The journal of an average reader – Day 3 (Russian pre-teenager entagles with Antigone)

     Today I finally approached what I am actually here for: Dostoievski! The people who are closer to me know that he is my favorite, but I have a problem. I read all his long novels and now I only have some short ones left, so I’m trying to keep them as a special chocolate that you eat only during special occasions. Of course, I agree with Italo Calvino that every second reading of a classic is a reading of discovery like the first one, but the first time you read something is special, and I am a big fan of that feeling. I was on the train on my way to Barcelona when I started reading this short novel called “The Young Hero”, Malen ‘ki gueroi in Russian. From the first sentences, the dostoievskian style and spirit marked its presence, the detailed explanation of the character of the protagonists with their deepest thoughts and feelings. It’s hard not to like it. The story is about an eleven years old pre-teenager, who as soon as what he calls “love” starts tickling his heart considers himself a grown up and gets annoyed when the women around treat him like the kid that he is. 

” – Come here – she said vividly […]. Come here with me and sit on my lap.

– On your lap?… I asked embarrassed. 

As I said before, my privileges as a kid started to offend and embarrass me seriously. […]

– Well, yes, on my lap. Why don’t you want to sit on my lap?, she insisted, laughing every time more […].

Ashamed and disturbed I started looking around like I was searching for something.”

     There are even some times when he tries to prove his manhood; e.g. when one of the women publicly refers to him as (in his opinion) as a romantic opponent of her own husband, he bursts and says:

“Aren’t you ashamed… to say out loud… in the presence of all the ladies… such a big lie? … You act like a little girl… in front of all the gentlemen… What will they say? … You are a grown up person… and married! …”

I didn’t even finish the sentence when a deafening applause was heard. My posture aroused a true furore.” 

And then there’s another scene when he crazily drives successfully an untamed horse that everybody fears and wins a place in an excursion where there was no more. It all ends up with an exclamation made by the host of the house where he was living:

“Long live the new generation!” 

     I leave the end of the story to be discovered by you.

      For a moment, I could feel a strong connection between the character of this boy and Kolya from the Brothers Karamazov. The way they both acted and talked like they were adults is something that I really do believe that Dostoievski did on purpose.

     Long story short, I recommend this to all the Dostoievski fans out there and also for the people who want to start reading him. I read the Spanish version of the Penguin Clásicos collection of Dostoievskian short novels, which although is a cheap version, I don’t really like its format, to be honest.

     For some years now, I have a new ritual. Every summer, as soon as I finish the semester I read my favorite Greek tragedy: Antigone. And so did I this evening. I used what I think it’s the best translation we have in Catalan, i.e. Carles Riba’s from 1951. Some may say that it’s old and obsolete, but since he was THAT good, I think it still stands today as a remarkable piece of work.

     Starting to commend the piece right here right now would be useless. So much has been written already about this amazing tragedy, and since I am no expert I do not want to make claims that I am not sure about. Either way, I will present some passages that called my attention in a special way and can be useful for us even 2400 years later.

     First I’d like to introduce you a bit the play and what it’s about. Creon is Oedipus’ brother-in-law and uncle of Antigone, Ismene, Polynikes and Etocles. Eventually Polynikes betrays his homeland Thebes and starts a war with it, where he kills his brother Etocles and becomes a fratricide. Etocles with his last powers kills Polynikes too. Creon, since the last one to die was a fratricide and a betrayer, denies his right to be buried and have the funerary rites that allow him to pass into the land of the dead. Antigone doesn’t obey and sneaks to her brother’s uncovered body, symbolically buries him and does the necessary rites. She is caught and punished. Antigone was also promised to Creon’s son, Hemon, who is very affected by this punishment. What comes next is to be read by you.

     When Creon hears for the first time that there has been done a symbolical bury to Polynikes, thinks that the guards have been bribed to do that and says something that is very actual for us as well, and whoever has ears to hear, let them hear! 

“Nothing so evil as money ever grew to be current among men. This destroys cities, this drives men from their homes, this trains and warps honest minds to set themselves to works of shame, this teaches people to practise villainies, and to know every act of unholiness.”

     I couldn’t, but admire Antigone’s courage when she was brought in front of Creon to give an explanation. She was sure that what she did was good and stood strong in her beliefs. I am pretty sure that the feminists burst in tears of pride reading this. A simple search on Google with “Antigone” and “Feminism” as keywords will help you find nice articles and books written on the subject.

“Creon
You, however, tell me—not at length, but briefly—did you know that an edict had forbidden this?

Antigone
I knew it. How could I not? It was public.

Creon
And even so you dared overstep that law?

Antigone
Yes, since it was not Zeus that published me that edict, and since not of that kind are the laws which Justice who dwells with the gods below established among men. Nor did I think that your decrees were of such force, that a mortal could override the unwritten and unfailing statutes given us by the gods. For their life is not of today or yesterday, but for all time, and no man knows when they were first put forth. Not for fear of any man’s pride was I about to owe a penalty to the gods for breaking these.”

     Hemon, hearing the punishment that his soon-to-be wife was about to suffer tries to persuade his father with beautiful words, but Creon’s heart doesn’t move. I often wondered (of course, after judging him a thousand times :D)  if Creon wasn’t doing the right thing by punishing Polynikes. After all, he was a betrayer and enemy of his land. Didn’t he deserve all that?

 “Hemon 

[…]

In any case, it is my natural duty to watch on your behalf all that men say, or do, or find to blame. For dread of your glance forbids the ordinary citizen to speak such words as would offend your ear. But I can hear these murmurs in the dark, how the city moans for this girl, saying: “No woman ever merited death less— none ever died so shamefully for deeds so glorious as hers, who, when her own brother had fallen in bloody battle, would not leave him unburied to be devoured by savage dogs, or by any bird. Does she not deserve to receive golden honor?”

     Another passage that should be reminded to everybody who is in charge of a large group of people (not only to country leaders) is this:

“Creon
And is she not in the grasp of that disease?

Haemon
All the people of this city of Thebes deny it.

Creon
Shall Thebes prescribe to me how I must rule?

Haemon
 See, there, how you have spoken so much like a child.

Creon
Am I to rule this land by the will of another than myself?

Haemon
That is no city, which belongs to one man.

Creon
Does not the city by tradition belong to the man in power?

Haemon
You would make a fine monarch in a desert.”

     I wouldn’t like to spoil the ending of the play for anybody who hasn’t read it, so I won’t say a thing! All I say is that George R.R. Martin envies it from his bones. In the end this is where he gets his inspiration from.

See you tomorrow!

Denis

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