Before I even begin with the review, I'd like to thank Mohit Parikh, who is forever providing me with books that seem to be available nowhere else.
“Be...moreBefore I even begin with the review, I'd like to thank Mohit Parikh, who is forever providing me with books that seem to be available nowhere else.
“Because when I read, I don’t really read; I pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck it like a fruit drop, or sip it like a liqueur until the thought dissolves in me like alcohol, infusing brain and heart and coursing through the veins to the root of each blood vessel.”
I've spent a lifetime cherishing words. Those frugal instruments we have at hand to express the thoughts that stir our innermost being. The things that caress and comfort and agitate and exasperate. What is reading, after all, but an exercise in appreciating language: that powerful tool that, like everything else we love, fails us only too often, but which we cannot do without.
A good book is more than the sum of its parts: it's choice of words, plot, characters. Too Loud A Solitude is much more than just another book. Reading it has been an almost spiritual experience for me.
I remembered something I hadn't experienced in years: the joy of finding a truly special book. That moment when I look up at no one in particular and let out a silent yelp of joy: You see that?! This book knows me! The simple pleasures of solitude.
“Lost in my dreams, I somehow cross at the traffic signals, bumping into street lamps or people, yet moving onward, exuding fumes of beer and grime, yet smiling, because my briefcase is full of books and that very night I expect them to tell me things about myself I don’t know.”
“I can be by myself because I’m never lonely, I’m simply alone, living in my heavily populated solitude, a harum-scarum of infinity and eternity, and Infinity and Eternity seem to take a liking to the likes of me.”
The books that I have relished the most are the ones that have slowly and silently shaped me into what I am. It is perhaps because of this that I could relate to Hanta, the narrator and protagonist of Too Loud a Solitude.
“I am a jug filled with water both magic and plain; I have only to lean over and a stream of beautiful thoughts flows out of me. My education has been so unwitting I can't quite tell which of my thoughts come from me and which from my books, but that's how I've stayed attuned to myself and the world around me.”
The plot of the book is deceptively simple. Too Loud a Solitude tells the tale of Hanta, a man whose job is to destroy books:the one thing he cherishes in life; compressing into bales all the literature that is deemed by the State as unsuitable. He's been doing this job for thirty five years now, in the same crowded, germ-infested basement.
Hanta is not a worldly-wise man. He shows as much interest in pragmatic pursuits as a honey bee in a vinegar cruet. But he knows that destroying books does nothing to stop the flow of ideas. Hrabal very subtly questions the validity of this political censorship.
“How much more beautiful it must have been in the days when the only place a thought could make its mark was the human brain and anybody wanting to squelch ideas had to compact human heads, but even that wouldn't have helped, because real thoughts come from outside and travel with us like the noodle soup we take to work; in other words, inquisitors burn books in vain. If a book has anything to say, it burns with a quiet laugh, because any book worth its salt points up and out of itself.”
Hanta is a man who lives and faces his regrets every day. What an irony to have your daily bread come from destroying that which you love the most!
“Rare books perish in my press, under my hands, yet I am unable to stop their flow: I am nothing but a refined butcher.”
He guzzles down copious quantities of beer in order to keep up with the job he both loves and loathes. He also drinks in order to “go to the heart” of what he reads.
“I drink to make me think better, to go to the heart of what I read, because what I read I read not for the fun of it or to kill time or fall asleep; I, who live in a land that has known how to read and write for fifteen generations, drink so that what I read will prevent me from falling into everlasting sleep,”
yet another reference to the proverbial death of a nation under political duress.
All the while, Hanta spirits away the items lined up for destruction,trying to salvage a small part of the fortune he has to destroy each day; although his home is overflowing with books. He reads incessantly, often stealing moments at work to do so. Privately, he sanctifies every bale he makes either by covering the outside with an artistic reproduction or by concealing one of his favorite books in the middle of the bale.
The story is full of literary references, spliced in with Hanta's memories and astute observations. The whole thing is told in a spiraling narrative that returns to the heart of the story over and over again, tiding over the many inconsequential yet insightful diversions.
“And so everything I see in this world, it all moves backward and forward at the same time, like a blacksmith’s bellows, like everything in my press, turning into its opposite at the command of red and green buttons, and that’s what makes the world go round."
This, however, does not mean that the tale doesn't have a direction, and an ending, which it does: as appropriate and devastating as one could wish for.
Hanta’s solitary bookish life, his dreams of the future, his well-oiled routine – all this comes to an end when he pays a visit to a new compacting plant and sees an enormous apparatus staffed by young workers. In dismay, he watches the entire print-runs of books pass straight from press to pulper, with no one even taking notice.
“Like ripping out the innards of live chickens”, Hanta thinks. The larger and more efficient machine also looms as the harbinger of death for smaller presses; and Hanta is quick to realize that he, too, will soon be out of the job that is at the core of his existence. His chosen way out of the impending doom is ultimately tragic:
“I refuse to be driven from Paradise, I am in my cellar and no one can turn me out, no one can dismiss me.”
If his life and labor have been about preserving books and his own soul, Hanta’s suicide becomes a political statement against the mindless pursuit of machine-like efficiency, the destruction of culture and individuality, and totalitarianism overall.
My only regret was that I know I would have got so much more out of the book if I knew the slightest thing about Czech culture, literature and history. Well, there’s one way to help that: read more Bohumil Hrabal.
When I started reading this book, the Boston bombings hadn't yet happened and Chechnya was a country that had been conveniently forgotten like so many...moreWhen I started reading this book, the Boston bombings hadn't yet happened and Chechnya was a country that had been conveniently forgotten like so many war-torn nations of the world. It was therefore with feelings of apprehension and excitement at getting to know a little more about the Soviet Union, my latest interest, that I picked this one up.
Then of course, there was a bomb blast. People died and , suddenly, the internet was flooded with information on this seemingly insignificant nation with an area a tenth of Wisconsin and a population of a little more than a million.
This review is special for reasons I cannot quite describe. The haunting descriptions that Seirstad comes up with through her impeccable accounts of this war-zone will stay with you for a lifetime.
The political reason behind the Chechen Wars is simple: Dudayev wanted Chechnya to break away not just from the Soviet Union but from Russia as well. Boris Yeltsin, the driving force behind the fall of the Soviet Union, wanted to keep Russia's borders intact at any cost and refused to accept secession. Dudayev began a war of words with Yeltsin. “Russianism is worse than Nazism”, “Boris Yeltsin heads a gang of murderers” and his regime is the “diabolic heir to a totalitarian monster.” For its part, the Russian government introduced an amazingly ineffective trade embargo and cut important subsidies; the only thing the Russian state paid was pensions to help local Russians remain in Chechnya. The huge reduction in financial aid added to the chaos and corruption, and soon Dudayev's regime was even less able to pay salaries than Governments elsewhere in Russia. A Moscow bank robbery by Chechen criminals netted almost a billion dollars; most of the money was brought back to Chechnya. Grozny became a center of smuggling, fraud and money laundering, while the government's role in the republic was collapsing. Meanwhile, the hawks in Yeltsin's administration wanted a “small victorious war”, something that would increase their popularity among nationalistic Russians after an ultra-nationalist candidate, Vladimir Zhirnovsky, had won about every fourth vote in the parliamentary election. However, the main reason for invading Chechnya was the political ambitions of Yeltsin and his inner circle. If Chechnya seceded, the spirit of rebellion could spread through rest of North Caucasus, and all of Russia could fall apart.
Chechnya: the wolf, however, would not relent. The separatists chose this beast as the emblem of their republic. The free, wild wolf was the Chechen, the tame, cowardly dog was the Russian. It was after all, the only animal that dared to take on something stronger than itself. What it lacked in strength and size, it made up for with limitless audacity and courage. It loved freedom, could not be tamed, and would rather die fighting that surrender.
Pursuing the subject with an unbiased view, Seirstad presents all faces of the Chechen story: the systematic destruction of the art, history and culture of this little mountain country, the rampant spread of Wahabism and the consequential rise of terrorist activities, societies changing attitudes on women, family and honor and the plight of the people involved in the war: both Chechen and Russian, which has led to considerable hatred on both sides and the incessant rise of racially provoked crimes in Russia, particularly, Moscow.
She writes: “A census would have revealed many things. Soviet figures from 1989 show that the number of Chechens had just reached one million. Since the wars started, five years after that, around one hundred thousand Chechens have been killed. Among the dead are thousands of children. They could hardly be called bandits or terrorists, as teh authorities label those who resist.... You can try to count the dead. You can argue about the numbers. You can count the maimed. You can argue about those numbers, too. What does it matter to loose a leg. An arm. To become crippled. To become blind. To have your hearing blasted away. Where in the statistics do you find a violated childhood?” The Beslan school tragedy where 330 primary school kids were ruthlessly killed is proof enough of her assertions.
As a result of the war, this country is losing that which it values the most: it's cultural treasures. “The National Museum in Grozny was bombed after the Russian troops looted what they thought worth preserving:European paintings, anything made of gold and silver, precious stones and metals. Chechen and Caucasian art was blown to pieces. Small, unique clusters of buildings, dating as far back as the twelfth century have been leveled to the ground.”
A country rattled by war and political uncertainty is bound to give in to religious fundamentalism. As per Jokhar Dudayev's interview in 1996: “Lack of western help in building a democratic Russian state after the Soviet Union's collapse was what made the Chechen's look towards Sharia- Muslim laws and regulations.” In view of this, the situation is growing from bad to worse. Two ideologies: Wahabism and Sufism are now pitted against each other. In Chechnya the mania for mythologizing has free rein. One theory or story is just as believable as the next. The most important thing for people is that the story fits in with their belief system. It is therefore no surprise that the society is governed strictly by religious rules that are decreed arbitrarily. Women are repressed and are delegated to a secondary status. “Woman, subject yourself to your husband. It is wrong for a wife to try to rise to a man's level. Then she degrades her husband; she is a woman, after all. Se can't do everything...” In a society where women are thought of as carriers of a family's virtue, honor killings and gender repression is on the rise. Women and children, as always, are the worst sufferers. It being deemed “improper” for women to work, they have no means to earn a livelihood once they have lost their men in the war. As for the children, one of Ramzan Kadyrov's first acts as president was to close down all public orphanages, as, according to him, they went against Chechen tradition. Leaving thousands of children on the street, with no means of fending for themselves or protecting themselves against physical and mental abuse.
Oppression on the basis of gender is, however, not the only issue plaguing the Chechen society. When Putin came to power, a lot changed. “Putin has understood something that never concerned Yeltsin: the power of the free word. Whereas you could travel freely to Chechnya at the beginning of the war, it is now illegal and impossible for a foreigner.... I don't have permission to be in North Ossetia, where we are now, or in any of the other Caucasian Republics. For that, I would need a KTO card, that is to say, permission to be in an area of kontra-terroristicheskaya operatsia-counter terrorist operations-and in order to get a KTO card you have to be on a Government organized visit.”
The atmosphere is stifling and tense. People disappear overnight- often, forever. Families are watched and harrassed by the FSB and the Kadyrovtsi and it is not uncommon for a family to lose all male members within a span of few months-followed by an agonizing search for their bodies, which are often found dumped in ditches with parts missing and torture marks all over them; if they are found at all.
“People are more afraid now than during the war. It's like Moscow in the thirties. People inform on each other, they disappear in the night and never return. No one trusts anyone anymore, because Putin had a stroke of genius: he let Ramzan Kadyrov do the dirty work. Now its Chechen against Chechen.” It's called “Chechnising” the conflict. Whereas before the Russian forces committed the worst abuses, now the Chechen militia maintains control in a society maimed by fear. Asne Seirstad travels through this forgotten hell and interacts with those who have lost their all, bringing back harrowing tales of terror and unimaginable violence: fear that keeps the society quiet. It is the society where the assassination of those who speak against the regime: journalists like Anna Politkovskaya is inevitable.
The situation in Chechnya being what it is, the Chechens don't have it easy elsewhere in Russia either. An estimated fifty thousand racial attacks occur in Russia every year. The number is increasing. Few people dare to report the assaults. The police often sympatise more with the attacker that with the victim. Only a few hundered incidents are reported every year; along with a fifty racially motivated murders. The perpetrators are seldom prosecuted; a conviction is even rarer. People from the Caucasus in general, and Chechnya in particular top the list of hate figures and have the lowest reputation among ordinary Russians. Chechens have problems registering in Russian cities, enrolling children at school, getting jobs, finding places to live.
They have reason too, they have lost their boys there. In a war against those people who are almost as hated as the Afghans. The roots of their repugnance go a long way back.
Seierstad does develop an anti-Russian sentiment, it is true, as she meets and interacts with the long suffering people of this nation. She has, however, tried to view all angles of this story. A path-breaking book from a woman who was asked to write about spring fashions instead of Chechnya, it is great for starting out and getting to know more about a part of the world that has such rich history and has shaped so much of our modern day beliefs: politically and socially.
One sleepless night is all it took to read this masterpiece. And it was worth every bit of it.
It describes a strange society. Society has become so a...moreOne sleepless night is all it took to read this masterpiece. And it was worth every bit of it.
It describes a strange society. Society has become so advanced, that every human being is now preconditioned to like the work that they are to do in the future.
In this society, the goal is to be happy. In this new world, babies are not born, and there is no such thing as a family, mothers, or fathers. Babies are "decanted" in a way known as "Bokanovsky's Process." Everyone is born into a caste system, being identified as an Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, or Epsilon. Alpha's are the smart, good looking people, while the Epsilon's are the exact opposite. Through the process of hypnopaedia and Neo-Pavlonian conditioning, people are trained to like certain aspects of life and be pulled toward them. This causes them to be happy in their line of work and happy with themselves, no matter what caste to which they belong. In Brave New World, anytime a spark of a negative feeling erupts, the people simply take Soma, a drug that relaxes them and sends them on a "holiday." Mottos such as "everyone belongs to everyone else" explain the society's way of thinking. They believe in sharing everyone and having sex with as many people as they desire, without any need for commitment.
In the society of this book, reading becomes a kind of mythical act of rebellion, a deed charged with subversiveness and anger. And Huxley is right -- that is how totalitarian societies of our century have regarded the choice to read freely. And why do those of us in democratic societies read a book like Brave New World? Surely we have no need to worry about the alarmist issues Huxley raises!
Huxley's satire only increases in intensity as the book progresses. The metaphors of the book are all taken to the extreme, such as the assembly line: in this society, people make the sign of the "T" and say of their deity, "Our Ford." As with Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, the concrete reality of the book, while a compelling story, isn't the point. Bradbury was not predicting that people will burn books, rather that they will forget them. Huxley is worried about a state of mind, one that puts happiness into a materialistic paradigm, and then uses it as a method of control, justified as what the people want. This human tendency is hardly news, but Huxley saw quite clearly how technology would change everything. A look around at our society shows no sign of World Controllers or soma in the literal sense, but the specific technologies of happiness are just as perturbing as Huxley's fictions.
Brave New World still works after all these years because it is so sharp and unrelenting in its satire. Huxley's career, long and varied, often gets boiled down to this one book, a book for which anyone would be proud to be remembered. This process of forgetting an author's body of work, while somewhat understandable, is frightening to contemplate -- Huxley is lucky to have something this good as the touchstone of his career.(less)
"The resulting picture is sometimes monstrous, but the setting and the whole process of the presentation sometimes happen to be so probable, and with...more"The resulting picture is sometimes monstrous, but the setting and the whole process of the presentation sometimes happen to be so probable, and with details so subtle, unexpected, yet artistically consistent with the whole fullness of the picture, that even the dreamer himself would be unable to invent them in reality."
After reading an abridged version of this book, I finally have my hands on a translation by Michael Scammel. Delves deep into the hows, whats and whys of human life. I think I'm slowly beginning to understand the "Raskolnikov effect", why sometimes people go to great lengths to achieve closure. (less)