Comedia – Dante Alighieri
Now known as The Divine Comedy. This work of Dante is his imagined and poetic journey through the afterlife, in three books. The poet Virgil guides him through Inferno (Hell) and most of Purgatorio (Purgatory), but must stop because he was pagan, and cannot ascend fully. Beatrice, a woman Dante loved in real life guides him for the rest, to the pinnacle of Paradiso (Heaven). I read the Longfellow translation, with the Doré illustrations as a guide.
The journey is harrowing at times. Those in Hell must suffer for eternity, and cannot be redeemed. They live with no light of Lord upon them. All throughout, demons torture the condemned souls and the journey is disheartening. (It would not surprise me one wit to hear this version of Hell inspired Milton’s Paradise Lost 300 years later.)
In Purgatory, it gets worse. The souls scrambling to climb a vast mountain are always being dragged back down by the things they cannot let go of. This is a parable for the suffering of our times, of those who cannot let go of their illusions and transcend their faults. Finally, Beatrice brings Dante to Heaven, where he ascends, not to meet God, but to merely be in his presence and to be filled with his light.
I recommend you read it, and have Gustav Doré’s prints handy when you do. It is brilliant, harrowing, full of despair, but also full of lessons on how, before you shuffle off your mortal coil, you may avoid living in and creating hell and suffering in this life.
Fragebogen – Ernst Von Salomon
I’ve written about this before in this blog. Ernst Von Salomon was a German writer who had a coloured history in Germany after WWI. He joined the Freikorps (“free corps”), and fought against Communist rebels, the armies of the Baltic States, and also against Poland between 1919-1921. After the Freikorps disbanded, he went on to participate in the assassination of Foreign Minister Walter Rathenau, for which he was given five years in prison. He was also involved in various other subversive activities and uprisings. He, in my impression, was a man who was smart but with an inclination to fuck shit up. During the Third Reich, he wrote film scripts, some for Nazi propaganda purposes. He did not like the Nazis, and they felt the same. But I guess you do what you have to.
Fragebogen is von Salomon’s personal history of the period from the end of World War I to the end of World War II. It is told in his very snarky answers to a questionnaire he was forced to respond to after the Americans occupied western Germany in 1945. The questions delve into his associations, politics, criminal record, and work history. His answers, and his detailed narrative descriptions of the basis for his answers, provide his personal story along with the history and politics of the time and places he was in. The interwar period in Germany, with its Weimar Republic and political, social and economic instability, does not appear as bad as the sum of its disasters. All of these things affected Germans in different ways, and von Salomon was savvy enough to keep his head above water. But, what is beyond doubt is that after 15 years of instability and the grinding reparations and conditions of the Versailles Treaty, Germany was willing to give power to anyone promising a return to stability and pride. Hence, Hitler.
Von Salomon does not hold back when describing the conditions of the final fall of Germany in 1945, nor his treatment at the hands of the occupying Americans. Anti-Nazi or not, the Americans saw him as dangerous, and kept him in a concentration camp for over a year. As occupiers, the Americans were brutal, and other sources tell me (I cannot find them now) that his wife Ille was gang raped by American GIs while he was beaten in the same room.
It is not an easy book, but it does make sense of what was going on with Germany in the interwar period.
Good Fences Make Good Neighbo[u]rs -Joseph Barber
What is a Canadian? This is the question Joseph Barber proposed to answer. He took a year long trip across Canada in the mid-1950s, and this book documents what he found. Barber himself was an American, and at the time, was a former Bostonian writer living in New York City. He pondered this question in detail because, when asked what ‘Canadian’ was, you often get the following answers:
American: “Canadians are just like us.”
Canadian: “We’re nothing like Americans!”
The rest of the world: “Kanada…Kanada…um, I hear you have big mountains. I went to Banff/Vancouver/Toronto for a few days. People were polite.”
As it was written prior to 1970, it was difficult to find. Ottawa has done an excellent job of making sure that if a book does not fit THEIR narrative of Canadian identity, then it disappears.
Barber ends up not describing Canadian identity as such. Such a task is impossible in my Canuckistani view: a country this big cannot have one identity. People in St. John’s have a slightly different culture from those in Halifax, and from those in Fredericton. By the time you get to Ontario and Quebec, there are significant differences and the further west you head, to starker those differences become. No one is surprised. (Except for the Cultural Communists in Ottawa. They have been trying to make one culture for Canada for almost 50 years now. They, as governments always do, waste billions, and only make the matter worse.) I digress.
Rather, this book is an exploration of the interrelation between the United States of America and Canada, economically and culturally. Starting from the Statute of Westminster in 1931, the United Kingdom severed ties with Canada, leaving it to chart its own course in North America. The United States of course played a large role in Canada’s development. I was not aware of the degree of investment in Canada by corporations, individuals, and foundations from United States. Much of our media is from the US. Significant donations were made to Canadian universities by American foundations, such as Ford, Carnegie, and Rockefeller. Many large infrastructure projects in Canada were sponsored, paid for, owned, and built, largely from American money. (Examples include the Transmountain Pipeline and the Alaska Highway.) Further, there has always been a strong economic interaction between the US and Canada, as economic measures taken on one side of the border often impact those on the other.
What is most profound about this work is how very hidden and buried our interrelation with the US is. Ottawa and our media seem to despise the idea that there is any connection to the United States, and so ignore it completely. Information for immigrants coming to Canada, or those seeking citizenship, contains little to no information about relations with the United States. For Ottawa, the USA is only good for divide and conquer forms of propaganda. Often, the conceit is to say how much better Canada is than America, because we have (notionally) universal health care and are not “gun obsessed”. But most Canadians know this is not true, and the reality is much more complicated.
According to Barber, at the time the largest source of immigration to Canada was the United States, and so it was the primary destination for emigrants from Canada as well. We were the largest trading partners in the world and this continues to this day. Culturally, the border is practically porous. I, as a prairie boy, am much more likely to have common linguistic and cultural characteristics with people living just south of me over the border than I am with those living two provinces away. It’s not to say that Canadians do not share much in common. We do, like language, some values, systems of law and commerce, and a common contempt for our imperial overlords in Ottawa. As a friend put it, he moved from Denver to Calgary, and pretty well fit right in. Later, moving from Calgary to Fredericton was a culture shock so profound he left within a year.
Read this book if you want a snapshot of the issues in US/Canada relations from the first half of the 20th century, and you want to understand the nature of Canada’s relationship with the USA. America is an empire, and we are its vassal. Overall, that’s worked out very well for us.
Baudolino – Umberto Eco
Do not trust history. It is full of scoundrels. Or, lofty men with lofty talents and lofty ambitions must tell lofty lies. So goes two of the many themes of this magnificent book, a fictional account of the life of Baudolino. Baudolino recounts his life story to a fellow traveler, to explain how Baudolino ends up in Constantinople when it is sacked in 1204 by the Fourth Crusade.
As a boy he is taken from his family in Alessandria and adopted by the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick I. Baudolino seems to have some innate talent with languages. He later is sent to Paris for a formal education, attempts to seduce the Emperor’s wife, stops the Emperor from destroying his native village (by pure deception), lives in Italy with a lovely wife and unborn child he loses due to the negligent actions of a soldier, travels to central Asia in search of the kingdom of Prester John, meets a lovely young satyr who bears him a son, which are forever lost to him when the White Huns invade. After years of slavery he escapes, rides a griffon to Constantinople, just in time for the Christians to start wrecking the place. In the turmoil, he learns the truth about Frederick’s death and about great deceptions involving the preserved head(s) of John the Baptist.
Baudolino is a scoundrel. His accomplices are other scoundrels. Their deceits and treacheries are of the highest order, as if guided by some polymath god of medieval history and semiotics. There were times when I laughed out loud in public listening to this book, so absurd and preposterous were some of the acts of Baudolino and his companions. Most of the time they appear to be trying to do good, and yet are so devious about it I could not actually ever like them.
As much of a scoundrel as he is, you feel for Baudolino, when he suffers, has his heart broken, loses his wives and children, but also in his jubilant times and his victories. But, one cannot read it without feeling like Baudolino’s tale might just be pulling a long con (and Umberto Eco, pulling a shorter but much deeper con in the process). This was the second time I’ve encountered the book, listening to the audio book version.
I highly recommend this book as it is funny, entertaining, and even educational at times. But beware, it is a lofty book with lofty aspirations, and so, it must have lofty…
If you are proud, you are the devil.
If you are sad, you are his son.
If you worry over a thousand things, you are his never-resting servant.
White Fang, by Jack London. (A wolf’s life shows us that you may trample on a vital spirit all you want: it will prevail.)
Submission, by Michele Houellebecq. (Why France will convert to Islam, and like it.)
And for some much needed comic relief, Finally, Some Good News, by Delicious Tacos.