Thursday, August 4, 2022

The Donkey's Ears


from The Donkey's Ears, part 5, § XIX, opening

What's this I do? A diary or a poem?
Or letters to you? Will you keep them by you
As a memento of my love, my blue
Seafaring days, and when you're old, read them

All over again, in your favourite chair
By the window? By then much might have changed
And how might Russia be rearranged
Forty years on?...
In 1904, the Russian Baltic fleet set sail from Kronstadt, St. Petersburg, to join the Russian Pacific fleet during the Russo-Japanese war. The fleet was under the command of Admiral Rozhestvensky, but the Flag Engineer E. S. Politovsky wrote a series of letters home to his wife during the voyage. (A flag engineer is the person in charge of maintenance and repair across an entire fleet.) The letters made it home and survived and are now considered a major historical source for the expedition. Douglas Dunn, a Scottish poet (b. 1942), used them as the basis for his book length poem. 

Dunn says in an afterword he'd started the poem in 1983 for an exhibit on the Dogger Bank incident where the Russian fleet, mistaking a few British fishing boats in the North Sea for the Japanese navy, opened fire. One trawler was sunk, but the Russian navy didn't come out too well either:
Aurora's holed below her waterline--
Imaginary, midnight Japanese!
Our guns were real, but not our enemies...
An empire, at its zenith, in decline!

-Part 1, § VIII, l. 1-4

Those Russians; paranoid much, eh?

Dunn set the poem aside for a while, though, only finishing it in 2000. The poem follows the fleet as it sails around Africa, holes up off Madagascar, still a French colony, then sets sail across the Indian Ocean.

Who can postpone or stop this merciless
Near-circumnavigation, this witless sprint
Over the oceans to the Orient,
To destiny?
     Madame, I crave your kiss!
-Part 4, §VII, end

Destiny was the Battle of Tsushima in May of 1905. It was a disaster for the Russians, with very nearly the entire fleet wiped out, and it led swiftly to the end of the Russo-Japanese War. The Tsushima Straits are the body of water between Japan and Korea; Tsushima is an island in those straits with a rock outcrop that resembles donkey's ears, and Tsushima means donkey's ears in Japanese. You can decide if you think the idea of donkeys has any other application to our story... 

Admiral Rozhestvensky survived the disaster, but Flag Engineer Politovsky did not. His last appearance:

I'll have to hurry. Our unarmed transports
Will leave us soon for Shanghai, and with mail
If I can finish this before they sail
To booze and safety and the sexual sports

For which the city's famous. Not for me!
My uniform's been pressed, so if I die
I'll be well dressed, gold cufflinks, black bow-tie,
Wing collar, dressed to meet the horrid sea.
-Part 9, § V, end


I thought the whole thing very good.

Politovsky seems a good man, his sense of honour, his love for his wife, his engineer's practicality, his ability to see through official balderdash. Dunn said he came to like Politovsky and it shows, and considered contriving a last letter from the battle or a death scene, but then thought better of it. Such is war, anonymizing and deadly.

And why have I picked as my Russia book this year the story of a disastrous end to Russian imperial hubris and military adventurism? Well, you can hope, can't you?





Monday, August 1, 2022

Marc David Baer's The Ottomans

Continuing this year's voyage around the Black Sea...

Marc David Baer's The Ottomans, is a history of the Ottoman empire from its founding by Osman I (dates slightly approximate, but he died close to 1324) until its demise at the end of World War I. They aren't always represented as some of history's good guys, but Baer, a professor at the London School of Economics, is pretty sympathetic. The book was short-listed for this year's Wolfson Prize, but didn't win in the end. But that wasn't revealed before I put it on my library's hold list.

Osman I (though his story seems to be at least partly mythical) led his band of Turkish herders from central Asia to a spot on the Anatolian plateau southeast of Istanbul. They elbowed out whoever was there and created a small state, but initially did not conquer a city, nor found one. They pastured their herds on the uplands in summer and in the valleys in winter.  They had already converted to Islam, but retained some of the ways of their animistic ancestors. (Relative equality between the sexes, for example.)

They had the virtues of where they came from: good horsemanship and good bowmanship. But they were too small a band and too powerless to have much impact at first. At least according to Baer, though, they were fortunate in their choice of location. The Mongols were retrenching a bit; Byzantium was weakening; the Seljuk sultanate of Rum, the main power on the Anatolian plateau, collapsed in the early 1300s. The Black Death came, and because the Ottomans had not yet founded cities, they weathered it much more readily than their city-inhabiting neighbors. 

This set them up for their period of expansion: the Balkans, the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, Mecca and Medina in 1517, the first siege of Vienna in 1529. Baer observes that at this time, the Ottomans are technological leaders: they're early adopters of gunpowder, muskets, and more famously, siege cannons. 

Baer is also impressed with their governance structures. He emphasizes their tolerance, though he's careful to distinguish this from true egalitarianism, which existed exactly nowhere at the time. (And we won't talk about now either.) You could be Jewish or Christian and advance; top positions were reserved for Muslims, but if you converted you could be from anywhere, not necessarily a Turk, and it didn't matter. When the Jews were kicked out of Spain and Portugal (1492) they were welcomed into the Ottoman empire for their skills. The grand vizier was often a Christian convert, sometimes one taken as a child and educated (though also enslaved) by the Ottoman state. This created a class loyal to the state, that advanced by merit, both in the military (the Janissaries) and in civil governance. Local aristocracies could complain, but couldn't wangle their incompetent children into positions of power.

This lasted pretty well through the reign of Suleiman I, who was in charge 1520-1566. While the maximum geographical extent of the empire came later, religious zealotry and nationalism began to cut into a system that had worked well. The other powers around them also caught up with the Ottoman expertise with gunpowder.

One of the interesting motifs for me was how much the Ottomans saw themselves as the true inheritor of the Roman empire. This is not as odd as it might seem. The Byzantines considered themselves the successor of the Roman state, called themselves not Byzantines, but Romaioi. The Ottomans now held the Byzantine capitol. Suleiman I, roughly contemporaneous with Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, felt equally the inheritor of Rome. (And as we know, the Holy Roman Empire "wasn't holy, wasn't Roman, and wasn't an empire"--Voltaire.) The area called Rome, or Rum, or Rumelia moves around. One interesting bit of trivia I realized is the poet Rumi, born in what is now Afghanistan, and who died in what is now Turkey, and who wrote mostly in Persian, is actually, according to his name, the 'Roman.'

Succession had always been a problem among the Ottomans. One son, generally the eldest, rushed back from the provinces where he'd been stationed to the capitol upon the death of his father, got the reins of government in his hands, and had all his male siblings killed. The army, in the form of the Janissaries, was involved, and once they'd gotten a taste for king-making, couldn't be easily dislodged. This was an unfortunate 'Roman' trait: the Praetorian Guard also didn't do the Roman empire any good in its latter days either.

Baer also feels the Ottomans failed in not making the transition from a warrior state to a peaceful trading state. They stood athwart major trade routes and could have done so. A strong faction continued to feel the true Ottoman was the warrior Ottoman. (Their term was gazi.) But the empire had gotten about as big as it could. The first siege of Vienna failed in 1529 because the supply lines were too long, but they had learned nothing from that at the time of the second (in 1683) which was a considerable disaster for the Ottomans. From here on in they're also butting up against the expanding Russian empire.

Various attempts at reform were tried and failed: concentrate on commerce not war, reduce the sultan to figurehead and let bureaucrats run things, religious zealotry, benevolent autocracy (a la the later Hapsburgs). It's Tsar Nicholas II, just before the Crimean War, who first calls the Ottoman state the 'sick man of Europe.'

The last attempted reform movement is a Turkish nationalism. The Young Turks (none of whose founders interestingly was a Turk: two Kurds, an Albanian, a Circassian) reduce the sultan to a figurehead and are more or less in charge during World War I. Baer is distinctly not sympathetic to them, but then their goal is to reduce what had been, at least at times, a successfully multi-ethnic polity to a state defined by one's race. His discussion of the Armenian genocide makes for very painful reading.

It also means Baer's not especially positive about Atatürk, though he's mostly outside the scope of the book. Atatürk (born in Thessalonica, but of Turkish parents) isn't directly implicated in the Armenian genocide, because he's busily organizing the defence at Gallipoli, but the Young Turks are his natural allies, and Atatürk, given the opportunity, refused to condemn the genocide after the war.

Anyway, a pretty fascinating history. Baer knows his stuff, provides an interesting perspective--emphasizing how European they were, especially appropriate for the European Reading Challenge 😉--and wants us to think differently about their history. (Based on the footnotes, I think there may have been a little war going on with the late Bernard Lewis.) I have to say, though, the writing was no better than adequate. There's the occasional misuse of words, but more notably a tendency to repeat. It was indeed interesting that no sultan completed the Hajj in all the years of the empire, or that it wasn't until 1520 and the conquests of Selim I that the empire was Muslim majority, but he tells us both those facts three times in different locations and in more or less the same words. Baer himself has to take the primary blame (that is, bear responsibility...?) for any sloppiness, but the book is from Basic Books, supposedly an imprint for quality books for the general reader. They ought to provide better editing. Maxwell Perkins, where did you go?

Monday, July 25, 2022

Pynchon's V.

"Stencil has stayed off Malta."

Ever since I've been signing up for the European Reading Challenge, there's been these two big historical/encyclopedic novels that turn around Malta I've been thinking about rereading. It turns out this is the year for one, V., Pynchon's debut novel. (The other is Anthony Burgess' Earthly Powers.)

Part of the resistance was I'm not sure I'm capable of saying anything about either one.

But let's see. First, the story: the novel has two interlocking plot lines. One in 1956, (the present, roughly; the novel comes out in 1963) and the other in a series of discrete moments from 1898 to 1943. The protagonist of the present is Benny Profane, in his early 20s, child of a religiously mixed marriage (Jewish/Italian Catholic), born in New York City, recently having served a hitch in the US Navy, but now at odds and ends. (Which things, I think, are basically Pynchon himself, except Pynchon's mix is Episcopal/Catholic, and he grew up further out on Long Island, not in the city itself.) The other timeline is the result of an investigation by Herbert Stencil into a woman V., possibly Veronica Wren, who was, as a teenager, caught up in the assassination of a British spy in Cairo in 1898. Herbert's father is Sydney Stencil, a British Foreign Service agent/spy. V. may (or may not) be Herbert's mother. 

Benny is a schlemiel, and is constantly at war with objects: alarm clocks don't wake him; flashlight batteries fail; at one point he tries to rappel down the side of a building and is left hanging upside down. Benny has (imaginary?) late night conversations with a crash-test dummy: they're soul-brothers of a sort, individuals whom the powerful mechanisms of the modern world are out to damage, possibly destroy.

But une guerre contre les objets is the honourable position; the alternative is V., gradually turning herself into an object, glass eye, false teeth, artificial leg. This conflict is Pynchon's theme.

"'I detect allegory in all this,' she said.
'No,' said Slab. 'That is on the same intellectual level as doing the Times crossword puzzle on Sunday. Phony. Unworthy of you.'"
There are moments when it feels like a schematic message novel--Pynchon's message would definitely be humanist, anti-machine, admirable--but the novel escapes allegorical reductionism by a deliberate fudging. V. is not just symbol of the dehumanization of people into objects in the 20th century. (Appropriate as that might be, with the ultimate dehumanization being nuclear annihilation. 1956 is the year of the Suez crisis, important to the novel, and of Hungary. War seemed closer.) But V. is also the woman Veronica Wren, maybe somebody's mother, who's capable of falling in love. (Though not with Sydney Stencil.)

The novel's also funny, or at least I think so:
"Mountebank is a dying profession; all the good ones have moved into politics."
Pynchon is also famous for his zany song lyrics, which can be found in V., although I think he gets better at this as he goes along.

Pynchon also gets better at female characters--though never great--and the women are thinly realized in this, with Benny Profane's sometime girlfriend Rachel Owlglass being the best-drawn of the lot. From Pynchon's (wonderful) introduction to his collection of short stories Slow Learner (1984):
"Modern readers will be, at least, put off by an unacceptable level of racist, sexist, and proto-Fascist talk throughout this story. I wish I could say that this is only Pig Bodine's voice, but, sad to say, it was also my own at the time. The best I can say for it now is that, for its time, it is probably authentic enough."
Pynchon is writing of one of his stories in Slow Learner, but Pig Bodine is a character that also shows up in V., and it's also kind of true of the novel.

Still, I find it a pretty great novel. And it reaches its climax on Malta. Stencil had stayed off Malta; I had, too; but no longer.


You could even call it a classic...


which I've read a few times:


I guess I can treat myself to a new copy. 😉