Well – time for another slightly odd pairing… Sci fi fables written under a Communist regime and Irish poetry really *don’t* have much in common – apart from the fact that I enjoyed both, I suppose!

Penguin Modern 9 – The Three Electro-Knights by Stanislaw Lem

Polish author Stanislaw Lem is someone whose books I’ve read and loved before (as a quick search on the blog will show!) And in fact I’ve read all of the four stories featured in PM9, as they come from the collection Mortal Engines which I read and reviewed for Shiny New Books back in 2016. At the time, I commented on the collection had been put together by translator Michael Kandel to showcase Lem’s stories of robots, and the four tales featured here certainly do that.

Stanisław Lem in 1966, courtesy of his secretary, Wojciech Zemek.

What’s intriguing about Lem’s robot tales is how they take human emotions and events, then twist them with the robotic perspective. The stories are the title one,The White Death, King Globares and the Sages, and The Tale of King Gnuff. All could be tales of derring-do with knights in armour, but they’re robots on far-flung planets and worlds – just goes to show that not much changes the universe over…

Science explains the world, but only Art can reconcile us to it. What do we really know about the origin of the Universe? A blank so wide can be filled with myths and legends. I wished, in my mythologizing, to reach the limits of improbability, and I believe that I came close. You know this already, therefore what you really wanted to ask was if the Universe is indeed ludicrous. But that question each much answer for himself.

Underlying these witty and entertaining tales is of course a serious point; for example, The White Death could be an allegory of any kind of colonial invasion humans have undertaken. And King Globares… parodies the trope of a king wanting to be entertained by his wise men which turns up in no end of ancient literature. King Gnuff is a little more surreal, with the monarch mutating into his actual realm and losing grip of reality as he sinks deeper into layer upon layer of dreams.

As I said in my original review, the stories present a chance to explore “the possibility of relations between humans and robots that speaks about our ability to reconcile ourselves to living in the world alongside other species and races, and learning to get along with them.” Lem was a great writer, and this Penguin Modern is an excellent introduction to his witty, clever, almost Steampunk stories.

Penguin Modern 10 – The Great Hunger by Patrick Kavanagh

Book 10 is the second poetic entry into the list of Penguin Moderns, an a poet new to me! Irish author Kavanagh wrote both verse and novel, and is recognised for his realistic portrayal of Irish rural life. This selection is drawn from his Collected Poems, and spans his life’s work.

Joseph Mischyshyn / Dublin – Grand Canal – Poet Patrick Kavanagh

It’s obvious from the poems featured here that Kavanagh was very much rooted in his landscape. The poems are powerful and lyrical, and central to the book is his long work The Great Hunger, from which the collection takes its title. It’s a gritty and realistic work, taking a long hard look at the truth of life in rural communities against the background of famine, and is moving and memorable.

I do not know what age I am,
I am not mortal age;
I know nothing of women,
Nothing of cities,
I cannot die
Unless I walk outside these whitethorn hedges.

(from Innocence)

The rest of the poems are equally striking – often full of beautiful imagery, they have a streak of harshness and a refusal to lapse into saccharine descriptions of nature. In many ways, Kavanagh reminds me of that other great poet of the country, R.S. Thomas, and I can imagine them stalking their relative landscapes, glaring at the sky and composing as they went.

So an introduction into a new and excellent poet who I probably wouldn’t have read without the Penguin Modern box set – and whose work I’m now keen to read more of!

*****

Strangely, I now find myself one fifth (or 20%…) of the way through the Penguin Moderns box set, having created a series of posts on the books – something I was a bit reluctant to start as I don’t do well with challenges or commitments. But I’m enjoying this whole reading process so much, I think I might just carry on…. 🙂

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