fredag den 26. maj 2017

Monkey: A Journey to the West - Wu Cheng'en (1592)

Monkey: A Journey to the West
“Monkey: A Journey to the west” is one of those stories that is a lot older than the actual publishing. When Wu Cheng’en wrote and published the story in the 16th century it was already an old folk legend that had probably mutated a lot over the years and there are likely many parallel stories over the theme. I have already encountered a few such stories (old Chinese legends), so this is not so much a story of the 16th century as a 16th century window into a traditional story.

Anyway, the story of the Monkey king is famous, also in the west. I remember watching cartoons on television in my childhood about the adventures of the Monkey king and although these shows are very faint in my memory I do recognize the tales in the book. The Monkey king Sun Wukong is a naughty and disrespectful fellow with immense powers. He jumps around on clouds and get into all sorts of trouble and that is great television for children.

As a book it is a little different. It is both a product of a different time and a different culture and it shows. From a modern, western perspective it is a story full of holes, strange jumps and awkward resolutions. You can have a carefully built up scene that gets resolved in two lines or hazards appearing out of nowhere. Responses of characters and those they meet are often weird, even bizarre and there is a repetitive pattern to the story that makes me grateful that what I read was a much reduced version compared to the original 100 chapter story.

Back in the seventh century the Buddhist monk and scholar Xuanzang went on a mission from Tang dynasty China to India to find and bring back holy Buddhist scriptures. This is a real historic event. In the folk legend however Xuanzang was accompanied by a number of disciples whose function was to keep the monk out of trouble. The Monkey was the foremost one of these (The others were Zhu the Pig and Sha the Monk) and in the legend he is far more central than the monk. In fact, he is a far more developed character than the rather one-dimensional Xuanzang,

The book can be divided into three segments.

The first and in my opinion the best one is the origin of the Monkey King. How he was created and lived in a valley lording it over his fellow monkeys and how he travelled the world to study to become immortal. Having achieved that status the next logical step was to challenge the celestial world. No matter what the heavenly powers did they could best him and all their attempts at sidetracking Monkey resulted in even worse trouble. When he ends up sabotaging the Jade Queen’s peach party they have had enough and trap Monkey under a mountain for 500 years. It is from this prison he is released in return for serving as a protector for Xuanzang.

And does he need a protector. For a master and important person he is incredibly helpless. Constantly he walks into trouble, and mostly deadly ones, typically involving a demon wanting to eat him. And every time Monkey will have to save him. About half the time Monkey manages on his own, no thanks to the other disciples, but just as often Monkey has to return to the celestial palace for some assistance. You would think the master is grateful, but, nah, his principles are more important and often Monkey is dismissed for some offense or another. The first few challenges are interesting enough but the pattern is always the same and I am actually grateful that some of the challenges can be resolved in less than ten lines. It gets really boring.

Finally, however, Xuanzang and company arrive in India, visit Buddha and get some scriptures to bring home. Everybody are happy, especially the monk who is flown back in eight days whereas the voyage out took 14 years. There is a lot of religious hokus pokus about how important this mission was and the end.

For a modern reader this is a story that needs some reworking and it probably has had that over the years. In its current form it is interesting, but rarely engaging. Fortunately, my copy had a lot of beautiful Chinese prints and that went a long way to stay my interest. Probably not a book I would read again, but not a book I regret reading.

onsdag den 26. april 2017

The Lusiad - Luis Vaz de Camões (1572)

The Lusiad
According to the Book, The Lusiad can be challenging to get through. After the struggle of “Gargantua and Pantagruel” the reading of “The Lusiad” was the smoothest thing ever. Take that Rabelais!

“The Lusiad” is something a kin to a national epos of Portugal, centered around Vasco da Gama’s voyage to India. It is a celebration of that event, but also a lot more. It is a celebration of the heritage Portugal builds on, leading up to the sea journey, especially the Reconquista (kicking out the Moors from the Iberian peninsula) and the rivalry with Castille, but also the heritage following the journey as Vasco da Gama kicked off Portugal’s golden age.

The form of this epos is Homerian. That basically means that Camões, the author, makes as many connections as he possibly can to antiquity, starting with the format. “The Lusiad” is a poem composed of eight-line stanzas and divided into ten cantos. That elicited an involuntary groan when I realized that, but it turned out to be no problem at all. Probably thanks to the translator the text is very fluid and has hardly been abused to fit it into the format. In fact, it is easy to forget that this is a poem.

Secondly Camões presents da Gama as a heroic character in parallel to Ulysses. In Camões optic, the exploits of da Gama are no less than those of Ulysses, even down to mystical elements and divine interventions.  Da Gama would and should blush had he read it, but, alas, it was published long after his death.

Thirdly Camões invents elements to the story that involves antique Greek and Roman goods. Bacchus, Venus, Jupiter and Mars are featured about as much as da Gama and elevates the expedition into the sphere of old goods and heroes. The objective is obvious, to make that Homerian connection, but these are also the weakest and frankly annoying parts of the story.

What works however are everything that concerns the expedition itself. It is apparent that Camões was very familiar with the actual journey and had extensive experience from sea voyages himself as well as spent time in many of the same places. India is not mysterious, far off place, but somewhere he had seen himself and the vagaries on long boat trips he had felt on his own body. That lends an authenticity to his description that are both factual and realistic and completely at odds with all the antique stuff.

Of course there is a lot of white wash. Camões gives tricky situations a spin that places da Gama and the Portuguese in general in the right light. In such cases the excellent notes helps to clarify the reality behind. Portuguese who use the story to feel proud of their national achievements do not need to be told that the goods da Gama brought were completely uninteresting to the Indians. The story also use an inordinately long time on a story da Gama tells the Sultan of Malindi about the background of the Portuguese. If you think about it I doubt a Muslim Sultan would enjoy hearing about Portuguese killing droves of Muslim Moors and bring the word of God to distant shores. The function of that story is to educate us, the listener, on the heroic origin of Portugal.

Still, I enjoyed the book very much. It is not overly long, but full of fascinating details and written to be told an audience caught in rapt attention. It cannot overstay its welcome and it does not. If I was Portuguese I would be pretty damn proud of this epos, but maybe also a bit discomfited by the atrocities and intolerance being committed and expressed toward people of different faith.

Curiously I am actually in India right now writing this (in New Delhi for a trade fair) and it makes the story so much more relevant and alive. I may be five hundred years late, but I am following in the footsteps of Vasco da Gama.

søndag den 2. april 2017

Gargantua and Pantagruel - Francois Rabelais (1532-1564)

Gargantua and Pantagruel
Half a year. This is how long it took to get through “Gargantua and Pantagruel” by Francois Rabelais.

Part of the explanation for the exceedingly long reading time is that this is a massive book, just over 1000 pages. In fact, it consists of five books, but the List seems to consider all five part of the same work and who am I to question that.

The other and equally valid part of the explanation is that “Gargantua and Pantagruel” is a 500 year old comedy that is not funny. It is episodic, inconsistent and with little consideration for something as mundane as a plot. Combined with its status as a comedy means that the episodes it does tell have to be very interesting to keep my attention now that it is not funny and that is also, well, rather inconsistent.

Rabelais tells something (to call it a story is a stretch) about two giants (of variable size), Pantagruel and his father Gargantua. Book two was about the education of Gargantua and a mighty battle he was involved in. In Book three Pantagruel’s sidekick Panurge considers whether or not he should be married. He is convinced he will do just fine while his friends are convince the wife will cheat on him. In book four and five Pantagruel, Panurge and their extensive following go on a sea journey to find an oracle to answer the question in book three. Book one, well, I actually forgot what took place there.

This may sound quite exciting: battles, journeys, vital questions etc. but it is not. The progression of the story as it is is just not really happening. Instead the setting allows for a multitude of tableaux, discussions and descriptions. These have two functions of which one is to entertain.

It is very possible that in its day “Gargantua and Pantagruel” was hilariously funny, but comedy is notoriously entrenched in its own culture and translates poorly to other cultures, which, 500 years later, means us. The jokes are centered on farting and pooh jokes, with intercourse related wit mixed in. That ought to fit right into modern youth culture, but even that it fails. It is just crude and primitive. Other jokes make fun of sentiments and people relevant 500 years ago and yet other laughs (or attempts to) are of a scholarly colloquial kind, the sort that would mean nothing to you if you were not in the same line of business, meaning a monk dabbling in medicine, law and ancient Greek and Roman literature.

The second function is as a critique and ridicule of Rabelais’ opponents. Apparently, Rabelais belonged to the protestant side in the great religious schism dividing Europe in the sixteenth century and Rabelais got some royal protection to heap dung on the Catholic side in his books. Some, probably even most, of his criticism in intelligent, as far as I understand it, and it is this part that is interesting enough for me to actually finish this book.

It can be (certainly is to me) difficult to understand how practicing religion in two different ways can mean so much to people and throw Europe into a century of war, a conflict that still echoes today. This year it is the 500 year anniversary of Martin Luther, but the festivities seem muted, at least in Denmark. It is just not that relevant anymore. But clearly for Rabelais who was right there on the fault-line this was deadly serious and the viciousness of his attacks are hardly softened by the apparent comedy. This is certainly a window into an almost forgotten conflict that shaped Europe.

My advice to a reader considering to go into “Gargantua and Pantagruel” would be that this window to the past must be the primary motivation. Any other motivation is doomed to fall short. Read the first book and consider if this was rewarding enough. If it was not there is no point in continuing, it hardly gets better.  To read it just to be a completionist starts to feel stupid and ridiculous before the halfway point.   

lørdag den 31. december 2016

Happy New Year 2017

Happy New Year 2017
It is the last day of the year and thus time for the annual status on my blog.

I wish all my readers a happy new year. May 2017 be a better year than 2016.

2016 was a year where it was difficult to be an optimist. I learned a new word: "nativism", which is about as contrary to everything I believe in as is possible. Of course the concept is not new, it has been around for at least two hundred years, but it has not coalesced like this since the forties. When you travel as much as I do and see as many people as I see it is really difficult to come to terms with the nativistic mindset and telling people they are wrong seem to have the opposite effect.

However this is not a political blog, so I can stick my head in the sand and focus on what I do here.

New Year is also anniversary time for my movie project. Seven years down the line it clocks in at 368 movies plus a few extra down the list and a handful of titles from the Danish edition. I am very close to finishing the fifties (expect a post on that topic in a few days) and a new decade beckons in the horizon.

In 2016 I watched and reviewed 54 movies from the List, which continue the downward trend. I had expected to cover a few more movies, but things did not turn out that way and a movie per week seems to be the realistic pace for me. Alas, as I keep saying this is not a race. Also I did watch and review a few movies off List.

The period covered in 2016 was 1955 to 1959, both years included and while I will return to the issue in my decade concluding post, I can say that this was a most interesting period in movies with high’s and low’s, of course, but interesting none the less. My excitement with this project is unabated.

2016 was also the second year of my book blog and after a rough start that project is now on track. My ambition of five books per year from the List holds as I am now 10 books down. It does not take a Ph.D. to figure out that it will take a medical miracle for me to complete the List, but I have no intention of doing that. It is all in the process.

Followers of the book blog will however have noticed that nothing has happened since October. That is not laziness on my side, but due to the nature of the next book on the List. Gargantua and Pantagruel is a brick ticking in at 1000 pages, which is okay, I do not mind big books, but it is also a 500 year old comedy that is not funny. Ugghh. Going is slow and it is likely to take me a few more month to get through that one.

Still, despite this late setback I enjoy the book project as well, if nothing else then for that fascinating window into times past.

I wish everybody a very happy New Year and hope that you all will have a great time tonight. I certainly intend to.

mandag den 10. oktober 2016

Lazarillo de Tormes - Anonymous (1554)

Lazarillo de Tormes
Still on the Iberian peninsula I am blazing through the decades and halfway through the sixteenth century I find ”Lazarillo de Tormes”, a small book with a major punch. This book is in fact so subversive that the author has remained anonymous through the centuries and it was banned by the Spanish Inquisition. Why? Because it is an irreverent tale about a greedy church, vain nobility and lusty clergy. I have no doubt in my mind that this is a fair description of all these, but if you want to keep the peasants under the thumb you have to suppress such ill-founded rumors…

 “Lazarillo de Tormes” is a short, picaresque novel about a boy going through a host of masters. Most of these are horrible masters who beat or starve him and only through his own cleverness does he manage to stay afloat.

He first master is a blind man who keeps food and wine to himself and uses harsh violence to exert his dominance over boy. To stay alive Lazarillo finds ways to steal food from him such a sucking up wine with a long straw, which in turn earns him some serious trashing. The next master is not much better, a clergyman who locks up all the food while starving the boy. Here he develops a cunning scheme to simulate a rat or snake attack on the food chest and for a while he gets away with it. Then on to a nobleman, who may look like a ton of money, but has got nothing at all. Instead they survive on the boys begging and so on.

Through it all Lazarillo goes through some horrible things, yet manage by using his head and while that is amusing in its own right it is not really the point of the story. That is instead the pictures being drawn of his masters. These are not flattering to say the least and the implied criticism reaches a climax in the story of the seller of papal indulgences, which is revealed as a complete scam taking advantage of gullible peasants. It is always fun when self-righteous fools are exposed of their hypocrisy and no doubt that is much of the reason for the fame of the book. I even think it is funny here four and a half century later.

I loved the ending of the story. Lazarillo befriends an archpriest and agrees to marry his servant girl. The servant walk in and out of the priest’s house, which makes people talk, but of course Lazarillo trusts his wife and the priest is very supportive…. Hmmmm. I know what is going on…

“Lazarillo de Tormes” founded a style, the picaresque novel, that became a staple for centuries to come. Even today you can find novels written in this episodic style and I suppose literature owes it a lot. It is a very easy read and the translation I found was very decent, albeit old. It was translated by Sir Clements Markham probably around the turn of the century, who, I found out, lived a most exciting life as a polar explorer. That story is in fact probably even more interesting than this book he translated. You tend to think of literature scholars as dusty, boring types and this fellow was anything but.

At less than a hundred pages this was a fast read. My next book arrived yesterday and I found to my horror that it is a thousand pages. Ah, well, looks like this page will be quiet for a while.

torsdag den 22. september 2016

Amadis of Gaul - Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo (1508)

Amadis of Gaul
If you thought the sort of fantasy made popular by ”The Lord of the Rings” and ”Game of Thrones” is a new invention you are hopelessly mistaken. Long before the printing press fantasy tales of knights and strange kingdoms and damsels in distress abounded. If you think about it you knew that already. The King Arthur tale is medieval high fantasy and just one of many.

My next book on the list is such a fantasy tale. Completely invented and magnificently imagined this is “Game of Thrones” anno 1500.

I have read quite a bit of fantasy in my time, it is an… ahem, guilty pleasure of mine, and the connection between the old stuff and the present day’s novels is pretty clear. “Amadis of Gaul” is a fantasyland refuge for the readers (or more likely listeners) who in the novel found ideals outlived. It is a place where the good site is championed by worthy and noble knights, where honor is important and bestowed on those who deserve it and where mundane things like money, sickness and petty squabbles are non-existent.

As such it is quite entertaining. The story moves forward with a rapid pace and like any good tv-serial there are both sequential events and a connecting story to tie it all together. I can imagine that in public readings you would want each reading to finish a particular quest, yet keep the larger story on track. The benefit to a modern reader is that it does not get boring.

We follow Amadis of Gaul, the best knight in the world, from his inception and through his exploits which are many. As a Moses child the infant boy is sent off to sea because he was born outside of wedlock, albeit the child of a princess and a king (children outside wedlock is a bad bad thing…), but luckily he is fished out of the water by another king who raises him as his own child. Unaware that he is actually the son of a king Amadis grows into a glorious knight and soon he is on the road as a knight-errant finding adventure and opportunity for glory around every corner. He ends up with King Lisuarte who happen to have a daughter, Oriana, for whom Amadis have the hots. When Amadis eventually learn of his heritage that does not hurt him one bit. In the world of knights being the son of a king (who eventually married Amadis’ mother) is a pretty cool thing.

Later on Amadis finds two brothers of his who were also considered lost and together they are busy being awesome. I have to admit that I only read book 1. Depending on the source there are several sequels, at least four more books, and so I actually do not know how the story ends. My guess is that eventually Amadis and Oriana get each other, but not before an awful amount of trouble and a lot of dead knights.

There are a number of curious things to notice in this novel. For one, where I suspected Tirant lo Blanc to have been written by a woman I am fairly convinced that Amadis of Gaul is conceived by a man. The scenes of romance are plenty, but tend to be repetitive and the women one-dimensional. They all react in the same way and if they are not pretty little ladies, they are bitching snakes full of deceit and venom. Every so often the knight would get a sexual reward from the damsels they save before they ride on. Battle scenes however are super detailed and varied and both bloody and gory. It seems to me that the writer found a particular delight in these and the knights miss no opportunity to bash some heads.

Considering these knight are made blood, flesh and noble manners it is incredible how eager they are to fight and kill. They are super easy to provoke, just call them chicken or throw an insult and they will come charging at you. Or, well, simply to measure their skill against each other, which is reasonable enough except that they frequently die or are badly maimed as a result. Incidentally these bloody activities takes a heavy toll on horses. Just in this first book I bet Amadis alone has lost the first ten horses. Well, I guess they did not care that much about horses back then.

Now all this may sound as if I did not like the book, but I did. It was very entertaining and surprisingly imaginative. But these knights in their stuffy chivalric nobility are so easy to make fun of. I bet Monty Python watched this before making “The Quest for the Holy Grail” and I know Cervantes did before writing “Don Quixote”.

So, if you are fond of modern fantasy you have to read this one. This is the real thing.


tirsdag den 9. august 2016

Celestina - Fernando de Rojas (1499)

With my next book I am remaining on the Iberian Peninsula, which I take it was the literary hotspot in Europe around 1500. This one is “Celestina” by Fernando de Rojas, published 1499 presumably a few years after it was written.

There are interesting elements to this novel. First of all the subject matter is quite different from the previous novels I have been through. Here are no mighty heroes or glorious battles. Instead this is a love story gone terribly wrong. It features a lovesick gentleman called Calisto who enlists the help of an old bawd called Celestina to win over Melibea, the daughter of an even wealthier citizen of the town where the story takes place. Celestina dabbles in magic and all sorts of unsavory stuff and somehow she does manage to turn the head of young Melibea who falls hopelessly in love with Calisto. Celestina and Calistos’ two servants Semporio and Parmeno consider the affair a golden opportunity to milk Calisto of his riches and plot together to make it work. Once successful however they turn greedy and end up killing each other. Calisto and Melibea and not better off. Calisto falls down a ladder and breaks his head and Melibea throws herself off the roof.

That is a fairly bizarre story.

Secondly the story is written strictly as a dialogue. There is not a single descriptive line in the entire book and that at first seems like a very modern trait. Clearly the story was meant to be read aloud, almost like a stage play.

I normally like dialogue based stories and find that lengthy descriptive passages are a burden to a text. But in the case of “Celestina” the dialogue often turns into lengthy declamations, stilted and elaborate and it totally takes the pace out of the story.

That is also a problem since the story is supposed to be a comedy. A brief glance at the summary above clearly reveals a potential for a hilariously dark comedy of Monty Python’ish proportions, but the lengthy monologue ruins the comedic timing and the story never becomes funny. A shame really, because it seems to be the intent of the book. Maybe 500 years ago people found this sort of declamation a riot, but that has certainly lost its lure over the centuries.

Instead the book retains a morbid charm by alternating between characters who build themselves up with ridiculous self-importance and those who cut them down with crude remarks. This theme is also found in the general plot as the characters devise device complicated deceits and conspiracies to their own end only to find that the result is completely out of their control and essentially random. It is also the story of big and deep love that seems to be based on silly infatuation and comes to a brutal conclusion through random events that has nothing to do with anything. It is not Melibea’s parents who discover and end the affair, it is not the town constables or the heavy that Elicia and Areusa, the lovers of dead Semporio and Parmeno, send to kill Calisto, that intercepts them, but a clumsy misstep on the ladder.

Retold today this could be a great story I would like to hear or read and it would be funny. As it is it is still interesting as a window into a world 500 years ago and to what people thought was funny back then. I am always baffled by how cheap lives are in these old novels and the importance people assign to things we would not think twice of today. Taken seriously, which I think would be a mistake with this book, arranged marriages are a cause of much grief, but you can also say that all the principle characters are digging their own graves through stupidity, greed and starry eyed infatuation.

The backstory behind “Celestina” is something about that de Rojas was Jew but forced to convert to avoid being burned on the stake, something that apparently happened to some of his family members, and that “Celestina” is a bitter exposé of hypocrisies in a world that has condemned his kind. I am not entirely sure how to read that in the story, but I have a feeling that a story about Fernando de Rojas himself would be at least as interesting as his book.