La Batalla de Verdun (The Battle of Verdun) by Gerorges Blond – A Review

La Batalla de Verdun (The Battle of Verdun)
Gerorges Blond
Inedita Editores, 2008, pg 337
translator Jose Patricio Montojo
Language: Spanish

Gerorges Blond’s 1962 The Battle of Verdun, or in French simply Verdun, is a strange kind of history, at once more interested in the dramatic value of the story and yet an apparent exploration of the first hand experiences of the soldiers who lived France’s iconic battle of World War I. What makes the book a compelling read (it won the Richelieu prize), is his detailed focus on the experience of the soldier in battle. He is quite clear in his interest: what actual combat was like. Reading Verdun you’ll have a general sense of the battles movement of troops, but even that will be incomplete—he doesn’t even recount large sections of the final stages of the battle. Instead, one will understand the fatigue and exhaustion that overtook the soldiers outside Fluery as they drank putrid water from shell craters that gave them dysentery, while the shells landed around them and the fighting was hand to hand. His descriptions of the battle for Fort Vaux is particularly detailed (perhaps graphic is the right word). The men could hardly breathe and the stink of the dead permeated everything. The French held out on the lower sections of the fort while the Germans slowly worked their way in, loosing great numbers to the determined resistance. He’s at his best when he is describing these almost novelist encounters. One has the impression that he had researched the encounters, and his comments towards the end of the book about his conversations with the veterans of the war, all lend credence to his descriptions. Those close in details follow his general style of narration which places heavy emphasis on characters and personalities, even in the abstract or the aggregate. For Blond, the strategic implications of the battle are only important in how they influence the daily life of the participants. In other words, he likes his characters. It is that focus that brings him to write about the men of the Sacred Way, the only supply line into Verdun, or the pilots battling in horrendous situations. In each case he finds in them a heroism that is both stoic and noble, men who are doing what they have to, many who know they’ll never return. It can be a jarring approach at times. His coverage of the air war is particularly odd since he seems to care little about other strategic elements of the war, and he is certainly not trying to do a survey of all the various factors in the battle. He might have done well to stick to the ground war. His search for character also detracts in the liberties he takes that no academic historian would. In the initial parts of the book he was recording thoughts and conversations that Joffre and other generals were having, yet it was unclear how he knew these statements. There was no sourcing and it felt too complete. It wasn’t until late in the book that he remarked that he didn’t have the details of a conversation, I think with Petain, but it must have gone something like this. For one, such as myself, who wants a little more concrete detail it can be a little discerning. Despite those lapses, Blond’s ability to describe the experience of the front line troops was impressive and given what I know of the battles, I would say on target. While not the most rigorous history, it has some impressive passages. In some ways, the best part were the last pages when he began making more references to the soldiers and the evenings he spent with them at campgrounds outside Verdun, reliving the war. In those moments you see a writer full of respect and admiration for the Poilu. It brought his writing into a fuller, less narrative driven, style that served the pointless of the battle.

The Short Stories of Zakaria Tamer – Banipal 53

The Short Stories of Zakaria Tamer
Banipal 53, summer 2015

Zakaria Tamer is a Syrian short story, considered one of the best short story writers in Arabic. I have no way to know if that is true, but Banipal 53, the magazine of modern Arab literature, has dedicated an entire issue of its magazine to him. It is filled with effusive praise from his translators across the world. In every case they described him as an economical author of very short stories that both stretch story telling and the Arabic language, but are playful and darkly humorous. After reading the 27 stories, Facebook posts and children stories included in the issue, I would have to agree with their assessment.

He has had a long career, if troubled career. He has lived in exile in England since the 1980s. The Syrian government didn’t like what he had written in the state funded literature magazine he edited. Some of his work addresses life in a police state, not directly, but through fables and little incidents in daily life that the best writers can use to illustrate a larger point. The Arab Prison best illustrates the former approach. In it, the narrator returns home from a three week stay in a jail. All his neighbors ask him leading questions, hoping, though it is not said, that he will describe the terrors inside. The narrator, instead, describes everything as pleasant—to a degree, as if he wants to tell stories but he just can’t quite shake the truth:

Then the interrogator let the burly men who were with him and whose hobby was to collect autographs of celebrities, request my autograph. However, I couldn’t hold a pen, so I had to dip all ten of my fingers in ink and plant their imprints on their notepads.

It’s obvious that his hands have been broken, but the narrator is a story teller, both as our narrator and also as someone who is known to create his own stories, so he takes different approaches to story telling. In a typically Tamer move, he ends the story by telling little fables. After the narrator’s mother has left the room, his little brother wants to hear a story. The narrator tells him three stories about kings. In each story there is a threat of violence and loss and the fables do not end well. In the final, for example, a man tells the king he has too many prisoners and if he releases them he will be cured of a milady. In anger he puts the man in jail and later the milady goes away. There is no settling of accounts. Those without power end up at the mercy of those without power.

In the brief Cold Night, Tamer examines the common place cruelties that neighbors are willing to live with. A husband and wife are in bed and they hear their neighbor scream. She is alone and someone might be trying to rape her. The husband says “we’re not the only neighbors […] Someone else will help her.” This kind of indifference has been explored before, but then Tamer goes a little father. The wife describes what she thinks is happening and the husband becomes aroused and wants to make love. The story ends there. It is unclear what has happened, but Tamer has in one page described not only neighborly indifference, but a delight in suffering living just beneath the surface. Cold Night is a perfect example of his precise style.

Tamer is also quite playful. In New of the Sheep he writes 10 on paragraph stories the might be called the disaster of sheep, each describing the well-intentioned naivete of sheep that always turns out bad:

A well-fed lamb believed in the idea of peace between lambs and wolves and devoted all his energies to preaching and advocating it. The wolves fell upon him and gave him the highest honor by cooking his tender, firm flesh in the most innovative ways.

As the translators note and from the stories I’ve read, the darkness isn’t a pessimism, but a reality that is too easily glossed over.

Along with the short stories, most of which have not appeared in English,  the children’s stories which have never been published before, and the reflections of translators and critics, there is a lengthy interview with Tamer that is excellent and will give you an insight to his writing process.

If you are interested in the short story I think this issue of Banipal is a must. I plan to read some more of his stories as soon as I can. There are three books in translation:

Breaking Knees
Tigers on the Tenth Day and Other Stories
The Hedgehog-A Novella.

You can read one of his stories at Arabic lit in English. There is a good review of his recent public appearance in London at Arabic lit also.

Las tinieblas de tu memoria negra (Shadows of Your Black Memory) by Donato Ndongo – A Review

Las tinieblas de tu memoria negra
(Shadows of Your Black Memory)
Donato Ndongo
Ediciones El Cobre, 2009, 174 pg

Donato Ndongo is from Equatorial Guinea a multi lingual country with a history of Spanish occupation. Las tinieblas de tu memoria negra is his response to that colonization as well as a coming of age story, each navigating the space between what it means to leave home, a place of tradition, and entering the world of the Catholic church and Spanish power. For those who don’t know much about Equatorial Guinea (I was one of them), Spain colonized parts of the country for several hundred years. When the story picks up in the 1950’s, Spain is in the midst of Franco’s Catholic-Nationalism dictatorship and the colonial officials, when present, hold the government line, obsessed with God and communism. In a touch of Ndongo’s humor, the narrator recounts when he was six and the priest went on about reds and Russians, all the while he misinterprets the locus of the priest’s ire, believing reds are a different people, like the Spanish are to him. It is also indicative of a tension that runs throughout the book between the traditional culture and that of Spanish, and most importantly, the Catholic church, the main emblem of the state in the narrator’s remote village. The book opens with the adult narrator telling the head of the seminary he is not going to be a priest after all. From there the chapters alternate between key encounters with tradition and with the church. The encounters are rendered in strong impressionistic language that sweeps aside cold logic in favor of a sensual prose which builds in rhythm and power. When he describes his circumcision amongst the elders of the tribe, both the excitement and the power of the moment builds until the actual circumcision and the adulation after is a release. His description of his first communion is rendered in a similar building emotion. But instead of power and mystery, he gives us comedy. The narrator, who pushed into first communion at seven, an early age, because he had been caught giving mass in his bedroom, gets so nervous that instead of honoring the Eucharist, he gets sick at the alter, embarrassing everyone and dirtying his first communion suit (in Spain at that time they were elaborate things that looked like naval uniforms). If there is a flaw to the book, it is its brevity (something I don’t say that often). The novel ends with the narrator at the age of eight or nine going off to religious boarding school to learn what the Spaniards know so he can bring it back home and help free the country. Sure, he won’t become a priest, but what happened between his leaving and that period. A minor quibble to an otherwise outstanding book.

A note of the title: the English title of the 2007 translation, while correct, I think looses a little in the translation, only because the translation of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is El corazon de las tinieblas. I think the Spanish title plays with that image.

La División Azul: Rusia, 1941-1944 (The Blue Division) by Jorge M. Reverte – A Review

La División Azul: Rusia, 1941-1944/ The Blue Division : Russia, 1941-1944
Jorge M. Reverte
RBA Libros, 2011, pg 589

The División Azul was a Spanish volunteer unit that served on the Russian front during World War II. The division initially consisted of members of the Flange, the ultra fascist party that formed part of Franco’s ruling coalition. (They wore blue shirts as part of their uniform.) It is important to understand that Franco was still consolidating power after the Spanish Civil War and that the Flange wanted to push an agenda that was much more extreme than Franco’s national-Catholicism, itself quite conservative and violent.

In 1941, the leaders of the Flange were looking for a way to push their anti-communist, anti-mason, agenda forward. Franco was not moving fast enough and given the recent German invasion of Russia, the Flange wanted a more active policy, ideally joining with Germany against the Judaeo-Bolshevik threat that the USSR represented. Moreover, in joining the attack against Russia they would be taking revenge for Russia’s meddling in the Civil War. Since Franco would not enter the war, they created a plan where they would create a division of volunteers that would serve in the German army. Franco assented to the creation of the volunteer group for two reasons. First, it would placate German demands for a Spanish entry into the war and might avoid a German invasion of Spain. Second, it could, and eventually would, cut the power of the Flange. If their members were killed during the war they would not be available later to challenge Franco.

The division left Spain in late summer to parades and much excitement. It would be the closest Spain came to joining the war. Once in Spain they swore allegiance to Hitler. This is a key point and one that Reverte will return to over and over. The volunteers were part of the German army and all the bad that includes. One of the cruxes of the book is the question, what did the Spaniards know about the atrocities the German’s were participating in. Reverte details what the Einsatzgruppen were doing in the sectors the division was passing through. The technique definitely suggests the division members must have known something. He is working at a disadvantage since there are few statements from the Flange diehards to support this.

The technique has some draw backs, though. Primarly, Reverte, in attempting to show the conditions the men were fighting in, will search too far afield to show the suffering that the men must have known was happening. As much as I’m interested in Shostakovitch, the writing of his 7th symphony is not particularly central to his subject, even if the division was on the outskirts of Leningrad.  And discussions of Irene Nemirovsky no matter how tragic they were, are not particularly relevant to the division. It is the weakness of the book, and a 100 pg cut of such materials would have helped the book.

The winter of 41/42 was horrendous and took a toll on the division. When new volunteers were needed diehards of the Flange, essentially college students, were no where to be found. The second group would be made up of the poor who wanted a good wage, or soldiers from the army who were voluntold. Moroccan troops were even sent, but were returned to Spain. German race purity had to be maintained.

In either version of the division, the casualties were heavy. Despite the casualties, the Germans were not impressed with the Spanish troops. The Spanish leadership, on the other hand, was happy with the losses. It showed a fighting spirit that only the Spanish fascist could achieve. The Fascist chant at the beginning of the Civil War, vivela muerte, comes to mind here.

Ultimately, Franco, with the allied victories, was able to let the losses and his consolidation of power, decimate the power of the Flange. By war’s end the Flange was not a threat to Franco’s power.

Despite Reverte’s many off topic asides (a writer falling in love with his subject), La División Azul does make a solid case that the soldiers, if they did not participate in the atrocities, must have known and to say otherwise, as many have maintained, is a lie.

Banipal 49 – A Cornucopia of Short Stories

Banipal 49 – A Cornucopia of Short Stories

Issue 49 of Banipal focused on Short Stories and had an impressive collection of stories, from the fantastic, to the experimental to mainstream. Many of them were very good and I was impressed with the stylistic range of story telling. Jokha Al-Harthi’s On the Wooden Park Bench…We Sat was impressive, telling a simple story of a romance played out on a park bench. Salima Salih’s The Body was a haunting and dark story about a man who goes to morgue to find his dead son, and finding he isn’t dead enters a bureaucratic nightmare. Anis Afafai’s Moroccan Dead Transfer Company was delightfully fantastic, playing with reality and dream at the same time. In all of the stories there was an inventiveness that made many of the stories quite different from each other, both in theme and style. There is no over arching take away from the collection, other than there are some great voices out there that I would have liked to read more of. In most cases their works are not translated into English and this is your only chance to read from these ±20 authors. I would have liked a few more stories from women. Otherwise this edition was quite enjoyable.

The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christoper Clark

The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914
Christoper Clark
Harper 2012, pg 562

Christoper Clark’s origins of World War I is a remarkable work of history, especially, diplomatic. Although the term Sleepwalker has been criticized in a few cases (namely Hastings), his thesis is compelling and his analysis of the political currents of the major parties is  richly detailed. It is it is one of the best analysis written of the subject.

Sleepwalkers starts with a lengthy analysis of Serbia and Hungry, each receiving a chapter. The two chapters are unlike any others in the book and it shows not only the importance of the two countries in the start of the war, something perhaps obvious, but how Clark views each country’s leadership. In the case of Serbia, Clark is extremely critical, seeing the country as mass of violence, intrigue, and outsized ambitions to become the leader of the Balkan Slavs. It is that ambition, one that was unable to get beyond its own nativism, that led to most of the problems. While the war was not Serbia’s fault per say, their ambitions to become the regional power, a self selected protector of Slav culture, despite what the Croats or other peoples in the region might think, made the region very unstable. It is easy to see in his analysis a criticism of Serbia in the 1990’s too.

In the case of Hungry, he showed not so much as a weak nation, but an unwieldy one. The dual monarchy meant that major decisions to  like going to war had to go through both the Austrian parliament and the Hungarian. The motive of each group was not necessarily in line with the other, and Hungarian nationalism often played a key in how each side would decide to enter a political decision. He does note that Austria was less divided than one might think and although the an observer of the Austrian parliament might hear multiple languages during a debate, the frictions for independence were not as decisive as one might expect. Like all great powers of the era, it did believe that it had a sphere of influence that it could operate in and it was their right to do it.

After those two chapters he moves into a more chronological history. In this part 6 points are come out: the weak control over institutions within countries, France’s  bellicose attitude and financial aide to the Serbs, the growing fear that Russia would be able to mobilize faster than Germany, the British and Russian relationship might come to an end, Italian ambitions, the collapse of the Ottomans, and most importantly, no side thought they had an option but go to war.

Clark notes in several chapters that the prime ministers and presidents of several countries, particularly France and Great Brittan, but also Russia and Germany, often did not have direct control over their foreign ministries. Instead, the leadership that came and went with some regularity, was unable to control the bureaucracy of the ministries. Often the ministers worked against what the heads of state wanted. France and Britain had paralytically bellicose ministries that often planed for wars and were in a constant state of panic about the central powers. Even when a head of state wanted to reign in a ministry in an attempt to deescalate a situation it was difficult to do, and they would find themselves without allies within the government to control the situation. France was especially susceptible to this.

The far greater problem, though, was empire. For Britain and Russia it was the contest for regions along their borders, particularly India. the two countries had accords to limit competition, but as they grew closer to 1914, there was some question as to how they would work together in the future or if they would become adversaries again. The issue made the need to bind Britain to Russia and France critical and would in the run up complicate planning for each party in the war.

More important, though, and what Clark sees as a key element to the crises was Italy’s 1911 invasion of Libya. Until then there was a balance of power between the Ottomans, the Austrians and other regional powers. With the loss of Libya, it was now obvious that Turkey was a weak state and its possessions could be wrest from it. In 1912 Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece and Montenegro began the First Balkan war to take land that had been Ottoman, though inhabited by Slavs. The war was  a success and the nations expanded in size. The destabilization of the region and the growth of Serbian power led to a bellicose situation in the region, where Serbian and Austrian ambitions were in conflict. France made things worse by guaranteeing Serbia large loans. The loans were given with the condition that Serbia spend the money in France. They bought large amounts of arms, further escalating tensions. France disregarded any council that their actions could lead to an escalation.

Finally, he lays out his key thesis: when the crisis came, every country thought of itself as a victim. Worse, instead of viewing themselves as an actor who could control the situation, they thought they could only react to the situation. The interlocking treaties, fears, and military plans all gave each side the sense that they were a victim and had to do something. It is this idea that most clearly illustrates the idea of the Sleepwalkers. Even for Clark it is difficult to believe that they could all find themselves without options. The obsession with mobilization and military time tables, amongst other things, made it difficult for any actor to slow the rush to war.

Sleepwalkers is a complex and nuanced work whose analytic depth makes this an impressive work of scholarship.