The solitary reader

We know that solitary reading – where the eyes function as windows absorbing the letters to illuminate the darkness of the individual – is a modern activity which depends on the existence of what we know as “individual”. It is a recent invention, more or less parallel to our idea of “literature”. Sure, the Parisian monk browsing in his cell a manuscript copy of the Letters of Abelard and Heloise, the Milanese humanist spending his time with his Hypnerotomachia Poliphilii and the hidalgo collecting in a separate volume his favorite poems by the poetas ingeniosos in vogue in the Madrid Court of Philip IV, basically also read for themselves, just like Don Quixote, who went crazy for pursuing exactly this kind of reading. Nevertheless, the consolidation of solitary reading and with it the appearance of our idea of literature only took place when these figures ceased to be exceptional and they already massively populated the cities, also spreading a new awareness of the individual that we might call “bourgeois”.

Those who are not too familiar with pre-19th-century literature perhaps do not clearly see the depth of the implications of these changes. However, it is enough to consult the authority of the Tesoro de la lengua castellana o española by Sebastián de Covarrubias – the first large dictionary with definitions of the Spanish language, published in 1611, just five years after the first part of the Don Quixote, and now edited again by Studiolum – which gives this definition for reading:
Leer. Del verbo latino lego, is, es pronunciar con palabras lo que por letras está escrito. Leer, enseñar alguna diciplina públicamente.

Read. From the Latin verb lego, is. It means to speak out in words what is written in letters. Or: publicly read, teach some discipline.
So even as late as 1611, “read” means to speak out, to use the voice, to make public, and not only to use one’s eyes, to internalize and to reflect.

But still today reading and writing can differ, in some areas, from how we automatically perceive them. This is what Isabel Fonseca tells us in a book that expounds in a very intensive way the history, life and especially the culture of the Gypsies in post-Comunist Eastern Europe: Bury Me Standing. She refers several times to the relationship of the Gypsies to their own language as well as to writing and reading. The book starts with the life story of the famous Polish Gypsy poetess Papusza (Bronisława Wajs, 1908-1987). A woman who, exceptionally, at an early age insisted on learning to read and who ended up writing a collection of extraordinary poems bearing witness to the difficult life and historical moments of her people, like for example the one entitled “Tears of blood: our sufferances under the Germans in Volhynia in the years 1943-44” describing their hiding in the forests of the mountains. Previously she also won fame as a singer, since she was married at the age of 15 to the old and venerable musician Dionizy Wajs.

Images of Papusza. The music in the background is the Russian folk song Why have you despaired so much, performed by the “Ruska Roma” (Volhynian Polish-Russian Gypsy) band Romane Gila

Isabel Fonseca’s reflections on the relationship of the Gypsies to the written word reveal a tension between the individual and the collective that we considered not to exist any more in Europe: “The œuvre of the handful of Roma poetesses bears witness to a tension between faithfulness to the tradition and the individual attempt to map their own personal experiences, often accompanied by a feeling of guilt. Already forty years ago Papusza followed this road leading from the collective and the abstract to a minutiously observed private world.

To Papusza this path brought the labels of “traitor” and magherdo (impure) among the Polish Gypsies. She was excluded from the group and her life collapsed. The remaining thirty-four long years of her life were spent first in a psychiatric hospital and then alone and isolated until her death.

For Papusza – unlike for Preciosa, the other famous Gypsy woman invented by Cervantes who could read and write, and of whom we later get to know that she was not a Gypsy at all – to gain a name among the gadjo by publishing books and to earn a unique identity to herself, costed a radical separation from her group. The Gypsies are closed in the orality, and they are being released slowly. The question is whether this “release” will not invariably mean also their complete disappearance as a people.

Concerning reading, Fonseca writes this (here we backtranslate her words to English from the Spanish edition that we used):
In Romani there is no word properly expressing the idea of “writing” and “reading”. The Gypsies describe these activities with words borrowed from other languages, or, and it is even more revealing, they use other Romani words for them. Chin, “cut” means “write”, and gin, “count” means “read”. But the usual expression is “dav opre,” meaning “I hand over”, so that the phrase means “reading aloud”. It does not indicate solitary reading which is not generally pursued by Gypsies. The word drabarav used by Macedonian Gypsies traditionally means “reading” in the specific sense of reading out the future from someone’s palm. And the Albanian Gypsies say gilabav which also means “sing”. A gilabno can be a singer or a reader, while a drabarno (or rather in its female form, drabarni) is someone who reads or foretells the future, but she also knows herbs: a healer. However, these are recent innovations which show what written language means for a historically illiterate people.

Our friend Péter Berta, who has been researching for decades the Gypsies of Transylvania and perfectly speaks their language, gave us this additional note to the words of Isabel Fonseca:

The Romani dialects of Rumania know even two forms of the word “read”. The Gábor Roms use the verb drabaröl, for example drabaröl e Biblie = reading the Bible. This verb can be deduced from the word drab which has been used in the sense of “herbs, medicine” in some Romani dialects. In the Gábor Romani dialect this latter meaning is already offuscated, and they only use it for “reading”. The other verb is ginel or djinel which explicitly means “read”. For example: zanav aba te ginav = I already can read (letters, books). Ginel also means “count”. Some dialects have different terms for “read” and “count”, while others indicate both activities with the same ginel.
It would be useful to find out to what extent the explanation of Fonseca on the semantic fields of terms for “read” is valid in other dialects of Romani. For example, in Caló, the language of Spanish Gypsies we find lirenar and nacardelar, which appear to function in a different way.

Oh, my Lord, where should I go?
What should I do?
Where can I find
songs and fairy-tales?
I don’t go to the forest
I don’t meet the rivers.
Oh, forest, my father
my sweet black father!

The time of wandering Gypsies
has passed long ago. But I see them,
they are happy and strong
and clear like the water.
You see how it is running:
it wants to speak.

But it has no words, poor one.

The water does not look back:
it runs far, it flies away
where nobody sees it,
disappears the water.

5 comentarios:

Araz dijo...

Just came across this posting and wanted to share my recent finding: 1930s gypsies in Caucasus (maybe in Azerbaijan).

Studiolum dijo...

A beautiful and exotic video indeed, but a bit suspicious. The introductory text says “France” and the few what we see from the setting (houses, streets) is indeed rather Wester European. And there are people with neckties and premium cups sitting around. This seems rather as some organized European event with real or pseudo-Gypsies brought from nearby. As to “Caucasus”, that region and “Egypt” were the two preferred romantic homelands of Gypsies in the European imagination!

Araz dijo...

You are right. But even in our villages rich people had brick houses. As for neckties they were not alien for Caucasus and Azerbaijan in particular, you can see it in a 1930 Azerbaijani movie, in provincial train station scene: Besides that number of samovars clearly says that they are hardly Western Europeans. So it can be a setup with real Caucasian gypsies.

By the way the village where the movie story takes place is near Yevlakh with famous gypsy settlements in Azerbaijan.

Studiolum dijo...

No, I don’t mean just the brick houses, but the particular style and masonry of them (actually these are made of carved stone). They seem to stand in a southern country with few snow as their roofs are rather flat. And not just the necktie, but the mixing of a person wearing city clothes and necktie with traditional Gypsies, which, I guess, could occur at that time only in an artificial, organized setting.

The clip from Latif is enchanting, with the detailed presentation of the train and of the city traffic. Is it Baku of the 1930s?

Araz dijo...

My wife's friend working for Radio Liberty Baku has been in gypsy settlement with her journalist investigation. Although their main business is panhandling, our gypsies do not live in total poverty, many having quite prime houses. I guess for a festive occasion some men could wear their finest clothes.

You are right, Latif travels from probably Yevlakh station to Baku. I am glad you liked it. You can see the places of my childhood including my old school building. And the building with a knight at the end is that famous Mukhtarov's building, which is a "wedding palace" now.