Maquina Lectora

Notes of a curious mind

Category: Novel (Page 2 of 7)

“We have to become the people we always should have been” – The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain

A wonderful, intimate and unsentimental novel about friendship, conscience and love.

The year is 1947, and in the small town of Matzlingen, in Switzerland, Gustav Perle, a five-year-old boy, meets Anton Zwiebel, a little Jewish boy of his own age, and a talented pianist tortured by extreme performance anxiety.  It is the beginning of a beautiful and turbulent friendship that lasts a lifetime.

The nature of responsibly – national and individual – lies at the heart of the novel. Just before World War II, Switzerland let the Jewish refugees, who were attempting to escape from Nazism, in the country. Soon this changed. A directive by the Swiss Justice Minister stated that all Jewish refugees, attempting to get to the safety of Switzerland, would be sent back. It is estimated that Swiss legalism turned away some twenty thousand Jews.

One of the main principles of Switzerland’s foreign policy is neutrality, which dictates that a country is not to be involved in armed conflicts between other states. During the World War II, Switzerland remained intact, despite the few airspace violations and sporadic bombing events.

Rose Tremain shows what the quest of neutrality and shelf-mastery do to a person and a country.  Conscience becomes an uninvited guest; it is this tortured conscience that leads Gustav’s father, a character in the background of the story, but also present all throughout the book, to help as many Jews as possible. He is no longer the man he thought he was, a man who reveres the laws of his country, and for that, he pays heavily. It is an act that will cause Gustav’s mother a lifelong hatred of Jews, and will determine her relationship with her son.

There is also some confusion about Switzerland’s banks handling of gold, paintings and other items that belonged to Holocaust victims. The Swiss banks failed to give a clear accounting of their transactions with Nazi Germany, fuelling, after World War II, a long and angry exchange between Jewish groups and the Swiss authorities. After the war, Switzerland emerged as a darker place, unsure whether there was a guilt to admit, a country that suffered from a moral illness.

Although beauty may give itself to everyone, it does not actually belongs to anybody.

The Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Yukio Mishima

On July 2, 1950, to the distress of many Japanese and art -lovers,  the Zen temple of  Kinkakugi in Kyoto, known as the Temple of the Golden pavillion, was burned to the ground by an unhappy and unbalanced novice monk, who “hated anything beautiful”, according to a report of his trial.

The Golden pavilion, a rare masterpiece of Buddhist garden architecture, was built by the Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, the third shogun of the Muromachi shogunate, in 1398. Fortunately, it turned out that a team of engineers, who have partially dismantled Kinkakugi for repair purposes a few years before the fire, had created detailed drawings and with the support of the Japanese government and contributions of local groups, the temple was restored in 1955.

Yukio Mishima, born Kimitake Hiraoka in 1925, (Yukio Mishima was his pen name). He was a man of many talents,  the author of 34 novels, numerous plays, essays and books of short stories,  a film actor and director, a singer, a sportsman, a self-styled samurai. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prise in Literature three times. A literary  genius, a nationalist,  an attention seeking man, obsessed, during the last ten years of his life, with bodybuilding to an extreme. A man that glorified death. After a failed coup attempt at Japan’s military headquarters, he committed the act of seppuku – the ritual suicide of a samurai warrior.

Mishima wrote The Temple of the Golden Pavilion when he was only 34. It  is novel about beauty so perfect that it becomes unbearable and it has to be destroyed. It is focuses on the life of a young Zen Buddhist novice named Mizoguchi, a stutter who views himself as ugly and has been so obsessed with the beauty of the Golden Pavillion,  that he is feeling the urge to destroyed it.

“Beauty, beautiful things, those are now my most deadly enemies.”

The destruction of the Temple of the Golden Pavilion is presented as a decisive act of heroic pleasure of a tortured man. It is a pleasure that derives from “action in its perfection” and seen as such, destruction becomes  an acquired skill and an appropriate type of daily life.

The Temple of the Golden Pavilion is an engrossing , strange, detailed and complex novel with many layers that could only have written by a Japanese, one with a dark side, such as Yukio Mishima. It is an  impressive work of literary that established Mishima  as one of the outstanding writers of the twentieth century. I am looking forward to take a look at his other works.

It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it

Autumn by Ali Smith

 “We are living in a time when lies are sanctioned”, said Ali Smith recently in  The Paris Review of Books.

Autumn 2016. Britain has voted to leave the European Union. A shocking event that revealed an ugly, deep rift in the British society. A result that turned the country into a different, unfamiliar place, in just a matter of days.

“It was the worst of time, it was the worst of times. Again. That’s the thing about things. They fall apart, ..”

As Brexit starts to happen, Elisabeth Demand, a contract art history lecturer in London, returns to her mother’s house to visit Daniel Gluck, an elderly neighbour, 101 years old, who is now in a nearby care home, and asleep most of the time. Daniel is an immigrant, art enthusiast, and Elisabeth’s unofficial babysitter when her single mother was absent. It is an extraordinary friendship, bound by their love for art and the stories they read and share.

“It isn’t that kind of relationship,” Elisabeth says to a lover. “It isn’t even the least physical. It never has been. But it’s love. I can’t pretend it isn’t. “

In Autumn, Ali Smith plays with time.  Daniel is old, then young, another life, another place, long-ago memories are still close and painful.

Elisabeth as a child, is trying to make sense of the world through art and literature. Then she is a young woman waiting in the village’s post office to renew her passport. She has an absurd, Kafkaesque encounter with the post officers that seem determined to stop her from leaving the country.

Both have a shared interest, the sixties pop artist Pauline Boty, an extraordinary woman, the first female and one of the founders of the British pop art movement whose career was tragically cut short when she succumbed to cancer at the age of 28. Smith has incorporated her short life into the storyline; it is one of the most interesting stories of the book.  Boty’s story remind me Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life: “It is not that we have a short time to livebut that we waste a lot of it.”

Autumn is multi-layered book. It is a book about Britain now. It is about zero-hours work, about those with no ability to plan ahead, let alone apply for a mortgage. It is a book about Jo Cox, the racial abuse and hate crimes that followed the results of the Brexit referendum.  It is also a book about the shortness of life, about love and friendship, about the beauty of art.

1876 by Gore Vidal

I regard politics of the country as an ongoing comedy, which, this evening, has suddenly sheered of into wildest farce.

Gore Vidal was feisty, elegant, clever and witty. A prolific, versatile writer. A notorious fueder. A giant of literature. Perhaps, the last of his kind.

1876, is the third volume of Vital’s Narratives of Empire, a series of books examining the history of America. Like his previous book Burr, is set mostly in New York City. It is a novel written as a memoir with Charles Schermerhorn Schuyler, as a narrator.  Charlie has just returned to New York, with his daughter Emma, the widowed Princess D’Agrigente, after living in Europe for over 30 years.  It is the eve of the centennial year’s controversial election between Samuel H. Tilden, the Democratic Governor of New York and Rutherford B. Hayes, the Republican Governor of Ohio.

The fact that I can longer tell a prostitute from a fine lady is the first sign that I have been away [from NYC] for a very long time.

Having lost all of his money in the Panic of 1873, the financial crisis that become known as the Long Depression, Charlie hopes to rebuild part of his fortune and secure a good marriage for Emma. Working as a journalist for the New York press, he moves around in the political cycles and in the American elite and wealthy class that owns vast sums of money. He witnesses the scandals of Grant’s second administration, and the financial chicaneries that often involved the railroad barons.

He chronicles the events, the tactics and the conflicted resolution that brought Hayes in the U.S presidency, despite the fact that that Samuel Tilden won the popular vote and led the electoral college. But the electoral votes in the three southern states of Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina were disputed as each party reported its candidate had won the state. After almost four months, from November into late February, of increased tensions, the Congress established a 15-member Electoral Commission to resolve the issue of who was to become the nation’s next president.  The commission voted 8-7 to award the votes of these three states to Hayes. Money played a big part, too.

As the deals were hammered out to settle the election, Hayes agreed to end Reconstruction in the South giving the states the ability to treat African Americans as they saw fit. After leaving office, in 1881, Hayes devoted himself to the cause of educating African-American children in the South.

1876 is daring, beautiful, witty and insightful. Just how much of the account is historically accurate we do not know. But as Charlie Schuyler says, “There is not history, only fiction of varying degrees of plausibility. What we think to be history is nothing but fiction.”

It is remarkable that in a suit filled on December 2016 by a member of the Electoral College at disrupting Trump’s path to presidency, his attorneys made a reference at the turmoil cased in 1876 after “disputes concerning electors from multiple states dragged out for months after Election Day.’

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad is an allegorical story that mixes the surreal with the real to create a powerful novel that highlights the struggles of the black people against slavery, against fear, against dehumanization.

Cora is a determined enslaved young woman on a plantation in Georgia, in the 1880s. She attempts to escape slavery using the underground railroad that transports fugitive slaves to freedom.  Cora, as all fugitives before and after her, is transported in the darkness of the underground railroad, and from one station to the next. There is no final destination, no certainty, no safety, no promise to freedom.

 “The problem is that one destination may be more to your liking than another. Stations are discovered, lines discontinued. You won’t know what waits above until you pull in.”

As Cora travels through tunnels from place to place, we travel with her. We see all the horrible things, the grotesque brutality, and the atrocities committed against black slaves. The commodification of human beings, the effort to control the black population growth with forced sterilization of females and infection of males with syphilis – a reference to North Carolina’s eugenics program and the notorious Tuskegee experiments, almost a century later.

 “Every state is different …… Each one a state of possibility, with its own customs and way of doing things. Moving through them, you’ll see the breadth of the country before you reach your final stop.”

Cora finally arrives in the black community in Valentine’s farm, a place of refuge, a safe “pocket of blackness” in a hostile white world. But safety is an illusion. The farm is a utopia, a delusion. It does not last. It’s only a brief distraction from ruthless mechanisms of the world. At the end, each person is “on their own, as they ever had been.”

This is a book that makes you think about what humans being are capable of. It is not just a book about slavery, but about all kinds of oppression. It is a book about American history and about race. It is upsetting and intense, full of a mixture of despair and hope.

Everything is illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

Everything is illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer’s literary debut,  is a book composed of two narrative voices, Alex form Ukraine and Jonathan from America. Jonathan Safran Foer – the author has given his name to one of the main characters in the book – is an American young man that aspires to be an author. He is confused about his own past and he goes to Ukraine to search for Augustine, a woman who fifty years ago saved his grandfather from the Nazis. He also hopes to find material for his first book.

Alex is from Odessa. He is about the same age as Jonathan and he accompanies him as an interpreter and tour guide, in his search for Augustine and his grandfather’s village, Trachimbrod. Alex is desperate to leave Ukraine and go to live in America with his little brother. He dreams about America but in a materialistic way. The reality is that the country remains a mystery to him.

Both men are struggling to express their feelings. Alex, does not know enough words to express himself  – ‘My second tongue is not so premium’ he concedes.   His narrative, at the beginning, is almost impossible to read. It is hilarious and thrilling the same time. As time goes by, his vocabulary improves, his narrative becomes more clear and stronger, reflecting, one would say, the gravity of the subject.  This creative use of language in the story, is fascinating.

Jonathan, on the other hand, knows a lot of words, but he is struggling to overcome the personal and cultural barriers to express his emotions. The cultural chasm is deep and the Ukraine he is dreaming, exists only in his imagination. He is confused, he wants to learn about his family’s past, but everything is so strange. He remains a helpless onlooker, unable to connect to his family past.

Everything is illuminated is a mystical book about love, a human all-consuming love.   Structurally, it is strange and complicated yet it is this strangeness that make it such an interesting and imaginative read.

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