Sunday, January 27, 2013

Book Review: "1492" by Felipe Fernández-Armesto

1492: The Year the World Began (2009)  

Felipe Fernández-Armesto (1950)

346 pages

“In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Children learn this rhyme in school to help remember the year of the voyage that changed the course of history. In his book 1492, however, historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto argues that Columbus’s discovery of the New World was only one of a number of significant events that occurred world-wide in (and around) 1492, and that together have had a lasting impact on the path of world history through to our present day; as his subtitle states, 1492 was “The Year the World Began.”

Fernández-Armesto opens with a chapter in which he describes European understanding of world geography in the 1400’s, and how a growing group of geographer with an interest in exploration were, in part out of self-interest, beginning to argue that the world was actually much smaller than Eratosthenes of Alexandria had (correctly) calculate around 200 B.C. He also explains his choice of 1492, clarifying that though the events he describes in the subsequent chapters have a tie-in to 1492, they were not necessarily each reaching a turning point precisely in that year. 1492 is a marker for Western societies --- a famous way-point in our understanding of our history --- but Fernández-Armesto wants us to understand that the path of development of the world’s societies over the last 500 years can be traced to events in the late 1400’s.

In the remaining chapters we are taken on a truly Grand Tour of the 15th century world. Fernández-Armesto describes events in Spain, where the final victory of the Catholic Reconquest over the Moors occurred in 1492; this was followed a few years later by the expulsion of the Sephardic Jews, and he recalls their varying degrees of success in settling around the Mediterranean. He reviews the histories of the competing kingdoms of western Africa in the 14th and 15th centuries, where Islam was spreading into pagan lands, and from there the struggles in Catholic Italy as the beginnings of Protestantism were stirring. To the east, we learn about the growth of the small principality of Muscovy into what would become Russian, as the centuries old Mongol domination in the area disintegrated, and farther east yet how the Chinese were turning inward and largely abandoning maritime exploration as the Confucians tightened their grip on power. The thriving markets among the states around the rim of the Indian Ocean are described (highlighting at the same time the relative backwardness of Europe): Fernández-Armesto argues that the success of these markets left little motivation for these states to explore westward beyond Africa or eastward into the Pacific, and as a consequence their leadership would begin to wane after 1492 as Europe gained momentum through the exploitation of the New World. Finally, of course, Fernández-Armesto describes the voyages and discoveries of Columbus, his motivations and experiences, and the Indian societies that lay just beyond his view, on the continents of the New World.

The effect of reading each chapter is one of spinning the globe, having it stop at a particular point, and then zooming in to a region and getting a glimpse of its history. Fernández-Armesto descriptions lie more to the narrative or anecdotal side than a straight, dry telling of history. This makes the book a fascinating survey of the history of parts of the world I would venture to say few readers will have learned much about in the normal progression of history classes in school. And, as Fernández-Armesto makes clear, these are not just ancient histories with no bearing on our present; the histories of these areas have led to the wealth distribution and conflict points of our modern day world. Just as one example, the current front-page stories covering the conflicts and violence in and around Mali make the history in 1492 come to life in the descriptions of the warring empires in that same area in the 1400’s, as societies sided with the Islamists or the pagans, and the Tuareg people of the desert north struggled against the prosperous peoples of the Niger river valley.

Fernández-Armesto’s approach lends a wonderful story-like feel to the histories he tells. At the same time, it can be a bit frustrating if one tries to follow the details more closely. In each chapter, it is as though he began with an idea that he wanted to expand on, and then followed a bit of a stream of conscious path from that beginning, proceeding with a description of one sequence of events or of one person’s life, and then, when it encountered a point of contact with another interesting history, switching to follow that path or person. Thus it can be a bit difficult at times to step back from the interesting stories and try and piece together the bits into a coherent understanding of the period being discussed.

The stream of conscience feel of the book comes out in another way: I found odd occurrences of repetition at several places in the book --- a phrase would be used and then repeated a few lines later. (As I did not mark those when I encountered them, and I am having trouble looking back and finding an example, I must leave this ‘accusation’ undefended, but it was something that struck me at several points in the book.)

Also a bit disconcerting for me were instances where Fernández-Armesto makes unequivocal statements about what he considers false understandings of some aspect of the history he is covering. One example from among several in the book:
The conventional explanations [for the success of Spanish conquests in the New World] --- that the Spaniards were inherently superior, that they were mistaken for gods and preceded by omens, that their technology was decisive, that disease undermined defense, and that their enemies were subverted by corroded morale – are all false. But a glance at the Aztec and Inca realms in about 1492 helps explain how so dramatic a debacle was possible.

I am not a historian, having simply a layman’s interest in the subject, but from other books I have read the precise explanation for the success of the Spanish conquest is a matter of on-going debate among historians, and not a settled point that allows the string of explanations that are listed above to be bluntly labeled as “false”.  This dismissal of the complexity of the history on this particular topic, and similar condemnations on other topics in the book, can seem to undermine the general authority of the histories presented.

These observations aside, however, 1492 is an engaging and informative survey of a point in history in which, as Fernández-Armesto states, “a new world, the world we are in, began to take shape.”

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Monday, January 14, 2013

Book Review: "Poems of Arab Andalusia" by Cola Franzen

Poems of Arab Andalusia (1989)
selected and translated by Cola Franzen (1923-)
from the Spanish collection Poemas Arábigoandaluces (1971) by Emilio García Gómez

92 pages

”In the year 711 a Berber army under Arab leadership crossed the straits of Gibraltar from Morocco in continuation of a series of raids which had been going on for some time. … Within a few years the entire [Iberian] peninsula lay at their feet.” Thus began (as quoted from the opening paragraph of Richard Fletcher’s Moorish Spain) almost 800 years of Islamic rule on the peninsula, until the Spanish Reconquest pushed the Moors from their final foothold, the Kingdom of Granada in the southern region known today as Andalusia.

During those centuries the Arabs established kingdoms in al-Andalus, as they referred to the peninsula, in which Christians and Jews could for the most part live in peace, if not necessarily complete equality, with their Islamic rulers. Though debate continues between historians who feel that this period of multiculturalism has been idealized and those who see it as a potential blueprint for our future, it is clear that a cultural exchange flourished that was to have long-term benefits for Western Europe. Through the connections that developed between members of the different religions at the time, Western Europe was introduced to the scientific advancements of Arabic scholars and re-introduced to works of ancient Greek writers and philosophers that had been lost for centuries. (I have included references to two histories of this period at the end of this review.)

The Arab kingdoms did not, however, simply pass along the cultural advances of their brothers in North Africa and the Middle East; they developed a rich and impressive cultural tradition of their own. Most famous are the architectural wonders of these kingdoms, the cathedrals, palaces and gardens, such as the Alhambra in Granada, the great mosque in Córdoba and the Giralda in Seville. Less well-known is the tremendous importance of poetry in the cultural life of the kingdoms of al-Andalus, particularly in the early centuries of Arab rule. Walking through the palace of Alhambra, one is surrounded by poetry, carved into walls at every turn; the walls are only silently beautiful though for anyone without knowledge of Arabic --- the beauty of the words, lost.

Poems of Arab Andalusia, goes some way to rectify this great loss, however, by collecting some six dozen or so poems from the Arabs of al-Andalus. The works, many only a few stanza long, have been translated by Cola Franzen from the Spanish, and, as Franzen states in the introduction, are selected from a larger collection translated from Arabic into Spanish by the Emilio García Gómez, and published in the book Poemas Arábigoandaluces; García Gómez had found the poems in Cairo in 1928, in an unpublished anthology created by Ibn Sa’id.

Franzen describes the poetry in this collection as having been written by “rulers of all sorts … and others simply known as poets.” The themes may be commonplace --- love found, love lost and inspiring beauty; in the delicate but powerful words of these poets, however, images are crafted that shimmer with life.

The Arabs who came to Andalusia found a lush, green land of high mountains and long river valleys; in these opening stanzas from his poem The Valley of Almería, Ibn Safr al-Marīnī (11th century) wonders at the beauty of his native land in the south-eastern part of Andalusia:
Valley of Almería!
God grant that I never see
myself deprived of you!
When I look on you I tremble
as an Indian sword trembles
at the moment of tempering.

And you, friend, here beside me,
enjoy this time, for there are delights
in this paradise not to be found
in the eternal one.

See how excited the river is?
Listen to its murmured applause
sounding beneath the dancing trees
that arch over it
wearing garlands of blossoms.

The branches sweep their sleeves
over the silvered surface of the river
then lift them up
scattering pearls.

Ṣafwān ibn Idrīs (of Murcia in the late 12th century) fairly burns the page with desire in his poem My Beautiful One, which concludes:
Once I went out with her when the
shelter of night and her cape
let me mingle the fire of my breath
with the fire of her flaming cheeks.

I clasped her as a miser clasps
his treasure, and bound her tightly
with the cords of my arms
lest she escape like a gazelle.

But my chastity did not permit me
to kiss her mouth
and my heart remained huddled
over its embers.

You may well marvel at one
who feels his entrails on fire
yet complains of thirst
while holding the quenching water
in his throat. 

And the torment of parting is laid bare in Leavetaking, by Ibn Jākh (of Badajoz in the 11th century), which closes with the lines:
Beneath the veils
tears crept like scorpions
over the fragrant roses
of their cheeks.

These scorpions do not harm
the cheek they mark.
They save their sting
for the heart of the sorrowful lover. 

The amazing poems of this collection are much like beautiful paintings: they can be enjoyed over an over again, each reading revealing new depths of meaning and emotion.

Other reviews / information: Although I have not reviewed these books for this blog, I found them to provide fascinating histories of the period of the Moors in Spain.
Moorish Spain by Richard Fletcher
Ornament of the World by María Rosa Menocal

Other of my book reviews: FICTION and NON-FICTION

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Book Review: "The Angel Esmeralda" by Don DeLillo

The Angel Esmeralda (2011)  

Don DeLillo (1936-)

211 pages

[Standing on the highway overpass] I watched and listened, unaware of passing time, thinking of the order and discipline of the traffic, taken for granted, drivers maintaining a distance, fallible men and women, cars ahead, behind, to the sides, night driving, thoughts drifting. Why weren’t there accidents every few seconds on this one stretch of highway, even before morning rush? This is what I thought from my position on the bridge, the surging noise and sheer speed, the proximity of vehicles, the fundamental differences among drivers, sex, age, language, temperament, personal history … it seemed a wonder to me that they moved safely toward the mystery of their destinations.
from the story Hammer and Sickle
“[It] seemed a wonder to me that they moved safely toward the mystery of their destinations.” This idea lies at the heart of each of the nine short stories of this collection by Don DeLillo. Characters look out in wonder at the people around them --- both friends and strangers --- never quite able to come to an understanding of the lives they see, though feeling at times a deep connection lying just beyond comprehension. These same characters gaze also inward, at their own behaviors and attitudes, and find themselves driven by impulses whose origins they can only dimly fathom.

But the stories are not simple meditations on existence. DeLillo places each of his characters into a charged situation that challenges the order of the lives they have created for themselves, and then allows us to watch as they struggle to make sense of it. In the title story a nun in New York City who helps the poor finds herself joining them in contemplating the significance of a vision on a street corner that appears in the wake of a tragedy. In another story two friends walk the streets of their small university town inventing stories about the people they see, until one day they find themselves drawn deeply to an old man they repeatedly encounter and they begin to question the goal of their game. In a third a woman meets a stranger at an art exhibit and through an apathetic indifference allows him to drift into her life, until suddenly she finds things have gone farther than she had realized. In each of these stories the slow paced action on the surface contrasts with the increasing tumult and uncertainty of the characters thoughts as DeLillo forces them out of their routine, mindless existence and onto unexpected paths.

The stories are best read slowly, savoring DeLillo’s deliberate construction and wonderful phrasing. I found the staccato rhythms of his character’s thoughts and the questions that suddenly bubble up into their consciousness about their lives to be authentic representations of the way we pass through our world.

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