Book Review: The Baron’s Sons, by Mór Jókai

This is the second book by Mór (a.k.a. Maurus) Jókai that I’ve read, after Poor Plutocrats. I enjoyed The Baron’s Sons at least as much, simply because it is well written, with incisive words and a general strategy of understatement; and it is well translated (by P.F. Bicknell). The story of three sons’ fates in the Hungarian revolution of 1848 is absorbing and politically exciting.

In my continuing attempt to understand why I enjoy Hungarian literature as much as I do (and as I continue to enjoy it), I am beginning to detect, in addition to its appealing wistfulness, a certain focus on honor. It is by no means as obsessive (and pathological) as something one would expect in ancient Greek tales, and it may actually be a little tongue in cheek. In Miklos Banffy’s The Transylvania Trilogy (I forget which volume, though it could have been the first), the protagonist, Balint, is compelled to fight a silly and ultimately harmless duel with someone. In The Baron’s Sons, brothers Richard and Ödön have a contest of honor of sorts, which ends with a hug and with Richard telling Ödön, “I’m very angry with you.”

I hope I never run out of books by Jókai, and I’ll keep reading Hungarian novels, even if I never figure out why I like them.

Book Review: Hercules, My Shipmate, by Robert Graves

Robert Graves’ book (retitled The Golden Fleece) is an argument for the historicity of the Argonauts’ voyage, as he explains in the afterword. The result is a passable adventure story, with a somewhat two-dimensional portrait of human nature.

Those who urge us to read the Classics claim that they contain valuable lessons on human nature, but I find myself dissatisfied by the limited aspects of human nature that they reveal. In Hercules, My Shipmate (as in The Odyssey, I recall), all the characters seem to be consumed by pride (in many cases simply an obsession with virility bordering on machismo) and divided from each other by religious and cultural differences. Consequently, life is shown to be nasty, brutish, and short, with few exceptions. In other words, the lessons on human nature imparted in classical tales soon become monotonous.

A comparison with Shakespearean tragedy is instructive. In Shakespeare’s plays, tragic flaws are personal. In the Classics, they are cultural. In the first pages of Macbeth, it becomes clear that Macbeth suffers from ambition but that Banquo does not. Macbeth thus stands out. In the Classics, all mankind suffers from ambition, as well as from avarice, machismo, lust, and the whole panoply of vices. Some variation is evident in talent – he’s a good archer and she’s a good runner – but not in morality; and all are equally subject to Fate.

One special observation about Hercules, My Shipmate: Whereas today’s writers are discouraged from including extraneous detail, Graves packs it all in. The following passage is typical:

Then [Hercules] marched against Neleus, the baleful brother of Pelias, who lived at Sandy Pylos and had sent troops to the help of Augeas; he killed Neleus and all his sons, except the boy Nestor (who lived to take part in the siege of Troy), and did not even hesitate to attack the Priest of Hades, who entered the battle disguised as a skeleton in the hope of striking a superstitious dread in his heart. Hades had been the enemy of Hercules ever since Hercules had robbed him of Alcestis, the wife of Admetus; but Hercules, undismayed, threw the jaw-bone of a sow at him and wounded him in the side. In this battle fell the Argonaut Periclymenus… (437)

But for all that, the book is engaging, and the fate of Jason (which strikes me as a prototype for that of Meriwether Lewis) is illustrated very symbolically, in a way I’m not likely to forget.

 

Book Review: Fatelessness, by Imre Kertész

The protagonist of Imre Kertész’s Fatelessness is so congenitally rational that he manages to justify every aspect of his suffering. Interned at the Zeitz labor camp during World War Two, Georg Koves at one point drops a bag of cement.

The bag’s paper had burst and the contents spilled out, leaving a heap of the material, the treasure, the costly cement, powdering the ground. By then he was already on me, I had already felt his fist on my face, then, having been decked, his boot on my ribs and his grip on my neck as he pressed my face to the ground, in the cement, screaming insanely that I scrape it together, lick it up. He then hauled me to my feet, swearing he would teach me: [‘I’ll show you, asshole, shithead, goddam Jew-dog,’] so I would never drop another bag again in the future. From then on, he personally loaded a new bag onto my shoulders each time it was my turn, bothering himself with me alone; I was his sole concern, it was me exclusively whom he kept his eye on, following me all the way to the truck and back, and whom he picked to go first even if, by rights, there were others still ahead of me in the queue. In the end, there was almost an understanding between us, we had got the measure of one another, and I noticed his face bore what was almost a smile of satisfaction, encouragement, even, dare I say, a pride of sorts, and from a certain perspective, I had to acknowledge, with good reason, for indeed, tottering, stooping though I might have been, my eyes seeing black spots, I did manage to hold out, coming and going, fetching and carrying, all without dropping a single further bag, and that, when it comes down to it, I would have to admit, proved him right. (169-170)

The tortuous interrupters throughout Georg’s narrative – “I have to admit,” “unless I’m mistaken,” “truth be told,” etc. – are typical of his overriding devotion to objectivity. Seeking always to accept any given situation as reasonable, Georg is incapable of influencing it. Indeed, his resistance to impulsiveness is absolute. When, shortly after his initial arrest, he might have had a chance to slip away, he decides against it:

I became alive to the sudden flash of a piece of yellow clothing up ahead, in the cloud of dust, noise, and vehicle exhaust fumes: it was ‘Traveler.’ A single long leap, and he was off to the side, lost somewhere in the seething eddy of machines and humanity. I was totally dumbfounded; somehow it did not tally with his conduct at the customs post, as I saw it. But there was also something else that I felt, a sense of happy surprise I might call it, at the simplicity of an action; indeed, I saw one or two enterprising spirits then immediately make a break for it in his wake, right up ahead. I myself took a look around, though more for the fun of it, if I may put it that way, since I saw no other reason to bolt, though I believe there would have been time to do so; nevertheless my sense of honor proved the stronger. The policemen took immediate action after that, and the ranks again close around me. (55-56)

Georg is a prisoner of his own nature or perhaps his fate. Later in the book, Georg suggests that fate is the opposite of freedom. “If there is such a thing as fate, then freedom is not possible….If there is such a thing as freedom, then there is no fate.” (259-260)

So why is the book called Fatelessness, when it seems to be about fate? Perhaps the implication is that the latter is only an excuse for the former. When Georg says, “I took the steps, no one else, and I declared that I had been true to my given fate throughout,” (259) is he admitting that his “declaration” had always been false, that he took all of his steps freely, even as each step took him closer to Auschwitz, Zeitz, and Buchenwald?

“We ourselves are fate, I realized all at once….All that was needed was to admit it, meekly, simply, merely as a matter of reason, a point of honor.” (260)

A Meditation on Freedom and Equality, Inspired by The Last of the Wine

Though freedom and equality are the warp and woof of American life, some difference of opinion exists as to how to they are related. For example, the argument between the political left and right may be viewed as one of ends versus means, with those on the left believing that equality is the key to freedom and those on the right believing the opposite.

In Mary Renault’s The Last of the Wine, a remark made by Lysis suggests another relationship between freedom and equality:

I want a City where I can find my equals and respect my betters, whoever they are.

In other words, equality is a subset of freedom: the freedom to recognize our equals (and betters) without having them recognized for us.

It’s interesting that while searching for his equals and betters, Lysis mentions no inferiors. Perhaps he is conscious that he lives surrounded by people possessing talents he lacks, and that absent an unfree system of imposed social classes, designed to denigrate most talent as menial, the notion of inferiority is meaningless. Thus does Melville’s Ahab, in contemplation of his ship’s carpenter, lament, “Here I am, proud as a Greek god, and yet standing debtor to this blockhead for a bone to stand on!” More acceptingly, I reflect that when I summon a plumber to my house, the very reason for my doing so is that he can do at least one thing I cannot. In him, therefore, and in enjoyment of the freedom imagined by Lysis, I see only an equal or a better.

Excerpt from Southern Rain: The Alluring Bodhisattva

The next scene foreshadows the meeting of the hero and heroine. The image is by Satomi Kamei.

Watching Nanjing fume from the sky or from the ground, neither Peng bird nor human would have noticed the elderly nun on a donkey cart making her way through the smog from Cock-Crow Temple on the north side of town to outside Treasure Gate, the southernmost portal of the city wall. Though missiles whizzed by her, she maintained her dignity, as did her cart driver, who seemed to have absorbed a bit of her gravitas. The nun was called One-Eyed Jingang, for partially blinding herself while studying the Diamond (Jingang) Sutra, and she was Cock-Crow Temple’s abbess. While unaccompanied women raised eyebrows if they ventured abroad on most days, the Spring Festival provided One-Eyed Jingang not only with the cover of smoke but also with an excuse to be out, for clergy were often called upon to offer prayers for the New Year. In fact, One-Eyed Jingang was expected at another place of worship, a monastery named the Temple at the Edge of Heaven, where a prayer meeting was planned for that morning. Before the chanting began, however, she wished to consult with the abbot on a matter of some delicacy.

Arriving at the Temple, One-Eyed Jingang alighted from the cart, paid its driver a little extra for the New Year, walked through the main gate, and ascended the stairway to the Mahayana Pavilion, where the abbot, whose dharma name was Baichi Shi’ai, or “Idiot in the Service of Love,” greeted her with ebullient good cheer. Fearless of gossip, he invited the nun into his office.

“Wisdom to you,” he saluted her, offering some tea. “Big Sister is a bit early. Have you come to help me choose today’s reading?”

“No, Big Brother,” the abbess returned, as she sat down on a stool. “I’m sure you’ve already found something appropriate. As it turns out, I’ve come to discuss something…inappropriate.”

She placed on Baichi Shi’ai’s desk the bulging sack she’d been carrying, which the abbot had assumed to be filled with boxed or string-bound folios of sutras. She untied the twine at its neck, just as somebody in the neighborhood set off another string of firecrackers like a drumroll.

The sack fell away, revealing a statuette of the Guanyin Bodhisattva, sculpted from rosewood. The carving stood about a foot tall, but its subject did not stand, nor did she sit cross-legged in stolid meditation. Rather, she lolled in a sultry position with one leg arched upward at a right angle, her arm draped over her knee. Although she was Guanyin, the Goddess of Compassion, she posed in the style of Tara, Mother of Liberation; but whatever compassion or liberation she offered her worshippers, it was of a primal, physical sort. Her sexuality was total, not of parts. It sprang not from flaring hips or curvaceous breasts but from her unworldly air of assurance and utter lack of inhibition. Against all convention, this Guanyin held her eyes open, inviting her faithful to advance and be saved. A mandorla of fire radiated from her body, a manifestation of the power of her love.

Baichi Shi’ai knew better than to resist the goddess’s charms. Instead, he gave rein to his native enthusiasm. “Oooh! Hail, Guanyin Bodhisattva!” he crowed.

“Yes, she does rather demand devotion,” observed One-Eyed Jingang. “I’m surprised you haven’t fallen to your knees.”

“Whose hands crafted such a powerful image?” asked the abbot. “Or was it a bolt of lightning striking a grateful tree that did the work?”

“Actually, it was created by one of my novices, a brilliant girl. Always reading, trying her hand at something new. I noticed her chiseling away at a hunk of wood from that old column we had replaced and decided to give her a bit of rosewood to see what she could do with better material. This is the result.”

Baichi Shi’ai nodded, still absorbed in Guanyin’s smoldering expression. “Where will you display it?” he asked, after a while.

“Display it?” the abbess exclaimed. “Good brother! It’s hard enough to protect the reputation of my convent without having something like that on a pedestal. Why give the next scandalmonger a chance to start yapping about the ‘lewd nuns of Cock-Crow Temple’?”

Baichi Shi’ai rounded his mouth. “Oh? You think this Guanyin is lewd?”

“No, I do not, but a lewd man would, and I’m tired of hearing lewd men talk nonsense about decent nuns.” One-Eyed Jingang cleared her throat. “So I was hoping that you, Teacher, would take this Guanyin off my hands.”

“And keep her here?” the abbot giggled. “My monks would explode! Even if I hid her away, they would sniff her out like tom cats.”

“You have that little faith in your brothers?”

“I have that much faith in my brothers.”

One-Eyed Jingang slumped. “Yes, I suppose we face the same difficulty. Since our calling is to free people from desire, it’s bad policy to introduce an object of desire into either of our sanctuaries. So what should we do with it?”

Baichi Shi’ai grinned. “You talk as though she were a problem to be gotten rid of, but Guanyin Bodhisattva cannot be a problem. Yes, neither of our temples is the proper place for her, but remember: Guanyin embodies compassion for the world.” He raised both his arms, in an encompassing gesture. “Let’s put her out into the world, then, where her compassion can do its work. If some starry-eyed lad falls in love with her, so much the better. Everyone in the world needs to be receptive to compassion, after all.”

One-Eyed Jingang thought for a bit and then nodded. “Yes, Brother, you are right. We should allow this Guanyin to play her part. I will consign her to the marketplace, to await the first receptive soul that comes along.”

She put the Guanyin back in its sack and tied it closed.

“So what will be today’s reading?” she asked, but her host didn’t answer, and both devotees of dharma continued to stare at the enshrouded idol for a long time.

Excerpt from Southern Rain: Chinese New Year’s Day

An earlier posting describes my first Chinese New Year’s celebration in Taiwan, in which I saw the streets of Taipei transformed into a veritable shooting gallery of bottle rockets. That memorable experience was one of the many inspirations for my novel, Southern Rain, which opens with this pyrotechnic description of the first day of the year. The time corresponds to February 1644 on the Western calendar. 

It is the seventeenth year of the Chongzhen Emperor’s reign, the first day of the first month – Spring Festival – and smoke is rising over Nanjing, as its people celebrate the New Year by lighting things on fire.

Half the city’s population are setting off firecrackers, to the delight of the other half. In groups of young and old, they hang clusters of the paper-wrapped cylinders like bunches of red bananas from the eaves of temples and taverns. With the touch of an incense stick, the fuse commences to hiss and everybody scatters. If someone chances to round the corner unawares, on his way to visit relatives, he comes abreast of the little bombs the moment they begin to explode and finds himself engulfed in a thundering maelstrom. His chest thumps like a kettle drum hammered by madmen. He flails his arms about his head and staggers away as the crescendo continues, a blur of incandescence hanging in the air near which he passed, casting billows of smoke heavenward. Then, as the last charge on the string gives up its ghost and the echo rolls over the city and disappears into the hills, the celebrants clap and jump for joy, and even the rattled pedestrian grins and waves, signifying no hard feelings. He too is enjoying himself.

In addition to the hanging clusters, some firecrackers can be thrown, and some are miniature rockets. Explosives of these sorts transform Nanjing’s streets and alleys into gauntlets of spark-trailing missiles, air bursts, and ground bursts. Young boys in particular are fond of launching pocket rockets from their hands, to watch them ricochet off buildings and passersby. Their favorite targets are peddlers on donkey carts, because they pretend nothing is happening. They go right on hawking their snacks – “Steamed buns! Dumplings!” – while projectiles bounce off their bellies or lodge in the folds of their robes, sending sparks cascading from their torsos. The pinnacle of fun is to toss a cherry-bomb into the street, timed to explode when a cart passes over it. There it lies, its fuse sizzling, while, say, the noodle-man approaches, crooning “Thick noodles! Thin noodles! Sesame paste! Black bean paste!” and just as his cart reaches it, Bang! off it goes in a cloud of sulfur. Both man and beast jolt from the concussion but emerge unfazed, the peddler resuming his hawking, the donkey his hauling, showing no sign of distress. Onlookers beam and the young pyrotechnicians make ready the next barrage.

Not all that is set alight that day contains gunpowder. Nanjing’s denizens also burn joss paper – play money – as offerings to the gods or to their deceased ancestors. Clan after clan of them, Chens, Wangs, and Zhangs, gather in their kitchens or courtyards to burn wad after wad of the heavenly currency, which takes to the air in particulate form. The offering of joss paper is less likely than fireworks to involve the occasional victim, unless it takes place on the ground floor of a storied building and some poor soul is caught upstairs. In such a case, the unfortunate one, as soon as he realizes he is suffocating, makes a desperate dash to the nearest window and thrusts his head outside. Gasping for oxygen, not even this man complains but rejoices in the good cheer and bonhomie of festival time.

Thus does Nanjing exude mirth and merriment, acrid, dark, and thick. Smoke rises over Cock-Crow Temple, a nunnery on a hill. Smoke curls about the Drum Tower, whose beating of the time that day is drowned out in the din. Smoke mushrooms over Three Mountain Street, Nanjing’s always-bustling bazaar. Smoke hangs above the Qinhuai River, its famous pleasure quarter. Every tiled roof, every bridge and pagoda, every curvy street and winding canal is enveloped in haze. To the gigantic Peng bird of legend, soaring far above town on this New Year’s Day, Nanjing might appear as an exquisite incense censer made to resemble a fairyland. To Nanjing’s human residents, the column of smoke dwarfing their city is yet another of its many superlatives; Nanjing wears it like a plumed crown. The vast metropolis, ringed by a wall of eighteen gates, is the pearl of the Yangtze River valley and original capital of the Current Dynasty. It is opulent and lively and crammed with attractions, the subject of rhapsodies by songsters and poets who call it a paradise. If Nanjing’s celebrated “kingly air” is now tinged with ash, its people breathe it in even more deeply and feel all the more regal for it. They are as proud and prosperous as any people have dared to be. In a consuming exuberance, they revel and roister, until their city is choking with smoke.

Jetting, A Tale of the Upper West side, Part IV (Conclusion)

We arranged for her to come over at one in the afternoon. I spent most of Saturday morning cleaning, and then I ate a light lunch. Trying not to plan seduction scenarios or to think of anything at all besides getting my hundred dollars back – about the only thing I could really count on – I found an Orioles-Yankees game on the cable and watched and waited.

At one forty the doorbell rang and I buzzed her up. She was wearing jeans and a low-neck, black shirt, a rust-colored leather jacket, and her Greek fisherman’s cap. The two latter articles she removed and placed on a chair, and she also took off her boots, in gracious conformity to my no-shoes policy. She was sweetly-smiling and a little nervous.

I made a bit of conversation from what I’d been watching on TV, saying that the Orioles were almost a religious thing for me. She said she felt the same way about the Cardinals, and there it rested.

For our date, I’d selected the French diving movie The Big Blue. I switched off the baseball game and loaded the tape into the VCR. I asked if I could sit next to her on the couch, and she was OK with it. There was no other place for me to sit anyway. The bowl of popcorn I’d set out remained untouched.

As the movie progressed, I asked if she liked it a couple of times, and she said she did. She seemed caught up in the story and in the big blue cinematic visuals, even on my little TV.

About halfway through, I put my arms around her and kissed her on the cheek, marveling at how smooth, young, and firm it was; I bit it with my lips. She was amenable but passive. When I turned her head toward me with my hand, to kiss her lips, she complied and kissed back until I was finished, and then she went back to watching the movie. Three or four such closings and partings took place.

Then I did something I’d never done before and have never done since, with anyone: I rested my head on her chest. I knew nothing (and still know nothing) about breasts or bras, but whatever she came with, it was enough to support the weight of my noggin for the rest of the picture. I curled my legs on the sofa and nestled into her like a pillow. As comfortable as I was, I wanted to switch places on the couch; being left-handed, I would have felt better postured with my left ear to her heart. But I didn’t want to break whatever spell had been cast, by voicing such a request. Besides, she had yet to accede to anything I’d explicitly asked, for the whole of the afternoon, and I couldn’t risk it.

At the conclusion of the video, with neither one of us, perhaps, feeling that we’d gotten our money’s worth, I set up my old turntable and played “Ask Me Now,” the second to last track on the album Solo Monk. I wanted to share something very personal and intense with her. All I could do, though, was to say something cerebral like “This song is the musical equivalent of a Vincent van Gogh painting.” She said she felt the same way about John Coltrane, and so we had a brief discussion about the relative virtues of the piano versus the saxophone.

In connection with her interest in music (just not my music), she mentioned that she wanted to work in a recording studio on the side. I seized the opportunity to pursue one last transaction, telling her that my friend Bob ran a recording studio and giving her his phone number. “And now that I’ve helped your career,” I said in ironic seriousness, “you have to let me lie on top of you for one minute.”

She did. We kissed a bit more.

Of course, I asked her to spend the night, promising that “nothing would happen” except more cuddling, but she said no. Her parents were coming the following morning, in advance of her upcoming graduation.

Speaking of which, I congratulated her, and then she left.

Returning to the living room, to unplug and store the turntable, I noticed the hundred dollar bill on the coffee table, where Lucy must have placed it when I wasn’t looking. I left it there, thinking that I would re-deposit it in the bank on Monday; but as it turned out, I forgot about it, and soon it got mixed in with some junk mail and other papers on the table. A couple of weeks later, I realized that I’d thrown it away.