Saturday, 26 September 2015

I would not be a queen for all the world

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel. Harper Collins e-books. On Kindle.

Winner of the Booker Prize in 2000.

This review was written on August 1st 2012

Six books, each divided into chapters. Details of individuals listed at the beginning of the book relating to each of the six sections of the work. It starts with the Cromwell family in Putney in 1500 and we are introduced to the principal character. Thomas Cromwell.

This book was recommended to me. It had won the Booker Prize and was a reminder of the particular difficulty the Kindle reader is faced with in certain circumstances. It was a lengthy book with many characters and with a very detailed account of the political aspects and history of England at the time of Henry V111 and the start of the Reformation. The people involved in her account include many more than the principal characters, the King, the leading political and titled figures, Cromwell and the Cardinal. They make for some confusion for the Kindle reader because of the problems of seeking a glossary to identify them. However, these Kindle problems may be largely caused by my own limited knowledge of the potential of the medium.

Mark Rylance as Cromwell in the 2015 BBC drama 
The author rarely uses Cromwell’s name when describing his first person single – it is only used when others are addressing him. This can add further to the confusion and to the tedium for the Kindle reader. The book does convey the conflicts and the circumstances of the break with Rome and of the King’s obsession in seeking a male heir, at the cost of his marriage to Katherine. The gradual break between the King and his supporters and with Cardinal Wolsey is dealt with at length, mostly in the words of Cromwell, and leaves the Cardinal a sad figure that apparently died before his likely execution.

Cromwell awaits his close up
What does emerge from these pages was the grim social and personal circumstances of 16th century London, the recurring epidemics of plague with its massive loss of life and the horror of its striking so rapidly and suddenly. Also the sense of the uncertainty of life at that time and the brutal methods which were in vogue in the execution chamber and which were not unpopular as a spectacle among the people of London.

Anne Boleyn awaits something else.
This is a long book and I must confess that I fast read most of its pages after the first quarter of the text. I can absorb the general content of such a book in this way but hardly enough to justify my writing a reliable critique of the author’s work. Nor would such a review be worth attempting because of its fictional background. I gather that this may be the first of a trilogy dealing with the reign of Henry V111. His period in the history of England and the huge significance of the Reformation provide an appropriate and historic setting for the author’s pen.

Friday, 18 September 2015

Hola, soy su líder.

The Penguin History of Latin America. Edwin Williamson, Penguin Books, 1992. Read in Kindle.

This review was written on February 1st 2013

The book deals with Columbus and his arrival in the islands of the Caribbean and his later visits there and of the problems which he and his followers encountered. It describes the disastrous effects the Spanish conquest had on the local population, particularly in terms of violence, killings and land occupation. Despite some protests from some of the clergy, the behaviour towards the natives was described as scandalous.  Many of the Spaniards were hard-bitten men whose expectations of wealth were often not achieved and whose behaviour had not been influenced by the traditional discipline of a national army. Nor was Isabella’s demand prohibiting slavery adhered to. In addition, the high mortality among the Indians was greatly increased because of their lack of resistance to smallpox, measles and other exogenous European epidemic diseases. 

Some of the Spaniards hoped for quick rewards; few received them and there were no rich deposits of gold although the visit to the West was strongly related to its possible wealth in these foreign lands. The Spaniards also suffered badly from the tropical diseases which were foreign to them. Of the 1,500 men who travelled with Columbus in 1493 only 360 survived to 1502. Half of the 2,500 who arrived with Nicolas de Ovando a few years later were dead from ‘’a mysterious disease’’.

In pesetas Cortes was worth about six Euro.
Later chapters deal with the conquest of the mainland.  The Spanish invasion of Mexico was led by Cortes in 1519, seventeen years after Columbus first arrived in the Caribbean.  The history of his exploits is somewhat confusing and it is difficult to know how much of the detail was based on reality. The underlying feature was the destruction of the native tribes, of Montezuma and the Aztecs, and other tribes in the Mexican  area.  It was more than just the brutish exploitation of the Indians; it was the almost total destruction of the local tribes over the next generation or two. 

Clearly Cortes was the outstanding leader of the early Spanish landing on the mainland. Despite his relatively small number of soldiers, the surprise of the Spanish arrival, their strange equipment, horses and ships, and the mythical powers attributed by the Indians to such strange visitors, the local habitants were certain to yield to the ultimate success of the Spanish.

Pizarro was the outstanding leader in the early 1500s who led his company of adventurers into Ecuador and Peru and to the destruction of the Inca tribes. It was in about 1529 that he and Diego de Almagro planned to set out for Peru and the Inca country on the west coast of South America.  Pizarro was described as no gentleman nor was Almagro described as any better. It was they who were the moving force in the conquest of Peru in the 1530s and it was Pizarro who was appointed the Governor and Captain General by the Spanish Crown; and it was he who fought and defeated the Inca tribes, ably assisted by the chronic turmoil which was inherent among the Incas themselves. Inca society was largely destroyed within a generation or two although some of the more wealthy Incas managed to survive the Spanish occupation and gradually merged into the mixed population of Peru and other South American countries. Many histories of the Incas have been written by Spanish and other authors but one must have serious doubts about the veracity of these as writing did not exist among the Incas and related tribes, and accounts were obviously based on tradition and word of mouth.

Pizzaro, worthy of his own stamp.
Although no formal army was ever sent by Ferdinand, the King of Spain, and his successor to conquer the Western possessions, all the islands and much of the mainland, including the Mexican area, the Central American countries and all of the northern and eastern parts of South America soon came under the control of Spain thanks to the arrival of many shiploads of ambitious Spaniards seeking adventure, gold and land.  And the quite numerous local tribes, including the Aztecs and Incas, had little protection from the equipment of the invaders, the ships, the firearms, the horses and the natural energy, brutality and foreign diseases of the invaders. It is no wonder that such a vast and settled area and so many settled races were destroyed within a few generations.

The Spanish conquest had been virtually completed by a relatively small group of adventurers by the mid-1500s. By the mid-century they had extended from Peru to Bolivia and Chile in the south and to Columbia and Venezuela in the north before the steam of the Spanish conquest began to peter out with their slower spread to the more southern countries of Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.  No permanent Spanish interest was paid to the east of the Andes at or below the Amazon basin where Portugal gained the huge area of Brazil. Nor was there any great interest shown to North America, largely because no discoveries of gold or other sources of wealth were found there and the Spaniards were faced by the constant opposition of the many local tribes. Florida, California, New Mexico, Kansas and a few other southern parts of the current United States were occupied to some extent in the early years. The Spaniards never achieved firm possession of these areas apart from leaving many place names. The Spaniards were dominated later by the arrival of the French, the English, Scots, Irish and other northern Europeans as they spread to the South and West of the United States.  

The fabled lost city of Gold
In all the writings about the Spanish conquests of South America the emphasis all the time was seeking gold everywhere. They called it El Dorado.  It was the legend of the lost city of gold – El Dorado.  It was something that whetted the appetite of the Spanish adventurers ever since the time that they first arrived in the Caribbean. It was gold that turned a race of men into the destroyer of fellow men and of other races of people.  Although gold was scarce on the islands, there was sure to be much on the continent. The parish next door was thought to be full of gold and of other sources of fabulous riches. 

Orellana's golden death mask
The name Amazon was derived from the name given by the first European ever to travel down the Amazon to the Atlantic – Orellana was his name and he talked about the female warriors and it was he who called them Amazons and led to the origin of the name of the river.  Orellana was the first person in history who crossed the Andes from Ecuador. Not through any fault of his own, but because he got lost, he found himself on a tributary of the Amazon. He finished at the Atlantic Ocean on the island of Hispaniola.  There were equally fruitless Chimeras of wealth and glory shared by all the Spanish conquerors and which involved them at times with amazing feats of heroic endeavour in search of gold and wealth.  In the mid sixteenth century the Spaniard Coronado pressed into the southern states of North America and went up as high as the Mississippi and up as far north as Oklahoma and Kansas.  The outstanding feature for the Spaniards who invaded the lower parts of North America was the lack of any evidence of wealth, gold or anything worthwhile.  The result was that the North American states was of no great interest to the Spaniards and eventually the centre of North America remained very sparsely populated until the middle of the 19th century when they were taken over by Anglo-Saxon settlers migrating from the Atlantic seaboard, just as South America, east of the Andes was full of rain forest and sun baked savannahs and remained virgin territory until the early 19thh century.  The pampas of Argentina and the wastes of Patagonia further south, like the prairies and deserts of North America were largely shunned by Spanish settlers until the 1870s. 

The book gives a good potted description of the gradual extension of Spanish influence in the West but emphasises that there was a gradual decrease in Spain and Spanish influence in recent years.  Many parts of South America remained uninhabited and many of the Indians of the sub-continent remained active and populated parts of the countries untouched by the Spaniards, such as Argentina, parts of Chile, Paraguay and the southern parts of the subcontinent.

Wonder woman, a plastic Amazonian
Unlike the United States and Canada, with their adherence to the principles of democracy and the law, the more southern parts of America north of the equator and all the countries of South America have had a long tradition of political instability. I expect that there are more than a few factors in their history which accounts for this. The history of their genesis under the Spanish conquest must have had a profound and long-term effect on their delayed adherence to democracy as we know it in most European countries. One factor was surely the rapacious behaviour of the Spanish adventurers; another the complexity of government of such remote areas by the King and government in Madrid; the very mixed basis of white, Indian and black of diverse nationalities, and possibly the dominance of the Catholic Church with its strong political role in the affairs of the new countries and its conflict with the ‘’superstitious’’ beliefs of the native tribes.

I have not read any book or article about the Portuguese occupation of Brazil. This is an odd omission in my history. My review of The Andes and the Amazon refers to many isolated and mostly primitive tribal groups scattered along the river and its tributaries and where one finds only settlements or small towns of mixed basis as one comes closer to the river’s mouth.

Machu Picchu - the' lost city of the Incas'.
This book finishes with a potted description of the pre-Columbian tribes of the Americas. The author divides their history into four periods corresponding to separate ‘’stages of cultural development’’ – Archaic (7000-2500BC), Pre-Classic (2500BC to AD1), Classic (AD1 –1000); Post-Classic (1000-1500).  Information based on his views must be speculative but the important message to learn from these speculations is the gross instability of society and the absence of older literature about pre-Spanish days. Today may not be any different. If we are to achieve perfection in this world through the ultimate and permanent achievement of the perfect society, we can hardly be happy about the ups and downs of the tribal society of the Americas nor can we be reassured by the history of the Spanish conquest of the Americas, nor can we hope to achieve perfection through religion. The most convenient religion I can study is Catholicism because of its well documented history of two thousand years. Can we say that some of the horrors created by the Church and by its leaders have led to a better world and to a more rational human society? Can the obsessive grip about possessions, about ‘’standards of living’’, about the worst aspects of globalisation, about acquisitiveness - never denied by our pastors - be rational if this selfish and self-indulgent philosophy is held with total disregard for the welfare of our neighbours and our natural surroundings on which we depend?

(Ed. The Spanish title of this blog is courtesy of Google translate - apologies to Spanish linguists if this is somewhat incorrect!)

Friday, 11 September 2015

A book I have not read

Ulysses, James Joyce.  Penguin, London, 1969. First published in Paris in 1922. pp 719 SB.

This review was written on January 13th 2012

(Editors Note - I am truly baffled as to why some of the print in the following blog is lager in parts - or smaller. I have tried my best to rectify this but in the interests of my own sanity and that of my family, I am accepting that which I cannot change. I'm afraid that what you see is what you get. In any case, I am assuming that you are primarily here for the content, not for the display.)

I bought this book for 6.00 Euro from Greene’s second hand book list on 28/10/2011. It is a paperback. It had no name of the previous owner and was in good condition. It may well have not been fully read in the past. I never had Ulysses in my library nor was there one in my father’s library. It is highly unlikely that my father would have read Ulysses or indeed to have acquired it. It is also unlikely that I shall read it in full or even in part as I failed to get through more then a few pages on the one or two occasions I tried in the past. In fact I recall some years ago borrowing a book from my brother Seán which was published to explain Ulysses. And which was itself difficult to understand in parts. I never finished this either. And this is the first time I have attempted to review a book without having read it.

Odysseus (Ulysses in Latin) in action
The last 17 pages at the end of the book, written by Richard Ellmann as an introduction, are worth reading and give an excellent background to the history of Joyce’s masterpiece. Ellmann states that Joyce as a boy had described Ulysses as his hero. Joyce was apparently searching for a mythical prototype in a Dubliner. Ellmann postulates in his introduction that Joyce’s wanderings on the Mediterranean Coast reminded him of Ulysses. He refers to Joyce’s meeting with Nora Barnacle in the first days of the new century and about the same time occurred his quarrel with St. John Gogarty and their sojourn in the Martello tower in Sandycove.

Although Joyce intended to write his biography while still a young man in Dublin, its composition did not start until 1914, ten years later. It was a year of great productivity for Joyce. In that same year he had drafted his play Exiles, published Dubliners, wrote his prose poem Gracious Joyce, and completed the last two chapters of The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

There were many other incidents during his early days in Dublin which are incorporated in Ulysses. Speaking of Bloom, Ellmann states "Making the central Dubliner an Irish Jew, a man not entirely accepted in the city of  which he is so much a part, reflected Joyce’s ambiguous feelings about his own role in his native city". I was hardly through three or four pages of Ellmann’s review when I had the impression that Joyce showed symptoms of paranoia and that this trend was associated with an understandable degree of ambition. He was using Ulysses’s travels around the Mediterranean as a model for his hero Bloom’s peregrinations around Dublin.

Many Homeric elements are described by Ellmann as perils which are allegories of events for those in the Dublin of the early 20th century. There are many parallels between events in Dublin to those which are described in the Odyssey. He started to write his book after he had studied Homeric scholarship in   great detail and in several languages (he had studied Greek while in school) and he kept in close touch with Dublin and his family in his obsession that all details of the city were correct in his narrative.

By 1917 the first chapters of the book were written and were presented to the editor in London, Harriet Shaw Weaver, who had great difficulty in finding a publisher willing to accept the commission. Ellmann gives details of the many difficulties encountered by Joyce and his supporters in dealing with printers and with the authorities, particularly  in the United States, difficulties which were compounded by the banning of the book in  that country.

The first full printing of the book was arranged by Sylvia Beach, an American who had befriended Joyce in Paris in 1920 and who had established the Shakespeare Bookshop in Paris. She arranged the printing of 1000 copies, a limited de luxe edition, which, although those which reached the UK and the USA were immediately impounded by the authorities, received tremendous praise by a number of well-known writers and literary people in France and England. Valery Larband, "the most informed French critic of English literature" was struck by its merit and later wrote "I was raving mad about Ulysses. Since I read Whitman when I was 18 I have not been so enthusiastic about any book --- it is wonderful! As great as Rabelais! Mr Bloom is an immortal as Falstaff." Many others were equally enthusiastic although there were some who were baffled.

Having read the many reactions to Ulysses and such praise by eminent literary people, it occurred to me that I ought to have the appreciation and the insights to understand Joyce and to read Ulysses without the response of utter bewilderment which I received in the past on starting the first few pages. It is possible that the Valery Lablands, with their wider knowledge of literature and of Greek and Greek legend than I, had greater insights into Joyce’s mind. Certainly, now that I am in my ninety first year, it is unlikely that I would succeed where I had failed during my earlier and more perceptive years. I am reminded of the Irishman speaking to the Austrian in Vienna who was enthusing about Ulysses. "What did he see in it. It was only a story about Dublin". "Ah no" the Austrian replied "It was about Vienna".

Perhaps if I were to read it now and to enjoy it at the age of 91 years it would be an acid test of my surviving cognitive abilities! I am left a feeling of shame that I never  read Ulysses because I cannot avoid the sense of having missed one of the great works of my own countrymen. Certainly my six years in Coláiste Muire with its intensely patriotic and Catholic ambiance, would have been without its self-indulgent patriotic library or its curriculum nor would I have expected to find it among my father’s bookshelf.

29th July 2013.

I had found the Penguin second hand copy of the edition of Ulysses in my study yesterday and it occurred to me that my yearning to have read Ulysses still existed.  The comments I made in 2012 were largely based on the addendum in the book by Edward Wilbane who provided 17 pages which I considered worth reading at the time and which gave an excellent background to the history of Joyce’s masterpiece.  On the 28th of July, 15 days after my 91st birthday, I was inspired to read the book as one of my last efforts and despite the fact that my  reading had greatly deteriorated.  I determined on that day to read at least 25 pages every day and hopefully to complete the book later in the year.  It includes in all, 919 pages of relatively small print, including the addendum by Richard Elman.  On the 28th of July, I read the first 30 pages and was determined to read at least 20 pages every day until the book was finished.  It was to be a form of prayer, which, as a child, we were instructed to practise and convunicate to Our Lord every day of our lives.  Surprisingly I found the first 30 pages quite amusing and entertaining and I enjoyed the mixum gatherium of the conversation which took place between Buck Mulligan, Steven Daedalus and the English man Haines.  These first pages take place in the Martello Tower in Sandycove and by the end of the first 30 pages they had arrived close by in Sandycove swimming.  When I talk about a mixum gatherum I mean that it was full of apparently irrelevant words and phrases, of Latin tags, of fractured pieces of Dublinese and irrelevant references and yes, there was a thread about the first 30 pages, which gave me the sense of meaning without being absolutely sure of what I understood.  I had read 30 pages on the first day and that was the end of my reading.