Tag Archives: history

Book review: 1808 Flight of the Emperor

1808_di_Laurentino_Gomes

1808: Flight of the Emperor Image by Laurentino Gomes on Wikipedia’s Creative Commons

I’m a sucker for a well-researched history book, especially one where it feels and “sounds” like the author is sharing all of his own passion and excitement for the topic with me. This is exactly how Laurentino Gomes’ 1808: Flight of the Emperor comes across and flies with his subject matter.

This was an incredibly interesting book to read – not only as a reflection of colonial Brazil (some of which is still so recognizable there today), but also as a reflection of European aristocracy and how very short the Portuguese model fell compared to the Golden Age of Europe’s French, Spanish and German royals, just to name a few. Of course in the early 19th century you couldn’t do everything right by our standards today, but some of their outrageous ways made me cringe and laugh just as much as I imagine the author did on finding these nuggets of not-so-appropriate-for-the-dinner-table information. For example, Gomes tells of how Portugal’s sewage system was so far inferior to the rest of European civilization, they actually still emptied their “night soil” and chamber pots from their windows (yes) directly into the street. Jeez. Another one that has stuck by me is how the Emperor (Dom) Joao not only refused to bathe, his tailors had to wait for him to go to sleep in order to repair the clothes he would likewise refuse to take off. Laurentino Gomes mentioned that there are a myriad more such stories that he didn’t have space to fit into this book… I don’t even dare to imagine.

Besides the Portuguese-Brazilian royal family, Gomes had a lot to say about the politics between England and France at the time, the state of labour and slavery in colonial Brazil as well as some trickle through effects that have shaped contemporary Brazilian culture and politics. Wow, all that in a non-fiction, conversational super-book. I loved every second of it.

Apparently others agreed – the book won 3 awards; one from the Academia das Letras and two Prêmio Jabuti awards.

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Book review: Basque History of the World

Basque-History-of-the-World-The-Mark-Kurlansky

The first and (for now) only in-depth text I’ve read about the Basque people, but it will certainly not be the last! I had heard about a mysterious people somewhere in northern Spain who maintain their solidarity, their culture and their strange language. Now Mark Kurlansky has introduced me to unusual and exciting dishes, traditions and a history both extensive and incredibly active. It sounds wonderful and magical – even the original roots of the Basque people are contested… some theories put them in Basqueland even before the Indo-Europeans. For a culture as young as post-colonial South Africa this seems like a depth and richness of history that we have not yet reached.

Probably Kurlansky writes with some bias, even if he tries to be absolutely objective, because from his tone it seems that he admires the Basques, even their quarrelsome , ethnocentric nature. Even so, Basqueland (and on reflection, Catalonia) have moved way up my ever expanding list of “places to visit asap”. Since food features very heavily in how I experience other countries & cultures, Kurlansky’s recipe inserts and their context in history left my mouth watering and with more than a little curiosity – baby eels or fish cooked in only oil, garlic and peppers… Oh my gosh… and the creamy gateau de basco. What on earth could go wrong?

Of course, the people are what make them Basque – their language, their expression of their culture and what makes them feel distinctly Basque; these are things touched on in a Basque History, because I am sure that this is how the author experienced their culture and their identity. However, no amount of writing or reading about this can be a suitable substitute for the original! It is in talking to people and spending time in their space that you would get to know their reality and maybe also a little bit of what shaped these people and their identity. This reminds me of an acquaintance who went to Basqueland and asked someone to “please say something in Euskera”, to which he got the angry reply “I’m not a monkey, repeating little phrases to tourists!” So… there’s a way to go about it and a way not to. 🙂

As to the language, as Kurlansky writes, it seems like Euskera is one of the vital parts of Basque identity (as Afrikaans is to descendants of Dutch colonists in contemporary SA – I just mention this again because this is my frame of reference). It seems completely out of context in the sea of romance languages (Spanish and French), but it continues to flourish through education, cultural socialization and literary production. Kurlansky writes that they even require their leaders and elected officials to be fluent in Euskera.

In conclusion, this book was engaging, interesting and so well researched, from the mysterious roots of the Basque people, through the age of the Visigoths, the Vikings and the Roman Empire. In terms of modern history, their fight against and suffering under Francisco Franco is also examined in detail. It is a failure of my historical and geographical education that I always thought Guernica is a city in Spain… Another world has opened up to me and I intend to explore it!

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