terça-feira, dezembro 05, 2017

A Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising, by Miron Bialoszewski

This is an extraordinary book. I bought in the wonderful bookstore Massolit in Krakow, due to the advice of an enthusiastic young employee that talked lively about lots of Polish books when I asked him what I should read to get to know something of Polish literature. I was not disappointed with this one, hope the others will be as good.

It's a violent book, extremely well written, the Warsaw Uprising in August and September 1944 narrated day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute. One can almost feel one is there, in the middle of the constant bombing, running from shelter to shelter, keeping up the chores of daily life in the most extreme and unreal circumstances. Fortunately, I never experienced war, but this must be like war feels like, and it's horrible. I felt literally tired reading it, all that running from the bombs and the shelling, when short distances of a few blocks in a familiar city became almost insurmountable, when the once familiar streets became unknown territory, the rubble replacing the apartment blocks.

The frantic moment by moment rhythm of the narrative reminded of another book I read recently, about another kind of war, The City Always Wins. Both impressed me deeply. War and oppression are indeed a terrible burden of human history, and similar through every epoch. These testimonies are essential reading for anyone who cares, and the capacity of people to endure extreme circumstances never ceases to amaze me.

domingo, dezembro 03, 2017

A trip to Krakow and Wroclaw

For several years I had wished to visit Krakow, but somehow kept postponing it out of a vague dislike of Poland - I perceive it as a very religious, nationalistic and xenophobic country, with a strong tradition of anti-Semitism. That kind of dislike of a country's regime, politics and general mores (as I perceive them, of course) has kept me away from going to places I would otherwise love to visit for their history or natural beauty - I'm thinking of countries like Russia, Hungary, China, Cuba,Turkey, even the present Trumpist USA, and of course extreme cases like Iran. But Poland hasn't yet reached that no-go threshold, so there I went. I might have reconsidered if the infamous nationalistic march that took place in Warsaw on the eve of our arrival had occurred a few months before - it confirmed my worst misgivings.

That said, Krakow is indeed a beautiful city. We stayed at an old-fashioned hundred-year-old hotel in Stare Miasto (the Old Town), with everything from the old-fashioned furniture and wallpaper to the gilded bathrooms taps and the staircases with blue majolica vases and the porters exuded a scent of fin-de-siècle.

It was raining softly but steadily on the first day. I walked around the city, down Florianska street to the huge and beautiful Rynek (the Market Square) with the Cloth Hall building at the centre and the Our Lady church to one side and the Old City Hall tower to the other. Then down Grotzka street, stopping at the Dominican church and the baroque church of Sts Peter and Paul, unto the Wawel hill. There stands the impressive Wawel castle and the cathedral.

I walked inside the cathedral, along the majestic tombs of the kings of Poland - several Sigismunds, Jadwiga, Kazimierz, and of course Wladyslaw Jagiello. Back outside, saw the Vistula and walked down the hill towards Kazimiers, the old Jewish neighbourhood.

What most impresses in this quarter is the sheer size of the Jewish remains - several huge synagogues, that attest to the size of the Jewish population there, and makes it heartbreaking to imagine how most of those people were murdered by the Nazis. I visited the Remu synagogue and cemetery, then the Old Synagogue, now an excellent Jewish museum. It seems the Jewish community has been doing a great job of recuperating its heritage, there is a well marked Jewish route, several very good bookstores, and all the synagogues are rebuilt and host a number of quite good exhibitions. Hope they won't be driven away again by the recurring Polish anti-Semitism - one of the purported claims of the nationalistic march was to "drive the Jews away from government". What Jews in that very conservative government? Crazy.

In the Kazimierz, I still visited the huge Corpus Christi basilica, another of the over decorated Polish churches - Catholicism in Poland assumes a very kitsch aesthethics, the generally beautiful Gothic or Baroque architecture disappears under several layers of gold, silver, paintings, saints, embroidered cloths, flowers, etc.

On the second day, I walked around Stare Miasto, Wawel and Kazimierz again, this time without rain, under a nice sun in a crisp cold weather. This time, I went inside the beautiful Franciscan church, a remarkable jewel of Art Nouveau decoration, and again the synagogues, this time going inside the High Synagogue and the Izaak Synagogue. Then headed north again, along the interesting Kanonicza street and visited the Jagellonian university, beautiful buildings and Copernicus memorabilia.

The inside of the church of Our Lady is again over decorated, but it's worthwhile for the Veit Stoss late Gothic altarpiece, that is truly remarkable. And as the night sets in, horse carriages gather on the Rynek, where the covered café terraces fill with people drinking, eating and talking.

The last day in Krakow was spent walking around the neighbourhoods around Stare Miasto, like the area of the huge Central Railway Station, the square with the Unknown Soldier's memorial, and the Piasek quarter. There is a very nice market with lovely vegetables, fruit and herbs stalls, and I loved the Massolit bookstore, with a cosy café and piles of English first and second hand books; I had a nice chat with one of the employees that advised me on Polish literature and bought a few books.

In the meantime, every evening we had very good Polish food - pierogies, borscht, rich salads, bigos, zurek, hearty pork dishes. Polish cuisine is not very varied, but the food is tasty and abundant. Also quite cheap by European standards. I didn't taste the ubiquitous Polish lard, though.

We took the train to Wroclaw, where we stayed in a nice hotel near the centre. Wroclaw is another beautiful city, but completely different from Krakow, much more alike a German city, which it was until the second World War. That can be seen in its architecture - the façades of the houses, and especially the churches, so much more austere and bare (I like that much more).

St Elizabeth's church was near our hotel, with its tall tower, then we came into the Rynek, another impressive square lined with beautiful façades and with the remarkable building of the City Hall.

There are several beautiful churches in Wroclaw, like St Mary Magdalene or the cathedral of St John the Baptist. Also a university and a nice lively covered market (I love markets).

The Piasek island is lovely, and the quiet and old buildings reminded me somewhat of the Île de Saint-Louis in Paris. But the most remarkable spot in Wroclaw is probably the Panorama Raclawicka.

It is a huge mural painting of the Battle of Raclawice, extremely well displayed, so one feels like one is really in the middle of it. I was really impressed.

Wroclaw Synagogue is also huge, and there is a small kosher café at the entrance. Again one is impressed by the size of the former Jewish community, wiped out during the Nazi times.

In the evening, we strolled along the Christmas Market at the Rynek and nearby streets. I love these Christmas markets in Northern Europe, so characteristic and so different from our southern countries' traditions. Lots of colourful stalls selling a bit of everything, and people drinking mulled wine and walking around. It was a nice finishing touch for our Polish trip.

(A final note about my trip to Krakow - why didn't I go to Auschwitz? I had considered going, after all it is an important site connected with the history of the 20th century, a memorial to the horrors of human cruelty, and I had thought of going there as a kind of pilgrimage. But then I was confronted with all these "Auschwitz tours" in Krakow, and suddenly it felt like an obscene thing to do, to go as a tourist to that place, to pay these anti-semitic Poles to visit a place of suffering and death. So I didn't go.)

domingo, novembro 26, 2017

Insomniac City - New York, Oliver and Me, by Bill Hayes

This is such a beautiful book. I first heard of Bill Hayes in Oliver Sacks autobiography On the Move; I was curious and I read his book The Anatomist, that I liked very much, and now I was interested in reading his account of the last days of Sacks. And so I found out there's so much more about Bill Hayes than having been Oliver Sacks' companion. His writing is beautiful, his essays most intelligent and perceptive, his narrative of his times with Sacks, in the form of a journal, moving and never corny, they actually brought tears to my eyes a few times. Reading this book was a tender and fulfilling experience, and I'm looking forward to read more of Bill Hayes.

quinta-feira, novembro 23, 2017

The Physics of Sorrow, by Georgi Gospodinov

I was recently on holidays in Bulgaria, and as usual I looked for some recent fiction from the country. This time, I had the invaluable advice of some who knows the country and has an excellent literary taste - the writer Garth Greenwell - and he advised me to read this book. As usual, I'm happy I followed his advice. This is a beautiful book, it takes us to a rich universe of feeling and thinking, through the labyrinth of the narrator's imagination and memory, where his storytelling is the Ariadne's thread that guides us along paths dealing with family, country, childhood, sorrow, love - in short, what makes us who we are and how we look for some sense from our lives.

Sometimes, the book looks a little too ambitious, as if the author wanted to fit too many ideas and thoughts in it, but the writing is just beautiful and always a pleasure to read.

I leave the link to Garth Greenwell's review in the New Yorker, much better than anything I'd be able to say.

quinta-feira, novembro 02, 2017

The Destroyers, by Christopher Bollen

I liked this book very much - it's an excellent thriller that feels like an instant classic. The reviews on the back cover mentioned Graham Greene, and at first I didn't see why, but as soon as I reached the point where one of the main characters disappears, I kept being reminded of The Third Man, so the reference is quite fitting. The plot is great, the atmosphere of the Greek island of Patmos (never been there, but can imagine it from my stay in Mykonos) is extremely well rendered, and the author has the rare and enviable skill of defining a character or a place in a few words, like a painter that draws a true-to-life portrait in a few brushstrokes. The writing is elegant and rich, sometimes a little too elaborate, but always a pleasure to read. I'm looking forward to read more books by Christopher Bollen.

sexta-feira, outubro 27, 2017

The City Always Wins, by Omar Robert Hamilton

This is a very good book, extremely strong, a depiction almost in real time of the Egyptian revolution part of the Arab Spring. One can feel the expectations, and then the frustration, of the characters, all extremely believable. One wonders - how can a revolution be like in the present days of Twitter and Facebook? And then one reckons it's not that different from all the revolutions before. In the end, I felt so sad, so angry at all these senseless dictatorships and authoritarian regimes that keep people from being themselves, from being happy and free. How lucky we are, the ones who live in Western countries. We can only root for all these people who live under these appalling conditions.

So, Omar Robert Hamilton manages to bring us a vivid account of the revolution, the book is very well written and accomplished. He is a very talented writer, and I'm looking forward for more of his work.

quarta-feira, outubro 25, 2017

A few days in Sofia and Plovdiv

So, fed up with being at home, I travelled again, and went to Bulgaria, a country I didn't know much about, so I didn't have any expectations. And it was quite a pleasant surprise. It's a very nice country - as soon as we arrived in Sofia, I felt totally at home, somehow it reminded me of Lisbon as it was some 10 to 15 years ago, before we were "fashionable".

We stayed at a very nice hotel near Vitosha Boulevard, the main street of Sofia. After the long flight, it was a pleasure to have a first taste of Bulgarian cuisine, somewhat akin to the Greek one - shopska salad, grilled meat, stuffed peppers, good wine.

On the next day, we walked around the city and visited the main sites. Vitosha Boulevard is a lively street. lined with shops and café terraces full of people chatting, drinking and smoking. The Sveta Nedelya cathedral is a beautiful Orthodox church, in neo-Byzantine style, with a lavish interior of candles and icons, all gold and colours. It was Sunday, so there was a baptism - we actually watched a number of baptisms in the several churches we went in that day - with family and guests on their Sunday clothes, bearded priests singing the ritual, that includes the removal of the child's clothes, her bathing in the baptismal basin and then donning a new set of clothes.

A little further North, there was the ancient Serdika ruins - Serdika was Sofia's Roman name - and the small church of Sveta Petka, where a witch-like old woman barred us entry, claiming that there was a service going on, and that there were no visiting times.

So off we went to the more welcoming Banya Bashi Mosque, a beautiful building with a simple and elegant interior, totally empty. From there, we crossed the Central Market and reached the imposing building of the Sofia synagogue - the biggest Sephardic synagogue in central Europe - that was closed.

We passed the beautiful building of the Sofia City Museum, an ancient bath building, and walked along elegant streets lined with 19th century National Revivalist buildings towards the Saint Alexander Nevsky Cathedral - a huge 19th century neo-Byzantine church, that somehow reminded me of the Sacré Coeur in Paris. There is a nice street market outside, with Communist memorabilia and icons side by side; the interior is extravagantly lavish, and the Icon Museum in the crypt is very interesting and worth a visit.

After a stop for a coffee in a garden overlooking the National Theatre, we walked to the Stalinist centre - with the Presidential palace and its good-looking young guards looking bored while being photographed by tourists (guess they choose the best looking boys for this role, and maybe they later pursue a career in modelling, after all the experience of being photographed looking bored) and the massive Communist Party building.

In the courtyard of the Presidential Palace - whose building is oddly shared with a Sheraton hotel - there stands the beautiful medieval church of Saint George Rotunda, where a mass was taking place, officiated by a priest that looked straight out of a Dostoiewsky novel.

Then we visited the wonderful Archeological Museum, housed in an ancient mosque, and filled with beautiful artifacts from Thracian, Roman and Medieval times. Thracian gold, lots of Greek and Roman depictions of the Thracian rider, the mythical local hero still depicted in coins, and medieval icons and paintings.

The Russian Church is another beautiful building, a kind of small and colourful jewel, both on the outside and the inside. On the darkened interior, in a side apse, a surrealistic detail: an ironing board with an old electrical iron on top. I would like to have photographed it, but "no photos allowed", so I respectfully didn't, which was a pity. But one felt taking this kind of instructions seriously - something that impressed me in all these Bulgarian churches was the apparent high degree of piousness of the people: they made queues to cross themselves in front of the icons, one by one, bending down to kiss them, and not only little old ladies but also young girls and young men. Guess the long period under Communism, when religion was persecuted, made it look desirable and that's why now people are so much into it.

After all that sightseeing, we had a wonderful dinner of grilled meats and salads, and the next day took the subway to visit the Socialist Art Museum. It's very interesting, with all the Stalinist statues in the garden, the big red star that used to stand atop the Party building and the "revolutionary" paintings.

The Zensky Pazar - the Ladies' Market - is a wonderful street market, with fine looking vegetables sold by women and men who don't speak English; we bought some delicious grapes and enjoyed the hubbub of an old-fashioned European market.

Then we visited the synagogue, a really impressive Jewish temple, lavishly decorated.

The train trip to Plovdiv was not very interesting, mostly sunflowers' plantations. But Plovdiv, the ancient Philipopolis, is a very nice town. There are some very interesting Roman ruins, and the Old Town features beautiful buildings with Ottoman influence, with the protruding balconies.

There are Orthodox churches - the Saints Constantin and Helena is stunning - and mosques and café terraces with lovely kittens asking for food and Roman ruins and mosques.

So I really liked Bulgaria, where men dress mostly in black, food is great and people are waking up to the outside influence after a long isolation - in vain did we look for banitzas in the cafés that lined the lively streets (we only found them on the subway foodstalls); what the locals ate everywhere was pizza! Guess it will take a while before they discover that the local staples will be highly looked after by tourists, and then everywhere will bloom "gourmet" and "boutique" places, as has happened in Lisbon. Until then, let's enjoy a genuine and lively Bulgaria that lives mostly for itself and not for sale.