23 december 2010

The Assault - Harry Mulisch

"My being mortal, has yet to be proven." This often misunderstood statement by Harry Mulisch was topical again, more than one month ago. On October 30 the author died at age 83. The big nose and gray, woolly hair appeared prominently on the front pages. The news had a very elaborate item on the death of "the last of the big three" and on Saturday, November 6, the memorial and the funeral were broadcasted live on national television. Why all this attention? Was Mulisch really that brilliant as a writer? Was he among the best Dutch literature had to offer in recent decades?

Obligatory reading novels in high school, that's what the book "The Assault" reminds many of. Along with Vanished by Tim Krabbé has been a stable entry on the Top 10 of most widely read books in school reading lists.

At the end of the first chapter of The Assault, Anton Steenwijk, the main character, feels something in his pocket that he cannot identify. A dice, it appears, from the Ludo game that Anton was playing with his family, just a few hours before. At the time Anton discovers the dice, his father, mother and brother Peter have already been liquidated by the Germans. As a retaliation for the fatal assault on a prominent NSB* member, which they had however, not committed. Anton’s parents and brother were not guilty of the death of the NSB member. Guilt. It is one of the major themes in The Assault. Who is responsible for what and are you also guilty if circumstances forced you to act the way you did?

The story begins in January 1945 and ends sometime in 1981. Of the thirty-five years the book covers, we see Anton only a few times in his life: as a 20-year-old student in 1952, a doctor in training in 1962 and later as an anesthesiologist, husband and father in 1966 and finally in 1981. At all these moments Anton is faced with the assault of January '45, the incident that changed the direction of his life so rigorously. And every time Anton asks himself: Why did it happen? Who was to blame for the death of his innocent parents and brother? The Germans? The assassinated NSB member? The actual murderers? The neighbors who fulfilled a dubious role in the course of this history? Or was everyone guilty, and therefore actually nobody? Or was it just the circumstances; was it just coincidence that everything went the way it went?

Sometimes life seems to be determined by a dice roll, by chance. But that is not so, Mulisch seemingly wants to say. Everything is determined by cause and effect. Every human action, every human choice has consequences, big or small, and you cannot hide behind compelling circumstances, caused by a dice roll. Everyone has done what he did and not someone else. Then why does history sometimes seem to be determined by dice rolls? That is because, as a human being, you do not have an adequate overview of the events. It seems chaotic, but it is not. This is beautifully portrayed by Mulisch in the prologue of the book, as Anton unsuccessfully tries to keep the overview over the ripples in the water caused by passing motor boats. There is a method in the madness, as Shakespeare once described it.

Apart from coincidence, guilt and responsibility, The Assault is also about past and future. How do you deal with the future if something traumatic has happened in the past? Do you walk backwards into the future, with your face to the past? Or do you try your best to leave the past behind and look forward to what is to come?

Past and future. Mulisch’ statement about his mortality has to be understood in that light. "The fact that so far all people in the past have died, does not mean that in future I will die too. It is very likely, but there is not a one hundred percent mathematical guarantee." Such arguments illustrate the largely optimistic view of life that Mulisch portrays, and which made him the opposite of the other of the big three, arch-pessimist W.F. Hermans. Yes, there is misery, Mulisch found, but that does not mean trouble will always remain, better times might come. And since you're not powerless, you can contribute to those better times. This could be called ‘hope’ and occasionally Mulisch manages to show that in a brilliant way in his books. Also in The Assault.

Because of his attitude Mulisch was not loved by everyone. He was seen by many as an arrogant braggart and a person who seized every opportunity to glorify himself. It was part of the myth that he wanted to create around him, was his reply. After his death, friends and acquaintances of the author stepped forward remarkably quickly to explain what a nice and approachable personality he was and that his arrogance was all play. Friendly and approachable or not, Mulisch was a good writer, maybe even a great writer, as he himself always liked to emphasise: "I am a great writer, no one can do anything about that." Giving a meaning to every individual word in a book, creating philosophical depth without getting boring and without falling into pessimism, this was what Mulisch was good at, perhaps better than anyone else. The Assault is worth it to be taken from the shelf again or from the library because the book does not deserve its dusty image as an obligatory reading list book.

* NSB = The National Socialist Movement in the Netherlands. The NSB was the only legal political party in the Netherlands during the major part of World War II. It was based on German National Socialism and Italian Fascism.

2 november 2010

The curious incident of the dog in the night-time - Mark Haddon

I find people confusing. Thus begins one of the first chapters of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. The quoted words are expressed by 15-year-old Christopher John Francis Boone. Christopher knows all countries in the world and their capitals by heart and all the prime numbers up to 7,507. "A little professor", is how one might characterize Christopher because of his detailed knowledge of higher mathematics and his interest in complex technological machines. "Little Professors" is exactly how the Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger described is objects of study; children with the syndrome that was named after him in 1944. Although Mark Haddon once declared that he did not have Asperger's syndrome in mind when he wrote the book, the disorder which Christopher suffers from is most reminiscent of this variation within the autism spectrum.

The story is told from the perspective of Christopher. Christopher is writing a detective novel that should be like Sherlock Holmes. In the book he wants to find out who killed Wellington. Wellington is the dog of his neighbor Mrs. Shears. In between Christopher tells about his experiences outside his investigations and he reveals more about himself. In the future he wants to be an astronaut because as an astronaut he will work with complex machines and he can lock himself into a small cabin where no one else is present and where no one can touch him.

The reasoning, logic, fears and anger outbursts are described credibly by Haddon. It is likely that this is how you experience the world when you have this type of autism: mostly tiring and frightening because people and their behavior cannot always be categorized and because there is so incredibly much information coming to you. To keep the overview and to process all that information it needs to be chopped into small chunks. Christopher himself compares it to a conveyor belt in a factory that goes too fast, so that what is on it begins to accumulate and the stress level begins to rise.

Although Christopher says that he has not included any humor in his detective novel (generally Christopher doesn´t understand humor because humor often requires one to interpret things figuratively), the narrative style often creates funny moments. For example, when he tells about a fellow pupil in his special school, who tells him that he will never be an astronaut:

Terry, who is the older brother of Francis, who is at the school, said I would only ever get a job collecting supermarket trollies or cleaning out donkey shit at an animal sanctuary and they didn’t let spazzers drive rockets that cost billions of pounds.
I’m not a spazzer, which means spastic, not like Francis, who is a spazzer, and even though I probably won’t become an astronaut I am going to go to university and study Mathematics […] But Terry won’t go to university. Father says Terry is most likely to end up in prison.

On his quest for the murderer of Wellington, Christopher also discovers unexpected things that change his life dramatically. As a reader you travel along with Christopher, so that it is easy to identify with him. You get the same information as Christopher; there is no omniscient narrator who discloses extra facts. However, and that is so interesting about the narrative structure that Haddon has chosen, you have more knowledge than Christopher because information and knowledge are not the same. As a reader you are better able than Christopher to combine the different pieces of information and to draw your own conclusions. Christopher is always on the verge of discovering things that you've already discovered, and because most discoveries are unpleasant discoveries, you will quickly feel compassion for him.

Although the person of Christopher mainly arouses sympathy, the story also shows how difficult and sometimes annoying it can be to be around someone like Christopher. We, as readers, understand his behavior, because we know his thoughts. But for those who are directly involved in the story, his behavior often comes across as extremely selfish and egocentric. It is understandable that not everyone can keep his temper and patience with Christopher.

Do I recommend The curious incident of the dog in the night-time? A definite yes. A good novel is able to show a bit of the world that could otherwise not be seen. Haddon, made a successful attempt to look into the mind of a fifteen year old boy with a form of autism. He offers the reader an opportunity to understand a little more of that fifteen year old boy’s mind and thus to gain new insights. The book is interesting and insightful, but not only that, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is also moving and very entertaining. 

Mark Haddon, The curious incident of the dog in the night-time, (2003), 226 pages, ISBN: 978-0385512107

18 oktober 2010

The Elementary Particles - Michel Houellebecq

Man 2.0
Man is doomed to extinction. Around the end of the twenty-first century, a new species will inhabit planet Earth. Man will be replaced by his better self. Better, because immortal and, more importantly, non-individualistic.

Very briefly, this is what French author Michel Houellebecq arrives at in his novel The Elementary Particles. The novel follows two half-brothers, Bruno and Michel, during roughly the last forty years of the twentieth century. Bruno and Michel are raised separately. Both are products of the sexual revolution that the Western world saw during the sixties and seventies of the last century. They are sons of the same mother, a mother who was particularly, or rather exclusively, interested in maximizing her own pleasure. For Bruno and Michel she had no attention, they were brought up by their respective paternal grandparents (like Houellebecq himself by the way). Particularly Bruno experienced a terrible childhood; he was teased by many school- and classmates. But also Michel sees the necessary misery in his early youth.

All of this has an opposite effect on each of the brothers. Bruno develops into an extreme sex addicted pleasure seeker, while Michel becomes a very serious and somewhat depressed molecular biologist, who shows little or no interest in anything that has to do with sex. Bruno, the pleasure seeker, is very ill-equipped for its continued pursuit of unlimited indulgence. He is ugly and only moderately socially gifted. His desire for what is not accessible for him makes him a regrettable and unfortunate anti-hero. He is clearly on the negative side of the divide between rich and poor as created by the sexual revolution, i.e. rich and poor in the fulfillment of desire.

Michel, the molecular biologist, is due to neglect by his mother unable to be in touch with his feelings. Emotionally numb as he is, he does not succeed as a teenager to answer the love of the prettiest girl in school. This makes Michel, just as his brother, a somewhat tragic figure who is constantly somber, but he is too distant from his emotions to end up in real depression. He has put his life in service of science and is very successful in his profession. He manages to find the formulas by which the DNA code can be calculated to make the perfect human being. The mechanism that causes aging decline can be filtered out of the DNA, allowing the creation of a superior form of immortal human beings. Eventually his publications are the basis for the first perfect human clone, but by the time that is made real, Michel himself has already mysteriously disappeared.

In order to examine something accurately, sometimes you have to put it under a microscope. That's exactly what Houellebecq does with the impact of the sexual revolution. His thought experiment draws those effects to the extreme, it magnifies them. His conclusion is that humanity as it currently is, has no sustainable future.

Man 2.0 is sponsored by Bruno and Michel. Bruno and Michel are well painted examples of individualistic human beings, but you can hardly lay the blame on them. The sociological changes of the second half of the twentieth century have modeled them into who they are. A positive feature that Houellebecq provides his characters with is perseverance. Bruno realizes only too well that he is not an appealing individual, but he is not in despair. He does not lapse into passivity, but faces his problem actively. He works out in the gym with discipline and chooses to have a hair transplantation. Michel is passionate about his profession and, with that property, though indirectly, creates the basis for the replacement of humanity by a better sort.

Do I recommend Elementary Particles? Yes and no. Yes because it is a thought-provoking story about the current Western society and it demonstrates that it eventually goes wrong when a society no longer tries to be a society, but a collection of millions of individuals, just caring for themselves. No because the large amount of plastic and unsavory descriptions of sex give the novel a rather raunchy overtone. Admittedly, the described sex has a function in the story, but it is just too much. And that is a shame because it limits the reach of its message. Many readers will discard the book after forty or so pages and will consider Houellebecq as a frustrated pornographer who was in an intense midlife crisis when he wrote the book.

Michel Houellebecq, The Elementary Particles, (1998), 242 pages, ISBN 978 - 0375727016

5 oktober 2010

Secret Lives - Ngugi Wa Thiong'o

On Thursday 7 October, the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature 2010 will be announced. As every year an intense speculation is going on among book lovers: what name will the chairman of the Swedish Academy reveal this year? Whose turn will it be to gain eternal glory? Who will be added to the list with such names as Thomas Mann, Ernest Hemingway, Gabriel García Márquez and JM Coetzee? Will it be a Dutchman this time? One of the traditional contenders Cees Nooteboom or Harry Mulisch? Or even the now 92 year old Hella Haasse? Probably not. There are clear indications that it will go to the Kenyan writer Ngugi Wa Thiong'o (1938), roughly pronounced as (u)Ngu-gui wa th-yong-o, with gui as in guitar. It is by no means a fait accompli, but a glance at the list of the bookies, particularly Ladbrokes, suggests that the prize money of up to one million U.S. dollars may be collected by the Kenyan. Why? Well, normally the name of the winner is kept strictly confidential until the day of the announcement, always a Thursday in October. The previous two years, however, has shown with almost 100% certainty, a leak. An insider had secretly revealed the winner to some friends or acquaintances, resulting in a skyrocketing of the candidate on the list, just days before the announcement. For the more frequently one wagers a bet on a name, the higher that name will go up in the list.

In the first publication of the list Ngugi was somewhere at the bottom (just above Bob Dylan, who is considered eligible because his lyrics, quite rightly, are seen as very high standard poetry; it is in itself already an honor to be placed in the betting lists). 
But since the day before yesterday Ngugi suddenly jumped up like an impala, this morning he was found at the second place in the list behind the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer and a few hours ago Ngugi had also caught up with Tranströmer.

Coincidence or not, during the evenings and free moments in the weekends, I had been spending some time in Secrets Lives and other stories, written by this by far best known Kenyan author. Secret Lives dates from the early days of his career. 
I read about Mukami who fell in love with an older man, a tough warrior, about how she married him as a fourth wife. She was so happy when she was suddenly lifted on the shoulders by some unknown man, to be brought to the hut of her Muthoga. It turned out to be her wedding day, pure joy... But Mukami proved to be a thata, a barren woman, infertile and therefore useless. Ngugi mercilessly dragged me into the mindset of this rural woman and the pain she must have experienced. I read about John, the son of a local pastor, who was sweating and shivering in bed for weeks because he had a secret, something he had created himself, but could not be shared with his fanatically gospel preaching father. I read about a white man who had thought for years that he had been successful in Kenya, but ultimately had to lose out on what he did not know, the mysterious, the African. I read about Wanjiru, who preferred to be called Beatrice because that Western name gave her hope to escape her wretched existence as a prostitute. But Beatrice was not attractive enough and barely succeeded to survive by selling her body. Until she, on one day, took an act of revenge and showed who she was, Wanjiru, Beatrice, a strong woman.

Thirteen wonderful, timeless stories of a writer who has an unmatched ability to move in the lives of a wide-ranging type of characters, young and old, men, women, whites, settlers, colonized, missionaries, followers of traditional religions and so on. 
And all without a value-judgment. Ngugi makes you feel how these people must have felt under different circumstances in different times in this one country, Kenya.

It is difficult on the basis of a book, in this case a collection of stories, to determine whether someone is really among the world’s top class. 
And then again, who decides? Tastes differ, times change. If it were up to me, I would award the prize to the Albanian Ismail Kadare, unmatched in uncovering how deeply a political or ideological dictatorship can intervene in human existence. Or to the French-Czech writer Milan Kundera, best known for his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, who as no other, knows how to treat major philosophical themes in a comprehensive and light, but very poignant way. But if on Thursday it will be announce that it is Ngugi Wa Thiong'o who may come to Stockholm to receive the prize, then the committee has, in my opinion, certainly made a wise decision, although I  base my opinion on only one book, Secret Lives and other stories.

Ngugi Wa Thiongo, Secret Lives and Other Stories, (1963), 144 pages
ISBN: 9966-46-917-6