Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Black Count

My audiobook-of-choice for my daily commute these days is The Black Count, the biography of the father of Alexandre Dumas. This book will be of particular interest to fans of Dumas the writer. It not only gives the background of the Dumas family, it also shows quite clearly how the father (who died when the son was very young) inspired many of the son’s classic works. This book makes clear how Dumas took many of the legends and anecdotes about his father and reworked them into his historical novels, including ‘Georges’, an 1843 fiction work in which the protagonist is a man of mixed race, ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ and ‘The Three Musketeers’.

Someone who can inspire the stories and characters in The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers clearly must have had an eventful life, and General Alex Dumas did. He lived through (survived) very turbulent times. The Black Count is well-researched, and very successfully evokes 18th century France.

The default mode in my brain when it comes to French history seems to be one of disappointment. A great country, their continuation of the American Revolution morphed into a bloodbath, and the great hero of the age, Napoleon Bonaparte, became an egotistical dictator. But this book also reveals France’s role of being at the forefront of promoting progressive attitudes towards race, at least immediately following the Revolution. All in all, The Black Count is a fascinating read.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Romance of the Three Kingdoms

One of the most exciting discoveries in recent weeks is the book Battles, Betrayals, and Brotherhood, a book of translations of Chinese plays. I was very lucky, back in the day, to attend several performances of Beijing Opera, and even got to take part in a series of performances as a musician. I became interested in Romance of the Three Kingdoms at about that time.

Basically, there were a bunch of civil wars (c. AD 180 220). The Han empire was divided into the Wei, Shu-Han, and Wu states. In AD 280 these three states were reunified under the Western Jin. A popular history, Sanguo zhi pinghua, recorded many of the incidents, and in the 14th century Luo Guanzhong wrote the historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms based on these events.

RTK is one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature and the stories and legends it contains are hugely popular in China and East Asia, and have been for centuries. Artists have been producing plays, legends, books, manga, films, TV shows, paintings and more based on the RTK for a long, long time, so the lack of materials available in English is truly shocking. Other than a couple translations, a couple movies (notably ‘Red Cliffs’ and ‘The Lost Bladesman’), and the only tangentially-related computer game series, materials are very hard to come by.

So the book Battles, Betrayals, and Brotherhood is very welcome. These dramas show incidents from the wars, and how the heroes of the Three Kingdoms were portrayed on the Yuan and Ming stage. The swearing of brotherhood in the Peach Orchard, the battles and betrayals, all make for interesting reading. Also, since the RTK has a total of 800,000 words and nearly a thousand dramatic characters in 120 chapters, Battles, Betrayals, and Brotherhood is indispensable as a companion to this classic novel.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Siege of Sziget

My life, such as it is, is extremely international. I work in a multilingual, multiracial department with clients from all over the world. In my world speaking two or three languages is the norm, and almost all my colleagues are in bicultural relationships or part of a bicultural family.

About six months ago I started a project. I began discussing with my colleagues and their spouses about producing a series of epics and legends from their various countries. This has, to date, produced some very interesting translations (more on that later).

In my search for works that are (in the west) little-known, I came across ‘The Siege of Sziget’, a Hungarian epic on the Turkish wars. It was composed in 1651 by the grandson of Croatian Count Miklós Zrínyi, who, in 1566, defended the Fortress of Szigetvár against an overwhelming Ottoman siege. The poem is described variously as ‘one of the cornerstones of Hungarian literature’, ‘one of most important works of the seventeenth century’, ‘one the finest of European epics’ and ‘the last great European epic’. The kind of literature I love, so why had I never come across it before?

I contacted the wife of a colleague, I native speaker of Hungarian, very literate and a talented writer, and suggested she translate it as part of our project. Her first comment was about the length. Translate an epic poem of approximately 1,500 stanzas? A young mother? Not going to happen. Then, of course, is the sheer difficulty of translating Hungarian poetry into English. After the conversation I was depressed, not so much because it wouldn’t be part of our project, but because I would never get to read it.

Fortunately a very readable English version of ‘The Siege of Sziget’ has since been published. An authentic war chronicle describing the life of the sixteenth-century soldier’s way of life, it is also a romance, an adventure story and, among other things, a theological treatise. It is very human, but larger than life, occasionally fantastical. Its huge cast of characters includes the hero Count Zrínyi, an angry God, Sultan Suleiman, wizards, angels and demons. It’s a fascinating read.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Antony and Cleopatra

Soju Kai has been very busy lately putting together more visually-oriented Noh-inspired performances with live music and sound effects, but we took some time off this weekend to attend a performance of Shakespeare's 'Antony and Cleopatra'. It's only the second time I've seen A&C live. This version managed to be epic without being plodding, bloated or distant. Three months before our next Shakespeare break!