Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Serhiy Zhadan's The Orphanage (Ukraine)

"People aren't meant to keep so much fear and anger in their memories."

Pasha teaches at a school in the east of Ukraine. It's 2017 and the war in Ukraine is already in full swing in the east by then. But Pasha prefers to pay no attention to politics, speaks both Ukrainian and Russian, doesn't have a side, doesn't watch the news. 

Pasha's nephew is living in a nearby orphanage. The nephew's mother travels for her job, the kid's father's long gone, and with that background and the current situation, the kid was kind of a handful. Against the will of Pasha and the kid's grandfather, the mother had dropped him off at this orphanage. But now it's spring break, and Pasha's father browbeats Pasha into going and picking up his grandchild, Pasha's nephew.

But Pasha also doesn't watch the news. The orphanage is out in the countryside, in theory a short tram ride away. But overnight there'd been a shift in the front line Pasha hadn't heard about. He feels it, though, the moment he gets outside.

There are no trains and there are new checkpoints. Who's manning them? There are Russian-speakers with some Ukrainian; there's Ukrainian-speakers with some Russian; and then there are actual Russians, though in 2017 they're still pretending they aren't Russian, but Pasha hears Russian accents that aren't local.

The novel is structured as a three-day there and back journey. Through Hell? It occurred to me, even if the only soul who gets harrowed is one cantankerous but basically OK nephew. It is quite the hellscape he travels through.

But it's also a journey of discovery for Pasha. There's no my guys, your guys for Pasha at the beginning. (And wouldn't that be nice?) He's had a defective hand from childhood and couldn't be a soldier anyway. (Though somebody tells him at one point they've seen soldiers with worse.) But Pasha's a teacher of Ukrainian, and in the east that's already a political statement. And what he sees gradually changes him. When he gets to the orphanage at the end of the first day, there's only two adults left, the director and the gym teacher. Pasha and the gym teacher bond over their apoliticalness, but then Nina, the director, tells them both off.

Pasha sees worse in the two days it takes him to get back from the orphanage to his flat and his father, but he does make it with his thirteen-year-old nephew in tow. Pasha, who'd been passive as well as apolitical, starts to lead. He's also starting to decide.

The novel came out in 2017 in Ukrainian and was translated (ably, I think) into English in 2021 by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler. From the Ukrainian, it says, but I suspect there's quite a lot of subtlety where speakers shift between Russian and Ukrainian that the translators were obliged convey differently. 

A powerful portrait of a grim time and place, but one that ends with family and country and a glimmer (?) of hope. But things have only gotten worse in the Ukraine since then.



Monday, April 29, 2024

Christ Stopped At Eboli (European Reading Challenge: Italy)

 "'We're not Christians," they say. "Christ stopped short of here, at Eboli.'"

'They' are the peasants of Gagliano, superstitious and pagan and so not entirely Christian.

 In 1935, Carlo Levi was banished to a small hilltop town, Gagliano, in Basilicata, the deep south of Italy. Levi had been a member of the anti-Fascist organization Giustizia e Libertá [Justice and Liberty] and an opponent of the war against Ethiopia. Before Gagliano, he'd served a spell in solitary confinement and then an earlier period of internal exile in Grassano. The book begins as he's being transferred from Grassano to Gagliano.

Levi was born to a culturally Jewish and well-to-do family in Turin, in the north of Italy. He'd studied for a medical degree and his older sister Luisa became a famous neuropsychologist. But Levi himself, though he had qualified as a doctor, quit practising, and began to paint. He spent time in Paris in the 20s (he's born in 1902) painting, but on his return to Italy, had been caught up in the politics of the era.

The book is a pretty fascinating look at what the life of an isolated peasant culture was in the south of Italy in the 30s. Levi suggests--and it seems so--it hadn't changed all that much in centuries. Levi spends about a year there, grows to like the peasants he meets but remains unromantic about them. There's an amnesty after Italy wins its war against Ethiopia, and Levi is freed. He vows to come back to the south of Italy when he can, but doesn't, at least until his body is buried in Gagliano. The book came out in Italian in 1945, and made a stir among Italians who didn't have any clue about what was going on in the rural peasant south. Highly recommended.

I had a few more insightful things I meant to say, but, oh well, it's been three weeks since I finished it. I read it now because we were going to the south of Italy and I thought, it's time! But we didn't get to Gagliano, nor even to Eboli. (We stopped well short.) The farthest south we got was Paestum:

Temple to Hera (probably; it used to be thought Poseidon's)

Also south of Naples is the Amalfi coast. We walked to Ravello (a hill town hangout for Virginia Woolf and D. H. Lawrence and Richard Wagner) from Minori, a town on the coast. My phone registered 74 flights of stairs that day. Three-quarters of the Empire State Building!

The view from the Villa Rufalo in Ravello. The brochure said everybody takes this photo & I did, too.

I first read Virgil at a formative age. I wanted to see Phlegraean Fields, the purported entrance to Hades and Hephaestus' workshop, near Naples.

Lunch by Roman ruins in Pozzuoli, our first supposed temple of Serape, but really just a market.

We arrived at and then flew out of Rome. There are always things to see there, of course, and we didn't see them all. One of them was Hadrian's Villa, about 30 km east of Rome:

The building on the island was Hadrian's mancave.

Our second so-called temple of Serape

When you're king of the world and you've just come back with a boatload of plunder from Romania, you get to build this sort of thing. This so-called temple also wasn't, but apparently was just meant for (very) fancy picnics. We'd intended to see the villa on our visit ten years ago, but then ended up spending the entire day at the nearby (and also very cool) Villa d'Este. But now having read The Memoirs of Hadrian, I wanted to see it.

I probably ought to have read Christ Stopped at Eboli in Italian, but didn't. But look what my library was able to deliver:

It's nice to travel, but it's also good to be back!

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Virginia Woolf's The Waves (#ClassicsClub)

"...said Bernard...said Susan...said Rhoda...said Neville...said Jinny...said Louis..."

This is the story of six friends from an age where a first kiss is possible, but still a little shocking, on to maturity and death. They're upper middle class, articulate, privileged, a sort of Bloomsbury set in miniature. (The Wikipedia article suggests who each of the six characters is based on, but I didn't find that very helpful, or even necessarily convincing.) 

They're given backstories: Louis is scholarly, but insecure, because his father is 'a banker in Brisbane' and he doesn't have the right accent. Bernard tells stories. It's Jinny who delivers that first kiss. Susan goes to live in the country. Neville is obsessed with Percival, a not very explicit, but pretty clearly sexual, obsession. Rhoda is insecure--well, they're all insecure in one way or another.

The story takes place at interludes over the course of their lives. At first the boys and girls are relatively equal; that changes with schooling; the boys go to some Eton-like school and the girls go to some much less demanding institution. Then there's university for the boys, but not the girls. Then jobs, marriage, etc.

The interesting thing is the structure of the novel--well, Wikipedia says Woolf didn't want to call it a novel, but a playpoem, and perhaps that is a better term, even if a neologism. Though if it's a play, it's unperformable, and while the language is evocative, I'm not sure I'd call it a poem either. It's told entirely in the spoken statements--monologues--of the six characters, all of whom always speak in well-rounded sentences. Maybe some examples?

"'A shadow falls on the path,'  said Louis, 'Like a shadow bent.'"

"'Birds are singing up and down and in and out and all around us,' said Susan."

"'I burn, I shiver,' said Jinny, out of this sun, into this shadow.'"

Those are all from the first section when they're young and the monologues are typically just one sentence. The speeches get longer as the book goes on. Here's Louis, when first in school:

"'Now we march, two by two,' said Louis, 'orderly, processional, into chapel. I like the dimness that falls as we enter the sacred building. I like the orderly progress. We file in we seat ourselves. We put off our distinctions as we enter. I like it now, when, lurching slightly, but only from his momentum, Dr. Crane mounts the pulpit and reads the lesson from a Bible spread on the back of a brass eagle.'"

Each jump in time--from childhood, to that first school, to college, to jobs--is separated by an impersonal description of the waves at the shore, beginning in the morning and ending at evening:

"Now the sun had sunk. Sky and sea were indistinguishable. The waves breaking spread their white fans out over the shore, sent white shadows into the recesses of sonorous caves and then rolled back sighing over the shingle."

That's a representative start of a waves section from later in the book.

Bernard gradually becomes the primary speaker: "'Now to sum up,' said Bernard. 'Now to explain to you the meaning of my life.'" The girls fall out first and then the other two boys. But Bernard is the teller of stories. Not entirely alone, though, but as part of a representative generation. A wave.

Anyway, something like that...it is Virginia Woolf and I'm not sure I entirely got it. ðŸ˜‰ Compared to the other novels of hers I've read I still think Mrs. Dalloway and To The Lighthouse are superior. (I'm not that big a fan of Orlando.) This was probably easier than those, certainly easier than To The Lighthouse. That abstract speechifying she uses gives a sense of a generation in time, but at the same she gives up a useful tool for creating believable characters, which diminishes the emotional engagement. I don't know even Bernard in the way I know Mrs. Dalloway, and that does feel like a loss in a novel.

But it is one of the last off my Classics Club list!