Tag: Berlin

Waiting for the Barbarians in Paris, Berlin, London

Sunday, 15 November, 2015 0 Comments

«la France sera impitoyable à l’égard des barbares» said French President François Hollande in response to the Islamist terror that left 129 people dead in Paris on Friday night. Hollande’s evocation of “the barbarians” makes Waiting for the Barbarians, written by the Alexandrian Greek poet Constantine Cavafy in 1898 and published in Egypt in 1904, seem particularly prescient today.

In a huge square in an unnamed city (Athens? Rome? Constantinople?), the emperor is preparing to present a “scroll” that is “replete with titles” to the designated barbarian leader. Not that the brutal fighter will care. He can take what he wants, anyway, and there will be no negotiations. As Cavafy notes, the barbarians are “bored by rhetoric and public speaking.” Oratory and punditry, laziness and luxury have made the empire cynical and soft and the citizens have lost interest in politics: “What laws can the senators make now? Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.”

Cavafy delays until the last two lines before tossing in the hand grenade. The crowd is, in fact, waiting eagerly for the barbarians: “They were, those people, a kind of solution.”

One can picture a decadent polis, after a lengthy culture war, longing for a radical solution to the empire’s crisis. Cavafy’s bigger point is that barbarians have been at the gates since the dawn of civilization and their presence always poses an existential test for leaders and nations. When the barbarians arrive, when concert-goers and diners are being slaughtered, action is needed. That’s why the supine appeasement Cavafy brilliantly evokes in Waiting for the Barbarians is so loathsome.

Waiting for the Barbarians

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?
     The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn’t anything happening in the senate?
Why do the senators sit there without legislating?

     Because the barbarians are coming today.
     What laws can the senators make now?
     Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.

Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting at the city’s main gate
on his throne, in state, wearing the crown?

     Because the barbarians are coming today
     and the emperor is waiting to receive their leader.
     He has even prepared a scroll to give him,
     replete with titles, with imposing names.

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?

     Because the barbarians are coming today
     and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

Why don’t our distinguished orators come forward as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?

      Because the barbarians are coming today
      and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home so lost in thought?

      Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
      And some who have just returned from the border say
      there are no barbarians any longer.

And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.

Constantine Cavafy (1863 – 1933). Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard


Nabokov on Goddard, and Wilde, and Beckett

Tuesday, 28 April, 2015 0 Comments

Before the anticipation of Mayweather-Pacquiao there was the historical fact of Breitensträter vs. Paolino. The date was 1 December 1925 and the venue was the Sports Palace in Berlin. The fighters were the German Hans Breitensträter and the Basque Paolino Uzcudun. Ringside among the 15,000 spectators was the young Vladimir Nabokov. His account of the bout was published as “Breitensträter–Paolino” on 28 and 29 December in the Latvian émigré journal Slovo. It is filled with delightful observations. This bit on Goddard, and Wilde, and Beckett, the boxers, is especially good:

“I have had the luck to see Smith, and Bombardier Wells, and Goddard, and Wilde, and Beckett, and the miraculous Carpentier who beat Beckett. That fight, which paid the winner five thousand, and the runner-up three thousand pounds, lasted exactly fifty-six seconds, so that someone who had paid twenty pounds for their seat had only enough time to light a cigarette, and when he looked up at the ring, Beckett was already lying on the boards in the touching pose of a sleeping baby.”

When the Times Literary Supplement published the first English translation of Nabokov’s “Breitensträter–Paolino” three years ago, Thomas Karshan, one of the translators, noted, “In our translation we have tried to do justice to Nabokov’s dashes, staccato or metaphysical, his commas, apprehensive or explosive, and his inversions, abstract or gutsy, all so important in a piece devoted to testing how far art can go in formalizing even those parts of life that might seem most resistant — even boxing, even blood and pain. We have also tried to catch those moments, so far from the oracular pronouncements of the opening, in which Nabokov mimics the brusque street-talk of the boxing fan or commentator, mixing his voice with the voices of the crowd — a democratic ventriloquism unique in his work.”


The sounds of Ten Cities

Saturday, 8 November, 2014 0 Comments

Take a generous sampling of electronic music producers and musicians from Europe and Africa, mix the lot together and let simmer for a few months. When you take the lid off, the outcome is delicious global dancefloor in the form of Ten Cities. Blurb: “As a result hip-hop from the squats of Naples, bass music from Bristol, experimental techno from Berlin or jazz-tinged deep-house from Kiev are thrust upon the pumping kuduro of Luanda, the free-thinking crackled electronica of Cairo, afro-jazz from Lagos or the Sheng street-slang of Kenyan rap.”

Ten Cities kicks off with Octa Push, two brothers from Lisbon, who pioneered the Portuguese bass music scene.


Writing and reading Europe

Thursday, 8 May, 2014 0 Comments

Can writers help establish a European identity? Or do authors reinforce borders? Is it possible to have a common European literature without a common language? More than 30 writers from 25 countries will debate these questions today and tomorrow in Berlin at a conference titled Is the European Dream Still Alive? Before they ponder these weighty issues, they might give some thought to what Julio Cortázar, the Argentine novelist and short-story writer, had to say about European writing:

“All European writers are ‘slaves of their baptism,’ if I may paraphrase Rimbaud; like it or not, their writing carries baggage from an immense and almost frightening tradition; they accept that tradition or they fight against it, it inhabits them, it is their familiar and their succubus. Why write, if everything has, in a way, already been said? Gide observed sardonically that since nobody listened, everything has to be said again, yet a suspicion of guilt and superfluity leads the European intellectual to the most extreme refinements of his trade and tools, the only way to avoid paths too much traveled. Thus the enthusiasm that greets novelties, the uproar when a writer has succeeded in giving substance to a new slice of the invisible; merely recall symbolism, surrealism, the ‘nouveau roman’: finally something truly new that neither Ronsard, nor Stendahl , nor Proust imagined. For a moment we can put aside our guilt; even the epigones begin too believe they are doing something new. Afterwards, slowly, they begin to feel European again and each writer still has his albatross around his neck.”


Feather Tongue

Saturday, 19 April, 2014 0 Comments

Didn’t get tickets for Kate Bush at the Apollo in Hammersmith? Lots of other people didn’t, if that’s any consolation. For those seeking solace, there’s always Lyla Foy, who’ll be playing in Chicago tonight and in Kilkenny in May. The young Londoner does not disguise her adoration of Kate Bush in Feather Tongue, which exudes the kind of retro romanticism that made the composer of Wuthering Heights so famous so long ago.


Fack ju EU

Monday, 10 February, 2014 0 Comments

The comedy Fack ju Göthe premiered on 29 October in Munich and by the end of 2013 it had become the first film in six years to sell more than five million tickets in German cinemas. It’s about an ex-con forced to take a job teaching at a school located over the spot where money from a robbery is stashed so that he can dig up the cash. What’s made the film such a hit is the language. Ostensibly, it is the language of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, but it’s actually American Hip-Hop that’s been remixed with German by immigrants from Turkey, the Maghreb, Russia and the Balkans. The result is a pidgin that allows its speakers communicate by dropping articles, mashing up prepositions and disregarding the genitive, the dative and the conjunctive. And central to it all is the word “fuck”, or “fack” as it’s enunciated by those who find \'fək\ difficult to pronounce.

The word was in the mouths of Germans again at the weekend, but this time the establishment was voicing it, thanks to Victoria Nuland, the US Assistant Secretary of State whose F-bomb was secretly recorded and dropped on YouTube (apparently by the Russians). The impact was felt from Berlin to Brussels.

Fack ju EU

Although Ms Nuland could have been more subtle, her analysis is fundamentally correct. This was proved in another Russian-recorded conversation, this time between Helga Schmid, a representative of EU High Commissioner Catherine Ashton, and Jan Tombinski, the EU Ambassador in Ukraine. Snippet:

Helga Schmid: “I just wanted to tell you one more thing in confidence. The Americans are going around and saying we’re too soft, while they’re moving more firmly toward sanctions. […] Well, we’re not soft! We’re about to issue a very strongly worded statement about Bulatov!”

When was the last time that Putin lost sleep because of “a very strongly worded statement”? No wonder Nuland is so contemptuous of these people. Putin has no intention of going down in history as the Russian tyrant who lost the Ukraine and he’s not going to let statement typists stop him, either. He knows that the US and the EU have more power than the Russian Federation does, but he also knows that they don’t have a joint approach to Ukraine. Brussels and Berlin prefer to busy themselves drafting “strongly worded statements” and, as with Syria, the Obama administration keeps sending out signals that confirm Putin in his belief that he can bully the Ukraine without paying a price.

Fack ju EU, indeed. But it’s not just Victoria Nuland who’s saying it.

This just in: Switzerland goes there. It’s said Fack ju EU, too.

Denglisch


The Tyrant Games

Sunday, 9 February, 2014 0 Comments

The Olympic Games have a long and ignominious history as a glossy brochure for evil regimes, from the Nazi Games in Berlin in 1936 to the Communist Games in Moscow in 1980. Now, we have the Putin Winter Games in Sochi, an enormously expensive show that’s an ideal metaphor for the current Russian regime: corrupt, […]

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What if Britain had stayed out?

Friday, 24 January, 2014 0 Comments

That’s the question posed by R.J.W. Evans in “The Greatest Catastrophe the World Has Seen.” His engaging tour d’horizon of the latest World War I books includes belated recognition for Le origini della guerra del 1914 (“The Origins of the War of 1914”) by the Italian politician and journalist Luigi Albertini, which was published in 1942–1943. As Evans notes: “Silenced by the Fascist regime, Albertini immersed himself in all the sources, and added more of his own by arranging interviews with survivors. That lent an immediacy to his wonderfully nuanced presentation of the individuals who actually made (or ducked) the fateful decisions.”

The fateful decisions taken in London were “entrusted to the tentative grasp of the country squire Sir Edward Grey”, who “wobbled both before and after Berlin’s foolhardy démarche, and was determined at least as much by parliamentary frictions and civil disturbance at home.” This “disturbance” included “the ferocious clashes over Ireland’s home-rule legislation.” Grey, does not emerge well from the books reviewed by Evans, but like many of the other players in this drama he was unprepared for what was coming in July 1914. “Communing with nature on his country estate, for he passionately preferred live birds (he was an acknowledged expert in their observation) to the feathers on an archduke’s hat, he had already reached the conclusion that ‘if war breaks out, it will be the greatest catastrophe the world has ever seen.'” And it was.

The Survivors

No doubt they’ll soon get well; the shock and strain
Have caused their stammering, disconnected talk.
Of course they’re ‘longing to go out again,’ —
These boys with old, scared faces, learning to walk.
They’ll soon forget their haunted nights; their cowed
Subjection to the ghosts of friends who died, —
Their dreams that drip with murder; and they’ll be proud
Of glorious war that shatter’d all their pride…
Men who went out to battle, grim and glad;
Children, with eyes that hate you, broken and mad.

Siegfried Sassoon

1914 — 2014: Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, compared the leadership of China to the German monarchy of Wilhelm II ahead of the First World War. Beijing Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang responded by calling the Japanese World War II criminals commemorated at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo “Nazis in the East.”


When happiness is a warm Smith & Wesson

Wednesday, 11 December, 2013 0 Comments

Earlier this year, the German writer Wolfgang Herrndorf asked his friends if they knew someone who knew someone who could get him a revolver. He wasn’t planning to rob a bank or commit a crime of passion. Rather, he intended to fight cancer — his way. Before long, he was the owner of an unregistered .357 Smith & Wesson and he found it to be a thing of considerable beauty. “It possessed such a comprehensively calming effect that it’s unclear to me why the health insurance provider didn’t pay for it,” he wrote in his diary. On 26 August, he left his apartment in Berlin, strolled along the bank of the Hohenzollernkanal, found a seat, put the barrel of the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. He was 48.

Most modern German writing is unreadable. There’s no shortage of material, but it seems that the writers are more interested in whingeing about the “Kapitalismus” that has given them such an enviable standard of living, or they’re occupied with absurdities such as the Occupy movement, or they’re fomenting hatred of Amazon and Google and generally acting the Luddite when it comes to technological progress. All this is preferable to the hard work of writing. The result is an endless stream of turgid polemical tracts misleadingly labelled as novels and memoirs. Wolfgang Herrndorf was the honourable exception to this rule.

His novel Tschick (English: Why We Took the Car) was published in mid-2010 and a year later Sand appeared. The two represented the most exciting and stylish German fiction of recent times. Tschick was published in 27 countries and one million copies were sold in Herrndorf’s homeland. Along with writing novels, Herrndorf posted regularly at his blog Arbeit und Struktur and it was there that the wider world learned of his battle with cancer. After three operations and bouts of radiation treatment and chemotherapy he decided that he’d had enough of modern medicine and requested the revolver. The book of his blog is now destined to be a posthumous bestseller.

Smith & Wesson


Edward Snowden: “Ich bin ein Berliner”

Friday, 1 November, 2013 0 Comments

Stern Once upon a time… Well, July 2008, actually, and the Guardian titled it, “Obama wows Berlin crowd with historic speech.” Reading it today, one cannot help but smile. Jonathan Freedland described it as “a summer gathering of peace, love — and loathing of George Bush.” The madness of crowds, and all that. Freedland reminded readers that “the latest edition of Stern magazine features Obama on the cover, above the line ‘Saviour — or demagogue?'” Ah, fickle media. The current issue of Stern features Obama on the cover, too, but the title is “Der Spitzel“, a German term redolent of a Gestapo-Stasi horror that can only be approximated in English with informer, rate, fink, snitch or stoolie. But back to the Guardian and its treasure trove of mirth. Freedland noted an outbreak of “warmth” when Obama explained his belief in “allies who will listen to each other, who will learn from each other who will, above all, trust each other”. Yeah. Listen.

Were Obama to appear in Berlin now, “The young and the pierced, some with guitars slung over their shoulders” would, no doubt, pelt him with rotten eggs, or worse. The “Love Parade” affection that was paraded back then for the Democratic candidate would now be demonstrated for the data thief Edward Snowden. Today, Hans-Christian Ströbele, a German politician and lawyer, who once defended RAF terrorists, announced that he had met Snowden in Moscow and had invited him to Germany to testify about US intelligence gathering activities. Ströbele is noted for his hatred of America and it would be the ultimate irony of recent trans-Atlantic relations if Snowden, at the behest of Ströbele, and guaranteed exemption from extradition, were to appear at a mass rally in Berlin and declare “Ich bin ein Berliner.” Sounds daft, of course, but 200,000 crazy Germans turned out to hear another American promising “Hope and Change” in July 2008. The madness of crowds.


Angela is on the way

Sunday, 22 September, 2013 0 Comments

Early in her political career, Angela Merkel was underestimated as a potential opponent by her rivals. Given her rather frumpy look, she must lack ambition, they reasoned. But as history shows, Merkel has been well served by appearing staid. She’s the Chancellor, after all, and every one of those well-dressed opponents has been put out […]

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