WARNING: avoid this review if you are someone who believes that religion is one of the three topics that should not be discussed at the dinner table.
C...moreWARNING: avoid this review if you are someone who believes that religion is one of the three topics that should not be discussed at the dinner table.
Catholicism 101: Final Exam
Required Text: The Catholic Church A Short History, Hans Kung, trans. John Bowden, Modern Library chronicles, 2003. Hereinafter referred to as “short history”.
1. According to the short history, who founded the Catholic Church?
A. Why, Jesus himself, of course. Next question. B. Peter, who was entrusted to build the Church by Jesus and became the first Pope (see question no. 3). C. Paul, who founded the first churches in the Gentile world. D. His followers. Jesus did not found the Church, but from the earliest times, it has been a fellowship of those who believe in Christ.
2. Was Jesus Catholic?
A. Isn’t that obvious? What the Catholic Church has always said and intended is what Jesus Christ himself originally said and intended, so in principle Jesus himself would already been a Catholic. If you are a Traditional Catholic, it is mandatory for you to choose this answer. B. Of course not! As everyone knows, he was a Methodist, or at least a sort of a Protestant. C. No. To call Jesus “Catholic” would be an anachronism, since the Church has not been founded yet during his lifetime. He was a Jew through and through. D. It is doubtful whether a Church which is: a. rigidly hierarchical; b. stubbornly patriarchal; and c. into celibacy as a condition for its priests could claim Jesus as its own, when his teachings are contrary to such principles.
3. The Catholic Church bases its authority on Peter, who was the first Bishop of Rome. Does this claim have any scriptural or historical basis?
A. Of course! The Church wouldn’t make such claims without clear evidence. It’s all there in my sixth grade Catechism book. B. No. Such claims have no historical basis whatsoever, not to mention scriptural. Pure Papist propaganda! C. Again, it’s an anachronism. There was no Catholic Church during Peter’s lifetime. D. We simply do not have any conclusive evidence, biblical or otherwise, that Peter was ever the first Bishop of Rome. And more importantly, there is also no evidence that the Bishop of Rome held any primacy over other Christian bishops during Peter's lifetime.
4. When did the requirement for priestly celibacy became mandatory in the Catholic Church?
A. It has always been mandatory for priests to be celibate since Jesus and Paul were celibates. B. There has never been any such requirements prior to the Fourth Lateran Council of 1209. C. It was promulgated by Pope Innocent III in the 13th century, but was never actively enforced until relatively late in the 16th century. D. After the Second Lateran Council of 1139, when priestly marriages were regarded as a priori invalid, priests’ wives were regarded as concubines, and priests' children officially became the church's property as slaves, resulting in furious mass protest by the clergy.
5. The proceedings against the accused are secret. The informants are unknown. There is no cross-examination of witnesses, nor are there any experts. Accusers and judges are identical. Any appeal to an independent court is ruled out or is useless. These are the principles of which court?
A. The Roman Inquisition during the middle ages. But it’s much better now, as heretics are no longer burned at the stakes. B. The Superior Court of Judicature during the Salem witch trials. C. The People’s Court of North Korea. D. The Holy Office; Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is the modern version of the Roman Inquisition.
6. How did the doctrine of papal infallibility came into being?
A. It’s biblical and should not be questioned by any loyal Catholic. B. More Papist propaganda! C. It originated from the teachings of Thomas Aquinas and other fathers of the church. D. It was not officially promulgated until the controversial First Vatican Council in 1871, where its definition was challenged (unsuccesfully) by the majority of German and French episcopates.
7. What is the Second Vatican Council?
A. An abomination. B. Finally, the Catholic Church recognized that Martin Luther was right. C. It dragged the church to the modern age, somehow. But clearly not enough was done. D. It is an epoch-making and irrevocable turning point for the Catholic Church. It integrated fundamental paradigms of the Reformation, the Enlightenment and modernity (anti-Semitism is not OK; there is salvation outside the church; democracy, human rights and science are good, etc.). Unfortunately, it was hampered by curia shenanigans and even now partially repudiated by reactionary church leaders.
8. So, what’s wrong with the Catholic Church today?
A. Nothing’s wrong with it whatsoever. Perish the thought. B. Obviously, there’s something very wrong. But it is only to be expected from the Whore of Babylon. C. Humans err. Priests molest. But a few black sheep are to be expected in a flock the size of the church. D. The church is in trouble because it wants to roll back the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. The two main reforms that are desperately needed are those concerning the law of celibacy and the episcopal ministry. Without such reforms, the church will become a reactionary force that can't deal with modernity.
Essay (approx. 100 words)
In your own words, what do you think of the short history?
It’s an interesting introduction to Hans Kung’s views, who like the current pope was a theological advisor to the members of the Second Vatican Council (his authority to teach Catholic theology had been rescinded since). He does a decent job covering the most salient points of the theological and institutional history. However, much of it is rather cursory, very opinionated (detractors would say biased) and could be confusing to readers who have no prior knowledge of the subject. He seems to be much more interested in airing his criticism (many of which I personally agree with) of the church’s theology. The book should really be called something like The Catholic Church: What’s Wrong With It.
------------------------------------------------------------------------ Key: For all multiple-choice questions, D is the correct answer according to the short history. (less)
Having perused the earlier installments of your chronicles with a good degree of enjoyment, I regret to say that I am s...moreDear Miss Russell/ Mrs. Holmes,
Having perused the earlier installments of your chronicles with a good degree of enjoyment, I regret to say that I am somewhat disappointed in this one. The mystery’s premise is valid, if rather simple, but the execution is sorely lacking. I find it to be utterly uninvolving and rather incoherent. Where’s the suspense? And all this traipsing across the moors, abundantly padded with repetitive descriptions of mundane activities such as meals and hot baths, is extremely tedious. Where’s the fun? The use of Rev. Baring-Gould is a clever nod to Sherlockian lore, but here he merely comes across as an old bore who spouts irrelevant trivia. Your Mr. Holmes often disparages Mr. Conan Doyle for excessively romanticizing accounts of his cases, but I think you could learn a thing or two from him about creating genuinely suspenseful, compelling narratives. I sincerely hope that the next installment of your reminiscences will be much improved.
Mildy enjoyable, though largely superficial ramble through English and American domestic history, Mr. Bryson, but what are Marx and Engels doing in th...more Mildy enjoyable, though largely superficial ramble through English and American domestic history, Mr. Bryson, but what are Marx and Engels doing in the Nursery? (less)
had a dysfunctional relationship with your parents?
had a college best friend that turned out to be toxic?
started up as an idealist but t...moreHave you ever…
had a dysfunctional relationship with your parents?
had a college best friend that turned out to be toxic?
started up as an idealist but then compromised into working for the dark side?
cheated on your nice guy husband with his cool best friend?
had a teenage son who ran away from home to shack up with the neighbor’s underage daughter?
been corrupted by the military-industrial complex?
If you answer "yes" to any of the above queries, you would probably be able to recognize a part of yourself in the characters of this novel (the Berglunds, Walter and Patty, Midwestern liberals, and their family and friends). Granted, not many among us enjoy looking at ourselves in the mirror first thing in the morning, with all that pillow-plastered hair, sleep-creased face and rheumy eyes staring back at us. Likewise, most of us would probably balk at being forced to look at our mirror images during the low points in our lives. But Franzen provides all these reflections in such a precise, detailed, Technicolor 3-D glory that you just have to look. And then, depending on your life experiences, there will be times when you go “ouch” with painful recognition, and other times when you go “huh” with astonishment. For me, it’s mostly the case of the latter rather than the earlier, but isn’t it the novelist’s job to provide us with those vicarious experiences that we know are fictional but that feel like the truth? And Franzen delivers this in spades, from the messy, often contrarian emotions that one feels as a family disintegrates, to the moral confusion that ensues from adultery, compromises and corruption.
In its denseness, length and ambitious scope, Freedom looks and feels like one of those sprawling 19th century realist novel (Walter is Pierre, Patty is Natasha, and Richard is Prince Andrei/Anatole, or at least that’s how Patty sees it), complete with authorial pontification on virtually every big issue that defines the era that it chronicles. If the 19th century was, among other things, about the emancipation of serfs, the advent of the railways, land enclosures and Napoleonic wars, Franzen’s Bush-era America is about 9/11, environmental degradation, well-connected big businesses and Middle Eastern wars.
In working the issues into the narrative, Franzen sometimes abandons realism and subtlety for broad satire: the rent-seeking foundation that Joey works for is called RISEN (Restore Iraqi Secular Enterprise Now), Walter rants that “WE ARE A CANCER TO THE PLANET” in front of West Virginians rednecks that he displaced to make way for a coal mine/bird sanctuary, and among the kooky names that he considers for his zero population growth NGO are Lonelier Planet, Rubbers Unlimited, Coalition of the Already Born, Smash the Family and All Children Left Behind. And there is a stomach churning comedic/pathetic scene with Joey and his turds (don’t ask).
But at its heart this book is an inquiry into the nature of freedom, how it is exercised and the consequences thereof.
"It’s all circling around the same problem of personal liberties,” Walter said. “People came to this country for either money or freedom. If you don’t have money, you cling to your freedoms all the more angrily. Even if smoking kills you, even if you can’t afford to feed your kids, even if your kids are getting shot down by maniacs with assault rifles. You may be poor, but the one thing nobody can take away from you is the freedom to fuck up your life whatever way you want to."
To be fair, Franzen also skewers liberals like Walter, who takes their environmentalism to loony extremes.
A substantial part of the book is told in Patty’s voice, referring to herself in third person, in the form of a diary that she writes for therapy. This voice has little to differentiate it from the authorial third person, and rather hard to believe issuing from an ex-jock, stay-at-home mom. As I read it I wondered why Franzen insisted on using it. It only became clear why towards the end of the novel, where it provides extra oomph to the bittersweet, wonderfully poignant ending.
So is it War and Peace? No, it’s not War and Peace. But nothing is. It is a well-written novel that successfully captures the post 9/11 zeitgeist, as well as charting the ebb and flow of personal relationships between its flawed as hell but ultimately sympathetic characters in a realistic yet compassionate manner. And like many of the great 19th century novels that it resembles it is also didactic: a cautionary tale about the dark side of freedom.
"The personality susceptible to the dream of limitless freedom is a personality also prone, should the dream ever sour, to misanthropy and rage." (less)
Orang 'Belanda', yang menjadi elite masyarakat kolonial selama berabad-abad di Indonesia, ternyata bukanlah suatu masyarakat yang monolitik. Seperti b...moreOrang 'Belanda', yang menjadi elite masyarakat kolonial selama berabad-abad di Indonesia, ternyata bukanlah suatu masyarakat yang monolitik. Seperti bangsa asing lainnya yang hidup di Nusantara, mereka juga mengalami proses adaptasi, kreolisasi dan bahkan asimilasi dengan masyarakat Indonesia. Hanya berselang beberapa puluh tahun saja sejak kota Batavia didirikan oleh Jan Pieterzoon Coen, telah terbentuk suatu masyarakat berciri Indisch, yang terdiri atas orang 'Belanda' yang lahir dan dibesarkan di Indonesia. Tak sedikit dari antara mereka yang beribu pribumi atau wanita Asia lainnya, umumnya para budak yang diimpor dari koloni-koloni Belanda lain di Asia Selatan. Hal ini terjadi karena kegagalan usaha Coen untuk mendatangkan wanita Belanda dari "keluarga baik-baik" ke Batavia dalam jumlah yang memadai untuk menjadi pasangan para pegawai VOC. Untuk menghindari akibat negatif dari praktek 'pernyaian', kebijakan VOC selanjutnya malah mempromosikan pernikahan legal diantara para pegawainya dan wanita Asia yang dibaptis, dengan tujuan agar terbentuk masyarakat Eurasia yang stabil sebagai pendukung koloni yang setia.
Dalam beberapa generasi saja telah muncul komunitas Mestizo berdarah campuran (tapi berstatus Eropa) yang kemudian menjadi elite penguasa VOC di Indonesia. Suatu hal yang menarik, bahwa banyak dari para Gubernur Jenderal yang memerintah pada abad ke 17 dan 18 lahir atau dibesarkan di Indonesia sebagai anggota komunitas ini. Walaupun kebijakan VOC mendiskriminasi orang Kreol dan Eurasia, namun dengan berbagai cara, termasuk melalui pernikahan strategis, mereka berhasil mencapai puncak kekuasaan kolonial. Hal yang menarik lainnya ialah bahwa masyarakat ini bersifat matrilineal, dimana status sosial dan kekayaan berpindah melalui garis perempuan. Ini juga merupakan efek dari kebijakan anti nepotisme VOC yang membuat anak laki-laki dari masyarakat ini dikirim ke Belanda untuk berkarir disana, sedangkan anak perempuan dipertahankan di Indonesia untuk nantinya menjadi istri pejabat VOC yang karirnya cemerlang.
Pengaruh yang kuat dari pihak perempuan yang berdarah Asia membuat masyarakat Mestizo ini banyak mengadopsi gaya hidup Indonesia, mulai dari kebiasaan mengenakan kebaya, makan sirih, memelihara budak, mandi dua kali sehari, sampai dengan kegemaran bertelanjang kaki dan duduk di tikar. Serangan terhadap gaya hidup yang terlalu 'pribumi' ini beberapa kali dilakukan oleh elite VOC. Sekolah-sekolah yang mengajarkan bahasa dan tatakrama Belanda yang baik dan benar didirikan untuk mendidik anak-anak mereka, namun usaha-usaha ini tidak mengalami kemajuan yang berarti.
Kejayaan kaum Meztizo berlangsung sampai kebangkrutan VOC pada tahun 1799. Gubernur Jenderal berikutnya, Daendels, adalah orang Belanda totok yang langsung dikirim dari Eropa. Demikian juga dengan Raffles, yang berkuasa pada masa Peralihan Pemerintahan Inggris. Raffles mendirikan berbagai institusi seperti koran berbahasa Inggris dan Belanda, klub sosial dan teater untuk 'mengeropakan' mereka. Kebaya dianggap sebagai baju dalam yang tidak sopan dan para perempuan didorong untuk mengikuti teladan Olivia, Nyonya Raffles, untuk mengenakan gaun Eropa. Tempolong ludah dibuang dari acara-acara resmi yang disponsori pemerintah untuk menghilangkan kebiasaan menyirih yang "menjijikkan". Namun seperti usaha-usaha sebelumnya, pemerintah Inggris juga tidak berhasil melakukan perubahan yang berarti. Menurut Taylor, hal ini disebabkan karena singkatnya masa pemerintahan Inggris, dan juga karena (ironisnya) orang Inggris yang datang ke Indonesia sendiri juga membawa kebudayan yang tidak murni Eropa (!). Seperti Belanda di Indonesia, mereka juga telah "terindiakan" sebagai efek dari ratusan tahun kolonisasi Inggris di India, seperti yang diantaranya diungkapkan dalam buku White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century India.
Setelah kembalinya Belanda ke Indonesia, tekanan terhadap kelompok Mestizo bertambah kencang. Para Gubernur Jenderal dikirim langsung dari Belanda dan anggota keluarga Mestizo yang dahulu berpengaruh pada era VOC tidak lagi diterima dalam eselon atas pemerintahan kolonial. Mereka lalu menjadi pengusaha swasta. Kebudayaan Indisch juga mundur dari ruang publik dan hanya dipraktekkan dalam situasi domestik, terutama setelah makin banyak datang imigran Eropa pada abad ke 19 dan 20. Dan akhirnya, kebudayaan ini hilang setelah Indonesia merdeka, dan "hanya dapat hidup di dalam catatan-catatan yang sentimental dan menyentuh hati dari para penulis Tempoe Doeloe".
Jess, my 7-year old little girl, gives it 5 stars.
Comments while reading:
“I hate the Sticks! They are so nasty.”
“Why do English people have to have tea at 4 o’clock in the afternoon? Isn’t that too late? 4 o’clock is my nap time.”
“I hope Aunt Fanny will get better.”
“What is a ‘smuggler’? Why do people have to pay money to the government if they want to bring things from abroad?”
“What do gorse bushes and heathers look like?”
“Julian is the smartest but he likes to order the other kids around. He’s kind of bossy, but in a good way.”
“Anne likes to do girly things, like making beds and sandwiches. I don’t like to do girly things, but I also don’t want to be a boy like George. My friend Athena is a tomboy --- she likes Sonic the Hedgehog and hates Princess.”
“I knew it, the Sticks are the bad guys!”
“My favorite part is when Dick, Julian and George hide out in the dungeons and make animal noises to scare the Sticks. The Sticks think that ghost cows, sheep, and horses are chasing them! I laughed so hard. I think this is the funniest Famous Five book that I’ve ever read.”
“Anne is TWELVE and she doesn’t know what kidnapper means?”
BookFiendUSA: I see that you’ve been reading Super Sad True Love Story. Cute title, big hype. What’s it about?
SandyBanks1971: It’s about this guy, Len...moreBookFiendUSA: I see that you’ve been reading Super Sad True Love Story. Cute title, big hype. What’s it about?
SandyBanks1971: It’s about this guy, Lenny Abramov, second-generation Russian Jewish-American, who is in his “very late thirties” and very bothered about it. He thinks that’s he’s a RAG who can’t get the girl anymore, and a failure in his job to get HNWIs to buy his company’s “life extension” programs.
BookFiendUSA: I know that HNWI is High Net Worth Individual --- but what the hell is a RAG?
SandyBanks1971: Rapidly Aging Geezer. It’s a texting abbreviation.
BookFiendUSA: But I’ve never heard of it. You’re just making it up.
SandyBanks1971: It’s from the book. That’s how young (and the not-so-young but cool) people speak in the future.
BookFiendUSA: In the future? So it’s a sci-fi?
SandyBanks1971: Not really, but it’s set in a dystopic near future, when the US is well on its way to becoming a sort of a third-world country, both economically and militarily. America is mired in an unwinnable war with Venezuela. The US$ is pegged to the Yuan and the “Chinese Central Banker” is coming to claim a sizable chunk of Manhattan for debt repayment.
BookFiendUSA: We have been stuck in Afghanistan/Iraq for years and we already owed a gazillion trillion US$ to China in T-Bonds and stuffs, so that’s pretty conceivable. What else is different about this near future?
SandyBanks1971: Well, for one thing, everyone is hooked to his/her “apparat”, a kind of a super I Phone that constantly streams too much data for anyone’s good. No one has any privacy because everything’s on the internet: your life history, net income (in Yuan-pegged dollars), BMI, LDL level, sexual preferences, etc. Everybody is a health nut who obsesses about the food that they eat. Wine is not wine --- it’s “resvestarol”. Beer are drunk not for their taste but for the triglycerides. People are judged solely on their credit and “fuckability” ratings, all of which are constantly beamed to the entire world through their apparati. Books, of the ink and paper variety, are shunned because they’re considered dirty and smelly. Trendy young women dress in transparent “Onionskin” jeans that put all their junks on display and shop at “AssLuxury” for overpriced nippleless bras. Oh, and America is ruled by the Bipartisan Party and the all-powerful, all-knowing ARA (American Restoration Authority).
BookFiendUSA: Sounds depressingly familiar.
SandyBanks1971: It’s DYSTOPIC. Who knows, if the guy gets it right, it might become a 21st century 1984 or something.
BookFiendUSA: Okay --- so what’s the story? Does it have some kind of a plot?
SandyBanks1971: It’s mostly about Lenny and his awkward romance with Eunice Park, a Korean-American girl. Eunice is 24, and her parents (stereotypically) want her to improve her LSAT scores so she can get into law school (some things NEVER change, even in dystopian futures). However, Eunice has other ideas and chooses to spend some time in Rome instead, where she meets Lenny. Eunice isn’t too keen on him at first, but she eventually sort of fell for him, male pattern baldness, monstrous Askhenazi proboscis (JBF!) and all. But it isn’t easy; Lenny is a cuddly/repulsive RAG and Eunice has plenty of baggage of her own too.
SandyBanks1971: Just Butt Fucking. It’s from the book.
BookFiendUSA: But does ANYTHING happen --- I mean besides the love story?
SandyBanks1971: The climax of the story involves the “Rupture” --- after which the US as we know it is basically gone. There is a bloody riot involving government troops and LNWIs…
BookFiendUSA: Lemme guess: Low Net Worth Individuals?
SandyBanks1971: Yup. The government falls and the country has to be parceled off to its various creditors: the Chinese, the Norwegians and the IMF. People lose their nest eggs overnight because they are in non-pegged US Dollars.
BookFiendUSA: A sort of an apocalypse.
SandyBanks1971: Actually, reading about it gives me a sort of a déjà vu feeling. In my neck of the woods, we’ve had something like that happening in 1998, during the Asian financial crisis. There was a bloody riot in which thousands of people, most of them poor, died. There were tanks on suburban streets, widespread looting, rape and arson. The government signed a humiliating bailout deal with the IMF, and soon after that it fell. The local currency plummeted against the US Dollars and there were massive bank rushes. People lost their jobs overnight. It was total chaos. What is dystopian future in this novel is recent history for us.
BookFiendUSA: Wow. I hope it won’t happen anytime soon here. But what do you think about the book? Do you like it?
SandyBanks1971: It’s not badly written and can be quite engrossing. It’s a satire, and some of it works, but it can be relentlessly over the top at times. Nothing that makes me ROFLAARP (Rolling on Floor Looking at Addictive Rodent Pornography), for sure. But also nothing that makes me TIMATOV (Think I’m About To Openly Vomit), either. I find Lenny sort of pathetic-repulsive, and Eunice kind of vapid. And their supposedly touching romance does nothing for me. Some of Lenny's obsessive ruminations about mortality is depressing (the guy is my age and he makes me think that I should spend my lunch hour pondering such things, instead of napping or writing reviews on GR). I’m glad that I’ve read it though, and probably would try Shteyngart's other books. (less)
Come, come again whoever, whatever you may be Heathen, fire-worshipper, sinful of idolatry, come Come even if you broke your penitence a hundred times,...moreCome, come again whoever, whatever you may be Heathen, fire-worshipper, sinful of idolatry, come Come even if you broke your penitence a hundred times, come Ours is not the portal of despair and misery, come.
Inscription on a wall at Rumi’s tomb, Konya, Turkey.
Something strange happened to me in Rumi’s tomb. I’m not sure if it was some kind of a spiritual experience, but there is definitely something spine-tinglingly eerie about it. Listening to the haunting Sufi music while gazing at the richly caparisoned tombs, which were covered with cloths embroidered with gilded Kufic inscriptions and topped with enormous turbans, gave me a sense of being in a portal to another world. I didn’t know anything about him, except that he was a famous Sufi poet, and that our bus tour stopped in Konya because his tomb complex, with its startlingly turquoise turret, was a must-see architectural jewel.
Perhaps the long bus ride from Istanbul and the hot midday sun made me light-headed and open to suggestive experiences. I still don’t know.
“I don’t like this place.” Someone spoke and startled me out of my reverie. It was Orhan, our Turkish guide.
“Why?” I asked him.
“No. Not the Mevlana. It’s this place, Konya. The people here are fanatics, I don’t like them.”
Reflexively, I looked around the tomb; there were surprisingly few visitors aside from our group --- women in black chadors that I was told were Iranians, other tourists, Western and Asian, and a few Turkish men in western clothing. Some seemed to be praying, but others merely gaped at the tombs and the marvelously intricate decorations on the mausoleum’s walls.
Orhan followed my gaze and said, “Do you know that they have tried to bomb this place several times?”
“But why? Isn’t the Mevlana a famous Muslim saint?”
“It’s because of this”, he pointed to the inscription on the wall. “The fanatics don’t like this so they want to destroy it. Come on, let’s get everyone back to the bus and get out of this place.”
Three days later, we were in Canakkale, in a hotel full of sunbathing German tourists with a glorious view of the sparkling Dardanelles. Orhan was chatting up a few scantily clad Frauleins. We seemed to be light years away from Konya and Turkey’s dusty Anatolian heartland. I wondered what the ‘fanatics’ that Orhan spoke about thought of this place, and how they could share the same country with their more secular fellow citizens.
Another Orhan, the Nobel Prize winner, tells us all about it in Snow.
The setting is Kars, a border city that seems to be perpetually swathed in swirling snow, where Islamists, army-backed secularists, Kurdish militants and leftists have been grimly battling for supremacy since Ataturk’s times. We follow Ka, an exiled poet who is sent to Kars to write an article about suicides among headscarf wearing girls, who are forbidden to attend state schools and universities unless they unveil themselves. In a short time, Ka witnesses a military coup, an assassination, a play that ends up in a massacre, and meets the individuals who represent the main opposing factions: Blue the charismatic Islamist/terrorist, and Sunay Zaim the actor/politician/staunch secularist. We may suppose that the westernized Ka’s sympathy naturally lies with the secularists, but no; he is apolitical; his real reason for coming to Kars is to see Ipek, a woman whom he has hopes for. Ipek, who recently divorced Muhtar, the leader of a local Islamist party, lives with her father and younger sister, Kadife. Kadife, to her secularist father’s consternation, is known as the leader of the headscarf girls --- and also secretly Blue’s lover. Soon, Ka is drawn into a vortex of torture and murderous violence, and political as well as personal reasons eventually compel him to choose sides.
Pamuk, who shares Ka’s westernized upbringing, presents the differing point of views even-handedly; all of the factions involved are equally dogmatic and violent. The Islamists kill in the name of religion, while the secularists do so in the name of the Turkish state. They both believe in a zero-sum game scenario in which even the slightest compromise is impossible. The result is a stark drama worthy of a Greek tragedy --- and indeed, the pivotal scenes of the story literally take place on the stage. The novel itself has a stagy quality; some of the dialogues feel like set pieces and some of the characters are barely three-dimensional. I occasionally found the insecure, ever doubtful Ka infuriating, especially in his pursuit of Ipek. Some sample dialogue:
Ka: “You’re here this evening, aren’t you?” Ipek: “Yes.” Ka: “Because I want to read you my poem again”. Ka: “Do you think it’s beautiful?” Ipek: “Yes, really, it’s beautiful.” Ka: “What’s beautiful about it?” Ipek: “I don’t know, it’s just beautiful” Ka: “Did Muhtar ever read you a poem like this?” Ipek: “Never.”
Ka began to read the poem aloud again, this time with growing force, but he still stopped at all the same places to ask, “Is it beautiful?” He also stopped at a few new places to say, “It really is very beautiful, isn’t it?”
Ipek: Yes, it’s very beautiful!”
Forget it, Ipek, you’ll never be happy with THIS guy.
The story ends with a murderous finale, also on stage. Without spoiling it, I must say that I didn’t find the rationale for the murder to be wholly believable.
I like how Pamuk subtly presents the issues in this book, which are important and unfortunately increasingly relevant to the lives of many people, both in the East and the West, but I don’t really care for the characters and how their stories are told. Pamuk never wholly convince me that these are real human beings instead of stage actors who must act the story. Otherwise, this shall be a solid 4 star book. (less)
What I learned from this book (in no particular order):
1. It takes an extreme personality to dress up as an owl and fight crime.
2. You should not attempt to create a superhero costume based on owls because it is impossible not to make it look DORKY.
3. Capes are too unwieldy for serious crime fighting; they look cool, but you’ll always be tripping over it, or getting it caught in things.
4. If you’re a female vigilante, you are most likely to:
a. become a costumed crime fighter mainly to further your real career, i.e. modeling; b. become a costumed crime fighter because you are pressured to do so by your mom, who was a vigilante/model in her younger days; c. be sexually assaulted by other members of your superhero group and secretly condones it; d. become a one-dimensional plot device whose sole purpose is to look pretty and be a catalyst for the male heroes’ actions.
5. If you’re a superhero who has the power to split yourself into two identical individuals, never take an advantage of it to spice up your love life; threesomes with the two of you is TOO creepy even for the most understanding superhero wife/girlfriend.
6. A good bout of old-style super-heroing can cure impotence.
7. Vietnam War and the Cold War are BAD. Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello are cool.
8. The right wing military-industrial complex is behind everything bad that had happened in the 20th century.
9. A seminal graphic novel can have the story told in so many pages of text without needing to resort to graphics.
10. Humankind is not worth ANYTHING. Really.
I can appreciate why this is considered a seminal work in the development of superhero comics; the story is complex, reflecting the zeitgeist of the era (urban decay, nukes, Mutually Assured Destruction and all that 80’s Jazz) and it radically subverts the concept of 'heroes’ (superheroes are not necessarily motivated by noble altruism, some do it for money/fame/career, and others are so screwed up that they’re virtually indistinguishable from the criminals that they fight). Superhero comics are no longer the “Bam!” “Kapow!” primary colors sort of entertainment with a simplistic, Manichaean worldview anymore. It can be literate and philosophical. It can deal with unsavory real-life issues, disturbing moral grey areas and even be nihilistic.
While I can appreciate all of those points, I must confess that reading this comic was somewhat a struggle for me. It took an effort to follow the story, which deals with multiple characters and zigzags through different eras. I didn’t completely figure out who’s who until probably the third or fourth issue. Perhaps my brain was just too taxed with the task of processing both the visual and textual narratives. I don’t know. It didn’t help that Moore loves to leave all sorts of visual clues (smiley faces, graffiti, shadows, etc.) in the panels. Most of which, I’m sure, totally went over my head. There is an issue in which the panels are mirroring each other in the most amazing way (worth an extra star by itself!). I would have simply missed it had it not been pointed out for me (by Rauf, who had so kindly lent me the book and sort of walked me through it).
Some of the characters, such as Roscharch and Dr. Manhattan, have some depth and are actually quite interesting, but somehow I didn’t connect with any of them. Their stories did not affect me emotionally, and I was just mildly interested enough to actually finish the book. Oh, and there is a comic within a comic (some sort of an incredibly depressing, long-winded pirate tale) that takes quite a number of pages. I didn’t understand the point of it, as it seems to be only barely tangential to the main storyline and consequently skipped most of it.
Anyway, I’m glad to have read this and perhaps earned some bragging rights. I’m not sure that I actually GET it, though.
"What wouldn't I give now for a never-changing map of the ever-constant ineffable? To possess, as it were, an atlas of clouds."
I’ve been impressed wi...more "What wouldn't I give now for a never-changing map of the ever-constant ineffable? To possess, as it were, an atlas of clouds."
I’ve been impressed with Mitchell’s ability to don different kinds of literary hats in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, but the range of the diverse genres that he experiments with in this novel is even more astonishing; there is Melvillean historical fiction (in the guise of a 19th-century diary), an epistolary novella (in the amusingly flippant tones of a 1930’s English roué), a satire of the current London publishing scene (told by an entertainingly rude escapee from a fascistic old folks’ home), an airport novel about a 1970’s muckraking reporter uncovering corporate corruption, a dystopian sci-fi set in “corpocratic” North Korea (in the form of an interrogation transcript), and an oral history of post-apocalyptic Hawaii, told entirely in first person using a futuristic dialect. All of the voices are entirely distinct, surprisingly consistent idiolects. The made-up dialects that Mitchell invented are fascinating; the clone in the North Korean story gradually loses her mechanical speech as she recounts her integration into human society, and the futuristic Hawaiian dialect is a believable version of English that has been abraded, a crude language shorn of its grammar and vocabulary, a linguistic expression of the fall of civilization.
That said, more than a hundred pages of this
“ Their chief was called Senator, he’d got more power’n our Abbess, yay, he’d got an army o’ ten-fifteen knuckly men with whoah spikers whose job was to force Senator’s say-so, an’ no un chose Senator, nay, it was a barb’ric pa-to-son bis’ness.”
was PAINFUL to read.
It didn’t help that sci-fi/dystopian/ post-apocalyptic stories were emphatically NOT my favorite genres. At this point, I almost flung the book to the wall, but thought better of it, and skipped the last 50 pages of that, and went on with the next story --- which while still sci-fi, is written in the less vertigo-inducing language of the clone.
(Later, after I reached the end of the book, I returned to the Hawaiian tale and finished it. It was still a chore.)
After that, the continuation of the rest of the stories was a breeze to read, especially Frobisher’s (“The devil, Sixsmith, is in the pronouns.”) and Cavendish’s (“Putting Timothy Cavendish together again was a Tolstoyan editing job.”).
So, what is Cloud Atlas? A series of brilliant pastiches connected by literary duct tapes? A dazzling exercise in post-modernism? A brave experiment in narrative structure?
I don’t know.
I would say that the structural connection between the stories is tenuous at best, but what truly unifies them is a common theme: man’s will to power over his fellow man in all its permutations. The stories are all explorations of the domination and exploitation that are inherent in human relationships throughout history. The predatory relationship between a quack doctor and his patient, between ‘civilizing’ missionaries and their Pacific islander converts, between a totalitarian government and its subjects, between mentor and amanuensis, between slavers and their victims --- they are nothing but a variation of the same theme, and one which would eventually doomed our civilization.