Beginning with an ouch and some altogether unrelated non-literary news (which, however, will excuse to some extent my complete awol from the blogosphere): My hand is f*%& up from doing work at my father’s farm weeding in his potatoe fields – maaaan it hurts. My wrist crackles and fizzles! Fascinating on one side, and completely turning on my gagreflex on the other. I have enclosed photographic evidence to corroborate this little tale and as proof that it is pretty hard to write with this thing on my arm, and it hurts if I strain my wrist too much. No snide comments a-thank-you-very-much!
So, I have been at home on the Faroes for two weeks now and I am kind of surprised at how good the weather has behaved – usually I can use rain and storm as an excuse to sit up in my room and read all day, but when the sun is shining I get my productive on! Which means I have not read that much. But my bread-making skills have been amped quite a bit (another ouch point for my wrist).
One of my favorite things to do when I’m home is going to my mother’s bookshelves – it’s like therapy to me. 5 days into my trip on the Faroes I was already rummaging through my mother’s bookshelf about three times a day. One morning I found a collection of class struggle songs, including of course “The Internationale” and just about every theme under the sun, whether it’s women’s lib or an alternative tune to celebrate Christmas. Some of the songs are quite funny and others are downright disturbing, but as a whole we could do with a lot more united singing to build morale these days when the right/liberal/conservative political power is rising to disturbingly new hights every day.
But back to literature:
After a long brake from Herta Müller‘s “Der Mensch ist ein großer Fasan auf der Welt” I started reading it again on the plane home. It’s harder than I thought picking up the nuances of literature when it is in German (or maybe it’s just Herta’s style), but then again it is also a totally different reading experience – paying a lot more attention to the language, and looking up words along the way, having to reread the senctences and going back to passages that need further clarification – where I normally gob up pages. The poetic language takes precedence in this case, and the textual layering is beautiful – I could spend hours at passages reading and rereading to find new meanings and hints open up in the language. I would really like to read it in other languages to see what the translators do with this text.
The German-minority family Windisch in Romania are waiting for an exit permit to the West. It is 1980s Ceaușescu-land and Herr Windisch is dreading the stagnation of time and mind. The Romanian proverb ‘Man is a great pheasant in the world’ transmits the awkwardness of the broken-winged bird wildlife to human clumsiness and evil. And there is plenty evil and baseness in this short but brimmed novel. And I am in awe over how weightily Müller uses literary techniques with seemingly straightforward (but not pretentious) ease. And she approaches very tough and far-reaching tematics through this strong hold on the poetry of language, using it as respectively a light and a sword to enlight and cut through the experiences and actions of her characters. One of my favorite passages is called “Die Grassuppe” and is about Mrs. Windisch, Katharina and her time in a Russian work camp. It’s composition is reminiscent of a fairy tale albeit a grotesque postmodern one. I won’t recount it here, only note that the repetitive style in language is complementing the issue of intense survival instinct.
The political implications and how they are conveyed through literature is totally different to someone like say, Sofi Oksanen. Oksanen’s approach seems more with emphasis on the storyline, expressing the anger in the dialogue and thought processes and having characters acting counter to the events – whether it be detremental to themselves or others. And her narratives are also beautifully executed.
But Müller’s characters and setting in “Der Mensch ist…” are a product of this stagnant, cynical aura that destroys human’s from the inside out and betray’s sides of humanity we in good times try so hard to avoid to talk about and surpress with fervor. Makes you think what we could accomplish if we utilized this passion to positive change, instead of ending with yet another tale of ideology turned sour and dictatorical – are we really that thick that we to this day still lack the level of abstraction that can change this cycle of a history doomed to repeat itself in different shades and locations? I will end with a quote from “Der Mensch ist ein großer Fasan auf der Welt”.
Der Nachtwächter hat Windisch erzählt, daß der Pfarrer in der Sakristei ein Eisenbett stehen hat. In diesem Bett sucht er mit den Frauen die Taufscheine. “Wenn’s gutgeht,” hat der Nachtwächter gesagt, “sucht er die Taufscheine fünfmal. Wenn er gründliche Arbeit leistet, sucht er sie zehnmal. Der Milizmann verliert und verlegt bei manchen Familien siebenmal die Gesuche und die Stempelmarken. Er sucht sie mit den Frauen, die auswandern wollen, im Lagerraum der Post, auf der Matratze.” Der Nachtwächter hat gelacht. “Deine Frau”, hat er zu Windisch gesagt “ist zu ihm zu alt. Deine Kathi läßt er in Ruh. Aber deine Tochter kommt auch noch dran. Der Pfarrer mach sie katolisch, und der Milizmann macht sie staatenlos. Die Postfrau gibt dem Milizmann den Schlüssel, wenn er im Lagerraum Arbeit hat.
Sofi Oksanen, I wish I could read Finnish so I could read your debut novel in its originality. Not that the translation was bad at all. It’s just… I feel there is something embedded in the language itself, that cannot be translated and understood at all. Like I have read a story that has so much cultural baggage, that this novel alone cannot satisfy my knowledge on the cultural/political aspects of this novel. And language (or expression) is a very important part of ‘Stalin’s Cows’. Language is identity and culture, it is something that both manages to distinguish you from and unite you with others on different levels. And when there is so much stigma attached to your heritage you go on the fence. But the narrative is interspersed with snippets of utterances in Estonian, Russian and Finnish that arrest my journey. And so the whole idea of denying someone the use of language, the right to express through language a part of one’s identity, proves to be futile; it wants out, it gets out, it finds ways no matter how hard you try to cover it up.
Sofi Oksanen, if I wanted to do my project justice I would sit myself down with an encyclopedia (old school), history books, essays on cultural transposition, and a dictionary, so I could tear the novel apart and let it percolate through my mind. It’s not just the words, but the enormous baggage and memory that lies behind them I want to get to. There is literature that wants to investigate itself on its own premisses, and then there is literature that needs words to give up their own agenda and become translucent – still autonomous, but hinting at another level, often in need of a personal voice, a subjective form to utilise language. And then, language is really just a conveyor belt.
Sofi Oksanen, the way you decide to delve into the logic of an eating disorder fascinates me. Dealing with it all cool and distanced, on a theoretical level, a tour de force in self-delusion, you chose latent communication. What does ‘Stalin’s Cows’ want to say? Is self-preservation, the physical minimum-survival-excistence, above all other aspects of life? If you spend your whole time making escape routes, creating a persona or shell, denying your identity in the process, the most engaging part of the day will not be how to live in the world, but how to endure yet another day in your own body. The logic of the eating disorder spirals through and through in Anna’s obsessive expositions and the language of food consumption and paranoia shrouds every day, every encounter, every meeting and flashback.
Sofi Oksanen, thank you.
On March 30th the Nordic Council Literature Prize 2010 was awarded to Sofi Oksanen for her novel Puhdistus.
I had planned for a long time to read it, as I read an interview with her and several reviews that spoke highly of the novel. Usually I don’t select my readings by reviews, but everything I read, both on and in between the lines, hinted at something special, so I reserved it from my library as soon as I could (and ended up only no. 24 in line!). I finally got it and read it in two days. I know it is every publisher’s press release orgasm wording, but it sucked me in and wouldn’t let go until I had read the last sentence.
The novel takes place in Estonia, where an elderly farmer woman Aliide finds a woman called Zara, a trafficking victim, battered and bruised on her property. The women’s different yet similar histories are told in a very harsh but poetic way. Every imaginable pain, guilt and shame that can befall a woman both in a political dictatorship and tyrannical misogynistic rule is present. But just so it doesn’t all become one color, the story also tells of pride, survival instincts and imagination. And it made me angry, it made me empathize and gag and smile and nod agreeingly. There were so many layers of female thoughts all coming together in the novel. And I say female thoughts, not to say it is an entity far from male thoughts, but only to emphasize that the novel deals with the female experience of a system set in order by men, in which it is almost impossible for them not to step outside the line and get penalized. Male dominance is pervasive and his sexuality is being used as a weapon against, and on, women in ways that make you cringe.
Something I found very interesting was how Aliide’s jealousy of her sister manifested itself in the book. It is, for lack of a more appropriate word, beautifully described. It represents a woman engulfed in her sisters assets and successes so much that her sister almost gains a divine glare, a virginal innocence towards all evil thought and behavior, only thence to manifest darkness so more blatantly in Aliide.
She is such a complex figure in my mind, and yet so cliché when it comes to the failures in sisterhood. Aliide knows what she wants, and she is determined to get it at all (and I mean seriously at ALL) costs. I think she represents a figure who balances on the very fine edge of desire and survival. She is determined to survive, even if that means that she has to give up so many things that could enrich her life. She survives but at a cost. Is it society’s fault? Men? Her own or her family’s?
And when she lashes out, takes control of her life, person and property , it is almost as if it is too little to late, or in a totally exaggerated way.
Another interesting and reoccurring scene is when the women experience assault and their mind, in survival mode, takes them out of this threatening situation. Being the little piece of dust or a fleck of light on the hard cement floor, fleeing into a hole in the wood, and with every sentence being read you, the reader, are painfully aware, but not explicitly told of the horrors that are inflicted upon them. I can’t recapitulate the intensity of these passages with as much fervor as Oksanen does, but they are worth the read.
There is so much to delve into in this book, so much to emphasize, but I don’t want to make this too long. Safe to say, I will be picking this book up again at some point in time.