lørdag den 24. februar 2018

The Conquest of New Spain - Bernal Diaz (1632)

The Conquest of New Spain
“The Conquest of New Spain” is a first-hand account of the Spanish discovery of Mexico and subsequent conquest, written by one of the soldiers in Cortes expedition, Bernal Diaz.

For those unfamiliar with that particular event, these were a number of expeditions that set out from recently settled Cuba in the period 1517-21 to discover new land with potential riches to be found. Two expeditions, both joined by Diaz as a regular soldier, discovered Yucatan and the land behind it (Tabasco), land settled by Indians of a higher culture than what they had found on the Caribbean Islands and, not least, rumors of a mighty empire rich in gold.

This triggered a third and much larger expedition to find this mysterious Mexico and Cortes was send out with a few hundred soldiers to see what could be found. As it happened Cortes found the Mexicans (the Aztecs) and first befriended them. Later when things turned sour he barely escaped Mexico City, but with a reinforced army he went back and conquered Mexico.

The uniqueness of this particular account is that it was not written by some dusty historian or colored by political or religious agendas, but presented in vivid details by one on the guys on the ground. Bernal Diaz view is of course his own and he was a Spaniard of the 16th century with all that entails, but barring that the account is surprisingly objective and the portraits of his officers and opponents has all the positives and negatives of real life characters. It is as if Diaz has concluded that the events themselves were heroic enough as they were, there were no reason to dress up or exaggerate anything, not even a white wash to make anybody look good. The result is a very readable, very realistic and incredibly informative story and one that I just flew through. This is exciting reading.

Let us first get a few misunderstandings out of the way. The few Spaniards (400 man strong initially) did not beat the crap out of the huge Mexican army because they all came with firearms and just gunned them down. This is still early 16th century and firearms a few, expensive and unreliable. There was a detachment of musketeers along, but the majority was fighting with swords, lances and crossbows. Arms not terribly different from those the Mexicans had. The Indians were much more impressed with the horses the Spaniards brought, but eventually the Mexicans learned how to counter them and they were of limited value in the actual conquest. Instead Cortes was an excellent diplomat and when he learned about the internal divisions among the Indian city states he cleverly exploited that and gained a lot of local allies among the Indians, not unlike the Romans in their time. During most of the battles the numerical majority of his forces consisted of allied units. Secondly the Mexicans relied heavily on signs and advice from their gods, which resulted in random and of counterproductive actions including a prophecy that some white bearded men from the sea would come to conquer their lands.

A post-colonial view on the Spanish conquest would easily view the whole affair as an imperialistic landgrab and plunder of an innocent indigenous people. This is not entirely wrong. They did want land and convert souls and particularly find gold. Diaz makes no excuses there. But in their view the Mexicans where an evil empire that had suppressed and enslaved the entire region and used their slaves as human sacrifices to their gods and munched on their flesh. In their eyes they were liberating the country from these vermin. I certainly find it difficult to entirely discredit the Spanish for unseating the Mexicans, although their missionary zeal does not look particularly good, nor was it very helpful for their operation. Interestingly, it is their accompanying priests and friars that keep Cortes in check and makes him tone down the religious zeal.

lørdag den 6. januar 2018

The Trials of Persiles and Sigismunda: A Northern Story - Miguel de Cervantes (1616)

The Trials of Persiles and Sigismunda
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra is famous for having written “Don Quixote”, deservedly considered a classic novel. What may be less known is that Cervantes himself considered another book to be his masterpiece. On his deathbed he finished “The Trials of Persiles and Sigismunda” (or “The Travels of Persiles and Sigismunda”), the book he wanted to be remembered for.

Cervantes was wrong. Where “Don Quixote” has earned its place in popular culture “Persiles and Sigismunda” has largely disappeared. And for good reason. It is not anywhere as good as “Don Quixote”. Not even close.

“The Trials of Persiles and Sigismunda” is a “road movie” or the equivalent in literature, following the journey taken by two young characters, the heroic Periandro and the matchless Auristella, and whatever retinue they may pick up, from a barbaric island in what I presume is northern Norway to their destination in Rome. In the course of this journey they suffer an endless string of mishaps and accidents that all threatens to kill, separate or at least marry them off against their will. These are not minor events and Cervantes gets points for inventiveness: Human sacrifice to an evil god, shipwrecks, pirates, sorceresses and lovesick kings, princess, crown prince and dukes.

Each challenge is quickly presented and solved in three to ten pages and on to the next challenge, an episodic form reminiscent of the picaresque novel. That is good for pacing, but it is also too fast. I cannot help comparing it to an endless tv-series of half hour episodes each with a resolved, almost independent story.

The book is divided into four parts: The sea journey to the land of Hibernia, the stay at Policarpo’s court on Hibernia and their escape, the land voyage through Spain and France and finally the climactic ending in Rome. Of these the second part is maybe the most interesting part. It is relatively static, the party is stuck on the island as guests of King Policarpo, but it involves at lot of people, each with their agenda and a situation that is spinning out of control.

There is a lot of potential in the story. The framework of it makes for an interesting tale and the challenges are inventive, coupled with a host of interesting characters. Where it goes wrong for Cervantes is in his desire to write a refined book. That means a book in exquisite language and with a moral gravity. This becomes a straitjacket rather than an asset, especially to the modern reader, and the first victim is the humor and sardonic wit that made “Don Quixote” such an ageless pleasure to read. Without this, Cervantes is reduced from exceptional to standard and it is difficult to see why this story should be regarded as anything special.

Still I have a nagging feeling that Cervantes could not help himself and exaggerated the religious themes so much that it became almost sarcastic. I have no proof of it, but it is possible to read the ending in that context. Persiles and Sigismunda has for the duration for their journey been posing as brother and sister under the names Periandro and Auristela, but we know they love and are committed to each other. Especially Persiles has been going through hell to serve and save Sigismunda repeatedly. Yet, at the end of their journey Sigismunda tells him, without blinking, that, sorry dude, I cannot marry you, I want to devote my life to God. This is a very pious move, but also completely outrageous given the ordeals they have been through and totally without regard for Persiles feelings. A part of me wants to think that this is Cervantes slam at the church, but I am not convinced because it is also completely in line with the tone of the entire book. He might actually mean that this is a good idea.

lørdag den 30. december 2017

Happy New Year 2018

Happy New Year 2018
Here we are again, the last day of the year. Another year went by and that one went super fast. It feels like yesterday I was sitting here writing a New Year post.

In any case, Happy New Year to all readers of this blog. May 2018 bring happiness and joy to all.

So, what happened in that split second that was 2017?

My movie project is continuing more or less as planned. I went from movie no. 368 on the List to no. 422. That makes 54 movies, exactly the same as last year. This has brought me from 1959 to 1963.

I cannot say that I am overjoyed with the List in the sixties, though. My apprehension at all the experimental and obscure films I saw on the horizon was not unfounded. It seems more the rule than not when my reviews take a negative slant, especially when you add the massive amount of French new wave films of which only a few have struck a chord with me. There are highlights of course, and I live and breathe for those, but all that junk taking up space on the List has also encouraged be to introduce a new feature on my blog: two to three movies each year that should have been on the List. It turns out that these years are not actually as terrible as they look on the List, that there are several movies out there that ought to be there instead of some of that dross I am committed to watch.  

I get some help from Bea at Flickers in Time to pick my off-list movies (thank you for that, Bea!) and while I may still be missing some truly wonderful movies, at least I get to pick up some obvious mistakes of the editors. Adding the off-List movies to my count makes it almost respectable too.

On the movie side I also keep discovering new 1001 blogs, which I add to my blog roll. It is great to see there are still people who take on this project and I love reading what other people have to say about the movies I have watched.

On my book blog things are happening in a far more sedate pace. 2017 saw me adding 6 books to my list, which certainly does not sound like much, but is actually better than my stated goal of 5 books per year. It becomes a little better when I add that two of the books completed were 1000 pages bricks, Gargantua and Pantagruel, which I hated and Don Quixote, which I loved. I am in full swing with the next one and expect to review it in January.  Maybe my count sounds better if I add that those 6 books cover a 50 year period. Yeah, now I feel I can hold my head high…

Sadly, I have found very few book blogs doing this project. If anybody knows of such sites, do let me know and I will add them to my blog roll.

Again, I wish everybody a great 2018. May you all enjoy the movies you watch and the books you read and all the things that matter a lot more than movies and books.

Thomas Sørensen




fredag den 10. november 2017

Don Quixote - Miguel Cervantes (1605 - 1615)

Don Quixote
It has been a while since my last post, but it has been time well spent. For the past four months I have been reading “Don Quixote” by Cervantes and me being a slow reader, a thousand pages does take a bit of time.

“Don Quixote” was a great experience. In fact, this is by heaps and leagues the best book on the List so far. It was never an ordeal to read this book, on the contrary, I enjoyed myself immensely.

The story is famous, incredibly famous, actually, and many of the elements has gone into popular culture, also in Denmark, and stayed there. I even saw a cartoon series on the Don Quixote and Sancho story on my son’s children channels. I just never read it before and frankly, I do not know anybody who has, at least outside blogging circles. And that is truly a shame.

Don Quixote is a middle-aged man who has read so many romantic chivalry novels that he has decided they are real and that he should be a knight-errant himself. He sallies out from his village in La Mancha, first alone, but later with a local farmer, Sancho Panza as his squire. Don Quixote is delusional, and Sancho is simpleminded (but also shrewd) and together they are a comical sight. Their search of adventure is a continual string of disasters and when they finally encounter true adventure they miss out on it.

The equivalent today would be a super hero story, of somebody imagining that he had super powers and that his mission in life was to rescue the innocents from monstrous beings. “Kick-Ass” would be a good example. This very familiar analogue makes the story completely relevant today. Don Quixote imagines he has obtained medieval super powers and the comedy is watching him fooling around.

There is a cruel streak here. Especially in the beginning the fun is at his expense and it might not go down so well today, but as the story goes on the cruelty subsides and you sometimes wonder who the fools really are. Maybe Don Quixote is the one who is actually right, and the rest of the world has turned cynical and mean. Sancho as well develops from the butt of jokes to the eyes through which we see the world with other, less prejudiced, eyes. His term as governor is a good example of that.

“Don Quixote” is actually two books. The first, released in 1505, is a meandering story with a lot of subplots with very little connection to the main theme and with only limited character development. The second, from 1515 is a lot more focused on a plot line and includes some very interesting elements worth mentioning. The meta element is expanded a lot. Already in the first book the story is told as if it was translated from a Moorish writer called Cide Hamete Benengeli, as what today would be called “found footage”. In the second book Don Quixote meets people who has read the first book and therefore know the story of everything that happened until the beginning of the second book. They know him as an entertaining fool and Don Quixote’s adventures here are largely other people playing tricks on him. Later he even encounters people who have read a piece of “fan fiction” about Don Quixote and Don Quixote goes out of his way to prove he is not the character described there.

By focusing on Don Quixote and Sancho and especially their dialogue we also get the character fleshed out and the sympathy for them grows.

The comedy works incredibly well. My favorite topic is the 3300 lashes Sancho has to give himself to dispel the peerless Dulcinea del Toboso from the enchantment inflicted on her and Don Quixote’s pleading him to get on with the lashing. Every time it is brought up I am chuckling. The picture is so vivid. Another fantastic image is that of Don Quixote demonstrating for Sancho what crazy antics he will go through to demonstrate his love and despair for his Dulcinea, out there, in the hills of the first book.

“Don Quixote” may be a comedy about how stupid you get from reading chivalric romances (or super hero cartoons), but it is also a story that forever has defined the chivalric theme. Who today knows about Amadis or Orlando? Instead we know of Don Quixote and Sancho.

Highly recommended!


onsdag den 2. august 2017

The History of Thomas of Reading, Or the Six Worthy Yeomen of the West - Thomas Deloney (1600)

Thomas of reading or The Six Worthy Yeomen of the West
After the grueling read that was ”The Unfortunate Traveller” I was not looking forward to ”Thomas of Reading or The Six Worthy Yeomen of the West”. I suspected it would just as challenging, but I was relieved to find that it was a much easier and far more pleasant read. Whether or not this stems from the fact that my edition was a copy of a print from 1827 I do not know. It could be that the language was modernized for this edition, but I suspect it was not. It felt archaic, but not illegible and the style of writing was far more accessible than “The Traveller”.

“Thomas of Reading” is not a normal novel. There is very little in terms of progressive story. Rather it is a series of intermezzos involving a limited group of people centered on a group of clothiers in provincial England. One is trying to have an affair with a hostess at an inn, another is murdered by another host and hostess. One is having trouble with thieves stealing his wares and find that executioners are difficult to find and some get good friends with the king who recognizes the clothiers as the backbone of the country.

The closest the book gets to an actual plot is the story of the high-born Margaret, who when her father the Earl falls from grace finds herself alone and destitute and becomes a maid with one of the clothiers. While nobody realizes she is a noble lady she does get a lot of admirers and finally runs away with one of them, a duke who happens to be the kings rebellious brother. When the king finds out his brother has run away he gets royally pissed and it end badly for Margaret and the duke.

I get the clear impression that the book is based on some folk tales going back to medieval times. Certainly there are references to a time well before that of the writing and hints that the events of the story have fostered local legends, place names and traditions still known to the reader in 1600. It is very possible that the author, a Thomas Deloney, has elaborated on these stories and thereby created this tapestry of events.

This is a very entertaining read. The author is not blind to the comical aspects of the situations and much of it still works these four centuries later. It is also a far more tender story than what I have been reading lately, It does not dwell as much on mutilation and gore, even when it gets juicy, and prefers to tone it down, which suits me just fine. That is perfectly in line with the positive note the book is playing. We get praise rather than condemnation, success rather than failure and hard times are mostly used as a moral lesson. This could all make the story somewhat tame, but the colorful writing gives it plenty of juice.

I was laughing aloud from the tale of the clothier’s wives who went to London and discovered a world of feminine luxuries to the chagrin of their husbands. Ah, nothing has really changed… Another hilarious story was that of the clothier who wooed an innkeeper’s wife and went to very elaborate trouble to tumble her only to get caught red-handed by the innkeeper.

“Thomas of Reading” will never be considered the greatest book ever written, but it is a very enjoyable one and easy enough to access to make it recommended. I could think of worse books to bring along with me on a plane.

It will likely be a while before my next post. “Don Quixote” is hefty brick of a thousand pages…


tirsdag den 4. juli 2017

The Unfortunate Traveller - Thomas Nashe (1594)

The Unfortunate Traveller
I received my copy of ”The Unfortunate Traveller” by Thomas Nashe while in the midst of the literary purgatory which is “Gargantua and Pantagruel” and was therefore well pleased to see that “The Unfortunate Traveller” was very thin and probably an easy read. That was deceiving. It is printed in a very small font and retains the original old English text complete with odd spellings and obscure meanings. This was a very tough read indeed!

I will not claim that I understood everything, quite the contrary. I was often left bewildered by sentences that seemed to give key information I entirely missed. So I am not entirely sure what is going on here, but the gist of it is thus:

The narrator, one Jack Wilton, has ended up in Europe as part of some war involving the English king. Jack is a prankster who pulls some stunts that backfires badly. I am sure these shenanigans would be hugely entertaining if I had understood what he actually did. Something about telling the cider seller that the king was suspecting him of treason and convincing a minor officer that he would win lots of glory if he undertook a particular suicide mission. In any case Jack leave the army in disgrace and takes on a tour of the continent. In Germany he gets involved in a religious raucous that end poorly and in Venice he get arrested for another person’s crime. He escapes with a girl to Rome where he gets into even more trouble. This involves his landlady being raped and killed with Jack accused of the misdeed. Saved in the nick of time he proceeds to be caught by a Jew (yes, this is highly anti-Semitic!) who sells him to a doctor to be cut up in anatomy class and finally he becomes a sex slave of a local noble woman (oh horror).

This is a book that starts out as a comedy, at least that seems to be the intention, but ends as a gruesome cautionary tale with terrible torture and villainy. Several people are killed in the most terrible manner, described in bloody detail and usually with a lengthy speech from the killer or the victim. I cannot say that was amusing to read.

Thomas Nashe has very little respect for anybody. Nobility, clergy, burhgers, and Jews, everybody get a rap and are described as depraved and vicious. That would probably have amused a lot of people in the late 16th century and would certainly have been daring, but this was also a time where the English Crown was at odds with the rest of Europe and a text that would make the English look good and continent depraved and amoral would have been welcome. That indeed seems to be the purpose of the text.

Even us Danes gets a blast:

“With the Danes and the Dutchmen I will not encounter, for they are simple honest men, that with Danaus daughters do nothing but fill bottomles tubs, & wil be drunk & snort in the midst of dinner”

To which my wife said nothing has really changed…

Had “The Unfortunate Traveller” been rewritten with modern spelling and wording I would have enjoyed it a lot better or at least understood it. Whether I would actually have liked it is doubtful though. It dwells far too much on human misery and violence be an enjoyable read.       

fredag den 26. maj 2017

Monkey: A Journey to the West - Wu Cheng'en (1592)

Monkey: A Journey to the West
“Monkey: A Journey to the west” is one of those stories that is a lot older than the actual publishing. When Wu Cheng’en wrote and published the story in the 16th century it was already an old folk legend that had probably mutated a lot over the years and there are likely many parallel stories over the theme. I have already encountered a few such stories (old Chinese legends), so this is not so much a story of the 16th century as a 16th century window into a traditional story.

Anyway, the story of the Monkey king is famous, also in the west. I remember watching cartoons on television in my childhood about the adventures of the Monkey king and although these shows are very faint in my memory I do recognize the tales in the book. The Monkey king Sun Wukong is a naughty and disrespectful fellow with immense powers. He jumps around on clouds and get into all sorts of trouble and that is great television for children.

As a book it is a little different. It is both a product of a different time and a different culture and it shows. From a modern, western perspective it is a story full of holes, strange jumps and awkward resolutions. You can have a carefully built up scene that gets resolved in two lines or hazards appearing out of nowhere. Responses of characters and those they meet are often weird, even bizarre and there is a repetitive pattern to the story that makes me grateful that what I read was a much reduced version compared to the original 100 chapter story.

Back in the seventh century the Buddhist monk and scholar Xuanzang went on a mission from Tang dynasty China to India to find and bring back holy Buddhist scriptures. This is a real historic event. In the folk legend however Xuanzang was accompanied by a number of disciples whose function was to keep the monk out of trouble. The Monkey was the foremost one of these (The others were Zhu the Pig and Sha the Monk) and in the legend he is far more central than the monk. In fact, he is a far more developed character than the rather one-dimensional Xuanzang,

The book can be divided into three segments.

The first and in my opinion the best one is the origin of the Monkey King. How he was created and lived in a valley lording it over his fellow monkeys and how he travelled the world to study to become immortal. Having achieved that status the next logical step was to challenge the celestial world. No matter what the heavenly powers did they could best him and all their attempts at sidetracking Monkey resulted in even worse trouble. When he ends up sabotaging the Jade Queen’s peach party they have had enough and trap Monkey under a mountain for 500 years. It is from this prison he is released in return for serving as a protector for Xuanzang.

And does he need a protector. For a master and important person he is incredibly helpless. Constantly he walks into trouble, and mostly deadly ones, typically involving a demon wanting to eat him. And every time Monkey will have to save him. About half the time Monkey manages on his own, no thanks to the other disciples, but just as often Monkey has to return to the celestial palace for some assistance. You would think the master is grateful, but, nah, his principles are more important and often Monkey is dismissed for some offense or another. The first few challenges are interesting enough but the pattern is always the same and I am actually grateful that some of the challenges can be resolved in less than ten lines. It gets really boring.

Finally, however, Xuanzang and company arrive in India, visit Buddha and get some scriptures to bring home. Everybody are happy, especially the monk who is flown back in eight days whereas the voyage out took 14 years. There is a lot of religious hokus pokus about how important this mission was and the end.

For a modern reader this is a story that needs some reworking and it probably has had that over the years. In its current form it is interesting, but rarely engaging. Fortunately, my copy had a lot of beautiful Chinese prints and that went a long way to stay my interest. Probably not a book I would read again, but not a book I regret reading.