Friday 26 June 2009

46 - 'Der Prozess' by Franz Kafka

Tony found himself one day at the end of a long corridor, unmarked by doors, windows or even paintings. Somewhere high above, there must have been some kind of skylight, or porthole, as there was enough light by which the sides of the corridor, for a fair way into the distance, could be seen, but, apart from the light, there was nothing else in view. Clutching his book to his side, Tony ignored the sense of misgiving he felt and started to walk along the corridor, briskly at first, then, as the minutes passed, and the end of the corridor failed to become visible, more slowly. After what seemed to be at least an hour of trudging through the gloom, a faint shadow began to appear at the far end and, with each passing step (which now became brisker once more) became clearer; there was the suspicion of a doorway and more than a hint of someone beside it.

At the end of the corridor, Tony, a little warm, but in no way exhausted from the journey from the other end, stopped in front of the figure sitting next to the doorway. Behind a plain, somewhat aged wooden desk, on which were piled mountains of pieces of paper - forms, essays, reviews; it was impossible to say from the disorder they were part of - , sat a middle-aged man, writing (in what appeared to be German) on one of the many afore-mentioned pieces of paper. Tony shifted uneasily from one foot to the other, hoping to attract the eye of the writer, whose attention appeared to be devoted fully to the writing at hand, before finally deciding to speak and disturb the writer at his work. However, no sooner had Tony opened his mouth, when the man stopped writing and, without looking up from his task, declared (with a booming voice strikingly different to what Tony would have expected from someone of the writer's appearance), "Mr. Malone, you are late." Tony flinched at the unexpected challenge but then managed to stammer out, "I'm here, and I've got the book. Are you The Critic?". The writer looked up and smiled. "Let's just say that I'm a critic."

The Critic placed his pen on the table, crossed his arms and observed Tony with an amused expression. "So, you wish to discuss Kafka's 'Der Prozess'", he said. "That's right, 'The Trial'", Tony relied, to the obvious displeasure of The Critic, who waved his hand quickly in a gesture from which it was surprisingly easy to read that he didn't have time to quibble about names. "I'm a busy man, so, if you want to run your ideas by me, please do so. Now." Slightly taken aback by the abruptness of the command, Tony again shifted his weight from one foot to the other, took a deep breath and started to talk.

"Look, I'll be honest, it wasn't easy to understand exactly what Kafka had in mind when he wrote this book, and, with all the unfinished sections and alterations, it's fair to say that no-one really knows the truth of his intentions...". Tony hesitated slightly at the sight of The Critic's furrowed brow and, after a moment's pause, hurriedly continued, "but I tried to look at it from a number of angles. The first was the role of bureaucracy and the way it is ever present in our lives, making things more difficult, in contrast to the original purpose of ensuring matters run smoothly. It even, you know, stops us from getting to the people with the power, you can't get to talk to anyone who can actually help you, you have to go through, helpers, intermediaries. And that's exactly what Joseph K. experiences. Kafka, knew about that. He was a bureaucrat too, you know." The Critic nodded, the stern expression momentarily absent from his face. "Absolutely hated it though." Immediately, the stern expression returned, becoming, if possible, even sterner, the brow becoming even more wrinkled. Tony realised that he was on the wrong path and went on.

"Yes, it's an attack on bureaucracy, but the main idea is a bit more abstract than that. You see, Kafka was religious, he wanted to, wanted to... try to understand what it's all about, why we're here, and the trial is about that. The courts, the whole process (if you'll pardon the bi-lingual pun), is a representation, if you like, of the church, of the structure underpinning Christianity and the way people try to make sense of it all. At first, it all means nothing to you, but, as life becomes more difficult, finding a truth, finding the truth, becomes more and more important. That's what K. was doing, you see. At the beginning, he thought he could get by on his own, he didn't need any, any... help, support, but, eventually he does, he wants someone to sort it out for him." Tony paused to catch his breath and was gratified to see that The Critic was nodding quietly, his papers seemingly forgotten. Ignoring his pounding heart, Tony continued, trying to make his voice as persuasive as possible; "Because, you see, he doesn't know what the true way forward is, he knows that there is a court, but he knows nothing about it. He turns to the lawyer for help, then the painter,he evens listens to Mr. Block, the businessman... he just wants some truth, no matter who gives it to him. But, the thing is, the more he knows, the less he progresses. You see, he realises that all these people are just the flunkies, the underlings, he never gets past the beginning, and that's just like the priests..."

"So what?", shouted The Critic, storming to his feet in his anger and cutting the, frankly startled, Tony off in mid-sentence. "Anyone can blabber on about religion, the church, God: anyone! Have you no new ideas? Have you got nothing to justify wasting my time like this?" For a moment, there was silence in the corridor, the echoes of The Critic's outburst overcome by the all-encompassing quiet of the emptiness surrounding them. Sweating, legs aching, deeply regretting his decision to make the journey to the end of the corridor, Tony decided to make one last attempt. "There was one more idea I had..." He took a deep breath.

"Terminal illness." There was silence. The Critic slowly examined Tony, his eyes moving up and down, then side to side, before coming to a rest on Tony's own. Then, gently, but decisively, he sat back down in his chair and laid his hands on the table. "Go on."

Tony swallowed and continued speaking. "My idea, and this, by the way, is just something that's been going through my head, not sure if it's relevant or, you know, intended, but my feeling is that perhaps K. is actually a cancer victim, or something. I started thinking about this because I read somewhere that Kafka himself had a lot of health problems. Perhaps he wanted to express them in his writing, I don't know. The start of the trial, the arrest, where the two men come to tell K. about the case, maybe that's where he finds out that he's sick. And he decides that he can overcome it, he doesn't need anyone, he's, well, in a way, you could say that's he's in denial. He can't believe that he's sick, and he thinks that by just ignoring it, it will all go away." Another pause. The Critic was still sitting in the same position, his eyes glued to a point somewhere around the top of Tony's nose, unblinking. Silence.

"And that's where he goes to get help, his family, his uncle introduces him to a lawyer, a professional - that's the doctor, you see, the cancer specialist, oncologist? - so he finally starts to get help. But it doesn't work, the cancer doesn't respond to the treatment, and K. gets frustrated, he doesn't think the doctor's any good, and that's when he finds out about an alternative: the painter or, as I like to think of him, the alternative medicine bloke. K.'s dying, isn't he? He's clutching at straws!" Tony leaned forward, his hair matted with sweat, he too now had his eyes fully focused on the other man, his manner energetic and slightly manic. "And of course, the oncologist, I mean the lawyer, tries to win him back, tries to warn him off the charlatans, tells him about other cases which ended well, but K.'s had enough, he doesn't want to go through any more chemo, he just wants to..." Tony stopped, drawing breath, his shoulders dropping slightly. "And then, he... he accepts it. He knows that it's time. That's why he allows the men to take him at the end; he knows that it's time to go. It's a kind of... acceptance."

The corridor was silent again. The Critic leaned back in his chair, distracted, pondering. Tony felt the wall by his side, for the first time, and half fell against it, using it to support his weight. His legs seemed unable to keep him upright. For a while, the two men were quiet, unmoving. Dust floating in the air was the only sign of life, if you could call it that. Suddenly, The Critic took up his pen again and, before starting to write, said, "You may continue." Tony straightened up and looked uncomprehendingly at The Critic, who merely jerked his head towards the doorway, obviously gesturing for him to move on through. A deep breath, and Tony moved through the doorway into another room, leaving The Critic, and his paperwork, behind.

As Tony walked into the new room, he saw an old man looking out of a large, stained-glass window. The light streaming in through the window lit up the man's face, showing a benevolent-looking expression, an appearance aided by a small, red-framed pair of glasses. Tony stopped again and called over, asking this new apparition, "Are you The Critic?". The man turned slowly with a smile beaming all over his wrinkled face. "Well, young man, let's just say that I'm a critic...".

[This review was never completed]

Sunday 21 June 2009

45 - 'Notes from Underground' & 'The Double' by Fyodor Dostoevsky

If you're looking for happy smiley people, my daughter has several teddy bear books which may be just up your street. If, however, you enjoy reading about people more depressed than you (or you're depressed yourself and want to know you're not alone), you can't go past a bit of classical Russian literature, and who better to put a dampener on your day than good old Fyodor Mikhaylovich Dostoyevsky, Fyod (possibly) to his friends. A few hundred pages of his tales of anguish and existential angst, and you too will feel as if you've been trudging through the St. Petersburg mud and sludge in the middle of a blizzard (without your fur coat. Or shoes.). Not that I'm saying that's a bad thing...

My most recent book brought together two of Dostoyevsky's shorter works, 'The Double' and 'Notes from Underground'. Apart from the fact that they add up to a nice amount of pages (Penguin probably decided they couldn't get people to fork out their hard-earned cash for each story separately), the two stories are linked by the theme of a man's decline in terms of social status and sanity. That, and the fact that there's a lot of snow.

'The Double' follows a few days in the life of Mr. Golyadkin, a civil servant who is passing pleasantly through life until the arrival of an interloper with the same name and, more importantly, the same face as him. The new Golyadkin usurps the original's place and causes him to lose face, status and, eventually, his job without the poor public official being able to do anything about it. He roams aimlessly through the streets of St. Petersburg, unable to make a decision and stick to it, denied at all points by the mysterious newcomer and suddenly shunned by his aquaintances and colleagues. As the tale progresses, we realise that all may not be as it seems; Golyadkin's spiral into the gutter is the description of a mental illness which the patient himself seems to be unaware of. The reader is also unsure as to the exact role of the new Golyadkin: is he real, is he a figment of the imagination, or is he the mischievous alter-ego of a schizophrenic?

While 'The Double' is one of Dostoevsky's earlier books, and consequently not that well known, 'Notes from Underground' is one of his most famous works. The unnamed 'underground man' rants about his life in the first section, explaining how, as an intelligent person, he is plagued with self-doubt and unable to function, as he is without the certainty and belief in his decisions that stupid people seem to possess. When faced with unmoveable obstacles, he cannot rest, knowing that there must be a way around, while the less intelligent accept the fait-accompli and are happy that they have done all they can. These existential musings are followed by a series of events which occurred earlier in the underground man's life: an imagined street confrontation with an unsuspecting soldier; an embarrassing scene at a dinner party for a former friend, which the underground man invited himself to; and a confrontation with a prostitute whom he offers to save and then rejects, before regretting his behaviour and (too late) chasing after her into the street.

On reading the first section, it is easy to believe that the underground man is talking to the reader and expressing their thoughts. After all, who hasn't felt that they were special and intelligent and that their path was blocked by less intelligent people whose only advantage was their ability to substitute volume and aggression for reason in an argument (and that these people still somehow seemed to come out on top)? I've even seen comments on discussion boards where people identify with the underground man, believing him to be describing the plight of intellectuals everywhere. As the story progresses, however, it becomes more difficult to identify with the writer's voice. His actions seem exaggerated and unnecessary, and his voice becomes less and less trustworthy. Despite his professed superiority over his less intelligent classmates, he is unable to display it and, in reality, comes across as petulant and childish. By the time he wilfully rejects Liza and thrusts her back into the street with money in her hand (which she rejects), he has (hopefully) lost all credibility in the eyes of the reader.

Although the underground man professes to tell the truth, we are unable to take him at his word. His rejection of friends, privilege and company are less the consequences of a proud nature than those of a cowardly one which is afraid to bare its soul to the realities of life. Having mastered books, he is unable to return to the real world, and, after inheriting a small amount of money, he finally withdraws from the real world and decides to write his 'notes'.

With this tale, Dostoyevsky begins his works on the uselessness of Western (European) philosophy and culture and a need for a return to the good old Russian basics (which includes serfdom/slavery, but it's a nice idea all the same). The French philosophy of man only needing to find out their true desire in order to be able to find their way in life is rejected; the underground man claims that man's need to be able to go against his true nature is stronger than the nature itself. Even if we know that something is for the best, as humans, we desire to have the freedom to screw up our lives if we so choose, and this freedom to mess up is what stops everything from being perfect (slightly paraphrased, but you get the idea). Which explains why diets never work...

Having read the work starting Dostoyevsky's golden era, it would be interesting now to go back and read 'Crime and Punishment' to see how the earlier novella influenced or led to the classic novel. The background and setting are the same, as is the fevered stream-of-conciousness dialogue (monologue) of the main characters, slightly more coherent than Woolfe's fragmentary utterances or Kerouac's verbal diarrhoea, but still fairly confusing and breath-takingly swift. These shorter works are a great starting point for anyone wanting to read Dostoyevsky but still unsure about launching into one of the great novels. For anyone who has been put off by my description, please give them a go anyway. If not, well, the offer of the teddy bear books still stands. Just don't tell my daughter...

Thursday 18 June 2009

44 - 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Last year I read 'Love in the Time of Cholera', Garcia Marquez's novel of a love story in old age, so I thought I knew roughly what 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' would be like. As it turns out, I was ever so slightly wrong... The casual prose dragging the reader languidly through decades in the life of its protagonists was the same; however, the content, while still set in Latin America and dealing with love, lust and family life, was, to put it mildly a bit different.

In my last post, I compared Nick Earls' short stories to Haruki Murakami's novels in the way that the everyday is described in great detail while being peppered by events which are slightly less real; little did I know that this style of writing ('magical realism') was coined to describe the work of South American novelists like Garcia Marquez. From flying carpets whizzing past the window to four-and-a-half-year rainstorms, 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' has something for everyone without turning into a fantasy book, and the reader can accept these abnormal occurrences without it affecting the enjoyment of the story.

At the centre of the book is the tempestuous Buendia clan, whose patriarch, Jose Arcadio, strikes out from his hometown with his wife, Ursula, in an attempt to escape the ghost of a man he killed, and founds the town of Macondo in an uninhabited part of his country. A century later, after walking the reader through the experiences of the children, grand-children, friends, concubines, lovers, partners and animals of what, at times, is a hugely powerful and culturally dominating family, the book ends with the disappearance of all that has gone before and the town's return to its earlier obscurity.

The Buendia family are a collection of larger-than-life characters, from Jose Arcadio and the long-lived Ursula, to their sons Aureliano and Jose Arcadio and a whole host of their descendants, many of whom share their forefather's names. The men of the family, often divided over the six featured generations into the calm, calculating Aurelianos and the aggressive, hard-living Jose Arcadios, build, fight, whore and die; the women, most of whom marry into the family, are either scheming, tenacious and hard as nails, or beautiful and somewhat detached. Over and over again, names are handed down, children are brought up, and the same mistakes are made. Although it seems as if the Buendias are merely a victim of circumstances, we finally find out that their rise and fall has been predicted all along.

Despite the size of the Buendia family, theirs is not a house of laughter and love (although a theme of barely suppressed and finally unwtting incest runs through the tale), with many of the family members preferring to keep themselves to themselves, some to the extent of locking themselves in a small room for years at a time. The solitude of the title refers to the lack of support for each other and the looseness of the ties which would normally bind a family together. While the women do try to keep the family (and the house, a symbol of the family) together, time eventually defeats them all, and everything returns to its natural state.

However, the solitude refers not only to the Buendias, but also to Macondo, the town which the original Jose Arcadio founded. The completely new town gradually grows and becomes more and more important owing to Aureliano's role in the country's political wars, finally becoming a centre of commerce with links to the outside world by road and rail. However, as time passes, so do the temporary riches; the outsiders leave again, the buildings crumble, and the town is once more isolated from the rest of civilisation. In the space of the hundred years of the title, the town is born, expands, is ruined and disappears.

The book ends in a whirlwind of emotions (amongst other things...), and it takes a while for the dust to (literally) settle on what has happened and to think about what the whole point of the book was. One rather obvious one is, as was discussed in Sophocles' famous plays, check your girlfriend's birth certificate (just to make sure that the names on it aren't the same as the ones on yours); the story begins and ends, and largely hinges on, incest and its consequences. Another one is slightly more palatable but no less important; nothing lasts forever. Just as civilisations rise and fall and football teams go from losers to champions to idiots again, the fortunes of people and places can move in cycles, swinging between famous highs and ignominious lows. It's something we should all be wary of at the time of our great successes. Time and fortune may lift us up, but they can always send us crashing back to earth.

Sunday 14 June 2009

43 - 'Headgames' by Nick Earls

After a week or so in the classical world, it was time to get back to a more contemporary feel this weekend; to be more precise, late twentieth-century Brisbane, a world containing a lot more pubs and not quite so many ritual sacrifices (although it has been a while since my last visit, so don't take my word for it). Nick Earls is an Aussie author of several novels and would easily fit into the much discussed (and often derided) 'lad-lit' genre if he lived about 10,000 miles to the north-west. Having read many of his books about the mishaps of various semi-autobiographical characters, I thought I knew what to expect from this collection of short stories, but on the whole I was (pleasantly) surprised.

There is a wide variety of styles and subjects over the eighteen tales that make up 'Headgames'. The five stories that form the backbone of the collection, following the everyday adventures of Frank and Philby, slightly nerdy (or, as they say down under, daggy) university students looking for love and cheap drinks, are typical of Earls' novels. Philby, tormented by a shyness that is criminally vulgar (couldn't resist it) and a rather embarrassing English mother with a penchant for speaking in foreign accents, meets the hyper-confident Frank in a chemistry class, a meeting which is to drag the shy, unassuming Phil out of his comfort zone (mainly consisting of his bedroom) into a world of creme-de-menthes, sausage sizzles, part-time jobs at the 'Ekka' (the yearly show or fair) and a general lack of sensible study. The last story in the collection has Philby in his thirties, regressing to his shy self at an after party for a film and ending up at dawn doing something incredibly unusual with a Hollywood celebrity. No, I'm not going to tell you what (or who) it is.

Many of the other stories, however, take a very different road than Frank and Philby's light-hearted adventures. As a former doctor, Earls is, understandably, interested in diseases and illnesses (particularly serious ones), and a few of the stories are concerned with this theme. 'All those Ways of Leaving' is seen through the eyes of a young woman who is slowly dying of cancer and shines a light on the way people treat her in the light of her impending death. 'Box shaped Heart', on the other hand, looks at a young student's recovery from a near-fatal heart condition. His determination to get back to full health as soon as possible and continue with his university career is explained not only by a fear of becoming a permanent invalid, but also by the realisation of what could happen if his friends move on without him.

In 'There must be Lions' though, the focus (I think...) is more on mental illness than a physical ailment. A woman in a hospital or clinic believes that lions enter the building every night and devour the patients' limbs (which somehow grow back again before the morning comes); despite her best efforts to capture one, they always seem to subliminally persuade her to release them from the nets she has caught them in. Her painstaking efforts to prove to the world that the lions are real, including her hundreds of letters to experts in the field of lions (and the Lone Pine Koala sanctuary, just in case), are a scary indication of just how deluded people suffering from a mental illness can become.

This slightly off-beat story actually turned out to be a fair representation of the style of the rest of the tales in this book. From a young woman's never-ending trip to a gigantic, ever-expanding shopping centre, and a sadistic P.E. teacher's sad demise while only able to bark out instructions with his last breaths for his students to keep running, to a grumpy unicorn, angry because his female housemate continues to use the toilet (when everyone knows that it's a reading room and that the garden is the appropriate place to do your business), and a lab assistant who ends up more lab than assistant (woof), Earls displays a deft surreal touch that keeps the human emotions close at hand despite the detour to Planet Bizarre. Incredibly, I found myself reminded of a certain famous author who has written some, shall we say, slightly unusual short stories: the Australian Haruki Murakami?

It's a bit of a stretch, and Earls has yet to produce any lengthy works which compare to Murakami's more famous novels, but the comparison is apt at times on the short-story front. If Murakami had been brought up in Brisbane by embarrassing English parents, studied medicine at university, got into indie and alternative music rather than jazz, developed a liking for sickly green liqueurs over Cutty Sark whisky and favoured shy, clumsy central characters over cool, anonymous protagonists, he may have turned out a bit like Nick Earls.

Whether that would be a good thing or not is for you to decide, dear reader; if you can get your hands on one of Earls' books in your part of the world, I would urge you to give him a go (if only to expand your world view to include a nice city on the other side of the world where footwear in supermarkets can be optional). Who knows, you may even decide to visit Brisbane after reading about it in his stories. Just a word of advice in case you do though: watch out for the unicorns. I hear they can be very temperamental at this time of year.

Tuesday 9 June 2009

42 - 'The Classical World' by Robin Lane Fox

After polishing off Euripides' plays, I was keen to read some more about those troublesome Greek gods, so I picked up 'The Classical World' on one of my rare trips to Borders. Of course, if I'd bothered to read the back, I probably would have found out that it was a history book a lot sooner. Oops. Nevertheless, I decided to give it a go and have spent the last week embroiled in the tumultuous Mediterranean conflicts of the classical era, and great fun it was too.

The writer, a professor at Oxford University (and an expert on Alexander the Great, something which allowed him not only to provide research for the Oliver Stone film, but also to ride in the front of all the cavalry charges in the film!), describes the period of history from the rule of the Greek city states to the time of the Roman emperor Hadrian, some 800 years or so in all. While taking the reader through such events as Thermopylae (familiar to anyone who saw '300'), the conquests of Alexander the Great, the gradual shift from Greek to Roman dominance in the region and the rise and fall (well, it's hard to stand when you've been stabbed in the back) of Julius Caesar, Lane Fox attempts to show us exactly how people lived back then. It's one hell of a story, and very well written, but it takes a lot of doing to get through it all in one go. I think I should have approached this book a little differently and read it over a longer period as the battles and orgies tended to blur into each other after a while (not sure that makes sense, but it did in my head).

While taking us through the events of the classical era, the writer also repeatedly returns to three crucial concepts and how they are affected by events: justice, freedom and luxury. You would expect that each of these ideas had progressed over the eight centuries covered, but on the whole that is not the case. Luxury did become more obtainable as new worlds and unknown products became available, but the Romans frowned upon private consumption of luxury items, preferring to have their wealthy citizens spread their wealth (and festivals) around. Justice was obtainable for some in the democracy of the city state of Athens but was only really an option for the rich by the time of Hadrian. And as for freedom; let's just say that the citizens of the Roman Empire had to revise their views of what freedom actually meant. Freedon to continue breathing was about as far as it went for some people...

There are some lovely maps of various areas of the Med, and the Middle-East, and I kept getting a nagging feeling that they, and the book as a whole, reminded me of another epic work. And then it came to me: Lord of the Rings. Looking at the various maps from different periods, with different countries under the control of new rulers, was exactly like poring over Tolkien's maps of Middle-Earth in both 'The Silmarillion' and the later trilogy of novels (Tolkien actually considered it as one book, but that's another story...). Even the constant introduction of new tribes, heroes, villains and wizards (alright, philosophers, but they're both old with beards), was reminiscent of the fictional version. Still not convinced? What huge unknown animals did the Greeks face in their battles in the Middle-East and India, later to be used in Europe? That's right, elephants. I rest my case.

Ancient history? Yes. Irrelevant? Not quite. Just as Alexander and (later) the Romans marched on Babylon, so too have the United States and their allies invaded Iraq. Just as the invading forces realised later that it was actually too much trouble to administer the province themselves, leaving the 'barbarians' under the control of a puppet king, so have the Allied forces in Iraq and Afghanistan allowed a local leader, friendly to their aims, to start the rebuilding and regoverning process. Those who fail to learn their history are doomed to repeat its mistakes, something the leaders of the world, hopefully, understand. The centuries of empire building and epic wars are over, not (with a bit of luck) to be repeated; let's hope that these kinds of stories are only to be read in history books in the future.

Except for the elephants: you can never have enough elephants.

Friday 5 June 2009

41 - 'Medea, Hecabe, Electra and Heracles' by Euripides

If you're sitting at home depressed, feeling that things just aren't going the way you want them to, there's nothing like reading some Greek tragedies to make you think that life's not that bad after all. Euripides, one of the three great tragedians of ancient Greek literature, wrote almost a hundred plays during his life (of which not that many remain as he didn't save any soft copies), and these four are among his most famous.

The plays are connected by a common theme of murder as revenge for betrayal, with three of them involving a particularly horrid kind of murder; let's just say that they kept it in the family... Unlike many Greek plays where the gods are seen as omniscient and controlling, Euripides has a slightly more sceptical (almost proto-atheist?) view of the residents of Mount Olympus. Basically, you can't trust the gods to do anything, so you might as well rely on yourself. Unfortunately, that can be difficult if they decide to smite you (but I digress).

In 'Medea', the title character, deserted by her husband Jason (he of the Argonauts' fame), decides that revenge is not a dish best served cold, but an excuse to murder her faithless husband's new wife, his new wife's father and her own two sons. Euripides does a good job of making Medea as sympathetic as possible, painting the ambitious Jason as a success-chasing sycophant who is ashamed of his non-Greek wife, but, by today's standards, Medea does take the revenge thing a bit too far, what with all the murders and then taunting Jason from the air while hovering in a dragon-drawn chariot (which, by the way, is exactly what I want for my birthday).

By contrast, 'Hecabe', widow of the defeated and killed Priam, King of Troy, has slightly more cause for revenge when she learns that not only is her daughter Polyxena to be sacrificed to honour the death of Achilles (whose mentions in the play always conjure up the image of Brad Pitt - stupid film), but that her last remaining son, Polydorus, who was sent away from Troy for his safety, has been murdered by his guardian, Polymestor. It's unfortunate that in addition to blinding her son's murderer, she also gets her handmaidens to do away with his young sons, but that's Ancient Greece for you. If you don't get them when they're young, you may live to regret it when two young strangers hack your head off twenty years later.

Which brings us to 'Electra', daughter of the betrayed Greek hero king Agamemnon, and her brother Orestes. While Orestes is not really convinced about his duty to shed lots of blood, little sis is very keen, promising to top their treacherous mother, Clytmnestra, if Orestes gets rid of her new husband, the usurping Aegisthus. Unfortunately, Electra losses her nerve at the last minute, leaving big brother to do away with his mother, putting himself in big trouble with the gods (there are very detailed divine rules about who you can and can't kill; it can all get a bit confusing at times...).

'Heracles', on the other hand, is a real tragedy. Having returned from the underworld just in time to save his family from the usurping king Lycus (yes, it's not often you use 'usurping' in consecutive paragraphs), the famous hero falls foul of the petty jealousy of his father's wife. Unfortunately for him, his father is Zeus, which makes the woman he has annoyed Hera, Queen of the Gods. As you can imagine, she is not the sort to settle for strategically-placed banana skins or two flat tyres on his chariot, instead sending poor Heracles mad and making him kill his wife and three kids.

Joking aside, 'Heracles' is extremely touching. Euripides sets a scene where the reader is prepared for Lycus to kill Heracles' wife, father and children, and when Heracles appears in the nick of time, the reader experiences the same sense of relief that the characters do. Of course, for those watching the play in the era it was written, this was a part of the shared cultural knowledge, and everyone would know exactly what was going to happen next. In a way, that would make the scene even sadder.

These four plays are centred around the way insults in ancient times demanded revenge, often embroiling families (or, in the case of the Trojan War, whole countries) in situations where blood was inevitably shed. It was easy to blame the gods, but Euripides' view was that men should help themselves - not an easy thing to do if you've got a goddess with a grudge on your back, though.

When reading these plays, for the first time, it was surprising how many names and events (and even plots) were familiar (as were the plays in Sophocles' Oedipus trilogy which I read earlier in the year). The legends of Ancient Greece were not only relevant at the time of their performance, but also today; for anyone of European or Anglo-Saxon heritage, these tales are part of our cultural background, and it's important to revisit these stories to see how to deal with adversity in life. Or not, as the case may be.

Now, I'm off to see a man about a dragon...

Tuesday 2 June 2009

40 - 'Soul Mountain' by Gao Xingjian (Review)

In February, I posted a review of Gao Xingjian's collection of short stories, 'Buying a Fishing Rod for my Grandfather', and, after recently reading 'Getting Rich First' (and with the twentieth anniversary of the Tiananmen square crackdown just around the corner...), I decided it was time to give Gao's Nobel-Prize-winning novel 'Soul Mountain' another try. As previously mentioned, his merits are not unanimously agreed upon, so I thought that this time I would read the book with one eye on the controversial topics and methods denounced by certain detractors. Well, that's my story, and I'm sticking to it!

The book itself is a fictionalisation of a journey by the author around rural China in 1982, not (as you can imagine) because he needed a break from the rat race, but rather because he had heard rumours that he was shortly to be denounced and brought in by the government (so you could say the trip to the country was for his health). Two main narrators, 'I' and 'You', move around the countryside, the mountains and the forests of southern China in search of Lingshan, the Soul Mountain of the title. On the way, they encounter many interesting, bizarre, sensuous and worrying people and try to document some of the disappearing customs of life outside the major cities of the east.

Gao (or his literary representatives) is searching for something, and it is really up to the reader to decide what the mythical Lingshan represents. The main character 'I' often reminisces about his childhood and seems to be searching for some remnants of a time which, if not idyllic, is certainly better than the present. This search for times past may just be a desire to escape the oppressive period he is living in, a very difficult one for a writer whose opinions do not exactly mirror those of the state. Unfortunately, he eventually realises that escape is impossible; however many mountains he climbs, the next one always looks bigger and better. In the end, it's time to return to Beijing, to go back to society, friends and warmth.

The book also portrays a search for a style of life which may be becoming obsolete. Throughout their travels, the protagonists (especially 'I') visit rural towns and villages, interview monks and shamans, attend religious and cultural festivals, request performances of old folk songs from venerable elders, and look for ancient folk songs to copy down for posterity. There is an obvious desire on the part of the author to preserve these old traditional ways in the face of both the cultural rewriting of history and the unstoppable march of modernisation and urbanisation.

Although the village scenes may appear to be unchanged from hundreds of years ago, there are many signs of the decline of rural life. Most of the bearers of the old stories and songs are old, and the new generation is not always interested in keeping the traditions alive; the government officials most definitely not.

Another threat (which has since become a reality) is the plan to create the Three Gorges Dam, a project which will necessitate the removal of millions of people and the destruction of many villages and cultural artefacts. The project is mentioned several times, usually in connection with a place of beauty or site of historical interest which will be lost under the new water level. The dam project seems to be the epitome of the aims of the Cultural revolution; the ability to wipe out all resistance in order to create a new reality, whatever the cost.

Enough description, let's turn to the criticism (and there is a lot of it). Before (and while) reading 'Soul Mountain', I did a lot of research (OK, I used Wikipedia and Google...) on what people thought about it, and, while many people loved it, there was a significant number of disgruntled readers. One of the most common criticisms concerned the use of the multiple narrators and the part they played. In addition to the aforementioned 'I' and 'You', Gao also created a 'She' (to accompany 'You') and a 'He' (when 'You' became too close to 'I' - bear with me here). At times, this does cross over into poetical lunacy, but I found the idea and use of 'I' and 'You' aesthetically pleasing and relevant to the book. 'I''s (my?) journey was more grounded in fact while 'You''s (your???) story was more mystical and slightly less connected to reality. This use of the double character enabled Gao to explore the mystical and the practical at the same time - and gave the story a lot of variety, too.

Another criticism, which I have a lot more time for, is that the book is lewd and, at times demeaning to women. Although there were obviously political issues which the writer had to face, it is very easy to interpret the story as one big mid-life crisis. The main characters seem to fall in and out of bed with women on a regular basis, and these women are portrayed as sensuous and cunning, with a hidden agenda of ensnaring a man in their web of romance. The need for women to possess a man (a desire which Gao does not appear too fond of ) is pitted against man's desire to do the deed and get out of there pronto (I paraphrase slightly). I am not the world's biggest feminist, so if I cringe slightly at certain sections, many people may find the author's treatment of relationships somewhat disturbing.

The big question though, the 555-page question in fact, is this: is 'Soul Mountain' even a novel? Several critics have answered in the negative, and, if you are expecting a linear progression with a clear ending, you will be very disappointed. Several parts of the book could be chopped up and reassembled in a random order without making much of a difference to the reading experience (which actually sounds like a fun, and rather Zen, thing to do). Cleverly, Gao anticipates this; one of the later chapters consists of a dialogue between the writer and a literary critic who throws this accusation at the author (but never quite makes it stick).

My answer would be: is it important? If the reader enjoys a book on any level, then the definition of the genre can be left to academics with time and research money on their hands. Despite the admitted flaws in the work, I found 'Soul Mountain' to be an interesting journey through a place which could soon be consigned to the pages of history and a time where writers had to be very careful about what they wrote. One thing I would add to that though is that knowing a little about the writer and the history of his country makes for a much better reading experience. The information I gathered through reading Gao's other novel, 'One Man's Bible' (no review because I read it last year: sorry!) and surfing the internet meant that my second reading of this book was a more rewarding experience than the first.