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