Pen Mightier than Sword (Pluma más poderosa que espada)

Authors with Sword in Hand

Throughout history, there were soldiers who wielded the pen with as much as skill as they wielded the sword; sometimes better.

Autores con la espada en mano

A lo largo de la historia, hubo soldados que manejaron la pluma con tanta habilidad que la espada; a veces, mejor.

Most of the literary output of these soldier-writers was, understandably, autobiographical: descriptions of battles and campaigns they took part in. A classic example of this is Xenophon’s Anabasis, better known as The March of the Ten Thousand, a gripping account of the retreat of ten thousand Spartan mercenaries in the wake of a lost battle across hostile territory, from Mesopotamia all the way to the shores of the Black Sea. Another is Bernal Díaz del Castillo’s The Conquest of New Spain, a similarly gripping (at least in the abridged version) account of how four-hundred desperadoes under Hernán Cortés conquered Mexico and overthrew an entire empire in the process. I warmly recommend them both.

La mayor parte de la producción literaria de estos soldados-escritores fue, naturalmente, autobiográfico: descripciones de batallas y campañas en que lucharon. Un ejemplar clásico de este tipo de libro es La anábasis de Jenofonte, mejor conocida con el título La marcha de los Diez Mil, un relato emocionante de la regresa de diez mil mercenarios espartanos después de una batalla perdida, a través de un territorio hostil, todo el camino desde Mesopotamia hasta las orillas del Mar Negro. Otro relato que es semejante emocionante (por lo menos en la versión abreviada) es la Historia verdadera de la conquista de Nueva España por Bernal Díaz del Castillo, que narra como cuatro cientos aventureros bajo el mando de Hernán Cortés han conquistado Mexico y derrocado un imperio entero en el proceso. Os recomiendo ambos libros.

But in addition to these authors, there were a handful of soldiers who are better known by literature professors than by military buffs; a handful of soldiers who are more famous for being authors than for ever having been soldiers.

Pero además de esos autores, hubo un puñado de soldados, que son mejor conocidos por profesores de literatura que por aficionados de la historia militar; un puñado de soldados que son más famosos por ser autores que por su pasado como soldados.

Meet five of them.

Aquí abajo puedes conocer a cinco de ellos.

Aeschylus (c. 525-c. 456 B.C.) /

Esquilo (525-456 a.C.)

Aeschylus

This Athenian playwright fought in both Persian Wars, at the battles of Marathon and Salamis respectively (490 and 480 B.C.) but he owes his fame not to his military prowess but to winning the Athenian drama competition – thirteen times. His surviving plays are ample testimony of his talent and only one of them, The Persians, draws on his war experiences. If a play by Aeschylus ever comes to be staged near you, don’t miss out on it.

(It might be wise to study a bit of Greek mythology first though!)

Este dramaturgo de Atenas luchó en ambas guerras persas, en las batallas de Maratón y de Salamina (490 y 480 a.C.), pero debe su fama al hecho de que ha ganado el concurso de dramaturgos de Atenas – trece veces. Sus obras supervivientes nos demuestran su talento, y sólo una de ellas, Las persas, es el resultado de sus experiances de las guerras persas. Total que si una de sus obras viene a un teatro cercano a tu barrio, que vayas.

(Aunque sería una buena idea estudiar un poco de la mitología griega antes del teatro.)

Luís Vaz de Camões (c. 1524-1580)

Luís Vaz de Camões

Known as ‘the father of Portuguese’ on account of his epic poem, The Lusiads, this sixteenth-century author lived a turbulent life, having been often imprisoned for duelling and debts. When not in prison, he served in the Portuguese army in North Africa and the Far East.

The Lusiads recounts the epic voyage of Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, the first man to round the Cape of Good Hope on the way to India – the route that Camões himself travelled a generation later.

Conocido como la padre del idioma portugués, debido a su epopeya, Los lusiadas, este autor del siglo XVI vivió una vida turbulenta, y fue encarcelado a causa de sus deudas y duelos. Cuando no estaba en cárcel, sirvió en el ejército de Portugal en el norte de África y el Oriente Lejano.

Los lusiadas narra el viaje épico del explorador portugués, Vasco da Gama, quien fue el primero en doblar el Cabo de Buena Esperanza viajando a India – la ruta que el mismo Camões siguió una generación más tarde.

Miklós Zrínyi (1620-1664)

Miklós Zrínyi

Or to be exact, Zrínyi Miklós in the original Hungarian where surname always comes first; known as Nikola Zrinski in Croatian (he came from a mixed ancestry). Among the five here he is the only one who is as famous as general and military strategist as he is as poet.

Zrínyi is the author of the first Hungarian epic poem, translated into English under the title of The Siege of Sziget. Influenced by Homer’s Iliad and Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered, he tells the story of the heroic but failed defence of the Hungarian castle of Szigetvár by his own great-grandfather (also called Miklós Zrínyi) in 1566. Incidentally, this poet-general spent his life defending his country against the same enemy – the Ottoman Empire – as his great-grandfather: the Turkish wars in Hungary lasted literally centuries.

O, para ser exacto, Zrínyi Miklós, en la forma original de su  nombre en húngaro, como que los húngaros siempre llevan sus apellidos antes del sus nombres; conocido en Croacia como Nikola Zrinski (fue de una ascendencia mezclada). Entre los cinco aquí él es el único que es famoso tanto por ser general y estratega militar como poeta.

Zrínyi es el autor de la primera epopeya húngara, El peril de Sziget (que desafortunadamente no ha sido traducido al español que yo sepa, pero puedes encontrarlo en inglés, francés o italiano). Influenciada por la Ilíada de Homero y Jerusalén liberada por Tasso, la epopeya narra la historia de la heroica pero fallada defensa del castillo húngaro, Szigetvár, en 1566. El comandante del castillo fue el propio bisabuelo del poeta (también llamado Miklós Zrínyi). Y, a propósito, este poeta-general pasó su vida defendiendo su país contra el mismo enemigo que su bisabuelo: el imperio otomano – en Hungría las guerras contra los turcos duraron, literalmente, siglos.

Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400)

Geoffrey Chaucer

Often called the ‘father of English literature’, Chaucer owes this epithet to having penned The Canterbury Tales, a collection of twenty-four tales mostly written in verse which are set against the background of a story telling competition during a pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Thomas Beckett in Canterbury. Written in Middle English, it’s still in print both in its original version and Modern English ‘translations’.

And the author’s military credentials? Chaucer took part in the Hundred Years’ War and was captured (and ransomed) during the siege of Rheims in 1360.

A menudo llamado el padre de la literature inglesa, Chaucer ha recibido este epíteto por su obra, Los cuentos de Canterbury, una colección de veinticuatro cuentos, en la mayor parte en verso. Los cuentos son relatados por distintos personajes quienes se encuentran durante un peregrinaje al sanctuario de Thomas Beckett en Canterbury. Los cuentos de Canterbury ha sido escrito en inglés medio, es decir, en la lengua de aquel tiempos y todavía se puede comprar esta versión además de las traducciones al inglés moderno.

¿Y las credenciales militares de Chaucer? Pues participó en la Guerra de los Cien Años, y fue capturado (y rescatado) durante el asedio de Rheims en 1360.

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547-1616)

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

Last but by no means the least; for is there anybody who hasn’t heard of Don Quijote? It was penned at the beginning of the seventeenth century by a Spanish soldier who had fought – and had been maimed – in the Battle of Lepanto (1571).

Cervantes’s comic masterpiece describes the addle-brained adventures of a self-appointed knight and his faithful sidekick, Sancho Panza, up and down in the Spanish province of La Mancha. The impact and influence of Don Quijote was so great that Spanish nowadays is often called ‘the language of Cervantes’.

Pues seguramente no hay nada nuevo que puedo contar sobre Cervantes a vosotros hispanohablantes, ¿no?  🙂 

If you wish to add to this - by no means exhaustive - list, feel free to leave a comment below.

Si quieres añadir a esta lista que no exhaustiva de ninguna manera, déjame un comentario aquí abajo.
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El Samurai

Read this in English: The Samurai

…y el sacerdote

Porque El samurai, esta novela por el autor japonés, Shusaku Endo, tiene de hecho dos protagonistas, aunque el título sólo menciona uno. Dos personajes principales en paralelo: unidos en el propósito pero, al mismo tiempo, con un marcado contraste entre los dos.

El propósito que une el samurai Rokuemon Hasekura y el padre Velasco es negociar privilegios comerciales con Nueva España para los japoneses a cambio de que los misioneros europeos puedan predicar al cristianismo en Japón. Lo que los separa es… pues todo los demás, empezando con sus razones para participar en la embajada. El año es 1613, y el caudillo Tokugawa Ieyasu acabó unificar Japón bajo su propio mando.

¿Y la recompensa para los dos protagonistas después de un viaje arduo cruzando dos océanos? El samurai espera que recobre sus tierras solariegas; el sacerdote sueña de hacerse el primer obispo de Japón. Pero sus Señorías sólo les conceden sus deseos si consiguen la misión …  ¿pueden hacerlo?

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Six Books, Six Continents

Africa

Red Strangers by Elspeth Huxley

Africa has a lot going for it as a continent – like elephants – but somehow it doesn’t often feature among my readings. (That could be because I don’t keep re-reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.)

I read Red Strangers for a reading challenge a couple of years ago and boy, was it a challenge!… But the last paragraph made up for it all.

⇒ A Girl Called Aeroplane

(Do let me know what you think of it!)

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The Samurai

…and the Priest

Because The Samurai, this novel by Japanese author Shusaku Endo, has two protagonists for all that only one of them is mentioned in the title. Two main characters in parallel, united in purpose – yet in contrast to each other.

The purpose that unites them is gaining an agreement for the establishment of direct trade between Japan and Nueva España, New Spain, in exchange for Japan allowing Christian misssionaries to proselytise in the country. What separates them is… everything else, beginning with their reasons for setting out on the embassy. The year is 1613, and the warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu has recently managed to unify Japan under his own rule.

The samurai, Rokuemon Hasekura, hopes to get his ancestral lands back; the priest, Father Velasco, dreams of becoming the Bishop of Japan. Their desires will only be granted if their mission is successful…  can they carry it off?

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Matar a Leonardo da Vinci (To Kill Leonardo da Vinci)

Visité Florencia, esta ciudad del arte renacentista, por unos días la semana pasada – un viaje organizado en la última hora, se puede decir. Viajé acompañado por un libro que, muy adecuadamente, lleva un retrato de la ciudad en la tapa: Matar a Leonardo da Vinci por el autor español, Christian Gálvez.

I visited Florence, this city of Renaissance art, for a few days last week – a last minute trip. Travelled in the company of a book which, very appropriately, carries a drawing of the city on the cover: Matar a Leonardo da Vinci (To Kill Leonardo da Vinci) by the Spanish author Christian Gálvez.

View of Florence from the Piazzale Michelangelo
A word of warning here for English readers: this book review is going to benefit you little since it deals with a book which, to the best of my knowledge, hasn't been translated into English yet - and frankly, no loss if it never will be. With that caveat, please feel free to continue reading. :) (At least you'll know to avoid it if it ever comes out in English!)

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Submarine!

Visits to Chatham Historic Dockyard, home among others to the diesel-electric submarine HMS Ocelot, and to the Royal Navy Museum in Portsmouth, home to HMS Alliance, a submarine built at the end of World War II, means I’ve got some photos of the outside and inside of the submarines to share. (Click on the gallery to enlarge photos.)

This being primarily a book blog, the photos are accompanied by a book list – half a dozen books set on submarines. Not a definite list, by any means; I have heard of several others well spoken off (but I haven’t got round to reading them yet). If you’d like to recommend a book on submarines that you enjoyed, please leave a comment below.

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Seven Snowy Stories

The winter’s first – and in these parts possibly only – snowfall put me in mind of books in which winter features prominently. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ones that came to mind immediately were children’s stories. So here are seven snowy stories to surprise your children (nieces, nephews, grandchildren, your best friend’s horrible brat…) with. Perhaps for Christmas? 🙂

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A Bear of Very Little Brain (The World According to Pooh)

The other day, in the course of an argument, somebody called me a person with a small brain.

Even while I took offence, I recalled a line from my childhood bible, Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne:

“For I am a Bear of Very Little Brain and long words Bother me.”

(Winnie-The-Pooh)

I’m all with the Bear of Very Little Brain on this one: long words bother me too. Especially when used by people who don’t know what they mean.

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Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Leave it to me: I’m always top banana in the shock department.

A Truman Capote novella about Holiday Golightly, a New York socialite in 1943. A girl who makes a living from being taken out by men. Not at all the kind of girl I’d have thought I had time for, not even if she only took up a hundred pages. Not at all the type of novella I’d have thought I had time for either, even it was only a hundred pages.

I found Breakfast at Tiffany’s on the bookshelf of Sophisticated Young Lady, whose bedroom I appropriated for my study while she’s at university. I’ve never read anything by Truman Capote and I was between books. I picked it up and glanced idly on the first paragraph.

I couldn’t put it down afterwards.

It made me think I might like to see New York in the rain. 
(Photo by Lei Han via Flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The Silent Pain of the Species (The Mad Toy)

Leer esto en castellano

What effect has ‘the silent pain of the species’ in Silvio’s soul?

This was the question that I had to write a short essay about in a Spanish literature and conversation class a few months ago. I attended the class in the Cervantes Institute in London because I knew that my fluency in Spanish left much to be desired and because I like literature, obviously. I had imagined that in class I’d have the opportunity to speak about Hispanic authors and that I would have to read some books at home so that we could discuss them in class afterwards.

Er… no.

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El silencioso dolor de la especie (El juguete rabioso)

Read this in English

¿Qué efecto tiene en el alma de Silvio «el silencioso dolor de la especie»?

Esta era la pregunta sobre la que tuve que escribir un pequeño ensayo para una clase de literatura y conversación española hace unos meses. Asistí en la clase en el Instituto Cervantes de Londres porque sabía que me falta mucho la habilidad de hablar con fluidez y porque me gusta la literature, claro. Había imaginado que en clase tendría la oportunidad de hablar de autores hispánicos, y tendría que leer unos libros en casa para que podríamos discutir sobre ellos en clase.

Que no.

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The Future in the Past (2001: A Space Odyssey)

We live in the future that we used to read about: our smartphones bear more resemblance to The Hitch-hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy than to Bell’s telephone and there are people living on a space station above our heads. When I first read about helicopters and submarines in Jules Verne at the age of twelve, they were already reality; it was then difficult to grasp that to the author all this had been a fictional future. Good for Verne. There are plenty of contrary examples: books in which the authors were so wildly off the mark that we can only wonder at what they were thinking. Science-fiction? In many cases, the word science ought to be crossed off.

But not in the case of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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The Persian Letters of Montesquieu

Thirty-odd years ago I thought that the French author Montesquieu was enlightened, witty and clever. I based this opinion on reading his Persian Letters, an epistolary novel which details the experiences of two Persian travellers, Usbek and Rica, in France in the early part of the 18th century. Last month I picked up Persian Letters again… and found out what a change thirty-odd years made.

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The Power and the Glory

I started to look at photos of the soaring church towers of Spain the other day, thinking of turning them into a photo post, but by a series of those associations that you afterwards can never explain, I ended up with my tattered and bath-soaked copy of Graham Greene’s best novel in my hand instead.

(You’ll have to wait for the church towers.)

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Five Short Novels to Read on an Aeroplane

Okay, so your work sucks and you only live for the holidays, right? Or maybe your work is the best thing ever, but even so you do go on holidays sometimes – right? So you need a book to read that’s just the right length for a short-haul flight.

(I’ll let you know my recommendations for long-haul when I’ve managed to get further than three hours’ flight.)

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Don Quijote de la Mancha

En un lugar de la Mancha…

When I picked up El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha by Cervantes last week and opened it on the first page (okay, in my edition that would be page 113), and read,

En un lugar de la Mancha,

de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme, no ha mucho tiempo que vivía un hidalgo…

In a village of La Mancha, the name of which I have no desire to call to mind, there lived not long since one of those gentlemen…

 …I felt the heady effect of a sudden shift in time and space: all at once I was somewhere in La Mancha, under a harsh sun, confronting whitewashed windmills.

Somewhere in La Mancha… Cerro Calderico, near Consuegra. Photo by Manuel via Flickr. [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

(Cervantes once looked at these.)

—¿Qué gigantes?—dijo Sancho Panza.
—Aquellos que allí ves —respondió su amo— de los brazos largos, que los suelen tener algunos de casi dos leguas.
—Mire vuestra merced —respondió Sancho— que aquellos que allí se parecen no son gigantes, sino molinos de viento…

“What giants?” said Sancho Panza.
“Those thou seest there,” answered his master, “with the long arms, and some have them nearly two leagues long.”
“Look, your worship,” said Sancho; “what we see there are not giants but windmills…

It is not often that you pick up a book – no matter how old, how famous – and you’re transported with such urgency before you even finished reading the first half sentence. But the unassuming En un lugar de la Mancha… must be the most well-known and memorable first line in Spanish-language literature – ever.

Somehow it doesn’t quite work the same way in other languages.

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