Sunday, February 23, 2014

(RNL #16) "Spotted Dog Running Alongside the Seashore" - Chingiz Aitmatov (Kyrgyzstan)

Rating: 2.5 out of 3

Now, before I started this novella, I thought that it would be about a real live dog...but no, another deceiving title. We are immediately advised, by the narrator, that the 'Spotted Dog' is in fact a hilly cliff on an island that resembles a spotted dog. The book is actually about a few things. On the surface, it is about a traditional father-son-uncle-elder seal hunt that goes horribly wrong. However, as this is a work by Chingiz Aitmatov, the whole narration is interspersed with ancient (Central Asian?) legends ("The Legend of the Creation of Dry Land by a Duck", "The Legend of the Fish-Woman who was the progenitor of the family's clan, etc.). We also, in typical Aitmatov style, have the present-day narration interrupted and linked to flashbacks from the past of all of the main characters (e.g. flashbacks of the boy's childhood, the Father's relationship with his wife, etc.)

Aitmatov also uses his device of continuously repeating certain lines in the book in order to make the narrative more fairy-tale like. 

I believe that this book is ultimately about how there is endless continuity in the world, e.g.:

-the sea endlessly does battle with dry land
-children endlessly continue the lineage of their parents, and their parents never truly die, as they continue to live through their offspring

The book truly picked up speed and was unputdownable towards the end, when interestingly enough, the present-day narrative turned into legend, before the readers' eyes. This is Aitmatov's gift- he is able to bring the past and legend into the present-day so masterfully and even turn the present-day into legend. The ending was heartwarming and unforgettable. This little novella gets a 2.5 out of 3, all the way.

Friday, February 21, 2014

"Their Life, Their Death" - by David Aizman (Russian Empire)

Rating: 0 out of 3

According to Wikipedia, David Aizman was born in the Ukraine. Aizman went to Paris in 1896 to study painting, then he and his wife moved to the French countryside. Aizman later returned to Russia in 1902 and his stories, novellas and plays met with some success. However, his open portrayal of Russian and Ukrainian anti-semitism made his fiction unpublishable in the Soviet Union, and his reputation and popularity suffered a serious decline.

So that having been said...I did not expect this novella "Their Life, Their Death" to be all that bad at all. However, I was simply horrified by what I read. The book predominantly follows the lives of a (late?) 19th century French peasant family that engages in the worst kind of alcoholism, child abuse and wife/husband-beating that I have ever read about. I am still shocked at what I read and have no idea why this novella was even written. I can understand, the shocking detail that an author such as Adamovich had to share with us regarding the Khatyn massacres of WW2. There was a point to that; Adamovich wanted to transmit to us the horrors of what happened and that there was every risk of such horrors being repeated again. However, here... this novella's purpose seems just to horrify us. I can't help but wonder - such a family can't possibly have been prevalent in 19th century France? Surely this is just some sort of monstrous caricature? Perhaps it is intended to be black humour, but for me...its just too black to be at all funny or absurd or edifying. Its simply monstrous.

I give this novella a 0/3. Don't read it. I wish I hadn't.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

(RNL #15) A Day Lasts Longer than a Hundred Years- Chingiz Aitmatov (Kyrghizstan)

Rating: 3 out of 3

Nowadays, whenever I meet someone from Kyrgyzstan, I run up to the person excitedly and say:

ME: Are you really from Kyrgyzstan?
ME: That's so amazing. Did you know that one of my favourite authors is Chingiz Aitmatov? Which book of his is your favourite?
POOR, PUZZLED PERSON FROM KYRGYZSTAN: Unfortunately, I haven't read any of his...
ME: (jaw drops) Re-ally???

Anyway, that aside aside.... "A Day Lasts Longer than a Hundred Years" is one of Aitmatov's most famous works. He's considered a socialist realist author (at least by Wikipedia). For me he's something more of a mystical/heritage realist. Aitmatov is the master of recounting ancient legends from Central Asian folklore in a very engaging, mystical manner. And he is also good at creating a link of relevancy between these ancient legends and our present times. We saw evidence of this in his short story "The White Steam Ship". 

"A Day Lasts Longer than a Hundred Years" was the first novel by Chingiz Aitmatov. The inspiration for the novel's setting is said to be a real-life train station called Toretam that was located near the Baikonur cosmodrome. This station was named in honor of Sheikh Tore-Baba, a representative from Aitmatov's own ancestral clan. 
This book, like "The White SteamShip", seamlessly weaves ancient legends with the present, but includes much, much more!
There are many, many seamlessly woven plots and subplots in this book, ex/:

THREE ANCIENT LEGENDS:The legend of the Mankrut - based on an ancient legend of a Mother's rebellious and undying love for her son. Mark my words- this legend, as told by 'Grandpa' Chingiz, is absolutely haunting and you will never forget it, particularly the 'method of torture' used to create the Mankrut.The legend of Genghis Khan and the White Cloud - about forbidden love in times of war. Unlike in the movie "Mongol", where the Khan is glorified, Aitmatov's Genghis Khan is utterly demonized with no redeeming characteristics- just another heartless dictator bent at world supremacy at any costThe legend of the famous singer - another legend about forbidden love. But while the love in the legend of Genghis Khan was forbidden by a dictator, the love in this legend is forbidden by social convention, and here - it is debatable whether the love was forbidden for better or for worse, which is a sort of interesting twist

The ancient legends are frequently referred to and are woven into the CURRENT DAY PLOT;
-the burial of the book's main character's (Stormy Yedigai's) best friend

-Yedigai's youth in the Aral Sea-some wartime scenes-the tragic story of the Kuttubayev family (including pieces related to Stalin)-Yedigai's life in the isolated steppes of rural Kazakstan-notable events in the life of Yedigai's famous 'black' camel

and (believe it or not), the book also includes a modern day sci-fi plot about humanity's first contact with ETs and how humanity decides to deal with it.

In the book, you learn an awful lot about camels (more than you've probably ever learnt about them your whole life); rural life in the steppes of Kazakhstan and you get to read those wonderful steppe legends. The book also manages to whisk you away to WW2, the Aral Sea, and Alma-Aty. The book has a very fairy-taleish feel to it, particularly because Aitmatov intentionally repeats a few lines from the book about how 'the trains go from east to west and from west to east' again and again and again. There is also some wonderful steppe poetry in the book which I really adored, ex/:

"A hot horse takes in the cool taste of water when it falls before the river running from the mountains,When I gallop to you, in order to fall from my saddle to your lips, I take in the joy of life in this world"

This book is like a multi-layered onion. There is so much that you can extract from it, as Aitmatov tries to bring his overall message across through all of the intertwining plots.
I recommend paying close attention to the character Sabitzhan. Though you may wish to disregard him as simply a secondary character, what he says is actually very important and links up to the other plots.
So what is the message that Aitmatov is trying to transmit to us through all of these legends; through the stories about Chingiz Khan, ETs, Stalin, rural railroad workers, etc. etc.?

Well, in my opinion:
-he is a fierce advocate for freedom and speaks out loudly in the book against oppressive regimes that have existed since time immemorial and that have attempted to impose their ascendancy over others by infringing on basic human freedoms such as the right to procreate and the right to love. He believes that 'the higher good' (e.g. victory in battle, socialist revolutions) do not justify the means, if the means are, for example, murdering innocent people or depriving people of the right to think for themselves. -However, perhaps sometimes freedom should be curtailed, as with the famous singer from the legend, Yedigai and his camel, as setting the singer, Yedigai and the camel free to loose their passions might have created significant casualties -It is very important to preserve traditions, a sense of humanity and love of family. Education (as in the case of Sabitzhan) does not necessarily confer greater humanity and freedom of intellect. Yedigai goes so far, in the book, as to compare the university-educated Sabitzhan to a robot or Mankrut and looks more favorably upon his alcoholic brother-in-law

Its interesting that the Genghis Khan legend was a later addition to the book. In 2002, Aitmatov also added an additional chapter which I didn't like very much and which I felt added nothing to the story, about a discussion Kuttubayev had with an academic about the relevance and existence of God. I felt that this chapter, as a whole, unlike the Genghis Khan legend, did not weave in well with the rest of the novel.

This book is very unique and interesting. Its hard to put down and is certainly a book that you will remember, more for the steppe life and legends though than for any of the philosophical messages contained within. I would most compare this book to the fantastically haunting "Wolf Totem" which is also one of the best books I have ever read, telling the tragic tale of the lives and traditions of inner Mongolians through the eyes of a Chinese outsider.

I give this book a 3/3 - with advice to skip the newly added 2002 chapter. This book is available in English.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Joining the Classics Club....

More about the Classics Club here:

Here are the 50 books I plan to read by February 15, 2019. Many of these are, happily, available in English. So why not read along with me?:

1) Their Life, their Death - by David Aizman
2) A Day Lasts Longer than a Thousand Years - by Chingiz Aitmatov
3) Spotted Dog Running Along the Seashore - by Chingiz Aitmatov
4) The Scaffold - by Chingiz Aitmatov
5) The Mark of Cassandra - by Chingiz Aitmatov
6) The Scarlet Flower - by Sergey Aksakov
7) The Childhood Years of Bagrov's Grandson - by Sergey Aksakov
8) The Family Chronicle - by Sergey Aksakov
9) The Island of Crimea - by Vasily Aksyonov
10) Novellas - by Ryunosuke Akutagawa
11) St. Helena: Little Island - by Mark Aldanov
12) Kuzka - by Tatyana Aleksandrova
13) War doesn't have a Woman's Face - by Svetlana Aleksiyevich
14) Les Grandes Meaulnes - by Alain-Fournier
15) Russian Tragedy - by Pyotr Alyoshkin
16) Fish: A History of One Migration - by Pyotr Aleshkovsky
17) Zoya: a poem - by Margarita Aliger
18) Captains of the Sands - by Jorge Amado
19) Data Tutashikhia - by Chabua Amirejibi
20) Short Stories - by Aleksandr Amphiteatrov
21) Fairytales - by Hans Christian Anderson
22) Bargamot and Garaska - by Leonid Andreyev
23) Judas Iscariot - by Leonid Andreyev
24) The Biter - by Leonid Andreyev
25) Petka at the Cottage - by Leonid Andreyev
26) The Seven who were Hanged - by Leonid Andreyev
27) The Cyprus Chest - by Innokenty Annensky
28) Poetry. Poems. - by Pavel Antokolsky
29) Vaska - by Sergey Antonov
30) Antigone - by Jean Anouilh
31) The Lark - by Jean Anouilh
32) Run Rabbit Run - by John Updike
33) The Golden Ass - by Apuleius
34) Poetry - by Aleksey Apukhtin
35) My Poor Marat - by Aleksey Arbuzov
36) Tanya - by Aleksey Arbuzov
37) The Royal Rabbits by Peter Asbjornsen
38) Poetry and Poems by Nikolay Aseyev
39) The Horse with a Pink Mane - by Viktor Astafyev
40) Theft - by Viktor Astafyev
41) The Queen-Fish - by Viktor Astafyev
42) Selected Works - by Bella Akhmadulina
43) The Flight of Time - by Anna Akhmatova
44) Poem without a Hero - by Anna Akhmatova
45) Requiem - by Anna Akhmatova
46) Red Cavalry - by Isaac Babel
47) Odessa Tales - by Isaac Babel
48) Poems. Poetry - by Eduard Bagritsky
49) The Malachite Box - by Pavel Bazhov
50) Poetry - George Byron

Thursday, February 13, 2014

(RNL #14) "The White Steam Ship" by Chingiz Aitmatov (Kyrgyzstan)

Rating: 3 out of 3

Three years ago, just by chance, I happened across this very short story by the brilliant Soviet/Kirghiz author, Chingis Aitmatov. I was totally captivated by this tale; unique, unforgettable, was it that I had never heard of this author in any of my Russian literature classes? Its very sad that Aitmatov is not more renowned outside of the former USSR, because he is truly one of the best authors of the 20th century. In fact, he is my favourite 20th century author. His book, "A Day Lasts Longer than a 100 Years" is one of the best books I have ever read. But more on that book later...its next on the reading list.

I would describe "The White Steam Ship" as a sort of fairy tale for adults. It is about three Kirghiz families who live in an isolated forested region of Kyrgyzstan. The hero, of course, is a very young, imaginative and lonely little boy. The pure, unsullied conscience of the little boy can not agree with nor support the injustice that he sees around him on a daily basis: the drunkenness, spousal abuse, meanness, greed, corruption and lack of respect for ancient totems and tradition. Indeed, the world Aitmatov paints for us, through the innocent eyes of this boy, is truly topsy-turvsy; hard work is not rewarded; the old are not respected; children are mistreated; traditions are not adhered to; ancestral totems are rejected and trodden on. In this world, the wicked, vengeful, drunken and cruel prevail, while the weak are crushed asunder. 

The boy manages to somehow survive this lonely and cruel world, thanks only to his daydreaming, as well as the love and support of his equally naive and innocent grandfather. This grandfather seems the only one left who reveres the traditions and customs of their ancestors. He also tells the boy the legend of their tribe's mother and totem, the Horned Siberian Stag. There is an entire chapter devoted to the telling of the legend, which, by the way, is an absolutely fantastic one. 

This book is dreamy and sweeps you into an exotic location (rural Kyrghizstan), it captivates you with the most interesting legends and... the ending certainly won't leave you ambivalent. This was my 4th time reading this story and I was still almost reduced to tears.

This is one of the best short stories of the 20th century and fully deserving of a 3/3.

Friday, February 7, 2014

"Laurus" by Yevgeny Vodolazkin (Russia) - 2013 "Big Book" and "Clear Glade" Prize Winner

Rating: 2 out of 3

I just finished "Laurus" by Yevgeny Vodolazkin. You might easily call this book 'the it' book in Russian literary circles in 2013. It won "The Big Book" prize, "The Clear Glade" prize and was short-listed for other prestigious awards as well.

The book's author, Yevgeny Germanovich Vodolazkin, was born in Kiev in 1964. He's a specialist in ancient Russian literature and makes good use of his knowledge of ancient Russian literature in "Laurus". The book is set in the 15th century (medieval Russia) and is filled with smatterings of old-Russian. Although some readers have complained about this, I liked it as it added character to the book, and Mr. Vodolazkin, I found, was rather careful to include only sentences in ancient Russian that would be fairly easy for modern-day speakers to decipher, even without a dictionary.

The book centres around the life (lives) of a healer (Doctor) who spends his entire life (lives) trying to atone before God for the sins he and his lover committed. I say 'lives' here, because one of the central premises of the book is that a person can live many lives that form a sort of mosaic and are linked together by the striving of the person during all of those lives towards one higher goal (in this case, God). Because the book's central premise is that a person can live many lives, the book itself is divided into several parts; one for each of the hero's lives. So for example, the first part of the book is about the hero's childhood, a second about his life with his lover, and so forth. I found that the book started off rather slowly, but picked up around Pskov...I would say that the Pskov life and the last part of the book were the best of all. The most interesting part about the Pskov section was the author's depiction of the city itself- the wooden buildings and streets, the water... I felt as if the city itself was the main character in this part of the narrative and the book has inspired me to visit this ancient city (one of these days!). The worst parts of the book (and in my opinion) completely unnecessary parts of the book were everything to do with the Italian Ambrodzhio and going to Jerusalem. Not only was the character Ambrodzhio (in my opinion), wooden, completely dull and beyond the boundaries of credulity (I still don't buy the author's explanation for how he was able to learn Russian in Italy, why on earth he would have wanted to go all the way to Pskov and then, what drove him to journey all the way to Jerusalem!), but the whole 'going to Jerusalem' subplot made me almost want to put down the book then and there. This section, sadly, lived up to my expectations and was utterly boring...a chore to get through and I felt, contributed nothing to the plot. It was so disjointed from the rest of the book, and I think, didn't fit in with the progression of the hero's character towards sainthood. (It was a sort of illogical step backwards!) However, I am glad that I persevered and continued reading the book, because as mentioned previously, the last part of the book was very well worth reading.

Some of the other good points of the book:
-the holy fool characters were very memorable and interesting
-the book was very spiritually uplifting. After reading the book, I felt as I had after watching the famous Russian movie "The Island"- as if I had just prayed or gone to mass. Its very good for the soul to read such books and I hope that Russian authors will continue to write such books in the future
-the whole concept of time and how time can go around in circles or in spirals and repeat itself was very interesting towards the end. It all led to a very interesting and captivating ending that really made you stop to pause and think about what you read before about the hero's lives and how that linked up to the future
-The ending was very unexpected and interesting. I read the last part of the book at lightening speed

And the bad...

-As mentioned before, everything to do with Ambrodzhio and going to Jerusalem
-At times the book seemed to simply be a chronicle of what the hero did everyday (ex/ today he healed this person, the next day he healed this person). I understand that this was supposed to mimic a "Lives of Saints" chronicle, but, for me, this did get to be monotonous and tedious at some points in the book. I feel as if the book could have benefited from some good editing (the cutting out of tedious and unnecessary portions of the narrative, like for example...everything to do with Ambrodzhio and goin to Jerusalem)
-Sadly...I really didn't think the romance between the hero and Ustinya was well-fleshed out. Perhaps just me, but I was unable to believe that the hero's depth of feelings for Ustinya could be so deep as to inspire him to sacrifice his life for her, from what was written...or perhaps the way it was written. The whole romance was (to me) cliche, and I knew from the very first pages, what would happen and how it would end
-And did I mention that I hated everything to with Ambrodzhio? His out of place visions of the future, his future Italian relative side-stories, etc etc.... I could go on and on...

I had to think a bit before assigning a rating to this book. After getting through the first parts of the book, I wanted to give the book a 1.5. After reading about Ambrodzhio, I wanted to give the book a 0.5 or a 1.0. However, I did really like the last section of the book as well as the spiritual message behind the book - "Most important of all is faith!" As the book recounted time and time again, faith in God can help one surmount the impossible, even death...

 I'm giving the book a 2/3 (2.5, were it not for the whole Ambrodzhio/Jerusalem plot).