The Galley Slave

By Drago Jančar.

If this novel had been published first in Britain or had Jančar lived in the west this wouldn’t have been published – no publisher would have had a punt on it – as it probably wouldn’t have sold. This would be a tragedy for literature and this is symptomatic of the control marketing (and the shifting of units with the least possible effort) has on on the creative industries in the UK. What a great book. It is dark, challenging, imaginative, amusing, bleak and many other vicarious elements. Jančar is a special writer and this is exactly the kind of book I like – it defies definition. Stasiuk makes reference to Jančar in one of his novels, I realised after I read this – so good writers lead to good writers. This novel is still in gestation, and all the elements it includes – Ot is an intriguing character and symbol. Following is a quote regarding Slovenian literature – I believe it came from Dalkey Archive.

Literature means different things to different people. For past generations of Slovenians, many of the books in the list below provided flesh to their growing minds and bodies during a time of scarcity and censorship. These novels were as essential to them as food. To the current generation of savvy, traveling, computer-literate Slovenians, and of course to foreign readers as well, these same books are not lifeblood: now they must succeed as mere words, as mere art.

And here is the List:

http://www.dalkeyarchive.com/collections/slovenia/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Road to Babadag

By Andrzej Stasiuk.

Again, another breathtaking book from Stasiuk. He has probably written a great amount more in Polish – but we have to wait for it to arrive in translation. The translation is really good – but this could be in part because Stasiuk doesn’t overdo things. He states it all very cleanly. This is the photo which haunted Stasiuk for years and which provided an impetus for travel – though by the sounds of it that was already there long before.

There is an episode where he talks about all the pieces he has collected over the years during his travels and that he takes them out sometimes to remember. This book, and much of his other work, is a remembering that combines with these objects. This is a private remembering and he creates something new out of these tokens. If he was a chancer like Warhol or Hirst he would no doubt have an exhibition of these objects rather than creating something new. It strikes me that much of modern creative endeavour involves collecting things. Curation masquerading as creativity. This is a fine book, which can be reread over and over and dipped into. The chapter about Moldova was excellent.

 

 

 

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Virgin Soil

By Ivan Turgenev.

One thing I like about Turgenev is that it is like renewing an acquaintance or conversation whenever you return him. With most of his work he never clearly comes down on one side something he was criticised for regularly. I think this is a real strength, he presents ideas, characters and situations and leaves it to the reader. This novel directly deals with the revolutionary networks in Russia in the 1870s. He presents the young revolutionaries in a sympathetic light but also brings to light contradictions, namely that most of them are of the middle class and as such they can’t relate to the working people. There are exceptions though in every case – but Turgenev poses the question. He is unsparing in his criticism of the right-wing reactionaries however – Kollomietzev is exposed warts and all but the obviously right-wing mayor is shown as a decent man. Turgenev is equivocal. This old saying was quite apt: “Moscow lies at the foot of Russia and everything rolls down to her” – you could substitute it with London and Britain, possibly.

 

 

 

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Ghost Milk

By Iain Sinclair.

I started reading this on the day the Olympics started in London in order to give a balance to my experience of the event. I like watching all the various sports, but the official narrative that is given to each event or athlete is something that I do not relate to. Let’s just have their actions do the talking. I am also suspicious of the overall story that surrounds the games by the sponsors, officials, community leaders and politicians. This is where reading Sinclair’s book at the same time provides a useful counterpoint. It is an enthralling book – not just because of the subject matter –  but Sinclair writes in a very captivating way, he makes many literary and filmic references which direct further reading or research. This really is a broad canvas with ideas, thoughts, people and places. A very worthwhile read – here is an excellent quote.

In the age of the spinner, content means nothing; the apparatus of explanation, the word-weaving, tells us what we are looking at and how we should react.

 

 

 

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Sulamyth

By Alexandr Kuprin.
I wasn’t sure about this to begin with but it ended up quite an engaging little story. The translation was fine and for a few hours I was transported to a very different world: one of wise rulers, poetry and intrigue. Very different to the previous Kuprin I read – the Duel. The sumptuous, fantastical nature of the story was an interesting juxtaposition to what I have read recently. This was few pence on the Kindle store – well worth it.

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Open Veins of Latin America

By Eduardo Galeano.

I’m not sure I will ever recover from reading this book. I had no idea the extent of pillage exacted against the latin American people for so many centuries.

You can read the PDF here. I think Galeano must have allowed the book to be copied and available at no cost as it can be found a number of places on the web.

There is too much to summarise, but the question I had never really asked myself was how a continent so rich in natural resources could be so poor? The answer is that the wealth of the country has been appropriated by the european powers for the last five centuries. Britain has probably gained the most in reality, though few of the countries were ever officially colonies. It was British business that looked after the  interests of the plutocracy. Initially, indirectly through the Spanish and Portugese but in the 18th and 19th centuries directly.

The issues and politics here are complex but what we are left with is a study of man’s inhumanity to man. A couple of excerpts:

“Latin America continues exporting its unemployment and poverty: the raw materials that the world market needs, and on whose sale the regional economy depends. Unequal exchange functions as before: hunger wages in Latin America help finance high salaries in the United States and Europe.”
 
“The IMF–which not disinterestedly confuses the fever with the disease, inflation with the crisis of existing structures–has imposed on Latin America a policy that accentuates imbalances instead of easing them. It liberalizes trade by banning direct exchanges and barter agreements; it forces the contraction of internal credits to the point of asphyxia, freezes wages, and discourages state activity. To this program it adds sharp monetary devaluations which are theoretically supposed to restore the currency to its real value and stimulate exports. In fact, the devaluations merely stimulate the internal concentration of capital in the ruling classes’ pockets and facilitate absorption of national enterprises by foreigners who turn up with a fistful of dollars.”
 
 

 

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Adieu and A Passion in the Desert

By Honoré de Balzac.

Two great short tales. A Passion in the Desert quite different from Balzac’s usual stories – but still very entertaining. Some commentators have said that it is Balzac trying his hand at Orientalism. Adieu also involves an army officer but his passion is the wife of one of his superior officers and not a tiger in the desert. Both involve nature and adventure and are a departure from Balzac’s usual way of doing things. It is possible that the shorter tales were a ground for experimentation. Here is one of the final exchanges from A Passion in the Desert:

‘In the desert, you see, there is everything and nothing.’ ‘Yes, but explain—-‘  ‘Well,’ he said, with an impatient gesture, ‘it is God without mankind.’

 

 

 

 

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Gargantua and Pantagruel – Book One

By François Rabelais.

This first book is quite cohesive. I guess Rabelais didn’t know himself  if he would write another and the impetus seems to be his own amusement and that of his friends. This was a very enjoyable experience and  as a result I took my time reading Book One. I like the way the episodes aren’t really connected they just sort of flit about and are not as linear as most novels.

Pantagruel makes you laugh, consider things philosophically and stimulates the imagination: it doesn’t get much better than this. I can now see where many of the writers I love got a great deal of their inspiration. There were free translations I could have found for the kindle but I decided that if I was going to make the effort to read all five books then it should be with the best translation – by most accounts Professor Screech’s translation is the best. There are many footnotes – but they don’t get in the way as the book is the kind that stimulates you in bursts as it is all angles and the footnotes don’t interfere but add to the richness of the text. The rest are coming up shortly.

 

 

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Scotland and Poland: A Historical Relationship

Edited by T. M. Devine and David Hesse.

I found this collection of essays very interesting – but mainly the first half, which covered the Scottish migration to Poland in the late 16th and 17th century. It seems there were very distinct communities formed and these existed until the late 17th after which they were assimilated into the general populous. Gdansk, as a centre with defined routes has neighbourhoods that are named in a Scottish fashion – from ‘Old Scots’ to ‘New Scots’. There are also other villages named Szkocja (Scotland) in other parts of Poland.  This migration has been largely forgotten and the editors do say that further research needs to be done. The story of William Bruce was also engaging, as a roving diplomatic agent in Poland in the 16th early 17th century, and there’s plenty scope for a movie script there. There would need to be a fair amount of literary licence as many details of his life are sketchy. I enjoyed these essays and wouldn’t mind reading a detailed study in future should it become available.

 

 

 

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The Duel [Conrad]

By Joseph Conrad.

What I liked about this Duel episode was that a point of honour arose out of nothing. Following this, the reason for the bad blood became shrouded in mystery and neither participant was able to set the record straight without losing face. The public could only guess at the reasons and let their imaginations run wild while each man remained silent. This story was based on two officers in Napoleon’s army who carried out a series of Duels over fourteen years while traipsing all over Europe. Also of interest is the army’s attitude to dueling – it was frowned on to an extent but it was almost part and parcel of a military man’s life and at least one duel was a rite of passage. Though, your prospects for promotion could be damaged. Both the duelists in question did still manage to make the rank of General despite the dueling handicap. I liked this novella more than the Von Kleist ‘Duel’.

 

 

 

 

 

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