Wednesday, 31 May 2017

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

by Becky Chambers

Last year, Timur won a photo competition in his school. He chose this book as his prize. When he finished reading it, I thought I’ll have a go. Timur warned me that I might find some scenes embarrassing. And he was right, although I think we two were embarrassed by different bits. Guess what, I read the first chapter and gave up.

The second attempt, this May, was more successful. Sure enough, the first few chapters still made me cringe. And then I got hooked.

The universe of this book is more intriguing than its heroes, and humans, who are the majority on the tunnelling “you’ve got to build bypasses” ship Wayfarer, make the least interesting characters. Most of them are thoroughly two-dimensional, while the dimensionality of the protagonist-ingénue, Rosemary, is somewhere between 1 and 1.5. It looks like she was introduced as a listening device on whom various technical details, apparently well known to those who know them well — say, how to build interspatial tunnels, or history/politics/mating patterns of various species inhabiting the Galaxy — are patiently and wordily unloaded.

Now the Galaxy is governed by the Galactic Commons, a United Nations of the sorts with many features of Vogon bureaucracy. Deeds such as: existing without a wristpatch (that is, an ID); inter-species coupling; providing an AI with a body kit; sapient organism cloning, or being such a clone — are illegal. Luckily for the reader, the Wayfarer crew, otherwise law-abiding goodies, get directly or indirectly engaged in a variety of banned activities. All that — nice touch, by the way — without blasters, lightsabers or other weaponry on board.

It’s well written but still reads as a novelisation rather than a novel in its own right. I’d love to see the comic or a 2-D animation of it. Less words, more action, I say. Not live action though: my favourite personage is the ship’s pilot, Sissix, a friendly, cuddly, affectionate, polyamorous, pansexual female lizard-like creature. She is the most alive of the Wayfarer family and having her as a CGI character would be creepy.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

We set off to sea

by Yuri

I found this poem in a pile of old coloured paper. I think it was written about ten years ago.

We set off to sea.
We were excited.
The boat rocks so I might get ill.
But we keep going on.
We can see birds, fish, dolphins and water.
I feel warm, a little ill and happy.
We hear birds, waves lapping and I hear the crew.
I can taste the sea air.
We smell the fish and the sea.
We see our destination so we made it!

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Марш Энтузиастов № 2

by Isaak Dunaevski and/or Dmitri Shostakovich

One day, when Timur was practicing the famous Waltz No. 2 on violin, Tamara pointed out the uncanny similarity (the meter difference aside) between the first part of the Shostakovich’s waltz and the chorus of March of Enthusiasts. This latter song, composed by Isaak Dunaevski with lyrics by Anatoli D’Aktil, appears in the film Светлый путь. Which prompted me to revisit the said lyrics. What can I say... It’s a curious mix of good-natured idealism with typical of that time gung-ho patriotism. The lines

Ты по степи, ты по лесу,
Ты к тропикам, ты к полюсу
made me think of the “poem for children” from Ilf and Petrov’s short story Всеобъемлющий зайчик:
Ходит зайчик по лесу
К Северному полюсу...
But what’s this?
К станку ли ты склоняешься,
В скалу ли ты врубаешься...
My first association was the lines from Vysotsky (Бал-маскарад):
Она мне:
— Одевайся!
Мол, я тебя стесняюся...
Once it has settled in, it won’t go. I thought we can use more of that:
Раздали маски кроликов,
Слонов и алкоголиков...

И проведу, хоть тресну я,
Часы свои воскресные...

Одетые животными,
С двумя же бегемотами...
Marvellous.

Monday, 15 May 2017

some peculiarities of Russian

First published 15 May 2017 @ sólo algunas palabras

This post is based on a presentation prepared by Tamara for her Spanish class.

Many people believe that Russian is a difficult language to learn. While it isn’t difficult for me, and shouldn’t be that difficult for speakers of any Indo-European language anyway, there are several important differences the Spanish (as well as English) speakers should be aware of. She also used some examples from Finnish, just to put things into perspective.

а. Alphabet

Modern Russian uses a variant of Cyrillic alphabet with thirty-three letters. These include ten vowels, twenty one consonants, hard sign ъ and soft sign ь. It looks like this:

Even though it may appear a bit frightening, I recommend to learn the Cyrillic alphabet as soon as you start learning Russian. Reading Russian in transliteration will only confuse you. For example, the character y is often used instead of two rather different letters (and sounds): the vowel ы and the consonant й. It is also used to indicate the “softening” of consonants (see below). As a result, the words you pronounce won’t sound anything like Russian.

б. Sounds

Some sounds in Russian present a difficulty for Spanish and/or English speakers.

Vovels

  • Е: after a consonant, pronounced as /e/ or /ɛ/; in all other cases (at the beginning of a word, after a vowel, after the hard and soft signs) pronounced as /je/ or // in Spanish yerba /ˈjeɾ.βa/ or English yes /jɛs/.
  • Ё: after a consonant, pronounced as /ö/, like in German mögen; in all other cases pronounced as /jo/, as in Spanish cuyo /ˈku.jo/ or English yolk /joʊk/.
  • Ы /ɨ/. There’s nothing like this sound in either Spanish or English. Just listen: 🔊. A commonly suggested trick to reproduce the sound of ы is to bite a (clean) pencil or pen so to spread the corners of your mouth while saying //, as in cheese /tʃiːz/.
  • Э: /ɛ/ like in English pen /pɛn/.
  • Ю: after a consonant, pronounced /ü/; in all other cases pronounced /ju/ as in Spanish yuca /ˈju.ka/ or in English yoo-hoo /ˈjuːˌhuː/.
  • Я: after a consonant, pronounced /æ/; in all other cases pronounced /ja/, as in Spanish cuya /ˈku.ja/ or English yard /jɑːd/.
  • Spanish has only five vowels, /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/ and /u/, which always sound the same, stressed or not. There are more vowels in Finnish but they also always pronounced the same way, irrespectively of stress. As for English, they do not even know how many vowels there are, let alone which ones to use. The only thing everybody seems to agree is that most unstressed vowels in English are reduced to schwa /ə/. Vowel-wise, Russian is somewhere in between these two extremes. The stressed vowels always sound as expected. Unstressed а and о are usually pronounced as something between /a/ and /o/; unstressed е, и, э and я, between /e/ and /i/; unstressed у and ю, between /o/ and /u/. The good news is that even if you pronounce all vowels Spanish (or Finnish) way, you still will be understood.

Consonants

  • Б and В: /b/ and /v/, respectively. Unlike Spanish, there is always a clear distinction between these two sounds.
  • Г: normal /ɡ/ as in Spanish guerra or /ˈɡera/ or in English get /ɡɛt/; in Southern Russian dialects, often pronounced /ɣ/ as in Spanish lago /ˈla.ɣo/.
  • Ж /ʐ/, similar to /ʒ/ in Portuguese janeiro /ʒaˈnejru/, French jour /ʒuʀ/ or English measure /ˈmɛʒə(r)/.
  • З /z/, same as /z/ in English zoo /zuː/ but not Spanish zurdo.
  • Р /r/ (rolled r), same as /r/ in Spanish perro /ˈpero/.
  • Х /x/, same as /x/ in Spanish ojo /ˈoxo/ or in Scottish loch /lɔx/.
  • Ц /t͡s/, as /ts/ in English nuts /nʌts/ or in Italian pizza /ˈpit.tsa/. This sound is not normally found in Spanish.
  • Ш /ʂ/, similar to /ʃ/ in Portuguese caixa /ˈkajʃa/, French chic /ʃik/ or English sheep /ʃiːp/.
  • Щ /ɕɕ/, which is not a combination of š and č in spite of being often transcribed as shch. It is similar to /ʃˈʃ/ in Italian uscita /uʃˈʃita/.

з shouldn’t be a problem for English speakers, ditto р and х for Spanish speakers.

  • Most Russian consonants come in two variants, “hard” and “soft”. The “softening” of Russian consonants before vowels е, ё, ю, я is often transliterated in English with letters y or i, which makes learners to pronounce, say, a phrase “Юля, я тебя люблю” (“Julia, I love you”) as /ˈjulja ja tiˈbja ljubˈlju/ instead of /ˈjulæ ja tiˈbæ lübˈlü/. The “softening” achieved with the soft sign ь alone is practically impossible to transliterate. You just have to listen and speak!
  • The consonants ж, ц and ш are always hard (even if followed by soft sign), й, ч and щ are always soft.

On the other hand, Russian does not have /ð/ and /θ/ sounds so common in English and in Peninsular Spanish, as in Madrid /maˈðɾi(θ)/. And there is no /w/ sound, so when transliterating English names, one has to decide whether to use в or у. For example, “Watson” could be transliterated as either Ва́тсон or Уо́тсон.

в. Declension

  • Modern Russian has six grammatical cases: nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, instrumental, and prepositional. This sounds like a lot, as neither Spanish nor English have cases. But this is only two more cases compared with German (with which Russian shares four cases) and same number as Latin. Compare that with Finnish (15 cases), Hungarian (18) or Tsez (64) and stop complaining.

    Here’s how the word дом (house) will change in all six cases:

    case singular plural
    Nominative дом дома́
    Genitive до́ма домо́в
    Dative до́му дома́м
    Accusative дом дома́
    Instrumental до́мом дома́ми
    Prepositional до́ме дома́х

    And here’s what Finnish can do with their house (I didn’t bother with the case names):

    talo house
    talon of (a) house
    talona as a house
    taloa house (as an object)
    taloksi to a house
    talossa in (a) house
    talosta from (a) house
    taloon into (a) house
    talolla at (a) house
    talolta from (a) house
    talolle to (a) house
    talotta without (a) house
    taloineni with my house(s)
    taloin with (a) house

  • Russian has three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. Cf. Spanish (masculine and feminine), and English (traces of).
  • Russian nouns, pronouns, adjectives, present and past participles, and numerals are subject to declension: they change their endings to indicate number, gender and case.
  • In Russian, there are three noun declensions conveniently named “first”, “second” and “third”.
  • Adjectives, present and past participles, and ordinal numerals have to agree (in number, gender and case) with nouns and pronouns.
  • Russian cardinal numerals два (two), три (three) and четыре (four) make the count noun to change differently compared to plural, as if they were “not quite” plural:

    singular один дом one house
    “few” два до́ма two houses
    “few” три до́ма three houses
    “few” четы́ре до́ма four houses
    plural пять домо́в five houses

г. Verbs

  • In Russian, there are only three tenses: past, present and future. (Some linguists go even further and say that Russian has only two grammatical tenses: present-future and past).
  • In the present and future tenses (or present-future), there are two conjugations; like in Spanish, each has six different forms: 1st singular, 2nd singular, 3rd singular, 1st plural, 2nd plural, 3rd plural.
  • In the past tense, there is no difference between 1st, 2nd and 3rd, but the verbs are number- and gender-specific.
  • There are no such things as perfect, imperfect or pluperfect tense. Instead, most verbs come in two flavours, imperfective (несовершенный вид) and perfective (совершенный вид).
  • There is only one type of verb “to be”: быть (unlike Spanish ser and estar). This verb is hardly ever used in present tense, so some apparently complete sentences do not contain a verb, for example «Я — русский», “I (am) Russian”.

д. Articles

  • That’s easy: Russian does not use articles. (Nor does Finnish.)

Friday, 5 May 2017

Wind / Pinball: Two Novels

by Haruki Murakami, translated by Ted Goossen

This beautifully presented hardback book contains Murakami’s two early novels, Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973. There’s nothing fantastic or surreal in them, if you discount the never-explained appearance of twins in “my” (i.e. the narrator’s) bed. (A young man’s wet dream come true?) The main themes and cultural references are all too familiar from the later Murakami books. Which is not bad as such, unless you expect to find something new in every book you read. Both novels are very short, yet could benefit from being abridged even further (really, all these minutae of endless drinking or lighting up and extinguishing their ciggies don’t add much to the story). Most of the female characters lack names. Come to think of it, so do most male characters too. “I” make a (relatively) big deal out of friendship with the Rat who did not strike (real) me as remotely interesting. In fact, in Pinball there is no interaction between “me” and the said Rat at all.

The most fascinating parts of Wind are those that deal with Derek Hartfield, a Murakami’s version of Kilgore Trout. Of Pinball, the pinball machine.

There were so many questions I could have asked. Why did you choose my place? How long will you stay? Most of all, what are you? How old are you? Where were you born? But I never asked, and they never said.
Pinball, 1973
It had been a long time since I felt the fragrance of summer: the scent of the ocean, a distant train whistle, the touch of a girl’s skin, the lemony perfume of her hair, the evening wind, faint glimmers of hope, summer dreams.
But none of these were the way they once had been; they were all somehow off, as if copied with tracing paper that kept slipping out of place.
Hear the Wind Sing

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Hrútar

a film by Grímur Hákonarson

I’ve never been to Iceland. And I still would love to visit this strange country. I can’t say that this film exactly inspire to do so. Iceland according to Rams must be the bleakest, the coldest, the most depressing place on earth. And that is before the scrapie epidemic strikes.

There are a few scenes one can describe as comic but this is not a comedy by any stretch, not even a tragicomedy. It is just an understatedly beautiful film. The interplay of two male leads, Sigurður Sigurjónsson and Theódór Júlíusson (in real life, they aren’t brothers but they look as if they are), is something you won’t see in Hollywood movies. And the minimalist score by Atli Örvarsson more than compensates for the lack of that Icelandic scenery I heard so much about.