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Vol. 19 No. 18 · 18 September 1997

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Those Awful Serbs

Charles Simic was certainly given licence to plead the Serbian cause by way of reviewing Tim Judah’s book on the subject (LRB, 31 July). I was reminded of a meeting with the poet in the mid-Seventies, when he came to read for the creative writing programme I was directing at the local college. After a fine reading, some of us repaired to a colleague’s home for a nightcap, where, after a drink or two, someone divulged to Simic that I was Turkish. Whereupon Simic got up and delivered the most vicious and bigoted diatribe against my people, the gist of which was that Turks are the most brutal people on the face of this earth.

I tried to respond that it was not accurate to equate the Turks with the Ottomans, whose rule over the Balkans was no harsher than their heavy hand over the Anatolian Turks. Besides, the Janissaries who were responsible for the alleged brutality were not Turks at all but Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, Macedonian, Circassian, Albanian, Bulgarian or Greek boys ‘culled’ from their homelands before puberty and trained for statesmanship as well as for war. I pointed out that the Ottomans had recognised soon after engaging in hostilities with the lesser Slavs that youths whose origins were Serbian proved to have prodigious talents for mayhem, pillage and bloodshed. After all, I asked, wasn’t Vlad the Impaler, also known in fiction as Dracula, the national hero of the Serbs? Vlad had the turbans of an Ottoman peace mission nailed to their heads because they failed to remove their headgear in his presence – a gratuitous cruelty which precipitated the Ottoman conquest of his homeland.

But Simic was not listening. The other two poet-profs sat like stones, faces closed. They either agreed with Simic (after all, history shows us that it has never been politically incorrect to rag on the Turks), or else they did not want to become involved in a Balkan conflict History repeats itself. The turn has come for Serbian chauvinists to take the world’s disapproval and contempt. Now that the shoe is on the other foot, Simic doesn’t like it.

An interesting note in Lord Kinross’s The Ottoman Centuries informs us that in their search for robust and aggressive boys in the Balkans, the Ottomans never took into their Janissary corps those boys who were the sons of Serbian pig farmers: boys of this particular background were too brutal and brutish even for the Ottomans. Charles Simic tells us in his poems that he’s descended from Serbian pig farmers.

Güneli Gün
Oberlin, Ohio

Charles Simic writes: So, I’m supposed to hate all Turks! That must be why I listen to Turkish music, cook Turkish dishes and have Turkish kilims on my floors. I have no recollection of the event. I may have said plenty about the brutality of the Turks in the Balkans and was probably unpersuaded by Ms Gün’s claim that for five centuries it was never the Turks, but always the local Balkan boys disguised as Turks who massacred their own people. As for Dracula being the Serbian national hero, she’s got the wrong country. It’s a long way from Transylvania to where I was born.

Child Abuse and Other Ideas

Is Ian Hacking being ironic when he writes (LRB, 21 August) that the ‘idea of social construction is wonderfully liberating’; the argument being that once we accept its validity and potential range of application, we become free to interpret such unpleasantly real phenomena as child abuse or schizophrenia as concepts, and go on from there to understand the often devious ways in which, as concepts, they are exploited, misrepresented etc. I wonder how real this attractive-sounding freedom is, however, and how many people will ever grasp its possibilities. It sounds to me more academic than pragmatic. It could be argued that the knowledge that the idea of child abuse is a social construct sets us free to argue about the reality rather than do anything to remedy it. And argued also that ‘social construction’ may be just as deterministic an idea as that of the ‘natural’ construction it is required to replace. You can recognise the power of the forces that go to construct a social construction without thereby empowering yourself to deconstruct it in any useful way. I’m reminded of the old, rather likeable Marxist belief that once people realised that the sociopolitical arrangements under which they were obliged to live were a capitalist rather than a divine imposition, they would want to rise up as one and change them. It didn’t happen that way, and I can’t see why the ‘liberation’ promised by the ‘idea of social construction’ should be any more influential.

Malcolm Carpenter

High Horses

How often in a year does the LRB review fiction in translation? My guess is no more than once or twice. So why spend a whole page knocking A Book of Memories by Péter Nádas (LRB, 21 August)? Michael Hofmann obviously did not like the book: he could have said that briefly and then gone on to review a new translation he did like – or does such a book not exist? The English media pay so little attention to literature in translation that it seems a shame to waste space on knocking copy.

Hofmann singles out ‘Carcanet and the inestimable Harvill Press’ for their commitment to translations, but seems to forget that many other independent and corporate publishers continue to bring out translated work without much encouragement from either the book trade or the media. There is no point reviewers getting on their moral high horses when they themselves are a major part of the problem.

This February we published Floria Tosca, the first novel by an Italian writer, Paola Capriolo, to be translated into English. The only national reviews the book got were in Scotland and Ireland, the English media, in their self-sufficiency, could not be bothered to review it – not surprisingly sales were very poor. Recently we published the book in the United States: a full-page review in the New York Times made it clear that Floria Tosca was the work of a major writer. The effect on sales was phenomenal, especially as readers could download the first chapter from the New York Times website and then order the book from the site. If the English media and the book trade will not give their support, they cannot expect publishers to continue sinking time and money into translations.

Serpent’s Tail (and other publishers of translations) consider dozens of books in foreign languages for every translation we undertake. Our selection is not random: I am absolutely sure that all the foreign writers we publish make an important contribution to their national literature and so to world literature, whatever that might be. Michael Hofmann has every right to think that a translation he reviews is utter rubbish – but I would rather he assumed there were good reasons for a publisher choosing to publish it.

Pete Ayrton
Serpent’s Tail

We reviewed 12 novels in translation in the past 12 months – so don’t blame us. Why give so much space to a negative review? Has Mr Ayrton read the other reviews? Does he believe them?

Editor, ‘London Review’

Not a Sausage

In his review of Donald Rayfield’s Life of Chekhov (LRB, 21 August), James Wood mentions that Bunin supplied Chekhov with an ‘anecdote about a deacon who ate all the caviar at a funeral party’. Nina Berberova once told me how in the hungry Paris of 1946 she invited some fifteen people to her birthday party, and the most precious treat awaiting each guest was a piece of bread with a slice of kolbassa on it. Bunin had come first and while talking with her unhurriedly moved around the table lifting kolbassa slices from each plate. When the other guests arrived only pieces of bread were left.

Valentin Lyubarsky

Keeping his Marbles

Armand Marie Leroi’s review of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel (LRB, 4 September) was a welcome reminder that both history and culture are inextricably enracinated in biology. But when Diamond asks, in Leroi’s paraphrase, why ‘a handful of small European nations engaged and conquered the world’, there may not be a causal answer in the scientific sense.

Consider the mathematical thought experiment named after George Polya. Place both a black marble and a white marble in an urn. Now close your eyes, reach in, and take out one marble. Then put it back, together with one more of the same colour. If you keep doing this for a while you might reasonably ask whatwill be the expected ratio of black to white marbles as their numbers grow. The answer is that all proportions are equally probable. Further, if you plot a graph of the count of white marbles against black as their numbers increase it quickly settles down to a straight line, the gradient of which is the random proportion just mentioned – the line is equally likely to point in any direction, but, once established, it continues straight. Any empiricist seeing such a straight line and not knowing its source would assume that its gradient represented the workings of some physical law and had a value pertinent to that law.

There are many things in the world that may come about in the same way: for example, the number of IBM pcs v. Apple Macs, or the number of right-handed as opposed to left-handed people, or the relative wealth (material, cultural or military) of Europe and Africa. It may make no sense to ask why the proportions are what they are: they could just be a consequence of the Polya urn’s message that unto every one that hath shall be given.

Adrian Bowyer
University of Bath

Why He Tattled

Christopher Hitchens, in his review of Whittaker Chambers: A Biography (LRB, 31 July), notes Alger Hiss’s testimony before the House Un-American Affairs Committee in August 1948 that he had not technically known Chambers during their association in the mid-Thirties, only ‘George Crosley’, one of Chambers’s pseudonyms. Hitchens observes that ‘not since Oscar Wilde regretted the ugliness of his serving boy while under oath has any cleverly crafted reply exacted such a stiff price.’ What he does not mention is that while Chambers at first denied to the Committee ever having resorted to using a pseudonym with Hiss, he admitted to the FBI in June 1949 that it was ‘entirely possible’ he had done so. Chambers also claimed that he had never used the ‘Crosley’ alias during his years as a member of the Communist underground and insisted that he had always been ‘Carl’ to his espionage contacts in the Federal Government, which he alleged included Hiss, speaking to them in a heavy European accent at all times. If Chambers used ‘George Crosley’ rather than ‘Carl’ with Hiss, for whatever reasons, it suggests that Hiss was not a Russian spy.

James Hamilton

‘Nicole?’ ‘Papa’

John Sutherland’s otherwise excellent review of The Car that Could (LRB, 21 August) incorrectly describes Tracy Kidder’s The Soul of a New Machine as ‘the story of the “breakthrough" VAX mainframe computer’. First, the VAX is a minicomputer, not a mainframe. The VAX was indeed a ‘breakthrough’ system – the first 32-bit minicomputer – and revolutionised the market when introduced by Digital in 1978. VAX systems are still in production nearly twenty years later. This brings me to the second error. Kidder’s fine book actually concerns the development by Data General of the MV-8000 Eclipse minicomputer, in response to the VAX. In fact the Eclipse was never able to compete effectively with the VAX, although this was due more to poor marketing than to technical weakness.

Nicholas Barnes

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