Tag Archives: translation

The Book Group and Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer

Svetlana Alexievich, Chernobyl Prayer (1997, trans Anna Gunin & Arch Tait Penguin Classics 2016)

chernobyl.jpegFrom post revolutionary China in Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing back to the Russian Revolution in China Miéville’s October, and now forward to post-Soviet Belarus: the book group has lit on a theme.

Before the meeting:
Knowing that Chernobyl Prayer is essentially a series of monologues about the aftermath of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, I expected it to be a gruelling read, so I rationed it. I worked out how I would need to read seventeen pages a day to finish the book before the Group met, and set that as a schedule. Of course it didn’t work out like that, but it was a good strategy.

As Studs Terkel’s Working did for working people in the USA, or Wendy Loewenstein’s Weevils in the Flour for the 1930s Depression in Australia, this book provides a platform for scores of witnesses who otherwise would be largely ignored or – as a number of Alexievich’s interviewees tell us – treated as specimens. There are peasants and nuclear physicists, loyal Communists and embittered cynics, ancient women and nine year olds, poets, playwrights and journalists. There’s operatic intensity, fatalistic heroism, jokes that are terrible in both meanings of the word. The cultivated and forested land around Chernobyl is lovingly evoked, along with the invisible horror of nuclear radiation. The monologues that pretty much begin and end the book, each titled ‘A lone human voice’, are long, passionate, heartbreaking stories of love and bereavement, one from the widow of a fireman who was among what we now call the first responders, the other from the widow of a clean-up worker who was conscripted for the job six months later.

Here’s an excerpt from the author’s interview with herself early in the book:

This is not a book on Chernobyl, but on the world of Chernobyl. … what I’m concerned with is what I would call the ‘missing history’, the invisible imprint of our stay on earth and in time. I paint and collect mundane feelings, thoughts and words. I am trying to capture the life of the soul. A day in the life of ordinary people. Here, though, everything was extraordinary: both the event itself and the people, as they settled into the new space. How many times has art rehearsed the apocalypse, offered different technological versions of doomsday? Now, though, we can be assured that life is infinitely more fantastical. … Chernobyl is a mystery that we have yet to unravel. An undeciphered sign. A mystery, perhaps, for the twenty-first century; a challenge for it. What has become clear is that, besides the challenges of Communism, nationalism and nascent religion which we are living with and dealing with, other challenges lie ahead: challenges more fiendish and all-embracing, although still hidden from view. Yet, after Chernobyl, something had cracked open.

I’ve responded to works by other Nobel Prize laureates with a kind of compliant respect, ‘I can see why this person was given the Nobel Prize, and I guess my horizons have been expanded by reading this book.’ In the case of Chernobyl Prayer I am deeply grateful that the Norwegians brought it to my attention (and to the Book Group for prompting me to read it). In illuminating the ‘missing history’ of Chernobyl, it reminds us of the disasters, past and in the making, that we so easily turn our heads away from: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Maralinga, Fukushima, and the overarching threat of climate change. In this way it is like Maralinga: the An̲angu story by the Yalata Aboriginal Community with Christobel Mattingley, or Yhonnie Scarce’s beautiful and unsettling installation Death Zephyr (click for an image). It would be impossible for a reasonably well informed Australian to read this book, especially the sections dealing with the way political pragmatism trumped the laws of physics, without thinking of the pronouncements on coal from Tony Abbott and his ilk.

The meeting: I hosted the meeting this time. I let people know in advance that I had made an enormous amount of marmalade from our cumquat tree this year. One of the chaps emailed on the weekend, ‘The prospect of marmalade is the only thing getting me through this miserable book!’ Others echoed the sentiment.

It turned out that the conversation was so animated that all thought of marmalade vanished from our minds. It’s a perfect book-club book. There is so much detail that the conversation bounced around from one alarming moment to another, as we reminded each other of what we’d read. We were in awe of the author’s skill in getting such poetry down on the page from her interlocutors’ testimonies.

And now a hasty fourteen lines, written before the group met:

November Verse 3: After reading Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer
(‘I realise now that terrible things in life happen unspectacularly and naturally‘)
Good Soviets, good peasants trusted
authorities that reassured,
a lifetime’s mental habit rusted
on. To keep that Party Card,
to serve the people, serve the nation,
be not afeared of radiation:
in spring the wood’s still gently green,
roengtens, curies can’t be seen.
We have our own insanity
three decades on: the planet warms,
brings bushfires, catastrophic storms,
but ‘Coal’s good for humanity’
wins votes. With luck in time we’ll learn
so millions more don’t have to burn.

Keigo Higashino’s Salvation of a Saint

Keigo Higashino, Salvation of a Saint (2018, translated by Alexander O Smith, Abacus 2012)

salvationThis is exactly the kind of book I’ve decided not to read any more – the novel equivalent of a run-of-the-mill police detective TV series. But I’d borrowed it from the Book Club, and the cover quoted The Times saying Keigo Higashino is ‘ the Japanese Stieg Larsson’ so I read it.

Evidently it’s part of a series, the second to be translated into English, featuring Tokyo police detective Kusanagi, his retired scientist consultant–friend Professor Yukawa and junior-detective-who-brings-a-woman’s-insight, Utsumi.

It’s pleasant enough, once you get past the very telling writing (as in not showing), like an episode of Jonathan Creek. It pretty much tells you who done it on page 5 before the murder has even happened, and from then on the question is how.

If there’s any wider social observation it’s been lost in translation. I don’t mean that Alexander O Smith has done a bad job. As far as I can tell the translation itself is fine. But if, for example, there are subtle comments about cultural change in modern Japan, they are too subtle to cross the East-West divide. Unless something huge has been lost, the only possible justification for the comparison to Stieg Larsson is that the series is very popular. There is certainly none of Larsson’s politics.

Also: the title doesn’t make sense.

As we say in the Book Club, 2 out of 5.

Cavafy for the first time

C P Cavafy: Collected Poems, translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard (Chatto & Windus 1990)

0701136626.jpg Constantine P Cavafy (Kavafis/Kavaphes) is one of the many literary giants I haven’t read. This relatively slender volume offered a way to put that right.

Cavafy (1863–1933) lived in Alexandria for most of his life. He published little poetry while alive, mainly printing poems off privately and giving copies to friends and visitors. Though he spoke fluent English and other languages, he wrote poetry only in Greek. E M Forster was impressed: the two men’s meetings are beautifully imagined in Damon Galgut’s novel Arctic Summer. Cavafy’s quiet reputation in the literary world was solid by the time he died and grew hugely after that. Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandrian novel Justine (1957) introduced him to a wide Anglophone readership. Leonard Cohen’s beautiful ‘Alexandra Leaving’ is a loose rendering of Cavafy’s ‘The God Abandons Antony’. Martin Johnston, the most awesome intellectual of my university days in the early 1970s, referred to him, along with Borges, Seferis, Berryman and others who didn’t turn up on the Eng Lit course.

You can see why I’ve felt there was a Cavafy-shaped gap in my education.

And now there isn’t, though I think this is poetry you’d need to read in the original Greek to really read it. And you’d need to know a lot more of the history of Alexandria, from ancient times to modern decadence, to enjoy it. And it might help if nostalgia for a real or imagined youthful homoeroticism was your thing.

There are some wonderful poems: ‘Waiting for the Barbarians‘ and ‘Ithaka‘ are justly famous. And there are plenty of incidental pleasures. Of the poems set in the ancient world, ‘The footsteps’, which may have had satirical resonances in the early 1900s, certainly does in 2017:

Eagles of coral
adorn the ebony bed
where Nero lies fast asleep –
callous, happy, peaceful,
in the prime of his body’s strength,
in the fine vigour of youth.

But in the alabaster hall that holds
the ancient shrine of the Aenobarbi
how restless the household deities!
The little gods tremble
and try to hide their insignificant bodies.
They’ve heard a terrible sound,
a deadly sound coming up the stairs,
iron footsteps that shake the staircase;
and, faint with dear, the miserable Lares
scramble to the back of the shrine,
shoving each other and stumbling,
one little god falling over another,
because they know what kind of sound that is,
know by now the footsteps of the Furies.

The place where I engaged most with Cavafy is where the poetry deals with the struggle between Christian and pagan moralities. He comes down pretty clearly on the side of the pagans, th0ugh Julian the Apostate doesn’t fare much better than the grey, repressive Christian authorities. Read in that context, the many poems about young men with beautiful lips that have performed or might perform forbidden or shameful deeds come to seem less deadeningly masturbatorial. And it was one of those poems, it turns out, that Martin Johnston included in his 1973 book, Ithaka: Modern Greek Poetry in Translation, three years before the first edition of the book I’m discussing.

Because I can’t read Greek, and felt underwhelmed by the language of this poetry, I did a little triangulation, comparing Martin’s ‘On a Ship’ (MJ), Keeley and Sherrard’s ‘On Board Ship‘ (K&S) and Daniel Mendelsohn’s ‘Aboard the Ship‘ (DM). If anyone thought translation was a straightforward business, they’d surely be prompted to think again by those three titles, all faithful translations but each different from the others. When I ran the original ‘Του πλοίου‘ through Google translate, it gave a fifth version: ‘Ship’s’.

You can look up all but Martin’s at the links. Here’s his translation:

On a Ship
It looks like him, certainly, this small
pencil depiction of him.

Executed quickly, on the ship’s deck,
one magical afternoon,
with the Ionian sea all round us.

It looks like him. But I remember him more beautiful.
he was sensuous to the utmost,
and that illuminated his expression.
He seems more beautiful to me
now that my soul must call him out of time.

Out of time. All these things are very old,
the sketch and the ship and the afternoon.

Though the translations differ as much as their titles, only a handful of words seem to have been troublesome:

  • MJ’s ‘more beautiful’ is ‘better looking’ in K&S and ‘handsomer’ in DM. Each of the translators seems to have chosen a different position in the gender politics of the word. Google Translate opted out, giving ’emorfo’.
  • Where MJ has ‘sensuous to the utmost’, K&S have ‘almost pathologically sensitive’, and one suspects that while ‘pathological’ might be fine in Greek it’s in a wrong register in Engish. DM has, ‘To the point of illness: that’s how sensitive he was.’ And K&S had a second go at it: their online version has ‘sensitive almost to the point of illness’. It does seem that MJ was squibbing it to avoid any reference to illness, and ‘sensuous’ rather than ‘sensitive’ may have been simply wrong.. Google Translate offers ‘disease was a beautician’.
  • MJ’s ‘my soul must call him out of time’ compares well with DM’s ‘my soul recalls him, out of Time’, because ‘recall’ in English has lost all sense of summoning, and that does seem to be needed, as K&S have ‘my soul brings him back, out of Time’.

Comparing these translations, and Don Paterson’s looser ‘The Boat‘ (‘more handsome’, ‘so much the sensualist’, ‘my heart calls him / from so long ago’), is a way of staying with the poem long enough for it to sink in a little, to feel the care for language that has gone into it, and to catch the whiff the memento mori that emanates from it. Maybe (of course?) this will be so of much more in this book if I come back to them.


Ramapada Chowdhury’s Second Encounter

Ramapada Chowdhury, Second Encounter (Je Jekhane Danriye 1972, translation by Swapna Dutta,  Niyogi Books 2016)

9385285440.jpgIt’s easy for English-speaking readers to forget that a vast amount of writing exists in the world independent of the English language: neither written in English nor translated into it. In India, I’m told, there are a number of languages in which novels can find much greater audiences than the one we Anglophones arrogantly assume to be universal.

Bengali is one of those languages. It’s the language of the great filmmaker Satyajit Ray and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, and we Anglophones are fortunate enough to have had at lest some of their work translated for us. (Satyajit Ray was one of the names my oldest brother used to conjure up the great world of Culture when he came home from his first term at University – along with Tolstoy, Tchaikowsky and Kurosawa.)

jejakhanedanriye.jpgRamapada Chowdhury’s 1972 novella Je Jekhane Danriye is a gem that would have remained invisible to non-Bengali readers if Swapna Dutta’s love for it hadn’t led her to make it available to us. A film version was released in 1974, but there’s very little information about it on IMDB. The poster for the film seriously misrepresents the book.

It’s a story of young love revisited: two people, each married with a child, meet up again after a twenty-year separation. In their teenage years they had lived near each other and developed a mutual infatuation, which was never consummated in so much as a direct exchange of words. Each of them has cherished the thrilling memory and found solace in it in the midst of humdrum reality, and now it seems a spark has been reignited.

But this is not a Mills and Boon romance. The emotional weight of the book hangs on the question of what twenty years can mean in a person’s life. Not only do individuals mature and make choices, but social mores change: while twenty years previously young people could only gaze raptly at each other from their restricted lives, the current teenagers roam the countryside together day and night. Both main characters agonise over the meaning of their rekindled feelings, for themselves, for each other, for their spouses, and for their children (who are engaged in a teenage romance of their own).

By serendipity, I’ve been reading the poems of C P Cavafy at the same time as Second Encounter. I plan to write a little bit about Cavafy in a couple of days, but for now I just want to refer to the many poems in which a fifty year old man looks back yearningly to objects of desire from his 20s. Cavafy’s poems never test nostalgic desire against any kind of reality. He would probably have rejected Second Encounter‘s meditations as appallingly anti-romantic, but I can’t help feeling he might have been a happier human if he had read it and taken its wisdom on board.

In case you’re interested in learning more: I came across a documentary on Ramapada Chowdhury on YouTube, made, I think, by one of his grandchildren. Now in his 90s, he mentions this little book, which the English subtitles call Where One Stands, and says that it was influenced by ‘One Day after 20 Years’, a poem by Bengali poet Jibanananda Das (there’s a poem at that link called ‘After 25 Years’, which may be the one he means).

Halldór Laxness’s Independent People

Halldór Laxness, Independent People (©1934–1935, translation by James Anderson Thompson 1945, Vintage edition 1997)

ip.jpgMy Book Group read Hannah Kent’s debut novel Burial Rites – set in Iceland in 1830 – in November. A number of friends said I should read Independent People by Icelandic Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness, a book beside which Burial Rites looked shallow. It took a while for IP to become available from the library, and it’s a long book, but at last  I’ve read it.

Let me deal with the Hannah Kent comparison first: to say that a novel isn’t as good as Independent People is like saying a play isn’t as good as King Lear, or a science fiction movie pales beside Bladerunner. The book is monumental. Everything I have ever heard or read about Iceland is in its pages: the landscape, the banking system, the poetry, the weather and the sheep – mainly terrible weather and diseased or starving sheep. Grímur Hákonarson’s wonderful movie Rams could have been a postscript. The current dominance of Iceland’s conservative Independence Party suggests that the book’s satirical probing of the notion of independence is as relevant now as it ever was.

The protagonist, Bjartur, having worked for a relatively rich farmer for eighteen years, has managed to get possession of a small, unpromising and possibly cursed piece of land. He moves in with his bride, and lives a life of unremitting labour and deprivation, refusing all help in the name of independence. It’s not giving too much away to say that things go badly for him in every conceivable way, and he – inspired by the heroes of the sagas – struggles on, defiant and misanthropic. Humans and animals die hearbreakingly, some of the latter at his hand, and some of the former as a direct result of his obduracy or as a result of their resistance to it. Whenever a glimmer of hope shines through the blizzard of Bjartur’s life, the reader braces for the moment when he will sabotage it. And when prosperity comes to Iceland thanks to the First World War, it’s only a matter of time before all is once again grim.

The book was published about the same time as Steele Rudd’s On Our Selection, the once much loved collection of stories about families struggling on small farms in Australia. It’s hard to imagine a greater contrast to the way Rudd’s Dad and Dave face adversity together, with naive, cheerful resilience.

For all its grimness, the book is a delight. Bjartur is an unforgettable character. So are the young woman unlucky enough to be married off to him, and their daughter, and his youngest son, Nonni, who I read as representing the author’s point of view (not to give too much away, he escapes and we glean that his new life in America is relatively OK). There are wonderful minor characters, of whom my favourite is the Bailiff’s wife, described as pope-like, presumably with plump Pope Leo X in mind, who ceaselessly spouts romantic nonsense about the joys of rural poverty. I also love the chorus of small farmers who meet regularly and amidst their main talk of sheep disease and weather, pronounce on economics, politics and metaphysics.

The writing is wonderful. As a child of the town with the highest annual rainfall in Australia, I loved this passage (not least for the way it makes us understand that a woman wouldn’t have to be neurotic, as she is described in the last sentence, to be miserable in that place):

Shortly afterwards it started raining, very innocently at first, but the sky was packed tight with cloud and gradually the drops grew bigger and heavier, it was autumn’s dismal rain that was falling – rain that seemed to fill the entire world with its leaden beat, rain suggestive in its dreariness of everlasting waterfalls between the planets, rain that thatched the heavens with drabness and brooded oppressively over the whole countryside like a disease, strong in the power of its flat, unvarying monotony, its smothering heaviness, its cold, unrelenting cruelty. Smoothly, smoothly it fell, over the whole shire, over the fallen marsh grass, over the troubled lake, the iron-grey gravel flats, the sombre mountain above the croft, smudging out every prospect. And the heavy, hopeless, interminable beat wormed its way into every crevice in the house, lay like a pad of cotton wool over the ears, and embraced everything, both near and far, in its compass, like an unromantic story from life itself that has no rhythm and no crescendo, no climax, but which is nevertheless overwhelming in its scope, terrifying in its significance. And at the bottom of this unfathomed ocean of teeming rain sat the little house and its one neurotic woman.

There’s a lot that’s quotable, though not much that would find its way onto inspirational wall hangings. Some typical aphorisms:

Come what may and go what may, a man always has the memories of his dogs. Of these at least no one can deprive him.

The life of man is so short that ordinary people simply cannot afford to be born.

What does it matter if a man has to live in a little mud hut all his life when his life, if you can really call it a life, is so short?

The most unpleasant feature of midwinter is not its darkness. More unpleasant still, perhaps, is that it should never grow dark enough for one to forget the endlessness of which it is a symbol.

I could go on.

I just want to say a little bit about the translation. Evidently it took J A Thompson eight years to write the English version, and he did it in consultation with Haldór Laxness. The translation has a strong voice of its own, an assurance that means the tone is always absolutely clear – as in that ‘neurotic’ in the passage above. It’s a brilliant piece of writing in its own right. I was happy to find a 2014 English-language MA dissertation for the University of Iceland, The Creative Translator: Creativity and Originality in J.A. Thompson’s Translation of Halldór Laxness’ Sjálfstætt fólk by Abigail Charlotte Cooper (PDF here), that discusses some of the issues.

Ted Hughes’ Tales from Ovid

Ted Hughes, Tales from Ovid (Faber & Faber 1997)


‘Why are you reading that?’ the Emerging Artist asked with genuine curiosity. Unvoiced supplementary clauses hung in the air: ‘… when you don’t have to?’  ‘… when the world is going to hell in a handcart?’

I said, ‘I bought it on impulse when I was spending my voucher at Sappho’s.’ I could have explained the impulse further. I regularly ran into Ovid’s poetry in my years of Latin at school and university, mainly in unseen passages for translation. His sometimes racy retellings of miraculous transformations have had a huge afterlife – they live on in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (source of My Fair Lady), Yeats’s Leda and the Swan, and commonplace phrases like ‘the Midas touch’ or ‘the narcissistic president’. According to Clive James, Shakespeare knew the Metamorphoses by heart. I liked the idea of reading the original – though not enough to wrestle with the Latin. So I was drawn to a book described on its back cover as ‘the best rendering of Ovid in generations’.

Ted Hughes published this version of 24 of the 250 stories from the Metamorphoses the year before he died. It doesn’t read as if it was written by someone winding down. From the urbane, orderly originals in which line after line conforms to the strict scanning requirements of epic hexameter, he produced a collection that is richly varied in form, and gives close attention to physical, even visceral sensation.

The first section, eighteen pages long, tells a creation story, followed by a flood story – a striking reminder that the Hebrew Bible stories didn’t exist in isolation from the surrounding cultures. And the next 20 pages tell the story of young, ambitious Phaethon, who rode the sun’s chariot across the sky, lost control and nearly destroyed the world, a story that reads – in Hughes’s version – as a worst-case scenario for climate change brought about by reckless abuse of natural resources. Here’s the section where the Goddess of Earth pleads with the supreme God:

She choked in a squall of ashes.
‘See my hair singed to the roots,
My eyes cauterised by your glare.
Are these my reward
For my fertility, my limitless bounty,
My tireless production?
Is this my compensation
For undergoing the ploughshare,
The pick and the mattock,
My flesh gouged and attacked and ground to a tilth
Year in and year out? Is this how you pay me
For foddering fat beasts,
For plumping the milky grain that suckles man,
For concocting the essences and rich herbs
That smoke on your altars?

And then the book settles down to less cosmic tales, but tales that are a long way from having lost their sting: Proserpina, Echo and Narcissus, Venus and Adonis (and Atalanta), Pygmalion and Galatea, Pyramus and Thisbe (darker than the Midsummer Night’s Dream version); Midas, Tiresias and Arachne; the birth of Hercules (a truly terrible labour for his mother Alcmene, who was sabotaged by the god who usually helps labour go well), the incest of Myrrha (‘Hatred for one’s father is a crime. / Myrrha’s love for her father / Was a crime infinitely worse’), Niobe (all I knew was that she wept, now I know why!), Actaeon turned into a stag for seeing Diana naked, Erysichthon condemned to starve (the most graphic story in the book, and completely new to me), and more.

There are occasional apparently anachronistic scientific terms, but Hughes generally stays true to the cosmology and geography of the original. There are many references to other classical stories, some of which I recognised from my childhood reading of Kingsley’s Heroes, many not, but it doesn’t matter. It’s a terrific read.

Now I want to geek out about translation for a while, so feel free to stop reading.

Having struggled with translation of Latin poetry in my distant youth, I was aware that this book is in no way a literal translation. Occasionally, I’d be struck by a vivid phrase or sentence and surmise that the Latin original was just two words, a noun and participle (not even a full verb).

I wanted to have a close look at a passage. Somehow I ended up with part of the story of Pygmalion. In case someone reading this doesn’t know the story, Pygmalion is a sculptor who can’t stand actual women but sculpts his ideal woman out of ivory. Besotted with his creation, he prays to Venus, and she answers his prayer by bringing the statue to life. I picked 20 lines of the original in which he falls in love (creepily) with the statue, then – deferring to my need and yours to do other things – I cut it down to five lines.

The original, Book Ten, lines 254-258:

saepe manus operi temptantes admovet, an sit
corpus an illud ebur, nec adhuc ebur esse fatetur.
oscula dat reddique putat loquiturque tenetque
et credit tactis digitos insidere membris
et metuit, pressos veniat ne livor in artus

Here’s a very literal translation:

Often he moves his hands to the work, testing whether it be
flesh or ivory; nor does he yet acknowledge it to be ivory.
He gives kisses and thinks they are returned, and he speaks, and grasps
and believes his fingers sink into the parts he has touched,
and fears that bruising may appear on the limbs when they have been pressed.

Even this isn’t word-for-word, because word order doesn’t matter in Latin the same way it does in English, and in Latin you can tell which words belong together by their endings (it is the hands/manus that are testing/temptantes, which is hard to convey in English). A thing that is kept in this translation is the absence of a pronoun for the statue after ‘it’ (illud) in the second line – important to the sense that Pygmalion is dealing with inanimate matter, but awkward in English. A lot else is lost, which is of course why non-literal translation is desirable. We’ve lost the way metre works in the original: every line ends with the same sequence of long and short syllables – long-short-short-long-long (though the last is occasionally short) – which creates a particular kind of music. We’ve also lost (and I have no idea if Ovid’s first readers cared about it) the use of rhyme and other repeated sounds: dat (gives) and putat (thinks) in the third line, say, and especially the metrically complex repetition of ebur (ivory) in the second line, echoed by livor (bruising) in the fifth.

A search on the internet found a verse translation that stays very close to the original. It’s by Rolfe Humphries (1954), in six lines of blank verse:

He would often move his hands to test and touch It,
Could this be flesh, or was it ivory only?
No, it could not be ivory. His kisses,
He fancies, she returns; he speaks to her,
Holds her, believes his fingers almost leave
An imprint on her limbs, and fears to bruise her.

This has some of the metrical formality of the original, but the other lost things stay lost, and the demands of English mean that the statue becomes a ‘she’ – anticipating the transformation that doesn’t actually happen until more than 20 lines later in Ovid.

The most famous translation by an established English poet is by John Dryden (1631-1700). Here’s the relevant passage, which throws careful word-by-word accuracy to the wind:

The Flesh, or what so seems, he touches oft,
Which feels so smooth, that he believes it soft.
Fir’d with this Thought, at once he strain’d the Breast,
And on the lips a burning kiss impress’d.
‘Tis true, the harden’d breast resists the gripe,
And the cold lips return a kiss unripe:
But when, retiring back, he look’d again,
To think it iv’ry, was a thought too mean:
So wou’d believe she kiss’d, and courting more,
Again embrac’d her naked body o’er;
And straining hard the statue, was afraid
His hands had made a dint, and hurt his maid:
Explor’d her limb by limb, and fear’d to find
So rude a gripe had left a livid mark behind:

In place of the epic hexameter, Dryden uses the heroic couplets beloved of seventeenth century English poets. It hums along OK, but it takes more than twice as many lines – possibly because English needs more words anyhow, and because English has a much bigger storehouse of synonyms, but also because the need to find rhymes meant the text had to be expanded. Dryden’s strategy was to give more titillating detail: touching becomes straining, courting, embracing and exploring; we’ve got flesh, a breast, lips, nakedness, none of which is named in the Latin. The creepiness of the set-up is much emphasised. The statue is ‘his maid’, definitely now ‘she’ rather than Ovid’s ‘it’.

Here’s Ted Hughes on page 136:

Incessantly now
He caressed her,
Searching for the warmth of living flesh,
His fingertip whorls filtering out
Every feel of mere ivory.

He kissed her, closing his eyes
To divine an answering kiss of life
In her perfect lips.
And he could not believe
They were after all only ivory.

He spoke to her, he stroked her
Lightly to feel her living aura
Soft as down over her whiteness.
His fingers gripped her hard
To feel flesh yield under the pressure
That half wanted to bruise her
Into a proof of life, and half did not
Want to hurt or mar or least of all
Find her the solid ivory he had made her.

If I hadn’t read the Dryden I would have taken this to be taking huge liberties, but it’s comparatively restrained. ‘Incessantly’ isn’t bad for saepe/often, ‘searching’ for temptantes. ‘Caress’ for admovet can’t be helped really. He does introduce flesh, and lips, and eyes, like Dryden.The ‘fingertip whorls’ are an insertion of a different order, taking the emphasis away from the creepily erotic to the original’s emphasis on the difference between ebur (ivory) and corpus (a body). ‘Kiss of life’ is apt, in spite of (or because of?) its modern connotations. The repetition of ‘ivory’ at the end of consecutive stanzas achieves a rough equivalent of the repetition of ebur. In the third stanza his fingers ‘half wanted to bruise her’. You can see where that’s grounded in the original, but Ovid’s Pygmalion touches and half believes the ivory yields. It is never explicit that he want it  to happen. That doesn’t happen until later. He fears that he will bruise the limbs, but he doesn’t even half desire it. Where Ovid can leave the emotional content partly unsaid, Hughes takes the extra time to spell it out.

Now of course, I’m tempted to go back to the Erysichthon’s terrible hunger and Myrrha’s incestuous agonising to see how much is Ovid and how much Hughes. But really I’m happy to leave it there.

Christa Wolf’s City of Angels

Christa Wolf, City of Angels or, The Overcoat of Dr Freud (2010; translation from German by Damion Searls, Farrar Straus and Giroux 2014)


The cover blurb describes this book as a novel, and it’s obviously so. But at the same time this is so convincingly not a made-up story that when the narrator says of an extraordinary coincidence that it wouldn’t work in fiction, the reader (this one at least) forgets to scoff at the double bluff.

The narrator, whose name we never learn, is somewhere in Germany in the early 21st century surrounded by pieces of paper that relate to several months she spent in Los Angeles as a resident scholar some fifteen years earlier. The book is what she makes out of those papers: there are moments of reflection in the present time, but mostly the book is made up of conversations, dreams, movies, news items, phone calls to home, bits of writing done – a mass of detail from her stay. There are touristic observations (the size of the portions, the relentless US cheerfulness, the surfeit of material goods), political debates, gossip about the other scholars at THE CENTRE, recollections of the narrator’s earlier life, and some fascinating history of German intellectuals living in exile in Los Angeles during the 1930s and onwards.

The narrator is from East Germany, a country that had ceased to exist at the time of her residency but was still named on her passport. She had lived through the Nazi years, been an idealistic Communist and then an outspoken critic of the Soviet and GDR regimes. She had recently seen her Stasi files and been appalled by them. All this is also true of Christa Wolf. An older friend back home had recently died and bequeathed to the narrator a bundle of letters from a woman who signed herself only as ‘L’. The narrator’s nominal project during her time in Los Angeles was to discover the identity of her friend’s correspondent. But she mainly spent her days documenting her stay in Los Angeles in meticulous detail – hence the piles of paper in the book’s present time.

The back cover blurb spoilerishly reveals that there is a further reason for her trip to the US. I advise, therefore, against reading that blurb. This other element, which emerges at about halfway mar, may not surprise people who are familiar with Christa Wolf’s life and work, but it was a huge twist for me. Without it the book is engaging enough as a detailed account of some months in another country, describing consumerist capitalism from the perspective of someone recently arrived from the Soviet bloc, reporting conversations among writers from many different nations and social contexts, exploring the complex emotional state that results when an oppressive regime one has opposed finally comes to an end, but that ending means the loss of one’s political home. It continues to engage at those levels, but now the narrator finds herself the subject of vigorous (mostly offstage) attack, and is plunged into a deep puzzlement about herself.

I was so engaged in the  diary-like elements that I didn’t much care when the mystery of ‘L’ was resolved, and though the big puzzlement was resolved to my satisfaction I can’t tell if that satisfaction is peculiar to me. I’m waiting for the Emerging Artist to finish reading the book so we can discuss it.

Perhaps because I read City of Angels just after leaving the morally clear-cut world of All the Light We Cannot See, I loved it for its complexity, its ruthless self-questioning, it’s commitment to the life of the mind. The book was published in Germany in 2010.  Christa Wolf died in 2011, aged 82. The narrator writes at one point of feeling the end approaching, and says explicitly that she means the end of life as well as the end of the book. If Christa Wolf intended the book as a farewell statement, it’s a powerful goodbye, hardly optimistic but not without hope for humanity.

A note on Damion Searls’s translation: It reads very naturally and as far as I can tell, it’s brilliant. I want to mention two clever solutions. One: because the narrator is in English-speaking Los Angeles, the original German text was sprinkled with English words and phrases  – like ‘scholar’, ‘office’, ‘How are you?’, ‘Can you spare some change?’ The English text gives these words in italics, an elegant and unobtrusive way of reminding us that we are seeing this world through a non-English-speaking lens. And Two: when she is a deeply troubled state, the narrator spends a whole night singing in her room, and several pages are taken up with a list of the songs she sings. We are given the names of the songs in German without translation. In my ignorance I recognised only a handful, but that was enough to be able to tell that her singing was a way of reaffirming her belonging to German culture – not just some small part of it, but the deep, wide history. If we’d been given the titles in English (‘A Mighty Fortress is our God’ rather than ‘Ein Feste Burg ist unser Gott’, for example), that would have been lost.

Mahabharata for young (and English-speaking western) readers

Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury, Mahabharata for Young Readers translated from Bengali by Swapna Dutta (The Book Mine, Hachette India  2015)

9350099985.jpg I expect my readers are generally familiar with the notion of divine inspiration: God, or a god, breathes life into a mere human’s writing. Sometimes a writer even claims to literally take dictation from a spirit being. The great Indian epic the Mahabharata happened the other way around. It was written down by the elephant god Ganesh, taking four-handed dictation at speed from the more-or-less human Vyasadeva. Ganesh is traditionally shown with one broken tusk because when a nib of one of his pens broke Ganesh snapped off part of a tusk and  dipped it in ink to keep up with Vyasa’s stream of words.

Since that mythic event there have been many translations of the Mahabharata, some of them into English. It’s roughly a hundred years since Upendrakishore Ray Chowdury published his Chheleder Mahabharat, a version for Bengali children. Only now has this pint-sized version found its way into English, thanks to the labours of children’s writer and blogger Swapna Dutta. It would be a challenging read for most children in my part of the world – no illustrations and a lot of unfamiliar concepts – but those who rise to the challenge will be well rewarded, as I was by Kingsley’s Heroes.

The book tells of a longlasting feud between two noble families, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, which culminates in an epic battle that leaves millions of corpses piled on the ground. Within that framework is an extraordinarily rich compendium of tales – of magic, nobility, craftiness, romance and treachery, of words which, once uttered, bind the speaker in unexpected ways. Some of them are familiar to me from my time editing a children’s magazine. Others are so archetypal that I feel I ought to know them  (and am pleased that now I do!).  For example, when the five Pandava brothers return home from an adventure where one of them has won the hand of a beautiful woman, the bridegroom-to-be calls out to their mother, ‘Come and see the beautiful thing I have found.’ From inside the house, their mother replies, ‘Make sure you share it with your brothers.’ In the world of the Mahabharata these words are binding, and the brothers must find a way for all five of them to marry her. (They do, with happy results.)

Familiar names inhabit the pages, notably Arjuna,the great warrior, and Krishna, here Arjuna’s charioteer. There are many others, like the women Kunti and Draupadi (the bride of all five Pandavas), who ought to be better known.

Of course, this version is no substitute for the thing itself. Among the incidents considered not suitable for children, for example is the conversation between Krishna and Arjuna when the latter has misgivings about going into battle and slaying an awful lot of people. This conversation is passed over in a sentence here:

Krishna’s words were long enough to fill up an entire book that came to be known as the Bhagavad-Gita which you should read for yourself when you are older.

The Bhagavad-Gita is 700 verses long, and according to Wikipedia ‘presents a synthesis of the Brahmanical concept of Dharma, theistic bhakti, the yogic ideals of moksha through jnana, bhakti, karma, and Raja Yoga … and Samkhya philosophy’. And there are other bits where our narrator tells us that someone explained the meaning of life but doesn’t burden us with the content. I imagine that both my relief at not having to read the philosophy right then in the middle of the action, and my curiosity about what Krishna said are exactly what Upendrakishore Ray Chowdury hoped to rouse in his young readers.

Given that the lengthy philosophising is omitted, is there anything for the reader besides superhero murderousness and charming folktales?

Well, yes. There’s a lot here to grab the imagination and engage the moral intelligence, not to mention stirring curiosity about the possible historical events that lie behind the tale. Ii imagine every reader will find something different here. For me, possibly the most moving thing was the way, even though at the surface level there seems to be a massive celebration of violence, there is also a tremendous sense that the warriors are trapped, that many of them are fighting against their will, obliged by codes of honour and obligations of loyalty to fight and kill close relatives, whom they love dearly. The famous World War One episode of the Christmas Truce, where soldiers played and sang together for a day before going back to killing each other, could have come from these pages.

Don’t take my word for it. I was given my copy by Hachette India, but you can buy one for about $20 here.


November Sonnet No 1 for 2015

November in Sydney: Sculpture by the Sea; jacaranda, coral trees and bougainvillea in startling bloom; moustaches; exams; and here on Me Fail? I Fly! a sonnet challenge.

For the last few years I have set myself the task of writing 14 sonnets for the blog in November. It turns out that my favoured sonnet form isn’t actually a sonnet at all, but the Onegin stanza – the 14-line stanza used by Pushkin in his narrative poem Eugene Onegin and by Vikram Seth in The Golden Gate. It took me a couple of years to realise that I wasn’t even doing that form properly. Now I think I’ve got it. Here goes with my first poem for 2015.

Because this stanza was developed for narrative, and because I have unfinished business with Virgil’s great, weighty narrative, the Aeneid (I studied Book Two  in high school more than 50 years ago), I thought I’d see what happened if I tried pouring some of his lines into Pushkin’s nimble form. It was more fun than I expected. This covers Book 1, lines 1–11 (‘refugee’ is a precise translation; ‘detention’ less so):

Sonnet No 1: Aeneid 1:1–11
War and one man, that’s my story.
A refugee from Homer’s Troy
he started something, built Rome’s glory,
but on the way found little joy.
His boats were stopped, and cruel detention
held him. Courage and invention
won through: he built a dynasty,
brought culture and civility.

It’s here I seek for inspiration:
if we’re to make sense of this world,
what harm was done, what grief unfurled
that one of such sound reputation
was made to suffer, struggle so?
Was there some cosmic rage on show?

For anyone wanting to explore further, here is Dryden’s 1697 translation :

Arms, and the man I sing, who, forc’d by fate,
And haughty Juno’s unrelenting hate,
Expell’d and exil’d, left the Trojan shore.
Long labors, both by sea and land, he bore,
And in the doubtful war, before he won
The Latian realm, and built the destin’d town;
His banish’d gods restor’d to rites divine,
And settled sure succession in his line,
From whence the race of Alban fathers come,
And the long glories of majestic Rome.

O Muse! the causes and the crimes relate;
What goddess was provok’d, and whence her hate;
For what offence the Queen of Heav’n began
To persecute so brave, so just a man;
Involv’d his anxious life in endless cares,
Expos’d to wants, and hurried into wars!
Can heav’nly minds such high resentment show,
Or exercise their spite in human woe?

And if you’re really serious, here’s Publius Vergilius Maro:

Arma virumque canō, Trōiae quī prīmus ab ōrīs
Ītaliam, fātō profugus, Lāvīniaque vēnit
lītora, multum ille et terrīs iactātus et altō
vī superum saevae memorem Iūnonis ob īram;
multa quoque et bellō passus, dum conderet urbem,
īnferretque deōs Latiō, genus unde Latīnum,
Albānīque patrēs, atque altae moenia Rōmae.
Mūsa, mihī causās memorā, quō nūmine laesō,
quidve dolēns, rēgīna deum tot volvere cāsūs
insignem pietāte virum, tot adīre labōrēs
impulerit. Tantaene animīs caelestibus īrae?

Added later: You notice interesting things when you translate something, even as roughly as this. I took out the references to supernatural beings – gods, the muse etc. But that, plus the largely ungendered nature of English, strips out a key bit of patterning. In Latin, nouns are generally either masculine, feminine or neuter. In these 11 lines, the man (virum), and his descendants (patres) are masculine, and almost everything else is either neuter (war, fate, godhead) or feminine (especially the goddess Juno, but also rage, cities and so on). The effect in the Latin is of a masculine figure in a feminine world, much of which is inexplicably hostile to him.

Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty is a Wound in the Book Group

Eka Kurniawan, Beauty is a Wound (2002, translation by Annie Tucker, Text Publishing 2015)

9781925240238A while back, we agreed that the Book Group would stick with short books. So we read Of Mice and Men. Then somehow we settled on Beauty Is a Wound, which weighs in at just short of 500 pages.

Not that I’m complaining. The book more than fills the promise implied in its epigraph from Cervantes [note to self: read Don Quixote]:

Having cleaned his armour and made a full helmet out of a simple headpiece, and having given a name to his horse and decided on one for himself, he realised that the only thing left for him to do was to find a lady to love, for the knight errant without a lady-love was a tree without leaves or fruit, a body without a soul.

The book gives us three quarters of a century of Indonesian history seen largely from the perspective of the ‘lady-loves’ of its variously idealistic (or not) warriors. A multitude of stories involving Dutch colonisers, Japanese invaders, guerrilla resistance, nationalists, Communists, anti-Communists, capitalist thugs – all revolve around the central figure of Dewi Ayu, the most famous whore of the fictional city of Halimunda, and her three beautiful daughters. Tender love, passionate mutual obsession, brutal rape, prostitution, high romance, fraternal and intergenerational incest, borderline necrophilia: these are all there, with World War Two, Indonesian Independence, the 1965 massacre of leftists and the 1975 invasion of East Timor as context. More than once the streets of Halimunda are filled with corpses, and then with the unappeased ghosts of the slaughtered.

Eka Kurniawan has been called Pramoedya Ananta Toer’s successor. The latter’s Buru Quartet was also a panoramic account of recent Indonesian history seen through the lens of one man’s life, but as far as my memory goes those earlier novels were strictly realistic and unsensational – the story of their being written without pen and paper while the author was in prison is much more thrilling than the novels themselves. Beauty Is a Wound, on the other hand, is unlikely to land its author in prison,even though writers about the 1965 massacres were banned from this yeas Ubud Writers Festival, but it provokes a visceral response to the history it treats.

The book’s web of relationships is extraordinarily complex. For my own peace of mind, I attempted a diagram showing the main ones. The diagram doesn’t show the revelations of the final chapter which manages the improbable feat of pulling the many threads together into thematic consistency, but it does contain one or two spoilers if you look at it closely. But here it is, small but embiggable, for anyone who’s interested (dotted lines represent anything from concubinage to one-off rape, while deep unfulfilled love is indicated by a dotted line with a cross):

Beauty Is a Wound Chart

Annie Tucker, the translator, has done an awesome job, creating the sense that we are in a world not quite like ours. Partly, I mean by that, we know we are in a non-Western cultural setting. Some words remain untranslated but explained – such as moksa (in Indian philosophy, freedom from the cycle of death and rebirth) or jailangkung (a Javanese game in which the spirits of the dead are summoned). But more interestingly, the translation allows us to feel that we are not just in a different culture, but in a different reality. When characters return from the dead or avoid death altogether, when there are curses, prophetic insights or hauntings, we feel that we are in a weird waking dream of our own rather than listening in with an ethnographer’s ear.

At the meeting: This was not one of those times when we all had similar responses to the book. We had such an engrossing conversation over  soup and salad that we barely got to discuss the removal of Tony Abbott or his embarrassing Lady Thatcher address.

There were eight of us, though one was only there between dropping his daughter off at soccer training and picking her up – the driving time meant he had just about 40 minutes to eat, drink and opine (all of which he did most elegantly). One hadn’t read the book at all. Another ‘declared at tea’ – reading on the Kindle so couldn’t say what page. One pointed to the fact that he’d read the whole book to prove that he didn’t hate it, though he was, well, flamboyant in his account of it as tediously ‘factual’ in its prose and intolerably sexist in its treatment of the women characters (who are there for purposes of sex and nothing much else)

A number of us had grappled with the possibility that there was some kind of allegorical account of Indonesian history at work. One chap, who had been struck by the fact that the central characters, Dewi Ayu and her daughters. were mainly very passive, suggested a reading in which they represented the soul or the spirit or ‘the people’ of Indonesia, and the treatment that had roused the other chap’s ire signified the damage done to the country by each of the groups that their various rapists, and exploiters belonged to. That made a lot of sense to me.  And the prose style has the matter-of-factness of folktale, which fits that reading.

Someone told us that a number of speakers had been banned from the Ubud Writers Festival yesterday because they were scheduled to speak about the 1965 massacre of leftists. I don’t think Eka Kurniawan was one of them, but the news did shed an interesting light on the book’s unflinching account of the massacre.

Oh, and my chart of the relationships was widely admired, possibly with a slight edge of irony.