Monday, 31 March 2014

Poetry Revisited: Frühlingsglaube – Faith in Spring


Die linden Lüfte sind erwacht,
sie säuseln und wehen Tag und Nacht.
Sie schaffen an allen Enden.
O frischer Duft, o neuer Klang!
Nun, armes Herze, sei nicht bang!
Nun muss sich alles, alles wenden.

Die Welt wird schöner mit jedem Tag,
Man weiß nicht, was noch werden mag,
Das Blühen will nicht enden.
Es blüht das fernste, tiefste Tal:
Nun, armes Herz, vergiss die Qual!
Nun muss sich alles, alles wenden.

Ludwig Uhland


The gentle breezes are awakened,
They whisper and waft day and night.
They create at all ends.
Oh fresh scent, oh new sound!
Now, poor heart, don’t be scared!
Now everything, everything must change.

The world grows more beautiful every day,
One does not know, what may yet come,
The blooming does not want to end.
The remotest, deepest valley blooms:
Now, poor heart, forget the pain!
Now everything, everything must change.

Literal translation
by Edith LaGraziana 2014

Friday, 28 March 2014

Book Review: A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute I’m turning my attention to Australia and to a book which I first read as a young teenager. Admittedly, back then I had to put up with its German translation and, what is worse, with an abridged version, but the story impressed me so that it lingered on in my memory for decades. It occurred to me that after all those years it could be an interesting experience to read the original of A Town Like Alice (published as The Legacy in the USA) by Nevil Shute and to see how I feel about this mainstream novel now as a passably well-read woman in my forties. So here's my review!

Nevil Shute, in full Nevil Shute Norway, was born in London, England, U.K., in January 1899. After his engineering studies he worked as an aeronautical engineer until 1938, when he decided to retreat from his own (highly successful) aircraft construction company. By then he had already published three novels: Marazan (1926), So Disdained (1928), and Lonely Road (1932). From 1938 on Nevil Shute wrote full-time and prolifically. His most important works produced until after World War II are Ruined City (1938; published as Kindling in the USA), What Happened to the Corbetts (1939), Pied Piper (1942), Pastoral (1944), The Chequer Board (1947), and No Highway (1948). In the late 1940s the novelist decided to move to Australia with his family. Notable among his Australian novels are above all A Town Like Alice (1950), Round the Bend (1951), The Far Country (1952), In the Wet (1953), Beyond the Black Stump (1956), and On the Beach (1957). Also his autobiography of the years before 1938, Slide Rule (1954), was produced during this last period of his life. Nevil Shute died in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, shortly before his sixty-first birthday in January 1960.

The narrator of A Town Like Alice is the old family solicitor Noel Strachan from London who writes down the story of Jean Paget, a young Englishwoman whose trustee he was according to the will of the late Douglas Macfadden. It was quite a surprise for the shorthand typist in a shoe and handbag factory, when Mr. Strachan told her that her uncle had left her his estate, even though in trust until she was thirty-five, and that the capital yields that she was to receive until 1956 would allow her to live without the need to work unless she wanted to. As the widowed solicitor got to know Jean Paget better, he took a fancy bordering on love to the unusually mature woman of twenty-eight years. On one occasion she told him the whole story of her life or rather survival in Malaya during World War II, when she and thirty-one women and children were taken prisoner by the Japanese and marched criss-cross through the country under guard. After several months on the road they met two other prisoners-of-war, men driving trucks for the Japanese. One of them was the Australian stockman Joe Harman who got himself into dangerous trouble stealing chickens from the Japanese captain for the women and children, but above all for Jean Paget. When he was found out, he was nailed to a tree and beaten to death before the eyes of the other prisoners. The women and children continued their exhausting odyssey until their only guard died and Jean Paget who was fluent in Malay arranged for the remaining party to stay in a village and work in the rice fields until the end of the war instead of marching on. When Jean Paget received her first cheque from the trust, she returned to the Malayan village to thank the native women for their hospitality and to build a well for them. There she heard that Joe Harman hadn’t died from the beating after all and she decided to go on to his native Australia to look for him, to Alice Springs where he had been living before the war. Alas he worked in Queensland now and moreover he had just taken a plane to England in search for her! And that’s the beginning of an amazing adventure during which the industrious and energetic Jean Paget used part of her trust money to turn remote and backward Willstown in the outback of Queensland into “a town like Alice” Springs where she could bear living as the wife of Joe Harman.

In A Town Like Alice there is always something going on. Nevil Shute skilfully interweaved the multilayered main plot about the Macfadden trust, which allows Jean Paget to put her various business ideas and town development plans into practice, with the flashback on her experience as a prisoner in Malaya during the war and with Joe Harman’s precipitate trip to London. Despite all, the story remains straight and clear throughout. Everything that happens seems plausible because it results from previous events and decisions, and yet, there are some unexpected turns. Certain aspects of the novel seem outdated, especially when it comes to the love story between Jean and Joe which is a lot more innocent than we are used to today. Times have changed since the book first came out in 1950 and so have values and manners. The author’s style is simple and easy to read – maybe with the exception of some typically Australian expressions and there my problems with it may be rooted in the fact that English isn’t my native language. 

Summing up, I can say that I enjoyed also this second read of A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute. The novel may not be as deep and challenging as the reads that I use to like best, but it certainly was entertaining. It deserved to be a bestseller in the 1950s… and it’s worthwhile reading today, too.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Gangway Magazine: Spotlight on Expatriate Literature

There are heaps of literary journals online, but few that bind together two countries as different as Austria and Australia. While the first is a small, mountainous and often rainy inland territory in the heart of Europe, the latter is a vast, mainly flat and rather arid sea power taking up the whole continent of Australia. They are also separated by the greater part of the globe and people in my native Austria speak predominantly German, whereas the official language in Australia is English. Hence the idea to bring out a joint literary journal doesn’t actually seem near at hand – except that it was an Austrian emigrant, Gerald Ganglbauer of Gangan Publishing, who conceived and created it. 

The bilingual Gangway Magazine, edited in Sydney and Perth on the one hand and in Vienna and Graz on the other, went online in 1996 and up to this date forty-five issues of it have appeared which can all be easily accessed directly from the homepage. The declared focus of the literary journal is on short stories, poetry, essays and experimental prose including such that uses the interactive possibilities of the internet from the ‘old’ and the ‘new world’ in German and in English (and/or the respective translations), but also some visual art has been included from the start. Since 2012 the contents are supplemented by specials on music and culture. The other main columns of the magazine are news, reviews of books and literary journals, and authors’ interviews

The individual issues of Gangway Magazine are dedicated to different themes and use to come out irregularly about two weeks after the deadline of the call for submissions. The initial idea of the founder was to give bilingual writers from Australia and Austria a medium for publication, but for the past ten years the magazine has been open to expatriate writers worldwide (irrespective of their nationality) whose work is available in English or German either in the original or in translation. Literary texts are accepted only following a call for submission. However, magazine articles, interviews, reviews and special features can be submitted any time according to the submission guidelines. Also people who would like to be pro bono guest editors are welcome to apply. 

The scores of webpages that have gone online since the creation of Gangway Magazine are archived and preserved in the PANDORA Archive of the Australian National Library. For the convenience of readers who are looking for someone or something in particular the site offers a comprehensive as well as comfortable search-by-keyword function and several indices which are accessible through the sitemap. To keep in touch with the community news are published on facebook and via twitter. 

Gangway Magazine is an interesting online resource which definitely deserves a closer look and some time to read.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Poetry Revisited: I Write About the Butterfly

(from Little Men: 1871)

I write about the butterfly,
It is a pretty thing;
And flies about like the birds,
But it does not sing.

First it is a little grub,
And then it is a nice yellow cocoon,
And then the butterfly
Eats its way out soon.

They live on dew and honey,
They do not have any hive,
They do not sting like wasps, and bees, and hornets,
And to be as good as they are we should strive.

                                                   Louisa May Alcott

Friday, 21 March 2014

Book Review: Women as Lovers by Elfriede Jelinek would have it that during the past weeks unusually many books of recipients and nominees of the Nobel Prize in Literature have come into my hands and I already presented some of them on this blog. I decided that today it’s time at last to also review a book written by the only Austrian Nobel laureate in literature so far although I must admit that I’m no particular fan of my compatriot’s work because the little that I heard or read about it made me avoid the author rather than give her a chance. In the end, I picked Women as Lovers by Elfriede Jelinek which is an early novel of this highly controversial poet, novelist and above all playwright. 

Elfriede Jelinek was born in Mürzzuschlag, Austria, in October 1946. She grew up in Vienna where she studied several musical instruments from an early age on (pushed by her ambitious mother) and later art history and dramatics at university. Anxiety disorder prevented her from earning a degree in the latter studies, but as a therapy Elfriede Jelinek turned to writing. Her first published book was a volume of poetry titled Lisas Schatten (Lisa's Shadow) that came out in 1967. Several novels, some translations and many often highly successful plays followed, and yet only few of her works have been translated into English like the novels Women as Lovers (Die Liebhaberinnen: 1975), Wonderful, Wonderful Times (Die Ausgesperrten: 1980), The Piano Teacher (Die Klavierspielerin: 1983), Lust (1989), and Greed (2000). In 2004 the writer was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Her latest works are the stage essay rein GOLD and the drama Aber sicher! dating from 2013. Elfriede Jelinek lives in Vienna with her husband. 

The short novel Women as Lovers combines two parallel plot lines set in Austria during the early 1970s. On the one hand, there is the city-bred Brigitte, a young woman working as an unskilled seamstress in a brassiere factory in Vienna to make her living. On the other hand, there is Paula, a fifteen-year-old girl from a village who persuades her parents to allow her, against the local custom, to be apprenticed to dressmaking in the neighbouring small town. Coming from different lower-class backgrounds, both share a dream, the same that already their mothers and grandmothers had: social and economic upgrading through marriage. They want to exchange their unloved and unprestigious jobs as soon as possible for the kind of married life that cinema and magazines make desirable in the most beautiful colours. They dream of eternal love, nice children and a prosperous life including hard work for the family (instead of for strangers) and a comfortable house with an idyllic garden. The strategies of the girls to achieve their goal differ, though. Brigitte takes it into her head to conquer Heinz, an apprentice electrician with a promising future since he is destined to take over his master’s workshop as well as electronic supply shop. Heinz isn’t particularly handsome, nor very sympathetic, but he is Brigitte’s ticket into a better life and she employs all female art of seduction, including sex and getting pregnant, to bind him to her. Paula’s choice is based on attraction rather than reason. She falls up to the eyes in love with the ordinary wood worker Erich from the village. He isn’t bright, but a good-looking young fellow with Italian features and Paula is convinced that she can see to it that he makes her dreams come true. She, too, seduces him with all artifice in her power including sex and pregnancy. Brigitte’s schemes work out as planned and Paula’s don’t, but in the end neither of them is really happy. Their dreams couldn’t stand the test of reality. 

In her third-person narrative Women as Lovers (like in her other works) Elfriede Jelinek plays with clichés, in this case lower-class girls just out of school who are prepared to do almost anything to catch a husband and achieve through them the socioeconomic status that they feel out of their own reach. In the 1970s this may still have been a rather common practice (and it hasn’t been completely abandoned since) because self-confident and self-determined female role models only began to appear at the time. The author depicts Brigitte and Paula as calculating young women who see men mainly as commodities, as futures in which they invest their bodies hoping for good returns. They believe that getting the man will make them happy, but they are mistaken because they disregard the importance of self-respect and independence. The concise narration of the plot and the short sentences make the novel simple in style and sterile with the exception of occasional poetic side steps. The English translator may have had some trouble reproducing certain stylistic peculiarities of the German text. In fact, Elfriede Jelinek broke with the rules of German orthography about the use of capital initial letters writing the entire text in small letters (which seems to have been a bit of a rebellious fashion among writers) and she uses some abbreviations which generally is a taboo in literary writing. 

All those things considered, Women as Lovers by Elfriede Jelinek has been an interesting read which I even enjoyed in a way although it paints a rather too negative and one-sided picture of women. Probably, it was meant to provoke, but it just makes me sad because I know how much truth is in stories of Brigitte and Paula. This one may not have been the best novel that I ever read and it definitely hasn’t made me a fan of the writer, and yet it was at least worth the experience and the time to write its review.

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This review is a contribution to the perpetual Read the Nobels challenge.

For more information and a complete list of books that I already reviewed for it »»» please read my sign-up post!

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Author's Portrait: Roquia Sakhawat Hussain

The European picture of Muslim women tends to be strongly connected with oppression and exploitation. Consequently, Muslim women writers seem to be a contradiction in terms, but the truth may rather be that they just don’t get much attention here because we are too complacent to struggle with trying to understand a cultural setting so different from ours. In fact, they always existed, if only in secret and telling their stories rather than writing them down. In the early twentieth century a Bengali woman writer, feminist and social worker acquired lasting esteem in her country: Roquia Sakhawat Hussain or simply Begum Rokeya.

Roquia Sakhawat Hussain (aka Rokeya Sakhawat Hossein – Latin transcriptions of the name differ) was born as Roquia Khatun in the small village Pairabondh in Rangpur, Bengal, British India (now: Bangladesh), in the year 1880, on 9 December according to her nephew. As a great landowner her father belonged to the Indian upper class and he was also a highly educated man with a sound knowledge of several languages including English, but at the same time he was a very conservative Muslim who held up the traditional ways of life and observed the purdah. Roquia’s mother was the first of his four wives and had yet another five children, two girls and three boys.

Unlike her two surviving brothers who were sent to school (first in the neighbourhood and later in Calcutta, now Kolkata) to receive a modern education qualifying them for an honourable career in the British civil service, Roquia and her sisters were more or less confined to home in order not to be seen by any man except their closest male relatives, nor by women who didn’t belong to the family network. With the help of their brothers and behind the back of their father the girls managed despite all to get a better education than most others at the time. Above all they learned in addition to their native Urdu the local language Bengla and English which was considered as improper for girls because it brought them into touch with non-Muslim ideas.

On the initiative of her eldest brother sixteen-year-old Roquia was married to Syed Sakhawat Hussain who was twice her age, but a very liberal-minded man thanks to having been educated in Patna, Calcutta (now: Kolkata) and London. As the Deputy Magistrate of Bhagalpur he was convinced that it needed well-educated women for progress. Therefore he gave his wife private lessons to further her education (especially in English and in Bengla) and encouraged her to make friends with non-Muslim women, to read broadly and to write in Bengla. In this respect she had more luck than her gifted elder sister who had been married off at the age of fourteen and who had to overcome many obstacles to become a Bengal poet of some renown later on.

 In 1901, with the blessing and support of her husband, Roquia Sakhawat Hussain began her career as a writer. Under the name Mrs. RS Hossain she published many articles on women’s issues and short stories in different newspapers and magazines. Her essay Pipasha (Thirst) came out in 1902, a first volume of collected essays titled Motichur followed in 1904. Best known in the west is her utopian short-story Sultana’s Dream (Sultanar Swopno) which was first published in the Indian Ladies' Magazine in Madras in 1905. It’s a very early work of feminist science-fiction in which female and male roles are reversed and it has become a classic.

Although her husband died on 3 May 1909, Roquia Sakhawat Hussain continued the feminist work that she had begun with his encouragement and support. In his memory she established a school primarily for Muslim women in Bhagalpur which she had to move to Calcutta (now: Kolkata) two years later because of a property dispute with her late husband’s family. The Sakhawat Memorial Girls' High School in Kolkata still exists and has a good reputation. In 1916 she also co-founded the Bengla Islamic Women's Association advocating different reforms, especially with regard to gender equality. Those activities made her popularly known as Begum Rokeya, “Begum” being the honorific title for a Muslim woman.

She explained her untiring efforts for the benefit of women:
“We constitute one half of the society and if we are left behind, how can the society progress? If a person’s one leg is tired, how far can he go? The interests of men and women are the same. The goal of life is the same for both”. 
Along with her work at school and for the Bengali Islamic Women’s Association she continued writing in a wide spectrum of genres. Her short stories, poems, essays, novels and satires display great creativity and logic as well as a pronounced sense of humour. In 1918 she published a volume of poetry titled Saogat. The second volume of Motichur came out in 1922 and includes different kinds of essays, short stories and fairy tales like Nurse Nelly, Jvan-phal (The Fruit of Knowledge), Mukti-phal (The Fruit of Emancipation), Nari-Sristi (Creation of Women). Notable among her later works are also the feminist utopian novel Paddorag (Essence of the Lotus) from 1924, Oborodhbashini (The Woman in Captivity) from 1931 which she dedicated to her mother, and her unfinished essay Narir Adhikar (The Rights of Women).

At the age of only fifty-two years Roquia Sakhawat Hussain died from heart problems in Calcutta (now: Kolkata), British India (now: Bangladesh), on 9 December 1932. The anniversary of her death is celebrated as Rokeya Dibosh (Rokeya Day) in Bangladesh.

To download Roquia Sakhawat Hussain’s utopian short-story Sultana’s Dream as a free e-book please click here.

For want of a printed English-language biography of Roquia Sakhawat Hussain I refer to the following websites (all retrieved in March 2014) for more information about the Bengla writer and feminist:

Monday, 17 March 2014

Poetry Revisited: Spring Song


A blue-bell springs upon the ledge,
A lark sits singing in the hedge;
Sweet perfumes scent the balmy air,
And life is brimming everywhere.
What lark and breeze and bluebird sing,
Is Spring, Spring, Spring!

No more the air is sharp and cold;
The planter wends across the wold,
And, glad, beneath the shining sky
We wander forth, my love and I.
And ever in our hearts doth ring
This song of Spring, Spring!

For life is life and love is love, '
Twixt maid and man or dove and dove.
Life may be short, life may be long,
But love will come, and to its song
Shall this refrain for ever cling
Of Spring, Spring, Spring!

                               Paul Laurence Dunbar

Friday, 14 March 2014

Book Review: Desert by J.-M. G. Le Clézio has seen quite some of her writers rewarded with the Nobel Prize in Literature: René F. A. Sully Prudhomme (1901), Frédéric Mistral (1904), Romain Rolland (1915), Anatole France (1921), Henri Bergson (1927), Roger Martin du Gard (1937), André Gide (1947), François Mauriac (1952), Albert Camus (1957), Saint-John Perse (1960), Jean-Paul Sartre (1964), Claude Simon (1985), Gao Xingjian (2000), and Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio (2008). Their names are stars twinkling in the literary sky although some have become hard to make out in the growing haze of the years. However, it would almost feel like a sacrilege to ignore them all in the Books on France 2014 reading challenge, so I decided to review at least one work by a French Nobel laureate. My choice fell upon Desert by J.-M. G. Le Clézio. 

Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio was born in Nice, France, in April 1940, but his ancestors had been living on the island of Mauritius since the late eighteenth century. He began writing as a seven-year-old and already in 1963 his first published novel, The Interrogation (Le Procès-Verbal), earned him a renowned literary award, the Prix Renaudot. In the following decades he finished his studies, travelled extensively and worked as a professor at different universities along with producing several important novels like The Flood (Le déluge: 1966), Terra amata (1967), The Book of Flights (Le Livre des fuites: 1969), War (La Guerre: 1970), and The Giants (Les Géants: 1973). As from the late 1970s J.-M. G. Le Clézio’s style changed and his books began to attract a wider public. Some of his most notable later works available in English are Desert (Désert: 1980), The Prospector (Le Chercheur d'or: 1985), Onitsha (1991), Wandering Star (Étoile errante: 1992), and The African (L’Africain: 2004). In 2008 the French-Mauritian writer of novels, short stories, essays and also some children’s books was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. His latest published novel is Ritournelle de la faim (2008) and not yet translated into English. Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio now lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA, Mauritius, and Nice, France, with his family. 

The impressive scenes of Desert are Morocco or Western Sahara and Marseille, France, alternately in 1909/10 and in modern times, probably the period when the novel was conceived in the 1970s. The two plot lines are interlaced and linked in various ways. One such connection is the desert itself and the deep love for it which share the Tuareg teenager Nour and the orphan girl Lalla Hawa although about sixty years separate their stories. Another common point is the Blue Man, a wonder-working man of the Tuareg people and maternal ancestor of Lalla Hawa. In the early twentieth century the desert warriors under their aged leader Sheikh Ma Al-Ainine, who was a disciple of the Blue Man, stand up against the Christian (colonial) army. They set out to chase the Infidels from their beloved country in the name and with the help of Allah. Nour and his family are among the track of men, women, children and livestock struggling northwards through the desert regardless of heat, cold, thirst, hunger, and exhaustion. In the 1970s their descendant Lalla Hawa lives with her aunt’s family in some shanty town at the Atlantic coast where the dunes of the desert end. It’s her greatest pleasure to roam the beach and the dunes to observe the sea, the animals and the plants in solitude or to meet her mute shepherd friend, a foundling called “the Hatani”, on the stony pastures although she is ever again warned against seeing the boy. Lalla grows up to be a young woman in a poor neighbourhood without other “schooling” than that of household routine and the stories which the old fisherman Naman and her aunt keep telling, but she doesn’t mind since her nomadic soul only longs for freedom. She is happy. When her aunt arranges a marriage for her with a wealthy middle-aged man from the city, Lalla flees into the desert with the Hatani and counts on being no longer a suitable match for any honourable man, especially if she got pregnant. Half dead with thirst and hunger Lalla is rescued and when she has enough recovered, she joins her aunt who meanwhile went to Marseille. Alas, nothing there is the way she had expected and she misses the desert. Only when a photographer notices the beautiful seventeen-year-old, fate turns in her favour.

The stories of Nour and Lalla are filled with the spirit of the Desert which – of course – accounts for the novel’s title. The protagonists move about in a world of beauty and frugality, of secret and magic, of life and death which J.-M. G. Le Clézio describes in countless poetic pictures. The protagonists are fully aware of their surroundings and see things that nobody else, above all no European, might notice or even appreciate. They love the desert no matter how hard it is to survive in such a harsh environment and they belong to it. For Lalla emigration is no rescue from misery, but imprisonment. The pace of the novel is slow like that of a caravan making its way through the desert under a merciless sun. Time is of no importance. The novel is written in a simple language which made it easy for me to read the French original.

Desert by Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio may not be a novel to everybody’s taste, but I loved it. I feel that there is much more in it than I could grasp reading it only once and rather quickly. It goes without saying that I warmly recommend this novel.

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This review is a contribution to the perpetual Read the Nobels challenge.

For more information and a complete list of books that I already reviewed for it »»» please read my sign-up post!

Monday, 10 March 2014

Poetry Revisited: The Crocus


Beneath the sunny autumn sky,
With gold leaves dropping round,
We sought, my little friend and I,
The consecrated ground,
Where, calm beneath the holy cross,
O'ershadowed by sweet skies,
Sleeps tranquilly that youthful form,
Those blue unclouded eyes.

Around the soft, green swelling mound
We scooped the earth away,
And buried deep the crocus-bulbs
Against a coming day.
"These roots are dry, and brown, and sere;
Why plant them here?" he said,
"To leave them, all the winter long,
So desolate and dead."

"Dear child, within each sere dead form
There sleeps a living flower,
And angel-like it shall arise
 In spring's returning hour."
Ah, deeper down – cold, dark, and chill –
We buried our heart's flower,
But angel-like shall he arise
In spring's immortal hour.

In blue and yellow from its grave
Springs up the crocus fair,
And God shall raise those bright blue eyes,
Those sunny waves of hair.
Not for a fading summer's morn,
Not for a fleeting hour,
But for an endless age of bliss,
Shall rise our heart's dear flower.

                                      Harriet Beecher Stowe

Friday, 7 March 2014

Book Review: The Metal of the Dead by Concha Espina are many writers who enjoyed great fame in their time, but whose names have fallen into oblivion later on. One of them is Concha Espina who happened to be nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature altogether seven times and running up for it at least twice (once losing it only by one vote!). It seems that the English-speaking world never really took much notice of this Spanish author since I couldn’t find an English translation of her first and most famous novel La niña de Luzmela anywhere. Instead I picked The Metal of the Dead by Concha Espina for today’s review, the novel which many consider to be her best. It has been brought out in a new English translation by Anna-Marie Aldaz in 2003, and yet it appears that I have to add the book to my Out-of-Print Collection.

Concha Espina was born as María de la Concepción Jesusa Basilisa Espina y García in Santander, Cantabria, Spain, in April 1869. She grew up in an environment that didn’t exactly predestine her for a literary career, and yet she began writing poems at the age of thirteen and in 1888 she saw one of them published in a newspaper for the first time. After she got married in 1893 she moved to Valparaíso, Chile, with her husband and began to write for newspapers, an activity which she continued after their return to Cantabria, but above all later in Madrid, and which made her Spain’s first woman to make her living as a full-time writer and journalist. On the literary side the prolific author produced over fifty novels along with short stories, poetry, plays, essays, and occasionally, biographies. Among her most notable works count La niña de Luzmela (1909), The Woman and the Sea (Agua de nieve: 1911), Mariflor (La esfinge maragata: 1914), The Metal of the Dead (El metal de los muertos: 1920), Dulce nombre (1921), Altar Mayor (1926), and Broken Lives (Vidas rotas: 1934). She continued writing and publishing as usual even after she had grown completely blind in 1940. Concha Espina died in Madrid, Spain, in May 1955.

The Metal of the Dead is set in peaceful Spain while beyond her borders rages World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution turns Russia upside down. Gabriel Sánchez used to be a seaman, but finds himself compelled to work in the Cantabrian mines where his socialist ideals soon get him into trouble. His friend and soul-mate Aurora from the fishing village is pregnant and fate would have it that she wants to tell him just the day after he was fired and left for the port to sign on a British vessel heading south for Estuaria in Andalusia. Passengers on the vessel are the siblings Rosario and José Luis Garcillán who work for a socialist newspaper in Madrid and intend to cover the poor living and working conditions of the miners. In Estuaria Gabriel and his mate called Thor (after the Germanic God) miss being back onboard in time. For Gabriel this is a sign that his future lies in the belly of the earth and together with Thor he sets out for Nerva in the Rio Tinto mining district. Almost there the two men meet the old miner and unionist Vicente Rubio and his daughter Casilda who take the newcomers in and help them have a good start. In Cantabria Aurora meanwhile had a daughter and is desperately waiting for news from Gabriel whose letters ceased to arrive. She travels south with the baby to join Gabriel and to see what happened. As it turns out, Casilda intercepted both their letters. Shortly after Aurora’s arrival the miners call a general strike. During the following weeks Gabriel and the other miners, Aurora and Casilda, the journalists Rosario and José Luis Garcillán, and the union leader Aurelio Echea have to go through many hardships, including hunger and death, and emotional turmoil.

Under the title The Metal of the Dead Concha Espina depicts a world that reminded me a bit of a Dickensian novel because it is peopled with extremely poor and hard-working miners and relatively rich and self-righteous managers of the mining company. Nonetheless the author based her novel on real events at an existing scene, namely a miners’ strike against a British-owned company in Andalusia in 1917. The much shorter first part presents all important characters, their lives and their ideas, but it also includes passages about destroyed landscape, the genesis of metals and mining history which by today’s standards feel rather lengthy although they create an impressive picture of irresponsible mining practices and of the suffering that dead metal and its exploitation have caused for many centuries. The second part of the book has a denser and more varying plot which makes it an interesting read. Apart from the protagonists’ personal fates, the claims and reasoning of the miners and the complete lack of understanding that the managers show for their miserable lives get much room. This ideological background led to the novel being called socialist. Instead of giving the story a happy or terrible ending, Concha Espina decided to just let it fade out mirroring that people moved away from the area. The author’s language is precise as well as poetic and surprisingly I had no problem reading the original Spanish version.

Summing up, I can say that I enjoyed The Metal of the Dead by Concha Espina although I must admit that I’m (still) not particularly drawn to the world of mining and that I would have preferred a less obtrusive way of passing on socialist ideas current at the time and supporting the strike. Despite the mentioned minor shortcomings, I recommend the (sad) read – if you can find a copy!

Monday, 3 March 2014

Poetry Revisited: To Spring


O thou with dewy locks, who lookest down
Through the clear windows of the morning, turn
Thine angel eyes upon our western isle,
Which in full choir hails thy approach, O Spring!

The hills tell one another, and the listening
Valleys hear; all our longing eyes are turn’d
Up to thy bright pavilions: issue forth
And let thy holy feet visit our clime!

Come o’er the eastern hills, and let our winds
Kiss thy perfumèd garments; let us taste
Thy morn and evening breath; scatter thy pearls
Upon our lovesick land that mourns for thee.

O deck her forth with thy fair fingers; pour
Thy soft kisses on her bosom; and put
Thy golden crown upon her languish’d head,
Whose modest tresses are bound up for thee.

                                                    William Blake