If you've read both works, you can't talk about The Case of Comrade Tulayev without Koestler's Darkness at Noon. Both books, written by disaffected foIf you've read both works, you can't talk about The Case of Comrade Tulayev without Koestler's Darkness at Noon. Both books, written by disaffected former Communists, and published within two years of each other, deal with the process of the revolution eating its children. Both books attempt to come to grips with the motivations of old guards revolutionaries who seemingly openly acquiesced with their own murder. Of course Darkness at Noon is much more widely known and widely read. There are pretty rational reasons for this that I won't get in to, but none of those reasons have to do with literary merit. In The Case of Comrade Tulayev, Serge accomplished everything that Koestler did, and perhaps more. Upon discovering Serge's novel, it's hard for the reader to resist the urge to dismiss Koestler's. Susan Sontag, in a way, falls prey to this urge in the introduction to this introduction.
However, I'm not sure how necessary it is to emphasize the merits of one book over the other. In fact, while the books seemingly have identical premises and ambitions, further exploration reveals stark differences. I'd argue that the two books relationship is symbiotic, they serve as a exemplary companions to each other. In a way, Serge finishes the thought that Koestler started in Darkness at Noon. If I remember the details correctly, Darkness at Noon takes place at the beginning of the purges, and concerns the history and psychology of one character, Rubashov, a Bukharin stand-in. Comrade Tulayev has a much wider lens.
Serge focuses on around half a dozen characters, each with different backgrounds and different reactions. There's the state security functionary, the provincial peasant turned revolutionary leader, the old party ideologue, and the almost-forgotten political prisoner. They all have their differences, and Serge exploits these differences to meditate on the perversion of the ideal, and the loyalty men feel to old ideas even as a warped form of the same threaten oblivion. Furthermore, The Case of Comrade Tulayev takes place well into the purge of the party. These characters, in a way, are familiar with Darkness at Noon, Rubashov's death is firmly in the past at the opening of Serge's work. Most of these men know with a sense of creeping fatalism what is coming to get them.
Moreover, the novel doesn't focus on the victims of Stalinist paranoia alone. Serge bookends the novel with two chapters examining the the characters behind the titular case, the assassin of Comrade Tulayev and his neighbor, who bought the gun in order to kill Stalin, but found himself unable to act when presented with the golden opportunity. Serge writes with understanding about the cogs of oppression, the functionaries who are attempting to stage an exhibition of guilt that they know is false, but must treat as if it were of the utmost truth. Even the Stalin stand-in is depicted with some empathy. For my money, the scene where the old veteran has to dance the wire of explaining to his old comrade "the boss", the insanity of what is going on, without going too far and sealing his doom is one of the most thrilling pieces of political fiction I've ever read. The penultimate chapter even deals with the legacy of Stalinism on the future generation of young Russians.
Darkness at Noon is the tale of how one man reconciles himself with betrayal and sacrifices himself for a perverted vestige of a dream. The Case of Comrade Tulayev does something similar, but it is also concerned about a broader scope. The two years follwing the publication of Koestler's novel were when Serge did most of his work on Comrade Tulayev. Those two years were not good one's for the Soviet Union. For much of those years the effects of Stalin's paranoia must seem exponentially more cataclysmic than they even do today. Serge may have thought that he was writing Leninism obituary. The Case of Comrade Tulayev reads as a prelude to obliteration. Although Russian Marxism would survive for another half century, The Case of Comrade Tulayev remains an engaging, thoughtful, and often breathtakingly (Serge's prose!)* beautiful account of a people dealing with a reign of scientific insanity.
*Not that I have anything to compare it to, but this edition reads as an extraordinary translation. ...more
Probably the only thing worse than saying a book like The Brothers Karamazov is bad is saying that it's pretty good. Of course this book is pretty mucProbably the only thing worse than saying a book like The Brothers Karamazov is bad is saying that it's pretty good. Of course this book is pretty much universally regarded as one of the greatest novels of all time. In my experience, the way these "greatest ever" things work is that if it may not be exactly your cup of tea, but if it clicks for you, it clicks all the way. You don't hear people say that Revolver is a pretty decent rock album, or that Citizen Kane is a somewhat enjoyable film. But here I am, having recently finished one of the hallmark works of literature, one of the most imposing tasks on the books everyone should read list, and my reaction is.... ehh it's pretty good.
Okay, that's a bit disingenuous. Of course, The Brothers Karamazov is great, looked at as a product of it's time and as a book that still has value for modern readers. It deserves it's spot as one of the better works of art produced by mortal man, I'm not denying that. It's just that... Am I going to literary snob hell for suggesting that old Fyodor really needed an editor? I mean cause Jesus, the digressions this book takes. I think I got stalled for an entire week during the Zoisma section of the book. And the climax of the plot of the book is two closing arguments written down verbatim. I read Crime and Punishment years ago, but I never recall being bored after the first few pages. That was one of the most engaging and lasting reading experiences I've ever had. This, I mean, it took me a couple of months to read, counting the long break where I had to put it down.
Of course there are sections in the book that make up for the less thrilling aspects. But man, I don't know. Maybe it's best to read this in a class setting. Maybe there's deep subtext in some of the passages that I completely whiffed on. Maybe I need to let a few weeks since by to let the full work fully seep into my brain but... I reamin somewhat underwhelmed for now. ...more
Coming up with an adequate reaction to Hopscotch involves a bit of a paradox. For instance, try this: Hopscotch is a really great book, but I would haComing up with an adequate reaction to Hopscotch involves a bit of a paradox. For instance, try this: Hopscotch is a really great book, but I would have liked it more if I didn't hate it so much. How about this, Hopscotchis a bore and a struggle to get through, but it's also one of the most brilliantly breathtaking books I've ever read. The best analogy I can think of to explain this reaction to Cortázar's novel is that Hopscotch like an incredibly great computer or device application with an interface that makes it almost inoperable. If you have the patience, and the endurance, you can get a hang of it. But if you don't it's not worth the frustration.
So, I guess the three star rating is an average. The novel itself probably deserves at least four stars, but I'm giving myself two stars as a reader of Hopscotch. I've talked before about the notion of a "difficult" novel. I'm not sure how the difficulty Cortázar presents compares to other things I've read, but I can say that Hopscotch is the most aggressively non-reader friendly novel I've ever read. By that, I'm not saying that the novel sneers at you with contempt or calls your mother ugly names. What I mean is that it's very hard to "get lost in a book" with Hopscotch. You're forcibly reminded throughout almost the whole experience that you're reading a book, it's a real struggle to get into that zen-like trance where you can read for an hour and not notice the time go bye.
There are several reasons for this. Perhaps most notably, Cortázar structures his novel in an innovative way. The 'proper narrative,' which is around 350 pages long, is followed by another 200 pages of additional material. Before the narrative begins, Cortázar explains that the novel was designed to be read in one of two ways. Either straight through, stopping at the end of the 'proper' narrative, or 'hopscotching' around the book, alternating between the 'proper' chapters and the 'additional' chapters. Seems fun, right? Like a Choose Your Own Adventure book for big kids! Except, not really. There are three things that make this less fun than it would first appear. First, Cortázar's prose, while at times brilliant, is incredibly dense. Dense on multiple levels actually: long clause-stuffed sentences, use of archaic or specialized terms, paragraphs that go on for pages without much happening (plus the font is really small). For me, Cortázar's writing both evokes Pynchon and Kerouac, with both the good things and the bad things that those comparisons entail. Secondly,, the vast majority of the chapters are very short, often no more than a paragraph long. While this may seem welcome on some level, it can lend to a disruptive reading experience, when you have to flip through the book to another short chapter soon after. Finally, there really isn't any plot to speak of, and to the extent that there is one, it doesn't matter. While there is a beginning, middle, and end in Hopscotch if you need some kind of traditional narrative, you'd be best to avoid this book. Each of the se elements, taken on their own may aren't really deal-breakers. But their combination creates a perfect storm of unreadability, at least to readers like me who might not have the longest attention spans unless they are completely engaged in something.
That being said, there are parts of Hopscotch that are really, really great. Like, highlighting every word on two pages in a row great. Like, some of the greatest set pieces I ever read great. I couldn't help but notice that I enjoyed the book a lot more at night, when I had nothing to distract me. I've read five-star reviews that cited specific scenes that I completely agree with. I'm willing to admit that I may have missed on the intrinsic worth of some parts that I hated merely because I wasn't in the right frame of mind. The novel is like certain difficult family members, you really love them, but you just can't stomach being in the same room as them. That being said, I'm really glad that I have read Hopscotch while I never want to read it again. Well, maybe in some circumstances, I'd be willing to give it another go. In fact perhaps the truest thing I can say is that Hopscotch would be a great book to be have on a shelf if you were trapped alone in a nuclear bunker with nothing but, a supply of mate, and gallons of amphetamine. ...more
Hitting a baseball is the most difficult routine activity in sports. In case you've forgotten, or never experienced it, the routine activity of the gaHitting a baseball is the most difficult routine activity in sports. In case you've forgotten, or never experienced it, the routine activity of the game involves attempting, with an elongated cylindrical stick, to make sufficiently well-timed and well-placed contact with a small hard spherical object, that, from a relatively short distance away, another human is throwing in your general direction as hard, or nearly as hard, as he can. But achieving this feat is not enough! You must also hope that the impact created by the meeting of the cylinder and the sphere sends the latter into the specific area that the powers that be have deemed to be "in play." If the sphere lands outside of these perimeter, in most cases you will be treated the same as if you have missed the ball all together. What's more, if, by some minor miracle of heroism you manage to make contact with the sphere and to send it into the established "fair" dimension, you have to deal with the nine other humans whose sole aspiration is to prevent your success. It's hardly shocking that those considered greatly skilled at this Herculean task are those who fail less than 70% of the time.<*>
The Art of Fielding is centered around Henry Skrimshander, a preternaturally talented ball player at a small Midwestern College who is greatly proficient at the almost impossible feats of the game but suddenly loses the ability to perform one of the most routine aspects that most Little Leaguers have a firm grasp on, throwing the ball to first base. If your not a fan of the game, you may not be aware that similar things have happened before, even on the highest level. Probably the most prominent recent example of this phenomena is Chuck Knoblauch, the second baseman for the Twins and the Yankees. In 1999, Knoblauch, a former Gold Glove winner who was considered one of the best defensive infielders in the game, started missing routine throws to first base.** No matter how much work he put in, no matter what he tried, Knoblauch never regained the ability to make throws that were once absolutely routine. He was moved to the outfield, and retired in 2002.
Although the novel is centered around Henry's on-the-field travails, it is not the main focus of the storytelling. In fact, Henry is probably only the third or fourth "main" character in the book. The question of what happens when a person loses confidence in what they previously considered routine preconceived notions is the guiding theme of the novel.
Chad Harbach works this theme to mixed result. There are four main plot threads in the novel. In addition to Henry, the novel is told from the perspective of Mike Schwartz, Henry's mentor and the team's field-general/motivator-in-chief/catcher who is dealing with the looming prospect of graduation; Guert Affenlight, the college's president who we meet in the middle of an intense new infatuation with another member of the team; and his daughter Pella, returning to her father after running away and dropping out of High School to marry an older man.
The pacing of the novel is a bit uneven. For instance, the beginning hundred pages read as if the novel is going to be the Ballad of Henry Skrimshander. We meet him and learn of his devotion to baseball, we learn how is recruited by Mike Schwartz, we learn of his awkward first days on campus, we follow him through the early days of his college baseball career. This section is slow paced and even somewhat detail oriented. Then, right after Henry's first starting game at short, Harbach covers the next two years in two pages. This does not necessarily have to be jarring, but within twenty pages of this "extended prologue" Henry makes his first throwing error. The predictable downward spiral occurs slowly over the next several hundred pages, but Harbach seems to have lost his feel for Henry after the skip ahead. Henry becomes a blank slate that these things are happening to, until the last 100+ pages of the book, where he hits bottom and Harbach seems to grow interested in him again.
The other main fault is the relationship between Guert Affenlight and Owen, the brilliant, gay, secretly athletic, mixed-race roommate of Henry. My liberal guilt is acting up for typing that, but not only did Harbach fail to sell that his self-aware, intellectual, exclusively heterosexual, 60 year-old lifelong bachelor, could suddenly develop a teenage schoolgirl-like infatuation for a male student at his school he didn't attempt to sell it. Affenlight's obsession with Owen, like the shark from Jaws, is just simply there when we meet him. I'm not saying that such a situation is completely implausible, or even that it wasn't depicted movingly, but Harbach's neglect to even address the issue serves to make one of his characters read as very unrealistic.
There are other things that troubled me. The plot seems to rely on too many "oh what a coincidence moments" and, as I mentioned before, the novel's middle is a bit of a muddle and might be too long. However, The Art of Fielding is a tremendously intriguing first effort. It's engaging and some of the baseball prose will make those of us who planned on playing first base for the Yankees for a living break out the old glove. Harbach creates a strong and distinct supporting cast, especially the other ballplayers at Westish, and does a very admirable job of crafting the small college setting of the novel. The Art of Fielding may not be analogous to Jackie Robinson's rookie season, widely regarded as one of the best rookie seasons of all time. Harbach's debut is more like a solid season than a spectacular one. But in the end you still make a mental note to keep an eye on what this guy does next.
<*>Depending on whether or not you consider walks or not, I guess. Considering the tone of the above paragraph I reluctantly avoided a discussion of WARP and OPS+.
**Once, he sent a short throw to first into the stands where it hit Keith Olbermann's mother in the face. ...more
Take a moment to prepare yourself for perhaps the most blatantly unfair critique of a novel published on this site in many a moon. Keep in mind that ITake a moment to prepare yourself for perhaps the most blatantly unfair critique of a novel published on this site in many a moon. Keep in mind that I am critiquing a work was first published over a century and a half ago, not to mention that is is one of the more highly praised works of perhaps the most beloved writer of the the English word this side of Shakespeare. Have you prepared yourself? First, allow me to post a teaser image so that those who wish to avoid some pretty awful anachronism can safely skim down the page...
Still here? Okay, one of my main problems with Bleak House is that it is nowhere as good as The Wire. I know that is a completely preposterous statement, but here me out. I don't know where I got the comparison stuck in my head, but it was before I started reading the book. It does have some weight to it. Both works have as a major theme the all-encompassing malignancy of "the system," especially how chasms of equality and adamant inefficiency does nothing but pervert those caught in it and crush those with expectations or aspirations of combatting it.
These parts of the novel are great. There's a literary urban legend that during his visit to London in the early 1860's, Dostoevsky met with Dickens. Dickens allegedly told explained to Dostoevsky that his virtuous characters reflected what he wished he was, while his more nefarious characters more accurately reflected how he actually saw himself. The letter supporting this mythological meeting of the minds is almost certainly fraudulent, but the idea is enticing nevertheless. The cynical, disillusioned, Dickens shines through in this book more than in anything else I've encountered of his. Take the character of Jo, the abandoned but noble street urchin in Bleak House. Dickens is well-known for eliciting readers sympathies for such characters, and his villains are often adults who directly cause the child's condition, or otherwise exploit it. Here, none of the characters actively causes or heightens Jo's misery, but still sealed his fate through their pervasive neglect. Dickens reserves his most bilious venom for those who do try to affect some change for the world, but do so in the wrong manner and with the wrong motives. These characters who pursue charity as nothing more than a status symbol, Cause-Fuckers, to paraphrase a Rolling Stones song, ignore the obviously real suffering in front of them for the far-fetched mission that will look good on a letterhead.
Of course, The Wire never got great ratings, and I doubt the public appetite for sociological allegory has waned that much over the past century and a half. Thus, much less than half of the novel can be really looked at as a forerunner to David Simon. The remainder is much more of what you would expect from a mid-19th century novel: the impossibly virtuous heroine*, the star crossed young and related lovers whose eventual doom is telegraphed from their introduction, the seemingly perfect lord/lady whose mysterious past forms an increasingly dark cloud over the future which will finally produce thunderstorms around 100 pages from the novels conclusion. Oh, and spoiler alert, everybody ends up being somehow related to each other. I swear, if The Wire would have been more directly influenced by Dickens Omar would have been revealed to be Lester's long-lost son shortly after Herc married Snoop.
Of course saying that the majority of the novel is more familiar than other parts, is not the same as saying that the same majority is bad. It's often quite good. I still don't think it's a perfect novel and I'm sticking with three stars for a couple of main reasons.** First, I had a bit of a problem with the flow of the narration. There are two narrative voices in the novel, a first person account told by our impossibly good heroine at some point in the near future, and a somewhat omniscient third person. Both of these parts work well separately but they aren't perfectly harmonious as a whole. Also, transitioning from a chapter narrated by Esther to a chapter in third-person can be really jarring, and even more so vice-versa. In another case you might suggest that the third-person chapters are cheap tricks that enable an author to easily provide narrative of events that the narrator wasn't present for or couldn't no, but I don't think that's the case here. That certain je nais se qua that makes Bleak HouseBleak House would be lost by exorcising either half. I don't know what the solution is, but that's not my job, I'm just here to say that was a bit of a problem.
My second problem is, yet again, somewhat anachronistic. Like most 19th century novels, Bleak House was originally published in twenty monthly installments. Nowadays, our experience of reading a novel is akin to what we expect from a movie. Bleak House was designed for and written a completely different kind of reader interaction. If we usually expect a feature film, Dickens was writing a season of television. There is still a broad, sense of story that continues to build, but the show already has 20 weeks of ad-time sold. With these obligations even a vastly talented writer can't help but throw in a filler episode or two, maybe have the gang revisit characters from previous seasons, or have a special guest star who attracts eyes but doesn't necessarily advance the plots. Maybe he can spread material that would easily fit in one episode a special two-parter. Whatever the writer does, the way viewers of a televised serial is much more forgiving of "filler" than the same viewers would be of extraneous material in a film.
Look, Dickens is Dickens for a reason. Even his "bad" writing, the flowery, clause laden sentences that would sink most lesser writers, well, Charles just made it fuckin' work. I would read a VCR manual written by Dickens. However, filibuster is still filibuster, even when it's profoundly good filibuster. Too often Bleak House reads like Dickens is a college student, striving to reach a page limit by frantically grasping at any possible stray tangent within his grasp. I'm sure this would be perfectly acceptable, even somewhat charming, encountered in monthly doses, but it becomes tedious in large chunks. Dickens tends to define his character by 2-3 traits and/or eccentricities. That by itself is not as bad as it might sound. In fact, he uses these eccentricities to hilarious effect.*** These same eccentricities are what makes Dickens characters so rememberable and beloved.**** The problem is, that Dickens treats these characters like a zany neighbor on a televised sitcom, bringing them in and just letting them riff. For instance, one of the more memorable characters is Mr. Skimpole, the degenerate who takes pride in his childish irresponsibility. Unfortunately, Dickens basically writes a variation of the same passage each of the half-dozen times he appears. Dickens repeats this, to varying extents, with around a dozen characters. Even the main characters eventually seem like they are repeating previous encounters after a while. Again, while this may have been a delightful reprise to those reading in doses it now reads as repetitious.
I realize that I've been harping on format, which is a somewhat unfair criticism of the text. However, the changes in how we written narrative fiction have changed in a way over the past 150 years that have illuminated some weaknesses in Bleak House that aren't as prevalent in other contemporaneous works likewise similarly conceived as serializations. On the other hand, Bleak House does its advantages over its contemporaries. While a thousand pages is pushing it, the plot can be compelling and Dickens incorporates a large and diverse cast with great skill. The novel can at times be very humorous, genuinely heartbreaking, and devastatingly precise in it's evaluations of the ills of society. And maybe most of all, I mean... it's Dickens.
* Again, I'm not sure if this is another case of reading anachronistically, but I'm pretty convinced that Dickens was having some fun with Esther, the narrator of much of the novel. She is so impossibly virtuous, here intentions are so, pure, her associations are so benevolent you end up questioning whether she is a completely unreliable narrator or only somewhat. Again, I may be reading this with especially jaded sensibilities, but I'm pretty convinced that there were at least a half-dozen moments where Dickens the cynic was almost winking at me through the text.
**I promise I didn't give three stars to a Dickens because it wasn't as good as a 21st century HBO show.... or at least it wasn't the only reason.
****My favorite in Bleak House is the old soldier who obviously adores and dotes on his wife, "the old girl," yet when he is with his friend, is reluctant to praise her in person, after all "discipline must be maintained."
*** In fact, the novel can be surprisingly laugh-out-loud funny at times.
I found the above image at this imagined review of The Wire, a Dickensian novel by Horatio Bucklesby Ogden. I haven't have enough patience to go on with the joke for the entire article, but the fake woodcuts are pretty outstanding. The excerpt Dickens-izing the brilliant scene from Season 1 where Bunk and McNulty break a case, communicating only with different inflections on and variations of the word fuck is pretty great as well. ...more
For the past couple of years, I have kept word documents that keep track of the individual short stories or long essays I read. I say to myself I do tFor the past couple of years, I have kept word documents that keep track of the individual short stories or long essays I read. I say to myself I do this so I can keep track of what I read and recognize writers who've I encountered before. While this is true, the main reason I keep these lists is because I am a bit compulsive when it comes to keeping track of unnecessary things. Seriously, I have never been able to get myself to keep up with my check balance book but my music on my external hard drive is organized meticulously.
I relate this because, after finishing Sixty Stories I was arranging them in my short stories list, and realized that I recalled most of them a lot more fondly than I would have anticipated. Reading short stories isn't always my cup of tea. I often get frustrated because just when I get acclimated to the structure of the story, right when I really sink into the groove, the story ends. I'm more comfortable in a sprawling morass that I can really sink into. Also, I can't resist trying to constantly ask what the author is trying to convey. These two issues I have are both especially prominent in Donald Barthelme's stories, which often experiment with form and narrative, and never, with a few exceptions, exceed ten pages. So the process of reading Sixty Stories was often frustrating. Every now and then, maybe when my mood was just right, one of the stories would just really connect. However, more often it seemed that I enjoyed having read the stories much more than actually reading them. And then there were a handful of stories I flat out didn't like. This final category of stories fell into two camps: a) ones where I recognized what Barthelme was trying to do but felt that he didn't really connect; or b) stories that I felt like I needed to read a 20 page dissertation on to ultimately understand.
Despite these possible missteps, there is definitely more good than bad here. From a historical perspective, Barthelme has to be one of the more significant American writers of the post-war era. While nobody I've encountered writes exactly like him, his influence is easy to spot in the work of George Saunders, Robert Coover, and David Foster Wallace. Barthelme never really manages to be engaging. He struggles with creating authentically human characters and his prose is rarely appealing. However, his inventiveness and his willingness to take risks make up for many of these weaknesses. Like I said before, an absolute pleasure to have read, if not always to read.
The War of the End of the World is, after The Feast of the Goat, only the second the second Mario Vargas Llosa novel I have read. But I still feel mosThe War of the End of the World is, after The Feast of the Goat, only the second the second Mario Vargas Llosa novel I have read. But I still feel mostly secure in saying that Vargas Llosa, more than any other novelist I can think of this side of Tolstoy, has a better and more intuitive grasp of the subtleties of politics. By this, I don't mean such politica machinations as electioneering and how a bill becomes a law. Instead, Vargas Llosa's writing explores the essence of the political relationship between the governors and the governed.* In the Feast of the Goat, Vargas Llosa uses the final days of the Trujillio regime to craft a revealing and disturbing portrait of a society trapped in an authoritarian cult of personality. With The War of the End of the World, his golas are more ambitious.
The novel is centered around the War of Canudos, an extremely violent, yet incredibly localized, insurrection that took place in the early years of the Brazilian Republic, shortly before the beginning of the 20th century.** In the aftermath of the abolition of slavery the previous decade, the town of Canudos had swelled from a small baronial outpost to a semi-squalid metropolis of roughly 30,000 people. The reason for this expansion, was the personal magnetism of Antonio Conselheiro, known in the novel as The Counsellor. Conselheiro was a wandering mystic who spent years travelling the region and attracting a group of disciples around him. Eventually, he identified the Republican government as the personification of the antichrist, and led his band of followers to the small village of Canudos, to separate themselves from the atheist government, establish a new Jerusalem and to await the apocalypse. Officials in the state and local government never fully understood Conselheiro's movement, and the resulting attempts to restore order to the region led to a utterly destructive and devastating war, with somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 deaths resulting. In attempting to create a sanctuary from the coming apocalypse, Conselheiro and his followers created an apocalypse all of his own.
Now that that's explained I need to make two quick qualifications. First, The War of the End of the World isn't a book about the War of Canudos. The narrative is centered on the war, but the war itself is more of a backup to the human drama that Vargas Llosa is concerned with. For instance, there are very few scenes depicting actual battle, most of these centered on non-participating bystanders trying to survive. The ongoing war is treated as an inevitability. The followers of the Counsellor, have no illusions about prevailing over the government, they are merely awaiting their promised salvation. This is, after all, the promised apocalypse.
Remember all that stuff I just said about The Counsellor? Good, because my second qualification is that he is a very minor character in the novel. Let me clarify that, he is a huge, overwhelming presence in the story, especially when the narrative shifts to one of his followers in Canudos. However, the narrative is never told from his perspective and he makes very little appearances in the course of the novel. This is somewhat strange because he is the direct cause of almost all of the events in the entire narrative. However, it is ultimately probably appropriate. The detached treatment Vargas Llosa gives the war would be diluted if the character was given access to it's central figure's inner thoughts and motivations. By not granting the reader access to the Counsellor Vargas Llosa creates a character that is unique in his illusiveness. Vargas Llosa allows the Counsellor to be defined solely through the lenses of his characters. Therefore, in the end, the reader has to decide himself whether the man was an apocalyptic cult leader who lead thousands of his followers to a certain and cruel death or a Messiah.
Before I go further, I must warn that the novel is a bit of an uphill battle to get through. You know how sometimes spend a long time establishing the world of the novel, before getting to the point where the plot starts to flow organically? Well, The War of the End of the World takes a long time getting to the point where it can take a long time establishing the world of the novel, before getting to the point where the plot starts to flow organically. What I mean by that is the novel's first 100+ pages (which read like 200+ pages) isn't exactly reader friendly. The novel begins with a short section that introduces readers to the Counsellor and his activities around the time he started attracting diciples. Then it shifts to a scene in a newspaper office in Santiago where an eccentric Scott named Galileo Gall is attempting to publish an advertisement calling for a rally in support of the rebels in Canudos.
Gall is extremely important to this section of the book. A self-proclaimed professional freedom fighter and phrenologist, Gall identifies the Canudos uprising through the prism of his own ideological views and begins to idolize the Counsellor's rebellion. However, despite his intentions, he is just as much a colonialist as the mercantilist exploiters of the recent past. He imposes aspirations that has struggled for in France and Spain on the rising in Canudos, therefore misunderstanding the uprising even more egregiously than the aristocratic local governmental authorities. For instance, Gall is informed that civil marriage ceremonies in Canudos have been banned. Hearing this, Gall is convinced that the rebels have unceremoniously tossed aside the antiquated institution of marriage and are practicing free love. In reality, the Counsellor and his followers are reacting to the rumors that the Republican government has begun to recognize civil marriages performed outside the Church.
The first section alternates between second-hand accounts of the ongoing Canudos uprising, often through the device of Gall writing correspondence to an anarchistic newspaper back in Europe, and short stories detailing the backgrounds of various followers of the Counsellor. These stories are extremely effective and well-written, many of them would work quite well as short stories, but they can be a bit stifling in terms of the overall narrative. If you watched the show Lost, imagine if the show-runners had started the first season by showing episodes entirely composed of each characters flashback scenes. Only after the characters had been introduced in their pre-Oceanic 515 life do we see the first episode where Jack wakes up after the plane crash. Each of these origin stories ends with it's subject leaving beside his or her old life and following the Counsellor. This extended prologue allows Vargas Llosa to avoid having a conventional beginning. I emphasize this because it's somewhat genius. By the end of the first section of the novel the reader feels that the actual events of the plot are within the grasp of his fingers, but still elusive. We know the kind of people involved in the uprising and how they became so devoted followers of the Counselor. We also have some idea of the events and motivations behind the uprising through the not incredibly reliable filter of Galileo Gall, who in turn is learning the sources from other first and second-hand sources with biases of their owns. Therefore, in the next sections, when the reader actually encounters the characters introduced in the first section, their fates are effectively sealed. They have all chosen which line in the sand they are going to stand on.
This novel could have easily been obnoxious by trying to score points. Vargas Llosa remains remarkably detached. The back of the novel depicts the plot as a standard little man gets crushed by those with power, but the story is much more complex than that. Vargas Llosa doesn't depict Canudos as the idyllic commune described in the teaser (which actually resembles Gall's warped understanding of the uprising). He does nothing to romanticize the uprising and he depicts the inhabitants of Canudos committing atrocities on opposing soldiers. My subjective interpretation of Vargas Llosa's interpretation of the events was that the Counsellor led an apocalyptic cult whose actions could result in no other result than the defeat of his followers. He and his followers may not have had malevolent intentions, but they are equally, if not mostly, responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocents. However, that interpretation is based entirely on my own reading.
While I can recommend The War of the End of the World as a great novel to have read, I am more hesitant about praising the actual reading experience. A book can be a difficult reading experience for a variety of reasons, but I have divided the concept of a difficult or tough read into three distinct classes:
1. Sometimes, a read require excessive mental effort in order to fully comprehend the book. The author's stylistic decisions might not be readily comprehensible, there might be a large number of characters with unfamiliar names, or the writing and/or pacing may require patience exceeding your present capabilities. There are other examples, but whenever a book asks for a little more effort than you wish to put in the book may be a grind. 2. Other times, a reader may be actively enjoying a read, but slowly, bit by bit, a sense of lingering impatience starts building up. The reader may find himself thinking about which book he plans on reading next and then realizes that he's not even to the halfway point of this one. The reader starts counting how many pages remain until the finish, but feels no closer to the end by the days reading. Soon the reader counts how many pages remain in each chapter, sometimes even before they begin the chapter. Soon, the reader discovers that he is unable or unwilling to read as many pages in a sitting as he once was. He/She is more easily distracted, and days pass with the book at the bedside giving you a guilty look. Yet the reader can't force himself to pick up something else, for after all, it's not like he/she wasn't enjoying the previous book. Soon there are nightmares where, like Sissyphus rolling a boulder up a hill for eternity, the reader is cursed to never finish this never-ending fucking book that he/she thinks is pretty good! Chances are, our reader is stuck in a slog. 3. Sometimes, there are books that could be easily comprehended and picked up by anybody with access to a grocery magazine section that are the hardest books to read. This isn't because they require mental aerobics or zealous commitments, but because they are awful, steaming piles of quasi-literary shit, that was a complete waste of paper, ink, staples, and however many hours you have put into them already, but you can't toss it aside and move on, because some completely irrational obligation to finish anything you put up, and worries that your 1 star screed of a goodreads review might be insufficiently sincere if you didn't suffer through the whole thing. Or, you just weren't digging it too much. Either way, for lack of a better word, it sounds like a suck.
Anyways, The War of the of the World is the sloggiest of slogs. I cannot think of another novel with a more deceptive page count. This is partly due to the fact that the edition I read set a new standard for words to page efficiency. Vargas Llosa writes long paragraphs and while his prose is certainly satisfactory, the actual reading experience is rarely thrilling and mostly unremarkable. The novel ends on the 568th page, but it reads like a 1200 page epic. There are sections that take 30 minutes to read that you finish and realize that you can summarize the action contained within in five sentences. You would be sacrificing something by this, but some sections will leave you wishing Vargas Llosa had more eager editors. I'm not saying the book should have been shorter now for two reasons. First, I just finished the marathon, I still have the runners high. Secondly, the fact that this book isn't a breezy read at all, that it's a relentless, somewhat repetitive, slog somehow makes the reading experience more visceral.
One reason for the perceived long-windedness of the novel is it's structure. The novel is divided into four parts, three lengthy and one short that serves as an interregnum between the first two. The three long parts read more as three self-contained novels forming a trilogy than as three sections of one novel. Each section has it's own defined beginning, rise to action, climax and end. At least for me, by the final part I grew somewhat weary of this by now repetitive cycle. Characters that dominate the first part disappear by the third, and characters that are briefly mentioned in the early parts come to prominence near the end. Therefore, I might advise readers to consider taking a break between the lengthy books.
I didn't take a break between sections. Instead, I took a one day sabbatical from reading the book, that ended up lasting over two weeks. I've read over one hundred books this year, but this one alone took me well over a month. Some of that may have been due to circumstances beyond the book itself, but my sabbatical from this book has coincided with a sabbatical from this site. Visiting this site made me feel guilty about not finishing this book. (Thank's Catholic Guilt!) Anyways, I've compensated for a month's absence by writing this absurdly lengthy review, which probably turned into a slog itself a long time ago. Therefore, allow me to wrap up. Just know what you may be getting yourself into.
Toward the end of the novel, Vargas Llosa has a character recount a discussion between two individuals discussing the events in Canudos. The character realizes that the meeting "had been not so much a dialogue as two monologues running side by side without ever meeting." Without realizing it, the character has identified the base tragedy of the novel and of politics in general. The 30,000 deaths in Canudos wasn't tragic because they were avoidable. While the suffering described throughout the book was meaningless, and resulting from misunderstanding, it is hard to envision realistically a different outcome. What makes Canudos, and much of the suffering in history, truly tragic is that because humanity has opted for competing monologues instead of true dialogue, such suffering is inevitable.
*Which would have made his presidency, had he been elected in Peru, unbelievably intriguing.
**Here's where I would usually comment on the book's historical accuracy, but my 19th century Brazilian history is a bit rusty, and I only have this novel and a short wikapedia page to go by. I feel comfortable saying that the novel reads like an extremely well researched book. In the absence of independent study, I'll take the novel's depictions of events on face value....more