The Birdcage Archives

Thursday 31 January 2013

The Ninth

Hello Gentle Reader

Hungarian literature, of late has garnered quite the following and success in the western literary world. Its reputation as a literary canon of (post)-Soviet nightmares, and holocaust grief and guilt, as well as World War II survivors dreams shattered; of disturbing and often violent images; a constant prevalence of a rather bleak outlook, have all subjected the reading population to being moved and awe inspired, by its bleak landscapes and serious inclination for a honest depiction of the human condition in a cold world. There is no socialist realism; nothing that honours the proletariats struggle, in beautiful images and often utopian concepts. However the working class has removed the shackles of bourgeois or the aristocracy is not praised; because it never happened. The social injustices were still prevalent, if not amplified under communist rule. It is gritty and grim; but also metaphysical and abstract; as well as grounded in the constant struggle of the everyday. The consistent conflict of the mundane. Questions that are grounded in reality – such as where ones next meal is coming from; often at times become questions of metaphysical stasis – or lack thereof.

Fernec Barnás novel “The Ninth,” opens with a violent dream that our main protagonist has dreamt of:

“Last night I had a dream, and in it I was brave: three boys were coming toward me as I stood in a clearing. At first I didn’t recognize them, but then I saw that it was Perec and his pals. The shortest one had a hatchet in his hand. I thought they wanted to do that again. Just how I took away the hatchet I do not know, but take it away I did, and then I did what I’d done in my other dream. It happened so fast that this time I didn’t even see any blood, though they must have spilled a lot. Then I waited for the police. . . . When one of the policemen put a hand on my shoulder, the hatchet was still in my hand. Holding it felt good.”

“The Ninth,” is narrated by a child. The ninth child of a family of ten children, and two parents; a mother and a father. This however does work toward the author’s advantage. Writing from the perspective of a child is never easy. It often fails; especially when writing from the perspective of a child, for adults. With a use of simple language and subjectivity of the first person, that often borders on the stream of consciousness; and a clever use of dramatic irony and understatement, Fernec Barnás succeeds, in writing a novel about the true miseries of life under the communist regime from the perception of a young child, who tries to express understanding of a world that resents understanding; all the while not truly be condescending to the narrator.

The stories bones, describes the life of an impoverished large family. With a very cold and distant religiously devote mother, and an entrepreneurial father; who is at his wits end and in direct conflict with the ruling communist regime, because of his ‘capitalist,’ venture, of making devote and sacred religious items, in secret; all of which happens during the Goulash Communist regime in Hungary during the nineteen-sixties. Alienation is furthered by mental as well as learning disabilities, with physical disabilities.

The Goulash Communist Regime of Hungary received its name, from the namesake dish, and symbol of the country. Goulash is known as a hodgepodge, stew or soup – depending on the thickness of the broth; it is a mixture of meat (beef and pork are sometimes used simultaneously), a large assortment of vegetables (potatoes are most frequent used) and noodles; among with a variety and varying different spices; paprika though is often cited as a must have for this particular dish. Of course there are variations of the Goulash dish. Gulyás à la Székely for example, calls for reduction of the potatoes and added sauerkraut and sour cream. Fake Goulash also called Mock Gulyás substitutes beef bones for the meat and add vegetables. Bean Gulyás (Bean Goulash) has potatoes and caraway seeds omitted, and added kidney beans. Csángó Gulyás uses sauerkraut and rice in lieu of potatoes and pasta.

All the varieties of the Goulash dish all represent the Goulash Communist Regime. It was a hodgepodge of free market economics and communist ideals. During its time, the human rights record of the country improved; which most likely improved living conditions, and the general wellbeing of the general population of Hungary. Its quiet reforms, and deviations away from the interpretations of the yeti Stalin, allowed the people of Hungary to experience freedoms and pleasures that other countries of the Eastern Bloc were not allowed. If one were to compare this novel to that of Herta Müller’s “The Passport,” one would see a notable difference in how the government’s creeping shadow in the shape of a long and large spider, is portrayed. In Herta Müller’s novella it is everywhere: from the eyes of the death owl on the roofs of the village, to the government officials building. There is a piece of its tainted crookedness in everyone. No one was immune to the corrosive touch, in Herta Müller’s novels because the temptation and corruption of the government was everywhere; and was a simple common place reality of day to day life. Compared with Fernec Barnás novel, one can see a lighter tone to the Communist Regime that had taken its hold of Hungary. One such example is that the neighbours of the main protagonist offer the children to go over, and watch the football game; though their father (a tyrant in his own right) pushes such charity aside, and remarks that the children will have electricity in the “big house,” a dream the narrator thinks about often. The fact that electricity was so abundant, led me to some complete misunderstanding, of what I had expected. Electricity in abundance was a shock; but television and satellite, truly sent me for a loop. Such ‘western,’ items in the part of the world so isolated and alienated, by the Soviet Communist regime, truly showed the variations – and what they entailed; in the former Eastern Bloc.

But do not be deceived, hardships, and the ever present creeping shadow throughout the novel. Though the narrator does not understand or even recognize it, let alone comprehend it, there is certainly a feeling of dread, which is played alongside the characters innocence.

When using a child as a narrator, innocence is always going to be present. There will always be innocence used within the narrative. For that is part of the character to truly exist. Such examples include, the narrators understand why his brother Priest is so thin, and does not have any excess body or skin, is certainly acute to him reading all the time. He also comes up with excesses for why his mother is so distant:

“Maybe one effect of all her spiritual sustenance is that she can’t go touching bodies left and right.”
Which would explain the narrator’s sense that his mother is “outright scared of touching us.”

But the novel changes in its childhood innocence and ignorance rather quickly. Were once wisdom was presented in the context of “kids say the darndest things,” context, entering the darker dimensions, of childhood innocence being stripped away; by a rite of passage that is brought on by stealing. It is than that the child’s subconsciousness tries to comprehend and understand the conflict of desire and guilt over his actions. His hands are heavy; and guilt wracks throughout his body; he no longer is able to be just a child any longer. He had crossed the threshold into the adult world – not saying that crime or stealing is exclusively an adult action; but recognition of right and wrong, and choosing to engage in the later, is seen as an adult concept. Where children are free as butterflies; adults are chained to the ground, and are forced to deal with a morally ambiguous and often cantankerous world. It is one thing to fight as children; as scraps are always known to happen. It is another entirely to commit a crime that actually is in direct violation of the law; which show its severity as a crime rather than a simple misbehaviour.

Yet somehow our narrator a constant silent observer; because of his lack of speech skills. He does not experience anger. His survival in school is done only because of his reluctance, but dutiful bow at taking the shoves and attacks of his classmates. He does not understand a lot of the world. Though he offers his own take on the world, and comes up with reasons for the world around him. Why the belly is fat, why his mother is the way she is, why his father is the way he is – everything is open to his subjectivity; and though his answers are at times wrong, they provide him with the comfort of fighting off the unknown. Though nothing fights off his yearning for food, and his hunger. All forms of hunger are depicted, from the deep down burning sensation of starvation; right down to the moral crumbs that his family – especially his father; spreads out around his family. There is a lot of abuse in this novel as well. A, joyless and hapless childhood is brought on by Catholicism’s often lack of pleasure and devote puritan stance and spiritual sustenance over any concept of human or earthly sustenance; which goes as far as deriving a mother away from any actual emotional and loving tender physical contact with her children. But there is also a commercial and capitalist side to the act of religion – at least for his father. The children make rosaries and make the quota of the evenings rosaries as set down by their father, to make the money necessary to build “the big house,” until than all deprivation such as a flushable toilet; running water, electricity – it is all deprived; even food is deprived, as the mother is forced to sell her engagement ring to provide for her children. All of this though for the narrator is just life – for he knows nothing better.

The narrator’s abuse has become so extreme that he cannot even understand let alone recognize anger or hatred; which may explain the feeling of a second self in his body; when he commits certain actions that are less than appropriate.

In the end, it is an interesting novel. One that uses a child’s voice to render the complexities of life under the Communist Regime in Hungary. This must not have been an easy task. Writing in a child’s voice has plenty of pit falls; and heavy scrutiny is always placed on the believability of the story itself. Though suspension of disbelief is always something that must be done – regardless of what narrative or genre; the suspension of rationality and disbelief, is a rewarding reading, in its depiction of Hungary during this period in history. With dark humour, dramatic irony, and a compelling narrator, Fernec Barnás truly did achieve something. The author was able to achieve the harsh realities of life under Communist Regime, the inhumane conditions that presided over this family and their alienation; but also of the hypocrisy of the faith, the devote and the capitalist microcosm of the father, in his suckling off of the Communists countries resources and social programs in order to fund his own ambitions (in secret). Truly a fascinating and gritty portrait of a part of history. Full of complexities and a simple language, it is a novel that is wroth recommending.

Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read
*And Remember: Downloading Books Illegally is Thievery and Wrong.*

M. Mary

Thursday 24 January 2013

Man Booker International Prize Shortlist

Hello Gentle Reader

After the previous biannual awards, walkouts, and requests for removal, the Man Booker Prize International Prize Shortlist, is back; as graceful as ever. Previous winners include the Canadian short story write Alice Munro, the Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare; and two-thousand and eleven winner Philip Roth. Shortlisted writers of the past include a recent Nobel speculated author from Italy Dacia Maraini; Nobel Laureate and Modern Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz; the late Antonio Tabucchi; recent Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa; Nobel Perennial Milan Kundera among other famous intentionally renowned authors.

The ten nominees this year are:

Peter Stamm from Switzerland; Known for his short stories and novels, translated in English by Michael Hoffman, from the native German. Peter Stamm work is written in cool detached and sparse prose. But this isn’t some Ernest Hemmingway minimalism or Raymond Carver blue-collar minimalist work either. Nor does it cycle, in absurd comedy like Samuel Beckett in its compact spaces. Peter Stamm’s work, do what many authors preach: they show; not tell. A great writer deserving to be placed on the list.

Vladimir Sorokin from Russia: In modern Russia there are two writers, which will most likely be familiar with English speakers (not necessarily the general reading public) those two would be Vladimir Sorokin, and Victor Pelevin. Vladimir Sorokin is known for his darkly comic and absurd novels and stories, which tack on the disguise of being science fiction like or magical realism like. But they deal with issues of Russia’s Soviet past and the recent issues with Russia in its new democratic life. Biting satirical and censored Vladimir is certainly a welcomed contender; in my opinion.

Aharon Appelfeld from Israel: He writes fiction in Hebrew, although he did not learn the language until he was in his teens. Most of his work focuses on Jewish life in Europe before, during and after World War II, but it is not simple autobiography. Silence, muteness and stuttering enforce his work.

Lydia Davis from United States of America: She once said that her style was a reaction to Marcel Proust’s long sentences. A translator of French fiction; one of them being “In Search of lost Time,” by Marcel Proust and Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary,” this author is known for her compact and extremely short stories, which border on philosophical aphorisms or poetry. Even longer pieces of work, are still at only three pages long.

Intizar Husain from Pakistan: Is a modern chronicler of contemporary Pakistan life. From the ten year dictatorship of General Zia-ul-Haq. He discusses issues of modern violence, in his country and the general area.

Yan Lianke from China: is a satirist, and has been banned and censored by the ruling Communist Party; but has also admitted to self-censoring so his work won’t be banned. He has also though, won two of China’s top Literary Awards. Perhaps he is one of those authors that is both praised for his work but also fought against – kind of like China’s own Michel Houellebecq.

Josip Novakovich from Canada: His work deals with the Yugoslav war. Dark cries of shrill laughter echo about the atrocities of the war. Known for his descriptions of violence; this author is a new name for me.

U R Ananthamurthy from India: an author known for his reputation as a great representative of the “New Movement,” in contemporary Indian Letters; his work deal primarily with questioning of cultural norms.

Marie NDiaye from France: Is one of Frances most interesting authors. She is the only second woman to have taken Frances Comédie Française for her play Daddy’s got to Eat. Her first novel was published when she was eighteen years old, by Lindon who was also Samuel Beckett’s publisher.

Marilynne Robinson from United States of America: is this year’s top contender; shortlisted in two-thousand and eleven, but lost to Philip Roth. She has written three novels Housekeeping in nineteen-eighty followed by Gilead in two-thousand and four and Home in two-thousand eight. In between these novels she has written non-fiction work.

There you have them Gentle Reader. The Shortlist for this Year’s biannual Man Booker International Prize. It’ll be interesting to see who wins this award, this year.

Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read
*And Remember: Downloading Books Illegally is Thievery and Wrong.*

M. Mary

Thursday 17 January 2013

The Piano Teacher

Hello Gentle Reader and a warm welcome to Mike Emeritz

When Elfriede Jelinek won the Nobel Prize in Literature in two-thousand and four, there was a unanimous calling of “Who?”, in much of the world. Though in German speaking countries, the awarding of the prize to Elfriede Jelinek was met with a polarized reaction of congratulations but also of difficult understanding and appreciation of the author. One member of the Swedish Academy Knut Ahnlund, who had previously quarrelled with the Swedish Academy over its lack of involvement in criticizing and condemning the Iranian Fatwa against the British author Salman Rushdie, had further exiled himself from the Academy when he announced his disapproval of Elfriede Jelinek winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. Knut Ahnlund, who died in November of two thousand and twelve, had proclaimed that the two thousand and four Nobel Laureate in Literature’s work was: “pornographic and chaotic.” Further stating that her work is a: “whirlwind of text that appears to have been thrown together without a trace of artistic structure.” The late Knut Ahnlund had described his reading experience with Elfriede Jelinek as torture, and explained why: “[Elfriede Jelinek] treads on the spot in a largely incomprehensible way... Denigration, humiliation, desecration and self-disgust, sadism and masochism are the main themes of Elfriede Jelinek's work. All other aspects of human life are left out. That's why her work is so poor. It's burdened by the fruits of television and the Internet, saturated with a rotten mix of abhorrence and fascination.” Many to this day still feel that Elfriede Jelinek was a controversial and rather light weight Nobel Laureate, someone who allowed her own political convictions to overshadow her literary integrity.

A member of the Austrian Communist party for seventeen years; the author had made several enemies on the political and public stage. These political engagements have all but overshadowed and influenced Jelinek’s work. Much like a corrosive touch, for better or for worst, they have always made sure the author is in a dual light of, applauded writer who tackles social themes; and in a different light as nothing more than a mediocre author and angry woman. Who missed the opportunity to burn the bra, in suffrage movements.

What does make Elfriede Jelinek an interesting writer though is the almost impossible to categorize or define the authors mix brand of prose that without warning can indulge itself in poetry. Metaphors and similes and heavy image writing makes for both a disturbing picture and a undercurrent of social criticism. A parody and satirical viciousness of the ‘good life,’ and modern society. Its superficiality is hung on meat hooks like the carcase of some animal, where its nature is on full display – no pretty skin or identity left to elude ones understanding of it.

“Icy stream of neon light roar through ice cream parlours, through dance-halls. Clusters of humming lights dangle from whip-shaped lampposts over miniature golf courses. A flickering torrent of coldness. People HER age, enjoying the loll peace and quiet of habit, loll around kidney shaped tables. Tall glasses, containing long spoons look like cool blossoms: brown, yellow, pink; chocolate, vanilla, and raspberry. The colouful, steaming scoops are tinted an almost uniform gray by the ceiling lights. Glittering scoopers wait in containers of water with threads of ice cream floating on the surface.”

Bitterness is ever apparent in Elfriede Jelinek’s most recognized and famous autobiographical novel “The Piano Teacher.” This is a brutal novel, where poetic beauty and aesthetics, can quickly become a degrading show of humiliation of pornographic psychosexual studies of the darker secrets and desires of the human mind; especially one as the poor repressed spinster Erika Kohut. Erika was a child prodigy in music. Her parents, who only knew a thing or two about music, encouraged their daughter to be a successful concert pianist. Though encouraged may have been the wrong choice of words. As one sees quickly in the beginning of the book, encouragement is not something that Erika’s mother had done. She dictated and demanded, what was to be expected of her daughter. The relationship between mother and daughter is not equal; as Erika’s mother is domineering and obsessive; always quick to degrade her daughter to the role of a child. However Erika is no victim either. She lashes back at her mother, with physical violence and verbal insults. Only later for the two, to weep as mother and daughter come to forgive each other for the outburst of a moment ago. This duality is played out, throughout the novel. The professional and frigid Erika; a professor at the prestigious Vienna conservatory, is a respectable woman of society. Though underneath that appearance, lies a dark and twisted alter ego of Erika; one that participates in acts of dangerous voyeurism, sado-masochistic rituals and even self-mutilation. She also enjoys commuting on the Vienna trains, and takes sadistic and perverted pleasure in causing others pain, and watching as the victims of her torment are quick to scold and belittle others, who are most likely to have committed the act, like a working class man.

Erika though is mostly bitter, for her lack of success. She finds herself in an alternative and what she sees as a degrading position of her talents. Her life is deprived of pleasures, both physical and emotional. Even when she attempts to have an act of pleasure – for example buying a dress, that will most likely fall out of fashion within a month; it is placed on the stand of a trial where Mother is both inquisitor, prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner; with one fell swoop she bemoans and degrades Erika for not only being late, but for wasting money on a dress! A dress that will go out of fashion and will never be able to be worn again. Though for Erika it is just a physical pleasure to enjoy it – looking at it, and admiring something that will forever be so alien to her. Much like the common man who looks at the stars and the moon, and admires their beauty; they will forever be something unattainable and out of reach.

“Their conversation becomes more vitriolic: Mother and daughter spray acid at students who do better than Erika or threaten to do so. You shouldn’t give them free reign, you don’t need to. You should stop them. But you let them get away with murder! You’re not smart enough Erika. If a teacher puts her mind to it, none of her a student will succeed. No young woman will emerge from her classroom and pursue a career against Erika’s wishes. You didn’t make – why should others reach the top? And from your musical stable too boot?”

Mother and daughter’s relationship is just one instance of the predator and prey relationship that is buzzing within this novel. There is no equal playing field. There is only domination and submission. Compassion is nowhere to be found. In these brutal games of master and slave that is played in this poetic novel, there is no solace or hope of seeing a flicker of compassion. Erika is deprived of such a trivial emotion or human concept. Shaped by her Mothers neurosis, her life has been devitalized of pleasure. A perfect example is when on a childhood vacation, Erika’s cousin plays and revels in the pleasures of life and youth. Whereas Erika shares no such enjoyments. Her mother forces her to practice the piano. Perform, practice, perfect. It is at this time that Erika picks up self-mutilation as an action of punishment of her Mother and herself. All of this might truly sound like Erika is insane. She is quite sane, and pushes herself to the edges of insanity, to that thin threshold of absolute oblivion. Into a whirl wind of uncontrolled and unrestricted impulses. As a reader, one will find themselves, desperately and horrifyingly well acquainted with these impulses in this book. No matter how hard the reader tries to keep a refined and well-adjusted distance from the maelstrom of this book that with poetry lures one in, also quickly snaps shut like a Venus fly trap and suffocates one underneath the weight of the subject matter. Once ensnared there is only two possibilities of this book, running away from it or finishing it.

Now enters Walter Klemmer. Fascinated by Erika’s lack of sexual glamour or perhaps her autocratic air. Regardless the engineering student who has almost prodigious abilities at the piano, and plays Erika’s true love Schubert’s music – the epiphany of romanticism in its purest form; seeks to conquer and catch Erika. Only to be rebuffed; until finally in this dark twisted web of a story of a woman on the road to self-destruction, their love affair is brought to life and in a twisted fashion is parodied. It is not open or true love; but a sick game of power and control, one that can only be described as masochism. In this sense Elfriede Jelinek happily shows that in any relationship there is no equals. As much as Walter Klemmer demands and tries to make the playing field equal; Erika shows him that such a concept is not possible. One must always be emotionally dominant. In the case of doctors and patients; lawyers and clients; teacher and student – one is always under the thumb of the other. That does not mean however that one is stronger than the other.

The book that Elfriede Jelinek has written here is a dark and disturbing book. A expressionistic novel that explores the dark psychosexual realm, and the torments of the human psyche when its deprived of enough love and compassion and given only technical pursuits and encouragement that is a nice dagger wrapped up in a pretty bow. This entire novel is best compared to a present wrapped up in the most lush and beautiful paper possible. Though what lies in wait of this novel is a bear trap. It grabs hold, and drags you deep down into the sick world of the main character Erika; her poor desperate life, of sexual repression and denial of human emotion and any actual positive human contact. It explores the dark sick fantasies of one person, and uses it as an example the dark nature of all human beings. The dark corner of all our souls, where our most basic, primal and hidden desires remain under lock and key. For Erika those dark fantasies do not translate well into reality.

In the award ceremony speech of the Nobel Prize in Literature, read by Horace Engdahl the former Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, Elfriede Jelinek’s style of writing is described and discussed. The following description from that speech, is an adequate description of the work of Elfriede Jelinek and what to expect:

“Elfriede Jelinek deliberately opens her work to the clichés that flood the news media, advertising and popular culture — the collective subconscious of our time. She manipulates the codes of pulp literature, comics, soap operas, pornography and folkloristic novels (Heimatsroman), so that the inherent madness in these ostensibly harmless consumer phenomena shines through. She mimics the prejudices we would never admit to, and captures, hidden behind common sense, a poisonous mumble of no origin or address: the voice of the masses. She has said that she taps at language to hear its hidden ideologies, much as a doctor will tap on a patient's chest. Aghast, we discover how class oppression, sexism, chauvinism and the distortion of history echo through everyday conversation.”

Thus is the explanation behind the reason of Elfriede Jelinek’s Nobel accolade when they say:

“For her musical flow of voices and counter-voices in novels and plays that with extraordinary linguistic zeal reveal the absurdity of society's clichés and their subjugating power.”

Subjugating and power, would be the key words. For everything in this novel dealt with domination. From Mother to daughter; from lover to sexual slave; teacher to student, the unequal relationships of the world are presented as such. Idea’s and ideals of human equality amongst all individuals has no place in Elfriede Jelinek’s work. Everyone is at the mercy of another. I have never read a book of this kind of violence, power, identity, degradation and humiliation and aesthetic purity before. It is like nothing I have ever read before. As much as the view is detached as a reader one will find that they are entwined with the happenings of this book. It is not like watching a film with an objective point of view. Elfriede Jelinek makes the motives the thoughts and the emotions of the characters quite clear – their dark thoughts and fantasies, is not melodramatic or of fake pathos. They are true explorations of the human concept of desire, control, and power in relationships. There is no escape. It is relentless; and not for the faint of heart either.

The style is quite interesting, because it is not full of a narrative – at least not in the traditional sense. To some it may be a hodgepodge of words shoveled together, welded and placed like a abstract piece of art work on display. Left open for interpretation and discussion. It is a novel that revels in its world play. In the contemporary and modern worlds, over stimulated use of entertainment. From soap operas, commercials, poetry, popular music, television to even pornography; Elfriede Jelinek takes them all, strips and skins their concepts and with the remains, creates her own brand and concept of what the world is in a schizophrenic age of to many voices each speaking over one another. Delightful wouldn’t be a word used freely to describe this novel. Unique and challenging would; and rewarding . . . in small doses. Nonetheless a true masterpiece, by a controversial author.

Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read
*And Remember: Downloading Books Illegally is Thievery and Wrong*

M. Mary

(a link to the Nobel Award Ceremony Speech)

Thursday 10 January 2013


Hello Gentle Reader

When Elfrede Jelinek won the Nobel Prize for Literature; and becoming the first Austrian to do so, and became the tenth woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature (since then two other women have also been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature) she was pleased by the award, but also with modesty and her well known self-irony had made the wondering question, that she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature simply because she was a woman. She went on to suggest that another living German language writer who deserved the prize more than her was the fellow Austrian writer Peter Handke, who Elfrede Jelinek championed as a “living classic.” This was the first time that Peter Handke (who was under my first assumption, primarily a playwright of avant-garde plays that in the fashion of Samuel Beckett depicted the passion of the nothingness and void of the human condition with the nihilistic gallows humour of George Carlin or Monty Python) however this preconceived notion was incorrect. Peter Handke is a playwright and a novelist. However of late he is known more as a notoriously controversial figure, the kind that Austria appears to produce, along with controversial politicians. Peter Handke’s controversy arises from his views that during the Balkan War (also known as the Yugoslav War), Serbia was a victim.

The Balkan/Yugoslav War, in the early nineties, started after the collapse of the Soviet Union. With the Soviet Union’s collapse, after decades of restrictive fear and survival induced paranoia, and clockwork bleak routines, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the eventual Eastern Bloc’s extinction, prove to be a chaotic mess that induced anarchy in some former states. Even to this day parts of Eastern Europe continue to try finding a meaning and understanding with their new found freedom, years after the yoke of communism had been removed from around their necks.

The complexities and historical fuel for this war though was more than just generations stuck in a rut in mundane routines and daily transactions as well as fear of their neighbours, family members, co-workers – anyone was informing, all were recording, each tattled a tale. All guilty of saving their own hides. This war came down to multiethnic conflicts. The battle for independence or retaining unification. The Serbs and the Montenegrins on one side; while the Croats and Bosniaks as well as Slovenes were on the other. But then the Croats and the Bosniaks fought and to truly split hairs on a complicated war: different factions of the Bosniak factions fought against each other in Bosnia. The war ended in multi stages. With the end outcome being different independent states being formed: Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia (and Herzegovina), Montenegro, Slovenia, and Macedonia – as well as two self-governing provinces in Serbia: Kosovo and Vojvodina.

The Yugoslavia/Balkan War, is a notorious tragedy in Eastern European history. Not since World War II has there been such a deadly war on European soil. War crimes and even mass murder and genocidal actions had happened during this war. Again making history, for being the first time since World War II that the term ‘Genocidal,’ was used in the judgements of the actions that had taken place during this time. That is why key individuals who participated in these actions were tried with charges of war crimes; which lead to the formation of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. According to records one hundred and forty thousand people lost their lives.

War rape, genocide, mass murder, massacre, detention camps/concentration camps/prison camps – this was a complicated and long war. A war that surpasses simple caveman battle as the defendant in the cave next to the plaintiff caveman took the plaintiff’s caveman’s favourite rock. To which the defendant caveman denies, enraging the plaintiff caveman who then in an act of murderous rage over his missing favourite rock, slaughters the defending caveman – only in a sick twist of irony to learn that he simply misplaced his favourite rock. This particular war came from the whipping whirl winds of change that happened after the Soviet Union dematerialized. The different ethnic people of the former Yugoslavia took up different flags of nationalism. This caused a rift between the different ethnic groups, and therefore the independent nations or rather the future independent nations.

Peter Handke wrote this controversial travelogue (“A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia,”) during the midst of this war. Published in nineteen-ninety six, this book portrayed Serbia as a victim and criticized western media for its misrepresentation of the cause and consequences of the war. It didn’t help much that that former Yugoslavian president and charged war criminal Slobodan Milošević had asked for Handke to be a witness during his trial. Peter Handke declined; but did go to witness the trial as a spectator and had his observations published in his book of essays “The Tablas of Daimeil.” In two thousand and six further controversy, was struck further when Handke at Milošević funeral had made a speech which was taken in the context that the author was expressing his views on Serbia and Milošević. Translations then ran rampant that in this speech, that was addressed to twenty thousand mourners that Handke felt “happiness at being close to Milošević who defended his people.” However Handke shot back by sending a letter to the French Magazine “Le Nouvel Observateur,” where he offered the translation of his speech as follows:

“The world, the so-called world, knows everything about Yugoslavia, Serbia. The world, the so-called world, knows everything about Slobodan Milošević. The so-called world knows the truth. This is why the so-called world is absent today, and not only today, and not only here. I don't know the truth. But I look. I listen. I feel. I remember. This is why I am here today, close to Yugoslavia, close to Serbia, close to Slobodan Milošević.”

In the same year of two thousand and six Peter Handke declined an award, for political reasons. The Heinrich Heine Prize (of Dusseldorf) is awarded in the spirit of the German Poet Heinrich Heine, supports and pushes for the basic human rights of mankind. The city council of Dusseldorf must agree to the writer that the prize is being awarded too. Controversy erupted when it was announced that the award was going to Handke; and two jury members (Siegrid Löffler and Jean-Pierre Lefèbvre) threatened to abdicate their seats on the jury in protest. Peter Handke then apparently declined the award because of the political scrutiny. Fellow authors who have won this award include the late W.G. Sebald, Nobel Laureate in Literature Elfriede Jelinek, and Israeli author Amos Oz.

“[. . .] Owing to the new, alienating “village literature,” flourishing in Austria with Bernhard, Handke or Innerhofer, Herta Müller explores its dark, sensitive roots in an original manner. When she theorizes about it occasionally falls (like her models) into a stereotyped attitude not without a dash of arrogance.”

So describes both the future Nobel Laureate in Literature Herta Müller and one of her models of writing Peter Handke alongside the forgotten Franz Innerhofer; who in two thousand and two took his own life. After years of alcohol problems, and fell out of literary fashion in the eighties and nineties, being pushed aside for newer stars in literature. Hissing and spitting Franz Innerhofer fought back, but only furthered his alienation and isolation. What connects Handke, Bernhard and Innerhofer besides their national heritage of being Austrian writers, each of them grew up in villages; each of them had the wanion of being like a dandelion – unwanted in the garden. Bernhard was abandoned by his paternal parents. Innerhofer lived a life of drudgery and miserable toil. He worked on his farmers farm as a child, became a blacksmiths apprentice when he was younger and only in the seventies did he start to make a career as a freelance writer. Peter Handke’s early life story is no different. His stepfather was an alcoholic. He grew up in a village in Austria called Griffen. However for the first seven years of his life he lived with his mother in Soviet occupied Pankow district in Berlin. Life in Griffen was culturally stagnant and is theorized that this along with his stepfather’s alcoholism led to his distrust of habit and routine. In nineteen-seventy one Handke’s mother committed suicide which became the memory essay that Handke wrote “A Sorrow Beyond Dreams.”

“Across,” by Peter Handke is my first foray into the authors work. If one could call the work pleasantly surprising, I certainly would. However the world pleasant with this novel is by all means necessary not the choice word. Peter Handke has written a poetically harrowing tale. Where Bernhard wrote interior monologues, that were rabid and full of philosophy disguised as insanity; Handke writes with poetics. Finding meaning in the mundane. Pondering the philosophical and metaphysical attributes that surround us all.

In “Across,” Peter Handke uses a classical languages teacher/professor who finds liberation while contributing in acts of violence. A man who has become distant, from other people including his family, whom he is separated from. His intellectual pursuits have alienated him. His cultural enjoyments have only found reflection and enjoyment with himself. He’s chosen a career that no longer full fills him, and is completely useless outside of the profession that he has chosen to engage in. His only social contact is a game of cards with friends; which leads to the pondering of philosophical nature of thresholds, to which a priest at the card game presents the theological explanation:

“[. . .] According to an almost forgotten proverb: 'The threshold is a fountainhead.' And this teacher says literally: 'It was from thresholds that lovers and friends absorbed strength. But,' he goes on, 'where nowadays are we to find the destroyed thresholds, if not in ourselves? By our own wounds shall we be healed. If snow stops falling from the clouds, let it continue to fall inside me.' Every step, every glance, every gesture, says the teacher, should be aware of itself as a possible threshold and thus recreate what has been lost. This new threshold consciousness might then transfer attention from object to object, and so on until the peace relay appears on earth, at least on that one day--and on the day after and the day after that, rather as in the child's game where stone sharpens scissors, scissors cut paper, and paper wraps stone. Thus, thresholds as seats of power may not have disappeared; they have become conceivable, so to speak, as inner powers. If man were conscious of these thresholds, he would at least let his fellow man die a natural death. Threshold consciousness is nature religion. More cannot be promised.”

This is one of the great examples of how this book behaves. Peter Handke writes about his character Andreas Loser, as a casual philosopher and more as an observer who sees the world around him, and is unable to act or take part in the world. He is just a shadow. A person who can only watch, never act.

“Handke''s novel tells the story of a quiet, organized classics teacher named Andreas Loser. One night, on the way to his regularly scheduled card game, he passes a tree that has been defaced by a swastika. Impulsively yet deliberately, he tracks down the defacer and kills him. With this act, Loser has crossed an invisble threshold, and will be stuck in this secular purgatory until he can confess his crime.”

This how the book is described by the publisher; but it is so much more than just a novel of a murder mystery or philosophical discussion disguised as a murder mystery. It is a novel that has wonderful descriptive passages, and a great deal of philosophical ponderings and wonderings.

Much like a Michael Haneke film (who directed the adaption of fellow Austrian novelist and playwrights Elfriede Jelinek autobiographical novel “The Piano Teacher,”) Peter Handke’s novel asks philosophical inclined ponderings, and questions without answers, or rather that will evermore lead to more questions. Full of imagery with a pessimistic bent; and at times a, swirling ethereal dreamscapes that does not connect or make sense. It’s a surreal ride; and one that will most likely take plenty of re-readings in order to full grasp either the author’s intent or at the very least a superficial grasp of what is happening within this short pessimistic novel, of poetic images that conjure a very sinister place – an Austria that the authors Bernhard, Innerhofer, and Jelinek – themselves present.

Pushing aside Peter Handke’s controversial political views; his literary talents certainly overshadow these blemishes of the author. I certainly look forward to reading many of the authors work to come, into translation or back into print or back into print or back into print.

Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read
*And Remember: Downloading Books Illegally is Thievery and Wrong*

M. Mary

Thursday 3 January 2013

Starting off in the New Year

Hello Gentle Reader

In the coming spring of the New Year, there are some long awaited novels. The double Booker Prize winner and Nobel Prize for Literature Laureate, JM Coetzee’s long awaited novel, “The Childhood of Jesus,” is one of the first titles and names to pop up. About a man and child, who have crossed oceans to come to their new home. There they are given the names Simon and David; and their new life begins.

A former Orange Prize winner will be releasing her new book, “Americanah,” which follows teenage lovers from the authors (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) homeland of Nigeria. Their attempts at making a new life, are dashed by Homeland Security. Personally speaking there is a feeling of political intrigue with this novel.

A surprising author who made it onto the Booker Prizes shortlist for two-thousand and twelve, with her novel “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry,” is coming around again in twenty-thirteen with her new novel “Perfect.” In this novel Rachel Joyce meditates on fate, and with her lyrical precision, depicts the lives of two young boys marked by the same catastrophe; yet take different paths in life.

Patrick McGrath the author of “Spider – which was turned into a lovely film by David Cronenberg, staring Ralph Fiennes as the titular character ‘Spider,’; is coming out with a new psychological novel of extremes, with a thriller twist. Titled “Constance,” it is a novel about a marriage unfolded and falling because of the past.

There are many more novels yet to be mentioned to come two the lime of light of twenty-thirteen. There will be authors who have slipped under the radar, and others literary prizes will notice and surprise; hopefully with delight.

Speaking of the Nobel Prize for Literature, a controversy has been dug up from the past. John Steinback the Nobel Laureate for Literature in nineteen-sixty two, is now displayed alongside his competitors. On January second The Swedish Academy opened its records up to the world of nineteen-sixty two. In its nominations of that year, authors such as Robert Graves, Lawrence Durrell, Jean Anouilh and Karen Blixen among other authors – it depicts John Steinback now a American classic author, as nothing more than mediocre author, and whose win was just the best of a batch of bad eggs.

Robert Graves did not win the Prize because he was seen as more of a poet then he was a prose writer. The Swedish Academy member Henry Olsson; who served the Swedish academy from nineteen-fifty two till nineteen-eighty five, had made it apparent that there was reluctance to award the Prize to a poet of Anglo-Saxon origin or language while Ezra Pound was alive. Ezra Pound did not receive the award because of his obvious controversial political stance. Karen Blixen had died that September. Henry Olsson was then left to be moan and elegize the lack of noteworthy contenders that year. Durrell was passed over, for lack of sufficient body; and a aftertaste, caused by his preoccupations with complicated affairs of an erotic nature. Jean Anouilh was ruled out because of poor timing at best – or so is theorized. The French diplomat and Poet Saint-John Perse was awarded the Nobel in nineteen-sixty and Jean Paul Sartre, who would win the prize in nineteen-sixty four, was already been seriously considered at the time. Which left Steinback, who many felt had lost his former glory, and whose prime had since past. Though the Swedish Academy’s then Permeate Secretary at the time Anders Österling, had thought differently with the publication of the nineteen-sixty one novel “The Winter of Our Discontent,” in which Steinback picked up the reigns of his previous works, and became a social critic by his fictions exposing the realities of the social world of the time; which Anders Österling, compared to the writings of Sinclair Lewis and Ernest Hemmingway.

The decision however was highly critical. Even Steinback was in arrogance with the critics, feeling that his awarding of the prize was not on par with previous Nobel Laureates in Literature. Perhaps it would have been a better choice to have given it to Graves; regardless of his lack of profile, age or lack of popular recognition.

In the end however, the past cannot be undone. No matter of apologies, well-wishes, wishful thinking, or regretful and at times tearful look in the rear-view mirror of a fading past. The smoldering or ashen ruins of the past can never be reconciled. The decisions; the actions; the words; all of it is set in stone. Steinback’s win was at best; from the point of view of many – both past and present (including the author) may have been a blunder; and as the award just begin to mature into its current understanding of how to award, it shows an example of mistakes that people make; and will continue to make. Though in some eyes Steinback’s award is not a blunder or a mistake. He’s not Tolstoy or Joyce or Woolf; but he’s a special brand and breed of American author in the early twentieth century; before the Pychon, Updikes, Roth’s, Auster’s, of the future. He presents a different kind form of America; before its pop culture fluff began to invade and smoother out any shred of raw literary talent (or any talent for that matter). Perhaps perception and historical context and contemporary context are key, when evaluating the worth of Steinback and his Nobel.

Two-thousand and thirteen is here. It’ll be a new and exciting year. One can’t wait to see some of the great new books to published and the new translated and published works.

Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read
*And Remember: Downloading Books Illegally is Thievery and Wrong.*

M. Mary