Sunday, 30 June 2013

Ryszard Kapuscinski, The Emperor

Ryszard Kapuscinski, The Emperor

Ryszard Kapuscinski was one of the most talented Polish writers of the twentieth century.  A journalist by profession, he travelled around the world even back in the days when few Poles were allowed to leave the country.  He passed away in 2007 and left behind a long list of titles, many of which are available in English. 

Until recently, if you asked me what kind of books Kapuscinski wrote, I would instantly answer:  travel writing.  Maybe, but only maybe, I would add - journalism.  I've read quite a few, in Polish, years ago, when I was probably too young to understand what they are about.  Now, just after finishing The Emperor, I know that Kapuscinski was much more than a travel writer.  My own explanation of his style would be long and rambling, let me borrow a term from the writer's Wikipedia page instead:  magic journalism.  A non-fiction equivalent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. 

The Emperor tells the story of final years and fall of Haile Selassie, the last autocratic ruler of Ethiopia.  After the revolution, Kapuscinski tracked down survivors from the imperial court and asked them to share their memories.  The book is constructed as a series of tales by those ex-officials, interrupted from time to time by author's own commentary, chronologically relating events in the changing country.  That's the theory, anyway. 

In reality, it's all Kapuscinski only pretending to speak in many voices.  I don't accuse him of inventing the facts, he probably did interview his sources, but I can't possibly believe that he quoted them verbatim.  They all sound too much like one person.  Too much like Kapuscinski himself, in fact.  Usually I would froth at such a use of poetic license but in this case, the procedure actually enriched the book.  The Emperor is not simply a journalistic report, it is a philosophical study of corruption and dictatorship that probably would be just as true for any other autocratic establishment.  Machiavelli meets Swift.  Details may change, but the attitudes, the atmosphere, the smell of rot remain the same. 

It is hard not to suspect Kapuscinski of alluding to communistic Poland, too.  A country where thinking is deemed dangerous?  Where informants are everywhere?  Where those in power constantly backstab each other only to remain at the trough?  The simile is too perfect to be a coincidence.  Polish writers of that era (The Emperor was published in 1978) were masters of double-meaning.  Censorship would not allow any direct criticism of the regime but hey, all that Kapuscinski wrote is history of Ethiopia, right? 

All in all, The Emperor is surprisingly rich and polished book, full of hidden sarcasm and perceptive comments on human nature.  No wonder it can be found on the list of Penguin modern classics. 

Friday, 28 June 2013

Robert Fisk, The Great War For Civilisation

Robert Fisk, The Great War For Civilisation

I first heard of Robert Fisk's The Great War For Civilisation through a youtube book recommendation video by Henry Rollins.  Not that I'm any particular fan of the guy - in fact, I landed on the video page when I tried to find out who he is after someone mentioned his name.  But hey, random books can be fun and the word 'civilisation' in the title usually bodes well.  When I saw Fisk's name on the library shelf, I went for it.  What the hell. 

To tell you the truth, I expected the usual gibberish along the lines of 'us - good, them - bad, bad terrorists'.  My goodness, I couldn't possibly have been further off the mark!  The Great War For Civilisation is the very opposite of propaganda rubbish.  It does concern the East/West conflicts, yes, but it's humanitarian rather than political. 

Robert Fisk has been a Middle East correspondent for decades.  He's based in Lebanon, but travels widely in search of stories.  The Great War For Civilisation is part war reporting and part history, with tiny elements of autobiography and philosophical reflection.  A delicious mixture, especially that Fisk, unlike statesmen of today, appears to be an admirably sane man. 

The book unravels all the twists and turns of recent history of the Middle East.  It explains most of the major conflicts, many of which were witnessed by the author.  Russia-Afghanistan, Iran-Iraq, Israel-Palestine, the infamous 'war on terror' of recent years, they are all there. 

Seen up close, all wars are terrible.  That's the main message of the book, and Fisk's amazing gift of storytelling leaves you with a feeling that you've actually witnessed the atrocities yourself.  The Great War For Civilisation is not a title for the faint-hearted!  The only negative thing that I can say about the book is that after a few hundred pages, I felt physically sick, overwhelmed by all the cruelty and hypocrisy that our species habitually presents.  If there's a villain in The Great War For Civilisation, it is not a 'terrorist', but a politician.  Nauseated, depressed - that's what I was when I read about fat cats turning people into pawns in the struggle for power and oil.  Unbelievable.  Shocking.  And yet...  strangely more convincing than gutless newspaper headlines. 

This is a book that kicks you right in the teeth and leaves you gasping for breath.  THIS is what our world is like.  THIS is what we allowed, and still allow, to happen.  If THIS is civilisation, then I'm ashamed to be a part of it. 

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels

Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels

Sometimes, when the mood takes me or when I'm totally lacking inspiration on a library hunt, I turn towards the classics. 

I tend to have mixed feelings when it comes to Literature.  Usually the books are at least ok, but...  Let the scholars coo in veneration as much as they want, I still think that some examples of international literary canon are completely unreadable (Ulysses inevitably springs to mind). 

Consequently, I approached Gulliver's Travels with caution.  I had just read somewhere (Nadine Gordimer?  Not sure...) that Swift's satire still remains one of the most entertaining books despite the centuries since its publication, but was the recommendation trustworthy?


To somehow quantify my enjoyment, let me tell you this: Gulliver's Travels was more fun than pirate stories from the previous post.  Feel free to draw your own conclusions. 

Readability aside, the book is still valid in its social observations.  After all, Gulliver's adventures are essentially a satire.  His barbs aimed at governments, aristocrats and justice-free social relations are truly universal.  Not much have changed since 1726... 

Some of Swift's suggestions, disguised as laws and traditions of his imaginary countries, are worth attention.  Imagine a world where public offices are distributed according to moral virtue of candidates (as in Lilliput), not their supposed ability.  What's wrong with ability?  Even if it does actually exist*, it can only lead to greater damages when applied to unethical purposes.  In other words, making sure that a potential manager does not steal is a better policy than confirming that the thief you want to employ is a very skillful thief.  Or how about a public reward and punishment system (Lilliput again)?  As Swift shrewdly noticed, we are very good with the 'punishment' part, but when was the last time when you were tangibly rewarded for being an upstanding citizen? 

Yes, Gulliver's stories are good, but his caustic social criticism is better. 

Do politicians read classics, I wonder?

*which, I'm convinced, is not the case with most of politicians and other high-ranking personages of today

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Jon E. Lewis (ed.), The Mammoth Book of Pirates

Jon E. Lewis, The Mammoth Book of Pirates

Pirates ahoy!

I've been looking for a good book about pirates for quite a while now.  Some time ago, hoping to jump on a gravy train launched by Pirates of The Caribbean, I wrote an article about some of the most famous historical sea bandits (check it out here - it's actually quite good, if I say so myself) and ever since I was looking for titles that would nicely illustrate my story there.  With The Mammoth Book of Pirates I pretty much hit the bull's-eye. 

When it comes to the size, this volume is indeed substantial (although if you want to see a real monster of a book, come back in a week or two:  I'm currently digesting a true Leviathan of the literary world and I'll review it here once I'm done).  Its 400+ pages are filled with factual accounts of pirate adventures, written by witnesses, pirate hunters or even, in few cases, pirates themselves.  We're talking the 'golden age of piracy' here, 16th-18th centuries, but there's no need to fear the old-fashioned language;  whether the editor smoothed the narratives out or English of three hundred years ago is not as scary as it sounds, the stories are actually quite readable.  Well, ok, storytelling talent varies from tale to tale but the majority is very good. 

The eyewitness accounts are enriched with bits and pieces of information from other sources.  There are pirate songs and poems (even one by Byron, he of the Romantic greatness), excerpts from marine law concerning sea banditry, definitions of different piratical terms and other knowledge scraps of the sort.  All in all, it is a fairly reliable and rich treasure chest of pirate lore.

Admittedly, real life pirates were far less glamorous than their Hollywood images.  No big surprise there...  If you're looking for a Jack Sparrow, you'll be better off sticking to the movies.  If, on the other hand, you happen to be interested in flesh and bone individuals who actually roamed the seas many years ago and inspired the cinematic productions, then The Mammoth Book of Pirates should leave you satisfied. 

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Dervla Murphy, In Ethiopia With a Mule

Dervla Murphy, In Ethiopia With a Mule

I seem to have a thing about Ethiopia recently.  Wherever I turn, there it is.  Feature article on my favourite news website.  Bumper sticker declaring someone's love for the place.  Books, chosen randomly but inevitably converging on the African nation.  The Prester Quest, reviewed recently.  Ryszard Kapuscinski's The Emperor (review coming soon!).  Dervla Murphy's In Ethiopia With a Mule

I almost feel stalked (can one be stalked by a country, I wonder?). 

And yes, we're talking Dervla Murphy today.  Again! 

In Ethiopia With a Mule is a diary of her first African journey - at least the first she wrote about - undertaken in 1966.  Those were the days of emperor Haile Sellasie, he of the Rastafari fame.  Eritrea was still a part of the country.  I'm mentioning this only because some of the terrain that Dervla journeyed through is not Ethiopian anymore. 

Murphy's courageous attitude is visible from the first pages of the book.  Despite numerous warnings about bandit activity on the chosen route, she kept evading any official escort as often as she could, convinced that a retinue would negatively impact on her relations with local populace.  A few minor and one major incidents did take place.  Dervla's description of the 'serious' encounter with thieves sounds pretty innocent right after the fact, but she often referred to this situation later in life as one of the few really dangerous ones that she faced. 

Bandits aside, Ethiopia in the sixties was a demanding country.  Rough terrain, maps bad or non-existent, little food and water, extremes of temperature and insect life turning night time into hell.  To balance it all, it also offered unequalled natural beauty, kind hospitality of the Ethiopians, blissful solitude and physical challenges, both of which Dervla greatly appreciates. 

As usually, Murphy's unique blend of compassion, common sense and thirst for adventure translate to flawless travel writing. 

Friday, 14 June 2013

Dervla Murphy, The Waiting Land - A Spell in Nepal

Dervla Murphy, The Waiting Land - A Spell in Nepal

In 1965 Dervla Murphy spent seven months in Nepal, a mountainous kingdom in the Himalayas.  The record of her adventures was published soon afterwards as The Waiting Land - A Spell in Nepal.

Quite a spell!  Visions conjured by Murphy's pen are enchanting indeed.  Festivals brimming with colours.  Majestic mountains and exotic wildlife.  The Nepalese, with their curious traditions and habits.  Joys and sorrows of rough travel through a country that only a few years previous had begun its journey towards modernity. 

Once again (see Tibetan Foothold) Tibet and Tibetans feature largely in the book.  Major part of Dervla's stay was spent working in a Tibetan refugee camp.  The mixture of nationalities one encounters in The Waiting Land is actually quite dazzling:  various indigenous tribes are spiced with the citizens of China, India and divers 'first world' countries.  There is no one like Dervla Murphy to observe the quirks and peculiarities of mixing cultures so anyone interested in sociology is in for quite a treat. 

The book does read a bit like a history textbook.  No, don't run, I don't mean to say that it's full of boring academese, The Waiting Land is totally readable.  It's just that plenty of water has passed under the bridge since 1965 and a lot has changed in Nepal.  It's not a kingdom anymore, to name the first shift springing to mind, but I'm sure the transformation goes much deeper.  Dervla provides a good amount of background information AD 1965, so if you happen to know something about Nepal as it is today (I don't!), you'll be able to appreciate the difference. 

To tell you the truth, I'm slowly running out of ideas for creative and original praising of Murphy's writing.  Perhaps the best way to communicate my admiration is this:  The Waiting Land is the 17th book of the author that I've read recently and I still haven't had enough.  One can hardly expect more. 

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Dervla Murphy, Tibetan Foothold

Dervla Murphy, Tibetan Foothold

Some time ago I realised that I had got as far as I could get on my own in the quest to track all Dervla Murphy books.  It was time to enlist a librarian's help. 

Most librarians in my local book source are sweet, friendly and helpful, but one or two individuals can only be described as intimidating.  Just my luck that I chanced upon a gentleman of the latter kind when I finally got down to serious hunting business...  It took some courage and no small amount of patience, but Dervla Murphy is worth surviving any amount of grumpiness.  To be fair, I got my books and quickly, too - yipee!

I'm working through the list chronologically, so the three titles I've checked out so far are all from the sixties.  Today's book, Tibetan Foothold, was published directly after Murphy's debut, Full Tilt, and it is really the second chapter of the same journey. 

Let me explain.  After the famous cycling expedition from Ireland to India, Dervla found herself in Delhi with much time to spare and the weather too hot to cycle.  She needed somewhere to bunk over until colder part of the year and she chose to fill the gap by doing some volunteer charity work.  Those days India was swarming with refugees from Tibet and Dervla was sent to a nursery for Tibetan children in Dharamsala. 

In contrast to other Murphy travel memoirs, Tibetan Foothold is almost stationary.  Sure, the itching feet took the tireless adventurer on quick treks whenever she could get away from care giving duties, but most of the book was written in the nursery where she worked.  That doesn't mean that the result is in any way inferior to other titles in Dervla's bibliography.  Just the opposite:  it is as fascinating as her most daring expeditions.  Clearly it is the case of beauty in the eye of a beholder...  or huge, huge writing talent.

I couldn't shake the feeling that Dharamsala experiences influenced Dervla for life.  The girl full tilting from Europe to Asia was curious and eager for an adventure, but only in Tibetan Foothold one can observe the emergence of humanitarian activism that became Murphy's trademark later on.  Of course, you'd need to ask the author herself to see if I'm right, but of one thing I am sure:  Dervla Murphy's conscience was alive and kicking almost from the beginning of her writing career.  This is probably the single most vivid detail distinguishing her from other writers:  she cares.  I'm usually sceptical when I stumble against too loudly expressed compassion, but in this case I am convinced.  Murphy is simply too human, too real in her reactions to possibly fake it.  She gets angry, muddles things, doubts, makes mistakes - in short, she's as far from pink-bubblegum-perfect as it is possible to be.  I'm convinced. 

Then again, I've been under a spell since the first encounter with Dervla. 

Two more titles coming soon. 

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Nicholas Jubber, The Prester Quest

Nicholas Jubber, The Prester Quest

Prester John, a mythical king of medieval Christianity, never lost the power to fascinate. 

In the 12th century a supposed letter from Prester John reached the court of Manuel Comnenos, Byzantine emperor.  The (then) Pope, Alexander III, took it upon himself to reply, sending the return message with his physician, Master Philip of Venice.  Since postal service was pretty unreliable in those days (read: non-existent) and the addressee elusive, the simple act of delivering a letter was synonymous with a long and perilous journey:  from Venice, through Turkey, Middle East, Egypt and Sudan, all the way to Ethiopia. 

Nicholas Jubber decided to retrace Master Philip's steps and, if possible, deliver the long overdue letter.  The Prester Quest was born.

If the story of Prester John sounds incomprehensible, rest assured - by the end of the book you will know all there is to know about the mythical priest-king.  The Prester Quest is half a history tale, half travel writing, with the two journeys unfolding side by side in front of the reader's eyes. 

Considering that The Prester Quest is Jubber's first book, it is quite a remarkable achievement.  The author shows off with flashing linguistic pyrotechnics.  The story is dynamic and entertaining, good-humoured auto-irony showing all the way through.  I'll hazard a prediction that if Jubber sticks to his travel writing career, he'll be a solid performer within the genre a few years from now, once some maturity is added to his impressive language skills. 

I confess that my mind kept drifting off the text and it took me a good while to get through the book, but it might be due to my own lack of concentration rather than the title's shortcomings.  Summer has come to Ireland, an occurrence unusual enough to make us all slightly light-headed. 

Gotta run.  The beach bag won't pack itself...

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Dubravka Ugresic, Karaoke Culture

Dubravka Ugresic, Karaoke Culture

Dubravka Ugresic is definitely to be filed under 'remarkable' when it comes to essay writing.  I chose Karaoke Culture randomly, not knowing anything about the author, tempted by the title alone and what a wonderful surprise it proved!  I actually wanted to re-read the book right after I finished it and that's a rare thing. 

So what does Ugresic write about?  Contemporary culture, mostly.  The book is very fresh, released only in 2011, so it's up to date with our speeding society.  The author is familiar with all the tech trends you can think of, plus a handful of fads that you probably have never heard about.  I haven't, at least, and Karaoke Culture kept me glued to my browser, checking up on all the leads provided by the text. 

I am yet to come across an essayist who would be as accurate in describing our current cultural climate.  Ugresic's bittersweet, witty comments on pop phenomena of today are simply delicious.  She's not exactly sarcastic but one feels she's silently laughing at all our quirks.  Images, fleeting moments, tiny stories in each essay are weaved together into a sparkling mosaic and somehow a message is transmitted between the lines, clearer and louder than any direct statement. 

Ugresic was born in Croatia (then - Yugoslavia).  She emigrated to the Netherlands after some of her writing made her a target of vicious media campaign during Yugoslavia's break-up, but home country is still clearly visible in her current work.  Karaoke Culture was written in Croatian so it probably wasn't meant for the international public anyway.  Some Balkan references may be a bit hazy to an average consumer, but they don't really impact the book's readability. 

After all, in this age of globalisation and instant communication most of us will recognise the karaoke culture as our own.