Tag Archives: translation

Summer reads 7: Gabriel Zaid’s So Many Books

Gabriel Zaid, So Many Books, translated by Natasha Wimmer (Sort Of Books, 2004)

I took a number of physically small books away on our summer break, and have blogged about them as ‘Summer reads’. I was only dimly aware that they were all gifts – either from friends who thought I’d enjoy them or from publishers who hoped I’d blog about enjoying them.

So Many Books was the former kind of gift, and has its own opinion on books as gifts. An early chapter says that they ‘threaten the recipient with the task of responding to the questions “Have you read it yet? What did you think of it?”‘ and goes on:

In fact, the most uncommercial slogan in the world might be: ‘Give a book! It’s like giving an obligation.’

(‘An Embarrassment of Books’, page 13)

The obligation in this case was entirely enjoyable.

Gabriel Zaid is a Mexican poet and essayist. His Wikipedia entry lists a formidable number of essays on a broad range of topics. This little hardback, of the kind that sits on the front counter of a bookshop, is a series of short essays that revolve around the vast number of books published each year: the impossibility of any one person reading more than a tiny fraction of them; the way books, compared to movies or TV shows, are inexpensive to produce in small numbers so don’t have to be best-sellers to be viable; the relationship between ‘culture’ and ‘commerce’; the nature of reading; the way many people, especially academics and aspiring poets, want their writing to be published but tend not to read other people’s; why economies of scale apply to motor vehicles but not to books; and more.

So Many Books (which my fingers keep wanting to call Too Many Books, not necessarily what Zaid means) was published in Spanish as Los demasiados libros in 1996, and in Natasha Wimmer’s gorgeously smooth translation in 2003, before Amazon had completely dominated the book market, and before e-books and self-publishing really took off, so some of it is well out of date. But an update would require some tinkering at the edges of Zaid’s arguments rather than wholesale rethinking.

Regular readers of this blog will be able to tell that the book touches subjects close to my heart. Here’s Zaid on careful rewriting and copy-editing:

[A writer who] is a doctor, a lawyer, or an executive … can’t devote himself to rewriting a paragraph over and over, although the additional work might save his readers time. It is absurd for the writer to devote two hours to saving his reader a minute if the text is a note to his secretary. But if it is a book with twelve thousand readers, each minute represents a social benefit of two hundred hours in exchange for two, and the reward is one hundred times the cost. …

Of course, the cost of reading would be much reduced if authors and publishers respected readers’ time more, and if texts that had little to say, or were badly written or poorly edited, were never published.

(‘The Cost of Reading’, p 88–89)

Here he is being completely wrong about reading very slowly (see my series of blog posts on A la recherche du temps perdu, The Prelude, the Iliad, and now Middlemarch):

Is anything more certain to make a book completely unintelligible than reading it slowly enough? It’s like examining a mural from two centimetres away and scanning it at a rate of ten square centimetres every third day for a year, like a short-sighted slug. This doesn’t allow for the integration of the whole, for taking in the mural at a glance.

(‘Some Questions About the Circulation of Books’, p 72)

On bookshops:

To be angry because a book isn’t where you want it to be is to be angry at the randomness of fate.

(‘Constellations of Books’, p 110)

Early in my blogging life I wrestled with the word fortuitous in a number of posts. I’m pleased to report that Gabriel Zaid uses it in a way I find completely unproblematic:

In a good bookshop, supply and demand are fortuitous, but not chaotic: they have a physiognomy, a recognisable identity, like constellations. The probability of finding a particular book increases in relation to the clarity of the shop’s focus, the diligence and shrewdness of the bookseller, and the size of the business.

And from page 75, the opening of ‘The End of the Book’:

No experts in technological forecasting are predicting the end of fire or the wheel or the alphabet, inventions that are thousands of years old but have never been surpassed, despite being the products of underdeveloped peoples. And yet there are prophets who proclaim the death of the book. This prophecy is understood as an apocalyptic judgment: the overabundance of books oppresses humanity and in the end will provoke divine wrath. But as a technological judgment, it doesn’t withstand the slightest scrutiny.

The essays are witty, instructive, thought-provoking, satirical and totally readable. If you stumble on them, possibly in someone else’s to-be-read pile or a street library, I encourage you to dip in.

And that’s a wrap for my Summer Reads.

Summer reads 2: The Gleaner Song Lin

Song Lin, The Gleaner Song, translated by Dong Li (Giramondo 2021)

Song Lin (宋琳) was a campus poet in Beijing in the 1980s, and was active in the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square, for which he was imprisoned for a year. On his release he married a French woman, and in 1991 went to live in Paris. After spending time in France, Singapore and Argentina, he returned to China in 2003, and now lives in Yunnan province. He has published many books of poetry and prose, including two bilingual French-Chinese volumes, and currently edits the poetry journal Jintian (Today), which ran for nine issues in the late 1970s before being censored, and was revived in 1999.

The Gleaner Song had its beginnings when Song Lin was on a long walk in the countryside of upstate New York with the young Chinese-born poet-translator Dong Li. Describing that walk in his introduction, Dong Li writes:

I saw his eyes light up as a deer leapt from the wild into a wide-open field. As the evening hues shifted farther into the forest, his line of sight followed the deer until it vanished into the night. We talked about the deer, and later he asked me to translate a poem that he had written to record the occasion.

That translation was to become the final poem in this book. It’s preceded by poems spanning four decades and as many continents, incorporating classic Chinese forms and elements of western modernism. Mostly I found it a difficult book, but in interesting ways.

To talk about the difficulty, and why it’s worth dealing with, I want to have a closer look at one poem, ‘Notes from South Xinjiang’. You can read the whole poem, without my commentary, on the Cordite Poetry Review website, where it was published in February 2022.

The rest of this blog post gets a bit detailed. A short version: the poem is a number of brief observations and reflections during a visit to South Xinjiang, the southern part of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwest China, much of which is taken up by the Taklamakan Desert, and most of whose population are Uyghur. It is a prose poem made up of 23 short numbered paragraphs. On a first reading, probably in bed at night, I enjoyed the sense of a mind at play in a new place, but I knew there was a lot I hadn’t understood. Here is what I found when I reread the poem with the internet open beside me:

Notes from South Xinjiang

1. The reckless god reads the braille of the desert.

The poem announces at the start that its subject is a desert. The gist of this first paragraph is clear enough: the shapes made by the wind on desert sands can look like braille, but it would be reckless to read a meaning into them – which by implication is what the poet, godlike, may be about to attempt. But is ‘the reckless god’ someone from ancient Chinese tradition, and would I read the poem differently if I knew? That question remains unanswered.

2. One night in Kupa, I received a telegram from Mars: there were traces of water.

I looked up ‘Kupa’ and found a river in Croatia. But there is a town called Kuqa (or Kuche) on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert, so I’m pretty sure that’s where the poet was. Wikipedia gives a long list of variants but ‘Kupa’ is not one of them. Who can blame a copy editor for not picking up what is almost certainly a transcription error, but mistakes like this add a layer of difficulty for the uninformed reader. So the poet is on the edge of the desert which he imagines as Mars-like. There may even be a suggestion that Mars has water where this desert does not. Certainly in photographs it looks vast and dry.

3. Dead rivers look like twisted mummies in the gallery of the sky.

I parse this to mean the dead rivers as seen from the sky – that is, in the gallery of images held in the sky rather than a gallery of images of the sky, which was my first reading. A map of the region shows a network of rivers, with a note to say they are ‘usually’ dry.

Why mummies? It’s not an obvious visual likeness, but it turns out that 4000-year-old mummies have been found in this area. This is the poem’s first oblique reference to the region’s ancient history

4. Language, dust of dust, flies on the long, long road.

I don’t know if the ambiguity of ‘flies’ – is language as insignificant as insects or does it fly away? – is something that happened in the translation, but either way it works well: human activity, especially language, is dwarfed by the desert. This paragraph introduces human activity more explicitly, and specifically the idea of the road, which is taken up the next five paragraphs.

5. An oar stands before the boat-shaped coffin. Sailors of the desert sea, tell me, what kind of sail do you dream of?
6. Business caravans head east, and west. The sun bakes eyebrows, beards, and crusty flatbreads.
7. Go. Once you lie down, you run the risk of being air-dried.
8. From one invisible border to another, I count those disappeared countries.
9. A silkworm once dreamed of Rome; or rather, Rome once dreamed of a silkworm.

These six paragraphs reflect on past human travel in the desert. Paragraph 5: the mummies from 4000 years ago had boat-shaped coffins. Paragraphs 6 and 7 refer to conditions endured by caravans of any era. Paragraph 8: perhaps the poet knows what those disappeared countries are, where those borders were – I don’t, but neither of us needs to know that for the line to work. Paragraph 9 is a lovely evocation of the history of the Silk Roads which passed through this region, skirting the desert (according to this map).

10. Breeze in the dense forest, homonym of silk and porcelain.

This paragraph is an example of what must be a nightmare for translators. It makes no sense as a stand-alone sentence in English. Really, all one can take from it is that some words in a Chinese language sound the same as others. Maybe in the original it’s an elegant pun, or a cute but inconsequential observation. As I can’t read or speak Chinese, I have no way of knowing, and I can’t see how a translator could do other than what Dong Li has done here: translation is impossible. (In other poems, Dong Li explains linguistic play in a footnote, but that’s a bit like explaining the mechanics of a joke – it still doesn’t make you laugh.)

From here on the poem bristles with specific historical and cultural references. It’s as if the poet is wandering abut the region, making random, elegant notes about things he sees. He also, incidentally, challenges the ignorant reader to do a bit of work. Or from another perspective, he points to a number of doors that open on vistas of new knowledge.

11. The Han princess Liu Xijun – Sappho of Wusun country – was married to a vast and endless homesickness.

Song Lin gives his western readers a small hand by comparing Liu Xijun to Sappho, the earliest woman poet in the western tradition. Liu Xijun wrote one of the earliest poems in Chinese written by a woman. Wusun country, as far as I can tell, was a little to the north of South Xinjiang, but near enough. Liu Xijun’s poem includes the lines, ‘Living here, I long for my land, and my heart aches / Wishing I could be a yellow swan, and return to my old home.’

Having paid homage to traditional Han culture, the poem now moves on to religion:

12. Under the statue of Kumarajiva, I thought: perhaps his intelligible translation saved Buddhism.
13. On their pilgrimage to Chang'an, the three Buddhist masters walked in the opposite direction to the three wise men.

Kumarajiva’s statue is in Kuqa. He was a Buddhist monk of the 4th and 5th centuries of the current era, who translated many Buddhist texts from Sanskrit to Chinese. His translations are still in use today.

Chang’an is the ancient name for Xi’an: I don’t know the story of the three Buddhist masters who – I’m guessing – travelled through South Xinjiang. The reference to the three wise men is another example of Song Lin’s cross-cultural awareness. I read him as suggesting an equivalence between the foundation of Christianity and the bringing of Buddhism to China.

14. If Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty knew that the Ferghana horse was a horse with a disease, would the history of Ferghana be re-written?

At about 100 CE, China imported huge numbers of horses from Ferghana in central Asia, roughly contemporary Uzbekistan, coerced by an army sent there by Emperor Wu. The horses remained popular for the next thousand years. They were said to sweat blood, which – according to Wikipedia – modern authorities believe was caused by the activity of parasites.

15. The donors depicted on the murals have thin eyebrows.
16. Stupa - navigation system of the desert.
17. What a pity! Gan Ying saw the sea but did not know which one he saw.

Paragraphs 15 and 16 are mercifully straightforward, though I don’t know if thin eyebrows have particular meaning in Chinese iconography.

Gan Yin was a diplomat who travelled west in 97 CE in search of Rome, but only got as far the ‘the western sea’, which – according to Wikipedia – could have been the Mediterranean Sea, the Black Sea or the Persian Gulf.

18. Petals of the mandala – one five-baht coin after another.
19. The auricle of the crescent rises on the ruins where Xuanzang preached.

Paragraph 18 doesn’t need any extra research.

Xuanzang was a key Buddhist teacher of the 7th century CE. The ancient novel that was the basis of television’s Monkey Magic was a fictionalised version of his journeys. He visited Kuche (now Kuqa) in 630 CE. The crescent of Islam, compared here to an ear, has risen where once actual ears heard him preach.

20. In the dark labyrinth of the karez, flowing water looks for bright vineyards.

This is a beautifully concise evocation of the Turfan Karez System, which consists of 5000 kilometres of wells and underwater channels around Turpan, on the edge of the Taklamakan desert. It’s tentatively listed as a World Heritage site.

21. Migration – from Sanskrit to Charian, Uighur to Chinese; over battlefields and millennia of forgetting, Maitrisimit flies into my vision like a phoenix.

Oh dear, I couldn’t find ‘Charian’ online, but Tocharian languages were spoken in South Xinjiang from 400 to 1200 CE. The paragraph should begin ‘Migration – from Sanskrrit to Tocharian’. (Does this mean no one actually managed to read the poem thoroughly when the book was in production?) So the migration described follows the flow of languages that have succeeded each other over the millennia.

According to Wikipedia, ‘Maitrisimit’, full name ‘Maitrisimit nom bitig’ is an Old Uyghur translation of the Tocharian text of a Buddhist drama, which itself (departing from Wikipedia here) is probably from a Sanskrit original. The way the text survives the extinction of language after language is captured in the image of the phoenix (not necessarily a reference to western mythologies, as China too has a phoenix).

This is the poem’s first mention of the Uyghurs, and possibly suggests – ‘Uighur to Chinese’ – that their culture is in the process of being wiped out. Given the necessarily oblique way Chinese poetry has addressed political matters over the last half century, it’s perhaps not too much of a stretch to see this as a disguised protest.

22. Another Uighur muqam: alas the musailaisi wine, the ice-cold beauty, come quickly and rub out my burning desire for you!

The poet has visited the statue of Kumarajiva, some murals, a statue of a Ferghana horse, and so on. Now he relaxes at a musical performance, a Uyghur muqam, drinking musailaisi, traditional Uyghur wine. I’m pretty sure his address to the wine echoes centuries of conventional drinking songs and poems. If there is a protest at the treatment of the Uyghurs, it is thoroughly disguised, but still visible to reader who want to see it.

23. In Kashgar, Shen Wei said to me: there are people wherever poplars grow.

As you’d expect, Kashgar is another city in South Xinjiang. Shin Wei is a poet, younger than Song Lin, who lives in South Xinjiang. So the poem ends on a note of collegiality among poets (an almost Jennifer-Maidenish note). I have no idea what Shen Wei’s remark means. In English the sound play between ‘people’ and ‘poplars’ creates a kind of resonance, and the original Chinese may have a similar play, but that’s a guess.

In the end, I have to resign myself to the reality that not everything in a poem can be translated, and be grateful for as much as does make it across the barriers of language and culture.


I am grateful to the Giiramondo Publishing Company for my copy of The Gleaner Song.

Summer reads 1: Mario Vargas Llosa in praise of reading and fiction

Mario Vargas Llosa, In Praise of Reading and Fiction: The Nobel Lecture, translated by Edith Grossman (Farrrar Straus & Giroux 2011)

I’m away from home for a couple of weeks over the summer, and I’ve packed a swag of physically small books from my overloaded to-be-read shelf. Some of these have already turned out to be unreadable. I’ll donate them to a Street Library without further comment. Others bring much pleasure, even delight.

I don’t have a lot to say about this beautiful little front-counter book. It’s Mario Vargas LLosa’s lecture accepting the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature, translated into honey-smooth English by Edith Grossman. It was probably a gift close to its date of publication.

Vargas Llosa speaks of his early love of reading, of his identification with his native Peru even though he had lived most of his life elsewhere, of his early Marxism and his reasons for abandoning it, and above all of the importance of story-telling and the reading of fiction. What Roger Ebert said about movies, that they are a machine that generates empathy, Varga’s Llosa says here, beautifully and at more length, about novels. There’s a lot that’s quotable. Here’s one moment where he acknowledges some self-doubt:

At times I wondered whether writing was not a solipsistic luxury in countries like mine, where there were so few readers, so many people who were poor and illiterate, so much injustice, and where culture was a privilege of the few. These doubts, however, never stifled my calling, and I always kept writing even during those periods when earning a living absorbed most of my time. I believe I did the right thing, since if, for literature to flourish, it was first necessary for a society to achieve high culture, freedom, prosperity, and justice, it never would have existed. But thanks to literature, to the consciousness it shapes, to the desires and longings it inspires, and to our disenchantment with reality when we return from the journey to a beautiful fantasy, civilisation is now less cruel than when storytellers began to humanise life with their fables.

(Page 7)

I love that, and think on aggregate it’s true, but I do wonder about the consciousness shaped by writers like the man who produced phenomenally popular The Da Vinci Code or the woman who wrote Atlas Shrugged. I suppose Mario Vargas Llosa would say those books aren’t literature. But then wasn’t one of the ‘monsters of Serbia’ a Shakespeare scholar? Still, a Nobel lecture isn’t the place for such quibbles, and those of us who are addicted to reading can think with some justification that it’s a good thing. Perhaps the lecture is an example of what he means: a beautiful fantasy of a world where reading makes the world more human.

Still on my shelf at home is another gift, a collection of 20 earlier Nobel lectures, which includes a number of writers whose work I know: Harold Pinter, Toni Morrison, Nadine Gordimer, Dario Fo (who once called my older son a bambino terribile), Seamus Heaney, Wole Soyinka … I guess I’ll dip into it when I need a shot of hope.

The Iliad: Progress report 10

Homer, The Iliad (translated by Robert Fagles, ©1990, Penguin 1998)
Book 23 line 768 to Book 24 line 944 (the end)

It’s taken me nearly 10 months to read The Iliad, two pages most mornings, and it’s been a huge pleasure.

In the final pages, Hector’s body is reclaimed and given a proper funeral. The way it is reclaimed is incredibly moving. The Trojan king, Priam, goes into the Greek camp at night, alone except for one companion and the god Hermes to protect him. He pleads with Achilles to release his son’s body, begging him to think how his own father would feel in a similar situation. Achilles, the embodiment of unstoppable destructive force, begins to weep and soon the two of them are sobbing together, weeping for the parents who have lost sons including Achilles’ own father in the near future, and for the loss of beloved comrades. Then Achilles retells the story of Niobe weeping for her murdered children: in his version instead of turning immediately to stone and becoming a waterfall, she takes time off from weeping to eat a hearty meal, and that is what he and Priam now do. He tucks Priam in for the night, safe from being accidentally spotted by other Greeks.

That passage itself is enough to explain why the Iliad has such status. After all the violence of the previous thousands of lines, these two implacable enemies share a moment of common humanity. I could feel my mind – and heart – expanding as I read it.

Pretty soon after that, Hector’s funeral rites take place and the story is over. The story is over, but not the war. It’s very clear that in another day, the Greeks will resume hostilities. Troy will fall. The women will be captured. Babies will be thrown over the battlements. Achilles will be killed. It’s a standard thing that epic poems begin in medias res – in the middle of things. This one ends there too.

I’m having a breather before starting my next slow-read project. I’m thinking maybe Middlemarch.

The Iliad: Progress report 9

Homer, The Iliad (translated by Robert Fagles, ©1990, Penguin 1998)
Book 21 line 486 to Book 23 line 768

As I make my way through The Iliad, roughly 70 lines first thing each morning, I regularly encounter references to it in the rest of my day.

In my last progress report I quoted from Simone Weill’s 1939 essay, The Iliad, or The Poem of Force. Serendipity struck a couple of days later when, visiting the Queensland Art Gallery to see the wonderful Chiharu Shiota exhibition, I spotted a screen print waiting to be hung in a coming exhibition:

To save you the trouble of opening the image separately, the spiralling text is a quote from that same essay:

Human beings are so made that the ones who do the crushing feel nothing; it is the person crushed who feels what is happening. Force is that X that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing.. Somebody was here, and the next minute there is nobody here at all, this is the Spectacle the Iliad never wearies of showing us.

The image is ‘Poem of Force’, one of a series of silkscreens in the Simone Weill Project by artists Janet Burchill and Janet McCamley. You can see a clean image of it here.

There has been some ludicrous comedy among the gods this month. Hera boxes Athena’s ears, and the latter runs to curl up weeping in the lap of Zeus. I tell you, after seeing the arbitrary, petty, infantile behaviour of the gods in this book, I’ve completely changed my attitude towards them.

But the main action has been the death of Hector, speared in the throat by Achilles. Hector dies a true hero’s death. He realises that his own heroics earlier have led to the deaths of many Trojans, and decides that the honourable thing to do is engage Achilles in personal combat, knowing the likely outcome. As Achilles approaches, Hector’s nerve fails and he runs, and the two run around the walls of Troy ‘endlessly as in a dream’. Then he stands to face Achilles once again. He offers a bargain: ‘If I kill you, I’ll ensure that your body is treated with full respect, and I ask you to do the same for me.’ Achilles, the embodiment of Simone Weill’s Force, refuses, and promises to leave Hector’s corpse to be eaten by dogs. At one stage he says, ‘I’d eat you raw.’ The gods step in for one last bit of disgusting cheatery, and Hector is slain.

Huge grief is unleashed among the Trojans. While I find it hard to read some of the Iliad‘s action scenes without a Marvel Universe version playing in my head, the scene where Andromache is interrupted at her embroidery and gives way to full-bodied lamentation completely transcends any such association. In particular, she wails for the fate of her son, who we met as a baby in Book 6:

The day that orphans a youngster cuts him off from friends. 
And he hangs his head low, humiliated in every way ... 
his cheeks stained with tears, and pressed by hunger 
the boy goes up to his father's old companions, 
tugging at one man's cloak, another's tunic, 
and some will pity him, true, 
and one will give him a little cup to drink,
enough to wet his lips, not quench his thirst.
But then some bully with both his parents living
beats him from the banquet, fists and abuses flying:
'You, get out – you've got no father feasting with us here!'
And the boy, sobbing, trails home to his widowed mother ...

Book 22 ends with her lament, and Book 23 turns to the grandiose ceremonies for Patroclus down by the Greek ships. It’s good to be reminded how deeply loved Patroclus was, and not just by Achilles, but the chariot race (mercifully conducted without godly interference) and then the bickering over prizes is a bit of an anticlimax. Where I left off this morning, two men were preparing to box, their eyes on a donkey-prize. It’s hard to credit that this book is the work of one writer.

Nir Batram’s At Night’s End

Nir Baram, At Night’s End (2018, English translation by Jessica Cohen, Text Publishing 2021)

I may have missed the point of this book.

It begins with an Israeli novelist waking up in a hotel room in Mexico after appearing as a guest at a writers’ festival. He is disorientated, and decides to stay on in order to track down a young woman whom he blearily remembers saying something to him about the death of his best friend. The friend isn’t dead, or is he?

The following chapters take place by turns in three different time periods: the late 1980s, when the novelist and his friend are in elementary school, creating an elaborate fantasy world and dealing with a trio of bullies; the mid 1990s, when they are in their final year of school; and the present time, in Mexico. There are frequent flashbacks and forward projections in each of the time periods, complicated further by dream sequences, drugged states and possible psychotic episodes. The friendship hits on some hard times. The friend (I think) becomes deeply depressed and after being suicidal for years finally kills himself. The narrator does meet up with the young woman, but as far as I could tell he just gets very drunk and/or stoned with her and another poet. I don’t know if the friend dies before or after their meeting.

Though I spent most of the book in a state of disorientation, the problem wasn’t at the sentence level. The prose, in Jessica Cohen’s translation, is clear and flows easily. It’s just that I never did really get what happened between the two friends, either in the late 1980s, the mid 1990s, or whenever the friend finally died.

The back cover blurb quotes a review by in Haaretz: ‘One of the most intriguing writers in Israeli literature today.’ Yossi Sucary, the quoted reviewer, is probably more dependable than I am. I brought it home from the Book(-swapping) Club. I can’t say it was one of my more successful borrowings.

The Iliad: Progress report 8

Homer, The Iliad (translated by Robert Fagles, ©1990, Penguin 1998)
Book 19 line 162 to Book 21 line 485

For eight months now I’ve started most days reading two pages – roughly 70 lines – of The Iliad. I’m away from home at the end of July, and didn’t bring it with me, but there’s still quite a bit to report.

At the end of last month, Achilles was about to re-enter the battle. This month’s reading began with Hephaestus, god of fire, creating magnificent new armour for him, including a shield whose decorations include images of all aspects of life. Achilles dons the armour and, basically, starts killing people. Zeus lets all the gods of the leash – they’re now free to join i on whichever side they like, and they do. Fleeing Trojans fall into the river, and the river god enraged at being filled with corpses, rises up and attackes Achilles. But Hephaestus comes to his aid – so it starts to look like Australia in the current phase of climate change: raging floodwaters and relentless fire at war with each other.

There’s a lot more. My key take-away this month is a realisation that the word ‘hero’ has changed meaning quite a bit since Homer’s day. I doubt if anyone took Achilles to be a role model. First he takes offence and brings terrible destruction on his own people by sulking in his tent when they desperately need his help, behaviour that gets him called a beeyatch online (Sorry, I couldn’t find the place again to give you a link). Then, once he’s back in the battle he is absolutely, brutally ruthless. He not only sets out to slaughter everything in his path, including the river, but he makes callous, mean-spirited speeches to those he is abut to kill. A hero in the sense of role model or exemplar of moral virtue he is not. Achilles as a hero doesn’t inspire admiration so much as terror. ‘Thank the gods this is set in the ancient past,’ I imagine Homer’s first readers muttering, ‘because it would be a nightmare to have someone like that alive today.’

When I went looking or the beeyatch quote, i stumbled on this, from Simone Weill:

The true hero, the true subject, the centre of the lliad is force. Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man’s flesh shrinks away. In this work, at all times, the human spirit is shown as modified by its relations with force, as swept away, blinded, by the very force it imagined it could handle, as deformed by the weight of the force it submits to.

(from ‘The Iliad, or The Poem of Force, 1939)

Maybe that’s the point. Achilles isn’t so much a hero, as a person at the mercy his passions, transformed by them into something monstrously destructive.

Peter Wohlleben’s Hidden Life of Trees at the book group

Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate―Discoveries from A Secret World (2015), English translation Jane Billinghurst (Black Inc 2016)

Before the meeting: This book received a lot of attention in the press when it was published, in a way that me feel I didn’t need to read it. We now all know that trees emit scents that affect the way other nearby trees react to, for example, insect attacks or fungal infections. We know that a complex network of underground funguses helps forest trees to grow and pass nutrients from one to the other. We know that trees that spring up close to the tree their seeds fell from continue to interact with the ‘parent’ tree. In general, we know that careful observation and experimentation is revealing that the received wisdom about trees, like the received wisdom about many other things, needs a major overhaul.

Peter Wohlleben has spent decades managing a forest in the Eifel, a low mountain range in western Germany and eastern Belgium. He gives guided tours of the forest, is a committed conservationist and, as the book makes abundantly clear, loves trees with a passion. His passion is catching, and the scientific findings he describes are fascinating. He doesn’t intimidate his readers with scientific jargon or hector us with conservationist polemic. Instead, he is personal, lively, charming, and whimsical.

I found the book unsettling in two ways. First, the whimsy: there are mother trees and orphan trees; trees send and receive messages; trees are impatient or well-disciplined or altruistic. That makes for lively reading, and works well as metaphor. There’s no harm in saying, for example, that a tree tries to grow out of its neighbours’ shade because it wants more light. But surely that’s a figure of speech, it’s not that the tree wants something the way a human infant or even a puppy does. Peter Wohlleben does seem at times to be attributing actual thoughts, desires and emotions to the trees. He says occasionally that we can’t know what trees are feeling – but he comes close to implying that that’s just because we don’t have a common language. That is to say, maybe what I read as whimsy is actually a perfectly serious, I would say mystical, anthropomorphism. I react against that: surely we can respect trees, and forests, without attributing consciousness to them.

My second difficulty is the book’s exclusive attention to the northern hemisphere. As I read about beeches, oaks, birches and poplars, I yearned for information about angophoras, figs and eucalypts, about sclerophyll forests in general.

The Black Inc edition I borrowed from the library seems to be aware of my two misgivings. It signals that the book is relevant to Australian conditions by adding a foreword by Tim Flannery (though he doesn’t add any antipodean information), and that it’s based in solid science by including ‘Notes from a Forest Scientist’ by Dr Suzanne Simard, whose research provides the basis for much of the book.

I did enjoy the book. My discontents, far from leading me to toss it aside, prompted me to read more. I’ve recently read Richard Powers’ wonderful novel, The Overstory, which covers some of the same territory. I expect to blog soon about naturalist John Blay’s Wild Nature, an account of his big walk through the forests of south-east Australia that immerses the reader in the experience of those forests, with excursions into the history of the battle to conserve them and occasionally into some of the science. And I’ve got Suzanne Simard’s seminal work, Finding the Mother Tree, on order from Gleebooks. (It arrived as I was about to hit ‘Publish’.)

After the meeting: A group member has Covid, and there’s currently a surge in hospitalisations and deaths in Australia, so we decided too revert to zoom. It was a small, short meeting.

I’d felt a bit strange about writing almost entirely about my discontents with the book before the meeting, but as it happened, that’s how the meeting went as well. About half the group hadn’t finished the book, in spite of it being quite short. The same two problems were prominent: the anthropomorphising got on people’s wicks (one person was delighted to learn that word – he knew what it meant as soon as he heard it); and the complete absence of Australian/sclerophyll/tropical forests was, at least to one person, very annoying. Other discontents were the lameness of the humour (humour which I hadn’t noticed), and the lack of structure – it just seemed to be one thing after another, with a lot of repetition among the things.

Yet there was something like consensus that the book’s content was interesting and important. A number of people mentioned other books: Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth (2011) as a partial remedy for the absence of Australian content; Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life (2020) as an example of even more exasperating anthropomorphism. Not everyone shared my love of The Overstory. There were some anecdotes about the death and regrowth of trees from our own experience, and one folktale.

Then we talked about Covid. Of the seven of us, four had had it at least once. The chap with the current positive result wasn’t there, so that makes five out of eight.

The Iliad: Progress report 7

Homer, The Iliad (translated by Robert Fagles, ©1990, Penguin 1998)
Book 17 line 50 to Book 19 line 161

For seven months now I’ve started most days reading two pages – roughly 70 lines – of The Iliad.

Reliably, I come across references to it during the rest of my days, the kind of passing remarks that would otherwise go unnoticed. This month, for instance, in Charmian Clift’s Mermaid Singing (blog post to come), Charmian and her husband George have just discovered the pleasures of seafood on the island of Kalymnos, especially palamethes, ‘a sort of mackerel plentiful off the Anatolian coast, sliced and grilled like steak and served hot with oil and lemon juice or cold with a
thick garlic sauce’. George says something ironic about British seafood, then:

Pass the palamethes, there’s a good girl, and I’ll write you an Iliad!

Last month’s reading ended with Hector killing Achilles’ comrade Patroclus. I was completely unprepared for what a big deal that is. First there’s the struggle over Patroclus’ body. For hundreds of lines the Trojans try to drag it from the field to strip it of the Achilles’ resplendent armour, and also to dishonour the corpse as a kind of trophy. The Greeks, led by Menelaus, fight them off, determined to protect the body of this much-loved comrade. It seems that everyone loved Patroclus. When word is finally sent to Achilles of his death, Achilles’ grief is epic, and he is joined, first by the women who have been given to the two of them as booty, and then by a stream of sea nymphs. We’re left in no doubt that this is no ordinary death.

Thetis, Achilles’ immortal mother, persuades him not to re-enter the battle immediately. She goes to the blacksmith god Hephaestus and asks him to make new armour for her son. Homer takes 150 lines to describe the impossibly complex imagery he embosses on the shield.

And now, in Book 19, Achilles has just addressed the Greeks. He and Agamemnon have come as close as they can to mutual apologies – which isn’t actually very close. Agamemnon in particular blames it all on the goddess Ruin who. after all, has deceived even Zeus. Meanwhile, the Trojans have rejected the wise advice of Polydamas to retreat to within the city walls, and been persuaded by Hector’s heroic posturing to stay near the Greek ships where – we know – they will be vulnerable when Achilles returns to the battle. The end is in sight.

This month’s reading has shown me what all the fuss is about. This piece of millennia-old writing still has tremendous emotional power. I could quote any number of passages, but here’s the moment when Achilles learns of Patroclus’ death (Book 18, lines 25–40):

A black cloud of grief came shrouding over Achilles.
Both hands clawing the ground for soot and filth,
he poured it over his head, fouled his handsome face
and black ashes settled onto his fresh clean war-shirt.
Overpowered in all his power, sprawled in the dust,
Achilles lay there, fallen ...
tearing his hair, defiling it with his own hands.
And the women he and Patroclus carried off as captives
caught the grief in their hearts and keened and wailed,
out of the tents they ran to ring the great Achilles,
all of them beat their breasts with clenched fists,
sank to the ground, each woman's knees gave way.
Antilochus kneeling near, weeping uncontrollably,
clutched Achilles' hands as he wept his proud heart out –
for fear he would slash his throat with an iron blade.

And. really just to illustrate the virtues of the Fagles translation, here’s Alexander Pope’s version of those lines:

A sudden horror shot through all the chief,
And wrapp’d his senses in the cloud of grief;
Cast on the ground, with furious hands he spread
The scorching ashes o’er his graceful head;
His purple garments, and his golden hairs,
Those he deforms with dust, and these he tears;
On the hard soil his groaning breast he threw,
And roll’d and grovell’d, as to earth he grew.
The virgin captives, with disorder’d charms,
(Won by his own, or by Patroclus’ arms)
Rush’d from their tents with cries; and gathering round,
Beat their white breasts, and fainted on the ground:
While Nestor’s son sustains a manlier part,
And mourns the warrior with a warrior’s heart;
Hangs on his arms, amidst his frantic woe,
And oft prevents the meditated blow.

You have to admire the way Pope fixes improprieties related to sex and gender: the captive women are virgins, and Antilochus, Nestor’s son, is far too manly to weep. I had a quick look at other translations. George Chapman (1616) has Antilochus weeping with the women. Richmond Lattimore (1946) has: ‘Antilochos mourned with him, letting the tears fall’. A S Kline (2009) has him ‘weeping and groaning’. For now at least, I’m content to wonder what Caroline Alexander, the Iliad’s first female translator, does with this moment – Amazon are advertising the hardcover for $150+ dollars.

Anyhow, onward …

The Iliad: Progress report 6

Homer, The Iliad (translated by Robert Fagles, ©1990, Penguin 1998)
Book 14 line 408 to Book 17 line 50

For six months now I’ve started most days reading two pages – roughly 70 lines – of The Iliad.

I’ve been noticing how often I’m reminded of it in the rest of the day. For example, there was this clue in the Guardian cryptic crossword on 24 May:

26 Across Parliament, one about to give a long account (5)

Less explicitly but more substantially, there was the 17 May episode of the ABC’s Conversations in which Richard Fidler chatted with Historian Gwynne Dyer, who says, among other things:

The view of the world as a permanent battlefield … was almost universal until just about a hundred years ago. Everybody would have agreed with that view that winners win, losers go to the wall and everybody has to be prepared to fight to defend their turf, war is natural, recurrent, you have to be good at it if you want to survive. Everybody shared that view. It was institutionalised in our societies. One of the principle responsibilities of the state was to be good at fighting wars and to be good at fighting wars was glorious.

You can hear the podcast at this link.

Dyer doesn’t actually mention The Iliad in the podcast, but I was gratified to see that the cover of his book, The Shortest History of War, features an image of the Trojan Horse.

Clearly, in recoiling from the violence in The Iliad I’m a product of my age: according to Dyer, the 75 years of my life have been the longest period in history in which there has been no war between great powers. (And with a lot of luck that happy circumstance may last for my whole life and beyond.)

This month’s reading began with sizzling sex between Zeus and Hera, and takes us through the bloodshed on the battlefield that resulted, both from Hera’s intervention and from Zeus’ response when he discovers her deception. Led by Hector, the Trojans reach the Greeks’ ships and set fire to one. But then the main narrative thread kicks in and, while Achilles is still sulking in his tent, he allows Patroclus to put on his armour and lead the Myrmidons into battle, like wasps whose nest has been disturbed one time too many by idle boys. (One of the first things I knew about Homer was that he used similes. Now I shake my head in awe of how brilliantly he used them!)

Then Patroclus is killed, stabbed in the back by Euphorbus then finished off – with a graphically described spear thrust – by Hector. Among so many violent deaths, the narrative pauses over this one for an exchange of oratory. Hector derides Patroclus as having foolishly done Achilles’ bidding, and then, unlike in any other Iliad death as far as I remember, Patroclus speaks to his killer:

Hector! Now is your time to glory to the skies …
now the victory is yours.
A gift of the son of Cronus, Zeus – Apollo too –
they brought me down with all their deathless ease,
they are the ones who tore the armour off my back.
Even if twenty Hectors had charged against me –
they’d all have died here, laid low by my spear.
No, deadly fate in league with Apollo killed me.
From the ranks of men, Euphorbus. You came third,
and all you could do was finish off my life …
One more thing – take it to heart, I urge you –
you too, you won’t live long yourself, I swear.
Already I see them looming up beside you – death
and the strong force of fate, to bring you down
at the hands of Aeacus’ great royal son …
___________________________________Achilles!

That’s a pretty strong dying speech: ‘It was the gods who killed me, not you. And if we have to acknowledge I was killed by a man, let’s acknowledge the not-so-glorious Euphorbus. You came third. And You’d better watch yourself, because my pal Achilles will do you.’

That’s pretty much the end of Book 16, but as befits a major turning point, the narrative doesn’t move on in a hurry. Now Menelaus, who hasn’t exactly covered himself in glory so far, steps up and protects Patroclus’ body from the Trojans who try to strip its armour (armour, remember that was borrowed from Achilles). In the Iliad every death matters, but this one has matters enormously. Basically it matters because it’s the thing that brings Achilles back into the battle to turn the tide, but Homer has made sure we’re emotionally affected: we’ve seen Patroclus as a mild-mannered host, a close and affectionate friend, a healer and a man who weeps at others’ suffering. Only in his final movement we see that he is also a heroic warrior. That is to say, he’s a much more rounded character than most or even all the others in the story. And now he’s dead.

I expect Euphorbus will be killed in my next day’s reading, and I wouldn’t want to be in Hector’s shoes when Achilles hears what happened.

As a card-carrying pacifist I deplore the whole thing, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.