Shattered: Essay # 1, Benjamin Labatut’s When We Cease To Understand the World

Self finds that so many of the books she’s read this year have a bearing. For instance, the book she started the year with: My Heart, a translation from the Bosnian by Semezdin Mehmehdinovic. The author is one of those displaced immigrants who cannot feel at home, not here in America, even though he has raised a son who is so very American in his nonchalance.

And All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days, by Rebecca Donner, about Donner’s great great-aunt Mildred Harnack, who was part of a plot against Hitler and was executed in 1942.

Essay # 1 in her current read, Benjamin Labatut’s When We Cease to Understand the World, is about Fritz Haber, the brilliant Jewish chemist who directed the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry and is credited with the invention of Zyklon.

Labatut:

  • Haber had converted to Christianity at twenty-five years old. He identified so closely with his country and its customs that his sons knew nothing of their ancestry until he told them they would have to flee Germany. Haber escaped after them and sought asylum in England, but his British colleagues scorned him, aware of his instrumental role in chemical warfare. He had to leave the island not after arriving. Thenceforth, he would travel from country to country in the hope of reaching Palestine, his chest gripped with pain, his arteries incapable of delivering sufficient blood to his heart. He died in Basle in 1934, clutching the canister of nitroglycerine he needed to dilate his coronary vessels, not knowing that, years later, the Nazis would use in their gas chambers the pesticide he had helped create to murder his half-sister, his brother-in-law, his nephews and countless other Jews who died hunkered down, muscles cramping, skin covered with red and green spots, bleeding from their ears, spitting foam from their mouths, the young ones crushing the children and the elderly as they attempted to scale the heap of naked bodies and breathe a few more minutes, a few more seconds, because Zyklon B tended to pool on the floor after being dropped through hatches in the roof.

GIs Enter Berlin: Summer 1945

The two groups of people — American and German — encounter each other for the first time, free of the filter of government propaganda. German women check out the newcomers. Actress Hildegard Knef makes note of GIs’ “tight buttocks.” LOL

Throughout the war, America had been portrayed as “the enemy” — greedy and rapacious. Concurrently, “the American military leadership had ordered their soldiers to maintain a strict but deliberately unfriendly relationship towards the Germans . . . the Americans had always stressed civilian mass sympathy for and participation in the Nazi regime. For Americans, most Germans were fanatical Nazis and incorrigible criminals. In view of this, the American military leadership had prepared their soldiers for a ruthless subjugation of the enemy and, in April 1944, forbidden any kind of fraternisation. No handshakes, no exchange of words, not the slightest approach of any kind was permitted. As they rolled in, the GIs were all the more surprised by the friendly reception they were given by pretty women and admiring youths, and they couldn’t get enough of the grateful reactions prompted by the cigarettes and chocolate that they handed out of the jeeps in spite of the prohibition.

With the Americans, an unfamiliar army entered the country. The locals admired everything about them as they passed: their relaxed sitting postures, the confident laughter, their casual way of smoking. “The GIs’ shoulders were as wide as wardrobes, their tight buttocks as narrow as cigarette boxes,” as Hildegard Knef put it in her memoirs. They were described as bursting with health, as unusually life-affirming and, we read repeatedly in numerous eyewitness reports, as being as “naive as children.”

Aftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich, 1945-1955, pp. 149 – 1950

Water, Water Everywhere (WWE) Challenge: The Mighty Pacific

Still reading Conquering the Pacific: An Unknown Mariner and the Final Great Voyage of the Age of Discovery, by Andrés Reséndez.

p. 174:

  • On the morning of May 1, the San Jeronimo cleared the capacious bay of Acapulco and entered “the true sea that makes all others appear like rivers and puddles.” — Juan Martinez, soldier, 1 May 1566

For the WWE Challenge, a view of that same ocean, viewed several hundred miles north of Acapulco. Self took this picture last month on the Mendocino Headlands. It was a very cold day. A storm was approaching.

Still cannot get over the fact that leagues and leagues east, on the other side of that ocean, is self’s home country, the Philippines. There is nothing between self and the Philippines except WATER. Imagine crossing that expanse in the 16th century, at the mercy of currents and the vagaries of wind.

Many attempts were made to reach the Philippines after Magellan. Villalobos reached it but left immediately after. Miguel Lopez de Legazpi arrived in 1565 and stayed to become the Philippines’ first governor (Legazpi was pretty old, for an explorer: he was in his 50s. His nickname was El Adelantado)

Legazpi had his two grandsons with him, both teenagers. One, Felipe de Salcedo, 18, became captain of Legazpi’s flagship, the San Pedro, on the vuelta.

What an incredible feat. Truly. And such courage for an 18-year-old. They almost didn’t make it.

His younger brother, Juan de Salcedo, 17, stayed and made a home for himself in what is now the province of Vigan. His grandfather died a year after arrival in the Philippines, but Juan de Salcedo spent the rest of his life there, even bringing his widowed mother and his sister to the islands! (These Salcedo women must have been made of very stern stuff: the trans-Pacific crossing, in the sixteenth century, was no walk in the park)

Monticello Plantation, Sentence of the Day

“At the time of my visit, of the eighty-nine tour guides, only four of them were Black, and three of the four were a part of the incoming class that had yet to officially begin their jobs.” (How the Word Is Passed, p. 39)

The above is not the Sentence of the Day. This one is:

  • “Many African-American interpreters who have worked here . . . it’s been challenging, because people say some pretty insensitive and unbelievable things.”

January Reads: A Comparison of Now and Then

2022

  • My Heart: A Novel, by Semezdin Mehmedinovic, translated from the Bosnian by Celia Hawkesworth
  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the verse translation by Simon Armitage
  • All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days, by Rebecca Donner
  • Castle Shade, #17 in the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series, by Laurie R. King
  • How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning of the History of Slavery Across America, by Clint Smith

2021:

  • Women Without Men: A Novel of Modern Iran, by Sharnush Parsipur
  • The Relentless Moon, #3 in the Lady Astronaut Series, by Mary Robinette Kowal
  • No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention, by Reed Hastings with Erin Meyer
  • High as the Waters Rise, by Anja Kampmann, translated from the German by Anne Posten

Fathers and Sons 2

The narrator decides to take a road trip with his son, has many fascinating things to say about the desert landscape and people they encounter along the way (the most recent encounter: a group of “German bikers” in, of all places, Furnace Creek, Arizona) Nevertheless, this trip is no bed of roses. The son, Harun, is a stickler for procedure. He is a photographer, and setting up his shots is a complicated process.

Harun is frowning, because I’m slowing him down in his journey. I say: “Is there anything in the world more complicated than the father-son relationship?”

We both have frequent attacks of melancholy.

My Heart, p. 87

The father is a pessimist. Not only that, he’s Bosnian. Sarajevo was pummeled by the Serbs, not too long ago. (“… when I think of my first experiences of unbearable desolation, I see an image of the autumnal dissipation of the world, an October forest smelling of decay.” It can be no walk in the park to go on a road trip with a father having such autumnal thoughts)

My Heart, p. 76

For the second day in a row, no prompt from bloganuary. Where are these prompts going? She’s been checking her spam folder. Nada. When she presses on the bloganuary link, she gets a message: YOU ARE ALREADY A MEMBER OF THIS SITE and nothing else. Does any one else on WordPress have this problem?

Still enjoying My Heart, though it is not a novel. It is more a travel book, or a collection of essays. Who knows, maybe Semezdin Mehmedinovic has nothing in common with the main character: Maybe he never had a heart attack, which prompts such loneliness that he contacts his estranged son. Or maybe he did have a heart attack, but not at 50. Or maybe he did have a heart attack at 50, but doesn’t have an estranged son.

Whatever the reason, the book seems merely an excuse fro Mehmedinovic to let his wonderful, supple mind wander — for example, a few pages ago, there was a meditation on the word macadam, which exists as makadam in Bosnian.

Father and son are on a surreal trip through Arizona. There’s been wonderfully quirky insight on every page.

Without further ado:

  • The front bumper of Harun’s pickup truck is broken, which makes it look mistreated and vengeful. Conscious of its threatening appearance, he abused it today on Artists Drive, a narrow one-way road that winds through the hills in the heart of Death Valley; he drove close behind a white Toyota Prius, which evidently alarmed its driver, who stopped to let it pass. In this country people are wary of trucks.

They are.

Illustration from My Heart, p. 74

Coda

Anonymous = Marta Hillers

She moved to Switzerland and passed away 2001. A Woman in Berlin, first published in the 1950s, was re-published after her death and immediately caused a sensation. Self desperately hopes that the rest of Hillers’s life was happy.

Friday, June 15, 1945:

I found a copy of Tolstoy’s Polikushka and read that for the umpteenth time. Then I plowed through a collection of plays by Aeschylus and came across The Persians, which, with its lamentations of the vanquished, seems on the surface well suited to our defeat. But in reality it’s not. Our German calamity has a bitter taste — of repulsion, sickness, insanity, unlike anything in history. The radio just broadcast another concentration camp report. The most horrific thing is the order and the thrift: millions of human beings as fertilizer, mattress stuffing, soft soap, felt mats — Aeschylus never saw anything like that.

Saturday, June 16, 1945:

I haven’t been writing. And I won’t be, either — that time is now over.

A Woman in Berlin, p. 257

SPOILER ALERT

Gerd, the long-absent boyfriend, resurfaces, well-fed and healthy. In shock, he tells the author: “You’ve all turned into a bunch of shameless bitches, every one of you in the building. Don’t you realize?” He grimaced in disgust. “It’s horrible being around you.”

She gives Gerd her diaries, “there are three notebooks full.” He says he can’t find his way through the scribbling.

“For example, what’s that supposed to mean?” Gerd asks, pointing to Schdg.

Schandung,” of course — rape. “He looked at me as if I were out of my mind but said nothing more.

A Woman in Berlin, p. 260

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

Life Goes On

Far from being bleak, as this book nears the finish line, eight weeks after the Soviet Army occupied Berlin, stories of individual women who managed to avoid the Russian soldiers emerge (All throughout this book, self would just like to say, the narrator’s comparisons of the Russians with Berliners showed how much more open Berliners’ sexuality was. For instance, no Russian soldiers propositioning German men — this was worthy of notice!):

Stinchen, the eighteen-year-old student, has finally come down from the crawl space. The scars from the flying rubble have healed. She played the part of the well-bred daughter from a good home perfectly, carrying a pot of real tea from the kitchen and listening politely to our conversation. Apparently our young girl who looks like a young man also managed to come through safely. I mentioned that I’d seen her in the stairwell last night. She was arguing with another girl, someone in a white sweater, tan and quite pretty but vulgar and unbridled in her swearing. Over tea I found out that it was a jealous spat: the tanned girl had taken up with a Russian officer . . . more or less voluntarily — drinking with him and accepting food. This evidently irked her young friend, who is an altruistic kind of lover, constantly giving the other girl presents and doing this and that for her over the past several years. We discussed all of this calmly and offhandedly over a proper tea. No judgment, no verdict. We no longer whisper. We don’t hesitate to use certain words, to voice certain things, certain ideas. They come out of our mouths casually as if we were channeling them from Sirius.

A Woman in Berlin, p. 181

Ripples

Germany surrenders and suddenly the temperature is lowered at least 50 degrees: that is, Russian soldiers stop terrorizing the populace and begin to practice some restraint.

The narrator looks back on what she has endured and tries to puzzle out her future (The “red flag” she refers to in the passage below must be the Russian flag: She was enamored enough of Communism — idealistic enough — to travel around Russia. She even enrolled in school in Moscow. That must have been why, when the Russian soldiers arrived, she tried to practice her Russian on them. Poor, naive woman!)

When I was young, the red flag seemed like such a bright beacon, but there’s no way back to that now, not for me: the sum of tears is constant in Moscow, too. And I long ago lost my childhood piety, so that God and the Beyond have become mere symbols and abstractions. Should I believe in progress? . . . The happiness of the greater number? . . . An idyll in a quiet corner? Sure, for people who comb the fringes of their rugs. Possessions, contentment? I have to keep from laughing, homeless urban nomad that I am. Love? Lies trampled on the ground. And were it ever to rise again, I would always be anxious, could never find true refuge, would never again dare for permanence.

A Woman in Berlin, p. 176

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