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

December 26, 2020 19 comments

War With the Newts by Karel Čapek (1935) French title: La guerre des salamandres. Translated by Claudia Ancelot.

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

Written in 1935, 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.

AusReadingMonth: Lexicon by Max Barry – “Words are weapons sharper than knives”

November 1, 2019 17 comments

Lexicon by Max Barry (2013) Not available in French.

Wil Parke is brutally kidnapped at Chicago airport. A mysterious team takes him to the lavatories and try to make him confess his true identity. He doesn’t know what this is all about. He’s a carpenter and his girlfriend is waiting for him at the arrivals. That’s all he knows. Things get violent quite fast and a man named Tom explains that their pursuants are “poets”, members of an organisation where leaders take the name of famous dead poets.

A mass killing happened a year before in Broken Hill, Australia. The whole population of the town was killed. Officially, it’s due to industrial leakage but the organisation knows that their agent Virginia Woolf went there with a weapon of mass destruction. She escaped and Wil is the only other survivor. He seems to be immune to the weapon. Problem 1: The weapon is still in Broken Hill and nobody can approach it without dying. Problem 2: Virginia Woolf is on the loose and she’s very dangerous. Poor Wil finds himself in the crossfire of two different factions among the poets and has to fight for his life.

Lexicon alternates chapters between the ongoing man hunt and Virginia Woolf’s story. Her name was Emily Duff. She was a sixteen-year old girl playing tricks on the streets in San Francisco when she was recruited to attend a special school near Washington DC. The school head is a poet, Charlotte Brontë. Her teachers are Lowell and Eliot. At the school, students learn the art of manipulating people’s minds. This is Emily’s epiphany:

But the truth was, she had just figured it out. Attention words. A single word wasn’t enough. Not even for a particular segment. The brain had defences, filters evolved over millions of years to protect against manipulation. The first was perception, the process of funnelling an ocean of sensory input down to a few key data packages worthy of study by the cerebral cortex. When data got by the perception filter, it received attention. And she saw new that it must be like that all the way down: There must be words to attack each filter. Attention words and then maybe desire words and logic words and urgency words and command words. This was what they were teaching her. How to craft a string of words that would disable the filters one by one, unlocking each mental tumbler until the mind’s last door swung open.

The poets master the art of “compromising” people, meaning that they take control over their minds and make them do what they want. Students learn languages, psychology and neuroscience. People are put into narrow segments, each segment reacts to certain words that make their mental walls collapse, enabling the poet to take over their mind. This is what it feels like:

Vartix velkor mannik wissick. Be still.”

Her mouth snapped closed. It happened before she realised what she was doing. The surprise was thet it felt like her decision. She really, genuinely wanted to be still. It was the words. Yeats, compromising her, she knew, but it didn’t feel like that at all. Her brain was spinning with rationalisations, reasons why she should definitely be still right new, why that was a really good move, and it was talking in her voice. She hadn’t known compromise was like this.

Frightening power, isn’t it?

What happened to Emily? Are Wil and Eliot right to be afraid of Virginia Woolf? Or should they be more concerned about Yeats, the director of the organisation? The two branches of the story converge in the end, giving the reader a whole picture of what happened. It is hard to give more details about the plot without giving away too much. This blog is spoiler free, so…

In Lexicon, Max Barry explores the power of language and how people can be manipulated. He imagines that the most lethal weapon is a word, a word so powerful that people die around it. The leaders of the organisation are poets because they are good with words. At their school, students have to learn to control their mind. They know they could be “compromised” and they know how to do it to others. They are taught to mask their feelings. Desires are unwanted, even basic ones like the desire to love and be loved. Desires are weaknesses and poets must keep their thoughts under a tight leash.

Emily is somehow resistant to it. She grew up cheating to survive and this instinct stays strong in her. Eliot never managed to tame his natural tendency to empathy. In the eyes of perfectly controlled Yeats, Eliot is weak. These two have one thing in common: they bend the rules because they don’t have the same ironclad control that the others have.

Lexicon plays with the idea of dominating people by feeding them words so well chosen that they target specific responses. Poets do what ill-intention press does, what social network can do, as the Cambridge Analytica scandal showed us. The master idea behind the organisation is that if you manage to attach someone to his adequate psychological segment, you’ll know how to get to him.

Now I have a question for English literature specialists. I’m not a good reader of poetry, not even in French, so I don’t know well Anglophone poetry either. Of course, I know about Yeats, Charlotte Brontë, Virginia Woolf, TS Eliot and other poets mentioned in the book. What I don’t know is what their names trigger in a British or American mind. Is it normal that the dissident poet is TS Eliot? Does it mean something that the cold, unfeeling and repressed leader is named Yeats? For example, when Yeats-the character says this…

“When I experience base physiological needs for food, water, air, sleep, and sex, I follow protocols in order to satisfy them without experiencing desire. Yes, it’s funny.”

“You fucking what?”

“It’s required to maintain a defence against compromise. Desire is weakness. I’m sure I explained this.”

…does it make any sense compared to Yeats-the-real-poet? I’d be grateful for a little bit of insight. I’m afraid I missed some subtext.

Lexicon is the kind of dystopian fiction you want to have on a long plane journey. It’s a page-turner, it’s entertaining and it makes you think.

This is my fifth Max Barry after Company, about the absurdity of corporate life and management methods (anyone in HR should read it), Syrup, about marketing and the launch of a new soda on the market, Jennifer Government, about consumerism, Machine Man, about transhumanism. All books are dystopian fiction and work around an angle of our contemporary societies. My favourite ones are Company and Jennifer Government. A new novel, Providence is expected in March 2020.

For another review of Lexicon, read Guy’s here. Thanks again, Guy, for introducing me to Max Barry. I also read it as my participation to Brona’s AusReadingChallenge. It’ll last the whole month of November.

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.

 

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.

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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