Reading: Ayize Jama-Everett — The Entropy of Bones

In the previous instalment, the protagonists hitch a ride across the Atlantic on a boat with a dead woman. She’s an aside in the main story, but in The Entropy of Bones, it’s all about her. Chabi, half-black, half-Mongolian, mute, living on a boat and training her teens away in various occult martial arts practices under the tutelage of Narayana, who’s turned up in the previous two books and is the kind of entropic person who would altruistically build orphanages only to see them all burn down, children inside (yup, that’s how Ayize Jama-Everett describes him).

Martial art girl fighting her way into and through life as irresistible force, absent father, problem mother, street tough and walls all round. I like Jama-Everett’s world, writing, imagination—duh, obviously, I’ve just read all three of his books and got through this one between Friday night and Saturday morning (with sleep)—and taking the Liminal War series off away from Taggert, his daughter, that story line and axis of Morocco to London via Marseille, to a distinctly minor character in the second book and building a whole new line from her, that’s good story-telling.

Martial art girl, etc yeah, that’s a bit of a cliché. The most recent I’ve read of that stereotrope is Tricia Sullivan’s Shadowboxer, and both indulge in and suffer from the endless descriptions of fighting, training, and corporeality, the body as a thing that only becomes true when it surmounts technique and training and finds its natural movement. There’s a shit tonne of essentialist problems in that model, as much as it is a fact—a fact that derives from the simple physicality of human bodies, how joints can articulate, muscles contract and release, nerves hold conversations, all the mess of having a body; and you can’t move outside your body without breaking it so, yeah, ‘natural’ movement—that fact doesn’t necessarily correlate to a truth. The truth being postulated is that of the authentic body and self, like Martha fucking Graham saying, “The body doesn’t lie” (yeah dunno if she said that or if it’s been corrupted from “Movement never lies” but much the same), or Star fucking Wars and “Use the Force, Luke” it’s an asshole full of orientalist shit.

And ’cos the protagonist always has to find the passive way, not be the irresistible force, be like wind or grass, which sure, is a legitimate way of fighting, Aikido, Tai Qi others work from these principles, but hitting shit until it breaks is also no less natural movement and authentic self (if we’re gonna talk in those terms), and the unspoken statement here is Chabi (or whoever else) is broken, incomplete, inauthentic until they find this ‘true’ technique-less movement. As someone who’s spent close to two decades training and suffering from the pervasiveness of that bullshit, I think I can say fuck off, and also, drop your essentialism and orientalism, it’s fucked up and it’s like you don’t even realise.

Otherwise, The Entropy of Bones is pretty bloody good. It’s not going to be book of the year—thinking there isn’t going to be a fiction one this year—partially for the above, partially for the stereotrope of ‘tough martial art chick grows up when irresistible force hits immoveable object’, partially for Jama-Everett’s need to mention one character in particular is gay when he never labels any of the others as hetero except for through their actions (a bit like Sullivan’s really awful attempt at a trans/kathoey/wtf?Idunno character), so it’s like he went through a checklist of tokens and … yeah, I’m as cynical as fuck about this stuff (no, I’m totally down with Taggert calling people “Faggot,” that’s the person he is) … partially cos there’s a darkness in these books that—I mean you can’t call any of the protagonists heroes or necessarily good people given what they do, but it’s not that darkness, it’s something underlying that, like a pessimism in the writing where everything is a rearguard action, like Anna Kavan’s Ice, brilliant book but God you come out the other side feeling hopeless and in need of a shot of heroin.

Like I said of the other Liminal books, read this if you love China Miéville (especially his stuff like Kraken, and Un Lun Dun) or Saladin Ahmed, or you’re looking for a world that isn’t full of hero white people.

Reading: Sally Hovey Wriggins — Xuanzang: A Buddhist Pilgrim on the Silk Road

One of the first books I ever read on the Silk Road (Roads, Routes), was a biography of a wandering Buddhist, which I barely understood at the time, and forgot the title almost immediately. I’ve been hoping I’d find it again through a process of random elimination by reading all academic-ish books on Tang Dynasty Buddhist pilgrims in Central Asia. So far, my approach has failed.

Sally Hovey Wriggins’ Xuanzang: A Buddhist Pilgrim on the Silk Road at least indicates whoever it was, they weren’t Xuanzang. Also in one of those pleasant surprises I often get when a book arrives, it isn’t heavy academia. It’s larger, almost square, a quick read, and heavily illustrated.

Xuanzang stole out of China proper around the same time Hild (she of Nicole Griffith’s excellent novel) was caught up in the conversion of England to Christianity. I’ve only recently started reading European mediæval history (let’s say, 600-1400 CE), and this simultaneous reading alongside China and Central Asian history (I’ve yet to properly read on the Middle East in this era) is the most inspiring and fascinating I’ve had since my first filling in of that vast blankness between Japan and Europe. More popularly, Xuanzang became the character in Journey to the West, adapted in one version for television as Monkey Magic, beloved of crusty ravers the world over.

I’ve forgotten where I first saw Wriggins’ book mentioned, but I think it was on Tang Dynasty Times in 2009, when there was a piece on the Buddhist statues at Bamiyan which the Taliban blew up. (The 2013 post, how should we think about bamiyan? (巴米扬) has some of the original, and quite a bit more.) It’s been on my To Buy List for that long. (There’s usually about 100 books on that list. I periodically trim it to maintain the pretence of reasonableness.)

As much as I try for impartiality while atheistically regarding religions, when reading about Buddhism in Central Asia, I can’t help but wish the ebb and flow of religions in this period had been reversed, and it was to Buddhism that the Islamic and Semitic regions had converted to rather than the other way.


Pergamonmuseum — Museum für Islamische Kunst

Wednesday is not Museum Sunday. Nonetheless, having spent Sunday with Daniel and David, avoiding all museum visits (though plenty of talking thereof), today was the first day I had time, and having been entirely absent from museums since before Zürich, today it was. The Pergamonmuseum is one of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, so I got to use my Classic Plus Jahreskarte for the first time. Sadly no queues to jump, but the attendants seem more than usually smiley when I waved it in their presence.

I’ve been to a couple of museums with Dasniya; mostly though I go alone. Today was an exception being accompanied by David and his very own Jahreskarte. We met at the Ishtar Gate of Babylon, which is a perfect précis of this museum: colossal archaeological ruins dissected and transported to Berlin during the golden age of colonial pilfering. It’s magnificent, as are many of the pieces in the museum, not a few wouldn’t have survived the 20th century were it not for that museum-establishing period when they were acquired — some didn’t anyway, destroyed or looted at the end of World War 2 — either way, a museum visit for me is often coloured by this unease and tension surrounding the origins of the exhibits, and the Pergamonmuseum more so than most.

No plans to see the whole museum though; this is one of those behemoths like Gemaldegalerie which butchers the viewer with size and quantity. I was here for the special exhibition of Indian miniatures, Genuss und Rausch. Wein, Tabak und Drogen in indischen Malereien. Eine Ausstellung im Buchkunstkabinett, and imagined if I had enough time, I’d see the Museum für Islamische Kunst. The miniatures appropriately took up two small rooms, with around thirty works from the 16th to 19th centuries, all of men and women drinking and smoking, wine and other alcohol, tobaco, hashish, opium. They are uniformly beautiful, and one of my favourite art forms (how could I resist the group high on opium and hunting rats?). Sadly they suffered from two museum-wide annoyances.

The audio guide, while comprehensive for the works that did have an accompaniment, was sparse to the point where whole series of rooms were absent and none for the miniatures (or did I miss something obvious?). Most of the works had no more than a description and date, with no way of locating the item meaningfully within a temporal, geographic, or cultural context, and with the preponderance of archaeological megafauna getting the audio attention, virtually all the small works, ceramics, jewellery, artefacts of daily life went past in silence.

Then there was the light. Works behind glass lost in a glare of reflection; glazed ceramics with harsh top-lighting blowing out the details in more reflected glare; other works completely unlit or dim to the point of obscurity, or in the case of a beautiful shadow puppet a hideous combination of the two. The Gemaldegalerie also suffered from this but here it reached a new level of horribleness.

Finished with the miniatures then, it was back through the carpets rooms, around the corner, past the Astrolabe, and back to the 7th century city of Samarra. Many rooms later, I fell into the small part of the wall of Qasr Mshatta, massive, more than 30 metres long and 5 high, it’s only a very small part of the original which formed a square 144 metres a side and reached more than 20 metres high in places. Each section is a repeating pattern of a zig-zag line with a rosette in each triangle, and each section is uniquely carved with vines, leaves, flowers, animals. Preceding this in other rooms, exquisite and delicate glassware that somehow managed to survive centuries unharmed, plates and bowls glazed with arabic calligraphy like abstract, minimal line work, vast prayer alcoves, everywhere the words, “lā ʾilāha ʾil ʾāllāh, muḥammadun rasūlu-llāh.” Past the Mshatta and back through the miniatures (as usual, not performing correct museum wandering), and arriving at carpets. From kilim prayer rugs to massive, wall-covering tapestry-resembling works of geometric and botanic repetition. More ceramics also. I realised I photograph the objects I intent to steal. The carpets especially; I’ve wanted to have one of those huge ones composed of large blocks of colour like the prayer rugs for my room, but suspect I’ll only ever enjoy them in a museum. Finally to the Aleppo-Zimmer, too big for me to purloin, but to spend a night there at the start of the 17th century …

All of which is a single floor of the Pergamonmuseum, and but one of the several on Museuminsel. I’m not sure whether to see the last third of Gemaldegalerie next or continue here, or perhaps suffer paralysis at the vastness of museums in Berlin.

Reading: Charles King – The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus

The space between where China is squeezed out into the ocean between Japan and Philippines to the east and Europe to the west – particularly that mysterious place north of the Himalayas was once a blank for me on any map. I had no idea what countries were there, though had heard of the Gobi, and other seductive, beguiling, antique places of the Orient. Thanks to a chapter from Deleuze, I embarked on a reading spree of the history of the Steppe, Central Asia, China, the ~stans, all that, the geology of Baltistan, high-altitude farming in Wakhan, so so very much of China – more than a lifetime could be given to just one province (Guangdong, for example).

In these years since I first began reading, more than fifteen, though with a long pause after I graduated until I suppose around the time of that stale-smoke tainted copy of Louis Dupree’s Afghanistan in 2008, my reading has often been erratic over whatever topic has snagged me, countered by a ‘filling-in-the-gaps’ process of which I seem to be in at the moment.

First, Iran. Afsaneh Najmabadi’s Women with Mustaches and Men Without Beards, which is going to be one of my books of the year, that is introducing me to Iran, a country I know not so much about as most of my encounters are either mediated by Afghanistan or via millennia-old history. And from there, a chance remark by languagehat in the comments led me to Charles King’s The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus. About which I can say not much except he speaks highly of the author. Elsewhere I’ve seen mixed opinions, so I am approaching this as a book that might inform me of the author as much as the subject.

Still, the Caucasus. Besides the strife of the last decades – much like Afghanistan in terms of the majority of what’s written on the region – I know very little about this mountainous finger of land splitting Black from Caspian Seas. I did once read a piece on enclaves and exclaves in the Caucasus … Consider this the beginning of a new education.

Sunday Kunst

Yesterday I took myself off south-west on a journey I have had far too much time to do before now yet have never done so. Dahlem Museen has one of the wonders of Central Asia, depending on how one looks at it, pillaged from Xinjiang and other ~stans, or saved from the Cultural Revolution, or well, yes saved from that but even before destroyed in the Second World War. And even before all that, some time when Islamic zealots were being rigorous in raining righteous vengeance down on idolatry (i.e. around a millennium before the Taliban at Bamiyan), most of the faces of Buddha were methodically bashed out.

So of what’s left, besides what Auriel Stein picked up for the British Museum and other Great Game ethnologists in Paris and Beijing, the Grünwendel and LeCoq purloinments ending up in Berlin comprise one of the largest collections of Central Asian, Silk Route, and Buddhist art in the world. Mmm, yes, why I have waited four years to drag myself half and hour to Dahlem is a mystery.

Maybe because the exhibition halls are so vast and many. I spent five hours there yesterday and barely passed over the contents of two of the halls, of which there are around eighteen. I had to take a pause mid-way also, before climbing the stairs for the Chinese collections of red lacquer, ceramics, tea ceremony objects, purposefully avoiding anything not absolutely Central Asian or Chinese (besides some Japanese stuff), just to be able to be thrown out at closing having seen at least some of what I went there for.

And then to the Konzerthaus, picking up Dasniya fortuitously in the U-Bahn, to see the Kammerorchester Berlin and our friend and Contrabass player Jochen work their way through 90 minutes of Bach, Telemann, and Vivaldi.

And somehow this beautiful Bodhisattva Guanyin of all the masses of heartrendingly beautiful art quite grabbed me. And this tea ceremony water pot also.

Reading … A 5th Anniversary

And … here we go again. Another year finishing arbitrarily in mid-ish-October marking approximately an anniversary of when I first decided to blab about whatever I happened to be reading, with the caveat that no, no writing about what I was reading would take place as that would subtract from my personal enjoyment. Naturally that led to me writing on everything I read, and it seems reading more.

A grand total (of which I shall claim no accuracy) of 53 books variously inhaled, ingested, munched on, fallen asleep under, split food and drink upon, folded corners of, stuffed in bags, avoided doing proper (or any) work in preference for, broken the spines of, laughed at (a lot), left unfinished (only the worst or most difficult; the latter inevitably to be advanced into the finished pile because they look at me so mournfully from my shelves), caught myself daydreaming about, raced home with extra speed just because I knew they were waiting, cursed for unforgivably shoddy proofreading, read again, daydreamed about reading again again, smiled at fondly when they catch my eye each spine as distinctive as a friend, sat on my window ledge warmed by both book and sun, breathed the scent of their pages new and old along with the feel and weight of each, cringed with embarrassment at the worst covers and for the best, they lie in my mind inextricable from the words contained, filled one and an half more shelves with, oh yes, a year of books.

So, to the books:

Hmm, oh! wow, oh yeah …, haha, wow, again wow, mhmm, yup, oh yes that was good, uh that one was tough, eeerrrr …yes, oh god no, bloody indeed, eeeee!, meh, hmm was ok, uuh another tough one, Shanghai!, hmmm…, good title but, … oh god awful, oh god! amazing!, ja not quite his best, ah train ride from Brussels, well that was a book, hmm ok, hmm not so ok, ja pretty good, wow! just utterly wow! oh droll, yes, uhhh no.

There were a few horrible experiences in there, and a few more perturbing because ah, well, I got to the end and felt nothing, but I’d rather dwell this year on the ones, those ones, above, with the exclamation marks after (not you, H.P., that eeeee! is for you, and you gave me nightmares), those sublime moments that … well, maybe to say I know of some books which have made readers of my friends in the past, and there are a couple in the last year — I’m not including re-reads, because that would be cheating, but even were I to do so, well considering one of the new ones got itself re-read almost immediately — oh but they are brilliant. Beautiful, entrancing, good covers too, and one of them even is almost as perfect as  Feersum Endjinn which for me is irrationally my favourite book.

So, there are three, but one extra must be mentioned even though I find it problematic in parts and feel that my dim-wittedness has been overwhelmed by its oratory, that quite possibly it contains work of sophistry, even though, even though I think equally it’s absolutely critical reading, and it reminded me clearly why, if I must subscribe to a system or label it would be and has long been, ‘anarchist’, and as we are dragged ever further into a totalitarianism by politicians willingly in the thrall of bankers and corporations given the status of personhood, while we, goaded with barbs of austerity, entirely without a meaningful social, economic, or political alternative and losing incrementally our human rights as a person, we would do bloody well to read David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years, and start behaving as is appropriate for one whose neck is fast in the noose.

I’m not sure how I can go from that to writing about science-fiction, though perhaps that one of the authors is a Marxist soothes the transition somewhat. I’ll stick with non-fiction first though.

And my non-fiction book of the year is Annemarie Schwarzenbach – All the Roads are Open: The Afghan Journey (trans. Isabel Fargo Cole), which I read earlier this year and so my memory of it is one of cumulative memories, but still, Schwarzenbach has only now been translated into english and she is a very important addition to writing on Central Asia during the late-interwar years. I’ve read a small bit of her in German, and even from that felt this translation was faithful to the feeling of the text as well as the content, and given that the cover art, binding and general presentation is all-round very attractive (and yes, these things matter), well what more do you want?.

I’ve also has the misfortune to read the work of her English travel companion, and other English language writers both female and male from this period, and she puts them to shame. Even with a drug addiction she has an empathy and awareness for the land and people through which she moves which I’ve seldom found in other writers (Vita Sackville-West and Ella Maillart I’m definitely looking at you).

Yes, so, unlike Debt, the audience for 1930s Central Asian and Afghanistan reportage is quite slim, but, ah Annemarie, she deserves to be read. And the story of how she came to be translated from German to English by way of India is one that also deserves to be told.

And the fiction.

Ok, science-fiction.

China Miéville! Bloody hell! What an absolute stunner of a book. I mean, come on, I’ve read everything he’s written (fiction-wise, with the exception of some short stories), and Un Lun Dun was my book of the year last year, Kraken the year before, while Embassytown came pretty close also and he just gets better and better. Railsea was so good, so caught me in its beautiful story that I read it again two months after the first whizz through.

And yes, it’s the slightly odd pre-ending with the devolved bureaucrats that stuck in my maw both times, and I somehow understand in the context of what is nominally a children’s book (or ‘young adult’s’ whatever the fuck that is), that perhaps if this was of the epic scale of either Embassytown or The Scar this scene likely wouldn’t be there … and doesn’t he have a train fixation?

Really, this is the first book that’s even come more than passingly close to Iain M. Banks’ Feersum Endjinn, which for some reason I adore on a cellular level, and above all others I’ve read, which may be in all this writing on books I’ve read the one I compare each new one to and find even at the most sublime, wanting. Yes, Railsea is also wanting, but only by a tiny, tiny, thin sliver of a degree.

And so on to the surprise of the year, the one that oh so nearly toppled Railsea.

Strange to think that while it so nearly accomplished this, I can’t really place it beside Feersum Endjinn and make a comparison (and so I hull my above comparison theory quite entirely). Jo Walton’s Among Others. It’s more of a love letter to every public library, every second-hand bookshop, every book club that really cared about books and reading, and yes, science-fiction, a series of one-liner remarks of ’60s and ’70s sci-fi (and I, Claudius), and then some magic.

Ah, that last word. Tricky. Me and fantasy (which I find myself inadvertently reading a little too often), is like me and crappy science-fiction. And yet here, for once thankfully no castles and monarchies (though some eccentric wealthy British types), and the elves or fairies often resemble animated forest mulch, and spoke like it too.

It sounds like I’m not doing it justice next to Railsea, but to say it’s been in my head just as much, it’s also a beautiful, funny, dark story, completely different from the other, I’ll surely read it again, and the two are just not possible to compare, yet I do, and I can’t think about one without thinking about the other.

That’s it. Books finished (a couple unfinished). Many deserving a mention (some deserving ignominious burial). More books already begun, more still waiting to be collected. More reading.

Reading: Vita Sackville-West — Twelve Days in Persia

I don’t have much in particular to say about Twelve Days in Persia: Across the Mountains with the Bakhtiari Tribe, nor about Vita Sackville-West. This was one of the books recommended to me by Lucy, who is translating Annamarie Schwarzenbach, during talking about Iran and Central Asia.

Lately my interest has moved slightly from Afghanistan, though naturally still swirling around Central Asia (in addition to all things China and Canton), and I’ve had a curiosity to wonder what I’m missing about Iran. I have read through the region many times, as I’ve traversed the Silk Route, or in various other works of the region, yet never given it the specific attention I’ve devoted to, say, Afghanistan. Though I’m loathe to take on another country and all its history in the same way as I have that land-locked place, Iran is somewhere I’d like to travel to.

So, Vita then. I was never especially fond of her writing, and have her engraved in my memory as one of those early-20th century feminist writers I was supposed to love, yet found a bit pathetic and earnest. It has been a long time though since I was obliged to read those writers, so perhaps I’ll find something I can’t resist and go on a Vita trip.

Reading: Ella Maillart — The Cruel Way

The first of my new pile of books, though i haven’t finished the last lot yet (some shall dwell in my reading stump for quite some time, I suspect, and one likely shall be read in the furthest-from orthodox manner possible; no starting at the start and finishing at the over end.

This one, Ella K. Maillart’s The Cruel Way, came to me from a conversation with Lucy who has been translating some of Annamarie Schwarzenbach, whom I met on the Pförtner bus with Isabel, translator of All the Roads are Open, currently near the top of my list for best non-fiction of the year. They both fielded me that afternoon with the names of several authors who reside at the intersection of a number of sets I have been distracted by for some time: women authors, writing on Afghanistan and Central Asia, in the (broad) subjects of anthropology and history.

I promptly forgot the names, though knew I’d get around to remembering soon enough, and thankfully Lucy scribbled them down for me. To Saint George’s!

When Annamarie travelled to Afghanistan overland by car in the second half of 1939, she did so with the companionship of another writer, Ella Maillart. For both of them, the journey resulted in a book, though until this year, Annamarie hadn’t been translated to english. Ella, on the other hand, was in english since 1947, with one peculiarity: there is no mention of Annamarie Schwarzenbach.

Ella travels with Christina. The one photo of her is from a distance, head down over the campsite, so as to be unrecognizable. Despite this (at the insistence of Annamarie’s mother), there is little or no disguising of whom she travelled with, though this does make for a somewhat sombre reading, knowing full well who Christina is, and that her identity is erased by her own mother in a perverse desire for familial respectability.

It is a rare pleasure to read two highly accomplished writers documenting the same journey; to see the same experiences through the eyes of each. Annamarie writes with such a sparse, poetic, lyrical style as to be a novelist, and very few fiction authors I have read can seduce in telling a story more than she. Ella is somewhat the opposite; a travel writer who is romantic almost becoming saccharine. Nonetheless not to say she is a poor writer, and being a couple of chapters in (arriving at Sophia), she recalls for me the best of the writers of who ventured into Central Asia in a manner unimaginable now.