My first foreign books

at the end of the world

“Rein Kamm felt suddenly that it would be nice to go on a trip around the world.”

Rein Kamm tundis korraga, et tore oleks minna ümbermaailmareisile.

This is the first sentence in my first Estonian book, Maailma otsas. Pildikesi heade inimeste elust (At the End of the World. Scenes from the Lives of Good People) by a contemporary writer Andrus Kivirähk.

A friend lent it to me, when I asked her for an interesting book suitable for beginners, and it has turned out to be the perfect choice. It’s entertaining, funny, and not too difficult. Several ordinary characters go about their ordinary life, but somehow they do it in the most grotesque ways. You have a bar owner who cooks only one dish a day, closes his bar at 7 pm, and goes home to read ‘War and Peace’. You have an old bachelor living with his mother who tells him what to wear. You have a family that offer potatoes to whoever passes by.

People learn languages for various reasons: job, travel, love & friendship. All these are valid for me, but my major motivation in learning any language has always been to read books in the original.

Thus, I tried to recall my first books in all my languages. In some cases, I have not read any book yet (Hungarian and Japanese, currently on the back burner); in others, I cannot remember, even vaguely, which were books I read first (English, Latvian, Russian, Ancient Greek), thus, my list is incomplete.

In Czech, although I really like český černý humor (‘dark humour’), absurd, and grotesque, the very first book I read was Bílá nemoc (The White Disease) by Karel Čapek, a dystopia written in 1937 about a country on the brink of war, which is also attacked by an incurable disease killing older people. The novel does seem so dystopian in 2021.

In German, I started with Goethe’s Faust. Yes, I know, this is hardly a suitable choice for an absolute beginner. But hey, I was 18, German was the first language I was learning on my own, I was studying philosophy and puzzled over the meaning of live. To me then, Faust did seem a suitable choice. I did not learn much from in in the matter of German conversation, but still can recite the first lines by heart.

Habe nun ach ach! Philosophie,
Juristerei und Medizin,
Und leider auch Theologie
Durchaus studiert, mit heißem Bemühn.
Da steh ich nun, ich armer Tor!
Und bin so klug als wie zuvor;

In French, one of the first books I read were novels by Prosper Mérimée. I still own the book, a Soviet-era edition with beautiful lithographs and a bilingual commentary. I had bought it in a foreign second hand bookshop in Riga, grāmatu antikvariāts Planēta, a venerable institution.

In Spanish, I read first Platero y yo (Platero and I) by Juan Ramón Jiménez, a charming, touching story of a friendship between a man and a donkey. I got the book in the same second hand bookshop, where I was spending my scarce student stipend.

In Italian, I do not remember my first book. What I do remember vividly though, it is how I was reading Dante’s Divina commedia for the first time. It was in Italy, with a friend who was doing a PhD in Italian literature, who recommended a good old edition and taught me how to scan.

I read several chapters then, and read the whole Inferno last year.

Accidentally, 2021 is anno dantesco, which l’Accademia della Crusca (The Italian Academy) celebrates with the series of events, including Dante’s word of the day. The tradition says that Dante started his masterpiece on 25 March, thus, the word cammin (way, road) was analysed that day.

nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

In Latin, the first work was Cicero’s In Catilinam I (Against Catilina). We had to read it our Latin class, in its entirety, to analyse and translate it, and to learn multiple passages by heart. It took our small group a full academic year.

quo usque tandem abutere, Catilina, patientia nostra?

I hated the speech and my patience for Cicero was definitely abused after this exercise. I had never touched a text by him afterwards – until last month. Inspired by an old FS post on friendship, which showed Cicero in different light, I started De amicitia and have been really enjoying it.