Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich

Чернобыльская молитва/Černobylskaja molitva - 2006

I knew about Chernobyl. We all do. We have all heard of the nuclear disaster in 1986. We have all heard about the dangers we all have been put in by nuclear power plants. And not just since Fukushima 2011. For us Europeans, it started a lot earlier.

We also knew that the Russians tried to hide the fact of the accident to the foreigners for as long as possible. What we only knew from hearsay was the fact that they even hid it from their own people, that they sent their own people into harm's way. Firefighters and other "volunteers" who were sent into the danger zone to clean up. And not just for a couple of minutes. Most of them are dead now and if it hadn't been for Svetlana Alexievich and a lot of heroic people telling their stories, we still wouldn't know what exactly happened in Chernobyl and its surroundings.

If you are at all interested in the future of our planet, in the environment, you should read this harrowing account of what money can do to people. Because that's what it's all about: money and power. Every war is fought over it and every decision in business is made over it. And who pays the price? We, the "little people".

A very powerful story that everyone should read, especially those who still think that nuclear power is the "cheapest" and "best" form of energy.

This book is a strong reminder of the quote "We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children" (probably by Moses Henry Cass - according to Quote Investigator but attributed to many other wise folks and people).

From the back cover: "'Voices from Chernobyl' is the first book to present personal accounts of what happened on April 26, 1986, when the worst nuclear reactor accident in history contaminated as much as three quarters of Europe. Svetlana Alexievich a journalist who now suffers from an immune deficiency developed while researching this book interviewed hundreds of people affected by the meltdown. Their narratives form a crucial document revealing how the government masked the event with deception and denial. Harrowing and unforgettable, 'Voices from Chernobyl' bears witness to a tragedy and its aftermath in a book that is as unforgettable as it is essential."

Svetlana Alexievich received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015 "for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time" and the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade (Friedenspreis) in 2013.

Read my other reviews of the Nobel Prize winners for Literature.

García Márquez, Gabriel "The General in His Labyrinth"

El general en su laberinto - 1989

Reviewed by Marianne
from Let's Read

Simón José Antonio de la Santísima Trinidad Bolívar y Palacios, better known to the world as Simón Bolívar lived from 24 July 1783 to 17 December 1830. He is largely considered as THE politician who brought about South America's independence from Spain in the early 19th century. I must admit, I knew his name, I knew he had something to do with south America, the state Bolivia was named after him, as well as the Bolivian and Venezuelan currencies. But that was about all I knew about this man who has been so important to a whole continent.

This book was written by one of the greatest South American authors ever. Even though it concentrates on Bolívar's last journey, the novel is full of details about his whole life and about South America at the time. We can learn about the history of this great continent and how it became what it is now. How it became liberated from being Spanish colonies, the obstacles they had to deal with. Bolívar also had a dream. A dream of a united South America. That this wasn't fulfilled was not his mistake but he certainly died a disappointed man.

Anything written by  Gabriel García Márquez is worth reading, whether it is just fiction or, as in this case, historical fiction. Even if you are not interested in history at all, the writing is so beautiful. I wish I could read it in its original language.

From the back cover: "Gabriel Garcìa Màrquez's most political novel is the tragic story of General Simon Bolivar, the man who tried to unite a continent. 

Bolivar, known in six Latin American countries as the Liberator, is one of the most revered heroes of the western hemisphere; in Garcìa Màrquez's brilliant reimagining, he is magnificently flawed as well. The novel follows Bolivar as he takes his final journey in 1830 down the Magdalena River toward the sea, revisiting the scenes of his former glory and lamenting his lost dream of an alliance of American nations. Forced from power, dogged by assassins, and prematurely aged and wasted by a fatal illness, the General is still a remarkably vital and mercurial man. He seems to remain alive by the sheer force of will that led him to so many victories in the battlefields and love affairs of his past. As he wanders in the labyrinth of his failing powers and still-powerful memories, he defies his impending death until the last.

The General in His Labyrinth is an unforgettable portrait of a visionary from one of the greatest writers of our time."

Gabriel García Márquez received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982 "for his novels and short stories, in which the fantastic and the realistic are combined in a richly composed world of imagination, reflecting a continent's life and conflicts".

Read my other reviews of the Nobel Prize winners for Literature.

Royal Highness by Thomas Mann

Originally reviewed by LaGraziana
on Edith's Miscellany

In our times monarchies are all but in fashion. Much rather they are under criticism from many sides because hereditary heads of state seem a costly anachronism at odds with democratic values. Of course, the Kings and Queens that most of us have in mind are the absolute, often unjust or even cruel ones from fairy-tales and history books. In today’s reality, however, their never being elected by their people hardly matters given that in a modern parliamentary monarchy they no longer rule in fact. Instead, they are mostly limited to formalities and representation as shows the little known novel Royal Highness by Thomas Mann. Since the new Grand Duke is fragile and neurasthenic, his younger brother Prince Klaus Heinrich is called upon to take over all public performances. He accepts his duty, but it’s tiring and makes him feel empty. Then a wealthy American and his daughter settle down in the small, almost bankrupt country.

Thomas Mann was born Paul Thomas Mann in Lübeck, Germany, in June 1875. A poor student in high school, he already saw himself as a writer and published first works in a school magazine that he co-edited. In 1894 he left school without graduating and made his literary debut with a novella titled Gefallen, but only two years later he could dedicate himself to writing full-time – thanks to a monthly allowance from his late father’s trust. After several novellas, he brought out his fist novel Buddenbrooks (1901) that established his fame and earned him the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1929. Among his most notable works written between these two milestones of his career are the novels Royal Highness (Königliche Hoheit: 1909) and The Magic Mountain (Der Zauberberg: 1924) along with the novellas Tonio Kröger (1903), Tristan (1903), Death in Venice (Der Tod in Venedig: 1911), and Mario and the Magician (Mario und der Zauberer: 1930). Although his open critique of Nazi ideology forced Thomas Mann to leave Germany in 1933 immigrating first to Switzerland, then to the USA (1938) and eventually back to Switzerland (1952), he continued to write and publish prolifically. Apart from several essays he produced the novel tetralogy Joseph and His Brothers (Joseph und seine Brüder: 1933-1943), Lotte in Weimar (1939), Doctor Faustus (Doktor Faustus: 1947), The Holy Sinner (Der Erwählte: 1951), and unfinished Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man: The Early Years (Bekenntnisse des Hochstaplers Felix Krull: 1954). Thomas Mann died in Zurich, Switzerland, in August 1955.
When Klaus Heinrich is born to the Grand Duke and his wife, he isn’t yet a Royal Highness because as their second son he isn’t the hereditary prince of the small German grand duchy. The joy over his birth is dampened by a physical defect: the left hand of the baby is underdeveloped (shorter and smaller than his right hand). To keep up appearances the deformed hand is hidden from view from the very first day. For the rest, the boy receives all care and education befitting his station, i.e. together with his younger sister Ditlinde he grows up cut off the real world in the rundown grand ducal residence in the capital. Already as a boy he often regrets that in his presence everybody takes care to behave correctly so he never gets a chance to know the true lives or thoughts of people. Even his teachers and noble mates at the boarding school put up expressly for the teenage boy to mix with peers never forget to treat him as the grand ducal highness that he is. Only the young assistant teacher Raoul Überbein takes some liberties with the prince and for relieving his isolation gains his friendship. Klaus Heinrich comes of age, formally joins his ranks in the army and attends university. While he is on a study trip around Europe, the Grand Duke dies leaving the throne to his eldest son called Albrecht II from then on. But Albrecht is fragile and hates showing himself to the public, so after a few years he asks Klaus Heinrich to take over this part of his duties. Promoted to Royal Highness, Klaus Heinrich attends all kinds of public events that ever more often leave him feeling exhausted and empty. Then Imma, daughter of immensely rich Samuel Spoelmann recently emigrated from America, arrives and challenges him questioning his role in life…

The novel Royal Highness portrays the coming-of-age of a prince who has been brought up to do his duty showing himself to the people, but never found a truly satisfying (i.e. meaningful) occupation until the impoverished little grand duchy is on the verge of ruin and he plunges into private studies to understand the desperate situation. Many characters in the novel are clearly modelled after well-known personalities of the author’s time, notably German Emperor William II who had a crippled arm like Klaus Heinrich (though a much less “happy” childhood), Empress Sisi of Austria-Hungary who lived for her beauty like Klaus Heinrich’s mother, and J. P. Morgan who lent his country a huge amount of money to save her from bankruptcy as does Mr. Spoelmann even though for other motives. The South American, more precisely Bolivian and partly indigenous grandmother of Imma Spoelmann reflects Thomas Mann’s own origins: his mother was half-Brazilian. The novel also contains typical elements of the fairy-tale and not just the wedding at the end that makes the words “and they lived happily ever after” come to mind. Language and style are typical of Thomas Mann, i.e. sentences are long with many clauses that require some attention and might not be to everybody’s taste. In addition, he often repeats characterising habits or quirks of a person, especially of Klaus Heinrich and Imma, word for word. And of course, more or less subtle irony imbues the whole novel.

Reading Royal Highness by Thomas Mann has been a pleasure although knowing Buddenbrooks, Death in Venice and some of his short works I was a bit disappointed. It definitely isn’t the best or deepest novel from the pen of this en-NOBEL-ed writer, especially because the plot takes a rather unrealistic turn which partly accounts for its fairy-tale touch. Despite all, it was worthwhile the time. It’s not just a slightly bizarre love story. It also deals with the meaning of life, with inherited roles and with economically challenging times. Thus another recommended read!

Original post on Edith's Miscellany:

The Monkey Grammarian by Octavio Paz

http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/241235.The_Monkey_GrammarianOriginally reviewed by Edith LaGraziana
on Edith's Miscellany

When I decided to read and review The Monkey Grammarian by Octavio Paz for Guiltless Reader’s Read the Nobels 2016 challenge, I didn’t quite know what to expect. After all, my main reason to choose the book was that I liked its title and that at first sight it wasn’t poetry like most other works from the pen of this Mexican author that I saw in the bookshop. Having read that the Swedish Academy had honoured him in 1990 with the Nobel Prize in Literature “for impassioned writing with wide horizons, characterized by sensuous intelligence and humanistic integrity”, I divined – correctly – that it would be a difficult read that required much attention as well as patience. However, for me this was rather an incentive to read it than a deterrent! As it turns out, the slim book is a highly philosophical exploration of language and grammar inspired by the memories of a visit to the Hindu temples of Galta in Rajastan.

Octavio Paz, in full Octavio Irineo Paz y Lozano, was born in Mexico City, Mexico, in March 1914. Already as a teenager he published essays and poems bringing out his first complete volume of poetry titled Wild Moon (Luna Silvestre) in 1933. After travels and studies, the writer joined the Mexican diplomatic corps and became ambassador in India in 1962, a post from which he resigned in 1968 in protest of the Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico. In the following years, he taught at different renowned universities and continued to write prolifically. Although much of his work – like The Monkey Grammarian (El mono gramático: 1974) – defies clear classification, Octavio Paz is best known for his poetry that has been widely translated into English and published in different collections. He also wrote important essays like The Labyrinth of Solitude (El laberinto de la soledad: 1950), The Bow and the Lyre (El Arco y la Lira: 1956), and Alternating Current (Corriente alterna: 1967) along with biographies like Claude Lévi-Strauss. An Introduction (Claude Levi-Strauss o El nuevo festín de Esopo: 1967), Marcel Duchamp. Appearance Stripped Bare (Marcel Duchamp o El castillo de la pureza: 1968), and Sor Juana or The Traps of Faith (Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz o las trampas de la fe: 1982). In 1990 he received the Nobel Prize in Literature. Octavio Paz died in Mexico City, Mexico, in April 1998.

The title of The Monkey Grammarian refers to Hanumān, the monkey God and ninth grammarian from Hindu mythology, who is worshipped – among others – in the temples of Galta, i.e. the abandoned town of Galtaji near Khania-Balaji east of Jaipur in Rajasthan, India. According to the Rāmayāṇa, he and his warrior monkeys helped God Rama to rescue his wife Sita from the hands of the demon king Rāvaṇa who kidnapped her to Ceylon. Seated comfortably in his study with a view on his neighbour’s patio in Cambridge, England, in the summer of 1970, the author as first-person narrator looks back on his visit to Galta where the legend of Hanumān is ever-present on the dilapidated walls of the temples. However, the memories of the sacred place and the present experience of nightfall in Cambridge serve the author only as starting points and constants a chain of contemplations on various aspects of time and reality, of language and grammar.
 “… The critique of paradise is called language: the abolition of proper names; the critique of language is called poetry: names grow thinner and thinner, to the point of transparency, of evaporation. In the first case, the world becomes language; in the second, language is transformed into a world. Thanks to the poet, the world is left without names. Then, for the space of an instant, we can see it precisely as it is – an adorable azure. …”
At the heart of all subtle, if not pedantic discussions about the true meaning of words is the vital question about origins and ends not just of language but of everything. The entire discourse moves around and between opposites: fixity and transition, permanence and change, always and never, male and female, the God-given and the human invention. And along the way the author puts everything in question including his own role in the process of creation.
“As I began these pages I decided to follow literally the metaphor of the title of the collection that they were intended for, the Paths of Creation, and to write, to describe a text that was really a path and that could be read and followed as such. As I wrote, the path to Galta grew blurred or else I lost my bearings and went astray in the trackless wilds. Again and again I was obliged to return to the starting point. Instead of advancing, the text circled about itself. …”
Wikipedia articles on Octavio Paz list The Monkey Grammarian among poetry although in reality it’s virtually impossible to pin it down to only one literary form and genre. It’s at the same time memoir of the author’s travel to the temples of Galta, a cursory introduction into the legend of Hanumān as important part of Indian mythology, an essay on language, grammar and poetry, a philosophical discourse on time and reality… and much more. Nonetheless, its classification as poetry in prose is justified considering that topics and language are highly lyrical throughout the text. Above all the depiction of architecture and nature are simply breathtaking thanks to their beauty of language and the vivid atmosphere that they create. The great number of metaphors and similes interspersing the book speaks of the lasting influence that surrealism had on the author’s style, but it also makes it a demanding read. In fact, it isn’t always easy to follow the logic of the reasoning. Often I had to re-read passages because the sentences were so lengthy and my attention didn’t last long enough to take in their exact meaning. Precision of expression definitely is another virtue of Octavio Paz as it should be of every writer, notably a poet.

I truly enjoyed reading the original Spanish version as well as the English translation of The Monkey Grammarian by Octavio Paz. I hadn’t intended to read both, but I wasn’t sure if my Spanish was good enough to fully profit from the book. The English edition is quite good, in fact. It left me with just the same positive impression as the Spanish one, i.e. it didn’t feel as if it had lost much of its original power and atmosphere. Admittedly, as a poetic essay the book isn’t for everybody, readers who like it philosophical and don’t mind the complex will love it, though. Highly recommended!

Original post on Edith's Miscellany:

© Read the NobelsMaira Gall