To impregnate the concubine of the father, to be banned from the court, a lot of beautiful women and larded with poetry. That sounded a thousand years ago as an excellent ingredient for a captivating material, and a thousand years later it still is.
I am talking about The Tale of Genji, the first novel ever about a fictitious prince, which was invented at the Japanese imperial court around the year 1000 by the lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu (ca. 978-1014).
Do we still remember that just a few weeks ago, without batting an eyelid, we ate a piece of the birthday cake over which the birthday boy or girl had blown out the candles? And now we get goose bumps if we only have to imagine it.
Almost two months have simply turned the calibration, which we should be worried about, upside down. As a child in the 1970s, I found it perfectly normal in our car – a VW station wagon – to ride along in the back of the loading area sitting on just one air mattress and sliding back and forth with it every time we braked or started off. Safety belts or head rests in the car were absent, as were safety seats for children.
Only a few years ago, it didn’t seem to bother us that we cigarette smokers were sitting next to us in a restaurant or coffee house. We didn’t waste a thought on it. And who didn’t just reach out for a hand to greet them?
Hand on heart: Which one of you was aware of how much our day was strangely determined and foreign structured? How much meetings and appointments were used as an excuse not to think about their necessity and your own wishes?
For some, as in the case of the corona virus crisis, the abrupt stop of all normal activities leads to a crisis of meaning. For the first few days, people try desperately to maintain the old routines and daily structure by holding meetings via video conference, but after a few days they realize that this is not the way it works. Going shopping as a distraction, taking children to and from school, going to the coffee house and working out in the gym were all part of it, and you saved yourself the thinking. Not anymore.
By chance, in December I came across the Argentinean comic scenarist and journalist Héctor Germán Oesterheld, who was unknown to me until then. And what a sensational work this activist, who “disappeared” under tragic circumstances during the military dictatorship, has left behind.
While exploring Buenos Aires, I passed the Argentine National Library, a masterpiece of Brutalism, and while photographing I stumbled over the Comic Strip Museum behind it, which commemorated Oesterheld’s work with an exhibition. As small as the museum was, as traditional the exhibition was, the more interesting the exhibits were and the more my interest in the person grew.
Whenever the salvation of the world depends on the Trans-International Agent Ring (T.I.A.), the leader Mister L. gets his two “best” agents, even if he would rather not call them at all. Mortadelo & Filemon, better known to us as Mort & Phil, are probably the two most incompetent secret agents, besides Johnny English, who have ever known the world. The villains are being put out of business primarily because they don’t count on the devastating power of the natural stupidity of the agents they have put on them. A phenomenon with which the already deceased Berkeley professor Carlo M. Cipolla dealt with throughout his life.
It is easy to forget that incompetence can also occur in very prominent positions in companies and government offices. in normal times, this may be obvious to competent people, but it does not lead to many consequences. Donald Trump in the US or Boris Johnson in the UK have been known to make it to the top not so much with competence but more with populism and fears.
But as soon as a real crisis, such as the coronavirus, occurs, which requires competent and informed action, and where many lives are at stake, these people are finished. A crisis brutally and relentlessly exposes the incompetence of leaders.
An example from my home country Austria made headlines earlier this week. After hundreds of ski tourists from Tyrolean ski resorts returned home to their countries and tested positive for COVID-19, there was fire on the roof in Tyrol and Austria. What could be more obvious than to invite the Tyrolean Health Minister, Bernhard Tilg of the ÖVP, to the news studio to listen to his opinion and discuss the measures?
In a film that was intended as a homage to old science fiction films and B-movies, aliens attack the Earth and cause a massacre among humans. The American president and his advisors are not quite at one with each other as to what the right course of action should be, and above all, the president’s poll ratings should not suffer as a result. The reactions to the invasion are therefore hesitant, uncoordinated, and ultimately deadly for the president and his staff.
The 1996 film Mars Attacks! by Tim Burton, starring Jack Nicholson in the role of the American president, was not a box-office success, but it skilfully parodied everyday US politics. It depicts a world that cannot exist in reality in this way. Or can it?
Replace the word alien with the word coronavirus, and we’ve got ourselves a situation. And not only that, the situation is actually even worse than the movie wanted to portray in its parodistic exaggeration.
We imagine life as a lord, who thanks to generous family riches does not have to suffer, as a comfortable one. In the morning, i.e. rather at noon, we are awakened by the butler who serves us breakfast in bed with the morning paper, and after enjoying it to the fullest, we only have to slip into the ready and ironed clothes to indulge in polo, fox hunting or taking a stroll through the lush estates.
Far from it! The young and still green Lord Harold – the twelfth of that name – is an example of nobility with a passion. His is for the police, and that is where he wants to go. And not just to any district, where a lord is well-suited, but to the worst part of town, Blackchurch, where he is looking for a post. His wish is granted, and he is on the trail of a secret that leads him to mysterious deaths, a police station that seems to have a deal with the villains, and an inscrutable balance between villainous gangs. In the middle of all this is the pretty owner of a dive where all the threads come together.
London in the 19th century must have been a cesspool of sin, where murderers and manslayers and other dark criminals must have met. At least that’s what the crime literature of the time tries telling us.
But luckily, the city of London accommodates the impersonation of the bad boys’ nightmare, and this is well known to us. Sherlock Holmes with his sharp logic and his somewhat simple-minded sidekick Watson – a doctor, no less – put a stop to the scoundrels in many stories.
No wonder that more than 130 years after the first appearance of this duo, penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the stories are still fascinating audiences worldwide and produce new interpretations. The comic album In Sherlock Holmes’ Mind (original title: Dans la tête de Sherlock Holmes) introduces the reader to the character in a different way. We can literally see the thought processes of Holmes in his head and how he analyzes and solves the Case of the scandalous ticket on the basis of the evidence.
The Orient and Dark Russia come together in this delightful comic album about the aging carpet dealer Fedor, who travels through the vastness of a country that modern times have not stopped at. The modern age has moved into homes in the form of parquet and wooden floors – a development that is slowly making carpets that protect against the cold of stone or clay floors obsolete.
But Fedor is even more worried: he feels his age and is worried that he has no successor for his profession. Then young Danil runs in front of his sleigh while fleeing from the henchmen of the boyarNazar Alymoff. Because he has killed the ruler’s favorite greyhound, the death penalty is awaiting him. Fedor reacts instinctively, prepares a flying carpet and escapes with Danil – leaving his other carpets behind.
One would hardly like to believe it, but it was to take 150 years until religious texts or pamphlets were finally replaced by secular printed matter in the size of the edition. Since the invention of letterpress printing by Johannes Gutenberg, the Bible and Martin Luther’s pamphlets have been among the best sellers. Luther was so popular that at that time a third of all printed matter was written by him.
At the beginning of the 17th century, a new type of writing began to establish itself, namely the novel. The first fictional bestseller in printed book history was Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. The sad hero of the story, with his struggle against the windmills and his faithful servant Sancho Panza, is still well known to us four centuries later.