Early in the week I gazed into the bathroom mirror and spoke my own name three times. I was wondering if my self would appear. It didn’t.
My main read last week was Geoffrey Ward and Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War: An Intimate History, which I somewhat neglected so am only a third complete. On the side I pressed on with Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, at a leisurely pace, and concluded my re-read of ‘The Poems of Yuri Zhivago’.
I decided, after finishing Doctor Zhivago at the start of the month, to read one of the cycle of poems that conclude the book per day. My aim was simply for better comprehension than I would have gotten reading twenty-five poems consecutively; I did not know, though, “what I would get from” the poems, if anything, since poetry really is not a strength of mine.
So what did I “get from” the reading?
Not a whole lot. There were a few stand-out poems – primarily the religious ones – and several brilliant lines (in keeping with the novel as a whole). Most of the poems, though, did not differ substantially from the others. They do echo well the conclusions, or main themes, of the prose novel preceding them – but they seemed more like a shadow of that awesome book than, as the translators state in their introduction, its “true outcome”.
I don’t, as a matter of fact, doubt the translators (I’m sure, actually, that they know better). The prose novel does indeed build to these poems; the fictional author (Yuri Zhivago) is engaged in writing them throughout; and the ‘Epilogue’ features characters speaking about the poems in-world. Yet the book, to me, felt complete at the end of the Epilogue and the poems did not re-frame, or re-contextualise, they merely recapped.
One possibility, a probable one, is that I simply didn’t “get” the poems. Another, that I think also fair, is the inherent difficulty in translating poetry – can poetry really be translated? It is not, I know, necessarily easy to translate prose; but – and I say this with no translation experience whatsoever – poetry must be harder still. Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky translated both the prose and poetry of the edition I read: the prose was “better”. Based, of course, only on the reading experience, not the accuracy of the translation, which I am in position to judge.
I preferred the poems as translated by Christopher Barnes, which I found on the Toronto Slavic Quarterly website. The why is elusive, they just seemed to have a superior flow – which I guess matters as much in poetry as in rap. Also, they rhymed – not that that’s the be all, end all; but Pasternak’s originals rhymed, P&V’s do not.
And that is all I have to say about the cycle of poems. I’ve probably done them a great injustice.
Are You Experienced, Father?
For the past few weeks, The Brothers Karamazov has been a reliable source of humour in my reading. Which fact might surprise some readers averse to classics, or Russians, or Russian classics. It’s funnier than you might expect.
Typically the humour comes courtesy of the paterfamilias (a word I learned from a Dostoevsky work, quite possibly this one), Fyodor Pavlovich and his, let’s say, irreverent ranting. This week, however, the humour came from a different place entirely, a monk: Father Ferapont.
Father Ferapont seeks God through suffering. He is a renowned faster, speaks infrequently, and is thus a contrast to some other monks, most notably the Elder Zosima (an important figure in the novel). I also get the impression that Ferapont is viewed by the other monks, including the monastery leaders, as a bit of sacrifice, in that he taking on the more traditional and burdensome display of faith allows the other monks not to – the food he is given by the monastery is described as “an offering”.
What is the reward for Ferapont’s hardships? The man sees devils! He communes with the Holy Spirit! And the Holispirit (whatever that is)! Surely, then, his mode of Christianity is the correct one…
But there may be something else to these visions than the monk’s devotion. When praised by another monk for his steadfast fasting – “you eat just bread and water, and as much bread as we’d [i.e. the other monks] eat in two days lasts you a whole week” – Ferapont reveals he has another source of food… mushrooms.
“I can do without their bread, I don’t need it at all, I can go to the forest and live on mushrooms and berries…”
Mushrooms. ‘Shrooms. Thus, I find myself inclined to believe Ferapont’s visions (and a smidge envious of him, too). That is, I believe he “sees” what he says he does. I completely missed this detail in my first read of the book. Ferapont, though, may be in excellent company: we know well the effects of certain plants, I wonder only: what type was the burning bush?
The Vietnam War explains “Operation Rolling Thunder” lasted for three years, flew around one million flights, and dropped around three-quarters of a million tonnes of explosives on Vietnam. Robert McNamara (U.S. Secretary of Defense, 1961 – 68) reflected some years later that “Rolling Thunder” had been based on a fallacious assumption, namely that the “Viet Cong” would yield to the immense firepower. They didn’t, obviously.
But that’s just background information. Do you know what I immediately thought when I read “Rolling Thunder”? Bob Dylan and his ‘Rolling Thunder Revue’ concert tour. Makes sense, right? The pre-eminent chronicler, in my opinion, of the “Vietnam era”. But… no connection.
Here’s Dylan explaining: “I was just sitting outside my house one day thinking about a name for this tour, when all of a sudden, I looked into the sky and I heard a boom… Then boom, boom, boom, boom, rolling from west to east. So I figured that should be the name.” (CBS)
I guess it’s just a coincidence then, but it is a nice little correspondence. Dylan’s a bit of a myth maker too, so maybe he’s lying (I hope it’s not sacrilege to say that).
When I read, earlier this year, Giles Whittell’s Bridge of Spies, what impressed me most was Whittell’s accounts of the precarious political positions of the leaders (Eisenhower and Khrushchev). Here were two nominally powerful men who seemed unable to meaningfully pursue the outcome (peace) they most wanted. The same thing is in evidence throughout Ward and Burns’ account of Vietnam.
Of particular note are these words from President Johnson (Lyndon, not Andrew): “A man can fight if he can see daylight down the road somewhere. But there ain’t no daylight in Vietnam. There’s not a bit.”
Despite this inner conflict though, LBJ’s presidency saw a huge increase to US military operations in Vietnam, including the previously mentioned “Rolling Thunder”. The Vietnam War and Bridge of Spies both attest to the fact that world leaders have to appease more than their own consciences: political parties, senates, parliaments, media, voters, etc., all have some effect on outcomes.
The words LBJ spoke to his daughter Lucy one night, in a clearly ruminative mood, really struck me: “Your daddy may go down in history as having started world war three. You may not wake up tomorrow.”
It is not only leaders who found themselves conflicted, however. McNamara, mentioned above, eventually came to consider any American involvement in Vietnam a mistake and had privately urged LBJ to “get out” somehow on several occasions.
Nor were the soldiers, on all sides, without turmoil. The mother of Mogie Croker, a US soldier killed in the war, recalled: We were at dinner one evening… talking in generalities about the war. And [Mogie] said, ‘Of course if I were Vietnamese I probably would be on the side of the Viet Cong.’… I suppose Mogie was relating it to our American Revolution, that he saw their need for their own freedom. But as an American citizen, he also saw the larger picture of trying to prevent Communism.”
Similarly, an ARVN (South Vietnamese) soldier, remembers coming under fire: “I didn’t want to die for these rotten people using these tactics… What did this have to do with the needs of the people in my village? I was ashamed and disgusted… so, yes, I hid my head and fired at random.”
The Vietnam War (the book, that is) began with this statement from the authors: “There is no single truth in war, as this difficult story reminded us at every turn.” Only a third of the way in, I’m already convinced of the truth of this. An American intelligence officer is later quoted: “There were many Vietnam wars… I saw a different war from my friends who were in infantry units…”
The many Vietnam wars…
So, yes there were many, and I can’t cover them all: I don’t think even Burns and Ward can do that. Here are just a few of those other wars.
The family of Mogie Croker had their Vietnam war. They chose a burial in Arlington, not local, because, his mother said: “If he were buried near us, I would want to claw the ground to retrieve the warmth of him”. That’s brutal, this is bleak (sorry).
Le Minh Kue, of North Vietnam, recalled “Even death becomes routine, and we had to live – so even during airstrikes we chitchatted. [In the interest of the revolution, she recalled, young volunteers were asked to observe] Three Delays: Don’t fall in love. Don’t marry. Don’t have children… But in fact… no one waited. Even in such chaotic times we enjoyed moments of peace and beauty.”
If they had not then, surely, they would have given up the fight. A slight transgression, I do wonder how long people would have kept up the pretense of life stopping because there’s a deadly virus? Le Minh Kue says, we had to live – I’m not pretending to feel what she felt, but that I get.
The journalists’ wars…
The Vietnam War is remembered as the first televised war, there were journalists, print and television, aplenty. Seventy-four [American, I think, the book is a little unclear here] journalists and photographers were killed covering the war. Non-combatant status is not much of a shield, bullets and explosives are indiscriminate.
One journalist, Joe Galloway, was forced to confront whether, not being a shield, non-combatant status was a pledge – and who would be pledged to? The “allies”, the “enemy”, humanity? When he came under fire and was instructed to man a machine gun, Galloway explained his non-combatant status. It was given short shrift: “Ain’t no such thing [as a non-combatant] in these mountains, son.”
Galloway “settled in behind the machine gun.” I don’t think he can be judged harshly for it, war is a moral confusion.
Lastly, I want to mention a man who has not been mentioned much in the book (so far): Horst Faas. The sole mention of him came in disturbing circumstances: “[U.S.] Lieutenant Colonel… Emerson… was tough, implacable, and relentless: he once offered a case of whiskey to the first man in his unit to bring him the hacked-off head of an enemy soldier. (When he made good on that promise the photographer Horst Faas immortalized the winner and his grisly trophy.)”
Indeed. Well, I couldn’t find that photo – I’m not even sure whether “grisly trophy” refers to the whiskey or the head, I could find neither. But I did find Faas’ other photos and they are simply stunning. Vietnam has no shortage of incredible photos, some among the most famous of all time. Below is just one of Faas’, which captures, I think, something mentioned elsewhere in the book: “How can a place like this, so beautiful and enchanting, be at war?”
At war it was, and I’ll warn you that if you look up Horst Faas’ work it won’t all be pretty. I still encourage you to – there can be a strange beauty in ugliness – just remember it’s a war he’s photographing. (Also, if anyone does know the photo referred to in the passage above – whiskey or head – please let me know).
On a lighter note…
How can we end that on a lighter note? Maybe jarringly, maybe not. LBJ, as noted, was conflicted about the war, and tiring of the instability of the Southern Vietnamese government – they were in-fighting as much as they were fighting the North. Johnson wanted results in the war:
“He was interested in “high-sounding words” he told the Vietnamese, he wanted genuine achievements – what they called in Texas “coonskins on the wall.”
Now, if only LBJ, like me, had watched ‘Archer’ he would have known that idioms don’t always land:
Archer: "take a knee" [Noah: "that won't translate. It's like last week when you said..."] Archer: "lend me your ears" [Noah: "I can't do idioms - sorry"] Archer: "you don't change horses in mid…" [Noah: "Idiom! Idiom!"] Archer: "because your mouth has been writing checks that your butt can't cash" [Noah: "Do you even know what an idiom is?" Archer: "colloquial metaphor"] (from Archer, ‘Heart of Archness: Part II’)
Alas, Johnson had not seen ‘Archer’ – whether that had anything to do with ‘Archer’ not existing yet we can only speculate – SO Bui Diem, who heard LBJ’s colloquial metaphor, was left confused:
“Nobody understood what ‘coonskins’ meant… So people in the Vietnamese delegation asked me, ‘You understand what it is?’ I didn’t and had to ask some Americans to explain it to me.”
Thanks for Reading! If you made it this far, you’re a champion, this post grew legs and I have no desire to pare it back.
Feel free to comment below about anything at all, even if it’s only tangentially related to what I’ve written. How has your reading been lately?
- The Vietnam War: An Intimate History, Geoffrey Ward & Ken Burns (2007, Ebury Digital, 2018)
- The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky, tr. Pevear & Volokhonsky (1880, Vintage, 2004)
- Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak, tr. Pevear & Volokhonsky (1957, Vintage, 2011)
- ‘The Poems of Yuri Zhivago’, tr. Christopher Barnes (Toronto Slavic Quarterly)