Two Contrasting Satirical Works: Spike Milligan and Dan Lungu

One way of dealing with traumatic historical events is by using satire or black humour. The Romanians have an expression for it ‘faci haz de necaz’ – making fun of misery/trouble. Coincidentally, two of the books I read recently for two very different projects #EU27Project and #DavidBowieBookClub, both deal with painful subjects in recent history, but they have very different approaches.

Dan Lungu: Sint o baba comunista! (I’m an Old Communist Biddy)

The collapse of the Berlin wall and the so-called Second World (that uncomfortable compromise between developed First and undeveloped Third World) was accompanied by a near total erasure of Eastern Europe with all that it stood for. It was not just a political system that collapsed but a whole way of life, culture, set of values, and they were replaced virtually overnight by something that wasn’t necessarily always better. Furthermore, things that were flawed but nevertheless precious to this generation were now openly derided, everything they ever built or contributed was sometimes brutally torn apart. So many of them felt that their whole lives had been wasted – a painful realisation.

I have heard this complaint from many of my elderly relatives, and this is described very realistically by Dan Lungu in this book. Ten years after the fall of Communism in Romania, Emilia is an old-age pensioner, who now has to deal with the fact that the world she has known all her life and learnt to live in (with all its imperfections) has gone forever. Her daughter Alice is now settled in Canada, married to a Canadian, and phones to ask her how she is planning to vote. This simple telephone conversation (repeated many, many times over in all of Romania in the late 1990s, early 2000s) represents the perennial struggle between generations – the nostalgia for a past that never quite existed in the way we fondly remember it now vs. the more forward-looking, able to cope with uncertainty and complexity attitude of the younger generation. It triggers some soul-searching in Emilia, as she remembers fragments of her past. Her life had been relatively sheltered: she was working in metallurgy, producing special orders for export, so had access to money and goods, compared to others. For her the fall of Communism has spelled nothing but disillusion and disaster.

Scene from the film adaptation.

‘Don’t you remember the massive queues, going all the way round the corner?’

‘OK, there were queues, but now when you go into a shop, you admire the cutlets, swallow hard and head back out, ‘cos you can’t afford them…I see families starving on TV, with children sleeping on the streets… You wouldn’t see that kind of stuff under Communism.

‘That will change. It takes time – we’re in transition right now, but I’m optimistic.’

‘Of course you’re optimistic when you’re living in Canada or France or America… You just come and live here for a while. You’ll get optimism then with spots on!’

‘What about freedom, Mum? That’s got to be worth something. We were frightened of our own shadows back then. Now you can say whatever you please, write what you want, travel where you like, shout “Down with the government!”‘

‘Travel? Sure, it’s the newly rich who do that, stealing from the things we built. And shouting, of course we can shout till we’re hoarse, no one’s listening anyway.’

There are many funny moments and culture clashes in this story (receiving the Canadian son-in-law in their house is one such classic moment), but it is the kind of ‘sad-funny’ situation that has no resolution. The ending feels a bit rushed – Emilia is questioning her memories of happy life under Communism, or at least understanding that not everyone was equally happy, but there is no real growth or change or resolution. However, it’s a touching portrayal of the dilemma many people were facing at the time (and subsequent corrupt governments have not necessarily made things better.) I’m both happy and sad that it has been translated into English, as I think I would have been the ideal candidate to translate this – I would certainly have loved to do it!

Spike Milligan: Puckoon

As you might expect with Spike Milligan, this is more of a farce than a sad/funny type of satire. It has a very cinematic quality – the detailed descriptions of each character and situation would lend themselves to a madcap TV series, although perhaps some of the (often quite pointless but hilarious) back stories would get lost.

Puckoon is a village in Ireland north east of Sligo. At the time of the partition of Ireland it is accidentally cut in two by the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. This leads to ridiculous situations such as having a funeral procession pass through customs to cross the border which lies between the church and the graveyard.

‘What have you got in the coffin?’

‘You must be joking,’ said the priest, his face going purple with anger…

‘I’m not joking, sir, I am merely doing my duty.’

‘Very well. Inside the coffin is the body of 98-year-old Dan Doonan. Now let us pass!’

‘Not quite finished yet, sir. You intend to bury an Irish citizen in what is now British territory?… I presume the deceased will be staying this side permanently?… Then he will require the following: an Irish passport stamped with a visa, to be renewed annually with a visa for the rest of his – ‘ Barrington almost said ‘life’ – ‘stay,’ he concluded.

While the absurdity of government bureaucracy is really well presented in the excerpt quoted, in other instances the satire is less successful. My objection is perhaps influenced by the fact that the eccentric villagers are so ridiculous and larger than life, that it reinforces stereotypes about the Irish: permanently drunk, garrulous, easy to anger, doing things the wrong way round.

The other thing which made me uncomfortable was that, although the book was published in 1963, so before the Troubles proper started in Ireland, the farcical way in which it handles the rather traumatic subject of national identity and sense of belonging would have made it almost unbearable to read during the period that followed, when violence became so common-place both in Northern Ireland and in England. At heart I suppose I agree with Milligan that nationalism and religious fanaticism is ripe for satire, but I missed the undercurrent of sadness that would turn this into a moral lesson.

The book was adapted for a feature film in 2002, so after the Good Friday agreement, when people could laugh once more about the border. I wonder if it will become once more an unbearable topic in future…

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An Afternoon with Herta Müller #TranslationThurs

Since starting work, it’s been difficult to find the energy to write any blog posts in the evening, but I wanted to share with you the wonderful event with Herta Müller, organised by the University of Swansea (see their storification about the event on Twitter) and held at the British Library on Sunday 17th of September, in conversation with American translator, playwright and theatre director Philip Boehm.

I had heard of Herta Müller before she won the Nobel Prize, but had only read small fragments of her work. Of course I was proud that she was the only Romanian Nobel Prize winner in Literature, but the truth is she writes in German, so I shouldn’t really claim her. Nevertheless, I became enamoured with her eloquence in the moving acceptance speech about the power of language. I have since explored her work and her themes of oppression, submission, guilt and inner revolt resonate very powerfully with me.

In person she is as passionate about language and writing and storytelling as you’d expect, but also much funnier than you might think, given her sombre topics. She is delightfully modest and thoughtful and politically engaged as well. It’s safe to say that I fell completely under her spell and have found my role model. [Interestingly enough, although the Romanian Cultural Institute was involved in sponsoring the event and many Romanians were present, she is not very popular in Romania because she is so critical of life there under the Communist regime – much like Thomas Bernhard is criticised in his home country for ‘washing Austria’s dirty linen in public’.]

She read from Atemschaukel (translated as The Hunger Angel), which is the story of the German minorities in Romania who were deported to Soviet work camps after WW2, because they had fought on the side of the Nazis. In practice, the people deported were often not the men who had been soldiers, but those who were too young or too old to have been conscripted, or women. Herta’s mother had been in such a camp for 5 years and she spoke movingly about how old and strange her mother seemed, and what a morbidly intense relationship she had with food (she would always eat hurriedly, in standing, for instance, and chide her daughter for not peeling the potatoes thinly enough and wasting food). However, the main inspiration for the book was Oskar Pastior, a poet who was also deported after the war and pretty much invented afresh the German to describe the horrors of what he had experienced there. After working intensely with Pastior in preparation for co-writing a book, she was devastated when he died suddenly of a heart attack at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2006. For 18 months she could not bear to touch the notes – ‘sometimes literature is not enough’ she said wryly – but then she felt she owed it to him to tell his story and it became a way of expressing her grief.

Above all, I was fascinated by what Herta said about her place somewhere in-between languages (which I feel so acutely myself). ‘No language belongs to you – you are only borrowing it, given it on loan.’ She grew up with a local Swabian dialect, then learnt high German at school and only learnt Romanian at secondary school, but she was fascinated by the differences between the languages. Romanian to her feels very sensual, humorous, frivolous, excellent at heightening everyday language, without trivialising it. She could often empathise with the more interiorised world of the Romanian language. The lily of the valley is ‘May bells’ in German, but ‘little tears’ in Romanian, for instance. A falling star is something to wish upon in German, but the sign that someone has died in Romanian. A pheasant is a boastful, show-off, winner kind of person in German, but a loser in Romanian, because it is a highly visible bird which cannot fly well, so it’s the first one to get shot by hunters. As Herta said: ‘The Germans look at the superficial appearance of the bird, while the Romanian see the inner life of the pheasant.’ Her genuine love for the Romanian language moved me tremendously and it certainly helps to explain why her use of German in her writing is so innovative, poetic and unique.

 

 

Voltaire and His Creation, Ferney

Why would a world-famous writer and philosopher at the height of his creative powers choose to bury himself in a tiny hamlet of no more than 150 inhabitants in the middle of nowhere? Voltaire was a sociable being, certainly not someone to chase solitude, but what he did crave was freedom: to think and write what he pleased. And Ferney’s very isolation and distance from Paris were what made the location attractive to him.

Or perhaps it was the view from the terrace?
Or perhaps it was the view from the terrace?

After a stint in Prussia, Voltaire was aching to return to Paris, but Louis XV was not keen to have the writer back, agitating spirits. So in 1754 Voltaire started searching for a town with a thriving printing industry (he knew he couldn’t stop himself from writing). He was told that in Lyon he would be persona non grata (conservative archbishop etc.), so he settled initially in Geneva, a traditional place of refuge for Protestant French.

You can see he was a born troublemaker: on the church he built for his villagers, he not only clearly states that it was Voltaire who built it for God, but his own name is in bigger letters than God's.
You can see he was a born troublemaker: on the church he built for his villagers, he not only clearly states that it was Voltaire who built it for God, but his own name is in bigger letters than God’s.

However, the Calvinist spirit of that town soon quashed his enthusiasm, so after just three years he escaped outside the city limits, to a domaine which had previously been disputed between Savoy and the Swiss: Fernex. So many place names in the area end in ‘x’ – Gex, Ornex, Echenevex, Founex, but the final letter is not pronounced, so one of the first things Voltaire did was change the spelling of the place-name to correspond phonetically.

The chateau is currently under (some much needed) renovation.
The chateau is currently under (some much-needed) renovation.

Of course, Voltaire was already 64 when he moved to Ferney, so one might well have expected him to live in peaceable retirement, but he was not the kind to put on his slippers and smoke his pipe and just receive a couple of visitors with whom to reminisce about past glories. His energy was astounding, although even he could not have expected to live for another 20 years here.

Always thinking ahead, he even built his own grave, in a pyramid shape outside the church - neither in nor out, as he called it.
Always thinking ahead, he even built his own grave, in a pyramid shape outside the church – neither in nor out, as he called it.

By the time of his death, he had drained the marshes around the hamlet, created a flourishing town of more than 1200 inhabitants, predominantly Huguenot watchmakers and artisans who had fled the persecutions in Paris. He built a church, a school, a water reservoir, a theatre, many streets and houses, lent money for the artisans to set up their businesses (with an interest rate ten times lower than the usual ones), introduced a breed of sheep and cattle (their descendants still roam the fields around the chateau today) and new methods of farming, even tried to set up a silkworm farm.

Just beyong the flower show, you can see the fish pool he installed on the grounds.
Just beyond the flower show, you can see the carp pool he installed on the grounds.

Every year, he spent between 70 to 85% of his income on Ferney itself, and his niece Mme Denis claimed that the town ruined Voltaire. But he never regretted it.

Voltaire built a small theatre on his grounds, like this orangery which still stands today, but he soon had to move it into the village itself, as there were too many people coming to watch his plays.
Voltaire built a small theatre on his grounds, like this orangery which still stands today, but he soon had to move it into the village itself, as there were too many people coming to watch his plays. The carriages coming from Geneva caused the first traffic jams in the area!

After his death, unfortunately, things went belly up. Mme Denis couldn’t wait to leave the countryside and rush back to Paris, and in just 4 months she had sold the chateau, the library (to Catherine II of Russia) and the manuscript collection, as well as all precious objects. The chateau was bought and sold on in quick succession, most of its period detail was lost in the process, while bits and pieces of Voltaire’s heritage were sold or demolished. People began to abandon the village; the watch and jewellery makers moved back to Geneva.

In the late 19th century the village became a tourist attraction once more because of Voltaire, and this building once housed a hotel.
In the late 19th century the village became a tourist attraction once more because of Voltaire, and this building once housed a hotel.

It took over 100 years to reach the population levels of Voltaire’s time and 200 years to reach those prosperity levels once more. So it’s not surprising that the townspeople have always felt gratitude towards their benefactor and wanted to add his name to that of his village. They first did so in 1780, two years after Voltaire’s death, but in 1815 it reverted back to the old name. Napoleon could be very autocratic, when he wanted! Finally, with the celebration of the centenary of Voltaire’s death, in 1878 the village was allowed to change its name officially to ‘Ferney-Voltaire’.

Just down the main driveway of the chateau stood the house of Voltaire's great friend, the polyglot traveller and seaman ('cher corsaire') Henri Rieu, who translated, copied and lent books to Voltaire. It's now the Catholic school St. Vincent.
Just down the main driveway of the chateau stood the house of Voltaire’s great friend, the polyglot traveller and seaman (‘cher corsaire’) Henri Rieu, who translated, copied and lent books to Voltaire. It’s now the Catholic school St. Vincent (Voltaire must be turning in his grave).
Another grand old lady with Tsarist connections lived down the same driveway.
Another grand old lady with Tsarist connections lived in secluded surroundings on the same driveway.
And this is the house I would love to renovate and live in, also on that driveway, on the corner. It was once the village pub and cabaret, later on it became the workshop of the sculptor Lambert, who bought the chateau and bequeathed a statue of Voltaire to the village.
This is the house I would love to renovate and live in, at the bottom of the same driveway, on the corner. It was once the village pub and cabaret; later on it became the workshop of the sculptor Lambert, who lived in the chateau and bequeathed a statue of Voltaire to the village.
Voltaire was generous and liked to build houses for his friends, so they could all live close to him. This building is now the Protestant temple and vicarage, but on its ground he originally built the Palais Dauphin for his friend Mme de St Julien, but the building collapsed due to a faulty design before she could move in. Opposite it was the best and most epensive residence in Ferney (after the chateu) - Le Bijou, which Voltaire built for his nephew, the fabulist Florian.
Voltaire was generous and liked to build houses for his friends, so they could all live close to him. This building is now the Protestant temple and vicarage, but on its ground he originally built the Palais Dauphin for his friend Mme de St Julien. The building collapsed due to a faulty design before she could move in. Opposite it was the best and most expensive residence in Ferney (after the chateau) – Le Bijou, which Voltaire built for his nephew, the fabulist Florian.
I can't help but think that Voltaire would have loved all the bustle of festivals, music and colour in his old domaine.
I can’t help but think that Voltaire would have loved all the bustle of festivals, music and colour in his old domaine.

 

 

18th November 1307

This is the date (according to quasi-mythical accounts by Tschudi and other Swiss historians) that William Tell (Guglielm Tell in Romansh, the 4th language of Switzerland) had to shoot the apple placed on his son’s head. I was also inspired by a recent exhibition I saw, with Swiss history recreated in Lego bricks. I couldn’t resist a little joke about Swiss love of rules, discipline and quiet…

From voyagefamily.com.
From voyagefamily.com.

Shot the arrow to the quick
the flip
the treat of being true
if blue
the running wick
of jokes askew.
No hat is worth
a bowed head
or bloodied brow.
Push through,
Guglielm Tell,
revolt
but in silence please.

 

Friday Fun: University Library Bucharest

Something a little different this Friday – a lesson in modern history, as the 25th anniversary of the fall of most East European Communist states takes place this year (and I will spare you the ‘am I really so old, it feels like yesterday’ monologues).

biblioteca-centrala-universitara-bucuresti

Today I want to take you to a journey in the South-East corner of Europe, to Bucharest in Romania. This is the University Library in the heart of the capital in its renovated reincarnation. But it didn’t always look like that…

25 years ago, in December 1989, as Romania was struggling to shake off the shackles of the Ceauşescu dictatorship, the library (BCU, as it’s known in Romanian) suffered from its central location and proximity to the Communist Party headquarters. A fire devastated the building, destroying more than 500 000 books from its collection, as well as countless manuscripts of famous Romanian writers.

bcu-la-revolutie

 

I remember a librarian telling me that she was going back into the burning building and carrying out books with her bare hands, tears streaming down her face, as if they were her children.

 

BiblCarol-2_7
From getlokal.ro

Fortunately, an appeal made by UNESCO in 1990 led to an outpour of sympathy, support and book donations from all over the world: 100 000 books donated by private individuals and associations in Romania, 800 000 from elsewhere.

biblrezistenta.net
From rezistenta.net

Just behind the library was a Secret Service stronghold and listening centre (now integrated into the library extension). The bullet shots attest to the heavy fighting that took place there during those confusing days in late December. I had to write my thesis in another library, as the BCU was closed for many years following this disaster.

From romaniadacia.wordpress.com
From romaniadacia.wordpress.com

The library reopened in 2001. The refurbished old reading rooms are pretty much as I remember them… except for the laptops on every desk, of course.

bibluniv

 

The new wing is perhaps less ‘atmospheric’ but much more user-friendly. And I like the combination of open shelving and book ordering system. After all, a library without shelves to browse is a bit lifeless, isn’t it?

biblunitatea centrala

Unless otherwise specified, all the pictures are from the website of the library http://www.bcub.ro .