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I had the flu last week. It probably wasn’t a flu, actually. Just a cold and a fever that kept me in bed for three days. What a bore, you say. No. It wasn’t at all. Because the illness opened up a window of time where I could indulge myself and read what I wanted to. I was on a train journey when the fever and chills began, so I wrapped myself up in my warmest clothes and began to read Madeline Miller’s wonderful book.
Circe, by Madeline Miller. When I started the book, I knew of Circe only as an appendage to Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey, an also-ran who played a small supporting role in the life of a classic hero. She was the one who bewitched his men and turned them into swine. In passing, Circe is spoken of as a daughter of Helios the sun god and an ocean nymph. In this book, the heroes (Jason and Odysseus among them) are shown to be flawed human beings with all too human frailties that undermine the lives of those closest to them. The parallels to the 21st century fall of several iconic heroic figures are very close and inescapable. The author brings Circe to magnificent life; a courageous woman who battles her fate and in the end, defies her father to escape the eternity of exile on the island of Aiaia to which Helios has condemned her. Rather than simple mythology, this is a beautiful coming-of-age story (over a period of several centuries, admittedly); a story for our time about a long suppressed and battered woman who finds her voice. The miles flew by and the train journey soon ended. By the time I finished the book I was home, the discomfort of the train journey behind me, and crawled tiredly into bed. After several cups of tea I fell asleep, and when I awoke it was bedtime. I was wide awake, with a runny nose, a bit of a cough, and no chance of going back to sleep. So I started another book.
Die Trapp Familie: die wahre Geschichte hinter dem Welterfolg by Gerhard Jelinek, Birgit Mosser. Many Austrians find it annoying when tourists gush about The Sound of Music and think that it represents a true picture of the country. They see the movie and the musical as a candy floss image of the truth. So this painstakingly researched history by two reporters sets the record straight. For me the real hero in the story is Captain von Trapp, a highly decorated U boat captain. More impressive than his wartime exploits are his apparent human qualities. According to his own writings, he genuinely agonized about enemy loss of life when attacking enemy shipping (but followed duty and did it anyway). He was a devoted father, had a harmonious marriage to his first wife, the mother of his first five children. It didn’t hurt that she was a wealthy English heiress who came from a prominent industrial family based in Trieste. An Irish cousin of his first wife who spoke no German lived in their household for several years. So his children grew up speaking English as well as German. This stood them in good stead in their burgeoning international career. Apparently it is true that the good captain used a ship’s bosun pipe with individual calls to summon his children, but only because they lived in a rambling house with extensive grounds. He was by no means a martinet and when Julie Andrews, pardon, Maria Kutschera, arrives as a childrens’ governess, the family was already very musically capable. They sang in a choir with Captain von Trapp playing first violin and two of the older children on instruments. Anyway, just as in the movie he does really marry the governess, and it is her driving ambition that makes them internationally famous. From this point on, the Julie Andrews myth seems to be closer to the truth. Good reading for the first night and second day of the fever.
Becoming by Michelle Obama. I was feeling much better as I started reading, but soon realized I wasn’t going to get completely well until I’d finished this book uninterrupted. It was a long and easy read. The narrative flowed unpretentious, self-aware and honest. After finishing the book, two impressions were very clear. This woman would be a great politician if she wanted to be one. Second was the certainty that she would never, ever go into politics. And so I delved into the life and times of this fascinating couple. Interestingly, only the last 30% of the book is dedicated to the White House years, presumably because so much of it is in the public record. It is very clear that the focus of her life, apart from the causes she has been associated with, is her family. The immediate family and the extended family. In any case, it was a refreshing and compelling read and I emerged from the book completely well enough to go back to the normal routine of time spent outdoors and other work.
By now mostly everyone who reads the news knows that Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is the world’s richest man, and his customers worldwide are increasing his wealth to the tune of US $ 250,000 per minute! Now, I don’t envy anyone their wealth, especially when it’s been earned through hard work and strategic, long-term thinking. But I do believe that with great wealth comes great responsibility. Other large companies are doing more than paying lip service to the idea of reducing emissions to save the planet. Google’s Waymo has ordered 20,000 Jaguar i-Pace electric cars for its driverless car fleet (an upgrade from its current fleet of Chrysler Pacifica minivans). Even the city of Munich, capital city of BMW’s home state of Bavaria, is encouraging taxi firms to experiment with adding electric cars to their fleets.
I can well understand the indignation of the writer of the article in Clean Technica who says, “Amazon thumbs its nose at Sustainability, orders 20,000 conventional Mercedes Sprinter Vans.” Admittedly there are only a handful of companies that can supply the electric vans needed, but that’s just how young industries get a leg up, with the support of far-sighted leaders of companies and corporations who not only look to the bottom line, but also to the welfare of society at large. In Amazon’s case, it appears, the bottom line takes precedence over benevolence. Maybe this is the most important explanation for Bezos’s immense wealth.
As a self-published writer, I’m in a quandary here. I was an early adopter of Amazon’s superb self-publishing tools provided by CreateSpace (for print-on-demand paperback books) and Kindle Direct Publishing (for e-books). I have published four books on Amazon and have three more novels in the pipeline. The novels have been well reviewed by a few readers, so if someday sales improve, I will be making Bezos richer still. What should I do? I need some advice here.
In looking for answers, I found the following New York Times article helpful; a review of a book by Anand Giridhardas entitled “Winners Take All,” a critical look at philanthropo-capitalism as it is practised in the USA today. Ironically, the first place I looked for the book was on the Amazon website.
In June last year I wrote a blog entitled “Living in Limbo–A Streetside Portait” about a man who stands outside the local supermarket and sells the Augustin newspaper. He’s a refugee from Georgia and used to teach philology back home. I cannot communicate well enough with him to know why he had to leave his home. Perhaps he’s a political refugee and is reluctant to talk about it. Today he handed me a story, photocopied from an old edition of the Augustin. Since his German is very halting, I presume someone translated it for him. Whatever the case, the writer comes across as intelligent, well-read and sensitive, and the story deserves a wider audience. Hence I’ve translated it into English and posted it here. I hope you enjoy his story. I’ll simply call the writer Wassili.
The Man and the Mountain
I’m no longer a stranger here now. I feel I’m in familiar surroundings. I have many acquaintances who call me by name when they talk to me, which pleases me no end. No one knew me in those days, when an elderly man, Herr F., invited me to his villa. He was eighty years old, but still active and full of joie de vivre. His energy would have put many a younger man to shame. His villa was near Neustadt. He called the Augustin office one day to ask for ‘permission’ to take me to Neustadt. He arrived at the Augustin office in his car to pick me up at the appointed time. This was a great honour to me; such a great honour that it was embarrassing.
I remember another occasion when I felt such embarrassment; it was a very cold day. I had no gloves and I was selling newspapers. I noticed someone staring, and then approach me holding out a pair of gloves, obviously intending to give them to me. I refused, pretending I was not cold, but that was wrong. It’s normal for Austrians to look at strangers, but I only understood much later that it’s even more embarrassing to refuse warmth and gestures of goodwill.
Herr F and I drove in his car. It was an old Ford, but very well maintained. He was in high spirits. We joked and laughed a lot. He showed me his villa. Then he took me out to lunch at a restaurant in the mountains. We ate well and drank a little. Herr F was the first person in Austria who reminded me of the words of the 12th century Georgian poet Schota Rustaweli who said: Never forget the duty of friendship to a friend who shows you his heart, for all paths are open to him.
Several days passed before Herr F. came to see me again. “Wasil,” he said, laughing. “You’re Stalin. And I’m Hitler.”
“No Herr F. That’s impossible. The two of them didn’t like each other. They were enemies. We, however, like and respect each other.” Herr F. smilingly agreed. He knew who Stalin was. I’d spoken about him that day at lunch in the mountains. Stalin was Georgian, from Gori. This place is known for its delicious apples and its Stalin Museum. Many foreigners think Stalin was Russian and when they learn he was Georgian, they come to visit the museum.
I haven’t seen Herr F. for several months now. I’m now selling the Augustin at another location. I have neither his telephone number nor his address in Vienna. What do I know about this man who gave me, a stranger arrived in Vienna, such a memorable day? Who knows if he is in trouble, and if so, how I can help him? Who knows where he is now? Perhaps he’s busy and no longer remembers this simple newspaper seller.
There are perhaps many people who think like me. Perhaps the mountain also thinks so; the mountain that rises five hundred meters in front of me, and spends its time thinking. When no one comes to me to buy a newspaper for a long time, the mountain and I look at each other. I think of the time I worked in a school, with a book in one hand, und taught children Georgian language and literature. Now I’m learning to live, or rather, learning how not to be a stranger in a land where I must live.
Sometimes in autumn the mountain is covered in fog– and it seems to be thinking. Just as I do. A big mountain can think more than the small one can. People are like that. The more they think, the more the fog bothers them. I’m talking about the mountain that stands before me. There are vineyards on its flanks, but I see no one there. I wonder how anyone can produce wine on such steep slopes. Georgia too is a land of mountainous vineyards. Grapes grow there too; grapes that are nurtured like children.
In the country where I was born and grew up, one can see mountains, precursors of the Caucasus. I visited these mountains often in my childhood. I went alone, sat down somewhere under a bush, and looked down fondly at my village, loving every single settlement as far as I could see. You small Austrian alpine mountain, I think. It’s your fault that I’m homesick at the sight of you. I love you too. Even though I’ve not known you so well, I love you from a distance. There will come a time when I’m closer to you. For then, if you allow me, I’ll look on your fields and meadows from above, just as I did as a child, silently and wordlessly turning to the land I used to say: I love you, Georgia! With the greatest respect then, I would then humbly say: I love you, Austria.
See this author’s page at Amazon.com to read more of his work
Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking have often said that AI is the greatest threat facing the world today. Here’s maybe an early example of what they worry about. Meet Sophia, the first draft of an uncannily human-like creation.
pederastrian zone -(pe.der.astri.an zone) child molesters on the internet
trumpet – (trum.pet) presidential proclamations of alternative facts
maybe – (may.be) current state of Brexit negotiations
pingterest – (ping.ter.est) Chinese views of disputed territories in South China Sea and Doklam
modify – (mod.if.y) religious fundamentalism in India
Al Jarreau – (al jar.oh) late jazz singer of Qatar?
merken – (merk.en) German (as in, remember me?)
macro – (mak.ro) big French cheese
killing fields – (kill.ing fields) Duterte’s Philippines
Gabon – (gab.on) ongoing discussion about who really won the last election
sod it – (sod.it) Saudi views on women’s rights
Zumba – (zum.ba) popular South African dance
I saw a Hindi movie called Daangal a few days ago. A true story of amateur wrestler Mahavir Singh Phogat in Haryana who raised six girls (four daughters and two nieces whom he adopted on the death of his brother) to be world-class wrestlers who have won many international championships. From a social standpoint, the most remarkable thing is that Haryana is the state with among the worst male/female sex ratios in the country (in 2011, 877 females for every 1000 males). This negative sex ratio is a reliable indicator of low status of women in a society. One can only imagine the real-life battles the Phogat girls faced, in overcoming traditional rural prejudices, cutting their hair, uncovering their faces, competing in early tournaments with boys, finally winning respect by beating many of their male peers and winning championships.
Even though some of the details in the film are untrue, or exaggerated for dramatic effect, there is no disputing that the greatest victory of these young women may not be counted in medals won in the wrestling arena, but in society as a whole. Changes in a society happen in a thousand unexpected ways. Their victories on the floor of the wrestling arena may be reflected in unrelated events in a community. One such example appeared as a feature recently in a Sunday newspaper. In this story, Mahima Jain tells of three women fighting the ghunghat (face veil) in Haryana’s patriarchal stronghold of Faridabad. They wish to show no disrespect to their elders, but also wish to be free of the restriction imposed by the veil. One of them is an educated woman who works in the city with head uncovered all day and sees no reason to cover her face as soon as she returns to her village home.
This news story shows that gender discrimination does not stop with rural, uneducated women, but also affects intelligent, articulate women with advanced educational degrees. As Hans Rosling powerfully shows through statistics in the video posted on this blog earlier in January (Reading the Tea Leaves: a primer for 2017), true development happens in a nation when gender discrimination has been largely overcome. By this definition, there are very few truly developed nations in the world; merely rich ones, poor ones and increasingly, widening gaps within societies between rich and poor.
One amusing and unexpected similarity between the real-life female wrestlers and their film counterparts: the professional wrestlers look just as elegant and sophisticated as the actors who play them in the movie. Check out the photos below without reading the captions first and see if you can tell who’s who.
The grand epic of the Mahabharata tells of the war between two clans, the Pandavas and the Kauravas. The many stories in the book of tales, which are told in some 100,000 stanzas of classical Sanskrit verse are together 12 times the length of the entire Bible. I have read several different English translations of this stupendous work. Despite the sometimes stilted language of the translations I read, the sublime poetry and wisdom of this work invariably shine through. I have searched for years for the perfect translation, and found it at last on the internet. The tale in its entirety is so complex, with a huge cast of characters and so many different sub-plots, that I thought it impossible to ever write a summary that does justice to the tale. Until this discovery on the internet of a synopsis written by someone (or a collective) calling themselves Wm. Blake Fabricators. A Google search led me to someone called Richard Blumberg who is apparently based in Cincinnati. Kudos to Richard Blumberg, then, for writing the most readable and comprehensive synopsis of this monumental work; a synopsis that effortlessly conveys the essence of the stories in fluid prose. I have reproduced the Introduction from the website below, and copied the links to synopses of the other six major episodes, with an Afterword and a Bibliography. I’m convinced that readers of this page, and followers of this blog, will not regret the 20 minutes they might spend following the links below to read the rest of this fascinating story.
It has been called the national epic of India, and it is that, in very much the same sense that the Iliad is the national epic of Classical Greece. The Mahabharata is the story of a great war that ended one age and began another. The story has been passed down to us in a classical canon of Sanskrit verses some 100,000 stanzas long; that’s about 12 times the length of the Western Bible. The best scholarly evidence indicates that the earliest layers of the epic were composed between 2500 and 3000 years ago. The text had reached pretty much its present form by about 300-400 C.E.
Mahabharata has also been called the Hindu bible. It is important at the outset to recognize that epic and bible are both Eurocentric terms. The former implies the kind of single-minded focus on the hero and his deeds that characterizes the stories that we Europeans learned as epics in our schooling. And the latter term implies a certain iconic status for the book in its society; our bible is not something we know so much as it is something we swear on. None of that is particularly true for the Mahabharata, although it is not completely false either. It just misses the point.
Epic and bible together imply an absolute division between the sacred and the profane – one pure fable and the other Holy Truth – that simply doesn’t exist in the Hindu vision. Our Eurocentric minds, trained in a Jahwist tradition of good and evil, true and false, demand that the story go into one slot or the other, and if it is too big, then we will reduce it to fit. The Hindu mind, I think, rather than force the story into any single category, conceives a story big enough to encompass all categories.
The Mahabharata itself says it quite positively.
What is found herein may also be found in other sources,
What is not found herein does not matter.
The Mahabharata contains virtually all the lore and legend of the Classical Hindu Tradition – which is also, in typical Hindu defiance of simple-minded historicity – very much a living tradition. Here are the great creation stories – Manu’s flood, the churning of the milk ocean, the descent of the Ganges. Here are the favorite myths and fairy tales. Here are the jokes. Here are the codes of law – moral, ethical, natural. One of the best things about the Mahabharata is its wonderful richness of episode and detail.
But Mahabharata is not a random collection of tales, like the Medieval gestes (to further prove the habit of thinking Eurocentrically). Every digressive bit of the Mahabharata is there to shed light on a central story. The core event of that story is the great battle that was fought on the field of Kurukshetra between the five sons of King Pandu and their allies on the one side and the hundred sons of King Dhritarashtra, with their allies, on the other side. The battle was the culmination of a long history of struggle and diplomatic maneuvering, and it involved virtually every tribal king and every powerful city-state in Central and Northern India at the time.
It was a tragic war, that pitted brothers against brothers, sons against fathers and uncles, brave noble men against brave noble men. And it was devastating. Nearly all of the best men died in the long battle. The Pandavas, the sons of King Pandu, survived, but there was no victory, for the war had destroyed the world that they knew, and the emptiness of what they had won colored the rest of their lives.
Now to say that the Mahabharata is the story of a great battle is to say that Hamlet is the story of an unsuccessful usurpation, or that Moby Dick is the story of a whale hunt. Hindu cosmology is sweeping, and the story of the Mahabharata war has cosmological significance, in that it marks the end of one yuga and the beginning of another. There are four yugas in every great cycle of existence, each one diminished from the one before. The yuga that ended with the Mahabharata war was the dvapara yuga – the age of heros, during which noble values still prevailed and men remained faithful to the principles and tasks of their castes. The age that follows the battle is the Kali yuga, the last age of the world; in it, all values are reduced, law becomes fragmented and powerless, and evil gains sway. We live in the Kali yuga.
The breadth of its vision is one of the things that makes the Mahabharata the best story I know. But there are other reasons. Mahabharata has a riveting plot and a compelling dramatic structure. Its characters are complex and real, with depth of personality that is unmatched in any other epical or biblical story I have heard. Finally, I have found the Mahabharata to be full of wisdom.
In the next few minutes, I am going to try to give you a sense of how the Mahabharata story goes.
Since the story has cosmic significance, its ultimate beginnings are lost in the mists of time and the minds of unknowable immensities; a wealth of family histories, myths, and fables lead up to the events that I will tell you about. I will jump into the story at a point where the succession to the kingship had come into question.
Synopsis: (from the Amazon website) At 18, Lina is an aspiring actress and the stunning daughter of Viennese coffeehouse owners. When the imperial capital’s most sought-after bachelor, Adolf Loos, unexpectedly proposes, she eagerly agrees. But the honeymoon is short-lived. Her “modern” husband might be friends with women activists but his publically progressive views do not extend to his young wife. Thank goodness for the sympathetic ear of Café Central’s beloved, old poet, Peter Altenberg. But when Adolf Loos unwittingly pushes Lina into the arms of his activist friend’s handsome son, Lina becomes entangled in a web of desire, jealousy and intrigue. No man’s love is unconditional. As the three friends rival to mold her into the perfect wife, muse and lover, Lina strives to recall the woman she once imagined herself to be. Fact and fiction weave together with history and romance in this tragic yet inspiring tale of Lina Loos’ struggle for love, liberation and self-fulfillment during her years of marriage to the renowned architect, Adolf Loos.
Set in the early 1900s in fin-de-siècle Vienna, Women and Wild Savages tells the timeless story of a person’s journey to recognize and be herself in a world determined to make her into someone else.
One of the first books I read about Austrian history nearly 4 decades ago was Frederic Morton’s hugely enjoyable “A Nervous Splendor.” This historical novel provided a vertical slice-of-life view of Viennese society in the closing decades of the Habsburg empire at the turn of the 19th century to the 20th. I then read many books about this fascinating period. William Johnston’s scholarly collection of essays, “The Austrian Mind” stands out, as well as Carl Schorske’s “Fin de Siècle Vienna.” Where Morton’s work gave a vertical view of life in the Vienna of the time, KC Blau’s novel gives a complementary, horizontal glimpse of Viennese society. Where Morton’s work was history written as fiction, this novel is more of a fiction written as history (although based on true events). Anyone who has enjoyed any one of the three above-mentioned books will surely give this novel a 5-star rating for its authentic recreation of the atmosphere and mores of the time. Readers who know nothing of Vienna will perhaps miss the authenticity of the period details but will surely enjoy the writing and the development of the characters. So while my personal opinion inclines to 5*, I’ve decided to rate it a 4* overall for the benefit of the average reader. I look forward to reading more of the “Vienna Muses” series as and when when they are published.
For more by this author, see his Amazon page here.
To all Android users: The above 4 books are now available on Google Play. The first 20% of each book can be downloaded as a free sample. For the owner of a not-so-new smartphone (3 year-old Samsung) like myself, the text was surprisingly easy to read in both vertical and landscape modes. Downloads were almost instantaneous using a reasonably standard wi-fi connection. To access the books, select the “Entertainment” header on the Google Playstore app, and then open the category “books” to search under author or title. Hint: The entire title story of the Ironwood Poacher collection can be downloaded and read as a free sample.
Forthcoming: All 4 of the above titles coming soon to the iTunes store, plus Desert Dreams, an illustrated travel guide to the fascinating and history-laden state of Rajasthan that will be published only as an e-book on Google Play, iTunes and Kindle. Additionally, a brand new website (aviottjohn.com) designed by a young professional based in Munich, plus a subsequent post on some small steps to save the iconic Indian tiger. Follow this blog for automatic notifications of updates.
Way back in 1982, industrialist Clive Sinclair was at the height of his business career. The Sinclair ZX Spectrum was among the first and most successful mainstream home computers in the world, ultimately selling more than 5 million units world wide. Clive Sinclair is credited with launching the UK IT industry and products like the Spectrum and its successors earned him a knighthood. In that same year, he instituted a literary prize, the Sinclair Prize for Fiction, to be awarded to an unpublished manuscript of social or political significance. Two of the five judges (including the Chairman) thought that a novel called ‘Chasing Cursors’ by an unknown Indian author was the clear winner. The other three judges demurred, saying the novel was of no social or political significance. They took the problem to Clive Sinclair, who threw some additional money into the pot and said the novel in question should be given a special award. The Sinclair Prize ultimately was awarded to an author whose book about battling the apartheid regime in South Africa was clearly of great social and political significance. ‘Chasing Cursors’ won special mention for merit and was awarded a small cash prize.
Since this is a short story, a long story is omitted here about two literary agencies (one in the UK and the other based in the US) seeking a publishing home for ‘Chasing Cursors’ in its new avatar of ‘Sudarshan’s Gift.’ According to the agencies, the manuscript was rejected by more than four hundred publishers on four continents over the next ten years. In 1999, a new e-publishing venture called Online Originals picked it up for their list of e-books to be sold online in pdf or PDA formats (Anyone remember the Palm Pilot, the Psion or Apple’s Newton?).
Publisher David Gettman, convinced of the book’s literary merit, nominated it for the Booker Prize in that year, perhaps the first ever submission of an e-only book for the prize. The Prize committee rejected the nomination, on the grounds that the author had changed nationality since the book was written, was no longer a Commonwealth citizen, and hence could not be considered for the prize. Fast forward to 2015 when publishing rights revert to the author and it now appears as a paperback and Kindle edition on Amazon. Here are headlines from the 8 reviews of the books so far.
Powerful, lasting story….. Heartwarming….. a Lesson in Love and Tolerance….. Intriguing….. Such a gift is pure….. A Well-Written Tale….. A journey through India and the human heart.…. Great Storytelling ….
The re-publication of Sudarshan’s Gift and its first appearance in paperback has meant that the appearance of “Grace in the South China Sea,” has been delayed by several weeks. More about Grace in the next blog.