Svetlana Alexievich: The Unwomanly Face of War

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: Nights of Plague

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.

Halldór Laxness: Wayward Heroes

“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.

But do we ever listen?

Joseph Brodsky: Watermark

“In those days we associated style with substance, beauty with intelligence…
we didn’t know yet that style could be purchased wholesale, that beauty could just be a commodity.”

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.

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. 

Olga Tokarczuk: The Books of Jacob

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.

Conversations with Edward Said and Gabriel Garcia Marquez

What a pleasure to have spent the past few days eavesdropping on these conversations!

My introduction to Edward W. Said was not through my current reading project but through classical music years ago via the Daniel Barenboim connection when they co-wrote an illuminating book and founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra — Said a Palestinian intellectual and Barenboim an Israeli pianist and conductor, bringing together musicians from areas of conflict to show the world that it is possible to create peace among people from these nations, to harmonize, and produce beautiful music. And now, I am reintroduced to Said through the enlightening forewords he has written for many of the literary works I am reading from that part of the world.

As for dear Gabo, I still vividly remember the day my best friend presented me with my first Marquez in our teens and I gave him John Fowles’ The Magus in return. This act of his, which was not entirely innocent, led to a Latin American reading stage that brought me to magical literary adventures.

When asked whether the inability to love is very serious, Gabo replies, “I don’t think there’s any human misery greater than that. Not only for the person afflicted but for all those whose misfortune it is to come within his orbit.” Love is something to be learned, he adds, and even lets one of his fictional characters echo this.

Said on the hand, gave me more lines to note in my journal and reminded me why he was once an intellectual crush.

“I’ve never felt myself to belong to any establishment of any kind, any mainstream. I’m interested in mainstreams, I’m jealous of them, I sometimes, occasionally, envy people who belong to them—because I certainly don’t—but on the whole I think they’re the enemy. I feel that authorities, canons, dogmas, orthodoxies, establishments, are really what we’re up against. At least what I’m up against, most of the time. They deaden thought.”

“I think a lot of this business we were talking about earlier, about politics and culture being separate, is really laziness. There’s a critical establishment that says you’re supposed to only study this, and that’s because you don’t have the time or the energy to study other things. For me it’s a manifestation of laziness and idleness. And all of them, it seems to me, in the end, really don’t advance to anything.”

“And far from being right, I think it’s important to be critical.”

These conversations bring together two significant reading phases of my life. 

What struck me this time was in realizing how much their musical tastes influenced their writings greatly. Chopin among others for Said, Bartok and Caribbean music for Gabo. Because he was a revolutionary says the former and the mixture of the two had to be explosive says the latter. Through this we see that they did not confine themselves to one form of art but saw art as something encompassing rather than something to be compartmentalized. 

Said and Gabo are very much alive in these pages. These great minds that impacted and straddled two centuries while they lived; and even in death, continue to change the way we think, read, and perceive the world; their inspiration consistently outliving the last page of each of their books; saying it in their own distinct way but always reminding us to live as fully and as passionately as we can.

Mario Vargas Llosa: The Language of Passion

The Language of Passion is an excellent education on writing and thinking.

The topics in this Nobel laureate’s book of essays and articles are broad — from politics and religion to art, literature, and spaces, and the scope of the material manifests the breadth of his mind.

“That two truths are ‘contradictory’ doesn’t mean they can’t exist side by side,” Llosa writes. This reminds me of another line I encountered in Maria Popova’s Figuring, “It seems to be difficult for anyone to take in the idea that two truths cannot conflict.”

Llosa was writing about both the Israeli and Palestinian right to a particular piece of land and Popova was referring to the conflict between religion and science.

This is the sort of contemplation that I am subscribing to at this point in life; and that I did not have to embrace all of his opinions while admiring the way he expressed his thoughts is, I believe, part of the immediate result of a Llosa education.

Abdulrazak Gurnah: Desertion

If you intend to read this, do not allow the abrupt and tidy ending of the love story in the first part to dissuade you from continuing. That’s not exactly how it ends. Make sure you persevere until the second to the last chapter to find the poetic piece of the puzzle that renders the last chapter almost unnecessary and makes the whole book worth reading.

And do not read this if you are in a hurry. It is writing that begs you to slow down, to savor elegant lines such as “…he was an upright shadow moving so slowly that in that peculiar underwater light his approach was almost imperceptible, inching forward like destiny”; it is writing that urges you to be there in an East African town of a British protectorate with Hassanali when he finds the half-conscious sunstricken Englishman, Martin Pearce, in 1899. 

1899, only a year after our independence from another entitled European power who thought the world was intended for European colonization. “So I had to learn about that,” our narrator remarks, “and about imperialism and how deeply the narratives of our inferiority and the aptness of European overlordship had bedded down in what passed for knowledge in the world.” 

As a Filipina, this book made me understand and applaud the Nobel Prize motivation — for Gurnah’s “uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.”

As a woman, I felt the bitter aftertaste of the intergenerational injuries colonialists cause, not just to a place but to their women. 

As a daughter and a lover, I recognized that honorable layer of filial duty and the sacrifices we make for love.

As a reader, I relished the passages that put weight on the value of stories: “She missed his noises, his voice, his bulk, his presence, but after that she realized how much more she missed his stories.”

“It is about how one story contains many and how they belong not to us but are part of the random currents of our time, and about how stories capture us and entangle us for all time.” 

“It’s remarkable, isn’t it, that these people have got by for centuries without writing anything down… everything is memorized and passed on… It’s a staggering thought, that no African language had writing until the missionaries arrived,” says one English character in the book.

It is remarkable, and even more remarkable that Tanzania now has a Nobel Prize laureate in literature.

Desertion is a sorrowful title. But as it is written in my favorite chapter, “Sorrow has its gifts.”

Shirin Ebadi: Iran Awakening

Iran’s first female judge, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, has penned this affecting book with such free-flowing sincerity that I could not help but cry in a number of passages.

Just as in 2011 when I read Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran and it made me celebrate my freedom as a reader, Shirin Ebadi’s Iran Awakening is making me celebrate my freedom as a woman as it raises awareness of the many liberties that we often take for granted.