Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

Grand Tour #26 – Sweden. The Brothers Lionheart / Astrid Lindgren

November 25, 2017

Ah, Astrid Lindgren. Not that I haven’t enjoyed reading my way through the EU, but if I did this project again I’d choose exclusively children’s books. Lindgren was a big deal in my boyhood, her books having a peculiarly Scandinavian exoticism that they shared with Alf Prøysen’s Mrs Pepperpot (rechristened ‘Mrs Pepperbox’ by my ancient Austrian babysitter Lisl). They were probably exotic because they showed a life that was recognisably like mine and yet intangibly different (same as the American books I loved like Maurice Sendak, Treehorn and Peanuts, I suppose). I loved Pippi Longstocking struggling with her pluttification, and more than that even I loved mischievous Lotta, with her piggly bear Bamsie and her sister Mia Maria and her kind brother Jonas, on whom I probably had a bit of a crush. It was Ilon Wikland’s illustrations that did it, his hair looked so Swedish.

For me, Ilon Wikland is the true heroine of Lindgren’s 1973 book The Brothers Lionheart (Bröderna Lejonhjärta), which I read in the translation by Joan Tate. More on that later. I was particularly keen on reading this book firstly because I hadn’t read it before and secondly because of the controversy it inspired. More on that later too, and some spoilers.

Nine-year-old Karl is a sickly boy, and is upset when he overhears a conversation in which it is mentioned that he is dying. His older brother Jonatan (Jonathan in the translation, but I’ll stick with the original spelling because it’s sexier) consoles Karl with stories of the afterlife in mythical Nangiyala, a carefree world where you can fish to your heart’s content. Still, Karl seems to have an acute case of separation anxiety, and doesn’t want to leave Jonatan behind. ‘Just think how good it would be if you’d gone there first,’ he says, ‘so that it was you who was sitting there fishing.’ As luck would have it, Jonatan does indeed precede Karl to Nangiyala, dying saving Karl’s life in a house fire, and he visits Karl from beyond the grave apparently in the persona of a pigeon (or concealed among the pigeon’s feathers, a prosaic reading that I enjoy less), after which Karl joins him in Nangiyala.

The metaphysical intrigue of the opening chapter didn’t prepare me for the boredom of what followed. Well, not boredom; this is a good book; but if you’ve read The Horse and His Boy and recall how tedious that was (‘O dispatcher of messages, here is a letter from my uncle Ahoshta Tarkaan to Kidrash Tarkaan lord of Calavar’), then this is … well, not the same, but at any rate close enough that I thought of the comparison. Karl and Jonatan’s life in beautiful Cherry Valley is threatened by the machinations of the evil ruler Tengil who has enslaved neighbouring Wild Rose Valley with the aid of the mysterious Katla (who turns out, spoiler alert, to be a dragon). Jonatan is involved in the resistance, and Karl, fired by loyalty to his brother, becomes his staunch ally. They ride around in death-defying missions on their trusty steeds Grim and Fyalar, allies and enemies defy expectations predictably, and at some point everyone learns the true meaning of something.

I’m being unkind because it comes to me naturally, but actually there’s a lot to love about this book, and it’s only my profound antipathy to fantasy that stopped me embracing it as I’d hoped I would. Firstly, just how dark it is. The brothers witness the regime’s brutality first-hand when Tengil visits Cherry Valley and identifies several people to be taken off to camps where they will die. A man who challenges him is put to death instantly with a sword. For the child reader of Lindgren, this is not a smooth progression from Lotta and Pippi Longstocking, it’s a portrait of a totalitarian state. Its morality seems solid, the recurring message being that sometimes you have to take the hard road for the greater good, if you want to be more than just (to use the phrase Jonatan often repeats) ‘a bit of filth’. Towards the end of the book, as the final showdown approaches, he saves the life of an enemy, Park, prompting a question from Karl.

‘Why did you save that man Park’s life? Was that a good thing?’

‘I don’t know whether it was a good thing,’ said Jonathan. ‘But there are things you have to do, otherwise you’re not a human being, but just a bit of filth. I’ve told you that before.’

‘But suppose he’d realized who you were,’ I said. ‘And they’d caught you.’

‘Well, then they would have caught Lionheart and not a bit of filth,’ said Jonathan.

It was only when contemplating the book afterwards that Adrienne Rich came into my head:

and somehow, each of us will help the other live,
and somewhere, each of us must help the other die.

That’s the ending of one of her Twenty-One Love Poems, which I’ve loved since I was about 20, and it feels relevant here. Jonatan and Karl exist in a series of lives and afterlives (not that the word afterlife appears in the book). In the first world, when confronted by Karl’s anxiety about death, Jonatan comforts him with the concept of Nangiyala. When the same thing occurs in Nangiyala, Jonatan talks of a further afterlife, Nangilima. And who’s to say there isn’t another one beyond Nangilima. The point is that death is gone through and survived, though the Christian allegory (if this is one) isn’t as crass or offensive as it can be in the hands of C.S. Lewis.

The controversy comes at the end, where, having been brought to Nangiyala by Jonatan, Karl has to repay the favour by helping Jonatan get to Nangilima, effectively by helping him die. The tables have turned: at the start of the book Karl was dying of his unspecified coughing sickness; now, Jonatan, as a result of his having been licked by the flame of the dragon Katla, is becoming paralysed and can only move his arms. I suspect nowadays it is the suggestion that death is preferable to disability that would upset and anger people; forty years ago it was the suicide pact. Critical reviews damned the book’s ‘romantic-deterministic dream’. I sympathise up to a point, but I’ve always rather liked this kind of fatalism, and I was moved by the conclusion.

And I sat beside him and held his hand and felt that he was strong and good through and through and that nothing was really dangerous so long as he was there.

To return, finally, to Ilon Wikland, 87 years old this year: I salute the versatility of her illustrations, in places so tender, in others so terrifying. The depictions of Katla are terrifying and audacious, those of Jonatan and Karl simple and touching. A slight dissonance: Karl’s narrative occasional makes unflattering mention of his own looks compared to those of his brother, of his ‘snout’, for instance; in Wikland’s illustrations his nose is charmingly retroussé. I endorse this change.


Grand Tour #12 – Malta. The Misfit / Oliver Friggieri

June 3, 2017

What do we know of Malta? It’s a small island nation in the Med, its people were awarded the George Cross for resisting the Nazis, and its footballers are called things like Mifsud and Carabott and Camilleri and Buttigieg. What about the language – they speak Italian, right? Well, no. There’s a fair amount of English and Italian spoken, but the primary language is Maltese, and it’s a language like none I’ve ever seen before. It resembles a mixture of Italian and Arabic with a dash of Albanian thrown in. The autobiography of Oliver Friggieri, whose 1980 novel The Misfit (L-Istramb) I have just read in a recent translation by Charles Briffa, is called Fjuri li ma Jinxfux. Let’s just pause to take that in.

Turning to the novel, the eponymous misfit is Baruch, a young man whose life lacks purpose. The novel opens with him running through the rain to a cemetery in order to visit the grave of the professor whose funeral he attended a week earlier. The death of this young professor, a man Baruch idolised but never dared to approach, is one factor in Baruch’s current crisis. The others: his loneliness, his remote relationship with his parents, a feeling of detachment from the world.

After some months of introspection, Baruch decides to enter a seminary to train for the priesthood. It’s not that he feels a religious vocation, but he does want something that will give his life purpose and make his heartbreak go away. The seminary is strictly run and Baruch is stifled. He kindles a tentative friendship with a like-minded young man, Anton, but this is stamped out by the authorities. And so on.

I won’t continue with this synopsis because it’s a short book and I’ve revealed most of the plot already, and anyway you can probably tell what kind of book it is and what’s likely to happen. The moments that pleased me most were those that fleetingly recalled books I have loved: Haruki Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart, with its concept of people as satellites whose orbits occasionally cross; the totalitarianism of Antonia White’s Frost in May (I feared Baruch’s frank diary entries in the seminary would be discovered and lead to expulsion); Lindsay Anderson’s film If….

Existential crisis, anger, disillusionment, loneliness, angst, directionlessness, self-deception. I think if these are the primary concerns of your protagonist, you ought to add at least a sprinkling of jokes as a compromise. There’s certainly some comic mileage to be got out of Baruch’s hopeless parents, his mother fussy, his father uninterested.

His mother and father had two main principles: that their son was not like other young men and that the blame lay completely on him.

Not much beyond that, though. Does the novel offer psychological insight? Well, it rings true enough, and Baruch’s journey follows a trajectory that is credible to the point of predictability, but exactly why he’s fucked up isn’t clear. Maybe that’s the most impressive thing about it.

Given the depth of Baruch’s feelings for the professor, and his later relationship with Anton, I wondered if this might count as what some would call a ‘gay novel’ – and there is a nice passage where Baruch asks God to forgive him for transgressing the rules of the seminary but fails to find any feeling of guilt inside himself – but I think that would be overstating the importance of sex and sexuality here. Baruch’s sexual hang-ups, whatever they may be, are but one facet of his malaise.

What does this novel tell us about Malta? That misanthropy is not an exclusively British trait, which perhaps we already suspected.

As someone who can’t speak any language well enough to translate anything from it into anything else, I am loath to criticise any translation. I can only tell if a translation is good or not at the most basic level, i.e. are there mistakes in it? There are mistakes in this one, typos and tense shifts and infelicities, that might have been eliminated. A great shame to go to the trouble of making a translation and not to take the simple step of running it past a native English-speaking proof-reader. By way of example, a muddy sentence from the introduction:

The Misfit contains an internal perspective which shows that the story concentrates on the character through whose consciousness the narrative is presented.

I feel I’ve been mean to a novel that, thrill me though it didn’t, was basically fine; perhaps that’s the worst thing you can say about a book, though. If only it had been awful, I’d have had something to write about.

Grand Tour #11 – Italy. The Betrothed / Alessandro Manzoni

May 27, 2017

When I asked him for ideas of books to read for this project, an Italian friend suggested Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed (I promessi sposi), which he had read at school and enjoyed. (All Italians read this book at school: it’s the classic Italian 19th-century novel.) I’d heard of the book, albeit primarily as an opera title (Ponchielli’s is the most famous adaptation), and was attracted by the idea of reading a substantial book for a change, most of those I’ve read so far being on the thin side. I read an anonymous 1834 translation of the novel’s original version from 1827 (it was revised by Manzoni in 1842). I’d like to say I chose it carefully, but in fact it was the only one on Project Gutenberg.

Just because a book’s long, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily long-winded, but this is both. The plot is minimal. It is 1628, and the intended marriage of two young peasant lovers, Renzo and Lucia (called Lucy in this translation; the fashion among translators of the time was clearly for Anglicisation), is stopped by the intervention of a corrupt baron, Don Rodrigo. The lovers, under threat, separate, throwing themselves on the mercy of well-wishers. Following nearly two years apart, each of them having suffered the privations of e.g. bread riots and plague, Renzo and Lucia are reunited and get married at last. (Spoiler alert.)

The secondary characters are more intriguing than Renzo and Lucia, who are open books, the former good-hearted but overly rash, the latter good-hearted but overly pious. The Nun of Monza, who takes Lucia under her wing but is herself under the power of shady forces, is a fascinating character, a woman living as a nun almost by mistake, and has a personal story related with great compassion, but is abandoned when her part in Lucia’s rescue and capture has been completed, her eventual fate related in a few brief paragraphs towards the end. The conversion to Christianity of the enigmatic character called L’Innominato is also involving, and might be the model for similar twists in more recent works of fiction.

Among the comic characters, the priest Don Abbondio is a success, if rather one-note, making every decision according to what will cause the least inconvenience for him. The scene where Federico Borromeo (the real-life Archbishop of Milan) attempts with limited success to show him the error of his ways is very amusing. Satisfying too, if not to the same extent that similar talkings-to in other books (I thought particularly of Trollope) are.

(The presence of Borromeo is restrictive: as a real-life character, moreover a documentedly heroic one, Manzoni cannot treat him as anything other than a saint, nor would he wish to. Other religious characters are morally flawless, most notably Fra Cristoforo, the protector of Renzo and Lucia. They cannot be otherwise. When Oscar Wilde wrote there was no such thing as a moral book, he presumably hadn’t read this. Almost without exception the good end happily and the bad unhappily.)

The most satisfying moments tended to be those where I was able to join dots between The Betrothed and other books. I thought most frequently of Candide, a book that packs ten times the action of this book into a fifth of the space. The moving reunion of Renzo and Lucia amid the devastation of the plague of Milan (the plague scenes are quite harrowing, which is to Manzoni’s credit) is like one of the unexpected reunions in Candide, both characters changed by their experiences but evidently meant to come together once more. Just as Cunégonde becomes ugly in Candide, there’s a nice detail about Lucia losing her looks after her recovery from plague (or perhaps never having been a looker in the first place).

The reports the Bergamascans had heard of Lucy, together with Renzo’s extraordinary attachment to her — perhaps, too, the representations of some partial friend — had contributed to excite an extravagant idea of her beauty. When Lucy appeared, they began to shrug their shoulders, and say, “Is this the woman? We expected something very different! What is she, after all? A peasant, like a thousand others! Women like her, and fairer than she, are to be found every where!”

Unfortunately, some kind friends told Renzo these things, perhaps added to what they had heard, and roused his indignation. “And what consequence is it to you?” said he. “Who told you what to expect? Did I ever do so? Did I tell you she was beautiful? She is a peasant, forsooth! Did I ever say I would bring a princess here? She does not please you. Do not look at her, then: you have beautiful women; look at them.”

I was quite touched by this, though I’m not sure quite why. Elsewhere, Don Ferrante is a character straight out of Voltaire: he surrounds himself by books and thinks himself a scholar, believes the plague is caused by planetary motion, takes no precautions against it, and dies. You see, the book’s not without humour. Manzoni even knows he’s a bit of a bore, and that the chapters giving historical context derail the narrative rather too much. ‘Don’t be alarmed, reader,’ he writes at one point in a paragraph about the progress of the plague, ‘our design is not to relate its history.’ I just wish he’d practised this abstemiousness a bit more elsewhere.

Grand Tour #10 – Austria. Magdalena the Sinner / Lilian Faschinger

May 12, 2017

For Austria, I had in mind Joseph Roth’s classic The Radetzky March, which I’ve been intending to read for some years; only I foresee quite a lot of grimness ahead once I reach Eastern Europe (it’s what publishers seem to think we want to read), and, all things considered, prefer not reading about social unrest to the alternative. Call me an ostrich if you will.

Not that the book I settled on, Lilian Faschinger’s 1995 novel Magdalena the Sinner (Magdalena Sünderin), translated by Shaun Whiteside, sounds light-hearted exactly. Magdalena abducts a Catholic priest at gunpoint during a Mass for Whitsun, drives him off into the countryside in her motorbike and sidecar, ties him to a tree and gags him, and proceeds to confess to the murders of seven ex-lovers.

Although ostensibly narrated by the priest, who comments periodically on his reactions to Magdalena’s confession, the novel’s real voice is that of Magdalena, who talks uninterrupted for the best part of 300 pages. At times it resembles another novel in the form of an extended monologue, Philip Roth’s filthy masterpiece Portnoy’s Complaint, although Magdalena rants less than Portnoy, and rarely if ever reaches his pitch of self-righteous anger. Perhaps ranting is the prerogative of men; certainly one recurring theme is the unrealistic demands men make of women.

Magdalena’s irreverent tone is established early on, as she compliments the priest for his response to being kidnapped, while critiquing the performances of the panicked server and organist. She proceeds to tell the story of her life, and there is a pleasingly absurd strain running through her recollections – a food-related dream in which Magdalena’s family house is surrounded by a moat containing a series of sauces; her sisters protesting Magdalena’s attempts to emancipate herself with entreaties to ‘declare your aunthood!’; a delightful description of her escape from the stifling pretensions of middle-class existence …

You must try this recipe that we found in southern Burundi, the cosmopolitan academics cried; you must listen to these songs performed only in a little mountain village in the interior of Sardinia during Easter week by three ninety-year-old women, which have thankfully been made accessible to us by the tireless efforts of a Viennese ethno-musicologist; you must try on this mask carved from the wood of a two-hundred-year-old sequoia by a Shawnee tribesman directly descended from Chief Tecumseh.

Magdalena’s relationships with her seven lovers overlap, so that often one will provide a refuge from her present relationship before becoming a problem himself. They’re a motley bunch, each from a different country, each with his own particular flaw (self-absorption, violence, philandering, vampirism, etc.), each dispatched in a different way, often pleasingly. Highlights? You have to go some way to beat a Transylvanian Jehovah’s Witness, I think, but the Bluebeardesque Baron Otto is an engaging character, as is the swimming instructor Karl Danzinger, who spends most of the duration of his relationship with the preternaturally patient Magdalena observing the various ways in which his three ex-wives are her superiors. Magdalena brokers peace between the wives, but there comes a point when Karl has to go the same way as the rest.

You come to love Magdalena. The reason she has gagged the priest is that she needs her story to be listened to in its entirety, something no man has ever been able to do. There’s a certain element of danger involved: I can’t be the only reader who has wondered if the nasty twist at the end, and this is exactly the kind of book that would have a nasty twist, will be that the priest is victim number seven. You see, like all of her victims, he loves Magdalena, a love that evolves slowly but surely during their brief time together. His pious sister Maria aside (the saint Maria and the sinner Magdalena – you see the hints at religious allegory; it’s pleasing but unsurprising when the priest’s name is eventually revealed to be Christian), he has never really spent time alone with a woman before, and has led an altogether sheltered life. At first shocked by Magdalena’s crimes, he comes to feel compassion for her, taking her part against her victims, and even begins to desire her. He compares her beauty favourably with a number of artistic depictions of her namesake Mary Magdalene, and, as the end of her narrative approaches, appears to be on the verge of throwing over the priesthood to run away with her.

Twenty-four hours ago I had been feverishly wondering how I could free myself from the power of my abductor, but in the meantime our relationship had changed so drastically that I was already yearning for her return. I realized that it was a scandal, and not only from the point of view of Catholic doctrine, for a consecrated Catholic priest, a man respected and popular both in his parish and beyond its borders, to be on the point of entering a frankly erotic relationship with a woman leading an extremely indecent life in comparison to the overwhelming majority of her sex, who had abducted him at gunpoint, but that it also, from the perspective of so-called common sense, revealed a rashness bordering on insanity, which could lead to my excommunication. But I simply swept such considerations aside.

It is the tension of this relationship, I think, that makes the book special, and the way Faschinger resolves it is simple but undeniably right-feeling.

The more I think about this book, the more I like it. To finish with another detail that pleased me, early on Magdalena recalls having fallen in love with Cary Grant and James Stewart at a Hitchcock film festival (we’ve all been there, I thought); later, Hitchcock returns, with this moment, surely intentionally, combining elements of Vertigo and Psycho.

Michael looked at me speechlessly for a minute, and then said quietly, with emotion in his voice, that it was astonishing how closely I resembled his departed mother wearing those clothes. Couldn’t I put my hair up in a bun before we set off? he asked.