1940s

Bullfight

bullfightBullfight is one of Yasushi Inoue’s (1907 – 1991) early works. This story won Inoue the Akutagawa Prize in 1949. It is definitely not for every reader, but there are many who will be able to appreciate it. As is expected with his writing, the plot and the story are not thrillers. In another review of another of his works, I described his stories as haunting and mundane. I think that is still true. While the storylines are not outrageous and unusual, the way in which they are written can be haunting. The setting is enveloping and the characters are very realistic.

Entitled “Bullfight” and yes, there is a bullfight (a sort of bracket tournament among actual bulls), the bullfight itself is a minor element in the story. The story focuses on newspaperman Tsugami and his efforts to stage this bullfight in post-war Osaka. The novel portrays the struggles that take place before the actual bullfight. I love this Pushkin Press edition that I read because it has a good feel to it and there is a nice black and white photo of Inoue on the first page.  The cover art is by artist Ping Zhu ( https://www.pingszoo.com ) who’s work I am discovering that I highly enjoy.

The concept of a bullfight in this context is entirely different from the more well-known Spanish bullfighting. Readers are probably more familiar with the Spanish forms wherein humans compete against bulls – matadors and picadores taunt, wound, and evade the bull.  The bullfighting in Inoue’s story is traditional to the Ryukyu Islands and is better translated a “bull wrestling” or “bull sumo.”  Bulls are pitted against other bulls and the contest is similar to sumo wrestling in which one contestant attempts to wrestle/push the other from the ring.

The true bullfight tournament in this novel may not really be between the bulls. It may be between the main character and his business partner. Or the main character and his girlfriend. Or between the Japan of what was and what could be. Or even symbolizing the concepts of Success and Greed and Failure and Resignation. Or, in the most radical interpretation, between Tsugami and his own Self. There are many ways this story, in its utter mundanity could be interpreted.

Inoue writes as if putting his scenes and characters on a microscope – and it seems he turns the knob and zooms, zooms in – until the we are focused on the character’s reactions to their daily lives. Facial expressions. The way they smoke their cigarette. Their posture. We do not get to see extraordinary characters in unusual situations. Instead, we see realistic characters in intensely portrayed realistic situations. And when it rains, we feel the raindrops. When they pour tea, we see the steam from the cup.

The supporting cast is both a reflection and a competition for Tsugami. His girlfriend Sakiko provides the only exterior view of Tsugami in the story, so she is a vital component to the novel. Mirua Yoshinosuke, president of Toyo Pharmaceuticals, provides an almost dopplegänger-like challenge to Tsugami.

He was a young man, probably in his late twenties or early thirties, with long sideburns and a red necktie in a large, loose knot; he had the affected air of someone in the film world – an assistant director, perhaps – but he exhibited a certain drive as he rose, an unmistakable energy, like that of a sportsman meeting an opponent. – pg. 79

This little description has an awesome, subtle clue in it that may or may not relate to the very last page of the book, in which the result of the bullfight is mentioned. As the reader follows the various struggles that Tsugami faces in order to put on this show, each character that he is forced to deal with presents some facet of his own personality. It is interesting for the reader to consider Tsugami’s relationships with each of the other characters. Mirua’s seemingly successful status versus that of Okabe’s is the contrast that I most enjoyed.

For strong readers and for fans of Japanese literature.

3 stars

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Snow Country

Snow CountrySnow Country by Yasunari Kawabata (1899 – 1972) was published in its finalized form in 1948. I read the Vintage International edition translated by Edward G. Seidensticker. This is the first Kawabata novel that I have read, though I own several. Kawabata won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, which made mention of Snow Country and two other of his works. His Nobel Lecture was entitled Japan, The Beautiful and Myself and I do want to take a look at that. There is an annual prize in Japan awarded to the year’s most accomplished work of short fiction. The Kawabata Yasunari Prize for literature was established in 1973 by the Kawabata Yasunari Memorial Association to honor Japan’s first Nobel Prize–winning novelist. The winner receives a certificate, a commemorative gift, and a cash award of one million yen.

So much has been said/written about this novel that I doubt I can add much value to the overall volume of commentary. I did not love the novel, but please, do not assume I am a lazy or stupid reader. I really wanted the novel, with it’s poetic and spare writing, to grab my heart by it’s beating valves and drag me around the mountains of snow country.

Disappointingly, that did not occur. Broadly, because I deeply disliked both main characters. The writing is quite good and scenic; it envelopes the reader. But the sloth and decadence of Shimamura and the annoying voice of Komako killed the wonderment of the writing. I don’t forgive them for that.

However, I cannot say that I disliked this novel.

Kawabata’s Nobel Prize was awarded “for his narrative mastery, which with great sensibility expresses the essence of the Japanese mind.”  This sort of statement sometimes makes me grumpy. The thing is the definite description there in the phrase; the “the” that causes issue.  At once we are to recognize The Other and embrace diversity – therefore keeping the independence of The Other, but yet we are also expected to support and enjoy the fullness of the universal human experience.  So, what is this “Japanese mind”?  Even if we assume that in 1968 they did not choose their words so nicely, is there a “Japanese mind”? A mind so in tune and vital that it is quite simply separate and distinct from all other human minds? Or is “Japanese mind” merely a euphemism for “experience produced within Japanese culture”?

This little messy babbling of mine is important because I think this specific novel by this specific author is affected by these questions/answers. Snow Country is allegedly his most famous and well-enjoyed novels – by Japanese readers and non-Japanese readers alike. Is it because the non-Japanese readers love the insight gained through glimpses into the “exotic” Japanese world via this prose? Or is it because there is something universal in the writing that appeals and is readily accessible by all readers?

I felt that the writing was very good for most of the novel. I mean, there are places where I was less impressed. But throughout, the actual writing – and it has been likened to haiku and poetry many times – was very good. Its a spare prose with a pseudo-poetic feel. Again, some of the greatness may be reduced because of translation.

Above all of that, I could synthesize with the feelings in the story. It is hard to choose the correct words here, so let me keep trying. I do not mean simply that I sympathized/empathized with the characters, but rather that I feel that I have also experienced those feelings. Feelings, though, is also the incorrect word. I mean, something deeper – something like the relationship to the milieu. Or, more like the ennui of the whole scenario. Or, perhaps better, the Russian term тоска́/toska. Observe what happened here – I was unable to find the English word and had to dip into different languages.

Is this a love story? No, I do not think so. Allegedly, Komako falls foolishly in love with Shimamura. I must have missed that part. Please do not tell me it is “between the lines” or that the reader has to supply this. I missed that part because it was not there and it could not happen. Shimamura is thoroughly unlikeable and I doubt the young geisha could see anything of value in him. His heavy ennui drips down every page of the novel and he is truly a shameful character. Not because of his morality, per se, but because he is so wretchedly slothlike. Much has been commented about Shimamura’s dilettanism, yet I don’t think this is his defining characteristic. I see him as sluggish and oozing his upper-class ennui.

When Shimamura goes for a massage, the woman says: (pg. 59)

“. . . you must not have to work. Feel how nice and soft you are.”

“No stiff muscles on me.” Shimamura replies.

I find Shimamura repugnant. His conversation is also lazy and slothful. He repeats phrases and seems constantly hazy on the conversation. Komako is just as frustrating. Her conversation is immature and ridiculous. Much of this is because most of the time she is drunk (she is a geisha and must attend “parties”) or because she is acting as her age dictates. Still, I find her to be annoying, at best.

This novel, for me, was about distance. The remote hot-spring inn is far from Shimamura’s home in Tokyo. The mountains and snow make the setting isolated and Kawabata writes them so that you feel the silence of heavy, hard-packing snow. Snow deadens sound like nothing else; I have experienced this at length. There is distance, too, between Shimamura and his family. There is distance between Komako and Yukio. There is distance between Komako’s hopes and dreams and her reality. Of course there is the distance between Shimamura and Komako. Finally, as if this were not enough distance, there is the distance between the characters and their selves. The Self. Themselves. This seems repetitive when it is written out, but in Kawabata’s novel it is omnipresent and sturdy, not nearly as redundant as my listing it makes it feel.

For example, often Shimamura is depicted looking out at the mountains and trees. He vaguely ponders the autumn leaves or the skiers. He has lazy daydreams about the grasses and snows. In fact, several times he wanders listlessly, but yet cannot seem to really ever become “one with nature.” There is always the distance as he stands in the inn, by the screens looking out at the scenery. Basically, this is a metaphor for all of Shimamura’s distances.

Overall, if you can stand a novel filled with ennui and distance, this is a perfect representation of that. I mentioned above that this is not a bad novel, I did not dislike it. But I was not convinced all of the time. What I was drawn in by was that heavy-headed fuzziness that sloth and bad schedules and long winters come with. And that is not a feeling I have ever relished.

3 stars

Chess Story

Chess StoryChess Story (or The Royal Game) a translation of the German Schachnovelle is a novella published in 1941 by Stefan Zweig. Zweig (1881 – 1942) was born in Vienna and received his doctorate from the University of Vienna in 1904.  In 1934, he left Germany (presumably to avoid the political situation) for London.  From there he traveled to New York City and then finally to a mountain in Rio de Janeiro.  He and his wife were found dead, holding hands, from a drug overdose. Zweig was not a prolific writer, but he did produce a number of works from 1900 onward. This is his most well-known work.

The book is a spare 84 pages and rather simply written.  Zweig is not known for his erudite and highbrow language. It does not take long to read this little story and there is no need to really savor the prose.  A reader might, after finishing it, be a little disappointed or underwhelmed. But I think the appreciation for this story should be regarding its construction and structure, maybe a little less for the story qua story.

The story is told in first-person narrative, a fact the reader discovers at the third sentence: “As I was standing a bit apart. . . .”  The narrator, though, remains unnamed and is not the main character. A steamer is setting forth from New York to Buenos Aires and the narrator learns that chess master Mirko Czentovic will be aboard.  Naturally, the reader assumes this is the only chess master on board the ship and that the story will center upon Czentovic.

Now, I rarely make allowances for readers/spoilers but at this point I want to make the standard disclaimer:

SPOILERS AHEAD! BE YE FOREWARNED!

The narrator proceeds (until page 12) to give us a brief history of Czentovic.  In many ways, this is one of the interesting inner structures of the story.  This little biography of Czentovic gives a glimpse into the chess master’s early life, but it does not provide any ratio for Czentovic’s moods, motives, or dispositions.  The narrative only appears to provide a reason.  In essence, though, we learn that Czentovic was raised in charity by the village pastor.  Czentovic is, more or less, a stupid individual – even a bit surly – except when it comes to chess. Further, Czentovic’s introduction to the game is merely coincidental.

Another character is introduced into the mix; a Scottish engineer of some wealth:  McConnor. He is a muscular, self-satisfied, robust fellow who loves a good challenge, will take a hearty wager, and enjoys competition.  Between the narrator and McConnor, Czentovic is finally coerced into playing some chess.

Where does it begin, where does it end?  Any child can learn its basic rules, any amateur can try his hand at it; and yet, within the inalterable confines of a chessboard, masters unlike any others evolve, people with a talent for chess and chess alone, special geniuses whose gifts of imagination, patience and skill are just as precisely apportioned as those of mathematicians, poets and musicians, but differently arranged and combined. – pg. 15

All of this is merely the lead-up to the actual main character of the story, Dr. B.  B– is an Austrian who used to be a lawyer.  At first he is merely an interested spectator to the chess game. Eventually, though, he shows his eagerness for the game as-well-as his significant skill with it. Several scenes occur and our narrator is sent off to persuade Dr. B to continue the chess games against Czentovic.

The bulk of the story is Dr. B. sharing his life story – as a lawyer in his family’s esteemed business – and then as a prisoner in a form of a Nazi prison for intellectual and potentially useful prisoners. This is the true core of the structure of the book; B– describes a history that is in turns intriguing and horrific. Here we see the huge influence that Freud (and his theories) had on Zweig.  The story Dr. B shares depicts an intelligent and almost unflappable elite of society who is arrested and imprisoned by the dominating and crushing Nazi machine.

And, almost in a case study manner, the reader learns how Dr. B. suffered as a prisoner in a non-traditional prison.  And it is as an escape/coping mechanism that Dr. B. takes up chess as his survival tool.  A very key point is that Dr. B’s grasping of chess as a survival tool is also coincidence.  B– steals a book – the only book available and only available because of sheer luck/coincidence – from the overcoat pocket of one of the Nazi guards. It happens to be a book on chess. But it is Dr. B’s saving grace from the monotony and tedium of extreme boredom and pseudo-sensory deprivation.

Anyway, I do not want to give away the rest of the novel. Honestly, the story itself is not all that great – it rather plays out [sic] as expected. But it is still a decent read, even if you know how it is all going to go.  There are intense moments and eerie moments. However, some really good discussion and analysis could occur after reading this little novella.  As a hypothetical:  suppose Czentovic were captured (but why would he be?) – would he fare better in such a prison?  Did Dr. B really survive? Was chess a prison? Was Dr. B’s own mind his prison within a prison? Etc. There’s a lot of fun to be had looking at all of this. And I have not even bothered to list any of the more clinical discussions that this could spark.

This story was published in 1941.  I made sure to state that at the beginning because I want to contextualize this properly.  That means this novella was published before “Bobby” Fischer was born (1943).  And, of course, means before Fischer’s “Game of the Century” in 1956.

When I was younger, I was acquainted with that particular game (which is insignificant – everyone was; it was, after all, nicknamed Game of the Century).  I had a stupid little chess program for an old computer and it, in very ugly graphics, would run through the game at the end of the tutorial piece. Then I knew very little about chess or Fischer or anything, really. But I do remember that move 17 shocked me to death. I mean, my breath was taken away I was so shocked by the Queen Sacrifice.  This is not a good thing because it has totally flavored my chess play since then.  I am forever willing to sacrifice the queen any old time. (Thanks, Fischer, for showing me that in my formative years!)  Anyway, all of this anecdotal rubbish is to say that I really, really, really hate that Zweig committed suicide before Fischer’s flourishing.

So Chess Story is a bit about chess.  It is more about psychology.  And it is a little about any totalitarian evil dystopia.  It should appeal to a lot of readers and it is such a short read, there really is no excuse for good readers to have not read it.

4 stars

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The Ministry of Fear

ministry of fearThe Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene was published in 1943.  It is the first of Greene’s novels that I have read.  Also, of note, this novel was made into a movie by Fritz Lang in 1944; the same Fritz Lang who made the film Metropolis.  I feel it was the perfect novel to read after Jünger and von Harbou.  All three novels have this wartime presence to them that made reading them back-to-back really “immersive.”  (The cover illustration is by Geoff Grandfield and I like it!)

The feeling I got throughout reading this novel was that the author disliked having to write it.  At times, it feels like a “practice novel,” not because the writing skill is not exemplary, but rather because I felt Greene added more trajectories to the plotline than were necessary.  The book is sectioned into four unequal sections that present the reader with various stages of the main character, Arthur Rowe, and his traumas.

Each chapter begins with a little quote from The Little Duke, which is of significance to the main character (and to Greene).  It really does pay to not skim these quotes, because they are apropos of the coming chapter.  The Little Duke is a novel written by Charlotte Mary Yonge and published in 1859.  It is about Richard the Fearless, a young man who becomes a duke while still in his single digits.  It’s obvious Greene found it a poignant read.

In many descriptions of this novel, you will read that it is a spy novel and perhaps you will conceive images of James Bond and Mission Impossible.  However, this probably will frustrate you because it is not an action thriller; it is far more esoteric and psychological.  And perhaps you will read somewhere that this novel is another “classic dystopia” wherein some form of Big Brother is after the main character.  Well, not so much that either.  There is a measure of suspense and hidden-ness within the novel which is slightly noir.  But it’s true noir element comes from the constant grappling that the main character does with his memory.  Arthur Rowe had murdered his wife.  I do not want to give any more of the few details away.  This fact, though, challenges and colors everything about the main character.

In a lot of ways, like The Glass Bees and Metropolis, there is a redemptive quality to this novel.  The main character seeks some sort of redemption – particularly in regard to their beloved.  None of these are clear-cut love stories, mind you, however, the angst and self-awareness that comes along in relation to the Other qua beloved.  This is not Lord Byron or Barbara Cartland.  This is wartime love in the time which was dubbed The Age of Anxiety.  Therefore, the lessons learned here do not involve Prince Charming and “happily ever after.”

On dining at a restaurant in wartime:

Even in a crumbling world the conventions held; to order again after payment was unorthodox, but to ask for notepaper was continental.  She could give him a leaf from her order pad, that was all.  Conventions were far more rooted than morality; he had himself found that it was easier to allow oneself to be murdered than to break up a social gathering. pg. 59 (chapter 6)

However, throughout this novel the main feeling of helplessness regarding the air raids occupies the characters and the reader.  Some characters treat it as matter-of-fact, others are discombobulated.  Greene writes a really good treatment of shell-shock and the feeling these civilians have which is like mice running from cats.  Again, the Age of Anxiety.  A lot can be said about these parts of the novel, because really, these are the most “intellectual” parts, let’s say.  PTSD and shell-shock and amnesia all roll through the scenes and characters like bombs from enemy planes.

Describing this wartime psyche:

“This isn’t real life any more,” he said. “Tea on the lawn, evensong, croquet, the old ladies calling, the gentle unmalicious gossip, the gardener trundling the wheelbarrow full of leaves and grass.  People write about it as if it still went on; lady novelists describe it over and over again in books of the month, but it’s not there any more.” pg. 54 (chapter 5)

Overall, this is truly a four star novel.  That would be the correct and proper rating.  But I cannot help but feel like the author hated this work a little too much – even if he wrote it like a grandmaster.  You can do a thing well and still dislike that thing.  And, really, although there really is a whole lot that can be said about all of the elements of this novel, the main thing I am taking away from it, truly, is a fear of cake.

3 stars

Bend Sinister

Bend SinisterI finished Vladimir Nabokov’s Bend Sinister tonight. It was first published, in English, in 1947.  It falls in chronology almost a decade prior to the publishing of the infamous Lolita.  This is the fifth Nabokov novel that I have read.  My favorite Nabokov novel is The Defense, but this is a close second.  In fact, I would say that they both tie for first place in awesomeness.

This is a rather challenging and difficult novel.  By this I mean, only intelligent people are going to read this and understand it.  It is not a novel that is junk or for the weak-minded.  I mention this to be fair.  I am going to give this novel high marks, but unless you are an intelligent reader, you will not enjoy this novel.  This is meaningful because it is one of those novels that you will get out of it what you put into it.  This requires focus and imagination and appreciation of language, symbols, wordplay, etc.  Also, you should have a dose of academia and have already read some real dystopian novels.

In this novel, one finds expert, masterful wordsmithing.  This is on the level of the greatest of the greats – in terms of wordsmithing.  And I do not say this lightly.  I am actually really amazed by the level of this book.  I saw good ideas/concepts in Nabokov’s other novels.  I love The Defense.  But when I speak of actual usage of language – I am completely impressed by the work here.  I know readers hear about Nabokov’s skill – but, I’ll be honest, this is the first novel wherein I can say the awesome skill was proven and sustained throughout the entire work.

I’m a bit of a sucker for the classic dystopain scary-government reads.  Bring on 1984 etc.  But compared to this, 1984 seems juvenile.  We seems sketchy.  THIS was eerie, disturbing, creepy (at least the elements dealing with the sinister government).  In fact, the writing is so great in so many respects that I have difficulty describing it adequately and just want to pass you the book.

Get this:  the main character is Adam Krug – a philosopher. A real one – like in University and everything!  And Nabokov did not make him a whining, sniveling wimp; Krug is a beast.  He is a large man; strong, bullish, and stolid. It feels like everyone in the fictional country of the novel has capitulated to the new tyrannical government except Krug himself.  His non-emotive, but unwavering protection and concern for his son is rather comforting to read.  Krug’s acceptance of his wife death is written perfectly.  Instead of outward emotive theatrics, Krug is clearly deeply sorrowed and upset – but internally, and more meaningfully than any external blubbering would demonstrate.  Olga’s family comes to the house and Krug (more or less) heads out the backdoor to avoid them.

Krug also has this unflagging duty to his friends – even though they may not be extremely close to him.  Krug tires of tedious people, absurdity, and subterfuge.  He sighs magnanimously and suffers. He drinks – some accuse him of being a drunkard, but I did not see that. Krug is truly a great character.

Settings are also awesome.  The early scenes on the bridge are excellent – so much vivid imaginative work.  The scenes in the rural country are also amazing.  Finally, the scenes in the University and government buildings are done so well, I felt like I could close my eyes and actually be in the room.  Chapeau, Nabokov!

Nevertheless, Nabokov’s arrogance shows through. I have just learned to tolerate it – particularly in novels where he deserves to be a bit cocky and self-satisfied.  I feel Nabokov knew how good this work is and reveled in it. Arrogant jerk.  Let’s face it, there’s a narrator to this. (Possible paper for enterprising college student:  decide who is the narrator and argue for your position). Sometimes it seems like Krug, but only rarely. Usually, it seems like some chronicler.  At other points, it’s obviously the Divine.  So yes, Nabokov’s arrogance is in full force here. And it’s really meaty and exquisite.

Are not these problems so hard to solve because my own mind is not made up yet in regard to your death?  My intelligence does not accept the transformation of physical discontinuity into the permanent continuity of a nonphysical element escaping the obvious law, nor can it accept the inanity of accumulating incalcuable treasures of thought and sensation, and thought-behind-thought and sensation-behind-sensation, to lose them all at once and forever in a fit of black nausea followed by infinite nothingness.  (Chapter 6)

Krug discussing his wife.  Or the narrator discussing Krug.  Etc.  But there you have it. Wordsmithing and intelligent pondering.  The thing is, Nabokov actually bothered to make his philosopher-character be actually philosophical.  And not merely floofy or what passes for philosophy.  Nabokov, unlike so many people in the universe, does not treat philosophers as if they are lepers.  Nevertheless, he still tortures the hell out of Krug. (People love to torment philosophers.)  And someone on Goodreads used a word in their review that really describes this novel in just a word:  grueling.  And it is grueling – you’d better have some gravel in your gut to get through this one.  Also, it manhandles readers because it is intense and challenges the brainpower of the reader.  And the end?  I feel every reader will synthesize, extrapolate, and contextualize the ending in their own way – which would give us clues to that particular reader’s worldview and psychological make-up. Wow.  An author accomplishing that is stunning…. be impressed.

And then, thought Krug, on top of everything, I am a slave of images.  We speak of one thing being like some other thing when what we are really craving to do is to describe something that is like nothing on earth.  Certain mind pictures have become so adulterated by the concept of “time” that we have come to believe in the actual existence of a permanently moving bright fissure between our retrospective eternity which we cannot recall and the prospective one which we cannot know.  We are not really able to measure time because no gold second is kept in a case in Paris but, quite frankly, do you not imagine a length of several hours more exactly than a length of several miles? (Chapter 14)

In any case, the characters are great. David – presented through Krug’s thoughts and speech – is loveable.  Quick characters like Phokus appear and reappear and contain little twists and turns of the storyline – but subtly without the reader really noticing until it surprises!  Olga – who we never meet – is also a powerful character, one we know and miss even though we never knew her.

This is not a “nice” book.  So, do not give it to your mom or your grandmother.  Or to your small child.  But it is an intense “grueling” and masterful work.  I recommend it to all the best readers of the world.  While there is a lot of stamina required here – the ending, for me (as I hinted at earlier, I take away what I bring to it), was divinely joyous amidst a lot of dark tragedy.  If this was all I knew of Nabokov, I would be completely surprised by everything about him.  How did he manage to do this?

Throughout the novel Nabokov gives you hints of what will happen.  He warns you and drops hints. He moves from narrative to first-person seamlessly.  He shoves characters right at you.  He handles whole chapters with philosophical finesse.  As each storypoint event occurs, you feel it in your gut – and then you slap yourself because you totally should have seen this coming.

As a fun sidenote, I am not sure if you know the old TV series The Prisoner? I watched it back in 2002.  I think it’s been in different venues and has recently gained a re-interest.  But the “I’ll be seeing you” stuff?  It is from this book. The line is in this book. And it’s done perfectly; I almost fell off of my chair with the way this tickled and thrilled me.

5 stars

Darkness at Noon

Darkness At NoonI finished reading Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler, which is a novel that I had somehow managed to avoid throughout all of my years of college.  Nevertheless, I am thrilled I finally got to read it – I bought it as a clean used copy for $1.  It was first published in 1940.  It is the second book in a row that I have read by an author who committed suicide.  Not that that has much relevance, but I am starting to want to read something by an author who does not end that way.  This was once Koestler’s most famous book, however I think his book The Thirteenth Tribe may have surpassed Darkness at Noon – because the former became such a controversy among scholars as well as general readers.  I have no desire to read that book.

Wikipedia has this information, which I have truncated:

In 1931 Koestler joined the Communist Party of Germany but, disillusioned by Stalinist atrocities, he resigned in 1938. In 1940 he published his novel Darkness at Noon, an anti-totalitarian work, which gained him international fame. The novel is set in 1938 during the Stalinist purges and Moscow show trials. It reflects the author’s personal disillusionment with Communism. Although the characters have Russian names, neither Russia nor the Soviet Union are named as the setting of the book. Joseph Stalin is alluded to as “No. 1”, a barely seen menacing dictator.

My overall general impression of the novel qua novel is that it is what we would get if Kafka’s Trial and Orwell’s 1984 mated.  The short novel is written in the plain, but revealing tone that seems to somehow pull the reader in – even if the topic is really not to their liking.  This does not really apply to me, since I have leanings toward historical scholarship.  But honestly, I can understand why the novel might seem quite uninteresting to most readers.  It’s not a mystery or a thriller and it’s certainly not science fiction.  Who would read this book?  People who love dystopian novels, who loved 1984, and who are fascinated with the Russian Revolution, etc.  There is something about the prisons and political inmates that lends itself to novels.  And it seems readers will love and hate the characters in such novels – particularly readers who are attune to political history.  The writing style is actually quite good – but I think the translator is as much to credit for that as the author.

The main character is Rubashov, a high-ranking Party member who is arrested and imprisoned for counter-revolutionary activity.  Of course, many times throughout the novel the reader realizes that the Party can adjust “historical fact” however it wishes (Cp. 1984).  In fact, throughout the novel, the main character keeps a diary while in his cell.  I was at first concerned that much of the novel would consist of Rubashov’s entries, but this didn’t happen. Only occasionally does Koestler utilize Rubashov’s diary – and in relevant places. One of the entries in the diary:

It is necessary  to hammer every sentence into the masses by repetition and simplification.  What is presented as right must shine like gold; what is presented as wrong must be black as pitch.

The eerie feeling of a Party/State controlled history really ought to affect readers in 2012.  However, it seems from 1900 – 1944, these sentiments were almost commonplace in the world.  And so they are with Rubashov, who is unsurprised by attempts to rewrite or revise his actions in the Party.  In fact, he has committed such revisions himself.  As Rubashov reflects on his life while in his cell and while being interrogated, he has a few trips down memory lane where he recalls instances where tables were turned and he was interrogating or ferreting out counter-revolutionaries.  The reader learns that “logic” is used in a loose sense when the Party is judging a case.  Even if history isn’t rewritten, per se, certain thoughts and actions can be reinterpreted to condemn the accused.  A major theme in the book is that Rubashov is a member of the old regime, and has spent forty years working for the Party, but his accuser is a “younger generation” Party member who reinterprets the thoughts and actions of the old regime. At no point does Rubashov think he will be released or acquitted; from the start Rubashov knows the ending.

Another part of Rubashov’s diary:

History has taught us that often lies serve her better than the truth; for man is sluggish and has to be led through the desert for forty years before each step in his development. And he has to be driven through the desert with threats and promises, by imaginary terrors and imaginary consolations, so that he should not sit down prematurely to rest and divert himself by worshipping golden calves. – pg 79, Part 2, chapter 1

In the final analysis, Rubashov’s ideas are more liberal and free than those of his accuser.  Rubashov feels himself turn toward a more open and gentle mindset as compared with his accuser’s who takes the “hard method” of torture, punishment, and simplifying reasoning for party members.  Rubashov’s entire imprisonment and “trial” is almost a study of using the “hard method” and yet letting Rubashov have the freedom to “logic out” his problems.  Some of Rubashov’s ideas are actually quite interesting and worthwhile.  For example, the concept of a scapegoat is played on – which, in the end, Rubashov is and thereby serves the Party even as he is condemned by the Party.  Also, he has a neat theory of the “maturity of the masses” and uses two very cool metaphors to explain it. The first is that of a swing – with its pendulum motion.  The second is that of a ship rising through locks, which demonstrates the relative level of the ship. This chunk of the book is pretty good stuff to read through.

Overall, I doubt everyone will love this book.  The topic is at once very relevant and yet also a bit distant from the contemporary political sphere. Nevertheless, as I have said, it makes a neat pairing with 1984 and it contains plenty of food for thought.

4 stars