"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

November 14, 2012

"Heart of Darkness" by Joseph Conrad (Best Novellas)

He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision—he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath—"The horror! The horror!"
Heart of Darkness appeared in Blackwell's Magazine in 1899, and was issued in book form in 1902. This novella is the absolute masterwork of Polish-born English author Joseph Conrad. The story is narrated by Charles Marlow, who accepts an assignment from a Belgian trading company as captain of a river boat in Africa. Besides transporting ivory, his major task is to bring back Kurtz, a trader of the company, who has set himself up as the dictator of his own small kingdom in the wilderness, letting the native tribes worship him.

The story is partly based on Conrad's own experience: about eight years before, Conrad had been appointed by a Belgian trading company to serve as the captain of a steamer on the Congo River. Congo Free State was the private colony of Belgium's King Leopold II, and as has been described so aptly in Adam Hochschildt's King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, it was one of the cruelest colonies in Africa. From 1885 until 1909, the greedy king used his mercenary army to force slaves into mines and rubber plantations, apply sadistic punishments such as cutting off hands or feet, and commit mass murder. In Conrad's story, the country is kept vague, probably to make the story more generally applicable and not just write a political book. But the novel fits in the supra-national protest movement, the first one ever, in which King Leopold II's "rape of the Congo" was harshly criticized, also by many other writers such as  Mark Twain.

The "darkness" in the title not so much points to "dark Africa" - despite the misgivings of the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe who has lashed out at Conrad for treating the Africans around Mr Kurtz as savages -, for the problem is not alleged African primitiveness. The true "darkness" is that of colonialism, a barbarity imported from Europe - Conrad saw the extortion, the maiming, the heavy iron chains, in short the enslavement of many Africans for the profit of the Europeans who lusted after ivory and rubber. And again at a deeper level, the darkness is also the darkness at the heart of European civilization - you can't do what the Europeans were doing in 19th c. Africa and come away unblemished yourself. This darkness in Europe built up tension and unleashed itself in the horrors of the Great European War (WWI) of 1914-18, and its sequel, WWII. As a consequence, in the first half of the 20th c., Europe became the true "dark continent" (see the book by Mark Mazower of that title).

An interesting detail is that Marlow tells his story when seated with friends in a boat on the Thames while darkness is falling. They look at the horizon and see the silhouette of the City of London, another dark mass, where British colonial adventures were planned - Britain was just then involved in the Second Boer War in South Africa where a scorched earth technique was used against the farmers and where also the world's first concentration camps were "invented," with a death toll of 150,000.

In short, there is an unfathomable darkness within every human being, the capacity of the human ape for committing heinous acts of evil knows no bounds. It must be that realization which made the dying Kurtz cry out: "The horror! The horror!"
Conrad's work is out of copyright, Heart of Darkness is therefore freely available, for example at the ebook center of The University of Adelaide. I read the novella in the Penguin Modern Classics edition which has an interesting introduction as well as a fragment from Conrad's African diary. Heart of Darkness formed the inspiration for the 1979 film by Coppola, Apocalypse Now.
Best Novellas
Banville: The Newton Letter   Bioy Casares: The Invention of Morel   Bulgakov: A Dog's Heart   Byatt: Morpho Eugenia   Carr: A Month in the Country   Conrad: Heart of Darkness   Chekhov: The Duel   Conrad: Heart of Darkness   Elsschot: Cheese   Flaubert: A Simple Soul   Gotthelf: The Black Spider   Kafka: The Metamorphosis   Maupassant: Boule de Suif   McEwan: The Comfort of Strangers   McEwan: On Chesil Beach   Nabokov: The Eye   Nerval: Sylvie   Nescio: Amsterdam Stories   Nooteboom: The Following Story   Roth: The Legend of the Holy Drinker   Schnitzler: Dream Story   Storm: The Rider on the White Horse   Turgenev: Clara Militch   Turgenev: Torrents of Spring   Voltaire: Candide   Wells: The Island of Dr. Moreau

November 13, 2012

"First Love, Last Rites" & "Between the Sheets" by Ian McEwan (Book Review)

Ian McEwan started writing in the 1970s and his first two books were collections of short stories: "First Love, Last Rites" (1972) and "Between the Sheets" (1978). One glance - even at the titles of the individual stories - suffices to show that these sinister and perverse stories are rather different from McEwan's later work, such as the celebrated novel Atonement. The only thing they share is the controlled, elegant and precise language, one of the reasons I admire McEwan's books so much. But as content goes, these  fifteen stories are utterly weird and disturbing, full of freaks and monsters who tell about their misdeeds in sickening detail. The stories are also quite varied in nature. McEwan has said that these early tales were a sort of laboratory for him, allowing him to try out different things, to discover himself as a writer.

The protagonists of the stories are often isolated, sexually-deviant males. The first story in the first collection ("Homemade") is about a young teenager who tricks his little sister into incest. The sexual initiation strikes the precocious adolescent boy as comical rather than anything else, in what is perhaps a nod towards Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint.

More evil is the protagonist in "Butterflies:" a lonely and misshapen man (a dwarf) meets a little girl on a deserted path along a canal, befriends her but panics after he touches her, and ends up drowning her in the waters. The deed is terrible, but so is his realization of lifelong solitude. McEwan deftly tricks the reader into an improbable sympathy with the outcast.

In “Pornography,” a man who is the owner of a porno shop leads a despicable life: he is sleeping with two different nurses, passing on a venereal disease to both. When the women by chance meet each other, they decide to take revenge by applying their clinical skills with brutal efficiency, acting out their fantasies in a scene that is even more violent than the most awful BDSM books the man sold in his shop.

There are also comical stories, although the situations remain weird. In "Solid Geometry" a man reads the diaries of his great-grandfather in which a "geometrical" method is described to make people disappear into another dimension. As his wife has started to disgust him, he tries it out on her, with great success. In "Reflections of a Kept Ape" the narrator hangs on kitchen cabinets and behaves not really human, although he has a relation with the woman, a writer, with whom he lives. Gradually it becomes clear to the reader that the story is told by an ape. In "Dead as They Come" a jaded millionaire buys himself the perfect mistress and plunges into a hell of jealousy and despair, as he fears this stunning beauty can't be faithful to him. And that, while the "mistress" is a mannequin, acquired from a shop window...

McEwan dissects his characters as in a laboratory. Reading these dark, experimental stories almost feels like an act of voyeurism. But here also lies the kernel of McEwan's authorship, allowing readers of McEwan's books to understand how he has evolved as a writer. And certain elements, such as the dark humor McEwan finds in human foibles, are a constant in his work - take, for example, On Chesil Beach.

[Photo from Wikipedia]


November 7, 2012

"My Name is Red" (1998) by Orhan Pamuk (Book Review)

The Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, who was in 2006 granted the Nobel Prize in Literature, was born into a wealthy, upper-class Istanbul family. He was originally interested in architecture and painting, but changed course during his studies and after graduating from the Institute of Journalism, became a professional writer. His first novel, a traditional family saga in the style of Buddenbrooks, was published in 1982. From his third novel (The White Castle) on, his work has been translated in English and many other languages. From that time on, his books also became more adventurous with a definite post-modern quality. My Name is Red was his sixth novel, published in Turkey in 1998 and a few years later appearing in a prize-winning English translation.

[Photo Wikipedia]

The interesting thing about Pamuk is that all his novels are different in style and intent. My name is Red is a historical thriller in the style of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, and also has echoes of Borges. The postmodern quality can for example be found in the way each chapter is narrated in an alternating voice. There are even occasional unexpected voices as a coin and the color red, while the first chapter is told by a man who has just been murdered and dumped into a well.

Most of the recurring voices are those of Black, a former miniaturist who has returned to Istanbul from 12 years absence in Persia and in the story functions as amateur detective; Enishte Effendi, uncle of Black, in charge of the creation of a secret book for the Sultan in the Venetian style, who will become the second murder victim; Shekure, Enishte's beautiful daughter but also a (probable) widow with two young sons, with whom Black is in love and who later becomes his wife; Master Osman, the head of the Sultan's workshop of miniaturists; three miniaturists called Stork, Elegant and Olive; Esther, a Jewish peddler and matchmaker; etc.

The book contains a murder mystery and a love story, but is above all a philosophical and historical novel about art and reality, and the cultural division between Islam and Western thought. This division is made tangible in the theme of painting. Islam originally forbids figurative representation, but in Persia in the Middle Ages the art of book illustration by decorating the margins of the pages with abstract representations, gradually led to a miniature figurative art. This art, however, was very different from European painting, as for example practiced in Venice: the miniaturists did not observe perspective and other rules basic to Western art, but made idealized pictures where hierarchy was taken into account (the sultan was drawn in the center and extra large, a human figure could not be taller than a mosque etc.); moreover, as in other non-Western pre-modern societies, human figures were not drawn as individuals, but as generalized, unrecognizable persons. In the novel, we meet the miniaturists who were making this type of illustrations at the court of the Ottoman sultan in Istanbul, just at the juncture that some wanted to go in the individualistic direction of European painting, while on the other hand fundamentalists were clamoring to stop all figurative expression. The last group won. In this way the novel also symbolically reflects modern societal tensions in Turkey.

[Illustration from the Persian "Shahnameh" (Book of Kings, 1430). Photo Wikipedia]

This piece of art history, lovingly and in great detail presented by Pamuk, was also new to Turkish readers, for modern Turkey has largely cut away its historical, Ottoman roots. Even more so for Western readers, it is a lot of new information (with the names of numerous miniaturists, sultans and famous illustrated books), making the pace of the novel a bit slow at times, but I wouldn't want to be without it - the cultural comparison is indeed compelling.

The clash of ideas leads to murder and mayhem in the novel, until the mystery is solved by Black, with the help of his wife Shekure. The characterization of Shekure as a very elusive and enigmatic woman is finely done by Pamuk. And the "end good, all good" ending is turned on its post-modern head by having in the last paragraph Shekure ask her son Orhan (!) write down the story we have just read, "although she knows that for a delightful story, there isn't a lie he wouldn't deign to tell..."

[Orhan Pamuk. Photo Wikipedia]

Note: The "family saga" mentioned at the beginning if this post, is The Silent House and has by now also been translated into English.

Comprehensive Orhan Pamuk website.

November 2, 2012

"The Lower River" (2012) by Paul Theroux (Book Review)

Paul Theroux is an author with an incredibly high production. Although in the first place famous for his travelogues as The Great Railway Bazaar (1975), he has also written 32 novels and short story collections. The fiction often is inspired by the travel; in The Lower River we find echoes of the trip through Africa described in Dark Star Safari (2002), but also of Theroux' 1963–1965 Peace Corps teaching experience in Nyasaland/Malawi.

So far, I had been more interested in Theroux the travel author than Theroux the novelist. I have tried several of his early novels but somehow always got stuck in the book without finishing it. The first fiction by Theroux that trapped my attention were the three novellas about India collected in The Elephanta Suite (2007). And now The Lower River... this book again far surpasses these novellas and is indeed a great novel, putting anything that went before it in the shadow. It is a novel about aging; about the meaning of life; about altruism and the lack of it in the world; and the sad plight of Africa where Western aid agencies have for the last 50 years destroyed the economy in many parts of the continent by enslaving the population with dependence on "aid" (China is wiser: by giving practical assistance in the form of building infrastructure, it has won the hearts of the Africans and so also gained access to Africa's minerals).

A middle-aged American called Hock has reached the end of the tether in his work and marriage and burning all ships behind him, returns to Malawi, a small African country he fell in love with 40 years ago when he lived there as a Peace Corps teacher. Instead of reestablishing his dream, Hock arrives in a failed state where the people are lazy, disillusioned and greedy, living off the handouts of the Western aid agencies. The country has also been ravished by AIDS. The school Hock built 40 years ago lies in ruins, and nobody wants it rebuilt.

Hock is taken a virtual prisoner in his old village, Malabo, that is governed by the cynical and dictatorial Manyenga, a sinister chief who used to work for the aid agencies. Hock has been warned: “They will eat your money ... When your money is gone, they will eat you.” And that is what happens, in a world where altruism has been swiped away, Hock has to fork out dollars for every small service he receives. When he has been fleeced to the bone and his money is all gone, Manyenga decides to sell him to a group of punks who will then try to ransom him.

The only light in this darkness are Hock's former girlfriend, Gala, who gives him sound advise; her 16 year old granddaughter Zizi, a tall and slim fairy tale figure who attends to Hock; and a dwarf named Snowdon. An attempt to flee misfires when he is caught in a Lord of the Flies-like village of abandoned feral children suffering from AIDS. Here he also witnesses a helicopter food dropping by two pop stars working with the "Agence Anonyme": after the heli flies away, elder boys on motorbikes steal all the dropped food in order to sell it. The self-interested do-gooders have corrupted the population with their "good intentions," perverting the local ecology and economy. Western paternalism is still enslaving Africa.

The Lower River has reminded reviewers of Heart of Darkness, with Hock as a Kurtz who is not saved from the jungle; but the novel reminded me even more of A Handful of Dust where the protagonist is "caught" in the jungle as well. One could also think of the dark musings of an author like Coetzee (Disgrace, for example). Although the book is about Africa, it has a much wider resonance for the human condition.

If The Lower River seems a dark and claustrophobic book, that is only partly the case. It is also a book full of humor, a tight thriller, and a book with patches of tenderness. And the end - although a bit deus ex machina-like - is certainly uplifting.