Portraits: Of a young Rebecca Solnit finding, and fending for, herself; of the nature of dictatorships and revolutions by Ryszard Kapuściński; of Eastern Turkey under the veil of its dramatic landscapes by Zülfü Livaneli; of Paris and the poet through the vantage point of Henri Cole; of the unfortunate visage of Skylark by Dezső Kosztoláni. These are some of the extraordinary faces I met on this month of May.
It is not nearly celebrated enough, says Solnit: “The sheer pleasure of meeting new voices and ideas and possibilities, having the world become more coherent in some subtle or enormous way, extending or filling in your map of the universe…this beauty in finding pattern and meaning,” this thing called Reading.
Even so, here we are. The readers (ironically, the ones least concerned about faces), the ones who, by turning each page, celebrate best these encounters, these awakenings, these flights.
“Maybe I’d been captivated by a story. Yes, I’d been captivated by a story, by a culture, by a history; can a person be smitten by a story? Clearly it does happen…”
Indeed. That is why this book found me. Friends probably know by now that I am drawn to the stories, the cultures, and the histories encompassing what used to be called the Fertile Crescent and the lands that have carried the veins of the Silk Route.
Kurdistan is no exception. Accessible literary works from or about this region is so scarce that I value every volume I can get my hands on. While I have yet to experience books set in Iranian and Syrian Kurdistan, which I imagine must be breathtaking, I have been fortunate to have read about Iraqi Kurdistan [The Beekeeper of Sinjar by Dunya Mikhail (Serpent’s Tail), The Last Pomegranate Tree by Bachtyar Ali (Archipelago Books)] and Turkish Kurdistan [The Wounded Age and Eastern Tales by Ferit Edgü (NYRB), Every Fire You Tend by Sema Kaygusuz (Tilted Axis Press), and Disquiet by Zülfü Livaneli (Other Press)].
The Beekeeper of Sinjar, The Last Pomegranate Tree, The Wounded Age and Eastern Tales, and Every Fire You Tend are all beautifully written books that have led me to believe that the sorrows of this place are too profound, they can only be expressed through metaphors, silence, or poetry.
Disquiet tells the story of Ibrahim, a journalist based in Istanbul, who is drawn back to his hometown of Mardin to investigate the death of Hussein, a childhood friend. As Ibrahim digs deeper, he becomes enmeshed in Hussein’s past, haunting stories of Yezidi Syrian refugees fleeing ISIS, and recollections of his city’s more harmonious days: “Those were the festive days when Assyrians, Muslims, Zoroastrians, including Parsis, mingled in the marketplace and at school and celebrated one another’s holy days… But now the atmosphere was closed, the city had been darkened by the shadow of a sterner, angrier Islam… Now as I walk the streets they seem darker… this was a city living in fear, caught in the middle of conflicts between ISIS, the PKK, and the state security forces.”
Among the aforementioned books, Disquiet has the most direct prose; and therefore, a good introduction to this region that also allows a worthy glimpse into the Yezidi faith and the painful plight of its adherents. I suspect that what I think are weak spots in the novel owe to the translation but which thankfully do not distract the foreign reader from the eye-openers; from the call to be disquieted about the atrocities; the reminder that Turkey is not a single entity and that even Turks from the westernmost cities cannot always identify with the languages, beliefs, traditions, and cultures of the Mesopotamian lands of eastern Turkey.
And for some reason, I love how the narrator still refers to this grand swathe of land as Mesopotamia — the birthplace of literature.
“I asked him why, if there are faiths in every corner of the world, those that emerged from the Middle East had spread throughout the world. Did we commit the most sins, were we in more need of salvation than anyone else?
I detected a faint smile beneath his grizzly mustache. The answer to this is kalam, he said, the word. In this world nothing affects people as much as the word. The Middle East is where the word reached its zenith — no other region’s poetry, legends, or fairy tales are as powerful, none other have this much power to influence the human heart. That’s why the poets here are classified as magicians.” — Zülfü Livaneli, Disquiet
“To me, it has always seemed that each individual has such a moment. It is a fixed point in eternity, varying with each person, which they reach, sooner or later, in their trajectory through time. It is this moment which most perfectly expresses them, and to which essentially they belong, in which they live most fully. Both before and after, some awareness of this lies within them, so that in varying degrees of consciousness, they are seeking that moment in order to be fulfilled, or to find again in that fulfillment and setting, the persons who shared it with them.”
“A lifetime or a moment is all the same; a whole cycle lived richly, or thinly, one day. Each can prove to have been the meaning of a life. We cannot know, from where we stand. But if we seek, and are aware we have missed the moment we seek, our own absolute moment in time, then we live out our lives unfulfilled. In the words of an eastern proverb: we die with our eyes open — we cannot rest; even in death we are still looking for it.”
Never mind that her longings for a lost love and mine mingled as I luxuriated in the pages of this book. Never mind that some details will raise the eyebrows of conventional social constructs. (“Overweening conventions! They have us in a stranglehold from the cradle to the coffin,” writes Lesley Blanch.) Never mind the question of whether the Traveler corrupted her life or enhanced it; I have two opinions as contrasting as East and West. What is certain is that this woman ended up living by her own rules and did not lead a lackluster life.
But to have bookshelves spilling over because of a geographic fascination and to have the books arranged by region; to have literary tastes swayed topographically; to explore entire worlds by turning pages; to spend hours on long bus rides poring over books; to have “everything I saw, or read, ate, or thought tinctured by my infatuation”; to travel and be particular about the precise lighting in which to see certain places because they look more beautiful in morning, noon, or afternoon light; to find areas of conflict irresistible and be chided for having “such violent desires”; to journey into the mind’s eye or into the heart of another; to see traveling as an act of “following a strain of fugitive music” — I’ve never felt this aspect of myself more probed and understood, that I wish I came across this book much sooner.
There are allusions to be unveiled in the captivating writing, and there are lessons to be gleaned from the interaction between cultures, but the line I’ll take to heart is, “Don’t be so finite,” said the Traveler.
Lesley Blanch lived to be a hundred and three, unapologetically, and infinitely.
When your desire to forget certain things mingles with a character’s desire to remember, and the words from the book and those unsaid in your heart cross paths, the sensation stays with you, the way your first sip of raki does — like drinking smooth, liquid embers as your insides become drenched with that distinctive Turkish melancholy.
One ends tragically, the other ambiguously, but the influential power of Istanbul that takes hold of writers is exquisitely manifested in this pair. Despite Istanbul being a bazaar of a thousand and one stories, Burhan Sönmez has his own approach to storytelling and his own approach to this alluring, Janus-faced city that readers who are just as enamored with it as I am will hold in esteem. As a certain character says, “Just as you can’t bathe in the same river twice, neither can you tell the same story twice in Istanbul.”
The interesting thing you’ll discover about these two books is that, despite being two entirely different novels by the same author, their titles are interchangeable. Both are about labyrinths, and both are about Istanbul; both can either be about the labyrinths of the mind and memory or the labyrinths of the city; and I find both to be best read successively.
The past — or the land of our birth — can be a burden from which we sometimes wish to be free, but who are we without it?
Through previous readings, this reader has encountered provocative theories that suggest that it was religious reformation that freed human thought from church dogma thus giving rise to individualism, which subsequently paved the way for the Renaissance; and also theories of the aftermath of the Black Death setting the scene for capitalism by overthrowing social systems including feudalism.
The Protestant Reformation erupted in the 1500s, the Black Death in the 1300s. Ben Hopkins’ novel of six hundred and twenty four pages begins in the 1200s, but through its characters, we already witness the gradual ascent of mercantile capitalism and individualism challenging the hegemony of the Catholic Church.
But thankfully, these big words and the sophisticated ideas that are attached to them are not heaped too heavily on the reader’s shoulders. The author seems to have employed his filmmaking expertise by creating a well-paced and entertaining book with a handful of dramatic imagery and contrasting characters across the broad spectrum of society, but which also carries so much understanding of the religious and socioeconomic landscape of a particular European period.
In the midst of it all, the Cathedral — or more accurately, the construction of the Cathedral — that remains unfinished and continues to be built even by the end of this novel. This novel that begins in 1229 and ends in 1351. This Cathedral that symbolizes a number of things.
In this story there is clearly the aspect of the historical, or the architectural, but which should always lead one to contemplate on the personal — the edifices that we build for ourselves. And because we already know how certain it is that we can carry nothing out, what do we leave behind?
To quote a cherished character who passed away by the the shores of Constantinople, “A man can die anywhere. It’s all the same. The only important thing is how he lives.”
It is little known outside Ex Libris Philippines that this book club was founded by music and architecture majors during their university years at UP Diliman.
On a trip to the capital last month, the music section of Ex Libris was able to convene whilst the architecture section was excellently acknowledged through the venue — The Library Cafe at the Ramon Magsaysay Center, an architectural icon in the Philippines named after our seventh president.
I took this photo on our way in and it made me reflect on how architecture, literature, and music are the same spirit taking distinct forms and harnessing different planes of space in our lives.
Although, through the years, I have come across books in which literature and architecture occupy the same space, and it is nothing short of fascinating when they do: Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, Boris Pekić’s Houses, Ivo Andrić’s Bridge on the Drina, Alain de Botton’s Architecture of Happiness, Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space, Mathias Énard’s Tell Them of Battles, Kings & Elephants, Elif Shafak’s Architect’s Apprentice, and my current read, Ben Hopkins’ Cathedral. And as we can see, when these two meet, sumptuous covers are a given.
In an interview on his book, Apeirogon, Colum McCann likened novelists to architects who create a structure aspiring that it will house the best of human endeavor and hope for it to endure, and for people to enter and be changed by it… so that it becomes “a container for the human music”.
The idea and the verity of books as containers for the human music… Isn’t that beautiful?
In that sublime realm where literature and architecture meet, Hugo’s Notre Dame and Calvino’s Invisible Cities occupy the high throne. I nominate Pekić’s Houses to sit with them.
One would expect this book to be political, Borislav Pekić being a founding member of the Democratic Party in Serbia. And indeed, it is.
Belgrade’s turbulent history of clashing ideologies is not an undertone in this novel but a counterpoint to an unusual but brilliant motif that is architecture — which is, of course, political.
What took me by surprise, despite the obvious title and the summary about an eccentric character who loves houses more than the average person does, was the non-perfunctory view on the subject. The discourse ranges from houses being compared to human souls, to the ideal harmony of a building with urban space and its character, to how preservation is of great importance to a place, to criticisms on the sacrificing of aesthetic quality for the sake of profit, to describing a particular house as like an erratum, a coarse printing error in the elegant context of the street, and even to the communion with buildings as if they were alive, which in fact they were!
Of course I can’t say that those books about architecture made me fall in love with houses. They only explained to me why I love them. From them I was schooled in houses’ physiology, their circulatory system, their epidermic defensive envelope, even their stomachs, their sensitive stomachs, not to mention their life process… From books, then, I had come to know the mysterious process of a house’s conception, initiated long before its violent birth on the building site.
Arsenie Negovan is an imperfect but intriguing man who will irritate you or gain your sympathy. He makes a name for himself as a builder and a lover of houses, but after an existential maelstrom, he withdraws himself from the world and allows himself to be oblivious to the unrelenting flow of time for twenty seven years.
When at last he decides to come out of his self-alienation, he is an old man in the process of writing his will, and he soon begins to suspect a great divide between the world in his mind and the world in reality.
Houses is one of the most intelligent novels I have ever read. With the absence of chapter breaks, I found myself being pulled steadily towards its exceptionally executed finale. Its abstract metaphors grant liberal spaces for contemplation as they convey nagging questions on possession, and on building and ruin, whether concerning a city, society, a house, or a life.
While most of its readers describe the progression of the story as a descent into madness, I choose to see it as an awakening.
Afternoon light enters silently through the gaps of Shah-i-Zinda in Samarkand and transforms the whole necropolis into a prismatic vision that makes one understand why this place has earned illustrious names throughout the ages, and why it is most widely known as “The Mirror of the World”.
But as I sat there mesmerized, I became more inclined to believe that it mirrored constellations and galaxies… and that so much of what we find beautiful are mirrors of our joys, sorrows, and the distinct libraries of music and thoughts stored in our beings.
It probably was not the first time that a girl stood under its hypnotic gaze and made her contemplate on beauty and celestial realms; and I’d like to think that those reflective beings who came before me must have also gravitated towards its lesser-known epithet — “Garden of the Soul.”
In the alley right below, a child sings in a language both strange and familiar to me. Strange because she sings in the Khorezmcha dialect, familiar because it is music.
A few meters away from her, women in traditional dress eclipse the child’s voice as they bargain with her mother, a scarf seller. These women are tourists from the other “Stan” nations. They flock the streets by sundown. (Western tourists tend to forego Khiva because it is out of the way. To get here from Bukhara, one has to drive for hours through an expanse of steppeland that seems to stretch to infinity, and the usual tourist would usually opt for another stamp on the passport from another Stan than come to Khiva. I am now closer to Turkmenistan than I am to Bukhara.)
But I also see Khiva changing right before my eyes. I see workers installing LED lights, replacing some crumbling bricks, and fixing the cracks of the old city, making it look new. And although they have the tourist’s best interest in mind, I feel a pinch in my heart. I know Khiva will not look the same in a few months, or weeks… and there is a bittersweetness in realizing that I came just in time — or perhaps, a few centuries late.
In the distance, the tallest minaret in Central Asia calls my attention, calls to prayer, calls time to stand still, and all falls silent.
Does this balcony right outside my bedroom explain enough why I chose to stay in Khiva longer?