October 28th, 2012

Last Wednesday after the morning’s classes I stopped by one of the campus newsagents on the way to lunch, as is my habit. I was quite presently surprised to see a pile of Mo Yan’s books on the table and had a look through them. None that I’d heard of, so I picked the one that struck me as most immediately appealing. That happened to be 《牛》 it doesn’t appear on Paper Republic’s list of Mo Yan’s works, for whatever reason, nor can I see it in Paper Republic’s list of books, but it is listed under ‘novellas’ in the list of works on Baidu Baike’s article  on Mo Yan – although the link takes you to an article on bovines rather than an article about the novella. So I guess it’s up to me to give 《牛》 a temporary English name to tide us over until Howard Goldblatt gets around to translating it. I think Ox will do for now – all Mo Yan tells us about the the particular species of bovine is that two are called Big and Little Luxi (鲁西) and the other is called ‘Double Ridge’ (双脊) because of his apperance. A bit of poking around reveals that 鲁西 is a kind of ox from western Shandong. He also tells us that they’re a ‘means of production’ (生产资料) – a statement that is repeated throughout the story. And Ox strikes me as being equally short and punchy as 牛.

So. Ox.

The story is told from the point of view of a 14-year old boy, Luóhàn (罗汉, meaning ‘arhat’), caught up in the events following the castration of three bulls owned by a production team (生产队), although the narrator is looking back at events in the past, remembering and telling us this story that happened when he was 14. But he doesn’t seem terribly much older than 14 – the language feels as if he’s in his late teens or early 20s. And I think it’s that language that’s the key – it’s earthy in that it is firmly rooted in the people of the production team and the few officials of the commune they deal with. And it’s narrated with a directness that grabbed me right from the first sentence. The book opens thusly:

那时候我是个少年。

那时候我是村里最调皮捣蛋的少年。

那时候我也是村里最让人讨厌的少年。

I was a youth then.

I was the naugtiest, most trouble-making youth in the village then.

I was also the most irritating youth in the village then.

And the story proceeds with that same simple, direct honesty. We’re sucked so much into the narrator’s world that it’s a surprise to see a helicopter mentioned in the final chapter, but no surprise to see a motorbike described as the fastest thing they’d ever seen*.

As for That Question, based on simply this novella, I’m going to have to agree with Brendan. Through Luóhàn’s 14-year old trouble-makers eyes, as remembered by an older self, we see his uncle, the production team chief,Grandpa Du, the old man in charge of the production team’s cattle and Old Dong, the commune vet all trying to manipulate each other into doing what they want while maintaining their own image of squeaky socialistic cleanliness, as defined by the dictates of the Cultural Revolution. And as it turns out, the commune officials they’re so terrified of aren’t any better, but are just as much out to pursue their own interests through the chaotic system of the time as the lowly production team members. Nobody comes out of this story looking all angelic.

Chapter 12 started with what was for me a good laugh – partly through sudden similarity with personal circumstance, but mostly because it was quite a pleasingly awful twist for the fates of some who should’ve known better. ‘Pleasingly awful’ – yes, the black humour of this book is most enjoyable.

In short: Read this.

And so I would like to thank the Nobel literature committee and my campus newstand for finally spurring me to read Mo Yan.

*Chapter 12 reveals the events of the story as having taken place at the end of April, 1970, which would make Luóhàn roughly the same age as Mo Yan himself. Luóhàn and his Pockmarked Uncle, the production team chief, are surnamed 管 (Guǎn), which just happens to be Mo Yan’s surname. I would be surprised if those characters in the story old enough to remember the War had never seen anything as fast as a motorbike, but I’m going to trust Mo Yan on the absence of such things in the rural Shandong of his youth.

grinching on bill bryson

December 27th, 2011

Some time ago I was reminded that I have a copy of a Bill Bryson book on my shelf waiting to be read. I’d never read any of Bill Bryson’s books before. Bill Bryson. Dude’s supposed to be hilariously funny. That’s what everyone tells me. How is it that I could be leaving this book unread.

So I took it down off the shelf and started reading. Neither Here Nor There by Bill Bryson. Worth neither buying nor reading. Imagine all the trees that could still be alive today if this book had never been published, or at least that could have been put to better use.

Chapter 1 was just about a deal breaker, but no, I soldiered on, prepared to believe that it might get better. This is, after all, the famous Bill Bryson, who’s supposed to be hillariously funny. It got less bad. Chapter 1 is written from the point of view of someone who suspended his emotional development at a particularly difficult early adolescence and has managed to bend double, insert his head somewhere unfortunate, then collapsed in on himself so that he is viewing the world from the inside of his own pancreas. It is one long and incredibly self-absorbed whinge about how terribly insufferable the bus ride from Oslo, up through Sweden, then back into Norway to Hammerfest is. And yet, not one of the details of the journey leapt out at me to scream “See what an arduous journey I had!” No, instead the tone was far more suggestive of “This is why my wife held a gun to my head until I bought a one-way ticket to Hammerfest and told me to never come back.”

In subsequent chapters he does actually manage to extract himself from his own innards and begin to actually engage with the real world around him, but only just barely, and he never strays too far from yet another Holden Caulfield-esque whinge (and Catcher in the Rye, lest anybody get the wrong idea, is another book whose publication was a crime against trees). I could sum the book up in one sentence: Europe is rubbish, the service is crap, and I hate everything. Whenever Bryson claims to have liked anything or anyone, I simply can’t bring myself to believe him, so overwhelming and constant is the flood of negativity. What I can believe, based on what’s in this book, is that Bryson may well be one of those people who attracts crap service through his own bad attitude. Really, Bill, why would anyone be nice to you when you so clearly hold them personally and their entire country in such utter contempt?

Another thing that struck me about this book was Bryson’s apparent inability to paint any clear pictures in my mind. It was a strange experience reading of his travels through Europe unable to see what it was Bryson was seeing. Surely the whole point of travel writing is to describe one’s experiences in strange and exotic places? Shouldn’t a travel writer therefore be able to paint in the readers’ minds vivid pictures of the places and people they’re meeting? Why is it that reading this book is like trying to see Europe through Linfen smog on a dark winter’s night without my glasses on?

Well, yes, it does have a few laugh out loud moments, but I suspect more despite than because of Bryson’s famed sense of humour. Judging by this book, I can only conclude that Bryson actually does not have a sense of humour, but a vague idea that humour is something akin to the kind of wordplay one finds in Blackadder. He tries hard, and does sometimes succeed, but mostly it just comes across as trying hard.

Unlike Ulysses, Neither Here Nor There is not large enough to use as a doorstop should you accidentally find yourself in possession of a copy. I’m going to put my copy in the box of unwanted books in the foreign teachers’ office on the off chance a current or future colleague actually likes this kind of writing. But the whole way through the book I was thinking, if I wanted an expat whinge session I could pop up to Sanlitun to one of those bars whose clientele is dominated by wankers who never bother to learn a word of the local language because they’re so convinced of their own superiority. But I find it hard to think of anything more boring. I really would rather watch paint dry. So should you come across a copy of Neither Here Nor There, don’t waste your time. Really, just say no.

我爱小人书

November 20th, 2011

I was a big fan of Asterix and Tintin when I was a kid, and I live very near Panjiayuan, which has a large space dedicated to old books. Well, mostly old books. There are a few stalls in that space selling very new books, too. And so I was very happy when I discovered that among all these old books are many old comics, and among these many old comics are Chinese versions of Tintin books. And so I started buying Tintin books again, and so discovered a particular type of comic – the 小人书/xiǎorénshū that is actually pocket-size, in that each one could easily fit into a child’s pocket (how many “pocket-size” books would only ever be considered small enough to fit in a pocket if one were on a whole other planet inhabited by people 15 metres tall?). And I love these books.

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basic translation knowledge

September 24th, 2011

So sometime last weekend I grabbed a copy of 新京报/The Beijing News to read while I was waiting for our takeaways. It must’ve been the weekend because it came with the books section. I happened to glance through the top 10 lists. Glancing through the 学术(academic? scholarship?) list, I came across a title roughly in the middle called 《翻译的基本知识》 (which for the time being I’ll translate as “Basic Translation Knowledge”) by 钱歌川/Qián Gēchuān. This  grabbed my interest for two reasons:

  1. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an ordinary, mass market newspaper with an “academic” top 10 books list before.
  2. I seriously never would’ve expected to see a book about translation appear on any top 10 list.

And it just so happened that my wife happened to be doing some online shopping, so I put my order in, and the next day it arrived.

It’s a very small book, not the sort of hefty tome one would expect of a deadly serious academic textbook, but basically the same dimensions one would expect of a cheap paperback edition of a short novel. And it’s printed on fairly solid paper, too, so it’s not much of a surprise to discover that the chapters tend to be kind of short, even as short as only 3 or 4 pages. The blurb says it’s a good basic introduction to the study of translation. I’ve only read the first two chapters so far, and I’ve found them pretty easy going, only reaching for the dictionary a couple of times each chapter. However, in these two fairly short and simple chapters, a few things have jumped out at me.

In chapter one, 《一个古老的问题》 (an ancient problem), which is a quick and simple introduction to this age-old art called translation, which has certain age-old problems that remain exactly the same today is they did two, three thousand years ago, right on the very first page, I came across this rather striking statement:

…至今世界上三千多种不同的语言中,有文字的仍为极少数,这并不是说有的民族产生的较迟,所以文字也发达得迟,而是因为他们的知识进步的得慢,文化水准很低的缘故。大家都知道:文字是代表民族的文化的,一个没有文字的民族,其文化水准的低落可想而知。

…among the more than 3000 languages in the world today, those with writing are still a very small minority. This is not to say that some nations appeared later, so their writing developed later, rather it’s because their knowledge progressed slowly and their cultural level is very low. Everybody knows: Writing represents a nation’s culture. You can easily imagine just how low is the cultural level of a nation with no writing.

I wish I could say, “Incredible!”, but sadly, no, I’ve come across similar ideas before from people from a variety of places around the world. People who should perhaps check carefully their houses aren’t made of glass before they go casting stones about considering, for all their writing, their countries are home to plenty of phenomena that are not indicative of a “high cultural level”, whatever that may be. But my reaction instead was, “Have you never seen a wharenui? Observed closely its carvings and the woven patterns of the wall panels? Listened attentively as the histories and genealogies encoded in those carvings and panels were explained to you? Looking further across the ocean I was raised in: How do you think the Pacific was settled? No, not by accident and sheer luck, as used to be believed, but by exploration and the transmission of detailed knowledge of the stars, winds, currents, the locations of islands and how to get to and from them from generation to generation, and all of that without any of the nations that arose in the Pacific (with the sole possible, mysterious and much debated exception of Rapa Nui) knowing writing until the arrival of Europeans. And let’s face it, there’s no way the kumara could have spread from South America across the Pacific if the ancient Polynesian navigators didn’t know what they were doing. So, Mr Qian, I don’t know how you measure a nation’s cultural level, but I remain unconvinced that the presence or absence of writing tells you terribly much at all.

Chapter 2, 《约定俗成万物名》(“The names of the myriad things are established by usage”?), starts with a quick explanation of Thomas H. Huxley’s division of the world into “natural things” (自然物) and “artificial things” (人为物), and points out that as we ourselves count as “natural things” and the materials we use to make stuff all come from nature, all “artificial things” are sourced from “natural things”. He then moves on to quote Shakespeare, Xunzi and Y.R. Chao to show that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, his point being that natural things are the same all over the world, it’s only the names that change according to language. So if you want to translate cow into German, show it to a German and ask, “What do you call that?” Fair enough, except that species vary from region to region, and a language whose speakers have never encountered a particular plant or animal aren’t going to have a word for it – which is why New Zealand English, for example, is peppered with Maori names for plants and animals native to New Zealand (although some did acquire English names).

The names for natural things, however, are rather more problematic. Artificial things differ across cultures as each culture has found its particular solution to various problems. Like how to write, for example. Qian objects to 笔, being the thing traditionally used in China, being translated into English as “brush”. “Brush”, he says, indicates a variety of tools for sweeping, scrubbing, tidying and cleaning. Well, yes. But, oddly enough for one who studied in London, he omits the brush that is an implement for painting pictures. He also objects to an alternative translation of 笔 as “Chinese pen”, as pens are a European thing and were originally made from the quills of goose feathers, then steel, then there were ballpoint pens, and in any case, pens all have hard tips, whereas a 笔 has a soft tip. The translation of 墨 as “ink” or “Chinese ink” presents a similar problem, as 墨 is solid, whereas ink is liquid. And through all of this I’m thinking, sure, but is there anything really so wrong with translation by allegory? Or is perhaps ‘translation by simile’ a better term for it? I can imagine a conversation amongst a group of fusty Old China Hands, some of whom have studied China, others of whom have not, at about 4 in the afternoon aided by a few gin and tonics going something like this:

“So just what is this 笔?”

“It’s what the Chinese use to write with.”

“So it’s like a pen?”

“Well, it is used for the same purpose, but no, it’s more like a brush, the difference being that the brushes our artists use have the hairs of equal length arranged in a long, thin line, whereas the 笔 has its hairs arranged in a circle, the hairs on the outside being rather short, but those in the middle quite long, so that the hairs come to a point at the tip. And just as Van Gogh dips his brush in paint, then applies the paint to the canvas to create a picture, the Chinese calligrapher dips his 笔 in ink then applies it to paper to write his characters. Indeed, they consider calligraphy to be the highest form of art, you know?”

“So, rather than ‘pen’, we really should call it a ‘writing brush’?”

And of course, interspersed in all of this are murmurs of “How quaint!” and “Fascinating!”, in vague tones more suggestive of “Another gin, old chap?” or “How about a round of bridge?” than any interest in the ancient mysteries of the Orient. At the same time, the scholars of Chinese culture in the group are actually thinking, “What a bunch of boring old farts this lot are! At the very least the club could make some effort to get some decent gin*, that might make this lot a touch more tolerable.” But I digress.

The chapter ends with a perfectly sound argument for the adoption of loan words where necessary. Nothing wrong with that. Last I checked, every language has loanwords. I have a book on the topic of loanwords in Chinese (《汉语外来词》史有为著:商务印书馆,2000), and to take another example from my home ocean, on encountering the concept of ‘tapu‘ (also ‘tabu’, ‘kapu‘ or ‘ha’a’) as they explored Polynesia, the English needed a word to explain to their bosses back home what they had learned. Scouring the English language failed to turn up a word that carried the full range of meaning of tapu. ‘Sacred’ and ‘sacrosanct’ are close, but do they carry enough of the sense of ‘inviolable’ and ‘forbidden’? So just adopt ‘tapu’ as a loan word, and when ever anybody asks, “Well, what does that mean?”, explain it. And so we acquired the word ‘taboo’.

And Qian ends the chapter with a sentence with which I wholeheartedly agree:

翻译者处理人为物时,不可不特别谨慎。

When handling artificial things, translators must be extremely careful.

Perhaps this post comes across as a bit too negative. In the first two chapters I’ve come across things I strongly disagree with, yes. But Qian makes good points too, and there’s plenty more book to read. So I will continue, certainly, and I do hope, and see plenty of reason to hope, that whether in the negative or the positive, Qian will shed some light on the mystical art of translation. After all, my job does involve a bit of translation, and anything that helps me improve my own technique is most welcome.

*If one defines “decent” as “pleasant and enjoyable to drink”, then it should be pointed out that decent gin is in fact a myth. It’s not a well known story, perhaps because it’s so hard to pin down any hard and fast facts connected with it, but about the time Britain was fighting a war or two to defend its right to sell drugs, a young-ish Londoner going by a name reported variously as “Croydon”, “Clayton” or “That nutter down the pub who was always going on about gin”, in the spirit of Spanish conquistadors in search of El Dorado, scoured the New Zealand bush in search of “decent gin”. On arriving in a village and explaining his quest, the locals laughed so loudly that an ageing totara tree (in some accounts, a tawa, miro, or rata) collapsed on him, bringing his quest to an abrupt and quite terminal end. His few acquaintances in Russell all agreed that the lack of junipers in the local forests should have been clue enough he was barking up the wrong tree, or perhaps just plain barking mad.

It has also been pointed out by heads wiser than I that a drink that must be mixed with something else to make it palatable should probably best be relabelled “lighter fluid”.

to live

January 17th, 2011

This may sound a little odd, but one unexpected side effect of driving is that I’m getting more reading done. I mean, actual dead tree book reading, as opposed to wasting vast amounts of time online reading. The reason is that I pick my wife up from work four evenings a week, and the traffic being rather unpredictable, especially through the CBD, I generally allow the better part of an hour to get to her work. Yes, it has taken me over an hour to drive that measly eight kilometres, thanks in part to the bottleneck formed by the cutting under the railway line at Baiziwan, but mostly due to the vehicular insanity that frequently reigns from the entrance to the Dongjiao Market through the CBD to the southern edge of Hong Miao. Really, the run north from home to Baiziwan is sweet, and once I’m in Hong Miao, the rest of the trip is easy, but the Dongjiao Market and the CBD are often best described as slow motion mayhem. But usually I manage to get through there much quicker, and I usually have time to spare when I arrive at my wife’s work. The amount of time I have to spare can be anything from a few minutes to half an hour, though, so I’ve gotten into the habit of taking a book with me and reading as I wait. And so driving has got me reading more.

And so I picked up my copy of 余华/Yu Hua’s 《活着》/To Live, I book I acquired and first started reading somewhere in the region of three or four years ago. The trouble is, I acted on the half-remembered advice of one of my Russian lecturers, and used it as study. Study as in ‘look up every new word’. And so it quickly became work and all the fun was drained out of reading a book that I had been enjoying. And so, funnily enough, it was put aside and ignored for quite some time. About three or four years, in fact. And so I picked up this book I had failed to read and took it down to the car with me at four-ish every afternoon, drove up to Tuanjiehu, and read as I waited, but this time not worrying about new words, just enjoying the book. And so, funnily enough, this time round I did actually finish reading the novel.

But I have to say I’m disappointed, and I don’t think my disappointment is due to me having spoiled myself with so much Lao She and Lu Xun over the summer and autumn – at least, not entirely. No, I think my disappointment might be due to a couple of things lacking in To Live.

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dalliance

November 27th, 2010

When my first boy was born
I went off the road two years.
Twenty-one years on, another son,
I do the same, go off

roads, and backroads off backroads.
And if that’s not enough
to keep the boys happy,
take a river of a road to the sea.

-from Doubtless, by Sam Hunt

Finally caught up with some of that Kiwi poetry I brought back with me in February. Yeah, I should’ve been studying my road code.

But I must remember, my windowshelf is not a booksill. Put them back in their proper place, to be pulled out, dusted off, and indulged in next time I need to avoid the necessary and inevitable.

Today’s dalliance: A sprinkling of a little each of Kapka Kassabova, CK Stead and Sam Hunt. Vincent O’Sullivan as yet untouched.

Doubtless is a book of new and selected poems of Sam Hunt’s, published 2008 by Craig Potton Publishing. It happens to end with an old favourite of mine (the beauty of being both new and selected), Oterei River Mouth:

I get to think that God

is somewhere there between the rivermouth and sea

glistening

helplessly

with only a broad sky a bored dog and me

listening.

I love the peace and broad acceptance of an embracing Nature of this poem. I spent many a happy hour in my youth along a river bank, estuary, coastline feeling and seeing exactly what that poem brings out into conscious expression.

The other books mentioned (albeit only by author’s name) of this afternoon’s dalliance, for those who may care, are:

The Black River, CK Stead, Auckland University Press, 2007.

Geography for the Lost, Kapka Kassabova, Auckland University Press, 2007.

And from what I read this afternoon, great books both.

And the one I didn’t get to this afternoon:

Blame Vermeer, Vincent O’Sullivan, Victoria University Press, 2007.

Seems 2007 was a good year for New Zealand’s poetry and university presses.

And with books back off shelf and in hand, I can’t resist (never leave me unattended in a bookshop) flipping through the O’Sullivan, and the first I find is this:

A dream of my father, winding our watches together

He hands me his watch to wind,

I give mine to him, silently.

So my time runs down with his,

His ending time with me.

To which I say, ah, beautiful ambiguity.

But I have yet to find a New Zealand poem to match Hone Tuwhare’s Mauri for sheer vital force, not raw, but quiet, eternal, boding and biding, ever-present crouched subtly beneath the surface, moving constantly through the rocks, magma and ocean currents. I struggle to think of any poem from any country or culture that can match Mauri‘s brooding immensity.

But you’ll have to search for that one yourselves, with the warning that you will be amply rewarded both for and by what you read.

trials and temptations

July 19th, 2009

Another installment in my reading of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita:

Note: Unless otherwise stated, all references are to The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, Penguin Classics, 1997.

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread,” But he answered, “It is written,

‘One does not live by bread alone,

But by every word that comes from the

mouth of God.'”

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written,

‘He will command his angels concerning you,’

and, ‘On their hands they will bear you up,

so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'”

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test,'”

Again the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,

‘Worship the Lord your God,

and serve only him.'”

Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Matthew 4: 1 -11, NRSV

Bulgakov’s Muscovites did not have quite the same strength of will.

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Yeshua’s visit

June 22nd, 2009

Civilisation: A summer Sunday afternoon in the shade of mature trees with a good book and an ice-cold bottle of beer.

In this case the book was Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, the Penguin Classics’ edition of 1997. Between bouts of people watching, contemplation and daydreaming, I read the first few chapters yesterday afternoon. Berlioz and Homeless’s (yes, they translate the poet’s penname, bezdomny) meeting with a mysterious stranger by the Patriarch’s Ponds (Bulgakov took care to use the pre-revolutionary name), the prediction of Berlioz’s decapitation, a wild, crazy discussion on Atheism, the stranger’s proof of the historical existence of Jesus by eye-witness account, cut to….

…wait, this isn’t quite the Jesus of the Bible, nor is this quite Jerusalem, this is Yeshua who is brought before Pilate in Yershalaim. And is this the same Pilate? This is a suffering Pilate, one struck by what he calls “hemicrania”, a punishing pain crushing half his head, stuck in the stifling heat of a city he loathes on the day before Passover having to rule on the death sentence passed by the Sanhedrin on a young man, who…

…this Yeshua is an odd young man, about 27, from Nazareth, an orphan who thinks perhaps his father may have been Syrian, a speaker of Aramaic, Greek and Latin, who gave up whatever life he had before to wander the Holy Land preaching. But is this Yeshua naif or intelligent? He insists all people are good. Some are unhappy or angry or hurt and therefore do bad things, but they are all inherently good. Even Mark Ratslayer, the centurion with a fearsome reputation who tortures him, is good. Judas of Kiriath, his betrayer, is also good. Presumably Matthew Levi, who decided to follow this Yeshua and write all about him in his parchment book is also good, although Yeshua insists that what is inscribed on this parchment is entirely false and the cause of the great misunderstanding that lead to his trial by the Sanhedrin and death sentence for inciting the people to tear down the Temple.

Pilate’s reaction to Yeshua is both troubled and troubling. On the one hand, this clearly highly intelligent young man fascinates Pilate, and he considers a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity and confining him to Pilate’s own house. It is not made explicit, but I’m left with the impression Pilate wants to hear and discuss more Yeshua’s views. On the other hand, Pilate seems to want to take out his pent up anger and frustration and the pain of this headache on this convenient scapegoat. In the end he confirms the death sentence because Yeshua’s belief that one utopian day all people will be enlightened and the need for authority will disappear, thereby, according to Pilate, insulting the emperor’s authority. Or something like that.

At a meeting the the High Priest Kaifa, Pilate offers a choice of either Yeshua or Bar-Rabban to be freed. Pilate pushes Yeshua, but, echoing Peter’s denial of Christ, three times Kaifa chooses Bar-Rabban. Once again, Pilate’s pent-up rage bursts out, and he warns Kaifa of impending trouble. Kaifa, naturally, disagrees over the cause of any trouble in Yershalaim, and a polite if somewhat heated debate ensues.

Of course, legal formalities must proceed, and Pilate must face the heat, dust and crowds of this loathed city.

Two people here astound me:

Is Yeshua naif or a genius? Both? What inspired this insistence on the innate goodness of man? How did he come to insist that all this brutality in the world is caused by our own internal unhappiness and anger? Whence his utopian vision- one not too dissimilar to those taught by Communists and Anarchists?

And Pilate. We only get a few hints of his military background, and anybody who’s ever gotten close to a vet knows the psychological damage caused by war. But surely there must be more. Whence his loathing of Yershalaim, a city that in Bulgakov’s description seems quite attractive despite the oppressive heat and light, crowds and dust? What is the cause of his hemicrania? Is it psychosomatic, or is there some underlying physical illness? Why, when he is obviously intrigued by Yeshua’s philosophy, does he alternate between listening and bullying and then finally find a pretext to confirm the death penalty? When he’d thought of a legal pretext to avoid the death penalty?! Why does he ask Kaifa three times which prisoner should be freed? Why does he push for Yeshua’s release?

And then we’re back to Moscow, where Berlioz suffers his predicted decapitation and our poet Homeless/Bezdomny chases the mysterious stranger, the choir master, and a large tomcat at warp speed through the streets of Moscow, along the way entering a stranger’s apartment and seeing a naked but apparently quite short-sighted woman in a bathtub, then deciding the stranger must be at the Moscow River amphitheatre, running off there, then stripping off and going for a swim in the Moscow river.

A mysterious stranger whose accent alternates between something vaguely foreign and native Russian, who refers to a breakfast with Immanuel Kant and is apparently omniscient, repeating to Berlioz and Homeless/Bezdomny their own thoughts, knows their full names despite never having met them before, and predicts the future. An eye-witness account of the trial of Jesus, except that Jesus has become Yeshua, and Jerusalem Yershalaim, Yeshua has only one disciple whose parchment etchings Yeshua insists are more akin to fiction than biography, and his philosophy is markedly different than that taught by the church these past two thousand years, a madcap dash through Moscow chasing the stranger, a choirmaster and a giant tomcat- a tomcat who tries to ride a tramcar, even trying to pay the 10 kopeck fare, but who is chased off by the conductor, and somehow nobody but our poet finds the fact that a giant tomcat is trying to pay his 10 kopecks to ride a tram. A tomcat, for crying out loud!

And our poet, Ivan Nikolaevich Ponyrev, who writes under the penname Homeless/Bezdomny, whose words and deeds so far are thoroughly and increasingly impetuous and irrational.

And the heat, the suffocating heat.

Altogether, a very suitable start to the greatest of all Russian novels, a start that knocks the first-time reader off balance, wondering just what previous knowledge of and assumptions about the world will survive the onslaught.

p.s. Peony reminds me Margarita will soon make her appearance. Oh yes, I am very much looking forward to renewing my acquaintaince with Margarita.

p.p.s. I’m writing “Homeless/Bezdomny” because in the edition I have, the poet’s penname is translated. For purely aesthetic reasons (and this is by no means a criticism of the translation), I prefer his name to be left as Bezdomny.

and now, to lunch