THE RUBY IN HER NAVEL by Barry Unsworth (Review)

Sicily, 1149

Christians? You put yourself on a level with them, you who are of Christian birth? You call them Christians, these filthy palace Saracens that claim to be converted to our faith and secretly continue to practise their own?’
‘I have seen no evidence of this,’ I said, but he did not hear me or showed no sign of doing so.
‘Once a Saracen, always a Saracen, it is in their blood,’ he said. His eyes had a staring look now, that famished smile had gone, and with it all pretence of benevolent interest in me. He leaned forward across the table, bringing his face close to mine. ‘It is in their corrupted blood,’ he said, ‘and they will corrupt our blood with it if we allow them. […] Tell me, Thurstan, what does Christendom mean to you?’
‘It is the term we use for those regions where our Roman faith is predominant.’
‘That is all it signifies to you? This great spread of our faith no more than a matter of geography? I will tell you what Christendom is. Christendom is the universal Christian Church, the universal Christian society. Christendom is a mighty host that is destined to bring the world under its sway.’

An unusual but fascinating setting: the court of the Norman King Roger of Sicily. Following the failure of the great army of the Second Crusade at Damascus, Sicily – and the whole of southern Italy and the eastern Mediterranean – seethes with unrest. Palermo, with its Muslims and Jews, its Byzantine Christians and its Roman Christians, seems a kind of melting-pot, symbolic of the rest of the region. King Roger, who has sworn to maintain equality between the races and creeds, is visibly failing to do so as his Norman courtiers seize more and more power and property for themselves at the expense of the rest.

In the middle of all this, a young Anglo-Norman called Thurstan Beauchamp works under a Muslim, Yusuf, the minister responsible for the Diwan al-tahqiq al-ma’mur, the Diwan of Control (or Diwan of Secrets) – and dreams of the knighthood and the life that should have been his, would have been his if his father had not entered a Cistercian monastery and given all his lands and property to the Cistercian Order, thereby leaving his son unable to pursue his training. Now, under Yusuf, Thurstan is officially responsible for recruiting and organising entertainers (dancers, singers) for the royal court, but in fact much of his work is on the secret side, carrying out confidential missions for Yusuf.

All this comes together as he sets out for Bari (a port on the east coast of Italy) to meet a Serbian emissary and deliver a message, but, while there, he falls under the spell of a penniless gypsy dancer, Nesrin, (who, after the start given to her by Thurstan in Palermo, becomes famous throughout the courts of Europe – she’s the one who, later, has a ruby in her navel “that glowed as she danced”). And then, quite by chance, he meets his childhood sweetheart, Lady Alicia, now a young widow and recently returned from Jerusalem.

A love story, yes. But Thurstan has already been offered a substantial bribe if he will accuse Yusuf of attempting to make him a convert to Islam, and thus bring about Yusuf’s downfall. He, of course, refused. But when Alicia is taken prisoner, and her release – her very life – depends on Thurstan bearing false witness against Yusuf, his long-time friend and mentor – what is he to do? Is honour the most important thing for him? And the consolation of Nesrin the dancer? Or should he accept the knighthood and land he is offered, and the hand of Alicia?

A marvellous story, and beautifully written, as one would expect from Barry Unsworth, thrice shortlisted for the Booker Prize and once the winner. But don’t expect another Morality Play: Barry Unsworth is not one to repeat himself, and this book, its setting and its hero are as different as A Tale of Two Cities is from Hard Times.

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SPEAKING OF SIVA by A. K. Ramanujan (Review)

SPEAKING OF SIVA is a book of vacanas, religious lyrics written in Kanada free verse by medieval Virasaivas. As the translator, A.K.Ramanujan, says, “They all speak of Siva and speak to Siva: hence the title.”

Kanada is a Dravidian language spoken today by about twenty million people in the South Indian state of Mysore. The vacana poetry, written between the 10th and 12th, centuries represented a breaking away from the rigidity of classical Sanscrit tradition. It is spontaneous free verse written by ordinary men or women – yes, women – of various castes, some even outcaste, some illiterate.

Their leader was Basavanna, whose poems exemplify both the protesting (“protestant”) stance of the movement and its bhakti devotion to one god, in this case Siva. A perfect example, perfectly translated, is:

The rich
will make temples for Siva.
What shall I,
a poor man,
do?

My legs are pillars,
the body the shrine,
the head a cupola
of gold.

Listen, O lord of the meeting rivers,
things standing shall fall,
but the moving ever shall stay.

The second poet represented in this collection is Dasimayya. Whereas Basavanna always addresses Siva “O lord of the meeting rivers”, Dasimayya calls him “Ramanatha”. When he says that to the true Virasaiva

his front yard
is the true Benares,
O Ramanatha

we hear again the voice of the best of the Old Testament prophets, the truly spiritual man.

But for me the star of the movement, and of this collection, is Mahadeviyakka.

Mahadeviyakka, or Akka Mahadevi, was initiated into the worship of Siva at the age of ten and from then on considered herself his bride; however, she was a very beautiful girl and men clamoured for her hand in marriage. When the king spotted her, her fate was sealed, and she became one of his wives. Eventually, though, she ran away from the palace (probably to the King’s great relief!) throwing off, according to legend, not just marriage but all the conventions (including her clothes) and spent the rest of her life as an itinerant poet and ascetic.

You can confiscate
money in hand;
can you confiscate
the body’s glory?

Or peel away every strip
you wear,
but can you peel
the Nothing, the Nakedness
that covers and veils?

To the shameless girl
wearing the White Jasmine Lord’s
light of morning,
you fool, where’s the need for cover and jewel?

Or here is another favourite of mine by Mahadeviyakka:

Who cares
who strips a tree of leaf
once the fruit is plucked?

Who cares
who lies with the woman
you have left?

Who cares
who ploughs the land
you have abandoned?

After this body has known my lord
who cares if it feeds
a dog
or soaks up water?

Akka Mahadevi in samadhi, nude but draped in her flowing hair.

Do, please, read more of these perfect translations of her poems and those of other great Virasaiva poets by the late Attipate Krishnaswami Ramanujan, a great poet and scholar.

from ULYSSES (by Alfred Lord Tennyson)

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Matched with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I cannot rest from travel; I will drink
Life to the lees. All times I have enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea. I am become a name
For always roaming with a hungry heart;
Much have I seen and known – cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honoured of them all –
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravelled world whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As tho’ to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains; but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this grey spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail;
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toiled, and wrought, and thought with me –
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads – you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all; but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

CITY OF SHADOWS by Ariana Franklin (Review)

Berlin, 1922 and 1932

Sometimes you read a historical novel which turns out to be a real eye-opener. It will be set in a period you thought you knew and deal with a situation you have been familiar with for years – and you find you were quite mistaken. It is like travelling back in a time-machine: oh, wow – so this is how it really was!

City of Shadows teleported me back to Berlin in 1922, and then, in Part II, 1932. The terrible post-war poverty (exactly the same as in post-war Leningrad – I’ve been reading a biography of Anna Akhmatova, the great Russian poet and will post a review of it here soon), the black market and the racketeers, the first ominous indications of the rise of Hitler and nazism: then ten years later, the organised brutality as Hitler makes his bid for the Chancellorship while his personal army smashes all opponents and gradually takes over even the police force, meaning that the many murders they commit will not even be investigated.

One such racketeer is “Prince Nick”, a self-styled member of the defunct Russian royal family living in exile in Germany. In fact, of course, he is just a con-man with a pseudo-elegant veneer and – now – a lot of money. His secretary / personal-assistant, based at the largest of his chain of night clubs, is Esther Solomonova, a multilingual Russian Jew who is extremely beautiful when seen in profile from the right, but had the left side of her face smashed by an axe in one of the two progroms she miraculously survived.

She does not approve of Nick’s activities, but has little choice. It is work for him or starve in the streets.

She is particularly disapproving when Nick decides to take up the cause of a young woman named Anna Anderson, a patient in a mental asylum who claims to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, the only survivor of the massacre of the Czar and Czarina and their children.

Nick’s only interest, Esther knows, is Anastasia’s claim to the Romanov family fortune deposited in a bank in London.

But Esther comes to feel responsible for Anna when she realises that someone actually is hunting the poor woman, that it is not just paranoia, a fantasy, and that this “big man” who appears regularly once every six weeks, will stop at nothing to kill her. Anna claims that it is the Cheka, the Soviet hatchet-men, who have marked her down for assassination because she is the heir to the throne of “all the Russias”.

Esther does not agree.

Neither does Detective Inspector Schmidt, whose task it is to catch the assassin when he starts killing those around Anna in order to get to her. Schmidt is a good man caught up in a terrible situation where everything he believes in – freedom, equality, justice – is being systematically replaced by tyranny, racism and injustice.

In Esther Solomonova, the good man recognises the good woman.

But is Anna Anderson Anastasia? Other books have been written about her, arguing the toss one way or the other. And that doubt remains in this book right till the last pages. I have no intention of revealing the stunning ending, though I must say there are clues in the earlier chapters I should have noticed. Look for those clues, but don’t cheat and go peering at the back of the book – you will ruin the story for yourself!

I must also say that when I picked up this book I knew it would be well written, but I didn’t expect it to be as good as the wonderful Adelia books. In fact it is even better. It is one of the half-dozen or so best historical novels I have ever read. I only wish the author, Ariana Franklin (pen-name of Diana Morgan) was alive to hear me say that. And to write more books like it. She will be greatly missed.

A Glance at the Poetry of EMILY DICKINSON

I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us – don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know!

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

This “nobody”, this voluntary recluse, who chose loneliness (perhaps after her one love, a married protestant minister, moved thousands of miles away, to San Francisco), preferred to avoid people who “talk of hallowed things aloud, and embarrass my dog“.

It might be lonelier
Without the loneliness …

It probably would. Though perhaps at times she regretted it:

This is my letter to the world
That never wrote to me …

In Hunger, she speaks of “persons at the windows“, seeing herself as an outsider, hungry, looking in – but preferring hunger, although sometimes she may dream of going back:

My business? Just a life I led …

But who can go back? Mostly now she looks beyond the present. In an early poem, she writes:

Who has not found the heaven below
Will fail of it above …

Did she find heaven below? Perhaps not in her immediate surroundings, but she shows the mystical, pantheistic tendencies (we find the same in Blake, for instance, and Wordsworth) of one who does indeed find heaven here in this universe.

My river runs to thee:
Blue sea, wilt welcome me?

But when I think of Emily Dickinson, the first thing that comes to my mind is the odd, outstanding, perfect line, the sort of line that truly does make one sigh and say “That is poetry”. Lines such as:

I like a look of agony,
Because I know it’s true …

Or this two-line description of a man:

A face devoid of love or grace,
A hateful, hard, successful face …

Or this, on the scientific doubting Thomas:

Split the lark, and you’ll find the music …

Or these, on Death:

I heard a fly buzz when I died

The blond assassin passes on,
The sun proceeds unmoved

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me …

Or this, from the poem Charlotte Bronte’s Grave:

Oh, what an afternoon for heaven,
When ‘Bronte’ entered there! …

Oh, what an afternoon for heaven when ‘Dickinson’ entered there!

 

LINES FROM NO-MAN’S-LAND by Michael Daugherty (Book Review)

This collection of fifty or so poems is actually made up of three smaller collections. The first, “Once Upon a Time Please”, contains only three poems I would want to return to again and again. “Berlin 29/1/33”, “Both Sides”, and this one:

ANYONE’S

In one room of a damned metropolis
a lonely madman works on a plan.

In an all-night corner coffee bar
a statistic prays for one last fix.

Under frozen branches in black park
pale fingers fumble with elastic.

Twelve inches away from the late-night news
a myopic spinster weeps in colour.

Someone somewhere begins a letter
to anyone’s silent son or daughter.

The third collection, “Lines from No Man’s Land”, seems to be about a failed marriage. It is simply a poet whingeing, therapeutic writing, and probably better left unpublished.

However – and I do hope you are still with me, for this is a big however – the second collection, “Love Should Be”, is a series of gems in which the poet sees and feels and notes in perfectly crafted lines what others see but lack the imagination to feel or the will, or the skill, to note. As I say, they are all gems, but I must draw attention to “Do You Need Love?”, and to “Escape”

ESCAPE

They found him eventually, of course:
face down in a stinking ditch, hidden by
bracken and gorse and bramble. After more

than thirty barred and bolted years, a dim
number became a public name, four terse
lines in the local paper conceding

him existence posthumously. I’m glad
he died outside, pleased he at least clawed back
that week to himself, that one lousy week

in an antiseptic lifetime, defied
those grim samaritans with needles full
of reason, eluded their muscular

compassion, electric understanding.
Yes, they found him in the end, the sick one,
the freak, the mad thief who stole one whole week

and spent it all. I see sane eyes above
neat uniforms beside that rotting ditch,
hear thoughts in trained minds click like rusted locks. 

And finally, my own personal favourite from this whole collection, a six-star poem if ever there was one, Wheat Field With Crows (for Vincent and too many others)” – the Vincent being, of course, Vincent van Gogh. It is perfect.

DREAM PLAY (by Dorothy Nimmo)

I know there’s something I must do today.
It’s half an hour before curtain rise,
what is my part in this, and what’s the play?
There is a smell of greasepaint, dust and size.

It’s half an hour before curtain rise,
this is the dressing-room I know is mine.
There is a smell of greasepaint, dust and size.
For God’s sake tell me, what’s the opening line?

This is the dressing-room I know is mine,
when they begin I’ll recognise my cue.
For God’s sake tell me, what’s the opening line?
Who am I? What am I supposed to do?

When the begin I’ll recognise my cue.
You’re on! they whisper and I face the light.
Who am I? What am I supposed to do?
Forgive me, mother. Have I got that right?

You’re on! they whisper and I face the light.
and say the line that they expect from me:
Forgive me, mother. Have I got that right?
Was it the daughter that I had to be?

I say the line that they expect from me.
My voice is strangled. I’m awake. I shout
I know there’s something I must do today
and I can’t do it. You must write me out.

My voice is strangled. I’m awake. I shout
I know there’s something I must do today
and I can’t do it. You must write me out.
It’s not my part and this is not my play.