Monthly Archives: March 2007

Doina Bumbea: A Romanian Abducted to North Korea

The Romanian newspaper Evenimentul Zilei (‘The Event of the Day’) has managed to confirm the identity of a Romanian woman abducted to North Korea during the 1970s.

Doinea Bumbea was a Romanian painter who disappeared in the 70s after telling family an Italian agent will arrange an exhibition for her in Japan….

The story was reconstructed by EVZ reporters after they found the woman’s family. The reporters also found out that she died ten years ago.

Radio Free Asia has more.

WASHINGTON—A Romanian newspaper says it has identified a Romanian woman, kidnapped in 1978, who married the U.S. Army deserter James Dresnok—reportedly the last U.S. defector still living in North Korea.

In its March 20 issue, the Bucharest-based Evenimentul Zilei reports that the late Doina Bumbea, a Romanian sculptor and painter born in 1950, was abducted in 1978 from Italy to North Korea.

There, she married an American soldier who had deserted his unit by fleeing across the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone that divides North and South Korea

In his Japanese-language memoir To Tell the Truth, another American defector, Charles Jenkins, describes a woman named Doina, a Romanian abductee, who died of cancer in January 1997….

Romanian officials have verbally sought clarification from Pyongyang regarding the alleged Romanian abductee, but North Korean officials haven’t replied.

Dresnok, a U.S. Army private at the time, crossed over to North Korea in 1962. He reportedly still lives in the North Korean capital Pyongyang. The U.S. military has said that Dresnok, from Norfolk, Virginia, left the army in August 1962 at age 21.

via The Marmot


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Night Sounds on the River of Doubt

COMPOUNDING THE misery wrought by the rain was an overarching sense of isolation and uncertainty, a feeling that was magnified by strange noises that shattered the forest’s silence and set the men’s nerves on edge. That afternoon, as Roosevelt and the men in his dugout paddled quietly down the river, a long, deep shriek suddenly ripped through the jungle. It was the roar of a howler monkey, one of the loudest cries of any animal on earth. The sound, which can be heard from three miles away, is formed when the monkey forces air through its large, hollow hyoid bone, which sits between its lower jaw and voice box and anchors its tongue. The result is a deep, resonating howl that vibrates through the forest with strange, inhuman intensity, and echoes so pervasively that its location can be nearly impossible to identify.

Worse even than the noises they could recognize were those that none of them could explain. These strange sounds, which disappeared as quickly as they came and were a mystery even to those who knew the rain forest best, had made a strong impression on the British naturalist Henry Walter Bates fifty years earlier. “Often, even in the still hours of midday, a sudden crash will be heard resounding afar through the wilderness, as some great bough or entire tree falls to the ground,” the naturalist wrote. “There are, besides, many sounds which it is impossible to account for. I found the natives generally as much at a loss in this respect as myself. Sometimes a sound is heard like the clang of an iron bar against a hard, hollow tree, or a piercing cry rends the air; these are not repeated, and the succeeding silence tends to heighten the unpleasant impression which they make on the mind.”…

The Amazon’s sudden, inexplicable sounds were especially terrifying at night, when they were all in the pitch-black forest, with no way to see a potential attacker and no sure means of escape. While the jungle in daylight could sometimes appear completely devoid of inhabitants, the nightly cacophony left no doubt that the men of the expedition were not alone. Even for veteran outdoorsmen like George Cherrie, the setting of the sun came to mark an unnerving threshold between the relative familiarity of a long day on the river, and sleepless nights in the jungle, spent trying to imagine the source of the spine-chilling noises that echoed in the darkness around him. “Frequently at night, with my camp at the edge of the jungle,” he wrote, “I have lain in my hammock listening, my ears yearning for some familiar sound—every sense alert, nerves taut. Strange things have happened in the night.”

The screams, crashes, clangs, and cries of the long Amazon night were all the more disturbing because they often provoked apparent terror among the unseen inhabitants of the jungle themselves. In the fathomless canyons of tree trunks and the shrouds of black vines that surrounded the men at night, the hum and chatter of thousands of nocturnal creatures would snap into instant silence in response to a strange noise, leaving the men to wait in breathless apprehension of what might come next.

“Let there be the least break in the harmony of sound,” Cherrie observed, “and instantly there succeeds a deathlike silence, while all living things wait in dread for the inevitable shriek that follows the night prowler’s stealthy spring.”

SOURCE: The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey, by Candice Millard (Doubleday, 2005), pp. 156-158

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Water Colors in the Amazon Basin

Each of the Amazon’s thousands of tributaries starts at a high point—either in the Andes, the Brazilian Highlands, or the Guiana Highlands—and then steadily loses elevation and picks up speed until it begins to approach the Amazon Basin. Scientists have divided these tributaries into three broad categories—milky, black, and clear—in reference to the color that they take on while carving their way through three different types of terrain. Alfred Russel Wallace, British naturalist and friend of Henry Walter Bates and Charles Darwin, made the distinction widely known in the mid-nineteenth century when he published his Narrative of Travels on the Amazon and Rio Negro. Wallace noted the striking difference between the milky Amazon and the black waters of the Negro where they collide on the northern bank of the Amazon. Seen from above, the meeting of these two colossal rivers looks like black ink spilling over parchment paper. The visual effect is heightened because the Negro, which is warmer and thus lighter in weight, rides on top of the Amazon, and the rivers do not fully blend until they have traveled dozens of miles together downstream.

Milky rivers, such as the Amazon and the Madeira, generally have their origins in the west and are clouded by the heavy sediment load that they carry down from the youthful Andes. Blackwater rivers, on the other hand, usually come from the ancient Guiana Highlands in the north and so wash over nutrient-poor, sandy soils. Scoured by millions of years of hard rains, these soils cannot retain decomposing organic matter—mostly leaves—which, when swept into a river, literally stains the water black like tea.

Although during the rainy season the River of Doubt is nearly as black as the Negro and as murky as the Amazon, it is technically a clearwater river. Like the Amazon’s largest clearwater rivers, the Tapajos and the Xingu, it has its source in the Brazilian Highlands, and so it picks up very little sediment as it flows over ancient and highly eroded soil. Clearwater rivers are also less acidic than blackwater rivers. Some, most notably the Tapajos, are so clear that they look blue, perfectly mirroring the sky above them. But most, like the River of Doubt, mix with either blackwater or milky tributaries as they snake through the rain forest, and so look neither blue nor clear by the time they reach their mouth.

SOURCE: The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey, by Candice Millard (Doubleday, 2005), pp. 171-173

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Black Immigrant Model Minorities

Clarence Page takes a closer look at a well-camouflaged model minority in the U.S.—new black immigrants.

WASHINGTON-Do African immigrants make the smartest Americans? The question may sound outlandish, but if you were judging by statistics alone, you could find plenty of evidence to back it up.

In a side-by-side comparison of 2000 census data by sociologist John R. Logan at the Mumford Center, State University of New York at Albany, black immigrants from Africa average the highest educational attainment of any population group in the country, including whites and Asians.

For example, 43.8 percent of African immigrants had achieved a college degree, compared to 42.5 of Asian Americans, 28.9 percent for immigrants from Europe, Russia and Canada, and 23.1 percent of the U.S. population as a whole.

That defies the usual stereotypes of Asian Americans as the only “model minority.” Yet the traditional American narrative has rendered the high academic achievements of black immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean invisible, as if it were a taboo topic.

UPDATE: Please read the attached comment, which far outweighs this blogpost.


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How Much Longer Will Spoken Manchu Last?

Manchu, one of the official languages of the Qing dynasty, seems to be going mute.

Meng [Shujing] is one of 18 residents of this isolated village in northeastern China, all older than 80, who, according to Chinese linguists and historians, are the last native speakers of Manchu.

Descendants of seminomadic tribesmen who conquered China in the 17th century, they are the last living link to a language that for more than two and a half centuries was the official voice of the Qing Dynasty, the final imperial house to rule from Beijing and one of the richest and most powerful empires the world has known.

With the passing of these villagers, Manchu will also die, experts say. All that will be left will be millions of documents and files in Chinese and foreign archives, along with inscriptions on monuments and important buildings in China, unintelligible to all but a handful of specialists.

“I think it is inevitable,” said Zhao Jinchun, an ethnic Manchu born in Sanjiazi who taught at the village primary school for more than two decades before becoming a government official in the city of Qiqihar, 50 kilometers, or 30 miles, to the south. “It is just a matter of time. The Manchu language will face the same fate as some other ethnic minority languages in China and be overwhelmed by the Chinese language and culture.”

(While most experts agree that Manchu is doomed, Xibo, a closely related language, is likely to survive a little longer. Xibo is spoken by about 30,000 descendants of members of an ethnic group allied to the Manchus who in the 18th century were sent to the newly conquered western region of Xinjiang. But it too is under relentless pressure from Chinese.)

The disappearance of Manchu will be part of a mass extinction that some experts forecast will lead to the loss of half of the world’s 6,800 languages by the end of the century. But few of these threatened languages have risen to prominence and then declined as rapidly as Manchu.

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Two Film Roles: Scottish Moron vs. Stasi Mensch

This weekend, the Outliers went to see the excellent, award-winning German film The Lives of Others. Last weekend, we saw The Last King of Scotland, for which Forest Whitaker won a well-deserved Oscar. In between, we watched the German film Der Tunnel (via Netflix), which inspired in me an inchoate train of thought about people who understand living in a world of sometimes deadly moral compromise and those who don’t have a clue. But it was the sharp contrast between two starring roles in The Last King of Scotland and The Lives of Others that finally clarified it for me.

The fictional character in The Last King that most incensed exasperated me was not the disarmingly witty and manipulative, but increasingly brutal and paranoid tyrant. (I had expected him to be a monster.) It was the bloody fool of a Scottish doctor: a cocky, self-satisfied, self-indulgent, self-aggrandizing, culturally ignorant, sexually predatory, criminally naive moron who endangers more lives than he saves–a type all too common on university campuses worldwide (and, of course, in governments). The doctor finds out too late that others play by different rules with more deadly consequences than he has ever imagined. You’d think a real do-gooder might have exercised a little more caution and self-restraint as a guest in someone else’s house. But he is really an adventurer, not a do-gooder. The world is both his oyster and his china shop, and he manages to destroy three pearls he touches–the health minister, one of the dictator’s wives, and a fellow doctor–while leaving other lives shattered as well. You start out sympathizing with him, but when he finally escapes Uganda, my reaction was “Good bloody riddance!”

The Stasi spook at the center of The Lives of Others presents a stark contrast: a pathologically repressed, anal-retentive automaton whose only emotions are vicarious, the sole purpose of whose odious vocation is to incriminate others, not to heal or rescue them. And yet, this meticulously mistrusting drone knows very well how his world works and where its dangers lie. He studies his quarry long and hard before deciding what action to take (or not), finding ever more reasons to doubt the motives of his bosses and to empathize with his prey. In the end, he manages to carry out an anonymous good deed that allows at least one pearl to form in this slimy milieu of universal suspicion, deception, and betrayal. This repellant slimeball turns out to be ein guter Mensch after all. You start out loathing him, but you end up appreciating the self-effacing derring-do of this spook cum guardian angel, and so does the writer he has spied upon. Even though I had anticipated how the writer would convey his thanks, my eyes still flooded over as the moment arrived.

The story in The Lives of Others begins in 1984, and conveys only too well the Romania I encountered in that same year, about which more anon. It will take some time to compose. In the meantime, let me close with an excerpt from John O. Koehler’s Stasi: The Untold Story of the East German Secret Police (Westview, 2000).

“The Stasi was much, much worse than the Gestapo, if you consider only the oppression of its own people,” according to Simon Wiesenthal of Vienna, Austria, who has been hunting Nazi criminals for half a century. “The Gestapo had 40,000 officials watching a country of 80 million, while the Stasi employed 102,000 to control only 17 million.” One might add that the Nazi terror lasted only twelve years, whereas the Stasi had four decades in which to perfect its machinery of oppression, espionage, and international terrorism and subversion.

To ensure that the people would become and remain submissive, East German communist leaders saturated their realm with more spies than had any other totalitarian government in recent history. The Soviet Union’s KGB employed about 480,000 full-time agents to oversee a nation of 280 million, which means there was one agent per 5,830 citizens. Using Wiesenthal’s figures for the Nazi Gestapo, there was one officer for 2,000 people. The ratio for the Stasi was one secret policeman per 166 East Germans. When the regular informers are added, these ratios become much higher: In the Stasi’s case, there would have been at least one spy watching every 66 citizens! When one adds in the estimated numbers of part-time snoops, the result is nothing short of monstrous: one informer per 6.5 citizens. It would not have been unreasonable to assume that at least one Stasi informer was present in any party of ten or twelve dinner guests.

Like a giant octopus, the Stasi’s tentacles probed every aspect of life. Full-time officers were posted to all major industrial plants. Without exception, one tenant in every apartment building was designated as a watchdog reporting to an area representative of the Volkspolizei (Vopo), the People’s Police. In turn, the police officer was the Stasi’s man. If a relative or friend came to stay overnight, it was reported. Schools, universities, and hospitals were infiltrated from top to bottom. German academe was shocked to learn that Heinrich Fink, professor of theology and vice chancellor at East Berlin’s Humboldt University, had been a Stasi informer since 1968. After Fink’s Stasi connections came to light, he was summarily fired. Doctors, lawyers, journalists, writers, actors, and sports figures were co-opted by Stasi officers, as were waiters and hotel personnel. Tapping about 100,000 telephone lines in West Germany and West Berlin around the clock was the job of 2,000 officers.

Stasi officers knew no limits and had no shame when it came to “protecting the party and the state.” Churchmen, including high officials of both Protestant and Catholic denominations, were recruited en masse as secret informers. Their offices and confessionals were infested with eavesdropping devices. Even the director of Leipzig’s famous Thomas Church choir, Hans-Joachim Rotch, was forced to resign when he was unmasked as a Spitzel, the people’s pejorative for a Stasi informant.

UPDATE: Historians of Africa on the H-Africa discussion list have weighed in with a lot of good critical commentary on The Last King of Scotland. Here’s the best take I’ve read so far, by Brian Coyle at UC Berkeley.

In three recent films about African atrocity, The Last King of Scotland, Blood Diamond, and Hotel Rwanda, it interesting what gets said but not shown.

In Hotel Rwanda, an excellent film in my opinion, the conflict’s root cause is briefly posited in a didactic moment among key characters. The fact is given, unquestioned, that Belgians introduced a false distinction within an amorphous African population, granting some the ethnicity Tutsi to dignify a ruling, if non-European, class. The ethnic distinction that Hutu and Tutsi claim to be physical and deep is really a crafty Belgian charade. This neatly fits a dominant paradigm of social construction, but is hardly a scholarly consensus. In Blood Diamond, an average film in my opinion, the European-American-South African root cause is even more pedantically coded, right into the title. Little if any reference is given to the Liberian origin of the conflict, run by invaders from Liberia (though some were Sierra Leonians returning from time spent in the Liberian conflict). The diamond mines were fuel thrown on an already blazing fire. Also, the audience is left to assume that it was diamond-interest mercenaries who finally uprooted the rebels, which is untrue. In Last King of Scotland, a lousy film in my opinion, the English are made unequivocally responsible for Amin’s rise to power, and of course the Scottish doctor plays a key role in causing the deaths of the people we see.

Behind each of these geopolitical explanations is the same dynamic. Causal agency is granted to non-Africans, and removed from Africans. The big-budget films dare to say that the West is the root of African evil, and Africans are history’s mere pawns.

But what isn’t shown? Atrocities. Hotel Rwanda does show scattered corpses, and has a very effective scene where a car rides over bumps that we learn are people. But the Rwandan genocide involved hatcheting people to death, by hundreds and thousands. Film critics agreed the filmmakers chose wisely to refrain from such graphic imagery. Blood Diamond had a brief exposition of chopping off of hands, but the rest of the picture showed splays of machine gun fire and explosions. I can attest, having been in Sierra Leone during the war’s beginning , that guns were plentiful, but not bullets. Children were not given license to waste Rambo-scale rounds of ammunition. The worst violence was again by machete, and again it occurs off camera. In Last King of Scotland, Amin’s atrocities are barely shown. Instead we remain as ignorant as the foolish doctor, getting information from newspaper images he reads.

In all three cases, the films spare audiences from graphic recreations of the actual atrocities. The is rather unusual, since other big-budget movies have no scruples about such displays. Uber-violence is Hollywood’s idea of freedom of expression. Perhaps it takes a special kind of producer/director team to make an African movie, who are temperamentally uninclined to recreate atrocities. Or maybe not. If presented with wide-screen recreations of hundreds of innocents hacked to death in gruesome realistic detail, the audience might “mistakenly” conclude that Africans, by themselves, are capable of epic brutality that stamps history for millennia.

This contrasts sharply with another virtue of many German films like The Lives of Others (or The Harmonists, which we also saw recently): The German films don’t blame everything on the Russians, or the French, or the Brits, or the Americans. They acknowledge that many—if not most—people in East Germany (or Nazi Germany) were complicit to some degree or another.

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Peleliu D-Day + 1, 16 September 1944

Bloody Nose Ridge dominated the entire airfield. The Japanese had concentrated their heavy weapons on high ground; these were directed from observation posts at elevations as high as three hundred feet from which they could look down on us as we advanced. I could see men moving ahead of my squad, but I didn’t know whether our battalion, 3/5 [3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment], was moving across behind 2/5 and then wheeling to the right. There were also men about twenty yards to our rear.

We moved rapidly in the open, amid craters and coral rubble, through ever increasing enemy fire. I saw men to my right and left running bent as low as possible. The shells screeched and whistled, exploding all around us. In many respects it was more terrifying than the landing, because there were no vehicles to carry us along, not even the thin steel sides of an amtrac for protection. We were exposed, running on our own power through a veritable shower of deadly metal and the constant crash of explosions.

For me the attack resembled World War I movies I had seen of suicidal Allied infantry attacks through shell fire on the Western Front. I clenched my teeth, squeezed my carbine stock, and recited over and over to myself, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff comfort me….”

The sun bore down unmercifully, and the heat was exhausting. Smoke and dust from the barrage limited my vision. The ground seemed to sway back and forth under the concussions. I felt as though I were floating along in the vortex of some unreal thunderstorm. Japanese bullets snapped and cracked, and tracers went by me on both sides at waist height. This deadly small-arms fire seemed almost insignificant amid the erupting shells. Explosions and the hum and the growl of shell fragments shredded the air. Chunks of blasted coral stung my face and hands while steel fragments spattered down on the hard rock like hail on a city street. Everywhere shells flashed like giant firecrackers.

Through the haze I saw Marines stumble and pitch forward as they got hit. I then looked neither right nor left but just straight to my front. The farther we went, the worse it got. The noise and concussion pressed in on my ears like a vise. I gritted my teeth and braced myself in anticipation of the shock of being struck down at any moment. It seemed impossible that any of us could make it across. We passed several craters that offered shelter, but I remembered the order to keep moving. Because of the superb discipline and excellent esprit of the Marines, it had never occurred to us that the attack might fail.

About halfway across, I stumbled and fell forward. At that instant a large shell exploded to my left with a flash and a roar. A fragment ricocheted off the deck and growled over my head as I went down. On my right, Snafu let out a grunt and fell as the fragment struck him. As he went down, he grabbed his left side. I crawled quickly to him. Fortunately the fragment had spent much of its force, and luckily hit against Snafu’s heavy web pistol belt. The threads on the broad belt were frayed in about an inch-square area.

I knelt beside him, and we checked his side. He had only a bruise to show for his incredible luck. On the deck I saw the chunk of steel that had hit him. It was about an inch square and a half inch thick. I picked up the fragment and showed it to him. Snafu motioned toward his pack. Terrified though I was amid the hellish chaos, I calmly juggled the fragment around in my hands—it was still hot—and dropped it into his pack. He yelled something that sounded dimly like, “Let’s go.” I reached for the carrying strap of the mortar, but he pushed my hand away and lifted the gun to his shoulder. We got up and moved on as fast as we could. Finally we got across and caught up with other members of our company who lay panting and sweating amid low bushes on the northeastern side of the airfield.

How far we had come in the open I never knew, but it must have been several hundred yards. Everyone was visibly shaken by the thunderous barrage we had just come through. When I looked into the eyes of those fine Guadalcanal and Cape Gloucester veterans, some of America’s best, I no longer felt ashamed of my trembling hands and almost laughed at myself with relief.

To be shelled by massed artillery and mortars is absolutely terrifying, but to be shelled in the open is terror compounded beyond the belief of anyone who hasn’t experienced it. The attack across Peleliu’s airfield was the worst combat experience I had during the entire war. It surpassed, by the intensity of the blast and shock of the bursting shells, all the subsequent horrifying ordeals on Peleliu and Okinawa.

SOURCE: With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa, by E. B. Sledge (Oxford U. Press, 1990), pp. 79-80 (reviewed here: “A biology professor after the war at the University of Montevallo in Alabama, Sledge brings an academic style to the text that flows easily from chapter to chapter.”)

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Filed under Japan, Micronesia, Pacific, U.S., war

Souvenir Hunting on Peleliu, September 1944

During this lull the men stripped the packs and pockets of the enemy dead for souvenirs. This was a gruesome business, but Marines executed it in a most methodical manner. Helmet headbands were checked for flags, packs and pockets were emptied, and gold teeth were extracted. Sabers, pistols, and hari-kari knives were highly prized and carefully care for until they could be sent to the folks back home or sold to some pilot or sailor for a fat price. Rifles and other larger weapons usually were rendered useless and thrown aside. They were too heavy to carry in addition to our own equipment. They would be picked up later as fine souvenirs by the rear-echelon troops. The men in the rifle companies had a lot of fun joking about the hair-raising stories these people, who had never seen a live Japanese or been shot at, would probably tell after the war.

The men gloated over, compared, and often swapped their prizes. It was a brutal, ghastly ritual the likes of which have occurred since ancient times on battlefields where the antagonists have possessed a profound mutual hatred. It was uncivilized, as is all war, and was carried out with that particular savagery that characterized the struggle between the Marines and the Japanese. It wasn’t simply souvenir hunting or looting the enemy dead; it was more like Indian warriors taking scalps.

While I was removing a bayonet and scabbard from a dead Japanese, I noticed a Marine near me. He wasn’t in our mortar section but had happened by and wanted to get in on the spoils. He came up to me dragging what I assumed to be a corpse. But the Japanese wasn’t dead. He had been wounded severely in the back and couldn’t move his arms; otherwise he would have resisted to his last breath.

The Japanese’s mouth glowed with huge gold-crowned teeth, and his captor wanted them. He put the point of his kabar [knife] on the base of a tooth and hit the handle with the palm of his hand. Because the Japanese was kicking his feet and thrashing about, the knife point glanced off the tooth and sank deeply into the victim’s mouth. The Marine cursed him and with a slash cut his cheeks open to each ear. He put his foot on the sufferer’s lower jaw and tried again. Blood poured out of the soldier’s mouth. He made a gurgling noise and thrashed wildly. I shouted, “Put the man out of his misery.” All I got for an answer was a cussing out. Another Marine ran up, put a bullet in the enemy soldier’s brain, and ended his agony. The scavenger grumbled and continued extracting his prizes undisturbed.

Such was the incredible cruelty that decent men could commit when reduced to a brutish existence in their fight for survival amid the violent death, terror, tension, fatigue, and filth that was the infantryman’s war. Our code of conduct toward the enemy differed drastically from that prevailing back at the division CP.

SOURCE: With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa, by E. B. Sledge (Oxford U. Press, 1990), pp. 118, 120

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Birth-order Names in Japan and Papua New Guinea

Most people familiar with Japan are aware of the Japanese birth-order naming system for males, whereby first sons are often called 一郎・太郎 Ichirō/Tarō; second sons 二郎・次郎 Jirō; third sons 三郎 Saburō, and so on. In theory, it would be possible to keep going up to at least the tenth son: 四郎, 五郎, 六郎,七郎, 八郎, 九郎, 十郎. However, I’m not sure how to pronounce the characters for fourth son, can’t find it in my dictionaries, and suspect that it would be an extremely unlucky name because Sino-Japanese shi ‘four’ sounds like shi ‘death’. (Japanese high-rises often lack a 4th floor, for the same reason that my high-rise condo in the U.S. lacks a 13th floor.) [See the correction below.]

Another thing I’m not so sure about is whether this system marks order of issue or order of survival. Back in the old days, many more children died very young. That might account for the naming of Admiral Tōgō Heihachirō, whose name (東郷 平八郎) suggests he might have been his mother’s eighth son, even though he had only three brothers as an adult. (My farm-raised father’s eldest brother and eldest sister also died very young, but he still ended up with five brothers and one sister.)

Birth-order naming systems are also very common in the coastal languages of the Huon Gulf of Papua New Guinea. The naming system in Numbami accommodates up to seven sons and six daughters, and without incorporating any numerals. The order-of-issue names for sons are Alisa, Alinga, Gae, Alu, Sele, Dei, Ase Mou; and for daughters are Kale, Aga, Aya, Damiya, Owiya, Ase Mou. Notice how the names for the seventh son and sixth daughter are the same? That’s because both translate as ‘name none’, or No-Name. My host mother during my fieldwork had seven sons and four daughters, all of whom survived thanks to postwar improvements in public health. The youngest son was called Ase Mou ‘name none’, or Ase ‘name’ for short. Of course, as the kids get older, they tend to go by their baptismal names (often of Biblical origin) or traditional names, depending partly on whether they remain in the village or move to town.

Another coastal language for which birth-order names have been recorded is Labu, which is the only surviving coastal member of the Markham subgroup, which stretches far inland up the Markham River valley. The Labu names for the first five sons are Aso, Amoa, Aŋgi, Aŋgu, Ôlôndi; and for the first five daughters are Ami, Hiya, Aya, Êta, Hênamu. (My source seems a little bit confused about the names farther down the line.) If you compare the Numbami names to the Labu names, only the names of the third daughter match. (However, I’m guessing that Labu Asôlô for both males and females toward the bottom of both lists is the etymological equivalent of Ase Mou ‘name none’, even though the current Labu word for ‘name’ is apaŋa.)

This is typical of the Huon Gulf Sprachbund: the structures match but the sounds often don’t. That facilitates translation, but not lexical retention. Fortunately, human memories can retain enormous amounts of lexical clutter; while human brains are much less efficient at quick translation between languages. (Human RAM far exceeds human CPU capacity. The rise of transformational grammar seems to have been predicated on the opposite assumption: People had to derive one semantically related structure from another; they couldn’t memorize both and then analogize between them.)

UPDATE: For Japanese kanji jocks (or kanji bandits), Matt of No-sword offers some interesting observations of how people have simplified characters by employing ditto marks (or means very similar). Sort of a calligraphic compression algorithm.

CORRECTION: (Slaps forehead.) Matt corrects me (and not for the first time). 四郎 Shirō is neither unlucky nor uncommon. Well, it’s less common than 三郎 Saburō but more common than 五郎 Gorō for the same reason that third sons are more common than fourth, and fourth more common than fifth. Instead of puttering around in my kanji dictionaries, I should have googled up likely names like Suzuki/Tanaka/Yamada Shirō.

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Naipaul on Writing Fiction and Nonfiction

In the Guardian V. S. Naipaul looks back on his evolution as a writer.

I had no great love for [Trinidad], no love for its colonial smallness. I saw myself as a castaway from the world’s old civilisations, and I wished to be part of that bigger world as soon as possible. An academic scholarship in 1950, when I was 18, enabled me to leave. I went to England to do a university course with the ambition afterwards of being a writer. I never in any real sense went back.

So my world as a writer was full of flight and unfinished experience, full of the odds and ends of cultures and migrations, from India to the New World in 1880-1900, from the New World to Europe in 1950, things that didn’t make a whole. There was nothing like the stability of the rooted societies that had produced the great fictions of the 19th century, in which, for example, even a paragraph of a fairytale or parable by Tolstoy could suggest a whole real world. And soon I saw myself at the end of the scattered island material I carried with me.

But writing was my vocation; I had never wished to be anything but a writer. My practice as a writer had deepened the fascination with people and narrative that I had always had, and increasingly now, in the larger world I had wanted to join, that fascination was turning into a wish to understand the currents of history that had created the fluidity of which I found myself a part. It was necessary for me as a writer to engage with the larger world. I didn’t know how to set about it; there was no example I could follow.

The practice of fiction couldn’t help me. Fiction is best done from within and out of great knowledge. In the larger world I was an outsider; I didn’t know enough and would never know enough. After much hesitation and uncertainty I saw that I had to deal with this world in the most direct way. I had to go against my practice as a fiction writer. To record my experience as truthfully as possible I had to use the tools I had developed. So there came this divide in my writing: free-ranging fiction and scrupulous non-fiction, one supporting and feeding the other, complementary aspects of my wish to get to grips with my world. And though I had started with the idea of the nobility of the writer of the imagination, I do not now rate one way above the other.

via Arts & Letters Daily

When I finished high school I wanted to be a writer, and I studied journalism when I first started college (before dropping out). But I had already discovered that I couldn’t write very convincing dialogue, and my journalism professor told me I wrote in a very “scientific” style. So I ended up writing analytical essays, academic arguments, and—much later—travelogues. My youngest brother is the fiction-writer in the family, as was our maternal grandmother, who alternated between school-teaching and (mostly religious) writing.

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