Lit in the Time of War: Abai, Toer, and Aladdin

Hello! Happy end of January. I hope you are healthy, safe, and warm, and that you’re reading a lot of enjoyable books. I’ve read three exceptional books this week, and have reviewed them below. Honestly, as I read them (especially the second one), I found myself wondering where they had been all my life. I hope you find them just as rewarding. I’ve also included a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need. Please do so if you are able.

Book of Songs, by Abai Qunanbaiuly, Rendered by John Burnside

“From afar, it strikes,
Through your heart, it breaks,
Your body is racked with fever.
From Khiva, come quick,
So much is at stake,
Hunt down the wildest of creatures—
You can tell the truth, if you’re strong,
With a silver tongue and a song.

No needle and thread,
Nor the bright steel blade
Can equal your skill in the arts and crafts.
To the wise, a pearl,
A trifle, to fools,
They lack true wisdom, blind to your gifts.
Yet not my voice speak in vain:
Truth cannot prevail with thoughtless men.”

This is a book of poems by the great Kazakh writer Abai. What makes the book particularly enjoyable is that all the poems are also available online, in song-form, as Abai would have performed them.

Abai’s poetry is subtle, but it’s very rich if you take the time to contemplate it. Take the poem above, for instance. Read through it twice or three times and you’ll come to see some cool parallels and correspondences between the two stanzas that give it deeper meaning. That’s what makes Abai’s poem so good.

Something I did wonder about was how different the translations were from the originals—there were parts in the transliterations of the Kazakh originals that included question marks whereas the translations didn’t have question marks, for instance. Guess you’d have to learn Kazakh to fully appreciate the originals.

However, if you only have an hour to spare, I’d strongly recommend reading (and listening to) the poems within this book.

The Fugitive: A Novel, by Pramoedya Anata Toer,
Translated by Willem Samuels

“The gambler slowly leaned closer to the beggar and whispered, ‘Maybe you are my boy.’ His voice rose in a blend of hope and pain. ‘Are you my boy?’ He silently held his breath. ‘You’re sick!’ came the accusation once more. The beggar now distanced himself slightly from the other man. ‘Maybe I am,’ the gambler agreed before retreating to where he had been sitting. He hugged his knees again and once more rested his head on them ‘What does your wife say?’ the beggar asked carefully. Now the gambler was suspicious and raised his head from his knees. ‘What’s it to you anyway?’”

This book takes place during the Japanese occupation of Indonesia during World War II. It’s about a soldier named Hardo who previously staged an uprising against the Japanese, failed, and is now being pursued for his rebellious ways. Hardo encounters several people who knew him, like the District Chief, his own father, his former comrades-in-arms, and the commander (named Karmin) who betrayed him and led to the failure of his rebellion.

The book was very good. Its situations were always dramatic—Hardo encounters his father but doesn’t let on that he’s his son, for instance. Parts of the book read like a play, which makes sense, given that it was structured like an Indonesian shadow play. Its play-like quality made me think of Harry Mulisch’s The Assault, only I liked The Fugitive a little better (especially for its ending).

Overall, if you’re looking for a dramatically-satisfying book with terrific themes and observations about humanity, I’d strongly, strongly recommend this book.

Aladdin: A New Translation, Told by Hanna Diyab
to Antoine Galland, Translated by Yasmine Seale,
and Edited by Paulo Lemos Horta

“The son, whose name was Aladdin, had received a careless upbringing, which instilled in him wild tendencies: he grew to be cruel, stubborn, and rebellious [….]  When Aladdin was old enough to learn a craft, his father, who knew only his own [tailoring], took him into the shop and tried to teach him needlework. But neither gentleness nor punishment could still his son’s wandering mind. As soon as the tailor had his back turned, Aladdin would escape and stay out until evening, and, unable to change his ways, Mustafa [his father] was forced to abandon his son to his dissipation. This pained him, and the grief of failing to guide his son to his duty brought about such a violent illness that he died a few months later.”

This is one of those books where you see that the storyteller/translator really enjoyed telling it. I say storyteller/translator because the book’s origins are super convoluted, and the way it’s told is influenced just as much by its translator as its original storyteller. It could’ve been translated stiltedly out of a desire to impress, for instance, and would’ve suffered as a result. Fortunately for us, it wasn’t translated that way.

In case you didn’t know, “Aladdin” is one of the stories in the One Thousand and One Nights. Well, not necessarily—it was tacked on at the end by the French story-collector Antoine Galland, who heard it told to him by a Syrian named Hanna Diyab.

Aladdin is a poor boy who encounters a long-lost “uncle” (who’s actually a greedy magician), who gives him fancy clothes and a magic ring and takes him to open the door to a cavern and retrieve a magic lamp for him. When the magician tries to get Aladdin to give up the lamp, Aladdin refuses, and the magician winds up shutting him up in the cavern and leaving him for dead. But Aladdin uses the magic lamp to escape, and then to make his other wishes (like marrying the sultan’s daughter) come true. In the process, he proves himself much more than the cruel, stubborn, and rebellious boy his family had always taken him for.

This story was good. It’s vaguely like the one told in the Disney movie, only here Aladdin has to deal with the magician, the sultan’s vizier, and the magician’s brother, which makes it more exciting.

The characters were entertaining, too. When Aladdin ordered the jinni of the lamp to build an exquisite palace for him across the way from the sultan’s own palace, the sultan made it a habit to spend every morning just going to admire it (instead of attending to whatever other important sultan duties he might have had). These quirky details made the story very enjoyable.

Overall, if you’re in the mood for a fast-paced entertaining read, I’d recommend Aladdin.

As promised, here’s a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need:

Rescue.org—Gives food, medical care, and emergency support services to Ukrainian refugees. Donate here: https://help.rescue.org/donate/ukraine-web

Doctors Without Borders—Ships emergency supplies to Ukrainian hospitals. Donate here: https://donate.doctorswithoutborders.org/secure/donate 

United Way Ukraine—Provides food, water, and other emergency support for Ukrainian refugees and their children. Donate here: https://www.unitedway.org/our-impact/work/no-nav/unitedforukraine

Plan USA—Gives aid focusing on refugee children in Poland, Moldova, and Romania. Donate here: https://www.planusa.org/humanitarian-response-ukraine-plan-usa/

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Lit in the Time of War: Molnar, Pushkin, and Birmingham

Hello! Happy Rosh Hashanah to those who celebrate. I’ve read three books this week and have reviewed them all for your enjoyment. I’ve also provided a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need. Please do so if you are able.

The Paul Street Boys, by Ferenc Molnar,
Translated by Louis Rittenberg

“The only human being in the street at that moment was János Boka—the general. And, as General János Boka gazed about him and realized that he was all alone, his heart was so tightly gripped by a strange feeling that János Boka, general, leaned against the gate-post and burst into genuinely bitter, heartfelt tears.”

This is a book about bunch of kids (the Paul Street boys) who get into fights with a bunch of other kids. Some of the kids from the Paul Street boys seem to be traitors—but are they really? And who will win? Read the book and find out.

 The book was very well written and had a lot of heart. It had very funny parts (the kids telling an adult that they’re part of a putty club which involves them chewing on balls of putty so as not to tell the adult about their other Paul Street boys club), and it had sad parts (which I won’t spoil). It also had interesting subplots about some of the boys which made the book even more enjoyable.

Parts of The Paul Street Boys reminded me of another Hungarian book, György Dragomán’s The White King. That book also involved boys fighting, but in that book the fights were much darker (since the story itself was much darker). In The Paul Street Boys, it was refreshing to see the kids have such strong senses of honor. Sometimes it felt a bit too idealistic (considering that some of the kids may have very well grown up into real military commanders who may or may not have been forced to give up their honor for the sake of victory). Even so, the book steered clear of preaching blind idealism (“Rah, rah, fighting is amazing!”) through its terrific twist-ending (which I won’t spoil).

Overall, if you’re looking for a warm adventuresome book that makes some very good points about war and life and the meaning of fighting, I would recommend The Paul Street Boys.

Ruslan & Ludmila, by Alexander Pushkin,
Translated by D.M. Thomas

“Events described in ancient pages
By some long-perished Russian dreamer.”

This is a story about Ruslan and Ludmila, two lovers who are supposed to get married. Only just before they do, an evil wizard teleports into their midst and kidnaps Ludmila. So the king (Ludmila’s father) decides to make his daughter’s rescue into a contest—whoever rescues her will actually marry her. Ruslan and two other guys set out to rescue her. Along the way, they try to kill each other and try to avoid getting killed themselves by the various magical creatures they meet.

The story was fun and well-told. Pushkin made good observations about nature and got me firmly on Ruslan’s side. Even so, I felt a bit let-down. As someone who’s been studying Russian, I found myself imagining the Russian version of some of the lines I was reading, and found myself realizing how much better the poem likely would have been in Russian (there would likely have been a lot of beautiful assonance that got lost in the English translation, for instance).

This is obviously my own fault for not studying Russian enough to be able to read the book in the original. And in any case, for those of you who don’t know any Russian, Thomas’s translation still did a very good job of capturing whatever poetic rhythm and sound it could, so I would definitely recommend.

However, if you DO know Russian (or are learning it like I am), I’d probably recommend reading it in the original (or getting a bilingual version!)

The Sinner and the Saint: Dostoyevsky and the Gentleman Murderer Who Inspired a Masterpiece, by Kevin Birmingham, Read by Robert Petkoff

“To earn money, he [Dostoyevsky] devised various translation schemes to serve Russia’s interest in western fiction. Mikhail [his brother] translated German texts, and Fyodor translated French. He believed translations were a sure path to fortune. ‘Why is Strugovshchikov already famous?’ he asked Mikhail. All of his calculations had optimistic bottom lines, sometimes several thousand rubles. ‘Just wait and see. They’ll come flying at us in swarms when they see the translations in our hands. There will be plenty of offers from booksellers and publishers. They are dogs.’”

This book is about Dostoyevsky, the writing of his book Crime and Punishment, and the French murderer who inspired it.

The book alternated between telling Dostoyevsky’s story, the story of his book, and the story of Francois Lacenaire, a Frenchman who murdered people out of nihilism. So the book was part-biography, part In Cold Blood, and part literary scholarship. Even though it alternated among these three “plotlines,” the book had a terrific sense of narrative drive (I’d find myself wondering “How will Dostoyevsky get out of this problem?”).

Interestingly, since the author wrote about Dostoyevsky’s life, some parts of his biography read like summarized versions of Dostoyevsky’s books. The author wrote about the exact same details in Dostoyevsky’s Siberian imprisonment that made their way into his book Notes From a Dead House for instance, and it felt like I was reading a miniature version of Dead House nestled within a bigger biography of Dostoyevsky.

The author also explained the origins of various characters in Dostoyevsky’s book—ever wonder where Porfiry Petrovich came from? This book will tell you, along with how Petrovich evolved over the course of Dostoyevsky’s revisions.

At the same time, the author gave very good psychological and philosophical insights into nihilism, its causes, and the brutal lengths some people went for it. He did this by telling Lacenaire’s story and the story of Russia’s unrest as Dostoyevsky was writing Crime and Punishment. Ultimately, these three “plotlines” made the book’s scope bigger than just a literary analysis, and the book was much richer for it.

So if you’re looking for a book about Dostoyevsky that takes a different approach than a standard biography/literary analysis, I’d recommend this book. And I’d especially recommend it in audiobook form, since the narrator was terrific.

As promised, here’s a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need:

Jewish National Fund—Helps Ukrainian refugees find shelter while providing them with food, toys, and psychological assistance. Donate here: https://my.jnf.org/donate-ukraine-relief/Donate

Doctors Without Borders—Ships emergency supplies to Ukrainian hospitals. Donate here: https://donate.doctorswithoutborders.org/secure/donate 

Global Empowerment Mission—Gives plane tickets to Ukrainian refugees so they can reach friends and family they have in Europe. Donate here: https://www.globalempowermentmission.org/

Razom For Ukraine—Provides medical relief for soldiers and doctors on the front line. Donate here: https://razomforukraine.org/

Lit in the Time of War: Parsipur, Yelchin, and Brodsky

In which I review books by Parsipur, Yelchin, and Brodsky.

Hello! I hope you are well. Today at Princeton is officially Dean’s Date—when all essays are due. As a result, I’ll keep my reviews shorter than usual. Also, there’s a list of organizations you can donate to in order to help Ukrainians in need.

Kissing the Sword: A Prison Memoir, by Shahrnush Parsipur, Translated by Sara Khalili

“Although this madness [PTSD from prison] was my own, I wonder if society can be struck by a similar sort of collective insanity when pressure mounts beyond the peoples’ tolerance. Do they abandon all beliefs and begin to exist in an illusory world of their own creation? In that state, will they believe everything they are told?”

This book is about an Iranian writer who gets imprisoned. She experiences traumatic events in Evin Prison along with in other prisons. She gets released, then re-arrested, then released, then re-arrested again. Through it all, we see her remarkable character (she is very resilient and spirited), and learn about the horrors of incarceration.

I would recommend.

The Genius Under the Table, by Eugene Yelchin,
Read by Eugene Yelchin

“‘‘Turn that thing [the radio] off, Yevgeny.’ ‘I can’t, Grandma,’ I said. ‘I’m in attitude.’ I was trying to balance on one leg in attitude, which Vaganova described as a pose on one leg with the other lifted at an angle of ninety degrees and carried back, bent at the knee. ‘You hurt your leg, Yevgeny?’ ‘No, Grandma. It’s…nothing.’ ‘He stands on one leg for nothing. You a stork?’ ‘I’m practicing ballet.’ ‘With a bad leg?’”

This book is a memoir about Yelchin’s experiences growing up during the Cold War. His mom’s obsessed with the dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, his dad’s obsessed with poetry, and his brother’s obsessed with his newfound talent for ice-skating. Yelchin’s parents say he needs a talent, too—talent gets you a luxurious apartment and other such privileges. Yelchin’s brother is all set, but no matter what he does, Yelchin turns out to have no talent at anything. The only enjoyment he gets is from the drawings he makes at night under the table.

This book is funny, heartwarming, and extremely well-crafted. I would recommend.

Selected Poems, by Joseph Brodsky,
Translated by George L. Kline

“People and things crowd in.
Eyes can be bruised and hurt
by people as well as things.
Better to live in the dark.”

This is a book of poems by Brodsky translated into English and with a foreword by W.H. Auden, who says that Brodsky is one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. This is also back when Brodsky was an unknown (1973, before his 1987 Nobel Prize).

In any case, I found the poems to be good but not as good as I’d hoped (I’d read some poems by Brodsky here and they were terrific).

Even so, there were some very good poems in this collection, and I’d recommend it. Also, while I never mention footnotes, I do have to say that Brodsky’s book has great footnotes about untranslatable nuances of the Russian original which were very helpful and insightful. I’d recommend.

As promised, a list of places to donate and help Ukrainians in need:

Direct Relief: Provides trauma kits, insulin, and other important medical supplies to Ukrainians. Donate here: https://www.directrelief.org/emergency/ukraine-crisis/

Nova Ukraine: Supports Ukrainians by evacuating refugees, serving meals, and providing aid packages. Also the first volunteer group to enter Bucha and provide food and reconstruction assistance there. Donate here: https://novaukraine.org/

WithUkraine: The official fundraising effort by the Embassy of Ukraine to the UK. Provides food and medical supplies to Ukrainians in need. Donate here: https://www.withukraine.org/

Plan USA: Gives aid focusing on refugee children in Poland, Moldova, and Romania. Donate here: https://www.planusa.org/humanitarian-response-ukraine-plan-usa/

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Abai

Hello! I hope you’re all healthy and safe. To those who celebrate, happy Passover.

Today I’m reviewing a book that I stayed up late reading…

Selected Poems, by Abai Kunanbayev

Señor GIF - falcons - Greatest GIFs Of All Time - Pronounced GIF or JIF? -  Cheezburger

“My puppy grew into a dog—
And my leg it bit one day.
I taught a youngster once to shoot
He may take my life away.”

This book was written by Abai Kunanbayev, considered to be the greatest poet in Kazakhstan. It was super-interesting, which was why I stayed up late with it.

First of all, the poems themselves were interesting and fresh. The gist of a lot of them was “you need to pay attention to what I’m writing” or “life is transitory” or “politicians are corrupt” or “people these days don’t try hard enough.” Sometimes Abai seemed pretty cynical, but the disappointment he expressed in his poems also had a hint of hope. Maybe, just maybe, if the right person were to read his poems, Abai would be able to get his point across and help someone become less lazy.

What was also interesting about these poems was how much they reminded me of other poems. Many of them made me think of Attar’s “The Conference of the Birds” (which you should definitely read if you haven’t). The same ideas came up in both—the poet offering riches that are overlooked by ignorant masses, life being transitory and poisonous, and the importance of reading things closely. I’d say Attar did it slightly better, since Abai’s poems sometimes had an echo-like quality, as if he were just going through the motions of saying “poets throw pearls before swine” instead of always meaning it.

There was also a poem by Abai that reminded me a lot of Housman’s “To an Athlete Dying Young.” Interestingly, Abai wrote his poem in 1892, four years before Housman wrote his. Could Abai have influenced Housman? Probably not, but it’s cool to see that Abai beat Housman to the punch.

So in the end I would definitely recommend this book. Some of the poems felt like watered-down imitations of Attar, but the majority of them felt fresh and original and worth the read.

Have you read any poems that reminded you of others? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Omar Khayyam

Hello! I hope you’re all healthy and safe. Due to something urgent that came up, I wasn’t able to read a book this week, but I did read an amazing poem that’s practically as good as a great book, so I hope that makes up for it:

The “Rubaiyat” of Omar Khayyam

The “Rubaiyat” of Omar Khayyam is soooooo good. It affirms life, love, and happiness, and it’s only like a fifteen-minute read.

I learned about this ancient Persian poem from Eugene O’Neill’s play, “Ah, Wilderness!” (Whose title’s actually a direct quote from it). Obviously this left no choice but for me to check it out myself.

Reading the “Rubaiyat” makes me feel like the writer who wrote it actually felt what he was writing, in a slightly good-humored sort of way. I honestly have no idea why. It’s just something about the way it’s written/translated.

It has a lot of fascinating metaphors about wine, wizardry, pottery, checkers, and so on. But it’s much better than this other famous poem (George Sterling’s “Of Wine and Wizardry“). In my opinion, the Rubaiyat is much more…alive.

Finally, something interesting in a lot of medieval Arabic/Persian literature is the fact that wine is seen as something that’s not wonderful to drink in this life now, but that you can have as much of it as you want in the afterlife, so you might as well abstain now and then drink it later on. Meanwhile this poem argues the exact opposite: live now because you only have a short time to do so. Can it be subtly trying to disprove the afterlife? Who knows?

Finally, it has a lot of references to The Shahnameh (by Ferdowski) and the Bible.

If you’ve ever read the poem (or re-read it), I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Best Line(s):

“Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,

Before we too into the Dust descend;

Dust into Dust, and under Dust to lie

Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and–sans End!”

Stay healthy, stay safe, and stay in love with life.