The Storyteller (Peru)

by Mario Vargas Llosa
“Awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature”
Courtesy of Auntie’s Bookstore

PREFACE: The Nobel Prize in Literature 2010 was awarded to Mario Vargas Llosa “for his cartography of structures of power and his trenchant images of the individual’s resistance, revolt, and defeat”. For a body of work, not for this particular novel. I feel the medal icon atop this book is misleading, most likely on purpose.

OK, let’s tell the story! The protagonist of this novel is a Perunvian Jewish man of Central European ancestry named Saul Zaratas, who was born with a huge strawberry-colored birthmark on his face and calls everyone “pal”. Because of the birthmark, they call him “Mascarita” or The Mask. The narrator is his college roommate, who is trying to find him after a few decades of having lost touch. The novel opens in an art gallery in Florence, where the narrator has gone to try and forget about Peru for awhile. But there, in this gallery, is a series of photographs, one of whom features a group of Native Peruvians known as the Machiguenga tribe, gathered around a storyteller.

An agouti paca, or "royal rat", a main source of protein for the Machiguenga.

An agouti paca, or “royal rat”, a main source of protein for the Machiguenga.

Having never read any Vargos Llosa, I decided to try this particular novel because I too am a storyteller.

The importance of stories to the Machiguenga is undeniable. Stories from the basis of their religion, their oral history, their medicine, and their culture. Stories keep alive the atrocities of the “tree-bleeding” time in their recent history, known to the colonizers of Peru as “rubber-tapping” in which they played off the tribes against one another. Slaves were told that if they captured 3 enemies and delivered them to the Viracochas (whites) of the plantation, they themselves could take their families and go back to the jungle. UGH

I found some of the transitions jarring–it wasn’t always clear at first who was speaking–and the Spanish and Machiguenga terms, plus unfamiliar plants and animals that are thrown into the text without so much as an italic needed footnotes–thank goodness for Google. It also would have been nice to have known, as Vargos Llosa obviously does, that the Machiguenga don’t use personal names. For a bit I was quite confused as to why every Machiguenga was called Tasurinchi. Were they all the same person? No. Also, the narrator says that his friend “defended his thesis for his bachelor’s degree in his fifth year” at San Marcos–that isn’t the way it works in the English speaking world, pal, so we need a bit of explanation we don’t get. (Most likely these areas of the book are not Vargos Llosa’s fault but rather bad choices on the parts of the translator and publisher.)

The writing was pretty stellar. I got a little tired of the long-winded stories of the Machiguenga mythology, wanting in my Western reader way to focus more on reality, science, rational thought, and actual history. Still, the search for Mascarita was interesting, his evolution inevitable. Although as a reader, I would have liked a more conclusive ending. Because as is, it kind of reads like, “there was this Gringo/outsider/deformed person who abandoned his white lifestyle to go live with primitive peoples in the interior. The end.”

I love learning names. Names are so important. I am still learning the names of many of the native peoples of what is now the USA. But these names I had never heard before. Although Wikipedia lists around 60 tribes in Peru, some of names that crop up in the book, either as neighbors or traditional enemies of the Machiguenga are:

  • Shipibos
  • Huambisas
  • Aguarunas
  • Yaguasas
  • Shapras
  • Campas
  • Mashcos
  • Boras
  • Piros

Exotic, Not Erotic



The names of the South American Indians and places resonated like flute music in my ear as I read. Quillabamba, a city. Kashuri, the moon. Kientibakori, the major evil spirit. But Vargos Llosa doesn’t make the mistake of romanticizing The Men Who Walk, or to my great relief, fetishizing the native women (I find this tendency in male writers to be super icky). Mascarita mentions the problematic customs. He admires the tribes greatly, but he sees traditions in their society that he doesn’t like. And he makes no bones about it. He says he is not an Indigenist, like those of the 1930s, although he thinks the tribes should not be Westernized any further, that they should be left alone, pal.

Early on we are introduced to the Machiguenga idea that The Men Who Walk (and indeed, all humans) should control their emotions and not give way to negative outbursts. “A man throwing a fit can make a river overflow, and a murder makes lightning burn down the village,” Saul explains to his white friend. I immediately connected the dots to the Tibetan Buddhist idea of Tulpas, or beings created from emotional energy. And also to the ancient Greek idea found in Oedipus Rex, that if humans misbehave, that chaos bounces back to us in the form of natural disasters.

I was also intrigued by the idea that you can outstay your welcome in one place in the natural world, and need to walk on so that the sun does not fall from the sky. It makes sense in terms of resource use, and reminds me of the Yellow Leaf People in Thailand, a hill tribe that practices slash-and-burn agriculture like the Machiguenga. When the leaves they used to build their huts turn yellow, they know it is time to walk on.

Magical Realism–I Don’t Like It

Masato, an alcoholic native Peruvian drink fermented by chewing and spitting out cassava.

Masato, an alcoholic native Peruvian drink fermented by chewing and spitting out cassava.

I liked parts of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude in college, but I felt frustrated at the lack of linear storytelling and a rational worldview. I didn’t understand half of what he was alluding to. I’m too much a product of Western rational thought to be happy with this form of a novel; too educated in the North American school system to “get” a lot of the history and culture that might be obvious to South Americans; and I notice most of the others in my book group at Auntie’s seem to be the same. If I spoke Spanish and lived in South America I would probably love magical realism. But, I don’t. Ironically because I read a lot of science fiction/fantasy novels, I am MORE tolerant than most Americans of this form. I haven’t even tried to tackle Jorge Luis Borges.

If I were editing this novel, I’d have chopped it in half, tightened up and condensed the rambling Machiguenga teaching tales and creation myths, and forced the narrative into a plot structure where things happen. I might have also suggested in the end that there are consequences, whether emotional or physical to Mascarita for throwing his lot in with the tribes of the interior, or that there is a showdown or confrontation between the narrator and his old friend. Or that there are stakes in the events for any of the people, anywhere, at any time.

Rating: Three stars beneath Kashiri, the moon.

Absolute Monarchs (Vatican City)

by John Julius Norwich

courtesy of a special order from Auntie’s Bookstore

I wasn’t going to count Vatican City as a country. (I mean, it’s a religion inside a city, right?) I thought Popes were about religion rather than power and politics. Not always, In fact, not often.

I thought that Vatican City was analogous to Salt Lake City, where the head of the Mormon religion resides. But it’s actually more like the nation of Israel, which once upon a time had more territory too (the Pope used to possess the Papal States).

Popes have fought battles, won and lost territory; made and broken alliances; maintained a standing army not to mention the personal bodyguard known as the Swiss Guard; spoken a variety of languages; strangled, suffocated, hung, and poisoned their rivals; had illegitimate children; issued currency, borrowed money, squabbled over the succession; and in general done everything that Kings do and then some. Very few Popes reminded me in any way of Jesus Christ. (I got almost physically ill reading how a leading light of the Jesuit Order, itself persecuted in Portugal and eventually suppressed by the Pope, owned 500 slaves in Martinique.)

I am reminded of the metaphor of God as an elephant, and people of faith as blind men feeling only the tail, or the trunk, and proclaiming their discoveries as complete and absolute truth. My previous forays into history were like this.

But I’m a true crime aficionado. After reading this book, I felt like I’d FINALLY been given the background for lots of historical events that never made sense before. Means, motive, opportunity. Motives: Money, lust, revenge. Who benefits?

Round Up the Usual Suspects

And just who were the Popes before they ascended to the Papal Throne? If you’ve read Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons you know a little something about the Convocation, or how Popes are chosen. Don’t watch that or sausage-making if you like either.

Absolute Monarchs is THE best history book. Readable, with juicy scandals. Familiar figures. Frederick Barbarossa, a vicious Holy Roman Emperor (redundancy mine) who is said to sleep in a cave, his red beard ever-growing, guarded by crows, until Germany needs him again. (Germany  may need him but Rome sure didn’t.) Also:

  • Otto of Wittgenstein, founder of the house of Wittlesbach, the ancestor of my King Ludwig II of Bavaria, whose dynasty endured for 700 years, quite undeservedly.
  • Eleanor of Aquitaine, portrayed in the fantastic film The Lion in Winter. “The wife of one of England’s greatest Kings, and the mother of two of the worst.” (You have to wonder if the asshole in the room is actually her.) The two worst kings, her sons, are Richard “the Lion-Hearted” and John I, signer of the Magna Charta.
  • The doomed Cathars, a “heretical” sect in France that, like the original inhabitants of the British Isles, believed in reincarnation. Read more about them in the fantastic horror series Angelus Trilogy by Jon Steele.
  • King Canute of England, who made a pilgrimage to Rome to see one of the earliest Pope’s investitures.
  • King William of Normandy, who killed Harold of England with an arrow through the eye at the Battle of Hastings–while flying a banner the Pope had sent him. And his short-lived son William Rufus, killed “accidentally” while hunting in the New Forest. I read about this in the hilarious cozy mystery Missing Susan by Sharon McCrumb.
  • Sultan Mehmet II, whom I first read about in the fantastic historical novel And I Darken, by Kiersten White. Mehmet was allegedly bisexual and fell in love with two hostages at his father’s court–the timid brother and fierce sister sired by Vlad Drakul of Wallachia.
  • The legendary Pope Joan, (aka Pope Agnes), possibly the reason for the Papal Throne with its keyhole cutouts. Is it a leftover Roman Empire birthing chair, or does it have those egg-shaped holes so a junior Cardinal can feel the Pope’s testicles to be SURE he’s a man…?
  • Henry VIII–NOT the first King who wanted the Pope to let him divorce his wife and marry his mistress.
  • Cardinal Richelieu and the Protestant King of Sweden, Gustavus Adolphus (I know of these 2 and the 30 Years War through the excellent alternative history series by Eric Flint and David Weber, starting with 1632.)
  • Maria Theresa of Austria who sacrifices the Jesuit Order in France for the chance of marrying her daughter into the Bourbon Line. Her daughter was Marie Antoinette and this was a terrible idea.

Big Enders or Little Enders?

In 865 Khan Boris I of Bulgaria converts to Catholicism, mainly because the Byzantine fleet is lying off his Black Sea coast, and his country is in the grip of the worst famine of the century. He gets upset with finding his country overrun with Greek and Armenian priests, “frequently at loggerheads with each other over abstruse points of doctrine incomprehensible both to himself and his bewildered subjects.” He knows the Church split between Rome and Constantinople can be used to his advantage, so he petitions Pope Nicolas with 106 points of Orthodox doctrine and social custom which conflict with Bulgarian traditions, and the Pope makes concessions.

  1. Trousers and turbans can be worn by men and women alike, but you have to take off your turban in church.
  2. When the Byzantines maintain that it is unlawful to wash on Wednesdays and Fridays, they are talking nonsense, nor is there any reason to abstain from milk or cheese during Lent. (A PBS documentary just showed a Bulgarian family making their own buttermilk and yoghurt, and suggested the reason Bulgarians are so long-lived is their protein-rich diet.)
  3. Bigamy, says the Pope, is out (to the disappointment of the Bulgarians), as is the Greek practice of divination by the random opening of the Bible.

It reminded me of the argument Jonathan Swift makes in Gulliver’s Travels, of the rightness of opening the big end or the little end of the egg first, and why God should care about it.

Don’t Sack the Pope. Just. Don’t.

In 1167 Frederick Barbarossa sacks Rome, setting fire to Saint Peter’s Basilica. Never had there been such a desecration of the holiest shrine in Europe–the high altar stained with Christian blood, the marble pavements of the nave strewn with the dead and the dying. And this time the outrage was not the work of infidel barbarians, but of the emperor of Western Christendom. The author says with incredible irony, “The Christians discriminated against the Jews, but they persecuted each other.” WOW.

Frederick got his comeuppance, however, and despite my non-religiosity a little part of me kept shouting Divine Retribution, what?! Less than a week later, the imperial camp got struck with the Plague. “Within days it was no longer possible to bury all the dead, and the rising piles of corpses, swollen and putrefying in the merciless heat of a Roman August made their own grim contribution to the pervading horror.”

Casomir the Great

Casomir III, aka Casomir the Great

Casomir the Great–Actually Was

On a side note to the Plague: I Googled a plague map, and it shows the inexorable advance of the disease from the East across Western Europe, but it makes a circle around Poland. Why? One theory is that King Casomir was very forceful with his quarantine of traders and travelers, and of course Poland is landlocked so no plague ships. Also, the King gave sanctuary to huge numbers of Jews, whose religious books, especially Leviticus, forced them to wash their hands several times daily and bathe at least once per week. Hmmmm

Pope v.s. Antipope

Black AdderAlthough copiously footnoted, with a lengthy bibliography, which I always appreciate, the author made some assumptions about terms that I would know, and I didn’t. One was “antipope”. What the hell is an antipope? Is it like “the Antichrist”? Depends on who you ask. At one point in the late Medieval, or possibly early Renaissance, French clerics elected one pope and Roman clerics another. An antipope was like a pretender to the throne. The Sacred College of cardinals eventually declared those two popes not popes, and elected a third. Of course, the first two refused to step down.

The author then quotes the TV series Black Adder, in which Rowan Atkinson’s character is excommunicated. He asks which Pope has excommunicated him and is told, “All three of them.” Good times.

Other Interesting Facts

Just one year prior to the American Revolution of 1776, the last Protestant galley slaves were freed in Europe. The last Protestant pastor to be tortured for his heresy died. And in 1792, along with the French nobility dying on the scaffold, so did tons of Catholics–religion was put on trial just like the aristocracy. Guy Fawkes in England  a century prior was a Catholic trying to make England not Protestant anymore, not just revolting against the rulers.

And So Forth and So On

By the end of this book, I felt absolutely drunk with Popes. In just listing all their names, the author took up NINE PAGES. Well, he had to. There were that many. If I had a criticism it would be that from 1700 on, not as much time was spent on the later Popes, especially the “Nazi Pope,” formerly German Cardinal Ratzinger. A lot of time is spent on the Papacy’s anti-Semitism, however, so at least that is covered. The Hitler years are fascinating, as well as what the Pope did and didn’t do, and the assassination attempt in 1981, which took place during my childhood. (There is some suspicion that the Bulgarian government may have been involved.)

Unfortunately the book stops with the Nazi Pope, and his reign is given as 2005–. Since I am a big fan of the current Pope, (Pope Francis, year anno domini 2017) with his scientific background and his tolerance and kindness, I hope the author will publish and updated version of the book. I am also planning to read Pope Francis’s treatise on climate change, very soon.

Rating: Five Red Hats!

A Long Way Gone Memoirs of a Boy Soldier (Sierra Leone)

book coverby Ishmael Beah

Courtesy of a purchase from Banana Books in Long Beach, Washington

This was a hard book to read. I had to take a few breaks from it. It’s well-written and riveting, of course. (Part of why it was hard to put down, too.) At times the main character becomes so sad his bones ache.

Sierra Leone MapWhen Ishmael Beah was 12 years old, he left home with his brother Junior and some friends to go to a talent show in another town. They were amateur rappers and kept cassettes of Run DMC and other popular American groups in their pockets. They had no way of knowing that this talent show and those tapes were about to save their lives.

Young Ishmael had already been through some trauma–his parents had divorced and he was living with his father. But there was worse to come. Much, much worse.

tribes of Sierra Leone

Tribes of Sierra Leone: Ishmael and his friends know all the 18 languages spoken in their country

While the group of kids was walking to the next town, murder, rape and civil war were breaking out right behind them. Literally. They arrived to find that school and the talent show had been cancelled. Their hometown had been attacked and their parents and little brother, who lived with the mother, had fled. The town was on fire. They had nothing to go back to, but they tried anyway. After seeing the refugees on the road, however, they realized if they went back they would just die too. So they had to flee forward.


This beach is calm, but Ishmael came to one where the waves hit the sand so hard, they threw particles of sand high into the sky.

They ran from the civil war, but it followed them. After several encounters with hostile and suspicious villagers who tried to kill them before realizing they were just little boys, Ishmael and his brother got separated.

Ishmael kept running. The rap tapes in his pocket and his ability to moonwalk convinced many a murderous village headman that he was, in fact, a child. But finally the tapes were taken from him and burned as he was captured by government forces and made into a soldier. A child soldier. He was forced to torture and kill many rebels, some his age or younger. He was fed marijuana and cocaine daily and of course became addicted.

Ishmael's village

Ishmael’s village

“We were on our way to attack a small town that had ammunition and food. As soon as we left the coffee farm, we unexpectedly ran into another armed group at a soccer field adjoining the ruins of what had once been a village. We opened fire until the last living being in the other group fell to the ground. We walked toward the dead bodies, giving each other high fives. The group had also consisted of young boys like us, but we didn’t care about them. We took their ammunition, sat on their bodies, and started eating the cooked food they had been carrying. All around us, fresh blood leaked from the bullet holes in their bodies.”

FreetownEventually UNICEF got ahold of him and freed him from the army. He was deprogrammed and detoxified, a painful and lengthy process. Of course, he was still traumatized. I don’t know if I could get over something like that. But Ishmael was lucky. He had a living half-uncle who cared, and who took him in as a member of his family. This uncle was a kind man, who treated Ishmael as his own son.

the Tree in FreetownBut then the war came to Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, and his uncle got very sick…all the hospitals were closed and it became impossible to get medicine or even food. After his uncle died, Ishmael realized he had to get out of Sierra Leone. It wasn’t just the famine and the civil war. If he were recaptured by government soldiers and he refused to rejoin them, he would be killed. If the rebels got ahold of him and discovered he’d been a government soldier, he would be killed. I think he was 16 years old at this point.

village with round hutsWhy. WHY would adults, the descendants of slaves from all over Africa, make slaves of children? It is cruel and barbaric and evil and it makes no sense. But it happened, and is no doubt happening today. I hate this. I know you hate it too.

Well, Ishmael survived to write this memoir, of course. And he was eventually rescued by a woman in New York who adopted him. She had met him when he came to the U.S. to speak to the United Nations about the war and what it was doing to the country’s children. If I had a criticism about this book, it would be that it ends abruptly. You’re with Ishmael through some hair-raising horror, and with him on the bus to Guinea, the only safe country around Sierra Leone at that time (Charles Taylor was doing terrible things in Liberia) and you don’t know if he’s even gonna make it out, and then suddenly he gets to Conakry, the capital of Guinea, where the Sierra Leone ambassador lets SL refugees sleep in the Embassy if they have nowhere else to go, and you breathe a sigh of relief and–THE END.

Conakry in Guinea

Conakry, Guinea

There’s no mention of how, having entered Guinea illegally, which he mentions will turn out to be a big problem later, he makes it to the U.S. Or about his mother adopting him, beating the pants off American kids at paintball after having been a child soldier, about his troubles being a child again, or as he says, enjoying the little childhood he has left.

I guess my problem with the book is that I didn’t want it to end! So, not really a problem. (A first world problem?) There are a few scenes in the first chapters of the book about Ishmael having flashbacks and nightmares in New York, but at that point you haven’t lived through the bad stuff yet so I couldn’t really appreciate them.

Anyway, hats off to Ishmael Beah for surviving. I am so sorry that all this happened to you, kid. Maybe the reason Ishmael alone, out of all his family, lived, is because he was supposed to tell his story. Our job is to bear witness, and do what we can to help from far away. Even when it hurts to watch.

Five bowls of fish stew.

The Good Life Elsewhere (Moldova)

book coverby Vladimir Lorchenkov

Courtesy of a special order from Auntie’s Bookstore

A Little History: The country of Moldova is bordered by Ukraine, and Romania, of which it used to be part. Yes, Moldova-Romania was a thing. Part of Moldova has broken away and is now the unacknowledged “country” of Transnistria, populated mostly by ethnic Russians and Ukrainians.

A Little Historical Novel: Moldova sucks. That’s the first thing a Moldovan will tell you–right before he tries to pay you 4,000 Euro to smuggle him into Italy so he can live “the good life”. Why, you might wonder, don’t Moldovans stay home and try to make Moldova into a better place? Well, for one thing, no Moldovan has a high opinion of his fellow “knuckle-headed knuckle-draggers” without culture. They’re lazy, sneaky, lying cowards. Beaten down by decades of Soviet collective farming, and consumed with resentment, the citizens of Moldova, in particular the village of Larga, just want to get to Italy.

Moldova hut near lakesWhere, they imagine, the women can clean house for rich Italians with villas. If they’re lucky, the homeowners will marry them. The men will work as day laborers, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. They’ll be paid a thousand Euros per month. Even the President of Moldova is scheming of illegally immigrating so he can open a pizzeria in Rome. (Moldova is the poorest country in Europe.) He wears hand-me-down clothes from the President of Azer-Baijan and falls asleep in the middle of giving his own speeches.

map showing MoldovaThe irony is that Moldova, of course, used to be part of the Roman Empire, which once came marching to them. Now all they want is to go to Rome. This little sarcastic, sardonic, witty novel is full of irony. It is savagely funny. Although it is full of violence and death, I understood it to be allegorical and was not attached to the characters–it all seems removed from them somehow. Which allowed me to enjoy the humor without getting too upset or outraged by the violence.

(Completely unlike the recent non-fiction books on Lithuania and Sierra Leone.)

And a Tractor Named Joe

castle in MoldovaO.K., that isn’t really the tractor’s name. It has several incarnations, one as a plane and one as a submarine. It even, at one point, receives a Christian burial. All in the service of getting its master to Italy.

“Old Man Tudor and Serafim returned in the evening, tired and angry…Serafim kicked a can of Coca-Cola that had just been tossed from the window of a speeding car.

Moldovan river“Stay put, you say. What awaits us here? Dirt, poverty, a whole lot of lousy nothingness. And how quickly everything went to pot. All in the 20 or so years since the Soviet Union fell apart.”

“Under the Soviets, things were bad, too, it’s just that you’re young and you don’t remember anything, said the old man, pedaling harder and barely opening his eyes. But I remember. Dirt, poverty, and a whole lot of lousy nothingness have always been here.”

“I’ve got to go to Italy,” Serafim said.

“Itay, Italy, you keep chirping,” said Tudor, getting angry. “Better you tell me this: Have you heard about Maria hanging herself?”

Moldovan goat“Yeah, Serafim sighed. When are they burying her?”

“First they’ve got to take her down.”

“What? They haven’t taken her down yet?”

“She’s been hanging on the acacia tree for three weeks,” the old man said sadly. “Her husband doesn’t want to take her down. Her swaying body has a soothing effect on him, he says.”

“Tfu,” spit Serafim. “Inhuman.”

“We’re all human,” admitted Tudor. “We’re all people. We’re all little persons. He should be pitied. The man’s lost his tractor.”

What’s So Funny?

map showing TransnistriaAuthor Lorchenkov, himself a Moldovan, undercuts his characters and their scheming with a deft and professional hand. This is one of the finest comic novels I’ve ever read, but I can’t tell you all the details–there are a few surprises 75% of the way through that will blow doors off the barn of your mind.

Some of the humor is situational–all the plots the villagers use to try to get to Italy and how they’re rarely successful. Plus the sheer ridiculousness of the last days of the Communist Party’s chokehold on the village. (Beneath the laughter there are tears and some murderous intentions for past wrongs–one young man can’t let go of his rage at the Commune Chairman for sending his grandparents and parents to Siberia decades before.)

wine cellarSome humor comes from comic characters like the “asocial element” Petra Ivantsok, who is a professional pickpocket in Larga. When he goes to pieces from the beatings the villagers give him for stealing valuables from trolley passengers, he files for a pension from the Communist Party, and gets one. When they discover their mistake, rather than admit they were wrong, they increase it. (The other village idiot, Dygalo, who moonlights as an agronomist with a PhD in Agricultural Sciences, is so injured by hearing about this that he dies.)

This book was good to the last drop, and I have no doubt that I’ll be reading it again.

Rating: Five Italian textbooks with the covers torn off!

Bourbon Island 1730 (Bourbon Island, Reunion Island)

book coverby Appollo & Lewis Trondheim
courtesy of Banana Books in Long Beach, Washington

(I’m not sure if, when I purchased this book, I was thinking the island belonged to Madagascar or Mauritius or possibly the Comoros. But I was wrong. It’s classified as “France”. Please read anyway!)

This graphic novel knocked my socks off. Knocked. Them. Off. That’s right, I’m sitting here blogging to you barefoot, just like the sailors en route to Bourbon Island from Paris.

In 1730, an ornithologist named Robert (I called him Robear in my head) accompanies his mentor to Bourbon Island in the Caribbean. They’re looking for the dodo, even though the islanders tell them they haven’t seen one for 10 years. What they find is an island seething with intrigue. A pirate has been captured in nearby Madagascar and brought back to Bourbon to hang. His nickname is “the Buzzard”.

A Pirate’s Life For Thee

old fort in the capitol

Cannons on the beach at St. Denis, the capitol of Reunion Island

But there is something you may not know. Bourbon Island was settled by retired pirates–many of whom were granted amnesty in a 1704 deal with the governor. Some are Buzzard’s former crew, some are not fans of Governor Dumas…some have become coffee plantation owners and don’t want to upset the mango cart.

The island of the novel is a wonderful mix of pirates of many countries: French, Dutch, Swedish, English. There are free men and women of color, slaves from Madagascar and Mauritius, Maroons who have escaped slavery and live in free villages in the highlands.

(I got the impression of a very Disney-like Pirates of the Caribbean ride, which I’ve always loved. There’s even a scene where two ships are shooting at one another under the infamous Jolly Roger flag…)

Reunion Island from out to seaI’ve read about the Maroons in other books, primarily in The Pirate’s Daughter (Jamaica). This book, however, finally told me that the name doesn’t have anything to do with The Color Purple. It comes from a French word meaning to revert to the wild. (Hence, shipwrecked sailors could be “marooned” on a desert island). Cool, huh?

What Was So Great About It

RobertI love, love, LOVED the characters in this graphic novel. The geeky, naïve Robert, eager to hear pirate stories, is drawn as a big-billed bird that reminded me of Gyro Gearloose, the wacky inventor relative of Scrooge McDuck. The brave and beautiful slave Evangeline, who is hiding a dangerous secret.

The dread pirate (retired) Jo Pitre, a grumpy Scot who returns to his Madagascaran wife just in time to prevent her seduction by a skanky village priest. (“What? His wife is a woman of loose morals? Perhaps we should pay her a visit.” Ha ha ha.)

The illustrator Appollo can only be described as extremely talented, charming, eccentric, witty, quirky, unique…and of course, pictures are worth 1,000 words.

inside of the comicAt the back, Trondheim has written “Notes” to the reader: About Libertalia, the Pirate Republic on Madagascar, (perhaps a myth put about by Daniel Defoe) about Interracial Mixing on Bourbon (permitted for decades, then outlawed), about a Governor Desforges-Boucher who served on Bourbon in 1724…

the mountains of Reunion Island“The Governor clearly knew the various inhabitants of the island very well and painted a portrait of them that was exceptionally mean–as well as remarkably funny.” One of the things he says is that all buccaneers are given to swearing, since without it, they just wouldn’t be horrid enough. LOL

map of produce on ReunionYer Not Gonna Laugh Out Loud

Wacky drawing and word humor aside, this is not a lighthearted, laugh-out-loud comic. The humor is sardonic, dark, and exceptionalloy dry.

Here is Robert arguing with Virginia, a young girl his party has found unconscious in the jungle.

Privateer Coffee from Reunion Island

Modern-day coffee company on Reunion

Robert: “You’re mistaken about pirates. For the most part, they’re decent people. Their purpose is not looting, but living free. Have you heard of the pirate republic of Libertalia, in Madagascar? Can you imagine? A republic! No King. Living free.”

Virginia: “My father was a pirate, and he exploits over 200 slaves  on his properties. For those slaves, freedom means something. Flesh-and-blood people who are oppressed, whipped, mutilated…not murderous pirates.”

Robert: “The crews of pirate ships were made up in large part of Negroes, you know. Former slaves, in fact. So you know, Miss Lesson-Giver, you should find out about things before bad-mouthing them. Without me anthe dodod Jacques, you’d be carrion for vultures.”

Virginia: “There are no vultures on Bourbon, Mr. Ornithologist From Paris.”

RATING: Yo ho ho and 5 bottles of rum!

PS–Do whatever you can to get your hands on this book, me hearties! Just sayin’.

A Fish Caught in Time (Comoros Islands)

book coverby Samantha Weinberg

Courtesy of Banana Books in Long Beach, Washington

After reading about the horrors of the Holocaust in The Search for Major Plagge, I had to switch to something cheerful. Enter the charming wackiness of ichthyologists in hot pursuit of their passions in A Fish Caught in Time: The Search for the Coelacanth. Ironically, this book also starts in 1938.

Latimer's LandingJust as Europe was bracing for what would become WWII, in the Indian Ocean off the coast of South Africa, a fossil fish was going about its business, neither knowing or caring that the human world “knew” it to be extinct.

The Lady Curator

Marjorie with stuffed fishMarjorie Courtenay-Latimer was the young head of an obscure museum in East London, South Africa. Like animal advocate and zookeeper Gerald Durrell, she collected everything she could get her hands on, including fish. She had an agreement with the captain of a trawler, a commercial fishing boat, that if he caught anything unusual, he’d let her know and she’d identify it for her museum.

Marjorie as an older womanThree days before Christmas in 1938, as Gone With the Wind was opening in America, Latimer went down to the docks to look at a pretty, blue, 5-foot long fish she’d never seen before. It had four fins like arms and legs. It weighed 127 pounds. She knew immediately it was rare and possibly precious, and she had to get an expert in to look at it. That meant she had to preserve the fish despite the tropical heat. But how? No ordinary family had a refrigerator. She thought of the morgue, but they adamantly refused to take on “a stinking fish”. She tried the town’s “cold storage”, but they also refused, saying that the fish could give off gasses, and might contaminate the food. She was out of options. Reluctantly, she took the fish to the town’s sole taxidermist and had him stuff it.

actual blue coelacanth with spotsThen she contacted South Africa’s preeminent ichthyologist, J.L.B. Smith, on holiday several hundred miles away. Upon arriving in East London, he was able to identify the fish as a coelacanth–a fossil fish with a bony exoskeleton–a fierce predator thought to be as extinct as the T-Rex, as dead as the Dodo. Coelacanths are thought to have been around for 75 million years.

Comoros mapOld J.L.B. nearly wet his pants with excitement on seeing this fish. For the next 14 years, he tried to find another one. First, the outbreak of World War II put a stop to his plans. (He was exempt from service due to his WWI injuries, but commercial fishing came to a dead halt and belligerent ships plied the waters). After that he tried offering a 100 British pound reward for another coelacanth with its insides intact. He and his wife tried looking for the fish’s habitat themselves, but with no luck.

Until one was hauled in by a native fisherman in the Comoros Islands. And another race against time began…Again, it was just before Christmas. Again, he was hundreds of miles away–this time in another country. Could he beat the French (in charge of the Comoros) to the prize?

An Adventure in the Spirit of Indiana Jones

JLB SmithOr perhaps Clive Cussler. This is no dry, dusty tome about a boring subject–fish. It has controversy, drama, and eccentric characters galore. The controversy comes in because of Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution, which had gained exactly no purchase in South Africa. The government refused to allow anything from The Origin of Species to be taught in schools (right up until the 1990s, in fact.) And unfortunately, this fish looked a lot like a transition fossil–the “Missing Link” that would show how fish crawled out of the oceans to sprout legs and lungs and become reptiles, apes, and then humans. (Or as we said back then–Man.)

Comoros beachThe Smiths received a lot of letters from religious fundamentalists, which J.L.B. kept in what he called “the crackpot file”.

Despite knowing that I probably would have disliked J.L.B. Smith intensely in real life, like many eccentrics he is delightful to read about. A socially awkward genius who didn’t bother with the niceties, Smith married a much young woman. I don’t think his ego could have tolerated a strong female his own age. Described as a slight man with a fragile body, I read between the lines that he probably had a Napoleon complex.

Old Town harbor on the ComorosBut his ill health too was interesting. At the outbreak of WWII, J.L.B. was given 5 years to live. He immediately decided to defy his doctors by going for long walks every day of at least 4 miles or more, and by changing his diet. He also refused to ever wear closed-toe shoes.

The Diet Debacle

Native menAs a person with gluten intolerance and diabetes, I wanted to know more about this life-saving diet. Unfortunately author Weinberg let me down.

“He refused to mix his proteins and carbohydrates,” she writes. (Why? When you eat carbs without proteins, your sugar shoots straight up and then straight back down. Combining carbs with proteins as my doctors advise, rounds out the curve, making it gradual and gentle.)

Native women“He never ate meat with vegetables, or bread with butter and cheese.” (Um…meat is a protein but vegetables are not carbs, unless you mean peas/carrots/corn.)

“People thought he was crazy. His sandwiches, remembers Jean Pote, used to consist of two pieces of cheese with some apple wedged between them. (Hello, apples are carbs! Fruit has fructose–a fruit sugar–a carbohydrate, and LOTS of it.)

kayaking in shallow waterThis inaccurate reporting made me wonder what else the author had gotten wrong. How far could I trust her? I kept reading, but with a shaker of salt, occasionally fact-checking for myself on the Internet.

Ironically, old J.L.B. Smith got some things wrong himself, including the name of the black man who actually caught the second coelacanth. The fisherman’s real name was Ahamadi Abdallah. Smith also thought for a while that this second fish was a different species of coelacanth, before realizing that the dorsal fin and tail were only different from the first fish due to a shark attack.

Comoro womenFun Fact: Grande Comoro, the largest of these islands, boasts the mountain of Karthala, the largest active volcano crater in the world.

Rating: I seriously could not put this book down. It’s like when you are flipping TV channels and come to a nature documentary and you think, “boring, I must keep searching for My 600-Pound Life,” but your attention is captured for a few seconds by the cute animals and suddenly you’ve been watching the thing, all fascinated, for a few hours. Thanks, Mutual of Omaha!

Five Kapok trees!

You can find my blog about a book set in South Africa here.

The Search for Major Plagge (Lithuania)

book coveby Michael Good
Courtesy of a purchase from Banana Books, in Long Beach, Washington

He was an intelligence officer in the Wehrmacht. He joined the Nazi Party in 1932, way before anyone “had to”.  A veteran of WWI who walked with a limp, he was a true believer in the promises of Adolf Hitler. He loved the Fatherland and wanted to Make Germany Great Again.


Until he was stationed at a vehicle repair facility in Vilna, Lithuania, in charge of handing out starvation rations to the Poles and the Jews. Until he saw children in the Vilna Ghetto shot, clubbed, and brutally murdered. Until he saw the Nazis retaliate against escapees, executing 36 women when 1 couple ran away. Until he saw the SS hang not only this couple, but the young child who ran to them from the crowd, calling “Mama! Mama!”

photo Karl PlaggeYes, right then, Major Plagge started to change. He started to do what he could to resist the Nazis, although he would always feel it wasn’t enough. He started employing more Jews. He started handing out work permits to Jews who weren’t even technically skilled, claiming they were “essential” to the war effort. He started serving an extra meal at the factory of hot soup. He started hiding Jews in the workshop. He started to become what he always was–a decent man. The Good German.

He wasn’t the only one. Another Wehrmacht officer in Poland was actually executed for helping the Jews. He too ran a vehicle repair facility. Just another reason why the liberating Americans drew a distinction between the often honorable and decent Wehrmacht and the sadistic cowards in the SS.

The Good Family of America (Formerly Gdud of Lithuania)

the Vilna Ghetto

The Vilna Ghetto

Dr. Michael Good, MD, the author, is alive today because of Karl Plagge. Michel’s mother Pearl was a child in the Vilna Ghetto. She would have been murdered were it not for Major Plagge. The very last thing he did for her and her family was to warn them, at the end of the war, that the SS was going to liquidate the camp and if they wanted to live, they better hide. They did, and they lived.

Against the awful numbers of Jews who died in Lithuania during the war (shot at Ponary, gassed, sent to Auschwitz and Treblinka, clubbed, starved, killed by disease and poverty) what Karl Plagge did doesn’t seem like much. But to the individual people he saved, it was everything.

Vilna's Dawn Gate

Gate of the Dawn in Vilna

At the beginning of the war, Lithuania had a huge Jewish population. About 550,000 people. Vilna itself was 40% Jewish–a cultural center of learning, trade, and history dating back to the early Middle Ages. By the war’s end, only about 2,000 Lithuania Jews were still alive. Of these, Karl Plagge had managed to save 1,000. Half of the survivors owe their lives to Karl Plagge. It boggles the mind.

At the beginning of the War, Michael Good’s mother Pearl had 33 living members of her family. At the end she had 11. Eight of the 11 were alive because of Karl Plagge. One additional member was saved by Plagge but didn’t make it in the end. (Michael’s father and paternal grandfather saved themselves by hiding in the forest. Because this grandfather had been so generous with his non-Jewish neighbors before the war, every Lithuanian and Pole who knew them gave them food or shelter when they could.)

The Questions About Major Plagge

L MapMichael Good and his parents wanted to thank Karl Plagge. There was no Internet yet, so the search was hard and took a long time, but they reached out to other survivors of the Vilna Ghetto. They discovered that many had been seeking Major Plagge for a long time. What had happened to him at the end of the war?

Did he go through a De-Nazification hearing, like so many camp commandants? Was he hung as a war criminal, like so many SS and Wehrmacht officers? Was he really the hero that Pearl Good (formerly Perla Esterowicz) remembered? Was he just being nice to his workers so he could get more work out of them? What WERE his motivations? Was he still alive? Did he have children or grandchildren who could be thanked? Did Karl Plagge get arrested by the Soviets, and “disappeared” into a gulag like the Swedish hero Raoul Wallenberg (who saved 10,000 Hungarian Jews)?

This book will keep you reading LONG into the night. I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. I wanted answers, just as Michael Good did.

Taking Liberties in Lithuania

Lithuanian city scene at nightWhy the Polish connection in Lithuania?

This country has had a long hard fight for independence. It first became aware of itself as a nation around 1200, when it coalesced into the Duchy of Lithuania and got its first King. In the late Middle Ages, its ruler and the ruler of Poland got married, so for a few hundred years, the country of Poland-Lithuania was a thing. Later on, the Germans and the Russians fought over it. When Hitler invaded the Sudetenland, he and Stalin split Lithuania. Hitler got Poland and Stalin got Lithuania, and Vilna, the capital, was Polish. Then Hitler attacked Stalin and the Red Army took Lithuania back. And Vilna. (And of course, after WWII, Lithuania was eaten by the Soviet Union. It only got its country back in 1993.)

tradtional clothingSo, as this book opens, the author’s aunt and uncle are running out the back door of their house as the NKVD are breaking down the front door. (That’s the precursor to the KGB.) The Soviets wanted to arrest the Jews and take them to Siberia. IRONICALLY, they would have been better off in the Salt Mines of Siberia than in the Vilna Ghetto under Hitler.

If I’d found a Lithuanian equivalent to the idiom “Out of the Frying Pan Into the Fire” I would’ve inserted it here.

After reading this book and consulting my phone, I know a lot more about Lithuania now than I did. Here is one fact: Before WWII, Lithuania was a mostly Catholic country, while Estonia and Latvia were mostly Protestant. I don’t know about now.

This book was a cracking good read, and you will get all the answers you want in the end. No spoilers from me, however!

Rating: 5 bowls of hot soup.


World Holocaust Museum in IsraelFrom the website of Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Memorial in Israel, the Righteous Among Nations award, which was bestowed on Karl Plagge and others like him:

“Attitudes towards the Jews during the Holocaust mostly ranged from indifference to hostility. The mainstream watched as their former neighbors were rounded up and killed; some collaborated with the perpetrators; many benefited from the expropriation of the Jews property.

“In a world of total moral collapse there was a small minority who mustered extraordinary courage to uphold human values. These were the Righteous Among the Nations. They stand in stark contrast to the mainstream of indifference and hostility that prevailed during the Holocaust. Contrary to the general trend, these rescuers regarded the Jews as fellow human beings who came within the bounds of their universe of obligation.

“Most rescuers started off as bystanders. In many cases this happened when they were confronted with the deportation or the killing of the Jews. Some had stood by in the early stages of persecution, when the rights of Jews were restricted and their property confiscated, but there was a point when they decided to act, a boundary they were not willing to cross. Unlike others, they did not fall into a pattern of acquiescing to the escalating measures against the Jews.

“In many cases it was the Jews who turned to the non-Jew for help. It was not only the rescuers who demonstrated resourcefulness and courage, but also the Jews who fought for their survival. Wolfgang Benz, who did extensive research on rescue of Jews during the Holocaust claims that when listening to rescue stories, the rescued persons may seem to be only objects for care and charity, however “the attempt to survive in illegality was before anything else a self-assertion and an act of Jewish resistance against the Nazi regime. Only few were successful in this resistance”.

“Faced with Jews knocking on their door, bystanders were faced with the need to make an instant decision. This was usually an instinctive human gesture, taken on the spur of the moment and only then to be followed by a moral choice. Often it was a gradual process, with the rescuers becoming increasingly involved in helping the persecuted Jews. Agreeing to hide someone during a raid or roundup – to provide shelter for a day or two until something else could be found – would evolve into a rescue that lasted months and years.

“The price that rescuers had to pay for their action differed from one country to another. In Eastern Europe, the Germans executed not only the people who sheltered Jews, but their entire family as well. Notices warning the population against helping the Jews were posted everywhere. Generally speaking punishment was less severe in Western Europe, although there too the consequences could be formidable and some of the Righteous Among the Nations were incarcerated in camps and killed. Moreover, seeing the brutal treatment of the Jews and the determination on the part of the perpetrators to hunt down every single Jew, people must have feared that they would suffer greatly if they attempted to help the persecuted. In consequence, rescuers and rescued lived under constant fear of being caught; there was always the danger of denunciation by neighbors or collaborators. This increased the risk and made it more difficult for ordinary people to defy the conventions and rules. Those who decided to shelter Jews had to sacrifice their normal lives and to embark upon a clandestine existence – often against the accepted norms of the society in which they lived, in fear of their neighbors and friends – and to accept a life ruled by dread of denunciation and capture.

“Most rescuers were ordinary people. Some acted out of political, ideological or religious convictions; others were not idealists, but merely human beings who cared about the people around them. In many cases they never planned to become rescuers and were totally unprepared for the moment in which they had to make such a far-reaching decision. They were ordinary human beings, and it is precisely their humanity that touches us and should serve as a model. The Righteous are Christians from all denominations and churches, Muslims and agnostics; men and women of all ages; they come from all walks of life; highly educated people as well as illiterate peasants; public figures as well as people from society’s margins; city dwellers and farmers from the remotest corners of Europe; university professors, teachers, physicians, clergy, nuns, diplomats, simple workers, servants, resistance fighters, policemen, peasants, fishermen, a zoo director, a circus owner, and many more.

“Scholars have attempted to trace the characteristics that these Righteous share and to identify who was more likely to extend help to the Jews or to a persecuted person. Some claim that the Righteous are a diverse group and the only common denominator are the humanity and courage they displayed by standing up for their moral principles.  Samuel P. Oliner and Pearl M. Oliner defined the altruistic personality. By comparing and contrasting rescuers and bystanders during the Holocaust, they pointed out that those who intervened were distinguished by characteristics such as empathy and a sense of connection to others. Nehama Tec who also studied many cases of Righteous, found a cluster of shared characteristics and conditions of separateness, individuality or marginality. The rescuers’ independence enabled them to act against the accepted conventions and beliefs.

“Bystanders were the rule, rescuers were the exception. However difficult and frightening, the fact that some found the courage to become rescuers demonstrates that some freedom of choice existed, and that saving Jews was not beyond the capacity of ordinary people throughout occupied Europe. The Righteous Among the Nations teach us that every person can make a difference.

“There were different degrees of help: some people gave food to Jews, thrusting an apple into their pocket or leaving food where they would pass on their way to work. Others directed Jews to people who could help them; some sheltered Jews for one night and told them they would have to leave in the morning. Only a few assumed the entire responsibility for the Jews’ survival. It is mostly the last group that qualifies for the title of the Righteous Among the Nations.

“The main forms of help extended by the Righteous Among the Nations:

“Hiding Jews in the rescuers’ home or on their property.
In the rural areas in Eastern Europe hideouts or bunkers, as they were called, were dug under houses, cowsheds, barns, where the Jews would be concealed from sight. In addition to the threat of death that hung over the Jews’ heads, physical conditions in such dark, cold, airless and crowded places over long periods of time were very hard to bear. The rescuers, whose life was terrorized too, would undertake to provide food – not an easy feat for poor families in wartime – removing the excrements, and taking care of all their wards’ needs. Jews were also hidden in attics, hideouts in the forest, and in any place that could provide shelter and concealment, such as a cemetery, sewers, animal cages in a zoo, etc. Sometimes the hiding Jews were presented as non-Jews, as relatives or adopted children. Jews were also hidden in apartments in cities, and children were placed in convents with the nuns concealing their true identity. In Western Europe Jews were mostly hidden in houses, farms or convents.

“Providing false papers and false identities – in order for Jews to assume the identity of non-Jews they needed false papers and assistance in establishing an existence under an assumed identity. Rescuers in this case would be forgers or officials who produced false documents, clergy who faked baptism certificates, and some foreign diplomats who issued visas or passports contrary to their country’s instructions and policy. Diplomats in Budapest in late 1944 issued protective papers and hung their countries flags over whole buildings, so as to put Jews under their country’s diplomatic immunity. Some German rescuers, like Oskar Schindler, used deceitful pretexts to protect their workers from deportation claiming the Jews were required by the army for the war effort.

“Smuggling and assisting Jews to escape – some rescuers helped Jews get out of a zone of special danger in order to escape to a less dangerous location. Smuggling Jews out of ghettos and prisons, helping them cross borders into unoccupied countries or into areas where the persecution was less intense, for example to neutral Switzerland, into Italian controlled parts where there were no deportations, or Hungary before the German occupation in March 1944.

“The rescue of children – parents were faced with agonizing dilemmas to separate from their children and give them away in the hope of increasing their chances of survival. In some cases children who were left alone after their parents had been killed would be taken in by families or convents. In many cases it was individuals who decided to take in a child; in other cases and in some countries, especially Poland, Belgium, Holland and France, there were underground organizations that found homes for children, provided the necessary funds, food and medication, and made sure that the children were well cared for.”

Post Script-

As an American, I never really understood the persecution of the Jews in Eastern Europe. (Most Poles had a special hatred for them.) But to me, Jews, they’re just like us! Michael Good finally validated my thinking:

“My parents have always insisted that Poles and Lithuanians could readily identify someone as a Jew, even at a distance. They claimed that the Poles and the Lithuanians had a “sixth sense” that could tell a Jew from a Gentile. I never believed this, as (bolding mine) here in America, most of us cannot tell a person’s ethnicity and/or nationality by looks alone. We often cannot tell a Jew from an Italian or a Pole, etc. Of course, if a male in Vilna was under suspicion, the SS or Lithuanian police could always check to see if he was circumcised…”