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.
Long before I visited Brest last week, I had heard about the fortress in that town and what happened there on the early morning of June 22, 1941.
Brest (not to be confused with the coastal French town of the same name) is in the far western extremity of today’s Belarus. In 1941, it was on the western frontier of the USSR. On that fateful morning, Nazi Germany launched Operation Barbarossa against the Soviets. And Brest Fortress was one of the first targets of the assault. The Soviet soldiers garrisoned in the fortress put up a stubborn defense against the much superior German force. Soon they became a symbol of Soviet resistance.
That much everyone can agree. But the full story of Brest Fortress is much more complicated and disputed than official Soviet and Belarusian accounts would have it. That in turn made me think about another war story that I grew up hearing about.
There is nothing new under the sun. Even so, one reels with the shock of recognition when finding clear shadows of today in the pages of ancient history.
I’ve been fairly immersed lately in the Warring States period (475—221 BC) of Chinese history lately. That period and the Spring and Autumn era immediately preceding it (771—476 BC) were times of division for China. First there were five kingdoms vying for supremacy, and then one of the five split into three, leaving seven powers to fight as “Warring States.”
According to many historians, precisely because of division, these were also times of great intellectual ferment, so that these should really be considered China’s golden age. (This is a serious if surprising theory in Chinese historiography, that essentially this civilization has been in inexorable decline since 221 BC in a kind of long twilight.)
If you were waiting on the edge of your seat for my next blog post (ha!) but found none the last couple of weeks, here is why: I have been in Kazakhstan, where my blogging platform is blocked.
Yes, really. Turkey blocks Wikipedia. China blocks Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Youtube and Google. Kazakhstan blocks personal blogs.
Since 1990, when the USSR was coming apart, Nursultan Nazarbayev has been the man in charge in Kazakhstan. In 1997, he moved the seat of government from the traditional center of Kazakh life, Almaty, to the former lonely outpost in the steppes, Astana. Upon his nominal resignation from the presidency in March of this year, the Kazakh government renamed Astana after him: Nursultan. I was hard-pressed, however, to find any Kazakh outside of the airport who referred to the city by that new name.
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.
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."