The Beauty of History (Latvia)

Latvian flag

by Viivi Luik

Courtesy of a special order from Auntie’s Bookstore

This book was really hard for me to understand. It’s like being in a dream. A dream with no context. What do Americans know about Latvia? If I hadn’t recently read a Swedish mystery in which a cargo ship comes from Riga with a dead body, I’d know exactly nothing at all.

When I was in junior high school, I was very indignant about the countries of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia being swallowed up by the Soviet Union. I felt their pain; their tragedy very strongly. I’m not sure why: I just remember at age 14 sitting on a bus outside Checkpoint Charlie at the Berlin Wall, crying over the injustice of all the East Germans imprisoned by the Soviets. Meanwhile my peers were running up and down the aisle throwing condoms at each other and laughing. How could they not care? Why did I? I don’t know, I just do.

Soviet propaganda poster depicting Latvia "joining" the USSR. From the Museum of Occupation. Notice that Latvians don't write in Cyrillic.
Soviet propaganda poster depicting Latvia “joining” the USSR. From the Museum of Occupation. Notice that Latvians don’t write in Cyrillic.

So I have a deep sympathy for the national struggles of the Latvian people. Having said that, when you have to go outside of a book to discover what it’s about, that’s not a good sign.

It’s like going to a museum and staring at a painting, only to have to read the lengthy little description at the side to understand it. I’m sorry, but I think paintings and books should stand on their own.

What It’s All About (I Am Told)

Latvia from airAccording to Norvik Press, this book is “powerfully evocative of life within the Baltic States during the Soviet occupation and of the challenge to artists to express their individuality whilst maintaining at least an outward show of loyalty to the dominant ideology.” Uh, oh. I’ve been here before.

In a Post-Stalinist Literature class in Pecs, Hungary, we studied the writing of the Stalinist era and how writers were forced to be very obscure for their safety–so obscure that as a Westerner, I had no idea what they were talking about.

Lativa MapCensorship: When my husband and I watched The Lives of Others, we got a tiny taste of what it must have been like to live in East Germany when 1 out of every 2 people were spying for the State and the Stasi (secret police). It was creepy, and frightening.

Here is the narrator of The Beauty of History speaking about her lover’s attempts to get out of the military:

“Aunt Olga has promised to come and tell her as soon as Lion has telephoned from Moscow…If things have gone well, Lion will say that he has succeeded in buying Mother those blue cups. But if things have gone badly…he will announce curtly that he could not find the blue cups in Moscow and perhaps Mother had better come herself.”

Latvia by nightI did like:

  • the books’ poetic imagery
  • how effortlessly one thought flowed into another in a truly dream-like fashion
  • the way the book brought in the entire region, not just Latvia.

Poetic Writing Style:

“The curtain flutters so innocently, the bunch of flowers in the vase smells os sweet and the circle of light thrown by the ceiling lamp glows so warmly that it feels as if down in Prague it could not, after all, already be autumn and as if up here in Riga the Stat could not set its hand on human days and as if the work of the officers of staff of the Baltic military district were mere imagination or mockery.

book cover“Everyone who puts his head out of the window draws it back quickly for the night is as large and dark as the kingdom of death. On the other side of the window stands the Angel of the Lord, notebook in hand, writing. What he notes for today he keeps to himself, as he does everything he sees, as he looks through house walls and ribs. Nevertheless there are two words–smoke and salt–which he must set down for today, for in his opinion the entire state is nothing but blue smoke which was and which no longer is, and human days and bodies are, according to him, only salt, which dissolves. One could argue with him, and with him arguments have truly been made. Is a human being an animal? Attempts could be made, with the help of books, to explain this to him and this really has to be explained, but he does not even bother to raise his eyebrows. Arguing with him is like carrying water in a sieve.

“The first stars are appearing in the sky. Certainly there will be some among them that fall into the nettles of Estonia, the flowers of Latvia and the mud and dust of the Czechs.”

Someone Who Gets It

Ruined castle in LatviaIf you’d like to try reading this book, here are some helpful approaches.

  1. Flip to the back and read all the end notes, plus the Afterword entitled Spring in Prague, Winter in Tallinn. This should have been the foreword.
  2. Read Eric’s review: he translates Estonian literature and understands the context: Thank you, Eric! For example, the following paragraph would have been useful for me to take into the book:
    1. A street in Riga“What is interesting about this novel is that it touches upon various themes such as the Prague Spring in 1968…A country girl from Estonia meets a sophisticated Jew from Riga, someone who wants to travel to Moscow to obtain papers to get him out of the army. He, like most Balts, wasn’t too excited about shooting Czechs while he was conscripted into the Soviet occupation army, when in fact the Balts harboured the same thoughts of shrugging off Soviet domination as did Czechs and Slovaks.

Rating: Three stars made of nettles and mud. The book is good overall, just a lot of work. I’m not sure I want to do that much work.


Kyrgyz Kalpak (Kyrgyzstan)

Area map of central AsiaKyrgyz Kalpak

by Risbek Richard Hewitt

courtesy of a special order from Auntie’s Bookstore

This is a strange little book. When you are writing a blog about reading one book from every country in the world, a small, thin book is appealing. (On a professional note, although I work in the book trade, I’ve never seen book without a Western ISBN or EAN number: this one lists a Russian and a Kyrgyz ISBN.)

Anyway. On to the writing. (Btw, lots of the publishing information is in Cyrillic. What fun! Thanks to the Rosetta Stone, I have about a kindergartner’s fluency in Russian, so I enjoy sounding out basic words.)

What I Thought I Was Getting

Ala Too Mountains with SnowA guide to Kyrgyz traditional dress, with side notes on culture and history.

Instead, I got a rambling religious treatise by a Westerner who seems to have converted to Islam and dedicates the book “to all who wear the white kalpak“. Reading it is a lot like going on a road trip with a planned agenda, and then detouring to somewhere bizarre but interesting. Here’s a sample:

“I am a descendant of the wild Anglos and treacherous Saxons who are some of the wildest, cruelest, and darkest people in world history. We are responsible for killing and enslaving many peoples, including the American Indians–a people very similar to the  honorable and noble Kyrgyz. My people are worse than the Russians, who are also responsible for the historical massacres of many of your fathers.

Ala Too Mountains, with poppies“I cannot cover my shame. A deep sense of regret, sorrow, and shame grips my heart. I ask you, my Kyrgyz hosts, to forgive me, and my fathers, and my brothers for the sins we have committed against you, and your fathers, and your brothers.

“I am unworthy to write this book, and would not assume such a presumptuous task if it were not for the voice of God…”

Is it just me, or does he sound like he’s writing to the Noble Savages from the 18th century…?

The Great White Kalpak

Men wearing the white kalpakThe ak kalpak is worn on the head of Kyrgyz men as a symbol of their being the head of the family, but it’s also symbolic of the “great Ala-Too Mountains, fatherland of the sacred Kyrgyz people and considered holy by those who live in them…” (in yurts).

(Mind you, Wikipedia says Ala Too translates as “motley”. The Motley Mountains.)

Lest you get the impression that Kyrgyz people live in some sort of medieval country, at right are a few photos of the capital, Bishkek. The author apparently taught at the Academy of Agriculture there. Capital of the countryYes, there are modern cities in Kyrgyzstan.

Back to the white kalpak:

  • Kyrgyz can’t kill a  man with a kalpak on.
  • Kalpaks can’t be put on the ground.
  • Kalpaks must be laid next to the head at night, and never by the feet.
  • Kalpaks are supposed to be warm in winter and cool in summer, with illness-reducing properties.
  • Kalpaks must never be lost or traded, lest you lose your head or your mind.

Apartments in BishkeshThe book then goes off into a rambling dissertation on how because the kalpak applies no pressure (or fear) to the head, the owner of the kalpak is broad-minded. “Surely God gave the kalpak to the Kyrgyz who love freedom and wisdom. But now, it seems that foreign teachers are challenging the authority of the kalpak and your freedom to think. Our world-view or religion is always the first place to be assaulted…”

Muslim fashion show in Bishkek
Muslim fashion show in Bishkek

The next chapter is called The 7 Responsibilities of Every Muslim. Then he goes off on a tangent about the Abrahamic faiths, Cain and Abel, and how hats made of plant material must be unpleasing to God while animal sacrifice and hats made of skin must indicate that the religion is pleasing God.

Then he asserts that the prophet Jacob in the Bible and the Jakyb of the Manas Epos could be one and the same, “…as you will realize when you read all the Muslim holy books and the Manas Epos…when you put on your kalpak and fulfill your Muslim responsibility.

“The Bible says Jacob adopted Manas and Ephraim from their father Joseph. You Kyrgyz still practice this same custom to this day.”

And What About Jesus?

The Islamic holiday of Eid
The Islamic holiday of Eid

According to the author, Jerusalem has experienced so much war because it didn’t welcome Jesus when he rode there on a donkey in Luke 19. “So you think Afghanistan, Tadjikstan, and Chechniya welcome Kydyr Jesus at this time? Could their wars be connected to their rejection of Jesus, the blessed Kydyr? Are they ruining the honor of all Muslims by ignoring the prophet of peace?…

Hijab ban
Schoolgirls protest a 2009 ban on wearing the hijab to school…in a country that is 75% Muslim

“You are the honorable Kyrgyz, descendants of the greatest people who ever lived; I beg you…make peace between the warring peoples of this world, then you’ll be the most noble Muslims of our modern times. ”

Rating: This book is super interesting, although the author is obviously delusional in a way that only religious fanatics can be. Although he did, according to Wiki, start a seed project in the high mountains and does love the Kyrgyz people.

Four yurts (the yurt is probably the mysterious House of Jacob’s God and Tent of David which God will use to enlighten many nations.) Uh, huh.

As for the picture at right and above, isn’t it strange for a Westerner to think that religious freedom is under attack in a far-off land…the Muslim religion?


Samarkand (Lebanon)

Samarkandby Amin Maalouf

Courtesy of a special order from Auntie’s Bookstore

Samarkand. The very name breathes an exotic magic. When my friends Gary and Julia and I were kayaking in Japan, Samarkand was the perfume Julia and I used afterward. It came from the Body Shop and, of course, it has been discontinued.

Samarkand itself has survived several attempts to eradicate it. The city was raized by Chengis Khan once around the year 1000, and then rebuilt by Tamerlane around 1500. The old magic lingers, as it is now a World Heritage Site–the oldest inhabited city in Central Asia (500 BCE) and a crossroads of cultures.

I was surprised to see that Samarkand is located in the present-day Uzbekistan. In the time of Omar Kayyam, it was part of a Muslim world that stretched from Persia to Russia.

So what does all this have to do with Lebanon? The writer is Lebanese.

Who Was Omar Khayyam?

Omar KApparently this poet was quite the rebel. In a Muslim world, he was in favor of wine, women and song, not necessarily in that order. He wrote poems (rubaiyat) that questioned the wisdom of God, and then when he was called on the carpet for it, defended himself by saying of course he was a True Believer, or why would he be having a dialogue with God in the first place?

(I just heard a dialogue on NPR from Orman Pamuck (Turkey) about the difference in the Muslim world in ages past between public opinion and private opinion. Apparently the ruling classes’ public view on alcohol often differed from everybody else’s private views. It was a matter of what was safe to express in the open. Pamuck talked about the confusion and the difference between what is sincere and what is true. I didn’t understand that; presumably it makes sense if you are heavily censored.

Omar Kjayyam avoided politics, knowing they could get him killed. His lover Jahan was not so wise. She got wrapped up in the affairs of the Sultana of the day, because Jahan loved power. She was a court poetess, but unlike Omar, she was not adverse to having her mouth filled with gold coins in payment for her poems. She died when the palace was attacked by a rival faction for the throne.

Samarkand in the year 1000The poems of Omar Khayyam are with us today–the problem is that we don’t know exactly which ones were written by him and which were not. Over the centuries (Khayyam lived around the first millennium–1000 A.D.–) whenever poets wrote something seditious, they disavowed it and claimed it was from Omar Kjayyam. So…there is no way to tell which are his and which are not.

Interestingly, this book mentions Jamaladin, the son of Imam Shamil of Dagestan, the Chechin rebel fighting the Russians. He is a key player in the search for Omar Kayyam’s manuscript. It’s so Indiana Jones, complete with a trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway and a frantic flight from Tehran as an accused murderer’s accomplice.

TammarlaneIn college, I ran across this poem of Khayyam’s:

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit,
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

And that was all I knew of him.

Who Are the Sufis?

Whirling Dervishes, different colorsI’ll be honest with you; all I really know of the Sufi religion is the line from the movie Jewel of the Nile where the dervishes reproach Danny DeVito for continuing along the path of greed to wanting to steal an actual jewel: “Ralph, Ralph, that is not the Sufi way…”

Apparently Sufi-ism is a mystic facet of Islaam. I wonder if that has paralells to Gnosticism within Christianity…?

According to Wiki, classical Sufi scholars have defined Sufism as “a science whose objective is the reparation of the heart and turning it away from all else but God”.

OmarAs I interpret that, to turning the heart away from all else but love.

The book is this amazing amalgamation of the works of Omar K., his life, his times, his challenges, the centuries after his death, the people devoted to finding his manuscript, and then what happened to it.

Rating: I would totally give this book five olives of Lebanon–and well worth the oil.

Wine, men, and song! Politics, censorship, and big!