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The Reading Experience


An occasional blog on beautiful and wise books,  book writing,

book translation, and the reading experience.

Updated: May 20, 2022

Edward Dolnick's The Writing of the Gods: The Race to Decode The Rosetta Stone is one of the best accounts of the decipherment of ancient script ever published. It also contains many factoid gems, the search for which is my chief pleasure in reading. Here is one:

It was the lure of treasure that had drawn Belzoni to Egypt. But he made perhaps his greatest find—and certainly his most spectacular -- only after he crossed paths with another European traveler who was motivated almost solely by curiosity and wanderlust.
That find would lead to the next breakthrough in the deciphering race. Once again, it would involve a collaboration between Belzoni and William Bankes (...).
In the years from about 1810 to 1820, Belzoni and Bankes were among a handful of Europeans dashing back and forth across Egypt in a kind of high-stakes scavenger hunt. The lives of both men changed, and the whole deciphering story veered onto a new track, when they met a tall, bearded, half-starved figure who spun tales of his travels that might have come from The Thousand and One Nights.
Jean Louis Burckhardt was a traveler almost without peer. Swiss-born, he had left Europe in 1809, at age twenty-five. He would never return. He spent his first few years abroad in Syria, where he immersed himself in the study of Arabic. Soon Burckhardt spoke so well that, with the help of a thick beard and a turban and robe, he could pass as a local. As Sheikh Ibrahim ibn Abdullah, he set off to explore the Middle East and Africa, unarmed, unaccompanied, and endlessly curious.
He would become one of the first Westerners to visit Mecca and the first to see Petra, in Jordan. (...) The year 1813 found him deep in the Nubian desert, some seven hundred miles south of Cairo. This was harsh, lawless territory, more than a hundred miles beyond the most remote spot that any of Napoleon’s savants had reached.
Burckhardt was chasing down rumors of an ancient, neglected temple on the banks of the Nile. He found it.
Carved into a cliffside in the forbidding land then called Nubia stood six enormous statues, three on each side of an entranceway that vanished into the rock. (The site is about 170 miles south of present-day Aswan.) For anyone approaching overland, the temple complex was hard to spot until the last moment, but from the river it was impossible to miss. Inside, Burckhardt saw more carvings, painted figures, and countless hieroglyphs.
He explored a bit and then turned to leave. As he clambered back up the cliffs from the river, he happened to glance toward the south. Suddenly he saw four immense statues, far bigger than the colossal statues he had already found. These, too, were carved from the sandstone cliffs, but sand now buried them almost completely.
Burckhardt had nearly missed what would prove to be one of Egypt’s grandest “lost” temples; what he had found first was a kind of secondary, companion temple.
He ran closer. The head and chest of one statue stood above the sand. The next statue in line was almost completely hidden. “Of the other two,” Burckhardt wrote, “the bonnets only appear.”
Those “bonnets,” it would turn out, were crowns; the statues depicted pharaohs—more accurately, one pharaoh four times. Burckhardt climbed his way up to the one statue whose head lay exposed. Here was “a most expressive, youthful countenance, appearing nearer to the Grecian model of beauty” than any other statue in Egypt.
Burckhardt measured the distance from shoulder to shoulder—seven yards. He measured an ear from top to bottom—one yard, four inches. There was no way to tell if the statues showed standing figures or seated ones. If they were standing, Burckhardt guessed, they were sixty-five or seventy feet tall. What was this place?
If only the sand could be cleared away, Burckhardt suggested, “a vast temple would be discovered, to the entrance of which the above colossal figures probably serve as ornaments.”
Burckhardt found Abu Simbel in 1813. Two years later, in the winter of 1815, in Cairo, he and two new acquaintances spent many an evening chattering away excitedly about the fabulous, inaccessible temple that Burckhardt had seen.
They made a conspicuous trio, not least because at the time Europeans in Cairo were rare. The tall, golden-haired man was William Bankes, the wealthy English collector who had found the obelisk at Philae. His huge companion was Belzoni, the strongman-turned-archaeologist who had helped Bankes ship the obelisk home. Both men tended to defer to Burckhardt, the most experienced traveler of the group. Burckhardt spun tales of disguises and beatings and robberies and narrow escapes. But his listeners clamored especially for tales of Abu Simbel. What riches might lie under the sand?

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Updated: May 20, 2022

Tim Harper's Underground Asia: Global Revolutionaries and the Assault on Empire contains lots of fascinating forgotten stories which can surprise and delight even an old Asia hand like me.

Perhaps one of the most delightful to my mind has been that of Shiba Shiro, a gentleman warrior from the defeated side of the Meiji Restoration, who went on to study abroad and write Japan's most important political novel, Kajin no Kigu, usually translated as Encounters with Beautiful Women. This novel, a story of a Japanese traveler meeting beautiful Irish and Spanish women and learning from them about Western Imperialism was translated into Chinese by none other than Liang Qichao, one of the leaders of China's Hundred Days Movement -- the very last serious attempt to reform Qing government before Chinese elites turned against the dynasty.

In this Chinese translation, the book went on to make a great career as a great influencer among all Chinese reading elites of the time, not only Chinese, but also Korean and Vietnamese.

Interestingly, the novel is completely forgotten today.

As Atsuko Sakaki tells it, several things have conspired against Kajin no Kigu, Japan's most famous political novel (think Disraeli), condemning it to oblivion.

Perhaps the most important one was the sea change in the literary language of Japan: as the nation turned away from Kanbun (a form of classical Chinese) and Kanbun Kundoku (“Chinese writing Japanese reading”) to modern vernacular, texts written in the old format became inaccessible to the next generation.

But as high brow literary activity turned from using the old language to using the new, it itself began to change and become more like the literature heretofore written in the vernacular: mainly, popular romances, fairy tales, and racy "men's books." After all, if you are going to write in the vernacular language, you cannot help feeling that, in order to sell, you should provide more of the product which already sells.

(Do you publish on Amazon? Do you feel pressure to write more like those who already publish there?).

Even if, like Natsume Soseki, you are conversant with the old style (kanbun kundoku), when you change your language, you adjust to its register. You feel you have to write to the market rather than shape it.

I imagine this was an important issue in the minds of literary practitioners at the time, and was probably the motivation behind Tsubouchi Shoyo’s influential essay Shosetsu shinzui (The Essence of the Novel, 1885), a piece of literary theory which, in effect, declared that human emotions and social mores are the only suitable concern for any novel. In other words, as we would say today, to be a proper novel, a book must be a piece of chicklit. (I..e. sound like Zola or Trollope): no more political novels, please.

Sadly, I do not read Kanbun with sufficient degree of fluency to read Kajin no Kigu for pleasure. But deathly bored as I am of constantly having to read about love and relationships and heroes saving the world, I would gladly read a political novel for a change. Especially since, as Sakaki tells it, the author of Kajin no Kigu, Shiba Shiro, had a far more nuanced view of the West and Japan than the the authors who came after him.

Most of the foreign exposure of the Japanese authors one reads about (fellows like Natsume or Nagai or Kawabata or Mishima) was extremely shallow -- mainly due to language barrier) ; and their views, as a consequence, tended to focus on creating an imagined, monolithic, heterogeneous view of the "shallow and materialistic West" (as they wanted to see it) in opposition to the "profound and spiritual and fundamentally mysterious Japan" (again) whose essence can only be grasped by natives (of course!) and only via special intuition (and therefore cannot be explained).

(I.e. "we know that we are justified to feel superior, but it is not possible to explain why").

Unlike those puerile efforts, Shiba Shiro's was a serious one: he actually did study abroad, not just dabble: he learned languages, studied at Harvard and received a degree from Wharton.

As my co-reader said, he was an actual person, not a tourist. Tourism, she says, is what one does to see the world and learn nothing in the process.

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Updated: May 20, 2022

Here is a river shot from today's Bankipur. It reminds me of the black-and-white shot of a crumbling peasant shack in Urga: how pitiful the past is when viewed from the present.

Damon Galgut, Arctic Summer

Chapeau, Damon Galgut!

Perhaps no Indian and no European could have written such a rich and insightful account of E. M. Forrester’s first visit to India, one which so deftly avoids both the Eurocentric and the Indocentric temptati0ns and which remains wonderfully undistorted by ideology or grievance or pride.

As a character in Chapter 4 observes, the desires and sufferings of a closet homosexual in Victorian England are trivial. (“Yes, it is, if you only knew it. What you want is to live with a man in a happy homestead. But you don’t know how trivial it is. Marriage is emblematic of modern life. The way men and women are together—it’s a silly business, it has no nobility. I wish you could see that, instead of romanticizing it.”)

And Forrester’s resentment against his beloved Massood (for refusing to become his lover) shows up in all its ugliness — and is a good lesson for all heterosexual men not to encourage what cannot be by offering their homosexual admirers the sop of friendship. (Don't say, "I can't sleep with you but I do love you." Say: "No.")

And not to be surprised when women do the same thing to them in turn.

The India, and the Indians in his book — both native and colonial — are superb. Anyone who knows India, recognizes it immediately.

Chapeau, chapeau. Damon Galgut, you rock.

Damon Galgut, Arctic Summer

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