Still thinking about languages and their differences, I was recently reminded that, while English is a Germanic language, and this is reflected in its structure, about 60% of its vocabulary has Latin origin, mostly through French. So that’s why it feels (to me) much more familiar than, say, German or Norwegian, and why I have learned English relatively easily, while I still struggle to pronounce a coherent sentence in German.

This is likely also the reason — together with its relatively easy grammar, and of course its economic importance — for its success and global spread. It is like a bridge between Romance and Germanic languages, or Southern and Northern Europe.

That double source from its words is also what gives it a lot of variety, and why it has become one of the greatest literary languages, rivalling only with French and perhaps Italian. French and Italian sound perhaps more melodious, but English has some other qualities that make it more versatile.

I talked about Jorge Luis Borges before, and Borges was, not only a great fan of the current English language (he once said he learned it before Spanish), but also a student of Old English or Anglo-Saxon, which is much more clearly Germanic than current English, before the influence of Norman (i.e. French) – and therefore, much harder.

A few days ago (August 24th) marked 121 years since the birth of Jorge Luis Borges. I am currently researching a bit about his life, as one of my future projects would be to write a new book about Argentinean literature.

Of course, a lot has been written about Borges, and I’ve read a lot of it. My father is a great fan of Borges and we had all his books at home, plus many other books about him.

And yet, there are always some new things that you can discover about someone, especially in the case of a writer of such importance. One of the things I didn’t know so much about was the period of his youth and the several literary projects during his early 20s, which included a mural magazine called Prisma.

I am also rereading quite a lot of his work. Not only the short stories, but also some essays (although of course, for Borges there is not always a difference between both).

It is always better to read him in Spanish, if you can understand the language, but if not, there are quite a few translations to choose from. Which one is the best? It’s difficult to say. I prefer the earliest ones, but here there’s a more detailed article describing some of the differences in each version, as well as a discussion of Borges’ work with Norman Di Giovanni, the only translator with whom he directly collaborated.

Here there’s one of his last interviews, the day of his 85th birthday, still in Argentina (he would die less than two years later, in Geneva). He seems pretty cheerful.

English is not my native language. I write, or at least try to write in it because I’ve been living in anglo countries for many years, and because it has become a sort of universal language these days. But I never seem to master it completely, its mysterious core somehow always evades me; and I think the reason is that its logic and cadence are so different from what seems more natural to me.

I grew up speaking Spanish and Portuguese. Later I learned Italian and French (although my French could still improve). Latin or romance languages feel more musical, more normal. I like to read in Italian especially, perhaps it would be my favourite language, with French second.

English has some advantages. One of them is the extremely large vocabulary, shorter words and a relatively easy grammar (compared to, say, German or slavic languages). But other aspects of it, such as spelling and pronunciation, make much less sense. But I think the main difference is in the little things. Like the lack of diminutives: in Spanish you would say “casita”, in Italian “casetta”, in English you’d have to say “little house”. It’s just not the same thing.

Of course it has other advantages and its own kind of beauty and a certain flexibility that you won’t find in romance languages. I think the real problem, for me, is

There is a theory that language, and in particular the language of our childhood, determine or at least shape our thoughts. There is a certain truth to it, as ideas come also from the means to express them, or, rather, they are interdependent: you need words to express ideas, and you need concepts or ideas to form words. According to what is called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, our experience of the world is based on the structure of the language we habitually use. According to Whorf, the formulation of ideas and thoughts is not a rational independent process but is determined by the particular grammar and vocabulary of the language in which these ideas are expressed. The world is organized and made sense of through language.

I don’t know; maybe there’s something to it, n’est ce pas? ¿No lo crees? E se non è vero, è bene trovato.

There is a lot of discussion about vaccines these days, particularly because fo the “corona” phenomenon. Personally, while I am not an “anti-vaxxer”, I tend to dislike taking vaccines, taking medicines, going to the doctor, etc. I suppose that, instead of being hypochondriac, I am actually a little bit iatrophobic. So I tend to avoid all kind of medical procedures if I can. But of course even I can accept that medicine and in particular modern medicine can be very useful sometimes…

Now there is a big discussion about possible side effects of vaccines, especially in light of the “corona” phenomenon. Of course, since a vaccine is basically an attenuated virus, it can cause side effects, at least in a minority of the population. Also, many vaccines contain thimerosal as a preservative, which is an organic compound that includes mercury, which, as we all know, can not be discharged by the body and is usually not very healthy. And the link between vaccination and a recent increase in autism has not been, as far as I know, completely debunked.

But the more worrying recent phenomenon is the push, famously by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, but also by others, of the “RNA vaccines“. While they do not “alter your DNA” as some argue (although DNA vaccines might), they work in a different way from normal vaccines, making your own organism produce a pathogen. Now, this may not be as scary as it sounds, but its experimental and radical concept seems a bit dangerous, and given that they have not even been tested in large scale in humans, the idea of using one to treat millions of people for “COVID” causes certain concern.

Of course, I should say that I am in general a bit skeptical of the whole “corona” phenomenon, and particularly of the sometimes excessively authoritarian lockdown measures that have destroyed many economies and livelihoods, as well as completely atomized even more social life, not always with an apparent need (I mean, I understand that certain measures needed to be taken by the authorities, but I am not sure if this global lockdown for so long and with such huge effects was worth its worse consequences; also there were so many conflicting regulations, from using to not using masks, and some silly ones, such as telling people to use masks outdoors, or inside your car, as many still do, which seems a bit pointless.) But that’s another story, for another day…

But since this is basically a blog about literature, I would like to conclude by mentioning a few (fiction) books that deal with this issue. The classic “War of the Worlds”, by H. G. Wells, can perhaps be seen as a propaganda for vaccination or immunization (as the powerful and technologically superior Martians are eventually killed by Earth pathogens to which they have no defence).

“The Decameron” also famously takes place during the plague in Italy, and Daniel Defoe’s “A Journal of the Plague Year”, which is nor a real journal but a novel, is also interesting. More recently, “Blindness” by José Saramago and “Anna” by Niccolò Ammaniti, are modern takes on very specific pandemics. The movie “La Jetée“, by Chris Marker, is a classic science fiction short about pandemics worth watching (it inspired the more well-known, but less interesting, “Twelve Monkeys”).

But specifically about vaccines, I don’t remember anything right now except H. P. Lovecraft’s “Herbert West, Reanimator“, which doesn’t seem to have a particularly benevolent view of doctors, medicine and such…

Evil Doctor trying out new RNA vaccine on his female victim.

This is Altenburg, which I visited some time ago. It means “old fort” in German. A strange city. In demographic decline since the 1980s, it lost 40% of its population since then, and people still seem to be leaving. Currently it has 33,000 people, down from 56,000 in 1988 (data from Wiki). And it shows.

There are lots of empty, abandoned buildings, some almost falling apart. Even the castle, which is actually quite nice, is in bad disrepair, which is strange for Germany, as they usually take good care of their touristic sites. Then again, I didn’t see many people visiting it when I was there — though that could be because of “corona”.

The main square downtown, with the curch at the end of the street, is quite pretty, very “German”, and while not crowded it had quite a few people in its bars and cafes, despite “corona” still going on. But turn a corner and you will already see a lot of abandoned and decaying buildings.

This seems to be a problem in many regions of the former Eastern Germany, which emptied out after the end of Communism (although, to be honest, some towns started to decay even before the fall of the Wall).

On the other hand, bigger towns in the region, such as Leipzig and Dresden, seem to be in renewal mode and have currently a growing young population, some of whom are escaping from “dead” towns such as Altenburg, or from the growingly more expensive rents in Berlin.

Still, its a pity, as Altenburg seems a quiet nice little place. Aesthetically, it looks much more pleasant than several other more bustling cities around, such as Chemnitz, Zwickau, etc., which look more industrial and are in general less visually interesting.

A building needing renovation in Altenburg.
The town square.
Castle grounds. Some buildings here are also in disrepair.
Castle tower – it’s pretty high. Looks like Rapunzel’s tower.

Most people are happy to own a cat or a dog, or perhaps a goldfish, but some prefer other more unusual creatures. Here there’s an article I just published elsewhere that talks about a few writers and artists who had a taste for exotic or unusual pets, most of which I did not mention in the boo “Our Pets and Us“.

Frida Kahlo with Granizo.

Our first Contrarium book, “Our Pets and Us: The Evolution of a Relationship”, is now available for purchase at Amazon or in our own online shop (cheaper price, but only Paypal accepted).

It is a short illustrated book (170 pages) about the history of the relationship of humans with pets (mostly cats and dogs, but we also discuss other animals), from the beginning of domestication to current trends.

Each chapter focuses on a specific theme or historical period, discussing the most varied subjects such as the fate of pets during the French and Russian revolutions, the use of pets in the space race, how the use of dogs as guides for the blind started, the association of cats with witches in the Middle Ages, and many other fascinating curiosities.

It’s a good book for anyone interested in history — or in pets, which I guess would include most of us. It’s also a nice gift for friends, girlfriends, boyfriends, mothers, fathers, grandfathers, in-laws, etc.

Please buy it! It costs less than a package of dog or cat food.

I watched the other day the latest version of “Little Women”, by Greta Gerwig (2019). A fine directorial effort, very nice photography, but I just could not concentrate very much on the plot, had some difficulty getting which girl was which, and the wine I was drinking at the time didn’t help. I guess that, if there is a story that was created specifically for females, it has to be “Little Women”.

Nothing against it, of course. It’s just that it feels like when you’re a boy and you’re watching a pirate movie and then there is some kind of boring kiss scene and romantic drama and you just want it to end and get back to sword-fighting and shipwrecking. Well, here there’s only romantic drama.

Now I admit, I never really liked romantic comedies in cinema. And in literature, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, well, they are good writers, for sure, but their themes are so “for women”, that I just never had too much interest.

On the other hand, I love Emily Dickinson, Wisława Szymborska and many female poets. Novelists, I’ve read with pleasure Virginia Woolf and Edith Wharton, among others. And Flannery O’Connor is a genius short story writer, better than most men. So it’s not a question of women being or not being good at writing, but really about the themes of the stories they choose to tell, which in many cases tend to be about love/relationships/being a female and are thus more appreciated by women.

Is there a similar case of books “for boys”? Well, I suppose that science fiction and adventure books (Jack London, Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, etc.) are in general more interesting for men/boys, but there are some women who like them too. Many non-fiction themes (history, politics, science, war) are also heavily preferred by men, but I suppose there are some women who are history or science buffs.

Yet the opposite almost never seems to happen: it is rare for men to be interested in explicitly romantic novels. How many men have read “Fifty Shades of Grey?”

But then again, it might be just a case of personal preference. There are some great books written by women that are wonderful for both boys and girls, and I might compile a list one day.

Pandemic, protests, economic crisis. Rougher times ahead, it all seems to indicate. What books to read?

Some choose to read classic books somewhat related to pandemics. Such as Camus’ “The Plague“, or even better, Bocaccio’s “Decameron“. Good choices, but, perhaps what you want is something more relaxing that actually makes you forget the virus, the protests and the crazy times we’re living in?

Well, I guess it’s all a question of choice. Here are some indications that we feel might be of interest.

Down and Out in Paris and London. George Orwell. If the economic situation turns for the worse, this might be a good book to prepare oneself.

Democracy: The God That Failed. Hans-Hermann Hoppe. An interesting discussion about democracy, in a moment when it appears to be in crisis.

Rhynoceros, Eugene Ionesco. An absurdist play about a very particular kind of epidemic. Funny and scary at the same time.

Brave New World. Aldous Huxley. Everybody talks about “1984” as the defining dystopia of the 20th century, and while it is perhaps the better book in many ways, this novel may have gotten closer to what current society is really like (or will be soon).

Fahrenheit 451. Ray Bradbury. Everyone thought that the Internet would herald a new age of free speech, but the current censoring going on at Youtube, Facebook and Google in the name of the “politically correct” has disproved that idea. Actually, in some ways, thanks to technology, it has never been easier to institute censorship and thought control.

The Great Depression. Dorothea Lange. Classic photographs of a period of crisis after the 1929 crash. Iconic images of a time that no one hopes will come back.

A statue of Miguel de Cervantes in San Francisco has been vandalized by Antifa and BLM militants. It is not clear what did they have against the greatest Spanish writer. Maybe they confused him with someone else? Maybe they are just destroying all white people statues at this point?

The fact that Cervantes was taken as a slave by the Turks after the Battle of Lepanto, where he lost use of his left hand, only adds to the irony. If they are protesting against slavery, they took the wrong guy.

In any case, it is a worrying phenomenon. In fact, the whole thing about vandalizing statues and monuments strikes me as extremely negative, independently of whose statue it is. Because it is an attempt at destroying or negating the past. Of course, in same cases, such as the toppling of the statues of tyrants at the end of Communism or other tyrannical regimes, this may be understandable, but in general it is not an advisable policy.

Apparently, during the recent protests, some statues were first decapitated before they were taken down. Heinrich Heine once said something to the effect that “those who start by burning books end up burning people”. We may also assume that “those who start decapitating statues end up decapitating people”.

At least they didn’t topple it.