The Turnip Princess & Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales by Franz Xaver Von Schönwerth (Maria Tatar, translator)

March 10, 2015 § Leave a comment

Title:  The Turnip Princess & Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales
Author:  Franz Xaver Von Schönwerth
Translator: Maria Tatar
Publisher:  Penguin Classics, New York (2015)
ISBN:  978 0 14 310742 2

There was once a farmer, and he had two sons…

One day a prince lost his way in the woods…

A farmer had three sons…

Three young men, a tailor, a miller, and a soldier, found themselves lost in the woods one day…

A nobleman had three daughters, each more beautiful than the next…

The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy TalesThis is how fairy tales begin. Not with “once upon a time”, but with individuals standing on an empty stage patiently waiting to be told what to do next. Because fairy tales are essentially about the completion of tasks, even when the hero or heroine has no idea what that might lead to.  The underlying moral of most fairy tales is – do as you’re told and good things will follow.

Franz Xaver Von Schönwerth was a contemporary of the Brothers Grimm.  Like them he collected folk tales, employing a scientific method and focusing on a specific region of Bavaria known as the Upper Palatinate. He used questionnaires and carefully recorded the dialect, customs and costumes of the people he interviewed.  His work was much admired during his lifetime, but seems to have disappeared after his death. Until 2009 when Erika Eichenseer (a Bavarian author, storyteller & poet) discovered 500 unpublished works in a Bavarian archive.

The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales translates 72 of these newly discovered stories into English. The book divides them into six categories: Tales of Magic and Romance, Enchanted Animals, Otherworldly Creatures, Legends, Tall Tales and Anecdotes and Tales About Nature.  And they are quite unlike anything you might have encountered in the past.  Yes, there are some familiar themes – such as dancing princesses, a miniature child (“the size of a thumb”) and enchanted toads.  But in Von Schönwerth’s versions the Prince is often the one who needs saving; soldiers carry guns, not swords; the toad is just as likely to be a Princess and even after the hero saves the day he doesn’t always get the girl.

What you realize as you read is how spare, fragmentary and contradictory these tales actually are.  The Three-Legged Goats (found in Part 2: Enchanted Animals) begins –

“Three young men, a tailor, a miller, and a soldier, found themselves lost in the woods one day. It was growing dark, and they still could not find a way out.  The tailor decided to climb to the top of a tree, and from there he could see a light in the distance. He started walking in that direction, without saying a word to his companions, until he reached a castle. The first room he entered had nothing in it but three-legged goats and cats. Some of the cats were playing the fiddle on the tables and benches; others were dancing to the tunes. The tailor was hungry, so he ate some food. Once he was done, he stuffed his pockets with good things to eat and went back to give some food to his companions. After the tailor returned, the miller also climbed the tree, saw the light, found the castle, and discovered everything the tailor had found.”

At this point the soldier follows in the footsteps of his two companions and the tailor and miller disappear – never to be mentioned again. The story goes on to tell how the soldier breaks the enchantment on the castle, marries the princess and then journeys home to tell his parents the good news.  And where traditional fairy tales might end, this one is just getting started:  his wife, discovering he is poor, spurns him.  She disappears and the soldier is forced to search for her. While searching he encounters three thieves, from whom he steals three magical items.  He uses these three items to find his princess and win her back. And even after all he has done the Princess still questions her father, the King, as to whether she should keep the soldier as her husband.  “What should I do? Should I choose a new broom or take back the old one?”

The Three-Legged Goats, like many of the stories in this collection, appears to be a compilation of several fairy tales into one. Which makes sense when you consider that Von Schönwerth’s purpose when setting down these tales  was to faithfully record the oral history of those he interviewed.  These stories were transcribed in the telling  – not copied from books.  They changed and evolved over time.  And so it’s not implausible that two or three may have eventually merged together and been condensed into one.  Or that a story which began one way would end in another.  This results in very different narratives than most of us are accustomed to.

Maria Tatar makes some interesting choices in her translation.  Three soldiers, we are told, have “finished their tour of duty”.  When a huntsman asks three giants if they are planning to free a princess, the giants growl “From her wealth, anyhow.”  There are more guns mentioned than I remember in The Brothers Grimm.  Von Schönwerth lived from 1810-1886, so the modernity of the language and references is not entirely misplaced.  But it is definitely unexpected and at times jarring – which might have more to do with my expectations of what a fairy tale is than the quality of the translation.

Hans Christian Anderson, Charles Perrault, Andrew Lang (of the Blue, Red & Green Fairybooks, etc.) and Walk Disney have – for better or worse – shaped most of our expectations of what a fairy tale should be.  It is easy to forget that folk tales are just another form of folk art – and that folk art is primitive by definition.  The stories in The Turnip Princess range from one to five pages in length, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for embellishment. But it is the stripped-down, primitive nature – the potential in these stories of what they can become – which makes this collection so exciting.  Consider the literary impact of Cinderella, Beauty & the Beast, Red Riding Hood and Hansel & Gretel.  The plots & characters have become archetypal.  Their influence can be detected (whether overt or subtle) in many contemporary works of fiction. What, then, might a new generation of writers make of Franz Xaver Von Schönwerth’s stories?  Of a girl who becomes a snake when her stepmother casts her into a lake? Or a Prince who is kidnapped by a mermaid? Or a beautiful maiden freed from a turnip? Erika Eichenseer’s discovery has created new possibilities… new opportunities.

 

 

Blood Brothers by Ernst Haffner (translated from the original German by Michael Hofmann)

February 22, 2015 § Leave a comment

Title:  Blood Brothers (original German title Youth on the Road to Berlin)
Author:  Ernst Haffner
Translator:  Michael Hofmann
Publisher:  Other Press, New York (2015)
ISBN: 978 15905 1704 8
Haffner_BloodBrothersFinalA galley shows in my mailbox proclaiming itself “BANNED BY THE NAZI PARTY” in bold letters across the cover – as if the Nazi Party were still in the business of banning anything or anyone. The announcement doesn’t appear on the cover of the finished book, which is unfortunate as it provides a historical context for Ernst Haffner’s only known novel* – a book that seems to have come out of a 19th century “muck-raking” literary tradition rather than the years between the two World Wars.

Set during the waning days of the Weimar Republic, Blood Brothers was first published in 1932.  Adolf Hitler is appointed German Chancellor a year later.  The economy, already being crushed under the weight of WWI reparation payments, is devastated by the U.S. stock market crash of 1929.  (The Weimar government had received huge loans from the United States and, when faced with their own financial crisis, the U.S. called those loans in).  By 1932, between five & six million Germans were unemployed.

All over Germany, but particularly in the cities, boys & young men ranging from age 14-18 formed gangs in order to survive. In Berlin these gangs were surprisingly well organized – each holding a specific territory (divided into “Rings”)  and conforming to a rigidly structured hierarchy led by a “Ring Bull”.   This organization is only loosely hinted at by Haffner – he prefers to focus on the correlation between the youths and vagabonds. We are introduced to the Blood Brothers of the title as they stand in line at the welfare office. They’re not there for aid. They have no papers and if they’re caught by the authorities they’ll be sent to youth detention facilities until they come of age.

The eight boys were able to capture a whole bench and serenely oblivious to the numbers, they drop off to sleep. They’ve spent the whole endless winter’s night on the street. As so many times before: homeless. Always trudging on, always on the go. No chance of any shut-eye in this weather. Day-old remnants of snow, the occasional thin shower of sleet, everything nicely shaken up by a wind that makes the boys’ teeth chatter with cold. Eight boys, aged sixteen to nineteen. A few are veterans of borstals (detention centers). Two have parents somewhere in Germany. The odd one perhaps still has a father or mother someplace. Their birth and early infancy coincided with the war and the years after. From the moment they undertook their first uncertain steps, they were on their own. Father was at the Front or already listed missing. Mother was turning grenades, or coughing her lungs out a few grams at a time in explosives factories. The kids with their turnip bellies – not even potato bellies – were always out for something to eat in courtyards and streets. As they grew older, gangs of them went out stealing. Stealing to fill their bellies. Malignant little beasts.

The Blood Brothers are led by Jonny.  A sympathetic and likeable character, in the early chapters he is shown taking care of his crew – spending what little money the gang has on food and a place where they can sleep unmolested. He organizes the boys – making sure they move around the city in pairs so as not to attract attention. At this point in the story their focus is on the basic necessities of survival and Jonny is more a protective big brother figure and less a criminal Fagin.

This will change as Jonny and the Blood Brothers, under the guidance of Jonny’s lieutenant Fred, discover the benefits of a criminal lifestyle.  Only two members, Willi & Ludwig (who are, notably, sepearted from the gang when it begins organized pick-pocketing), remain unconvinced and determine to leave the gang. These two pairs boys serve as moral contrasts – demonstrating the two paths available. The tone of the book, though, is not moralistic.  Haffner doesn’t judge, instead he laments the society that allows these boys to slip though the cracks.  Though “lament” may be too strong of a word.  Blood Brothers is written in the odd, yet incredibly effective, style of a newsreel voice over.  Or a YA novel.  The gangs’ crimes range from prostitution & petty theft, to pick-pocketing and eventually breaking & entering – all described in a hearty narrative voice. I couldn’t get the word “sanitized” out of my mind.  For example: Willi & Ludwig, out of desperation, sell themselves to two rich men.  Men who, “Along with their silk-lined tuxes…stripped off their manners. What was left were two scrawny little men whose wallets allowed them to buy young healthy, if half-starved, boys”.  The next morning when the boys wake the men are gone.  ‘Details of the night just past swim into the boys’ consciousness. “Yuck!” says Ludwig. “Yes, it makes me feel sick. Never again…”‘ They then proceed to go out for breakfast and plan their future – the episode entirely forgotten.

There’s a lot to recommend Blood Brothers.  It reads like a first hand account of the economic conditions in Germany that allowed the Nazi Party to come to power. For anyone interested in the Hitlerjugand and their counterparts, the Edelweiss Pirates (an underground youth movement that fought for the Allies) it has that added layer.  In addition, Blood Brothers is extremely entertaining and easy to read.  Haffner shows real empathy for these boys’ situation.  There are elements of adventure, suspense and – perhaps most important – a sense of hope.  Hope that these boys are victims of a broken system and not inherently bad. Despite the events that we know loom over Germany’s, and the boys’, future – events that Haffner had no knowledge of when writing the book – we are left incongruously hoping that everything will still work out.

*Very little is known about Ernst Haffner – some believe he was a social worker.  A critic reviewing Blood Brothers at the time of its original publication refers to him as a journalist.  We know that the book was critically and popularly successful when first published.  That it was burned by the Nazis a year later and that Haffner & his publisher were called before the Cultural Ministry.  That is where the trail ends. No picture exists.  No record of whether he survived the war.  The only reference I found of him was a chapter in a 1980 book (written in German) on the youth gangs: Wilde Cliquen : Szenen e. anderen Arbeiterjugendbewegung by Hellmut Lessing & Manfred Liebel  and I’m not sure if it’s a excerpt from the novel or a separate article entirely.

The Scatter Here Is Too Great by Bilal Tanweer

February 2, 2015 § 1 Comment

Title:  The Scatter Here Is Too Great

Author:  Bilal Tanweer

Publisher: Harper Collins, New York (2014)

ISBN:  978 0062 3044 1 4

 

18781341A spider web crack is a series of hairline fractures spreading out from a central point of impact.  Bilal Tanweer makes this image the motif for his short story collection The Scatter Here Is Too Great. The central point of impact is a bomb blast at the Karachi Train Station in Pakistan.  All the stories, eight total, radiate out from and connect back to that one point in time.

Tanweer takes a “community” approach to the event.  His characters are as interconnected as his stories; appearing, re-appearing and interacting with one another throughout the book; jumping from one story to the next; telling us about their lives before and after the explosion; gradually revealing their thoughts and feelings in first person narratives (with the exception of one story which is told in the third person present tense).  All the narrators are male, predominantly young and speak in voices which veer from self-conscious vulnerability to the cocky arrogance peculiar to young men.

More succinctly:  these people, who we expect to be no more than a group of strangers whose collective bad karma has resulted in them being at the wrong place at the wrong time, know each other.  For example:  there is an elderly man, a Communist poet, who passes through several different stories.  In one he recites his poetry on the bus and is derided by other passengers.  Later we will see him again, on another bus, though the eyes of the troubled boy he sits beside and talks to.  In yet another story we recognize him as the narrator’s grandfather, and then as another narrator’s the father, and then he has a brief cameo as the friend of the main character’s father seen from a distance.  Sadeq, the boy on the bus befriended by the poet, narrates more than one chapter and over time describes to us what is a remarkably depressing life for one whose only advanced into his early 20’s. Through his story we are linked to another young man who was his childhood friend.  And in this way, one thread at a time, we learn about the victims of the bombing. So that when the time comes to tend to the survivors and collect the dead, we have an understanding exactly who each of them is and was in that moment of impact.

Unhelpfully for the purposes of this review, my favorite story is the one that takes place in the weeks after the explosion. The narrator is worried about his brother Akbar, a first responder who develops PTSD as a result of the carnage he confronts in the aftermath of the blast.  Akbar is convinced he saw Gog & Magog walking among the bodies of the dead.  “If  you don’t already know about Gog and Magog, their arrival was supposed to mark the coming of the end of the world… They will bring strife and disharmony and, ultimately the apocalypse to the world.”  Akbar’s brother eventually tracks down Gog & Magog and, while they aren’t exactly what they appeared to be, we learn that “what appears strange and complex becomes even stranger and more complicated once you begin to investigate it.  That’s the true nature of the world.”

That is Bilal Tanweer’s super power as an author.  He has a talent for creating beautiful & strange imagery out of life’s banalities. He’s willing to spend time on the insignificant things we all notice and just as quickly forget. Like a plastic bag blowing in the wind.

My eyes were following the blue plastic bag that floated in between the onrushing cars. It curved sideways, rose and cruised and hung in the air, and finally ran into the path of a pedestrian who slapped it with the back of his hand and pushed it over the edge of the bridge. It limped over it and spiraled like a tiny tornado.

Because, when you think about those men & women entering the Twin Towers on 9/11, or boarding trains in London on 7/11, or riding a bus in Syria on a Sunday morning – they were all having normal, ordinary, even boring, days.  Until suddenly they weren’t.  Tanweer skillfully conveys the individual’s sense of normalcy leading up to a catastrophic event, which is so unfathomable to the reader who already possesses the knowledge of what is about to happen, and then allows the environment to degenerate into the chaos and confusion that must inevitably follow.

The Scatter Here is Too Great was on the shortlist for the DSC Prize.  It was not selected as the final winner by the Shadow or actual juries – mostly because despite its ambition (or perhaps because of it) the book has integral flaws.  The most obvious is how the voices of all the young men blend together as the book progresses. Less obvious, but ultimately more distracting, is how it works too hard at being a “concept” novel.  The opening image of the spiderweb crack is an intriguing one, particularly as the story centers on a bomb blast, and so you want it to fall into place naturally.  But Tanweer felt the need to insert (what I guess you could call) an element of metafiction: a writer who pops up to provide a sidebar commentary on what is happening and why. Tanweer doesn’t seem to fully trust his reader.  He’s created this writer to explain the structural and creative process… and to a point it succeeds. I was surprised at how well all the stories fit together and played their part in the author’s greater narrative plan.  But I didn’t see it until it was explained.  And, like that blue plastic bag, I forgot about it just as quickly.  One of the highest praises we as a society give to an artist is to say that he or she “makes it look easy”.  While The Scatter Here Is Too Great delivers moments of promise, in the end Tanweer succeeds in making it look unaccountably hard.

A God In Every Stone: A Novel by Kamila Shamsie

January 12, 2015 § Leave a comment

Title:  A God In Every Stone:  A Novel

Author:  Kamila Shamsie

Publisher:  Bloomsbury, London (2014) / Atavist Books

ISBN:  978 1 9378 9430 6

 

AGodInEveryStoneThe city of Peshawar is  located in Pakistan, 59.1 kilometers (approximately 36 miles) from the Torkham-Border Crossing into Afghanistan.  It is at the end of the Khyber Pass which cuts through the Spin Ghar mountain range and connects the two nations. Until 1947 it was a part of British India. Go back even farther, c. 515 B.C., and the Persian Empire claimed the city.  Kamila Shamsie layers over two thousand years of Peshawar’s history into her novel: A God In Every Stone – by setting it in the period between WWI and the Partition of British India and by using the Persian Empire -(and the tale of Scylax, a hero who betrayed his king) to bookend her story.

It’s an ambitious novel.  Vivian Rose Spencer is sent by her father to his old friend, Tahsin Bey, to take part in an archeological dig in the Labraunda region (located in modern day Turkey).   It is 1914.  For Vivian the trip is marked by a series of firsts – first adventure away from home, first taste of independence, first archeological discovery & first love. Tahsin Bey, the man who will be the great love of Vivian Rose’s life, tells her the story of Scylax  of Caryanda. A sea Captain and Ancient Greek Historian, he is mentioned in Herodotus. In Tahsin Bey’s version of the tale the Persian King Darius I favored Scylax, the Greek explorer, and as a mark of his favor gave him a finely wrought silver crown of figs. But when Caryanda rose up against the Persians, Scylax betrayed his King and rebelled with his countrymen.* Tahsin Bey believes the crown exists and has spent his life searching for it.

And then WWI detonates and turns Labraunda into an idyllic interlude very different from everything that follows.  Vivian Rose returns home to London to nurse the wounded soldiers and we are introduced to Qayyum Gul, a Pashtun soldier, who travels to France as a part of the Indian Army.  He will eventually lose an eye in the Battle of Ypres and be sent home to Peshawar.  Vivian Rose, traumatized by the carnage of war she sees in the army hospital escapes back to India and archeology.  These two will be bound, completely unbeknownst to them, by their affection for an engaging and intelligent boy. Qayyum’s younger brother, Najeeb, who will become Vivian Rose’s student and protegé.

For the first time she gave him her full attention – a smiling boy with excellent but oddly pronounced English, as though most of his vocabulary came from books. He was dressed more formally than the day before in narrow black trousers, a white tunic, and a white turban with a grass stain which suggested he’d been standing on his head.

They turned into another lane and Najeeb said it was the Street of Partridge Lovers, and looked startled when she laughed.

– What else? Tell me all the street names!

– The Street of Dentists. The Street of Potters. The Street of Felt Caps. The Street of Silver. The Street of Money-Changers. The Street of Coppersmiths. The Street of Englishwomen.

– The Street of Englishwomen?

– They buy and sell Englishwomen there. We will avoid it.

– Take a detour through the Street of Inventive Guides if you must.

He looked delighted to be caught out, and she found she was delighted to have been teased.

 

All of which is only a very small part of a larger (and, in hindsight) messier plot that also includes the Khudai Khidmatgar or“Servants of God” – the Pashtun Liberation Movement with strong ties to Gandhi’s Indian Liberation Movement – led by Ghaffar Khan.  Gandhi and Ghaffar Khan were good friends and shared a common philosophy of non-violence. Qayyum will become of follower of Ghaffar Khan and a member of the Khudai Khidmatgar and Pashtun Liberation.

Against this richly layered historical backdrop Shamsie uses her characters to take a hard, unsentimental look at the relationship of two cultures interacting under the social constructs of colonialism & Empire.  She accurately describes the injustice, prejudice, and inequality that existed in British India without dismissing the complexity of that relationship. She also takes an honest look at both cultures’ treatment of women.  Vivian Rose’s father raises her as if he were the son he never had: “a compact early agreed on between them that she would be son and daughter both – female in manners but male in intellect”. He seems remarkably enlightened until we learn how he “set her right” on women getting the vote by sending her to an Anti-Suffrage League meeting. “If all women were like Ms. Bell and you, men would fall over their feet in the haste to give you the vote”. “- Are you to spend the rest of your life making up for my womb’s insistence on killing his sons?” her mother asks at a pivotal point in the sorry.

A few months later, halfway across the world, Najeeb will find his four-year-old niece looking at one of his books.

- Do you want to learn how to read?

Najeeb sat down beside her as he spoke, both of them small enough to occupy a single chair. The child nodded her head, placed her hand on the page and said, Alif, Bey, Pay. Qayyum lifted her up in his arms, away from the book, away from Najeeb’s questioning gaze, and placed her on her grandmother’s lap.

– Play with your doll, little one.

 


A God In Every Stone is a lush, sweeping novel; ping-ponging between Britain and India; with a larger than average cast of characters. Shamsie paints every one of them (no matter how tertiary) so vividly as to confuse her readers into believing she is writing non-fiction. Preconceptions, projection & misunderstandings shape events. From the early chapters, where a young British woman and a wounded Pashtun soldier find themselves sharing a train compartment, to the final pages in which a single Pashtun man finds himself on a rooftop with a young Pashtun lady to whom he is not related –  characters misinterpret and misjudge each others intentions. Shifting, third person narratives provide an array of perspectives – men and women who understand surprisingly little about themselves or each other.  Sometimes with tragic, sometimes glorious, results.

I wrote earlier that this was a messy novel. Let me clarify:  A God In Every Stone is messy like a Charles Dicken’s novel is messy – crammed full of plot, description and people.  Its character’s are imperfect, like those favored by E.M. Forester – committing multiple mistakes before reaching the end.  So yes – I still hold Kamila Shamsie has written a messy, imperfect masterpiece. But a masterpiece nonetheless.

 

*Carian Heraclides of Mylasa is a work attributed to the real life Scylax. In it Heraclides revolts against the Persians (during a Carian revolt c. 492 B.C. which was supported by the Greeks).  

The DSC Prize for South Asian Literature – 2015 Shadow Jury

January 2, 2015 § 2 Comments

The DSC Prize for South Asian Literature announced their shortlist on November 27th.

  • The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (Bengali)
  • The Mirror of Beauty by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi (Indian)
  • The Scatter Here is Too Great by Bilal Tanweer (Pakistani)
  • A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie (Pakistani)
  • Noontide Toll by Romesh Gunesekera (Sri Lankan born British writer)

The DSC Prize is not one I usually follow. At least not closely. Most of the books involved are written in English (as is the case with this year’s shortlist) and I’ve been focusing on translations to the exclusion of almost everything else these days.  But Stu from Winstonsdad’s Blog & Lisa from the ANZ LitLovers LitBlog invited me to join their 2015 Shadow Jury and I accepted, of course.  They’re two of my favorites and I was honored they thought of me.  It was only afterwards that I realized that I had three weeks to read five books. Then, on the week of January 15th, we will meet in a three person MMA bare knuckle cage match to determine the winner.  Three bloggers and five books will enter.  Only one will leave.

(Well, one blogger and one book – so that’s technically two.  Only two will leave.  Not as dramatic. And I probably should mention the whole MMA cage fight aspect to Stu & Lisa. I’m not sure they read the official DSC rules and guidelines for setting up shadow juries).

I’m three books in and working on a review of A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie for the weekend – and so far I am pleasantly surprised.  As mentioned in the previous paragraph, it’s doubtful that I would have gotten to any of these novels without the Shadow Jury incentive.  A God in Every Stone was lovely and became one of my best novels read in 2014.  A gorgeous World War I tale set in England & Peshawar (now a city in Pakistan, but during the period the novel is set still a part of British India) that works on multiple levels.  Beautiful writing, vivid character portraits, evocative of a sense of place and historical urgency – overall as close to flawless as it gets.

 The Scatter Here Is Too Great by Bilal Tanweer was initially less satisfying because it felt disjointed, but became one of those books that brilliantly pulls itself together at the end.  Described as a collection of short stories, the last fits in so neatly with the overall theme that it must have been intentional on Tanweer’s part.  I just finished today and am still processing my relationship to it.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland is next on deck.  She’s an author I’ve been meaning to get to for years (like Zadie Smith) but never actually got to.  I imagine her as someone whose work a reader either connects with or does not – without purchase between.  We’ll soon see if that’s true.


 

The official winner of the 2015 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature will be announced on January 22nd.

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