Tuesday, 23 November 2010

A Small Amount of Catching Up - Part 2

Today, I'll be discussing another trio of books in my desperate (and unnecessary) attempt to get back up to date with my blog, reviewing a rare (for me) non-fiction book, a French magical realism novel and yet another slice of Japanese literature - allons-y...

A Short History of Philosophy is a textbook I read a while back, in preparation for helping students studying an Art & Design theory unit at work.  I am no longer working there, so it probably wasn't the best use of my work time, but it was extremely interesting all the same.  Reading about the long line of Western philosophers, starting with the Greek greats (Socrates, Aristotle, Plato) through to Bertrand Russell in the twentieth century was fascinating stuff; however, a month or so after the fact, I'd be hard pressed to remember more than a few names and ideas (which is thoroughly depressing).

One thing I do remember though is my favourite philosopher, Diogenes the Cynic.  Why is he my favourite?  Well, in addition to living on the streets and being fairly dismissive about adhering to the conventions of polite society (and hygiene), he was also responsible for one of the best disses in history.  When Alexander the Great, one of his admirers, came to visit him and asked whether he could do anything for him, Diogenes replied "Yes, you can get out of my daylight."  As well as being extremely profound, it also showed a lot of balls: if the ruler of the known world showed up on my doorstep (or gutter), I think I'd probably be a tad more respectful...

A good while back, I was dropping off some old clothes at the local second-hand shop when I noticed a book in German on the shelf by the counter.  I'd never heard of it, but it was only $1 (and, in pre-Book Depository times, finding anything in German in Melbourne was nothing short of a miracle), so I decided to take it home - where I soon realised that it was actually a German translation of a French novel (which I am now reviewing in English...).

Der Erlkönig (Le Roi des Aulnes or The Alder King, translated from French to German by Hellmut Waller) is a Goncourt Prize-winning novel by French writer Michel Tournier.  The title comes from a Nordic myth, turned into a poem by Goethe, about a fairy king who pursues a man across the moors to steal his child from his grasp.  This story, set just prior to, and then during, World War II, appears to have little to do with the title at first; however, as the story unfolds, the parallels become very clear. 

Abel Tiffauges is a rather unusual person, a clumsy, lonely giant of a man, living in Paris in the late 1930s, who gets into serious trouble with the law after spending more time than he should with some local children.  Set free to join the war effort, he begins a gradual drift eastwards across Europe, firstly as a soldier, then as a prisoner of war and finally as a civillian helper in Germany.  He becomes a collector of creatures, from carrier pigeons to dogs, until finally he achieves his dream and becomes a hunter of children, seeking suitable young boys for a German military school: to the parents in the area, his tall, menacing figure becomes one with the legendary Erlking...

This book is a wonderful example of magical realism, with Tiffauges seeming both larger than life and somewhat apart from it, a spectral observer of the European war.  Tournier draws from a dazzling variety of sources ranging from Greek myths to European fairy tales and introduces real people (such as Hermann Goering) to complete his rich tapestry of a novel.  At the end, we are no wiser as to Tiffauges' fate as he heads deeper into the east, but the journey was definitely worth it.  If you like slightly unusual, magical novels (à la Murakami or Garcia Marquez), Tournier is certainly worth a read - but maybe try him in English (or French) instead!

And finally, we come to my third book today and the companion piece to The Key, also translated by Howard Hibbett, Diary of a Mad Old Man.  As well as having an absolutely superb title, this book is another of Jun'ichiro Tanizaki's looks at the seedy sexual underbelly of polite Japanese society.

This time our protagonist is Utsugi, a prototypical grumpy old man if ever there was one, who attempts to ease the aches and pains of growing older by lusting after Satsuko, his daughter-in-law.  With each diary entry (probably the reason these two Tanizaki works were joined in one volume), the old man's obsession grows, causing trouble for the rest of his long-suffering family; predictably, Satsuko is portrayed as being slightly less than innocent, only too willing to use the old man's attention to serve her own interests.

For the first half of this book, I would have to say that I was a little disappointed.  If The Key was a poor imitation of Quicksand, it appeared that Diary... was going to be a mediocre imitation of The Key.  The plots were similar, the diary format was the same, and the idea of the seductive outsider was beginning to grate.  However, Tanizaki turns it around in the second half, moving the story away from a story of obsession and into a study of the effects of old age, focusing the microscope on Utsugi rather than Satsuko (which comes as a nice change).  When the obligatory twist ending comes, it's actually very different to what's expected, leaving the reader with a satisfyingly melancholy resolution.

All in all, an interesting read, but I think I'll lay off the Tanizaki for a while.  Individually, I'm sure all of his books are a wonderful read; however, having looked at brief descriptions of some of his other famous works (Naomi, Some Prefer Nettles), I get the feeling that I would be experiencing severe déjà vu were I to dive into his novels again in the near future.  Besides, there are so many other Japanese authors whose books I am yet to sample - so little time (sigh!)...