Csíkszereda Musings

My life in and around Csíkszereda, also known as Miercurea Ciuc.

Archive for the ‘books’ Category

About a Toy

Posted by Andy Hockley on 13 March, 2008

I feel like my last few posts have gone a bit much down the nationalism/anti-nationalism path so I thought for a bit of light relief I’d recount the stories of three toys/children’s playthings that have caught my attention recently.

The first of these is a toy that Bogi owns which is one of those plastic boards with holes in in which you can make pictures with different coloured pegs. I presume those things have a name, but I don’t know what it is. Anyway this one is Chinese and the box is covered in various pieces of “information” in English, which is obviously somewhat offbeat. Nothing particularly new there, obviously, but one of the important selling points of this particular item is that it “Grows in interest and creativity the sex”. (I wanted to take a photo of it but my camera is crap at that kind of close-up work). Now, Bogi is 8. I don’t want her to grow in interest and creativity the sex. Well, I hope she does one day, but not for a good few years yet. What is this slogan saying about us as a people? I don’t know, you can buy vibrating cock rings in my local Merkur supermarket these days too (true). What next? [After, a great deal of pondering I have come to the conclusion that the original phrase thus butchered probably meant something more along the lines of “This is a good toy for both girls and boys”]

The second is one which I haven’t seen in the flesh (or in the synthetic polymer, I guess), but it is advertised quite often on one of the cartoon channels that we have. This is “wethead”. Basically it is a plastic helmet with lots of rods sticking out of it. You fill it with water, put it on, and then spin it around. You (or your friends) then remove one of the rods, which may or may not cause you to be drenched with water. It is, with very few modifications, a way of teaching children about the joys of Russian Roulette. Is there a teenage version where you “just” break an arm if you are unlucky, or does one have to go straight from wethead to The Deerhunter?

The third is not exactly a toy, but a book. This is the very small children’s version of that popular Disney classic “The Little Mermaid” (yes, I know). Anyway, this book, finely crafted from the finest thick cardboard to thwart attempts to destroy it by illiterate toddlers or exasperated parents, is not very long so I will recount the story in its entirety to you here.

Ariel is a mermaid. She has many friends in the sea. (picture of mermaid, crab (I think), fish, and seagull) Flounder is Ariel’s best friend (picture of cartoon fish). Sebastian loves music (crab, or feasibly lobster). Scuttle likes to joke around (seagull holding fork, for unknown reason). Ariel chooses to live on land with Prince Eric. (kiss)

Wow. What a brutal ending. Very brave of the authors to go with the “no plot” approach. Obviously there is some in depth character development, but suddenly we reach the traumatic denouement of what passes for the story. What brought on this abrupt lifestyle change? What of her so-called friends, so cruelly abandoned? We will never know. One is left with a sense of alienation, of tragedy, and of the desperation of the migrant experience. In the end, the reader is asked all the right questions relating to the very contemporary theme of assimilation and what it means for identity. In the end we realise that the author’s minimalist approach to plot and storytelling is a device intended to ensure that we are not distracted by extraneous information. He or she has taken Hans Christan Anderson’s timeless classic and re-imagined it for the 21st century. The crux of the matter is presented in sharp detail, and the reader is invited to make up his or her own mind. I don’t know if it was in the shortlist for the Booker Prize in whatever year it was published, but it really ought to have won.

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Posted in books, toys | 1 Comment »

Dracula

Posted by Andy Hockley on 20 December, 2007

I had been meaning to re-read Dracula for ages. It was probably 20 years ago when I first read it, and ever since I moved to Transylvania I thought I should probably re-read it since it is basically the only reason that anyone from outside of Hungary and Romania has even heard of Transylvania.

So anyway I read it again last week, and it’s bloody brilliant. I remember enjoying it and thinking it was a cracking read when I read it before, and I’m not usually a fan of literature from before 1900 (though to be fair Dracula was written in 1897 so it’s not that far off).

Anyway, on to my first major surprise of the book – that is when we first meet Count Dracula in his castle on the Borgo pass between Bistrita and Bukovina. Jonathan Harker (our hero) journeys from Budapest to Cluj and on to Bistrita before heading into the pass, passing as he does various ethnic groups on the way – Saxons, Szekelys, Magyars, and “Wallachs” in the main, but he also mentions “Slovaks” who actually sound very much like the Gabor clan of Rroma from his description, and Szgany (obviously a corruption of Cigany/Tigani) . Anyway, we meet Count Dracula, who is in fact a Szekely! This is not something I had remembered (to be honest when I read the book before, I’d never heard of the Szekely and it would have flown right over my head). He launches into this big speech about the heroism and bravery of the Szekely. He comes up with some curious historical explanation of the Szekely as being some kind of cross between the Vikings and the Huns, and then launches into a list of the invaders and foes they had beaten back – Magyars, Turks, Bulgars, Lombards, Wallachs, and Avars (whoever they are).

“Ah, young sir, the Szekelys – and the Dracula as their heart’s blood, their brains and their swords – can boast a record that mushroom growths like the Hapsburgs and the Romanoffs can never reach”

Just in case there are Szekelys reading this (and I know there are) who are now getting a tad upset that this infamous anti-hero is a Szekely, I should point out that he it was because he was such a great leader, and a strong and intelligent warrior when he was alive that he is so powerful and successful a vampire once he became un-dead. At least that’s what it says in the book.

So anyway, I’m not going to retell the book, but I thought I’d do a little bit of digging into how Stoker came to write this novel and set it where he did, with the characters that he did. Firstly it’s not thought that he ever visited Transylvania, he just spent a lot of time in the library doing research. He apparently first thought about setting the novel in Austria, but was told that it might be too close to another vampire novel called “Carmilla” set in France, so he decided to relocate it to Transylvania. (Though in fact very little happens in Transylvania in the book – just the opening and closing. The rest is in Whitby and (mostly) London).

The character of Dracula himself is often thought to be have been based on Vlad Tepes (“the Impaler”) who was also known as Vlad Dracula (son of Dracul). It is now thought that the only thing the character owes to Vlad is the name, and that probably Stoker knew nothing about Vlad Tepes. Another historical character who may or may not have provided some inspiration is a Hungarian countess named Elizabeth Bathory. “The most infamous serial killer in Hungarian and Slovak history”.

The tourist industry of Romania seems to rely very greatly on this one story, which is quite impressive in a way, though extreme lengths are gone to – Bran Castle, which I read somewhere is Romania’s most visited tourist attraction, markets itself as “Dracula’s Castle”, based on the disputed possibility that Vlad Tepes may once have spent the night there. Don’t get me wrong, Bran Castle is a nice place, but it has about as much connection to Dracula as the Sydney Opera House does. Sighisoara, which is Vlad Dracula’s birthplace, is littered with Dracula Internet Cafes and Vampire Coffee Shops. There was even going to be a Dracula themepark outside Sighisoara, which thankfully got nixed. Apparently someone has even built a castle cum hotel on the Borgo pass where they think the castle might have been in the book.

I reckon the Szekelys need to grab a slice of this lucrative pie and set up some “Real Dracula” attractions. There’s money in this myth.

Posted in books, transylvania | 2 Comments »

Brought to book

Posted by Andy Hockley on 6 December, 2006

Like a bus, you can wait years to be tagged and then loads come all at once. And so it is, that I have once again been tapped on the shoulder and become “it”. This time by Mirona at Cheezy Cheeky, to name One Book.

Now obviously I want to regale you with pages about all the fascinating books you should read, to (a) make sure you understand that I’ve read a lot of books; and (b) attempt to brainwash you into thinking like I do about important world issues, but this does not fit into the rules, which are as follows:

  1. Once nominated, name one book you’d recommend wholeheartedly and explain your choice within one paragraph.
  2. Nominate three people that you’ll introduce to your readers in one paragraph.
  3. Let these people know that they’ve been tagged.
  4. Refer back to the person who tagged you, so that readers can travel back as well.

So, here goes. I’ve plumped, after much turmoil, for a novel. “The History of the Siege of Lisbon” by Jose Saramago (I read it in the translation done fantastically by Giovanni Pontiero). Saramago is a brilliant writer and I’d recommend all his novels, but this one in particular drew me in and turned me inside out. The story is of a proofreader who changes one word in a text about the siege of Lisbon in 1147, and the ripple effect that this act has – mostly on his own life. It is a love story, it is a study of language and its power, and it is a historical analysis of Portugal. It is, in short, completely and fantastically brilliant. And you should all go out right now and beg, borrow, or steal a copy from somewhere. It starts slowly – but this ends up being part of its charm. Believe me.

So, I’ll pass this on to Romerican, who is probably too busy to read at the moment but who could maybe spare a few minutes now Christmas is nearly here; Paul, who is the Internet’s most prolific Ulsterman living in Hungary; and Catherine who writes about the Balkans, music and London (not necessarily in that order).

Posted in books, the blogosphere | 3 Comments »

Brought to book

Posted by Andy Hockley on 6 December, 2006

Like a bus, you can wait years to be tagged and then loads come all at once. And so it is, that I have once again been tapped on the shoulder and become “it”. This time by Mirona at Cheezy Cheeky, to name One Book.

Now obviously I want to regale you with pages about all the fascinating books you should read, to (a) make sure you understand that I’ve read a lot of books; and (b) attempt to brainwash you into thinking like I do about important world issues, but this does not fit into the rules, which are as follows:

  1. Once nominated, name one book you’d recommend wholeheartedly and explain your choice within one paragraph.
  2. Nominate three people that you’ll introduce to your readers in one paragraph.
  3. Let these people know that they’ve been tagged.
  4. Refer back to the person who tagged you, so that readers can travel back as well.

So, here goes. I’ve plumped, after much turmoil, for a novel. “The History of the Siege of Lisbon” by Jose Saramago (I read it in the translation done fantastically by Giovanni Pontiero). Saramago is a brilliant writer and I’d recommend all his novels, but this one in particular drew me in and turned me inside out. The story is of a proofreader who changes one word in a text about the siege of Lisbon in 1147, and the ripple effect that this act has – mostly on his own life. It is a love story, it is a study of language and its power, and it is a historical analysis of Portugal. It is, in short, completely and fantastically brilliant. And you should all go out right now and beg, borrow, or steal a copy from somewhere. It starts slowly – but this ends up being part of its charm. Believe me.

So, I’ll pass this on to Romerican, who is probably too busy to read at the moment but who could maybe spare a few minutes now Christmas is nearly here; Paul, who is the Internet’s most prolific Ulsterman living in Hungary; and Catherine who writes about the Balkans, music and London (not necessarily in that order).

Posted in books, the blogosphere | 3 Comments »