on / off books

non-serious book talk

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Arch of Triumph, deja vu

I've read 97 pages of Remarque's Arch of Triumph - first edition, D. Appleton-Century, 1945, translated by Denver Lindley and Walter Sorell.

The setting, the characters, the narration, the dialogues - everything must be familiar to a Remarque reader. The novels is the story of Ravic, first world war veteran, famous German surgeon now (late 1930s) living in Paris without papers and in fear, and he very much resembles the lead characters of The Night in Lisbon. There's even Katczinsky, the cobbler, who first appeared in All Quiet on the Western Front. And you can find Remarque's own brand of humour here.

The first chapter introduces Joan Madou, a singer whom Ravic gets acquainted to in spite of himself. She needs his company, but he resists her Remarqu'esque charm. She finds her again at a restaurant where she sings, and he's attracted. This is where I've stopped.

I wonder if this novel is for his fans only. The first 50 pages were a bit dull and slow (may be I've read too much popular fiction in the recent times that I want my books to be fast-paced). The narrator and the characters keep making statements like "Man is great in his intentions, but weak in carrying them out. Therein lie our misery and our charm." (Morosow, page 87) Almost every character says things like that.

Friday, September 02, 2005

'The Black Obelisk', chapter 1

"It is April, 1923, and business is good. The first quarter has been lively; we have made brilliant sales and grown poor in the process..."

The Black Obelisk
was a novel that I had been searching for more than two years at posh local bookshops and used book sellers. It was one of the great books that I discovered at the Max Mueller Bhavan library, Chennai. Finally I bought a first edition of the book on eBay for a low price.

It's an entertaining novel, though with flaws. Set in the Germany of early 1920s, when hyperinflation was at its worst, it's narrated by Ludwig Bodmer, a young first world war veteran, with bitter humour that strikes you from the first paragraph. Here's the first chapter from the novel (I typed it).

Cover of 'The Black Obelisk' by Erich Maria Remarque; source unknown

The Black Obelisk

Translated from the German by Denver Lindley


The sun is shining in the office of Heinrich Kroll and Funeral Monuments. It is April, 1923, and business is good. The first quarter has been lively; we have made brilliant sales and grown poor in the process, but what can we do? Death is ineluctable, and such is human sorrow that it demands memorials of sandstone, marble, or even, when the sense of guilt or the inheritance is large, of costly black Swedish granite polished on all sides. Autumn and spring are the best seasons for dealers in the appurtenances of grief – more people die then than summer or winter: in autumn because the sap has dried up, and in spring because it mounts and consumes the weakened body like too large a wick in too thin a candle. That at least is the conviction of our most active agent, Liebermann, the grave digger at the municipal cemetery. And he ought to know: he is eighty years old, has buried upwards of ten thousand corpses, has bought a house on the river and a trout hatchery with his commissions on tombstones and, through his profession, has become an enlightened brandy drinker. The one thing he hates is the city crematorium. It is unfair competition. We do not like it either. There is no profit in urns.

I look at the clock. It is a little before twelve, and since today is Saturday I prepare to close up. I slam the metal cover over the typewriter, carry the Presto mimeograph machine behind the curtain, clear away the stone samples, and take the photographic prints of war memorials and artistic funeral monuments out of the fixing bath. I am the advertising manager, draughtsman, and book-keeper for the firm; in fact, for a year now I have been the sole office employee in what is, after all, not even my own profession.

With anticipation I take a cigar out of the drawer. It is a black Brazilian. The salesman for the Württemberg Metal Works gave it to me this morning with the intention of foisting off on me later a consignment of bronze wreaths; so it is a good cigar. I look for a match, but as usual they have been mislaid. Fortunately a small fire is burning in the Dutch oven. I roll up a ten-mark note, hold it to the flame and light the cigar with it. At the end of April there is no longer any real need for a fire in the oven; it is just a selling aid devised by my employer Georg Kroll. He believes that in time of sorrow when people have to hand out money they do it more willingly in a warm room than when they are cold. Sorrow in itself is chilling of the soul, and if you add cold feet, it is hard to extract a decent price. Warmth has a thawing effect – even on the purse. Therefore our office is overheated, and our representatives have it dinned it into them as an overriding principle never to attempt to close a sale in the cemetery when it is cold or rainy, but always in a warm room, if possible, after a meal. Sorrow, cold, and hunger are bad business partners.

I throw the remnant of the ten-mark note into the oven and stand up. At the same instant I hear a window thrown open in the house opposite. I don’t need to look around to know what is going on. Cautiously I bend over the table as though I still had something to do to the typewriter. At the same time I peep into a little mirror which I have so arranged that I can observe the window. As usual it is Lisa, wife of Watzek, the horse butcher, standing there naked, yawning and stretching. She has just got up. The street is old and narrow; Lisa can see us and we can see her and she knows it; that is why she is standing there. Suddenly a quirk appears in her big mouth; she laughs, showing all her teeth, and points at the mirror. Her eagle eye has spied it. I am annoyed at being caught, but act as though I had not noticed and retreat to the back of the room in a cloud of smoke. After a while I return. Lisa grins. I glance out, but not at her; instead I pretend to wave at someone in the street. As an extra flourish I throw a kiss into the void. Lisa falls for it; she is as inquisitive as a goat. She bends forward to see who is there. No one is there. Now I grin. She gestures angrily at her forehead with one finger and disappears.

I don’t really know why I carry on this comedy. Lisa is what is called a terrific figure of a woman, and I know a lot of people who would gladly pay a couple of million to enjoy such a spectacle every morning. I, too, enjoy it, but nevertheless it irritates me that this lazy toad, who never climbs out of bed until noon, is so shamelessly certain of her effect. It would never occur to her that there might be men who would not instantly want to sleep with her. Besides, the question does not even greatly interest her. She only stands at the window with her black pony tail and her impertinent nose and swings her first-class Carrara marble breasts like an aunt waving a rattle in front of a baby. If she had a couple of toy balloons she would happily wave them; it is all the same to her. Since she is naked, she waves her breasts; she is just completely happy to be alive and to know that all men must be crazy about her, and then she forgets the whole thing and goes to work on her breakfast with her voracious mouth. Meanwhile, Watzek, the horse butcher, is slaughtering tired old carriage nags.

Lisa appears again. Now she is wearing a false moustache and is beside herself at this witty inspiration. She gives a military salute and I assume that she is so shameless as to her have eyes on old Knopf, the retired sergeant-major whose house is next door. But then I remember that Knopf’s bedroom window opens on the court. And Lisa is artful enough to know that she cannot be observed from the few other neighbouring houses.

Suddenly, as though a reservoir of sound has burst its dyke, the bells of St. Mary’s begin to ring. The church stands at the end of our alley, and the strokes resound as though they fell straight from heaven into our room. At the same time I see outside the other office window, the one that faces on the court, my employer’s bald head gliding by like a ghostly melon. Lisa makes a rude gesture and shuts her window. The daily temptation of Saint Anthony has been withstood once more.

Georg Kroll is barely forty, but his head is already as shiny as the bowling alley at Boll’s Garden Restaurant. It has been shiny as long as I have known him, and that is over five years. It is so shiny that when we were in the trenches, where we belonged to the same regiment, a special order was issued that even at the quietest times Georg had to wear his steel helmet – such would have been the temptation, for even the kindliest of enemies, to find out by a shot whether or not his head was a giant billiards ball.

I pull myself and report: “Company Headquarters, Kroll and Sons! Staff engaged in enemy observation. Suspicious troop movements in the Watzek sector.”

“Aha,” Georg says, “Lisa at her morning gymnastics. Get a move on, Lance-Corporal Bodmer. Why don’t you wear blinkers in the morning like the drummer’s horse in a cavalry band and thus protect your virtue? Don’t you know what the three most precious things in life are?”

“How should I know that, Attorney-General, when life itself is what I’m still searching for?”

“Virtue, simplicity, and youth,” Georg announces. “Once lost, never to be regained! And what is more useless than experience, age, and barren intelligence?”

“Poverty, sickness, and loneliness,” I reply, standing at ease.

“Those are just different names for experience, age, and misguided intelligence.”

Georg takes the cigar out of my mouth. He examines it briefly and classifies it like a butterfly. “Booty from the metal works.”

He takes a beautifully clouded, golden-brown meerschaum cigar holder out of his pocket, fits the Brazilian into it and goes on smoking.

“I have nothing against your requisitioning the cigar,” I say. “It is naked force, and that’s all you know about life. But why the cigar holder? I’m not syphilitic.”

“And I’m not homosexual.”

“Georg,” I say, “in the war you used my spoon to eat pea soup whenever I could steal it from the canteen. And the spoon stayed in my dirty boot and was never washed.”

Georg examines the ash of the Brazilian. It is snow white. “The war was four and a half years ago,” he informs me. “At that time infinite misery made us human. Today the shameless lust for gain has made us robbers again. To keep this secret we use the varnish of convention. Ergo! Isn’t there still another Brazilian? The metal works never tries to bribe an employee with just one.”

I take the second cigar out of the drawer and hand it to him. “You know everything! Intelligence, experience, and age seem to be good for something after all.”

He grins and gives me in return a half-empty package of cigarettes. “Anything else been happening?” he asks.

“Not a thing. No customers. But I must urgently request a rise.”

“What, again? You got one only yesterday!”

“Not yesterday. This morning at 9 o’clock. A miserable ten thousand marks. However, it was still worth something at nine this morning. Now the new dollar exchange rate has been posted and instead of a new tie all I can buy is a bottle of cheap wine. But what I need is a tie.”

“Where does the dollar stand now?”

“Thirty-six thousand marks at noon today. This morning it was thirty-three thousand.”

Georg Kroll examines his cigar. “Thirty-six thousand! It’s a rat race. Where will it end?”

“In a wholesale crash. Meanwhile we have to live. Did you get some money?”

“Only a small suitcaseful for today and tomorrow. Thousands, ten thousands, even a couple of packages of hundreds. Something like five pounds of paper money. The inflation is moving so fast that the Reichsbank can’t print money rapidly enough to keep up with it. The new hundred thousand notes were only issued two weeks ago – soon we’ll need million-mark notes. When will we be in the billions?”

“If it goes on like this, in a couple of months.”

“My God!” Georg sighs. “Where are the fine peaceful times of 1922? Then the dollar only rose from two hundred and fifty to ten thousand in a whole year. Not to mention 1921 – when it went up a beggarly three hundred per cent.”

I look out of the window towards the street. Now Lisa is standing across the way in a printed silk dressing-gown decorated with parrots. She has put a mirror on the window ledge and is brushing her mane.

“Look at that,” I say bitterly. “She sows not neither does she reap, but our Father in Heaven supports her nevertheless. She didn’t have that dressing-gown yesterday. Yards of silk! And I can’t scrape together the price of a tie.”

Georg grins. “You’re just an innocent victim of the times. But Lisa spreads her sails before the gale of the inflation. She is the fair Helen of the black marketeers. You can’t get rich on tombstones. Why don’t you go into the herring business or the stock market like your friend Willy?”

“Because I am a philosopher and a sentimentalist. I shall remain true to tombstones. Well, what about my rise? Even philosophers need to spend something on their wardrobes.”

Georg shrugs his shoulders. “Can’t you buy the tie tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow is Sunday. And I need it tomorrow.”

Georg sighs and gets his bagful of money out of the vestibule. He reaches inside and throws me two packages. “Will that do?”

I see that they are mostly hundreds. “Hand over another pound of that wallpaper,” I say. “This is not more than five thousand. Catholic profiteers put that much in the collection plate at Sunday mass and feel ashamed of being so stingy.”

Georg scratches his bald skull, an atavistic gesture without meaning in his case. Then he hands me a third package. “Thank God tomorrow is Sunday,” he says. “No dollar exchange rate. One day in the week the inflation stands still. God surely did not have that in mind when He created the Sabbath.”

“How are we doing really? Are we ruined or in clover?”

Georg takes a long draw on the meerschaum holder. “I don’t believe anyone in Germany knows that about himself. Not even the godlike Stinnes. People with savings are ruined, of course. So are all the factory workers and office workers. Also most of the small-business people, only they don’t know it. The only ones who are making hay are the people with foreign exchange, stocks, or negotiable property. Does that answer your question?”

“Negotiable property!” I look out into the garden which serves as our warehouse. “We haven’t much left. Mostly sandstone and poured concrete. Very little marble or granite. And what little we have your brother is selling at a loss. The best would be to sell nothing at all, wouldn’t it?”

There is no need for Georg to answer. A bicycle bell rings outside. Someone mounts the ancient steps. There is an authoritative cough. It is the problem child of the family, Heinrich Kroll, Junior, the other owner of the firm.

He is a corpulent little man with a bristling moustache and dusty trousers, secured at the bottom with bicycle clips. His eyes sweep Georg and me with mild contempt. To him we are office hacks who loaf all day, while he is the man of action in charge of foreign affairs. He is indefatigable. Every day in the grey of dawn he goes to the railway station and then by bicycle to the remotest villages: wherever our agents, the grave diggers and teachers, have reported a corpse. He is by no means inept. His corpulence inspires confidence; therefore he maintains it by diligent beer drinking early and late. Farmers like short thick men better than hungry-looking ones. His clothes help too. He does not wear a black frock coat, like our competitor Steinmeyer, nor a blue business suit like the travellers of Hollman and Klotz – the one is too obvious, the other too unfeeling. Heinrich Kroll wears striped trousers with a dark jacket, together with a high old-fashioned wing collar and a subdued tie with a lot of black in it. Two years ago he hesitated for a while in choosing this outfit. He wondered whether a cutaway might not be more suitable, but then decided against it because of his height. It was a happy renunciation. Even Napoleon would have been ridiculous in a swallow tail. In his present outfit Heinrich Kroll looks like the dear Lord’s diminutive receptionist – and that is exactly as it should be. The bicycle clips give the whole a cunningly calculated appearance of homeliness; in these days of automobiles, people believe they can get a better buy from a man who wears bicycle clips.

Heinrich takes his hat off and wipes his forehead. Outside it is fairly cool and he is not perspiring; he does this simply to show us what a hard worker he is in comparison with us office loafers.

“I have sold the memorial cross,” he says with a modesty as unobtrusive as the roar of a lion.

“Which? The small marble one?” I ask hopefully.

“The big one,” Heinrich replies, even more simply, and stares at me.

“What? The Swedish granite with double socle and bronze chains?”

“That’s the one! Did you think we had any other?”

Heinrich clearly relishes his silly question as a triumph of sarcasm.

“No,” I say. “We haven’t any other. That’s the trouble. It was the last. The rock of Gibraltar.”

“How much did you sell it for?” Georg Kroll now asks.

Heinrich straightens up. “For three-quarters of a million, without inscription and exclusive of freight and packing. They are additional.”

“Good God!” Georg and I say at the same time.

Heinrich favours us with a glance full of arrogance; dead haddock sometimes wear a similar expression. “It was a hard battle,” he proclaims and for some reason puts on his hat again.

“I wish you had lost it,” I reply.


“Lost it. Lost the battle.”

“What?” Heinrich repeats in annoyance. I irritate him easily.

“He wishes you had not sold it,” Georg Kroll says.

“Why? What in the world does that mean? Hell and damnation, I slave from morning till night and when I make a brilliant sale all I get in this hole is reproaches! Go out to the villages yourselves and try - ”

“Heinrich,” Georg interrupts him mildly, “we know you work yourself to the bone. But today we’re living in a time when every sale makes us poorer. For years there has been an inflation. Since the war, Heinrich. But this year the inflation has turned into galloping consumption. That’s why figures no longer mean - ”

“I know that myself. I’m no idiot.”

No one says anything to that. Only idiots make such statements. And to contradict them is useless. That is something I have learned on the Sundays I spend at the insane asylum. Heinrich gets out a notebook. “The memorial cost us fifty thousand when we bought it. You would think that three-quarters of a million would mean a neat little profit.”

He is dabbling in sarcasm again. He thinks he must use it on me because I was once a school teacher. That was shortly after the war, in an isolated village on the heath – nine long months until I made my escape, with winter loneliness howling like a dog at my heels.

“It would have been an even bigger profit if in place of the magnificent cross you had sold that damned obelisk out there,” I say. “Your late father brought it for even less sixty years ago when the business was founded – for something like fifty marks, according to tradition.”

“The obelisk? What’s the obelisk got to do with this? The obelisk is unsaleable, any child knows that.”

“For that very reason,” I say, “no tears would be shed if you had got rid of it. But it’s a pity about the cross. We’ll have to replace it at great expense.”

Heinrich Kroll snorts. He has polyps in his thick nose and gets stuffed up easily. “Are you by any chance trying to tell me that it would cost three-quarters of a million to buy a memorial cross today?”

“That’s something we’ll find out soon enough,” Georg Kroll says. “Riesenfeld will be here tomorrow. We’ll have to place a new order with the Odenwald Granite Works; there’s not much left on inventory.”

“We still have the obelisk,” I suggest maliciously.

“Why don’t you sell that yourself?” Heinrich snaps. “So Riesenfeld is coming tomorrow; well, I’ll stay and have a talk with him myself. Then we’ll see where prices stand.”

Georg and I exchange glances. We know that we will keep Heinrich away from Riesenfeld even if we have to make him drunk or pour castor oil in his morning beer. That honest, old-fashioned businessman would bore Riesenfeld to death with his war experiences and stories of the good old times when a mark was still a mark and honesty was the mark of honour, as our beloved Field Marshal has so aptly put it. Heinrich dotes on such platitudes; not Riesenfeld. For Riesenfeld honesty is what you demand from someone else when it’s to his disadvantage, and from yourself when you gain by it.

“Prices change daily,” Georg says. “There’s nothing to talk about.”

“Really? Perhaps you, too, think I got a bad price?”

“That depends. Did you bring the money with you?”

Heinrich stares at Georg. “Bring it with me? What in blazes are you talking about? How could I bring the money when we haven’t even made the delivery? You know that’s impossible!”

“It isn’t impossible at all,” I reply. “On the contrary, it’s common practice today. It’s called payment in advance.”

“Payment in advance!” Heinrich’s fat snout twitches contemptuously. “What does a school-teacher like you know about it? In our business how can you demand payment in advance? From the sorrowing relatives when the wreaths on the grave haven’t even begun to wilt! Are you going to demand money at such a moment for something that hasn’t been delivered?”

“Of course! What else? That’s when they’re weak and it’s easy to get money out of them.”

“They’re weak then? Don’t make me laugh! That’s when they’re harder than steel! After all the expense for the coffin, the pastor, the grave, the flowers, the wake – why, you couldn’t get so much as a ten-thousand advance, young man! First, people have to recover! Before they pay they have to see what they have ordered standing in the cemetery and not just on paper in the catalogue, even when it’s been drawn by you with Chinese brushes and genuine gold leaf for the inscriptions and a few grieving relatives into the bargain.”

Another example of Heinrich’s personal tactlessness! I pay no attention. It is true that I not only draw the tombstones for our catalogue and reproduce them on the Presto mimeograph machine but also paint them to increase their effectiveness and provide them with atmosphere; with weeping willows, beds of pansies, cypresses, and widows in mourning veils watering the flowers. Our competitors almost died of envy when we produced this novelty; they had nothing but simple stock photographs, and Heinrich, too, thought the idea magnificent at the time, especially the use of gold leaf. As a matter of fact, to make the effect completely natural I had embellished the drawings of the tombstones with inscriptions emblazoned with gold leaf dissolved in varnish. I had had a splendid time doing it; I killed off everyone I hated and painted tombstones for them – for example, the beast who was my sergeant when I was a recruit and who is still living happily: “Here after prolonged and hideous sufferings, having seen all his loved ones precede him in death, lies Constable Karl Flümer.” This was fully justified; Flümer had treated me outrageously and sent me twice on patrols from which I had returned alive only by chance. I had ample reason to wish him the worst.

“Herr Kroll,” I say, “allow us to give you another short analysis of the times. The principles by which you were raised are noble, but today they lead to bankruptcy. Anybody can earn money now; almost no one knows how to maintain its purchasing power. The important thing is not to sell but to buy and to be paid as quickly as possible. We live in an age of commodities. Money is an illusion; everyone knows that, but many still do not believe it. As long as this is so the inflation will go on till absolute zero is reached. Man lives seventy-five per cent by his imagination and only twenty-five per cent by fact – that is his strength and his weakness, and that in this witch’s dance of numbers there are still winners and losers. We know that we cannot be absolute winners; but at the same time we don’t want to be complete losers. If the three-quarters of a million marks you settled for today is not paid for two months, it will be worth what fifty thousand is worth now. Therefore - ”

Heinrich’s face has turned dark red. Now he interrupts me. “I am no idiot,” he declares for the second time. “And you don’t need to read me lectures. I know more of practical life than you do. And I would rather go down honourably than exist by disreputable profiteering methods. As long as I am sales manager of this firm the business will be conducted in the old, decent fashion – and that’s all there is to it. I rely on my experience, and it has stood us in good stead so far; that’s how it will continue in the future! It’s a rotten trick to spoil a man’s pleasure in a fine business deal! Why didn’t you stick to your job of horse-drummer?”

He snatches up his hat and slams the door behind him. We see him vigorously stamping off, knock-kneed and bow-legged, a half-military figure with is bicycle clips. He is in formal retreat to his accustomed table at Blume’s Restaurant.

“That bourgeois sadist wants to get fun out of his work,” I say angrily. “Imagine that! How can we carry on our business except with pious cynicism if we want to save our souls? That hypocrite wants to get pleasure out of haggling over corpses and actually considers it his hereditary right!”

Georg laughs. “Take your money and let’s be on our way. Weren’t you going to buy a necktie? Get on with it! There will be no more rises today!”

He picks up the suitcase with the money and casually puts it in the room next to the office, where he sleeps. I stow my packages of notes in a cardboard box with the inscription: Konditorei Keller, Finest Pastries, Home Deliveries.

“Is Riesenfeld really coming?” I ask.

“Yes. He telegraphed.”

“What does he want? Money? Or has he something to sell?”

“We’ll find out,” Georg says and locks the office door.

* * *

Do read the novel! A new copy is expensive. You can buy a used copy on eBay or Abebooks. Ebay is cheaper.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

"Black people loot, white people find?"

Media racism.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The Da Vinci Code - no big deal

I was probably one of the last people to read Dan Brown's much-sold and much-hyped Da Vinci Code. Finished it the day before yesterday. Usually allergic to anything that's hyped, I've been avoiding this book.

Looking for a way to beat the stress, I found DVC to be the perfect solution. It was a fast read. With a cinematic first chapter, short, interesting paragraphs, it was occasionally slow, repetitive and boring, but generally engaging, though I thought the ending could have been better. Some things were far-fetched, like the lack of security in Louvre and the Priory of Sion list with Leonardo da Vinci, Isaac Newton, Jean Cocteau, etc.

Being clueless about history, I took DVC's factual accuracy for granted. The explosively religious-political nature of the novel, its author's guts, and the feminist mythology are what impressed me most. Turns out DVC is based on fabrications.

I was impatient to read about the Priory of Sion, Mona Lisa, The Last Supper and all that's mystified and/or sensationalised in the book. I did, after I finished reading it and came up with some astounding facts...

The Priory of Sion was founded actually in 1956, and not in the 12th century. Its founder, Pierre Plantard was a petty criminal and probably a nut.

The Da Vinci Code is based on false information, mostly from books like Holy Blood, Holy Grail, by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln.

There's more
, but I'd have to use plenty of italics and bulleted lists. You can find the Da Vinci Code debunkers here:

The Priory of Sion!
The Da Vinci Con

One word about DVC the movie. Except for Tom Hanks who plays Robert Langdon, everyone seems to be perfect for their roles.

Some more links:

A Da Vinci De-Coder - A Catholic Answer
Margaret Mitchell on DVC

I'm not including Dan Brown's and Random House's DVC sites because they don't react to the exposé.

When I first discovered Agatha Christie, Erle Stanley Gardner, John Grisham and Ken Follett, I was so impressed that I read their other books too. I can't say that about Dan Brown.