Sunday, June 25, 2006

"My Legs They Are Two Creaking Things"

My legs they are two creaking things,
Battered, bruised and spotted sticks,
Before the matters of head and heart,
My leg problem I need to fix.

My joints are hinges in need of oil,
My shins pillars with chips and cracks,
My heels the surface of the pitted moon,
My toenails gnarled as a tortoise's back.

Just as the green boughs of flowering trees,
Give pleasure to the gazing eye,
While the aging roots stay out of sight
That's the story of my body, say I.

As the farmer his plough or the sun its course,
I drive my two feet on and on,
Running, walking, moving, moving
Till the day is spent and my strength is gone.

The head is the centre of the human being,
The legs that empire's last outpost,
Like cavalry, they figure the least,
When for their monarch they do the most.

Animals have paws and birds have wings,
And we our legs, so heavy and slow.
My legs they are two creaking things,
O legs! stay strong, we have far to go.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Dunya Mikhail's war against war

Almost all modern poems about war are some fashion anti-war; while they cannot be faulted for this stance, war poems do not become better, as some poets seem to be believe, in direct proportion to the outrage that they voice about violence, bloodshed and injustice; in fact such poems sometimes voice no more than the author's politics, and thus really amount to a kind of low-grade sniping themselves.

But "The War Works Hard", a poem by the Iraqi poet Dunya Mikhail in the New Directions anthology of poetry World Beat, strikes me as the real thing. It is written, like many war poems, in an ironical mode, but its precise achievement is its skillful evocation of war as a kind of everpresent secret force or agent, working quietly and serenely, like a powerful leader or tycoon, and keeping long hours in its effort towards achieving its goals. Here it is in Elizabeth Winslow's translation:

The War Works Hard

How magnificent the war is!
How eager
and efficient!
Early in the morning
it wakes up the sirens
and dispatches ambulances
to various places
swings corpses through the air
rolls stretchers to the wounded
summons rain
from the eyes of mothers
digs into the earth
dislodging many things
from under the ruins..
Some are lifeless and glistening
others are pale and still throbbing..
It produces the most questions
in the minds of children
entertains the gods
by shooting fireworks and missiles
into the sky
sows mines in the fields
and reaps punctures and blisters
urges families to emigrate
stands beside the clergymen
as they curse the devil
(poor devil, he remains
with one hand in the searing fire)..
The war continues working, day and night.
It inspires tyrants
to deliver long speeches
awards medals to generals
and themes to poets
it contributes to the industry
of artificial limbs
provides food for flies
adds pages to the history books
achieves equality
between killer and killed
teaches lovers to write letters
accustoms young women to waiting
fills the newspapers
with articles and pictures
builds new houses
for the orphans
invigorates the coffin makers
gives grave diggers
a pat on the back
and paints a smile on the leader’s face.
It works with unparalleled diligence!
Yet no one gives it
a word of praise.

All the moves and gambits of combat, the scattered consequences of battle, the tremors felt in distant places and faraway hearts, the machinery of war support systems, the rhetoric and the propaganda, are traced back not to different sides and to individual players but to War itself, seemingly a force as insistent and powerful as life, in fact the very motor of human history. In fact Mikhail's verbs ("works" "sows", "reaps", "teaches", "paints") work rhetorically to normalise war, make it seem like any other worthwhile human activity. The speaking voice, clear-eyed and forceful, exhibits not the slighest trace of shock, but in doing so it forces us into shock. One could read the poem as being about both a specific war and all modern-day wars. It may be that a later generation judges it to be one of the great poems of our age.

More poems by Mikhail, who fled Iraq in the nineties after harassment by Saddam Hussein's regime and now lives in America, can be found here (note especially "The Prisoner") and here. "The War Works Hard" is also the title poem of a collection of Mikhail's poems brought out last year by New Directions, and named as one of the New York Public Library's 25 notable books of the year.

And as a sort of counterpoint, here are two very good essays by Stephen Romer and Robert Chandler on Guillaume Apollinaire, the French poet who in his youth, about a hundred years ago, just before the First World War inaugurated the great killing fields of the twentieth century, found himself wildly excited, even enchanted, by the experience of war ("The sky is starred by the Boche's shells/The marvellous forest where I live is giving a ball/The machine gun plays a tune in three-fourths time ...") but who would later, bruised and jolted, write in a letter to his fiancee: "Imagine to what extent one is deprived in trench life of everything that joins you to the universe. One is simply a breast offering itself to the enemy".

Other posts on poets: Constantine Cavafy, Jorge Luis Borges, Nazim Hikmet, Attila Jozsef, Antonio Machado, and Osip Mandelstam.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Pankaj Mishra's resistance to temptation

In a piece written to coincide with the launch of his new book Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan and Beyond, Pankaj Mishra argues that large sections of opinion in India and China have been persuaded of the virtues of the free-market model of development without scrutinising sufficiently the pitfalls attendant on this way forward. Western elites, for their part, are happy to flag us as emerging superpowers. Mishra (like another perceptive Indian thinker with whom he shares certain affinities, Ashis Nandy) argues:

As India and China rise with their consumerist middle classes in a world of finite energy resources, it is easy to imagine that this century will be ravaged by the kind of economic rivalries and military conflicts that made the last century so violent. In any case, the hope that fuels the pursuit of endless economic growth - that billions of customers in India and China will one day enjoy the lifestyles of Europeans and Americans - is an absurd and dangerous fantasy. It condemns the global environment to early destruction, and looks set to create reservoirs of nihilistic rage and disappointment among hundreds of millions of have-nots.
As the piece continues I find Mishra to be less persuasive than usual: some of his interpretations of facts are problematic, and his subject is so large as to probably defeat comprehensive treatment in a short essay. But in general I find him to be a thoughtful cautionary voice running counter to many of the currents of our times.

Indeed, the launch of his new book is an occasion to revisit some of Mishra's brilliant work over the last decade, in which he has emerged both as a modern master of the personal essay and an unusual and highly articulate commentator on modern Indian politics and literature. I feel great admiration for the dedication with which Mishra has taken himself to all kinds of places, and tried to experience different kinds of things.

The two Mishra essays I like the best - they are worth reading several times over, both for pleasure and for instruction about such matters as composition, style and balance in prose writing - are "Edmund Wilson in Banaras", an essay from 1998 about his university education in Banaras and his admiration for the American critic Edmund Wilson, and "The East Was Red", a recent essay harking back to his years of "Sovietophilia" as a boy in small-town India:

For boys like me, in north Indian railway towns in the 70s and 80s, where nothing much happened apart from the arrival and departure of trains from big cities, the Soviet Union alone appeared to promise an escape from our limited, dusty world.

It is hard now, in these days of visual excess, to recall the sensuous poverty of the towns I lived in: the white light falling all day from the sky upon a flat land only slightly relieved by bare rock and the occasional tree, and houses of mud or grimy brick, among which any trace of colour - shop signs, painted government posters for family planning, or garish posters for Bollywood films - could provoke a sense of wonder. It explains the eagerness with which I awaited Soviet Life, the first magazine I subscribed to, which was really an illustrated press release boasting of Soviet achievements in science, agriculture, industrial production, sports, and literature.

When a new issue slipped through the mail slot, I would smell its glossy pages and run my fingers across them. Alone in my room, I gazed for a long time at colour pictures of young Soviet women raising production levels on the Ukrainian steppe, in the Fergana valley and Siberian oilfields. I lingered longest over the pages with pictures of Young Pioneers, and then cut them out carefully and wrapped them around my school notebooks, obscuring the calendar-art images of the young Lord Krishna. I did not outgrow Soviet Life even after I got my parents to subscribe to Soviet Literature, and cajoled my younger sister, who had won a small school scholarship, into giving me a subscription to the news magazine New Times. The magazines cost less than the stamps on the brown envelopes in which they arrived - indeed, my parents declined to support my pen pal-ship with a Young Pioneer girl because airmail letters were too expensive.
This one essay must have restored for many Indians an essential part of their childhood - I remember myself going to book fairs as a boy in the late eighties and being captivated by the wealth of beautiful Soviet books on offer at cheap prices. In fact, while browsing on the streets of Flora Fountain a few weeks ago, I myself came across a few works of Chekhov and Dostoevsky in English translation published by Raduga Publishers and Progress Publishers, two prominent Soviet publishers that Mishra mentions. The physical appearance of these spare, white-covered, hardbound volumes and the impress of these two names on my memory instantly took me back to the spare stagnant world of small-town Indian social life, enlivened by books from remote locations one could never visit, in which I, along with millions of others, grew up. Oh generous Soviet Union, where did you go - were you always a dream?

Here are two more beautiful essays by Mishra: "The Great Narayan", a tribute to RK Narayan, and "The Art of Inquisition", a sympathetic portrait of the much-derided Nirad Chaudhuri. I came across Chaudhuri's polemical book about the deadness of Indian customs and current ways of life, To Live or Not to Live, recently, and found in it a very trenchant, almost Thoreauvian, questioning ("Do we live at all? This would seem an absurd question, for none of us commit suicide, though to be honest, I would confess that I have come to feel that a large majority of the persons I know should do so, because I cannot see any point in their remaining alive.") That question - do we live at all? - is one that every writer must think about, and sometimes plainly ask.

I note with some curiosity Mishra's observation that Chaudhuri "generalised far too recklessly" and calls this "the autodidact's vice". Some of this vice is occasionally visible in Mishra's essays on politics and economics, though to my eye not on literature.

An archive of Mishra's recent reviews can be found here, and another archive of pieces for Outlook, containing several good tough-minded essays from the late nineties, is here.

"Edmund Wilson in Banaras" is not available online, but it can be found in at least two anthologies of Indian writing: the Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature, and India: A Mosaic edited by Robert Silvers and published by the New York Review of Books.

Update, June 15: Salil Tripathi takes issue with Mishra's Guardian piece here in "Escaping the 'Hindu rate of growth'", and Mishra composes a reply to him here.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

And now if you'll...

...excuse me for a few days, I'll enjoy the last part of my hard-earned (and so far extremely pleasant) vacation, and eat, drink, walk, talk, meet, smoke, look at the sky, at beauties passing on the street, play cricket, buy books, and cook my special prawn curry for friends.

I shall be back on Sunday.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Hamid's Ismailov's Railway

My short review of the Uzbek writer Hamid Ismailov's novel The Railway appeared last weekend in the Sunday Telegraph.

Hamid Ismailov's careering, widely peopled, digressive The Railway is, in the writer's own phrase, a "folkloric novel", a book about the history and fate of peoples as much as individual characters. Ismailov's collage of the lives of the Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Jews, Russians, Chechens, and Tatars who inhabit his fictional town of Gilas features an ensemble of some one hundred and fifty characters - bright blots of personality who doggedly persist in airing out their essences, and who both exploit and fall foul of the prevailing Soviet party line, a line "as clear and undeviating as the railway that cut through Gilas".

Ismailov's jagged narration, spanning a large swathe of the twentieth century, is held together by certain reappearing characters (such as the one only referred to as "the boy"), the writer's own sly, irreverent comic voice, and the image of the railway, "the iron road". Ismailov's description of the railway - "a never-ending ladder with wooden rungs and iron rails that lay stretched across the earth from horizon to horizon" - evokes both a journey and an ascent. He has a gift for arresting metaphors. When some inhabitants of Gilas are arrested by the Soviet authorities and sent to a distant camp, the prisoners see the railway line with its crossbars through a hole in the floor of the wagon, "and it seemed as if the earth herself had been put behind bars, framed, bound, confined, arrested".

The Railway continually shifts between different registers. Its main key is that of a comedy that itself shuttles from the exuberant to the deadpan, from bright wordplay to the jargon of Soviet-speak. Every now and then there comes a chapter or a passage written at the raised pitch of poetry, rich in imagery and sound patterns and repetitions. A character named Oyimcha sits spinning cotton: "In their broad white line sleeves her arms were like fluttering wings and the cotton wool clinging to the slow, slow, slow switches flew high into the air, into the air, like celestial clouds…clouds…." Ismailov's sentences are in fact never far from the realm of the mystical: "Is there another way in the world, or is that just a dream people dream?"

Robert Chandler has translated several other writers from the Russian, including Pushkin, Vasily Grossman, and Nikolai Leskov. His tenderly attentive rendering of The Railway perfectly captures the dreamy, circling music of Ismailov's prose.

In an interview with Marcus Dysch, Ismailov speaks of being exiled from Uzbekistan in the early nineties, and of the feeling that animates The Railway. ("Toska is a longing, a nostalgia, an eternal sadness. When you go to countries like Uzbekistan it is a desert mostly, so there is a longing in the very nature. The sand is so ruthless. We are close to Jerusalem and the biblical parts of the world and that longing is toska.")

A good interview with Chandler can be found here at the excellent literary website ReadySteadyBook, and a piece by him comparing different translations of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin is here.