Tag Archives: books

A bunched up Book Review

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Slaughterhouse Five – Kurt Vonnegut

Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

Animal Farm – George Orwell

I do not why I have lumped these three books together – there must be a method behind the apparent madness.

The first two are American, the last British. The first two are anti-war while the third is on political philosophy.

But they do have some similarities. They all are from the middle of the last century, all sad-funny, what is called dark-humor. All have an underdog at the center of it, though the ‘underdogs’ in the last are the farm animals ‘minus’ the pigs and the dogs.

All these books have sensational quotes; all of them can be read happily by children and adults alike without meaning anything to them; all of them are depressing, for they ask you to abandon hope and try to understand the society ‘as it is’. All of them are against regimentation through ideology.

***

The central theme of Slaughterhouse Five is on the bombing of Dresden; but is also about Vietnam and other wars that will follow. It is about a person who is ‘unstuck’ in time and exists at all times of his life, all the time. I understand that to be merely living in memory, for the science fiction bit in the novel is really not very important.

Kurt Vonnegut was in Dresden when it was bombed by the Allied forces, for no apparent reason, killing over a hundred thousand civilans – more than the Hiroshima atom bomb. So, the novel is partly autobiographical, and probably that is why it is so rich in detail.

The anti-war sentiments are spot-on and the most beautiful passage is where it describes a war movie running on a rewind.

American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses, took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.
The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.
When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.
The American fliers turned in their uniforms, became high school kids. And Hitler turned into a baby, Billy Pilgrim supposed. That wasn’t in the movie. Billy was extrapolating. Everybody turned into a baby, and all humanity, without exception, conspired biologically to produce two perfect people named Adam and Eve, he supposed
.”

But like I said before, the novel is dark and offers no solution:

That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?”
“Yes.” Billy, in fact, had a paperweight in his office which was a blob of polished amber with three ladybugs embedded in it.
“Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why
.

***

Another beautiful anti-war novel is the famous Catch-22. Here is how the novel describes the clause “Catch-22” –

Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to, he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.”

The confused question of relevance of nationalism that has become so central to the ordering of our lives is brought out thus –

What is a country? A country is a piece of land surrounded on all sides by boundaries, usually unnatural. Englishmen are dying for England, Americans are dying for America, Germans are dying for Germany, Russians are dying for Russia. There are now fifty or sixty countries fighting in this war. Surely so many countries can’t all be worth dying for.”

The book is scathing at places, and truly insightful –

“It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.”

Again, as is common with all the books reviewed here, it offers no hope. The society wants a total submission and eventually the life of the individual; the individual instinctively resists, for it is not in his DNA to die for others; much persuasion and heartburn later, the matter remains unresolved. Such novels, after all, can only raise questions and warn against the prevailing lies.

***

The last in the list is Animal Farm by George Orwell. This one does not have a war as its backdrop, and I probably include it to underline the fact that it is not war that is at the root of our problems – war is only a symptom, an inevitable result of the way we have ordered our society and brainwashed ourselves.

Let’s begin with the story, for it is beautifully-childish. The farm animals overthrow the regime of a cruel man and take it upon themselves to run the farm in the best possible manner, in the interests of the animals. But the newly named ‘Animal Farm’ under the democratic rule of the pigs fast degenerates into a dictatorship of ‘Napoleon’, the brightest pig, and his family, who use a group of dogs as their ‘musclemen’. They mainly use ideology and oratory to keep the other animals satisfied, but have to use ‘muscle’ eventually, when even the dumbest start to understand the true nature of the new order. The last lines of the novel shows the animals peeping inside a cabin where the pigs are having a party with the neighbouring humans, and the author concludes –

“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

The beauty of the novel is that it simultaneously attacks capitalism and communism. And because of that, the novel comes to an inevitable dead-end, where human greed and cruelty comes out victorious once again.

Not surprisingly it was banned in both the US and USSR at one point of time. Written in 1944, it was before the excesses of Stalin era came to be, and so we can also salute the foresight of the author. But the worrisome part is not the “I told you so smirk”, the worrisome part is that the book is so ‘universal’ – reading it you know that this cycle of greed and domination will happen again and again. The way children pick up the same comics to read, again and again and again, despite knowing what will happen.

***


Stories should never end

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Did the author run out of ideas, or ink
Or of paper? O why did he end the book?
 
I really hate it, when a book ends
Sometimes halfway, sometimes for no reason at all.
One book I know, ended just because
The hero died and the war had ended !
That’s no excuse to end a book. I want to know
What happened to the poor heroine?
And did she cope well with her loss?
 
Another one, I remember, was going great,
(The hero had just married the heroine)
When the author, the lazy waster, decided
That that was it ! Now as everyone knows,
Real fun starts after marriage, and anyway,
Having come to know the couple so well,
It is sickening to suddenly remove them from our lives.
 
Don’t get taken in by the thickness of a book-
War and Peace or Gone with the Wind –
They are all the same, they flatter to deceive.
Now small children are honest storytellers. Their stories
Go on and on and on, and people and animals
Keep coming and going into them, freely,
And, like in life, there is no silly ending in them.
 
The story of the wily old fox, who lives
Near the farm (and wants to eat the lambs)
Has entered its fifth year. I do not mind
That over the years, he has managed
To kill not a single lamb, and yet he is
Not discouraged. The farmer, the fat lamb,
The tiger who is too lazy to hunt,
The poacher, the circus man, the teacher,
The astronaut, who is chased by the aliens,
Are just as close to my heart now
As my own kid.
 
Now that is how a story should be told.
Like life, the stories should never have an end.
 
I hope the lazy authors
Would take note of this serious matter,
And make amends.
***

How do I see myself?

 

 

 

Book Review: Night Train to Lisbon: Pascal Mercier. (Incidentally, Mercier is not the real name of the author –  it is Peter Bieri, a Swiss philosopher. The book was written in German, published in 2004 and translated into English in 2008.)

 

 

Disbelief about perceived reality, the various ways to understand the world – these philosophical questions have long been valid themes for fiction. Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance of Robert Persig and now Night Train to Lisbon of Mercier are more direct attempts to address these issues through fiction. This is a welcome development for light readers like me, who will not readily tackle the philosophical treatise on these subjects. This is the first importance of this novel.

The second is the beauty of the structure of the novel. The journey of an aging Swiss professor to Lisbon, to understand the life of a brilliant doctor-thinker, to live the life of another, is an apt tool to study how we perceive ourselves, and how other people perceive us. What comes up is the fact that we are not even aware of how our thoughts about ourselves form in our mind.

I found an incident in the novel especially powerful in our context – though it is only a minor subtext in the novel. The professor changes his glass frame. This leads to changes in his clothes, to match the new frame. His habit of ignoring his looks changes due that single change in his life – the changing of glass-frame. Imagine how alert we have to be when we are confronted by ever more glamorous and polished looks.

There are hundreds of major-minor themes in the novel. Fear of death, of oblivion, the role of religion, the nature of loyalty, the various types of love and the way parental love and expectations shackle us – these themes are dealt with in detail. The way city of Lisbon, the light and shadows, the streets and the buildings are used as metaphors by Mercier is amazing.

Till a certain age, we postpone doing a lot of important things. It is only when the reality that time left is short strikes us, we frantically look to ‘live life’ the way we always wanted to. But by then it is too late. To me that is the message of the novel. It is a grim warning, but there is little I can do about it. The novel left me thinking – and a little sad.

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