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review 2018-07-22 17:34
The Ultimate Tragedy by Abdulai Sila
The Ultimate Tragedy - Jethro Soutar,Abdulai Sila

In 2017, this book apparently became the first novel (though more of a novella really, clocking in around 180 pages) from Guinea-Bissau to be translated into English. It doesn’t do too well in the storytelling department, and despite being first published in 1995 it is a simplistic criticism of Portuguese colonialism (Guinea-Bissau became independent in 1973-1974), so I can see why there wasn’t a rush to translate. But of course there’s something to be said for reading voices from a particular place even if their literary merits are weak.

There will be SPOILERS below, though no more than are found in the book description (which gives away most of the story).

The book begins with a teenage girl, Ndani, traveling from her village to the capital city, Bissau, with hopes of becoming a domestic servant in a Portuguese home. After a few chapters, it skips abruptly to a village chief, smarting over an insult from a colonial official and thinking at great, repetitive length about the paramount importance of thinking. The stories come together when the chief marries Ndani (who has somehow learned to be a great lady by being a housegirl, yet is somehow the only such woman available even though the earlier chapters show that there are plenty of housegirls, and Ndani is not the brightest bulb on the tree). Then she falls in love with a local teacher, a young man trained by priests but questioning the righteousness of colonial rule. Tragedy, naturally, ensues.

The story is kind of a mess, unfortunately. It skips long periods of time without giving any sense of what Ndani’s life was like in the interim, leaving unanswered questions in its wake. Ndani’s abrupt shift from housegirl to fancy lady is not particularly convincing, nor did I find her cheerful willingness to jump right into sex believable from a woman whose only sexual experiences were rape. There’s a prophecy about Ndani that causes people to shun her, until they don’t, with no reason I could see for the change of heart other than that this plot device was no longer needed. Being in the chief’s head is tedious due to the long-winded repetition, and the teacher’s realization that the reality of colonial rule is inconsistent with Christian principles is painfully obvious; decades after colonial rule ended, I doubt this was a new idea to the book’s readers.

The translation is fairly smooth, but a number of words and concepts are left untranslated, and these are not always immediately obvious from context; most of these words appear to be from a local African language and were probably untranslated in the Portuguese original too, but a glossary would help foreign readers understand the references to local culture better.

Ultimately, this is a fairly quick and easy read, but the simplistic political commentary dominates over the story; I missed more of Ndani’s life than I saw, never got to know who she was as a person, and had no particular reason to care about her or anyone else in the story (her mistress was perhaps the most interesting character to me - a Portuguese woman who, after a near-death experience, devotes herself to "improving the natives" - but this character doesn't have the space to fully develop). I wouldn’t recommend this one unless you are specifically looking to read a book from Guinea-Bissau. If you are, this is a readable option.

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review 2018-06-19 01:43
We -- a prototypical dystopian novel
We - Yevgeny Zamyatin,Clarence Brown

D-503, a true believer in the authoritarian future he finds himself in, has his faith in the structures of society shaken by love. <-- a quick and dirty recap of We, D-503's diary.

The world-building in these older dystopias is very different from today's, but you can draw a straight line from We (the first novel banned by Soviet censors in 1921) to a TV show I've only seen advertised in recent years about a dome over civilization, and of course everything in between. (The dome in We is described only as something between their society and what lies outside, and it's there so people aren't soiled by nature, not because people have ruined nature.)

 

D-503 sets out in his diary to show an unknown reader how glorious his mathematically logical "unfreedom" is. How happiness can only be found with the help of state doctrine, one that says freedom will lead to complete havoc and therefore ruin the beautiful order in their society, where even sex is organized by the state - lest the mess of personal, private love ruin everything.

 

It's easy to see how this could be attractive in the abstract, and how absurdly comical it is too. Can a perfect, ordered collective actually make someone happy? Can there be a perfectly ordered collective? The knowing me says of course not, but people always want to order things, to make them less complicated and more logical. Humanity is messy, and D-503 learns this when he falls in unsanctioned lust and love. Love is anarchy, both in the book and when I really think about it (which makes my brain hurt.) Love is the most illogical, but biologically imperative, thing humans do.

 

Zamyatin doesn't rail against the state as much as I expected. Instead he reveals through increasingly confused and unsure diary entries what it means to be an individual, one who exists not just as a cog in a wheel, but one who exists also for his own purposes, with his own ideals.

 

This is a deep work that can be seen on a variety of levels, but I found it most gratifying as a rumination on how complication and chaos are vital to living a full, satisfying life, despite how much we'd all like it to be otherwise with our lists and rules. To truly live, must we allow for some disorder, some illogic, some freedom?

 

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text 2018-06-10 18:35
Reading progress update: I've read 63 out of 940 pages.
The Adventures of Don Quixote - J.M. Cohen,Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

Why did no one tell me Don Quixote was this much fun? Also, he's like the ultimate (and worst) fan; I'm surprised he's never referenced in fan studies.

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review 2018-06-04 21:57
The Good Life Elsewhere by Vladimir Lorchenkov
The Good Life Elsewhere - Ross Ufberg,Vladimir Lorchenkov

An absurdist, darkly humorous story about impoverished villagers trying to escape Moldova to go work in Italy. This isn’t as tightly-plotted as your typical novel, but it’s a short and quick read following the misadventures of several unfortunate Moldovans in the late 2000s. Many of the situations are over-the-top, satirizing the situations of would-be migrants and the intensity of their desire to go to Italy. The humor is really dark though, much of it involving death. I imagine this book would be funnier and more meaningful to Moldovans, but as a foreigner I did feel able to appreciate it, and it is an easy read.

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review 2018-06-03 18:06
Absolutely On Music - Conversations between Seiji Ozawa & Haruki Murakami
Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa - Haruki Murakami,Jay Rubin,Seiji Ozawa

As Duke Ellington once said, “There are simply two kinds of music, good music and the other kind.” In that sense, jazz and classical music are fundamentally the same. The pure joy one experiences listening to “good” music transcends questions of genre.

 

I studied at Tanglewood during summers as a teenager when Seiji Ozawa was conductor of the BSO. The amazing thing about him was that he had no real requirement to deal with Tanglewood kids, yet he did. It didn't surprise me at all many years later when he started both an orchestra and a school for the younger musicians of the world. He is brilliant, patient and an excellent teacher. I enjoy reading or listening to conversations between smart people in general, and this book hits on many cylinders. 

 

While Murakami says he's an amateur, his words often feel like music (even in translation.)

Haruki Murakami is well known for his love of music. He sticks a Beatles reference in nearly every book and there are always myriad musical references. So it wasn't that shocking to learn that he and the Maestro are fast friends.

 

One thing I learned early in my own mostly amateur musical life is that music happens and it's gone instantly - you have to experience it all in the moment and find an effective way to communicate about it. This is often why teachers and students have their own special language. My teacher used to tell me to sing like green velvet. Why? Because I told him I thought a certain singer sang like green velvet. That's fine, but what about when you want others to understand? This is the magic Murakami and Ozawa make.

 

It's hard for me to point out how very high the wall is that separates the pro from the amateur, the music maker from the listener. The wall is especially high and thick when that music maker is a world-class professional. But still, that fact doesn't have to hamper our ability to have an honest, direct conversation. At least that's how I feel about it, because music itself is a thing of such breadth and generosity. Our most important task is to search for an effective passageway through the wall - and two people who share a natural affinity for an art, any art, will be sure to find that passageway. 

 

It's unsurprising when the "interlude" about music and writing comes early in the book and Murakami explains patiently to Ozawa about rhythm in writing. It sort of shocked me that Ozawa hadn't noticed this on his own. He reads a ton of scores, and he works very hard, so maybe he just hadn't thought about it? He readily admits to being a horrible student, and I doubt he reads much beyond scores when he's working.

 

It's a series of conversations between the two masters - complete with markers for which one is talking. (Audio book would be great, but I don't know if one exists.) They talk about a few pieces in deep detail and the range of music covers everything from the blues to opera and Japanese music. They also talk about record collecting and teaching in lovely chapters. I'm pretty sure my enjoyment had to do with the fact that I knew the music they discussed well, and I'm not sure whether others would like it as much if they didn't have a familiarity and curiosity about both the men and the subject. Their fun and mutual respect nearly shines off the page, and I enjoyed it a lot.

 

Chapter Titles:

Mostly on the Beethoven Third Piano Concerto 
On manic record collectors 
Brahms at Carnegie Hall 
The relationship of writing to music 
What happened in the 1960s 
Eugene Ormandy's baton 
On the music of Gustav Mahler 
From Chicago blues to Shin'ichi Mori 
The joys of opera 
In a little Swiss town 
"There's no single way to teach. You make it up as you go along."

 

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