Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
I should have read the Prose Edda before I went to Iceland, but I didn’t. Well, better late than never.
Despite its small size and population, Iceland has served as the keeper of memories of the Nordic/Germanic peoples. Around 1220, the Icelandic poet, lawyer, and politician Snorri Sturluson wrote the Prose Edda, which serves as a compilation of Norse mythology and culture that were threatened with being forgotten with the advent of Christianity. Indeed, one of Snorri’s motivations for writing was to explain a number of “kenningar” or periphrasis that appear in traditional poetry that drew on mythology, which future generations of Norsemen might no longer understand.
At one point, for example, Snorri writes:
How shall gold be named? It may be called Aegir’s fire; the needles of Glaser; Sif’s hair; Fulla’s head-gear; Freyja’s tears; the chatter, talk or word of the giants; Draupnir’s drop; Draupnir’s rain or shower; Freyja’s eyes; the otter-ransom, or the stroke-ransom, of the Aesir; the seed of Fyrisvold; Holgi’s how-roof; the fire of all waters and of the hands; or the stone, rock or gleam of the hand.
Then Snorri proceeds to tell the story behind each kenning.
On my second visit to Latvia recently, I was introduced to the Latvian national epic, Lāčplēsis. Written by Andrejs Pumpurs in the late-19th century, the epic poem puts together traditional legends about its eponymous hero, whose name in Latvian means “the bear-slayer.”
I claim no particular knowledge about Latvian history and culture. But what strikes me about Lāčplēsis and to some extent Latvia itself is the sense of contradiction. One contradiction that has fascinated me is linguistic: the Latvian language and its sibling Lithuanian are the two living languages most closely related to Proto-Indo-European. Listen to a Lithuanian or a Latvian speak, and you are hearing the best modern approximation of what the distant pre-historic ancestors of Europeans (and Indians and Iranians and others) might have sounded like thousands of years ago. Yet despite its antiquity, the Latvian language was not attested in written sources until the 16th century.
So the tale of Lāčplēsis strikes me with its contradictions. “The Bear-Slayer” is so-called because as a young man, he killed a bear by tearing apart its jaw with his bare hands. But it turns out that in reality Lāčplēsis is half-man and half-bear, his mother having been a bear. And although Lāčplēsis has mostly human features, his ears are those of a bear. In fact, Lāčplēsis derives his great strength from those ears, so that if an enemy cuts them off, then he loses his strength.
I have spent enough time in Varna by now that I can hardly get away without mentioning its connection to my pet interest: John Hunyadi.
Faithful readers of this blog may recall my arguably odd interest in this medieval Hungarian nobleman, Hunyadi János to the Hungarians and Ioan de Hunedoara to the Romanians. In 1456 at Belgrade, he led an alliance of European armies to victory over the Ottoman Turks, halting Ottoman advance into Europe for a century.
If Hunyadi’s life were a Hollywood feature, Belgrade would constitute act 3, the hero’s final triumph and apotheosis. Varna, on the other hand, would happen at the end of act 2, his greatest defeat and the nadir of his career. Today Varna is a mid-sized semi-resort town on the Black Sea coast where Bulgarians and Russians and other Europeans and, yes, Turks, like to come to relax. But like so many places in Europe, it is also the site of much tortuous history.
I was recently reminded of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Maybe it was because Game of Thrones ended, and somehow I started comparing the two. And frankly, A Song of Ice and Fire doesn’t hold a candle to the level of intrigue and the vast and vivid cast of characters in Three Kingdoms.
Since its composition in the 14th century, Three Kingdoms has always been counted among “the Four Astonishing Books,” the most significant works of prose fiction ever produced in the language. The others are the Proustian Dream of the Red Chamber; the picaresque Journey to the West; and The Water Margins, a kind of Western featuring outlaws like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, only there are 108 desperadoes, not two.
The Western work that has always struck me the most direct parallel of Three Kingdoms, however, is not A Song of Ice and Fire. It is Homer’s Iliad.
Last year in Athens, I came upon the tomb stele of Dexileos, an Athenian cavalryman who died in the Corinthian War in 394 B.C. The relief carving showed Dexileos on horseback fighting a Peloponnesian hoplite on foot. The image struck me as obviously similar to the Eastern Orthodox depiction of St. George and other warrior saints, such as St. George on a white horse spearing a dragon and St. Demetrius of Thessaloniki on a red horse striking down an enemy. I posted photos of the stele and an icon of St. George side by side on Facebook, suggesting that one was descended from the other.
Well, I was wrong.
Since I started traveling, I have come to feel as though I have two birthdays. There’s my actual birthday in August, and then there’s my traveler’s birthday, today, July 1, the anniversary of the beginning of my peregrinations. In travel years, today I turn four.
And every year around July 1, I feel as though I should have some profound new insight into the meaning of life. I’m not sure I can deliver on that promise this year. But, for a number of reasons, I have been pondering the role that luck plays in our lives.
First it’s because I recently read Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness. Taleb, the Wall Street trader and essayist who gained celebrity in the wake of the near-collapse of the global economy in 2008, has popularized a number of concepts. One is the “black swan”: an event considered rare and unlikely that nonetheless becomes inevitable given enough time and ultimately has outsized impact. In the same way, if enough monkeys randomly punch keys on typewriters for long enough, eventually one of them will type out Hamlet.
The odor of stale urine, warmed over by the heat of a hundred summers, greeted me like an old friend. The steel poles on the train had the familiar slimy feel to them, courtesy of the hundreds before who had held onto them earlier that day and wherever their hands might have been. An obese man with his pants unzipped and barely held up rudely by a belt ambled by — the first rule of the New York City subway: there is always a crazy person on your train. If you can’t figure out who it is, it’s probably you.
Somewhere in Koreatown, in the shadow of the Empire State Building, it was the night before garbage collection, and the sour smell emanating from the black trash bags gathered into little hills assaulted the nostrils.
It was my first New York City subway station in two years, and it felt like some sort of homecoming.
The past is a foreign country.
What is known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre in English is known in Chinese by just two numbers: 6-4, i.e., June 4. On that day in 1989, after weeks of demonstrations by students across China but particularly in Beijing, the Chinese Communist government called in its army. Hundreds of thousands of troops descended on the capital and fired on the unarmed demonstrators centered on that famous square in the heart of the city, killing hundreds or maybe thousands — the precise number will never be known.
1989 — the year when the fates of two parts of the world diverged. In Germany, the Berlin Wall came down. Throughout Eastern Europe, Communist regimes crumbled in rapid succession. By Christmas 1991, the Soviet Union itself dissolved. But on the other end of Eurasia, the Chinese government not only successfully resisted the tide of democracy but tightened its grip on the levers of power.
Playa del Hombre lay a bit less than halfway between Gran Canaria’s airport and its main city, Las Palmas. So I decided to go there straight from the airport before continuing on to the city.
Doing so, however, meant carrying my luggage on my shoulders while marching under the blinding Canarian sun. From the nearest bus stop on the main road, it was a good 25 minutes on foot to Playa del Hombre. An elderly man with a cane tried to point me in the right direction. A desultory cafe in the corner stood empty and yawning. The roads here weren’t particularly built for pedestrians, and cars whizzed by me angrily. A trio of teenage girls tried to waylay me after I’d barely started. When I pretended that I didn’t understand them, they switched to broken English: “One money,” they cried, “one Euro.”
Playa del Hombre was not a noted destination on Gran Canaria, the most populated of the Canary Islands. It was but a small settlement by the sea of a few streets tracing semi-circles around its eponymous beach of volcanic black sand, populated by low houses painted in warm colors to correspond with the sun. But I was not the first one to come here. Instead I followed a trickle of others who looked much like me, Chinese or Taiwanese visitors who came to see the former home of the famous Chinese/Taiwanese writer Sanmao.
In the past couple of weeks, I saw two of the most popular films in the world released this year. The first one you have all heard of. The second you probably haven’t.
The first film I am referring to is obviously Avengers: Endgame, which has set all manners of records at the box office. Critics have been describing the not-so-secret secret of its success with phrases like “satisfying” and “full circle,” while fans talk about “callbacks” and “Easter eggs.” Both seem to me to be really referring to the French-Bulgarian literary theorist Tzvetan Todorov called “the grammar of narrative.” (Minor spoiler follows.)
Using examples from the Italian classic Decameron, Todorov famously proposed that for a story to be satisfying, it must conform to a certain structure. A sentence must conform to certain grammar to make sense. So it is that without the correct structure, a story feels incoherent, or indeed not much of a story at all but only a series of events.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."