historian of the soul.” Maybe it’s because she believes, for good reason, that suffering is “a special kind of knowledge,” “the highest form of information,” that suffering has a direct connection with the mystery of life. (“All of Russian literature is about that. It has written more about suffering than about love. And these women tell me more about it…”) Maybe it’s because she makes this book of unburdening into an overwhelming choir of over two hundred voices singing a soulful rendition of an unsung threnody for the first time, that it answers my question as to why a piercing account of war can be so beautiful and so important.
Special thanks to Gabi for encouraging me to read this and for giving it to me as a birthday present last year. 🤍
Orhan Pamuk’s longest novel to date unravels with a pace that tends to linger, to wit: it is not for readers who are in a hurry. For that reason, I found it strangely refreshing. Strange because it is a plague narrative that is not meant to be refreshing, refreshing because of the reading experience it provided; defiant of the modern reader’s preference for a literary quick fix, and defiant of our silly reading goals that have more to do with the number of books rather than the languid relishing in an author’s descriptive prowess.
Perhaps I simply feel at home in the expression of an author whose mind is a museum of melancholy, but I am now sensing that part of the allure is in how his books are written for their own sake — written because he felt they needed to be written rather than written for their salability. Isn’t that pure art?
Set in 1901, in the fictional island of Mingheria, “on the route between Istanbul and Alexandria,” it is a curious deviation from a usual Pamuk novel that stays within reach of Istanbul. While Snow is set farther in eastern Turkey, an invented island between Crete and Cyprus is still a surprising backdrop for seasoned Pamuk readers; but only until we realize that the creation of Mingheria allows for a certain leverage and freedom for political criticism. Methinks Mingheria speaks more about Turkey than it does about an imaginary island nation in 1901.
This novel can teach a thing or two about running a nation during a plague; about epidemiology; how to deal with resistance from different sectors against quarantine measures; how plagues do not distinguish between Christian or Muslim; how failed attempts at containing a plague can fan the flames of a revolution; how revolutions can be exploited; the similarities between solving a murder and stopping an epidemic; and living or loving through the sickness and political ferment. It is about plagues, revolutions, nationalism, the administrative and language reforms that ensue, the fickleness of governments, about the accidents of history, how history is made, and how history is written.
It echoes Camus’ The Plague in the way that the narrator’s significance is revealed only at the end and also for the chilling reminder that plagues reappear throughout history “for the bane and enlightenment of men”.
Unfortunately, man easily forgets, and unwittingly asks to be reminded ever so often.
The plan was to read a Saramago by the 16th of November. It could have been another Saramago. Besides, I still remembered the anguish in this one. But was that all? Could an honest reader claim to have read this if that’s all they gathered?
The questions prompted a re-reading. After all, this reader of thirty-eight Novembers makes an effort to re-read at least one book a year from callow years. Blindness beckoned.
Oh, to realize that the first victim of the epidemic of blindness in the story, who used to seem so much older, is exactly as old as I am now!
It took several pages to re-acclimatize to the disorienting treatment of dialogue: But I now grasp how this effectively amplifies an incessant tension, immensely effective that the suspense still made my palms sweat.
Soon enough, neglected passages from the first reading began to hit differently: “Government of the blind trying to lead the blind” leapt off the pages from fiction to palpable reality. And I ask, is the book still considered dystopian when we already experienced similar things at the onset of the pandemic — the messy government response, the fear of the unknown, the unforeseen future, deaths, confusion, chaos, the stumbling in the dark, the uncovering of the best and the worst of humanity?
It is also only now that I understand why the characters were not given names: “Inside us there is something that has no name, that something is what we are.” I had failed to notice that this novel is essentially a look at human behavior when left to fend for itself in the dark, beheld under Saramago’s powerful, magnifying lens.
Yes, there is anguish and barbarity; it’s every man for himself. But as an older reader who has seen more darkness in the world than when I first read this, the opposite is highlighted this time, and it is compassion and kindness that shines through.
There is anguish, but I can also emphasize how a book about blindness can open our eyes; and I will, instead, point to the selfless acts, that glorious moment when the three women bathe naked in the rain, and those moments when the only person who retains her eyesight reads a book to those who have gone blind.
“The only miracle we can perform is to go on living, said the woman, to preserve the fragility of life from day to day, as if it were blind and did not know where to go, and perhaps it is like that, perhaps it really does not know, it placed itself in our hands, after giving us intelligence, and this is what we have made of it…”
To go on living. José Saramago couldn’t have given me a better message on the 16th of November, the birthdate he and I share.
She knew there would be pain in these books. But don’t people in the warmest climes imbibe hot drinks to temper the body’s response to heat? By that logic, here she is; steeped in the rich wordscape and sorrowful history of the Balkans.
The first days of November find this reader still silenced by life. A point in which literature remains among the few things left that can coax words out of her.
Sarajevo Marlboro and Omer Pasha Latas fell into her possession around the same time. That both books come from two of her favorite publishers, that the earth tones of their elegant covers match her autumnal soul, that both authors are exemplary, that their stories juxtapose on the same geographical region, were reasons enough to read them together.
Jergović’s extraordinary vignettes is a dip into a sea of humanity and tragedy in the midst of the Yugoslav wars. Andrić, born a century before these wars, whose words seem to flow as naturally as a limpid stream in the Bosnian countryside, write of a different time under the Ottoman rule, but of eerily similar sufferings.
Sarajevo Marlboro, traces of life retrieved from the rubble, fragments that suggest that the real casualties of war are the living; Omer Pasha Latas, unfinished at the time of Andrić’s death. But none of these books leave this reader dissatisfied. It is strangely easy to be drawn into the hypnotic quality of the details.
Both books intimate our need for context and our need for stories if only to make sense of life and divine its purpose; they whisper about the lies of those in power and of fabricated histories; but both beautifully manifest the ephemerality of life.
Andrić’s last word: “Music”. Jergović’s last paragraph: “You can never list or recall the private libraries that have burned down in Sarajevo… But the fate of the Sarajevo University Library, its famous city hall, whose books took a whole night and day to go up in flames, will be remembered as the fire to end all fires, a last mythical celebration of ash and dust. It happened, after a whistle and an explosion… Gently stroke your books, dear stranger, and remember they are dust.”
Dust: Like everything else we deem precious in this world. So while she can, this reader will stroke her books. They don’t always hold the answers, but they hold her, and hold the dusty, broken pieces of herself together.
“With these words, she drew back the bolts that Kolbakur had made to fasten her window frame, pulled the frame aside, and let the man into her bower. Images of gods were carved on the bower’s pillars and stiles and rails of her chair, but they were only half done — Christianity having come to Iceland before the artist completed his work.”
And with this fleeting imagery, a beautiful and ingenious depiction of the religious landscape in which the story is set. An age on the cusp between the fading world of paganism and the force of a new religion of peace, ironically preached by adventurers and men waging selfish crusades in the name of Christ. It was this melancholy conflict that I heard playing as a soundtrack throughout its pages.
It seemed revolutionary when Hollywood recently began to highlight the dark side of legends and heroes. These have become sombre reminders that even superhuman abilities are not enough to protect one from ego, the perilous thirst for fame, power, revenge, and from mere mortals’ tragedies.
Then there’s Halldór Laxness who had Wayward Heroes published way back in 1952, part of the body of work that earned him the Nobel Prize in 1955.
Written in the style of ancient Icelandic sagas, it is replete with violence, adventures amorous and otherwise, and the barbarism of medieval Europe. But how wonderfully Laxness refashions the old to become accessible and relevant to the new.
On the surface, these are the exploits of blood-brothers, Þorgeir and Þormóður. One can read it as such and it will remain entertaining. But one can always choose to go beyond that and take note of the language, the veiled ironies, how wit and sarcasm remain elegant, and the subtleties that only a master can pull off, and how this story remains especially timeless for being a cautionary tale about the heroes, kings, and causes to whom and to which we pledge fealty.
Venice, through the pen of a mediocre writer, can easily become cliché.
But this is Joseph Brodsky.
If you, like me, have read Lawrence Durrell’s Prospero’s Cell and thought it was alone in its indefinable sub-genre or sur-genre (if there’s such a thing), we can rejoice! Venezia’s Watermark is the worthy soulmate of Corfu’s Prospero’s Cell.
Meditative with a sensual rhythm but not without intelligent humor, here is travel literature that casts an enchanting haze on the borders between poetry and prose, a place and the self.
I would slip this in my handbag in a heartbeat on a return trip to the best city to get lost in.
On the question of loneliness: “Isn’t that lonely, what you’re doing?”
(I have just returned from a solo trip to Uzbekistan.)
Well, these friends came along for the ride: The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist by Orhan Pamuk, for the long Istanbul flight; The Captain’s Daughter by Alexander Pushkin that was fortunate enough to have a photo at the Pushkin Metro Station in Tashkent and was enjoyed under the shade of the trees of Amir Timur Square; Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit, read during those days at the Halva Book Cafe whilst waiting for the Bukharan sun to soften; and A Carpet Ride to Khiva by Turkish-British Christopher Aslan Alexander, which accompanied me through Khiva’s storied alleys.
As there is currently so much more outside book covers to commit to paper, I release myself from the discipline of writing book reviews this month. “Regular programming” will resume in this blog in July. Haha
But I have to mention that Pamuk, who sacrificed painting and architecture school so he could paint with words, taught me a Greek word through this book — “Ekphrasis”. Simply put, ekphrasis is, “To describe something, via words, for the benefit of those who have not seen it.” This inspired me to somehow practice ekphrasis in my little way as I traveled through Uzbekistan, and doing so has allowed me to savor experiences twice.
Pushkin, although political, was not as existentially heavy as Dostoevsky and not as heavy literally as Tolstoy — a purely delightful travel companion!
A Carpet Ride to Khiva seems to have left no stone unturned about Khivan society. It is written in simple prose, bursting at the seams with honest observations, this book is an entertaining overview of the country’s history and politics — which is, perhaps, one of the reasons why the author is banned in Uzbekistan, and why I only brought the e-book with me. I, too, have my own observations, but will keep them to myself for the time being. But it has to be noted that along with reading, traveling is a most comprehensive education on geopolitics, among other things, if one cares to engage and observe.
Solnit, with a title perfect for a trip, shared this Eskimo custom of offering an angry person release by walking the emotion out of his or her system by going in a line across the landscape; “The point at which the anger is conquered is marked with a stick, bearing witness to the strength or length of the rage.”
I, who had no anger to release, did mark the places that bore witness to the strength and length of… something else. I enjoy traveling solo. I would not keep doing it if I didn’t. It is almost like a sort of essential meditation for me and I always go home a better person. I do not feel sad with my own company. But I did mark those places, those experiences so ineffable I could think of only one person to share them with. I would prefer to call it love than loneliness. (But why is conquering anger about letting go and conquering something else the opposite? But I digress.)
As I reluctantly tuck in this unforgettable trip lovingly and a little bit pensively in the folds of memory, I am reminded that the Old Uzbek language had a hundred words for different kinds of crying. And I wonder, what about laughter? What about happiness?
Reading this reminded me of a trip to the National Museum of the Philippines. I went there for the masterpieces, but found myself spending more time, and being most delighted, in a room full of practice sketches by Amorsolo.
Exteriors are sketches, little fragments of writing that feel like ingredients for a larger canvas; and Annie Ernaux is the great artist who guides readers to become keener observers of people, of gestures, of the world beyond the intimacy of the self, of exteriors.
Peruse the sketches more carefully and find priceless lessons on writing and observing. Once in a while, we need an artist to lead us to details we should pay attention to. Once in a while, we need an Annie Ernaux to take our hand.
Imagine a Serbian little boy being taken away from his mother as “blood tribute,” an Ottoman practice of forcibly recruiting soldiers from Balkan Christian subjects. Imagine the screams and the cries as the mother follows them to the Drina River, until the janissaries and the child embark on a ferry where they are parted forever.
This is the agony with which the book begins, and it made me wonder if I should shelve it for later. It felt too heavy to be read amid the volatile climate of the Philippine elections. But the writing made me want to read more, and I do not regret doing so.
This boy rose through the military ranks and became known as Mehmed Paša Sokolović, and in his later years, Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire. But the painful memory of separation never left him: “…he thought that he might be able to free himself from this discomfort if he could do away with that ferry on the distant Drina, around which so much misery… gathered and increased incessantly, and bridge the steep banks and the evil water between them, join the two ends of the road which was broken by the Drina and thus link safely and forever Bosnia and the East, the place of his origin and the places of his life. Thus it was he who first, in a single moment behind closed eyelids, saw the firm graceful silhouette of the great stone bridge which was to be built there.” Thus began the construction of the bridge over the Drina, at the part of the river where he last saw his mother.
The main character in this novel is the bridge. This bridge that has withstood over four hundred years of tumultuous history.
— — —
Elif Shafak was a reading staple between November 2020 to January 2022 when I was steeped in my reading project to cover and uncover as many writings from places affected by the Silk Route; so when a friend learned that Elif Shafak had said that The Bridge on the Drina caused something in her to shift forever, this was enthusiastically recommended to me.
Of the nine books by Shafak that I read, the first one was The Architect’s Apprentice, set in sixteenth century Istanbul about a fictional apprentice working with the legendary Ottoman court architect, Sinan. The one commissioned to design the bridge on the Drina, the Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge, is none other than Mimar Sinan.
— — —
But authors are stories in themselves, and Ivo Andrić’s life is literally one for the books. Born to a poor family in Bosnia, he grew up playing on the very bridge he would later immortalize and earn him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961. The years in between include two World Wars and an extraordinarily rich and eventful life.
The introduction to this edition claims, “No better introduction to the study of Balkan and Ottoman history exists… no anthropologist has ever reported the process of cultural change so sensitively; no historian has entered so effectively into the minds of the persons with whom he sought to deal…” I can only agree!
Andrić arranges the perplexing layers of this region’s history from the 16th to the 20th century into an impassioned song that constantly returns to its main theme — the bridge.
“…The life and existence of every great, beautiful and useful building, as well as its relation to the place where it has been built, often bears within itself complex and mysterious drama and history… Therefore the story of the foundation and the destiny of the bridge is at the same time the story of the life of the town and of its people…”
“Life…renews itself despite everything and the bridge does not change with the years or with the centuries or with the most painful turns in human affairs. All these pass over it, even as the unquiet waters pass beneath its smooth and perfect arches.”
There is an excess of lessons to be learned from this work, and much to be said about the exceptional writing, but what made me read on was the pervading refrain of the enduring power of art and architecture, and the comforting thought that no matter the course of history, life always renews itself.
I will not be stingy with truth. And because the truth is often bound to be difficult and makes us squirm in our comfortable seats, the question is not whether you will like this. The question is whether you can swallow it — the nature of flawed leaders, of spiritual shepherds who are wolves to their own flock, of society, of human beings, of real characters.
This is what Olga Tokarczuk conveys to me right from the first of seven books in The Books of Jacob.
She thrusts us into 1752 Poland where there is a growing animosity towards the Jews and the longing for a messiah is intensified. But only in the second book do we meet the messianic figure: Jacob Frank who asks, “What do we want some sage for?” Jacob whose sexual perversities are now being slowly divulged to the reader. Jacob who ridicules his most earnest followers while they, in the goodness of their hearts, concoct half-truths and falsehoods about him to glorify him; because he is seemingly authentic in everything he does; and although repulsive, he is charming.
All these, eerily juxtaposed with current events in the Philippines: the FBI issuing a poster of church leader Apollo Quiboloy’s warrant of arrest for fraud, coercion, and sex trafficking; a dictator’s son who is a tax code offender leading the presidential polls; the former being an open endorser of the latter.
With an increasing throng of followers, this charismatic Jacob Frank preached the idea that the notion of sin no longer applies. There was no room for conventional morality in his philosophy. “We are to trample all the laws because they are no longer in effect…”
There is no more morality — a common refrain among leaders and their supporters today who justify wrongdoing and do not wish to face accountability!
I was wrong. Olga did not thrust us into events over two centuries ago with this opus. She brings us to the present. This is us. This is us. Because isn’t morality dead to us unless and until the injustice is done by those we dislike, and then we cry foul and demand morality and justice?
This colossus — a lyrical galaxy of darkness and light, weakness and strength, of comets and plagues set in some of the most exciting places I have actually been to, of beautiful passages about literature and how it somehow makes solid the ground beneath us despite this chaotic world, of history and its excruciating details — is not exactly about Jacob. It is about society and how we create the tapestry of history with our actions and our choices… and it seems like we never learn.