Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexeivich

The annual announcement of the Nobel Prize in Literature brings about an efflorescence of translations worldwide, and for this we should be grateful to those former weapons manufacturers, the Nobels. The granting of peace prizes and prizes for literature is a correction, of sorts, to their war-mongering past and a good way to spend and expend an ill-gotten wealth. Last fall Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexeivich was granted the Nobel Prize for Literature, a surprise, as the recipients often are; perhaps the Nobel committee was even making a political statement against Putin. She stands out from her fellow laureates in that she’s a non-fiction writer, a chronicler rather than a storyteller, a collector of oral histories, and not a writer of poetry or fiction.  Bertrand Russell also won the prize, no poet he. So did Winston Churchill. She is not the first non-fiction laureate.

Alexeivich seeks out the tales behind the historical events, gives voice to those silence or obscured by history. In her first book, War’s Unwomanly Face, she wrote the stories of women and World War II, of war not as a grand geopolitical triumph or national catastrophe, not as a vale of hero-making and striving, or a tale of strategy or tactical derring-do, but war as the backdrop for women nursing men from the battlefields, women working as snipers and killing enemy soldiers, losing their betrothed in battle. She followed this book with The Last Witnesses: the Book of Unchildlike Stories, war from children’s’ point of view.

In her book Chernobyl Prayer, available in the UK, and offered in the States as Voices from Chernobyl, Alexeivich talks to the survivors of the Chernobyl disaster of April 26, 1986. To me, the disaster at Chernobyl had always been a news article, a terrible disaster certainly, one of the worst, but something I had only read about in newspapers and the occasional news magazine. I knew facts, I’d seen charts. I saw maps and commentary and analysis. But Alexeivich transformed what we experienced as news into something different, a real story. Walter Benjamin, in his essay The Storyteller, collected in the book Illuminations, explains the difference between what Alexeivich has done–tell stories– and the Chernobyl situation as we’ve hitherto experienced it: as news, as information, as something explained, analyzed and interpreted:

Every morning brings us the news of the globe, and yet we are poor in noteworthy stories. This is because no event any longer comes to us without already being shot through with explanation. In other words, by now almost nothing that happens benefits storytelling; almost everything benefits information. Actually, it is half the art of storytelling to keep a story free from explanation as one reproduces it… The most extraordinary things, marvelous things, are related with the greatest accuracy, but the psychological connection of the events is not forced on the reader. It is left up to him to interpret things the way he understands them, and thus the narrative achieves an amplitude that information lacks.

Alexeivich includes no maps, diagrams or statistics into Chernobyl Prayer. She explains very little of what was reported in the news–that’s been exhaustively covered already. Instead, she allows the wives of the cleanup crew to tell their stories, the parents of children who’ve grown up with terrible disfiguration after their parents were exposed to radiation. She talks to everyone from the region, farmers and professors, children and soldiers, university agriculturalists, scientists, Communist party leaders and secret dissenters. She lets both of the owners of pets that were rounded up and shot by the cleanup workers and  the cleanup workers who were commanded to seek out and kill all the animals left behind tell their stories.  Chernobyl Prayer tells of the returnees, going back to their homes, in spite of the killing radiation they will find there, and eating the beautiful vegetables that are, invisibly, hopelessly contaminated. It tells what it’s like to watch the people you love die deaths of great suffering. It tells of the country people from Pripyat and environs, trying to adjust to life in the city. It tells of their love of nature, and the difficulty of comprehending how flowers, trees and animals that were still so beautiful could be radiating death.

It’s not possible to overstate the power, horror and beauty of this book, its expression of humanity confronted with extremes of experience and catastrophe, the stories of people who were present at the end of the world, the primacy of love in the midst of disaster. It’s a remarkable document, an indelible book of slow death and demise, the story of a poisoned world, told by the survivors of an apocalypse.

I look forward to the other volumes of Alexeivich’s work that will follow, soon, in translation.

Something Splendid: Books in Translation

Woman WritingOnly 3% of books published in the United States are translated from other languages, according to the introduction to The Door by Magda Szabo, which seemed a tiny number, especially when you consider a country such as Finland, where I spend part of every year, where many if not most of the books on the shelves are translations. Would give one a more sophisticated and international view, don’t you think? I couldn’t find any statistics, in English, about what percentage of books published in Finnish are translated from other languages, but I’m willing to bet the number is very high. Of course it is a small country, and so its own literary output is slim. But a side effect must be a more cosmopolitan world view.

Filmmaker Michael Haneke in a recent interview in the Paris Review, said film has devolved disappointingly into books about sex and material possessions, which is why, he said, the best films now come from foreign lands, the “developing countries” as we in the West are fortunate enough not to experience deprivation or pain, and know very little suffering. In literature we even have a term for this, the “ sex and shopping” novel.

When my daughter was very small, I tired of reading books about penguin and duck mamas loving their babies, or children going to the store with Mommy. In a used bookstore I found some amazing books that I read to her: an illustrated version of the Orpheus myth, a version of the myth of the Golem, and a beautiful edition of Aida by Leontyne Price. My daughter had apparently tired of the cuddling and shopping stories too: “Read me the one with the blood!” she would beg me, referring, of course, to the final pages of Orpheus, where in both image and text he is depicted stoned to death by revelers for refusing to sing, so broken was he by the second and final loss of Eurydice. She immediately knew, for all her youth, that these were real stories and the stories of the hugging penguins were not. If only there were more unbowdlerized translations of myth and history for small children, with illustrations.

Imagine finding yourself in love with an author’s work, so much so you have read everything she has written, and seek out more—only to find her books have not been translated into any language you can read, and are not likely to be any time soon. So what do you do? Commission a translator to translate more! That’s what Cristina Bettancourt did. She is a big fan of the work of Antti Tuuri, a Finnish writer. She contacted his publisher, who provided her with a list of potential translators. She commissioned the translation of a short passage, and then paid the 10,000 euros the translation cost! She is quoted on the (sadly discontinued blog) Books From Finland as saying, ‘I was startled when I heard the cost,’ said Bettencourt. ‘On the other hand you could spend the money on something silly like clothes. This way I would have something splendid.’

I’ve read three wonderful books in translation this past week. Nada by Carmen Laforet, Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexeivich, and The Door by Magda Szabo. All of them were wonderful, told in different ways and in different voices. I’ll write up a brief synopsis of each. Stay tuned.

Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy

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For the past two days I’ve been riveted to Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, an astounding book and a book of genius. It is set in 1849-50 and follows the Glanton Gang on their orgy of slaughter along the Texas-Mexico border. It is without a doubt the most violent and bloody book I’ve ever read, a study of evil and the lust for war.

We meet a character identified only as “The Kid” when he is fourteen years old and running away from his home in Tennessee. Through various misadventures he ends up in jail, from which he is sprung by The Glanton Gang, a group of bloodthirsty men bent on killing and scalping as many Apaches as possible for the bounty paid by the Mexican state of Chihuahua. The spiritual leader of the Glanton Gang is Judge Holden, who we first meet on page 6, a 7 foot tall albino “bald as a stone” with no beard or brow or lashes, and small hands and feet. He speaks all languages and knows all things. He dresses in finery and often appears naked. He rapes and kills little boys and little girls, spurs the gang on to further butchery, dances, fiddles and fucks. After speaking of how a game of cards on which the wager is death is the only real game, he says:

This is the nature of war, whose stake is at once the game and the authority and the justification. Seen so, war is the truest form of divination. It is the testing of one’s will and the will of another within that larger will which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. [Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak.] War is god.

We have page after page of rape, murder and bloodshed, battle after battle, more blood, more carnage, pitiless, relentless, endless. There is a magnificent story of how the gang was out of gunpowder with the Apaches mere minutes away and Holden, wizard-like, conjures gunpowder out of dirt, ashes and piss. At the end of the book (don’t read this if you want to get there yourself) there is a final confrontation between The Kid, now forty-five, and Judge Holden, untouched by time. It is the most chilling scene that I have ever read. I have already reread the whole chapter five times.

They meet by chance in a saloon, and watch a dancing bear being killed and Holden lectures the kid, now called “the man” that all dancers that are not warriors — murderers — are false dancers, since dancing is the warrior’s right, and his only. The Kid offers his laconic replies. You aint nothin he says, and Holden says, You speak truer than you know. Holden murders the Kid in an outhouse outside the saloon. Of all the murders in the books, hundreds of which are recounted in graphic detail, this one is a cipher, a void. Moments later we find Holden inside:

And they are dancing, the board floor slamming under the jackboots and the fiddlers grinning hideously over their canted pieces. Towering over them all is the judge and he is naked dancing, his small feet lively and quick and now in doubletime and bowing to the ladies, huge and pale and hairless, like an enormous infant. He never sleeps, he says. He says he’ll never die. He bows to the fiddlers and sashays backwards and throws back his head and laughs deep in his throat and he is a great favorite, the judge. He wafts his hat and the lunar dome of his skull passes palely under the lamps and he swings about and takes possession of one of the fiddles and he pirouettes and makes a pass, two passes, dancing and fiddling at once. His feet are light and nimble. He never sleeps. He says that he will never die. He dances in light and in shadow and he is a great favorite. He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.

It makes me shudder again, rereading it.


Further Reading:

Read other posts I’ve written about books.

 Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy.

The European Witch-Craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, by H.R. Trevor-Roper

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Witch hunts are always a relevant topic, as we live in a time when internet witch hunts are rife. So I thought I should repost my review of an obscure history book. Rarely is history so weird as in this book, which addresses the theology behind the old witch hunts, and shows the backwards grasping for reasons, justifications and explanations, so familiar to us today, but become ludicrous with the benefit of hindsight.

Last night I was reading H.R. Trevor-Roper’s classic work The European Witch-Craze of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, which I was quite enjoying. In the first chapter, Trevor-Roper was discussing various clerical theories of how the Devil managed to beget offspring after having sex with witches at night in the form of an incubus, that visited female witches or a succubus, that visited male witches. But this was a problem; wasn’t the devil neuter? A great deal of theological thinking was expended in the attempt to resolve this matter. Some thought the Devil swiped the testicles off the dead and impregnated the witches with borrowed vital essences, but the church eventually followed the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas, the second founder of demonology after St. Augustine. He said the Devil could only discharge as incubus what he had previously absorbed as succubus. Trevor Roper then remarks:

There are times when the intellectual fantasies of the clergy seem more bizarre than the psychopathic delusions of the madhouse out of which they have, too often, been excogitated.

Excellent for other reasons not adumbrated here.

My Idea of Fun, by Will Self

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Sometimes you read books that just weren’t meant for you. This was one of them.

A truly ghastly experience, My Idea of Fun records the memories, justifications and sheer relish of a delusional maniac, serial killer, animal torturer and all around repulsive fellow, couched in prose so purple it’s no longer a part of the visible spectrum. As the protagonist’s predilections are presented on the first page, you can’t say you didn’t know what you were getting into. Against the chidings of my conscience I continued reading, fascinated, much as you can’t not look at a grisly automobile accident as you wheel by on the highway. You can’t help but admire Self’s turn of phrase, his dictionary squeezings, his calculated yet slick deployments of rib-cracking funniness, but you nonetheless wish he weren’t quite so sick.

The book is a compelling enough read. There are a couple flubbed hallucinatory sequences of a William Burroughs variety which I flat out skipped. I frankly didn’t give a damn about our protagonist’s career in advertising or his (possibly meant to be loathsome?) yuppiedom. Self fell asleep on the job more than a few times, misplacing his character’s characteristics, straining and failing to shock, including flat or pointless scenes. Only the scenes in which The Fat Controller played a part were gripping, though inevitably gripping a part of you you’d rather had never been gripped at all. By the end I was just turning pages and feeling icky. That the editors or the author were feeling somewhat insecure about whether or not this book was to be taken as satire is evidenced by the book’s anxious subtitle A Cautionary Tale. Wash yourself thoroughly after reading this one, though that may not suffice. A colonic might be more appropriate. For the very susceptible, an exorcism.


Further Reading:

Read other things I’ve written about books. You might find something else of interest!

My Idea of Fun by Will Self. You might just be curious enough to look into it yourself.

 

 

 

 

Greetings from Utopia Park

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A cast of characters doesn’t get any better than this: Levitating yogis, a dreamy, beautiful, transcendent mommy, Midwestern thugs in metal t-shirts, and one wide-eyed, unicorn-loving, pure-hearted girl–all of this in, yes, Greetings from Utopia Park, by my friend Claire Hoffman.

This childhood was not easy, you gather from Claire’s story. She tells of the ups and downs of growing up in a religious community, in this case the Fairfield, Iowa community built by the famous guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the home of Transcendental Meditation. TM was made famous by some of the Maharishi’s disciples: Paul, John, George and Ringo, and was subsequently slammed by the same. David Lynch (Eraserhead, Blue Velvet) is another famous proponent of the sect, who has written books and made videos in support of the organization, and has become its unofficial spokesperson. In TM each person is given a special, magic mantra, all of their own. They use it to meditate, and eventually, hopefully, reach enlightenment.

Claire’s mom, a single mom, managed to pursue peace and truth while raising two children and struggling to make a living–a feat in itself. Claire and her brother grew up as members of a community that sought enlightenment and harmony, but struggled under its share of controversy. She thinks hard about her experiences, and what they meant, and how they shaped her. To live in a utopia–what a privilege! But to look behind the curtains almost destroys her belief. How do you know you’re on the One True Path? Sham or Shangri-La? Were the rumors about her guru true? All believers must confront their doubt. All seekers must question what they find. In the era of Hoffman’s childhood, many sought something greater, something higher. Many of them were parents, who wanted the best for their children, and brought them along.

The beauty won from this alternately lovely and terrible childhood was hard fought for. She details the picnics and ceremonies, the school days and meditations. She feels the pain of being an outsider among the uninitiated. Watches her friends go astray. And in the end, after her angry teens and resentful twenties, now a married mother in her thirties, Claire goes back to what was good and true about her upbringing, and returns to her spiritual home. She goes back to meditation, to reap its fruits. She makes her peace with her childhood and her mother’s decisions. And she takes her small daughter down to the TM center to learn her mantra, and meditate.

The suffering can be borne and meaning wrung out of wasted days. Deceptive gurus and false messiahs litter the paths of pilgrims. But they don’t have the last word. First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is. Sometimes you climb the mountain, and you fall and fail. Maybe there is a different path that will take you up. Sometimes a different mountain. Greetings from Utopia Park tells you the path of the seeker is a path with a heart.

Keep climbing, keep seeking.

920 O’Farrell Street

Harriet Lane Levy, in her book 920 O’Farrell Street, show how many different nationalities were mingling on the streets of San Francisco in the 1880s:

“On Saturday night the city joined in the promenade on Market Street, the broad thoroughfare that begins at the waterfront and cuts its straight path of miles to Twin Peaks. The sidewalks were wide and the crowd walking toward the bay met the crowd walking toward the ocean. The outpouring of the population was spontaneous, as if in response to an urge for instant celebration. Every quarter of the city discharged its residents into the broad procession. Ladies and gentlemen of imposing social repute; their German and Irish servant girls, arms held fast in the arms of their sweethearts; French, Spaniards, gaunt, hard-working Portuguese; Mexicans, the Indian showing in reddened skin and high cheekbone—everybody, anybody, left home and shop, hotel, restaurant, and beer garden to empty into Market Street in a river of color. Sailors of every nation deserted their ships at the waterfront and, hurrying up Market Street in groups, joined the vibrating mass excited by the lights and stir and the gaiety of the throng. ‘This is San Francisco,’ their faces said. It was carnival; no confetti, but the air a criss-cross of a thousand messages; no masks, but eyes frankly charged with challenge. Down Market from Powell to Kearny, three long blocks, up Kearny to Bush, three short ones, then back again, over and over for hours, until a glance of curiosity deepened to one of interest; interest expanded into a smile, and a smile into anything. Father and I went downtown every Saturday night. We walked through avenues of light in a world hardly solid. Something was happening everywhere, every minute, something to be happy about… . We walked and walked and still something kept happening afresh.”


Further Reading:

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