Friday, 30 October 2009

Walt and Sir Walter, Paul Auster and Paul Benjamin: absorbing an invisible brother

That’s how Paul Auster was taken by the study of the figure of Sir Walter Raleigh, the British poet and adventurer that had charmed Queen Elisabeth and introduced – as people say – tobacco in England. His aim was to embody all the properties of Sir Walter into his person and he did so, by encasing the narratives for Sir Walter into his stories.

“Sir Walter Raleigh was the most perfect man who ever lived ”

says Aesop, in Paul Auster’s novel “Vertigo”. Aesop, a little boy from Ethiopia, tells stories to Walter Rawley who is a nine year old boy, whose name is homophonic to that of the English noble man. In “Vertigo”, little Walt, taught by the mysterious teacher Master Yechudi, will practice the art of flying and will violate the laws of nature. This violation will be the result of a painful apprenticeship and a moulding of little Walt in Master Yechudi’s hands. This reshaping takes place from nothing, or in better words from the rough prima materia of his previous existence. This looks like the making of Pinocchio by the hands of Master Gepetto. The analogy of this book with the story of Pinocchio is stressed by Paul Auster himself in an interview for the Greek National Television (1). Little Walt corresponds to Pinochio, Master Yehuddi to Master Gepetto and Mrs Whitherspoon to the Blue Fairy.

While Master Yechudi was modeling his body, Aesop, the little Ethiopian boy, was moulding his character towards perfection.
According to Aesop, Sir Walter Raleigh had been

“The best poet of his day; he was a scholar, a scientist, and a free thinker; he
was the number one lover of women in all of England”
The above, are the qualities of the most perfect man, the model character.

Little Walter, listened to the sweet voice of Aesop, taking a rest from the strenuous exercises he was being submitted, to master the ability to fly. Aesop’s voice unfolded the hundreds of stories that the boy had in his mind. Thus, Walt learned about Sinbad the Sailor, Jack the Giant Killer, Wandering Ulysses, Billy the Kid, Paul Bunyan, Lancelot and King Arthur. Most of all, he was captivated by the figure of the 16th century hero that had the same name as himself. Aesop, to prove that he wasn’t making it up, had shown him his picture:
Showing the picture of Sir Walter to Walt triggers a strange process of character moulding. Ever since, little Walt begins absorbing the image of Sir Walter. By observing it, he starts embodying all its properties, as if carrying an invisible brother inside him.
In his own words:

“I remember how shocked I was when he told me I had a famous name, the name of a real-life adventurer and hero. To prove that he wasn’t making it up, Aesop went
to the bookshelf and pulled down a thick volume with Sir Walter’s picture in it.
I had never seen more elegant face, and I soon fell into the habit of studying
it for ten or fifteen minutes every day. I loved the pointy beard and razor
sharp eyes, the pearl earring fixed in his left lobe. It was the face of a
pirate, a genuine shashbuckling knight, and from that day forth, I carried Sir
Walter inside me as a second self, an invisible brother to stand with me through
thick and thin.”

The story of Sir Walter Raleigh is repeated in Paul Auster’s movie “Smoke”. In “Smoke”, Paul Benjamin - a writer - is a regular in Auggie Wren’s tobacco shop and both enjoy each other’s company.
Paul Benjamin’s name and surname come from Paul Auster’s name and middle name (Paul Benjamin Auster is the writer’s full name).
The story of Sir Walter Raleigh is recounted by Paul Benjamin: In this case, instead of Walt Rawley, it is Paul Benjamin - the writer’s alter ego – that feels the admitation towards Sir Walter Raleigh. Paul Benjamin says that Sir Walter has been the one who called Queen Elisabeth I “Bessie”. He would bet that the Queen had definitely smoked a couple of cigars with him in the royal court. A patron of the tobacco shop breaks in the conversation and mentions the incident with the cloak: It was Sir Walter’s cloak that he himself had laid on the ground, over a pothole full of mud, in a chivalrous gesture, to protect the Queen from soiling her dress.

The scene with the cloak and the puddle is shown in the movie “Elisabeth, the Golden Age” where we witness the strange attraction that Sir Walter (Clive Owen) exerted on the Queen, as well as his secret marriage with her Lady of Honour, who – incidentally - had the same name as the queen: Bessie. What a coincidence with the names this is! Or rather a merging of identities?

Walt – Walter
Paul Benjamin – Paul Benjamin Auster
Elisabeth – “Bessie”

Nevertheless, it is not only the chivalrous behaviour of Sir Walter Raleigh that touches Paul Benjamin (Auster). It is his scientific curiosity and his effort to weigh the smoke – “It is as if you want to weigh the human soul” – he and Augy Wren, the owner of the tobacco shop, remark.

With a metaphysical boldness, Sir Walter attempts to weigh a cigar before and after smoking it, so that by subtracting the weight of the ashes from the initial weight of the cigar, he might measure the weight of this delicate substance, responsible for the “sober” exhilaration, “the liberation from all thoughts” as Alvaro de Campos(*) recounts in the Tobacco Shop (La Tabaccaria).

The relation between Fernando Pessoa and Paul Auster will be the subject of another post. For the moment, our thoughts are solely with Sir Walter Raleigh, the adventurer, the explorer, the founder of the colony of Virginia, the favourite man of Queen Elisabeth, imprisoned for so many years in the Tower of London, the man who spoke so bravely to the executioner. (2)

They say that in one of his expeditions to the mythical city of Eldorado, he had gotten lost, or he had lost the map of the colony of Roanake. This loss cost him his freedom again. In fact, he had been released from the Tower of London in order to take part in this expedition. Captain John Smith from Willoughby had also been involved in that expedition. Captain John Smith was the one with whom Pocahontas, the daughter of the Algonquin chief, in the area that was to become the colony of Virginia.

“Aesop recounted the story of the cloak and the puddle, the search for Eldorado,
the lost colony at Roanoke, the thirteen years in the Tower of London, the brave
words he uttered at his beheading. He was the best poet of his day; He was a
scholar, a scientist, a free thinker, he was the number one lover od women in
all of England. “Think of you and me put together”, Aesop said, and you begin to
have an idea of who he was. A man with my brains and your guts, and tall
and handsome as well – that’s Sir Walter Raleigh, the most perfect man who ever

The workshop of encasing makes a synthesis of all narrations, takes a little bit of you, a little bit of me, and creates a unique perrsona: Paul Benjamin Auster, the tall and handsome adventurer, the writer.

(*) Alvaro de Campos is one of Fernando Pessoa’s heteronyms.


(2) He was decapitated despite having a high temperature. Since he was quivering from his fever they say that he told the executioner: “Let us start. I do not want people to believe that I am trembling from fear” He was allowed to see the cutting edge of the axe. He said: “This is indeed a strong medicine. It is sharp but efficient”

Κεραίες της εποχής μας - Paul Auster.

(2) He was decapitated despite having a high temperature. Since he was quivering from his fever they say that he told the executioner: “Let us start. I do not want people to believe that I am trembling from fear” He was allowed to see the cutting edge of the axe. He said: “This is indeed a strong medicine. It is sharp but efficient”

Sources :

Posted by Poly Hatjimanolaki, Athens, Greece

Thursday, 15 October 2009

When Ngugi wa Thiongo was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature 2009, i.e. in a different world…

Ngugi wa Thiongo, the Kenyan novelist, the theorist of post – colonial literature, the one that in middle age abandoned his Christian name «James» in order to take back the traditional «Ngugi», lies in his bed in the presidential suite of the Grand Hotel Sheraton in Stockholm. His wife Njeeri is on the sightseeing tour organized by the ladies of the Public relations of the Academy, in the Old City, Gamla Stan.

The Public relations officer showed a lot of understanding when the distinguished professor of English and Comparative Literature at the university of California, Irvine, declared that he would rather spend a quiet afternoon, alone in his hotel. The trip from across the Atlantic had worn him out, and these people showed that they honestly respected his frame of mind. He was in a mood for recollection.

He likes the Swedes. They are smiling, polite, discreet. He has spent a whole year in this country – when was that? – in 1986, in order to study film at the Dramatiska Institute of Stockholm. He remembers the smiling faces in the subway, the blond young men with the long coats and the caps on their heads helping him to lift his suitcase. They had in fact invited him to their club, where he had given a talk about his book. Twenty years had passed since his first novels “The river between”

and “A grain of wheat” had appeared. He was already known in Europe: A writer, a professor of literature – expelled nevertheless from the university of Nairobi for his political beliefs. His book “The devil on the cross”

published in the English language in 1982 had entirely been written in prison, on toilet paper. He had been imprisoned by the authoritarian regime of Arap Moi because he had decided to write and present in Gikuyu (the language of the Kikuyu ethnic group) his theatrical play “I will marry when I want”.

“Why was I not detained before when I wrote in English?”(*), he thought. “ It reminds me of my childhood, when the teacher had caught us not speaking English at school and forced us to stick a sign on our backs, saying “I am an ass”. As a result, many children, especially the girls, afraid that they might forget themselves and speak in heir mother tongue, started to speak English even outside school.

Mau Mau history was always an inspiration to me. I am amazed at how a people who didn’t even have neighbouring bases could sustain a struggle for years. I have come to admire the courage (*)
I have written a theatrical play entitled “The trial of Dedan Kimathi” about the arrest, the trial and the execution of their leader, even though he was sick and with a high temperature.

In my novels written shortly after the independence, I have described what happened in the concentration camps where the British occupation forces have enclosed, using barbed wire, entire villages. All these literary descriptions, are nothing compared to what Caroline Elkins

from Harvard university discloses in her book “Imperial Reckoning” (or “Britain’s Gulag”). Perhaps it is the mention to Gulag that sensitized the Academy and they offered me the Nobel Prize. They are very sensitive to the persecution of dissidents and political refugees. It is not by accident that Solzhenitsyn, that talked about the Soviet Gulag also, received the Nobel prize in Literature.”

Anyway, Ngugi’s case is completely different. Who cares about the ex- socialist countries of Eastern Europe? It is said that even the bloodstained state of Ceauşescu collapsed due to the forged pictures of dead people circulated by the secret services of the West…

The prison book is one of his favourites.

He managed to achieve the delicate balance between political commitment and the search for a new literary form, using traditional means. This novel that was written like an epic poem, is an allegory built with Kikuyu proverbs and riddles.

And now, after twenty years, he finds himself in Stockholm again. He has missed the long walks in Skansen Zoo. He remembers walking there alone, deep in his thoughts, with his head bent towards the ground.
The gathering of the animals at Skansen come to his mind: the animals have arrived in order to watch the famous crane dance.

He had been a witness of this dance in his country, Kenya. The Dane Baroness Karen Blixen in her book “Out of Africa” had described this circular dance with admiration. It was the same dance that the Swedish teacher Selma Lagerlöf - also a Nobel Prize in Literature – saw through the eyes of her hero, in “The wonderful adventures of Nils Holgerson”.

Skansen with its cranes reminded him of Africa.

These birds travelled to the South, as far as his homeland, back to his childhood years at Kamandara, Manguu and Kinyogoro.

And now, the writer whose books are read aloud in the cafés, the villages and the matatus of Kenya, the writer who decided to write in his mother tongue, is here again, in his favourite city. Tomorrow, the Nobel prize in literature, the greatest literary distinction, will be awarded to him.

The text of his speech, translated in English, is already in the hands of the committee. He has decided to deliver his speech in the Concert Hall, in Gikuyu. The language of his tribe, the language spoken in the country of the “dispossessed”(**) will resound on its golden walls.

Ngugi wa Thiongo will speak on behalf of the entire continent. He will speak on behalf of his dead brother who was killed during the Emergency. He was deaf and mute and could not hear the English soldier ordering him to stop.

He will speak on behalf of his other brother who participated in the Mau Mau uprising and was killed in a clash with the colonial occupation forces. He will speak about the messages sent by this brother to little Ngugi, he was called James then, urging him not to drop school. “He was obsessed with my education”, he will tell the audience tomorrow.

His books are well known. They have been are translated into thirty languages. Since 2002, they are already being published in Penguin Classics.

The eighteen elders of the Academy– some of them might have been the blond Swedes with the long coats that he had met twenty years ago - made a wise decision with their choice. They did not lay emphasis on any influences from the Heart of Darkness and the generally agreed truth of the cruelty of a colonial occupation that might have inspired him. They did not lay emphasis on his Marxist – Fanonist beliefs and his unlimited optimism, as in Brecht’s poetry, that people can change the conditions of their lives. The wise people of the Academy have honoured in his person his language, the return to the mother tongue that made his work reach the reader.

“It is not worthwhile talking about” Ceauşescu and Waffen SS (**)

(*) The outsider, Maya Jaggi interviews Ngugi wa Thiong’o, in
(**) According to the Press release of the Swedish Academy, the Nobel Prize in Literature for 2009 is awarded to the German author Herta Müller,

“who, with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed”

(***) According to the Press release of the Swedish Academy, that decides to whom the Nobel Prizes should be awarded, the German author Herta Müller was dismissed from her job during Ceauşescu’s dictatorship and was harassed by the Securitate, while her mother, like many other German – Romanians were deported to the Soviet Union. Her father had served in the Waffen SS during World War II.

According to the wikipedia, Suaves, the German minority of Romania, that had been finally deported by the Soviets after the war, had founded during the war the infamous “7th SS Volunteer Mountain Division Prinz Eugen” and


Posted by Poly Hatjimanolaki, Athens, Greece

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

A case of identity: Sherlock Holmes, the worn typewriter and the hidden signature of the Persian poet Hafez.

The “Case of identity” by Arthur Conan Doyle first appeared in the Strand Magazine in 1891 and it is considered to be, despite its evasive and “dry” title, a corner stone in detective novel history. It is appreciated not only by the admirers of this unappreciated genre and Sherlock Holmes devotees, but by specialists of crime detection and forensic science as well. The latter pay tribute to the inductive way of thought and to the use of traces and imprints left by a criminal action initiated by this story. One can find references to it in Criminology and Police Science papers nowadays as well. (1)
The reader is amazed by the multiplicity of meaning and interpretations of “identities” revealed (or concealed) in a masterly manner in this story. One of them, I believe, is the Identity of the legendary hero himself, who is merged with its double, Hafez, the Persian lyric poet of the 14th century.

But first things first.

The “Case of Identity” appears to be a common Sherlock Holmes story. The client who pays Sherlock Holmes a visit, and whose identity as a person who is short sighted due to “so much typewriting” is revealed at a first glance by the detective, is Miss Mary Sunderland. Miss Sunderland is a woman, who despite the substantial income from the interest of a fund set up for her by her father, carries on earning a living by practising the profession of the typist.
In spite of the close supervision of her stepfather, she gets engaged to a quiet office clerk from London that has captivated her affections. Nevertheless, the fiancé disappears mysteriously before their wedding.

Miss Sunderland, full of anxiety turns for help to the brilliant detective, in order to find her fiancé.
At the end, it expires that the missing fiancé is the “double” of her stepfather, Mr. Windibank. Driven by the fervent desire to prevent his stepdaughter from marrying so that he can carry on exploiting her income, Mr. Windibank disguises himself into a bespectacled man with a moustache, and pretends to be Mr. Hosmer Angel, the would – be fiancé. The fact that Mr. Angel shows up when the stepfather is absent, the glasses and the moustache that cover his face and his strange voice make the discerning reader suspicious for a trap set by the author. The traces are clearly marked in order to highlight the gullibility of Dr. Watson, who cannot see through them.

The metaphorical meaning of the “Case of Identity” is not exhausted in the Identification of the fiancé with the stepfather, but it extends to the Identification of the letters that the unfortunate Miss Sunderland receives from him.

"they are very commonplace. Absolutely no clue in them to Mr. Angel, save that he quotes Balzac once”
The absence of personal style and the typewritten signature conceal the identity of the author of the letters which is found in the identity of the prints of the typewriter: A revolutionary idea in forensic science

“ In each case”,
Sherlock Holmes proudly declares,
“not only are the "e's" slurred and the "r's" tailless, but you will observe, if you care to use my magnifying lens, that the fourteen other characteristics to which I have alluded, are there as well."

Tracing and identifying the typewriter on which the alleged suicide note is typed is a common element of the plot in subsequent detective novels. Nevertheless, in the “Case of Identity” it is introduced for the first time.

There is one more reason for which the “Case of Identity” will go down in history. Although Sherlock Holmes solves the mystery, he chooses not to tell his client the truth about the “missing” fiancé, because he does not want to deprive her of her delusion.

“You may remember the old Persian saying, "There is danger for him who taketh the tiger cub, and danger also for who snatches a delusion from a woman." There is as much sense in Hafiz as in Horace, and as much knowledge of the world."

The enigmatic reference to the Persian lyric poet of the 14th century Šamsu d-Dīn Muhammad Hāfez-e Šīrāzī (2) at the end of the story is unexpected to those familiar with the prosaic nature of the detective. Nevertheless, Hafez is not a common poet. He is the one that knew the Qu’ran by heart. That is in fact the meaning of the name Hafez, and this was the name that the poet had chosen for himself. He had not only memorized the Qu’ran, but he also knew by heart the verses of his beloved poets Jalal ad-Din Rumi and Saadi.
The relation between Sherlock Holmes’ extraordinary capacity for memorizing and Hafez emerges. “Neither fascinating nor artistic” is the reference made to the police reports, in the beginning of the story, when the method of inquiry of the detective is mentionned: the search of the analogy of relevant elements of a case with corresponding aspects from other cases, that he has already solved and registered in his memory or can be found in police records. However his is a a meticulous job, done with style. A metaphor for poetry perhaps.

If the allusion to poetry as mnemonics is not yet convincing for the identification of Hafez as the “double” Sherlock Holmes/Hafez, let us take one more step towards poetry. Let us remember how the story begins. There is an unusual poetic mood of the hero, when Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes are in a reverie and discuss the mysteries of life. That mood puts quoting Hafez quite in the spirit of the time. After all, it was at that time that Gertrude Bell had translated the poems of Hafez in English. These poems were well received in the literary circles of Great Britain and Europe. Carlyle used to read them as well as the friends of Virginia Woolf’s father, as she writes in her diary.

This is how the Case of Identity starts, and it is in a poetic mood indeed:

"…life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent. We would not dare to conceive the things which are really mere commonplaces of existence. If we could fly out of that window hand in hand, hover over this great city, gently remove the roofs, and peep in at the queer things which are going on, the strange coincidences, the plannings, the cross-purposes, the wonderful chains of events, working through generation, and leading to the most outre results, it would make all fiction with its conventionalities and foreseen conclusions most stale and unprofitable."

Nevertheless, there is more that in my opinion, points in the direction of a hidden signature, of a key that embraces all the identities/identifications in the story: The identification of Mrs. Sunderland as a typist, the identity of Mr. Windibank as Mr. Hosmer, the identity of his commonplace letters, and at the end the identity of the worn typewriter through the detailed examination of the imprints of the letters, the final imprint of the criminal, his real signature.

The multiplicity of identities revealed with intellect and style is the core of the story. They are characteristic of the masterly manner in which Sherlock Holmes solves the case and the author weaves the plot.

Similarly, Hafez, the poet, signs his poems with a nom de plume, in his priestly capacity. He has, as the poets of his era have, the habit of weaving his name into the last verses of the poems that he composes, like a unique signature. The identity of the poet is hidden in his verses, just like the slurred e's" and the tailless "r's" of a worn typewriter :

Am I a sinner or a saint,
Which one shall it be?
Hafez holds the secret
of his own mystery...


I said, happiness and joy
Passing time will destroy.
Said, Hafez, silence employ
Sorrows too will end my friend.

“Fascinating and artistic” I believe.

(1) Stanton O. Berg, Sherlock Holmes: Father of Scientific Crime Detection, Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology and Police Science, Vol. 61, No 3, p. 446 – 460
(4) The excerpts were from the electronic edition: