Borislav Pekic: Houses

I hadn’t built anything, I’d demolished myself. Here, look!

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.

June 19, 2022 – Samarkand: Shah-i-Zinda

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.”

© 2022 MDR
Shah-i-Zinda, Samarkand, Uzbekistan

June 23, 2022 – Khiva, Uzbekistan

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?

© 2022 MDR
Khiva, Uzbekistan

June 22, 2022 – Summer Solstice in Khiva

Resplendent, the summer solstice sunset gilds the citadel of Khiva.

Khiva, the former capital of Khwarazm.

Khwarazm, the region that gave us polymath Muhammad Ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi (780-850), who wrote the book Al-Jabr. From his name we have the word “algorithm,” and from Al-Jabr “algebra”.

The sun blazes differently here. And for knowledge, their wise men, too, seemed to burn so intensely.

June 21, 2022 – The Colors of Bukhara

The temperature is significantly higher in Bukhara that you can feel your skin baked into the color of a lepyoshka as soon as you step out of the caravanserai. Yes, I am staying in a caravanserai! Isn’t that the most natural thing to do when traversing desert cities?

In contrast to Samarkand that can only be depicted in golden blues and vibrant shades of dreams, Bukhara wears the colors of the desert.

But that’s not to say that this important stop on the Silk Route is monochromatic. For as we know, the desert yields surprises; and thousands of years of history have stamped their mark and bled their hues on this oasis city.

I made two friends today who know their history! One endearingly encouraged me to look it up on my phone because he says it’s all there, and the other is an imam who saw me taking pictures of the architecture while trying my best to be unobtrusive at a site sacred to Muslims. He must have appreciated this because he beckoned to me and invited me to take closer pictures of the mosque and its interior, and afterwards, for tea. It was the best tea I’ve had on this trip!

June 19, 2022 – Samarkand Mornings and Minarets

“A city so deeply imbued with poetry that even the doctors wrote their medical treatises in verse.” This line by Elif Batuman, who wrote briefly about the height of the Timurid Renaissance, came back to me so clearly as I took my last look at Samarkand.

I can only commit these soft mornings in Samarkand to memory, as another gem in the Silk Route beckons…

June 18, 2022 – Samarkand, Uzbekistan: Ulugh Beg

© 2022 MDR
Ulugh Beg Madrasa, Registan, Samarkand

It seemed to have been written in the stars that the first place I would be drawn to in Samarkand is the remnant of an observatory that was the most well-known throughout the Islamic Golden Age and the largest in Central Asia, preceding Tycho Brahe’s Uraniborg and Taqi al-Din’s observatory in Constantinople by more than a hundred years.

The great mathematician and astronomer behind this observatory, whose computation of the length of the sidereal year was more accurate than that of Copernicus’s, is Ulugh Beg.

Although what remains of the observatory is the arc of a gigantic sextant (used to measure the transit altitudes of the stars and to produce the most comprehensive star catalogue in the period between Ptolemy and Tycho Brahe); the splendid madrasa that he built right at the heart of the city still stands.

He turned Samarkand into an intellectual center, inviting mathematicians and astronomers to study there — but no longer by force. He was, after all, a sultan of the Timurid Empire, the grandson of Tamerlane, and his tomb lies at the foot of his grandfather’s in the Amir Timur Mausoleum.

…to trace the constellations of Samarkand’s history and look at the stars that have burned the brightest… and bask in their afterglow… what a dream.

© 2022 MDR
Ulugh Beg Conservatory, Samarkand

June 17, 2022 – Samarkand, Uzbekistan: Tamerlane

When Soviet archaeologists exhumed this tomb in 1941, they allegedly found this inscription inside: “When I rise from the dead, the world shall tremble. Whoever opens my tomb shall unleash an invader more terrible than I.”

In a matter of hours, Hitler’s men invaded Russia resulting in millions of deaths. Stalin ordered the remains to be reinterred in 1942, and soon after, the Germans surrendered at Stalingrad. Coincidence or not, it is a remarkable story.

Two years ago, I listened to a series of podcasts about this man for whom this mausoleum was built. I found him frightening and intriguing! There aren’t enough books written about him, and eurocentric history merely dedicates one or two measly paragraphs to him!

This man, known in the West as Tamerlane, is Amir Timur, “iron” in their language. It was he who freed his people from the yoke of the Mongols and proceeded to establish the Timurid Empire in 1370 and conquered lands spanning parts of Russia, and north western India to Syria.

During his reign, he and his armies decimated 5 percent of the world’s population! On his Persian conquest, they massacred and constructed towers out of the bodies. He was as brutal as the Mongol Khans, but unlike them, he spared the intellectuals, the architects, the writers, the rug makers, the craftsmen, the artistic and the educated, and brought them to Samarkand. And thus began the flourishing of Timurid arts and architecture, well exhibited in this very mausoleum up to this day.

Where I am staying in Samarkand is a wall away from this mausoleum.

The moon was still up when I walked over this morning and the muezzin’s call to prayer accompanied my quiet footfalls.

I sat on the steps with a book thinking it would still be off limits at such an early hour, but the caretaker noticed me and offered to let me in and left me on my own!

Heart pounding and knees slightly trembling, I entered and thought I heard throat singing along with the muezzin’s call…

 © 2022 MDR
Amir Timur Mausoleum, Samarkand

Ivo Andrić: The Bridge on the Drina

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. 

Marguerite Yourcenar: Memoirs of Hadrian

As subtle but as vital as breath, the passage of ideas and wonder surges with life through these pages and straight to the reader. 

Marguerite Yourcenar carves and immortalizes the many aspects of the great Roman emperor that was Hadrian, but unlike any work of history, she resuscitates his heart and offers it to us, pulsating and bleeding, as only Marguerite Yourcenar can.

Written in the form of a letter to his successor, Marcus Aurelius, whose Meditations endure up to this day, Memoirs of Hadrian is the introspection of a man at the end of his days, stripped away of life’s pretensions and left only with his truths. I suspect that this, too, shall endure.

“I have known men infinitely nobler and more perfect than myself… There is but one thing in which I feel superior to most men: I am freer… For my part I have sought liberty more than power, and power only because it can lead to freedom.”

It is partly an ode to Hadrian the traveler, the only emperor in the empire’s history to have traveled to almost every part of its vast realm. Of traveling, he writes, “It disrupts all habit and endlessly jolts each prejudice.”

An ode to a man who could accept with calm the vicissitudes of Rome Eternal after his time (“If ever the barbarians gain possession of the world they will be forced to adopt some of our methods; they will end resembling us”) but could not understand a resignation to ignorance; and thus promoted Greek philosophy and culture and patronized the arts, literature, music, architecture.

A man who perceived that knowledge and literature were as important as food to a civilization, and libraries, dispensaries to the soul: “The founding of libraries was like constructing more public granaries, amassing reserves against a spiritual winter which by certain signs, in spite of myself, I see ahead.”

An ode to Hadrian the builder who believed in the richness of an architecture more varied than Vitruvius’ four orders would allow (“Our great stone blocks, like our tones in music, are amenable to endless regrouping”) and thus amassed inspiration even from faraway Ctesiphon, Babylon, and Egypt, drew the plans himself, and put emphasis on building from vernacular materials.

“To build is to collaborate with the earth, to put a human mark upon a landscape, modifying it forever thereby…To reconstruct is to collaborate with time gone by, penetrating or modifying its spirit, and carrying it toward a longer future… My cities were born of encounters… Each building stone was the strange concretion of a will, a memory, and sometimes a challenge. Each structure was the chart of a dream… I have wanted to live as much as possible in the midst of this music of forms.”

“In the evenings the art of building gave way to that of music, which is architecture, too, though invisible.”

And so it is also an ode to a man who applied the laws of art and governance interchangeably: “Strength was the basis, discipline without which there is no beauty, and firmness without which there is no justice. Justice was the balance of the parts, that whole so harmoniously composed which no excess should be permitted to endanger. Strength and justice together were but one instrument, well tuned… all forms of dire poverty and brutality were things to forbid as insults to the fair body of mankind, every injustice a false note to avoid in the harmony of the spheres.”

It is an ode to the man who first ventured to call Rome “eternal”; who counted desperately on the eternity of stone, as we are able to continue to witness through Hadrian’s Wall, Hadrian’s Villa, Castel Sant’Angelo, the Pantheon; a man who believed that, “Anything made by man which aspires to eternity must adapt.” And therefore it is an ode to a man who looked for and looked to eternity — and thus, he loved.

Above all, it is an ode to a man who loved. For what is eternity without it?