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: Friel, Rulfo, and Mumcu

Hello! Happy Halloween, All Saints’ Day, and November 1st. I hope you are staying warm, healthy, and safe. I’ve reviewed three books this week, and have included a list of organizations you can donate to in order to help Ukrainians in need.

“Translations,” by Brian Friel

“And it can happen—to use an image you’ll understand—it can happen that a civilisation can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape of…fact.”

In this play, English military cartographers Lancey and Yolland have come to the Irish town Baile Beag, to Anglicize the place-names for military purposes. A local man named Owen helps them by serving as a translator (to others’ chagrin). The play goes on to talk about language-based colonialism and its awful effects.

For me, I thought the play was interesting but flawed. There was one character who went on and on about the importance of learning Irish only to have an abrupt change of heart for no real reason. If someone were to have such a deep understanding of Irish’s importance, it would seem to me that he or she would need a strong and clearly-defined reason to change his or her view, but in this play there didn’t seem to be any such reason.

Also, Owen was framed as being the cause of troubles that the town suffered. Though it was absolutely true that his translation played an important role in enabling these troubles to happen, it didn’t directly cause them (there was an unrelated subplot that wound up being the main cause of them). To me, this break in causality seemed to weaken the play’s theme.

If you are interested in learning something about language-based colonialism, I would definitely recommend Translations—it does a very good job of intellectually sketching out this dynamic. However, just know that its characters and plot don’t embody the theme as well as they could have (in my subjective view).

Pedro Páramo, by Juan Rulfo

En español:

“Muchos años antes, cuando ella era una niña, él [su padre] le había dicho: ‘Baja, Susana, y dime lo que ves.’ Estaba colgada de aquella soga que le lastimaba la cintura, que le sangraba sus manos; pero que no quería soltar: era como el único hilo que la sostenía al mundo de afuera. ‘No veo nada, papa.’ [….] La lámpara circulaba y la luz pasaba de largo junto a ella. Y el grito de allá arriba la estremecía [….] ‘Es una calavera de muerto’ [….] ‘Busca algo más, Susana. Dinero. Ruedas redondas de oro. Búscalas, Susana.’”

Este libro es sobre un hombre que viaja a un pueblo llamado Comala para conocer la historia de su padre a quien nunca conoció. Al principio de libro, el pueblo parece desierto, pero luego el protagonista encuentra algunos habitantes. Habla con ellos y descubre que son fantasmas que hablan con los vivos. El libro sigue contando la historia de Pedro Páramo, el padre del protagonista, quien fue un dictador del pueblo que ordenaba la muerte de las personas y buscaba el amor inalcanzable.

Este libro fue muy bien escrito. Se sentía un poco como una obra de teatro, porque se contaba principalmente a través de monólogos y diálogos con muy poca reflexión interna. Aun así, funcionó muy bien. Su diálogo significó que su “pacing” fue excelente. También exploró ideas de la Revolución mexicana, la negación de las emociones, el machísmo, y el perdón (o la falta de perdón). Gabriel García Márquez había dicho que Pedro Páramo le inspiró mucho, y que este libro fue lo que le permitió escribir Cien Años de Soledad. Yo pude ver por qué. Fue un libro muy bueno, y yo definitivamente recomendaría que lo leyeran (¡en español o en inglés!)

In English:

“Many years before, when she was a girl, he [her father] had told her: ‘Go down, Susana, and tell me what you see.’ She was hanging from that rope that hurt her waist, that made her hands bleed; but she didn’t want to let go: it was practically the only thread that connected her to the outside world. ‘I don’t see anything, papa.’ [….] The lamp circled and the light passed by her. And the scream from there shook her up [….] ‘It’s a dead man’s skull’ [….] ‘Look for something else, Susana. Money. Round gold discs. Look for them, Susana.’”

This book is about a guy who goes to a town called Comala to learn the story of his father who he never knew. At first the town seems deserted, but then he finds some inhabitants. He speaks with them only to find out that they are ghosts speaking to the living. He goes on to learn the story of Pedro Páramo, his father, who was a dictator of the town who ordered peoples’ deaths and sought unattainable love.

This book was very well written. It felt a little bit like a play in that it was mostly told through monologues and dialogues with very little internal reflection. Even so, it worked very well. The dialogue-ness of it meant its pace was terrific, and it explored ideas of the Mexican Revolution, denial of emotions, machísmo, and forgiveness (or unforgiveness). Gabriel García Márquez had said that he was very inspired by Pedro Páramo, and that it was what enabled him to write One Hundred Years of Solitude. I could see why. It was a very good book and I would definitely recommend that you read it (either in Spanish or in English!)

The Peace Machine, by Özgür Mumcu,
Translated by Mark David Wyers

“They were human and they didn’t know why they were there. They were human and they would go on destroying each other. Because they didn’t know why they were there, they despised one another. Even if they measured the size of the world with compasses and angle rules, even if they created anthologies of the work of all the poets written in dead languages, even if glaciologists measured the age of ice stalactites, even if oceanographers plumbed the deepest oceans, even if uranium glowed, cogs and gears followed every order, and trees were pruned and trained to fit in the palm of one’s hand, they would go on destroying each other. Though they solved the how, they couldn’t work out the why. And so they despised each other.”

In a world where electricity has just been invented and our protagonist Celal has no choice but to run from authorities and say tongue-twisters that enable him to run (read the book and this will make sense!), a friend of Celal’s father comes up with an idea for a machine that will put an end to all war forever and bring peace to the land. Warmongerers make war machines. Why can’t peacemongerers make peace machines?

Celal gets caught up in these plans. In the process, he sticks his head in a lion’s mouth (literally and metaphorically), travels around the world, and gets embroiled in a conspiracy to overthrow the Serbian monarchs.

The book was very, very funny at points (such as the first chapter), very, very insightful at others (such as the excerpt I quoted), and less funny and insightful at others. It seems to me that the author had some truly terrific ideas, but that this book had a lower density of them than it could have had (if that makes sense). Look at a book like Pedro Páramo, and you see that the ideas are rich all the way through. Look at a book like The Peace Machine and you find a few terrific gems scattered here and there. This isn’t to say that the book isn’t worth reading—it absolutely is. Just that it felt like the author could have done even more with his ideas than he wound up doing in the book.

Still, it’s funny and has very good insights about war and peace, so I would recommend.

If you’ve read any of these books, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

As promised, here is a list of organizations you can donate to in order to support Ukrainians in need. Please donate if you are able:

The International Rescue Committee—Supports Ukrainian families in Poland by giving them food, water, and other vital supplies. Donate here: https://help.rescue.org/donate/ukraine-web

Action Against Hunger—Provides nutritious food, cash, hygiene kits, and mental health support to Ukrainian refugees.
Donate here: https://www.actionagainsthunger.org/donate/ukraine-emergency-response

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

Insight—Provides food, permanent shelter, and medicine/hormones to LGBTQI+ Ukrainian refugees. Donate here: https://www.insight-ukraine.org/en/join-donate/