Exercises in Loneliness

I remember speaking to one film director who deplored the fact that he had to write an article about his film. In his words, he’d be happy to talk about it for as long as he could, but writing was weighing him down. As the person who, instead of a silver spoon, was probably born with a pen, I obviously asked what he didn’t like about writing. His answer was that writing was ‘a lonely experience’.

Of course, as I’m writing this at an ungodly hour I have to admit that, physically, writing is the lonely experience. But mentally it can be quite stimulating and even scandalous, if one considers the works of Marquis de Sade, some of which he wrote in prison, and some – in asylum.

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut: Homo Ludens and Momento More

Speaking of the raid of Dresden: I know exactly that until the year 2000 I had huge inhibitions re writing about war. Russian literary accounts of the Great Patriotic War were by and large realistic and were based on the personal experiences of the authors. I had no personal experience, except for reading those accounts, viewing wartime photos, watching films (very touching) and listening to the story of my grandma’s evacuation, so I felt kind of trapped.

In 2000 I was going through a ‘love affair’ with the works of Kurt Vonnegut, and when I went on a research trip to St. Petersburg I finally found and bought his Slaughterhouse-Five, the novel that alluded to Vonnegut’s imprisonment and survival in the Dresden raid. The rest, as usual, is history: I was researching in the day, and as soon as I’d get to my spartan hotel room and have a cup of soup I’d be reading Slaughterhouse-Five. I’m aware that the way I’m speaking of this book makes it sound like it was un-realistic, if compared to Russian literature about war. This is obviously not true. What is true, however, was that on my then memory Vonnegut was the first author who reached out to my experience. The subtitle of his novel – The Children’s Crusade – and the fact that his characters were more or less of the same age as me simply forced me to put myself in their place and to read the book, as if it was my story.

What I quite love about Slaughterhouse-Five is its Tralfamadorian dogma of everything taking place simultaneously, namely the past, the present and the future existing together at once. I don’t share it, but I do appreciate its connection to the subtitle, and how the subtitle can give a focus to the novel.

The chidren’s crusade per se is a disputed historical fact. If trusted, then in the 13th c. multitudes of children from Western Europe had assembled for the journey to the Holy Land, but on their way either perished or were sold into slavery. This is an irrational and dubitable fact, and in addition to telling us how strange and dark were the Middle Ages, it also brings into question the validity of war (Second World War in our case). But regardless of whether or not this fact had actually taken place, it belongs to the medieval period. And in medieval painting, as we know, one and same picture (~a depiction of a saint’s life) very often told the story of an event in the past, in the present and in the future. The view is obviously very similar to how Tralfamadorians saw life. So, this is the first, ‘historical’, interpretation of the subtitle that gives a focus to the novel, as well.

The second, ‘psychological’ interpretation connects the subtitle to the children’s attitude to death (basically as something that is not real) and to the possibility of living through all things at once. Consider the games where in the space of a small room children ‘locate’ a ship, a castle and a battlefield; and also the games where events are shuffled, skipped or repeated, depending on the game’s scenario and rules. If we speak of children playing war, everyone always remains alive (otherwise no players would be left).

The two themes in the ‘psychological’ interpretation are explored in Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens (The Playing Man), published- incidentally – in 1938. In children’s games, everything that is happening is not happening ‘for real’, and whoever is killed will rise again. Billy Pilgrim’s journeys through time in Slaughterhouse-Five resemble this childish indiscernment between the real and the imaginary. But when this inability (or unwillingness?) to underpin oneself in the boundaries of physical world reappears in an adult, the question rises: did these adults ever begin to see the difference between the real and the non-real?

The children’s crusade therefore becomes ever more emblematic, as it not only symbolises the selling of children to war and the irrationality of war, but also underlines this infant disbelief in the tragic nature of things as the form of fatalism that stems from a convinction in the unlimitedness of time, space and, ultimately, a human life. Children are therefore not simply those who are young, but those who take life for granted and play by the rules of fate, denying free will.

Late Summer Bank Holiday 2006: Part One

Before the programme covering the activities in Greater Manchester during the Bank Holiday weekend goes out on September 1 (the back-to-school day in Russia, incidentally), this is a report of some impressions.

Some of the activities at the Imperial War Museum North were linked to a new exhibition, called Against The Odds: The Story of Bomber Command in the Second World War (27 May 2006 – 7 January 2007). It traces the history of the named part of the British Army in the Second World War, of its Lancaster bombers, pilots and operations, not averting the difficult questions of whether or not some of the well-known operations were justified. The organisers have spent about a year working on this exhibition, which uses mostly the IWM North archives.

The proverbial ‘against the odds’ can be applied to almost everything in the story of war 1939-45, so of course it was interesting to know, how exactly it referred to the story of Bomber Command. In the words of David Hopkins, Special Exhibition Manager, Bomber Command as a military force had “against the odds” risen from a poorly equipped group at the outbreak of war to a vast and respected organisation by 1945. From the start it was a pivotal agent in the British and the Allies’ war effort, but its story was not always smooth or glorious, as the exhibition well illustrates.

Several displays are dedicated to personal experiences of soldiers, some of whom had never returned from the duty. One of the stands exhibits the log book, goggles, papers and medals of Leonard Cheshire, including the Victoria Cross that Cheshire, as the Master Bomber, had received for his outstanding gallantry. Other displays cover technical issues, such as the construction and operation of the Lancaster bombers. The very last sections cover major operations, presenting their outcome through the archival photos and films. The general sense, though, is that however important was an operation, one can’t help looking at it through the prism of the number of casualties and the images of the ruins of historic cities. The well-known Dams Raid in 1943 resulted not only in the destruction of the water dams on the rivers Eder, Mohne and Sorpe, but also in the death or captivity of many soldiers. And the infamous raid of Dresden, which still stands out as a senseless operation with devastating effect, has somewhat overshadowed the glory of Bomber Command, and the Allied Forces in general.

During the Bank Holiday weekend, on Sunday 27 August, the visitors to the IWM North were given identity cards, which ‘ascribed’ to them the story of one of the pilots of the Bomber Command. I was identified as Geoffrey Pell Dawson, who was born in Manchester in 1923. An architecture student, he was in the forces between May 1942 and September 1946, serving as a Bomb Aimer and achieving the rank of Flight Lieutenant.

The last page of identity card contains some questions for reflections on the experience of the pilots, asking, in particular, how the exhibition had changed the way visitors feel about the events of the Second World War. The comments left in Reflections area give much hope to pacifists, as the majority of them are written (or even scribbled) by children as young as 7, expressing their resentment to war.

And on Monday, 28 August, the activities were celebrating cultural diversity presented in the Museum’s collections. Children of all ages and their parents were invited to build a wooden (!) plane, to hear about the animals who took part in the war, and even to play on the computer. I listened to a couple of really nice stories about animals, including the one about two cows who were the mascots of a Scottish division. I also know that children enjoyed assembling the aircraft (with the help of a volunteer Sean, who admitted that the parts of the plane were quite heavy). But then I looked into a Learning Studio East, where computer-based activities were taking place. And there I saw someone’s father being totally immersed in a computer game of some kind. So, family activities at the IWM North were quite literally attracting all generations.

One of Monday’s hot events was going to be the performance of African and Caribbean music, in the same vein of celebration of cultural diversity. The band in question turned out to be Britannia Rumba, a Manchester-based musical collective, performing what is usually called here ‘world music’, accompanied by a dance group of four girls in lovely green sarongs, tops and visors. The band was playing on the stage outdoors, it was a bit cold, and the wind was quite strong. Nevertheless, the Afro-Caribbean sounds have filled the surroundings completely, and children, parents and even some of the IWM workers were jiving gleefully. Soon after I packed my equipment and went to catch the bus home. I could long hear the drums and guitars, as I was walking away from Salford Quays.

Hier bin ich, dein… (On Dragostea din Tei song by O-Zone band)

It’s been years since I fell under the spell of surrealism. So much so that I ended up using ‘avidadollars’ as my nickname or logon on many forums and websites. This doesn’t tell anything about my love for, erm, dollars, but says aplenty about my admiration for both Salvador Dali (whose name was so deftly anagrammed by Andre Breton) and Andre Breton (who anagrammed so deftly the name of Salvador Dali). In fact, if for any reason you had doubts about Breton as genius, ‘avidadollars’ should convince you once and for all.

[Of course, there are many other reasons for why I admire both Dali and Breton…]

Anyway, this is as far as my enchantment has led me, and I doubt I go any further. On the other hand, I read recently about a family who were such ardent supporters of the Chelsea Premier League Football Club that they changed their family name to Chelsea. ‘Ok’, I thought, ‘but I’ve heard something like this already before’.

Turned out I was thinking about a Moldovan band O-Zone, who burst onto the European music scene a couple of years ago, dancing away on a plane’s wings (in their clip, at least) to the song ‘Dragostea din Tei’ (something almost untranslatable, as Wikipedia tells us, which interpretation ranges from ‘Love of the Lime Tree’ through ‘Love among Young People’ to ‘Love at First Sight’). I knew they were singing the name ‘Picasso’ in one of the lines, but I never looked for lyrics, to be honest. Two years later I finally found myself sufficiently intrigued, and as I don’t know Romanian, I had to go with a German translation. The line in which the Spaniard’s name was mentioned is:

Hallo Du,
Hier bin ich, dein Picasso.
Hello you,
This is me, your Picasso.


Nice one, even if purely for the purpose of rhyming. This Romanian Picasso was waiting for his Muse to come, but I assume the girl never turned up. Otherwise we would already have had a painting of ‘A Girl under the Lime Tree’.

However – a peculiar point – in the very first verse of the song the word ‘haiduc’ is mentioned. ‘Haiduc’ is essentially an outlaw, but in Moldovan and Romanian folklore haiduc only robbed the rich, while protecting the poor. Reminds you of Robin Hood, doesn’t it? And this is exactly how the Germans translated it.

I decided to look up the English translation. I found out that the English went for ‘outlaw’. I wondered how the French dealt with it. Turned out, they decided not to translate the word at all.

Planet Parade, or The Excommunication of Pluto the Planet

So, Pluto has been disqualified from the Planet Division and will now continue to whirl as a dwarf planet. The story is here http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/5282440.stm.

I’m wondering how is this going to impact the work of astrologers? From what I could gather in the past, while surfing through various resources on the web, there is already a contention, as to whether to take into account the positions of asteroids in a horoscope or not. With Pluto now being ‘diminished’ to the status of a dwarf planet, it’s interesting how this is going to be taken into account, if at all?

In basic terms, Pluto is associated with dramatic changes, and since the planet was given the name of the Roman god of Inferno, its house is the so-called house of death and is linked to the sign of Scorpio and the 8th House. It ‘rules’ crimes, revolutions, terrorism, but also the reproductive forces (cue in a connection between Eros and Tanathos).

Although the astronomers’ decision is purely scientific, it is quite curious in one respect. If one thinks of death or revolutionary impetus, or even terorrism, it is perhaps something of the size and the influence of Pluto – small, easy to go unnoticed, existing on the fringe of the system (be it solar or social), but powerful enough to overthrow empires and wage wars, as well as to push people towards whatever goals they wish to pursue (memento mori, perhaps?). The renegation of Pluto in such context appears almost like a manifestation of its usually huge impact and of its marginal status.

J’aime mieux tes levres que mes livres (J. Prevert)

This is one of my favourite phrases by Jacques Prevert. It is not only beautifully romantic, but also presents a nice example of what sometimes is lost in the process of translation.

J’aime mieux tes levres que mes livres.
I prefer your lips to my books.

The play on words is obviously lost, which you can notice, even if you don’t know French. But the melody of the phrase is also distorted in English translation. ‘Lips’ and ‘books’ are two short and brisk, but (for my ear) muted words, while ‘prefer your’ doesn’t capture the elision of ‘jaime mieux’. I have no idea how this phrase was translated into English or other languages, and if a translator managed to recreate any effect of this phrase. I can only imagine it being communicated to some extent in Italian, through ‘labbra’ and ‘libri’, respectively.

Los Cuadernos (How It All Started)

Los Cuadernos de Julia is a paraphrase of the title of Mario Vargas Llosa’s 1997 novel, Los Cuadernos de Don Rigoberto. I bought the book (published in English by Faber&Faber) in the summer of 2004, in WHSmith in Blackpool, but didn’t start reading it until after September, as I had to write my MA dissertation first. When I eventually began to read it, it practically blew me away. I know some critics described the book as ‘ambitious‘ (a word I very much dislike), but to me it is simply one of the most original books of the last century. Obviously, as I know no Spanish, I have to thank the English translator for doing a fantastic job.

‘Cuadernos’ as ‘notebooks’ are a normal part of life of many writers, which is exactly what I am. These present cuadernos are, of course, slightly different, since I decided that I’d be posting here not only random quotations that I’ve been collecting for years, but also reflections on films, music, works of art, phrases I’ve heard or read elsewhere, some musings about news stories, etc. I’ve been doing a similar thing on a website for several months, but sometimes there’s more to post than just a couple of quotes from my beloved Jacques Prevert.

On the other hand, my own mother, who isn’t a writer, used to have two cuadernos – dark thick exercise-books, in which she had collected quotes and poems. When I was 12 or 13, she gave them to me, and some content influenced me quite profoundly. And providing you have read Llosa’s novel, you surely know that the cuadernos played a crucial part in the story. So, it is from these two experiences, plus a couple of ‘tangible’ cuadernos I used to have previously, that the idea for this blog has originated.

For a while, I must admit, I wasn’t sure whether to start a blog or not. Two things have finally compelled me to do it. First, the front page of my web radio programme’s website is way too small for everything I want to put on it. Half of those things will never make it to the programme, like The Quotes on the Front Page, or some news stories, or various other stuff. Yet I do want to share these things with anyone who is interested, hence I have finally succumbed to blogging.

Secondly, I have never managed or even wanted to write a diary, if the diary is to be understood as a narration of one’s private everyday life. However, the notebooks are different, especially because I’m a writer. So, while using the form of a diary, I’m essentially creating no more or less than a writer’s open notebook. Many things will still be left behind, for one reason or another, but I’m glad I’ll be able to do what few publications would allow me to do, not to mention the restrictions of the radio format.

As for the content, it will hardly be up for any strict systematisation, bearing in mind that its author is also an historian, who knows a couple of languages, and has many interests. The only thing that consoles me is that even Umberto Eco’s brilliant ideas are reportedly jotted down on small pieces of paper that are scattered around his flat or stuck in the professor’s case. At least, I’ve got ‘labels‘…

In the beginning….

As I was thinking what to write in the very first message in this first blog of mine, I suddenly realised that you’re probably more compelled to produce something when you stare at the screen rather than when you’re falling short of breaking a pencil because nothing “worthwhile” comes to mind. I guess it had to do with the nature of the blog: once you’ve finished typing, your musings are published in the space where they can be read virtually by anybody, from a college student through a BBC broadcaster to a pensioner. I don’t know yet if the understanding of this puts any pressure on what and how you write, but one thing I know for sure: when I was publishing articles online or ‘making’ a website, etc., I didn’t have this sort of feeling of being obliged to write something as quickly as possible. In part, I felt so because I wanted to begin to publish other stuff, but in part it was because an empty blog – my blog – looked terrible, so I needed to fill it with something… and what could be a better filler than an introduction?
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