A Nairobi bookstore

On our way back to Nairobi I asked about bookstores. MONT recommended a local chain called Textbook Center, not a very promising name. After breakfast I checked out its web site, and was impressed by the search engine and the fact that it stocked not only the particular field guide for East African birds that I was interested in, but also several others. So The Family and I paid the nearest one a visit. The staff was knowledgeable, and directed us immediately to the right section. After we’d compared the different guides and picked up a copy of the book by Stevenson and Fanshawe, we decided to take a look at the other books on display.

It is always nice to walk into a bookstore in a different country and see what the locals are reading. It is much more informative than looking at recommendations on the web, which are often dominated by foreigners. We’ve picked up some really interesting books this way. This time was no exception. The Family and I wandered through the maze of shelves looking at the enormous variety of Africa-centric, and Kenya-centric, literature and picked up enough to last us a year. You don’t really have to go to Nairobi to find these books, but it helps you to choose.

Reading about Kenya

With banquets of game and fowl and fish,
Strange fruits, and many an unknown dish.

About Malindi
The Lusiads VI.2
(Luis Vaz de Camoes)

It is hard to find books which would be useful background for a trip to Kenya. There are many books by travelers, usually western travelers. There are books by famous Kenyan authors, which are not about travel. The travel books, sometimes by intention, sometimes through unexamined cultural assumptions, tend to view Africa as exotic. I’d read (who hasn’t) Hemingway’s stories about East Africa, grown up with Tarzan and stories of lost civilizations, read about Idi Amin when I first started reading newspapers. And then, much later, I read Binyavanga Wainaina‘s short savage piece in Granta called How to Write About Africa. It is a very strong reaction to western writing about Africa. I would strongly recommend that you click through that link and read that piece, it is not much longer than this post.

At the head of my current reading list of books by Kenyan authors is Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor. This is likely to be the only novel I finish before my trip, but there are a few which I would like to read. A Grain of Wheat by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o is a Kenyan classic, and I think that’s the one I want to read next. The Promised Land by Grace Ogot, with its questions about women’s role in African life, is another of the founding classics of Kenyan writing. Years ago The Family had picked up Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and it had settled, unfinished, into a pile of good intentions. I think this trip will make me start on it again. Kenya has a vibrant literary scene, with many authors writing in English, so I guess I will keep meeting new and old writings.

Some Arabic words were mingled
With the language they were speaking;
They covered their heads with turbans
Of fine cotton-weave fabric

About Swahili
The Lusiads V.76
(Luis Vaz de Camoes)

Soon after The Family and I shelved our collection of books together, I picked up a book from what used to be her collection called The Tree where Man was Born. This was written by Peter Matthiesen, one of the founders of The Paris Review. I flipped through this book again in preparation for our journey. The book Safari Ants, Baggy Pants and Elephants, by Susie Kelly, is now on my Kindle, in company with West with the Night by Beryl Markham (hugely praised by Hemingway) and North of South by Shiva Naipaul. Beryl Markham’s book reads like a meeting between Saint Exupery and Hemingway. Susan Kelly is a new travel writer for me. Shiva Naipual, who died at age forty, is now known mainly as the younger brother of the Nobel prizewinning V.S. Naipaul. His book promises a different perspective, since it is the only one about East Africa which is written neither by a native African, nor by an European or European settler. That’s quite a long reading list for a short trip.

A book market

The Beyazit Mosque was hidden under scaffolding: more repair work. We went around it, and there, opposite the library, just behind the mosque was Sahaflar Çarşısı. The name means antique market. Does the name refer to the second hand books here, or to the fact that it was reputedly a book market since the Byzantine times? I couldn’t figure that out. The courtyard was a pleasant place to stroll through. Although I read no Turkish, I love to look at books while trying to figure out who buys them.

The Istanbul university occupies the whole area between the Beyazit and Sulemaniye mosques. So most of the people who pass through this lovely arched gate are probably students; there did seem to be an enormous number of textbooks. But there were some who were looking at the books without picking up a single one; probably tourists like us. One gate of the bazaar opens up to the University, but the other stands just outside the Grand bazaar. In any case, it no longer seems to be the haunt of novelists and antiquarians that it was in the early twentieth century.

The fountains and the structures here are not very old. I’d read about a fire here some time in the 1950s, so all this would have been built after that; even the rococo-looking water fountain near the gate. There was a bust on one side which neither The Family nor I remembered to take a photo of. This was of Ibrahim Muteferrika, an Ottoman diplomat, who published the first Turkish book in 1729, a two-volume Arabic-Turkish dictionary.

Stacks of books lay around on the warm stone paving. From what I’d read, there wasn’t a single market place for books in the early Ottoman times. Some shops in this Sahaflar bazaar and several in the Grand bazaar next door would deal in books and manuscripts. They were moved here in the late Ottoman times, perhaps at the beginning of the 20th or the end of the 19th century. The line of Marvel comics here showed a recent interest in the American superhero, probably due to the movies, which have been as big in Turkey as in the rest of the world.

The interest in Tintin and the other French and Belgian comics is much older. Orhan Pamuk, in his book Istanbul, writes “When the first Tintin film was made in Istanbul, a pirate publishing outfit issued a black-and-white comic book called Tintin in Istanbul, the creation of a local cartoonist who mixed his own renderings of various frames from the film with frames from various other Tintin adventures.” I casually flipped through these books. No luck with counterfeits, they were all the usual genuine articles.

Inside the Grand bazaar we’d seen several shops selling calligraphy and paintings, nice, but very ornately framed. Here I stopped at a shop which was clearly geared to the same tourist market (note the books on Turkish food in various foreign languages). I can barely read any Arabic, but one doesn’t need to in order to enjoy Arabic calligraphy. The Family and I lost ourselves in thumbing through the plates, and wondering about the pencils and brushes and inks to be used. We may have spent no more than half an hour in this place, but we carried away very pleasant memories.

Talking Turkey on World Book Day

April 23 seems to be the International Book Day, designated by UNESCO to be the World Book and Copyright Day. I understand that it commemorates the dates on which Cervantes and Shakespeare died (in the same year, but on different days, the blame for this strange happenstance belongs to Pope Gregory XII). The sheer number of writers across the world means that this is also the birthday of other famous writers. Vladimir Nabokov happens to be one of them.

That’s a good reason to sit down and make a list of the books I’ve been working my way through as I get ready for a trip to Turkey. This part of the world has an amazing history. So many different civilizations washed across this antique land. There are neolithic sites from before the invention of agriculture, the Greek ruins of Ephesus, Troy, Aphrodisias, Miletus (birthplace of Thales, famous for saying things like “The past is certain, the future obscure” and for being the town through which the Maeander river, well, meanders), Persian ruins dotted across Antalya, remnants of the Byzantine empire across the country, and finally, the great constructions of the Ottomans.

I knew too little about the Byzantine empire. So I decided to read the Chronographia written by Michael Psellos in the 11th century CE. This is a series of biographies of the Byzantine emperors in the century before Psellos’ own time, although some of the most interesting parts are the author’s own memoirs. Judith Herrin’s book Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire surprises the Western reader with the contention that the medieval era was not the dark ages, and me by being a good tourist guide as well. I understand that the book The World of Late Antiquity by Peter Brown has a similar thesis. I haven’t started on it yet. The first book I did finish was the extremely informative Byzantium: a Very Short Introduction by Peter Sarris.

Except for little factoids such as that Cervantes took part in the naval Battle of Lepanto against them, I knew very little about the Ottoman empire. I have started to remedy this lack of education through a short reading list which started with Giancarlo Casale’s book The Ottoman Age of Exploration, which throws surprising light on the Zeroth World War centered on the Indian Ocean. While this is highly educative, it is somewhat peripheral to our forthcoming trip to Turkey. For that I have reserved Halil Inalcik’s magisterial survey The Ottoman Empire: 1300-1600, and Sukru Hanioglu’s book A Brief History of the Late Ottoman Empire.

I’m afraid that I no longer have the time to finish my reading list before the trip, so I’ll take these books along on my ereader and enjoy them as I travel during the month of Ramadan through the land they describe. The Family is pretty sure that this won’t be our last trip through Turkey. “Its history is quite as interesting as those of China and India,” she said. Not to mention that samosas and koftas originated in Turkey.

Eight and a half (million books)

The new design for Guangzhou is a wide central axis down the length of what is called the Zhujiang New Town, pointed right at the Canton Tower on the other bank of the Zhujiang (Pearl river). Walking around this area, I kept noticing an interesting building off to the east of this north-south axis. I hadn’t marked this down for a visit, but The Family said “Let’s go and look”. So off we went.

Large friendly letters across the top of the entrance said “Guangzhou Public Library”. We hadn’t seen a library building so large. We went in, knowing fully well that we would not be able to read most of the books that they have here. But we are book lovers, the sight of books releases oxytocin in our brains. In any case, entrance was free and easy. I had to put my backpack through an x-ray machine. No further questions; not even a remark about the water bottle in my bag. Before us was a huge atrium, all the way up to the eighth floor. The Family picked up a little pamphlet in English which told us, among other things, that the library held eight and a half million books. This was clearly our heaven, if only we could read Chinese.

On one side of the atrium the ground floor was taken up by the reading area for visually challenged persons. We could see people at computers, and stacks of books. I found later that Chinese braille has two standards. The more modern one is semi-syllabic, and similar to the standard Pinyin transcription of Chinese writing into Roman characters. The glass roof above the atrium lets in a lot of light. In the photo of the atrium you can see the sunlit interior. We took the escalator from across the atrium and reached a landing which led into the children’s section. This was enormous, running the whole length of the building.

We were more interested in the regular library, and that seemed to be on the other side of the atrium. There didn’t seem to be an obvious way to cross at this level. So went down, crossed the atrium again, and took the other escalator up. The first landing was of international newspapers and magazines. The desks were quite crowded (as you can see in the photo above). Many were clearly reading material borrowed from the stacks, but several young students also seemed to use the library as a place to work in. Most people had settled in for a read, as you could see by the flasks full of tea which they had carefully placed on their sides.

Half of the width of the hall was taken up by stacks. The library has open stacks, and is supposed to be the largest open stack library in the world. I peered in and walked along the stacks for a while. Eventually I came out of my daze and began to look for Indian newspapers. I didn’t see them, but I didn’t look very systematically. On the other hand I could see several languages which I could read (not that I understand all of them).

We went up one level where the books started. The library is open from 9 in the morning to 9 in the night. I found later that the library started in 1927, during the early years of the republic. Since then it has closed only during the Japanese occupation from 1938 to 1945. The building we were in was completed in 2013, and the architects were the Japanese firm of Nikken Sekkei, I’m surprised it is not in every guide book as a must see. The curved external walls resemble books stacked up above each other, and the two towers (north and south) together with the glass fronted atrium between are meant to resemble the shape of the character 之 (pronounced zhi, probably meaning “to become”, in this context).

The relatively small windows, and the rooftop garden are meant to insulate the building and reduce the amount of energy required in air conditioning. The orientation of the building also minimizes direct sunlight, so that it does not get too hot inside. The two us wandered through the stacks, touching the books, wishing we knew enough Chinese to read them. Eventually we took the escalator down and walked out the building slowly. What a wonderful place this was. Don’t miss it if you are in Guangzhou.

Fahrenheit 451

In Ray Bradbury’s book “Fahrenheit 451”, books are illegal and the job of firemen is to burn them. Bradbury wrote this during a time when civil liberties were being eroded in the US. Much after I read the book I came across the history of the events which very directly influenced it. One memorial to those is in the open square on Unter Den Linden called Bebelplatz.

In plaques embedded into the flagstones, and in an artwork below the square, are memorials to the burning of books in this place on 10 May, 1933 by the Nazi Student’s Union. The square is bounded on two sides by university buildings, and by the state Opera on the third. It opens out to the Unter den Linden to the north, and across the street is the Humboldt university (the photo below was taken facing it). The building on the west (featured photo) was the university library.

We visited it again on a bright and cold day as the clock struck thirteen. Crowds of tourists cycled about, the middle of Berlin is cyclist’s area. Years ago we’d seen the moving installation by Micha Ullman which can be viewed through a glass panel set into the ground (the cluster of people in the photo above are standing around it). It shows empty shelves, symbolizing the books that were pulled out of the library by students, under the direction of the librarian and professors, to be burnt.

Erich Kaestner was one of the authors whose books were burnt. He stood in Bebelplatz, unrecognized, and later described the heavy rain as the fires kept going out and the firemen had to keep lighting the fire again and again. Bebelplatz is a place one can visit over and over again, because it reminds you that liberties we now take for granted can be eroded by elected leaders who create mobs behind whom they can hide their designs. One of the plaques embedded into the flagstones reminds us to watch out for early signs of such erosion by quoting from an 1820 work by Heinrich Heine: “That was but a prelude: when they burn books they will ultimately burn people too.”

The bookseller

Unter den Linden was dug up. My favourite war memorial, the Neue Wache, was closed for renovation. We walked along and at the gates of Humboldt university, found a stall of used books. I’m a sucker for a bookshop. After I’d admired the bundled-up shopkeeper, I ran an eye over the books.

Many of the hard-bound books were about the history of the second world war. I sort of recognized the book called “The Battle for Moscow”, by the prolific and generally well regarded Polish author of war history, Janusz Piekalkiewicz. The other table contained CDs, records and paperbacks. These were for three Euros each. Used copies of books like the one by Piekalkiewicz sell for less on Amazon. I wonder how these books sell on the pavement.

As you can see, the bookseller was deeply engrossed in a tablet, reading a e-book by the looks of it.

Permanent Book Fair of Madrid

On a hot afternoon The Family and I found ourselves near the Atocha train station in Madrid and thought we would go and sit in the Buen Retiro park. The road took us past a line of wooden stalls with books. We walked along slowly, looking at the titles. Most of them were in Spanish, as we’d expected, but there were a few French, English and German titles as well. The quiet street with these charming wooden stalls, a few people browsing, all reminded me of a vanished time when in Paris along the Seine you could actually browse for used books. Like the stalls of Paris, these also stock a few old postcards and period posters. However, the focus is on books.

I found later that the stalls have been here since 1925, apparently through the Civil War. At the end of the street was a statue of Pio Baroja, the famous Spanish novelist of the early 20th century, who is said to have been a great influence on Ernest Hemingway.

We walked slowly up the slope, crossed the road and entered the park. The heat was oppressive. We sat in the shade of the trees for a while, and realized why the siesta is still a good idea in Spain. Instead of walking further into the park, we left and took a taxi to our hotel for a real siesta.

Eunice de Souza

Learn from the almond leaf
Which flames as it falls.
The ground is burning.
The earth is burning.
is all.
–Eunice de Souza, 2016.

Eunice de Souza died this rainy weekend. She was 77, and a member of a generation from Mumbai who remade Indian poetry in English. She was never as well-known as Arun Kolatkar, the older Nissim Ezekiel, Adil Jussawalla (who was, for a while, her colleague in the Department of English in St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai) or Gieve Patel. However, the enormous outpouring of emotion from her erstwhile students this weekend testifies to the deep impact she had. One thing that emerges from this is her personal flamboyance.

This arose from her not taking much account of what others thought of her. One tiny example of this can be seen in the photo alongside. It shows her in her kitchen with her pet parrot Koko. He appeared in her poetry. He was also brought up as an excuse when she didn’t want to leave home: "I don’t think Mr. de Souza will want me to go." Her friends knew this for a joke. She alludes to this in-joke in a poem called Guide to a Well-behaved Parrot: I shout at him/He shouts back/Really, I may as well have been/married.

In recent years I remember her from her weekly column about literature. They were clear, free of academic jargon (but not of humour), and spoke to her readers as equals. It was hard to connect this to her bleak last collection of poems, Learn from the Almond Leaf, many of which have been quoted in this Sunday’s newspapers. I will end this post with another poem from this collection:

My mother’s bones in a niche.
My aunt’s ashes likewise.

A lifetime.
A lifetime.

–Eunice de Souza (1940-2017)

There’s no there there

When I’m not travelling, I can spend time travelling in cyberspace. As my grandmother knew, it is a place first described by Gertrude Stein in 1937 as "There’s no there there"

The word cyberspace is said to have been invented by the cyberpunk writer William Gibson in his story Burning Chrome. His science fiction is often called prophetic. Wikipedia writes that before Gibson’s work science fiction was "widely insignificant". So it was fun to put together this table which correlates Gibson’s bibliography with hardware and software advances.

Year Publication Hardware Software
1982 Burning Chrome   Atari Virtual Reality lab founded; 4th anniversary of Minitel; emoticons invented
1984 Neuromancer 10th anniversary of the first PC (Altair 8800); 9th anniversary of the portable computer (IBM 5100); Telebit’s Trailblazer modem uses 18,432 bits/s 15th anniversary of internet; 10th anniversary of Maze war; 9th anniversary of Adventure
1986 Count Zero    
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive    
1990   Virtual reality headsets developed Birth of the web: HTML, CERN web server, CERN browser
1993 Virtual Light   NCSA Mosaic browser
1994   First smartphone (BellSouth’s Simon) IPv6 development starts; QR codes invented
1996 Idoru    
1999 All Tomorrow’s Parties    

As you can see, in reality Gibson’s work trailed behind development in many ways. When he began writing, the internet was a decade old already, as was internet chat and usenet. In France people were already buying train tickets and shopping online via Minitel. His most wonderful image, of cyberspace as a consensual illusion which organizes all data, never came to pass. Cyberpunk was always steampunk,a re-imagination of old technology. But Gibson’s language still carries a certain resonance.