Carlo Minnaja; Giorgio Silfer. Historio de la esperanta literaturo. La Chaux-de-Fonds: LF-kooperativo. 2015. xii + 748 pp.
Reviewed by Probal Dasgupta
The work under review – hereinafter HEL, by M&S – is a chronological narrative of creative writing in Esperanto from its inception to the present. M&S base their account on extensive reading and on personal evaluative criteria. We expect HEL to tell us what M&S see from their distinctive standpoint – which, for reasons that have been on record for decades, truly stands apart.
Not on every point, to be sure, do they present a take of their own. Regarding most writings and writers, M&S’s narrative goes along with ubiquitous views. They weave these into an accessible text, adding points that will strike many readers as new – e.g. that Tolstoy’s The First Distiller was staged in Smolensk, in A. Burenkov’s translation, in 1896; that Kalocsay occasionally produced one version of Literatura Mondo for domestic authorities and another for subscribers abroad; that it was Sturmer who gave the word etoso ‘ethos’ the charge it carries in Esperanto. Location, access to archival material, skills of observation and exposition, lexicographic assiduity – all this adds up to a well-crafted product thanks to the hard work they put in.
for once, has kept pace with importance and readability. Brisk sales have
prompted reprints, allowing M&S to keep eliminating typos spotted by
reviewers. Let me contribute a selective list to the cause. 92/-14:
L’Esperantiste > L’Espérantiste. 250/-19: Singapure >
Producing such a large book poses more than just a proof-reading challenge. Co-authorship and a protracted gestation period make consistency an elusive goal. Grabowski’s poem Sur unu kordo, a symptom of aesthetic deficit on p 5 (“the Esperanto taste, at its literary dawn, reflects its romantic origins and sometimes looks all too pale, all too anaemic”), becomes a “witty poem” on p 34, one that makes the point “that in Esperanto words can rhyme without carrying the same inflectional ending, thus refuting superficial charges of monotony (besides Grabowski was the first to introduce adasismo as a term of censure)” – M&S proceed to cite a passage from the poem that features this theory-laden aesthetic concept. The book practices fluency as a virtue. M&S are not aiming for logical coherence: their style responds to the flow of the material.
For instance, after summarizing the plot of Heksakloro unu komo tri, a play by Paul Gubbins, M&S conclude: “Protecting the environment has become a big problem in our society; our theatre too, albeit late, is now taking it on board” (547). Environmental concerns are not part of HEL’s overall perspective: M&S are going with the flow.
However, when they say of Carmel Mallia’s Najbaroj that it “may be considered the play that best represents the Esperantist spirit of peace and the love of humanity” (546) – or when they endorse Benczik’s characterization of Engholm and Szilágyi’s ‘realistic style’ of fiction writing and add Francis and Schwartz as examples, going on to say that romanticism and realism “reflect national styles from the 19th century; we find a more modern style pretty much only in Trevor Steele’s work” (464) – we might expect ‘the Esperantist spirit’ or ‘realism’ to become part of M&S’s tool-kit. But they don’t. Their history doesn’t just steer clear of a Lukács or an Auerbach or a Bakhtin. Even the theory-free motif of individualism and the novel, or the notion of a Bildungsroman, is missing from the screen.
This absence is puzzling, given M&S’s acceptance of western European literature as the default framework (see 116 on Kalocsay’s Streĉita kordo or the endorsement of Benczik at 464). What stops M&S from emulating the model they accept, to the point of using its standard analytical tools? When we hear them remarking that translated poetry is a genre seldom appreciated in western Europe (106), we get the point: critics are known fans of translated poetry; M&S have chosen western Europe’s general public as their reference group.
This smooth, exoteric, theory-free fluency leaves them waiting for more to emerge from their reading. On p 543 they list recent novels by Steele, de Zilah, Löwenstein, and Rodin & Sigmond which together, in their view, represent some “characteristics and goals of the Esperantist community aiming for universal equality of human rights for all, especially in the linguistic domain”. But this is a novel-specific point: their fluent style involves eschewing generalizations.
means an idiosyncratic assortment of details. M&S highlight Vimala Devi’s
fiction translated by Manuel de Seabra into Esperanto (492-3), but not Jiři
Kořinek’s translations of Jiří Karen’s Czech poetry that seamlessly
merge into Karen’s original Esperanto poems expressing environmental
sensitivity before it really hit the western public (Karen 1985). M&S
highlight Scherer’s breakthroughs at
(retrieved on 16 April 2016).
consequence of the fluent style is a systematic asymmetry regarding
contextualization. Esperanto authors are shown to be drawing on their national
ambience when they are British (98), Spanish (498), Russian
(516). After 1918 “the national sentiments of the long suppressed
systematic, but far less important, are M&S’s standpoint-driven decisions
to omit (Kalle Kniivilä, Alicja Sakaguchi), to underplay or misread (Löwenstein,
Camacho, Blanke), to represent from a partisan viewpoint (‘planned languages’, the
Esperanto-speaking ‘people’, the Rauma/Esperanto Citizens’ Community connection).
Any reader familiar with the rifts in the community would have expected these
decisions, and worse. M&S’s obvious biases are tempered by self-criticism
and gestures of moderation, and could have been further mitigated by adding
“for another view see also
Karen, Jiří. 1985. Flugilhava ŝtono. Chapecó: Fonto.
Nobel, Alfred. 2003. Nemesis/Nemeza.
Redaktokomitato de Lernolibro de
Komuna Historio de Ĉinio, Japanio kaj Koreio.
2007. Historio por malfermi la estontecon: moderna historio de Ĉinio,
Japanio kaj Koreio.
Sikosek, Marcus. 2006. Die neutrale Sprache: eine
politische Geschichte des Esperanto-Weltbundes.
Linguistic Research Unit
Indian Statistical Institute
About the reviewer
Probal Dasgupta has been teaching linguistics and Esperanto since 1977. His publications in Bengali, English, Esperanto and French – spanning linguistics, literary studies, philosophy, the social sciences – include The Otherness of English: India’s Auntie Tongue Syndrome (New Delhi: Sage, 1993). He was elected president of the Akademio de Esperanto in 2016.