I can not think of a book that has let me down more than Italo Calvino's If On a Winter's Night a Traveler. Admittedly, this may have been caused by i...moreI can not think of a book that has let me down more than Italo Calvino's If On a Winter's Night a Traveler. Admittedly, this may have been caused by in no small part by my high expectations for this novel after having read the deliriously exciting first chapter several times in a bookstore during one of those quite regular hunts for the next book to steal my heart. I mean, who can resist a first chapter that contains paragraphs like:
"In the shop window you have promptly identified the cover with the title you were looking for. Following this visual trail, you have forced your way through the shop past the thick barricade of Books You Haven't Read, which were frowning at you from the tables and shelves, trying to cow you. But you know you must never allow yourself to be awed that among there there extend for acres and acres the Book You Needn't Read, the Books Made For Purposes Other Than Reading, Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category Of Books Read Before Being Written. And thus you pass the outer girdle of ramparts, but then you are attacked by the infantry of the Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered." Pg. 5
Has there ever been an author that more exquisitely expresses the stressful choosing of which books are to be adopted into your Home for Lost Books and which are to remain in the Book Repository awaiting their Lee Harvey? This, thought I, is an author who speaks my language. At least, that's what I thought until the end of Chapter 2, when the story I was allegedly reading "If on a Winter's Night a Traveler" was perfunctorily cut off and Calvino began addressing his main character as the second person "you," leading to vast confusion of a wholly unpleasant nature. And so the book progresses, alternating throughout from the first chapter of various Books That Have Not Been Written to the maddening second-person pronoun-filled main "story," though none of it ever makes sense aside from as a plot device to string together 14 first chapters of Books That You Would Rather Read Than This One.
I'm not one to let books offend me on a regular basis. In fact, I can think of no other book that has so personally rubbed me the wrong way that I would like to slap its author across the face and challenge him to a duel. Calvino gets a pass on this by virtue of being dead, but come zombiegeddon his corpse and I will have words (or, rather, I'll have words, he'll have monosyllabic grunts (being dead isn't great on the language centers of the mind)). My rage reached a boiling point around the 3/4 mark when Calvino, in another of the "you" chapters begins describing in vivid detail your frustration at the book and your longing to just find the thread of one of the far more captivating tales begun previously.
Perhaps I'd have been more forgiving of this meta- style of writing if I hadn't seen it done far better in other books. Sure, maybe Calvino was breaking new ground in 1979 when this was first published, but a book recognizing that it was a book and using its inherent form to prank the reader is old hat at this point. Perhaps if Calvino had a character more like my own to address as "you" then I would have enjoyed it more. All I know is that all the things he attributed to me are in no way keeping with my character and that if he presumes to use me as a character in his escapades then he should have invested some time in getting to know his subject. This book was not fun to read. This book was not revelatory or ground-breaking. This book was simply jarring and irritating. I would be hard-pressed to think of a book read in the past five years that I enjoyed less- and I'm including my dabblings with Margaret Atwood here.(less)
This is not a book that I wanted to read. So many times while reading books about the Holocaust, I feel a disconnectedness from the events. It's a mix...moreThis is not a book that I wanted to read. So many times while reading books about the Holocaust, I feel a disconnectedness from the events. It's a mixture of two things. The first is that the sheer scope of events is just too large, too horrific, for one person's words to do justice to it. The second, and this could partly be due to the first problem, is that I detest being manipulated by my books. With a lot of Holocaust literature the villains are stock characters; the malevolent Colonel with no humanity, staring cold-eyed at the prisoners before sending them off to their deaths. I find this to be a drastic over-simplification of the tragedy and one with a great potential for allowing such a dehumanizing event to occur again.
It's simple to hate Count Dracula or Emperor Palpatine. They have no identity aside from their thirst for power and willingness to inflict any cruelty for any whim. They are a delightfully uncomplicated type, divorced from standard concepts of morality- purely evil. Nazis, quite understandably, get tarred in this same way. We see the pictures of bodies stacked hundreds of feet high at Bergen-Belsen, the haunted eyes staring out past barbed wire, the jackboots marching in lockstep, The Triumph of the Will- these are all images etched into the collective memory. No civilized person could do such a thing, the mind recoils. These are not people but demons brought to Earth. This is a phenomenal disservice to those who suffered so horrifically at their hands. How can we properly work to prevent such a travesty from ever occurring again when we choose to reject these people from the human community? We need to understand what can move someone to such a place that pushing the button to fill a shower with Zyklon B is just another day at the office. We need to see how easy it is to give in to what Hannah Arendt dubbed the "banality of evil." To recognize those aspects within ourselves and then to strive to work against them constantly. Allowing Nazis to become human in our mind does not excuse any of the crimes they committed. Rather it opens us up to the understanding that the same potential exists in all of us. When we understand this, that we all have the capability of becoming something monstrous simply through acquiescing to the dominant trends in society, by going with the flow, only then can we truly make strides in guaranteeing the truth of the mantra "Never Again."
And it is easy, this acquiescence. It is as easy as taking a new job to avoid having a shameful secret found out at an old one. The next thing you know you're guarding prisoners at a work camp. From there, it's just another small step to selecting who gets shipped back to Auschwitz and who stays. The option for rebellion doesn't even raise its head; either you do the task or someone else will, raise a fuss and you may just find yourself on the train with them. Next step you find yourself standing outside a flaming church, hundreds of women locked inside and, though you have a key, you do nothing simply because nobody told you to and to release the women would mean to set them free (which was definitely verboten). That's all it takes. A simple abdication of responsibility and 300 women cook within the stone walls. Please believe, understanding does not equal forgiveness. It does not mean you have to like that person one iota, but an effort should be made to see how such things are possible- how each decision moved them further and further down the road to the Nuremberg Tribunal. Yet, as Schlink's main character, Hanna Schmitz, asks in especially gripping moment, "What would you have done?" How do you get off that merry-go-round when its already spinning? Delightfully, the author does not hand the reader a satisfactory answer, for what possible answer could there be?
The book was not all death, doom and gloom. That's just the bit that struck me the hardest, because the author built such an affinity between myself and Hanna. Seduction via literature has to be my favorite thing ever and the early scenes where this takes place were some of the most tightly coiled eroticism I've ever had the pleasure of reading. Later, when the scope of what Hanna has done becomes clear, the reader, much like the young narrator, must reconcile his affection for her with these revelations. It's a struggle, to be sure, but one that helps make The Reader one of the most impacting books I've yet read.(less)