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#106 “The History of the Siege of Lisbon” by Jose Saramago (#194 on The List)

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by Michael Niewodowski

The History of the Siege of Lisbon is a novel about a single word.

After more than forty years of impeccable service in his profession, Raimundo Silva, a proofreader, intentionally alters a line in a history book manuscript; he changes “During the siege of Lisbon in the twelfth century, the king of Portugal asked help from the Crusaders, who had stopped to re-supply their ships; the Crusaders said that they would come to help attack the occupying Moors” to “the Crusaders said that they would NOT come to help attack the occupying Moors”.  As the proofreader is the last in line to examine a manuscript before publishing, the book was published with the erroneous information.  Silva’s decision is inexplicable: when asked “why?” he responds that he simply had a “Mr. Hyde” moment.  Rather than fire the proofreader, his superior suggests that he write a fictional history of the siege in which the Crusaders do not help the Portuguese.

History, reality, and even life itself can hinge on a single word. In his novel, Saramago questions the validity of written history and shows us how tenuous our understanding of reality can be.  The proofreader’s fictional account is much more interesting and exciting than the “true” history of the siege.  For Saramago, the truth should never stand in the way of a good story, and his-story trumps history.

Most of us can probably relate to Raimundo Silva’s “Mr. Hyde” moment; we all do things that are unprofessional or just plain wrong at work.  When I was a high school teacher, I often used curse words in front of my students. I was teaching Culinary Arts, and I had come from a professional restaurant kitchen environment, where screaming curses is commonplace- even expected. I brought the intensity of my 3 and 4 star restaurant experiences to the classroom, but I knew that it was unprofessional in the high school environment; ironically, this “Mr. Hyde” intensity made me more effective at my job, and my students more engaged and prepared.

Aptly, it was a single word that brought about my demise at my teaching job.

A student accused me of being a bully; if he said “bully” once, he said it a hundred times to any other parents, teachers, or administrators who would listen to him.  This was a student who had become disenfranchised and retaliatory because he had been cut from a competitive culinary team.  Although I NEVER threatened physical violence, it was pretty easy to construe “bullying” from my using curse words, and I was labeled and shamed.

When I was a child, a bully was someone that threatened physical violence to get something from another person (usually lunch money). Now, the definition of a bully is much broader; apparently, you only have to make someone uncomfortable to be considered a bully.  According to Norwegian researcher Dan Olwen (a supposed expert) a bully is someone who “intentionally inflicts injury or discomfort upon another person, through physical contact, through words, or in other ways.”  By this definition, Mahatma Gandhi was a bully: he bullied the English through non-violent civil disobedience, intentionally inflicting discomfort upon them.  By this definition, Jesus Christ was a physically violent bully: he intentionally inflicted physical injury upon the moneychangers in the temple.  (Suddenly, my company doesn’t look so bad…..)  The word “bully” has become a buzz word, and it is thrown around a lot.  I would prefer a definition that does not encompass nearly every man, woman, child, and animal, as Olwen’s definition does.

The History of the Siege of Lisbon teaches us to choose our words wisely.  A single word may change history.

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#101 “Dead Souls” by Nikolay Gogol (#914 on The List)

by Michael Niewodowski

#101 Dead Souls by Nikolay Gogol (#914 on The List)

Nikolay Gogol went completely mad as he was writing Dead Souls.  After reading the novel, this makes a lot of sense to me.  It starts out as a humorous, biting satire, but spirals off into near incomprehensibleness in the second part.  There are huge chunks of text missing, and the book ends unfinished- literally in mid-sentence.  Gogol died of self-inflicted starvation before he finished the novel.

In Dead Souls, Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov travels the Russian countryside purchasing the deeds to dead serfs from rich landowners.  Chichikov has discovered a bureaucratic loophole that can help him to get rich by mortgaging the deeds to the dead serfs before the government realizes that they are dead; the dead souls are more valuable to him than the living serfs.  The satire is that the Russia would place more value on dead serfs than live ones.

Class distinction and inequality is an oft-used theme in literature.  Nowhere is it better satirized than in Dead Souls.  A lot has been said and written in the last few years about this issue: the “Occupy Wall Street” movement has targeted the top 1% of earners in the United States (those making over $500,000 a year).  I grew up in an upper-middle class family, now I am somewhere in the middle-lower-middle class to upper-lower-middle class range; each range has its own advantages and problems.  It is interesting to see how much attention society places on this issue, but apparently it is nothing new: “we have men so wise and adroit that they will speak to a landowner possessing but two hundred serf-souls in a way altogether different from that in which they will to one who possesses three hundred of them; while to him who possesses three hundred of them they will again speak not in the same way as they would with him that has five hundred souls…in brief, even if you were to go up to a million, you would find different shadings for each category.”  (Dead Souls, p. 57).   I think that most Americans in the “99%” would find themselves just as uncomfortable in the bottom 1% (making $2500 or less per year) as the top 1% would be.  Most of the populace in Gogol’s Russia would have fallen into this category of extremely poor.

This will sound base and unconnected, but one of the most enjoyable aspects of reading Russian literature is for the wonderful Russian character names.  Besides Chichikov, there are characters named Athanassii Vassilievich Murazov, Fedor Fedorovich Lenitzin, and Alexander Dmitrievich Betrischev.  Some of the names from Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment are even more fun: Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, Arkady Ivanovich Svidrigailov, etc.  If I ever write a novel, I will be sure to have a character with a great Russian name.

I think that the “Occupy Wall Street” people would learn a lot from reading Dead Souls and the information about Gogol; sometimes I worry that if they are too successful we’ll all have our exact income percentage projected on our foreheads.  According to 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, Gogol’s intention for Dead Souls was to “rekindle the noble yet dormant core of the Russian people, to transform the troubled social and economic landscape of Russia into the gleaming great Empire that was its destiny…he no longer wanted to write about Russia: he wanted to save it” (p. 112).  If we become too obsessed with fixing class inequality, we could, like Gogol, go stark raving mad.


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