Tag Archives: Russians

Moscow metro

4 Dec

Screen Shot 2017-12-04 at 7.45.33 PMScreen Shot 2017-12-04 at 7.47.43 PM

The strange literary, culturedness of Russia in the midst of its barbarity.

As I lay around, flipping through Mayakovsky — trying to get Brexit, Trump, Puigdemont the hobbit, Golden Dawn, Putin and Naval’niy, Neo-Nazis and the NRA, Hariri and bin Salman, outta my head…and praying for my boy Macron…

19 Nov

…I think about Howard Jacobson, and his reference to Plato (and Dostoevsky sort of), who warned us that the masses are “tyrant-loving”…i.e. stupid.  And of Mayakovsky, who rightly asked of himself (vis-à-vis the rest of us schmucks — though he didn’t need to specify): “By what Goliath was I born, so enormous and so useless…” asks me and all of us again:

Чего одаривать по шаблону намалеванному

сиянием трактирную ораву!

Видешь — опять

голгофнику оплеванному

предпочитают Варраву?

Why bestow such radiance on this drunken mass?

What do they have to offer?

You see — once again

they prefer Barabbas

over the Man of Calvary.

vladimir-mayakovsky-1924-rodchenko-1372290543_b.jpg

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

See “Родные” — “Close Relations” — at the MMI in Astoria

23 Sep

Bad translation.  “Pодные”…”rodnye” means intimate, familiar, related; by extension born-beloved, dear one, cared for, same root in Russian as parents, birth, homeland, Christmas…wouldn’t be surprised if it has the same Indo-European roots as “root”.

Rodnye Vitaly Mansky

Vitaly Mansky‘s documentary is being screened this coming weekend and the next at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens.  (See schedule. It’s two train stops into Queens, guys.  Then you can have a nice dinner for half of what you pay in Manhttan at a good friend and koumbaro‘s place: Mar’s.)

“In this follow-up to his award-winning documentary Under the Sun, filmmaker Vitaly Mansky examines Ukrainian society amidst the 2014 national election, a period rife with political chaos and growing uncertainty over national identity and integration. As both a Russian citizen and native Ukrainian, Mansky deftly underscores personal and political complexities as he visits with relatives living in Lvov, Odessa, the Crimean peninsula, and the Donbass region, and in the process discovers a wide and disorienting spectrum of outlooks and affiliations, including his own sense of ongoing exile and unease. Close Relations is at once an intimate family portrait and a graceful journalistic endeavor, a movie of the intense present that illuminates a place caught between a troubled past and an anxious future.”

Watch the trailer below.

Lots of moving, “disorienting” footage.  Also, lots of humor, which reminds us that so much of a certain ironic, sardonic take on the world — a viewpoint “from a certain angle”, as E.M. Forster said of Cavafy — that we in the United States think is particularly Jewish, is really just a trait common to all eastern Europe, even Greece, or perhaps just a trait common to the powerless everywhere:

“Crimea was a pity, but the Donbass…they can have it.” *

But I think the most important moment in terms of geopolitics comes at 1:15:

“So Ukraine decided to join NATO.  Isn’t that its own business?”

“Nyyyyyet!”

…comes the reply without a moment’s hesitation.

“Nyet” with its palatized “n” and final “t” is one of humanity’s great no-words.  Like “yok” in Turkish, it literally means “there isn’t” or “Il n’y a pas”.  But while “yok” has a kind of know-nothing passivity about it, “nyet” is an active “Halt!  No way you’re going further down this road.  There’s no access.” **

That moment in Mansky’s doc is why, despite widespread support for a Putin I find repulsive, I can’t get as angry at Russians as I get at Trump Americans and Türk-doğans; because Russians aren’t stupid.  They’re not as smart as they used to be in the old days, при коммунизме, when everybody knew not to believe any-thing.  They now believe all kinds of nonsense.  And they went and got religion on me too, which is one of my life’s greatest watch-what-you-wish-fors.  But they’re still pretty intelligent about the world.

I can’t get inside Putin’s head, like Ben Judah convincingly does in what’s still the best book on the Путинщина, the “Putin-ness” or the “Putin thang.”  Judah’s thesis is that Putin is really just a nebech apparatchik who others put in his place and who now — having trampled over so many people on his way up — is terrified of stepping down and that the macho persona he so tiringly projects masks mega insecurity.  It almost makes you feel sorry for him.

But this relative of Mansky’s and her coldly realpolitik “nyet” tell you why he has so many Russians’ support.  Because it means: nyet, you can’t tell me that the U.S. and NATO suddenly developed a major crush on Estonia and Georgia; nyet, you can’t suddenly tell me you’re interested in Ukraine too, because this was already starting to feel like a corporate raid on all the old girlfriends who dumped me, but Ukraine, especially, is like hitting on my sister; nyet, you can’t moan and groan about how we’re violating a basic credo of the European Union by changing borders, when neither Russia or Ukraine are part of the European Union and you wouldn’t even have considered Ukraine — with its resources, access to the Black Sea and huge Russian population —  a candidate if it weren’t a way to totally encircle Russia; and, nyet, you can’t tell us that you’re not still treating us with a Cold War mentality that you inherited from an Anglo tradition of Great Game power struggle that doesn’t apply anymore and is now completely counter-productive.

At least talk some truth and maybe we can get somewhere.  And then I’ll reconsider breaking up with Putin.

In the meantime, we can try to think of everyone as “close relations.”

For more on these issues see: The first two of my cents on Ukraine and Russia… from a couple of years ago, and more on the imperative to engage Russia in Syria, Russia, ISIS and what to do about everything“.

Putin Judah Fragle Empire

************************************************************************************* * The Donbass, the river Don basin is part of southeast Russia and the Russian-speaking parts of eastern Ukraine where the current conflict is centered.  From The first two of my cents on Ukraine and Russia“:

“Also, thence, a crucial point: that Ukraine wasn’t so much conquered, but settled by Russia…

“The independent “frontiersmen” mentality of the Russians of these areas, a sort of Russian Texas  — among its ethnic Cossack peoples especially — should not be underestimated and should not be disregarded as a possible element in the current conflict.  (See: And Quiet Flows the Don at Amazon and at Wiki.)”

“Новая Россия,” (Novaya Rossiya), New Russia, is not a Putinism.  It’s a name for these lands that goes back to Catherine the Great and the first serious subduing of Cossack rebelliousness and settling of Russians in the region in the 18th century.  It was part of the Russian empire’s most fertile grain-producing regions and then the scene of crazy industrialization under the Bolsheviks; maybe it was once a sort of “Russian Texas” but now it’s more like a sort of Russian Rust-Belt.  Hence, the “they can have it” comment.  The Soviet Army, decapitated by Stalin’s purges of its most talented and experienced, and ill-prepared and ill-equipped, only made the Nazi sweep through Ukraine grind to a halt once the Germans had made it this far east and after hundreds of thousands of Russian men had already been sent to a meaningless death and the Nazis had swept the old lands of the Pale clean of Jews through massive massacring and mass executions which were an integral part of the military strategy of the eastern front; many military historians believe that if the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union hadn’t been slowed by German troops stopping every other community to round up and shoot its Jews (a method/process that killed more Jews than the gas chambers did), they might have been successful in beating the coming of winter and more successful in their campaign long-term.  The region then became the scene of brutal attrition warfare, culminating in the siege of Stalingrad (now reverted back to its original name, Волгоград / Volgograd on map below).  This left the region seriously trashed and so huge numbers of Russian workers were settled there post-WWII, Russianizing the Ukrainian far east even further and setting the stage for today’s conflict.

Map of the Don Basin.  The grey line shows the border between Russia (РОССИЯ) and Ukraine (УКРАИНА) and the broken grey lines in Ukrainian east indicate the Lugansk (Луганск) and Donetsk (Донетск)

Don_basin

** “У меня денег нет” (“U menya deneg nyet”) in Russian is the same structure as the Turkish “Benim param yok” — “I don’t have any money.”  Though Russian has a verb for “to have” like other Slavic languages, these structures both mean, literally: “By me there’s no money” or “My money isn’t there/isn’t by me.”  Wondering whether it’s a construction Russian acquired through contact with Tatar.  There is apparently a phenomenon where languages effect each other and transmit certain properties between them, though there’s no large bilingual population to bring them together and though they’re not genetically related, at least not closely.  The absence of an infinitive, for example, in modern Greek, Albanian, Bulgarian and Romanian/Vlach, though each are from different Indo-European families and more closely related languages have an infinitive, is one good example.  Also, Yiddish “by mir” (as in “By mir bist du shayn”) which is like the Russian по-моему (“according to me”) — for me, in my opinion.  Though German uses “bei mir” also to mean same thing.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Memo to: a certain generation of “progressive” Turks

4 Aug

From: NikoBakos

Re: the final and total castration of the Turkish military

Date: August 2017

Ataturk Mausoleum Yildirim Chiefs of staffPrime Minister Binali Yildirim of Turkey, front right, and the chief of staff, Gen. Hulusi Akar, third from left, visit the Mustafa Kemal Ataturk Mausoleum before the Turkish Supreme Military Council meeting in Ankara on Wednesday. Credit Adem Altan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

ARE YOU HAPPY NOW???

I have two groups of friends in Constantinople:* one a group of mostly Alevi**, first-generation urbanites (from Dersim and Antiocheia); another of at least several urban generations, who are pure “White” Turks in every way.

A sub-category of this second group of friends (who are fast becoming ex-friends) are/were or considered themselves to be “leftists” (“I should cough” as one of the characters in Hester Street says).  These were always violently allergic to anything that had to do with the military, Turkish or otherwise.

Peaceniks, of course, our rift began when it proved completely in their interest to paint me as a super-American hawk during the Iraq war, even if I’m deeply un-American in my self-identification and was never a supporter of Bush’s adventure.  I simply did not know what to think about the idea of invading Iraq and toppling Saddam Hussein and took issue with their knee-jerk, anti-American attitude, with their facile certainty they knew what to think.  In the end I just decided that anybody who was automatically against the completely justified invasion of Afghanistan and the removal of the Taliban — and if that’s a tragically uncompleted project, that doesn’t mean the initial result or victory was not worthwhile…ASK ANY AFGHAN — was going to be a robot-thinker about any kind of American intervention or just about war of any kind, so I couldn’t be bothered.

Of course, these types DON’T KNOW ANY AFGHANS to ask, because they’re shameless hypocrites living in their pleasant, sheltered suburbs in C-Town, who know our Cyclades better then they know the rest of their own country — certainly better than I do — and wouldn’t dare head out to Afghanistan, even on a dare.  Why do they irritate me so much?  It’s simple.

If the original sin of the Right is selfishness, the original sin of the Left is self-righteousness, by which I mean the need to see one’s self as morally correct no matter what, even if this means a breezy indifference to the realpolitik or the reality of what’s really happening on the ground.***

Of course, they were steadfast in their belief that the Turkish military was an institution of bastardized Kemalism that was the greatest anti-democratic force in their society.  This was their justification for eventually rejecting their parents’ admittedly corrupt CHP as well, Turkey’s Kemalist Republican party.  And yet it’s ironic that the Turkish military’s “anti-democratic” orientation has repeatedly prevented the complete descent of that society into chaos.  One of these types has a whole sob story she used to recite to me about how, as a young girl in the 70s, she was terrified every day when her father left the house that he wouldn’t come home because of the terrible and constant terrorist violence that was then occurring on the streets of Constantinople.  But it was the military that put an end to that violence in 1980, like it was the military who got rid of Menderes, architect of the 1955 anti-Greek pogrom, in 1960.  And as soon as Erbakan started exceeding his limits (btw, he was the first who tried talking about limiting alcohol consumption and tables on the street in Pera and Galata), the military got rid of him too in 1997 — not exactly cause and effect there.

As a Greek, there’s obviously little love lost on my part for the Turkish military.  I just feel that if Turkey’s twentieth-century history, culminating in the Erdoğan phenomenon, has proven the country to be incapable of forming a democratic civil society that doesn’t spin out of control into violence, corruption and chaos, then you just don’t have the luxury of being anti-military.  Furthermore, from our perspective, Erdoğan’s pre- and post-“coup” military is a far more threatening force than it was previously.  Violations of Greek air space have increased exponentially under Erdoğan’s tenure, as has his, and formerly Davutoğlu’s, irresponsibly imperialist Neo-Ottoman language.  And just like it wasn’t a military junta that organized the pogrom of 1955, it wasn’t a military government that invaded Cyprus in 1974, ethnically cleansing and occupying 40% of the island to protect a Turkish minority that is only 18% of the island’s population.

Lately there had been a weird shift in their attitudes though, as it has slowly sunk in that they had supported (“I voted for him!  My God!!”) the most un-democratic, anti-consitutional, religiously retrograde, paranoid, chip-on-the-shoulder lunatic to rule Turkey since Abdülhamid (photo below).  After the takeover and purging of the daily Zaman in March of 2016, I ran the idea past a few of them: “do you think it’d be a good idea for the military to step in? …they already have more unconstitutional dirt on him than on most Turkish heads of state.”  And even the Teşvikiye girl who had worried so much about her father, didn’t get apoplectic on me like she would’ve done in the past; she simply mumbled passively, in the static cadences of Turkish passivity: “I don’t even think they’re in a position to do anything at this point.”****

AbdülhamidAbdülhamid

Worse was one who said to me: “What Turkey needs now is unity.”  Well, your compatriots have actually shown a quite impressive amount of unity in the face of the Erdoğan challenge.  Every time he has engineered some sort of spectacular violence to terrify them over the past almost three years, they have unitedly come back, in elections and referenda and the mob-mobilization they have always been so good at, to give this “most un-democratic, anti-consitutional, religiously retrograde, paranoid, chip-on-the-shoulder lunatic to rule Turkey since Abdülhamid…” an even greater mandate on power than he had before: Daddy please save us!

Infantile beyond belief.  Is that the “unity” you wanted?  There was great unity in the mob hysteria that this supposed coup was met with (no, I don’t believe it was Gülen; no, I don’t think it was the army, unless it was army that already knew it was going to be sacked; no, I don’t think he didn’t know; I’d probably refuse to believe that Erdoğan wasn’t the architect of the whole thing — see the New Yorker‘s great Dexter Fillins’ “Turkey’s Thirty-Year Coup”).  They displayed impressive unity lynching poor little Mehmetçiks just following orders on the Bosporus Bridge (scenes guaranteed to make the hair of Greeks and Armenians stand on end), impressive unity in the Nazi-style rallies the Great Leader has convened, impressive unity in heckling men from the army and journalists and writers being led into a show trial that can quite possibly end in their execution or certainly life sentence (see “Inside Erdoğan’s Prisons” in the Times) and with the kerchiefed teyzes screaming for blood outside the courthouse in Ankara — and I’m sure they’ll show impressive unity in supporting the reinstating of capital punishment if that goes up for a referendum soon.

Turkish thugs and soldiersTurks beating up young conscripts on the Bosporus Bridge, defending their democratic right to elect a dictator who has abolished Turkish democracy for the most part and soon will have the power to go after whatever’s left…Turkish “unity” in action.

IS THAT THE UNITY YOU WANTED?  The unity of Kristallnacht? (or the “Septembriana” — same difference.)  The unity of Nüremberg?  The unity that comes with thinking that you can enfranchise the newly rich, provincial pious, those with absolutely no democratic education — or education of any kind — and that they won’t turn on you like swine before which pearls have been cast?  (Plato said that the “demos” — the people — shouldn’t have the right to vote because they’ll always vote for the tyrant — τυραννόφρων; Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor says precisely the same thing.)  Did you want the unity of the Italians and the Germans who respectively put Mussolini and Hitler in power with their vote?  Or the Americans who voted for Trump?  Or the Russians who voted and will again vote for Putin?

Tabrik migam, then.  You got it.

And this is the cherry on your birthday cake: Erdoğan replaces the military chiefs of staff with his own men.  Good luck ever getting rid of him now.  He’s now in a position of total control, with no challenges whatsoever.  You’re stuck for life.

*************************************************************************************

* The days when in the p.c. stupidity of the metapoliteuse we used to refer to Constantinople as “Istanbul” — I mean when speaking Greek…airport announcements and newspaper by-lines used “Ιστανμπούλ“…in Greek…are over.  I’ve now taken to calling it Constantinople in English as well, as Turks are free to call Salonica Selanik or Bulgarians and Macedonians Solun and I have no problem.  I’m not going to tell others what to call cities historically important to them; it actually makes me happy.  For more on this see my: Names: “Istanbul (not Constantinople)”…and Bombay! and keep an eye out for my “Boycott ‘Mumbai” campaign” post.  In general except an upswing in South Asian posts as we approach the seventy-year anniversary of Partition.

** My friends bear out the truth that Turkey’s Kurdish-Zaza Alevis and Syria and Lebanon’s Alawites are religiously the same branch of semi-Shia Islam.  The ones from Dersim have recognized that Syrian Alawites are also Alevi like them, even if that hasn’t made them Assad supporters; and the ones from Antiocheia (Antakya in Turkish or Hatay province in the logic of Turkish science fiction nationalist narrative) are just plain Alawite Arabs, who have understood that if there’s anything separating them from Syrian or Lebanese Alawites, it’s only the Turkification campaign they were subjected to when Turkey annexed that part of then-French-mandate Syria in the 1930s.  If papers like the Times feel the need to add the caveat that they’re different in every article they publish on the subject, it’s because they’re ignorant, the Turkish Press Office has made a fuss every time they don’t add that caveat, and it’s easy to think that people separated into difference by the ethnic nation state aren’t religiously brothers.  I’ve written extensively on this in a Twitter dialogue I had with a Turk who thought everybody should fight “lies and defamation” against their country when they appear in the media:

Syrian Alawites and Turkish Alevis: closer than I thought

Turkish Alevis and Syrian (or Lebanese…or Turkish?) Alawites — a Twitter exchange

Alevis and Alawites addendum: a “p.s.” from Teomete

More on Alevis and Alawites…or Alevis and Kurds…or Iraqi Kurds…or…Christian Kurds…or Assyrians…or…

Look out for Alevis in the current struggle in Turkey.  Whereas Kurds proper are not trusted by the political establishment or most Turks because they’re convinced they’ll never give up their separatist aspirations, Alevis, who suffered terribly under the Ottomans and the early republic and still do on some level, are still loyal to the Turkish Republic and Turkey itself.  This puts them in the position to become the secular backbone of all democratic impulses that still exist in that country, something like African-Americans in the United States were in the mid-twentieth century, since their form of Islam does not aspire to becoming the State itself, as all forms of conventional Sunni Islam do.  They were a disproportionate share of the casualties and deaths that occurred during the crackdown of the 2013 protests, not because they were targetted specifically, but simply because they were already a disproportionately large percentage of the protesters.

*** It may seem irrelevant, but this type always reminds of a passage in Chesterton’s Orthodoxy in which he trashes this kind of moral correctness by trashing the New Agers of his time:

“Only the other day I saw in an excellent weekly paper
of Puritan tone this remark, that Christianity when stripped of its
armour of dogma (as who should speak of a man stripped of his armour of
bones), turned out to be nothing but the Quaker doctrine of the Inner
Light. Now, if I were to say that Christianity came into the world
specially to destroy the doctrine of the Inner Light, that would be an
exaggeration. But it would be very much nearer to the truth. The last
Stoics, like Marcus Aurelius, were exactly the people who did believe in
the Inner Light. Their dignity, their weariness, their sad external care
for others, their incurable internal care for themselves, were all due
to the Inner Light, and existed only by that dismal illumination. Notice that Marcus Aurelius insists, as such introspective moralists always do,
upon small things done or undone; it is because he has not hate or love
enough to make a moral revolution. He gets up early in the morning, just
as our own aristocrats living the Simple Life get up early in the
morning; because such altruism is much easier than stopping the games of
the amphitheatre or giving the English people back their land. Marcus
Aurelius is the most intolerable of human types. He is an unselfish
egoist. An unselfish egoist is a man who has pride without the excuse of
passion. Of all conceivable forms of enlightenment the worst is what
these people call the Inner Light. Of all horrible religions the most
horrible is the worship of the god within. Any one who knows any body
knows how it would work; any one who knows any one from the Higher
Thought Centre knows how it does work. That Jones shall worship the god
within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones.
Let Jones worship the sun or moon, anything rather than the Inner Light;
let Jones worship cats or crocodiles, if he can find any in his street,
but not the god within. Christianity came into the world firstly in
order to assert with violence that a man had not only to look inwards,
but to look outwards, to behold with astonishment and enthusiasm a
divine company and a divine captain. The only fun of being a Christian
was that a man was not left alone with the Inner Light, but definitely
recognised an outer light, fair as the sun, clear as the moon, terrible
as an army with banners.”  [All bold emphases mine.]

**** “yanlış oldu” — See Loxandra‘s amazing “duck with bamya” chapter; I never tire of recommending it.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

To the Messenger and Co. — An Isaac Bashevis Singer story…

5 Jan

…full of the pain they don’t know and the humor they’re lacking…

DAB1975002W0000X-XXC.jpg

The New Yorker last week published a story of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s: “Job–to anyone who wants to read it because they haven’t hidden it from non-subscribers.  Mostly I want to dedicate it to the Messenger and his parea.  It’s a tale told to Singer by someone — I dunno if it’s a fictive character or not — in the 1970s.  It was written by Singer at the time, but was not translated from Yiddish to English until March-July, 2012 by David Stromberg.  Much like Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate (which I touch on briefly here), it deals with the suffering of a twentieth-century Jewish everyman, sandwiched between the nightmare of Nazism and Stalinism, with bitter, caustic humor completely intact (which Grossman couldn’t really do).

Why do I dedicate this to the Messenger?

Because I remember distinctly in one late-night email battle-session, when he wrote me: “And why is it so wrong for bourgeois guys — like the both of us [his emphasis] — to have an ideology or an ideological schema?”  It’s a slightly tricky question to be asked in Greek and to have to answer from a Greek-speaker but native English-speaker’s perspective, because the word “αστικό” in Greek means urban and urbane and bourgeois, in its socio-political sense, all at once, so it’s difficult to separate.  But I quickly clarified the difference between my ethnic-American, working-class New York borough background and his petit bourgeois Athenian upbringing.  And yet I couldn’t put into words — or rather — couldn’t, at the time, find an example or definition to support the difference I was trying to establish.

But we can sort of close in on what I meant…  Someone — Simone Weil, Kafka, Solzhenitsyn, Rebecca West, Walter Benjamin, the great Hitchens, historian Timothy Snyder…I’m embarrassed that I can’t remember — said: “The twentieth century is when ordinary people realized that bookish young men who read big books full of big ideas could have a total and devastating effect on their lives.”

Or in the words of Singer’s Job: “Our young little Stalinists, the onetime yeshiva boys and simple idlers, hounded me to the point that I started longing to go back to Russia.”

And that’s where it lays.  It’s Singer’s Job that makes the knock-out realization:

“I’ve realized one thing: the worst people are those who want to save the world. Among simple folk—merchants, skilled workers, the so-called little man—one can still find decent people. But among those who want to bring about the coming of the Red Messiah there is no truth, no compassion. What’s easier than torturing in the name of an ideal?”

Of course your messianic vision doesn’t have to be Red; the Messenger’s is vehemently non-Red.  But that’s one thing that he never understood.  That that hue doesn’t matter.  That after a certain point he — he and his nationalism and his cronies’ nationalism — became the enemy for me.  The “worst people” are the ideologues.  After liberating him from the petit bourgeois prejudices he had been raised with, and becoming a model of “Roman-ness” for him, I didn’t realize that I had created a Frankenstein.  And he has never realized that he’s the enemy to me.  The people who tortured innocent women in our family like our aunt A. and killed heroic young men like our uncle S. and others, who looted and burnt down my mother’s paternal home, who imprisoned and persecuted and exiled my maternal uncle L. for decades, the people who tormented my father and his family and his extended clan for decades, who threw my grandfather into a prison camp in Albania and then into a mass grave somewhere, who isolated my grandmother in one room of the house her husband had built for her, who separated her forever from her only child, who created the pall of depression and unspoken sadness that hung over my family all my life…  Those people weren’t Albanians to me.  Or Muslims or communists or fascists or Turks or anything else or anyone else that the Messenger loves to hate.  They were petty little ideologues like him: bookish nerds who feel empowered by imposing their ideological hard-ons on innocent people, and making them suffer intolerable suffering in the name of their grand ideological vision.  “What’s easier than torturing in the name of an ideal?”  He’s the enemy.  But he doesn’t get it.  Y de allí his shock when I lay into him.

The other money quote from the Singer story:

“…I’d arrived at a certain philosophy: We can’t live openly in this world. We have to smuggle ourselves through. People, like animals, must constantly hide themselves. If the enemy’s on the right, you go left. It goes left, you crawl right. This very philosophy—you can call it cowardice, it doesn’t bother me—has helped me. I knew where the informers were and I avoided them. A lot of leftists—half-leftists and converted leftists, so to speak—went to Vilna or Kovno, but I went on to Russia, not to the big cities but to little towns, villages, collective farms. There I found a different kind of Russian: generous, ready to help. There they laughed at communism.”

Laugh at these people.  Russians’ and especially Jews’ saving strength.  That’s all there is to do.  Until they knock on your door.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

giagoulaMy grandmother (click)

 

And the whole article, since The New Yorker is being so unusually generous about it:

August 13, 2012
Job
By Isaac Bashevis Singer

Translated by David Stromberg

Editors’ Note: This story, by Isaac Bashevis Singer (1902-1991), was first published in Yiddish in 1970, and is appearing here in English translation for the first time. (See the translator’s note below about how it came to light.) Singer published more than sixty stories in The New Yorker, beginning in 1967; we’re grateful for this chance to present his work once again.

****

Being a writer for a Yiddish newspaper means wasting half the workday on people who come to request advice or simply to argue. The manager, Mr. Raskin, tried several times to bring this custom to an end but failed repeatedly. Readers had each time broken in by force. Others warned that they would picket the editorial office. Hundreds of protest letters arrived in the mail.

In one case, the person in question didn’t even knock. He threw open the door and before me I saw a tiny man wearing a black coat that was too long and too wide, a pair of loose-hanging gray pants that seemed ready to fall off at any moment, a shirt with an open collar and no tie, and a small black spot-stained hat poised high over his brow. Patches of black and white hair sprouted over his sunken cheeks, crawling all the way down to the bottom of his neck. His protruding eyes—a mixture of brown and yellow—looked at me with open mockery. He spoke with the singsong of Torah study:

“Just like this? Without a beard? With bared head? Considering your scribbling, I thought that you sit here covered in prayer shawl and phylacteries like the Vilna Gaon—forgive the comparison—and that between each sentence you immerse yourself in a ritual bath. Oh, I know, I know, for you little writers religion is just a fashion. One has to give the ignorant readers what they truly desire.”

A wise guy, I thought. Aloud I said, “Please, sit down.”

“And what good will it do me to sit? Let me first get a good look at you. Right here is where you write? Right here, next to this little table, is where the goods are fabricated? This is where your holy spirit, so to speak, makes its appearance? Well, it is what it is. And, anyway, how do people write all these lies? With simple pen and ink. Paper is patient. You can even write that there’s a festival in Heaven.”

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“My name is Koppel Stein, but you can call me Job, because I’ve suffered as much as Job, and possibly even a little more. Job had three friends who came to console him, and in the end God took it upon Himself to offer a word of comfort. Then He repaid him twice over: more donkeys, prettier daughters, and who knows what else. I haven’t been comforted by anyone, and the Almighty remains silent, as if nothing had happened. I’m Job squared, if one can put it this way. Do you have a match? I’ve forgotten my matches.”

I went out and brought him matches. He lit a cigarette and blew the smoke right in my face.

“Forgive me for speaking to you this way,” he continued. “As they say, it’s my troubles speaking. You know it down to the last letter: ‘blame not a man in his hour of sorrow.’ The other day you complained in your write-up about a reader who’d held you up for six straight hours. I’ll keep it short, though how can one shorten a story that’s already lasted more than forty years? I’ll give you just the bare facts and if you’re no fool it’ll be as they say: ‘a word to the wise is enough.’ I’m one of those crazy people—this, it seems, is what you called them—who want to save the world, to institute justice, and other things of that kind.

“With me it started when I was still a little kid. Our neighbor Tevel the Shoemaker worked straight from the first rays of the sun until late into the night. In the winter I heard him banging on nails when it was still dark outside. He lived in a tiny room. He had everything there: the kitchen, the bedroom, the workshop. That was where his wife, Necha, gave birth every nine or ten months, and there the infants died. My father wasn’t much richer. He was a teacher. We also lived in a single room and had so little to eat that we might as well have deposited our teeth in the bank.

“Early on I began to ask: how is this possible? My father answered that this was God’s will. And I came to despise—with a thorough hate—the very same God Almighty who sat eternally in his seventh heaven, showered with respect and greatness, while his creatures suffered and died. I won’t get into details—I know from your work that you’re familiar with these details and even with the so-called psychology of such things.

“In short, I was about fifteen when I went astray. We had a political group in town where we read Karl Marx and Karl Kautsky and even got our hands on a brochure by Lenin—in Russian, not in Yiddish. In 1917, when the Revolution broke out, I was a Russian conscript. I managed to catch some lead near Przemysl and was laid up in a military hospital. What I went through in the barracks and on the front you probably know yourself. No, you know nothing, because my greatest sorrows came from my own mouth. I told everyone the truth. I spoke against the officers. To this day I don’t understand why they didn’t have me court-martialled and shot. They must have needed cannon fodder.

“Kerensky called for further fighting and I became a Bolshevik. I ended up in Poltava, and there we went through the October Revolution. Mobs set upon us and we were chased away. Who wasn’t there? Denikin, Petliura, others. I was eventually wounded and discharged from the Red Army. I got stuck in a little town where there was a pogrom against the Jews. With my own eyes I saw how they slaughtered children. I lay in the hospital and got gangrene in one foot. I’ll never understand why, out of everyone, I came out alive. Around me people died from typhoid fever and all kinds of other diseases. For me, death was an everyday thing. But despite all this my faith in man’s progress became stronger, not weaker. Who started wars? Capitalists. Who incited pogroms? Also they. I’d seen plenty of wickedness, stupidity, and pettiness among my own comrades, but I answered myself ten times a day with the same refrain: we are products of the capitalist system. Socialism will produce a new man—and so on and so forth. Meanwhile, my parents died in Poland, my father from hunger and my mother from typhoid fever. Though possibly also from hunger.

“After the mobs were driven out and things subsided into some kind of order, so to speak, I decided to become a laborer, despite the fact that I could have taken a government post or even become a commissar. By that time I was already in Moscow. I’d studied carpentry in our little town, so I entered a furniture factory. Lenin was still alive. For the masses, the big holiday still held sway. Even the New Economic Policy didn’t disappoint us. How do the Hassidim put it? ‘Descent for the sake of ascent.’ To stand and hear Lenin speak was a compensation for all the suffering and humiliation. Yes, suffering and humiliation. Because in the factory where I worked they cursed me and called me a ‘dirty Yid’ and mocked me no less than they had in the barracks.

“I was constantly hounded—and by whom? Party members, fellow-workers, Communists. They took every chance to tell me to go to Palestine. Of course, I could have complained. You heard of cases in which workers were put behind bars for anti-Semitic acts. But I soon realized that these were not isolated incidents. The entire factory was saturated with hatred for Jews—and not only Jews. A Tartar was no less inferior than a Jew, and when the Russians felt like it they made mincemeat of Ukrainians, Belarusians, Poles. Try sweeping away a trash can. I saw with sorrow that the Revolution had not changed all the drunkenness, debauchery, intrigues, theft, sabotage. A doubt stole into my heart, but I kept it silent with all my powers. After all, this was still just the beginning.

“I promised you to be short and this is what I’ll do. Lenin died. Stalin took over. Then came the plot against Trotsky—who for me was a god. Suddenly I heard he was nothing but a spy, a lackey of Pilsudski’s, Leon Blum’s, McDonald’s, Rockefeller’s. There are hearts that burst from the least worries, and there are also hearts as solid as a rock. It seems I have a stone there on my left side. What I’ve put up with, I only wish upon Hitler, if it’s true that he’s still alive somewhere, and that someone is hiding him in Spain or Argentina. I shared a room—actually a cell—with two other workers: drunks and scoundrels. The language they used—the smut! They stole from my pockets. At the factory, they called me Trotsky more than once and pronounced the ‘r’ with a Yiddish accent. Then came the arrests and the purges. People I knew—idealists—were taken away to prison and either got sent off to Siberia or rotted in jail. I began to realize, to my horror, that Trotsky was right: the Revolution had been betrayed.

“But what is a person to do concretely? Could Russia endure a new revolution, or even a permanent revolution? Can a sick body stand one operation after another? As my mother, peace be upon her, used to say: If a dog licked my blood, it would poison itself….

“So the years passed. Permanent revolution is impossible, but there is such a thing as permanent despair. I went to sleep in despair and awoke in despair. I was drained of all hope. Yet Trotskyist circles sprang up regardless of the persecution. The old conspiracies from the Tsarist times repeated themselves. The Revolution had fallen with a thud, but humankind doesn’t resign itself. This is its misfortune.”

II

“In 1928, I came back to Poland. So to speak. I smuggled myself across the border, helped by my fellow-Trotskyists. Each step involved the worst of dangers. I forgot to tell you that while still in Russia I’d been held at Lubyanka for seven months precisely under the suspicion that I was a Trotskyist. There wasn’t a single night in which I wasn’t beaten. Do you see this crippled fingernail? This is where a Chekist stuck a glowing rod into me. I had my teeth knocked out and those who did it were my fellow-proletarians, a curse upon humankind. What was done in prison can’t be put into words. People were physically and spiritually degraded. The stench of piss pots made you crazy. In a prison you can find all sorts of people. There was homosexuality as well as outright rape. Yes, be that all as it may, I smuggled myself into Poland and came to Nieswiez—perhaps you’ve heard of this little town? As soon as I crossed the border, the Poles arrested me. They later let me out, but then I was put behind bars again.

“This was in 1930. I’d been given a contact among the Trotskyists in Warsaw, but they ended up being just a few poor youths, workers. The Stalinists considered it a good deed to denounce Trotskyists to the authorities, and most of them were imprisoned in Pawiak or Wronki—a terrible prison. In Warsaw, I tried to tell them about what was going on in Russia, and don’t ask what I had to put up with! Our young little Stalinists, the onetime yeshiva boys and simple idlers, hounded me to the point that I started longing to go back to Russia. I was beaten, spat on, and called nothing but a renegade, fascist, traitor. A few times I tried to speak to an audience, but thugs from Krochmalna Street and Smocza Street came to shut me up. Once, I was stabbed with a knife. There is no worse lowlife than a Jewish Chekist, Yevsektsia member, or plain Communist. They spit on the truth. They’re ready to kill and torture over the least suspicion. I already understood that there was no difference between Communists and Nazis, but I still believed that Trotskyism was better. Something had to be good! Not everyone could be evil.

“Up until now I haven’t mentioned my personal life, because in Russia I hadn’t had any personal life. Even if I could have sinned, there was nowhere it could be done. With several men living in a single room, you’d have to be an exhibitionist. I witnessed both sexes in their utmost shame and misery, and I, as they say, lost my appetite. Hundreds of thousands of illegitimate children were brought forth—the homeless—who in turn became Russia’s curse and peril. When a woman went to buy bread, they fell upon her and stole it from her. Very often they raped her too. There was no lack of downright thieves, murderers, drunks. The Revolution should’ve brought an end to prostitution, but whores loitered all around the very Kremlin. In Warsaw, I met a Trotskyist woman. She was hunchbacked, but for me a physical defect was no defect at all. She was clever, intelligent, idealistic. She had a pair of black eyes and from them all the sadness and wisdom of the world peered out—though where in the world is there wisdom? We became close. Neither of us thought much of the idea of going to a rabbi. We rented an attic room on Smocza Street, where we started living together. That’s also where we had our daughter, Rosa—naturally, after Rosa Luxemburg.

“My wife, Sonia, was a nurse by trade—a medic and a compassionate caregiver. She spent her nights with the ill. We seldom had a night together. I couldn’t find any work in the Polish factories and earned a little by repairing poor people’s furniture—a closet, a table, a bed. I earned peanuts. As long as there wasn’t any child, it was still bearable. But when Sonia was in her later months it became difficult. In the middle of all this I was arrested. I’d been denounced by my Jewish and proletarian brothers, who’d invented a false accusation against me and actually planted illicit literature. What do you know about what people are capable of doing? Some of them later fell in Spain—they were killed by their own comrades. Others perished in the purges or simply in Comrade Stalin’s labor camps.

“The entire trial against me was a wild invention. Everyone knew this: the investigator, the prosecutor, the judge. They put me together with people whose faces I’d never seen and said that we’d planned a conspiracy against the Polish Republic. The policemen—guardians of the law —gave false testimony and swore to lies. In prison, the Stalinists hounded me so much that each day was hell. They didn’t take me into their circle. Among the civilians there were rich people, especially women, who brought political prisoners food, cigarettes, other such things. They even provided lawyers free of charge. But since I didn’t believe in Comrade Stalin, I was as good as excommunicated. They played dirty tricks on me. They tore my books, threw dirt into my food, they literally spat on me a hundred times a day.

“I stopped talking altogether and went silent. It got to the point that I became like a mute. In order not to hear their abuse and curses, I used to stuff my ears with soft bread or cotton from my coat. They even persecuted me at night, all in the name of Socialism: a bright future, a better tomorrow, and all their other slogans. The tortured themselves became torturers. Don’t think that I have any illusions about the Trotskyists. I’ve realized one thing: the worst people are those who want to save the world. Among simple folk—merchants, skilled workers, the so-called little man—one can still find decent people. But among those who want to bring about the coming of the Red Messiah there is no truth, no compassion. What’s easier than torturing in the name of an ideal?

“It got to the point that the Polish prison guards began to stand up for me and demanded that I be left alone. I started asking them to put me among the criminal offenders, and when they at last obliged me the comrades exploited it and organized a protest demonstration opposing a political prisoner being put among criminals. In other words, they wanted me nearby to torture. This is how they behaved—those who ostensibly sat in jail for the sake of justice.

“Sitting among the thieves, pimps, and murderers was hardly a delight. They eyed me with suspicion. There prevailed an old hatred between the underworld and the politicals—ever since the times of 1905. But, compared with what I endured from the Stalinists, this was paradise. They stole my cigarettes and made off with portions of the packages that Sonia sent me, but they let me read my books in peace. Instead of ‘fascist,’ they called me ‘idiot’ and ‘good-for-nothing,’ which did less damage. It even happened sometimes that a thief or a pimp would pass me a piece of sausage or a cigarette from his own stash. What was there to do in the cell? Either you play cards—a marked and greasy pack—or you talk. From the stories I heard there, one could write ten books. And their Yiddish! The politicals babbled in the Yiddish of their pamphlets. It was not a language but some kind of jargon. The thieves spoke the real mother tongue. I heard them use words that astounded me. It’s a shame I didn’t write them down. And their thoughts about the world! They have a whole philosophy. At the time I went to prison, I still believed in revolution, in Karl Marx. I had all kinds of political illusions. Back outside I was completely cured.

“While I sat in jail, there developed in Poland a growing disappointment in Stalin. It swelled to the point that the Polish Communist Party was thrown out of the Comintern. Many of my persecutors had taken off for the ‘land of socialism’—where they were liquidated. I was told about one sucker who, having crossed the border, threw himself down and started kissing the ground of the Soviet Union, as Jews of yore used to do when arriving in the Land of Israel. Just as he lay down and kissed the red mud, two border guards approached and arrested him. They sent him to dig for gold in the north, where the strongest of men didn’t last more than a year. This was how the Communist Party treated those who had sacrificed themselves on its behalf.

“Then a new curse wriggled its way in: Nazism. It was Communism’s rightful heir. Hitler had learned everything from the Reds: the concentration camps, the liquidations, the mass murders. When I got out of jail, in 1934, and told Sonia what I thought about our little world and those who wanted to save it, she attacked me like the worst of them. The fact is that while I sat behind bars I’d become a kind of martyr or hero for the Trotskyists. I could have played the role of a great leader. But I told them: dear children, there is no cure for the human race. It was not the ‘system’ that was guilty but Homo sapiens itself, in the flesh. When they heard such heresy, they shivered with rage. Sonia informed me that she couldn’t live with a renegade. I’d had the luck of becoming a renegade twice over. It was a separate issue that, while I sat behind bars, she had lived with someone else. Hunchbacks are hot-blooded. There’s always a volunteer handy. He was a simple youth from the provinces, I think he was a barber. Little Rosa called him Daddy…”

III

“Don’t look so afraid! I won’t keep you here until tomorrow. You went away to America in 1935, if I’m not mistaken, and you know nothing about what happened later in Poland. What took place was an absolute breakdown. Stalinists became Trotskyists, while Trotskyists went into the Polish Socialist Party or the Bund. Others became Zionists. I myself tried to turn to religion. I went to a study house and sat myself down to learn the gemara, but for this one must have faith. Otherwise it’s just nostalgia.

“The anarchists raised their heads again—some of them still stood by Kropotkin, others became Stirnerists. We had guests in Poland. Ridz-Szmigli had invited the Nazis to hunt in the Białowieza Forest. Then came the Stalin-Hitler pact and the war. When they started to bomb Warsaw, those who were strong enough ran over the Praga Bridge and set out for Russia. Some had illusions, but I knew where I was going. Yet staying among the Nazis was not an option for me. I came to say goodbye to Sonia and found her in bed with the barber. Little Rosa started crying, ‘Papa, take me with you!’ These same cries follow me still. They torment me at night. They all perished. No one remained.

“I was in Bialystok when a number of Yiddish writers from Poland all at once became ardent Stalinists. Some lost no time and began denouncing their colleagues. People knew me as a Trotskyist and I was heading for certain death, but by then I’d arrived at a certain philosophy: We can’t live openly in this world. We have to smuggle ourselves through. People, like animals, must constantly hide themselves. If the enemy’s on the right, you go left. It goes left, you crawl right. This very philosophy—you can call it cowardice, it doesn’t bother me—has helped me. I knew where the informers were and I avoided them. A lot of leftists—half-leftists and converted leftists, so to speak—went to Vilna or Kovno, but I went on to Russia, not to the big cities but to little towns, villages, collective farms. There I found a different kind of Russian: generous, ready to help. There they laughed at communism.

“Until 1941, people got by somehow. When the war arrived, a famine broke out. Refugees on foot arrived by the millions. Others were brought in freight trains. Millions of Russians went to the front. I starved, slept in train stations, passed through all seven circles of Hell, but I avoided one thing: prison. I kept my mouth shut and played the role of a simple person, someone half-illiterate. I worked wherever possible. On collective farms and in factories I witnessed the thing called the communist economy. They simply destroyed the machinery. They ruined raw materials. It couldn’t even be called sabotage. It was a simple beastly indifference to anything that didn’t directly relate to them. The whole system was such that either you stole or you were dead. I entered a factory and the accountant, a fellow from Warsaw, conducted his accounting on books by Chekhov, Gogol, Tolstoy. He scribbled his numbers—obviously false—on the margins and above the printed type. You couldn’t get any blank paper there. People lived on stolen goods sold on the black market. You can’t grasp it unless you’ve seen it with your own eyes. If not for America—and had the Nazis not been such ferocious murderers—Hitler would have got as far as Vladivostok.

“I didn’t live—I smuggled myself through life. I became a worm that crawled from here to there. As long as it wasn’t trampled, it crept on. I was astonished to realize that the whole country was like this. We became like the lice that infested us. Until I arrived in Russia for the second time, I’d still had something in me that could be called romanticism or sexual morality. But with time I lost this, too. Millions of men lay scattered on the fronts and millions of wives lived with anyone who would take them. I slept with women whose names I didn’t even know. In the night I had females whose faces I hadn’t seen. I once lay with a woman on a bale of hay. She gave herself over to me and cried. I asked her, ‘Why are you crying?’ And she wailed, ‘If Grishenka only knew! Where is he, my little eagle? What have I made of him!’ Then she nestled up to me, crying. She professed, ‘To me you’re not a man but a candle for masturbation.’ She suddenly took to kissing me and wetting me with her tears. ‘What do I have against you? You’ve probably also left someone behind. A curse on fascism!…’

“In Tashkent, I got typhoid fever, which was later complicated by pneumonia. I lay in the hospital and around me people were constantly dying. Some Pole spoke to me and started telling me about all his plans. All at once he went silent. I answered him and he didn’t respond. The nurse came in and it turned out that he’d died. Just like that, in the middle of speaking. He suffered from scurvy or beriberi, and with these diseases people died, so to speak, without a preface. I became indifferent to death. I never believed this would be possible.

“You shouldn’t think that I came here just to get into your hair and tell you my life story. The fact is that I’m here and this means that I smuggled myself through everything—hunger, epidemics, murder, destruction, borders. Now I’m in your United States. I already have my papers. I’ve already been mugged in your America, and have already had a revolver held to my heart, too. A survivor with whom I crossed here on the ship has already worked his way up and owns hotels in New York. He took straight to business, forgot all the dead, all the killing. I recently found him in a cafeteria and he complained to me about his falling stocks. He married a woman who’d lost her husband and children, but she already has new children with him. I talk about smuggling myself and he’s a born smuggler. He’d already started smuggling in the German DP camps, where he waited for an American visa.… Yes, why did I come to you? I came with an idea. I beg you, don’t laugh at me.”

“What’s this idea?”

He waited a moment and lit another cigarette.

“You’ll think I’m crazy,” he said. “The idea is for all decent people to commit suicide.”

“Is that so!”

“You laugh, eh? It’s no laughing matter. I’m not the only one disappointed in the human race. There are millions of others like me. As soon as there is no longer any hope—what’s the point of hanging around to suffer fruitlessly and in vain? I read your writing back in Warsaw. I read you here. You are, as far as I know, the only writer who has absolutely no hope for mankind. You’ve lately taken to praising religion, but your religion is a religion of despair. You reduce everything to one point: this is God’s will. Perhaps God wants humankind to put an end to itself? I beg you, don’t interrupt me! There are scores of movements, who knows how many religions and sects—why shouldn’t there be a movement that preaches suicide? How long can you smuggle yourself only to be crushed in the end? My feeling is that millions of people are ready to end it all, but they lack the courage—the last push, so to speak. If millions of idiots are ready to die for Hitler and Stalin and all kinds of other scourges, why shouldn’t people want to perish as a protest? We should frankly throw back at God this gift of His: this despicable struggle for existence, which in any case ends in defeat. First of all, people must stop having children, bringing into the world new victims. Let the scumbags hope, let them fight for bread, sex, prestige, for the fatherland, for Communism, and for all kinds of other isms. If there remains among the human race a remnant of common sense, it should come to the conclusion that all this filth isn’t worthwhile.”

“My dear friend,” I said, “suicide can never be a mass movement.”

“How can you be so sure? What was the Battle of Verdun if not mass suicide?”

“People there hoped for victory.”

“What victory? They stationed a hundred thousand men and were left with sixty thousand graves.”

“Some survived. Some received medals.”

“Perhaps we should create a suicide medal?”

“You’ve remained a world-saver,” I said. “Suicide is committed alone, not with partners.”

“I read somewhere that in America there are suicide clubs.”

“For the rich, not for the poor.”

He laughed and exposed a toothless grin. He spat out his cigarette butt and stepped on it.

“So what should I do?” he asked. “Become rich? Perhaps I should. It would, actually, be like Job.”

****

Translator’s note:

Beginning in his early years in the United States, Isaac Bashevis Singer earned his living churning out texts for the Yiddish-language daily Forverts—an assortment of fiction, essays, journalism, advice, and memoir, often published in a hurry, under several pseudonyms. Later in his writing life, Singer worked on translating into English those stories he considered worthy of republication, editing and correcting them in the process.

When, in the course of my doctoral research, I came across the story “Job” (“Iyov”)—first published in Forverts in 1970, and later included by the late scholar Khone Shmeruk in a Yiddish collection titled “Der Shpigl” (“The Mirror”; Hebrew University, 1975)—I was convinced I’d find the story in English translation. Its themes of political disillusionment coupled with an inextinguishable search for salvation were tied to Singer’s larger body of work, and the story’s artistic accomplishment was confirmed by its inclusion in the Yiddish collection. The biblical title also indicated its potential significance. But I found nothing: not in any of Singer’s English-language collections, not among his uncollected or posthumously published stories, and not in the Isaac Bashevis Singer papers at the Ransom Center in Austin, Texas. It seemed I’d have to read “Job” in the original.

I’d studied Yiddish, but my vocabulary was still relatively limited. To understand anything beyond the main premise, I had to look up words in the dictionary. As I began writing them down, I realized I was on my way to translating the story. I shared my translation of “Job” with a few colleagues in Jerusalem, and reviewed it with Eliezer Niborski, a young Yiddish teacher and native speaker. We were all struck by the story—especially its sharp yet compassionate final exchange—and surprised that it had yet to be published in English.

I decided to take another look at the list of the Singer papers in Texas. Knowing now what the story was about, I noticed a folder entry among Singer’s unidentified works that caught my eye. I ordered a facsimile of this typescript fragment and, as I suspected, found that Singer, together with Dorothea Straus, had indeed translated “Job”—but that the translation was not complete. The fragment of Singer’s translation attested to his distinct and idiosyncratic mastery of English, which I felt compelled to acknowledge in my rendition of the story. I ultimately decided to introduce the author’s hand by incorporating some of Singer’s own word choices—while also aiming to avoid mimicking or impersonating his singular English style.

Arrangements were made to publish my translation of the story. I showed it to Robert Lescher, the literary agent for Singer’s estate, who gave me some insight into Singer’s publication process. Mr. Lescher said that, after they’d begun working together, in 1970, Singer would bring his stories into the office. Mr. Lescher would comment on them, sometimes Singer would make changes, and only then would they be submitted to various editors for publication. At The New Yorker, Singer worked with the fiction editor Rachel MacKenzie to get a story into its final shape.

Mr. Lescher had minor reservations about a few lines in my translation where he felt the language didn’t flow. Based on his suggestions, I made a handful of adjustments that required my straying very slightly from the literal text. We were wary of editing a great writer who was no longer with us, but felt we could fine-tune the translation: ultimately, the responsibility falls to the translator to make decisions based on the original Yiddish text, whose publication Singer had approved.

A couple of days before the story was set to appear, I found myself again working with the folder list of the Singer papers at the Ransom Center. Looking for something else altogether, I came upon yet another entry among the unidentified works that caught my attention. I realized that it contained more, though still not all, of Singer’s translation of “Job.” The rest of the manuscript had apparently not been lost—it had merely been separated from the other parts and stuffed into a different slot.

The publication of “Job” had turned into a literary experience reminiscent of a chaotic Singerian universe—where coveted objects are misplaced, or purposely hidden by imps, only to reappear just before it’s too late. I used the additional pages to reconstruct some of my initial translation solutions—though again avoiding the temptation to replicate Singer’s signature linguistic choices in English. With the help of Arcadia Falcone of the Ransom Center, I am working to locate and reunite the missing pages of Singer’s translation of “Job.” And as in a Singer story, the story of this translation is yet to be continued…

— David Stromberg, Jerusalem, March-July, 2012

Photograph of Isaac Bashevis Singer by Bruce Davidson/Magnum.

Belgrade: Random notes from July 2014

7 Sep

beograd-1910Belgrade 1905 (click)

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“Post”-something. Not post-apocalyptic or Blade Runner-ish or all the nonsense that people used to write about the city in the nineties or after the war (when, maybe, I don’t know, it did feel like that), but definitely the sense that something is over and no one has any real idea of what this is now or what’s coming next. A certain optimism about the future though, which is probably just an inherent trait of its inhabitants, both leavened and sobered by the kind of biting black humor that’s not the only thing that reminds me of Russians.

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You’re already one foot out of, or may have already left the Balkans here. This was particularly striking to me after seeing so much of the southern Balkans just a month or so ago. Where I have come from, I mean, to compare to? Argyrocastro is an Ottoman jewel in stone; Ochrid a truly archontiko little city. The rest: Tirana, Podgorica, Tetovo, Skopje, the garish hideousness of Priština; were all obviously Ottoman wood-and-plaster hovels until the communist cement blocks went up.

Here you’re in Mitteleuropa already, in a city in that never was — except for temporary occupations — but could’ve been, a handsome Hapsburg town. It’s most beautiful from the opposite shores of the rivers that hem it in all around, with the city high on the bluffs overlooking its entire region. It reminded me of Kiev a little in this sense, though a much more recent city in terms of basic architectural stock and without Kiev’s glut of spectacular Baroque churches; in fact, until the first Serbian uprisings of the early nineteenth century, the population was predominantly Muslim. (Actually there’s hardly any religious architecture of any quality or beauty at all. There’s the small, pretty Baroque cathedral of the city just outside the walls, in what was probably the suburb where Christians were allowed to live in Ottoman times and that’s about it. All the city’s other churches that I saw are these genuinely grotesque Neo-Serbo-Mediaeval monstrosities of Orthodox nationalism; the kind they’re building all over Greece now too.)

Knez Mihailova and Kralja Petra Streets — the main pedestrianized drags — and the Cathedral spire at bottom.  (Click on all)

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But you understand a great deal about Serbian history just by standing up on the peak of the Kalemegdan fortress, the sprawling castle that covers the highest, northernmost peak of the peninsula and you realize that you’re standing on the last, frontline hill of Balkan rock, where the Danube meets a whole huge complex of river networks from north and south and that the expanse of green mixed with suburb spreading out in front of you is the beginning of the vast Pannonian plain that stretches out to the Carpathians in one direction and eventually the northern European flatlands that flow all the way to the Baltic in the other. (See map at top.) Apparently and according to Misha Glenny, the Ottomans called Belgrade the “darul-al-jihad,” the House of War (though why this wouldn’t apply to so many other places, I don’t know) and you can see how easily defensible but also temptingly assailabale the site is; it’s the one place you have to control to continue your drive either north or south.

Belgrade-Kalemegdan-at-dawnThe Kalemegdan (click)

Kalemegdan from across Sava(click)

You also realize just how far north – when you think that Stefan Dušan’s empire stretched as far south as the Gulf of Corinth and he often held court east of Salonica at Serres – the center of gravity of the Serbian nation has shifted over the centuries, to lands so completely different, even ecologically, the flora and fauna, that it becomes easier to isolate a glorious mediaeval past in some mythic compartment in the nation’s head – the two sides of the Aegean, in our case, for example, were never so different – and that that can have all sorts of psychological consequences. I’m, of course, thinking of Kosovo mostly, but more on that later…

DusanTerritory_14cStefan Dušan’s empire at its height (click)

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Lots of leafy attractive streets, at least in the neighborhoods that stretch immediately south and east of the Kalemegdan. Funky sidewalk cafes and bars. Only a couple of very late nineteenth-century neo-classical structures. Most of the city seems to be a twentieth-century creation: attractive Art Nouveau and Art Deco apartment houses; some later stuff that could kind of be described as late Bauhaus-y even, like some neighborhoods of Tel Aviv; more proof that Yugoslavia was far cooler than any other communist country and more reason to be pissed off that things ended they way they did. A certain shabbiness, that I thought only added to its charm, but that made me wonder what’s going on economically. There’s way too much high quality housing stock in potentially high quality neighborhoods sitting there looking empty and uncared for and under the right circumstances the whole place seems primed to launch into a massive gentrification and real estate boom. If I had any extra cash lying around I’d buy something now. In any event, for a city that’s been beaten up badly three times in less than a century – maybe not as bad the third time but in a manner just as morally reprehensible – it’s looking ok.

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IMG_0828The Rakia Bar, my favorite spot in all of Belgrade, delicious rakia made from anything imaginable, quince was my favorite, lugged three bottles of it with me, supposedly to share with friends in New York, but they all got swilled down in Russia.  The Rakia Bar is the site of the famous: …rakia with M., and what’s with me and all the Djoković… post from July.  (I think whether you say ‘rakia” or rakija” is a regional dialect difference, with the palatization that the “j” represents more common in “south-western” dialects: — western Bosnian, Herzegovinan, Montenegrin. — but not sure.  I know that “river” is “reka” in some regions and “rjeka” in others.)

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And some of the city’s few remaining Ottoman-era, or at least Ottoman-style, buildings.  The top being the residence of some saint or something — the bottom the royal residence of some Obrenović mistress I think.  Very uncharacteristically of me, I just wasn’t into too much historical research while there.  The city is just too much fun.

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The food is great; predictable but always competent and consistently delicious. A bodybuilder’s paradise: every plate comes piled so high with a mountain of grilled protein that no normal-sized person can be expected to pack it away, but appetites here, in every sense, are big. A vegetarian’s nightmare: and if you persist in your adherence to that silly creed, expect to eat a lot of very good tomatoes – in the summer at least – with huge grated piles of a great cheese they have that’s somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between feta and brindza. If you’re a vegan…and/or have gluten issues too so you can’t eat the great bread either or even try the börek, then maybe arrange for sessions to be fed intravenously at a local hospital or just don’t come at all.

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On the sign and menu of an otherwise sedate, old-fashioned feeling Bosnian restaurant with great ćevapi, the ubiquitous little köfte, a homey cellar place that feels like an old Moscow traktir or something… If anyone can explain the symbolic intention behind it, they get my Umberto Eco semiotics award for 2014.  Really, can anyone tell whether this is supposed to be a joke or not?

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Much more in keeping with Serbs’ smart, cerebral, black humor: this t-shirt, marking the hundredth anniversary of the start of WWI, which I thought was priceless: “It’s a matter of Princip.” Fantastic…

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The language is – excuse my language – a total hard-on. I’ve already got my affinity for Slavic phonemes from my Russian days — though sometimes it seems they came out of the womb with me – and on top of it it’s tonal, too, with rising and falling stress and long and short vowels like classical Greek. The combination is magically sexy and something I could listen to for hours dumbly without understanding barely a word. It also makes it, unless you’ve dedicated some serious study to it phonetically, almost impossible to pronounce correctly. The street I lived on was called “Dobračina,” for example, in Dorćol (from the Turkish “dört yol” — “four roads.”)  And taking my cues from my Russian, which is really no great help since it has free stress and constantly surprises you also, I would say: “Do-bra-či-na.” But whenever it was repeated back to me it sounded like “Do-bra-či-na” or Do-bra-či-na” or even some combination of both, but never like what I had said; the lack of dynamic stress makes it sound like emphasis comes scattered in varying degrees of strength all over a word and not just on one syllable. Tempting to take it up. But I have to resist NikoBako tendencies to scatter my energies all over the place at once and never quite acquire full mastery of anything. Maybe later.

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The place’s greatest pleasure is its people. They have a quality that I’ve always struggled to express in English but is nearly impossible and makes me constantly have to resort to other languages. The somewhat dated Spanish “altanero” works – “alto” is your cue there – as does the more popular term still in use in Spain, the complex of traits referred to as “majo,” which I’ve tried to describe several times elsewhere (such as in this post: Un Verano en Nueva York).  “Αγέρωχοι” works, the word Cavafy uses to describe Anna Comnene, which Keeley and others, I think, mistakenly translate as “arrogant” or “haughty,” but which for me means something like “breezily confident” and again could almost be a cognate for the Spanish “airoso.” But it’s a type of confidence that isn’t entirely about your ego, but one that allows you to be open and generous and welcoming with others as well. The media and its pundits have fed us so much crap since the nineties about Serbs’ pathological and self-aggrandizing sense of their own heroism, that it’s impossible to even tell what’s true or not. But if they are that conscious of their heroic mantle, they certainly wear it lightly, like a people who have nothing to prove to you or really could give a shit about what you think of them. This means almost none of the tough guy, hyper-butchness we might be conditioned to expect. In fact, despite the borderline cockiness, women and men are almost always polite and unfailingly warm; sweet and tender even, like Russians when they get in their Russian moods. And with Serbs you don’t have to pry off the cast-iron mug first to get to the sweet part like you have to do with Russians.

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One great thing about Serbian women, aside from leggy and sexy and gorgeous and everything else you’ve heard: they’re real pals. This is going to sound totally sexist to some, but I didn’t mind the first time I was called sexist in my life and it certainly won’t be the last. They have this uncanny ability to hang out comfortably with guys. They’re not cloyingly clingy. They don’t demand attention through passive-aggressive silence or sulking and they speak freely but without forcing themselves into the center of the conversation. It’s not an attempt to ingratiate themselves with their man or his friends. It’s simply this extremely attractive capacity to go along with the rhythms and patterns of male camaraderie without sacrificing any of their femininity. Serbian men should consider themselves extremely lucky.

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And on a related and final note: it’s not a myth; it’s a fact that I’m sorry to report is true. One out of three people you pass on the street deserves a head-turn and a second looking-over; you simply can’t stop yourself. One out of…I dunno, I’m just stupidly throwing out numbers here…six or seven…or at least one person in every kompaniya/parea let’s say, are simply knock-outs: tall, long-and-strong-limbed, great noses, good jaws and a higher percentage of crazy green-hazel eyes than I’ve seen in any other country. It’s dizzying. And they know it too and there’s no false humility about it either and of course that only concentrates the effect.

Sorry, only the one pic below, which isn’t even mine.  I’m still too shy to photograph people without having a press i.d. round my neck.

Anyway, there are places you go to and say: “That was nice…” and then they go into your travel archives.  And then there are places that you know, as you’re leaving, you’re not finished with.  Belgrade I’m not finished with.

Belgrade street scene(click)

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

“Russians…they don’t trust…”

17 Jul

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The pretty clerk behind the desk at the Air Serbia counter in Belgrade where I’m checking in for my flight to Moscow-St.Petersburg smiles when sees the obvious irritation on my face as she tells me that my stuff isn’t going direct, but that I’ll have to claim my baggage in Moscow and re-check-in again for the flight to St. Petersburg, probably get charged for my extra weight again — and at a different terminal in a user-friendly airport like Sheremetyevo.

“Russians,” she grins slyly but sweetly, “they don’t trust.”

Dude, when your own ever-loyal Serbs are talking about you like that, you probably have some issues you might want to address.

Serbia(click)

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

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