Monday, August 9, 2010

Poemas del río Wang

I’ve been meaning for a while to write a proper blog review, something that goes beyond the occasional succinct praise of or brief engagement with somebody else’s work. Those acts of course are a fundamental aspect of the activity of blogging and the life of a blog, just like the comments (or lack thereof) are always integral to a post. However the idea of treating a blog as a proper object of review has some peculiar implications.

For one thing, a reviewer is supposed to have extensive knowledge of the subject of the review. If it’s a book or series of books, you’d better have read it and if it’s a film, you’d better have seen it at least once. But how do you even read a blog? I mean all of it? You could follow the King of Hearts’ Advice to the White Rabbit and ‘begin at the beginning, go on until you reach the end, then stop,’ but that’s not how blogs are typically approached. We generally come to them in medias res, through recommendations or a Web search or a blogroll, and even if we like what we see and make a point of coming back, we rarely go back to the beginning. (Mileage may vary, but I think I'm right about this.) Besides, it’s rarely illuminating. As I have argued before, even to the extent that it resembles a book, a blog is a text that one approaches from the last page, which sits on top of the other ones; but if you suppose that each post is a page, then the image you’re looking for is not (necessarily) that of a ream sitting on a table that you can leaf through backwards or turn over and start from the beginning. Perhaps the pages are scattered throughout the room. Perhaps some of them are bound together, according to criteria that may seem arbitrary, while others have been hidden or discarded. Perhaps some of the pages aren’t even written in a language that you understand.

No, a blog is a textual labyrinth out of Borges, like in ‘A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain’, or ‘Death and the Compass’.
I know of a Greek labyrinth that is but one straight line. So many philosophers have been lost upon that line that a mere detective might be pardoned if he became lost as well. When you hunt me down in another avatar of our lives, Scharlach, I suggest that you fake (or commit) one crime at A, a second crime at B, eight kilometres from A, then a third crime at C, four kilometres from A and B and halfway between them. The wait for me at D, two kilometres from A and C, once again halfway between them. Kill me at D, as you are about to kill me at Triste-le-Roy.

But old habits die hard, and so in preparing to review Poemas del río Wang I went right back to the beginning. I wanted to make sure I’d cover all my bases and not get lost in the labyrinth, I suppose. It is a testament to how good this blog is that it gives pleasure even when approached by that dull route, in the way of a school assignment. It is also remarkable that it seems to have come to life already formed, its voice already found. But I know from having visited it regularly for nearly a year now that it gives much more joy in its natural unfolding, at its natural pace, when you have the leisure to follow its internal labyrinthine convolutions and external detours into other blogs, libraries or whole song repertoires. As for that initial encounter, occasioned by an exceptional post on the possibility that the Italian partisan song Bella Ciao may have klezmer roots, I must credit Stephen Judd, who may just be the Web’s model reader, the steersman of the ‘cyber’ metaphor. And I really owe him this acknowledgment because engaging with Río Wang requires the full array of reading skills that the Web at once fosters and demands.

Where does one begin to explain Poemas del río Wang? It is based in Hungary, Mallorca and a China that is largely of the mind, with frequent forays in Turkey, Iran and especially the Soviet Union. Every post is written in at least two languages – English and Hungarian – and some are in Spanish, Catalan and Italian. Other languages, such as Russian, Persian and Chinese, are extensively discussed. These few coordinates go some way towards telling you what the blog is about: places and languages, history and culture. Interestingly, English is not the first language of any of the authors, but serves quite self-consciously as a lingua franca, the code that enables the people in the rest of the world to communicate not just or even primarily with the Anglo world, but rather with each other. Yet Río Wang also resists this move, not just by going out in at least one other language, but also by switching back to native or at any rate more fluent tongues whenever possible, and especially in the comments.

In this respect I must comment briefly on the authors’ decision to run two separate sites that mirror each other. Seeing as it is my day job, I know how much effort it takes to translate texts of that length and complexity, even if you’ve written them yourself; to say nothing of the fact that many of the posts are about the act of translation itself, in both a cultural and a linguistic sense. Consider also how the two sites presuppose and in fact constitute two likely quite separate readerships, with different communities of commenters but also different kinds of knowledge. When I write about Italy for this blog, I am conscious that I must explain it; the mode of address and the kinds of things that I say about home would be different if the same post were to go out both in English and in Italian. So it’s not just a matter of the work that the translation demands, but also the intelligent weaving of those stories so that they can be rendered as native texts in (at least) two languages.

An image gallery from Český Krumlov

What Río Wang is in no small part about, then, is the very possibility of translation, which is not a given at all latitudes, and most especially in the Anglo sphere, where theoretical misgivings often give way to a discomfiting monoculturalism. Here by the sharpest of contrasts is one of the authors, Studiolum, on Russian:
I already at the age of seven loved Russian, the strange letters, the romantic illustrations of the cheap brochures of fables sold in the Gorkiy bookshop, the world of the floppy-eared bear Misha, Cheburashka and Crocodile Gena, but most of all that curious alchemy by which I was able, by coupling foreign words and affixes, to tell the same like in Hungarian but in a different way, that ever since has fascinated me in each language again and again. But am I allowed to learn the language of the occupiers in a good faith?

I turned with my doubts to my father who told me that Russian was not only the language of the Soviet army, but that of Tolstoy and Dostoevski as well. With this approval I happily threw myself into the study of Russian. And thanks to this, I have since then discovered that Russian is not only the language of these great authors, but that of small people as well, and not only of Russians but, in an odd way, of many different people from Bulgaria to Beijing and from Poland to Iran, organized into a kind of a community by virtue of this intermediary language. And in this way it is also mine.

It was the very familiar that took me to Río WangBella Ciao is sung nightly in this household, alarming as that may sound – but I stayed for the unfamiliar. The post that more than any other sealed my long-term loyalty was this piece on Moscow’s Muromtsev dacha, in which one can find the sense for the historical and the contemporary, the sensibility and the capacity to assemble and present the most extraordinary images that distinguish the blog. This last point cannot be over-emphasised, for Río Wang is visually sumptuous, and a true test of what can be achieved in the medium: I converted a number of friends simply by linking to this set of images from Petrograd, or this post on Tarkovsky’s Polaroids, which are spectacular, but look at how simply yet perfectly laid out this older post on Rodin’s statues in Mallorca is. And it’s all done with Blogger’s template.

I point this out also because with the release of the iPad there has been a lot of talk about portable devices as the future of current print publications, and about how finally magazines will be laid out properly, and be as nice to look at and usable digitally as they are in print. But Río Wang shows us we’re already there, and flips the question on its head: if it’s true that some established blogs, perhaps even the majority of them, could be quite easily thought of as regular columns in existing print publications, where would you fit Río Wang in the old paradigm? Would it be a glossy magazine? Perhaps. But how would you distribute it? How would it reach the territorially dispersed community that it currently serves, and in the idioms that it insists to speak? Where is not just the economic, but also the conceptual space in which such a publication could exist outside of the Web?

In seeking subjects for future blog reviews, I’ll be looking at whether and in what ways they move us towards a native digital form. Whilst paying homage to an eighth century Chinese poet, and seeking to recreate the space for concentration and reflection of a Renaissance study, Poemas del río Wang does just that.

The Borges quotation comes from p. 156 of the 1998 Penguin Classics edition, translated by Andrew Hurley. In every other edition, it's the last page of 'Death and the Compass', which was originally published in Artifices.

It was the latest entry in Agata Pyzik's blog that got me thinking about some of the issues I discussed in the post.