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A Soviet Reader: An Annotated Bibliography of Recent Reads

14 Oct

This bibliography is an attempt at keeping a quick record of my recent reads (both fiction and non-fiction) regarding the Soviet Union and its history. The eagle-eyed among you will notice all of the volumes are English translations, and as such this imposes a boundary between what has and hasn’t been translated. As always when one reads for pleasure and information personal choices are made, authors and tastes are developed and pursued, and books that should be read remain unread.  Choices are partly dictated by access.  For instance, I discovered Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward and Mikhail Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don on my dad’s bookshelf, others such as the modern author Svetlana Alexievich by reading literary reviews and becoming aware of her work.  Sometimes there is surprise that so monumental an author can remain forgotten within the sphere of common knowledge, such as Vasily Grossman who I personally did not discover for far too long.  Some volumes, such as Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales which is based on her experience in the Gulag, are soon to be republished and I keenly await the volume whilst others’ efforts I remain ignorant of.

Having wrote out a quick list of Soviet-era novels I’ve had the pleasure (and often sadness) to read, I find it thoroughly hard to pick one that is my favourite as the styles are so varied and the approaches so different. However, there are three novels that stand out for me.  They are the Don Epic (includes And Quiet Flows the Don and The Don Flows Back to the Sea) by Mikhail Sholokhov, The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, and Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate.  All three offer varying degrees of criticism or support of the USSR and all three differ in their approach and in their individual authors fate.  Some circulated as samizdat (underground literature), whereas others were State sanctioned and celebrated.  Many, such as Teffi and Yury Felsen, saw the writing on the wall in the bitter months of 1917 and sought sanctuary elsewhere.Later events, such as the so-called Terror Famine of ’33-’34 and the Great Purge of ’36-38, turned many Old Bolsheviks away from the Party.

I’m also interested in this era of writing because of its historical context.  To write critically, to write truthfully, took some strength to do when the repercussions could be so severe.  Works were often suppressed or destroyed.  In recent days I have seen a number of articles focused on the killing or physically harming of journalists and educators worldwide, from Turkey to Brazil, America to Bulgaria and Malta. In many countries facts, the search for justice and the will to present the truth to the public (and the public’s willingness to digest this) are under open attack, even in so-called democratic states.  It would be crass to directly contrast the two wildly different contexts, but we must be aware that it is a continuing balancing act – to report and to be critical, either through fiction or non-fiction, is always an act on a knife-edge.

Please be aware that this post will be regularly updated to include annotations on the volumes listed below.  It will also be added to as and when I read new volumes.

Political & Social History

Alexievich, S. 2016. Chernobyl Prayer. London: Penguin Classics.

Alexievich, S. 2016. Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets. Translated from Russian by Bela Shayevich. London: Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Alexievich, S. 2017. The Unwomanly Face of War. Translated from Russian by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky. London: Penguin Classics.

Alexievich, a recent Nobel Prize Winner for Literature from Belarus, is justly famous for ‘her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time’ as cited in her award. A recent trio of English-language translations have brought her to greater attention within the Anglo-sphere and introduced many to her unique style of letting her interviewees talk uninterrupted. For some this may blur the line between fiction and non-fiction, but the results are an intimate look into the lives of those that have been hidden for so long. The above trio of volumes deal, respectively, with the Chernobyl nuclear accident, the fall of the Soviet Union throughout the late 80s and 90s and its impact, and the role of females in the Second World War and the aftermath in the USSR.

Applebaum, A. 2004. Gulag: A History of the Soviet Camps. London: Penguin Books.

Applebaum, A. 2013. Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe. London: Penguin Books.

Applebaum, A. 2017. Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine. London: Allen Lane.

Beevor, A. 2007. Stalingrad. London: Penguin.

Conquest, R. 2007. The Great Terror: A Reassessment. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kotkin, S. 2015. Stalin: Paradoxes of Power 1878-1928. London: Penguin.

Kotkin, S. 2017. Stalin: Waiting for Hitler 1928-1941. London: Allen Lane.

Together, with Paradoxes of Power, Waiting for Hitler is the second in a trio of volumes that paint a deeply researched biography of Stalin, General Secretary and Premier of the USSR. I’m currently half-way through the second volume and it is an eye-opening body of work, one that I highly recommend to anybody with an interest in history or modern history. Understanding the USSR (and the transformations after its fall) is fundamental to today’s world state and to the underpinning of politics on the international stage.

Merridale, C. 2013. Red Fortress: The Secret Heart of Russia’s History. London: Allen Lane.

Plokhy, S. 2017. Lost Kingdom: A History of Russian Nationalism from Ivan the Great to Vladimir Putin. London: Allen Lane.

Solzhenitsyn, A. 2003. The Gulag Archipelago 1918-56: A Experiment in Literary Investigation. Translated from the Russian by Thomas Whitney and Harry Willets, abridged by Edward Ericson Jr. London: The Harvill Press.

Steinbeck, J. & Capa, R. 2000. A Russian Journal with Photographs by Robert Capa. London: Penguin Classics.

It is always a pleasure to read Steinbeck’s non-fiction work and this journal, wrote in the late 1940’s after a visit throughout the USSR with the celebrated war photographer Robert Capa, bears all the hallmarks of his wit and comedic flair.  Still this is a sombre read of the after effects of the Second World War, a war which devastated the population and infrastructure of the Soviet Union.  The chapter regarding the visit to Stalingrad (today called Volgograd) is particularly harrowing. Criticism of the USSR is lacking however and this was noted in the reviews and discussions following the books publication.

Teffi. 2016. Memories – From Moscow to the Black Sea. Translated from the Russian by R. Chandler, E. Chandler, A. M. Jackson & I. Steinberg. London: Pushkin Press.

Teffi (pen name of Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya) was a famous humourist writer in the early 20th century best known for her contributions to the magazine Satyricon.  ‘Memories’ documents her overland flight from St. Petersburg to the Black Sea where she caught a ferry to Turkey in 1919, following the twin revolutions of 1917 (the February overthrow of the Tsar and the Bolshevik revolution in October) and the subsequent crack downs that followed. She spent the remainder of her life in Paris, France.

Folk and Magic Tales

Chandler, R. (ed.). 2012. Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov. London: Penguin Classics.

A fundamentally important introduction to the cultural and traditional importance of magic tales within the Russian and Slavic imagination.  Chandler introduces a range of authors, including Platonov and Teffi, who tackle long-standing magic tales where transformation of both lives and forms becomes a bubbling, and often humorous, vehicle to comment on their own historical context.  This is a great book to become familiar with figures mentioned throughout Russian traditional culture, such as Baba Yaga, which still appear in modern media (think of Zvyagintsev’s 2017 film Loveless and the grandmother figure living in the woods.

Novels

Babel, I. 2016. Odessa Stories. Translated from the Russian by Boris Drayluk. London: Pushkin Press.

Berberova, N., Felsen, Y., Gazdanov, G. & Kuznetsova, G. 2018. Four Russian Short Stories. London: Penguin Classics.

Bulgakov, M. 2007. The Master and Margarita. Translated from Russian by Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear. London: Penguin Classics.

Grossman, V. 2006. Life and Fate. Translated from Russian by Robert Chandler. London: Vintage.

Often described as the 20th century’s War & Peace, Life & Fate is a monumental novel of insight into the USSR during the raging battle of Stalingrad in 1942-43. Centered upon the family of Vicktor Shtrum and the Shaposhniokova sisters, Grossman introduces a panoply of figures across the length and breadth of the USSR and develops their role within the Great Patriotic War (as the Second World War is known in Russia).  This multifaceted novel dissects Stalinism and Nazism, the nature of the State itself, and the vying reality of Jewish identity caught between the Soviet sphere and the impact of invading German forces.

Grossman, V. 2011. Everything Flows. Translated from Russian by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, and Anna Aslanyan. London: Vintage.

Platonov, A. 2010. The Foundation Pit. London: Vintage.

Sholokhov, M. 2017. And Quiet Flows the Don. Translated from the Russian by Stephen Garry. London: Penguin Classics.

Sholokhov, M. 1984. The Don Flows Home to the Sea. Translated from the Russian by Stephen Garry. London: Penguin Classics.

Solzhenitsyn, A.. 2000. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. London: Penguin Classics.

Solzhenitsyn, A. 2003. Cancer Ward. Translated from the Russian by Alexander Dolberg. London: Vintage Classics.

Zamyatin, Y. 1993. We. London: Penguin Classics.

Graphic Novels

Nury, F. & Robin, T. 2017. The Death of Stalin. London: Titan Comics.

Second World War Memoirs

Koschorrek, G. K. 2002. Blood Red Snow: The Memoirs of a German Solider on the Eastern Front. London: Greenhill Books.

Sajer, G. 1999. The Forgotten Soldier: War on the Russian Front – A True Story. London: Cassel Military Paperbacks.

The above two volumes, and their veracity of truthful experience, have both been discussed time and time again by critics and reviewers in their description of life on the Eastern Front as German soldiers.  Regardless of the truth both volumes present hideous experiences on facing the Red Army during WWII, first claiming new territories and then slowly losing them, mile after bloody mile.

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Speaking to the Dead: A Multiple Guest Post Influenced by Svetlana Alexievich

3 Jan

This post and style has been influenced by Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets (Время секонд хэнд) publication, which was released in 2013.  It is a work of non-fiction prose which explores the personal impact of the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1991, through the recording of hundreds of interviews transcribed into monologues.  These were conducted with a wide range of individuals who experienced both life within the USSR and its modern-day constituents, including the present-day Russian Federation and surrounding independent countries.  I’ve previously mentioned the book in a blog entry here.  Alexievich, a resident of Belarus and the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015, is no stranger to the impact of political persecution and has herself had to leave Belarus to seek sanctuary elsewhere for sustained periods of time.  The Nobel Prize committee described her works as ‘polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time’.

The book offers insight into the continual flux of humanity and it has moved me deeply.  If I’m not mistaken it is also the concluding chapter in a five-part cycle of work reporting on issues within the history of the USSR, although a number of the volumes have not yet been translated into English.  Those that have include Alexievich’s 1985 volume The Unwomanly Face of War (У войны не женское лицо), recently translated into English and republished, which uncovers the role of USSR females in the Second World War and the subsequent silence of their contributions, alongside 1997’s Chernobyl Prayer (ернобыльская молитва),  a volume which examines the impact of the nuclear reactor malfunction in Ukraine in 1986 and its effects on the clean up crews, physicians, and local inhabitants within Ukrainian, Russian and Belarusian territories.  That book includes material taken from over 500 interviews over 10 years, of which a revised edition was released in English in 2013.  A new reprint of an English translation of Zinky Boys (or Boys in Zinc, Цинковые мальчики) was due to be published in 2017; the volume looks at the impact of the USSR’s decade long war in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989.  It is a volume I am now keen to read and to learn from.

This post should be seen as an attempt to convey the methods that Alexievich’s employs; it is not meant to diminish the impact and importance of the individual and personal stories contained within the volumes that she has produced.  Nevertheless, there are parallels that can be drawn out between historical events and the personal viewpoints of our field.  It is one I was keen to explore, to hear voices from friends describing their experiences of encountering human skeletal remains within archaeological contexts and how it inspires them – into careers, into dreams, into labours of love and worry.

A two-part previous edition of this series focusing on the life and thoughts of archaeologists can be read here and here.


The author’s monologue

– Buried and cremated, dismembered and decapitated, axial and axis, perimortem and postmortem.  The language we use to describe the dead can seem cold and clinical, a hidden distance in our lexical choices to keep the emotive at bay.  If we think of the skeletonized dead as people, with their own lives, thoughts and memories, instead of objects taking up space on the finds shelves or boxed silently away, it is perhaps then we remember that the past is not so different, not so foreign to the present.

Fragments of crania, rolled across my open palm for tactile inspection, used to remind me of the intangible border of death.  Reminded me that I too would die.  Bone, that wonderous structure of both flesh and stone, reminded me so vividly of what it is to live.  Having broken many of the elements within my own skeleton, I could feel kindred to those naturally fractured fragments before me, couldn’t I?

That decisive snap, the innervation of electric pain that contorts to dull throbs . . .  What I thought I knew, I desired to know in more depth.  My own experiences of skeletal breakages and repeated surgical interventions, my own handling of the blade cutting into flesh to show bone the sordid light of the dissection room.  The smell of my anatomical guide – the paper protected by clear plastic wallets, but the pages of which had nevertheless become permeated by the chemical smells of preservation.  These were the experiences that pushed me on.

From excavation to analysis, pulled from birth to death anew.  A whole new context of meaning imbued by the discipline of archaeology . . .  These were my dreams, the dull and long-drawn out thoughts that lay behind daily concerns and speculations.

What do others think, how do others interact with the skeletal material that represents an individual, a population, a species?


The illusion of mortality and the fickle nature of finality

Gabriela H.  Late twenties.  Post-doctoral researcher.

– I don’t know what drew me into studying skeletons – it was not the morbid aspect for sure.  I have never been to a funeral, and I don’t feel a pang for skull-themed aromatic candles spread around the house.  I might be ‘in search for a stable ground to step on’, as a psychologist once told me . . .  I don’t know if that is true, it might be, but it might as well have something to do with people.  I like people, and have always been interested in watching them, in understanding their passions, actions and thoughts.  But I should probably bear in mind that these are dead people.  Most of the time I try to ignore this though . . .  The image of a crime movie in which body parts are stacked in jars on shelves comes vividly to mind, and the comparison is rather worrying to be frank.

However, aren’t we (those studying the dead) caught in this eternal (no pun intended) puzzle?  Between having to acknowledge that these are dead people – that on the lab table and on the museum shelf it is death and mortality looking back at us, confronting our own fear of death.  Or seeing them as mere bones, objects that are there waiting for us to turn them into ‘high-impact’ articles?  Boundaries, and absences are unsettling: someone has forever disappeared, though some part of them has been left behind.

‘It is the living who expect insights from the dead’ a friend once told me, and he couldn’t have been more right (as you see I am trying to avoid saying ‘dead right’).  As a ‘dead bodies’ practitioner I think this line cuts to the core of the whole challenge of writing narratives about them – what are we hoping to achieve?  I think most of the times we are unsure, but it is rather hard to be sure about something like death, isn’t it?


On the joy of working with the hands and the truth concealed

Abigail L.  Mid-twenties.  PhD candidate.

– I often miss working with my hands.  The hours spent staring at a screen or trawling through journals are necessary for research, but they make me realise that the physicality of handling human remains, the engagement that comes with examining the material myself, is what really helps me to understand my subject best.  Carefully sorting through someone’s bones removes the abstraction of talking about statistics, trends and probabilities, and brings it back to the individual level, the only one that we can really identify with.  I gain satisfaction from the ordered and methodical work; the rest of my time is spent chaotically moving between tasks and failing to cross anything off my cluttered stacks of physical and digital to-do lists.  With the bones, I arrive early and skip lunch to give myself more time to work slowly and carefully.  I don’t feel the need for the extended walks around the park that my ‘office work’ prompts.  Almost everyone else smokes.

With long periods where I am kept in the office, the growing anticipation of these sparsely distributed tangible interactions with my subject sometimes leads to frustration.  Missing limbs (misplaced in the last decade; “I’m sure they were on display once”); a severe case of mould spreading through the axial skeleton; another “sorry it was lost in the war;” a set of misidentified and mis-catalogued remains that belong to some other site (which one, though?).

My recent osteological work has been characterised by dismay . . .  I’m concerned by the mishandling of human remains in museum and university contexts, but I can’t talk about it as I’m still relying on the goodwill of these institutions.

I can discuss general access issues and curatorial ethics in my thesis, but I can’t refer to my personal disappointment over being prevented from doing something I enjoy.  Is it even okay for me to enjoy this work?  To enjoy sorting, measuring, and recording human remains?  We are supposed to be enthusiastic about our research: engagement, outreach, impact, et cetera.  But people don’t always want to hear the specifics.  I was recently asked (by a palaeoethnobotanist) what I do to ward off all the bad Juju I must be attracting . . .  Alongside my enjoyment, if that is allowed, I also feel a deep anxiety about getting something wrong that I don’t feel in relation to other areas of my work.  It doesn’t seem to go away with experience.  Another topic with no real home for discussion.

My main anxiety at the moment, though, is in relation to my future employment prospects.  While the practical work is what sustains my interest, I also know I need to develop other research interests, other skills, other areas of expertise, in order to compete for jobs.  Most of these keep me inside.  I am increasingly realising that I will soon have little choice in the matter.


The search for identity in a modern context

Richard Smith.  Late forties.  Recovering field archaeologist.

– I’ve long been intrigued by the idea that for many people outside of the profession, the chief occupation of an archaeologist is digging up skeletons (at least for those who don’t think we’re looking for dinosaurs).  To be honest, that aspect probably played into my own set of disjointed reasons for wanting to become an archaeologist . . .  There is something very reassuring about seeing archaeologists carefully excavating away soil from around a skeleton – you know you’re seeing some ‘proper’ archaeology!

And yet, I had worked for more than 20 years as a commercial field archaeologist before I got the opportunity to excavate a ‘classic’ laid out flat skeleton.  It’s not that I’d not been doing much, but every site I seemed to work on was composed of pits, ditches, post-holes, and the like . . .  It’s not like I didn’t encounter human death in those years, but it was invariably in the form of cremated remains, frequently having undergone heavy comminution.  Say what you like, but it’s hard to perceive the humanity in the occasional flecks of white in a black and grey soil.

All that changed for me when I ended up working on a 19th century urban graveyard that was being cleared to allow the church to rebuild, expand, and cater for its dwindling flock into the 21st century.  For someone only used to human remains in the form of gritty powder, coming face to face with a skeleton was nothing short of shocking.  After two decades in the profession, I thought I was well beyond romantic notions of imagining myself into the lives and situations of my ‘subjects’.

But here I was, carefully scraping around a rib, an eye socket, or a femur, wondering about who this person might have been or how they lived their lives.  Admittedly, this was rather short-lived as some of the burials contained their original coffin plates that had their names and dates . . .  Some we eventually were able to track down to published obituaries only to find that they were all wonderful people who were sorely missed by all who knew them.  I wonder where they buried the bad blighters that everyone was glad to see the back of?


The author rejoins

– An historical aside:  ‘Do not divide the dead!’  A Soviet saying dating from the Second World War.  The blurring of lines between the immensity of the Jewish loss of life, and the death wrought across nationalities and ethnicities, versus the continuing vulgarities of Soviet antisemitism post-war which culminated, but did not end, with the Doctor’s plot of 1952-53.

Dividing the dead into known and unknown, into memory and out of time.  The question we never really ask is how much do we need to know, what can we afford not to know?  The almost intangible nature of truth, hidden within the Haversian canals and housed in osteons, each containing a multitude of experiences.

Experiences for which the individual, partitioned by plastic context bags placed among kin, friend or foe, known or unknown, remain silent; they are ready instead to be analysed by the skeletal specialist.  The step by step motions of measurements and non-metric notes taken; occurrences of presence and absences discussed; the archaeological context pondered over.  Relationships are suggested and situations hypothesized, the motivations are almost always guessed at.

An archaeological aside:  ‘The dead do not bury themselves.’  The individual, either as a single outlier or as part of a larger assemblage, become detached from their lived context and are given over to the researcher with the status of temporary ownership.  The dead have already died and their active participation in life is now over, but still they speak to the living as arbiters of the present.

We are not just analysing ourselves when we look into the empty eye sockets of the dead, we are commenting on the past and the vast variations found therein.  There is no distance greater than between the living and the dead, yet there is no closer divide.  That is the juxtaposition lying in wait, entombed within the cortical and trabecular bone, trapped within the enamel and dentine, ready to surprise the unwary.

Stepping Into The Archipelago

10 Oct

I’ve mentioned Solzhenitsyn’s tremendous volume, The Gulag Archipelgao 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, in a recent blog post on books that have passed through my hands this year.  The edition I’m reading is a truncated and abridged version, but it is still a book which packs an intellectual and emotional heft.  As such it has become my companion over the past six or so months as I wade my way through it, dipping into it to read a section when I’ve finished a different novel or non-fiction book that has caught my eye and attention.  (I’ll admit here I’m behind on posts for this blog although many are fully formed in my mind’s eye.  This is probably due to too much reading and not enough actual writing, hence the lack of posts over the past few years though there are some hiding in the draft folders).

As I picked up Solzhenitsyn’s book I came across the quote below that has resonated with me following the political upheavals over the past few years, one that has reminded me of the staggering ineptitude of several world leaders and governments, and it seems only fair to share the quotation in full.  The context for the quote is the realisation by Solzhenitsyn that each individual is capable of both good and evil, that the factor that determines the outcome is within the individual to balance and the choices that they themselves make, regardless of the level of the individual within their standing in society.  This awakening, as he describes it, is the outcome of intense self-scrutiny within the Gulag system, that sprawling archipelago of labour camps that covered the USSR like an intricate spider’s web.

To quote:

‘The Nuremberg Trials have to be regarded as one of the special achievements of the twentieth century: they killed the very idea of evil, though they killed very few of the people who had been infected with it.  (Of course, Stalin deserves no credit here.  He would have preferred to explain less and shoot more.)  And if by the twenty-first century humanity has not yet blown itself up and has not suffocated itself – perhaps it is in this direction that will triumph?

Yes, And if it does not triumph – then all humanity’s history will have turned out to be an empty exercise in marking time, without the tiniest mite of meaning!  Whither and to what end will we otherwise be moving?  To beat the enemy over the head with a club – even cavemen knew that.

“Know thyself!”  There is nothing that so aids and assists the awakening of omniscience within us as insistent thoughts about one’s own transgressions, errors, mistakes.  After the difficult cycles of such ponderings over many years, whenever I mentioned heartlessness of our highest-ranking bureaucrats, the cruelty of our executioners, I remember myself in my captain’s shoulder boards and the forward march of my battery through East Prussia, enshrouded in fire, and I say: “So were we any better?”

When people express vexation, in my presence, over the West’s tendency to crumble, its political shortsightedness, its diverseness, its confusion – I recall too: “Were we, before passing through the Archipelago, more steadfast?  Firmer in our thoughts?”

And that is why I turn back to the years of my imprisonment and say, sometimes to the astonishment of those about me: “Bless you, prison!”‘

– Solzhenitsyn (2003: 313).

Of course the catch, which he fully recognises, is that there is a distinct difference between both the prison and labour camps that existed  within the USSR, and of ultimately actually surviving the sentence delivered.  The dead, by their very definition, have not survived.  Instead their voices are silent against the echoes of history.

Brief Notes

The book also reminds me of an interest that I’ve had a bit of trouble pursuing so far, partially due to language difficulties but also due access problems.  I’ve always been curious about the bioarchaeology of the Soviet Union, especially so since reading Soviet period literature and non-fiction books, such as Gulag: A History of the Soviet Camps, by Anne Applebaum, which was published in 2004.  However, on a brief sweep of bioarchaeological focused research published in the United Kingdom, with a specific caveat at the Masters level for a relatively easy introduction to the topic, I have not come across any relevant theses bar one thesis at Durham University.  Produced in the 2009/10 academic year, by one E. George, is a thesis entitled The remains of Ivan Denisovich: the potential for future bioarchaeology, palaeopathology, and forensic archaeology/anthropology on osteological remains dating from 1917-1958 in the former Soviet Union.

Unfortunately an enquiring email to the MSc course leader has proved unsuccessful in obtaining a readable copy of the above as a digitized version of the thesis does not exist.  So a quick shout-out if you are reading this George, let me know if I can borrow or read a copy of your research!  I’d love to see what the piece focuses on, the core contexts and periods under study and the methodologies used to analyse the potential in this area.

On a lighter note, the reference to cave men could perhaps belong palaeanthropologist John Hawks often humorous Neandertal anti-defamation files series of web blog posts.  It is worth giving the entries a read and having an informative, interesting and entertaining guide in the shape of Hawks at the same time.

Bibliography

Applebaum, A. 2004. Gulag: A History of the Soviet Camps. London: Penguin Books.

Solzhenitsyn, A. 2003. The Gulag Archipelago 1918-56: A Experiment in Literary Investigation. Translated from the Russian by Thomas Whitney & Harry Willets, abridged by Edward Ericson Jr. London: The Harvill Press.

A Sea of Lights

22 Aug

As I watched the images of the individual marchers filter across the news channels, I wondered briefly how many of their grandparents had fought against these very ideas that they seemingly espoused, those grandparents that gave their youth, and in some cases their lives, to stop the cancer of fascism and racism from spreading across the world.  To have a leader of a polarized and diverse country unable to condemn white nationalists, whilst at the same time bask in their popular support, only led an air of farce to the proceedings.  It was a depressing moment watching one of the world’s largest democracies forget its own history.

Coincidentally I’ve recently finished reading a new English translation of Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War, a collection of testimonies and memories from the female participants of the Red Army of the Soviet Union who fought in World War Two.  The voices of who, and experiences of, had largely been purged from the official records following the defeat of Nazi Germany.

As it can be imagined from reading survivors accounts of the Eastern Front it wasn’t particularly joyful reading, but it is enlightening to learn about the thoughts and feelings of these individuals and their roles within the Red Army or in underground partisan units.  One memory in particular moved me and reminded of the horror of dehumanizing the enemy:

I didn’t want to kill, I wasn’t born to kill.  I wanted to be a teacher.  But I saw how they burned a village . . .  I couldn’t scream, I couldn’t weep loudly: we were on a scouting mission and came close to that village.  I could only bite my hands; I still have the scars; I bit them til they bled.  Till the raw flesh showed.  I remember how the people screamed . . .  The cows screamed . . .  The chickens screamed . . .  It seemed to me they were all screaming with human voices.  All of them alive.  Burning and screaming.’

– Valentina Mikhailovna Ilkevich, Partisan Liaison.

From the flames of hatred nothing particularly good comes.

Bibliography

Alexievich, S. 2017. The Unwomanly Face of War. Translated from Russian by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky. London: Penguin Classics.

Literary Updates: English PEN, 404 Ink, Solzhenitsyn & Others

2 Jul

– Please note that this post has been delayed by three or so months, it seemed appropriate to post it now though it has become somewhat disjointed.

Things have been a bit quiet on this site lately as I settle down into a new job (1).  I’ve also been working on two interviews for the blog behind the scenes and I hope to bring them to fruition within a few weeks.  So it is fair to say that the free time I have had has been largely spent relaxing by reading various books; more often than not reaching for a fiction or non-fiction volume that has little to do with human skeletal remains or matters of archaeological importance.  Though I admit I have been dipping into The Body as Material Culture: A Theoretical Osteoarchaeology, by Joanna Sofaer, on occasion.  Instead I present here some literary gems that I’m re-reading or have recently discovered by chance and wish to share with you, my dear readers.

In the past month or two I’ve taken the opportunity to sit out and read in the garden, taking time to admire the change in seasons as we slip into Spring.  I’ve been joined by a flurry of both wild and domesticated animals as I sit and drink my coffee and write notes, hearing and seeing a motley collection of avian companions enjoy the fruits of a fresh crop.  As I’ve written here before in Bones of Contention I’m lucky enough to share the garden with three domesticated hens and these delightful birds (of the inquisitive Gingernut Ranger breed) provide all the friendly chirping and cooing as one could want.  Though, when let loose (now that the latest avian influenza scare has been downgraded in England) to forage in the garden and to take their much-loved mud baths, they can sometimes unexpectedly jump up onto the table at which I am pondering my life and steal whatever is waiting to be eaten on my plate before scampering away, guilt-free and clucking happily.

Caught in the act. A quickly took shot of a cheeky hen in the garden where I try to spend my time reading, scribbling notes and drinking coffee, if not chasing chickens. Photograph by author using a Pentax ME Super and Lomography Lady Grey film, if used elsewhere please credit as appropriate.

I’ve been lucky enough to see a whole host of other animal visitors to the garden too, including blue tits, whizzing robins and fleet of foot blackbirds in the fresh spring morning, as well as hearty magpies, hefty wood pigeons and loved-up collared doves; even to seeing a cheeky mouse scampering around during the day, as all the while seagulls spread their wings and soar freely overhead.  It really is quite a delight and a breath of fresh air to be away from the click and whir of computers, to replace the digital with dappled light cast through the flickering leaves as the gusts of winds blow the cobwebs away and make you appreciate the world anew.  (Even amidst the dire national and international news).  Of course it is easy to romanticize the natural world in contrast to the world of bricks, cement and microprocessors, where the two may seem so separate as to be alien to each other, yet this isn’t really the case as we share the same space.  So I shall stop my sermonizing!

Writing, Reading, Learning, Enjoying

As I’ve been reading various volumes or books in the past month or two I was reminded of the importance of expression, of the freedom to read and the freedom to write, as something that I, for now, can largely take for granted when for other individuals in the world it is a hard-fought for thing.  As a member of English PEN I was reminded of this as the roll-call of detained journalists, writers, poets and artists who had made their mark known and suffered what they must for the idea of self-expression and freedom of the written and spoken word, landed in my email inbox.  I have to admit I’d almost forgotten I’d signed up to join English PEN as I’m so often lost between the various archaeological societies or associations that take a slice out of my payslip each month.  (Honestly Society for American Archaeology, you can stop sending me your trans-Atlantic reminders to re-join now that it has been 2 years since I left – please think of the trees!).

Recent developments across the world have delivered to me a quake of realization, that underfoot nothing is as solid or as stable as it seems.  This is something that a friend mentioned a few weeks ago and I think it one that I generally agree with; that to become complacent is to assume stability as a fact of life when we know well enough that things happen, not always for the worse and not always for the better.

Introducing 404 INK

I was reminded of independent expression when, in a serendipitous occurrence, I came across the website of 404 INK, a new independent publisher of literary magazines and books based in Scotland and spearheaded by Edinburgh-based publisher and editor due of Laura Jones and Heather McDaid.  After having a read through of their website, aims and current content, I decided to order a hard copy of the first issue of their literary magazine, released in November 2016, which has the theme of Error.  Having now read the majority of the entries, ranging from interviews, fiction and non-fiction stories, poems, and cartoons, all of which touched upon the error concept in some way, I’ve become a big fan of their publishing output.  I’m excited to see what awaits me as a reader for the 2nd issue, with the topic of ‘the F word’, a starting off-point for each authors choice and implementation within their work (2).

Eating Animals, Eating Humans

As an aside and among the books I’ve been grazing on are Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals (always good to challenge your perceptions and habits), an unfinished re-read of Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, and an abridged version of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago.  Each volume can be related to the other as the history within each is so entwined with the author’s own experiences and perceptions.  Of course any comparisons between such disparate topics such as an account of the Gulag system, investigation into the moral and business implications of farming animals, and the creative endeavors of magical realism, may be tenuous as best but each is rich with creativity and equally unsettling with the presentation of documentary evidence.  I’d recommend them as the volumes are well worth a read.

A New Style: Influence from Svetlana Alexievich

I’ve also been thinking about bringing back a new form of blog entry: the unfiltered viewpoint of the archaeological professional, as experimented with in two recent blog entries that largely focused on anonymous field archaeologists in Digging Up Time parts 1 and 2.  The two posts were influenced in style by Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets publication, which presents the experiences of witnesses in the modern-day Russian Federation and the surrounding countries who lived through the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).  This time I think I’ll shift the emphasis towards bioarchaeologists and human osteologists, and their viewpoints on working with the skeletal remains of past individuals and populations from the archaeological record.  If you are interested in taking part in the above (providing that I need further testimonies), then please do feel free to contact me and I’ll provide a writing prompt and guideline for the style of the post.  Check out the above two posts first though to get a feel for the style of the entries.

Notes

(1).  I became uncharacteristically ill over spring hence the delayed timing of this post.

(2).  The 2nd edition of the 404 INK literary magazine, with the F Word theme, recently became available to purchase.  Check it out here.

Further Reading

Foer, J. S. 2010. Eating Animals. London: Penguin.

Márquez, G. G. 2000. One Hundred Years of Solitude. Translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa. London: Penguin Classics.

McDaid, H. & Jones, L. eds. 2016. Error: 404 INK Literary Magazine. Issue 1 November 2016. Glasgow: Bell & Bain.

Sofaer, J. R. 2006. The Body as Material Culture: A Theoretical Osteoarchaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Solzhenitsyn, A. 2003. The Gulag Archipelago 1918-56: A Experiment in Literary Investigation. Translated from the Russian by Thomas Whitney & Harry Willets, abridged by Edward Ericson Jr. London: The Harvill Press.

Exposing the Dead: Javier Marías in The Art of Fiction No. 190, The Paris Review

15 Dec

Earlier today I came across the Paris Review after stumbling online looking for something to read.  The Paris Review is a well-known literary magazine that is published quarterly and a publication that I have read online on occasion, most often for the insightful and in-depth author interviews.  After glancing through it earlier I spotted one such feature that I had not read before – an enlightening interview with the Spanish novelist and translator Javier Marías.  He is an author who I had come across by chance in a bookstore in Newcastle upon Tyne a few years ago and one that I have come to love after reading his novels A Heart So White and Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, alongside his short story collection When I Was Mortal which I became intrigued by as it offered stylistic snapshots of his writing and intense introspective vignettes.

In a section of the interview Marías discusses his relatives and his personal family history in the tumultuous 20th century, his father’s imprisonment under Franco’s regime in Spain (1939-1975) and the times the family spent in other countries in effective exile during Franco’s rule.  In particular he recalls an instance of the personal face of death within the family…

Interviewer:

‘You sometimes use actual photographs in your novels.’

Javier Marías:

‘Yes, because when I read about an image I like to see it at the same time, be it a painting or a photograph.  But you must be very careful with putting actual things in a novel.  In the first volume of Your Face Tomorrow, there is a moment when the narrator recalls the story of his uncle, who was killed during the war, and how his mother had to look for him because he didn’t come home, and she eventually found a photograph of her brother dead.  That is a real story—it happened to my uncle.  He was killed in the war when he was seventeen.  I did reproduce one photograph, but I knew I could not put in the other one of him dead.  Just as it is told in the book, the photograph was inside this box, wrapped in red cloth.  It is quite a terrible photograph.  I did not dare make it part of a fiction.  You can’t expose the dead too much.’

(Quoted from Fay’s interview in 2009).

I was struck by the last sentence, of how the preservation of the image within the box carefully wrapped contrasted sharply with the limited exposure that it would receive stored in this way.  In this case the photographic image displayed not the living, breathing individual that the family remembered but the final portrait of his uncle’s body, frozen in time.  The context is unclear but the photograph does not need to be seen, at least by the audience, or to be presented in a fictional piece of writing as Marías attests.  The imagined brutality of his death is enough; the truth remaining as memory shared by the family.

Bibliography & Further Reading

Fay, S. 2009. Javier Marías: The Art of Fiction No. 190. The Paris Review. Winter Edition. 179. (Open Access).

Marías, J. 2012. A Heart So White. Translated from Spanish by M. J. Costa. London: Penguin Classics.

Marías, J. 2013. Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me. Translated from Spanish by M. J. Costa. New York: Vintage International.

Historical Lens: The Past and the Present

19 Jun

As regular readers may recall I have a deep love for both historical and modern literature, with a particular soft spot for travel writing or for literary memoirs.  Good travel writing, I find, delves not just into the adventures or mishaps of the writer and the contemporary individuals that they bump into but also of the cultural, geography and history of the places that they visit, as and where necessary.  That there is a sense of the present, but also links to the past and the lure of the future.  As many readers may also know that there have been a lack of posts over the past half a year or so due to a number of factors.  I do apologize, but I have at least managed to read a good many books that may also interest some readers here!

In particular I have recently rekindled a love of Russian literature through the acquisition of the recently published English translation of Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea, by the humorist writer Teffi (the pseudonym of Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya, 1872-1952).  The memoir recounts her 1919 flight from her home in Petrograd (St. Petersburg) to Moscow and then onto to Constantinople (modern day Istanbul, Turkey), in the Ottoman Empire, following the twin revolutions of 1917 with the Bolshevik rise in power and the subsequent Russian Civil War (1917-1922), which tore apart the Russian Empire and ended the rule of the Tsar.  The outcome of the civil war resulted in the birth of the Soviet Union (1922-1991).  It is out of the scope of Memories but Teffi moved to Paris, France, and joined the émigré Russian cultural circle there, a city where she remained for the rest of her life never to return to Russia to write or perform.

Nadezhda_Teffi

Humourist ‘Teffi’, the pseudonym of the Russian writer Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya. Image credit: Wikipedia.

It is an illuminating read and one that richly rewards the reader with Teffi’s sense of humanity and humour in each line of text.  I had not heard of Teffi before I happened to come across and read a review of the book in a newspaper, but this is perhaps not unusual as she has been rarely published into the English language following her death in 1952 and the once-famous poet and feuilletonist, who at one point was read by both Tsar and Lenin, had largely disappeared from sight under the blanket of history.

Memories strongly reminded me of another book of reportage that I had recently completed, Dispatches from Syria: The Morning They Came for Us by the journalist Janine Di Giovanni, which documents her experiences of reporting the unrest on the ground following the Arab Spring protests that rocked the country in early 2011, and a host of others in the Middle East and North Africa from late 2010 to mid 2012, and her experiences of the early stages of the Syrian Civil War (March 2011 – present).  Both Teffi and Giovanni each respectively document the individuals involved in the fighting, the civilian and soldier alike regardless of the faction that they are fighting for or fleeing from.

Acknowledging the Past, Documenting the Present

This blog has always had a relatively humanist core running through the posts that I have published here, and this continues to be the case.  Archaeology though, as a discipline, is never a static subject of study.  This is the case in fact of the archaeological material itself, both through the associated site formation processes at play and through the prism in which researchers view said archaeological sites and their material accumulation.

We are informed of the past through the lenses of our personal bias, cultural bias, and material survivor bias.  The good researcher can recognize these bias, and their filtration into the analysis and research produced, and integrate or parse them aside as necessary, or at least acknowledge them as such.  The great researches uses their bias to illuminate the effect that they can have on the understanding of the nature of the material under study.  This isn’t just limited to researchers though – the artist, the writer, the director, these and others from many different creative fields influence and and document the times and cultures that we both experience and know of.

Memory As Written

Therefore I am always intrigued by travel and memoir writing, by the documentation and views of the traveler writing in depth on the culture and history of a time they knew, how history is contextualized.  One of my most treasured works that I have come across is the Dutch writer Cees Nooteboom’s Roads To Berlin: Detours and Riddles in the Lands and History Germany, which documents his experiences working and travelling throughout the country and its capital city within the greater history ans culture of Germany.  Perhaps I am biased as, having visited Berlin in college and having spent an extended time on a European Union funded archaeology placement in Magdeburg, I have a love for the country and its peoples.  (Alas however as my tongue is no good with languages!).

This could be a matter of mere exposure to something different, something beyond the everyday interaction of your own expected experiences.  There is learning to be had in expanding your literature horizons, however.  I’ve yet to truly delve deep into German literature, but I think I know where I’d like to visit next on my mental map of cultural investigations.

Hopping Aboard A Russian Ark

So, having just ordered a copy of Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich, I am taking a break from the world of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle cycle of books (after recently and ravenously finishing the fourth volume) and instead jumping from the Scandinavian literary scene to the Russian world once again.

On a related side note, I’ve also somewhat belatedly realized during the writing of this post that the banner photograph that I chose for the blog back in 2011 is by the photographer Alexey Titarenko.  It is a detail taken from a single photograph from one of his City of Shadow series (1992 to 1994) which documented life in St. Petersburg at the fall of the USSR, and transition into the Russian Federation, and capture the chaotic political changes and economic upheaval that this brought with it.

This is all really tying in quite nicely with the interest that I have developed in Russia and the country’s history through its literary giants.  Finally, and to complete the cultural immersion of the photographic, literature and film mediums, I am off to watch Sokurov’s majestic Russian Ark, a 2002 film that promises to present a fantastical portal into the imperial history of Russia taken in one stupendous long shot.

Bibliography & Further Reading

Chandler, R. 2014. Stepping Across the Ice: Teffi (1872-1952). Article published September 25, 2014, in The New Yorker. (Includes excerpts of Memories).

Di Giovanni, J. 2016. Dispatches from Syria: The Morning They Came for Us. London: Bloomsbury.

Nooteboom, C. 2012. Roads to Berlin: Detours and Riddles in the Lands and History of Germany. Translated from the Dutch by L. Watkinson. London: Maclehose Press.

Russian Ark. 2002. [Film] Directed by Alexander Sokurov. Germany/Russia: The Hermitage Bridge Studio (St. Petersburg) & Egoli Tossell Film AG (Berlin).

Teffi. 2016. Memories – From Moscow to the Black Sea. Translated from the Russian by R. Chandler, E. Chandler, A. M. Jackson & I. Steinberg. London: Pushkin Press.

Titarenko, A. 1992-1994. City of Shadows. [Photography]. Nailya Alexander Gallery.

Literature Travels

28 Aug

In a brief aside from osteoarchaeology, I thought I’d focus a quick entry on what I’ve been reading lately as I wait for my arm to heal.  I have a particular soft spot for travel literature, so I’ve been delving into some classic books from the 20th century.  Among these are American writer John Steinbeck’s 1962 travelogue Travels with Charley, Austrian writer Stefan Zweig’s 1943 autobiography The World of Yesterday, and the British explorer Wilfred Thesiger’s 1959 memoir Arabian Sands.

By chance my current haul of literature deals with the themes of cultural change (and, in the case of Zweig’s, the devastation of his previous way of life with the rise of Nazism in Europe) and the beauty of the natural landscape in their respective environments.  Thesiger, for instance, relates his constant worries of the impact of petrochemical prospection and development in his beloved and desolate deserts in Saudi Arabia and Oman and the anticipated effects on the Bedouin (Bedu) way of life.  Steinbeck, meanwhile, mourns a population that he barely knows any longer, even as his magnificent and diverse body of work champions their history and lifestyles.

I’m currently in the middle of Thesiger’s memoir detailing his epic 1945-1950 explorations in Abyssinia (modern day Ethiopia) and the Empty Quarter in Arabia (Rubʿ al Khali, one of the largest sand deserts in the world spanning parts of Saudi Arabia, U.A.E., Yemen and Oman).  I’m struck by his lucid description of Bedouin life, of their harsh but close living environments and tight social structures.  As with reading any literature endeavor care must be taken in understanding the motives of the writer, but it is clear that Thesiger held the Bedouin close to his heart and set about emulating and living their lifestyle as close as he could and was allowed to.

During his numerous journeys into the Empty Quarter Thesiger often acted as an impromptu medic, dispensing medicines he had brought with him to his guides and friends as needed.  In one scene he highlights the use of old remedies that have been passed down in Bedu culture:

During the days that I was at Mughshin my companions often asked me for medicines.  Bedu suffer much from headaches and stomach trouble.  Sometimes my aspirin worked, but if not the sufferer would get someone to brand him, usually on his heels, and would announce a little later that his headache was now gone, and that the old Bedu remedies were better than the Christian’s pills.  Bedu cauterize themselves and their camels for nearly every ill.  Their bellies, chests, and backs are often criss-crossed with the ensuing scars.” (Thesiger 2007: 112).

One first thought by me was the fact that branding would certainly make you forget about headaches quickly!

However it also reminded me of perhaps the most famous iceman in Europe, Ötzi, an individual who lived and die around c.3300 BC during the European Chalcolithic period.  Ötzi, whose naturally mummified body represents the oldest so far found in Europe, has evidence for many distinct line and cross tattoos across his preserved body.  The location of the majority of his 50+ tattoos could possibly be related to the underlying pathologies that are present on his bones.

Radiological investigations have highlighted evidence for osteochondrosis and spondylosis in the lumbar (lower back) region, knee and ankle joints in Ötzi’s skeleton, whilst microscopic analysis of his gut has highlighted evidence for a whipworm (Trichuris trichiura) infestation (Dorfer et al. 1999: 1024).  It has been suggested that the tattoos could relate to an early form of acupuncture to help with the pain, or aches, that Ötzi probably felt (Dorfer et al. 1999: 1025), rather than the tattoos reflecting, or assuming, a purely decorative or ritual form (Scheinfeld 2007: 364).

In the case of the brandings that Thesiger describes in his travels with the Bedu above it is obvious that they have a functional aspect in their use as a treatment for illness, but it is likely that there is deeper meaning ascribed to them.  As such I should probably head back to reading the book!

Bibliography*

Dorfer, L., Moser, M., Bahr, F., Spindler, K., Egarter-Vigl, E., Giullén, S., Dohr, G. & Kenner, T. 1999. A Medical Report from the Stone Age? The Lancet. 354 (9183): 1023–1025. (Open Access).

Scheinfeld, N. 2007. Tattoos and Religion. Clinics in Dermatology. 25 (4): 362-366.

Steinbeck, J. 2000. Travels with Charley. Penguin Modern Classics.

Thesiger, W. 2007. Arabian Sands. London: Penguin Classics.

Zweig, S. 2014. The World of Yesterday. London: Pushkin Press.

* Publication dates are for modern editions.

Russian Magic Tales

11 Feb

Lately I have been reading Catherine Merridale’s Red Fortress (2013), an excellent and well researched book on the history of the Kremlin and of Russia at large.  So far I am only half way through the book but I am thoroughly enjoying it.  I’ve written briefly before about reading Russian literature (specifically Gogol, Platonov, Sholokhov, Solzhenitsyn and Tolstoy), but I realised recently my small bedside pile of books has become a small mountain, swelling as it has with a glorious mixture of archaeology, osteology and fictional offerings.  Never being able to resist a bookshop I also added Applebaum’s Iron Curtain (2013) to it, thinking that it would make a particularly good companion piece to Merridale.

On a separate trip to the library I happened to come across Chandler’s 2012 collection of Russian magic tales (which are often termed as Skazka in Russian).  Taken from a variety of Russian authors who span across three centuries, the book represents the authors who had collated and collected the tales and then wrote them down in their own hand.  I have never particularly been into magic tales or folk stories, but upon delving into this collection I found I couldn’t really resist not borrowing the volume.  It also makes a beautiful companion piece to the above two history books, grounding me as it does in the oral cultural tradition of folk tales that have been told for centuries, and in some cases for millennia, in Slavic populations.  The tales are also the perfect length to digest and read through on train journeys, and provided a welcome relief from my somewhat heavier archaeological readings.

babayagaivanbilibin

A representation of Baba Yaga by the artist Ivan Bilibin. In Russian and Slavic folklore Baba Yaga is an ambiguous and often ferocious older women who lives deep in the forest, either helping or hindering those who seek her out. Along with Koschey the Deathless, Vasilisa the Beautiful and other colourful characters, Baba Yaga often pops up in the folk tales of Eastern Europe/Russia. (Image credit: Ivan Bilibin).

I have really come to enjoy reading Chandler’s collection of skazka, particularly in the arrangement of the book itself which forms a readable narrative of the historical documenting of the skazka and of the re-working of some of the skazka by selected Russian authors themselves.  This approach not only highlights the interesting form and content of the tale itself but also briefly documents the historical and cultural context that the author worked in to produce or collate the tale.  Generally the skazka can be viewed as one of three general presentations: scenes from real life, magically tales or tales involving talking animals.  Often they can be mixed but they often include characters (such as Baba Yaga and her three knights) that are used repeatedly in a wide variety of circumstances.

In general folk tales are a valuable cultural resource in a few senses of the term.  Firstly, they are essential in helping to understand cultural modes of oral transmission.  This can be identified in two ways, by either understanding differences at regional or national levels between tales and in parsing, or understanding, the developing identities by solidifying through oral repetition a unifying myth or theme (Chandler 2013: x).  Secondly, they can of course also imbue moral and ethical lessons to the listeners or participants, particularly in the role of individuals in societies (Forrester 2012: 427).  Thirdly, it must be noted that some of the tales are pretty vivid in their detail of the character traits and actions, but this is the fun of reading and hearing the tales.  (I recommend reading them out to get a sense of what the oral tradition was like).  These are real and deeply developed characters that although may change their actions in some aspects from tale to tale, they still largely retain their purpose and description or function.

All in all I am glad I stopped to read through a few of the tales in Chandler’s book at the library, as I feel it has made me appreciate the work of some of my favourite authors a whole deal more.  By making me familiar with several important folk characters in the Slavic folk world, the deeper meaning of some of the recurring characters and folk myths that pervade through Russia’s literature becomes evidently clear.  This is especially the case when I originally read Platonov’s The Foundation Pit (2010), a novel that he wrote during the early Soviet period which includes many allegorical and frank representations of the oral folk body of work.

To my mind folk tales in general are a pivotal part of the rubric of culture, a one that sadly is often missing in the archaeological record.  So if you find yourself on an excavation this summer in the middle of nowhere, why not make a fire, grab a few drinks and tell tales to keep an oral tradition alive?

Bibliography

Applebaum, A. 2013. Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe. London: Penguin Books.

Chandler, R. (ed.). 2012. Russian Magic Tales from Puskin to Platonov. London: Penguin Classics.

Forrester, S. 2012. ‘Baba Yaga: The Wild Witch of the East’. In Chandler, R. (ed.) Russian Magic Tales from Puskin to Platonov. London: Penguin Classics.

Merridale, C. 2013. Red Fortress: The Secret Heart of Russia’s History. London: Allen Lane.

Platonov, A. 2010. The Foundation Pit. London: Vintage.

Quick Mention: ‘Fracture: Adventures of a Broken Body’ By Ann Oakley

1 Oct

I had an hour or so to wait for a friend in York recently so I dived into the main council library to while away the time.  The library, located just up the road from the train station and near the leafy surroundings of the Yorkshire museum, houses a fine selection of books for the bibliophile.  Little did I know, however, that as I meandered over to the social sciences section and perused the shelves I would come across this gem of a book on broken bones and the body by sociologist Ann Oakley.  After reading a page or two I realised I had to get this book out and devour it, perhaps knowing that this was the kind of book that I had hoped to one day write myself.

Any regular reader will know that I love bones, how they are used and studied in the archaeological record to how bone disease has affected and shaped my own life: the skeletal system, in short, is simply fascinating.  Thus the book, with a cover displaying an x-ray of the author’s own comminuted fracture of her right humerus, bade me to borrow it and take it away from the confines of York for a few weeks (it has now been safety returned and I’ve bought a copy myself).

fracturefracture

Oakley, a distinguished Professor of sociology and social policy at the Institute of Education at the University of London and a prolific author, has produced a fine slim volume in ‘Fracture: Adventures of a Broken Body’.  The book’s focal point is the fracture she sustained whilst at a conference in America, how her broken right humerus and subsequent ulnar nerve injury led her to reassess the vitality and human essence of the body/mind connection in modern Western society.  This numbness, an effect of surgery carried out to mend her badly comminuted fracture, led to her dominant right hand losing the sensations of touch and feeling for a sustained period.  As such this fundamentally altered Oakley’s ability to carry out daily tasks, indeed it alters and shifts her perception of her body and her self.  The right hand, so often dominantly figurative and symbolic in society, is, after her accident, now a shadow of its former self for Oakley.

This is further re-enforced by the treatment of her body (but not her experiences or thoughts) by the medical experts, and at the hands of the greedy and extended process of the litigation culture in America.  The persuasive and intrusive nature of surveillance in the medico-legal profession in particular comes under some pretty damning criticism.  The impact of the fall has ramifications beyond the personal and the physical however, as Oakley states that ‘the problem of bodies is that they’re both material objects and the site of human experiences’ (Oakley 2007: 15).

The book’s central tenet is to explore ‘the relationship that exists between the body and consciousness, between the experience of living in a body and being a person with knowledge and understanding, and a distinct individual and social identity’ (Oakley 2007: 32).  The societal view of the body is a particularly stark point in this book, and can make for uncomfortable reading, especially when the attitudes of modern society towards elderly females are explored and highlighted.  Oakley is a well known feminist sociologist and it is when broaching the societal impacts of the perception of the body, particularly when it focuses on the female form and hormone replacement therapy, that this book is on it’s strongest form (Reid 2008).  Oakley repeatably makes clear and succinct use of a variety of sources to counter long held views in the medical profession, especially what the doctor could learn from talking to the patient, and whilst it could be criticised that Oakley overdramatises at times, the book remains highly readable (Watson 2007: 7606).

For me personally, it was wonderful to read a book that ran alongside (and sometimes counter) to some of my own views and experiences of hospital life, especially regarding post-hospital life after a traumatic event.  It is good to agree with views, it is even better to be handed a new paradigm in which to view aspects of life, and it is perhaps this that is one of the book’s many gifts.

This book then is a combination of autobiography, neurology, social theory and literary fiction, detailed with a tremendous range of subjects linked together by the chains of the commonality of the human body; what it experiences and lives through, and how it changes.  By using her own experiences as a defining exposure of the frailty of the human frame, Oakley broadens the theme outwards to engage the audience to think deeply on what it means to be a body and a person in modern Western society, both how we perceive ourselves and how we perceive others.

Bibliography:

Oakley, A. 2007. Fracture: Adventures Of A Broken Body. Bristol: Policy Press.

Reid, M. O. 2008. A Feminist Sociological Imagination? Reading Ann Oakley. Sociology of Health & Illness5 (1): 83-94.

Watson, J. 2007. Fractured: Picking Up The Pieces. British Medical Journal. 334 (7606): 1275.