This book deserves 4 stars, the extra star is because to understand the book, I had to first read The book of disquiet and then spend days reading up...moreThis book deserves 4 stars, the extra star is because to understand the book, I had to first read The book of disquiet and then spend days reading up on the history of Portugal to get the context of the book. And I've emerged so much richer for having read it.(less)
This book is everything that the Beatles song is. It's a longing to belong to the past, it's a longing to break away from it. It's a deep, unerring de...moreThis book is everything that the Beatles song is. It's a longing to belong to the past, it's a longing to break away from it. It's a deep, unerring desire to seek happiness, walking through the mazes of your own memory, trying to seek it in what was and what could have been. It's also the warm winter sunshine that whispers something softly into your ear. It's poetry in motion. (less)
He's the badass who makes Hemmingway look like just another guy with a drinking problem.
He's the stun...moreYukio Mishima is not just your ordinary writer.
He's the badass who makes Hemmingway look like just another guy with a drinking problem.
He's the stunning, muscular guy who works out three times a day, a regimen that was not disrupted for the final 15 years of his life and appeared as a photo model in Young Samurai: Bodybuilders of Japan and Otoko: Photo Studies of the Young Japanese Male by Tamotsu Yatō; dressed in a loincloth and armed with a sword, posing in the snow.
He's also a movie actor.
He's the guy who's an expert at kendo, traditional Japanese swordsmanship.
He's the guy who formed the Tatenokai ("shield society"), a private militia composed primarily of young students who studied martial principles and physical discipline, and swore to protect the Emperor of Japan. Mishima trained them himself.
He's the guy who intended to inspire a coup d'état to restore the power of the emperor and committed seppuku when the attempt failed.
Mishima was obsessed with dying an “honorable death” and spoke about his plans for his own seppuku. He made preparations by bodybuilding and perfecting his physical form, all so he could destroy it: A theme that is recurrent in "Patriotism". He also made a movie based on the same theme, titled Yukouku (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bO-w-c...).
While Patriotism is technically well-written, in that, it is brief, lacks condescension, and is bereft of sentimentality, it’s not particularly complex, for these ideas have not only been expressed better in other Mishima works, but for anyone interested in this subject, as well as a complex meditation about duty, honor, life and death, I recommend Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri, which is an outstanding film.
The underlying plot is clearly stated in the very first paragraph of the book: "On the twenty-eighth of February 1936 (on the third day, that is, of the February 26 incident), Lieutenant Shinji Takeyama of the Konoe Transport Battalion — profoundly disturbed by the knowledge that his closest colleagues had been with the mutineers from the beginning, and indignant at the imminent prospect of Imperial troops attacking Imperial troops — took his officer’s sword and ceremonially disemboweled himself in the eight-mat room of his private resident in the sixth block of Aoba-cho, in Yotsuya Ward. His wife, Reiko, followed him, stabbing herself to death. The lieutenant’s farewell note consisted of one sentence: “Long live the Imperial Forces.” His wife’s after apologies for her unfilial conduct in thus preceding her parents to the grave, concluded: “The day which, for a soldier’s wife, had to come, has come . . . .” The last moments of this heroic and dedicated couple were such as to make the gods themselves weep. The lieutenant’s age, it should be noted, was thirty-one, his wife’s twenty-three; and it was not half a year since the celebration of their marriage."
The tone of the opening paragraph is in stark contrast to the rest of the story. It lays out all of the facts of the story while only alluding to some of the emotion; in other words, the style itself here is not emotive. It is a striking contrast to the remainder of the story when two central events and their preparations are described in a direct yet lyrical style devoted entirely to bringing out the elevated emotions of its two characters.
Mishima manages to capture the on going strife within the hearts of two people who're aware of their imminent death and have no qualms about it: all they want to do is to make the most of their time with each other till they meet in the nether world. Somehow Mishima succeeds in exalting sex and death, though he spends a great deal of time merely describing the physical details. I'm not sure if I relate to the story on a personal level, but it certainly was an insight into how strongly the Japanese feel about honor and their country.
Maugham's novel The Magician is an aesthetic disaster. From the fumbling realism at the beginning of the novel to the childishly Gothic fable that it...moreMaugham's novel The Magician is an aesthetic disaster. From the fumbling realism at the beginning of the novel to the childishly Gothic fable that it turns into, the book seems to lack structure, design and well developed characters. Maugham himself, on reading the book later, described it as “lush and turgid.” Cluttered with adjectives, the writing, bordering on being kitschy, does little to gloss over a story that is formulaic and shallow. The plot is facile and it is no surprise that it was met with derision from literary circles. The plot in one sentence is that this novel’s eponymous antihero, Oliver Haddo, bewitches the young beauty Margaret Dauncey into marrying him to avenge his public humiliation at the hands of Arthur Bourdon, Margaret's fiance. What Maugham seems to be doing in the magician is playing a bullying schoolboy, ridiculing Aleister Crowley, self-publicist, occulist and an acquaintance of Maugham's on whom the sordid character of Oliver Haddo is based. The ostensibly fantastic story seems to draw inspiration from the spectacularly disastrous marriage of Crowley to Rose Edith Kelly, who was later institutionalized for alcoholic dementia. Crowley, a square and plump man, slightly round in the face is caricatured into an man a with a “vast bulk and a savage, sensual face.” Crowley, however, would not let this pass. What followed was a war of words, Crowley wrote a critique of the book, under the pen name of Olive Haddo, which was published in the Vanity Fair Magazine. He would later summarize this review in his Confessions (1929):
“Maugham had taken some of the most private and personal incidents of my life, my marriage… my magical opinions, ambitions and exploits and so on. He had added a number of the many absurd legends of which I was the central figure. He had patched all these together by innumerable strips of paper clipped from the books which I had told Gerald to buy. I had never supposed that plagiarism could have been so varied, extensive and shameless.”
Maugham, for his part, denied having read the review, adding his own bit of sizzling sarcasm, saying, “I daresay it was a pretty piece of vituperation, but probably, like his poems, intolerably verbose.” The characters seems schmaltzy and uni-dimensional. The heroine Margaret is effectively a child and Arthur and Susie supervise her existence, the former paying her bills and the latter choosing her clothes. Margaret’s empty life and feeble character leave her hopelessly vulnerable to Haddo’s attack upon her psyche. Unable to concede the fact that someone like Margaret(Rose) would accede to Haddo(Crowley)'s proposal of marriage out of he own free will, Maugham lavishes upon him magical powers which he ruthlessly uses to make her marry him. The righteous surgeon Arthur Burdon is an ambassador from our purely rational world who finds himself trapped in a novel where the supernatural is possible. His staid attempts at upholding sanity in a world which seems to be caught in a Gothic vortex are pitiable. He is doomed to irrationally insist upon the rational in the face of all incoming evidence. We may suspect that Haddo is squandering his infernal genius upon a man who is too daft to appreciate it. Susie Boyd is more evolved that the rest, but Maugham diagnoses her as “plain,” a condition as apparently debilitating as leprosy, for her "own stock of enthusiasms was run low". Arthur is “not handsome” and he has a “large” nose, but he can compensate for this plainness with his masculine character. Maugham repeatedly dwells on Haddo's obesity with appalling vapidity and insolence.
“she saw that in the last six months he was grown much balder; and the shiny whiteness of his naked crown contrasted oddly with the redness of his face. He was stouter, too, and the fat hung in heavy folds under his chin; his paunch was preposterous. The vivacity of his movements made his huge corpulence subtly alarming. He was growing indeed strangely terrible in appearance. His eyes had still that fixed, parallel look, but there was in them now at times a ferocious gleam.”
He even makes a “Yo-Mama's so fat” joke in his own inimitable style. Margaret visits Haddo’s mother in a lunatic asylum and finds “a woman of… revolting, excessive corpulence,” weltering in brown flannel. Crowley’s own mother was a devout evangelist and he had fallen out with her fairly early in life. Singling out Crowley’s disaffection from his mother for mockery seems, in some scintillantly, malicious way, to get to the bottom of his devilry. In 1956, Maugham’s publishers reissued the novel and Maugham added an explanatory “Fragment of Autobiography”. What would be truly interesting would be to read Crowley’s review alongside Maugham’s “Fragment,” to know the two different sides of the story. But history is written by the victors and The Magician is today remembered more as a roman à clef about Crowley than as the starting point of a spectacularly juvenile altercation that threatened to drown Maugham's career in the infamy of plagiarism. Crowley died in squalor in 1947 whilst Maugham lived on, sunning himself in the south of France. For a book based on magic, the writing is horribly lacking in any of Maugham's literary wizardry. Disappointed. (less)
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.