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.

Reception, 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 > Singapore. 341/-2 Sorabij > Sorabji (also, mention Abdul Qadir of Multan who attended the world congress in 1905 and fathered Pakistan’s Esperanto movement). 352/4: subjektivo > subjekta infinitivo. 487/-10: 1966 > 1996. 514/13, 553/-17: Dasgupto > Daŝgupto. 517/-18: ŝajnas > oni ŝajnas. 518/-5 ‘farsi’ > la persa. 550/-17: la barata > la bengala. 553/9: Egiptujo … egiptanoj > either Egiptujo/egiptoj or Egipto/egiptanoj. 553/-5: Souso > Suso. 608, glosses: add pusto (107/2) ‘the Hungarian plains’. 727/-7: Oriento-Okcidento… 586: delete 586. 745/-19: ‘Shun, Sabira’ points to the omitted ‘Ståhlberg, Sabira’; insert it and specify p 527.

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.

It also 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 Hollywood (The Idiot’s Delight, The Road to Singapore, The Great Dictator, 250-51), but not Gällmo’s (Nobel 2003) Swedish-Esperanto bilingual edition of Nemesis/Nemeza, which made this play by Alfred Nobel available to the Swedish public. They report the participle war (590) but miss the fact that Lapenna fanned the flames to mitigate the effect of the iron curtain (Sikosek 2006: 23). They highlight Baghy’s Estas mi esperantisto (135), but don’t note that it was inspired by Petőfi Sándor’s ‘A Magyar Nemes’ –

(retrieved on 16 April 2016).

One 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 peoples in Europe” use Esperanto to “display their gems” (93). But Koffi Gbeglo’s (533) work is showcased abstractly – despite explicit invocations of context throughout his prose. Chinese and Japanese contributions are given considerable attention, but without addressing the reference public’s incomprehension of their background. Readers seeking deeper insight could have been urged to consult Redaktokomitato (2007) for coordinates.

        Also 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 Tonkin xx, Lindstedt yy”. For what it is worth, my take is that going with the flow, fine as an exoteric strategy and a way of coping with the herculean writing task, becomes an Achilles’ heel if there are no counterpoint-level close encounters of the third (or theoretical) kind, anywhere in M&S’s extensive writings. I have been requesting them, for several decades, to do some rigorous and accountable conceptualizing; I doubt that they expect me to stop, even when I take my hat off as I stand before such stellar writing. My private thanks to Minnaja for spending a fortune to send me a review copy would become insincere if I were to soften my public scrutiny – the last thing he or Silfer would want.




Karen, Jiří. 1985. Flugilhava ŝtono. Chapecó: Fonto.


Nobel, Alfred. 2003. Nemesis/Nemeza. Stockholm: Esperantoförlaget.


Redaktokomitato de Lernolibro de Komuna Historio de Ĉinio, Japanio kaj Koreio. 2007. Historio por malfermi la estontecon: moderna historio de Ĉinio, Japanio kaj Koreio. Beijing: Fremdlingva Eldonejo.


Sikosek, Marcus. 2006. Die neutrale Sprache: eine politische Geschichte des Esperanto-Weltbundes. Bydgoszcz, Poland: Skonpres.


Reviewer’s address


Linguistic Research Unit

Indian Statistical Institute

203 Barrackpore Trunk Road

Kolkata 700108, India


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.