Thursday, December 28, 2006

A message from Dirty Sanchez...


I mean, what else could the Dr. stand for in this context?

BATCH: EGGS-541-623-782:

Co-sponsored by the Slash/Promotion/Award/Dept., and by the AAA (ALL-CAPS ABUSERS ANONYMOUS).

P.S. “BATCH: EGGS”? WTF??? Somebody seems to be a few slices of ham short of an English breakfast...

We are pleased to inform you of the result of the Euro millions Spanish Lottery Winners International E-mail programs held on the 20TH OF DECEMBER 2006 and result where release on the 28TH OF DECEMBER 2006. Your E-mail address attached to ticket number 653-908-321-675 with serial main number 345-790-241-671 drew lucky star numbers 34-32-90-43-32

The last time I heard, it was 90-60-90, you dorks. Or 36-24-36 if you're into imperial units.

which consequently won in the 2ND category, you have therefore been approved for a lump sum pay out of Euro.(One Million Euro)CONGRATULATIONS!!!

What sort of lumps will it be? Coal? Sugar? Cancer?

Due to mix up of some numbers and names, we ask that you keep your winning information confidential until your claims has been processed and your money remitted to you.

Dang. There goes my €1M.

This lottery was promoted and sponsored by Spainsh European Lottery board in order to enhance and promote the use of Internet Explorer Users and Microsoft-wares around the globe.

A bit of a Freudian slip there, eh? Oh, but now I see: you're promoting the use of IE Users, not of IE itself. I heartily endorse that. Internet Explorer Users certainly have their uses. Crocodile food comes to mind.

To file for your claim, please contact our fiducial agent:

I'll send you a file in a cake. That should help you get out of that security company.

Remember, all winning must be claimed not later than one month,After this date all unclaimed funds will be included in the next stake.

And burned along with the latest batch of heretics. Good to see that the Spanish are keeping up their traditions.

Note: Anybody under the age of 18 is automatically disqualified.
Sincerely yours,

OMG, what a name. Any unusually well-developed disqualified 17-year-old boys are encouraged to apply to Mrs Comfort for the consolation prize...

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Pozdrav iz Pirana

Ne, jaz sicer nisem šel v Piran, sem pa našel na eBayu tole fenomenalno dražbo:

2 different
Jesus Christ
from Pirano, Slovenia

published by
Zupnijski urad Piran

size approx. 4 1/8" x 5 3/4"
in excellent condition

[klik za sliko]

OMG (dobesedno): na obeh je Jezus, pribit na križu in temu primerno zmrcvarjen in razmesarjen. Potencial takšne razglednice je ogromen:

  • Če ste na primer nadebudni mafijec, pa še nimate dovolj denarja, da bi sovražnikom puščali konjske glave v postelji, bosta tidve razglednici za prvo silo kar primeren nadomestek.

  • Če greste na morje v Piran in pri pisanju razglednic pobrkljate naslove, se lahko zgodi, da bodo vaši kolegi dobili tole kartico Križanega, medtem ko bo kartica, ki je bila prvotno namenjena njim in je seveda temu primerno polna nagih žensk na plaži, romala k vaši tercijalski stari teti. Z nekaj sreče jo bo pobral infarkt, še preden vas bo utegnila zbrisati iz oporoke.

  • Pozorni bralec bo opazil, da križ na sliki sploh nima oblike križa, pač pa enormne kurje tace. Tako se nam obeta popolnoma nova in izvirna teorija zarote: za Jezusovo smrt niso krivi niti Židje niti Rimljani, pač pa brez ozira na narodnostno pripadnost vsi levantinski kurjerejci, ki jih je skrbelo, da jih bodo on in njegovi apostoli s svojo promocijo ribištva spravili na beraško palico.

In vse to za pičlih $2.99.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

BOOK: "Strange Attractor Journal One"

Mark Pilkington (ed.): Strange Attractor Journal One. (Winter 2003/4.) Devizes, Wiltshire: Strange Attractor, 2004. ISSN: 1742-4534. ISBN: 0954805402. x + 260 pp.

I first heard of this curious journal when I read a review of volume two in the Guardian; later I noticed they also have a review of volume one. A third volume has been published recently (5 December 2006). (See also: Amazon links 1, 2, 3, and the publisher's website.)

Basically, this book consists of a number of short articles about various obscure, odd, curious, or bizarre topics. I think anyone who enjoys weird things is likely to find at least something interesting in such a diverse collection, but on the other hand I guess that few people would enjoy everything in it. I'll mention the subjects of the individual articles below and point out which ones I enjoyed and which ones I didn't enjoy.

The typography

The book is also somewhat curious from a typographical point of view. The lines are double-spaced, on top of which there's extra vertical spacing between paragraphs; the first line of each paragraph is indented by a curiously large amount. The are also lots of illustrations (mostly photographs). Thus most of the articles, which run to 10–20 pages in this present format, are probably hardly any longer than a typical article in an ordinary magazine — I guess they don't typically have more text than would fill 4–6 pages of your typical A4-sized magazine that doesn't waste space needlessly, sets text in two columns etc. But there's nothing wrong with that — the good thing about the articles being short is that you can somehow get yourself to read the whole article even if you find it boring.

Another curious thing about the design is the kitschy elaborate designs of the first page of each article; they use ridiculously decorative fonts and lots of long dangly lines as if somebody was trying to imitate the designs from late-19th century magazines (but perhaps they were). I for one am not particularly enthusiastic about 19th-century typographic ideas, but then I shouldn't complain too much — it isn't really that annoying, and at least they were trying to be slightly different than everyone else.

Generously large decorative initials are sometimes used, but if you look at them more closely, they seem to be based on relatively low-resolution bitmaps — low enough that you can see the pixels (see e.g. p. 70).

Another typographical curiosity is the fact that the footnotes are set entirely in small-caps, except for words in italics, where normal lowercase letters are used.

Page numbering begins with i on what is actually the sixth page — weird; even weirder is the fact that an odd number thus appears on a left-hand (i.e. verso) page. After the front matter, page numbering begins with 1 on a right-hand (i.e. recto) page, as it should be.

Miscellaneous articles

There's an interesting article (pp. 56–62) about a 1935 book Strange Cults and Secret Societies in Modern London by one Elliott O'Donnell, about numerous bizarre secret groups, clubs, societies, etc. that supposedly existed in 1930s London. For example, he attended (so he says) a meeting of female vampires: “A girl of eighteen or nineteen said she had sucked the blood of a fat and bald lawyer in pink pyjamas in Streatham. He tasted very salty, she said. Perhaps he's always been a vampire, another responded, ‘all lawyers are’.” (P. 59.) The article concludes that most of the societies probably only existed in O'Donnell's imagination (p. 61), but the book nevertheless sounds quite interesting and I might wish to read it eventually.

There's an article about the Monte Verità community that existed in Switzerland in the early 20th century, dedicated to alternative living and various odd practices. For example, there's a hilarious picture of ‘nude gardening at the Monte Verita community’ (p. 12). Incidentally, the author of this article is Alex Martin, the co-author (under the pseudonym Medlar Lucan) of The Decadent Cookbook and several other Dedalus press volumes (p. 254).

Several of the articles struck me as a bit parochial — they may be of interest to Britons but I don't see what I as a foreigner could do with them. For example, there is an article (pp. 95–108) about two rather besotted and, to me, quite unknown, 20th-century British novelists, Derek Raymond and Patrick Hamilton. None of their works strikes me as something that I would particularly like to read, and most of the article talks about one or two of the London pubs that they frequented, and the present-day condition of those pubs.

Even worse is a handwritten article about somebody's perambulations in Glasgow, going on and on about his/her supposed magical ‘cyrkles’ and accompanied by photographs of completely ordinary buildings and unremarkable locations such as you can see in any town (pp. 78–94).

Something halfway between interesting and too parochial is an article about certain small museums with a focus on waxwork models of strange medical conditions, mostly on a sexual theme (pp. 109–115) — hermaphrodite genitalia “looking like cow udders with a florid embellishment of dust-encrusted pubic hair” (p. 111 — for another nice quote about hermaphrodite genitalia, see my post about The Harmony Silk Factory), siphylitic patients, etc. I was sad to read at the end of the article that the museum that the author had visited was recently closed, the models molten and converted to much more wholesome, disneyfied exhibits of athletes and the like (p. 115). Another interesting observation from that article is the old warning in the museum, saying that children under 6 should be accompanied by their parents (p. 110) — as the author comments, “[t]oday's politically correct climate would never allow this display to be open to children of any age” (p. 115). I'm not one of those who genuinely believe that going 50 or a 100 years back in time would be good, but this sort of absence of unreasonably excessive sensitivity is one of the things that I really miss about the bad old days.

There are some fascinating photos of truly extraordinary hairdos — “3-foot-high sculptures incorporating birds, flowers, and ships (all balanced on top of a lady's head and made, at least in part, of hair)” (pp. 116–23).

There are also articles about the John Frum cargo cult in Vanuatu (pp. 16–32), somewhat crazy Indian ascetics (pp. 33–50; some of whom “pull jeeps through Allahabad, tied to their private parts”, p. 39), the U.S. suburbia of the 1950s (pp. 63–77), origins of terrorism among 19th-century anarchists, the 1894 terrorist bombing near the Greenwich observatory, and the influence of all this on Joseph Conrad's story The Secret Agent (pp. 197–206), and one about Montague Summers and the British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology (pp. 207–218; a rather shapeless article, but with a few interesting factoids)

Mind control?

There's an interesting interview (pp. 160–8) with Helen John, the “current vice chair of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament” (p. 161), about various unusual effects, presumably caused by electromagnetic radiation (e.g. from radars), that were experienced by the women who were camping around the Greenham Common air force base in protest against the hosting of nuclear weapons there.

The interview is fairly sober, and I'd be interested to learn more about the possible effects that microwaves and similar things might have on people. The problem with these things is how to separate the wheat from the chaff, as the area is replete with all sorts of conspiracy theorists claiming that microwaves are being used by the military as a mass mind control technique, etc. (see e.g. the HAARP project).

David Lindsay

There's an article about David Lindsay, a Scottish novelist. The story of his career is quite touching; his novels, published in the 1920s and 30s, flopped one after another; none of them managed to impress the public, and eventually publishers refused to touch his work at all. He lived his last years in somewhat straitened circumstances and died in 1945. It was only posthumously that his work received the recognition that eluded it during his lifetime, and his Voyage to Arcturus became one of the classics of science fiction.

Incidentally, one of the chief figures involved in helping spread Lindsay's literary reputation after his death was Colin Wilson — the very same person whose book by the fascinating title Atlantis and the Kingdom of the Neanderthals has been exciting my curiosity for some time. Apparently Wilson wrote a huge number of books, fiction and nonfiction, on a wide range of topics, including several volumes of Atlanteana.

This was quite an interesting article. I've heard of A Voyage to Arcturus before, but apart from that I didn't really know anything about Lindsay. Anyway, from what I've read here (see excerpts from his works, pp. 229–31), I'm not really terribly interested in reading Arcturus or any other of Lindsay's books.

Incidentally, it is interesting in how many different circumstances the name David Lindsay comes up. My first encounter with this name was in Karl May's near-Eastern novels, several of which include a somewhat caricatured Englishman named David Lindsay (rich, checkered suit, his conversation peppered by English phrases) as one of the main side characters.

Later I heard of the Scottish poet, and in fact his collected works (ed. David Laing, 3 vols., 1879) are still waiting unread on one of my shelves (and will probably continue waiting for some time). Lindsay also makes an appearance in Scott's poem Marmion (canto 4): “Still is thy name in high account,/ And still thy verse has charms,/ Sir David Lindesay of the Mount,/ Lord Lion King-at-Arms!” And now I find in the wikipedia two or three other people named David Lindsay.

Count Stenbock

There's an article about Punch (the theatre character), written by count Stenbock (pp. 235–42). I hadn't known much about Punch before, so this was in a way informative, but I also found it fairly boring. The more interesting thing here is the introduction by David Tibet (pp. 232–4), with some more information about Stenbock and his work.

I knew that Stenbock had been a minor decadent poet; I've heard of him several times in the various books I've read about Wilde and Beardsley; but apart from that, I didn't know anything definite about him until now. I was delighted to learn that Tibet edited and published The Collected Poems of Count Stenbock (London: Durtro, 2001), which I hope to eventually buy and read.

Tibet also mentions he is “presently compiling The Collected Works of Count Stenbock, to be published in 2004/5, which will collect everything written by him as well as many photos, ephemera, and previously unpublished biographical information and photographs” (p. 234). This sounds extremely interesting, but unfortunately I couldn't find any information about such a book on the web — I guess it hasn't been published yet. I hope he hasn't given up on it altogether. I did find, on ABE, two copies of his Studies of Death: Stories by S. E. Stenbock (London: Durtro, 1996), which is said to contain all his known prose; but unfortunately they're insanely expensive ($215 and £150).

[To be continued in a few days.]

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Nomen est omen

I noticed this book while browsing around the web site today:

T. E. Lawrence: Seven Pillars of Wisdom
Paperback, 672 pp.
Dodo Press, 2006
ISBN: 1905432771
RRP: £21.99,'s price: £20.89

The publisher could hardly choose a better name for themselves. Their unremarkable paperback edition of this classic work is competing against the Tempus edition (£16.00 RRP / £10.56 on, the Penguin Classics edition (£10.99 RRP / £7.47 on, and, best of all, the Wordsworth edition, which sells for a mere £3.99.

How many people will pass a £3.99 paperback in favor of a £20.89 paperback of the same work? Not many, I bet. I hope this publisher will soon be what its name suggests — dead as the dodo.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Slovenian euro coin designs, revisited

This is a kind of postscript to my last year's rant about the Slovenian euro coin designs.

Well, on Friday (two days ago) I went to the Bank of Slovenia and bought the new 2007 mint set of the Slovenian euro coins. What a foolish thing to have done — I should have known that all the retired people of Slovenia would be besieging the bank, since they have nothing better to do than to wait in queues and try to get the euro coins a few days earlier than everyone else. One old hag even tried to pay part of the price of the collectors' mint set with coins from the starter set (44 coins in a transparent bag, intended to equip the population with some euro change to make the transition to the euro somewhat smoother), and couldn't get it into her head that until the 1st of January 2007, the Slovenian euro coins aren't money but just moneylike pieces of metal, and that she cannot buy anything with them until then. Grrr. And after I got home, I received an e-mail from the Bank of Slovenia, offering the possibility to order a set by mail since I had responded to one of their earlier notifications about the sets. Aargh! Why can't they set up a proper e-commerce web site and start publishing information about their offerings well in advance, rather than (the way they do now) updating their website only a few days after they start selling something (preferrably after everything has been sold out)?!

Anyway, the reason why I'm writing this post is that I now have the actual coins in my hands, while the rant from last year was written just on the basis of the PDF file with the designs, so I thought it would be good to add my impressions of the actual coins themselves. Well, I have the impression that the PDF file made the designs look a bit worse than they turned out on the real coins — they don't look *quite* as bad on the coins as they did in the PDFs. However, I still think that they look too busy and crowded, and too diverse in style. And of course most of my complaints from last year have to do with the choice of the motifs, not with the execution itself, so that those complaints remain unchanged.

One additional complaint that I didn't think of last year is that the 50 cent coin includes the zodiacal sign corresponding to the day when Slovenia declared independence. As some people have pointed out, this is really quite silly and looks somewhat like an endorsement of astrology on part of our government.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

BOOK: Sophia McDougall, "Romanitas"

Sophia McDougall: Romanitas. London: Orion, 2005. 075286078X. xii + 452 pp.

This is a very enjoyable novel of alternative history. The point of departure is in the late 2nd century, when the Roman emperor Pertinax survives the assassination attempt (which, in reality, succeeded) and goes on to restore the strength of the empire with a series of reforms. As a result of this, the Roman empire does not collapse under the external pressures of the next several centuries, but manages to repel the various invaders and slowly expands its territory, eventually turning into a huge global superpower. This novel takes place in the present time, in the year 2757 AUC, by which time the Roman empire controls the whole of Europe; the northern half or so of Africa; Asia as far as India and western Siberia; a good deal of North America, and the whole of South and Central America. In addition to that, there is a ‘Nionian Empire’, i.e. Japan, which controls much of SE Asia, Australia, the various Pacific archipelagos, and the NW part of North America. In between there is a somewhat weakened Sina, i.e. China. The southern half of Africa used to be under Roman control but has recently managed to secede.

<spoiler warning> Set against this background, the novel is a gripping story of intrigue in the imperial family. The emperor's nephew Marcus has to flee from Rome as it turns out that the recent automobile accident of his parents was really a murder, and that his own life is also in danger. He stays for a while with a group of fugitive slaves, but eventually learns that his enemies are accusing his late father's friend and assistant Varius of having murdered Marcus. The latter therefore decides to return to Rome, hoping to somehow prove that he is OK and that he, his parents, and Varius are all victims of a malicious plot. The challenge is how to reach his uncle the emperor without getting into the clutches of someone who is in on the conspiracy and would happily do away with Marcus. With the aid of some of his new friends from the fugitive slave camp, he eventually succeeds, the conspiracy is uncovered and the novel is brought to a reasonably happy end. </spoiler warning>

I found the book somewhat difficult to get into — the first few chapters, although they were pleasant enough to read, didn't really make me burn with desire to pick up the book again the next day. However, by the time Una and Sulien meet Markus in ch. 6, the story picks up momentum and evolves into a real page-turner. In the last few days I was regularly staying up longer than usual in the evenings.

Paranormal abilities considered harmful

The only thing that annoyed me about this novel are the paranormal abilities of Una and Sulien. Una can read people's thoughts (if they are located close enough to her in space) and to some extent even influence them; see e.g. ch. 5, pp. 73–4; ch. 16, p. 282; ch. 21, p. 377). Sulien has unusual abilities to heal people, especially things like wounds or fractures; it isn't explained how he does it but it doesn't seem to involve any tools or anything of that sort, only his touch. These paranormal abilities of theirs are major elements of the plot: without them, the story wouldn't be able to proceed the way it does now, in several crucial places.

Now, there is of course nothing wrong in principle with giving people paranormal abilities in a work of fiction. But, honestly speaking, I cannot entirely avoid feeling that they act like a cheap deus ex machina here in this story — they allow the author to set up much more thrilling situations than she could do otherwise, because without these paranormal abilities the characters wouldn't have any realistic chances of getting out of these situations. Additionally, such paranormal abilities aren't really something I would expect in a work of alternative history: for me, alternative history means that the story is taking place in the same world that we are used to, only that certain historical events turned out differently than they really had — but these alternative outcomes must be within the bounds of probability. I would somehow understand if the author had at least tried to argue e.g. that because the Roman empire in her alternative history never collapsed, this led to a faster progress of scientific research and consequently enabled some people to reach these abilities that seem paranormal to us now; but she isn't doing anything of the sort. There is no explanation of the exact nature, let alone the origin, of these abilities, Una and Sulien seem more or less to have been simply born with them, it isn't clear whether other people with similar abilities also exist, etc. In short, it's a completely arbitrary plot device that doesn't even pretend to have anything to do with the real world.

The present-day Roman world

For me, one of the most exciting things about an alternative-history novel is to read how the author imagines the state of society and technology in his or her alternative-history timeline. In this novel, the Roman technology of the present day is substantially similar to ours; a few technologies from the real world are missing in the novel, but not (as far as I can tell) vice versa. Telephones and television are known, although they are consistently referred to by Latinate words — ‘longdictors’ and ‘longvision’. I guess this is meant to emphasize that in such an alterantive timeline, the Latin language would naturally carry much more prestige than the Greek (which is quite reasonable). There don't seem to be any mobile phones, however (e.g. in ch. 6, p. 87, a person needs to go to a particular room to make a phone call; and in ch. 23, p. 424, Gabinius is called to the phone by a slave, which suggests that the phone is stationary). Nor are there mentions of anything like the ubiquitous computers that sit on every desktop in our real world.

They don't seem to have airplanes of the sort we know in the real world, but there are ‘spiras’ or ‘spiral-wings’ which seem more similar to helicopters (“flight using circling wings powered by engines”, timeline, p. 451). In the absence of flight, passenger travel over long distances seems to be based chiefly on high-speed magnetic trains, which seems to be one of the few areas in which the world in the novel is really ahead of the real one, in which the network of magnetic railways is not nearly so widespread and well-developed. But maybe they have passenger flight too: see ch. 4, p. 66, “By magnetway or air he might have reached it in a day, but Varius had already ruled out going anywhere near public transport.” There exists a tunnel under the English Channel (ch. 5, p. 73) and another under the Strait of Gibraltar (ch. 7, p. 92); a “vast suspension bridge” is being constructed across the Persian Gulf (ch. 4, p. 58).

As for the languages, Latin is of course spoken widely throughout the empire, but this doesn't mean that other languages have been entirely exterminated. In the Pyrenees we still find the ‘Vascones’, i.e. the Basques, who keep their own language and some of them don't even understand Latin (ch. 12, p. 205). Marcus as a member of the imperial family and a likely future emperor has been taught Greek, Chinese, and Japanese as foreign languages (ch. 12, p. 206) — apparently Greek still has some prestige as a classical language (but “ ‘Greek's only good for writing’ ” says Marcus on p. 206 — perhaps it was dead by then, like Latin or ancient Greek are now in the real world?), while the other two would of course have been important for foreign policy. (He also knows a few words of Quechua and Navajo, p. 206.)


Slavery is one of the major and recurrent themes in this novel. It is still a perfectly ordinary and widespread thing in the Roman empire at the time the story takes place, although there seem to be concerns that the number of slaves is decreasing because there aren't as many wars as there used to be (most of the world is already conquered, and the situation vis-a-vis Japan, Rome's chief rival, has been fairly stable for some time). See ch. 14, pp. 265–7, where Dama recounts his experiences as a slave employed in construction work, for an example of how slavery might function in such a relatively modern economy. The extent to which Roman society and economy rely on slaves is described by Varius in ch. 4, p. 55, but of course his arguments inevitably seem specious to a reader from our real world, which we all know to work well enough without outright slavery. I wonder to what extent slavery could really be included efficiently into a really modern economy, and whether it would accelerate the growth of any of the traditional sterile economic indicators, such as the GDP. The only large-scale experiment with slavery in a modern economy that I can think of at the moment is Germany during the WW2, but I'm not sure to what extent this can be extrapolated.

Marcus' father, before his murder/accident, was planning to abolish slavery should he succeed to the throne, and Marcus adopts the same resolution for himself. In fact his uncle, the present emperor, is himself not really opposed to this idea, but prefers to leave such tumultous reforms to his successors (ch. 24, p. 431).

Crucifixion is still a common punishment for slaves, just like in the ancient times, although they have modernized it somewhat by using a mechanical cross which pierces the limbs automatically and then raises itself up, so that the executioners don't need to do anything else but tie the victim onto the cross with ropes; nor do they seem to whip the victim beforehand. There is a fairly graphic description of the whole process in ch. 3, p. 19, and one of the more prominent characters in the story, Dama, is in fact a crucifixion survivor — he was rescued from the cross by some passers-by after spending some seven or so hours there, and has survived although his limbs are of course largely crippled (ch. 12, pp. 416–7). (Ch. 12, in which Dama is first introduced, is excellent this way — little by little it drops hints that guide the reader's attention towards Dama's curious disabilities, and only slowly does it become clear that this is due to a crucifixion.) (Incidentally, if you want a really detailed and gruesome description of an old-fashioned and brutal execution, and in a highly respected literary work to boot, I recommend the impalement scene in The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andrić.)

Incidentally, the web seems to be somewhat undecided about the spelling of ‘crucifixion’. Dictionaries, e.g., allow only ‘crucifixion’, which also seems to be the most common on the web, with about 4.6 million hits on Google. But ‘crucifiction’ is also quite common, with about 2.0 million hits. In addition there are 50000 hits for ‘crucifixtion’.

There's an interesting monologue by Gabinius, the scheming and extremely rich man who is one of the chief villains of the book. His grandfather had been a slave: “ ‘I'm not — I won't be ashamed of him, either. He was a wonderful man. I'm the first one of my family who can stand for the Senate. And I'm going to. This, this — only in the Empire can that happen. Varius, the only places in the world where there isn't slavery of some kind are the places where everyone, to all intents and purposes, is a slave. We're the only ones who give them the chance to work their way out of it.’ ” (Ch. 11, p. 195.) It's remarkable how these same disgusting old arguments are the same in all ages and all parts of the world. Consider the idea that people must ‘work their way out’ of the lower class — some time ago I read nearly the same ideas in a book titled The Pro-Slavery Argument, published in South Carolina in 1852. Those defenders of slavery in the southern U.S. likewise claimed that they are practically doing the slaves a favour by forcing them to attain work habits, and that it will be reasonable to consider the abolition of slavery only after the slaves get far enough along this path of (work-)ethical development. Other parts of Gabinius' argument remind me very much of those put forth nowadays by proponents of cut-throat capitalism, the free markets, meritocracy, etc., etc. If you change just a few of Gabinius' words, you could get a classical cold-war era pro-capitalism argument: “The only places in the world where there isn't exploitation and inequality of some kind are the communist countries where everyone, to all intents and purposes, is a slave (of the state and Party).” Which, of course, is complete and utter bullshit. It is completely absurd to imply that a system in which everyone is left to his or her own devices and therefore the vast majority of the people are wasting away their whole lives in work and insecurity for the benefit of a small handful of the rich is somehow better and more conducive to freedom than a system in which the state helps the people, protects them from themselves as well as from each other, and keeps the economy under control to make sure it is used for the benefit of the whole society rather than just its wealthier parts.

Marcus' parents planned “to set up a system of free healthcare for slaves, so that their owners would have no reason to abandon them when they became sick. [l. . .] Leo [Marcus' father] had wanted the companies which relied most heavily on slavery to pay the most.” (Ch. 4, p. 58.) Maybe I'm biased, but this reminds me awfully strongly of the periodic debates on universal healthcare in the U.S. Am I just being blinded by my own political prejudice, or is the author inviting us to contemplate the parallels between ancient Roman slavery and the cut-throat capitalism of our modern age? (Although, of course, even if we do make such comparisons, they will not all lead to the identification of similarities. There are also some differences. Reading a portrayal of slavery in a fictional modern economy, such as the one in this novel, and comparing it with the condition of workers in the real world now, one cannot help concluding that the slaves are in a significantly worse situation after all.)

Una, who, like probably many other former slaves, can't read very well, is slowly struggling through an old copy of the Aeneid. “Marcus said stiltedly, ‘Are you still reading the book, the Virgil?’/ ‘It's propaganda.’ ” (Ch. 16, p. 283.) And it's true, of course; it is in fact one of the things that also annoyed me when I was reading the Aeneid. But it's interesting how now, since the Roman empire has been gone for so many centuries, the fact that it's propaganda isn't really the first thing we think of when we think of the Aeneid. I wonder if the same thing happens to other authors once the causes they espoused become sufficiently long dead and forgotten that people can read their works dispassionately. Will we be able, a thousand years from now, to read Kipling the same way we read Virgil now?


The author admits upfront (p. vi) that this book is intended to be the first part of a trilogy. It can stand by itself, in principle, but the end is far from fully satisfactory and it is clear that things have been laid out so that the story will have the opportunity to continue in the next novel. For example, we don't learn the ultimate fate of Delir and the rest of the escaped slaves of Holzarta after they had to evacuate their camp, pursued by imperial agents (ch. 24, pp. 436–7). Marcus has been designated heir to the position of emperor, but, of course, since his uncle (the present emperor) is still alive, there are any number of obstacles that the novelist may yet choose to place between Marcus and the throne. Nor can we be quite sure if the relationship between Marcus and Una will go on well, how the society around them would react to it (given that she is a recently freed slave), etc. Marcus' cousin and rival Drusus remains at large and apparently unsuspected of his complicity in the plot (ch. 24, p. 442); I guess he is likely to come up with some further mischief in the future. I look forward to reading the sequel, which, according to, will be called Rome Burning and will be published in the spring of 2007.

P.S. Three cheers for the publisher for setting the RRP of the hardcover edition at a mere £13 — this looks like a remarkably decent price in these crazy times when more and more publishers seem to consider it reasonable to price their books at insane things like £30. I, of course, wouldn't be the scrooge I am if I didn't go one better than that — I bought a mint copy of the book on eBay for a measly £2.5 :-)

P.P.S. I know I will fry in hell for making remarks like this, but there's a photo of the author on the back flap of the dustjacket. She is young, slim and pale — very pretty.

[Update: I've now read Rome Burning. I liked it even better than Romanitas; see my post about it.]

Labels: , ,

Friday, December 15, 2006

I'll just take a Gutenberg bible then...

On first sight, this eBay auction looks like the offer of a lifetime: “ANY BOOK [for] $1.00”!

ANY BOOK for $1

Unfortunately it goes on to list a number of books and it turns out that you can only have any one of those books for $1. So it looks like someone is merely trying to save on their eBay fees...

I also enjoyed the seller's payment instructions at the end:

Please disregard further instructions.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

BOOK: Nikos Kazantzakis, "Freedom and Death" [4/4]

Nikos Kazantzakis: Freedom and Death. Translated by Jonathan Griffin. London: Faber and Faber, 1966. 057117857X. 472 pp.

[Continued from Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.]


Folk poetry never disappoints: “ ‘I took my Aunt Thodora down/ One summer evening to the town.// Your beauty's set me in a whirl./ Ah, if you were some other girl!// Child, be a man, and have your way./ I'll be your aunt again, some day.//’ ” (13.415.)

In the days between Séfakas's accident and his death, the heirs are already quarreling over the inheritance (“They were carving up the grandfather alive”, 13.416). Now I remember that a similar thing also occurs in the movie based on another Kazantzakis' novel, Zorba the Greek. There a woman was dying and her neighbors were waiting round her death-bed; and the moment she drew her final breath they fell upon her possessions like a flock of crazy harpies. Now don't get me wrong, I understand that some greed for inheritance is a natural human feeling, but these Cretans were apparently really pushing it well beyond the bounds of good taste.

A conversation between a Cretan and someone from mainland Greece (11.353): “ ‘[. . .] You've no more Turks in your land, you lucky beggars!’ [. . .] ‘We have no Turks, certainly, [. . .] but we have big land-owners, police and politicians. Don't ask me about them, old man.’ ”

Some interesting beliefs about basil: “ ‘Do you have basil there?’ she asked./ ‘No.’/ ‘It grew on the grave of Christ,’ said the old woman, and fell silent.” (12.387.) And after old Séfakas died: “Each woman also threw him a sprig of basil, that he might take it with him into Hades as the scent of the upper world.” (13.436.) Wikipedia mentions that it was “believed to have grown above the spot where St. Constantine and Helen discovered the Holy Cross”. Anyway, I am terribly fond of a bit of basil on tomato salad, and it's interesting to read what sort of superstitious beliefs such an innocent plant is involved in.

A hilarious simile from 4.131, during one of the week-long drinking sessions at Captain Michales's place: “at the next daybreak there they lay again on the floor like abortions, exhausted, saffron-yellow.” Kind of makes you wonder what Kazantzakis was doing when he wasn't writing, in order to get the opportunity to observe abortions lying on the floor... :-)

An interesting footnote about the belief in ‘Charos’: “One of the many survivals of ancient religion among the Christian Greeks. But [. . .] Charos or Charondas is greatly changed from Charon, the ferryman of the Styx. He ‘is the strong and cruel robber, who mercilessly snatches men away from their life in the light of day’ ” (6.183). Some day it would be interesting to read more about what other pre-Christian beliefs survived in Greece after its conversion to Christianity.

Some things in this novel remind one more of the middle ages than of the late 19th century. Here's a scene from the disembarkation of Turkish troops sent to quell the rebellion in Crete: “Right at the end came a swarm of clamouring Dervishes in green skirts and pointed white hats, and with daggers in their belts. They clambered on to the mole, unrolled the green flag of the Prophet in front of the Harbour Gate, and began dancing round it, slowly, clapping their hands.” (8.267.)

As can be seen from numerous examples in this novel, patriotism can be pretty heady stuff. The bishop of Megalokastro shows his friends a painting of a crucifixion scene with Christ replaced by a female personification of Crete: “ ‘Isn't that a sin, Mylord? Crete as Christ?’/ ‘It is one, it is one,’ replied the Metropolitan with a sigh. ‘But. . .’/ ‘But what?’/ ‘But she is worth it,’ murmured the Metropolitan, gazing at the crucified woman, at Crete.” (5.164.)

The suicidal last stand of Michales and his few remaining companions in the last few pages of this book reminds me somewhat of the suicide squad at the end of the Life of Brian, where a group of fighters comes to the site where Brian and the others have been crucified, and the victims' faces already begin to brighten upon seeing that they will soon be rescued, but then the fighters announce that they are the suicide squad and promptly commit suicide (“That showed 'em, huh?”). Here in the last pages of Freedom and Death the situation is scarcely less absurd. Here one of the men who initially decided to leave has changed his mind and has just returned to join in the last stand against the Turks: “ ‘What, are you Vendúsos?’ cried the captain, with his eyes gleaming. ‘Have you come back? [. . .] I take back what I said. Forgive me, brother. Come here, to me.’/ Vendúsos took a step, but a bullet hit him in the forehead and he fell to the ground.” (14.470.) A few lines below, Michales' nephew, recently returned from abroad and with a young wife to look after, decides he wants to stay and die too: “ ‘I'm not going.’/ Suddenly Captain Michales understood. His face beamed. He took Kosmas's head in both hands./ ‘Hail to you, nephew,’ he cried. ‘So you too mean to sacrifice yourself? Immortal Crete!’ ” A funny sort of immortality this, seeing as it involves the pointless suicide of the country's best people — this makes about as much sense as the above-mentioned suicide squad.

Although much of the book is permeated by really fervid Cretan patriotism, the author also acknowledges the humanity of the Turks: “And between the two Christian ranks the Turkish soldiers also were burying their dead, caring for their wounded and thinking, as they stared silently into their camp fires, of their wives and children in far-off Anatolia. Who would plough the fields over there, prune the vines, and earn bread for the family? They too were human beings and not, as the Christians called them, dogs.” (10.324.)

There's also an interesting passage in 14.448 where Efendina (a Turk) and Barba Jannis (a Greek), both rather drunk and at least one of them, possibly both, not really quite right in the head, come to a realization that is, given the circumstances, no less than amazing: that there's no reason in principle why the Greeks and Turks shouldn't be able to get along just fine. “ ‘[. . .] Well then, listen: you're a Turk, I'm a Christian. D'you want to kill me? [. . .] There! I don't want to slaughter you either. Shouldn't all Turks and Christians be like us two? Live like brothers? Haven't you seen how sometimes a bitch will give suck to a kitten among her puppies? Well, that's how it is with Crete. [. . .]’ ”

The two town idiots, who have thus proven to be saner and more reasonable than the vast majority of the testosterone-addled heroes who have been busy knifing and shooting each other for most of the novel, then proceed to the Pasha and describe their radical idea that Turks and Greeks should live in peace. The Pasha laughs, but, to his credit, also understands that they have a point: “ ‘that man's no fool! Who would believe it? The two of them have more sense, by my faith, than the Metropolitan and me. Give them a raki and something nice to eat as well.’ ” (14.451.) But, of course, neither the Pasha nor anyone else acts on this idea, and nothing comes of it.

Anyway, I think this passage is interesting because it illustrates the diversity of characters and subjects touched upon in this book — there really is a wealth of things in this novel, and the author never lets you forget that reality is a very diverse thing and that there are many facets to every story, many opinions to every issue.

(At the same time, one must of course admit that not every conflict can be resolved by a simple ‘let's just get along’. Sometimes there are genuine grievances. It's difficult for me to say to what extent this is the case here in 1889 Crete; this is one thing where I wished that the author had provided more background information. For example, to what extent are the Greeks in Crete being oppressed? Most of them seem to be small-scale farmers or craftsmen and merchants; the Turkish state doesn't seem to be interfering in their life very actively. Nor does it seem to be making any efforts to erase their national identity. On the other hand, the novel clearly shows that there exists in Crete a class of big Turkish landowners; perhaps the Greeks are being oppressed by them, e.g. having to pay rents, though this isn't explicitly stated in the novel. I remember reading, quite some time ago, a novel also set in the Turkish empire in the late 19th century, but in Macedonia rather than in Crete. There it seemed that the Turkish landowners can oppress the population in all manner of barbaric ways which, if you wanted to find similar things happening in the rest of Europe, you would have to travel one if not two centuries farther back in time, deep into the age of feudalism. If the situation in Crete is similar, this would be a good motivation for the uprising; but it isn't clear from the novel if the situation in Crete really is so bad.)

I was often surprised to read of the sort of clothing the Cretans typically wore — nowadays if one travels as a tourist to the Greek islands, one remembers them chiefly for the sweltering heat (2.46) in which any sane person naturally wishes to wear as few, and as light, garments as possible. But here we often encounter the Cretans wearing clothes one would expect in a much colder climate, e.g. “full breeches of thick wool” (11.363). But it's true that in the colder part of the year it can get fairly cold, especially in the mountainous areas; even snow begins to fall in the last pages of the book (14.471).

A charming, if slightly grisly, passage from 4.122, in which the Pasha of Crete muses on his own old age and weakness, and compares it with that of the Turkish empire: “ ‘[. . .] What's to be expected of life, when you can't misbehave any more, when you can't do away with a man when you want to, or kiss any woman you want to? What sort of a Pacha am I? This damned growing old! Ah, what at time I had in other Greek places, when I used to send my executioner along with an apple wrapped in a cloth for the bride and a bullet for the bridegroom. I had them told that they must choose. How could they be expected to choose the bullet? They always chose the apple, and that same evening the bride would come, all tear-stained and dolled up, and would struggle as I like women to do, and then sit on my knee. But now I've grown old. The State, too, has grown old. And it's the fault of this damned Crete!’ ” Is this another example of Nietszchean influences on the writer? The pasha here made a decent effort at living like a superman, above the principles and constraints that affect mere mortals. But anyway, regardless of that, I always find it somewhat sad and touching to read how someone in old age remembers the days of his youth that is now gone for ever, even in a case like this when the youth in question was actually filled to the brim with horrible crimes. Truly, those whom the gods love die young.

It's interesting how both the Greeks and the Turks refer to more or less the whole of Western Europe as ‘Franks’, and to everything that has something to do with the modern world as ‘Frankish’. I always thought that this usage arose in the Arab world somewhere at the time of the crusades; it is quite current among the 19th-century Arabs in Karl May's novels; but I didn't expect the christian Greeks to use it. Perhaps they adopted it under Turkish influence? Or maybe the Greeks, like the Arabs, also used it as early as the middle ages, in the Byzantine times?

This particular edition that I've read is riddled with spelling and typographical errors — I don't remember the last time I've seen so many errors in a single book. There are also some inconsistencies in the transliteration of Greek names, e.g. we have Sifakas in the early chapters of the book but Séfakas thereafter. Apart from this, I have no complaints; the translation is pleasant to read.


I heartily recommend this novel. It's a great read, with lots and lots of interesting things in it, numerous and diverse characters and subplots, it explores a lot of interesting subjects, and it gives you a glimpse into a great patriotic uprising in the nineteenth-century style, the sort of which our jaded and cynical world can only say ‘they don't make them like that anymore’. And it's not a bad thing that they don't, but despite that it's charming to read what this sort of event looked like.


I have a long-term hope to read several other works by Kazantzakis:

  • Zorba the Greek, on which the noted film was based and which brought the author international fame.
  • The Last Temptation, about which I know little else than that the 1988 Martin Scorcese film based on it was considered somewhat notorious in some circles at the time.
  • He also wrote quite a bit of travel writing, which might also be interesting to read, particularly about his travels in Greece.

Like most books, Freedom and Death is printed in black on white; besides this, it's full of heady, blood-soaked, macho stuff, and it ends on a somewhat somber note. All this taken together may leave the impression that Crete is a rather grim place. So after reading this novel one might find oneself wishing for something frivolous and lighthearted to restore one's faith in life and to remind one that Crete can after all also be a very nice place. Therefore I also recommend Hans Silvester's coffee-table books, Cats of the Greek Islands and The Complete Cats in the Sun, both of which are full of gloriously vivid photographs of cats in the beautiful villages and towns of the Greek islands. The cute fuzzy cats, the simple but charming architecture, the bright white masonry, and the deep blue skies will surely go some way towards helping you restore your sense that not everything is dark and gloomy.

Friday, December 08, 2006

A well-frozen corpse

Nigerian scam letters are one of my favourite pseudoliterary genres. Here's a nice specimen that arrived today.

Good day

I am Barrister.Thomas Kazella,lawyer to late Mr.Morris Thompson who lost his life in plane crash involving Alaska Airline's Flight 261, which crashed on January 31st.2000, including his wife and only daughter.

Now I must wank...

Mr. Morris Thompson aged 61 hailed from Fairbanks, Alaska in United States of America. He was one of the states's mostprominent native and business leader. All these you are very free to verify from the web link below for more information and clarification about his socio-economic status until his death;

The effort expended by these modern-day ghouls in trawling the web for news reports of old accidents is truly impressive.

Before the demise of my client, he disclosed to me his account status, which amounted to $15.5million (Fifteen million five hundred thousand United States dollars). He also handed over to me some vital copies of documents regarding this fund already trapped at finance house in EUROPE.

Serves him right for trusting those good-for-nothing Europeans.

I was at the last burial rights on February,5th,2000 to pay my final respect to Late Mr.Morris Thompson.

You mean like this?

There I made thorough inquiries about his relatives but,discovered no one really knows about this fund currently sited at EUROPE.

‘At’ Europe? Oh, let me guess. There must be a small town called Europe somewhere in the Alaskan wilderness, where the company keeps the late Mr Thompson's ill-gotten loot in a big block of ice guarded by ferocious polar bears.

Since then, I have made successive attempts to get his next of kin or relative to come forth and claim this fund but to no avail.

Successive but not successful, eh?

As personal lawyer to my late client, I cannot in any way claim it unless someone overseas does so.

Whereupon you swoop in like a bird of prey, leaving the poor shlub of a foreigner empty-handed.

Just two weeks ago, I received a routine notification from the finance house concerning this fund, and the officials of this firm issued a warning, stressing the urgency for late Mr. Morris Thompson's relative or next of kin to come forward to claim this fund immediately or they will have it confiscated and forwarded to the nation's treasury account as an unclaimed fund.

They'll convert it to $100 banknotes and feed them to the polar bears at Europe, Alaska. If there's anything left it will go to the federal budget and help finance the promotion of democratic values among poor benighted Middle-Eastern nations. Mr Thompson may even get a bomb or two named after him...

This is the agreement they have reached at the company and they also reiterated that this is according to the company guidelines.

A wise decision. If they don't feed their polar bears properly, PETA will get on their asses in no time...


Owing to the fact that his daughter whom should have stood a better chance of claiming this fund, also perished in that fatal air crash,

'Twas a good day for the polar bears... “O she was fair, O dear, she was bonnie!

I want you to stand in as the next of kin to late Mr. Morris Thompson.

A grave so big one can stand in it? Damn those decadent rich people...

Like I earlier asserted,I have in my possession the necessary documents that will enable me to place you in,as the right beneficiary to my late client's fund in this firm.Be informed that upon successful transfer of this money into your account,you shall have 35% of it as your share.

A rather stingy offer. I wouldn't settle for less than 50% plus at least one polar bear.

I must remind you that trust and transparency must be our watchword in the course of this transaction.

I can recommend a few manufacturers of bulletproof glass if necessary...

I will discuss with you in details when I receive your response.

All in all, not a bad effort, but still far below the glory days of the 419 scam. It just isn't the same if there aren't any trunk boxes involved, and no poisoned cocoa merchants and widows of dead dictators of underdeveloped African countries. Nor is the English nearly as ridiculous as in the masterpieces of the genre.

Monday, December 04, 2006

In case you were wondering...

From a piece of spam I received today:

I had lost one of my needles. The poll numbers, that is. I do happen to be a big zombie fan, in case you were wondering. I am trying the Flatulence Preventer next as we seem to have a problem with that too. No more chewing in the middle of the night!

So there!

Sunday, December 03, 2006

BOOK: Nikos Kazantzakis, "Freedom and Death" [3/4]

Nikos Kazantzakis: Freedom and Death. Translated by Jonathan Griffin. London: Faber and Faber, 1966. 057117857X. 472 pp.

[Continued from Part 1 and Part 2.]

Non-macho Cretans

To the author's credit, not all Cretans are grim macho warriors. Particularly in the first half of the book, when most of the story is taking place in the principal town of Crete, Megalokastro, he shows us a number of very diverse minor characters and their little subplots.

“ ‘[W]hy do you let your wife slash you to ribbons? You never raise a hand to lick her into shape. You're making all us men look fools. Aren't you ashamed of yourself?’ [. . .] ‘I am ashamed, Captain Polyxigis, I am ashamed, but I enj-j-joy it.’ “ (2.76.)

“First of all, the wife of Mastrapas untied her husband, that holy man, from the bedposts, to which she tied him fast every evening out of jealousy, to prevent him from going secretly downstairs and finding the fat maid, Anesina, with her cow breasts, in the kitchen below.” (2.51.)

Then there's the complaint of poor Mr. Demetrós, who is unable to keep his wife happy: “ ‘What the Devil does she want from me now? Isn't the night enough? Where does she get the energy, the shameless woman? Has someone put petroleum in her buttocks?’ ” (2.59.) The wife is rather ironically named Penelope. On the next page, observing a group of children, she says: “ ‘Ah! if only the lot were mine. And not all by Demetrós, God forgive me!’ ” (2.60.)

“Once only, when he was ill, he called his wife. ‘Ah, wife, in God's name [. . .] tell me the truth. Are the children we've got mine?’ But his wife said nothing. ‘Tell me the truth, wife. You can see I'm dying. What are you afraid of?’ ‘And suppose you don't die?’ ” (2.61.)

Then there's the kooky Mr. Idomeneas, always pathetically writing ridiculous letters to all manner of European potentates, insisting that they do something about the situation in Crete (6.187, 7.226, 9.280–1). “[T]o-day it was as though Konstantinos Palaiologos [last Byzantine emperor] [. . .] were himself turning to address Victoria, Queen of England:/ My dear cousin Victoria, / Four hundred and thirty-six years have now gone by since I was killed. [. . .]” (7.226.)

Then there's the physician who had studied in France and got married there. His wife is now thoroughly unhappy with her life in Crete: “ ‘Where's the railway you said ran past our house?’ the Frenchwoman had wailed during the first weeks. ‘That's what you said in Paris.’ And the fat doctor laughed. ‘In Megalokastro we call the donkeys our railway,’ he answered.” (2.53.)

Then there's the door-to-door seller of drinks: “Because of the great heat Barba Jannis had ordered three ass-loads of snow from Psilorítis, and went running up and down with his bronze can to bring the agas refreshing coolness.” (9.277.) I of course realize that ‘ass’ means ‘donkey’, but I nevertheless cannot help snickering at “three ass-loads of snow”. Tubgirl comes to mind...

Then there's the amateur archaeologist, whom almost everyone else considers crazy: he “had in his time travelled into the land of the Franks to become a doctor, and had come back with his head turned. His madness consisted in paying workmen to dig up the earth for him in places where there were ruins”, etc. (5.159).

On self-torment

Then there's the crazy Efendina, a Turk who has taken it into his head to become a saint and has embarked on a curious love/hate relationship with his sins and indeed with himself (3.98–100). He participates in the drinking sessions at Michales's and obsessively piles sin upon sin, stuffing himself with pork and wine, and then subsequently takes a pathological kind of joy in grieving over what he has done, in hurling abuse at himself, crawling about and loudly proclaiming how ashamed he is.

‘By my faith, Captain Michales, threaten me,’ he used to say to him, ‘hold a knife to my throat! Shout at me: “Guzzle pig's flesh, swill wine, or I'll kill you!” Force me, Captain Michales, so I shan't be sinning.’” (3.99.) “Sins only began to bring real satisfaction when one was well and truly up to the neck in them. Then one began to enjoy them, and then one began to have something to repent of.” (4.132.) “ ‘I have defiled myself,’ he screamed, ‘eaten pork, drunk wine, uttered wicked words. Men and women, forgive me! May God also have mercy and forgive me! [. . .]’ ” (4.144.)

I sympathize with his position a great deal. Although I personally don't have any religious feelings myself, I'd say that his problem is simply an extreme case of guilty pleasures, and guilty pleasures are something with which I'm very familiar too. They arise when the set of things that you enjoy and the set of things that you think one ought to enjoy don't match. Unfortunately, as it turns out, most of my pleasures are of the guilty sort. For some reason (I don't know why this is the case, though I deeply regret that it is the case) I enjoy all the wrong things.

One ought to enjoy high art, but I actually only enjoy pop and kitsch. One ought to enjoy belles lettres, but I enjoy pulp fiction much more (though I force myself to avoid it most of the time). One ought to enjoy boring, pretentious arthouse films, but I enjoy Hollywood blockbusters much more (though I force myself not to go to the movies more than once a year or so). One ought to enjoy sublime dishes in small portions on huge plates, but I enjoy simple and unhealthy things with a high fat and calorie content, the larger the serving the better. One ought to enjoy bitter chocolate with 70% or 85% cocoa content, but I don't like it at all; I enjoy plain simple milk chocolate, the sweeter the better. One ought to enjoy classical music, but I enjoy fado more, and pop music even more.

Heck, I even enjoy listening to Britney Spears; that, and watching her videos, and I genuinely think she's gorgeous. And not just her, but also a gazillion other recent pop stars that all look and sound pretty much alike. Everyone I've ever heard of agrees that they are completely vapid and that they aren't even all that good looking — everyone, apparently, but me! Can there be greater shame than that? Of course there can be: I enjoyed Stars are Blind, both the song and the video, and I even think that Paris looks quite pretty in it (though I admit that those who describe her face as somewhat equine do have a point).

But wait, I have more: I even enjoy this abomination. There are as of this writing 19 comments on that post, and not one of them has got anything good to say about either the song, the lyrics, the video, or the singer. And yet I have just listened to the song some ten times in a row, and enjoy it immensely. Of course the lyrics are inane and their English is atrocious, so that even I cringed the first few times, but little by little I got used to it. And I unreservedly enjoy the song, the music, the video, her whiny voice, and I think the singer is genuinely pretty.

Why, o why must this sort of shame always fall upon me? Why, whenever twenty people agree that something is an abomination, why must I always be the one who enjoys it? Why must all my aesthetic preferences run exactly in the wrong direction? How can I live with this shame?

This feeling of self-loathing reminds me somewhat of that described at the end of Baudelaire's wonderful poem, Heautontimoroumenos (‘I am the vampire of my own heart’, etc.).

From zeros to heroes

There are several interesting side-stories which, taken as a whole, show how all sorts of people slowly become caught up in the patriotic fervor of the insurrection; one could even say (if one were given to vague and pompous pronouncements, which I'm not) that they find their realization in it, their meaning, that they are much improved by the experience.

Thus we find Vendúsos, one of the regular if only semi-willing participants in Michales's morose week-long drinking bouts, initially sent away by Michales some time before his suicidal last stand as the captain knows he is not much of a hero (“ ‘You're Vendúsos, I don't ask anything of you, behave like a Vendúsos if you wish!’ ”, 14.442); but just hours before the last battle itself, Vendúsos decides to return and promptly gets himself killed minutes before Michales himself (14.470). As Vendúsos himself explains on 14.446, before he returns: “ ‘I wasn't a palikare, ever, schoolmaster. But how can I help it? I've become one. Who sits with a blind man soon squints. Captain Michales is the cause.’ ” (But the idea that blindness is somehow infectious is profoundly ridiculous.)

As another example, there's Michales's younger brother, Tityros the schoolmaster. Teaching is not exactly a respected profession among the Cretans, and their contempt is only strengthened by the fact that he wears glasses and modern clothes and that he is not physically strong. He gets married to a 35-year old woman who not only hasn't got much to recommend herself, but is actually more fond of her spendthrifty and indolent brother than of the man she had just married (4.137–42, 6.187–8). (Incidentally, I wonder what to make of this relationship between her and her brother. There don't seem to be any hints of incest between them, at least not that I could find although I read those parts of the book with some care.)

He finally gets fed up with this and poisons his brother-in-law, whereupon his wife commits suicide (8.259–62). But this act, although it is considered a cowardly and unmanly way of killing a person, is Tityros's last shameful act and actually seems to set him on the course to become a proper Cretan man (9.307–8). He becomes involved in the uprising, takes up traditional Cretan costume again and even gets engaged to be married again quite soon (11.362–5). His new-found patriotic ardour also informs his educational work: “ ‘Whole chains of Cretan children are hanging round my neck. I'm awakening Crete in them, to the best of my power.’ ” (14.446.)

And then there's Michales's nephew Kosmas, who had studied abroad for many years, got married to a Jewish woman in Russia and now returned to Crete together with his pregnant wife, whom he loves very much (12.391–5). By the time of his return most of the uprising is largely over, except for Michales's suicidal last stand; Kosmas visits him, intending to try to persuade him one last time to give up, but once Kosmas gets there, he himself decides to join Michales and promptly (and uselessly) gets himself killed by the Turks.

Whatever foreign ideas he might have had, they evaporated instantly in those heady moments and gave way to an atavistic bloodlust: “Smeared with powder and blood, he was listening now to his heart, which had gone wild. In his breast his father, the terrible leader in battle, had awakened, and his grandfather, and Crete. This was not his first battle: for a thousand times already he had been fighting, a thousand times he had been killed and had risen again. His blood stormed.” (14.469.) “He thought of nothing any more. All Frankish, intellectual ideas had vanished, together with his mother, wife and son. Nothing remained standing, except this single, ancient duty.” (14.471.)

Incidentally, his wife seems to be haunted by the ghost of his late father (12.396, 12.406–7, 13.438), which causes her to have a spontaneous abortion (14.456–8); this is curious, but I really can't make much sense of that little subplot.

[To be continued in a few days.]

Friday, December 01, 2006

How not to win the confidence of your buyers...

Shame on the Irish Manuscripts Commission:

Subject: Order confirmation from Irish Manuscript Commission

Thank you for placing an order with the Irish Manuscript Commission online store, please find the details of  of your order bellow, if you have an queries please contact us at

I hope the book I ordered from them doesn't contain so many spelling errors...