Home Music Books



(2007)

Studs Terkel:
     And They All Sang
Ian McEwan:
     The Child in Time
J.M. Coetzee:
     Slow Man
     Foe
Haruki Murakami:
     Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman
Khaled Hosseini:
     The Kite Runner
David Adams Richards:
     Mercy Among the Children
J.M. Coetzee:
     Elizabeth Costello
Haruki Murakami:
     A Wild Sheep Chase
Laura Huxley:
     This Timeless Moment
Homer:
     The Iliad
Herodotus:
     The Histories
Homer:
     The Odyssey
Mark Twain:
     Life on the Mississippi
Jonathan Safran Foer:
     Everything is Illuminated
Frances Wood:
     The Silk Road
Robert Louis Stevenson:
     The Body Snatcher and Other Stories
Eric Newby:
     A Book of Travelers Tales
Josephine Tey:
     The Daughter of Time
Patrick Leigh Fermor:
     Between the Woods and the Water
Alessandro Barbero:
     Charlemagne
Hape Kerkeling:
     Ich bin dann mal weg
Anton Chekhov:
     The Shooting Party
Thomas, William and Samuel Daniell:
     An Illustrated Journey Round the World
Chimamanda Mgozi Adichie:
     Half of a Yellow Sun
Yann Martel:
     The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios
Daniel Kehlmann:
     Ich und Kaminski
Margaret Campbell:
     Henry Purcell: Glory of His Age
Aleksandar Hemon:
     Nowhere Man
Haruki Murakami:
     The Wind-up Bird Chronicle
F. Scott Fitzgerald:
     This Side of Paradise
Arthur Schnitzler:
     Frau Berta Garlan
Gore Vidal:
     The City and the Pillar
Tim Winton:
     The Riders
Peter Carey:
     Theft
     My Life as a Fake
Jean Rhys:
     Good Morning, Midnight
Haruki Murakami:
     Dance Dance Dance

And They All Sang, by Studs Terkel

    Studs Terkel appears to be a well known radio personality in Chicago. This is a very interesting link to his website, where he lists the things he has done throughout his life. In particular, he has interviewed many, many people over the years on many different subjects. Nevertheless, I had never heard of him until I received this book for Christmas. It is a small selection of his interviews which were concerned with music. It seems that when passing through Chicago, or even living there, the various musicians were interviewed by this character Studs Terkel.
     There are 35 or 40 interviews here. From Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Alfred Brendel, and Leonard Bernstein, through Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gellespie, Mahalia Jackson, to Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin. And of course many others as well. Studs Terkel himself has a great knowledge of music. Often, I didn't know what he was talking about. I realized that I knew next to nothing about opera!
    Happily, last year our old TV gave up the ghost, so we have gotten a new, flat, LCD one. And then we decided that after resisting all of these consumer electronics fads for so long, we would give in and finally get a DVD player. (They cost almost nothing now; they play CDs, Divxes, and what have you, and the shops are trying to get rid of them in order to drum up the business for the expensive new HD-DVDs, which we really don't need.) So now we have a couple of DVDs of famous opera performances. Unfortunately, some of these opera DVDs cost more than a new DVD player itself! Anyway, it is a good method of studying some of the fine points of the opera trade which are discussed by Studs Terkel with the various divas of the past in this book.
    But what can I say about these interviews? I think that music can be the finest, greatest form of art. And what is greater, more admirable, than one of the very great singers? Or to go to a concert and hear Alfred Brendel play, or Keith Jarrett. What more wonderful thing is there in life?
    One thing that did strike me was that all of the jazz, spiritual, folk, and rock musicians which he interviewed stressed the idea that they represented the common man: lowly, downtrodden, hungry, imprisoned. Yes, I am also all for the good of the common man! But interestingly enough, one of the stories on the back page of today's newspaper was that one of Studs Terkel's interview partners, namely Bob Dylan, has just bought Aultmore House in Scotland, for 3.4 million euros, to add to his collection of houses. There is also a tidbit about Sting, and then a further bit about the Heather Mills - Paul McCartney saga. At least the great opera singers did not plead poverty when being interviewed by Studs Terkel!

The Child in Time, by Ian McEwan

    In a nutshell, the story of this book is the following. A man and a woman, living in London, have a small child of about five years old or so. Her name is Kathy. One morning, the woman stays in bed while the man, accompanied by the child, goes to the supermarket around the corner. At the checkout counter, Kathy disappears. Everybody looks everywhere, but it must be a case of kidnapping. She can't be found. Then the book deals with various emotional upheavals which result from this disappearance. In the end, after a year or two, still nothing has been heard of Kathy. The man and the woman then have another baby, putting all this Kathy business behind them. The last page of the book describes the ecstatic experience of having the new baby.
    Well, OK. I guess it's true that in the normal case of events, if you get into an emotional rut then it is a good thing to get yourself out of it. So in that sense this book describes a life-affirming strategy for putting negative emotions behind you. It's like those self-improvement books concerning the "Power of Positive Thinking".
    On the other hand, what about poor old Kathy? Ian McEwan doesn't give us anything positive to show us that she is also putting all that bad stuff behind her as well. We don't know if it is bad, or not. Maybe it is a catastrophe. Maybe it is like that monstrous man in Belgium who kidnapped small girls, to be used horribly by the "high society" of Belgium, tortured, then murdered. Should the parents of these children have exercised their Powers of Positive Thinking and simply gotten on with having another baby? Somehow, it seems difficult to say that that would be a good thing. But what else could they have done, given that the high society of Belgium appears to have been obstructing the course of justice in this instance?
    In this book, the man - our hero - is an author of childrens books. His publisher is in the high society of England, and it appears that the Prime Minister of England is his secret lover. The publisher is also the hero's best friend. He, the publisher, escapes from the situation by escaping to the English countryside and pretending to become a child again. In fact the hero also becomes rather child-like, spending his days lolling on the sofa, watching daytime TV and drinking whiskey. This is interrupted on a regular basis by his going each week to Whitehall to participate in a committee to formulate standards for improving the reading skills of the children of England.
    And so it goes on. For large parts of the book, I thought it was a very moving description of the anguish people might have in this sort of situation. But given that the hero is being continuously invited by the Prime Minister (who, it is hinted, might appear to have somewhat kinky sexual leanings) to private luncheons where the whereabouts of his friend the publisher is to be discussed, then I would have expected a more positive action on the part of our hero.
    For example, to transport this discussion into the present time (the book was written 20 years ago), if somebody I knew, or even a relative of mine, had disappeared - perhaps into the archipelago of concentration camps somewhere between Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay - and if I was constantly receiving invitations from Tony Blair to go to him and have private luncheons, then I would certainly make as loud noises as possible! And I would do it in as public a way as possible. Often, these disappeared people, and the children as well, are still desperate to escape from their tormentors even years later. Yet their only hope is that the people who care for them are still making life as uncomfortable as possible for their tormentors. Thus we finish the book with the hopeless feeling that Kathy is still lost and we still don't know what happened to her.
    According to the Acknowledgments at the beginning of the book, Ian McEwan read the book Wholeness and the Implicate Order, by David Bohm. Yes, David Bohm also had interesting ideas about what are commonly perceived to be the paradoxes of quantum mechanics. But I really don't know what this has to do with the problems of a parent whose child has disappeared. I suppose that besides getting drunk on whiskey, another way to forget the immediate emotional problems of life is to lose oneself in the more psychedelic speculations of the new world. In reality though, David Bohm's ideas were quite reasonable. I am not aware that he followed the popular speculations of many contemporary physics professors, proposing circular trips through time and space. If these fantasies of today's physicists were realistic, then the hero of our book would be able to travel back through time and murder his parents, leaving us with the paradox of his existence in the world. However, in Ian McEwan's version of this paradox, the problem is resolved by the hero meeting his mother, just at the point where the mother is thinking that the best solution would be to have an abortion, thus murdering the future son, at whom she is presently looking. As in much of this literature, love solves everything, including logical nonsense, and so the mother decides that she loves her future son, and thus does not have an abortion. Readers who would like to investigate such ideas further might well be referred to the various Arnold Schwarzenegger movies which also deal with such matters.

Slow Man, by J.M Coetzee

    Coetzee has exchanged the country of his birth, South Africa, for the more peaceful South Australia. In fact he has now taken on Australian citizenship. Good on him! In many ways this book, and his earlier Disgrace have many parallels, reflecting the differences between those two countries. In Disgrace, the hero is a white South African professor whose life falls apart. He ends up in a rather animal-like state of basic physical urges. His daughter, living alone on her farm, is ritually raped by the local tribe of black South Africans, perhaps leading in some way to her acceptance into that tribe. The story of Australia is different from this. The original aboriginal inhabitants of Australia were fewer in number than the original aboriginal inhabitants of South Africa. Also they were not able to retreat northwards, away from the initial impact of European conquest. The country to the north is simply too dry. Perhaps also the Dutch in South Africa were more prepared to deal with the aboriginal population in order to secure supplies for their ships on the passage to India. The first English incursions into Australia involved brutal convict transports, and so the extermination of the aboriginal population must have seemed to be a natural thing for these first settlers.
    In any case, the story of this book, about the life of a (relatively) old man in Adelaide in the year 2000, has nothing at all to do with the (long extinguished) tribal rituals of the aboriginal peoples of Australia. Their existence is not even mentioned in this book. Instead it is about European immigrants to South Australia.
    Just as I am, for all practical purposes, an immigrant to Germany, and I have nothing to do with the horrors which were committed here before I was even born, surely it is fair enough for Coetzee to accept, even to welcome, the peaceful situation which has emerged for the people of European ancestry living in South Australia.
    Therefore Coetzee's style has mellowed. Nothing horribly brutal happens. The hero of the book, a 60 year old photographer, rides his bicycle, wearing his helmet (which is compulsory in Australia), and is hit by a car. He "flies through the air with the greatest of ease", but the landing is not so pleasant and he ends up in hospital, his leg amputated above the knee. Well, we all lose one thing and another as we get older. Many people would take this to be a new challenge, leading to interesting new experiences. However the hero, Paul Rayment, is a bad patient. He becomes morose, wallowing in self-pity. The doctors and nurses are helpful and cheerful, but that only makes him worse. Perhaps it is the fact that he started life in France, immigrating with his family as a child to Australia. A true Australian would not go on whinging like this all the time!
    He treats his nurses badly, getting rid of them one after the other. But then Marijana Jokić, who has immigrated with her family from Croatia, takes him on. In fact, she even learned the nursing trade here in Bielefeld in Germany before moving to South Australia! Maybe she was a nurse in Bethel. Anyway, Paul Rayment accepts her, and soon he begins to fall in love with her.
    His problem is that his life up till now has been something of an emotional vacuum. He is childless, almost friendless, disconnected from whatever relatives he might have. So he grasps at poor, overworked Marijana. She has some experience of dealing with these lonely old men. But then he starts throwing money at the family. In particular he offers to finance the education of the 15 year old son Drago at an expensive private school in Canberra. He imagines that it would be nice if Drago was his son. This causes obvious disruptions in the Jokić family. Throughout all this business he has various encounters with the woman novelist Elisabeth Costello. Perhaps she is writing the book of the story of his life, rather than Coetzee, in the style of that children's book Sophies World. But Coetzee often has a beautiful turn of phrase to describe one situation or another, making me laugh. He sometimes makes a joke out of the Jokićs.
    Anyway, unlike the situation in Croatia, they take it all nicely, discussing things in a civilized way as one does in Australia, over a beer or a cup of tea. Drago turns out not to be the perfect, heroic young gentleman he had at first seemed to be. While staying at Paul Rayment's apartment with another friend he steals a valuable old photograph, then puts it into his website with some funny alterations. At first Paul is upset, but then he has a more balanced view of the thing. It is in the nature of youth to do crazy things.
    Thank goodness Drago has immigrated to Australia with his family rather than staying here in Bielefeld! It has just come out in the newspapers that the police here in North-Rhine Westphalia have taken to secretly injecting malicious "trojan" software into the computers of people, without proper judicial process, with the purpose of spying on the contents of the hard discs. This has been now ruled illegal by the German High Court. Yet the present coalition of Social Democrats and Christian Democrats have declared that they will amend the law as quickly as possible in order to continue with this practice!
    Has the world gone mad? Everywhere else, people who try to smuggle malicious software into the private computers of normal people are considered to be criminals. Billions of dollars are spent cleaning up the damage done by such practices. What am I doing, still living in this country where the people seem to have nothing better to do than to continuously whinge about the fact that the winters are not even more cold and dreary than they already are? In any case, while I now use SUSE Linux, which is supposed to be relatively robust in the fight against malicious software, I have read that SUSE is going into some kind of alliance with Microsoft. Therefore I have decided to make the change to Ubuntu. Not only is it visually much more interesting than the latest windows offering, but also the distribution CD contains a short video where that wonderful hero of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, says a few words about the meaning of the word "ubuntu". It means working together for the good of everybody.

Foe, by J.M Coetzee

    Going into the university library, I arrived at the shelf with Coetzee's books. There wasn't a full selection, but I took this one out. It is concerned with the book Robinson Crusoe, by Danial Defoe. Now Defoe was an Englishman who lived at the beginning of the 18th century. If he were a Dutchman, or at least if his ancestors were Dutch, then the name "Defoe" would really be "De Foe", which would mean "The Foe". However, foe is not a Dutch word. (Also, I don't think it refers to the organization "Friends Of the Earth", for which it is the accepted abbreviation.)
    Be that as it may, when thinking about Robinson Crusoe, we all know that Defoe was inspired by the story of Alexander Selkirk. So we think of Robinson Crusoe as being marooned in the Juan Fernández Islands out in the Pacific, to the west of South America. In fact his island is now officially known as the Isla Robinsón Crusoe. After a couple of years, Selkirk was saved by a passing ship, returned to his native Scotland where he had an affair with a 16 year old dairymaid, then resumed life as an officer on a ship of the British Navy, where he died.
    However Danial Defoe allowed himself huge amounts of poetic license, changing Selkirk's story beyond all recognition. In fact, a couple of years ago I did read the original Robinson Crusoe as an e-text which is freely available from the University of Adelaide. Quite frankly, I prefer the true story of Alexander Selkirk, rather than the fantasy of Robinson Crusoe. According to Defoe, his character Crusoe had various shipwrecks on the African coast, then eventually ended up in Brazil where he was a successful planter and slave-owner. Then he got together with a few of his pals and had a go at the slave trade, sailing back and forth between Africa and Brazil. I've forgotten the details, but I think he then became shipwrecked in a storm, or something. So he was definitely not in the Pacific. From Defoe's description, one can say that in fact he was cast away on the island of Tobago, which is a small island, just Northeast of Trinidad. According to Defoe, Tobago was uninhabited (apart from Robinson Crusoe) while Trinidad was inhabited by a tribe of cannibals. Perhaps he was thinking of the cannibalistic Caribs, which were described by Christopher Columbus. Actually, of course, the Caribs also lived on Tobago, so it wasn't really uninhabited. But in the story, Crusoe saves his man Friday from being eaten by the cannibals, so presumably Friday is also a native American, perhaps of a different tribe. After they are rescued, they return to England, then they go on a rather unmotivated excursion to Portugal, then decide to return overland to England through Spain and France. If I recall rightly, during the passage of the Pyrenees they have some ridiculous encounters with wolves, and also with a bear, where Defoe makes a fool of Crusoe's poor servant Friday. Quite honestly, I could not see why people consider that book to be such a classic.
    In the present book, Coetzee adds another twist to the tale. A woman is cast away onto Tobago by some brutal mutineers. She spends a year with Crusoe and Friday before being rescued. Crusoe is sick anyway, and he expires on the passage back to England. Friday, who is now an African slave, has had his tongue cut out (I do not remember that detail in the book), so he is speechless. Therefore Friday and this woman, Susan Barton, arrive in England and, in order to survive, she tries to sell the story to that famous author of books, Mr. Foe.
    The book is then a meditation on living in a destitute state, speechlessness, dreams, the art of writing. I certainly wouldn't say that this is Coetzee's greatest book. But it is short at only 157 pages, so the rather hopeless picture of Mr. Foe, Susan Barton, and Friday does not depress us for too long.

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, by Haruki Murakami

    This is a book of short stories. In the introduction, Murakami writes that he goes through alternating phases of writing short stories quickly, and then taking a long time to write a novel. But it's obvious that many of these short stories are the basis for later novels. For example the story Firefly led to his novel Norwegian Wood, and Man-Eating Cats to Sputnik Sweetheart. Also we saw the movie based on the story Tony Takitani, which is in this book.
    Much of it is bizarre, other-worldly. A skeptical, practical person would derive little enjoyment from these stories. Although the irrational often plays a large part, there are also some good "sensible" stories here as well. For example I particularly enjoyed Hanalei Bay.

The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini

    What a powerful book this is! I couldn't put it down. With so many other novels, one has the feeling that the author is simply writing something or other of no particular importance. Just getting on with his "work" which we are supposed to consume. But then a book like this comes along where you have the feeling that the author is telling you his innermost secrets, the story of his life from one extreme episode to the next.
    Khaled Hosseini was born in Afghanistan in 1965, but his family found refuge in California in 1980. The main character in this book, Amir, also grew up in Kabul, and found refuge in California in 1981. But I am sure that Khaled Hosseini's life was not that of Amir. On the other hand, surely all of these lives of the refugees of Afghanistan have much in common.
    What do we know about that country which is always in the news these days? The little prince of England, Diana's son, is keen to get into the action, to get his hands bloodied. Yes, I suppose that is the proper role for him as a member of the ancient warrior caste of Europe. But why is England there in the first place? Didn't the English learn their lesson a hundred years ago with their failed "great games"? Can it all be put down to Tony Blair's worshipful admiration for George W. Bush? This seems incredible.
    I remember the more recent "great game" which provoked the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Jimmy Carter was the President of the USA then. Somehow it seems to me that all of the presidents of the USA since the assassination of Kennedy have been corrupt - with the exception of Carter. But his security advisor was that person with the funny name: Zbigniew Brzezinski. And this Brzezinski has published a book in which he gloats about the wonderful things he was able to achieve under Carter, luring the Soviets into Afghanistan so that they could sink in their own version of what the USA experienced in Vietnam. How wonderful for him! But too bad for the inhabitants of Afghanistan. Who cared about them anyway?
    So then the CIA had a great time, setting up Osama Bin Ladin and supplying him with lots of weapons for fighting the Soviets. And so it goes on. The "game" somehow became rather boring for the great men of the world when the Soviets withdrew and communism collapsed. Was this "the end of history"? And the end of all those wonderful arms deals? To stir things up, Pakistan got the Taliban movement going. Who knows what connections between Pakistan and Washington existed in those days? What do the Taliban have to do with anything? Is their role in world the justification of this "war on terror" which we are all supposed to be in? Who knows. My mind is open to the many lines of speculation which one can read about in one place or another.
    In any case, the hero of this book, Amir, returns to Kabul to tie up the loose ends of guilt in his life in 2001, while the Taliban are still there. Khaled Hosseini describes the Taliban as being monstrous mass murderers. It is a hell on earth, comparable to a Nazi concentration camp or the Killing Fields of Cambodia. But even worse than those things. The monsters are religious fanatics with the power of life and death over everyone else. Amir meets the sadistic Assef whom he had known as a boy. Assef is now a leader of the Taliban, responsible for stoning people to death to the cheers of thousands at the half-time of a football game. Afterwards he retires to his house, where in his drug-induced euphoria he enjoys continuously raping, tormenting the small helpless children he has taken from an orphanage.
    I have no idea whether or not these visions of Khaled Hosseini reflect the truth of the Taliban. Given the disgusting things we have heard and seen concerning the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, and the things that Donald Rumsfeld said about them, I can imagine that such things do exist. Still, reading over what I have written here, I see that it reflects merely my disgust about much of what is happening in the world today and the fact that "we" have made such a mess of Afghanistan. The part about the Taliban is only a small, but decisive, part of this book. It is a much more complicated story, with many ups and downs. We learn that the Pashtun tribe is not the only people in Afghanistan. In this book, the ancient conflict with the Hazara people plays a large role. I had never heard of them before. It seems that they are related to the Mongolian peoples of central Asia. In the book, the Pashtuns are the dominant Sunnis, and the Hazaras are the subservient Shiites, forced to be servants, doing the dirty work. Assef, like Amir, was born into a rich Pashtun family. His hero was Adolf Hitler, and as a member of the Nazi-like Taliban, he enjoyed the rush of excitement when murdering Hazaras, ethnically cleansing whatever came into his dirty mind.
    The end of the book is unclear, whether it will be a happy or an unhappy ending, just as the same is true for Afghanistan today.

Mercy Among the Children, by David Adams Richards

    Another powerful book. It takes place in Canada, somewhere in the East; New Brunswick or so. Looking at the map, the most natural thing would be to think that the eastern part of the United States should be geographically located below the St. Lawrence River, thus separating the USA from Canada all along the waters, going right through to the Great Lakes. However that is not the way things are. In reality, New Brunswick would add a bulbous extension to the usual map of the USA, up in the right-hand corner. But this is part of Canada, separated from the rest. Maine sticks right into it, and it is really not so far away from Boston. Nevertheless, from the description in this book it seems to be continuously freezing - at least when it doesn't happen to be summer. Blizzards envelope the scene. This is not a good book for people who prefer to worry about Global Warming! - or perhaps it is.
    The people in the book are also cold, brutal. The men are lumbermen. They spend their days in the ice and snow, getting rid of trees, fighting with one another, getting drunk. Returning to their primitive houses, they beat their wives and children. Afterwards, many of them retreat into the local Catholic Church to take communion with whatever evil spirits are drifting about in the snow. The "king" - or at least leader - of this unpleasant little community is Leo McVicer. He owns most of what is left of the forest; also he owns the sawmill, the store, and so forth. Unfortunately, in his regal manner, he saw fit, back then in the 1960s and 70s to dump huge amounts of poisons all over the forests, making people sick. Babys have defective hearts. Albino children appear. Not only does he ruin the environment, with the aim of advancing his wealth, but he also enjoys manipulating the people to obey his will. He has procreated one legitimate, but sick, daughter, and also he has secretly procreated three other daughters, at least one of whom is also sick. They are placed in three different families, unknown to one another, where they grow up. The two which do not seem to be so sick are treated to higher education, and perhaps one or another of the few cold comforts of that freezing land. The sick one is dumped into a Catholic convent, to be dealt with by the harsh nuns. In the end, after many dramatic events, just when the sick, lost daughter is at the point of death, all three of these sisters finally come together.
     But the main characters of the book are the husband of the sick daughter, and her eldest son, Lyle, who is the narrator. The husband, Sydney, when he was a 12 year old child was sexually abused by the local Catholic priest. One day, either during or after the latest blizzard, he was up on the roof of the Catholic church, together with another 12 year old child who was also being sexually abused by that priest. They were shovelling the huge piles of snow off the roof. So on an impulse, Sydney gave the other child a push, and he fell off the roof, all the way to the ground.
    After all, those churches have high roofs! The windows are supposed to be above the eye-level of the people inside, in order to prevent them from looking outside and thinking about more worldly things. Also the windows must be much taller than normal house windows. Anyway, the fallen child lay still for a moment, and Sydney, looking aghast, declared to himself that if the child survived, then he would promise God that he would in future always be perfectly "good" and never harm anyone. The child, whose fall had been cushioned by the huge piles of Canadian snow which were lying on the ground, immediately got up and laughed at Sydney.
    The book is then a meditation on the meaning of morality and its consequences, as understood by the Catholic Church. Sydney reads lots of books. Nevertheless he is considered to be the "village idiot" by all the rough, bucolic people around him. The fact that he even had the audacity to marry a woman is thought to be a scandal. Then, degenerate as he is, he even allows himself to have children with her! He is stoned, the children are considered to be outcasts, imbeciles. He is accused of being a pedophile, and a murderer. Throughout all of his martyrdom, Sydney always "turns the other cheek" and says that in the end, God will ensure that true justice will be restored.
    The suffering son, Lyle, vows never to be like his father. He will not be a weak, helpless man, unable to defend his family. And so he grows up tainted with evil. The truly evil people who, at first, had manipulated events around Sydney for their own advantage, gradually sink beneath the consequences of their own evil, just as Sydney had predicted. Sydney himself becomes a saint-like being, who dies an appropriate martyr's death in the cold snow. In the end, God ensures that Lyle inherits the millions of ill-gotten dollars of McVicer's estate, but God also ensures that Lyle lives on in Torment, unable to enjoy the fruit of his father's sufferings.
    After reading this book, anyone would think twice about having anything to do with either Canada or the Catholic Church!

Elizabeth Costello, by J.M. Coetzee

    The subtitle of this book is "eight lessons". An aging Australian novelist named Elizabeth Costello is invited to give talks at various conferences: on cruise-ships, in universities and so on. The book consists of eight chapters of essays, or dialogs involving various people, concerning morality, responsibility, etc., especially with reference to the work of the novelist. So this is a way for Coetzee to expand on such subjects without simply publishing a dry book of essays as so many other people have done.
    He has many interesting thoughts. The first lesson is concerned with "Realism". Are the words of a story ultimately concerned with objects of the physical world, or are ideas also objects themselves? For the mathematician, this is hardly a question, since everything we deal with is an abstraction. The second lesson is "The Novel in Africa". Is it true that Africans do not read as much as non-Africans, owing to the fact (?) that they are more socially aware people than the rest of us? Thus they prefer speaking, rather than sticking their noses into books. Well, this is a problem for Coetzee to deal with. The Africans I have met were university students, and they were thus as interested in reading as anybody else.
    Lesson five is called "The Humanities in Africa". The problem here is concerned with the question of why Africans often seem to be such religious fanatics. It is a dialog with a white woman missionary (Elizabeth Costello's sister). Why does an African wood-carver at the mission spend his entire life carving ugly, identical crucifixes, displaying the horrid details of the death by torture of Jesus Christ? The novelist, as an advocate of enlightenment, wishes that he would at least try his hand at depicting the beauty of life. But the missionary tells her that life is not beautiful. People are suffering. And that is the reason that they seek solace in these ugly images. I have the feeling that, at least amongst the people who would be interested in reading this book, the views of the novelist would dominate the views of her sister, the missionary.
    Lessons three and four are concerned with the problem of whether it is immoral not to be a vegetarian. The situation of animals being led to an abattoir is compared with the situation of the people being led to the concentration camps of the Nazis during the Second World War. This comparison leads to the moral indignation of numbers of people, not the least being a Jewish professor at the university where she gives this lecture. In fact she dwells a great deal on the Nazis in these chapters. She doesn't mention the fact that Adolf Hitler himself was a vegetarian. Does this have anything to do with anything?
    I am sure that in our modern, industrial society, the animals which are kept for food are often treated improperly. But what if they are treated "properly", whatever that might mean? We are hardly great meat eaters, having it only once or twice a week at most. We get it from a shop which belongs to an association of farmers which guarantee that the animals are kept, and killed, in a sensible way. I try to avoid eating meat at restaurants, and so on. Or buying supermarket foods which contain animal products. For then there is no guarantee about the conditions under which the animals are kept. To be honest though, when staying in the mountains of Austria we do eat the meat, since one can see what things are like there.
    Coetzee seems to take a very fundamental position in these essays, saying that death is always evil. But one could as easily argue that the animals would not exist in the first place if people were not keeping them. Furthermore, on a farm they are not subject to the attacks of wolves, lions; the natural carnivores of the wild. And is the death by a pack of wolves better than that which a responsible person gives to an animal? Surely it is also objectionable that in the modern world, some techniques of farming involve spraying and harvesting the vegetables in a way which kills many of the animals in the fields. And the environment is poisoned. I have read that amongst some of the tribes living in the jungles of South America, there is no linguistic distinction made between animal food and vegetable food. It is all simply "meat", the stuff of nature that we need in order to live.
    Lesson six is "The Problem of Evil". She dwells on the evil of a novel she has just read, in which the author brings alive the sufferings of those who plotted to assassinate Hitler in 1944. She thinks that describing evil in a way which brings it to life is itself evil. Such things should be left alone since they can taint the author himself, or the reader, with the very evil they are describing. Indeed, I am reminded of something a friend of mine told me back then in the 1970s, in Canberra. He had been driving back home with his wife on the road along the lake when the cars around him slowed down, and there seemed to be a scene on the roadside where people were fighting. No one was prepared to stop and try to do something. But my friend did have the courage to pull over and become involved. It seems that the fight had started when some people were driving an old car whose headlights were broken. It was night, so they were driving slowly, and if another car came by they pulled carefully over to the side of the road for fear that it might have been the police who would object to their driving without lights. But, in fact, it turned out that the other car was filled with some hooligans, just out looking for blood. They were simply kicking the poor victims who were lying helplessly on the ground. But the fact that my friend stopped disrupted things sufficiently that an escape was possible. Afterwards, with the police involved (and to my friend's chagrin, the victims were afraid to press charges), the police told him that in the last few weeks they had had to deal with numbers of similar incidents. The fact was that these hooligans had been motivated by the movie "A Clockwork Orange", which was showing in the cinemas at that time.
    On the other hand, I see in today's newspaper that those people in Hollywood are now going to make a movie called "Valkyrie", staring Tom Cruise as Count von Stauffenberg, the officer who failed to assassinate Hitler. It is not said how Hollywood proposes to deal with the death scenes. Thus, far from Coetzee's fears that descriptions of evil might taint the beholder, we are faced with the spectacle of evil being turned into a mush of sugary pap. And in any case, is it true that the schoolchildren of Bavaria and Austria, contemplating day-in and day-out the torture scene of the crucifix hung in their classrooms, are thus tainted with evil? I would certainly hesitate to say that this is true.
    The final lesson is "At the Gate", a Kafkaesque story about trying to get through the gate into heaven. St. Peter is a flabby officer, perspiring in his small office on the border between purgatory, or at least the land of the lost souls waiting for their visa into eternity, and the land of heaven. In order to apply for a visa, the applicant must write down on paper what he/she believes in. Elizabeth Costello steadfastly believes that a novelist should not believe in anything, and thus at the end of the story she is still waiting for her visa. But we mathematicians know that belief only follows from proof. What has not been proved is an hypothesis which may, or may not, be taken to be true. This is particularly true of those statements commonly dealt with by novelists, which are formulated in such a way as not to be amenable to proof.

A Wild Sheep Chase, by Haruki Murakami

    I seem to be becoming addicted to these Murakami books! Just having finished this one, I think it's the best which I've read up to now. There are still quite a number of further books of his which have been translated into English which I haven't yet read, so lots of good stuff to look forward to!
    At first I thought that the translator, somebody named Alfred Birnbaum, had been a bit lax, occasionally dropping his articles. Also, I wondered if the title was true to the original Japanese, since, after all, the phrase "A Wild Goose Chase" is so common in English. Yet the subject of this book really is a wild sheep chase.
    It is often said that people are like sheep. The word "sheeple" (i.e. "sheep=people") seems to have become the usual word to describe the mass of citizens of the USA who obediently do what they are told, listening to the "news" on FOX television (it is surely a disgrace to Australia that the proprietor of that institution was born there; thankfully, as I understand it, he has renounced his Australian citizenship in oder to adopt that of the USA), and voting for George W. Bush and his wars, following their "leader" like a flock of sheep. "Baaaah"!
    Indeed, if you drive a car through sheep country and encounter a flock of sheep on the road, then you must drive very slowly. At first you get the impression that the sheep are making way for the car, but then one just makes a jump for it at the last second to try and get across your path, and the next makes an even closer, more desperate jump, and so forth. The problem is that the sheep are looking at each other rather than looking at what is happening outside their world - namely that a car is trying to drive past.
    Then if you encounter a flock of people - say 50 or 100 of them walking along a road, you will find that the problem of trying to drive through the flock is almost identical to the same problem with sheep. And it's not as if the people are consciously looking at the car and saying that it is a morally superior act to walk on the road in a large flock, rather than to drive a car. Try to ride a bicycle through a large flock of people. Again, they only see you at the last moment, making a startled shout, or laugh, and jump in front of the bicycle, and then the next person does the same, and so on. Chaos. Only very slowly can you progress through the flock, creating a wave of excited laughter and exclamations in your wake.
    While sheep are often thought to be meek, peaceful creatures, I am sure they do not experience things in that way. There is a "pecking order" which the sheep must fight out amongst themselves. The "alpha" male sheep - the head ram - then has the privilege of mating with the female sheep. This is a serious business, and if you look at the eyes of the sheep, the way they react to one another, you will see that there is no room for humor at all! The head ram is not a pleasant creature.
    So the idea of this book is that in some way, the the alpha rams of humanity - the Rumsfelds, and what have you - are no longer truly human. The spirit of a special kind of aggressive, evil sheep has taken them over. Well, yes. I suppose that is as good an explanation of this phenomenon as any other. Just looking at the faces of these people, one can believe it! The hero of this book is sent on a quest from Tokyo up to the northern shores of Hokkaido. He is accompanied by his girlfriend who has most wonderfully beautiful ears. At the Dolphin Hotel in Sapporo, they meet the Sheep Professor, who tells them where to find the evil sheep of Japan who had just left the dying body of the human evil genius of that country. This is the surreal world of Murakami at its best.

This Timeless Moment, by Laura Huxley

    According to the four amateur reviews which can be seen at Amazon.com, the problem with this book is that Laura Huxley, the second wife of Aldous Huxley was - in contrast to her husband - not a writer, and not even a native English speaker. Therefore it is awkwardly written. Better to read the great works of the real writer, her husband.
    I borrowed the book from the library, and so it was properly bound in hard-cover. Thus it does not have the blurbs of various professional newspaper reviewers splattered all over it, as is usual with paperbacks. For this reason, I don't know what the professionals wrote. (The book was published in 1969.) But I am sure that their published opinions were even more wrong-headed than those of the Amazon people. In our reading group, we often laugh at the nonsense these newspaper reviewers write.
    So for whatever it is worth, I will say that I thought that the book was very well written.
    Laura Huxley grew up in Italy, became a concert violinist, then decided to look for new things in life. She became involved in the world of film, then became a psychologist - or perhaps a kind of amateur psychiatrist (in the best sense). She met Aldous Huxley while organizing a film project in the late 1940s and became a close friend of the family. But soon afterwards, Huxley's wife Maria died of cancer. Aldous himself died of cancer in 1963, the same day Kennedy was assassinated. Yet, from what I can gather from the Wikipedia, Laura is still going strong. She must be 95 or 96 years old now. So the book describes the ten years of their married life together, but especially the last year or two, and the Death of the Author in 1963.
    I did once have a phase of going through a number of his books. In particular, I remember causing great irritations with a medical relative of ours in my enthusiasm for his The Art of Seeing. (Although I am near-sighted, as was my father, I tried to get the children to adopt some of the principles described in the book: for example always having enough light when reading. Or moving the eyes around from time to time to exercise the eye muscles. Therefore, thankfully, as adults they now have perfect vision.) Also After Many a Summer was a good read. Very funny. And so forth. But I must say that his more philosophical works became rather tedious. This book explains in great personal detail the nature of his philosophy.
    Perhaps one could approach this book in two opposing ways: On the one hand, one could share the admiration and wonder Laura Huxley felt for her famous husband. Or on the other hand, one could adopt the cynical view of the skeptic. I wish that I could follow the first course, but I have to admit that the alternative seems to me to be more realistic.
    Aldous Huxley was one of that generation of gentlemen scholars of England who believed in Love, rather than the more traditional English qualities of Conquest and Colonialism. He developed into being the original Flower Person. In fact, he even coined the word "psychedelic" in order to describe the mental state induced by LSD, mescaline, or psylocybin. All of this led to him living in a comfortable villa in the Hollywood Hills, I suppose somewhere near those famous H-O-L-L-Y-W-O-O-D letters, which are also set up on the Hills. From Hollywood, he constantly traveled about the world, lecturing to packed audiences on various themes. Laura Huxley quotes long passages from the letters he wrote to her, back home in Hollywood. For example, he describes in detail an important scientific conference he attended in Switzerland. The subject of the conference is the effect of LSD on ESP (extra-sensory perception). He is excited about the major new results which have just been achieved by the top Russian scientists, who have succeeded in finding a technique for making visible the spiritual aura surrounding the living individual. At one stage of a lecture tour, he appears in Los Alamos, where he says "two out of three people are scientists, Ph.D.'s at least, with an I.Q. of 160 or over". He gives his lecture on Visionary Experience to a packed auditorium.

"The hall was filled with the cream of the scientific community. As Aldous spoke, smoothly building bridges from poetry to chemistry to mysticism, the atmosphere of the hall became almost religious - as though, by merely speaking of the visionary world, Aldous had all but a vision-inducing magic."

    Am I being overly cynical when I fail to share the wonder expressed in this passage? Are people intelligent if they waste their lives trying to find ways of increasing the yield of bombs from say 50 up to 100 megatons, or trying to make them sufficiently small in order to fit a dozen or more into the warhead of one rocket? Such were the great problems of the "cream of the scientific community" at Los Alamos in those days. Today, I suppose they are still diligently working away at "star wars", or perhaps creating microwave torture weapons for the use of the USA in various Arab countries. I would respect the memory of Aldous Huxley more if he had simply told them that he hoped that they would all go to Hell!
    And yet the book is filled with the true love Laura Huxley felt for her husband, so it feels wrong to find fault with him, or indeed, with her. Rather than continuing in this unpleasant, cynical, skeptical vein, I should just say that the book is a true testimony to her love for him.
    However I can't refrain myself from commenting on the short, final chapter which is entitled, "Epilogue: Sit down before Fact Like a Little Child". Some time after Aldous died, a "spiritual medium" named Keith Milton Rhinehart got into contact with her and offered to act as a go-between into the world of the Departed Spirits. She describes the experience which she then shared, together with a small dinner party of Hollywood friends. They were all left with the impression that they had experienced a life-changing revelation of the Truth. The next day, a more private séance was offered, and Aldous' spirit told her (via this Medium) that she would "receive what eventually is going to be considered classical evidence of survival of the personality and consciousness..." Later, in the presence of others downstairs, the Medium suddenly asked for a pencil and paper, saying that Aldous was telling him to write something. He wrote that she should look at the 17th page of the 6th book from the left on the 3rd shelf of some particular bookcase in the bedroom. And there, lo and behold, revealed to the speechless assembly, was a passage saying something about the "spiritual richness of this communication", and so forth. Was this evidence of CLASSICAL PROOF? She examines one possible rational explanation after another, concluding that all are inadequate.
    For me, this was an extremely disappointing way to end the book, since she did not consider the most obvious rational explanation. Namely that Keith Milton Rhinehart had slipped the book into the bookcase when nobody was looking, either during the previous private séance, or the night before, when she says that the party had moved a television set into the room with the bookshelf, in order to watch something on TV.

The Iliad, by Homer

    I had been putting off renewing my membership in the Folio Society this year. After all, there are too many books around here already. And many of the books they produce are in the library anyway. But then they sent me a new prospect, offering the possibility of ordering at most eight of their books at half price. So I decided to take it, ordering the eight most expensive (and hopefully most interesting) ones on the list. For example, The Iliad normally costs £35 or so, which is rather steep, considering that you can read it for free as an e-book in the link I've give above. On the other hand, surely it is worth a mere £17.50 to have a beautifully printed and illustrated edition, on high quality paper, in a slipcover. After all, even pulp paperbacks cost €10 or €12 these days! Therefore my eight books arrived (actually only seven, the eighth will be printed sometime this summer), and after admiring them all, I decided to select the Iliad for my first reading experience of this new collection of Folio books for the year. So I will report on the others later on, as I read them.
    Well, yes. The Iliad. Of course I do not pretend to have any great knowledge of classical literature. No. But I did know the following.
    Therefore, it was a surprise for me to actually read the Iliad.
    Anyway, I must confess that I found the Iliad to be extremely tedious. It is hardly more than a long list of characters making tediously heroic exclamations about how their opponents, their ancestors, and whatever, were and are heroic characters. Then there follows various anatomical details of the injuries inflicted. This is interspersed with long passages describing the thoughts and actions of the gods who guide the actions of the warriors. Therefore the action surges back and forth, according to which god happens to be sitting at the controls at the given moment.
    I had expected the Iliad to be an elegant, heroic work. But I ended up just skimming through it to see if anything particular might happen. This hope was largely disappointed. The whole thing reminds me of a book which I read many years ago, describing the life of the people in the Highlands of New Guinea. This is also an ancient civilization, but one which had been cut off from the rest of the world for thousands of years. So a stable, timeless way of life emerged. (Of course it has now been destroyed by contact with modern civilization.)
    The Highlanders of New Guinea lived in tribes of just a few hundred people each. Each tribe had its own territory, and if someone was so bold as to wander into the neighboring territory, he would immediately be killed and his skull would be preserved as a great trophy, increasing the glory of the neighboring tribe. In fact the only way for a man to achieve any stature was by killing other men. A man's importance in the tribe was ranked purely on the basis of the number of people of other tribes he had killed. The great mythical warriors of the Highlands were those fabled heroes who had gone on extended expeditions, stealthily progressing through neighboring territories, killing large numbers of people. Of course, all of this led to very restricted possibilities for travel, and thus everybody believed that the world came to an end at the most distant hills which could be seen from the local territory. That is, it was generally believed that the radius of the world was 10 kilometers or so. Most people did not have the courage to engage in these extended commando expeditions into enemy territory. Thus from time to time, a large group of excited, shouting men would gather at the border and shout insults at the neighbors. In particular they would be angry about the last of their men who had been killed. Or else they gloated about the last of their enemies which they had succeeded in killing. After working themselves up into a suitable fit of aggression, they started throwing spears at each other, continuing this until somebody was killed. This led to a further frenzy of shouts and excitement, which gradually died away. I expect that during these performances, the Highland men also felt that the Fates, their pantheon of gods, was determining the course of the battle and the general path of life on the Earth.
    According to the Introduction to The Iliad, the book was written around the year 800 B.C. or so. But I find the idea astonishing that the Greeks were wallowing in such a primitive state as late as that. On the other hand, all of the swords and spears, helmets, and so on, are only made of bronze. Yet the Hittites pioneered the use of iron in warfare as early as 1500 B.C. And after all, in that earlier period the Hittites also occupied western Turkey.

The Histories, by Herodotus

    Unlike the Iliad, this is obviously a real book, written by a real person. Not just a collection of mythological nonsense. Herodotus lived in the period from 480-420BC, or so. The subject matter of the book is the development of the world in the hundred years between the reign of King Croesus of Lydia around 560BC down to the defeat of the Persians by the Athenians and the Spartans in 480-79BC. An interesting story. Many parallels with the present situation in the world.
    Herodotus indulges in many digressions from his main theme, the conflict between Greece and Persia. A whole book is devoted to the strange goings on in Egypt. I was interested to read his well-known account of the possible causes of the yearly flooding of the Nile. His explanation makes much sense, given that one doesn't know about the monsoon weather in Ethiopia. He explains what the rather silly theories of his colleagues are, then he gives his own theory. It is that when the sun is deflected in his path through the heavens towards the south during the winter months, he causes the earth to become hot in those distant regions where the Nile arises. Conversely, when the sun wanders back northwards in the summer, the distant regions become colder. And after all, it rains more in the winter, doesn't it? Yes, this all makes sense! On the other hand, Herodotus always displays a healthy degree of skepticism. For example when reporting the story that the Phoenicians had sailed around Libya (that is to say, Africa), he says that they reported that for a time, the sun passes from right to left in his daily path through the heavens. Herodotus dismisses this as nonsense.
    Most of what the modern reader would call "history" is dealt with in a very personal way. For example, let's say that somebody today would sit down and try to write the history of the last hundred years. Then, to begin with, the problem would be to deal with the causes of the First World War. A modern historian would say something about unrest in the Balkans, European colonialism, the rise of nationalism, and so forth. On the other hand, Herodotus would undoubtedly have uncovered an interesting story about Kaiser Wilhelm, or Lloyd George, showing how their personal ire, their hubris, had led to nemesis.
    Or think about how to write the chapter of history dealing with the assassination of President Kennedy. I am sure that most modern historians would tremble to take the controversial approach adopted by Herodotus. They would just say that the Warren Commission wrote this, that, and the other thing. Therefore it is true. Finished! Anyone who questions this is a communist, or, err..., a terrorist, or something. Yet the historian who is prepared to adopt Herodotus' more free-wheeling approach would begin by examining all the possible explanations. He would dismiss the hypothesis that Lee Harvey Oswald did it, since there was no personal relationship between them. On the other hand, there were many interesting details to be developed in the relationships between JFK and LBJ, for example. Or Nixon. Or George H.W. Bush. I would hesitate to write down here, in the style of Herodotus, the scenario which seems to me to be most plausible! But who was the successful assassin? Was it Lee Harvey Oswald, or was it Charles Nicoletti, or was it James Files? In the ancient world, whoever it was would have received his just reward from his powerful benefactor. Perhaps we in the modern world have advanced to some degree, since none of those candidates were rewarded for their possible deeds with riches and high office.
    Herodotus was certainly a very religious person. For example his descriptions of the famous battles of Marathon, Salamis, and Plataea are short, essentially just saying that the Greeks won. Yet he goes on and on about the various psychological and religious issues surrounding and motivating these battles. In particular, great weight is given to the pronouncements of various oracles, and their correct interpretations. Often, people underestimate the evil consequences which follow if one disregards the gods. In fact, at every stage of the development of the Persian nemesis, the oracles are quoted, and always shown to be correct. In todays world, I have seen that the newspapers were full of Pope Benedict's cogitations regarding the great question of whether or not baptism in a protestant church is sufficient to save the soul. I laughed, perhaps not alone. On the other hand, it is undoubtedly true that millions of eager believers in the USA are seeking celestial advice with regard not only to this question, but more particularly to the questions related to their conflicts with the lands surrounding the Holy Land. Somehow, the parallels with the present situation seem compelling. The USA is the rich, degenerate super-power, being brought to humiliation by a small group of brave warriors, fighting for their country. Both the Persians, with their degenerate luxuries, and the Greeks with their hard poverty were convinced of the power of the divine. Thankfully, at the conclusion of the period dealt with by Herodotus, a more rational view of the world was allowed to flourish.

The Odyssey, by Homer

    Not having read the Odyssey before, I had expected it to be a story of the travels of Odysseus through the various lands of the Mediterranean, somewhat in the style of Gulliver's Travels. The Land of the Lotus Eaters, the island of Calypso, of Circe, Cyclops, then the Sirens and also Scylla and Charybdis, and so forth. Well, all these things do come into it. Also the loose ends of the Trojan War - the story of the wooden horse, and the death of Achilles (although his heel is also not mentioned here) are dealt with in the Odyssey. Pandarus even gets another mention. But all of this is just a part of it. Each of those episodes is dealt with in a few lines of narrative. The main thing is Odysseus return to Ithaca, and his bloody slaughter of the suitors of Penelope. However, despite this, the Odyssey is a much more interesting read than was the Iliad. It is a coherent story, told from beginning to end. This translation by Robert Fagles (in the Folio Society's edition) makes very good reading. It is much lighter than the more heavy-handed old translations which are found in Project Gutenberg.
    The Odyssey consists of 24 chapters, or "books". In the first four chapters, Odysseus' son Telemachus is upset by the fact that the suitors of his mother, Penelope, are hanging around the house, eating too much and generally behaving badly. He wishes that his father would finally return. So he sets off from Ithaca in a ship and travels to Pylos, then to Sparta, both  in the south of the Peloponnese, to ask the respective kings if they have any idea where his father is.
    In chapter 5, we meet Odysseus, who is stuck on the island of Scheria with the lovely goddess Calypso. He wants to get back to Ithaca, so he spends the days sitting on the beach, staring morosely out to sea. Calypso, on the other hand, wants to marry him, and even offers him the possibility of becoming an immortal god like herself. He rejects this. However he is not averse to the prospect of enjoyable extra-marital sex with the goddess, and thus he joins her in bed in the evenings. Despite this, his longings for Ithaca remain, and eventually Calypso agrees to build him a boat to travel home.
    Of course, this poignant sojourn with Calypso takes place at the end of his Odyssey. The Lotus Eaters, the Cyclops, etc. was a long time ago. All his shipmates from the Trojan war are long dead. In fact, the thing that really killed them off was the fact that when they reached the Island of the Sun, they slaughtered some of the cattle belonging to Helios (also called Hyperion).
    Anyway, returning to the narrative, Odysseus sets off from Scheria, but after sailing for some time, Poseidon, who hates him, suddenly realizes that he can get him, and so he creates a terrible storm, after which, Odysseus ends up, half dead, in the land of Phaeacia. He sleeps naked in a bed of leaves, but the next day, the beautiful princess Nausicaa finds him and brings him to the palace of her father, King Alcinous. Despite this seemingly erotic introduction, and despite Nausicaa's observation that Odysseus would make an ideal husband for her, it is not said that they share a bed during his stay in Phaeacia. On the contrary, he gives the Phaeacians a long account of his travels up to this point. These are the chapters 9 through 12. So it is only these four chapters of the book which really deal with the standard stories which we all associate with "The Odyssey".
    The Phaeacians are great sailors, and they whisk him back to Ithaca with jet-like speed in no time at all, so that in chapter 13 he can get on with the real business of the whole book, namely the slaughter of the suitors of Penelope. Actually, I wondered if the equation Phaeacians = Phoenicians would make sense, since, after all, they were the great sailors of antiquity. However, the Phoenicians, and their city of Sidon, are also mentioned in the book. Thus it would seem that "Homer" - whatever that name is supposed to mean - really did make a distinction between the Phaeacians and the Phoenicians. (Also I was interested to read of the description of Ithaca, as being the western-most island of Achaea, and so forth. This really does call into question the identification of Ithaca with the modern-day island of that name, and it lends weight to the new theory that in ancient times, the western bit of Cephallenia was an island which we should identify with Odysseus home.)
    So then the main part of the book, chapters 13 through to 24, is about how Odysseus kills off all the suitors. A very savage business. But it made me wonder about this whole situation. After all, Odysseus was having his nice sexual adventures during his odyssey. On the other hand, Penelope was expected to spend the whole 20 years living a chaste existence, crying continuously about the unknown fate of her husband. This is contrasted in various places with the evil of Clytemnestra, Agamemnon's wife, who failed to remain chaste. Odysseus even comes into his palace in disguise, not only to plan how to kill the suitors, but also to check up secretly on the chastity of Penelope. The whole thing seems so unfair. Also during the final slaughter, not only the suitors, but also those of the poor female maid-servants who were working at the palace, and who had been so rash as to get into private sexual liaisons with some of the suitors, were horribly slaughtered as well.
    This savage sense of morality of the ancient Greeks does not fit in well with our modern-day ideas of good and evil! In fact, it makes one wonder if the world would have turned out to have been a better place if perhaps the Persians, rather than the Greeks, had won the battle of Salamis.

Life on the Mississippi, by Mark Twain

    This Project Gutenberg edition of Life on the Mississippi which I've linked to here has lots of the original illustrations of Mark Twain's book as it first appeared in 1883. So I think it might be more enjoyable to read than the real book which I have just read.
    Samuel Clemens (that is, Mark Twain's real name) became a Mississippi steamboat pilot between 1857 and 1861. It seems that the Civil War stopped his piloting career. He is vague about his role in that war. He was a Confederate soldier, but he seems to have sensibly escaped and traveled away, going to California, Europe, and other places, becoming a writer. Anyway, in 1875 he published Old Times on the Mississippi in the Atlantic Monthly. Then it seems that he decided to recycle that story into this book a few years later. His idea was to travel from his home in New York (in 1882) over to St. Louis, then take a steamboat down the Mississippi to New Orleans, then take another one back up, all the way to Minneapolis. This added more to his original story, thus filling it out to become a full-sized book. According to the Introduction to the edition which I have read, it was said that the book sold especially well in Europe, back then in the 1880s. In those days, many people here in Europe were thinking about immigrating, and when they saw Life on the Mississippi in the local bookshop, they must have bought it in order to imagine what their future lives might be like. Mark Twain supplied them with visions of clean new towns in the Midwest, filled with industry, growing and sparkling with youthful energy. So this is the book that inspired the ancestors of all those people with German surnames living today in Middle America.
    But for me the first part of the book, namely the Old Times on the Mississippi part, was the best. Much of the rest is filled with rather tedious attempts at humor, stories which go on for pages, rambling along without reaching a conclusion. It is often extremely "politically incorrect". The recently freed slaves of African ancestry in the South often appear in very unflattering, almost sub-human, images. The native American "Indians" are child-like figures of romantic nature, not real people. But still, I am sure that for his time and place, Mark Twain was a more tolerant, honest person than most of the people around him. He had seen life from the bottom, and life from the top, and he was fascinated with all of it. Reading the book, one gets the feeling of how it was back then - at least for the Eastern Yankee, looking into the World of the Future.
    But as I say, that part rather put me off. However the Old Times on the Mississippi part was really good. The edition I read included a Daguerreotype of Samuel Clemens, taken in 1850 when he was just 15 years old. What a character! Then in 1857 he started life as a "cub" steersman under the great Horace Bixby. When reading the book, I looked at Google Earth, zeroing in on the Mississippi, and I see that it is still a great, untamed force of nature. It winds back and forth, cutting itself off. Perhaps these days, people try to dredge the sand, or mud banks, clear the snags, light up a channel for navigation. But in the old days, the pilot was alone with the river. And he had to memorize the entire 1000 odd miles, all the shallows and snags. And each trip, things were continuously changing. Mark Twain describes what it was like in the pilot house of a luxurious Mississippi steamer, steaming along from St. Louis down to Cairo, at the junction of the Ohio River. There were lots of other pilots sitting there too, just along for the ride in order to inspect the river, seeing the changes, the new snags, the state of the crossings. Telling stories about the old days. But all the conversation was about the river. It was a life-filling occupation.
    And the old paddle-wheel steamers continued on day and night. Even on the darkest night with no moon and no stars, the pilot could only sense the darkness where the river was, or was not. There were no navigation lights in those days! And he knew, by knowing the "shape" of the river, precisely where he was in the darkness. Where was that snag he had seen a few days before? Where was he in the crossing? When things became shallow, he would call the men below to "heave the leads" and "sing the marks". "Mark Twain" means two fathoms of water. That's getting rather shallow if your steamboat is drawing 8 or 9 feet. "Half Twain" is 2 1/2 fathoms. Quite enough. "Quarter Less Twain" is only 10 1/2 feet, and "Half One" is 9 feet. Very critical!

Everything is Illuminated, by Jonathan Safran Foer

    The link here is to the Amazon page devoted to this book. As we see, many people were extremely ecstatic about it. Also the paperback edition of the book contained, as they always do, many quotes from the professional reviewers. For example: "Wildly exuberant... hysterically funny and gravely serious", Evening Standard; "Extraordinary, brilliant, shattering", San Francisco Chronicle; "Outrageously ambitious, extraordinarily moving and utterly successful", Financial Times, etc. Well, I suppose it is an unusual book. It is the next book for our reading circle. That's why I read it.
    To begin with, the author makes it very clear that this is a Jewish book. On almost every page, the Jewishness, or non-Jewishness of the various characters is emphasized. The story involves the search for the imaginary Jewish village of Trachimbrod, in the Ukraine. The non-Jewish characters are (i) Alex, who is a teenage boy in contemporary times (1998, if I recall rightly), whose father is continuously drunk on vodka, and who continuously punches Alex if he comes anywhere near, (ii) the grandfather of Alex, who used to hit people, but now seems to be too old for it, (iii) a Gypsy girl whose Gypsy father continuously hits her, (iv) various Ukrainen farmers, standing around in fields, threatening Alex and Jonathan with violence, and finally, of course, (v) the Nazi soldiers who come to Trachimbrod and brutally slaughter everybody. In contrast with this, the Jewish inhabitants of Trachimbrod are loving, non-violent, religious people. They are also extremely sexually active - particularly so Jonathan's grandfather.
    Therefore this book gives me the feeling that it was not intended for me, an outsider, a non-believer, a sceptic. Even worse, I am convinced that religion is the cause of much of the evil in the world. And so, in a sense, when reading the book I am an uncomfortable intruder into this private, Jewish world.
    The story consists of three parts. First of all there is Alex, the Ukrainian teenager, who is supposed to guide Jonathan, a young American Jewish person, to Trachimbrod. Then of course Jonathan. And finally, a story about life in Trachimbrod, from the 18th century up to its destruction by the Nazis in 1942. The narrative of Alex is given in a strange kind of broken English. Yet this is hardly the way a Ukrainian person learning English would speak. On the one hand, the language consists of an extensive English vocabulary. But then the mistakes in language are elementary. It reminds me of the way simple computer programs translated texts 20 or 30 years ago, producing distorted, vocabulary-rich, often meaningless verbiage.
    Alex writes similarly distorted letters to Jonathan, presumably at a later time, after their trip to Trachimbrod. In these letters he is telling Jonathan how to write the story of the history of Trachimbrod, so that the whole thing becomes a fiction about a fiction. This makes an interesting kind of recursive fiction, which perhaps is the thing which "dazzled" all of those professional newspaper reviewers. This recursive fiction is as if it were written by an adolescent boy, with all his sexual fantasies spelled out in tedious detail. Perhaps the reviewers found these sexual fantasies to be hysterically funny. I didn't.
    Throughout the book, Alex is continuously excited about the fact that Jonathan is an American. He dreams about traveling to America to become an accountant, and he dreams about all of the sexual adventures American accountants might experience. America represents, for him, the Land of the Future. The land of freedom, of wealth. And Jonathan is the smug, all-knowing, American traveler. According to the professional review of the book in Maxim, "Put off your plans to write the next great American novel - Foer's beaten you to it!". So I suppose the book is intended for American Jewish people.
    I wouldn't really like to speculate on what Jewish people of other countries might think of it. And what would the real-life victims of the Nazis have thought of these surreal, sexually oriented distortions of historical reality in modern literature?

The Silk Road, by Frances Wood

    As I understand it, this book was commissioned by the Folio Society in 2002. Yet it is also available from the University of California Press (for example, via Amazon). The author, Frances Wood, is the Head of the Chinese section at the British Library.
    Somehow, this whole idea of the "Silk Road" seems to be a fascinating thing. The Taklamakan desert in the heart of Asia is about 2000 kilometers long, and 500 wide. Huge, empty expanses of wide open country, free from the tarnish of humanity. There was a recent program on TV of a fellow who is thinking of organizing a bicycle tour along these central parts of the Silk Road (or Roads). Although we are certainly not great travelers, I can imagine that that would be a wonderful holiday.
    The present book consists of two parts. Chapters 1 to 9 describe the history of the Silk Roads in Central Asia. But then Chapter 10 is "The Great Game and the Silk Road". And the rest of the book, through to the final Chapter 15, is a rather long-winded description of various European and American explorers, shooting all the "Big Game" in sight, carting away whatever relics they could buy from the locals, and generally celebrating themselves, whereby the English play a most prominent role. I suppose that I am not a typical member of the Folio Society, since I view with some skepticism these nostalgic reminiscences of the Lost Empire of the British, the New Camelot upon which the Sun never sank. Yet there seems to be a great market for this genre.
    In any case, Frances Wood writes for her audience, quoting in tedious detail the letters of the English travelers at the beginning of the last century. Surely the most well-known European "explorer" of this epoch was the Swede, Sven Hedin. However, since Sven Hedin disliked the English, Frances Wood attempts to make him out to be a monster whenever he comes up in the text. For me, this unpleasant, rather anachronistic nationalism of the author tended to spoil my reading enjoyment. Certainly Frances Younghusband, one of her English heroes, succeeded in killing many more of the natives, and causing much more suffering, than did Hedin! The Russian "explorers" are only occasionally mentioned, but surely they were the most prominent Europeans in this epoch of the history of the Silk Road, since after all, they were the ones who succeeded in conquering large swathes of it. At least her principal hero, Aurel Stein, who was actually a Hungarian, seems to have been a sensible person.
    On the other hand, the book contains many interesting illustrations, and the first nine chapters, up to page 146, are concerned with the history of the Silk Road.
    About 15 or 20 years ago, I read an interesting book by a young English student who was studying at either Oxford or Cambridge. I'm afraid I have forgotten his name and the title of his book. He set off with his girlfriend during the long summer vacation to travel the whole length of the Silk Road, from Jerusalem to Kublai Kahn's ancient capital city of Xanadu, traveling overland, taking with him a vial of sacred oil, just as Marco Polo had done. His girlfriend hid beneath a scarf in Iran, and they hitched a ride with some truck drivers, taking them swiftly along the length of the Taklamakan desert. Then they were arrested and transported by train to Beijing. So it was a good adventure, but smooth, swift traveling, bringing them back to "Oxbridge" for the start of the autumn term at university. And the book was a joy to read. In any case I remember that the author emphasized the "fact" that in the summer of his travels - in 1990 or so - it was the first window of opportunity for anybody to travel the full length of the Silk Road since the middle ages.
    But that's nonsense! One of the members of our reading group is a son of Werner Otto von Hentig, who traveled the entire length of the Silk Road during the First World War in one of the most adventurous and dangerous expeditions imaginable. He was a young diplomat, at first stationed at the German Embassy in Beijing, then Istanbul. At the outbreak of the Great War he was traveling through Persia where he experienced the disruptions caused by the Russian and English attempts to violently expand their respective "spheres of influence". He traveled back to Turkey on horseback, avoiding enemy contacts, crossing the mountains of Kurdistan. After a short time on the Eastern Front, he was summoned to the High Command in Berlin where he was asked to organize an expedition to Afghanistan. The idea was to transport a certain obscure Indian revolutionary - Prince Mahendra Pratap - into British India, where he was supposed to cause an uprising, thus disrupting the British war effort in Europe. Modern readers might think the idea must have been nothing but hair-brained nonsense. However it is worthwile to remember that the same plan succeeded with regard to Russia, where the Germans transported Lenin from his comfortable home in Switzerland, through Germany, and inserted him back into Russia in the middle of World War One. This action certainly did cause a great deal of disruption!
    Anyway, Lenin's rail journey from Switzerland to Finland was utterly trivial in comparison with von Hentig's journey to Kabul. The first part, by train to Turkey, then floating down the river to Baghdad, was easy. But crossing into Persia, things became more difficult. To avoid the Russians to the north and the British to the south, the route crossed the Dasht-e Kavir, the Great Salt Desert. The task was made difficult not only by the fact that he was being continuously hunted, but also owing to the circumstance that his cargo, the Mahendra Pratap, was a bad traveler, complaining continuously about the hardships, being carried most of the way. Crossing the border into Afghanistan involved a complicated cat-and-mouse game, deceiving his pursuers in the desert. They finally reached Herat, and then were escorted to Kabul by the Afghans, reaching the city on the 26th of September, 1915. Von Hentig negotiated with the Emir, Habibullah Kahn, signing a peace agreement with him at the beginning of 1916, with promises of German military support, perhaps in the event that the war would turn out well for the Germans. However, the Emir became convinced that this would not be the case, and so von Hentig chose to leave. The Prince Mahendra Pratap cut a bad figure in all of this.
    While some of his men returned westwards, von Hentig, together with a few others went eastwards over the Pamirs, narrowly escaping Russian patrols sent out to kill him. He arrived in Kashgar at the western end of the Taklamakan desert, the famous meeting point of the various Silk Roads. There he was immediately arrested. The question was, should he be executed? It is unclear what the role of the British consul, Sir George Macartney was in all this, but eventually the Chinese officials succeeded in obtaining his release. China was still neutral as far as the war was concerned, and it was decided that he should be escorted along into China proper. His passage along the Silk Road turned into a procession, with the local population at the various oases cheering this representative of Germany which was fighting the hated colonial powers of England and Russia.
    Yet the wind was changing, the Allies were winning the war, and so China decided to enter on the side of the winners. Von Hentig managed to smuggle himself as a stowaway aboard a ship sailing for Japan and then Hawaii. The stopover in Japan was very dangerous for him, and upon arrival in Honolulu, he slipped over the side of the ship at night, swimming out of the harbor and around to the beach. But he had lost what remained of his money in the water, and so he decided to turn himself in. The U.S.A. was also still neutral at that stage so that after a short internment in San Francisco he was transported over to New York, and then put on a ship to Norway from which he finally returned to Germany.

The Body Snatcher and Other Stories, by Robert Louis Stevenson

    This is a collection of fourteen stories, the last and shortest of which is The Body Snatcher, a kind of ghost story which is based on the true story of the methods used at the University of Edinburgh in the 19th century for obtaining dead bodies for the use of the anatomy class in the Faculty of Medicine. The other stories in this collection are equally macabre. Most are concerned with murder. It starts off with a murder in Paris in the winter of 1456 in A Lodging for the Night. It seems that this was one of the first stories Robert Louis Stevenson published in one of those gentleman's magazines back then in the England of the late 19th century. They had such titles as: Temple Bar, or Longman's Magazine, or Unwin's Christmas Annual, and so on.
    His linked stories, The Suicide Club, and The Rajah's Diamond are very much in this style of writing which we think of when thinking of these gentleman's magazines. It's all about honor, the word of a gentleman being upheld, even to a crook, and so forth. The hero of these stories is the imaginary Prince of Bohemia who, of course, is an extremely British gentleman of London. (Although he is also very much at home in his Paris townhouse, when he happens to be in Paris.) When he appears upon the scene, everybody immediately senses his great moral and intellectual superiority, and they can only adopt a groveling reverence for His Highness, as befitting a man of royal blood. Thus, in order to solve interesting murder mysteries, The Prince goes forth from his various townhouses with his faithful Master of Horse, Colonel Geraldine, in disguise. According to the Introduction to this book, Arthur Conan Doyle based his character of Sherlock Holmes to a great degree on this Prince of Bohemia.
    As we know, Bohemia is the western half of the present-day Czech Republic. Thus, in the Victorian era of Robert Louis Stevenson, it was rather Germanic. I can hardly imagine present-day English gentleman's magazines, if such things exist (perhaps in the reincarnation of Sunday supplements to The Guardian, or The Times) portraying the past nobility of central Europe as being anything other than degenerate spongers on normal society. In fact, they would think of them as being Bohemians! Back in the Victorian era, it seems that the gentlemen of London or Paris imagined that Bohemia was the source of the Gypsies of the world. Thus, indeed, this choice of a homeland for his hero seems to be a rather bohemian idea of Robert Louis Stevenson. (One must remember that Stevenson's father considered the idea of publishing fiction to be indecent and below his station in life. Therefore the father did his best to discourage him in these writings.)
    Anyway, when reading the stories in this book, we see how Stevenson's style matured.  He uses lots of obscure words. For example, he was particularly fond of the word "crapulous", which comes up a number of times. It seems to me to be rather indecent, as is much in Stevenson's writings. In fact, I see that the people who compiled the dictionary, which is the basis of the spelling checker in the word processor which I am now using, have refrained themselves from including the word crapulous in their software. Yet it is in my Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary (1956 edition), which I have had most of my life. (It is also interesting to note here that, according to the Wikipedia, Thomas Crapper was not the inventor of the water closet!)
    But to get on with these things, I will say that I most enjoyed the story of The Beach of Falesá. As is well-known, Robert Louis Stevenson ended up in a house in Samoa in the South Pacific. In those days, it was a cliché to say that white men, washed up on the beaches of the South Pacific islands, automatically sank into a degenerate state of depravity. I see no reason to think that this would be true in modern times. But Stevenson gives us a convincing account of the lawless, dangerous situation which must have existed in those days.

A Book of Travelers Tales, by Eric Newby

    Another collection of stories. But these stories are even shorter, very much shorter than in the previous book. Some years ago, I read Newby's The Last Grain Race, in which he describes how, as a teenager in 1938, he shipped aboard a Finnish square-rigged sailing ship in England, then sailed with it to South Australia where they loaded a cargo of wheat, then they sailed back with it around Cape Horn to England. He had a bad time with the rough young Finnish sailors who were his traveling companions, but he managed to survive, defending himself with occasional outbursts of violence. According to the Wikipedia article I have linked to above, he had an interesting time in World War II, which he also managed to survive. Then he joined his father in the dress-making business. However, for a man of such spirit, that couldn't have provided him with much satisfaction, so he set off on various further epic travels.
    The present book reflects his fascination with the whole theme of traveling. It is over 500 pages long, and there must be at least 500 little stories in the book, each a paragraph or two written by some traveler or other, dealing with all sorts of strange things. Also Newby describes briefly the life of each of the authors he has included in his collection. They range from Xenophon (c.430-c355 BC), a Greek mercenary, describing the retreat of the "Ten Thousand" (a Greek force fighting for Persia) after their defeat at the Battle of Cunaxa, to Eric Newby himself, describing his encounter with Wilfred Thesiger in the Hindu Kush in 1956.
    All in all, lots of interesting little stories to browse through.

The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey

    This book is written as if it was a kind of murder mystery. The main character is Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard. He was injured while pursuing the villain in his last case, so we meet him in hospital, in a fit of boredom. His girlfriend, an actress, brings him various things in order to wile away the time, and eventually he becomes interested in the case of King Richard the Third, who was the last of the Plantagenet kings of England. He was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field, owing mainly to the treachery of two of the noblemen in his forces. His opponent in the battle was Henry Tudor, leading a force of French mercenaries. Henry had little legitimate claim to the throne, but a systematic program of killing off all possible legitimate claimants - continued by his son, Henry the Eighth - effectively brought the Wars of the Roses to an end.
    All of this is long ago and seemingly of little interest to the modern reader. Nothing but the dust of history. If anything, we are fascinated and horrified by the monstrous figure of Henry VIII. What tourist, doing the tour of the Tower of London, fails to be disgusted by the huge suit of armor on display which belonged to Henry the Eighth? What a mountain of fat he must have been! And how absurd is the great bulbous projection attached to the lower portions of the armor, for holding his penis!
    In any case, the claims of the Tudors to the throne depended on portraying their predecessors, the Plantagenets, as being monsters. Thus we have Shakespeare's play about Richard the Third. In it, Richard is supposed to be a coldly calculating man, trapping his two nephews in the Tower (in those days it wasn't a prison - rather it was just the residence of the King, as Buckingham Palace is today) and secretly having them killed. Shakespeare based his story on the writings of Sir Thomas More, and apparently the schoolbooks of England, at least at the time this book was written (1951), remained true to the Shakespearian tradition.
    Inspector Alan Grant's girlfriend gives him a portrait of Richard III, and as a policeman, he thinks he knows faces. And for him, this face is definitely not the face of a murderer. So he looks up all he can find on the subject of the Murder in the Tower, and concludes that Richard was the innocent nice guy, while the evil Tudors falsified history, Henry VII being the actual murderer. It is an interesting story, and it makes sense. Grant becomes increasingly angry about all the professional historians who, throughout the last 500 years, have been continuously feeding us this false nonsense about Richard III. This leads to the title of the book, "The Daughter of Time". It is a quote from the Roman writer Aulus Gellius: "truth is the daughter of time". That sounds like a pleasant idea, but apparently in this instance, a lie is the true daughter of time.
    But is it? Looking up Richard III in the Wikipedia - and I have linked to it above - I see that no credence is given to the Shakespeare story. And the entry for the Princes in the Tower discounts it altogether. Also my copy of the Oxford Illustrated Encyclopedia says much the same, albeit in an abbreviated way. Therefore it was slightly puzzling for me to read the Introduction to my copy of The Daughter of Time, written by the historian Alison Weir. She writes that "Nowadays, despite the best efforts of the Richard III Society, most serious historians tend to the view that the King did murder his nephews". Yet she gives almost no evidence to support such a statement. Therefore I dismiss it and remain convinced by the facts put forward in this book.
    According to the Richard III article in the Wikipedia, in 1997 three justices of the Supreme Court of the U.S.A. took part in a mock trial of Richard III, and unanimously found him to be innocent. If we are to believe that such justices truly represent and defend justice, then this is something which might be taken seriously. On the other hand, given the fact that only four years later, the Supreme Court of the U.S.A. chose to violate its constitutional powers and simply appoint the present inhabitant of the White House to his position, then it would seem to me that they have disqualified themselves from passing judgment on the facts surrounding the usurpation of a country by a vigorous family.

Between the Woods and the Water, by Patrick Leigh Fermor

    When he was only 18 years old, in 1934, Patrick Leigh Fermor set off from England with the idea of walking the whole way from Holland through Europe to Constantinople. The first part of the journey is described in another book, A Time of Gifts, which I haven't read. The present book takes up the story as he crosses over the bridge across the Danube from Slovakia into Hungary at Esztergom. As a matter of fact, we drove across that bridge a couple of years ago, and had a day in Esztergom, going through the great cathedral overlooking the river. That was our furthest advance into Eastern Europe.
    This book describes Fermor's adventures from Esztergom, then down to Budapest, across the Great Plain of Hungary, up the Mure River into the Carpathian Mountains of Transylvania, then crossing the mountains southwards, to regain the Danube at Orsova, where he transferred into Bulgaria. He wrote the book much later in life - it was first published in 1986 - so it is filled with meditations of great erudition on the history of these regions. But as a young fellow, he was much interested in languages. He had had a classical education, so that his Latin served him well in Romania. He was also fluent in French and German. And he often describes the pleasant hours he spent during this journey in the libraries of his various hosts.
    His own background is described in this Wikipedia article. He doesn't seem to have had an extraordinarily well-placed family, and he seems to have started his journey in Holland very simply, existing on almost no money. Hardly to be distinguished from the many hobos walking about in the world during the Great Depression. But somehow, before his arrival in Esztergom, he  became acquainted with various families in the old landed aristocracy of Germany and Austria-Hungary. He is awaited in Esztergom by the mayor, and also a gentleman who, after a comfortable night in his townhouse, offers to drive him to Budapest in his Bugatti. But the intrepid author refuses, resolving to journey on foot. He camps overnight with a pair of shepherds, but then walks into Budapest to stay with an ancient family of Hungarian nobility who welcome him with open arms. He is invited to many parties, nightclubs, and so forth, receiving countless invitations to stay with the various barons and counts, and what not, whose castles and manor houses lie out to the East, along his proposed path. His Budapest acquaintances were kind enough to lend him a horse, which he then rides across the Great Plain of Hungary.
    How wonderful it is to be young, enthusiastic! To see the beauties of the world, and to be fascinated with the people one meets. Therefore he progressed from one stately home to the next, to be greeted as an old friend of the family at each. People begged him to stay on for weeks, or even months at a time. These ancient families had lost much of their properties in the upheavals following the First World War, but they retained their old dignity, with little money, in houses which were gradually falling apart. He particularly describes a rather secret drive around central Transylvania with István (or Steven, in English) who had become a great friend, and Angéla, who was unhappily married, but who had become passionately enamored with the author, in a borrowed car. This becomes a dreamy mixture of ancient mountains and history.
    What a wonderful book this is. But somehow, it was rather exhausting to read. All these youthful passions. The book ends as Patrick Leigh Fermor takes a jaunt on a Danube steamer, negotiating the Kazan rapids, and then the Iron Gates. But in an Appendix to the book, he tells us that this has all disappeared in a great lake behind a gigantic dam which has been built across the Danube at that point. The Nazis and the Communists have wiped out much of the rest of that which he describes.
    We were shocked by the run-down state of the towns in Slovakia, but things are looking quite good in Hungary these days. Hopefully, Eastern Europe will now be free to regain the charm of the old days.

Charlemagne, by Alessandro Barbero

    This link is to a translation of the Latin biography of Charlemagne, written by the abbot Einhard in the early medieval times following Charlemagne's reign. It is perhaps the main source of information about Charlemagne. The author of the present book, Alessandro Barbero, is an Italian professor of medieval history at Turin. The book has been translated into English by Allan Cameron. It's not just concerned with the personal details of Charlemagne's life. More than that, it describes the conditions of life in general, as it was back then in the year 800 or so.
    The name "Charlemagne" is a bit funny. His name was really just "Charles", but then after he died, people added the word "magnus" onto it, meaning "the great" in Latin. So over the centuries, the unwieldy "Charles-magnus", in a process of simplification, became Charlemagne. Germans refer to him not as Charlemagne, but rather as "Karl der Grosse"; that is to say "Carl the great". The name Karl, or Charles, or Carlos, etc., is not at all uncommon in Europe. Its original form was "Kerl", which in German means a man, but in a familiar sense. The chap. The guy. Something like that. A nice, straightforward sort of name.
    Anyway, Charlemagne was the king of the Franks back then. The Franks were originally a collection of Germanic tribes, the ones which caused the Roman Empire such problems to the east of the Rhine. But after the original Roman Empire collapsed (or at least slowly toppled), the Franks took over the administration of Gaul. According to the Roman poet Sidonius Apollinaris, the Frank's preferred amusements were "throwing axes at targets, spinning their shields, and running and catching their spears after having thrown them. If overcome by superior enemy numbers or adverse terrain, they yield only to death and never to fear."
    Therefore we think of them as being fanatical, uncivilized savages, fighting their way to the conquest of whatever remained of the Western Roman Empire. However Charlemagne, and his predecessors, Pepin and Charles Martel, knew that that was nonsense! In reality, just as the Greeks and the Latins were the descendants of Homer's Achaeans (the very ancient Greeks), the Franks were the true descendants of the Trojans! They were an ancient fabled people whose purpose in the divine plan of God was to defend the true religion and civilization from both the onslaughts of the heathens from without and also from corruption within. Thus they were unpleasant religious fanatics. Totally intolerant. They knew that they were the truely chosen people of God. Their adversaries, the primitive, lower orders of people towards the East, were either heathens, or else they believed in the false version of Christianity in which it was imagined that the Holy Spirit descended from the Father through the Son to the Earth. This simple-minded way of thinking of those primitive peoples precluded the contemplation of the sublime philosophy of the Unity of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. The Truth. The Holy Trinity. And so forth.
    So it seems to me to be strange that a hundred years ago, French and German historians argued about whether our hero was really "Charlemagne", or "Karl der Grosse". In reality, Charlemagne spoke both the proto-German of that period as well as the corrupted Latin of Gaul, and also classical Latin as well. And anyway, todays France is called "Frankreich" in German, that is, the "Empire of the Franks". But after reading this book, it becomes clear that the Frankish (or Carolingian) Empire back then is not something that a modern-day country would wish to be descended from!
    These days, hardly anybody is interested in the relative importance of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost. Instead, we are interested in the flows of money throughout the world. Globalization. Every university has a faculty of economics, where it is taught that the world consists of supply and demand. Even the wars which we fight are concerned with raising the price of oil by means of restricting supply (an endeavor which seems to have succeeded beyond the wildest imaginings of even the most optimistic of the leaders of our present-day world). Thus it is difficult to imagine that in Charlemagne's time, the universe was constructed according to totally different principles!
    The Church and the State were one entity. The counts (responsible for counties throughout the empire) and the bishops and abbots were controlled by Charlemagne, and they in turn controlled everybody else. The mass of people were slaves, or pseudo-slaves, who slaved on the fields of their corrupt masters: the Church, the Crown, and perhaps the occasional private landlord. Every year, they were called to assemble in the summer to throw themselves into the eternal wars of the empire. Taxation (or tribute in kind, as money was not particularly in circulation) was crippling, forcing people to sell themselves back into slavery in order to survive, thus creating a staggering gap between the poverty of the mass of normal people and the unimagined riches of the corrupt and degenerate few. The smallest degree of protest against this corruption of the church was met with public whippings, torture and death. Thankfully, this regime soon weakened, leading to a happier time in the high middle ages a few hundred years later.
    Reading the newspapers these days is often a depressing business. But this book is a good antidote for those impressionable people who believe that the evil of the present day is unprecedented.

Ich bin dann mal weg, by Hape Kerkeling

    Hape (or Hans-Peter) Kerkeling is a comedian in German television. The link here is to a short video of him in YouTube, where he speaks a bit in English. There seem to be hundreds of these videos posted there. Most of them are really very funny, but they are all in German. However he also speaks French, Italian, Spanish, English and Dutch fluently. Since I can barely cope with two languages, this seems to me to be an extremely admirable achievement. I think his TV shows are shown on RTL television, but apart from the news, we watch little TV, so I haven't seen much of him. (But RTL does carry the Formula 1 races, which I do enjoy watching.) In any case, Hape Kerkeling is a famous personality in Germany.
    This book, whose Amazon page is here, describes his trek along the pilgrims trail from the Pyrenees Mountains, across the north of Spain to Santiago de Compostela. About 600km, and it seems to be a popular thing to do. I saw in the newspaper some time ago that George W. Bush's daughters walked along it too. But probably not the whole 600km. According to Kerkeling, if you walk just the last 100km, or ride a bicycle (or a horse) the last 200 km, then you still get the certificate saying that you have done the pilgrimage. Also the Catholic Church absolves you of all sins, for whatever that is worth. From his descriptions, it is clear that almost nobody these days is worried about their sins. On the contrary, one must sometimes be on the lookout for people keen to commit sins!
    The book is written like a diary, following his journey day for day and station for station. Kerkeling got the idea to do this trip after he had a sudden but temporary loss of hearing, and also he had to have his gall bladder removed. I suppose the life of a comedian is very stressful, always telling jokes, always being the life of the party, and these were signs that he needed to take a break from this life.
    He starts off wanting to be alone, but the first day is a disaster. It is raining heavily. He must climb a steep mountain road to cross over into Spain. He is physically unfit. Soon he has a crisis of body and spirit, and he flags down a Basque sheep farmer who transports him to the top of the hill in his truck (with sheep in the back). On arrival at Roncesvalles - the first station in Spain - he takes one look at the refugio, where the hardened pilgrims sleep overnight, and decides to spend the night in a more comfortable hotel. At each station, you have to have your pilgrim's pass stamped at the refugio to prove that you have been there in order to get your certificate at the end. In contrast to staying in a hotel, the refugio is free, but each pilgrim is only allowed to spend one night at each one. You have to keep moving. The person running the first refugio tells him crossly that a true pilgrim does not allow himself to simply take the easy path and sleep in hotels, but Kerkeling decides that that is the only way to go.
    After just one more day of walking, he is already exhausted and ready to give up. His feet ache! Everything hurts. So he decides to cheat and take a bus from Pamplona westwards, just skipping a couple of stations of the pilgrimage. But then he does continue honestly, meeting various other pilgrims, but staying more to himself. Various German pilgrims recognize him from TV, but he avoids them. He observes that most of the people doing this trip are single women, either young ones looking for potential husbands, or middle-aged ones looking for the meaning of life. He himself has often said on TV that he is a gay person, and he is happy to acknowledge this fact openly. Still, he finds many of the women to be interesting, attractive people, and they are also attracted to him. He is particularly interested in a 40 year old English woman, Anne, who turns out to have had a life of traveling about the world up to this time.
    He has a most unpleasant night at the halfway point, in the hotel (or motel) at Sahaguin, and is on the point of giving up, finding the whole thing to be meaningless, the people shallow, the Spanish TV in his motel room incredibly banal, tasteless. After a day of crisis, he takes the train on to León, again skipping a couple of stations. But then he meets up with Anne again, they walk together, and he tells her that he is gay so she need have no fear that he will attempt to rape her. They are joined by Sheelagh, a middle-aged woman from New Zealand. And they become almost like a small, happy family. Hape and Anne are the children, and Sheelagh is the mother. So the rest of the trip becomes a wonderful, shared experience. They stay together in 3-bed rooms in hotels, sitting up till late at night in restaurants, having a great time. The last few days before Santiago de Compostella are sad, realizing it will all soon come to an end. The roads become filled with hoards of new pilgrims, only doing the absolute minimum 100km. The refugios and hotels are booked out. They must dodge large, loud, fast-moving trucks on dangerously narrow roads. However, at the penultimate stage, where thousands of teaming pilgrims are camped all over themselves in makeshift tents, schoolrooms, and the lobbys of hotels, Kerkeling has the idea of looking in the telephone book for private accommodation. His colloquial Spanish cannot cope with the Galilean dialect of the landlady, but his humor and Anne's impeccable Spanish win the day. (The sum of his sins is increased slightly when he says that he is married to Sheelagh.) It turns out that they are not just renting a small room, but the whole house, with a bedroom for each, and three bathrooms, with magnificent views of the Spanish mountains! It costs almost nothing.
     This book was a birthday present, since we had vaguely been thinking that the Santiago de Compostella thing might be something interesting to do. So it was good to read this book to see what it is all about. For most people, it seems to be a kind of psycho-theater, pretending to be just a normal tourist, but really looking for whatever "God" is supposed to mean in their lives. (For Kerkeling, this seems to have been the realization that it is possible to exist for a time without his thoughts racing back and forth throughout his head, making jokes, putting everything into words.) This pilgrimage is not the pleasant, group experience of Geoffrey Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales, where the pilgrims stay together, having a good time on an organized tour. Instead, the modern pilgrim is an isolated, lonely person. Kerkeling observes that most of the people starting out together as pairs, or small groups, soon break up, each continuing on on his or her own. He is particularly upset about the fate of many of the poor dogs of Spain. As with the people, they are often abandoned. They are left tied on horribly short chains to stakes out in the hot sun to die of thirst. He rescues one poor such creature, and is then refused entrance to all hotels and refugios. At the local police station, the animal welfare people come and take the little dog - he has already started calling it Pepe, and thinking of taking it back to Germany - away in a truck.
    A few miles from the end, in a Disnyland-like "haunted forrest" which he passes through alone (Anne and Sheelagh have left the track temporarily in order to see some extra sights), he is accosted by a Dutch woman wandering back and forth in the forrest. She begins to tell him about all the ghosts she says are in his family, and continues by asserting that his dead grandmother wants to have a word with him through her, as medium. But he is quickly rid of her with a few rude words in Dutch.
    This book has cured me of any ambition I might have had to take part in possible hiking adventures in Spain!

The Shooting Party, by Anton Chekhov

    According to the Introduction to my copy of this book, the English have adopted Chekhov in the same way that the Germans have adopted Shakespeare's Hamlet. Perhaps someone might click in here with a great knowledge of Chekhov and be horrified about the fact that I know very little about him. So for whatever it is worth, and lacking totally in originality, I link here to the Wikipedia page of Chekhov. Some time ago I did read his The Island of Sakhalin, which is a very different book from this one. I have also seen one or two of his plays on TV.
    Scrolling down the Wikipedia page, there is a nice picture of the author with his wife, Olga Knipper, whom he married in 1901. Chekhov doesn't look particularly healthy in that picture. He died of tuberculoses in 1904. On the other hand, Olga lived on till 1959. I don't know if she had to put up with all the unpleasant revolutionary upheavals of Stalinist Russia, or whether she was able to save herself by emigrating. She looks very much better than he does in the picture. In any case, the heroine of the present book is also named Olga. But her friends call her Olenka, and her lovers, Olya. The Introduction says that Chekhov had numbers of further lovers. It quotes Donald Rayfield (whoever he is) who said, "Zoologists might compare Anton's sexuality with that of the cheetah, which can only mate with a stranger".
    Be that as it may, the present book is concerned with passionate love, drunken debauchery, murder. It is the only novel Chekhov wrote, and he wrote it, or at least he first published it, in 1884 when he was 24 years old. He was a young medical doctor, and to earn some extra money, he wrote lots of short stories for the papers. I suppose you would call it pulp fiction. This one was a long story which appeared in weekly installments from August 1884 to April 1885 in the paper News of the Day in Russia. So reading from one chapter to the next, one can imagine the newspaper readers finishing the chapter and then having to wait till next week to see how things develop further.
    In a certain sense it is a murder mystery. But the question of who was the murderer is not much of a mystery; it is obvious from the beginning that the imaginary author of the story himself did it. Much more interesting is the whole world of Russia in the 1880s which Chekhov describes here. The degenerate count, who is one of Olga's lovers, is a rather pathetic figure, despite his extensive family properties (which he later loses to the Polish wife he had married by mistake in a drunken moment in St. Petersburg some time before the time of the story). The narrator is Sergey Petrovich Zinovyev, who is an investigating magistrate in the small town where Count Karneyev has his estate. They are both caught up in the spell of Olga, but she marries the Count's estate manager, even though she really loves Sergey, but would prefer to become the mate of the Count, that is, she would like to become a Countess. All of this is brought to an abrupt end with screamings in the woods as the shooting party has just made a nice stop in a clearing in the late afternoon in order to have tea from the samovar (washed down with further bottles of vodka). This really is one of those books where you stay up, turning the pages to see what happens next.

An Illustrated Journey Round the World, by Thomas, William and Samuel Daniell

    I have linked here to an internet shop which sells rare books, maps and so on. They also sell some of the original prints of the Daniells. But look at the prices! US$4,000,- and more for one picture!! At least they allow you to have a slightly larger view with a further click, so you can get an impression of what it is. But rest assured, I have not spent thousands of American dollars on this book, which is over 300 pages long, is very nicely made by the Folio Society, and it has well over 100 full page illustrations by the Daniells. In fact, I think it cost me less than 30 American dollars (at the half-price which I paid).
    The idea is that Thomas Daniell, an English artist, set off with his nephew William (who was only 16 or so at the time) to travel to India in 1785 in order to paint, or engrave, or whatever, pictures to sell them to the English colonialists who were living there. Upon arrival in India, they were disappointed to discover that there was not so much excess money as had been rumored to be the case, so after making lots of pictures, they returned to England in 1794. There they produced numbers of volumes of their pictures which sold well, thus recouping their costs.
    This book gives a good idea of the economics of life in those days. For the English, the Indian Ocean, and beyond, was privately controlled by the East India Company. So this is even a stage further than the privatization of war and colonialism which the present-day rulers of America are attempting to revive in Iraq. Yet in the late 18th century, the abuses of this privatized government were becoming all too apparent, and it was soon to be replaced by a more orderly regime. The Daniells passage to India involved traveling first to Canton in China, then from there, a further passage back to Calcutta. According to this book, the cost of the England - China leg of the trip alone was at least 500 pounds! In order to realize how much this is, one should remember that one English pound in those days was worth about 200 euros of todays money, or say 250 American dollars. Therefore that part of the trip alone cost at least 100,000 euros! For that, the two of them were crammed into a tiny cabin in the ship, squeezing themselves amongst all their luggage, seasick, choking on the foul air. In comparison, today you can fly non-stop on a jumbo from England to Hong Kong in more comfort, even in the "cattle class", for less than 500 of todays totally devalued English pounds! Thus one sees that in order to recover their costs, the Daniells had to sell their pictures at prices which were at least as high as those of this modern-day internet shop.
    Anyway, these pictures portray a different world than that which we usually associate with India. One thinks of India as being totally over-populated with starving, disease-ridden people. They live in slums, or homeless, on the streets. The buildings are destitute, collapsing ruins. Sanitation is non-existent. Or have I simply read too many books by the likes of Arundhati Roy, and so on? Strangely enough, there have recently been articles in the Guardian Newspaper saying that some people even imagine that India is a very prosperous place.
    In any case, the pictures of the Daniells depict a world which is totally different from either the vision of India as a slum, or India as a hyper-modern computer society. The Daniell's India is a world of clean, vast proportions, containing timeless monumental scenes worthy of the classical visions of the ancients. The light in the pictures has a glowing, heavenly quality. Each picture includes a small group of native people, standing or sitting in the distance in their elegant garb, near a classical temple, or a temple of Nature, calmly discussing the beauties of life, the profound questions of philosophy. This is India as paradise. As Heaven.
    The second part of the book is concerned with the travels of Samuel Daniell, the younger brother of William. He traveled to Southern Africa, where he stayed from 1799 till 1801, then he was in Ceylon from 1805 until his death in 1811. He traveled as private secretary, or whatever, to the Governor, and so he had no traveling expenses. England had taken over control of South Africa during the Napoleonic wars in order to protect the Dutch settlers from the French. After what appeared to be the end of the war in 1801, they withdrew, leaving the Dutch again to themselves and their "Hottentot" slaves. In this situation, the English could observe the evil effects of racial disharmony and oppression. Samuel's pictures show interesting, real people. He is fascinated by the various tribes of Africans which he particularly studied during a long, adventurous trek up north of the Orange River with a small party of other people. The purpose was to try and buy some cattle from the northern tribes to relieve the famine at the Cape, owing to a long period of drought. Also his pictures of the African animals are full of life. Then also his views of Ceylon (or Sri Lanka) are much different from those of his brother and uncle. A beautiful picture of a woman carrying grass could have been painted by one of the French impressionists later in the century.

Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

    What a wonderful writer Adichie is! She is an African, a Nigerian, although it's much more complicated than that. In fact she is a member of the Igbo people, or ethnic-linguistic grouping, living near the delta of the Niger river. So this book describes what happened to a family (with friends and relatives) of her fellow Igbo, between 1960 and 1970. There is Odenigbo, who is a lecturer in mathematics at the University in Nsukka, then Olanna who is the the daughter of one of the most important and well-to-do Chiefs of Nigeria at the beginning of the story, her sister Kainene, the hard-headed business-woman, and Richard, the Englishman who became Kainene's partner. Then of course the central figure of the book, Ugwu the houseboy.
    In fact, if you have a look at Adichie's biography here, you will see that the characters were not unlike the people she grew up with. Her father was the first professor of statistics in Nigeria, and worked at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka, where he became the Deputy Vice-Chancellor. But happily, Chimamanda Adichie was born later, in 1977, so she did not have to experience the things described in this book.
    At the beginning, in 1960, Nigeria was just at the point of gaining its independence from England. Everybody is optimistic. Ugwu is overwhelmed with his luck in gaining a position at the house of Odenigbo, who treats him in a most dignified and civilized way. He sends him to school and intends to send him on to university later. He calls him "my good man" all the time. And Richard, after surviving a shallow affair with the English "ex-patriot" Susan in Lagos, is overwhelmed to meet Kainene and her extremely cosmopolitan and wealthy family. The beautiful daughter Olanna is in love with Odenigbo, but the family thinks that he is a bit beneath her despite the fact of his position at the university. Odenigbo is filled with the ideals of equality, tolerance, progress, and so forth. They call him "Olanna's revolutionary".
    Adichie has a wonderful way of describing all this. We become part of the story. It is fascinating to see things through Adichie's eyes. Nigeria is a different world than Europe or America - or even South America, which is a derivative of Spanish and Portuguese culture. This is the Africa of a true African, not the Africa of the newspapers, or Hollywood, or books written by non-Africans. It has nothing to do with the idea that "we" should help the "poor Africans", and so on. No. This is the world of Africa. It is concerned with the elite of Africa, just as most novels which take place in Europe or the USA are concerned with interesting people, belonging to the elite (in the widest sense of the word) here.
    Unfortunately, in real life, and also in this novel, there was a catastrophic turn of events for the Igbo people in the later half of the 1960s. As Adichie describes things, Nigeria was an artificial construction of English colonialism. The boundaries of the countries of present-day Africa were drawn by cynical, self-serving colonialists in Europe, without regard for the people living there. Nigeria is an abomination, concocted mainly of the Hausa Islamists in the north, the Yoruba in the south-west, and the Igbo in the south-east. The English found it easiest to deal with the Islamic Hausa, letting them control the people to the south of the Niger. After all, traditionally they lived by raiding the southern tribes, capturing slaves, perhaps in the end to have them sold at Gambia to the English slave traders who sold them in America. However, in the artificial colonial state of Nigeria, the Igbo became the successful tribe, dominating business. This led to horrible pogroms in 1966, in which countless Igbo were slaughtered. Those who survived thought that the best solution would be to create their own small country, which they called Biafra. Unfortunately, as in present day Iraq, the ground beneath the country contained extensive resources of mineral oil. Thus the "wolves" of Washington and London saw to it that Biafra was liquidated. There was a certain amount of "protest" in student circles, but everybody was mainly focused on Vietnam in those days, so Biafra disappeared without trace.
    (The other abomination created by the English in Africa is Sudan, which remains even today the scene of horrible sufferings. - Let's not begin thinking about the English legacy in the Indian subcontinent, or the Middle East!)
    The Wikipedia article on Nigeria has a map, showing the ethno-linguistic groupings in the country. It shows many more than just the three groups mentioned before. There is also the Ido, the Ijaw, the Kanuri, the Ibibio, and so forth. So maybe the act of declaring Biafra as an Igbo country was itself an aggression against the other peoples living in the south-east. On the other hand, the creation of an ethnically united country as a response to catastrophic pogroms is certainly understandable.
    In any case, this is a magnificent book, and it is the perfect rejoinder to Coetzee's thesis that Africans are incapable of writing good novels! It is true that life can be horrible, but life can also be good, and I am looking forward to reading something from Chimamanda Adichie which is not so totally sad and depressing as this.

The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, by Yann Martel

    This is a collection of four more or less short stories from Martel's early work. He has a rather quirky style and he sees these stories as being the exercises of his youth, leading to his Life of Pi. Well, I did enjoy Life of Pi, but it wasn't really a great book. Whatever greatness it had was based on its quirkiness.
    The first story in the present collection has absolutely nothing to do with Helsinki. I don't know what a "Roccamatio" is supposed to be. It apparently has something to do with Boccaccio's Decamerone. This story only has a remote connection with that, since it is concerned with the author's emotional convulsions whilst watching his good friend die of AIDS. The story was written in the 1980s when the treatment for AIDS involved poisoning the patient with massive doses of AZT. A horrifying description is given of how the friend is awakened lovingly at all hours of the day and night to be gently given his poison. The resulting decline and expiration is described in fits of emotional despair.
    The second story has a ridiculously long title, which I won't repeat here. It is concerned with what it is like for a person who has had absolutely no experience of music to be suddenly confronted with it. Some of the great classics are played, yet the author is irritated, since the music disturbs his ability to think of various banal words while it is playing. After enduring the first pieces of music, the final piece is a chaotic mess which the musicians are unable to play properly. And of course the author is overwhelmed by this wonderful musical experience!
    How dreadful it is to find oneself sitting next to such a person at a concert. They start fidgeting, looking at the floor, the ceiling, their watch, they squirm about in their chair. All around them, other people are unable to let themselves be carried away by the music. Instead, the fidgeting person, fighting against the music, is all that can be felt. What a mess!
    The third story is called "Manners of Dying". It is a whole collection of various possible letters from the warden of a prison to the mother of a prisoner who has just been executed by hanging. The various letters describe the possible last hours of the dead man.
    The final story was the best. A bizarre idea about how mirrors were made in the old days. You had a machine into which sand, silver, and the other ingredients of a mirror were first added, then the person whose mirror it was to be had to tell all the stories of the people who were to be seen in the mirror. The stories went on and on and on and blablablablabla........... etc. And then the machine produced the mirror, with lots of little words in the glass if you looked really, really closely.

Ich und Kaminski, by Daniel Kehlmann

    Actually, I brought a different paperback along on our holidays this year (apart from the one by Yann Martel, above), namely The Buddha of Suburbia, by Hanif Kureishei. The blurb looked good, so I bought it at the local book shop. But after reading 30 or 40 pages, I just gave up in disgust.
    Therefore, as an alternative, I read the present book which is concerned with the author attempting to write the biography of the old painter, Kaminski. The author is an extremely cynical person, whose manners are deplorable. He is an art critic, and he thinks that Kaminski will soon die, thus generating some interest for a timely biography which might land the author with the post of the critic of a well-known national magazine. But it turns out that Kaminski is far more cynical than the poor author. He uses him, and then ruins him. Kaminski's fame owes to the fact that he is nearly - but not quite - blind. His early work was ignored as being banal kitsch (as far as anybody was aware of it at all). Then for some obscure reason, a painting of his was displayed in a famous art gallery in New York with the title of the painting, and then the added comment "This painting was painted by a blind man". Immediately Kaminski became all the rage, becoming feted by Picasso, Matisse, etc. His paintings fetched astronomical prices and so he could retire to his alpine chalet, with his BMW, and his daughter who looked after him in his decrepit old age. Thus the book was a funny satire on the miserable state of modern art. Really a rather typical German novel.
    After finishing it, I got into another German novel which described the three-way love affair of a German student couple and a young American man at Capri in the year 1978. The two Germans are keen to say that they are not really Germans, although they are, and so they speak more or less distorted English - the woman student is rather better at English than is the man - trying to pretend that they are really very cosmopolitan. Then the book goes on and on about the earlier lives of the students; their awkward provincial backgrounds, the embarrassing fact that they are, in fact, Germans. And so forth. So I gave up on this one too.
    The holiday apartment in Austria where we were staying had a collection of 30-year-old Readers Digest Condensed Books, in German. So I did read one or two of them. Well, they are a good way to spend an evening if you don't have anything better to read. One simply mustn't allow oneself to become angry about the fact that the Readers Digest - at least in those days - was basically designed to comfort the reader with the illusion that the USA was great, and the enemies of the USA (for example, Russians, smokers of cannabis, people indulging in extra-marital sex, etc.) were horrible.

Henry Purcell: Glory of His Age, by Margaret Campbell

     Frankly, I generally find biographies to be rather depressing. They always start with a description of the circumstances of the family of the hero, the ancestors, the birth and then the childhood. There follows the early life, the mature life, and in the final chapter we have the death and then a discussion of the relevance of the hero to present-day life.
     For example, here we have that great English composer Henry Purcell. He only expressed himself in his music. Thus the unfortunate biographer is forced to seek out other, more obscure sources in order to prove that the hero did, in fact, grow up in such and such a place, did live in a house in some particular street, did marry on a particular date, and did die on another particular date and was buried in such and such a place. (In this instance, in Westminster Abby.)
    Henry Purcell's life lends itself to such investigations owing to the fact that he worked in the band and chorus of the Kings Music in London during the last part of the 17th century. Thus we have endless lists of the earnings of the various musicians, where Purcell's name occasionally appears. We learn how much money he got for this and that. We learn that working for royalty was often a thankless business, owing to the fact that the aristocracy was even more dishonest than most normal people. In order to receive the money they were entitled to, the musicians were forced to write endless groveling letters, begging their masters for mercy. And so on. Tax records, what have you. Such are the snippets of truth left for the modern biographer. But the real truth of Purcell's life is found not in the words of this biography. Rather it can be experienced in a concert of his music.
    In reality, Purcell lived in a sphere of sublime beauty. The music he composed was played in magnificent palaces, great cathedrals and on the London stage. Everywhere it was received with overwhelming acclaim. People wrote in their private journals that they had never before experienced such wonderful music. Purcell himself took part in the music, both on the harpsichord, and also as a singer. This is a life modern-day musicians can only dream about!
    I was interested to read that the well-known story about the untimely death of the composer (that his wife locked him out of the house on a winters night after he came home late from the pub, thus giving him pneumonia) is probably false. It is more likely that he died of tuberculosis, which was very common in those days.

Nowhere Man, by Aleksandar Hemon

     Getting in the mood to read a good book, I looked in the bookshop, but there wasn't anything which looked promising enough. One or two books looked vaguely interesting, but they cost over 15 euros apiece, just for paperbacks! So I decided to have a look in the library. The trouble with that is that most of the books are old. Many of the ones which are only 20 or 30 years old have pages which are progressing from the yellowish into the brownish phase, becoming ever more brittle. The glued bindings crack ominously. And while there are many interesting classics to be read in the library (printed on higher quality paper and properly bound), still, in a way an old novel is often like an old movie; it belongs to the past.
    Walking down to the last bookshelves of English language novels, near the windows at the end of that part of the library, there are some newer books. Suddenly, the name of this author caught my eye! There seemed to be an "i" missing in his last name! The book is a paperback, published in the year 2002. Aleksandar Hemon grew up in the former Yugoslavia - Bosnia, but he moved to the USA in 1992, just before the mess which developed there.
    Somehow the name Hemon doesn't sound very Bosnian to me. For example, the main character in the book is someone named Jozef Pronek. That certainly does sound Bosnian, doesn't it? Then there are lots of other very Bosnian sounding names in there as well. Could it be that Hemon is a pseudonym, to make the author sound less Bosnian?
    In any case, upon his arrival in the USA, his English was only basic, but since, in his earlier life, he had been an author in Yugoslavia, he decided to learn English properly and continue his career in the English language. This is similar to the achievement of Joseph Conrad, who, although originally Polish, became a great writer in English. Unfortunately I, like Jozef Pronek (who ends up living in the USA), am also unable to speak - let alone write - sensibly. If I open my mouth, awkward, grammatically incorrect words come out, distorted with a heavy foreign accent. Thus I can only admire people like Conrad, or Hemon, who are able to master languages like this. Going by this book, Germans seem to be generally more tolerant of heavy foreign accents, at least those of native English speakers, than are Americans with regard to Eastern European accents.
    So Hemon's prose is very elegant. Often extremely funny. And yet the situation of refugees is no laughing matter. I stayed up till late last night reading the book, and then finished it this morning. It's one of the best books I've read for a long time.

The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami

     The link here is to the Wikipedia page relating to the battle of Khalkhin Gol. That is the way the Russians refer to it. In Japanese, it is known as the battle of Nomonhan. A brutal slaughter which is considered to be the first decisive battle of World War II. It plays a recurring role in this book.
    So this time, Murakami has decided to deal with the theme of nightmares in his surreal stories. These are no longer the fun dreams of Sputnik Sweetheart, or Kafka on the Shore. This is the horrible reality of war. But I'm afraid Murakami does not tackle the war crimes of the Japanese, as for example those committed during the Bataan Death March. I suppose that if he did so, the reading public of present-day Japan would turn against him. But at least - after a long description of the horrors inflicted by Russian torturers, and the hellish conditions in post-war Russian prisoner-of-war camps - he does come up with a small episode of Japanese soldiers involving themselves in unnecessary brutality. And yet, for many non-Japanese people in Asia, it was the Japanese who were the monsters of World War II.
    In one episode, Murakami imagines a shipload of women and children crossing the Sea of Japan, bringing the refugees home from Manchukuo. Suddenly an American submarine surfaces nearby and slowly, methodically, prepares to sink the unarmed ship, killing everybody on board. Then, unexpectedly, this action is called off. The explanation is that it is August of 1945, and the frustrating news has reached the commander of the submarine that Japan has just, at this moment, surrendered. So all of this is reminiscent of the true story of the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff on January 30, 1945 by a Russian submarine in the Baltic.
    But quite frankly, I can't believe that an American naval ship in WWII would be prepared to commit such a war crime in cold blood. Certainly we had the shooting down of an Iranian Airbus by a rocket shot off from the USS Vincennes in the Persian Gulf in 1988. This may indeed be an indication of the moral decay of the USA in recent times. But despite this, it seems to me that Murakami's general view of Japan's role in the first half of the last century remains somewhat disingenuous.
    Of course the story of the book is not directly concerned with a history of the Japanese war. These stories of torture, brutality, death, are simply dream-like episodes in the main story.
    The hero, Toru Okada, has quit his job, and thus he has plenty of time on his hands. He is drifting along through life in a pleasant suburb of Tokyo. But somehow, his brother-in-law, Noboru Wataya is a kind of personification of the devil. And Okada's mission becomes that of killing the evil in the alternative world of the spirits and dreams. In order to do this, he spends long periods of time sitting alone at the bottom of a deep, dried up well.
    The translator of this book into English, Jay Rubin, is a professor of Japanese literature at Harvard. He himself wrote a book on Murakami whose title is Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words. It is true that Murakami writes beautifully, and there is much more to the present book than this war crime business. There is lots of light-hearted, dream-like fun as well. But in the end, the book remains a disturbing nightmare.

This Side of Paradise, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

     This was suggested as the next book for our reading circle, so now I've read it. I seem to have an allergy with respect to certain classical authors - very particularly including F. Scott Fitzgerald. Maybe this is due to the fact that I was forced to read things for the English class at school all those years ago, back in the 1950s and 60s. I remember having to read page after tedious page of the endlessly long Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott, with one eye on the clock, calculating how long it took me to wade through each page, then multiplying by the number (hundreds and hundreds!) of pages left, to give me an idea of how much more mind-numbing time stood before me in this business. Perhaps we were also forced to read The Great Gatsby, and that may be my problem with F. Scott Fitzgerald. But thankfully I survived school, with its English classes, and now (and in fact even then) I enjoy reading the things that I - of my own free will - want to read. In fact, some years ago I quite enjoyed reading Rob Roy! So there you are.
    Similarly with F. Scott Fitzgerald, I did get a very nicely produced copy of Tender is the Night from the Folio Society, just to give it a try. But after a few pages, I got bogged down and gave it up. The people he describes, the social situations and values, are for me simply repulsive.
    Rather than buying a copy of This Side of Paradise, or taking it out of the library, I have read it as an e-book. It consists of two parts, namely "Book One", and then "Book Two". According to the Wikipedia entry on F. Scott Fitzgerald, this was the first book he wrote, and in fact Book One was completed during his time at Princeton. He called it "The Romantic Egotist", but it was rejected by the publishers (Charles Scribner's Sons).
    I would have rejected it too! It is written in a very adolescent style. The hero is an extremely spoiled boy, growing up in a wealthy family. It is said that they spent $100,000 in a year on trivial nonsense. Given that the dollar has depreciated by a factor of 20 or so in the last hundred years, then that would be the equivalent of two millions today. Well, OK. There are probably thousands of egotistical, dull-brained families in the United States who throw away more than that each year, so it's nothing special. As in this book, their only concerns are going to parties, thinking about how much money the other people at the parties have, and thinking about how the money might be best coagulated together through the union of various possible blocks of money via marriage.
    So in the end, the young hero enters the Ivy League at Princeton.
    Somehow I had not really thought of Princeton as being a true part of the Ivy League. Just before the Stock Market Crash of 1929 (which really shocked all these F. Scott Fitzgerald types!) the Bamberger family luckily sold their department store in Newark, N.J. for many millions of dollars. Out of the profits they decided to immortalize their names by creating the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton. They had wanted this to be a medical research center, but they were talked out of that idea, and instead they were talked into the idea of giving Albert Einstein lots of money to come to Princeton. So now we think of Princeton as being a center of thinking about physics and mathematics. Not the degenerate playground of the moneyed class in the Ivy League.
    Yet the time of this story is before the Bambergers. The hero of the book measures his success at university by the number of parties he attends, the number of clubs he is elected into, and so forth. But he stumbles over the mathematics class! This is not the interesting mathematics of that present-day Princeton genius Andrew Wiles. No! This is that simple, but ancient discipline known as "conic sections". How primitive was the world of those rich young dilettantes back then in 1913, or thereabouts!
    Therefore our rich young hero did not enter the inner sanctums of the secret clubs of old-time Princeton. The magic and evil of the Skull and Bones club at Yale, that other Ivy League bastion which saved the likes of the Bushes and the Harrimans, was not for him!
    Instead, in Book Two his family loses all its money. His financial decline leads to emotional upheavals. He falls in love with one beautiful, rich, young 19-year old heiress after the other. But each of them reject him after discovering his poverty. Great emotional outbursts! The text becomes filled with poetry! In fact, I even found some of this stuff to be quite moving. So there you are.
    The book ends as the hero sets off on foot to walk from the Manhattan of his disappointments back to the Princeton of his dreams. He can't afford to take the train. While trudging along the road, a large Locomobile stops to offer him a ride. In the front is the chauffeur. In the back is the stout, begoggled owner of the car - a typical member of the degenerate capitalist class - accompanied by his clerk. The hero gets in between them and babbles on in an aggressive manner on the virtues of socialism. Upon arrival at the manor house of the owner, he is offered lunch, but he is too proud for that. Instead he trudges on in the direction of Princeton.

Frau Berta Garlan, by Arthur Schnitzler

     Arthur Schnitzler was a medical doctor in Vienna at the end of the 19th century before he devoted himself fully to writing. His Traumnovelle was the basis for Stanly Kubrick's last film, Eyes Wide Shut. Yet, when reading that book, one finds that it is quite a different story from the one depicted in the movie. Kubrick filmed the true-to-life drama of the modern marriage of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidmann, living in the dream world of big money and Scientology. Drugs, prostitutes, politics, all on a grand scale.
    The story of Schnitzler's Traumnovelle is totally different. It is the world of Vienna in the 1920s. The ruling class of the past, the titled aristocracy, has lost its legitimacy in the aftermath of the First World War. Science, medicine, industry is the world of the future. And the two protagonists, the doctor and his wife, travel into the world of dreams, of erotic desires. They find that the dream world of the past - the "high society" of today's womens magazines - with its meaningless aristocratic titles, is something cheap, unpleasant. The bordello which the doctor visits in his dream is not the gigantic mansion of Kubrick's dream. Instead it is an obscure house in a seedy suburb of Vienna.
    The present book was a much earlier work of Schnitzler. It was published in 1900. But again, it is concerned with dreams and reality. Much of it is written in the stream of consciousness style which was later used by Virginia Wolff. The protagonist is Berta Garlan, a young woman living two or three hours away from Vienna (by train) in a small town in Austria. She grew up in Vienna and entered the conservatory to study piano. Her boyfriend was Emil, who studied violin. But her father thought this was not really the life for his daughter, so he canceled her music studies and she came home. Gradually Emil disappeared from her life, but he remained her secret love. The parents became sick and died, one after the other, so Bertha was left alone in the world, apart from a cousin or two, living somewhere else in Vienna. She was an attractive young woman, and she accepted the proposition of marriage of a middle-aged civil servant, hoping for security. But her husband decided to apply for a position in the small town of his family where Berta now finds herself. She has a boy of five years, but she is a widow. Her husband has died a few years ago, and she now lives by giving piano lessons to various children in the town.
    Her life is innocent, naive. A rather bohemian man in the town tries to court her. Others are interested as well. She believes that everyone is living a morally sound, upright life, just as it appears on the surface.
    A young married woman, a friend, persuades her to accompany her to the big city of Vienna for a days outing. They part for the day, and while there she thinks about her old love, Emil. He is now a famous virtuoso, his picture is in the paper, he gives great concerts to overwhelming acclaim.
    Back in her small town, she thinks about him and writes him a letter, asking if he remembers his old love of those long-past student days. And he immediately replies! This puts poor Bertha into a state of great emotional agitation. Does the great Emil remember the tender embraces of their young encounters? Does he still love her? Is it even possible that he might marry her, bringing her back to the elegance of Vienna and away from the confines of this small town?
    In a fit of passion, she rushes to Vienna and meets Emil at a museum. He is rather aloof, but he remembers her well, and he even professes love. But he leaves her standing there, saying that he has important business to attend to (which he refuses to elaborate on), and he will pick her up at 7 in the evening. She spends the day in emotional turmoil and meets him at 7. They dine in an exclusive restaurant, then he takes her not back to his house, but to some strange house where they retire to a room with a picture of a naked woman over the bed. After a passionate hour (and unfortunately, unlike the present time, in 1900 Schnitzler could only describe the scene with a few dots.....

and an extra space to the next paragraph) Emil brings her back to her hotel, telling her that he has no time to see her, but it would be nice if she came again in six weeks for another go.
    Back in her small town, she is confused, excited. What does it all mean? Will he marry her? Does he still love her? What if, horror of horrors, she has become pregnant? Gradually, she finds out that the other people in town are not as innocent as she had thought. In reality, men are dreadful. They only want one thing: sex. Otherwise, they suppress the women. And Emil is no different. The book ends as it becomes clear that Berta's friend has a secret lover in Vienna. She has become pregnant, but makes a rushed trip to the big city in order to have an abortion. She returns by train, retires sick in bed, and dies of blood poisoning. Berta is horrified, and it is still unclear whether or not she has become pregnant by that horrible Emil.
    What a depressing vision Schnitzler has of the world. But I see from the Wikepedia article that Schnitzler himself maintained a constant supply of female sexual partners, and he kept a meticulous dairy, in which he recorded every orgasm which he experienced. Did this give him true happiness? Judging from his photo, I am astonished that he was able to find so many females who were prepared to partake in this sort of life with him!

The City and the Pillar, by Gore Vidal

     In recent times, Gore Vidal has appeared numbers of times on television and on the internet. He has been interviewed by Amy Goodman on Democracynow!, where he comes across as an old, cultured American gentleman, who is just as horrified as I am about George W. Bush and the mess he has created. Gore Vidal parodies the stupid Texas accent and idiotic phrases which we laugh about when they come up on the television news. He has also appeared in TV documentaries about the murder of JFK, showing the lies which have led to the moral downfall of present-day America. After all, he was a relative (through the second marriage of his mother) of Jacqueline Kennedy.
    He also says, or at least said in these interviews, that he is a relative of Al Gore. His mother's maiden name was Nina S. Gore. Her father, Thomas P. Gore, was a senator from Oklahoma. Therefore one would suspect some relationship to the political family of Al Gore. Nevertheless, according to this article, it has been established that Gore Vidal is not a distant cousin of Al, as he had thought. In reality, he is descended from James Gore, who arrived in North America in ca. 1775. On the other hand, Al Gore is descended from John Goare, who arrived in North America before 1677.
    Gore Vidal's real name is Eugene Luther Gore Vidal, so obviously he was most happy with the Gore part of it. Undoubtedly he wasn't aware of Al at the time he decided to call himself Gore, since I can hardly imagine that many people would like to call themselves after that self-serving high priest of hypocrisy. In any case, he told Amy Goodman that he is considered to be the "black sheep" of the family.
    Be that as it may, when looking for a book to read in the library, I thought it would be interesting to try reading something by Gore Vidal. Apart from his making fun of George W. Bush, I knew practically nothing about him. He was, or is, part of that generation of American writers who came of age in the 1940s. Like Norman Mailer. Or then again, I vaguely associated him with Ezra Pound, since they were both Americans living in Italy. So I thought that this book, The City and the Pillar, might be a good read. It is printed on nice, thick paper, with very readable type, and it is not too long. There were two or more copies of the book in the library. Then next to them, a couple of volumes of academic scribblings with titles like "The relevance of The City and the Pillar to blablabla...", or whatever. Undoubtedly written by some eager Ph.D., some time in the past. Perhaps the City referred to in the title would turn out to be Rome, or Venice, or something. Maybe the Pillar would be Hadrian's Column. Who knows?
    Back at home, I started reading the book. It turned out not to be concerned with classical themes. In fact, it is the story of Jim and Bob. They were good friends at school in rural Virginia. They really like each other. But Bob graduates a year ahead of Jim, so he leaves to become a sailor. Jim misses him a lot. Therefore, after graduating from high school, Jim also decides to become a sailor in the hope of finding his long-lost friend Bob. But he doesn't find him. Instead, he finds that he has trouble understanding why all these sailors talk constantly in rude ways about the desirability of women. In port in Seattle, he accompanies a friend from his ship to a bar where they meet two women and are taken to their apartment. The sight of the friend, together with one of the woman, noisily copulating, does not animate Jim to do the same. Instead he is revolted, and flees from the cackling laughter of the others. And so he discovers that he is a homosexual. He decides to travel to Hollywood where he is immediately engaged as a tennis instructor, and then he is taken up by a famous homosexual Hollywood star. And so on, and so forth. But always he is secretly in love with the long-lost Bob.
    All of this is written in a surprisingly simple, innocent style. I began thinking that it would be interesting to consider what it would be like if we didn't have the story of the complicated love life of Jim, but rather, the main character would be the athletically proportioned, beautiful young Jill, an innocent girl from Virginia. She goes to Hollywood and is the lover of the famous movie star, and so forth, and so on. Where is Bob, her long-lost love from school days? All this simple, naive writing. The tragic love story of Jill and Bob. It would be a paperback, with some dreamy picture on the cover. Pure kitsch!
    It seems that the only reason it is not considered to be mushy kitsch is that it concerns homosexuals, and that was taboo back in 1948 when Gore Vidal first published the book.
    Eventually, it turns out that Bob is not homosexual. In fact, he has married Sue, his high school sweetheart, and they already have a baby. But he wants to keep on sailing around the world, while Sue wants him to return to Virginia and become an insurance salesman. Jim lures Bob to his New York apartment where he tries to get him drunk and then seduce him. Lying in bed in a drunken stupor, sleeping, Jim grabs him, but Bob wakes up and pushes him angrily away. And then things turn nasty. Jim, the tennis teacher, is stronger than Bob, so after a struggle, he ends up raping him. Then in the final few pages, Jim resumes a life of restless homosexual bars and fleeting homosexual sex. Nothing is said of what happened to poor Bob.
    Why is it that women who are the victims of rape are rightly considered to have undergone an experience of such horror that their lives are ruined, yet one never hears it said that men might suffer similarly? I cannot recall reading in the papers of homosexual rapists being put away in jail for many years for their horrible crimes. Surely they are just as evil.
    Why do I end up reading these kinds of books in the first place?

The Riders, by Tim Winton

     As I recall, the blurb on the back of some other book which I read a while ago said that it "grips you like a fist"! Well this one certainly does too. Tim Winton is an Australian. And not only for this reason was this book - for me - a great relief from the run of silly, bland, disappointing books which I have read in the last few weeks. Tim Winton writes rings around the pretentious nonsense of Gore Vidal.
    The world in Australia has not yet been tamed by history, by the presence of egotistic mankind. And so an Australian writer can write a sentence like this:

Out of the rumours of places, of the red desert spaces where heat is born, a wind comes hard across the capstone country of juts and bluffs, pressing heathland flat in withering bursts.

    Be that as it may, this story does not take place in Australia. The hero is named Scully. He is an Australian, but we meet him alone, in the back country of Ireland.
    He and his wife Jennifer, and their seven year old daughter Billie, have been cruising around Europe for the last three years. Before this European trip, Jennifer had been a very straight-laced public servant in Fremantle, in Western Australia. However she is beautiful, with attractive, long, tanned legs. Scully, her husband, is not beautiful. He is also not overly educated. So he works at various kinds of physical labor. For example, he spent some time as a hand on a fishing boat, going out from Fremantle into the Indian Ocean. The owner of the boat was a nasty Serbian immigrant who insisted that Scully beat to death any octopuses caught in the fishing net, since they were useless for the fishing industry. However, Scully had a big heart, and he secretly saved some of the octopuses. When the owner discovered this, he took an iron bar and hit Scully in the face with it, injuring one of his eyes so that afterwards, his face had the the leery appearance of a street fighter.
    So Scully is the big-hearted, hard-working, ugly hero, and Jennifer is the beautiful, frustrated wife, pining for Europe and the hope that she might transcend this dull, Western Australian life. She hopes that, in some way, she might become a "creative" European person.
    The first year was spent in London. Scully worked rough with a gang of Irish laborers, fixing up houses, doing the painting, the brickwork, whatever. Not paying taxes. Only later does he find out that they are IRA "terrorists".
    The next year, they move to Paris where Scully finds more labor of this nature, supporting Jennifer, who now imagines that she can write poetry. She has some snooty French friends who look down on the rough-and-ready Scully, tut-tutting about how unfortunate she is to be married to such an ugly, stupid person.
    Then the next year they move to the Greek island of Hydra, where he continues laboring to support the family, and Jennifer imagines that she might be able to be an artistic painter. She is taken in by the circle of English "ex-pats" living on the Greek island. These "ex-pats" are cynical, drunken old men and women who have retreated into their tiny, closed circle of isolated island life. They are worthless, but amongst themselves they can pretend that they are wonderful. They can laugh in a superior way about whatever floats into, and out of, their field of view. In particular they laugh about Scully, while they can hope for some sexual adventures with the beautiful, long-legged Jennifer, just as they have had with various bikini-clad young summer tourists from Scandinavia, Germany, and whatever.
    But Billie can see through all of this. She loves her father, with his big heart.
    At the start of the book, these European travels are in the past. The family is going to return to a more sensible life back in Australia. As a last fling, they decide to have a look at Ireland. Finding an uninhabited, disintegrating stone farmhouse on a hill, Jennifer suddenly says that she loves it. They should buy it, sell the house in Australia, and live in Ireland. Scully stays on to fix the place up, while Jennifer returns to Australia to organize the selling of their house there, settle things, and return to be with him a couple of weeks later to start their new life.
    So we meet Scully, coping with his new life in the cold mud of Ireland. He is lonely. He misses his great love, Jennifer. He "works like a dog" to make a home for her, rebuilding the stone farmhouse. He gets to know "Pete-the-Post", who is the local Irish postman who helps him with the house. The country is old; it is full of old history. Down the hill is the old castle, a ruin. It has fallen apart, and parts of it have been violently destroyed by angry mobs of people at various times in the past. Suddenly, one night, he sees lights down there and wanders down in the mud to find a mysterious group of horse riders, carrying torches on high, staring upwards, silently, at the ramparts of the castle. Is this going to be a story of violent Irish terrorism?
    But no. It turns out to be a totally different story. After various unsettling encounters with the Irish, and days of longing for his wife and daughter, Scully rushes over to Shannon Airport on a cold winter's morning to meet them. But only Billie comes out of the arrivals door, accompanied by an officious stewardess. Jennifer is not there. Billie is speechless. Where is Jennifer? Is she sick? Has something happened? Billie's silence continues for days. She is apathetic. Nothing. Has Jennifer deserted him? The idea seems unthinkable.
    So Scully sets off to Greece with Billie to see if she is there. The ex-pats sneer at him. Maybe she is there. Maybe they are hiding her. One of them commits suicide, and it almost looks like Scully could be accused of murdering him. The ex-pats would love that! He bribes a Greek to take him in his speed-boat to the mainland. They take a ferry to Brindisi, then trains through Italy and then up to Paris. The people there sneer some more. Maybe she is in Amsterdam. They go there. Scully drinks more and more. He enters a dream-like state of disorientation. Somebody cuts their credit card in two. Scully steals 800 French francs from a strange woman in Paris. But Scully is entering the Dreamland. He is going crazy in his search for Jennifer. Little Billie takes over things, organizing what little money is left. Eventually Scully lands in jail in Amsterdam, but of course the Dutch are extremely sensible people. They set him right, and in the end he ends up back in the house in Ireland with Billie.
    This is a real - surreal - situation which people can really get into, and the book is often written in a dream-like way. But somehow I think that Tim Winton seriously underestimates the costs of things here in Europe. Rail travel, second class, may be sleazy, smelly, uncomfortable. But it is expensive! 800 francs in 1993, when he wrote the book, would hardly get two people halfway across France! I think the trip by ship and rail from Greece to Amsterdam, with simple hotels (and one luxury hotel in Paris), taking a week or so, would cost at least 2000 euros these days, say $3,000 US dollars. It is much cheaper by car. But the only really sensible way to do such travels now is by plane. We recently flew return from Germany to England for less than 70 euros each. By car, (at the present price of petrol, and crossing the English Channel) it would certainly have cost 3 or 4 times as much for two people. By train, it would have been even more!
    This review is already much too long. But it was a great book, and as a final note, I will say that it was nice to see that it was extremely "politically incorrect". According to the principles of "womens-lib", it is the men who run away and are horrible, not the women. Therefore this book is incorrect in the sense that it was Scully, the big-hearted, loving father, who was left in the lurch. However I think an Australian author such as Tim Winton can allow himself to tell such a story. After all, Australia was the first country in the world to adopt universal suffrage. And many of the famous figures of the womens-lib movement (for example Germaine Greer) are Australians. 

Theft, by Peter Carey

     It's only in the last few years that I have become much aware of the Booker Prize. Before that, I didn't think about it at all. Thus I didn't know that Peter Carey, alongside J.M.Coetzee, is the only person to have won it twice. In fact, I hadn't even heard of Peter Carey before reading this book. Despite the fact that he is now Australia's most famous writer!
    Well, he didn't win it for this one, which has only just come out in 2006. But I enjoyed it. It is written in an unusual style. There are two brothers. They both grew up in the small town of Bacchus Marsh, Victoria, in Australia. Just as did Peter Carey himself. (It is an interesting exercise to zero in on Bacchus Marsh, and the other places in the book, via Google Earth. They really do exist, and they really are as small as you think!) Both brothers are big, raw characters. One is an artist; the other seems to be somewhat deranged, undoubtedly autistic. Their family name is Boone, and the family were butchers in Bacchus Marsh. Thus the artist is (nick-)named Butcher Bones, and the autist is Slow Bones.
    At the beginning of the book they are up near Bellingen, in Northern New South Wales. Just a few years ago I drove around inland up there on the North Coast for the first time. There's more to it than you think. For example, during a short stop in Nimbin (which really is small) we noticed that the air was filled with the aroma of cannibis. Various locals staggered about the place. While Bellingen is a bit further south, still the Bones Brothers were having a strange time of things there as well.
    The book goes from one chapter to the next, and the narrative alternates between that of the artistic Butcher Bones, with all his typical swearing, and that of Slow Bones, who spews a continuous stream of Australianisms. I just had to laugh, practically at every page. All these half-forgotten turns of phrases. I imagine that if you haven't lived in Australia, then much of this humor would be lost on you. But it made me quite nostalgic. The book is a satire on the whole art business. The plot is too complicated to summarize. But really funny. I'll have to see what else Peter Carey has written.

My Life as a Fake, by Peter Carey

     In contrast with the previous book, this one is without humor. It is also a recent work (2003). But the story is extremely contrived. - Well, OK, all stories, as long as they are fiction, are contrived. I suppose what I want to say here is that Peter Carey has gone rather overboard in his efforts to make a simple point.
    The story is based on a true hoax, or fake, which took place in Australia back in 1943. Two rather conservative poets decided to try to make a fool of the publisher of a literary magazine which published more avant-garde poetry. So they invented a make-believe name, and wrote poetry which they thought was modern and stupid, submitting it to the publisher. He was very enthusiastic. But when the hoax came out, he ended up being made not only a laughing stock of the Australian literary scene, but he was actually prosecuted in a court of law for the supposed lewdness of the poems. Despite this, years later the publisher said he still admired the poems of the fake poet, and for him, that poet still lives on in his imagination. Indeed, according to what I have found in the internet, it is apparently the case that people who are interested in such things even maintain today that the fake poems of the hoaxers are superior to their "serious" poems!
    In Peter Carey's version of the story, the perpetrator of the hoax is an Australian poet, named Christopher Chubb (like the locks, but I see that The Chubb Company also supplies security guards in Australia). His creation is named Bob McCorkle. The imaginary Bob McCorkle really comes to life in this version of the story, as a kind of Frankenstein. A seven foot tall monster. It even kidnaps Chubb's baby girl, taking her to Malaysia. So Chubb follows him there, fighting him in the jungle, and so on. We think of Vietnam. Then he ends up killing his Frankenstein, almost by mistake, and he finally gets his daughter back (she is already 15 years old, or so) together with McCorkle's Malay woman. Both hate him, saying he is the incarnation of evil, a ghost. They carefully guard the precious writings of the lost genius, namely McCorkle. Chubb ends up in a bicycle repair shop in a slum in Kuala Lumpur. He has become a character in a Joseph Conrad novel. The White Man of the British Empire, going native in the Far East.
    I see that even the very positive and informative review of the book which I have linked to above, concludes by saying that "
The novel is by no means Carey’s best work".

Good Morning, Midnight, by Jean Rhys

     This book was first published in 1939. From what I can gather in the internet, Jean Rhys was born either in 1890, or else in 1894. Thus she was either 45, or else 49 years old in 1939. The story takes place in Paris. She, or the heroine, remembers different episodes of her life, years ago, in Paris. Most of these episodes are sordid. She was drunk. She had a baby which died soon after birth.
    She revisits the scenes of these episodes, but she is afraid that the waiters, the people at the desks of the hotels, will remember her, and will laugh at her. She is a fragile person, always on the point of crying. But she drowns her sadness in alcohol and sleeping pills. These give her a puffy, unpleasant face which makes her embarrassed and sad. She has no money, or at least not enough, both now and in these episodes of her former life. The money comes from begging her former friends to "lend" her money for the moment. But at least now, in this present life in the Paris of 1939, she still has a fur coat which a former lover had given her some time in the past. Selling it could bring in some money, but she is not prepared to take such a step. Now, in 1939, as a sad, broken down middle aged woman, she is camped alone in a cheap Paris hotel with about two thousand francs.
    As always, Jean Rhys writes beautifully, setting this whole scene which, it seems, was the scene of her life. A pair of Russians talk to her on the street. One is a painter. Maybe the loneliness of her life will be relieved by them. After a few disjointed encounters, she buys a painting from them. Now she has less money; the Russians almost say that she could keep the money. The painting is really about love. But money is also about love.
    She is picked up by a gigolo, a handsome young man from southern regions who tells her various stories. Maybe they are true, maybe not. She pays for an expensive restaurant, then does not let him in to her hotel to spend the night. But later he does come. He attempts to seduce her on her bed, but she pushes him off, telling him where he can find her money in her coat pocket. She doesn't look; she covers her eyes and hears him rummaging about, then leaving. Afterwards, she sees that he didn't take the money. She looks out the window and sees him hesitating on the street. She takes off her clothes and gets into bed, and he comes into the room. The last sentence of the book is,

"Then I put my arms round him and pull him down on to the bed, saying: 'Yes - yes - yes....'".
 
What a sad, empty life!
    But these days, this whole idea of gigolos, Paris, and so on, seems far away. Paris seems to me to be just a big, hectic city, with way too many cars, most of which have diesel motors, producing choking, stinking fumes. The tap water in Paris smells strongly of chlorine. Most of the buildings are ugly concrete blocks, covered with graffiti. It is difficult to imagine that in earlier times, Paris was thought to be associated with romance, elegance.
    From what I read in the newspapers, or in magazines, it is apparently the case that these days, lonely women no longer go to Paris in search of a gigolo. Instead they go to the Dominican Republic, or perhaps Mexico, or whatever, flying there on a booked holiday. It's better organized than back then in 1939. Lonely men are supposed to go Thailand, or something. I don't know if their sadness is also better organized today than it was in 1939.

Dance Dance Dance, by Haruki Murakami

     Another Murakami book. It is a kind of sequel to A Wild Sheep Chase, since the hero returns to the Dolphin Hotel in Sapporo, looking for his beautiful companion who mysteriously disappeared after the Sheep Chase. He doesn't find her there. In fact, he finds that the old Dolphin Hotel has been torn down, and in its place, the new Dolphin Hotel has been built, 17 stories or more high, filled with muzak, which the hero enjoys ever again. This is like the movie Lost in Translation.
    Well, OK, I admit that I am not totally offended by the muzak of the old Evergreens. It's seldom played here in Germany anyway, so I can hardly remember what its like. And I suppose you don't always want to be overwhelmed by a real concert, or by immersing yourself into the performance of music.
    Anyway, in typical Murakami style the story involves dreams and death. But for me, the book seemed to lack some of the lightness and humor of his other books. Perhaps he had a more serious phase in his life around 1990 when he wrote this, and also the Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. He was about 40 years old at that time. My experience is that 40 is an awkward time of life, but then things improve as life matures. And his more recent books were, for me, more enjoyable.
    I won't try to summarize the book here. As always, the hero experiences lots of interesting, emotionally challenging episodes. In particular, by chance he is asked to accompany a 13-year old girl whose name is Yuki from Sapporo back to Tokyo on the plane. As it develops, Yuki is somewhat clairvoyant, as is the narrator himself, and so they are together a lot, often going for long drives in his Subaru, or going to restaurants together, and so forth. Also he spends lots of time at her place, and she often comes over to visit him (her parents are famous divorced artists whose lives have such great importance that they have no time to waste with their daughter).
    This relationship is all very nice and innocent. In fact, Yuki's famous father arranges for the narrator to have expensive call-girls come to satisfy his sexual needs, just to make sure that he doesn't get any wrong ideas about Yuki. Well, such an arrangement may be OK in some circumstances, but the reader should be warned that, in general, 13-year old girls, and especially their mothers, can be very dangerous indeed!

    In this connection, the big news in Germany recently was that Marco has finally been released from jail! This was front page news in every newspaper, and the leading story in the television news. If you, who might be reading this (assuming that anybody reads it!) do not live in Germany, then you probably have no idea who Marco is. So for your information, Marco is a 17-year old boy who was on holiday with his parents at a hotel on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey last Easter.
    Now, according to various stories in the newspapers, or in magazines, it is continuously said that children lose their virginity these days at an amazingly young age. 15 or 16, or something. Even less for girls. This is what Dr. Kinsey, or perhaps his modern-day assistants, have found out. I wouldn't know, myself.
    Therefore, unfortunately for poor old Marco, while lying there on the beach of the Turkish Riviera, he got to know the 13-year old Charlotte, an English school-girl who - according to Marco - told him that she was already 15. In the evening, they retired to her hotel room, together with some other children. Suddenly, Charlotte's angry mother burst into the room, screaming RAPE, RAPE! According to the papers, the official story which Charlotte has told the court is that she fell asleep, then suddenly woke up, perhaps from the loud screams of the mother, to find Marco next to her, etc. The other children in the room said they saw nothing.
    Despite this, the mother rushed her daughter to the local doctor, who, medically, certified that Charlotte, thankfully, was still a virgin. But no! For the mother, this was still rape. The Turkish police were brought into play. Marco was picked up in the early hours of the morning and thrown into a Turkish jail, in the same cell with 20 other criminals. There he has languished for the last seven months! The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and numerous other politicians, have tried to do something. To no avail. But now, finally, some rich Turkish businessman who has dealings with the tourism industry has seen to it that Marco is free to come back home for Christmas.
    So the lesson of all this is: Avoid over-ripe 13-year old girls at all costs! Especially if they are English!!! In fact, maybe it is best to avoid all women from England, regardless of their ages. They seem to be extremely dangerous. Also, if you really have to spend time on the Turkish Rivera, be careful! Avoid alcohol, sex, etc. Also, don't pick up any rocks! (This applies to all areas of Turkey, not just the Rivera.) Various people have languished for months in Turkish jails after picking up rocks, and then subsequently being accused by the police of dealing with antiquities. If you do end up in this situation, then apparently it costs many thousands of euros in ransom to buy your freedom!
    Finally, I will say that for the last year or two, I have subscribed to the online edition of the Guardian newspaper. After all, our local newspaper only comes from Monday till Saturday, and so there is a bit of a vacuum on Sunday. Therefore I read the Guardian (or rather, the Observer) online, from England, for breakfast on Sunday mornings. I had thought that it is a serious paper, and so on. But after a year, I see that it mainly carries interesting "human interest" gossip stories. Good for a laugh, but hardly very informative. I wonder why I don't cancel my subscription to the Guardian and instead subscribe to something more serious, like Die Zeit, or whatever? But then I think that if I did so, I might miss all this stupid English humor.
    So the Marco - Charlotte - saga would be just the thing for the Sunday Observer. All the interesting, piquant details. But no! Not a mention! Even the Observer is afraid to inform their curious readers about the failings of their female compatriots. How disappointing! Should I cancel my subscription?