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Posts Tagged ‘Friendship’

Please, draw me a sheep!

August 28, 2011 14 comments

Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. 1943.

The first time I read The Little Prince, I was eleven and I loved it. This summer I decided to read it along with my children. The Narrator – possibly Antoine de Saint-Exupéry – is an aviator whose plane is out-of-order in the desert. He’s trying to repair it when a little boy with golden hair comes to him and asks « Please, draw me a sheep » The Narrator draws the sheep and starts chatting with the Little Prince. He comes from a tiny planet with three volcanos and a rose. The Narrator assumes the planet is the Asteroid B612. The Little Prince left his planet because he thought his rose was too demanding. He relates his journey to the Earth, going from one planet to the other and meeting with strange people. All the issues are still relevant or have become bigger or more urgent since 1943. Through a candid Little Prince and his exploration of foreign planets, Saint-Exupéry questions the exploitation of natural resources, our greed, our respect for processes until absurdity, the domination of the West on other cultures, the dictatorship of appearance.

My favourite ones are the businessman and the lamp-lighter.

The businessman thinks he owns the stars and spends his time counting them. The Little Prince is rather puzzled:

– Comment peut-on posséder les étoiles? – A qui sont-elles? Riposta, grincheux, le businessman.- Je ne sais pas. A personne.- Alors elles sont à moi, parce que j’y ai pensé le premier.

– Ça suffit?

– Bien sûr. Quand tu trouves un diamant qui n’est à personne, il est à toi. Quand tu trouves une île qui n’est à personne, elle est à toi. Quand tu as une idée le premier, tu la fais breveter: elle est à toi. Et moi je possède les étoiles, puisque jamais personne avant moi n’a songé à les posséder.

How can you own the stars?  – Who owns them?, the businessman retorts curtly– I don’t know. Nobody.– Then they are mine because I thought about it first.

– Is that enough?

– Of course. When you find a diamond that doesn’t belong to anybody, then it’s yours. When you find an island that doesn’t belong to anybody, it’s yours. When you’re the first to have an idea, you take out a patent for it. It’s yours. And I own the stars since before me, nobody ever thought of owning them.

Aren’t there people who now sell parts of the moon?

The lamp-lighter has to light the street lamp at night and switch them off in the morning. He can’t sleep because on his planet one day lasts one minute, so he spends his time switching on and off the street lamps. It was different before, days became shorter but the man lives according to the book. It says to switch the street lamps on and off once a day and that’s what he does whatever the cost or how absurd it is. He can’t adjust or use his good sense and act differently.

Then there’s the part on Earth. In our times of frantic social networking and calling « friend » a person met by a random click on Facebook, children should all read The Little Prince and discuss with an adult the passage with the fox. The Little Prince encounters a fox who wants to befriend with him. The fox says « you must tame me »

– Je cherche des amis [dit le petit prince] Qu’est-ce que signifie « apprivoiser »?- C’est une chose trop oubliée, dit le renard. Ça signifie « créer des liens… »- Créer des liens?-Bien sûr, dit le renard. Tu n’es encore pour moi qu’un petit garçon tout semblable à cent mille petits garçons. Et je n’ai pas besoin de toi. Et tu n’as pas besoin de moi non plus. Je ne suis pour toi qu’un renard semblable à cent mille renards. Mais, si tu m’apprivoises, nous aurons besoin l’un de l’autre. Tu seras pour moi unique au monde. Je serai pour toi unique au monde… – I’m looking for friends, [the Little Prince says] What does ‘to tame’ mean?– It’s a long forgotten thing, the fox says. It means « to create bonds… »– To create bonds?– Of course, the fox says. For me, you’re still a little boy, similar to 100 000 other little boys. And I don’t need you. And you don’t need me. For you I’m only a fox similar to 100 000 other foxes. But if you tame me, we’ll need each other. To me, you’ll be unique. To you, I’ll be unique…

Friendship is not a declaration (or a click), it needs time to settle, to build and that’s what the fox teaches to the Little Prince. In that chapter, the Little Prince also learns about love. He discovers that his rose is unique and that friendship and love go along with some responsibility. You receive love but you have to care about who gives it to you.

I had forgotten about the businessman but I remembered this part. I recalled this book as full of light. Years later, I still think it’s a fantastic tale, a concentrate of humanism and goodness. Saint-Exupéry wrote this in 1943, during dark ages for Europe. I wonder if it was a way to forget the war and its horrors. He was lost at sea in 1944. He probably never knew about the Holocaust. I wonder what this knowledge would have done to his faith in humanity.

Indonesia mon amour.

June 16, 2011 9 comments

Sleuteloog by Hella S Haasse. 2002. French title: L’anneau de la clé. Not translated into English. 186 pages.

 This book is part of my EU Book Tour and also my participation to the month of Dutch Literature hosted by Iris. I thought it was my first Dutch book but I remembered later that I had read The Diary of Anne Frank and books by Robert Van Gulik. Anyway. Hella S Haasse was born in 1918 in Batavia (Jakarta) in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). She has written more than 20 novels, all translated into French but only a few of them are translated into English. She is known for her historical novels and the influence of her childhood in Batavia on her work. She is compared to Marguerite Yourcenar. Rien que ça.  

But back to Sleuteloog

Herma Warner was born in 1920 in Batavia. She is now over 80 and is about to leave her home to live in a nursing house. She and her late husband Tjeerd belong to the last generation of Dutch born in the Dutch West Indies. They were forced to come back to the Netherlands after Indonesia became independent (1949). Both of them spent their lives studying the history and the art of their native country. A journalist contacts Herma. He wants to interview her about the past of an activist named Mila Wychinska. The now called Mila was Herma’s best friend Dee, from her childhood in Indonesia. Herma is reluctant to give information, to remember some painful moments of her past. She gives in and starts writing what she remembers. Soon, she’s overwhelmed by her memories of that friendship and of the Batavia of that time.

When I was reading, I thought about the Pied Noirs (The French settlers in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco). I also thought of Un Barrage contre le Pacifique by Marguerite Duras, for the description of life in the colonies inAsia. I haven’t read it, it is on my TBR but Guy reviewed it. Colonialism had to be fought and all the colonies deserved their independence; it wasn’t fair. That’s history at the scale of a nation. But if we come to history at the scale of a human being, it must have been hard for people who were born there to leave everything behind and come back to a country they didn’t really know. They seemed to miss their town, the climate, the plants, the food and many other things and to feel uprooted. Herma evokes a lost paradise and she was happy to go back to Indonesia for her work.

I suppose Hella S Haasse managed to describe the society of that time and the different attitudes of the Dutch settlers towards the upcoming changes. Some were so optimistic that it was almost stupidity. Some supported the natives in their fight. Some hoped to find a middle ground. I only assume it is a vivid picture of the end of colonialism because I found this book difficult to read for several reasons. My first problem was the characters. Dee’s family tree isn’t big but I had problems remembering who was the son, brother, sister or mother of whom. I suppose I’m not the only one who get confused since there is a family tree at the end of the book.

I know nothing about the history of Indonesia and I struggled to understand what happened before and after the independence. Hella S Haasse chose a non-chronological way to tell Herma and Dee’s story. Herma recalls specific moments and relates them. She goes back and forth in time and it really reproduces the way our mind works. She leaps from one memory to another, letting her mind wander. It’s certainly a good device from a literary point of view. But for an ignorant reader like me, it didn’t help learning something about Indonesia and put events in the right order.

As I’m not Dutch, I don’t know what happened to white people after Indonesia became independent. I assume they were shipped back to the Netherlands. I got that there was something about being a mixed-raced person. Some could choose to become Indonesian and stay there and others had to go, according to some criteria I didn’t catch. I suppose it is part of Dutch history as the fate of the Pied Noirs is part of French history. Without the Dutch background, I didn’t catch all the nuances and missed something about Herma and Dee’s relationship.

Then, there was the irritating constant use of Indonesian words in the text, sometimes several in one page. As a consequence, the translator added a lot of footnotes and it broke the flow of my reading. I understand that an Indonesian word is useful when it covers a notion or a reality without a French word for it. But why write becak when the word cyclo pousse (1) exists? Does that mean that cyclo pousse doesn’t exist in Dutch, leading Hella S Haasse to use the Indonesian word and then the translator to keep the Indonesian to remain faithful to the text? Or are these words commonly used by Dutch people like the French know some Arab words after the Pied Noirs came back to France?  

I think a foreword by the translator explaining the historical context would have been really helpful. I also wonder to what extend it is autobiographical. And then after those difficulties, there was the story. This is a friendship between two people who are very different in character, one really wild and rebel while the other is quiet and respectful of the established order. Rather common. It reminded me of The Last of the Savage by Jay McInerney and I already had a feeling of déjà-vu when I read this one.

All in all, I think it’s a good book in general but not for me in particular. Now I’m reading Max Havelaar and perhaps I should have read it before Sleutehoog. It could have helped for the historical context.

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