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!