The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin

And I saw then again, and for good, what I had always been afraid to see, and had pretended not to see in him: that he was a woman as well as a man. Any need to explain the sources of that fear vanished with that fear; what I was left with was, at last, acceptance of him as he was. Until then I had rejected him, refused him his own reality. He had been quite right to say that he, the only person on Gethen who trusted me, was the only Gethenian I distrusted. For he was the only one who had entirely accepted me as a human being: who had liked me personally and given me personal loyalty: and who therefore had demanded of me an equal degree of recognition, of acceptance.

I am late come to the works of Ursula K. Le Guin having once starting–and giving up on–her fantasy books. This year I returned to her books, first with The Dispossessed and now The Left Hand of Darkness. Like The Dispossessed, I found Left Hand (published 1969) to be a somewhat raw book, but powerful, thoughtful and, in many ways, Important.

The planet Gethen (also known as Winter) is perpetually in the grip of an ice age, with bountiful fish, but few mammals and no birds. The hominids who live on Winter adapted to the environment, both in terms of their resistance to extreme cold and in other adaptations that are designed to ensure their survival. The habitable zone on Winter, such that it is, is divided into multiple political units, with the two most important being the kingdom of Karhide and the country of Orgoreyn. The former is a decentralized state subdivided into small landholdings ruled over by local lords and family units; the latter is a centralized and centrally planned state run by a central council and shadowy agencies. Neighbors, Karhide and Orgoreyn usually allow trade across the border, provided that one has the proper paperwork for Orgoreyn, but are diametrically opposed. There are, however, some people in Karhide who believe that the kingdom should be somewhat more like Orgoreyn and are willing to go to great lengths to make that happen.

Into this uncertain political situation enters Genly Ai, an envoy from the Ekumen, the political organization of the planets with human species on them dedicated to facilitating trade in cultural, intellectual, and technological innovations. He lands first at Karhide, but his situation soon becomes endangered when a coup against his primary benefactor, Prime Minister Estraven, forces both men (independently) to flee to Orgoreyn. Of course, this change is not necessarily for the better.

Genly’s “otherness” is particularly pronounced on Winter because he is what they would call “a pervert”–that is, someone whose anatomy is like that on earth. Gethenian are what Genly terms ambisexual. Their normal state of being is neither male nor female, but with the potential to be one or the other. Once a month they go into a state of “kemmer,” hormonal arousal that becomes further excited by contact with others in kemmer. (As a hormonal change, kemmer can be manipulated through artificial hormones, but this is generally frowned upon.) Kemmer changes their anatomy to express either male or female anatomy, with no predisposition to one or the other, and only remains in this state if, when in female anatomy, the Gethenian becomes pregnant. Genly is a pervert because he is “always in kemmer.”

At its heart The Left Hand of Darkness is driven by elements of thriller as Genly races from one place to another, one step ahead of forces that will destroy him, and the relationship between Genly and Estraven, but the details of Gethenian anatomy strike me as the most important part of the book. Le Guin, through Genly’s eyes, asks how this anatomy fundamentally shapes Gethenian cultures and how the different political units exploit their anatomy for their own ends, insidious and otherwise. Moreover, Genly is forced to reckon with his own preconceptions about gender in terms of how he addresses people. For instance, he frequently defaults to calling Gethenians “he” and “son,” while also judging those he considers effeminate, despite those terms being blatantly wrong.

The Left Hand of Darkness could have been a viable story set on earth, but the way Le Guin weaves in anthropology, mythology, and mysticism makes it exceptional. This book is a powerful meditation on duality, in terms of countries, gender, cultures, and sexualities. It is optimistic about the possibilities for empathy and understanding, but keenly aware of the tragedies that must be overcome to get to that point.

My copy of The Left Hand of Darkness also had an introductory essay about the nature of writing, reading, and science fiction. In this essay Le Guin argues that people don’t read science fiction and dismiss it as “escapist” actually find it “depressing” because they consider it extrapolative and must arrive “somewhere between the gradual extinction of human liberty and the total extinction of terrestrial life.” Le Guin denies that her novel extrapolates from the present, saying:

Predictions are uttered by prophets (free of charge); clairvoyants (who usually charge a fee and are therefore more honored in their day than prophets); and by futurologists (salaried). Prediction is the business of prophets, clairvoyants, and futurologists. It is not the business of novelists. A novelist’s business is lying.

The essay continues to talk about mistaken trust in artists of various sorts, and refers to reading as a form of “insanity. It is an essay that may be argued against, without a doubt, but it also performs the function of a good essay: it is provokes discussion.

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I just finished Stefan Zweig’s posthumous novella Chess Story. Next up, I am still working my way through Better Angels of our Nature and am planning to start Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man later today.

Man Tiger – Eka Kurniawan

Man Tiger is the slim second novel by Indonesian author Eka Kurniawan that has been met with very good, albeit not superlative reviews. (Usually I don’t read reviews before writing my recaps, but have been hunting around to find what language Man Tiger was originally written in, only to find some people frustrated by the book’s unevenness, with some complaints about rote elements.)

The story opens with news of a gruesome murder. Margio, an young man with a female White Tiger living inside him, has killed Anwar Sadat, the father of his girlfriend, by biting his head nearly clean off. Like any good crime story, Kurniawan takes the reader back in time and builds up to the event in question, without answering if the murder is justified.

Man Tiger is, at its heart, the story of two families living in one unnamed Indonesian village at the intersection of modern convenience and traditional techniques. The first, primary, family is that of Margio, including his abusive father Komar bin Syueb, mother Nuraeni, and sister Mameh; the second is that of the victim, the lecherous artist Anwar Sadat, including his wife and three daughters, the youngest of whom is Margio’s girlfriend Maharani. Anwar Sadat’s family, through the wife Kasia, is one of the wealthiest in town, being descended from the original settlers of the place; Margio comes from one of the poorest, who live in a dilapidated house in danger of falling down. Despite the inchoate romance between Margio and Maharani, the relationship between the families begins as one of domestic labor and privilege.

Margio inherits the eponymous female white tiger that lives inside him from his grandfather and the narrative skips back and forth between the years of struggle and abuse leading up to the events and the weeks or months immediately before it while Margio seeks to control the tiger rather than be dominated by it. It is in these perilous days that he embraces his desire to kill his father who has spent years–Margio’s entire life–abusing his mother. The story makes it clear that both children are born of rape.

What really stood out is that there are symbols of Suharto and the Indonesian government, but at no point do these feature prominently in the narrative except to perhaps suggest that some of the hardships faced by Margio’s family are the result of these forces. Instead, the conflict comes from intimate and familiar sources.

I liked Man Tiger a lot, and its tightly woven structure means that it is a quick read, but, ultimately, I must agree that it is uneven. There are rote elements that are at home in either crime fiction or Latin American magical realism, but the latter is, in my opinion, not fully realized. The tiger comes to symbolize and enable Margio’s simmering hatred of his father, but is also used as a short-hand rather than really engaging with his struggle, even if it is taken literally by the Javanese.

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Next up, I am reading Nina Frank’s novel Every House Needs a Balcony about a family of Rumanian-Jewish immigrants in Tel Aviv.

Basti – Intizar Husain

The more the turmoil increases outside, the more I sink into myself. Memories of so many times come to me. Ancient and long-ago stories, lost and scattered thoughts. Memories one after another, entangled in each other, like a forest to walk through. My memories are a forest. so where does the forest begin? No, where do I begin? And again he was in a forest…When he As he moved along in the darkness and encountered a bright patch, he paused, but again moved on, for he wanted to arrive at the moment when his consciousness had first opened its eyes. But he couldn’t grasp the moment. When he put his finger on the memory, dense crowds of other memories drifted along in its train.

Other people’s history can be read comfortably, the way a novel can be read comfortably. But my own history? I’m on the run from my own history, and catching my breath in the present. Escapist. But the merciless present pushes us back again toward our history.

Afzal, a friend of the narrator of Intizar Husain’s novel Basti, keeps a running list of virtuous men in the world inscribed on a sheet of paper. He laments that the number is small and is ever diminishing.

Basti, the title of which means “place,” is a chimerical tale that charts the creation of “modern” Pakistan and the evident dissolution of civil society. When the story opens, the earliest memories that Zakir reaches back for, his fictional hometown Rupnagar is peaceful, with Hindus and Muslims living side-by-side, the primal forest and old buildings dominating the town. South Asian mythology lives here. Zakir’s family holds a prominent position in the town, with his father a member of the religious elite. But, even before the trauma of the partition of India in 1947, there are signs of the world changing when electricity comes to Rupnagar, the wires kill monkeys. After the Partition, Zakir and his family move to Lahore.

The narrative takes place in two sequences, blended together in Zakir’s retelling. The “present” plot takes place in 1971 during the war between Pakistan and India that created an independent Bangledesh. Lahore is given over to protests and air raids that disrupt the schedule of the college where Zakir teaches history. Instead, he spends more time at cafes, which are increasingly depressing. The “past” plot are Zakir’s daydreams of Rupnagar and of earlier adventures with his friends in the heyday of Lahore’s cafe scene. The days are not perfect, but they are better—and can never be recaptured.

Basti is part of a genre that recounts the coming of modernity and upheavals within a community. Zakir is part of a younger generation that certainly makes the transition more easily than do their elders, but as one of his friends puts it, Zakir peddles a drug no less potent than the religion of their fathers:

“I’m telling you, you’re responsible for this defeat. And you, Zakir.

“How?” Zakir asked innocently.

Salamat said wrathfully, “You imperialist stooge, do you play innocent and ask how? Haven’t you thought about what you’re teaching to boys? The histories of kings. Opium pills! Yes, and your father is responsible, who every day feeds my father an opium pill of religion!…”

Zakir is a man out of time, but, interestingly, Husain implies that his backward-looking personality is a character trait rather than simply a consequence of the times he lives in. His memories, in particular, are infused with Hindu and Muslim, usually Shia, lore, for which there is a glossary in the back. However, though Salamat accuses him of teaching an overly optimistic version of history, one of the things Zakir’s daydreams make clear is that while the past might sometimes be easy to envision as a peaceful place free of responsibility, it is also filled with tragedy and suffering.

The only memories that escape this universal truth are those from his childhood and about the woman he loves. Contributing to Zakir’s pain and disillusionment, though is how his primary love interest is forcibly kept apart from him such that he goes years without knowing whether or not she is even alive. Other loves are foiled by his own naïveté, but the elusiveness of love, combined with the tenuousness of male friendships, forms a backdrop for the novel, as well as the actual human interactions between people who are powerless before faceless threats and changes.

I picked up Basti a few months ago because I like the New York Review of Books Classics editions and because the story looked interesting. It also had the advantage of being originally written in Urdu appealed to my interest in reading world literature. The book jumped to the front of my list because Husain just recently passed away (it was published in 1979, and the translation in 2012). It was one I was looking forward to reading and was not disappointed. Basti has its issues, but the prose is beautiful and there is always beauty within the desolation of the modern world. There is a simple solution to the problems, Basti implies: work hard, live simple, and be virtuous.

Three things debase a man: a woman when she is not faithful, a brother when he asks for more than is his right, knowledge when it comes without hard labor. And three things deprive the earth of peace: an ignoble man when he rises to high rank, a learned man when he begins to worship gold, a master when he becomes cruel.

Easier said than done.


Next up, I am currently reading Waguih Ghali’s 1964 novel Beer in the Snooker Club.

King of Kings – Asfra-Wossen Asserate

Ras Tafari ruled Ethiopia as regent starting in 1916 and then under the regnal name Haile Selassie when he ascended to the position of Negusa Negast in 1930. His reign lasted until 1974 when the Derg, a council of military officers propelled by famine, military frustrations, and student protests ended the monarchy. This long reign—too long, according to the author—brought about remarkable change in Ethiopia, and Africa more broadly, but those changes quickly left the country behind. Yet, according to King of Kings, the many virtues of Haile Selassie’s rule only became evident in the bloody years of dictatorship, civil war, and now apartheid-esque federation that followed his death.

Descendants of the “House of David” were said to have ruled Ethiopia for three thousand years, but the political landscape of the country into which Ras Tafari was born in 1892 was a patchwork of semi-independent kingdoms all of which traced their descent from Solomon through the Queen of Sheba, with one of those ascending to the position of Negusa Negast. (The way tradition is presented by Asserate, this loose confederacy is actually a precondition of having a a singular Negusa Negast, since without kings underneath him, how could there be a king of kings?) The supreme leadership in Ethiopia was therefore not hereditary, but determined by political alliances, force of personality, and, importantly, the capabilities of each king’s personal army. Ras Tafari was born into a princely family and his father won renown for his role in the Battle of Adwa in 1896, but there were more powerful contenders in 1916 when a regent was chosen for the Empress Zauditu, the daughter of the former emperor Menelik. Ras Tafari was likely chosen because he was not a threat, either in terms of his land holdings or in terms of his physical build. However, his rivals clearly did not count on the young man’s political acumen, and he proceeded to rule the country for nearly six decades.

The Haile Selassie presented by Asfra-Wossen Asserate (whose grandfather was a cousin of H.S.), is a man of contradictions. For instance, he was liberal reformer determined to modernize the country in terms of schools, hospitals, and industry, one who introduced the first two constitutions to Ethiopia, who brought the country into the League of Nations, decried European colonization of Africa, tolerated religious differences, and help found the Organization of African unity. Yet, he used the constitution to centralize power in the absolutist monarchy, firmly believed that he was “The Elect of God,” a title he enshrined in the constitution. By this account, Haile Selassie was the best of paternalistic rulers: he was fair and just, generous with his people, including that he distributed money liberally, paid for students to study outside the country and guaranteed them jobs upon return, and lived frugally himself—-he even accepted the final coup without brutal crackdown. But he also resisted endowing representational bodies with any actual power and became increasingly paranoid about delegating power at all after an attempted coup in 1960 that his oldest son cooperated with. Simultaneously progressive and regressive, Haile Selassie believed himself to be the country and, for a time, he was.

The picture presented here is that Ethiopia was rent apart by two divergent forces, liberalism and conservatism, that, for a time, were successfully united in the person of Haile Selassie to allow modernization. The crisis that precipitated Ras Tafari’s rise to the regency exemplifies these tensions. His cousin, Lij Iyasu, who shared some of the same liberal tendencies (though they evidently hated one another), was designated (though never crowned) emperor of Ethiopia. The monarch was supposed to be chosen by God, but one of the requirements was that he had to belong to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which, in turn, supported the institution of the monarchy. Lij Iyasu was accused, libelously, of converting to Islam, probably because he endorsed laws upholding some version of freedom of religion. The deeply conservative kings and princes used this as an opportunity to supplant him and raise a man they thought would be more malleable. Of course, they succeeded in empowering a man whose political acumen was greater than his cousin and was able to push a liberal modernizing program in a deeply conservative way.

Asfa-Wossen Asserate suggests that a more flexible monarch and possible a younger one who was willing to accept a constitutional monarchy would have led Ethiopia in a radically different direction. He describes the final coup as taking place slowly over a matter of months where the opposition groups maintained a great deal of reverence for the monarchy, but the monarchy did not change and when they made their first slow attempt on the palace, the whole monarchic system fell apart without resistance and without any popular support.

I went into this book knowing next to nothing about Ethiopia. I can locate it on a map, don’t like their coffee, and a scattered handful of facts like the Italian use of chemical weapons there in the 1930s, but that is it. I came out of King of Kings knowing a little bit more about Ethiopia and a lot more about Haile Selassie. Asfa-Wossen Asserate is at his best when he is teasing out the intrigues within the highest echelon of Ethiopian society, including the royal families, the major players within the army, and the civil service that came into being. In particularly, he does a nice job of charting H.S.’s rise to power and how he managed to position Ethiopia within a radically changing world of colonialism and the early Cold War. However, the accounts of revolts and foreign invasions do not provide a good sense of space and the maps are of limited help. Particularly, I wanted to know more about the regional conflicts within Ethiopia and how these issues contributed to Haile Selassie first gaining and then losing support. As it stands, when someone disappoints H.S., they are dispatched from Addis Ababa to the outer reaches of the Empire and largely cease to matter. These frequently are issues with biography, but my problem with it here was that Asfa-Wossen Asserate had a tendency to overuse shorthands like “student protests” without offering any actual details about the movements.

At times the writing can be a little bit casual and forty page chapters without any sort of section break made King of Kings difficult to read at times. Still, Haile Selassie jumps out of these pages as a remarkable individual who helped guide his country through great upheaval.

Hyperion – Dan Simmons

My home has thirty-eight rooms on thirty-six worlds. No doors: the arched entrances are farcaster portals, a few opaqued with privacy curtains, most open to observation and entry. Each room has windows everywhere and at least two walls with portals. From the grand dining hall on Renaissance Vector, I can see the bronze skies and the verdigris towers of Keep Enable in the valley below my volcanic peak, and by turning my head I can look through the farcaster portal and across the expanse of white carpet in the formal living area to see the Edgar Allan Sea crash against the spires of Point Prospero on Nevermore. My library looks out on the glaciers and green skies of Nordholm while a walk of ten paces allows me to descend a short stairway to my tower study, a comfortable, open room encircled by polarized glass which offers a three-hundred-sixty-degree view of the highest peaks of the Kushpat Karakoram, a mountain range two thousand kilometers from the nearest settlement.

Dan Simmons’ 1989 novel Hyperion won the Hugo award for best science fiction novel of that year, and with good reason. In the distant future and on the brink of the apocalypse for the human race, a misfit band of seven pilgrims (and a baby) makes its way to the planet Hyperion to visit the mysterious creature the Shrike–known as the Lord of Pain to the interstellar church dedicated to it. The trip itself is uneventful and the route largely deserted since most people on Hyperion are trying to escape the collision course between the Shrike, the Hegemony of Man, and the Ousters set for the planet. This is to be the final pilgrimage.

Without other distractions, the pilgrims choose to tell each other their stories, which are recorded by the Consul, a mysterious career diplomat who once oversaw Hyperion for the Hegemony. One by one they spin out their stories, a priest, a soldier, a poet, a scholar (and father), an investigator, and a diplomat, all revealing their connections to the Shrike, their secrets, and, ultimately, what they hope to accomplish on the trip. There is action and adventure without being an a&a story, family without being a family story, origins without being an origin story, love without being a love story, and religion without being a religious story. Of course, it is all of those. These stories-within-the-story span the planets occupied by human beings since the “hegira” away from earth and the centuries since the exodus took place. Hyperion, the planet that seems fated to be the site of the apocalypse, is an out of the way world settled by the Sad King Billy with the dream of turning it into a artistic paradise that has since become a ramshackle backwater.

Remarkably, each of the sub-stories subtly shifts the presentation toward the tenor of the new narrator’s account. Taken together, the stories form a collage of human civilization across the Worldweb, the planets linked by farcaster portals (portals that don’t require weeks of travel and years of time-debt to travel between worlds), which mimics human society on earth just with better technology.

It is often said that science fiction and fantasy are genres of ideas, and Hyperion has those to spare, but what set it apart is how visually stunning the novel is. Simmons is over the top when it comes to his descriptive prose and allusive names, but once, I settled into the style, the descriptions became increasingly affecting and, in turn, gave new vividness to the sub-stories. The quote that opened this review is one example of how this worked without giving away anything of the plot. The speaker at the time goes further to note the challenge of adjusting to such a house since each individual room had a different level –and sometimes orientation– of gravity. Hyperion is a deeply moving account of traveling companions telling each other tales as the worlds come crashing down behind them, which adds to the surreality and beauty of story. This is one I can say without reservation I highly recommend.

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I don’t know what I am going to read next in part because I am probably going to a bookstore later today and want to leave my options open. Instead of a novel, last night I started reading M.I. Rostovtzeff’s 1932 book Caravan Cities about the social and economic history of cities located along caravan routes in the Middle East during the Hellenistic Period. Thus far it is interesting, but both less well cited and less pithy than his Social and Economic History of the Hellenistic World.

A Small Town Called Hibiscus – Gu Hua

Struggle is ruthless, with no room for such bourgeois weaknesses as human kindness.

I don’t remember where I first picked up A Small Town Called Hibiscus, but I think it was for a college class on twentieth century China. Assuming I read it then, ten years have passed and I approached the novel without any memory of it. I both liked and am conflicted by the story, which follows several families in a rural town in southern Hunan province over the course of two decades between the 1960s and 1980.

A Small Town Called Hibiscus consists of multiple overlapping stories. First and most plainly it is a portrait of a small, out of the way town that must cope with the changes beyond its power. In this way it is analogous to Ivo Andric’s Bridge on the Drina. Modernity comes with its sterile hospitals, high walls, and polluted rivers, but the the worst suffering is at the hands of familiar faces, not this anonymous leap forward.

Second, there the story of the condemnation and eventual vindication of Hu Yunan, Sister Hibiscus, who is beloved in the town for selling beancurd at a stall at the market. Hers is a story of a happy marriage and how hard work and aroused envy and thus hatred, causing her fall. And yet, amid the pain and suffering, there is love and there is hope.

While Hu Yunan’s specific story is given the place of honor since she is shown as nearly without fault, it is also representative of most people in the town. The citizens of Hibiscus for the most part want to live as a community and love their neighbors, to eat well, laugh, and grow old. The changes in the world make this idyllic vision just a fantasy and make Hibiscus a grim and frightful place.

Third, A Small Town Called Hibiscus is a moral parable about capitalism and communism, and this is where I was conflicted. Hu Yunan is what might be termed a petty-capitalist Mary Sue—she is perfect. Beautiful and charming, she has both a husband and a small business that succeeds through her hard work. She and her husband make enough money that they can purchase a plot of land from Wang Qiushe (a lazy “activist” who makes his living by mooching off land redistribution rather than by working) and build a house. Out of jealousy and thinking he should have charged more dor the land, Wang conspires with Li Guoxiang, a petty party member who is jealous of Hu Yunan’s looks and business success (it cuts into her state-owned business’ margins), to have the couple declared “Wealthy Peasants.” The devoted “communists” are largely revealed to either be envious of the couple for the success of their hard work or too fearful to push back against the elements destroying the town. Presented with these stark alternatives, capitalism is shown favorably.

I suspect, however, that Gu Hua is primarily critical of the Chinese communist party in this time period since political repression became the weapon of the vindictive and he shows it operating with no real sense of what it stood for other than the power of the party itself. These same mechanisms are easily turned on those who once wielded them. Gu Hua honors characters who live their lives humanely and generously, whether they do so by farming, selling bean curd or looking after children in the neighborhood. They suffer, but they persevere. Hibiscus is a small town and this is above all a story of survival.

One final point: I read the Gladys Yang translation, which is perfectly adequate, but by her own admission misses some of the richness by her deficiencies. I didn’t like some of her choices, such as translating Chinese to American currency, which both felt out of place and loses something in that the translation itself is thirty-five years behind in terms of inflation. The translations also erred toward the literal and were at times choppy in ways that lost the force of a scene.

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovksy, The Letter Killers Club

In 1920s Moscow, a secret society meets every Saturday night, identifying each other by nonsense syllables such as Rar, Zez, and Das. The ritual is the same each week: they arrive to a bare apartment with empty shelves and take their accustomed seats, a fire is lit in the fireplace, and the appointed member begins to speak. More precisely, he begins to “conceive” of themes while the others listen. Nothing is written down since, as the President of the club maintains:

Writers, in essence, are professional word tamers; if the words walking down the lines were living creatures, they would surely fear and hate the pen’s nib as tamed animals do the raised whip.

and

Oh, how I hated all those people slitting open the latest literary journal with their paper knives, surrounding my flogged and exhausted name with tens of thousands of eyes. I’ve just remembered a tiny incident: a street, a little boy on the frozen pavement hawking letters for galoshes, and my immediate thought: both his letters and mine will end up underfoot.

Then I made up my mind: to shut down the inkwell lid and return to the kingdom of free, pure, and unsubstantiated conceptions.

The Letter Killers Club is told from the point of view of an interloper, someone without experience either as a storyteller, writer, or conceiver, who has been included in the group to determine if he is able to grasp the meaning behind the conceptions or if the club is simply a group of eccentrics sitting in a room once a week. After a series of upheavals strike the group the narrator sat down to record the five conceptions he saw. First, there is the conception of Hamlet whether the actors Guilden and Stern are competing for the Role (the lead part), then one about The Feast of the Ass, in which a love story is hijacked by profane rites. The third conception (my favorite) is a dystopian future where biochemists discover a way to create “exes,” decoupling the mind and body so that the body becomes a clumsy automated machine–first as a measure deemed moral to protect society from and use madmen, later an experiment run amok. Fourth is a conception about whether the mouth is for speaking, kissing, or eating, a crime punished by forcing abstention from the preferred action, and the equivalent withering of each mouth. Lastly, there is a conception about a dead Roman scribe who was buried without his obol and is therefore no longer alive, but cannot afford to be dead.

The setting, with the conceivers sitting in a solitary room with nothing but chairs and a fire is also suggestive of an oppressive regime without actually being politically subversive. Each of the conceptions is poignant and touching in its own way, but the amalgam is faintly bizarre. Moreover, there are layers of irony in reading a book built on the premise that:

libraries have crushed the reader’s imagination, the professional writings of a small coterie of scribblers have crammed shelves and heads to bursting. Lettered excesses must be destroyed: on shelves and in heads. One must clear at least a little space of others people’s conceptions to make room for one’s own.

The conceivers talk about theme and draw from each other’s stories and their immediate surroundings, but even though only Rar (who is considered something of a deviant) draws from an explicit text, they all rely on things that they read to generate conceptions. They do not refer to the texts, though. The conceptions are not meant to rest on anything concrete or oral tradition, but be a direct, fleeting transfer of theme invoked by the speaker into those who hear it.

The Letter Killer’s Club is an odd little book that is densely webbed together. The president of the club asks the narrator on multiple occasions if he understood the theme of the individual conceptions (he answers in the affirmative) and while I enjoyed most of the vignettes quite a lot, I am not so sure that I did understand their themes so concretely. There is a broader theme that Krzhizhanovsky broaches about the importance of one’s own conceptions, but also the importance of letting the letters out when it is time for them to come, for they cannot in fact be killed.

The Museum of Innocence, Orhan Pamuk (August Reading Recap)

For reasons that included a trip to Utah and a whole lot of academic stuff that needed to happen before the start of the semester (even being on fellowship this year), I only read one book in August, Orhan Pamuk’s 2008 novel, The Museum of Innocence. Pamuk’s books also take a while to read because they defy being read quickly, at least for me. I need to be in a place and time that I can be sucked in.

Kemal Bey is the scion of upper crust of the Istanbul bourgeoisie and in a good place in 1975. He is thirty, manages his father’s business, and is about to be engaged to Sibel, his “steady” girlfriend. The way that Kemal tells it, the “steady” is important because it is the only way to be sexually active before marriage without frequenting prostitutes, despite that Sibel and her friends aspire to be liberated western women. The engagement party is going to be the event of the year where anybody who is anybody will be there and most of the black market western booze in the city will be served. But the reader knows that this happy, ho-hum existence cannot last, since, in the very first paragraph of The Museum of Innocence, Kemal declares that a sexual encounter with Füsun was the happiest moment of his life.

At first Kemal is what passes for normal. He has his important and beautiful girlfriend, his company, and his life. Then, while in a shop, he runs into Füsun, a distant relative who he hasn’t seen in years. She is eighteen and studying for her exams, so Kemal, inflamed by what he calls love, but that I would describe as lust, offers to tutor her. Naturally, their tutoring sessions mostly involve sex, and Kemal’s life continues with only minor interruption. When this routine is broken and Füsun disappears, Kemal’s life falls apart, becoming estranged from his fiancee, his friends, his business partners, and eventually his family. His only obsession is finding her. When he does finally find her, Füsun is married and still living with her family, and Kemal worms his way into their life. The process takes eight years and only at the end is there any prospect of payoff. Along this journey Kemal begins to collect items associated with Füsun and uses them as a surrogate for being near to her. These objects form the seeds of the collection of the eponymous museum, which opened in 2012.

This is the barest outline of the story and it feels inadequate. I excluded entire plot points, such as the profound changes wrought by deaths in the family, that Füsun was molested as a child, the founding of a movie studio, details of Füsun’s (probably happy) marriage, and Kemal’s teaching Füsun how to drive. The story may be divided into five phases, the initial lust, madness of loss, patience, love, and remembrance, each from the point of view of Kemal, though, as is often the case with Pamuk’s work, the narrator is not necessarily the narrator.

Early in the reading of The Museum of Innocence I hated Kemal, liked Füsun ( who is mature beyond her years), and loved the fiancee Sibel, and was bemused that Pamuk would offer this shallow man who seemed determined to throw away his happy life because he lusted after a beautiful eighteen year old woman as his protagonist. His love, he maintains, inflamed him and was inescapable, but it is petty, jealous, and more interested in possessing her physically than anything else. Over the course of years, though, that seems to change, still lusting, but also developing into something deeper and more sincere, at least in how he narrates the story. Ironically, Füsun doesn’t ever seem to appreciate the change, while her mother seems to have seen the love from the outset. This whirlwind of perspectives even while having a single narrator is something I associate with Pamuk’s writing and was particularly true in The Museum of Innocence as the reader gets selective entree into the other viewpoints and for large swathes of the story characters who were likely present simply disappear from the retelling as the narrator obsesses over his out-of-reach object. For instance, Kemal says that he thinks that Füsun’s marriage was happy sexually in its early years, but, while narrating those years, her husband is a non-entity, being written out by Kemal who would rather not think about that.

The facet of the story that I found most moving was the underlying premise that everybody wants something and, frequently, that desired object is out of reach. The most blatant is Kemal’s pursuit of Füsun, but Sibel wants a “normal” marriage, Füsun wants to be an actress, Kemal’s mother wants her son not to embarrass the family, his father wants him to be happy (and many more). Everybody wants something and each of these desires is at least deferred. Kemal manages to reach a point of acceptance, others are less fortunate.

I really liked Museum of Innocence and want to talk at greater length about Pamuk’s oeuvre, probably after I finish reading my current book, his novel The New Life (and possibly one other). Something that hit me about the novels is that, even though they are not a series, Pamuk has populated Istanbul with characters that continually crop up in different ways in different stories, which has a way of enriching the stories in small ways because the the streets, the shops, the stories, and the newspaper columns are familiar. These are not merely easter eggs for the astute reader, but compose the fabric of the story.

The Lost book of Alexander the Great, Andrew Young

Andrew Young, The Lost book of Alexander the Great, Westholme, 2014.

“This is a book about a book,” Young opens, but that book is lost. Young declares that it nevertheless possible to reconstruct Ptolemy’s history of Alexander’s campaigns in Asia and therefore Ptolemy’s vision of Alexander. A dedicated manuscript–not a not a full reconstruction, obviously, since that is tantamount to tilting at windmills–about Ptolemy’s history would be a wonderful benefit to scholars and general readers alike and recovering the “real” Alexander, or how Alexander died or even the original histories about Alexander are the ambitions of bookwork treasure-hunters everywhere. Ptolemy is even an engaging figure himself, a royal court hanger-on, soldier, governor, king, historian, so situating what is known about his historical work within the context of the early Hellenistic world where he was not the only ruler to engage in intellectual pursuits (see Demetrius of Phalerum and Antipater) would be a worthwhile enterprise. This is not that book. In fact, it is not even a book about a book. The Lost Book of Alexander the Great is another dry regurgitation of Alexander’s campaign, with passing attention paid to passages known to derive from Ptolemy’s history.

There are a host of issues with Young’s book. First, although he makes broad pronouncements about his angle of inquiry being the reconstruction of Ptolemy’s history, and thus being a textual study, he admitted in a Reddit AMA that he doesn’t know Greek and therefore relied on translations. It was not a surprise, then, to see that Jacoby’s Fragments of the Greek Historians and Brill’s New Jacoby project are absent from the bibliography, both of which provide commentary on the known fragments of Ptolemy’s history. But also absent were Bosworth’s commentaries on Arrian’s Anabasis and From Arrian to Alexander and Hammond’s Sources for Alexander the Great, which include essays about the source tradition. A general audience does not require these sources, but any study looking at the source tradition (which this purports to be) does. A deeper dive into the bibliography reveals further deficiencies. Neither Errington’s “Bias in the Ptolemy’s History of Alexander” (CQ2, 1969) nor Roisman’s “Ptolemy and his Rivals in his History of Alexander” (CQ2, 1984) appears. Nor do the biographies of Bosworth, Hammond (x2), Worthington, Heckel, Cartledge, and Green show up, though Theodore Ayrault Dodge’s volume, published in 1890, does. Young does list the translations he used and honestly includes the list of websites used in composing the manuscript. Of course, without any sort of citations, including for the direct quotations of modern and ancient sources, the bibliography is minimally useful.

this book is intended for a broad audience and while I have thus far identified where he failed w/r/t the declared purpose, I wish that I could recommend it as a general audience introduction to Alexander. I cannot. There are a number of inconsistencies in style (mons/mount; Roxanna/Roxana), but four issues, increasing in severity, stood out.

  1. Young chose to use “Belus”, the latinized version of the Greek name for Bel, rather than keeping the semitic version (97). This is not a problem per se, but it comes off as archaic and awkward.
  2. For some reason Young chose to use “Pexodarus” instead of “Pixodarus” (14), a variant I don’t recognize since the Greek original uses an iota.
  3. Instead of “Hetaira,” the Greek word for courtesan, Young multiple times used “hetera” (101-2), a spelling choice that a simple Google search changes to the latinate “hetaera.”
  4. According to Young (116), Zeus chained Perseus to Mt. Caucasus and allowed his liver to regrow every night, sending an eagle to eat it out every day. Except that that fate belonged to Prometheus.

Note that almost none of these issues actually concern the campaigns of Alexander. The issue is that there is nothing remarkable or innovative about the account. Or about Ptolemy’s history. Young’s book is not a book about a book, but a narrative about Alexander’s campaigns interspersed with vignettes about aspects of Greek culture–often gleaned from the internet–that the author finds interesting. I cannot recommend this book for anyone. May this ill-fated offering inspire someone to write a more current contribution to the study of this history of Alexander the Great in its social milieu than Pearson’s The Lost Histories of Alexander the Great.

Kerem Öktem, Turkey since 1989: Angry Nation, New York: Zed Books, 2011.

Turkey since 1989: Angry Nation is an installment in the series “Global History of the Present,” which is intended to introduce aspects of world history since 1989 and the end of the Cold War. Rather than trying to write an all-encompassing history of the past two and half decades, the series deals with limited subjects and buys into the premise that, more than ever, the world consists of multiple, overlapping, fragmented narratives that defy hegemony and polarities, while also connecting local developments to international trends. Angry Nation immediately predates the Syrian Civil War and the explosive protests in Gezi Park, but Öktem provides a lucid introduction to the contemporary issues.

Despite the purpose of the series, Öktem actually begins his narrative in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire when, in a desperate gambit to restore Ottoman power, the empire underwent a series of reforms that included bringing in European instructors to teach in military academies. As the empire broke up, Turkey was flooded by Muslim refugees from the Balkans, invaded by Greece, and targeted for colonization by European powers. At about the same time, the Ottoman Committee for Union and Progress conducted a genocide against the Armenians in eastern Anatolia. In the early 1920s at the height of the Greek invasion of Anatolia, a new state formed from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire when the leaders of the army, including one Mustafa Kemal, declared that the Sultan had no authority and formed their own de facto government. After re-securing territorial integrity, the military created a new Turkish Republic, abolished the Caliphate and, by totalitarian means, ushered in secular, national, “modernity.” During this period (1920-46) there came into being what Öktem refers to as “the guardian state” in Turkey, a coalition of bureaucrats, military commanders, and the judiciary that exists outside the influence of the elected officials.

Democratization of Turkey began in 1946 when, for the first time, candidates from multiple parties were allowed to stand for office. It was exceptional when the military-endorsed candidate won the election, which led to the primary tension in Öktem’s narrative: the authority and influence of the elected officials and the ability–and willingness–of the military to stage coups and to rewrite the constitution when they felt their position threatened. Öktem also reveals the military brutality, torture, killings, and propensity for staging communal violence in order to justify seizing power. Would that the situation be so simple, though. Öktem interweaves the Turkish claims to being a military nation, ethnic violence against and oppression of the Alevis and the Kurds, the latent and increasing Islamism, membership in the NATO alliance, attempts to join the European community, and the ruthless economic development programs. And all this before he gets to the year 1989.

Öktem convincingly argues that the Turkey of the past decade is not the same country as the Turkey of the 20th century. Turkey’s economy is more stable than it was in the 1990s, it has undergone a resurgence in both exports and tourism, and, Gezi park notwithstanding, has not had the same level of violence–sectarian or political–as it had in past decades. While the power of the Turkish military is waning, the deep state actors have not disappeared and the same underlying tensions between the illusion of a secular heritage and (moderate) political-Islam, Kurd-Turk, Muslim Turkey-Christian Europe still exist. The Arab Spring has since changed the political climate of the Middle East and made some of Öktem’s statements about Turkey’s position in the region obsolete, particularly with respect to Syria, but the basic threads spun out remain intact.

The one main complaint I can voice about Angry Nation, and one I had at several points, is that individuals from among the deep state actors, unless they end up also becoming public figures, appear in the narrative as the Wizard of Oz, only somewhat more sinister. This is likely by design. Öktem shows the genesis of these forces in the last years of the Ottoman Empire, but, almost a century later, the impression is that they remain a vague, menacing, and unchanging entity. And yet he indicates that there was a slow process of liberalization and a gradual loss of control over the bureaucracy and judiciary by the military. The narrative in Angry Nation is plenty complicated without broaching those institutions per se, but it sometimes seemed as though Öktem set them up as the boogey-man government in a dystopia. Not that that characterization is wholly unwarranted.

Angry Nation is a political history of Turkey designed to show the underlying tensions extant since the creation of the country and how those tensions shaped Turkey since the end of the Cold War. Öktem argues that these underlying issues, including the authoritarian nature of the state, have created a nation seething with discontent. He suggests that there are three main potential futures for Turkey: resurgence of the guardian state, replacement of the guardian state with the tutelage of Islam, or the development of a legitimate liberal state. Two years later, all these possibilities still exist. But in the wake of the Gezi Park protests, sparked by the Erdogan government’s plans to tear down a park and replace it with a shopping mall, where police used riot gear and tear gas to evict protesters and soldiers handed gas masks to the civilians, it seems that Öktem is correct about the frustration level of many Turkish people.