Archive for the 'history' Category

Olga Tokarczuk: The Books of Jacob

November 30, 2021

     ‘Literature is a particular type of knowledge, it is… the perfection of imprecise forms.’ I love that.

I’ve been waiting a couple of years for this one finally to come out in English, and I resisted buying the French translation a year ago because I wanted Jennifer Croft’s English version. She’s translated other Olga Tokarczuk novels so well, and I was not disappointed here: she creates atmosphere and tone consistent with her other successes, and I felt I was reading the same Olga, if you see what I mean. Not knowing Polish well enough to read it means I can’t comment on the ‘feel’ of the translation, but this doesn’t alter the fact that translators are really important.

Nor is it possible to summarise the plot of a 900+ page novel, so I shan’t even attempt. Suffice it to say it centres around an eighteenth century Jewish heresy in Eastern Poland led by Josef Frank, who presented himself as the Messiah and urged his followers to accept Christian baptism. Wikipedia is your friend here if you want more details. The whole is also set against the backdrop of the beginning of the collapse and dismemberment of the Polish Commonwealth. But there’s so much more besides, with Tokarczuk’s familiar erudition and digression on display throughout. I found myself thinking at one point, is this Poland’s take on magic realism, with her blend of history and fiction?

I have to admit that this book will not be to everyone’s taste, as the arcana of Judaism and Jewish history is pretty pervasive; at times it all felt a little rambling and self-indulgent, but this did not put me off. It is a book to lose yourself in, a bit like Flights, where you are never quite sure where you are heading next. I thought of Tristram Shandy at times, the endless shaggy dog story; sink into it and go with the flow. It took me a fortnight.

You would have to say it’s a particularly Polish novel, with the focus on time and place, as well as a religious novel in some ways. There is the concept of the Messiah to wrestle with: Christians have had one, but the Jews not, so how will they know when theirs finally comes? And because considerable parts of the novel are set on what was then the border between the Polish Commonwealth and the Ottoman empire, Islam, the third religion of the book, also figures a good deal.

It’s very easy to see why traditional Polish Catholics hated and denounced this book on its publication. Tokarczuk is genuinely interested herself and through her characters in all sorts of heretical and semi-heretical notions; it’s a philosophical and theological minefield for a Catholic reader, as she validates elements of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And interestingly, too, when it comes to the Catholic Church interrogating Josef Frank and his followers to see if they are genuinely seeking to be united with the one true church, the questioning style and behaviour of the inquisitors is – deliberately – reminiscent of the behaviour of Communist party interrogators during various purges, as they have been recorded in history books. The atmosphere is sinister, threatening, ominous; the Church has spies and agents everywhere, just like the KGB

And then there are the scenes – based on history – set in Catholic Poland’s holiest shrine at Częstochowa. We are shown religious ignorance and trickery on both sides. In the end, for me, some of the most interesting and intriguing parts of the novel were those broader explorations of the meaning of religion, spirituality and the human future in the context of eternity.

Clearly it’s not a book for everyone. If you’re curious, I’d say go for it, but it’s a challenge. It’s evident why Olga Tokarczuk is a Nobel class novelist, for what that’s worth, with this as part of her complete works. I intend to read it again, hopefully in the not-too-distant-future.

As an ex-English teacher I’m a stickler for correctness, and there were quite a few bizarre typographical offerings in this version, particularly in the area of hyphenation, where I thought there were established conventions, but hey…

Richard M Watt: Bitter Glory

November 11, 2021

     Although I bought this book some twenty years ago, I’ve only just finished it, and the timing is perfect, as today is Polish Independence Day

It’s an account of the life of the Second Republic, from start to finish – only 20 years – and I finally have a clear and detailed understanding of the country my father grew up in. The opposition between Pilsudski’s (perhaps romantic) vision of a Poland of many peoples, and Dmowski’s homeland for ethnic Poles only is there right from the outset. Josef Pilsudski’s vision was tried in the Second Republic; Roman Dmowski’s was artificially imposed and created by the Soviet Union and its puppets after the Second World War. And so we have the situation that so many of us in the Polish diaspora find ourselves.

We could have done with more maps, and better copy editing and checking of the book, but I’ll let those pass.

The task was truly Herculean: resurrect a country which had been abolished for 120 years, from three disparate parts run under three very different administrations, with a resentful Germany to the West and an unpredictable Soviet Union to the East. The Versailles conference fixed the Western borders: the East was to be a DIY affair, settled briefly and very resentfully after the 1920 war with the Soviets. So for its entire existence, the republic was hemmed in by unfinished business. The Western Allies, savaged by the Great War, didn’t really care that much.

The book is very broad in scope and detail. In particular, the ethnic and national conflicts on the Eastern borders – the Kresy – are explained and contextualised with great care, and the various approaches to the issues, crystallising in the personalities of Pilsudski and Dmowski, are also clarified. The permanently scarred relations with the former ally Lithuania are also explained. It really does become evident that for so many reasons, and not just the fault of Poles – the new Poland was not really a viable state in the long term. Perhaps that should not surprise us?

Economically, the situation was horrendous: too many peasants on too many small farms. Little industry. No coherent communications. And all was made worse by the fact that no Poles had any experience of ruling or governing. The 1920s were totally chaotic politically, through incompetence and corruption. The roots of the awkwardness of the church date from this time, in a flawed concordat with the Vatican, and of course, antisemitism was always lurking in the background, to come to the fore in the 1930s.

Which was the more dangerous potential enemy, Germany or the Soviet Union? And where were reliable allies to be found? Increasing chaos led to the virtual end of attempts at democracy by 1930 and the country was thereafter rules by authoritarian governments who exploited anti-Jewish feeling when it suited their interests, disgracefully supported and encouraged by the church. For most of the life of the republic, the military were heavily involved in government. There was scandalous trickery used to pass a new constitution in 1930, and a new rigged electoral system.

Things clearly were unravelling all over Europe as the 1930s progressed and Poland was no exception; under an authoritarian rule, swaggering at times as if it were a great power, it waited its turn to be picked off by Hitler…

It’s an exhaustive and authoritative book, with thought-provoking evaluation and conclusions. And though Watt’s picture is very dark, we must acknowledge what was achieved: Poland was brought back into existence effectively enough to survive independently for two decades, and was not to be erased from the map permanently again by the Second World War, though the epoch of the People’s Republic drew out the agony for another four decades and more. The beginnings of a modern nation-state, with national self-awareness took shape. And today’s Poland still has plenty of crocodiles to wrestle with…

Central Asia: Though Writers’ Eyes

October 29, 2021

     If you’ve never done any armchair exploration of Central Asia, then this anthology isn’t a bad place to start. Although the two sketchy maps are inadequate, there is a very good bibliography and pointers to further reading for those who are more curious.

Initially I found the book odd from the conceptual point of view, consisting as it does of a series of chapters focused on key places in the history of the region, but arranged alphabetically. However, the region is comprehensively covered, with a history of each place supplemented by lengthy quotations from the writings of a good number of travellers though the ages. But the main focus of much of the narrative and quotation is the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with particular emphasis on the ‘great game’, the rivalry between Russia and Britain as we feared the former’s designs on the jewel of the empire, India. So overall, it feels a little unbalanced. There is a good selection of historical photographs, and I have to say my overall opinion of the book gradually improved as it progressed. Quite a few of the books I felt moved to read at some point turned out to be available as free e-book downloads too, via the Internet Archive, which can’t be bad. I think, in the end though, I’d already read rather too much about Central Asia before coming across this book for it to be very enlightening.

Heinrich Gerlach: Breakout at Stalingrad

October 19, 2021

     The Battle of Stalingrad was a turning-point in the Second World War; its history is chronicled well in Anthony Beevor’s book, and the Russian (Soviet) experience of that part of the Great Patriotic War is portrayed very effectively in Vassily Grossman’s two novels, Stalingrad and Life and Fate, the latter being one of the greatest war novels ever, in my estimation. So I was interested to read something from the German perspective.

The history and genesis of this autobiographical novel – for Gerlach is lightly concealed in the character of Breuer the intelligence officer – is astonishing in itself: written during his captivity in a Russian camp, confiscated by the Soviet authorities, re-created using hypnosis for recall after his release and originally published as The Forsaken Army it became a bestseller; then the original – this book – was rediscovered about ten years ago in Russian archives and finally published. It’s apparently rather different from the bestseller.

The most striking thing is the utter chaos, lack of clear information, how overstretched the Nazi forces have managed to get themselves, and the luxurious lives the general staff and higher ranking officers carve out for themselves while the ordinary footsoldiers suffer the atrocious conditions of the Russian winter, poor equipment and lack of food. The picture of what the Germans are trying to do is never clear, and their actions are hamstrung by their blind obedience to Hitler’s unhinged orders and their fear of the consequences of personal initiative. There’s no sense of unity of common purpose here, and you do get a clear image of the moment when Nazi Germany finally overreached itself and sealed its eventual fate.

I have to say that, in the end, this description of chaos became rather tiresome to read. What saves the book is the exploration of the manifold psychological effects of the gradual realisation that there can be defeat, after so many years of success and hubris; intelligent officers finally begin to ask the questions they should have been asking and responding to long before. The focus is largely on the general staff attempting to do the impossible, and unable to face reality or tell the truth.

There are enlightening moments, such as the aftermath of the capture and interrogation of a Russian prisoner, where the German officers begin to see through the propaganda fog which has surrounded their atrocities so far, and yet are unable to realise the hypocrisy of the attitudes they must continue to espouse… And there are moments where you begin to feel sorry (!) for some of the Germans, when they begin to realise how they have allowed themselves to be misled and duped by their leaders and generals, and they have now been abandoned to die, and thus create a heroic myth for the German nation. Faced with the inevitability of surrender or death, scales fall rapidly from eyes… there is powerful stuff here, presented mainly through the thoughts of the author’s alter ego. (I honestly never imagined being able to write those last few lines.)

I wouldn’t describe it as a compelling or necessary read, but it’s worth it if you have the time and interest. Ultimately the message is the same as emerges from any number of novels, really: ordinary folk catch all the shit; leaders are vain, deluded, ambitious, insane but persuasive and are usually allowed to play out their mad ideas.

Tadeusz Borowski: This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen

October 18, 2021

     There are now a huge number of books about the Nazi concentration and extermination camps, many of which were sited on Polish soil; Auschwitz has become a sort of shorthand for all the horrors. Yet of all the books I’ve read, this collection of stories remains the bleakest of all. Written a few years after the end of the war by a Pole who had been interned there and who killed himself a little while after writing it, the book shows the depths to which human beings can be reduced, or can reduce themselves.

Death and horror are a normality in these short stories, a necessary part of the struggle for survival. The vileness of the arrival of the transports, the selections, the scrabbling for food and belongings, the cameraderie of the survivors: this is the challenge to every reader – what would you have done? We dare not try to answer…

I think part of the powerful shock effect comes from the short story form, one which I generally avoid reading. There are fewer details, less development of character or personality in short stories and somehow this sketchiness, a sort of distancing-effect, amplifies the awfulness of situations and behaviours. The horrors are gut-wrenching, powerful compulsive; other writers pale by comparison with Borowski’s candour. And we must read these stories; it is vital that what humans did eighty years ago is not forgotten, is not buried by thoughts of such things being so dreadful that they must be made up, exaggerated. You need a strong stomach to read the stories; they had to be written; these things were.

Shakespeare: Henry VI Part 3

October 4, 2021

The nobles continue their bloody wrangling over the rival claims of the houses of Lancaster and York to the throne; battles and bloodshed become ever more frenzied, driven by Henry’s ambitious and demented queen and the overweening kingmaker Warwick. Some of the most horrific battles in English history took place at this time.

There are still many static scenes where characters merely stand and declaim, with much repetitive and redundant speechifying. Interestingly, Henry’s lengthy soliloquy on time, just before one of the battles, seems to foreshadow the much more famous one given to Richard II (a play yet to be written, though earlier in real time). Shakespeare certainly knew how to reuse and recycle his material… Another scene reminded me of the well-known scene with the gardeners, also in Richard II.

The horrors of civil war are brought powerfully home in the cameo of the son who unknowingly kills his father in battle, but this is then overdone immediately with an identical one where a father kills his son.

The main theme of this play, though, is the emergence of the evil genius of the man who will become Richard III; he is given more soliloquies where he can gradually reveal his scheming to the audience. It’s fascinating to see the processes through which Shakespeare seems to have developed as a dramatist, as he realises the potential in the soliloquy form, but has not yet attainted the succinctness and power which he gives to these in the later tragedies.

There is also more of a sense of pace to this play, particularly as it moves towards its end, Warwick changing sides again and eventually getting his comeuppance, and Edward taking the throne for the house of York after Richard has murdered Henry, but there is still no resolution or end to the bloodshed, as we know what Richard’s as-yet unrealised plans are…

Shakespeare: Henry VI Part 2

October 3, 2021

More factional infighting between the nobles supporting the Yorkist and Lancastrian claims to the throne continues and worsens, gets even more complicated and tiresome. So many conspiracies and counter-conspiracies and subterfuges, none of it helped by a weak and wet king and a scheming queen. All my prejudices about royalty and aristocracy are confirmed…

It’s a bit less monotonous than part 1, as there is some suspense and Shakespeare gains dramatic effect of a kind from switching from one side to the other in fairly quick-moving scenes, even though there’s a lot of posturing speechifying too. We now get soliloquies – and do we need them! – to help us follow all the plotting and double-crossing, the deviousness and the treachery.

The best bit is Jack Cade’s popular uprising, which is partly comic and partly deadly serious as Shakespeare shows how completely anarchy can take over when those of a higher degree do not do what their social status requires of them. Ordinary folk take control; of course, at that time they have to make a total hash of things, but then, so do their supposed betters.

The further I got, the more I realised how skilfully Shakespeare was creating the lasting impression of a country in a state of anarchy, a non-stop series of plots, murders, battles and rebellions… utter chaos, and completely flying in the face of the natural order of things as he conceived it. There is an utterly hopeless and ineffectual king who just watches chaos developing; he can do nothing to sort it out. In a lot of ways it’s beginning to remind me a little of the state of the UK at the moment, but let’s stick with Shakespeare. We end in medias res once again, with the Yorkists victorious in battle. Part 3 beckons.

Shakespeare: Henry VI Part 1

September 30, 2021

I always feel a little outfaced whenever I tackle Shakespeare’s history plays, because so much background information is needed to follow them in any detail, and there are so many characters – and I’ve never been wildly interested in the historical periods he brought to life, and the squabbling, entitled upper classes. But I try and remind myself of context: the relatively recent end of decades of civil wars, as well as the chaos of the Reformation, and Shakespeare telling a national backstory which for him ends up with the relative peace and quiet of his present, and the ongoing emergence of England as a power on the international scene. It reminds me quite a bit of our own, current messy situation and the wish of so many people who ought to know better, to live on our past glories, empire days, and ‘winning’ the Second World War…

Here, in the first part of Henry VI, Shakespeare contrasts the divided and factious England, with its squabbling nobles and interfering bishops after the death of the great hero Henry V, with the French, united and rebellious and inspired by Joan of Arc, determined to throw off the English yoke. It’s pretty much a hotchpotch of random scenes and events with no real thread except the background of the Hundred Years’ War, and the only unity coming through the character of Talbot on the English side and Joan on the fRench. We can see the Wars of the Roses shaping up in the future.

It’s interesting that the English immediately picture Joan as a witch, a whore, in league with satanic powers; towards the end of the play Shakespeare confirms this in a bizarre scene where she calls upon various devilish powers for assistance as her campaign finally unravels.

Shakespeare’s inventiveness is restricted by the actualities of history, and his chronicle sources. I find the language fairly pedestrian, and the tone pretty monotonous, to be honest; there’s little sense of drama or suspense: it feels like a school history lesson. Necessarily it ends without a resolution: there is more chaos, more warfare ahead, and the audience can easily see that the leading characters’ fine words are just that. But the dramatist is just setting out on the road to his present, showing a real nation emerging from all this chaos at the end of Richard III

Josef Skvorecky: The Engineer of Human Souls (concluded)

July 29, 2021

     I’ve yet to detect or unpick any real significance to the fact that the chapters are labelled with the names of various English and American authors, which happen to be the subject of the professor’s classes; Skvorecky certainly has an encyclopaedic knowledge of literature.

I still wonder about whether this is a boys’ book: the war, resistance, and endless attempts of young men to get women into bed with them. I’d be genuinely interested to hear if any of my women readers have read this, or any of Skvorecky’s work. In the end, as a man, I let him off the hook because I don’t find any of these elements exploitative or gratuitous: they form a genuine part of his experience of life, and we can make our judgements without denying the magnificence of the book itself.

Milan Kundera – one of Skvorecky’s exiled compatriots – describes the book as a masterpiece. I think he’s right. The story of the affair with Nadia, the girl with TB, I find genuinely moving; the letters from the simple peasant who finds his place and modest success on his terms in the workers’ and peasants’ paradise are unsettling of everyone’s prejudices, and the worker Malina’s magnificent swearing I have always admired…

I agree with Kundera because the novel presents something so difficult for us – relatively or differently privileged Westerners – to have any comprehension of. So many times I thought I understood some of my father’s experience, and often argued with him about it. Living under Nazism or communism (though it wasn’t really that) gives one a totally different perspective on so many things, and a different kind of wisdom, a distance from the inanities of the West, too; the contrast and relative “freedom” here allows us to take so many things for granted. If I were to try and describe Skvorecky’s message (as it appears to me this time around, I stress) then it’s probably about the urge to survive at all costs and live your life, because you only get the one go, and so many people don’t, and also about the futility of revolution as a way of making a better world. But, at the moment, what makes it a masterpiece for me is its portrayal of the experience of exile.

I have just looked at my ‘best’ lists; this book isn’t in there; I can’t work out which one to drop in order to include it…

Josef Skvorecky: The Engineer of Human Souls (part 1)

July 29, 2021

     Here is a book to which I return regularly, and each time it rises in my estimation. This time, I’ve re-read it perhaps rather earlier than I might otherwise have done, but since I chose it as a read for our book group, I needed to remind myself of the detail before leading a discussion.

What I’ve realised is that it’s a very close, full and painful presentation of the life of an exile, and, as such, it has led me belatedly to a much clearer appreciation of my late father’s experiences, although they were very different from those of Josef Skvorecky. You can read my previous thoughts on the novel here, if you’re interested.

I say novel, despite the major autobiographical content, which has been disguised and fictionalised in many ways, and not just to protect people who might otherwise suffer consequences. The hero is Danny Smiricky/ a thinly veiled Skvorecky, who features in many of the author’s works. Here, he is in his forties, a professor of English Literature at a fictitious college in a Toronto suburb. The novel, however, was written in Czech, in 1984, and translated. Canada offers the exile a sense of freedom of a kind, but it’s a country with no past, and not all the Czech exile community can stand the separation; some of the characters agonise about the risks of return; some do.

He is weary of the world; his students alternate between boredom with literature and incomprehension of his take on the texts and the world in general. They plagiarise their essays. Nevertheless he is interesting enough for one of his women students to have an affair with him. Their affability, affluence and lazy freedom silently contrast Smiricky’s experiences at their age.

The novel ranges widely from Smiricky’s youth in the Reichsprotektorat Böhmen und Mähren, with naive attempts by him and his friends at resistance and sabotage, through the chaos of the gradual communist takeover and transformation of Czechoslovakia, and the necessary rewriting of history, to the gradual realisation that you cannot give a human face to Stalinism, Alexander Dubcek’s brave attempt and failure in the Prague Spring of 1968, and finally of the need to leave an oppressive homeland which offers no future. There is then the emptiness of exile, and for many, aimless wandering in search of home.

In many ways, the book is the nostalgia and heimweh of a middle-aged man who is realising that his life will never be the one he hoped for. Pitilessly Skvorecky exposes the moral complexities all his characters are faced with, either in the oppressive homeland or the supposedly free West; all are found wanting in various ways. Nothing can ever be simple. Time shifts between the professor’s literature classes, life under Nazi or communist oppression, and the Czech exile community in Canada, and the text is regularly punctuated by letters from his past friends now scattered to various different places. These letters need no commentary: they speak painfully for themselves. The picture is one of the increasing insanity of our world, through a character who has lived through so many contradictions. (to be continued)

%d bloggers like this: