Saturday, January 5, 2008

Extraordinary writing on distant and unknown places (Books - Imperium by Ryszard Kapuscinski)

It's wonderful being on vacation, but it amazing, even on a supposed break, how much there is to do - taking care of finances, doctor appointments, giving away clothes, selling books, cleaning closets, PhD application, getting through those old Book Reviews - so I'm not getting in quite as many books as I had hoped. That said, I have read about 1/3 of Ryszard Kapuscinski's Imperium. This is the first book of the Russian Challenge I have chosen to read. Kapuscinski was a Polish journalist with wide-ranging interests and a most unique voice. This is the first of his books I have read - part memoir, part travelogue, part political critique - the subject matter ranges from the production of cognac to Armenian sculpture. The book begins with his own childhood memories of the Soviet occupation of Poland in 1939. Actually, no, this book begins with a page and a half of quotes by Chekhov, Vasily Grossman, Simone Weil, H. G. Wells, Dostoyesvky and others each characterizing Russia (differently). He recalls, for instance, the changes in his school curriculum and the requirement to learn the Russian alphabet which, in Stalin's day, began with 's' rather than 'a.'
Petrus, who is a Belorussian, can read the whole title: "Stalin, Voprosy Leninizma" (Studies in Leninism). It is the only book from which we learn Russian, and our only copy of this book. On the stiff cover wrapped in gray linen, large, gold letters.

"Departing from us, Comrade Lenin commanded us to...," the humble and quite Wladzio reads from the first row in a faltering voice. Best not to ask who Lenin was. All our mothers have already instructed us not to ask about anything. But these warnings weren't necessary anyway. I cannot explain it, I cannot say where it came from, but there was something so frightening in the air, something so tense and heavy, that the town in which we use to cavort with wild and joyful abandon had suddenly become a minefield. We were afraid even to take a deep breath, lest we set off an explosion.
I am so fascinated by Russian culture, the Russian language, the country's great history - it's the reason I was so excited to participate in this challenge - however, we shouldn't forget how most ordinary Russian souls lived, the oppressiveness of the czars as well as the horrors of the great failed experiment that was the Russian revolution and the nightmares of the Stalinist regime that followed. Along with their vast land, their impressive works of art, and their soulful culture there was much suffering, poverty, and oppression and that makes me glad to be starting with Kapuscinski's book.

Next he remembers a 1958 journey on the Trans-Siberian railroad - an astonishing, claustrophobic train trip through a landscape made barren by Siberian snow and intense paranoia.
While still at university I read Bierdayev's old book in which he reflected upon how the great expanses of the Imperium had influenced the Russian soul. What does a Russian think about, somewhere on the shore of the Yenisey, or deep in the Amur taiga? Every road that he takes seems to have no end. He can walk along it for days and months, and always Russia will surround him. The plains have no end, nor the forests, nor the rivers. To rule over such boundless expanses, says Bierdayev, one had to create a boundless state. And behold, the Russian fell into a contradiction - to maintain the great expanses, the Russian must maintain a great state; on the maintenance of this great state he expends his energy, of which not enough remains for anything else - for organization, for husbandry, and so on. He expends his energy on a state that then enthralls and oppresses him.

Bierdayev believes that this immensity, this limitlessness of Russia, has a negative influence on its inhabitants' way of thinking. For it does not demand of them concentration, tension, an intensification of energy, or the creation of a dynamic, vigorous culture. Everything falls apart, is diluted, drowned in this ungraspable formlessness. Russian - an expanse, on the one hand, endless, broad, and yet, on the other hand, so crushing that it takes one's breath away, and there is nothing left to breathe.
This third section remembers a 1967 journey through the southern republics of Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkemenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgystan, and Uzbekistan. This fascinating region of the world contains treasures of civilizations that we hardly learn anything about in the West, and yet it in many ways it gave birth to our modern civilization. Christianity became the state religion before it was accepted elsewhere, tribal relationships influence politics to this day, Azerbaijan is rich in oil. Kapuscinski writes of gorgeous frescoes in a Georgian church from the year 1010 that were ordered painted over by the czar. He offers a treatise on the production of cognac in Georgia, an amazing history of Armenia and its desire to save the world by translating great books of all cultures into its own language. And there is a description of his climb up a high tower made of wood in pitch darkness to see the Caspian Sea, the city of Baku, and its oil wells:
The tower stands in the middle of the sea, the sea is black, although it is called Caspian, and I am climbing up to heaven on stairs that creak because they are made of wood, the whole tower is made of wood nailed together, it reaches to the stars, and although the wind rocks it like a stalk, it stands, gniotsa nie lamiotsa (it will bend but it won't break), so on this tower I am climbing up to heaven, it is dark here, actually it is black like the sea, we are walking into tar, I prefer not to look anymore, I would like to stop, enough is enough, but I can hear Nik-Nik going farther, so I go too, into the darkness, into the abyss, into the chasm. Everything is becoming unreal, because I can no longer see anything, meaning that I can see only this thing of wood around me, rough, unplanned, as if hairy, a piece of raw wood wedged into the sky, in an utterly gratuitous place, jutting out in the darkness, improbably, abstract.
I found the writing in this passage so palpable that at the end of reading it my feet and palms were sweating.

More soon.


Sheila O'Malley said...

I am living this book vicariously thru you - SO GLAD you are discovering it. The section on Armenia and their books is unbelievable.

And I am haunted by the image of a bunch of desert men, squatting in the sand outside what was once a mosque - in Uzbekistan, I think ... and the Soviets had turned it into a pool hall. You can hear the clack of pool balls on the green baize ... and the Muslims sit outside.

If you want to get an image of the destruction of a culture - or, not even a culture - but a culture's confidence in itself - you can't do better than that.

Wait til you get to the chapter on Stalin. I mean, the whole book is about Stalin - but there's one section, in particular, about him.

Kapuscinski is a real idol of mine - I hope you go on to read more of his books. The Soccer War! Shah of Shahs!

Ted said...

Yes, I'm just loving it. I think maybe you and I should try to do a trip to the 'stans some time!

Eva said...

Those excerpts are all great. I hope you share more as you go through the book!

Sheila O'Malley said...

My goal in life is to someday go to Uzbekistan. I'd love to see all the stans, of course - but Uzbekistan has Bukhara and Samarqand - and all these places from antiquity that I feel I MUST see. I actually talked to my CIA friend about it ... because he lived in Uzbekistan for a while - he lived in all the stans actually, but mainly in Uzbekistan - and I wanted to know how one, actually travels in such places. It can be quite dangerous - especially for women - but I think I still need to go!

Ted said...

Eva - I certainly will.

S - Samarkand especially for me. Does your friend speak any of those languages?

Sheila O'Malley said...

He speaks Arabic, which certainly helps - and I think he speaks Russian, too. And whatever language is spoken in the north of Afghanistan - because he worked with the mujahideen up there ... Urdu?

Anonymous said...

Ted, I just added this book to my must-read-list. I really, really hope you'll share more as you read along.

Ted said...

myrthe - I definitely will.