The Unbearable Lightness of Being – Milan Kundera

Translated from the Czech by Michael Henry Heim.
First published in Czech 1984
First published in English translation 1985

A good story is the one that resist paraphrase. This is one such story. In its barest form it’s a simple story of intense love, sexual infidelity, and political intrigue, but it has such a vast scope that the more one says about it the less it seems. The Prague Spring of 1968 and consequent Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia form the background.

It takes us through the lives of two couples who are trying to find meaning in their lives, who want to cast off the burdens of life to find ‘lightness’. Tomas loves Tereza but can’t stop seeing his mistress, whereas Tereza knows about Tomas’s infidelity yet cannot leave him. Their struggle to find peace with themselves embark them upon a path in which things happen only one; there is no recourse to a second chance. Whatever they do, in the end, they find themselves trapped in the conundrums of life, having to make do with the garish and ugly stuff that life is made of, giving up, finally, all attempts to ‘fix’ themselves. Thus, the book takes a pessimistic view of humanity.

Concerning its style and form, it’s complete opposite to what Flaubert recommended of a writer, that is, the novelist does not exist; what exists is the story. At no point should the novelist poke his nose in to offer his own insights. Kundera argues with this idea when he becomes an ‘intrusive writer’, commenting freely on political climate of the country and drawing upon philosophical propositions through which the story is advanced. For instance, the he starts the novel with a short chapter of Nietzsche’s idea of Eternal Return. Philosophical density may seem overbearing but I think this direct authorial commentary blends smoothly within the narrative and at no point becomes jarring to read.

My rating 4/5.


Essay: “What is it that rattles?” – On the autonomy of ideas

Syed Nomanul Haq

An article published in Dawn newspaper on 24th August 2014 speaks about the exchange of ideas between civilisations over a long period of history. Fantastic educating stuff.

Syed Nomanul Haq is Professor and Adviser of the Social Sciences and Liberal Arts Programme at the IBA, Karachi. He also holds a visiting faculty appointment in Near Eastern Languages and Civilisations at the University of Pennsylvania.

“What is it that rattles?” – On the autonomy of ideas

One ought to be thankful to postmodernists for making us aware of the fact, at once oppressive and liberating, that we live largely in a constructed world — a world that is on most counts ontologically empty.

Before going any further, let me sew a historical patch to this: postmodernism, insofar as it is a particular genre of a complex and rigorous analytical attitude, is not restricted to those who in the standard narrative are called “postmodernists,” living in our own times, and of European provenance. This attitude is to be found in other world literatures too, especially Arabic, Persian, and Urdu literatures; and it lurks about way before the 20th century. It was Shakespeare, not Jacques Derrida, who exclaimed that the best poem lies most; and it was not Michel Foucault, but Ghalib’s mentor Mirza Bedil, who said what seems to be an absurdity — “good poetry has no meaning,” he once wrote, no fixed meaning that is, but a multiplicity of meanings that can even be mutually contradictory.

But back to our constructed world. One recalls that Foucault had demonstrated that many of our contemporary operative notions, concepts, and ideas are manufactured — and that they are manufactured in a workshop of power structures. The modern (better: Victorian) notion of sexuality, for example, is the topic of an extensive Foucauldian work. Drawing a parallel between modern control of criminality and modern control of sexuality, the French postmodernist observes that making the latter, like the former, an object of allegedly scientific discipline, is an act that offers both knowledge and domination of the object. And here we learn something highly intriguing — that this control is two-pronged and reflexive: Foucault shows us that, on the one hand, control is exercised by means of others’ knowledge of individuals. But then, on the other, individuals consider the norms laid down by the sciences of sexuality to be fixed and true, and so they try to conform to these norms. Thus, “they are controlled not only as objects of disciplines but also as self-scrutinising and self-forming subjects.”

Focusing on the subject side of control, we notice a ubiquitous tendency on the part of the present-day public of the formerly colonised societies. This is the tendency to readjust their self-image in order to bring it in conformity with a received narrative of what they are, a narrative that is conceived elsewhere, and which can often be malicious and factually false. Having lost in the colonial process both the linguistic ability and the will to read their own primary sources, this public can easily be lost in confusion exactly where the received narratives are confused.

One manifestation of the tendency to take the artificial for the real is deeming political boundaries as natural boundaries, deeming them forever fixed by virtue of some eternal cosmic law. The “nation-state” political borders of much of the globe, let’s recall, have been drawn and redrawn in the early 20th century in a colonial milieu, often in haste, in a shifting power dynamics, under intense pressures of war, and typically without regard to local cultures and traditions, guided solely by a will to control and dominate. The poet Iqbal once made the divine voice alert us that nature had made the whole world from the very same elements — from the same water and earth. But we, the humans, atomised it into Iran and Tartary and Nubia!

Living in a manufactured world of constructs, we forget something crucial: that what we call “modernity” is a convergence — a convergence in which many peoples and civilisations have participated, despite its European locus. In this historical process the Arabo-Islamic world has loomed large. Indeed, it is not possible to narrate the intellectual or literary history of the Greeks or the Latin West without recourse to Arabic sources. The converse is true too: Arabic intellectual history cannot be told in the absence of Greek and Latin legacy either. In the realm of ideas the boundaries between them break down — and here we see a continuity in world culture, a Greek-Arabic-Latin continuity that falls into perspective only if we heal the malady of confusing the artificial with the real, and thereby free ourselves from Foucauldian controls.

Let me move from this rather long-winded prologue to concrete history. It comes to us as a surprise, for example, that the Arabo-Islamic world (call it “Islamicate” or “Muslim” or even “X”) played a decisive role in the discovery of America; and that European Romance poetry — more specifically Provençal poetry — and the songs of French troubadours have their origins in Hispano-Arabic literature; and that the author of the classic novel Don Quixote, considered to be the greatest European work of fiction, says that his was an Arabic tale translated for him by a Moor, that is, an Arabic-speaking Muslim of the region. I have chosen all of these examples from Muslim Spain, al-Andalus, a cultural milieu that has been given a metaphysical permanence by Washington Irving and Iqbal.

Muslim Spain is in many ways intriguingly unique in world culture. It was here that we see a coming together not only of Europe and Islam, but also the entry of a third decisive element — the New World, America. Note that “all four historical voyages [of Columbus] were conceived, organised, provisioned, launched and ultimately concluded within the triangle comprising Palos, Seville, and Cádiz.” So all of this happened in al-Andalus. But more, there exists a paradox here: Columbus was motivated and animated essentially by a crusading zeal — to take Christianity to the East, destroying the perceived Muslim enemy in the process. Yet, ironically, he depended squarely on Arabo-Islamic geographical knowledge, on Arabic cosmology, cartography, and navigational expertise. J. H. Kramers, a known scholar of Islam, had declared a while ago that “[t]he Islamic geographical theory may claim a share in the discovery of the New World.” And further: Arabic geographical knowledge kept “alive the doctrine of the sphericity of the earth … without which the discovery of America would have been an impossibility.” The story is richer and more complex, but let’s move on to poetry.

It was in Muslim Spain too, some distance away from Damascus and Baghdad and Oxus, that two new genres of Arabic poetry were born. A far cry from Arabic classical verse, these genres embody a delightful deviation from the language, diction, form, and — most intriguingly — the metrical structure of standard Arabic poetics. The standard form is familiar to the readers through its naturalisation into Persian and Urdu poetry — a series of half-verses (misra‘), making up so many she‘rs, of which the first half-verse is blank and the second monorhymes, except for the opening she‘r(s) (matla‘) in which both half-verses rhyme. Further, in the standard poem, all verses are composed in the same meter. Here it is important to note that all classical Arabic poems, and practically all Persian and Urdu poems, are based on quantitative meters, as opposed to stress-based meters of English poetry — quantitative meters whose numeric system was codified by the arithmetician-prosodist Khalil ibn Ahmad as early as the eighth century.

All of this is flouted in the two Hispano-Arabic genres — the muwashshaha, and the zajal. Both these are meant to be sung, both have stanzas that are all set to the same music, carrying a refrain, and both incorporate vernacular diction. The muwashshaha is in classical Arabic, but the final element, two half-verses that are always placed in the mouth of a woman, is normally in the vernacular — it can be in colloquial Arabic or in Romance, or a combination of the two. Zajal, on the other hand, is entirely in the vernacular Arabic dialect with Hispano-Romance words and phrases thrown in here and there.

The rhyming scheme, complex as it happens to be, has nothing to do with the monorhyme of Arabic, Urdu or Persian ghazal or qasida, nor the aa/bb/cc … scheme of the masnavi. But the most riveting thing about the two Andalusi genres is their metrical structure — generally they have no quantitative meter; rather, they embody distortions, mixtures, or truncations of classical Arabic meters to acquire stress-rhythm, close to the stress-syllabic metrics of European poetry. The resounding question is, who has influenced whom? Do we have here an expansion of Arabic metrics and rhythmic structures that is subsequently transmitted to European poetry, or is it the Andalusi espousal of European stress-based meters and poetic styles?

There certainly is to be found a striking parallel between the songs of French troubadours and Hispano-Arabic poetry. Apart from analogous styles, structures, and colloquialisms of the Andalusi tradition, the troubadours also propagated the well-known idea of Courtly Love: the unconditional submission of the lover, the coquetry, sovereignty and unattainability of the beloved, the secrecy of love and the fear of notoriety, the sprouting forth of poetry out of love — all of this is until this day the stuff of Urdu ghazal and needs no elaboration. This Courtly Love has been described as a “comprehensive cultural phenomenon,” running through European literature between the 12th to 14th centuries and informing nearly all major poets and fiction writers of the period — Wolfram von Eschenbach, Dante, Chaucer, and Malroy among them.

Many important contemporary scholars claim that it is the Hispano-Arabic poetry, especially the muwashshaha and the zajal, to which Romance poetics and the magnificent songs of the troubadours owe their birth and constitution. But certainly there are others who have reservations about this claim, arguing that the transmission may well be the other way around, or there may have been an exchange. But does it matter which way the traffic went? The important thing is to carve it in our consciousness that we have here an indelible record of the meeting of cultures. Whatever the constructed entities the Occident and the Orient happen to be, ideas have not recognised these borders. Cultural mores, literary themes, artistic motifs, scientific knowledge — all of these have moved freely without let or hindrance between political divisions. And let’s remember: ideas are not passive entities; no, they have their own autonomy, and they are animated and efficacious like the many arms of the Hindu goddess Durga.

Foucault has made us uncomfortable: we have now become conscious of the fact that there is something wrong with the received narrative that we have of ourselves. There is something rattling underneath this narrative, “What is it that rattles?”

The first citation is from Gary Gutting, ‘Michel Foucault,’ The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2013 Edition); the second is from K. Nebenzahl, quoted by A. Hamdani in his chapter in The Legacy of Muslim Spain, S.K. Jayyusi ed., Leiden, 1992. J. H. Kramers too is quoted by Hamdani.


Chronicle of a Death Foretold – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa.
First published 1981; translated first published 1982

Here is Marquez, the master storyteller, with the best implements of his trade. Say, it’s a story set in early 20th century Columbine town about the impossible and inexplicable murder of a man who is accused of soiling the honour of his best friend’s sister; In effect, it’s a story of an honour killing.

Like other stories of such kind this is not a self-conscious, grandiose, cheesy attempt at rousing public disgust over such crimes, or to label a whole cultural system as backward and barbaric which stories of this nature have a habit of doing.

It stands entirely on its own merit for the wonderful way in which Marquez unfolds the events to narrate the story of the murder – in a journalistic style, linking disparate incidents together to make an intelligible whole – while setting the story within the moral archetype of the time and society in which the event takes place. This objectivity sits at the heart of good writing and that’s what sets Marquez apart from a bevy of other writers expending words on the similar theme.

There’s ambiguity with respect to the victim’s role: Was Santiago Nasar, our protagonist, guilty of soiling his friend’s sister’s honour or not? The story ends and despite many contradictory clues, the reader fails to arrive at a solid conclusion as to the culpability of the murdered. It may be seen as a flaw in the plot, or it may be its strength, that is, letting the reader decide for herself.

The most fascinating aspect of the story was how everyone in the town, in a series of perfectly aligned coincidences, got wind of the murder plot and yet nobody took it seriously enough to warn the victim till the last moment when it was too late.

A thrilling reading experience. Full marks.

Poem: Every Day You Play – Pablo Neruda

Pablo Neruda

Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) was a titan of Latin American poetry.  He commands great influence not only among the Spanish speaking countries but throughout the world of poetry. He is known for writing surrealist poems, poems about history and blissful love poems. This poem is an example of the latter from his second collection titled “Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair”

Translated from the Spanish by W.S. Merwin.

Every day you play

Every day you play with the light of the universe.
Subtle visitor, you arrive in the flower and the water.
You are more than this white head that I hold tightly
as a cluster of fruit, every day, between my hands.

You are like nobody since I love you.
Let me spread you out among yellow garlands.
Who writes your name in letters of smoke among the stars
of the south?
Oh let me remember you as you were before you existed.

Suddenly the wind howls and bangs at my shut window.
The sky is a net crammed with shadowy fish.
Here all the winds let go sooner or later, all of them.
The rain takes off her clothes.

The birds go by, fleeing.
The wind. The wind.
I can contend only against the power of men.
The storm whirls dark leaves
and turns loose all the boats that were moored last night to
the sky.

You are here. Oh, you do not run away.
You will answer me to the last cry.
Cling to me as though you were frightened.
Even so, at one time a strange shadow ran through your eyes.

Now, now too, little one, you bring me honeysuckle,
and even your breasts smell of it.
While the sad wind goes slaughtering butterflies
I love you, and my happiness bites the plum of your mouth.

How you must have suffered getting accustomed to me,
my savage, solitary soul, my name that sends them’ all
So many times we have seen the morning star burn, kissing
our eyes,
and over our heads the grey light unwind in turning fans.

My words rained over you, stroking you.
A long time I have loved the sunned mother-of-pearl of your
I go so far as to think that you own the universe.
I will bring you happy flowers from the mountains, bluebells,
dark hazels, and rustic baskets of kisses.
I want
to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees.

Poem: There Was Earth – Paul Celan

Paul Celan

Paul Celan (1920-1970) is a major German-language poet of the post World War II era. He was a Romanian who lived most his life in France teaching German literature and translating French and English poets into German. His style is characterised by unconventional imagery and unique metaphor and this is where his originality lies. His human constitution was gravely affected by the events of the Holocaust. From a Jewish family himself, both his parents perished in concentration camps. He survived and lived with an anguish which spills into his poems every now and then. Here is a short poem from his collection Die Niemandsrose (1963)

There was Earth

There was earth inside them, and
they dug.

They dug and they dug, so their day
went by for them, their night. And they did not praise

who, so they heard, wanted all this,
who, so they heard, knew all this.

They dug and heard nothing more;
they did not grow wise, invented no song,
thought up for themselves no language,
They dug.

There came a stillness, and there came a storm,
and all the oceans came.
I dig, you dig, and the worm digs too,
and that singing out there says: They dig.

O one, o none, o no one, o you:
Where did the way lead when it led nowhere?
O you dig and I dig, and I dig towards you,
and on our finger the ring awakes.

Poem: Whether or Not It Moves You – Allama Iqbal

Muhammad Iqbal

Here is Allama Iqbal (1877-1938) addressing God in his signature style. This poem comes from The Wing of Gabriel [Baal-e-Jibreel].


Whether or not it moves you,
At least listen to my complaint—
It is not redress this free spirit seeks.

This handful of dust,
This fiercely blowing wind,
And these vast, limitless heavens—
Is the delight You take in creation
A blessing or some wanton joke?

The tent of the rose could not withstand
The wind blowing through the garden:
Is this the spring season,
And this the auspicious wind?

I am at fault, and in a foreign land,
But the angels never could make habitable
That wasteland of yours.

That stark wilderness,
That insubstantial world of Yours
Gratefully remembers my love of hardship.

An adventurous spirit is ill at ease
In a garden where no hunter lies in ambush.

The station of love is beyond the reach of
Your angels,
Only those of dauntless courage are up to it.