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Friday, November 30, 2018

Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen): Nairobi, Kenya

I had expected Africa to be hot, but Nairobi was not, due to the altitude, which was right at a mile high, and perfect for cultivating coffee. 

The air was cool under the trees, and there was a soft, light breeze. I was in Kenya for two weeks on as a volunteer consultant for an economic development program to develop marketing materials and to develop a system for communication among smallholders in order to achieve economies of scale and to improve the markets. It was a fascinating project and there was a sincere desire to make things better for people in rural areas. It was not easy, though. 

The Danish author, Isak Dinesen (real name, Karen Blixen) lived in Kenya for 17 years as she tried to make a go of her coffee plantation. It was a turbulent time in terms of politics and also in terms of her emotional life, all of which she captures in Out of Africa, which was written long after she had moved back to Denmark.
 Blixen published under the name, Isak Dinesen, for English-speaking audiences. I have no idea why.  I think that no one cares about the name the author uses; they care about the writing. Karen Blixen lived in Nairobi, Africa, in a suburb now named “Karengata” which means Karen’s home. The suburb is an exclusive one, now, and all the homes have walls and security services. There are lush gardens, green lawns, and large, shade-imparting trees.

Karen’s house is a one-storey rock building, a farmhouse with multi-paned windows, a steep red tile roof, and long winding paths that crisscross the grounds. The suburb, Karengata, is near the lovely Ngong hills that she visited frequently during her years in Kenya (1917 to 1931).

I visited one cool, cloudy afternoon, and the greens had a super-saturated hue, and one felt the magic of possibilities. During Karen’s years in Africa, Karen established deep bonds of trust with the Masaii people and their culture. She came to deeply appreciate the changes in the politics, and the conflicts over land, influence, and control of resources. Her experience, however, was difficult, and at the end of the day, she failed to make her farm economically viable.

One thing that interests me about the process of writing the novel is that was written in 1937, years after Karen had moved back to Denmark. Like Wordsworth’s “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” (1798), Out of Africa was written years after the events happened and in a different location, which means that work is freighted with an unforgettable emotional element.

Blixen's (Dinesen's) work is shrouded in nostalgia, regrets, and memories of a glorious, youthful time of intense experiences and feelings. In addition to trying to make her family’s farm a success, Karen went lion-hunting and explored the African veldt in a small plane flown by her pilot friend, a man she could never have, but whom she dearly loved.

The novel is drenched in a hot, bright Africa sun, the Rift Valley area with its thorn trees, grass lands, massive shallow lakes that radiate a shimmering pink hue as thousands of flamingos stand knee-deep in the waters brimming with fish.

Out of Africa was one of fellow author Carson McCullers’s favorite books, and there is a photograph in Carson McCullers’s house that features Karen Blixen and also Marilyn Monroe. 

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Alexander Pushkin’s home in St. Petersburg, Russia.

The famous poet of heroism lived in a house that was actually a palace. Of the Russian aristocracy, Pushkin was also descended from an African King, General Abraham Petrovitch Gannibal, of a tribal kingdom near present-day Cameroun. Pushkin was proud of his heritage, and often refered to himself as "afrikanitz" (African).

The day I visited "Pushkin House," was in late June, still in the season of "White Nights" where the sun touches the horizon, just to eerily glow light again on the other horizon. It rained almost every day, and in the photograph on the walkway to the house, I am carrying a borrowed umbrella. It was before 9-11, the ruble had just crashed, and you could see signs of economic suffering everywhere.  Elderly people on pensions were reduced to begging, retired professors were selling their books for cash, and there was talk of violence and the Russian mafia. In fact, I saw a man groaning under the bridge across the Neva River near my dormitory at the Herzen University, where I was studying for a few weeks.

I was delighted to have the chance to visit Pushkin's house, whose poetry I admired. It was not necessarily easy to visit.  First, I felt a bit uncomfortable because there was a great deal of resentment toward foreigners or outsiders, who were viewed to have contributed to the collapse of the economy. To my surprise, however, I was constantly mistaken for a Russian. I was learning Russian and could understand at times up to 50 or 60 percent of what was being said (but sometimes that dropped to around 10 percent).

We took a car to the palace, paid our fee, and entered. To visit the museum, you had to take off your shoes and put on slippers in order to not destroy the wood floors or the exquisite carpets. Everything was built in the style of Louis XIV through Louis XVI – lots of bright white walls, gilt frames, gold leaf, mythological figures, dolphins, etc. Many paintings in the style of Poussin. 

I could better imagine Pushkin’s values and sense of heroic loss and the desire to write epics and thereby construct history when I saw his house. I could imagine Pushkin drafting “The Bronze Horseman” in his home library, which had so many shelves it resembled the library of a university or monastery. 

The wood parquet floor was roughly the same color as his mahogany escritoire, which had intricately worked bronze pulls and terminations. 

In addition to writing poems, Pushkin also wrote short prose. His short story, "The Shot," also addresses issues of heroism, sacrifice, and firm adherence to a higher sense of duty. In it, the prince Ypsilanti, attempts to institute reforms for the improvement of life for his people.

Pushkin lived the philosophy of political resistance, personal honor, heroism, and valor that he expressed in his poems. He died at age 38 in a duel. 

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Pablo Neruda’s home in Valparaiso, Chile.

I had the opportunity to visit Pablo Neruda's house during a trip to Chile a few years ago on a day trip from Santiago to Vina del Mar and Valparaiso. Valparaiso is an important port city and the site of a number of naval battles. 

Despite its vulnerability to devastating earthquakes, the last in 2010 and a particularly damaging one in 1906, Valparaiso has well-preserved stunning buildings and squares influenced by the German, Austrian, and French architecture. Valparaiso is a UNESCO World Heritage site, which translates into a great deal of local pride and general neatness.

Pablo Neruda's house, "La Sebastiana," is located on a steep road on a hillside. You can see the Pacific Ocean from his rooftop balcony. I could imagine his writing Veinte poemas de amor y una canciĆ³n desesperada (1924) and Residencia en la tierra (1931) with a fountain pen in his hand, clean, white sheets of paper in his notebook under his arm, and a stiff ocean breeze on his face.

In the summer, I can imagine his using his handkerchief to blot the sticky saltiness of the air on his arms. You feel your quadriceps tremble as you ascend the almost vertical steps, your throat fill with joy.

Pablo Neruda's poem, "A 'La Sebastiana'" lies on a desk, wonderfully inspirational. Here's the first stanza (I took slight liberties with the word choices, and for that, I refer to Lawrence Venuti's ideas about literary translations :)). 

To "La Sebastiana" 

I built the house.

I made it first of air.
Then, I raised a flag into the air
and I left it hanging
from the firmament, from the star, from
the brightness and the darkness.

Here's a LINK to the rest of Neruda's poem.

And, in line with what Neruda envisioned as a perfect house for writing, the house and the neighborhood are cheerful, intimate, but not invasive. I noticed that the colors were bright, and each house seemed to be painted a different bright, cheerful hue. The rooms seemed small, which is not how I would design a house, but perhaps the options are limited when the hillside is so steep.

Valparaiso is still a critical port city. It is proud of its Navy, which undoubtedly was charged with maintaining the waters safe for commerce. If one thinks that this is a trivial duty, all one has to do is to look at Somalia, a failed state, and the fact that its waters are teaming with ersatz, improvised flotillas of pirate bandits who will attack and kidnap absolutely everything and anything.

As I look at the narrow pathways up and down the steep hills, I reflect that Valparaiso was also the epicenter of conflicts as well as earthquakes. Bolivia used to own a part of the coast now claimed by Chile, and Spain fought to keep Chile as a part of its possessions.  Later, with various economic adjustments and political conflicts, Valparaiso found itself in a strategic position. 

After visiting Neruda's house, I went with my small group to the Plaza Sotomayor, where we toured some of the historical buildings and took photos of the stunning sculptures and monuments. It gave me a sense of the context of Neruda's writing, and also of some of the influences on his view of nature, history, and heroism. I view Neruda as a philosophically heroic figure; perhaps not so much for his political stance (ephemeral -- do we even remember what that was?) but for his gift of poetry and the ability to illuminate human spirit.

Looking out across the Pacific Ocean, one feels a sense of vastness and a sense of the infinite -- feelings so well evoked by Neruda's writing. One also feels a renewed sense of stewardship toward nature and harmonious coexistence with the oceans and all forms of life on earth.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Ilya Repin’s house outside St. Petersburg, Russia

I had the chance to visit Ilya Repin's home several years ago while I was attending a 2-week workshop on language and writing at Herzen University in St. Petersburg, Russia. Repin's house is outside St. Petersburg in the middle of a beautiful forest. I visited in June, and the weather was pleasant, the cool, summer light made the atmosphere crystal clear. The colors seemed super-saturated, and I could not think of a more engaging environment for painting.

Ilya Repin was not a writer, but an artist, but it was extremely interesting to see the lovely home where he painted. It was in a wooded little area, and it had lots of windows and rooms, plus several inventions to make it easier for the cook to send him his meals without interrupting him. The house was comfortable and the rooms not too large, but definitely large enough for painting and having a studio.

His eyesight failed and he developed arthritic hands (similar to Matisse, I think). He had special accommodations made for that as well. One of Repin’s most famous paintings, “Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks” (1891) was painted in his home. Now hanging in the Russia Museum in Saint Petersburg (which I happened to visit as well), it depicts Cossacks engaged in the delightful task of composing a profanity-laced letter to the Sultan after they had defeated the Ottoman Empire troops in battle.

The Cossacks are laughing uproariously as they collectively pen the appropriate response to their mortal enemies. It’s a gorgeously composed canvas in the realistic / Romantic style of the late 19th century.

Imagine my surprise and delight when I found myself in the city museum of the town of Gandze, Azerbaijan, where I happened upon an exhibit describing Ilya Repin’s visit in 1888 where he sketched people and objects to correctly capture the people, artifacts, and culture of the Ottoman Empire.

Even more astonishing was a scabbard and long sword exactly matching the scabbard and sword which take center stage in Repin’s famous painting.

There is no doubt that I think of all three places: The Russian Museum, Ilya Repin’s house, and the Gandze, Azerbaijan City Museum’s Repin exhibit.

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