Tag Archives: translation

… The banality of good – a review of ‘Alone in Berlin’ …

 

For me, Edward Munch’s painting  –  – The Scream —  sums up the fear of the unknown, and by implication, the fear of the feminine principle – a fear that spurns men towards controlling nature.

Hans Fallada’s novel, Jeder stirbt für sich allein’ (Everyone dies alone,) first came to my attention through its publication in English, ‘Alone in Berlin,’ a translation that was delayed by 60 years. The book has been sitting on my shelf as a ‘must read’ for a long while. Burdened by regressive small-mindedness and divisions around the world, I finally tackled ‘Alone in Berlin,’ aware that it would be a grim read, having been described as a testament to the darkest years of the 20th century from the point of view and experience of ordinary people.

Resistance to the Nazi regime by individuals had no news value after the war. Yet such stories provide the most poignant insights into what it is like to oppose a state under a dictatorship. As such, this book, written raw and in haste eighteen month after the defeat of Nazism, offers a high alert to simple solutions for social problems. The author, Hans Fallada, aka Rudolf Ditzen, died before this last of his works was published in 1947.

The urgency behind the writing is palpable. The players, sketched with harsh strokes, embody the full range of human nature – the capacity for compassion, kindness, complacency, stupidity, meanness, stubbornness, false pride, envy, hate, and resentment, fear, fanaticism and vengeance tipping into the most depraved cruelty.

Very quickly the dread of being caught in the nightmarish system of a totalitarian state jumps at the reader. While the ghostly despot drifts in the background, his control is shown through the dynamic interactions of ordinary citizens – be they power-hungry officers, opportunists, cunning manipulators, cowards, reticent objectors or unsung heroes. Resistance carried the threat of death and seemed futile.

The anguish conveyed is chilling, intensified by the archetypal hue clinging to the tragic comic characters, at times suggesting caricatures. The sheer absurdness of the stupidities and sadistic cruelties depicted may dilute the shock, but it makes the scenes all the more heart-breaking.

The classic method of totalitarianism is to instil fear and divide factions of society against each other, so people spy on each other and nobody can be trusted anymore. In this chapter of history fear served as the leverage for forcing the banal idea of a perfect state that can be safeguarded through clockwork control.

Fallada’s main protagonists, Otto and Anna Quangel, were based on the records of two insignificant objectors to the regime, Otto and Elise Hampel. The elderly couple started spreading anti-Nazi missives written on postcards in buildings around Berlin. For their sadly ineffective attempts of rebellion, the Hampel’s were arrested in 1942, tried in 1943 and executed shortly after. The same fate befell their friends and relatives.

Can a few virtuous individuals, each driven by personal idiosyncrasies, redeem the moral integrity of a nation? It is up to the reader to decide whether the many deaths a totalitarian regime inflicts on soon forgotten brave people are in vain.

The book brought alive the pressure my grandparents must have lived under, as well as the uncanny anxious atmosphere that spoiled my parents’ teen years, and, the wariness I personally and many of the post-war generation developed towards overbearing authority.

Presented in the context of ordinary individual lives, the story reads like a tragic comedy that screams – let us never forget that freedom lies in people being allowed to be different, not chained to a hell of obedience and conformity.

Primo Levi’s declared ‘Alone in Berlin’ as the greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis. English readers have had to wait 60 years to read the novel.

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… the sorcerers apprentice …

Goethe in Roman Campagna (1786) by J H W Tischbein

Goethe in Roman Campagna (1786) by J H W Tischbein

Science arose from poetry … when times change the two can meet again on a higher level as friends …   J W von Goethe

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

It’s my day – since for once

The old one has gone

So now the spirits shall live

And do exactly as I say

I took note of the words

The custom – the spells

So with strong resolve

I’ll work miracles as well.

Rise up and surge

Across the gap

To the end that

Water may flow

And in rich effusion

Fill the tub for my bath

Come old broom,

Take those tattered rags

Slave you’ve been for aeons

Now let my will be your task!

On two legs stand

With a head atop

Get on with it – hurry

With the water pot!

Rise up and surge

Across the gap

To the end that

Water may flow

And in rich effusion

Fill the tub for my bath

Look – he’s running to the shore

Indeed has reached the river

And with lightning speed

Returns to pour once more

A second time already!

How the pool is brimming!

How each new pail

With water fills!

Stand still!

You’ve done your lot

Richly measured

Were your favours!

Stop! Stop! Oh woe!

The word – I forgot

Oh – the word that in the end

Will make him what he’s been!

There he runs and nimbly drags!

Would you be the broom of old!

More floods he rapidly relays

In quick succession

A hundred rivers

Rush at me

No! I can’t allow

This any longer

I’ll seize him!

This is malice!

I’m growing fearful now

What mien! What scowl!

Oh you hellish brainchild

Shall the whole house drown?

Over every sill I see

Floods of water surging

What a hideous broom!

That will not listen!

Rod that you’ve been

Stand but still again!

So you won’t quit?

I’ll catch and grab you

And with a sharp axe

I’ll swiftly split

The parched wood

Neatly down the middle!

Look – dragging he returns!

I’ll throw myself at you – sprite

Promptly you’re down

Crushing sinks the smooth blade

Bravely aimed indeed!

Look – in two he’s broken!

Now I can hope

My breath is freed!

Oh woe! Oh woe!

Both parts

Stand up in haste

As slaves

Complete and ready!

Help me – oh mighty powers!

And they’re racing on! Awash

Are hall and staircase

What an abysmal span of water

All the wise – hear my plight!

Oh – the old one comes – at last!

Great is the need!

The spirits I have called upon

I cannot now release.

‘Into the corner

With you Brooms!

Be no more!

Since as spirits

For their purpose

Only the wise call you forth.’

*    *    *

‘Der Zauberlehrling’ by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.                                                                                                      Translation: Ashen Venema, November 2006

*    *    *

I grew up with Goethe’s work and it still inspires. Occasionally I attempt free translations of German poems. I work on them forever, never satisfied. Those who know other translations of ‘Der Zauberlehrling’ may enjoy the subtleties. The poem is timeless. There are two kinds of ‘Will’ – the personal and the universal, to harmonise them is a lifelong task.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johann_Wolfgang_von_Goethe

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… moans from an unruly writer …

Installation by Frederick Franck

Installation by Frederick Franck

While I write, wrestle with style, query words battling for attention and set out sequences to string ideas together, anyone watching me might assume I’m a nervous wreck. My body, perfectly able to string an arrow to a bow and hit a target, has a wild notion of focus when it comes to writing. It shifts and wriggles, gets up pretending I need a coffee, ends up cleaning the sink, checks the porch for post and so on, all the while allowing my word sculpting to continue until, bingo …. I rely on intuition, which slips into little silences, opens a crack in the surface of things and reveals a hidden layer, and, occasionally offers a glimpse into the infinity of now. A tiny glimpse is all it takes to relax, sharpen senses and spark a creative dialogue between my inner voices that often quarrel and fool around like the average family.

I respect moderate conflict, it stirs up mud but clears the air, and even when the inner crowd gets fed-up with listening – grace, solitude, or a good night’s sleep bring additional insights, bridge divides and re-establish a tolerable rhythm of chaos and peace.

Am I fooling myself? Is my knack for intuition just guesswork. Is it inborn? Does it evolve with experience, as a kind of deeper listening skill humanity moves towards? Can it be learned? Is it worth defending? Or is it the relic of a go-with-the-flow philosophy that avoids closer analysis of my thought processes and behaviour? I seem to struggle with two kinds of temperaments, one looking for the particle and the other for the wave, stretched between rational and irrational numbers. The two temperaments compete but need each other.

Pilgrim Fool by Celcil Collins

Pilgrim Fool by Celcil Collins

Scientists and statisticians tend to approach the unknown rationally, and seem set to eradicate human incompetence and messiness. Some frenzied rational prophets go as far as knocking anything that can’t be quantified and evidenced. I value logic, what annoys me is the attitude that scoffs at people who hold hands with the fool.

There are more reliable methods than the vagaries of intuition, shown in a New York Times piece by Gary Wolf ‘The Data Driven Life’ from April 2010,  a long but brilliant article that received many pages of diverse comments. Not everyone is keen on the Quantified Self.

I resist being monitored and quantified by data, fixed as particle, ticked off for my risk-taking folly, my random cross-referencing. The geeks and outliers the article describes have fun recording their every move. And I grant that someone suffering from high blood pressure or apnoea benefits from being nudged by a gadget to take a deep breath. I remember being excited and applauding the first biofeedback devices that affirmed how thoughts affect our physiology and vice versa. When it comes to data dependency, I have a hunch it will starve emotional intelligence, which I strongly believe develops through mastery of language.

Working a few years for Social Services, we used to write narrative assessments until a computer programme with tick boxes was introduced. We hated it. Conveying observations in writing was shoved aside as time-consuming, subjective and vague, while quantitative recording was hailed as reliable, though its data hinges no less on interpretation and application.

Recently I skimmed an article suggesting future novels will be written by computers. My cynic leapt from its slumber and argued that a machine hasn’t got 100 Billion neurons and can’t be intimate with nature, is immune to changing metabolisms and moods – hour by hour, night and day. Immune to what comes on the breath, with wind, dust, rain and radio waves that travel through the cosmos, nor is a machine influenced by dreams, synchronicities, diets, layers of revolving memories, kind gestures, general anxieties, rejection, loss of control, loss of a loved one, global news … the unpredictable influx of thoughts and emotions that our mind continuously sifts, evaluates and re-interprets.

Irrational humans can’t be quantified and controlled, which may be why since ancient times there has been an ambition to create artificial beings.  Here a bit of fun from Turing and his colleague Strachey – a reasoned-out love letter, achieved through programming a 1951 computer to make sentences via algorithms, having been fed on love synonyms from a Thesaurus:

Honey Dear – My sympathetic affection beautifully attracts your affectionate enthusiasm. You are my loving adoration: my breathless adoration. My fellow feeling breathlessly hopes for your dear eagerness. My lovesick adoration cherishes your avid ardour.

Yours wistfully, M.U.C. (Manchester University Computer)

…. M. U. C. is eager, if a little verbose and breathless 🙂

Since then, artificial intelligence is even more breathless with numbers, but operates highly sophisticated technology that improved the quality of our lives. I admit I’m fascinated by the concept of cyborgs, but don’t want to get plucked into the human network protocol .

Our privacy is at stake. And our relationship with nature? … its record of life and the human experience, the treasure house of the collective unconscious, translated and re-membered through DNA, invisible spheres and the very light we breathe. Anything alive changes from moment to moment. And our experiences, insights and expectations have a vital part in the changing.

Nature is the book I grew up with, it taught me stuff:                                                                                                       About growing … put a seed into earth, tend to its needs and its story flowers.                                                        About resilience … a seedling lost in a dark corner will grow towards any spot of light, no matter how it must bend and curl its stalk around obstacles.                                                                                                                                       About connections … the dynamic geometry of the tiniest plants and vast galaxies are reflected in each other.

Enough samples to show the obvious – nature teaches through metaphors. My theme is resilience. I take risks and accept that struggling makes me inventive, expands my consciousness, polishes my heart and challenges me to think for myself.

My moan extends to the growing practice of enticing people to emulate machines in service of progress and economic efficiency, in jobs that dull the senses and dull the mind.

Meanwhile I cheer the unruly folk, including fools, dreamers, innovators, artists, poets and writers with an ear towards the hidden – who translate past and future newly into the present – the open-minded, who can tolerate conflict, value intuitive signals that chime in the heart, and who can occasionally endure being suspended like a leaf on a gossamer thread.

What do you, my reader, think?

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