Religion and Brutality in Eastern Europe

The Enemy At The Gate, by Andrew Wheatcroft

Occasionally I go exploring book-wise. I used to do the same with records back in my rock ‘n’ roll days, and most of the time I found pearls among the commercial swine. So it is with books, I find – some pearls, a few zircons, an occasional lump of coal, a rare bucket of mud. Whitcroft’s book, a recent subject of such mental wanderlust, seems to fit in the zircon-plus arena.
I was drawn to this book because of my rather persistent interest in the history of Eastern Europe, a history and geographic locale I knew very little about prior to my recent MLA days at UNC-Asheville. I knew, for instance, that a prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire died at the hands of a Serb, precipitating WWI . But why an Austro-Hungarian Empire in the first place? And why kill the heir apparent? Wheatcroft treats both questions, but in the manner of a historian—by digging deeply into the area’s history.
Essentially, The Enemy At The Gate treats the eons-old conflict between Islam and Christianity by focusing on an Islamic invasion of western Europe in the late 1600s. Here, in a nutshell, is how the story goes:
The unobtainable pearl of Eastern Europe had been, for the Ottoman Empire, the conquest of Vienna. Following the Crusades, the Turks and Ottomans had tried several times for this prize, but came away empty-handed. But this time, the Ottoman sultan handed his armies over to one Kara Mustafa. Many of history’s warlords have been successful because of their impulsiveness, and Mustafa was of this humor. He had little regard for previous Ottoman failures, and soon his bands swept through Hungary with little resistance to lay a nearly successful siege to Vienna. So nearly successful, in fact, that had not Polish armies come to Vienna’s rescue when they did, Vienna would have fallen—and with it western Europe.
All history is laden with irony. In this case, the Ottoman siege had so weakened Mustafa’s armies that the Poles chased them east with ease, re-took Buda and Pest, and very nearly sent the Turks scampering across the Carpathians with their tails between their legs.
Wheatcroft’s prose is often rather dry, stuck between academic writing and the best non-fiction, making the book a somewhat dry read. But he’s clearly mastered his subject. His depictions of the Turkish janissaries, of the Ottoman sappers, the tactics of their fleet-footed cavalries, is occasionally spell-binding. Less so are his depictions of the plodding Western Europeans, their tactics and leadership. But what comes through to this reader is the brutality of this war. It reminds me all too much of WWII’s German Wehrmacht and its brutal fights over the same real estate with equally brutal Soviet masses.
But what compelled Wheatcroft to write this book, other than his passion for the subject? Two things come clearly to the fore: First, in pointing out the manner in which both sides were compelled to such brutality by religious zeal, he places his story’s import into today’s “war on terror,” which has been given an ample dose of religiosity of its own. This so-called contemporary war was aggravated now, as then, by a Pope.

Second, and in a late aside, Whitcroft assays the Austrian ability to “manage” history to its own purposes. This led to the alienation of minor nationalities, such as that of Serbia, and the alignment of nations that led to the First World War.
Wheatcroft’s book, despite an often arid writing style, should be read by all armchair historians, as well as by those now wringing their hands over today’s Middle East-Eurasian turmoil.
My rating: 4 stars of 5.

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Two items of note appeared in the September 2009 issue of Writer’s Chronicle: (Moderately stale news, I admit)
• WC cited the Boston Globe report on area educators’ reading lists for the new year. Boston educators, in revamping high school summer reading lists, are including contemporary authors such as John Gresham and Dan Brown. Sigh…the rich are about to get richer. The idea here is simply to get the kids reading.
• In a New York Times report cited by WC, a Federal Department of Education survey indicates that middle schoolers’ achievements in arts-related skills is “mediocre.” In its details, the report indicates little interest in the arts. So, writers, here’s the gauntlet throw-down: write for older audiences, or write something so compelling that even middle schoolers can’t resist it.
One More Thing
I’ve spent some three months re-editing a novel manuscript written and classroom-critiqued, circa 2001-2003. Two things of note rose to the surface from this edit:
• I have (had) a tendency to include too much detail, particularly in my narrative sections. Now, these passages are more like an artist’s sketches, showing only the “lines” that need to be there to reveal the “picture.” It’s a balancing act to make such passages act less like dead data and more like living prose, a balance between the sensibilities of poetry and today’s urge to non-fiction.
• On the plus side, I had little to change structurally with the manuscript. A self-pat on the back for at least getting the overarching story right.

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Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables – Part Five: Jean Valjean

The last part of Hugo’s great book begins in medias res: with the Army’s assault on the Rue Saint-Denis barricade in full force. Enjolras and the other revolutionaries have managed to capture Javert and are holding him, planning to kill him when time permits. M. Fauchelevent, our Jean Valjean, has also joined the men at the barricade, and Javert recognizes him as Valjean.
But things are looking bad for our revolutionaries; they have little ammunition, few other weapons, and they’re hopelessly outnumbered. The Army has posted a sniper to pick off our men. Valjean takes up a gun and continually shoots at the sniper—not to kill, but to keep him from being a threat to the barricade defenders.
Finally, the Army breaches the barricade, and the defenders retreat through a wine shop. Valjean, who has thought of Marius as a threat to his well-being (Remember? Marius would take away his beloved Cosette, he thought), picks up the wounded young man and carries him away—to safety, he hopes.
Escape, however, is problematic in a city in the throes of revolt, so Valjean takes to Paris’ sewers. Before he goes, however, he promises his mates he’ll kill Javert; instead, he lets him go.
At this point of the story, Hugo treats us to one more of his digressions, an exposition on the history of Paris’ sewer system and a rather detailed explanation of the history of human waste disposal.
In the sewers he encounters…yes! Thénardier. This foul excuse for a human being (okay, a different form of human waste) doesn’t recognize Valjean, nor does he recognize the unconscious Marius. He thinks Valjean is carrying away the body of someone he’s murdered. Thénardier, believing he’s encountered a like soul, must assist Valjean. He aids his escape from the sewers.
Meanwhile, Javert: Valjean’s act of kindness toward Javert has the policeman in the midst of an existential meltdown. His life has always been a cascade of cases in black and white, but Valjean’s act had created for him many shades of gray. Left with such cognitive dissonance, Javert lets himself drown in the Seine.
Finally, Valjean returns Marius to M. Gillenormand’s home. The old man has believed Marius dead; now he rejoices in him, despite Marius being near death. Marius recovers and asks the old man once more for permission to marry. This time, Gillenormand agrees. Valjean brings Cosette there, and the couple—and M. Gillenormand—become deliriously happy. But for Valjean, there’s only sadness. He realizes Cosette has been his reason for living, that despite her happiness with Marius, he's lost a part of himself forever. So, Valjean decides, he must make the break a clean one—he mustn’t linger in their lives.
At last, Valjean owns up to whom he really is—a former galley slave, and a fugitive from the law. But, after some consternation, neither Marius nor Cosette are particularly concerned with his identity. Valjean returns to his home in the slums, having given most of his fortune of six hundred thousand Louis to the couple.
With the loss of Cosette, Valjean’s life force begins to ebb. He grows frightfully ill.
This close to the story’s end, Hugo still has one more plot card to play. Enter Thénardier (for the last time). He tries to extort money from Marius regarding Valjean’s reputation. By now, Marius is showing signs of a mature man capable, not only of being a responsible husband, but of being able to handle persons like Thénardier. He does, however, give our villain enough money to make his way to the New World, where Thénardier becomes a slave trader.
In Hugo’s final scene, Valjean lies dying, Cosette and Marius with him. Valjean’s last request is that he be buried with a simple tombstone and no epitaph. And so Valjean is buried in Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris where, coincidentally, Hugo himself is finally laid to rest at the end of his days.
So what are we to make—in as few words as possible—of Valjean and this story of Hugo’s? Two quotes from Hugo’s text come to mind by way of explanation:

“There is no thinker who has not at times contemplated the splendors below among the dregs.”

I think Hugo realizes that the affluent life, as well as the educated life are quite removed from the realities of the lives of most people. That is, these "normal" lives are sterile existences compared to “street life, it’s passion, its creativeness in staying alive. Consequently, in Hugo’s view, that life is “splendorous.” It’s in a certain sense the “real” life. Many of the passages I’ve marked in my reading of Les Misérables allude to this point in different ways.

“At intervals we see truth, that sunshine of the human soul, glimmering away there (in the stormy cloud of systems, passions, and theories).”

Here, Hugo clearly recognizes that, despite one’s life situation, despite all failed revolts, there’s something common to all, something divine, something that is essentially truth incarnated and, in the end, something that will out. Certainly, this is Valjean’s story. Hugo believed it was (and is) France’s story.
My hope is that it’s the story of us all.

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Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables – Part Four: The Idyll Of The Rue Plumet And The Epic Of the Rue Saint-Denis

At the outset in this Part, Hugo demonstrates his understanding of the French society he’s haunted to yet another degree, that of the political ramifications of social unrest in the early nineteenth century. He begins with a sharply focused discourse on the July 1830 revolt. Here, the monarchy is restored and the bourgeoisie are the main recipients of the revolt’s outcome. Louis-Philippe, the new king, seems, in Hugo’s view, a nice guy representative of the status quo – hardly the leader France needed in a time of continuing turmoil.
Then we’re back to the aftermath of Javert’s raid on the Thénardier family. Of course, Cosette and M. Madeline are no longer strolling the streets, and Marius is a bit distraught over his “loss” of Cosette. The Thénardier daughter, Éponine is attracted to Marius, and to gain his favor, she tells him she can take him to the girl’s home.
Meanwhile, Valjean and Cosette have seen prisoners beaten on their way to prison and are disturbed enough by this to begin taking food and clothes to the poor. Little gamin Gavroche sees Valjean attacked by the robber Montparnasse and hears Valjean’s lecture on the wages of such sin. Gavroche apparently takes the lecture meant for Montparnasse to heart and finds Valjean’s purse, throws it to the financially struggling M. Mabeuf, thus becoming a benefactor of sorts.
Marius does locate Cosette, leaves a love letter for her. They meet and their romance begins for real.
Then Gavroche encounters Montparnasse once more. The thief shows the boy and three of his friends a large hollow elephant statue, in which they can find shelter.
Next in this dizzying Part Four, we gain another digression from Hugo, this time an extended one on slang. Hugo’s detailed linguistic analysis is there to make a point, I think. He wants the reader to understand that the language of the streets is as organic as the life there, that it’s as vital as the lives of these struggling people.

Then Marius decides to visit M. Gillenormand, his grandfather, to ask his permission to marry. The old man refuses.
Soon, it’s the summer of 1832, and Paris is a-twitter with revolt—touched off by the death of a General Lamarque, who is revered by the proletariat.
Marius, who is depressed over his grandfather’s refusal to allow him to marry, decides to throw in with the revolutionaries, as does Gavroche, who has stolen a pistol. Throughout Hugo’s subsequent dialogue, the gamin seems to be the most radical of the bunch.
This ragged lot makes its way to the Rue Saint-Denis. There, they begin to erect the story’s famed barricade and to fight the Republican Army. Éponine emerges from this fog of war to step in front of a bullet and save Marius’ life.
There’s no shortage of irony here. A few examples:
• The French Revolution was—as most revolutions tend to be—a partial one, benefitting few. The 1789 revolt was socially widespread and ousted France’s Bourbons. But the people weren’t ready to rule themselves, and the rest of Europe felt threatened by the monarchy’s overthrow. That led to Napoleon, who became an emperor, and his grand designs within Europe. The most significant role in this revolution was played by the Republican Army, which drew from all walks of life in a slightly more egalitarian way. Then, the revolt of 1830, which benefitted the bourgeoisie. This in turn led to the revolt of Hugo’s story, that of 1832. Once the door to revolution is opened, and despite obstacles, it goes to completion.
• The poor of Paris lived low but lived creatively. The hollow elephant, despite its almost comical nature, proves to be Hugo’s strongest metaphor for this ability. As if mere survival weren’t enough to depict this creativity, Hugo shows us how the poor of Paris changed the French language.
• Extreme poverty creates no inherent spiritual debasement in people—that comes from the manner in which people treat one another. Hugo’s best-characterized examples of this were Gavroche, who seems more politically aware and more humane than many of Hugo’s poor adults. And Éponine, who sacrificed her life simply out of unrequited love for Marius. And to further the irony, both Gavroche and Éponine were children of the wicked Thénardier family.
In the final Part Five of Les Misérables, we’ll tie up all the loose ends Hugo has strewn across France, Paris in particular.

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