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Ashes, Ashes by René Barjavel – stinking dystopia

March 21, 2021 26 comments

Ashes, Ashes by René Barjavel (1943) Original French title: Ravage.

Ashes, Ashes by René Barjavel is on the list of books teachers in collège (middle-school) can use in French class. In my opinion, it needs to come with a truckload of explanations not to lead the students astray.

Ashes, Ashes is a dystopia written in 1943, during the Occupation. The book is composed of four parts: The New Times, The Fall of Cities, The Trail of Ashes and The Patriarch. For this reader it went from fun, to déjà-vu, to boring and to distasteful.

We’re in Paris, in 2052. François Deschamps comes to town after a stay with his parents in Provence. (Barjavel was from Nyons, in Provence). He’s waiting for the results of an exam to work in agricultural engineering and he’s looking forward to meeting Blanche, his childhood sweetheart. When he was away, Blanche has been recruited to be a new singer on a famous TV channel and is about to start a new life. She knows that François won’t approve but she wants to have fun and enjoy her life.

In 2052, people travel on high-speed trains, live in skyscrapers, have AC, can’t walk more than a few meters and eat industrially grown food. It’s always fun to read old dystopian books and see how people imagined the future.

Barjavel imagines apartments in skyscrapers with big screens on the walls with TV shows. Some things are spot on – People can “facetime”— and some things show how difficult it is to think out of the box and imagine technologies or services that don’t exist yet.

For example, when François is on the train, Barjavel imagines that, to read at night, you can adapt a screen on your book, put on earbuds and call for a service where the book is read to you. He doesn’t imagine e-books with backlit screen but an armload of readers over the phone, reading you the book of your choice in your language.

People don’t do anything by themselves. Dead relatives are conserved in apartments as if they were in a wax museum and people live under the scrutiny of their elders. Art is controlled by state run schools and only official artists are allowed to sell their work. Everybody lives in towns, the countryside has been left behind, except in some areas in Provence where a few families people kept farming like in the old times. And François and Blanche come from these families.

We’re in a society shaped by technology and François is very critical and would rather have people going back to the land. His attitude towards Blanche rubbed me the wrong way but I kept thinking that it was other times. I didn’t think Barjavel was very ironic about the ancestors’ watching their offspring. I kept thinking that it was creepy and that your parents could be real bastards you’d be happy not to see ever again. This started to feel a bit too Travail, Famille, Patrie for my tastes.

Then the power is out and everything falls apart. The heat is intense (climate change!), people start loitering, fighting and killing to survive. It’s the Fall of Cities. Without electricity, everything collapses very quickly. Lifts don’t work, planes drop from the sky, dead ancestors thaw, communications are cut and nobody knows how to do anything by hand. All we see is violence, devastation, cholera and fires destroying this modern civilization. François gets Blanch under his arm, gathers a group of people and prepares to leave Paris. This part is probably a reminder of the 1940 exodus.

François and his group leave Paris as fast as they can and start walking south to find shelter in Provence. This third part, The Trail of Ashes, is their journey to safety. We follow the group of people during their travels to Provence, through a hostile environment. The country is so dry that it’s burning everywhere and water gets scarce. I thought this part was a little too long, we got his drift from the start. Brother will turn on brother, nature quicky becomes hostile. I still didn’t like François Deschamps and his patriarchal attitude.

And then came the last part and epilogue, a mere fifteen pages of stinking garbage. The group of people have arrived in Provence and started to cultivate the fields, to provide for themselves. So far, so good. Follows the description of the new civilization built by François, the Patriarch.

They are all peasants and live off the land. A system is organized to maintain peace between communities. Villages mustn’t have more than five hundred families living in the same place and a man can’t own more land than the surface he’s able to patrol in one long summer day.

Polygamy is the rule and ugly girls are grateful for it because they couldn’t get a husband otherwise. Blanche accepted it gracefully because men had to plant as many seeds as possible to repopulate the world. François remarries at an ancient age to a very young girl to have more offspring. He’s valued as a patriarch:

Autant que sa grande sagesse, et la longue et claire vie que Dieu lui a accordée, ce qui a valu au patriarche le respect des populations, c’est que parmi les deux cent vingt-huit enfants nées de ses femmes respectives, il n’a eu qu’une fille. Encore lui est-elle venue alors qu’il avait dépassé cent ans. A cette miraculeuse abondance de mâles, les paysans simples ont reconnu la faveur octroyée par le Ciel à une race de maîtres et s’en sont réjouis.

More than his great wisdom and this long and clear life that God granted him, the patriarch won the respect of the population because among his deux hundred and twenty eight children born to his respective wives, he had only one girl. And she was born when he was more than a hundred years old. The simple peasants saw in this miraculous abundance of males, the blessing of Heavens to a race of males and rejoiced in it.

Paul, married to François’s only daughter named Blanche will replace him when he dies. Of course, Paul is blond. So, a blond guy married to a woman named White will be the next patriarch and rule France. I think that this detail is significant in 1943. (I checked, only 10% of French people are blond.)

Technology is forbidden because François is against it. Books are banned and burnt as soon as someone finds one. Books are evil. That was the last sentence that broke this reader’s back. 

Writing this billet, I reread the passages and tried to find a second meaning, a veiled criticism of this new world. The only trace of it is when a young man comes to François, proudly showing off a steam machine, built to help with field work and alleviate the workers’ burden. Barjavel seems to concede that progress is inevitable and that humanity won’t stand for too long to live at the Stone Age. François promptly destroys the machine as evil too. Apart from this tiny detail, nothing.

I didn’t expect Ashes, Ashes to reek of Petain’s ideology. One reads books by Céline with their eyes open. In my mind, Barjavel was the author of La Nuit des Temps (1968), a wonderful love story I loved as a teenager and of the Chemins de Katmandou. (1969) I never expected him to be this reactionary. Heck, I don’t expect dystopian fiction to be reactionary. I expect dystopian books to show what will happen to humanity when humanism is thrown away. And more than that, I don’t expect the rebel of the dystopian book to be the founder of a new civilization that is way worse than the one they wanted gone.

I’d like to think I got it all wrong. According to Wikipedia, Ashes, Ashes was first published during the war in the collaborationist and antisemitic weekly newspaper, Je suis partout. Knowing that, it’s hard to think that Barjavel wasn’t seriously on board with the thesis developed in the fourth part of his novel. Or he really perjured himself writing Ashes, Ashes. If I missed something, I’ll be happy to discuss it in the comments. 

See why this book needs to be thoroughly discussed in class when young minds read it? 

Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse by Victor Gischler – entertaining as hell

February 11, 2021 10 comments

Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse by Victor Gischler (2008) Not available in French.

How to describe Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse by Victor Gischler? Crazy, fun, violent, ironic and so true about human nature.

We’re in the future, Mortimer Tate has just spent the last ten years in his hide-out in the Tennessee mountains. Initially, he set it up to escape his soon-to-be ex-wife, Anne. But when the end of the world as we know, he was safely tucked away in his cave and missing all the drama.

After ten years of solitude, he’s ready to go down from his mountain and see what happened to other human beings. His first encounter with fellow humans ends with three casualties.

He eventually finds his way back to “civilization” only to discover that the USA are a mess. There’s no petrol anymore and cars are abandoned along highways. There’s no electricity, unless you have servants who ride static bikes to generate it. People have to fight for their lives. The US dollar doesn’t exist any longer.

The only thing that seems to be running are Johnny Armaggedon’s sassy A-Go-Go Strip Clubs. People find some sort of normalcy in drinking beer, watching lap dances, getting drunk, eating proper food and sleeping in a true hotel room. Armageddon’s organization has set up an ecosystem to keep the bars running. They need to a supply chain to provide for the booze, the food and keep the hotel rooms clean and ready. Therefore, they created their own money and then their bank to secure the money.

A system of loyalty membership is set up and Tate becomes the richest man in Spring Town and Platinium Member in Armageddon when he sells thirty-five bottles of genuine Johnny Walker. 

Tate feels guilty that he left his wife in the dark regarding his mountain cave and he’s determined to find her. He heard through the grapevine that she’s in Atlanta, so, that’s where he’s headed.

Flanked by a would-be cowboy, Buffalo Bill and a would-be stripper, Sheila, Mortimer Tate embarks in a dangerous journey and finds himself in the middle of the battle between Armageddon’s people and their opponents, the violent Red Stripes who also intend to rule the world and control booze supply.

And with their travels, Gischler describes this post-apocalyptic world, how people tried to cope and survive.

Needless to say, this is a fast-paced plot where the protagonists travel slowly and run into formidable dangers at every corner. It has the same vibe as the Charlie Harding series by Duane Swiercszynski, only Swiercszynski is funnier. They almost die at every chapter, and each step in their journey gives them more information about the two organizations at war. They’ll have to take a side.

Behind the basic entertainment, the book, as often with SF or crime, is more serious than it sounds. After all, Gischler tells us that, after a collapse coming from a worldwide conflict, the people who would rebuild the world would do it through the booze-and-sex business. That’s the only thriving method to give the world a foundation for a new society. What does it say about Western civilization, eh?

Recommended when you’re in the mood for an action movie. Here’s Guy’s review (far better than mine) and thanks for the book, Guy! 

War With the Newts by Karel Čapek – still relevant, alas.

December 26, 2020 21 comments

War With the Newts by Karel Čapek (1936) French title: La guerre des salamandres. Translated by Claudia Ancelot.

War With the Newts by Karel Čapek is our Book Club choice for December.

Published in 1936, it’s a dystopian fiction where Čapek imagines a world where a huge population of newts grows and lives under the sea. It sounds bucolic said like this but War of the Newts is more a humorous but serious declaration against the pitfall of wild capitalism.

When the book opens, Captain Jan Van Toch is a sailor who does trade in the Indonesian waters and he barely makes ends meet. One day, he hears about Devil’s Island, a place that the locals avoid because it’s populated by devils. Van Toch goes there anyway and discovers that the so-called devils are actually salamanders. Better than that, if he trades knives with them, they can fish oysters and help him find pearls. Van Toch likes the newts and strikes an agreement with them: he provides knives to help them fend off their enemies, they fish oysters for his pearl business. Van Toch is like a character by André Malraux, an adventurer.

Van Toch goes into business with G.H. Bondy, a tradesman who accepts this weird pearls/salamander business. Van Toch handles the newts on the field, GH Bondy manages the pearl trade back in Europe. It’s mutually beneficial.

Progressively, the territory of the newts expands, humans discover that they can learn how to speak and how to use tools. Scientists study the salamanders and name the species Andrias Scheuchzeri. (Knowing Čapek, I wonder if there’s a pun under that name.) The salamander become underwater workers. They are not paid but fed and armed. They work well in hydraulic jobs and their workforce is much appreciated.

The first book closes with Van Toch’s death. As soon as he dies, his legacy is trampled by triumphant capitalism, ie GH Bondy. The newts are not profitable enough, there are too many pearls on the market and their price dropped. And a new company is created to develop the salamander business as docile and efficient underwater workers.

The second book shows the expansion of the salamander phenomenon. They reproduce quickly, their predator is at bay and the collaboration with the humans means that they work against knives, steel, food. They colonize the waters of the whole globe.

A whole economy develops on this trade. Through articles from newspapers, Čapek shows us how the salamander issue impacts a lot of aspects of human life. They are shows with performing salamanders and scientific studies. All aspects of their presence beside humans raises questions: do they have a soul? Is it slavery? Are they citizen? Can they be enrolled as soldiers? Which language should they learn? What rights should they have?

A lady organizes the first schools for newts in Nice. Unions say nothing because protesting against the development of the salamanders would jeopardize the human jobs linked to the businesses  with the newt colonies.

Čapek imagines the reaction of several countries and I laughed out loud.

France is the first country to impose strict social laws in favor of the newts. When the newts start stealing apples in orchards in Normandy, the farmers protest, resulting in the destruction of a police station and a tax office. Demonstrations were organized in favor of the newts and their outcome was a strike in Brest and Marseille and confrontations with the police. So, my dear foreign readers, if you hear anything about events like this in contemporary France, don’t worry for us, it’s part of our folklore.

The reaction of the British government to the newts settling in their fishing waters was priceless. Any likeness to recent events is fortuitous and demonstrates how much Čapek knew of the various European mindsets.

Intellectuals try to warn the world, especially the Houllebecq look-alike prophet of doom and gloom, Mr. Wolf Meynert.

There is a lot to say about War With the Newts and it’s still so relevant that it’s almost scary.

Reading this today, you could interpret the path taken with the salamanders as a metaphor of our destruction of nature, the inexorable climate change and how we fail to change of direction because the economy prevails.

Čapek shows how small-scale operations with a balanced relationship –ie the partnership between Van Toch and the newts – become destructive when mass capitalism and politics come to the playing field.

The minutes of the board meeting of G.H. Bondy’s company are edifying. Anything to cut the costs and increase the profitability. Anything to distribute dividends to the shareholders. Anything to have the biggest colony of newts and be stronger than the neighboring country. The 21st century is not even original.

And then there’s the underlying question of slavery, racism and colonization.

And then you have Mr Povondra, the one with a conscience.

He used to be G.H. Bondy’s doorman and he made the decision to open the door to Van Toch and was thus instrumental to their meeting. This tiny decision had huge consequences.

Like the scientists who worked on the atomic bomb, like the inventor of the internet or the early programmer of Facebook, Mr Povondra wonders if he made the right decision that day. His action has results he couldn’t have predicted but he’s still regretful.

War With the Newts wasn’t always an easy read because of its form.

The first part is rather straightforward, the second part is a patchwork of articles and speeches coming from Mr Povondra’s collection of all things salamanders. The last part was the consequence of the two firsts. I struggled at the beginning of part II but it was worth continuing.

I am in awe of Čapek’s ability to dissect human patterns, denounce capitalism through this fable.

He shows a very astute analysis of the economy, its mechanism and of politics and geopolitics. He lives in a dangerous world at the time. The 1930s. The aftermath of WWI, the Great Depression and the rise of dictatorships. The War of the Newts is a warning against human propensity to choose a path of destruction, ignore relevant warnings and renounce to profits for the common wellbeing.

We’re doomed, guys.

As often, I’ve played the book cover game and downloaded covers in different languages: French, Czech, English, Russian, German, Spanish and Swedish. They are very different and don’t give the same idea of the book. In the French and Swedish editions, the salamanders seem harmless. The Swedish newts look like Casimir, from a children show. The German cover transforms the newts into Goldorak and on the Spanish one, the newts are really hostile. The others are more symbolic. Now, you need to read the book to see which publishers are closest to the book. 🙂

20 Books of Summer #8 and #9 : two books I couldn’t finish

August 3, 2020 25 comments

Snow by Orhan Pamuk (2002) French title: Neige. Translated by François Pérouse. // La Horde du Contrevent by Alain Damasio. (2006) Not available in English.

I can’t say I got along with our two last Book Club reads, Snow by Orhan Pamuk and La Horde du Contrevent by Alain Damasio. (Not available in English and a literal translation would be The Shutter Troopers) In both cases, I read around 120-150 pages before giving up, I think I’ve given them a fair chance.

Let’s start with Snow. The character Ka –sounds like he’s coming of a Dino Buzzati novel—arrives in the provincial town of Kars, in Turkey. It’s winter and snowing. He’s back in his country after living in Germany for a decade. He’s a published poet and he’s sent to Kars as a reporter to investigate the suspicious suicides of young girls in the area. It’s also where his former university classmate Ipek lives. He had a vague crush on her back then and now he thinks she could be marriage material.

I know that Orhan Pamuk got the Nobel Prize of Literature and that Snow is a well-acclaimed novel. I just didn’t get along with it. I thought that the constant religious discussions were too long and boring and I found the relationship between Ka and Ipek implausible.

It’s the kind of book I should have liked and I’m sure it tells lots of interesting things about Turkey but I was really struggling. I asked the other Book Club members how they were doing with it and the one answer I got was that the last 200 pages were a little boring. Since the first 100 pages were already plenty boring to me, I made the decision to stop reading it. I couldn’t push through the 500 pages left. I was just bored.

It’s obviously a good book, just not one for me. Or perhaps I read it at the wrong time.

 

Now The Shutter Troopers. It’s SF, so really out of my comfort zone and I was apprehensive to tackle these 730 pages of hardcore SF, not even dystopian fiction. Think of Dune.

The first chapter threw me off. Humans are in a life-threatening wind tempest in a décor of rammed earth houses and Australian bush. The author is from Lyon and rammed earth houses are typical from the Dauphiné region, between Lyon and Grenoble. Since the landscape was made of red earth, spinifex, eucalypti and oaks, I thought about Australia. Images of my in-laws’ village clashed in my head with images of Uluru.

The structure of the book is unusual. The chapters go from XIX to I. The main characters are described in a glossary at the end of the book, something I’ve just discovered. The characters speak one after each other and are represented by Greek symbols. You never know who’s speaking unless you click on the symbol (ebook) or refer to the characters bookmark (paper book). The POV changes several times per chapter.

I have the ebook version and I hated clicking on the symbol because it broke my reading flow, so I stopped checking. (It would have been the same with the paperback anyway) I didn’t always know who was speaking and I spent the few chapters I read trying to understand what I was reading. French speaking readers will understand what I mean with this quote: “Les chrones les plus petits ont le volume d’un gorce. Les plus gros pourraient tenir dans la doline.”

I asked about La Horde du Contrevent to French readers on Twitter and got the same answers. It takes half of the book to really get into it; you have to read it in few sittings to really manage to enter into the book’s world and you need the book bookmark to follow who’s speaking but after 350 pages, it’s getting better. I also asked what it was about and the most accurate description was that it’s about a sort of rugby team who travels the Earth to find out where the wind comes from. It’s a spiritual quest.

The thing is, I don’t have the luxury to read 730 pages in one or two sittings, even on holiday. It got on my nerves not to be able to understand whose POV I was reading, even if the characters have distinct voices. I believe I would have recognized them in the end. But there are 23 troopers. How long would it have taken me to spot each character through their voice? Russian novels are piece of cake after that, believe me. Each trooper has a role in the team and it’s hard to assimilate as well since these roles are totally imaginary.

Call me conservative but I don’t think I should refer to a bookmark for the names of the characters when I’m reading. All this irritated me, got in the way of my immersion in Damasio’s world. And, honestly, it’s a pity. He’s insanely creative. His descriptions are precise, poetic and visual. He imagined a coherent world with rules and inhabitants and I’m sure that for some readers, it’s a wonderful journey. But Damasio is too verbose for my tastes. I put the book down for a few days, thinking I’d get back to it. I tried to resume reading and I was put-off by the style. I wasn’t interested in knowing what would become of them and I wasn’t intrigued enough to push through the discomfort of feeling totally disoriented.

La Horde du Contrevent won the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire in 2006, the Goncourt of SF. It’s rated 4.46 stars on Goodreads. My vision of it is only mine and says nothing about the quality of the book just that it wasn’t a good match for this reader.

This blog is not about reviewing books, it’s my reading journey, I share the good and the bad experiences.

20 Books of Summer #2: Expiration Date by Duane Swierczynski – Take a walk on a wild timeline

June 27, 2020 6 comments

Expiration Date by Duane Swierczynski (2010) French title: Date limite. Translated by Sophie Aslanides

Expiration Date by Duane Swierczynski was our Book Club choice for June. I’ve read enough Swierczynskis now to be –almost—able to write his name without mixing the letters up or putting too many Ys. I’ve read The Blonde and the Charlie Hardie series, Fun and GamesHell and Gone and Point and Shoot.

All books mix Noir, thriller and SF with a huge dose of humor. Imagine the cocktail. I love it. For French readers, Swierczynski’s translator is Sophie Aslanides and it’s published by Rivages Noir. That’s enough for crime fiction lovers to pick the book, IMO.

So, what happens in Expiration Date?

We’re in Philadelphia. When the book opens, it’s present time. Journalist Mickey Wade has just been fired by his newspaper. Since he earned just enough to survive with his wages as a journalist, he’s now flat broke. He’s moving from his upscale neighborhood to a bad one, Frankford. That’s where he grew up and where he’s going to stay rent-free in his grandfather’s apartment while he’s at the hospital.

First night in the building, there’s a bodega downstairs but not a lot of neighbors. His friend Meghan helps him moving in and when she’s gone, Mickey feels tired, lonely, a bit desperate and headachy. He looks around Grand Pop Henry’s apartment and is intrigued by all the boxes he sees. But now is not the time to go through Pop’s stuff. He hunts down pills to fight his headache, finds what he thinks is Tylenol, pops two in his mouth, washes them out with some water and is thrown back to Frankford on February 22, 1972, his date of birth.

And I can’t tell you more about the plot without truly spoiling it. It sounds like Back to the Future but it’s by Swierczynski, so there must be murders, an investigation and bad guys. The plot is gripping and takes you for such a spin that sometimes you don’t know where you are or when. That’s the entertaining side of the book.

The more serious side is that, through these journeys into the past, Swierczynski takes us to Frankford street and shows us how it was a working-class neighborhood in the 1920s, moved to a middle-class one in the 1970s when Mickey was a kid to a run-down neighborhood. It’s now dangerous and the territory of gangs and drug dealers. The decline of industrial jobs in the US happened. It is the same implacable scenario that Roth describes for his hometown Newark. There is always some social commentary in good crime fiction.

A word about the American edition. Swierczynski writes for Marvel Comics and this one is published by Minautor Books. It includes black-and-white illustrations like in old fashioned books. It gives them a wonderful vintage feel.

Do I need to add that this is a great holiday read?

PS : A big thank you for this book to Guy, from His Futile Preoccupations.

About three books I couldn’t finish

January 31, 2017 41 comments

I know the symptoms very well now. The book sits on the table and I’m not tempted to open it. I start browsing through the pages and splitting it into manageable bits. I cheer myself mentally “20 pages read! Yes!” I look longingly at the TBR thinking how appealing the other books on my shelf seem to be. And all of a sudden, I snap out of it, recognize the symptoms, remember that my reading time is too limited to waste it on books I don’t enjoy. And I make the decision to abandon the book and I feel relieved. This exactly what happened with the three books I abandoned over the last two months.

Les grands cimetières sous la lune by Georges Bernanos. (1938)

bernanos_cimetieres_luneThis one isn’t available in English and it’s not a translation tragedy. I reached page 86 out of 304 before I gave up. I was looking forward to reading this, expecting a French equivalent to Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. I wanted to read something about the Spanish Civil War and I thought I’d read something similar to the reportage In Syria by Joseph Kessel and Down and Out in Paris and London by Orwell. Instead of an articulate description and analysis of the Spanish Civil War, Les grands cimetières sur la lune was a screaming pamphlet and it yelled at me like a Howler in Harry Potter.

My first problem was that this essay was very rooted in its time and I didn’t know enough about the political fishbowl of the time. For the 1938 readers, who was who was easy but for me, I didn’t know the second-class politicians of 1938 and most importantly, I didn’t know which side they supported. Left? Right? Extreme-right? A little help with footnotes by the publisher or a foreword about the context would have helped. Nada. I’m always amazed by the poverty of French paperback editions compared to English ones. Unless you’re reading something that students might read in class, like Balzac or Voltaire, the introduction consists of a few facts about the writer’s bio and off you go with the book. Most of the time I’m fine with it, but for a book as this one, a good foreword and relevant footnotes are non negotiable basics.

My other problem was that I felt uncomfortable with Bernanos’s tone. I do love a good rant as long as I know where I stand with the one unleashing their thoughts on me. I didn’t know a lot about Bernanos himself and I went to Wikipedia after a few pages to understand what side he was supporting. I knew he was a fervent Catholic and while I’m respectful of anyone’s personal spirituality, I’m too anti-clerical to trust someone too close to the Catholic Church. I expected this side of him in his bio. (He’s the one who wrote Under Satan’s Sun and The Diary of a Country Priest) And I discovered he had a muddy political path in his life. He was born in 1888 and as a young man he was a monarchist and a militant for Action Française, an extreme-right monarchist political movement. He turned his back to them forever in 1932. Les grands cimetières sous la lune is a pamphlet against Franco and it received a huge echo in France when it was published. After living a few years abroad, he came back to France. He used his talent as a lampoonist against the Vichy regime and fought in the Résistance. He died in 1948. Apparently, he had changed sides in 1932.

Reading Les grands cimetières sous la lune, it was not clear to me what his political side was. Perhaps it’s because I missed innuendos. Still. I thought he had spent an awfully long time among the ranks of the extreme-right and it didn’t sit right with me. I couldn’t make up my mind about what he was writing. It was supposed to be an anti-fascist text and it wasn’t so obvious to me. Add the whiff of antisemitism and I was done with it.

I was perpetually confused about the people he was talking about and about where his thoughts were going to. I thought I’d try Homage to Catalonia instead or read L’Espoir by Malraux.

Let’s move on to the second book I abandoned.


Cat’s cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. (1963)

vonnegutI had loved Slaughterhouse Five and Cat’s Cradle had been sitting on my shelf for a while. I soldiered on until page 79 out of 286. I expected to have a good time with Cat’s Cradle, especially when you consider the blurb on Goodreads: Told with deadpan humour & bitter irony, Kurt Vonnegut’s cult tale of global destruction preys on our deepest fears of witnessing Armageddon &, worse still, surviving it … Promising, no? Total nightmare for me. I had my suspicions at page two when I came across this paragraph:

We Bokonists believe that humanity is organized into teams, teams that do God’s Will without ever discovering what they are doing. Such a team is called a karass by Bokonon, and the instrument, the kan-kan, that brought me into my own particular karass was the book I never finished, the book to be called The Day the World Ended.

I wondered how I’d fare with the fake religion. And then the story started with a narrator who’s trying to write a book about what the creator of the nuclear bomb did the day the first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. I couldn’t get into Vonnegut’s brand of crazy this time, just like I couldn’t read The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon. I would pick the book and not remember what I had read before or who the characters were. So, back to the shelf, Cat’s Cradle!

And now with the third book I abandoned and it was even more disheartening.

All Men Are Mortal by Simone de Beauvoir. (1946)

beauvoir_hommesI managed to read 275 pages out of 530 before throwing in the towel (or the sponge, as we say in French.) I persisted longer because I didn’t want to abandon another book and because it was Simone de Beauvoir. But in the end, same causes, same consequences, I couldn’t stomach to see it on the coffee table anymore.

All Men Are Mortal has a promising plot too. Obviously, otherwise I wouldn’t have bought the book in the first place, right? It starts with a hundred pages prologue where Régine gets acquainted with a strange man, Fosca. Régine is an actress and she longs for immortality, not in a literal sense but more as being remembered as a talented actress. She wants to be the new Sarah Bernhard, if you want. She’s obsessed with her legacy, with what people will remember of her and all her actions are focused on achieving this goal. One night, she meets Fosca and discovers later that he is immortal. Literally. Régine thinks that since he’s immortal, if she becomes part of his life, she will be immortal too through his memories. So far so good. Then we fall into the classic plot device: Fosca starts telling his life to demonstrate why it’s not that fantastic to be immortal. The first part starts in 1389 in Tuscany and Fosca becomes the leader of Carmona, a city in competition with Florence and Genoa. And Beauvoir throws us into the epic story of Fosca going to war, taking power, fighting for his city, influencing politics, blah blah blah. Gone is the actual thinking on the meaning of immortality. There are fleeting passages but most of the pages are filled with Fosca’s Italian adventures. I pushed until he becomes a mentor to Charles the Fifth and then I checked out. I couldn’t care less about his life. What possessed Beauvoir to write something like this? I’m sure there’s a philosophical message behind the story but it’s drowned into the battles and political events.

A missed rendezvous, that’s what it was.

Fortunately, between these three books I read the beautiful The Dark Room by RK Narayan, the refreshing La vie est un sale boulot by Janis Otsiemi and two short stories by Thomas Hardy, always a safe bet.

Have you read any of these three books? If yes, what did you think about them?

White heat is screaming in the jungle

February 23, 2015 18 comments

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes (2011) French title: Zoo City. (Translated by Laurent Philibert-Caillat)

Can’t stop the spirits when they need you

This life is more than just a read-through

Can’t Stop by Red Hot Chili Peppers

After On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin, I needed something urban and fast-paced. I wanted a radical change of atmosphere. So I picked Zoo City by Lauren Beukes and my wish was fulfilled.

beukesWe are in Johannesburg, in the fictional neighborhood of Zoo City where criminals live with their symbiotic animal. In this world, since they committed a crime and feel responsible for it, criminals have to wear their guilt in the form of a living animal glued to them day and night. Indeed, if they walk away from it, both die.

Zinzi is a former journalist, a former junkie and a former convict. That’s a lot for a person. She now belongs to Zoo City and her animal is a Sloth. (In French, it’s called a Paresseux, literally, a Lazy, so it gives an extra-dimension to the imposed pet). Zinzi survives by using her supernatural gift: she sees a person’s lost objects and can find them again. She advertises through flyers and proposes her services against a little cash. You lost your ring? Zinzi can find it and bring it back to you. One morning, she goes to an old lady’s place to bring her object back and get paid. But when she arrives there, the old lady has been killed and Zinzi can say good-bye to her money. Out of necessity, she’s forced to accept a mission she doesn’t like: she must find a person, a teenage pop star named Song, who’s been missing for a few days. Her guts tell her she should refuse this job but her wallet won’t allow it…

Then we are thrown into a classic Noir plot. A person with a past is cornered into accepting a task they know is shady. They get mixed into seedy business with a colorful string of characters and have to overcome obstacles to solve the problem. They may have to call in favors. And the journey is not without impact on their personal life. It has been done before but Lauren Beukes blends well into the genre and I totally understand why she was invited to Quai du Polar last year.

She has written pure Noir. Zinzi is a new version of the struggling PI who survives of lowly jobs and gets mixed into something that’s bigger than him. (The PI is usually a He). The investigation regarding Song works like a canvas and holds the book together but the most interesting is the atmosphere and the unusual idea of wearing your guilt on your sleeve through an animal’s impersonation.

What’s unique is the setting. It’s atmospheric and although you’re only reading with your eyes, I had the feeling other senses than my eyesight were called out. For me, this book had the sound track of Red Hot Chili Peppers in Can’t Stop. It conjured up images of Nikita by Luc Besson, only in black-and-white. As Zinzi investigates Song’s disappearance all over Johannesburg, I could almost smell the city, the car exhaust, the disagreeable smell you have in public transports like the metro in Paris. It smells metallic from the contact of the trains’ wheels with the rails and stale from the lack of proper airing. I could imagine the constant noise, the one you have in the congested streets of New York with emergency vehicles and police cars blaring. Johannesburg is as much a character and the humans in Zoo City. Lauren Beukes gives us a feel of its fictional impersonation just as you get a vision of Los Angeles in a novel by Chandler. Zinzi goes everywhere, from the bowels of the drain network to shopping malls, from the dangerous streets and decrepit buildings of Zoo City to the luxurious villa of Song’s producer and from the night life in bars to Benoît’s day job as a security employee.

And then, there’s the idea of this pet forced on you. Redemption is an illusion and this animal is a constant reminder of your actions. The past can’t lie in the past. Zinzi has a Sloth but some have an insect and some get encumbered by a marabou. While the insect can be hidden in a handbag, the marabou is a lot more difficult to conceal. Throughout the book, we learn a little more about Zinzi’s past life. Her present is in her life with her lover Benoît, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He had a wife and kids that he left behind, in a country ravaged by war. He has an animal with him, a mongoose and of course, a terrible past. With Benoît, Zinzi is forced to be part of the refugees who came from different war zones in Africa. Although we are in a fictional world but it still bears resemblance with ours and this part sounded real. Coming from my little self-centered Western world, I pictured South Africa like a piece of Western culture in Africa. I never realized it wasn’t isolated from all the horrible wars of the continent, that it had its share of refugees from combat zones. This is a side of South Africa I didn’t expect and I feel a bit stupid to be surprised.

Zoo City is not my usual type of books. I bought it last year at Quai du Polar. Lauren Beukes was there, I went to talk to her because I remembered Max’s glowing review of Zoo City. She was really friendly with her public and I’m the happy owner of a signed copy of this little jewel. Check out Max’s review since he’s read the book in English and thus has quotes to share. It will give you an idea of Lauren Beukes’s addicting style. He was also able to explain more specifically the animal phenomenon, something I didn’t find the English words for. Thanks Max, I owe you another one.

 

Quais du polar 2014: welcome to crime fiction

April 13, 2014 20 comments

quais-du-polar-2014In 2014, Quais du polar celebrates its 10th anniversary. It’s a festival set in Lyon and dedicated to crime fiction in books and films. (See the meaning of the name here) The whole city is about crime fiction during three days. There are conferences, exhibits, films, a great book fair and a walk turned into an investigation in the Vieux Lyon. James Ellroy was there for a conference and he was the star of the festival. I didn’t have time to participate in anything but go to the book fair. Compared to other salons, publishers don’t have stalls there, only independent book stores do. It is reserved to independent book stores from Lyon. If you look up book stores in Lyon in the yellow page, there are 95 results. They some are specialised in SF or comics, children lit, scientific books… Only a few of them participate to Quais du polar. Each stand corresponds to one book shop and the writers present at the festival are dispatched among them. I guess the book shops made good money during the weekend, there was a lot of people there. The atmosphere was like a swarm of crime fiction readers buzzing around stands, waiting to meet writers and chatting with book sellers. It’s always nice to be among book enthusiasts.

KotzwinkleTime to introduce you to a new French word: libraire. A libraire is a bookseller, a person who works in a book shop. But when I see bookseller I see vendeur de livres and not libraire because I’m under the impression that the selling part of the word is more important than the book part. When I hear libraire, I think of someone who loves books, reading books, being around books, talking about books and recommending books to others. The cash part of the story is only the ending, not the purpose. Books are not cans of green peas. A libraire is not a book seller. Libraire is a noble word that implies that the person in front of you is knowledgeable about books and will be all lit up if you share your reading with them. One of those owns the book store Au Bonheur des Ogres.  I was happy to chat with him again as last year he had recommended The Blonde and Nager sans se mouiller. I told him how the copy of Nager sans se mouiller I purchased from him in 2013 is now sitting on a shelf in Beirut thanks to the magic of book blogging and that I had LOVED The Blonde. He’s a true crime fiction aficionado, he oozes crime fiction enthusiasm, it’s incredible. You could spend hours talking to him about books. This year, he recommended The Midnight Examiner by William Kotzwinkle, La place du mort by Pascal Garnier and Le tri sélectif des ordures et autres cons by Sébastien Gendron. (Turns out I already had the last one). We’ll see how it goes this year.

GendronGarnier

Lauren Beukes was also there, she’s very friendly. I now have a signed copy of her Zoo City. It was on my wish list after reading Max’s review. I managed to snatch a signed copy of The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson for my in-law. I haven’t read him –yet— but in France, he’s published by Gallmeister. So I suppose he’s good. Even without his cowboy hat and plaid shirt, you’d know he’s American. He’s very friendly too.

beukesJohnson

I said earlier that publishers don’t have stalls at the book fair. They are involved in the festival, though. I really liked the ads for the publisher Points. Tu ne tueras Points… mais tu liras des polars. Literally Thou shall not kill but thou shall read crime fiction. There’s a pun on Points / point which is an old version of the negative form pas.

Quai_points

I had a lot of fun that afternoon and I hope I’ll have more time to go to conferences and exhibits next year.

 

Let’s read Romain Gary

January 8, 2014 56 comments

Gary_LecturesIn my New Year billet, I mentioned that 2014 is the centenary of Romain Gary’s birth. Indeed he was born on May 8th, 1914 in Vilnius, Russian Empire. It was the year WWI started and the year WWII ended in Europe. Talk about a man to be destined to be influenced by war.

I decided to celebrate this anniversary with you. I thus declare that May 2014 is Romain Gary Literature Month. On the 8th of May, I will post a billet about one of Gary’s books, I don’t know which one yet. I hope I won’t be celebrating it only with myself but that some of you will want to join me. All you have to do is to read a book about him or by him and post a billet on your blog. Participants who don’t have a blog are welcome as well and can either leave a comment here or contact me to arrange the publication of a guest post. (bookarounthecorner@gmail.com or Twitter @BookAround) Ready to participate? Here are some reading recommendations:

For completists, Gary has two books included in 1001 books you must read before you die:

  • La promesse de l’aube, (Promise at Dawn)
  • Les raciness du ciel,  (The Roots of Heaven)

For aficionados of literary prize winners:

  • Les racines du ciel, Prix Goncourt 1956
  • La vie devant soi, Prix Goncourt 1975 under the pen name of Emile Ajar. (Life Before Us)
  • Education européenne, Prix des critiques 1945

For people who repeatedly land on my blog after googling “How French men treat their women”, try Clair de femme or Au-delà de cette limite votre ticket n’est plus valable.

Otherwise, here are what are considered his best books:

  • La promesse de l’aubre
  • La vie devant soi
  • Les racines du ciel
  • Chien blanc
  • Clair de femme
  • Lady L
  • Education européenne
  • Les enchanteurs
  • Les cerfs-volants.

Personally, I have a soft spot for Au-delà de cette limite votre ticket n’est plus valable (Your ticket is no longer valid) and Adieu Gary Cooper.

Bellos_GaryGary’s life is literary material. Poor, rich, aviator, war hero, diplomat, writer, son the jewishest Jewish mother, immigrant, married to the glamorous Jean Seberg, guilty of the most incredible literary mystification with the creation of Emile Ajar. Intrigued? A biography might tempt you. In English, you can find Romain Gary, a Tall Story by David Bellos and in French, Romain Gary by Dominique Bona or Romain Gary le caméléon by Myriam Anissimov.

If you want to read what others have written about him, check out Tombeau de Romain Gary by the Canadian writer Nancy Huston. She’s a huge Gary fan. Pierre Assouline from Le Monde wrote a wonderful article on his blog –Sorry, it’s in French. His first wife Lesley Blanch wrote Romain, un regard particulier. Several writers arranged a collective book, Lectures de Romain Gary in which each of them tells about one of Gary’s books. Nancy Huston and Pierre Assouline are among them.

I hope you are now excited to try one of his books and join me in May. Meanwhile, I will publish a quote by him from different novels every Wednesday, starting today.

Il faut toujours connaître les limites du possible. Pas pour s’arrêter, mais pour tenter l’impossible dans les meilleures conditions.  in Charge d’âme.

You need to know the limits of what’s possible. Not to stop yourself but to aim at the impossible in the best conditions. (my translation)

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick

November 11, 2013 21 comments

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick. 1968 French title: Les androïdes rêvent-ils de moutons électriques ? 

Dick_AndroidsI’m not a SF fan in general, so I’ve never read Philip K Dick –the guy has a name to write hardboiled, not SF, if you want my opinion. And of course, I haven’t seen Blade Runner, based upon this novel. My last attempt at reading SF was War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells –I abandoned the book. My last SF film was 2001 The Space Odyssey –I fell asleep just after the first images of the spaceship. Bad, bad track record. I wanted to read Do Androids Dream on Electric Sheep? because I found the title funny and intriguing. I had no idea what it was about before reading Caroline’s review of the novel. So, where am I after my first Philip K Dick? I have finished the book and I have no intention of watching the movie. That sums it up. Now the book.

We are in the future in San Francisco, after World War Terminus. Humanity has conquered Mars, where they have settled colonies with androids as the workforce. The planet Earth is polluted with radioactive dust; WWT has almost eradicated life on Earth and living critters are the most valued properties. The biggest the animal, the richest you are. Owning a pet is synonym of social status and some have electric animals that resemble real ones. Bounty hunter Rick Deckard is one of them. He owns an electric sheep and he dreads that his neighbours suspect it is a fake animal, although they most likely will be too polite to ask.

To say ‘Is you sheep genuine?’ would be a worse breach of manners than to inquire whether a citizen’s teeth, hair or internal organs would test out authentic.

This society works in a reversed way to ours. For us, it is valuable to own the latest electronic device or a beautiful car. We swat ants or spiders without second thoughts. For Rick and his wife Iran, finding a wild spider is a source of wonder. On Earth, the radioactive dust is so thick that nobody can see the stars anymore. Also, as a consequence of the radioactive dust, humans are checked up regularly to verify that their faculties don’t deteriorate. When it happens, they become second class citizens called Specials and referred to as chikenheads.

Philip K Dick doesn’t spend a lot of pages describing this devastated world. We don’t learn much about its political regime. Countries still exist, including the USSR. We don’t know how people entertain themselves, except that their Oprah Winfrey is named Buster Friendly. They have a new religion, Mercerism and people fuse with Mercer, the guru of that cult. The fusion allows them to share feelings and emotions.

Rick is on the police force as a bounty hunter; his job is to “retire” androids that would live on Earth among humans, which is totally illegal. As technology advances, androids resemble more and more to humans and the only way to differentiate a human from an android is to pass a test named the Voigt-Kampff profile test. It is based upon the assumption that only humans feel empathy for fellow humans or for animals. The test registers tiny reflex reactions to questions involving animals or humans in situations which would make a human flinch.

At the moment, a new generation of androids has been created, the Nexus-6 and they’re harder to find among humans. Rick has now a new assignment. His colleague Dave has been injured by an android he had to retire and is in the hospital, unable to finish the job. Rick needs to finish it and has to retire six Nexus-6 androids. The task is not easy. To help him, he’s sent to the Rosen Association which creates androids for the colonies and the goal of his visit is to ensure that the Voigt-Kampff test is relevant to pick out Nexus-6 androids. At the time his assignment arrives, Rick is already questioning his life-style, his job and he’s obsessed with genuine animals. For example, he keeps the catalogue of the pet shop with him and acts about pets as men usually act about fancy cars.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is not a political novel. I saw it more like an existentialist novel, although I’m not sure it is the right adjective. The central question of the book is “What is the essence of humanity?” The androids act more and more like humans and Rick starts feeling empathy for them. He questions his own humanity. What does it mean to be human? Philip K Dick bases its novel on the philosophical concept that empathy is what differentiates humans from androids. Only living beings can feel empathy and make impulsive and irrational decisions fuelled by empathy. As a coincidence, the day I finished the book, I heard a radio show on France Inter named Sur les épaules de Darwin. It was about scientific experiments on empathy and the link between scientific discoveries in that field and philosophical thinking on that very concept. They said that Marcus Aurelius and then Adam Smith and then Darwin supported this theory.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a novel about the human condition and a quest for identity. Rick wonders How am I a man? How do I remain a man? Or shall I say a Mensch? Frontiers start to blur when he interacts with Rachael. He doesn’t recognise her as an android right away. He meets with androids that are sure to be human. Rick craves for natural interactions with people. He’s not sure that it is right to retire androids any more. He thinks he’s killing them, not retiring them. He has empathy for machines and it affects his work. Doubt about his job creeps in his mind but events always bring him back on the right track. Androids are not human beings. Even sophisticated androids betray themselves in stress situations: they don’t react as humans and don’t understand the humans’ reactions around them as they are irrational. Philip K Dick seems to say: “See, humans are too complex to be copied”. Irrational is hard to imitate, to program: these humans have foolish reactions and can have feeling for machines.

At the beginning, I saw Rick as another Montag, the hero of Farenheit 451. Both are married men with questionable jobs. Both meet a woman who unsettles their vision of life and of themselves. Both start questioning the rightfulness of their profession. This new acquaintance happens at a moment in their life where they were ready for a change. When Montag rejects the society he lives in and joins the resistance against it, Rick has a more personal quest about his place on earth. Montag chooses to fight against institutions; it makes sense. Rick struggles against himself to fight his angst and life seems absurd. I couldn’t help thinking about Malraux, Camus and Gary. I don’t have enough education to elaborate that thought but that’s where the book led me to. It is set in an imaginary reality but Rick’s quest is ours.

When I closed down the book, I thought “I didn’t like it”. I would have stuck to that opinion if I didn’t have the rule to write about all the books I read. Writing the billet helped me see how interesting and complex this novel is. It is not easy and I’m glad I’ve read it, although I didn’t enjoy myself. I’d rather read Camus to think about that kind of concept. Or Romain Gary.

For another review, discover Brian’s here.

Maybe some of you have forgotten what companies really do. So let me remind you: they make as much money as possible.

July 12, 2013 21 comments

Jennifer Government by Max Barry, 2003. French title: Jennifer Gouvernement.

“A wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuit of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government”  Thomas Jefferson, 1801.

Barry_Jennifer_GovernmentThis quote from Jefferson is at the beginning of Jennifer Government. What did Max Barry do with such a statement? He took it LITERALLY. So we’re in a 21st century imaginary world where the Earth is divided in three zones, seen from an American point of view: the United States Federated Blocs (USA/Australia/UK/Russia/South America), the Non-United States Federated Blocs (Europe/China) and the Fragmented Markets (Africa/Middle East). The whole novel is set in the US Federated Blocs. Here, the government has no money because taxes were abolished, market laws rule everything and there aren’t any regulations unless you do something very illegal such as killing someone. It’s full employment and people’s surname is the name of the company they work for.

It all starts in America and ends up with a butterfly effect coming from the corporate world. Hack Nike, a merchandising officer, is thirsty and the water fountain on his floor is empty. He goes downstairs to catch a bit of water and stumbles upon John Nike, Guerilla Marketing VP and John Nike, Guerilla Marketing Operative. The John Nikes have decided of a new marketing plan to better sell the Mercury, their new luxury sneaker. They’ve already made it scarce on the market to increase its value and make people want to have a pair at any cost. Now, they want to move their plan to the next level. They’re about to drop thousands of pairs in shops and want to kill 10 customers at random once they have purchased Mercuries to make it look as if people are ready to kill to have these sneakers. They just need someone to do the job now. Hack is there and they lure him into thinking they promote him from merchandising to a great marketing if he just signs this contract written in small letters. Hack signs it without reading it and then learns what he has to do: he’s in charge of picking and killing the ten victims. When he enquires about the legality of the said task, here is the answer he gets from the two Johns:

“He wants to know if it’s illegal,” the other John said, amused. “You’re a funny guy Hack. Yes, it’s illegal, killing people without their consent, that’s very illegal.”

Vice President John said, “But the question is: what does it cost? Even if we get found out, we burn a few million on legal fees, we get fined a few million more…bottom-line, we’re still way out in front”

That’s pretty much the tone of the book. Hack doesn’t have the guts to kill 10 people himself but can’t get out of the job. That’s when things become global: he goes to the police to subcontract them the job. And the police subcontract it to the NRA. The killing is done and several people get involved in the plot. Jennifer Government is the government agent who was sent on the premises of the killing. She has a personal reason to track down John Nike and she’s really after him. Buy Mitsui attempts to rescue a girl from the killing but can’t because he doesn’t give his credit card number fast enough to 911 and they don’t send an ambulance without upfront payment. Billy is accidentally enrolled by the NRA and is caught up in their net of criminal doings. But more importantly, the world is divided into two major customer programs, Team Alliance and US Alliance. Each program elects a company in its field to be part of the program so Team Alliance is basically composed of companies in direct competition with the ones of US Alliance. The NRA and Nike are with US Alliance; the Police is with Team Alliance. Things escalate to a real war between the two majors networks and it’s up to you to discover what happens next.

I had a LOT of a fun reading this book. It’s dystopian fiction spiced up with a devilish sense of humour. The police? They broadcast ads to attract clients and their theme song is Every Breath You Take. Companies? Only interested in the bottom line of their P&L. Employees? Sheep that would give up anything for a discount and buy anything that is marketed as a “must have”. Schools? Sponsored by corporations which work on their programs and give toys, furniture and stationery. The Government? No taxes, no budget, they have to raise money from the families of the victims to start an investigation. Hear Calvin Governement when the news of the killing comes to him:

“Fourteen dead. At least eight were contract killings, all from families of limited means. At this stage it looks like the victims were selected for low incomes. I hate to say it, but it’s going to be tough to get budget on this one.”

It’s not real but it’s so close. Only money matters. And market shares. John Nike is the villain but he only gets his way because everybody is ready to give up part of their freedom of movement, of speech or of thinking for a bargain.

Being French and reading this is even funnier as France is mentioned in the book as a comparison to what America and its affiliated countries have become. I have to say that the quote by Jefferson shocked me. As a French, this is totally foreign to my DNA. I will never think that accepting inequalities and not sharing wealth through taxes or welfare is a good thing. Never ever. That’s why I’ll never understand how rich America can be a country without free health care or affordable universities. But enough of the heavy.

As an anecdote, I’ve learned a new expression. “Gregory was talking to a couple of big US Alliance cheeses, including Alfonse, the CEO”. I didn’t know what a big cheese is. Translated literally, I can’t say it sounds really positive in French. But the corresponding French expression (un gros bonnet, a big hat) may not sound too grand in English either. Anway.

Jennifer Government is written like a thought-provoking action movie. It’s a page turner, it’s fun, upbeat and incredibly sarcastic. I have a girly crush on writer Max Barry. I’ve already read Company and Syrup and I loved them too. I wish he came with me to the office and spent a few months in the French corporate world. Then he would write a killing novel featuring moronic unionists with undeserved power, unworkable regulations voted with the best intentions by MPs who have never set a foot in a company and puzzled foreigners wondering how things can still work despite all these complexity and obstacles. Come Max, I’ll sneak you in as my intern and you’ll work undercover.

War of the Worlds : without me

September 24, 2011 22 comments

War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells 1898.

Title of the book one: The Coming of the Martians. It was such a put off that I took the book several times in hand before turning that first page. Without Max’s previous comment that War of the Worlds was a way to criticize British colonialism, I would have put the book back on the shelf.

So I started it and really, the first chapter was promising, I could see the metaphor with European colonialists. But then, no sorry, metaphor or not, the story of Tripods and Heat-Rays (I know, it’s for rifles) didn’t make it. I flipped through the table of contents: 150 pages of war before the description of life under the Martian rule, which seemed more interesting to me.

Too much for me. I hesitated (I could try to read past page 69, couldn’t I?) then saw my TBR shelves and thought about using that reading time for something that would really appeal to me. Un livre qui me ferait plaisir.

This is why I abandoned War of the Worlds, a book victim of my limited reading time. I’m sure it’s a great novel but not for me, not at this moment.

I expected a chef, I got a short-order cook

July 6, 2011 21 comments

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon. 2007. 454 pages. French title: Le Club des policiers Yiddish. Translated into French by Isabelle Delord-Philippe.  

Ingredients:

Two policemen with very different characters. One must have the usual characteristics of a crime fiction investigator, policeman or PI. He’s been crashing for ages in a dump hotel room since his tumultuous divorce. He drinks heavily but still has a sharp mind when it comes to solving crimes. If possible, add family issues, like an obnoxious father who committed suicide and an uncle who has muddy relationships with the law. The other policeman must be his opposite, happily married, with children, the kind of guy who smells of cereals and baby lotion but can still play the tough guy when needed. It is recommended to add an identity problem, such as a mixed blood origin between an Indian man and a Jewish woman.

A setting. Choose an improbable place no one knows in a rough environment. Try to be original, like Sitka in Alaska. If the book is a success like Twilight, the city might even benefit from tourist tours. If you want, you can mix reality with fake history. It is called alternate history. You imagine what would have happened if an historical decision had been made another way. It’s a good thing as, in case of Jewish policemen, it might even relate you to Philip Roth’s Plot Against America, which is a good reference. And it could attract SF readers in addition to crime fiction readers.

A murder. It has to be mysterious. Try to mix personal drama, like a stiff obsessed by chess game like the policeman’s deceased father. If the murder reaches the policeman personally, it will give him a reason and the energy to overcome difficulties, fear and pressure to solve the mystery at any cost. The corpse must belong to an odd guy. A fake identity will spice things up as the policemen will have to research his ID before starting to look for his murderer.

Side characters: Think of several funny or frightening or controversial side characters.

Spices: Whatever you want as long as it tastes better. Try to be original, like using loads of Yiddish words so that your characters’ speeches sound more genuine or having the policeman’s ex-wife become his boss.

After you have gathered the ingredients.

Set the computer on Word. Grease a 450 pages book tin. Cream the two policemen together until they have a real connection. Stop when the dough creates phrases as

According to doctors, therapists, and his ex-wife, Lansman drinks to medicate himself, tuning the tubes and crystals of his moods with a crude hammer of hundred-proof plum brandy. But the truth is that Landsman has only two moods: working and dead.

Warm the events and side characters in a pan and add to the mixture. Mix well to a stiff consistency. Put into the tin and write until the 450 pages are done. Let it cool down and sell it to a publisher.  

A couple of years later.

By then it lays on a display table in a French bookstore where a reader named Emma buys it. She takes it home, put it on the TBR shelf and after a while decides to have it for her next reading fest. She chews a few chapters and quickly needs a break in the form of a British short story. She resumes reading her dish and after a couple of chapters, wants a sip of Lermontov. Then after 164 bites of the Jewish policemen recipe, she decides she can’t stomach it, pushes her plate away, gets up and fetches a Fred Vargas as a dessert.  

For a serious review of Michael Chabon’s book, read Wikipedia.

How do they sleep while their books are burning?

October 5, 2010 12 comments

Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury. Read by Thierry Blanc.

When I saw Fahrenheit 451 in the audio book section at the library, I thought “Why not? I only knew the book by name and that it was science fiction. I knew nothing about the author or about the time it was published and I did not search for answers before starting it. I like blind dates with books, films or plays. I enjoy opening a new book without expecting anything or sitting in the dark and discovering a movie or a play, open-minded and ready to accept it as it comes without preconceived ideas.

Fahrenheit 451 was published in 1953, during the Cold War, which I guessed while hearing the novel. The story takes place in America in an unspecified future time. Guy Montag is a fireman, whose job is no more to protect people and extinguish fires, but be the armed arm of a dictatorial government who forbids people from reading. Reading is thinking, and thinking would lead people want more than being distracted. Therefore books are forbidden and firemen burn them.

The country is run as an apparent democracy (elections take place) but is in fact a dictatorship. The society is organized to keep people busy and happy. Happiness means being entertained all day long and turning one’s brain off. Happiness is not a right anymore, it is an obligation. And like the verb “to read”, “to be happy” does not bear the imperative form.

Life changes for Montag when he bumps into his new neighbour Clarisse McClellan a night after work. She starts talking to him and makes him see things in a different light. She enjoys walking on the streets, observing the moonlight and chatting. In my head, Clarisse sounded like Astrolabe from A Winter Journey written by Amélie Nothomb and physically looked like Amélie Nothomb herself. I can’t explain why.

She sows the seeds of doubt in Montag’s head and helps him realize what he confusedly already feels: that his life is meaningless and that he is lonely, although he is married.

Already doubting, he is sent to burn a house in which books were hidden. The owner of the house would rather be burnt with her books than live. That someone could die for books deeply disturbs Montag and makes him cross the bridge from doubt to rebellion.

 The society Bradbury describes is by some ways not fictional anymore. Montag and his wife Milly hardly speak to each other because the walls of their house are covered with huge screens which broadcast silly TV shows. The screens customize the speeches and directly address to the person in the house. Milly calls them “the family”. I don’t know if Ray Bradury had imagined Secret Story or Big Brother or any of those brainless TV shows but he was close. There is no better way to stop people talking to each other than putting huge screens with a constant flow of images. See what happens when there is such a screen in a café or in a restaurant, your eyes are always tempted to turn toward the screen and give up the conversation.  Montag and Milly cannot recall where they first met or how their relationship started. Bradbury shows by this how brainwashed they have been, because it is something spouses usually do not forget.

Milly can only sleep with pills and thanks to a constant flow of music and words in her ear. (Premonitory iPod?) When Montag takes the train, commercials are endlessly repeated, to a point that he cannot concentrate on his thoughts. People are never alone but do not care about each other, they get killed by fast cars and nobody protests. They do not elect the president who has the best political ideas but the one who is good-looking. They are shallow in every aspect of their lives.

It seems we’re here already. But even if Bradbury was dead right on some aspects of our contemporary society, I don’t want to be so pessimistic. Yes, consumer society is a soft dictatorship and mass marketing is its best ally. Yes, we need to be watchful. But books still exist, despite all the other – and easier – ways one can spend time. Some books may not be of high literary quality, but as long as people do not give up the whole institution, I have hope. And blogs prove we can also use technology to our best advantage and create human conversations which wouldn’t otherwise exist.

When Lost Time is not searched but stubbornly imposes itself

August 17, 2010 9 comments

Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut.

Kurt Vonnegut openly states that this book is about his experience of WWII. He was a war prisoner working in a slaughterhouse in Dresden when the city was bombed by British and American air forces. He was one of the seven American prisoners who survived. This bombing turned Dresden from a beautiful earthly city to a place looking like moon.

 Can life be more ironic than surviving a massacre thanks to a shelter in a slaughterhouse ?

 The first chapter of the novel is an introduction in which Kurt Vonnegut describes the genesis of this book, published in 1969. He had been struggling to write about the bombing in Dresden for years and explains why the book is dedicated to Gerhard Müller and Mary O’Hare. The first one was the German cab driver he and his war companion Bernard V O’Hare befriended with when visiting Dresden for this book. The latter is O’Hare’s wife, Mary, who was angry that Kurt Vonnegut would write a book about his war experience. She thought it would show war as glamorous and she resented that. Kurt Vonnegut promised her he would not write anything turning this book into a tribute to war. I read this first chapter one night, and in the next morning, powerful as it was, it lingered in my mind. The afternoon on that same day, when visiting an Air and Space Museum, I experienced what Mary O’Hare had feared. The history of aircraft was told in such a way that it shown war as attractive. Almost everything was about war, a little about civil companies and nothing about commercial, humanitarian, or postal aircraft. It struck me as I was starting Slaughterhouse Five, would it have struck me the same way without it ? I’m not sure. Back to the book.

Kurt Vonnegut tells the story of Billy Pilgrim who was sent to WWII as a chaplain’s assistant in 1944 and was a war prisoner in Germany. Like many soldiers, Billy resumed a “normal” life after the war, as anyone expected him to do. He married a rich girl, passed his exam as an optometrist and succeeded in the business. He became rich and was well acquainted and praised by the local bourgeoisie, in Ilium, New York. He would live a humdrum life, but “Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time” and has spent time on another planet, Tralfalmadore. The Tralfamadorians are a people who observe Earthlings and have a totally different conception of life and time.

  “All moments, past, present and future always have existed, always will exist. (…) They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have on Earth that one moment follows the other one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone, it is gone forever”.

There is no need to mourn when someone dies, because the moments where he is alive still exist. In this idea of time, there is no lost time, every moment is permanent. War souvenirs pop up in Billy’s everyday life. Like in Proust, smells, colours, scenes bring him back that Lost Time, except that, contrary to the Narrator in Proust, he would rather not remember. These moments still vividly exist for him.

I was impressed by the style and the construction of this novel and spent some time in dictionaries, looking for words I did not understand, because every word seemed purposely chosen and there to contribute to the story. Vonnegut’s little sentences are walking in line, like obedient soldiers. Precise. Well-ordered. Never stopping. The novel is full of cross-references, which show how Billy’s war time leaks into any moment of his post-war life. Vonnegut uses the technique of repetition for this. I noticed three examples of repetitions, but there are probably more.

The first one is a “striped banner of orange and black”, which is on the train carrying the war prisoners. Later, the tent that Billy’s daughter had for her wedding reception was striped and “The strips were orange and black”. The second one is when Billy walks among other American war prisoners. He sees “corpses with bare feet that were blue and ivory”. This image of blue and ivory bare feet is also used twice to describe Billy’s feet in his home in Ilium and once more for corpses. The third one is a dog barking, first just before Billy is caught by the Germans. “The dog had a voice like a big bronze gong”. Later, this image is used again both for civilian and war time.

 These repetitions create the effect of the flashes which occur in Billy’s mind. We understand that at any time in his everyday life, a word, a sensation can bring him back to war. Like in Tralfamagore, the past moments are not dead, they still live and can be lived again. 

Moreover, to emphasize the number of occasions in which death is involved, every time a death-related word is used, the sentence “So it goes” ends the paragraph. It can be an actual death (someone gets killed) or not (Some champagne without bubbles is described as “dead”). Counting the number of “so it goes” would give the number of times death is involved.

Sometimes, an interruption from the author reminds us that  it is his story too. “I was there. So was my old war buddy, Bernard V. O’Hare”

In the end, everything fits like a big puzzle. It is wonderfully and cleverly crafted. Besides this extraordinary net of people and feelings, I like Vonnegut’s sense of humour in describing things or people, like for Maggie White :

“She was a dull person, but a sensational invitation to make babies. Men looked at her and wanted to fill her up with babies right away”

 Billy looks like the Candide of Voltaire to me. In English, Candide is categorized as “satire”. In French we say “conte philosophique”, literally “philosophical fairy-tale”. For me, this is how I would call Slaughterhouse Five. It allies the magical elements which are natural in fairy-tales and the philosophical quest and critic of our society. Like Candide, Slaughterhouse Five is built on real historical events. Both characters live through atrocities but take things as they come and look ridiculous. Candide’s optimism is ludicrous and Billy is dressed like a clown. Both have a personal philosophy which is their inner compass. 

In addition, it seems to me that Tralfamagore is a mean to bring to life Bergon’s theory of Duration through science fiction elements (a saucer, aliens, another planet, etc.). I am not educated enough in philosophy to develop fully that idea, but I have the intuition that it is related. Like Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Slaughterhouse Five is a thought on Time and Memory. (I’m also reading Proust and I think there is something between Bergson’s theory and Proust too)

And of course, Slaughterhouse Five is known to be an antiwar novel.

It questions the justification of the bombing in Dresden. How Americans relieve their conscience of killing innocent civilians by comparing the number of victims of Dresden to that of the victims from the Nazis. Kurt Vonnegut does not accept the rationalization of this act and its deceptive justification. He still thinks that this bombing was unnecessary to win the war and caused the death of 135,000 persons and destroyed a beautiful city. When Billy leaves from his first war prisoner camp to Dresden, his English co-prisoners tell him he is lucky to be sent there because “You needn’t worry about bombs, by the way. Dresden is an open city. It is undefended, and contains no war industries or troop concentration of any importance”.

In Slaughterhouse Five, all good soldiers and war lovers are dangerous persons in civilian life. For example, among the other American prisoners, Roland Weary is a distasteful and crazy man, whose main interests in life are weapons and torture tools and Paul Lazzaro is obsessed by revenge, and can wait for years before acting. Billy’s own son, a Green Beret during the Vietnam war is described like this:

“This was a boy who had flunked out of high school, who had been an alcoholic at sixteen, who had run with a rotten bunch of kids, who had been arrested for tipping over hundreds of tombstones in a Catholic cemetery one time. He was all straightened out now. His posture was wonderful and his shoes were shined and his trousers were pressed, and he was a leader of men”

In Kurt Vonnegut’s mind, one must be a freak to love war. There is no comradeship between the American war prisoners, something often put forward by former soldiers. The American soldiers are all anti-heroes, poor little human beings and only children.

 There would be a lot more to say about Slaughterhouse Five. I did not relate the criticism of the American society included in this book, through the articles of a character named Campbell. The question of free-will is also important and discussed. I could have written pages about the construction of this novel, but I think this post is long enough.

To conclude, I am indebted to Max Cairnduff from Pechorin’s Journal for giving me the title of this book when I asked for recommendations to discover SF authors. Thanks a lot, I loved it.

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