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.

Caterina Fake: 30 Days of Genius

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I was interviewed by Chase Jarvis, the co-founder and CEO of Creative Live, an education company that has live education around the clock, every day, in creative fields such as design, filmmaking, photography and music. It’s a great company! I was on their board too.

Here is the interview, which was recorded last week, and is part of a series “30 Days of Genius”, which includes interviews with other folks such as Richard Branson, Swiss Miss, Arianna Huffington and other interesting and unexpected people. I had fun doing it, and, while I chafe at being characterized ONLY as an Entrepreneur and Angel Investor, was able to talk about my experiences along the way.


Further Reading

These are some of the books I mentioned in my interview:

A Blue Fire by James Hillman. Hillman is a student of Carl Jung, but focuses his work on the cultivation of the soul. Great guide for creative pursuits, but for anyone looking beyond success into fulfillment and magnanimity in the old sense: great-souledness.

 

 

The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald. A German writer, who spent most of his career teaching in East Anglia in England. Sebald writes movingly, is deeply learned. The Emigrants is his masterpiece: a study of men, their lives and failures, their deaths.

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.

Defining the role of Lead Parent

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Anne-Marie Slaughter’s husband wrote a great article about how he put his wife’s career first. He has a career, yet he takes the role of “lead parent”, a better term than the one I usually hear: “primary caregiver”.  I’ve read many similar articles, and the statistics and anecdotes in all of them are dismaying. This one was no different. But one thing I liked was how the author described his role and responsibilities, giving concrete examples.

Lead parenting is being on the front lines of everyday life. In my years as lead parent, I have gotten the kids out of the house in the morning; enforced bedtimes at night; monitored computer and TV use; attempted to ensure that homework got done right; encouraged involvement in sports and music; attended the baseball games, piano lessons, plays, and concerts that resulted; and kept tabs on social lives. To this day, I am listed first on emergency forms; I am the parent who drops everything in the event of a crisis.

Other things not included here would be: being responsible for buying, preparing and serving food and cleaning up after meals, while encouraging healthy eating and monitoring general health of the children. And beyond the parenting role, but intrinsic to the role nonetheless: being responsible for the house or apartment and its cleaning and maintenance. And likely also the car, as it is needed for shuttling kids to and from activities, grocery shopping and errands.

I was also moved by the implication in his last paragraph that so many men are missing something deep and meaningful in their lives:

At the end of life, we know that a top regret of most men is that they did not lead the caring and connected life they wanted, but rather the career-oriented life that was expected of them. I will not have that regret.

Photo via Flickr.

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.

Champerty, Gawker and Peter Thiel

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It’s hard to pick a side in the Gawker-Thiel-Hogan lawsuit, reported today in Forbes. Billionaire Peter Thiel appears to be funding Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker Media, but the lawsuit and its outcome are a mere sideshow to the main story which is that this case is a terrifying development for those of us who value a free, democratic media. What is most frightening about this lawsuit is that the press has always played a significant role in defending the small and powerless against the big and powerful. Gawker has played this role in its own tabloid style, but Thiel’s funding of this lawsuit shows how money can protect that power through third-party litigation funding. 

Lawsuits like these can have a chilling effect on the rest of the media industry, said First Amendment expert Peter Scheer, as they may encourage other wealthy individuals to back litigation against media companies that run unflattering stories about them.

“That’s often the purpose of these cases,” said Scheer, the director of the First Amendment Coalition. “Winning is the ultimate chilling effect, but if you can’t win the case, you at least want the editors to think twice before writing another critical story about you.”

Champerty, as third-party litigation funding used to be called (and should probably be called again!) was formerly a crime, but the commercial litigation finance industry has been growing in recent years . It’s most commonly used as a form of speculation, in which “investors” seek potentially lucrative lawsuits, from which they receive a percentage, or as a means of protecting and expanding a company’s business. But the Thiel funding, coming as it does from a billionaire, is not an investment, but the settling of a personal vendetta  against a media company by someone with the money to drive a company to ruin through litigation.

Generally, people avoid frivolous lawsuits because it often exposes them to as much scrutiny as those they sue, so what is significant about this case is that by funding Hogan behind the scenes, Thiel could get his revenge, escape exposure, and influence the outcome of the case. Hogan’s lawyers made decisions against Hogan’s best interests, withdrawing a claim that would have required Gawker’s insurance company to pay damages rather than the company itself–a move that made Nick Denton, Gawker Media’s founder and CEO, suspect that a Silicon Valley millionaire was behind the suit. Gawker Media may or may not survive the suit in which Hogan was handed down a judgement of $140 million, which the publisher has appealed.

My hope is that the high profile of this case will hasten legal reform. The ethical dodginess of this type of funding is well known–after all champerty was once illegal.


Further Reading:

Gawker-Thiel-Hogan lawsuit article on Forbes

Why Denton thought Thiel was behind the lawsuit article on re|code

Arms Race: Law Firms and the Litigation Funding Boom article in American Lawyer

“There has always been discomfort about the role of money in the profession,” says Geoffrey Miller, co-director of New York University School of Law’s Center for Civil Justice. By adding investors to the litigation ecosystem, “are we losing something?” he asks. “Do we degrade our professionalism? Do we create in the public’s mind the sense that law is all about the money?”  Well, yes.

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