Z is a really good book. It leads you to think critically about the government and the people in it, especially the beaurocrats (not the politicians)
Z is a really good book. It leads you to think critically about the government and the people in it, especially the beaurocrats (not the politicians) and the power they weild over people. What does it mean to be righteous? What does it mean to do the right thing at any cost? There are several books that go through those dilemmas. Several classics, surely.
Z is another book that does that. What would you do if you were a poor carpenter, dependent on the police's grace for your license, if you saw a murder happen? Would you report it? Would you volunteer to reveal what you know? Would you stick to your story even when you know the consequences? It's hard to describe this book because there's so much going on. At the core of the story is the murder of Z. What follows, is a sometimes-comical, sometimes-Kafka-esque, mostly realistic game of shadows and mirrors as people try to mask their role in the murder.
In every man—especially in a porter—there are smoldering embers from a life never lived, a house never built, a pickup license never obtained. At the slightest breath, the embers flare up and the past comes to life.
Such things keep bobbing to the surface and there are left, unexamined forever, because no one can wrest the truth from those who don’t want to tell it.
P.S: If you have ever had to get a group of engineers to explain what their system does to you with a diagram and they were unable to explain it to you despite 4 hours of meetings over 2 weeks, you know what the author is talking about in this quote.
The Longer Version
Every once in a while, you come across a movie so good, so intricate and subtle, so resonant with your own experiences around the system the movie is depicting, that you are stuck watching it in a never-ending loop. Shanghai (2012), a Hindi movie, was one of those movies for me. It perfectly portrayed everything that I had experienced and heard about from other people about the way the government really works, about how contracts are awarded, and how people talk to each other when they are the ultimate decision makers in their own little play-world.
I found out that the movie was actually adapted from a book on my n-th re-watch of the movie in the first few weeks of September this month. Once I realized that a book existed, I had to read it. And now, I have read it and I am very glad that I did!
Z is a really good book. There are several parallel narratives which go hand-in-hand as the story progresses:
the conversations real and imagined, between Z, his followers, his wife, Z's own thoughts
The Investigator's beliefs and attempts to bring the truth to light, his almost spiritual belief that light can be shone on the truth no matter how long the process or how crafty the people who want the darkness to persist forever
The Journalist and his make-belief world of a private investigator, the advice he gives to people around him, the assurances of protection, often putting himself at risk
Yango, Vango, Baron and the world of the toughs, the people at the very bottom of the food chain. They are at the mercy of everyone else most of the time. But at a few key moments, they rise to the top and they are beyond everyone's control. And these moments, even though engineered by the people at the top who like to believe that they control the outcomes and are acting in a crafty knowing way, are just as powerless as the victims that they wish to oppress
The General and his belief in the ideology, his frustrations with the people around him, the difficulty he has in getting out of an analogy that he thought was useful but turns out to be too all-encompassing
The Tiger and Nikitas, the righteous people in this group. The people who believe that it is their duty to tell the truth, whether the consequences be favorable or not. The people who are hard to pursue, the people on whom even their own mother turned. It is the sense of duty in the people like Nikitas that leads to an inability to ignore facts.
And finally, at the very end, The Commissioner. He was at the top of the food chain, and now he was imprisoned with the likes of Yango. He was orchestrating the events, and before he knew, he realized that he was part of a much larger plot with a much more important conductor. He decided to tell-all and thus, we understand the full story. Right from the first meeting about downy mildew to the last scene of the book, the General trying to pay off the Tiger
In all these narratives, the common thread is often Z. The other common thread is the system that they live in. Implicitly, they understand their place in the system. The General knows that by being at the meeting, he has undermined the command of the Chief. The Chief knows that by being there, he's basically taken over control from the Assistant Chief. The Commissioner can't act when a "full-blown General" is at the scene. Yango wants people to see him having coffee with The Commissioner. Whether they like it or not, whether their interest is on the left or the right, whether they are Communist-Zionist or Hellenic-Christians, the system has kept them aprised of their place and their responsibilities. The Baron doesn't see a choice when he's asked to beat up people, he must do it. He has a stall and he would only be asking for trouble if he were to deny to perform an act that ensures his place in the system.
This book forced me to ask the question: What system are you a part of? What is your place in the system? Do you know your responsibilities? Are you performing them? Are you doing the right thing?
Hard questions, and half imagined, I am sure.
When he compared the number of patients he cured with the number of human beings the world over who could not buy even the most ordinary medicines, it was enough to make him shudder. The same with begging. What was the good of giving money to the poor? The balance of poverty on the planet remained unaltered. For the world to change, the system had to change.
-- Z on the importance of systemic change
His own pulse was calm. For the speech ahead, he’d merely made some notes. When you have something to say, it’s not difficult to say it. The difficulty comes when you have nothing to say and must talk anyway.
-- Z on oration
I imagine myself at a railway crossing and the guard has put up the chain between us, an endless train roars over the rails, with as many cars as the years I shall not see you. Only at fleeting moments, through the spaces between the cars, I catch a rare image of you waiting for me on the far side.
-- Mrs. Z on Z
What was politics anyway, Hatzis wondered. Did it hold nothing sacred? Or maybe there was no difference at all between the bourgeois parties? Sometimes the one rose, sometimes the other, like two peasants sharing the same mule, and the mule—the common people—just went on carrying them one after the other upon its back, understanding the change only from the difference in weight.
-- The Tiger on Politics
The first chapter where Z narrates in first person is the best chapter in the book. I always wondered what that character was thinking and what his beliefs were whenever I saw the movie, this chapter was incredibly enlightening on that account.
P.S: This was also the first time that I was able to fit all my #quote Kindle notes into the review of a book!
The premise of this book is really good. And the first part of the book is very well executed. In most places in the first half, all I really wanted tThe premise of this book is really good. And the first part of the book is very well executed. In most places in the first half, all I really wanted to read about was what Mike was thinking and what he was feeling about the world as he was looking as a third person and so on. But the author just throws all this super-normal discussion of law and money in your face, and in any other novel, it would be a great narrative, but in this book it builds the tension A LOT!
Eventually, we do get a complete Mike perspective on everything that is happening around him. How he's able to do the things he does, what he thinks about the way humans behave, and so on. So, that part is very good. There's the epic fight in the middle and then the second half of the book begins.
Now, this is where the book starts getting weird. Mike was at a cusp, and it demanded action and he made the right choice. But that also meant that he went from being a cute little half-Human half-Martian-minded nestling to a Martian adult in human form - a super-hero basically, but a cynical one at that. His way of thinking about the world is completely different, and it's not at all surprising that the more we look at the world he creates for himself, the weirder and weirder it gets. It flaunts every single principle that humans regard as important and polite and sane.
The book has an ending which is somewhat predictable (what will happen-wise). I was guessing it would go that way around 75% and you will be unable to not think it. There are just some dialogues and things he says in there that force you to think that.
I look forward to re-reading some of the parts in which Mike discusses his findings about the human race. Everything around it was good once, but I wouldn't re-read it....more
I wanted to read the book before I watched the TV series in the hope that the book would be a better source of information and wouldn't have the dramaI wanted to read the book before I watched the TV series in the hope that the book would be a better source of information and wouldn't have the dramatization that the TV series is bound to have. I was pretty disappointed. This book is filled with strange foreboding sentences that don't mean anything. The writing is bad. "If you have visited Africa in childhood, it becomes a part of you". URM, WHAT NOW?
The story that it tells is pretty gripping and is told in a lucid fashion. It's an easy read. I am going to watch the TV series now. If you are trying to decide, just watch the HBO series....more
This is a great book! I started reading this book because I realized how much shipping has changed the things that one has access to, it was also part
This is a great book! I started reading this book because I realized how much shipping has changed the things that one has access to, it was also part of the book recommendations on one of the Ezra Klein Show podcast episodes. I don't remember who recommended this book anymore or in what context, though! I am glad I read it nonetheless.
First, a brief word about the good stuff. This is a comprehensive and very very detailed account of how containers started, who started using them, how they came to be standardized and why they make sense beyond a given scale. It refers to a lot of incidents that proved to be rather important for the adoption of containers: the aftermath of the second World War, the Vietnam war, dockworkers unions across the world, shipping companies, freight forwarders, railroad operators, trucking companies. It's hard to think of anyone from the factory right up to the end consumer that this book doesn't touch or talk about.
Perhaps the most stunning thing throughout the book is the consistent resistance that container shipping had from every single person involved in the old process: unions didn't like container shipping, ports didn't like containers, governments weren't really convinced and were far too slow to adopt or create the specifications for standardized containers. Undoubtedly, a significant percentage of the time, most of the resistance ends in a placid acceptance and a sudden interest in getting deeply involved in the process of container shipping (in the form of huge government investment in modernising ports, subsidising the building of containes and container ships, negotiating contracts with shipping carriers that promise them space and cargo at ports)
There is one caveat though: The book is long, and it's not very coherent, the author chose to tell the story of how containers took over global shipping not as a timeline starting from non-container shipping (break-bulk) to container shipping, and rather, as a story of incidents which overlap in time, but are mostly independent in place and time of occurence. That makes the book confusing to read because there are several references to what happened in 1967 and it gets harder and harder to understand in the first half of the book until it all comes together in the second half of the book. That is my only gripe with the book.
Nevertheless, it's an incredibly informative book about a fairly simple concept's hard journey from being an idea to the finished product that now powers all global commercial shipping.
This is the diary of a man in Nazi Germany; a man who is hellbent on documenting the changes he is seeing in his country, as they occur. He maintains This is the diary of a man in Nazi Germany; a man who is hellbent on documenting the changes he is seeing in his country, as they occur. He maintains this diary at quite a high risk of being caught and punished for it, and yet none of his writing is softened because of that. One of the few things he does, and that too for the safety of others and not for himself, is some-times shorten their names and refer to them using a single letter only.
The diary starts in May 1936 and ends in October 1944. One of the most striking things about world war 2 I kind-of knew but didn't really understand fully until I read this book is that the World War was not fought in a single place, it was fought in several places, as several battles. Often overlapping with each other with one side ahead in one place and the other winning at the other place. The confusion of what is going on in Germany, at the war front, in other countries, is apparent in his writing. His writing often shifts to focus on what is internal to him, rather than focusing on the external. He is disgusted with the way the language has changed. He is stunned at the faces of these leaders, faces that wouldn't have been "respected by anyone, let alone the highest officials of Germany, not by the door man or the cleaning women". He refers to the lack of understanding of the German people at what they are enabling; he refers to how children have grown wild; he talks about how the food is lacking; how the food that _is_ there is bad; how the summers are filled with rain and the winters are colder and longer than ever before; not one does he talk about sunlight in the book.
The book has a deeply depressing tone. He is going about his life, traveling from the town he is living in to Munich and Berlin, meeting friends, having dinner in restaurants; but there is hardly anything he is thinking about. The hate runs like a constant tape played on a loop in his mind. Every page is about his hatred of the German establishment, the change that has come about in a few years, the "mass-man" who will walk with a million people off a cliff just because everyone else seems to think that's what the "Fuhrer" requires them to do.
I want to quote two paragraphs:
Nationalistic history-writing: In Germany, the lies have a blonde character. Nationalism: a state of mind in which you do no love your own country as much as you hate somebody else's. ... The following is a quotation - "Tragedy is a condition first discovered by te Pope for the subjection of mankind. But that is the provoking thing about these people: they foist this barbarism on us, and then try to make us content with it by having us adopt their own mass-man inability to distinguish between things. We are to end by no longer knowing that the whole of their 'technical comfort' amounts to nothing more than one gigantic swindle ... Or do they really think they are going to stop us from making distinctions and reduce everything to dead level - equate a Brueghelian feast of the past with a modern meal out of cans; the rewards of an auto trip with that of a walking tour; the costly silk stockings of yesterday, and the rayon stockings of today's office girls - all calculated to turn the beholder into a misogynist.
Following a series of articles placed by Goebbels in the newspapers, the wife of a tenant came to see me in fear and trembling. In Jesus' name, how was she to protect her children? They were all going to be dragged off to be raised in English, American, or Russian orphan asylums, according to newspapers! Nota bene, this woman spent several years in America, as a laundress; she still speaks a little English, and she has a number of quite warm recollections of Boston - yet she believes these stories about the foreign devils. Really, this people, only yesterday so intelligent and discriminating, seems to have been overcome by a disease of the mind. They noe believe everything they are told, provided it is done with sufficient aplomb.
The whole book concentrates less on making sense of what is happening, in favor of actually trying to convey what was happening then to a reader far in the future who will find it hard to believe that such things can happen anywhere, let alone in their own country. Reck's hatred of the high-ranking Nazi officials and certainty that they will be punished mix into a single near-theological certainty that what is going on is disastrous, will stop some day soon, and will have consequences that people several centuries henceforth will have to reckon with. To this end, Reck has an excellent quote:
Certainly, we are going to sit in judgement on the visible individuals who pulled the strings here, certainly the wood for the gallows on which I hope to see Hitler, Goring, Goebbbels, Papen et al., hung has already been thoughtfully put aside. And certainly, too, all of us Germans will have to take our Cross upon our backs and carry it through the Dark Valley of Sorrow before the Absolute is attained. But is there a nation today so lacking in perspective as to deny the possibility that such a mass psychosis could at some time in its hitory occur within its own boundaries? Do people really go so far as to accuse unarmed German intellectuals of lethargy when, during the first two years of the Hitler regime, at least, the British Cabinet, with every possible weapon at its disposal, was itself too indolent to smoke the brown rats out of their holes?
P.S. Rather coincidentally, I started reading this book just as I got on a flight to go on a trip to Italy! It was my first time traveling to Europe, and I had a 3-hour lay-over in Munich. I bought the paperback that I have nearly 6 months ago, in February....more