Monday, May 19, 2014

stencil #038 gavrilo princip

Losing the plot

Like all serious-minded kindred spirits, Gavrilo Princip, the hero of Hans Koning’s novel, Death of a Schoolboy (1974), is drawn to the abyss:

“I had been on a school outing from Sarajevo, up the Bjelasnica Mountain . . . When we came out of the forest onto the bare rock, we had to walk or crawl across a ledge . . . on one side the ground fell steeply away . . . The older boys told us there was nothing to it: the trick was simply to look ahead or to the left, never into the abyss . . . Once they told you that, every muscle in you started pulling your head to the right to look precisely in the forbidden direction. And not just with fear; you felt a strange temptation to tumble down into that valley, to jump, as if that wouldn’t have meant getting killed but freeing yourself . . .”

             Stencil sticker: Gavrilo Princip, High St Northcote

And in Zagreb, too! (strategic placement courtesy of my chess partner)

Speaking of voids, my long absence from blogging is due to the fact that I have been working on a second literary translation (the first is still yet to find a publisher). Like Gavrilo Princip, the protagonist of the novel that I am translating is a historical figure (ironically from exactly the same period, serving as a nurse in the very war said to have been sparked by Princip himself), and like Death of a Schoolboy, it is not a documentary account, rather it is a novel about history. I have just completed the first draft of the translation, and before I begin on the second draft, I thought I would take a break to post on Koning’s novel which I recently re-read. 

This year marks 100 years since a young Bosnian Serb, Gavrilo Princip, shot and killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, in Sarajevo on 28 June 1914. He has been framed variously as: a revolutionary (Bosnian) hero; a radical (Serb) nationalist; a naïve, misguided idealist; but most commonly as the ruthless terrorist whose deed set off the chain of events that triggered the outbreak of the First World War. After his arrest and conviction, Princip, who was too young to receive the death penalty, was sentenced to twenty years in prison, where he died four years later from malnutrition, medical neglect and disease. Whether or not he was a terrorist or a freedom fighter, or can indeed be held responsible for causing the deaths of millions in the First World War, is certain to be widely argued in the coming months (see for instance this recent interesting article in the Guardian by Srećko Horvat); my stencil, however, is intended purely as a nod to Hans Koning’s compelling portrait of this controversial figure.

Unlike the current literary trend for breezy, entertaining recreations of the lives of historical figures in rather weighty tomes, Koning’s spare, first-person narration breathes quiet, dignified life into his protagonist in his wholly compelling story of Gavrilo Princip. In its less than 200 pages, Koning succeeds in creating a complex and thoroughly convincing portrait of his hero. We understand Princip’s bitterness against an oppressive enemy; we feel his youthful, ardent desire for freedom; we share his bookish sensitivity and love of life, but also his awareness of the absurdity of life.

Making his way from Belgrade, where he has been studying, to Sarajevo, to carry out the planned assassination, Princip describes the journey on foot that he and co-conspirator, Trifko Grabež, take through the wild Bosnian countryside:

“Our magic walk . . . I had never before been so tired, so wet and muddy and hungry. But we called it our magic walk. We were in a high state, hard to put into words, a state of excitement or, at times, of exaltation even. Why, I don’t completely know . . . Can you imagine being too weary to take another step and at the same time feeling intensely and superiorly alive? . . . There’s a mood I’ve named for myself the splinter-of-time awareness. It rarely comes over me, and till then only when in a depression of hopelessness. I want to explain what it means. The first time I thought of it in that particular way was in school, our Latin professor describing the Roman games in the Colosseum. I faced an amphitheatre packed with men and women in the bright sunlight, and I was to die. They looked at me without seeing me, seeing only a nude animated body about to be ripped open for them, to give them a sensual shiver of pleasure. Then, standing there, I thought, this is only a splinter of time, a sliver with eons. They and I will all die at the same moment . . . It may all sound confused. The walk through the woods with Trifko was such a splinter of time. Nothing else existed or mattered. And within that present we were magically happy.”

When Princip wonders if we can imagine how he feels, the answer is unequivocally yes. And when he suggests that the mood he describes might sound confusing, it isn’t. It is quite lucid. In probing beyond the known facts of his life, Koning reveals quite a remarkable depth of characterisation, portraying Princip grappling with ideas about existence and his actions that reveal a delicate mind.

I shudder to think of a world without great books such as this. And worse, the disappearance of quality second hand bookstores where one might encounter them. Fortunately, there are still a few excellent second hand bookshops like Brown & Bunting and Allsorts—which is where I came across my copy of Koning:

I don’t remember what I got from my parents on my 15th birthday, but I’m certain it was nowhere near as impressive as Carolyn’s gift from her parents. I hope she was grateful. The $10-15, written in different ink to that of her parents’ birthday dedication, suggests otherwise: perhaps for Carolyn the book’s worth lay in what she thought it had cost, or what she thought she could get if she sold it. I certainly wouldn’t have got rid of my copy, but I’m grateful that Carolyn did.

When I look around at my bookshelves, full of exceptional friends and loyal companions—like Alain Fournier’s Le Grande Meaulnes, and Jane Bowles’ Two Serious Ladies, to mention only a few of the hundreds—I can’t imagine a life without having read them, a life without reading. In El amor de mi vida (2011), a collection of essays dedicated to “the worldwide fraternity of book lovers”, Rosa Montero sums it up perfectly: a life without reading would be “instant death . . . like living in a world without oxygen”; but as the piles and stacks of companions has grown over the years (of late verging on the insane with the ease of online ordering and free delivery), I feel as though I’ve lost the plot—litera(ture)lly!

A while back, I was on the verge of unreservedly recommending Wuthering Heights to a friend who was tossing up whether or not to read it. Apart from the mild shock of discovering that she hadn’t ever read it, I was about to tell her how much I thought she would enjoy it, but I stopped short of recommending it when it dawned on me that I couldn’t recall the plot.

What actually happens in Wuthering Heights (and is that why I enjoyed it)?

Later that night, I conjured up a nightmare scenario: of me in the stand, being torn to shreds by the prosecution yelling title after title at me, demanding evidence of the plot, which I fail to provide:  What happens in Buddenbrooks? The Mill on the Floss? The Return of the Native? How can you say that you loved them when you can’t even remember them! For crimes against forgetting, we sentence you to—p(lot)urgatory. 

Is it really necessary to remember the plot?

Javier Marías to the rescue! In his latest novel, The Infatuations (2013; tr. Jull-Costa), Marías’ characters discuss Balzac’s novella, Colonel Chabert (1832). Eager to hear the outcome of the story, the main protagonist of Marías’s novel asks the man who is telling her about Balzac’s story what happened to the Colonel. He replies:

“What happened is the least of it. It's a novel, and once you've finished a novel, what happened in it is of little importance and soon forgotten. What matter are the possibilities and ideas that the novel's imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with, a plot that we recall far more vividly than real events and to which we pay far more attention . . .”

I have to agree. If I were to recommend a book, let’s say by the much revered writer, Soledad Puértolas, rather than recounting the plot (which would be difficult anyway given that character rather than plot predominates in much of her work), instinctively I would talk about the intimate tone of her novels and the kind of characters that populate them: melancholy loners, obsessively questioning themselves and their existence, restless and in search of meaning.

In fact, I probably could have described Wuthering Heights—and almost any novel I might recommend—in the same way: a book about tortured, brooding, melancholy, obsessive characters in search of meaningful connection.

Although it’s impossible (and quite unnecessary) to remember the plot of every single book I’ve ever read, I like to think that, like the formation of the planets through the process of accretion, the thousands of stories that I have read have played a significant part in the formation of my own melancholy, obsessive character, who, like Gavrilo Princip, has spent most of his waking hours reading books by men and women who worried about all the problems of life.

moody night shot

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