China: The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices – Xinran

178796 It’s not easy writing about women equality in the contemporary world we live in. We have been raised to believe that women were wronged for centuries and now is our time and place to prove we are equal to men. We vote, we run our own companies, we freely express opinions not given to us by our own husbands and we drive (although with the occasional ridicule). We have been told – this is your century and your time to prove women are not and should not have been inferior to men for so many years. So we have been given all of the opportunities to show all our emotions and inherent gentleness cannot stand in the way of us becoming as successful as men can be.

I realize what I am about to say is far from a popular opinion these days, but I feel the world today is not favouring women equality – it is simply saying women should behave more like men to succeed and be valued and appreciated. It is above and beyond gender equality – it is more about the fact that there is an accepted behaviour that leads to success – and it is associated mostly with male characteristics. I am not one to argue for difference but I do believe there are differences between men and women that shouldn’t be blurred. I have been living in a man’s world for quite a while now. The field I have decided to pursue my career in is mostly dominated by men – as every statistics and personal experience out there shows. And more often than not I feel my own father attempts to turn me into the son he never had. I know I can be successful, I just don’t want and I am not ready to compromise on me being a woman. I don’t admire these so-called succesful women who feel that eliminating any femininity and adopting an attitude of complete and utter badness is the way to win out there. I am not ashamed to admit – I want men to take care of me, I want them to take me out to dinner and actually pay and I don’t plan on working my ass off just to prove that I can be self-sufficient. I can be, I just don’t want to. I don’t mind being called shallow or cynical – for gender equality has gone far beyond and has put women in the unfair position of having to prove anything. I say we don’t have to prove anything – I (and we) can be as successful as we like and want to be without compromising. It’s not a men’s world or a women’s world – it’s a world where men and women are and will always be different. It’s true we have been long deprived from the opportunity to be equal members of society – but I say the fight for us to become equal has missed the point and turned every self-respecting woman into a person who tries to justify every life choice and who struggles day in and day out to show a man is not only not needed in the picture, but is also pretty useless.

Reading The Good Women of China has been particularly painful – and I doubt as painful for men as it is actually for women. After the Cultural Revolution and Deng Xiaoping’s policies to open up China to the West many journalists began enjoying freedom of speech – or at least much more freedom of speech than during the Communist rule. In the 1980s Xinran, a Chinese journalist, started hosting her own radio show, Words on the Night Breeze, which gave women the unprecedented opportunity to raise their voice. Within months after the initiation of her radio program, Xinran is overwhelmed with letters – female stories during and immediately after the Cultural Revolution. In The Good Women of China: Hidden Voices Xinran tells 14 of these stories, including her own. There is nothing particularly new, at least from our point of view. Women being raped. Women being forced into arranged marriages. Women being treated inferior. Women living as beggars because their own children disowned them. A girl dying after an earthquake, trapped in a building. And her mother comforting us. Another girl losing her mind because a group of soldiers raped her. Way too many times. From my point-of-view now, more than 30 years later, it feels way too familiar. Yet it always hurts the same for a woman to hear or read about another one being treated that way.

Xinran emigrates. And years later she publishes these stories – the stories of Chinese women waiting to be heard. It may seem way too banal to some – and it is. Not all of the women in China at that time lived that way. And yet these stories are about those that actually did. Xinran narrates way too plainly for there is nothing more to be said really. These are just the ordinary lives of ordinary women. Told in an ordinary fashion.

It has taken me nearly two weeks to write this and honestly I don’t like it. I don’t like what I have written and I certainly don’t like that I do not know what to think. It’s about time women shouldn’t be regarded as inferior but should be regarded as different. Whatever has happened must be stopped but whatever is about to be initiated should be suspended as well. Women are not there to be raped but they are not there to be exploited either. I don’t know where the middle ground lies but I hope we do discover it some day.

Cuba: Afro-Cuban Tales – Lydia Cabrera

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I don’t remember clearly the last time I read fables. It might have been 15 years ago, it might have been even longer. What I do remember, though, is my pure infatuation with fables and especially with the one about the fox and the grapes. Like every healthy normal child (I would assume) I loved when animals spoke, acted and felt like us humans and I secretly dreamed they actually do. I secretly, secretly hoped they are just hiding their talents so that we do not utilize them to our advantage. Compared to that disappointment, the truth about Father Christmas hurt significantly less.

Come to think about it, I can’t find a reason why we ever stop reading fables. Life is unfair most of the time (as my dad usefully reminds me daily) so it feels more than awesome when the good guys overcome the bad guys using their wit and wisdom. Or when everyone gets what he deserves instead of what life serves him on a plate.

Lydia Cabrera’s Afro-Cuban Tales remind of fables, only fables set in Cuba. Growing up Cabrera becomes infatuated with the heritage and traditions of her home country – and she decides to convey them through magical and supernatural tales. A storyteller and an ethnographer, Cabrera sets on a journey throughout the history of Cuba – and delivers the real through the magical and the possible through the impossible. Her tales create a world, where people, Gods, animals and plants interact with each other and influence each other’s lives. Based on superstitions as well as religious rituals Afro-Cuban Tales offer abundance of details about Cuban practices, objects and religious ceremonies. For an ignorant reader as myself it has been an eye-opening experience into the world of Cuba. Some of the stories are existing legends or built around existing folk songs, while others are a result of the author’s imagination.

Unlike fables, though, Lydia Cabrera’s tales don’t always have a happy ending. Between the story of the girl who married an earthworm and later a bull and the history of how the mouse, cat and dog turned out to be death enemies, there are tales in which the evil flourishes and overcomes the good. Whatever the outcome, though, Cabrera always manages to end on some witty and wise note. Beyond the historical and cultural importance, Cabrera’s Afro-Cuban Tales establish ethical and human norms, according to which people regardless of race, colour or origin should live.

The English translation of the novel draws both from the Spanish and the French editions – the extensive notes below the text clearly explain the differences between the two editions and leaves open for interpretation the question of why Cabrera chose to write them differently. Overall, Afro-Cuban Tales is a good introduction to the mysterious and supernatural world of Cuba – told through the perspective of an ingeniously proud citizen.

Switzerland: Homo Faber – Max Frisch

downloadThe more technology develops, the more palpable the conflict between logic and faith becomes. Centuries ago people couldn’t explain to themselves phenomena, which to us now seem absolutely obvious. So they chose to believe – in faith, in miracles, in numerous Gods guiding and determining their lives. 14 years in the 21st century there is scarcely anything we still don’t have answers to. Excluding what happens after death or how exactly the universe was created, we more or less can find an answer to any sensible or stupid question we might have. It would seem then that faith in the supernatural, in something beyond reason and logic should be on its way to extinction. And yet that is not what popular culture shows us. Opposites tend to nurture each other – the more science and reason prevail in the battle of explaining the world, the more the supernatural insists on flourishing. At the end I wonder which one is better. For starters, living without the concepts of miracles and karma seems the healthier choice – for what you do is what you are going to get. And yet I can’t help but think that logic doesn’t necessarily make you happy. To quote an awesome show I just finished watching last week:

“If the only thing keeping a person decent is the expectation of divine reward then, brother, that person is a piece of sh*t. And I’d like to get as many of them out in the open as possible. You gotta get together and tell yourself stories that violate every law of the universe just to get through the goddamn day? What’s that say about your reality?”

Homo Faber by the Swiss author Max Frisch explores the damaging conflict between rationality and irrationality. Walter Faber, a scientist working with turbines, is a creature of technology. He has spent his entire life living in and with the present – for him the future is a mere function of our choices today and of chances rather than of faith. Fascinated with machinery, Walter worships the idea of a robot. The robot can and will be a better version of the human being, stripped from unnecessary emotions and fallacies. Within reason and logic everything is and should be possible – beyond that a man is subjected to chance. Chance, though, cannot and should not be perceived as karma – it’s a simple fact for Walter that probability includes within itself the concept of improbability and that the improbable doesn’t in itself include the intervention of some higher and inexplicable power. It seems Walter Faber has found his safety net in technology – he has no other spiritual beliefs. No higher power is guiding him – beyond the world of science there is nothing that could possibly excite him.

Throughout the first part of the novel (that is before he meets fate) I often wondered whether I envy or I pity the protagonist. Deemed Homo Faber, he is one idea too wise, one idea too down to earth and one idea too cynical. Rejecting destiny or karma, Walter embraces the materialistic world until a chance occurrence (or fate) threatens to shatter his beliefs. The plot of the novel itself could hardly matter – midway throughout we are told explicitly what to expect. On a journey taken by a whim Walter meets and falls in love with a young girl – only to realize she is his daughter of which existence he never even suspected. The incest in itself is neglected and merely mentioned – what is more important remains the journey of a man, whose beliefs are scattered into pieces. Meeting the mother (and probably his only true love) Walter is awoken to the greatest difference between machinery and people. However much we might want to, we cannot control every single thing that happens to us. And sometimes irrationality and fate play a bigger role than we want to admit.

Walter (Homo) Faber was probably never meant to be a likable character. We recognize far too many of our contemporary traits in him. The pure obsession with logic and rationality has degraded the human being to a machinery that can be controlled and sometimes manipulated. And for the sake of argument, living within the recognizable and rational saves you from actually having to experience the world in its beautiful and strange weirdness:

…about technology (according to Hanna) as the knack of so arranging the world that we don’t have to experience it. The technologist’s mania for putting the Creation to a use, because he can’t tolerate it as a partner, can’t do anything with it; technology as the knack of eliminating the world as resistance, for example, of diluting it by speed, so that we don’t have to experience it.

What Faber experiences at the end may be defined as a catharsis – and in the spirit of Greek drama he doesn’t have a lot of time to cherish the fruits of his discoveries. Nevertheless, Max Frisch poses the inevitable question – how far do we want to go with our admiration with technology – is there a boundary moment beyond which we cease to be amazed with the world and we stop being in love with life? A moment where we become so guided by reason and logic that we forfeit the opportunity to be surprised by a miracle?

‘You don’t treat life as form, but as a mere addition sum, hence you have no relationship to time, because you have no relationship to death.’ Life is form in time. Hanna admits that she can’t explain what she means. Life is not matter and cannot be mastered by technology. My mistake with Sabeth lay in repetition. I behaved as though age did not exist, and hence contrary to nature. We cannot do away with age by continuing to add up, by marrying our children.

Favourite quotes: 

Being alone is the only possible condition for me, since I don’t want to make a woman unhappy, and women have a tendency to become unhappy.

***

It is coldest just before sunrise.

Швеция: “Стогодишният старец, който скочи през прозореца и изчезна” – Юнас Юнасон

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Знаете ли какво е общото между Франко, Сталин, Мао, Труман, Дьо Гол, Чърчил и Ким Ир Сен? Освен, разбира се, че това са лидерите, които до голяма степен определят политическото и икономическото развитие на света през 20ти век? Както зад всеки успял мъж стои една жена, така и зад всеки от тези успели и влиятелни мъже стои…Алан Карлсон. Със своите неволни и невинни действия оправният швед повлиява на хода на историята, предотвратява война между СССР и Щатите, спасява съпругата на Мао от сигурна смърт, разкрива съветски шпионин в обкръжението на Де Гол, и още и още полезни действия, без които светът днес нямаше да е това, което е. Добре, че е Юнас Юнасон, за да разберем на кого дължим своите благодарности.

Има нещо особено в скандинавската литература. “Годината на дивия заек” от финския писател Арто Пааасилина е трагикомичната история на журналиста Каарло Ватанен, който, уморен от цивилизацията и ограниченията, бяга от отговорностите заедно с един див заек. Неговите приключения, обаче, не могат дори да се сравнят с живота на Алан Карлсон. Подобно на симпатичния герой на Астрид Линдгрен, с който споделя фамилия, стогодишният старец решава да полети към свободата – или по-скоро да скочи към нея. На връх стогодишнината си Алан (както заглавието ни подсказва) скача през прозореца и изчезва. Оттам нататък старецът се забърква в ред комично-трагични ситуации, които включват куфар пълен с пари, няколко опасни убийци, един крадец, един собственик на количка за хот-дог, който се превръща в професионален шофьор, една слоница и нейната красива собственичка, един инспектор и няколко съвсем невинни убийства. Със страхотно чувство за хумор Юнасон паралено проследява и живота на Карлсон – от момента в който се ражда в малко село във Швеция, през гражданската война в Испания, където взривява мостове, към Щатите и СССР, където участва в изобретяването на атомната бомба та чак до ГУЛАГ. Въпреки тези премеждия Алан Карлсон никога не губи своя оптимизъм – каквото има да става, ще стане. Липсата на водка идва твърде много на шведа – и след повече от десетилетие в съветските лагери Карлсон продължава своя път през Корея, Индонезия, отново СССР и накрая Швеция.

На пръв поглед всичко това звучи безумно – толкова е безумно, че чак е смешно. Четейки в метрото често се смеех с глас – просто е невъзможно да останеш равнодушен към чувството за хумор на Юнасон. Алан Карлсон ни показва как трябва да се живее – спокойно, уверено и със здравословна доза оптимизъм. Рядко нещо изкарва изкарва Алан извън кожата му – стига да има водчица, храна и приятна компания шведът е напълно щастлив и готов да посрещне каквото животът му предложи. Не се интересува от политика и религия (а и защо ли) – важното е животът да си върви пък всичко все някак ще се нареди. А ако не се нареди – както казах, винаги има водка за тази цел.

Очарованието на “Стогодишният старец, който скочи през прозореца и изчезна” се крие не само в забавните случки от живота на стареца. Със същото чувство за хумор Юнас Юнасон проследява най-значимите събития от бурния 20ти век. Всички конфликти, задкулисни игри и политически инсинуации са представени точно и ясно. Така “Стогодишният старец, който скочи през прозореца и изчезна” се превръща не само в увлекателна, но и в доста образователна книга. Накрая, разбира се, имаме и един щастлив край, от който сърцето на читателя съвсем се разтапя. Рядко роман ме е карал не само да се усмихвам, но и наистина да се чувствам щастлива. Алан Карлсон трябва да бъде модел за подражание. Когато нещо не ти харесва, винаги може да го промениш (дори на 100 години). Каквито и страшни и опасни премеждия да ти се случат, всичко ще бъде наред в един момент. И най важното – докато има хапване, пийване и добър разговор, нищо не може да те победи. Пък любовта – тя може да дойде дори след стогодишнината ти.

Любими цитати: 

Things are what they are, and whatever will be will be.

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Revenge is like politics, one thing always leads to another until bad has become worse, and worse has become worst.

***

You should beware of priests, my son. And people who don’t drink vodka. Worst of all are priests who don’t drink vodka.

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People could behave how they liked, but Allan considered it was quite unnecessary to be grumpy if you had the chance to.

Brazil: The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas – Machado de Assis

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One of the greatest novels of Brazilian literature by one of its most important authors. These are the facts behind Machado de Assis’s The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas. Latin America has given birth to numerous amazing authors and it seemed Machado de Assis was going to be yet another one. Excited and eager to read the novel, I didn’t expect it would take me four days to finish it and nearly a week more to force myself to write about it. Because, besides to say I didn’t like it, I have neither motivation nor inspiration to say anything else. For the sake of this blog and the idea behind it, I would attempt to write something, warning you in advance this might be among the worst reviews I have ever written.

I am far from a literature revolutionary and I have rarely read and utterly disliked a novel the majority of the world has deemed a classic. Not that I am a conformist (or may be I am, but not regarding books) – it just seemed I liked the novels that have proven themselves by transcending through time. And yet The Posthumous Memoirs of  Brás Cubas, a classic novel by the widely accepted definition, was among the definite tortures this year.

The title says it all - Brás Cubas is telling his life story from the save harbour of the grave. Wondering where to star from, death or birth, the hero rejects the conformity of novels and begins from his death – a quiet and simple death at a sort of reasonable age. However, Brás Cubas feels he has left something behind – untold and unaccounted for – and goes on to describe his childhood, youth, adulthood and eventually senility. Frankly, nothing particularly amazing happens to our hero – he grows up a normal boy, he falls in love a little too many times than healthy, he doesn’t get married and he never has children. The latter is probably his biggest accomplishment (according to him of course):

This last chapter is all about negatives. I didn’t attain the fame of the poultice, I wasn’t a minister, I wasn’t a caliph, I didn’t get to know marriage. The truth is that alongside these lacks the good fortune of not having to earn my bread by the sweat of my brow did befall me. I didn’t suffer the death of Dona Plácida or the semidementia of Quincas Borba. Putting one and another thing together, any person will probably imagine that there was neither a lack nor a surfeit and, consequently, that I went off squared with life. And he imagines wrong. Because on arriving at this other side of the mystery I found myself with a small balance, which is the final negative in this chapter of negatives – I had no children. I haven’t transmitted the legacy of our misery to any creature.

Life is miserable through the pessimistic outlook of the protagonist – there is scarcely anything worth about it so why bring on the misery to another human being by reproducing? Well, I can’t answer that, but I can certify that after finishing The Posthumous Memoirs of  Brás Cubas I certainly had a lot of suicidal thoughts. I am attempting to understand the hype behind this novel – and so far utterly failing to do so. Whether it is because I have been reading a lot of contemporary and modernistic novels lately, or whether because I always associated Latin America with brilliance, originality and magical realism, but Machado de Assis’s realism was way to cumbersome and to be honest boring. I realize this is the 19th century and realism is what I should expect and what I should get. I have no particular objection to realism in novels (and to be perfectly honest to Machado de Assis there were some successful metaphors out there) but the Brazilian takes it to another level. I wasn’t excited about the story, I wasn’t excited about the characters, I wasn’t excited about the setting, I was simply excited about ending this and moving on to something better. Nevertheless, I gave it two starts – not my cup of tea but from times to times there was inspiring philosophy I didn’t mind reading. Overall, though, a cataclysm must have occurred if I turn back to Machado de Assis in the very near future.

India: Shame – Salman Rushdie

shame_salman_rushdie

Nearly two years have gone by since I last immersed myself into the magical and sometimes crazy world of Salman Rushdie. The Indian born writer is among the most imaginative authors out there and his novels have brought him not only world-wide fame but also a death sentence (because of the strikingly controversial The Satanic Verses). Pushing his imagination to the limit and employing the whole variety of the English language, Rushdie creates a magical world filled surreal people and places. These magical events usually follow closely a certain historical period and while in Midnight’s Children Rushdie focused on the destiny of his home state of India, in Shame he describes the partition of Pakistan and the subsequent years of turbulence and violence in the newly formed state.

In a typical Salman Rushdie fashion, Shame shocks from the mere start. Omar Khayyam Shakil has been born and raised in the fictional town of Q. (actually Quetta, Pakistan) by his three mothers – sisters who shared the symptoms of pregnancy as well as the birth itself, making it impossible to determine which one gave birth to him exactly. Confined in his home for more than 20 years, Omar develops into a strange and introvert fat boy, filled with hatred towards his mothers. Upon his escape he is blessed (or cursed) by them to never experience shame – because of how he looks or because of who he is.

On the opposite of the shame-shamelessness specter is Sufiya Zinobia, the daughter of General Raza Hyder (based on real-life General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq). Disappointment to her parents from the moment of her birth (in a typical Muslim tradition they wanted a boy) she grows into a mentally disabled woman with the brain of a 10-year-old. Unlike Omar, Sufiya has been raised with shame – ignored and despised by both of her parents, the girl lives in her dreamy world of imagination until a vicious force overwhelms her. For in Rushdie’s novel both shame and shamelessness ultimately lead to violent brutality.

Through the lenses of magical realism Rushdie also explores the real-life decades long conflict between Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and General Mohammed Zia ul-Haq (respectively Iskander Harappa and General Raza Hyder in the novel). The struggle between these two men over dominance in Pakistan spreads out to their families, wifes, children and relatives and submerges everything into blood and death. Because the only way to destroy a dictator is obviously to substitute it with another one.

Salman Rushdie loves a multitude of characters and in Shame there are so many of them entangled into complicated relationships that I lost track more often than not who was whom. The bottom line, though, was clear. I often wonder which is the human trait responsible for the majority of the suffering we impose on ourselves and on other people. Is it greed, or pride, or lust, or jealousy? Are the ten deathly sins causing all of our troubles? Or probably something else, specific for each individual?. For Rushdie shame is the root of all evil – for every insult, failure, disappointment, revenge, pain or death ultimately lead to feeling shame. And feeling shame is so painful and unbearable that people succumb to drastic measures to suppress it and fight it. Violence in its most vicious form stems from this inherent shame, to which none of them (or us really) is immune.

In Shame the narrator is not a distant observer – he is entangled in the novel. He judges, condemns and criticizes. He is both repelled and proud of his own creations. Salman Rushdie eliminates the boundary between reader and author and invites us to be his accomplices in creating and destroying the lives of his shameful and shameless characters.

More from Salman Rushdie: 

Midnight’s Children

More from (about) India: 

Shantaram – Gregory David Roberts

The White Tiger – Aravind Adiga

Favourite quotes: 

Realism can break a writer’s heart

**

…every story one chooses to tell is a kind of censorship, it prevents the telling of other tales.

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Shamelessness, shame: the roots of violence

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All stories are haunted by the ghosts of the stories they might have been

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If a great man touches you, you age too quickly, you live too much and are used up.

Canada: Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage – Alice Munro

hateship loveshipLately I feel international literature available in Bulgaria has been witnessing some very positive developments. More valuable books are being translated with less focus on self-help, esotericism, alternative healing practices and food-for-the-soul type of novels. Bulgarian literature has also enjoyed its much awaited revival so things are indeed looking up and I expect (or rather hope) that the average Bulgarian will learn to read and appreciate quality literature.

However, one major negligence stands out. The Canadian winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize Alice Munro has never ever been translated in Bulgarian. I would very much hope that this omission will soon be corrected as Alice Munro is a great storyteller and frankly an incredible woman.

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, Alice Munro’s tenth short story collection, strikes with its rather unconventional title. The first story, bearing the same name, quickly sets the tone for the rest of the stories to follow – a vivid and thorough dissection of human relationships in their various forms. Munro’s characters are ordinary people, usually living dull and seemingly uneventful lives. They are adolescent girls and boys looking for purpose, middle-class families going through crisis and sickness, older couples faced with separation and eventually death. The author skillfully jumps from past to present and to future – her trademark – to build comprehensive stories that feel like miniature novels. At the heart of every individual character’s motivation, however different they might be, lay relationships. Rather than becoming more straight-forward and simple as we grow up (which is what I am hoping anyways), they tend to grow even more complicated, confusing and frustrating. Beyond the ordinary characters hide complicated creatures, whose bonds with family, friends and lovers are both affected and affect their lives in unimaginable and sometimes final ways. Throughout her career Munro has been fascinated by the origin of relationships – are they really arbitrary and random or are they fated? Do the bonds we form depend solely on our background and environment or are we forever looking for that special kind of person who is supposed to fill in a certain void? I suspect everyone would find a different answer to this question in Munro’s collection. 

While reading I often got confused between the short stories, mixing characters and places. At times it felt less like a collection of separate short stories and more like a novel, where only the names of the characters and the places change, but the main idea remains constant with the author slowly taking us through introduction, climax and then resolution. In that sense the stories are skillfully ordered. In Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage the cruel games of two bored adolescent girls threaten to make a fool out of a woman, who decides to travel the country and live with a man she has been tricked into believing had feelings for her. Fate, however, has a funny way of sorting things out – and in that sense love becomes more of a chance happening than of a growing and rethought feeling. Comfort, probably the most disturbing short story, follows the calculated decision of a terminally ill man to take away his own life. His wife, upon finding him, is not surprised or shocked – they have discussed it. She is only disappointed because she expected that as she had been an integral part of his life, so should she be present at his death. As she struggles to come at peace with her husband’s death, Nina struggles to make sense of his suicide note and to convince society that an atheist must not be buried according to convention. Nettles is the touching story of a childhood friendship that ended abruptly and unexpectedly. Decades later, a man and a woman mean and re-enact their relationship in a violent storm under the pouring rain. However, both were scared by life in some way – getting together for real is out of the question. The only thing that remains is that distant feeling of warmth, friendship and gentle tickling of the first love. What is Remembered is a chance encounter at a funeral, which soon turns into a passionate one night stand. They are destined never to meet again – and probably for the best. Nevertheless, Meriel relives and revives that night, embellishing and altering it to fit her most sacred dreams. An affair that doesn’t destroy her marriage but that changes her outlook towards life. The final story, The Bear Came Over the Mountain, follows a man who slowly loses his wife to Alzheimer. The only short story in which the now 72-years-old Munro focuses on the challenges of old age. Grand and Fiona have lived and cared for each other for 50 years (despite his occasional flings) when her sickness commits her to a care facility in which she forms a rather unusual bond with another patient. Grant is left to overcome his jealousy and selfishness and to ensure the happiness of his now estranged wife, even with another man.

Alice Munro possesses enviable knowledge of the way the human mind operates. Her characters are vivid and real, her stories are plausible yet surprising and shcoking, and her portrayal of relationships as the most important determinant of our life positions her among the greatest masters of the short story. Absolutely looking forward to reading more from her and secretly hoping we would get to see her in Bulgarian bookstores fairly soon.

Chile: Bonsai – Alejandro Zambra

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A month ago I visited Georges Pompidou for the first time with a friend of mine. Both of us are huge impressionism/post-impressionism/symbolism fans (she more than me) so neither expected to be in awe by the modernistic versions of art on display in Pompidou. I mean even from the outside the building prepares you for unconventional art. Considered by some the ugliest construction in Paris and by others a genial architectural accomplishment, Georges Pompidou provokes polar feelings both with its appearance and with its paintings and installations. Nevertheless, I was quite unprepared for what constitutes art nowadays and the trip soon turned from admiring art to frankly making fun of it by trying to come up with an explanation as to what the author meant when he decided to express his feelings through three identical white canvases or through red paintings on a red background.

Several weeks later I had to go through this process again as yet another friend of mine was visiting. However, she is much more the so-called artsy person so she really didn’t share my enthusiasm for laughing at things that don’t constitute art in my mind – such as a cloth hanger. Of course, there were installations worth admiring but overall I was left with the impression that modern art is way too modern. After all, more or less everything has been said and done and it becomes harder and harder to come up with something new and original – hence white canvases (I am sorry but these white canvases are a huge pain in the ass for me).

Lately I have been thinking that admiration comes with experience. I wonder what an average person with healthy reading habits would think of Alejandro Zamba’s Bonsai. Probably hate it as Bonsai is the perfect example of modernistic novel. If I may call a novel a 90-pages long book that I read in 45 minutes. Frankly I am finding it difficult to say what it was about because probably it was about nothing and everything. Maybe a love story? Sounds legit. Julio and Emilia are young lovers, quite ordinary with one notable exception – both of them live and breathe through literature. Before any sexual interactions they read out to each other until discovering a passage that arouses them – the rest is history. However, literature ignites the fire on which you burn yourself severely at the end (speaking from personal experience). In that sense the short story Tantalia by Macedonio Fernandez marks the beginning of the end for Julio and Emilia. Tantalia reads much like Bonsai – a young couple decides to buy a plant, which will symbolize their love, only to realize that when the plant dies, their love must perish with it. After that Emilia suddenly perishes and Julio is left to gather the scattered pieces of his life.

For such a short novel Bonsai incorporates a lot about art, love and relationships. When Julio misses out on an opportunity to transcribe a novel by a famous author, he sets on to write the novel that he thought that author would have written. That fictional novel within the novel also reads closely with Bonsai and the reader is entangled in a whirlpool of stories, interacting and influencing each other in unimaginable ways. A simple story that got complicated, as the author suggests, Bonsai is worth reading not for the plot or for the characters, but for the thoughts and sensations it provokes. Similarly to a bonsai, which once taken outside of its flowerpot ceases to exit, so does Julio and Emilia’s love evaporate once they stop reading to each other. And in that sense love becomes much more about what is kept out of the world and nourished into those precious moments of intimacy than about what is manifested publicly. For we can always find something to like and even fall in love with in other people and what counts at the end is that we have something that is strictly and privately ours. Prying destroys love and knowledge impedes it – when our affection is naked to the world it simply cannot exist anymore. We have given others an inside look into our most sacred emotions and what has become public can no longer be only ours – and can no longer be love.

I realize I am contrary for I accept modernism in literature but I still find it difficult to appreciate modernism in art. Bonsai may have evoked totally opposite feelings in another reader but that is what I love about literature (and modern one that is) – one is never locked into thinking what the author wanted to say – the author only wanted to say what you wanted to read. Probably experiences has the upper hand here. My limited knowledge about art impedes me from looking outside of the box and acknolwedging there might be something worth about it after all. My unhealthy relationship with literature though has introduced me to such a variety of novels that I no longer reject something just because it is too modern or too different. Nevertheless, three white canvases are not art in any universe. Just like 100 blank pages cannot be literature.

Favourite quotes: 

What’s the purpose of being with someone if they don’t change your life? She said that, and Julio was present when she said it: that life only had purpose if you found someone who changed it, who destroyed your life.

Azerbaijan: Ali and Nino – Kurban Said

Ali and Nino

Nothing ignites as much interest and speculation among readers as the mysterious identity of an author. For more than 60 years the author of Ali and Nino was unknown. Numerous research lead to two possible candidates – the Austrian baroness Elfriede Ehrenfels and the Ukrainian Jew Lev Nussimbaum, who converted to Islam and took the name Essad Bey. It was subsequently agreed that Essad Bey was the author of the novel, although many still believe that the baroness in fact co-shared the authorship.

Well of course a novel about the eternal clash between the East and the West should in fact be written by a man who incorporates both. Given the mystery still surrounding the authorship, I was quite excited to get my hands on Ali and Nino although I did have my doubts. It wasn’t technically speaking an Azerbaijani novel given the definition I had accepted (i.e it had to be written by an Azerbaijani author). After finishing it, though, I have no doubts or remorse, for Kurban Said (whoever he or she or they might really be) truthfully captures the essence of living in a country that is neither East nor West, neither Asiatic nor European, neither Muslim nor Christian. A country that for centuries has been regarded as the gate between Western civilization and Eastern tradition – belonging in both and in neither. A country people from diverse backgrounds and religions have struggled (and still struggle) to live together in and to form a national identity that is always somewhere in between.

Set in the years before and during WWI, Ali and Nino is supposed to be a love story. At least that is what the caption says. It seems God (or whoever) just poured a bit out of everything in Baku – there were Persians, Russians, Georgians, Armenians, Poles and Mohammedans. In class children were given a choice – do you want to belong to Europe or to Asia? As for Ali, doubt was out of the picture. Born into a Muslim family of heritage, he was raised with the stories of his brave predecessors who died for the protection and continuance of the Muslim tradition. And yet the heart seldom obeys tradition or family (or logic and reason for that matter) and Ali’s heart takes him on the outer side of the wall, closer to Europe that he would conceivably would like to be.

Nino, a Princess, is born into a progressive Georgian family, which rejects the so-called ‘barbarian’ customs and beliefs of the Mohammedans, especially regarding women. Raised free-spirited and progressive by her parents, Nino would never agree to the veil, to the inferior position of women in the Muslim society, to living in a harem and to repressing her voice. Such a bond seems inconceivable and frankly impossible. And yet we seldom fall in love with the ones we are supposed to. Although Baku is quite cosmopolitan, the differences between Ali and Nino’s beliefs become even more unbearable with the escalation of the East-West conflict. Despite the fervent passion between them, neither Ali nor Nino seem prepared to compromise.

Beyond the love story a grander and more important story is developing. As WWI breaks out, the Azerbaijani must decide where their alliances lie – with the long-time occupier Russia or with the Turks promising to liberate it and support the newly formed state. With the West promising to bring along civilization in the form of infrastructure, education and healthcare or with the East with its hundreds of years of traditions. As Ali and Nino are struggling to find a compromise in their relationship so is Azerbaijan struggling to discover what truly defines it as a nation. It seems quite amazing how little has changed since 1937 when this novel was written. Supposedly we are going forward – to integration and acceptance – and yet I feel the gap between the East and the West has never been wider. I wonder what the next generation would look like. 

In addition to being a page-turner, Ali and Nino proved to be quite educational. Kurban Said (again whoever he might be) paints a thorough picture of Azerbaijan – politics, love and nature interwine in a magical way to show that probably nothing is either black or white, wrong or right, East or West. And above all (however cheesy that might sound, for me especially) that love could actually flourish in the most barren soil.

Favourite quotes: 

He who thinks of tomorrow can never be brave.

***

A wise rule demands that a man should keep away from women when he stands at life’s crossroads.

Португалия: “Слепота” – Жозе Сарамаго

jsslepota3Първият ослепя, докато чакаше в колата си на светофара. Последното, което видя преди белотата да го обгърне завинаги, беше изкрящото червено  Жената на първия ослепял оплакваше съпруга си вкъщи преди белотата да я обгърне завинаги. Офтамологът прекара часове пред учебниците, опитвайки се да проумее необяснимата загуба на зрение на своя пациент, преди белотата да го обгърне завинаги. Момичето с тъмните очила преживя най-невероятния оргазъм в живота си преди белотата да я обгърне завинаги. Асистенката на офтамолога се возеше в асансьора преди белотата да я обгърне завинаги. А жената на офтамолога се качи с него в линейката, преди да започне да се преструва, че белотата я е обгърнала завинаги.

“Слепота” на Жозе Сарамаго е една от най-тежките и най-впечатляващите книги, които съм чела от доста време. И една от двете книги, на които плаках като малко дете от началото до края.

В безименен град, в безименна страна, в неизвестно време един обикновен мъж в разцвета на силите си губи зрението си без видима причина. Вместо тъмнина, обаче, го ображда една изкряща, но все пак непрогледна, белота. Епидемията се разраства с бързината на чума и заплашва да обхване цялото население, когато правителството решава да погуби малцинството, за да спаси мнозинството и слепите и потенциално слепите са изолирани и охранявани в бивша лудница. Към тези “болни” се отнасят като към животни – храната им се подхвърля два-три пъти дневно, лекарства и обикновени санитарни материали липсват, канализацията скоро се запушва и спира да работи и всичко, което ни прави хора, постепенно изчезва. Имаше една сентенция: “Прави каквото трябва дори когато никой не гледа.” В романът на Жозе Сарамаго това не важи. В свят, в който никой не вижда, човешкото отстъпва място на примитивното и животинското. Хората извършват най-естествените си нужди кой-където свари. Всякакъв вид коректност и моралност се изместват от чисто човешкия инстинкт за самосъхранение. Естествено, безскрупулните взимат властта, окупират малкото храна и я продават на по-слабите срещу часовници, пари, злато и жени – да, срещу всякакви вещи.

В този свят на незрящи имена няма. Професии също почти не се споменават. Тук човек не е външният си вид, не е професията си, не е социалното си положение, не е дома си и не е парите си. В тази болница връзките, които си създал в предишния си живот не важат – всеки е с всеки и това е напълно разбираемо. Тук човек се представя единствено чрез гласа си и се оценява единствено чрез характера си. В този свят на незрящи най-голямото наказание е да бъдеш различен. Жената на офтамолога е единствената незасегната от болестта. И въпреки че за някого това би изглеждало като благословение, за нея е истинско проклятие. Тя е принудена да гледа как слепи хора се бият за храна, как слепи хора ровят сред боклуците, за да се доберат до някой оглозган кокал, как слепи хора лежат в собствените си екскременти, как слепи хора се блъскат и падат, объркани от изскрящата белота, как слепи хора убиват други слепи хора, как слепи хора биват оглозгвани от кучета по улиците. Сред тази деградация и упадък жената на офтамолога трябва да се бори и да запази разсъдъка си, да забрави и преодолее отвратителните гледки пред очите си, да поведе като овчар стадо тези безпомощни сенки на хора.

След като епидемията обхваща целия свят сякаш нищо друго не остава на човечеството освен да се върне 2,000 години назад и да се опита да построи своята цивилизация отново. Сред тези руини, обаче, човешкото у някои съумява да се издигне над опустошението и отчаянието. Младо момиче отделя от храната си, за да се грижи за малкото момче без майка. И същото това младо момиче приема да прекара живота си с възрастен мъж, когото никога не е виждала, но обича заради гласа и характера. Зрящата жена наблюдава как съпругът и обладава друга, разбирайки, че тук приетите човешки закони не важат. И същата тази зряща жена поема върху плещите си да спаси тези, които може.

Брилянтният носител на Нобелова награда Жозе Сарамаго не е първият, нито последният, който рисува опустошенията на апокалипсиса. Стивън Кинг и Кормак Маккарти са само две от имената, които ми идват наум. И въпреки това Жозе Сарамаго за мен е най-въздействащият и най-бруталният. Португалецът се рови дълбоко в човешката душа и изкарва наяве нейните най-отвратителни недостатъци и нейните най-висши качества. Текстът се чете много трудно – подобно на Томас Бернхард забравете за всякаква пунктуация. Романът се състои от дълги параграфи, в които понякога е трудно да се разбере дори кой говори. Но има ли значение кой говори? В свят на слепи всеки е всеки и никой е никой. Може би ние всички сме слепи, както авторът завършва своето велико произведение. Слепи хора, които гледат, но не виждат. Слепи хора, които са толкова привикнали към примитивните си възприятия, че несъзнателно игнорират нежните трепети на сърцето. Слепи хора, които отказват да прогледнат за нещо друг извън собственото си обкръжение. Може би тук лежи и решението – може би всички трябва да загубим зрението си, за да видим най-накрая какво лежи отвъд.

Любими цитати: 

…if before every action, we were to begin by weighing up the consequences, thinking about them in earnest, first the immediate consequences, then the probable, then the imaginable ones, we should never move beyond te point where our first tought brought us to a halt. The good and the evil resulting from our words and deeds go on apportioning themselves, one assumes in a reasonably uniform and balanced way, throughout all the days to follow, including those endless days, when w sall not be here to find out, to congratulate ourselves or ask for pardon, indeed there are those who claim that this is the much-talked-of immortality.

***

…all stories are like those about the creation of the universe, no one was there, no one witnessed anything, yet everyone knows what happened.

***

Inside us there is something that has no name, that something is what we are.

***

The difficult thing isn’t living with other people, it’s understanding them.

***

If I am sincere today, what does it matter if I regret it tomorrow.

***

I don’t tink we did go blind. I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see but do not see.

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