what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Courage of Women

By sheer coincidence, I have been reading these last few days two stunning books which turned out to have strong similarities in their focus on parts of rural Europe before and during the second-world war. 
The underlying message of both is courage and commitment.

The first – Eleni - was published in 1983 and is the story of a Greek woman in a mountain village who was executed by Communist guerrillas in August 1948, one year to the day before the end of the civil war in Greece which killed 158,000 people. 
Eleni was not a freedom fighter, a terrorist or a secret agent – she was a mother who had been trying to save her children. The tale it tells is the most powerful I have ever read about those times – and places – unsparing in its analysis of the behaviour of individuals in exceptional times.
The book was written by her son Nicolas Gage (who arrived in America at the age of 9 and eventually took up a position as foreign correspondent in Athens from where he was able to conduct the interviews for the book which). 
Of course much of the detail he offers is “invented” – the book straddles the space between biography and novel and is all the more powerful for that reason. 
The only equivalent book I know for its sheer power is Oriana Fallaci’s "A Man". Of course, I knew about the bitter struggle in the 1940s for the soul of Greece but have never actually read anything like this before about it.   

The other book – A Wild Herb Soup; the life of a French countrywoman - had been lying unread in the mountain house for almost a year; was published in 1991 and is the story of a French woman who lived in a small village in the mountains near the French border with Italy. Her village is thoroughly agricultural, and for most of her life she knows nothing but the farm.
Her life was harsh - the environment unforgiving. Her mother is struck by lightening at the age of 23 as she works in the fields, and her unread and patriarchal father must raise his large family alone. Emilie develops into an independent thinker, remarkable given her surroundings. While education is scoffed at by the farmers books become an early passion for Emilie.
Her intelligence is recognized by the prefecture, and her teachers persuade her father to accept a scholarship so that Emilie can continue her education into what we would call "high school". Emilie's family seems to be singled out by the gods, as death claims nearly all of her brothers and sisters save one -- and the one sister is committed to an institution. The sister's husband is irresponsible drunk, and so Emilie and her father take care of four young ones.
As Emilie continues her education with aspirations of becoming a teacher, her mind continues to grow. The Great War ends any trust she has in the government or religion. She realizes the injustice of everything -- the millions of farmhands dying for the sake of aristocrats in Paris. She remembers a conversation with her brother (who died on the last day of the Great War), one that had a profound impact: "You'd see," he'd tell me, "All that stuff the teacher told us, about patriotism and glory -- well, it's nothing but nonsense and lies. He had no right to have us sing 'Wave little flag'. What does it mean, anyway! Can you tell me?" I did not know. I did not see. 
And so she becomes a pacifist – the man who became her husband was already an anarchist. The book is a rare testimony to such people. It has encouraged me to pull off my shelves the unread book on the subject - Anarchist Seeds Underneath the Snow.

Each book gives an amazing sense of what it was like to live in such mountainous villages a hundred years ago – with their poverty, cold, gossip but occasional solidarity and beauty. These days we romanticise such places but the spirit of these extraordinary people needs constant celebration….I know of only one review of each book – both books deserve so much more although Eleni has been made into a film; and A Wild Herb Soup did become a European best-seller in the 1990s, thanks to its American translator.  
Living, as I now do in summer months in such a (Transylvanian) village, I feel a particular affection as expressed in this 2 year-old post
One of the important themes in Geert Mak’s biography of a village is the encroachment of the outside world on tradition and solidarity – initially through roads; then labour-saving devices; money replacing mutuality; then television; european legal requirements for livestock; and, finally, urbanites buying and/or building houses in the village. Other books also cover this theme - eg Blacker's Along the Enchanted Way(Transylvania); Alastair McIntosh's Soil and Soul; and Robin Jenkins' Road to Alto - an account of peasants, capitalists and the soil in the mountains of souther portugal (1979). Alto in Portugal was a self-sufficient economy, with a stable, sustainable agricultural pattern practiced for centuries. There were no major disparities, and people helped each other during the occasional drought. The community didn’t need many external inputs. This utopia could have gone on forever, but for the coming of a six-kilometre tarred road. The farmers moved to cash crops and the cash economy; soon, the village was not producing enough food for itself and became dependent on external seeds, fertilisers, finance. The middlemen gained the most from this conversion. The old socio-economic structure, where everyone had their place and nothing much ever changed, no longer exists. In its place there is a system in which any land becomes increasingly seen as a potential source of profit. The old stability and predictability gone forever, to be replaced by the competitiveness and the mentality of a gold rush. All because of six kilometres of tarred road 
The pace of change has been slower in this village where I stay; few outsiders like me - although my old neighbour pointed out yesterday (as we were returning with 4 hens he had bought in a nearby town of Rasnov) a house which a Frenchman is apparently restoring. 
My acceptance in the village is helped, I’m sure, by my friendship with old Viciu; and by the fact that I live without ostentation (having kept the traditional features of the house – and driving a 15 year-old locally-produced car!!) But you have to get used to a lot of questions – about where you are going; what you are doing; how much things cost you – and comments about your sneezing and nocturnal movements! That’s why I laughed out loud at certain sections of Mak's book which cover these exactly similar features – “people usually proffered unasked explanations for any action that was out of the ordinary, for anything that could appear not quite normal. You explained why you were walking round behind your neighbour’s meadow – “it’s more out of the wind there”   
The painting is one from my collection - an unknown Bulgarian by an unknown painter.  

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