"The tongue like a sharp knife, kills without drawing blood." Budha
In 150 pages, about 4.5 hrs listening, Barnes--nothing less than a word wielding genius--has written a poignant little novel that packs a big psychological punch, wherein every perfectly placed word evokes powerful images and thoughts. [Refers to Henry VIII as the "polygamist royal butcher".] (*No doubt there will be philosophical discussions longer than this book about this book.) But, my lovely journey with this petite gem didn't start out so lovingly...
Having read a few award winners in my time, I plugged in my earbuds and waited to be wowed while I indulged in the luxury afforded to us with audible books--multi-tasking. Two-thirds the way through this book I was about to toss it. Yes, the writing was masterful, the characters, though only briefly sketched out were still relevant and interesting, but the story itself seemed whiny and pretentious, overall depressing to the point of being a tiresome listen. But, In just a few words, I suddenly went from irritated to intrigued; ultimately I was awed and regretted an ending, so I listened again. I really listened. I sat down and this time was absorbed in the luxury of writing at its best. I've read the 6 books shortlisted for the Booker--my opinion is they got it right.
Like one character says in the book, this is "like an onion and reveals itself in layers"--the reader is dropped in to walk along and sense this experience, not be wowed by a complex plot, not to have the mysteries neatly explained. Sleek, eloquent, precise, and Richard Morant is an articulate narrator that heightens the experience. I went to the book store and bought a copy. It's with me still, on my book shelf and etched in my mind.
Because this has been re-released as an *Audible A-List Collection,* a selection chosen by Clare Danes for narration, I'll begin with the narration. This is one of the rare cases where a straight reading, sans the voice characterizations and the nuances one would think an actor would use, earns top scores from me. Ms. Danes reads the story with strength and conviction, wisely chosing to let the words of an outstanding poet/author give voice to the characters in this cautionary tale. The feel of this book is dark and dispassionate, a story about a violent new world where feelings and thoughts are prohibited, yet it is at the same time visceral, strong with emotion, because of Atwood's writing skills, her ironic wit, and superb story-telling abilities -- matched perfectly with Danes' talents.
I was introduced to this book in college. 1985, a women's rights to her body (i.e. abortion) was a hot topic, feminism was getting its first *report card,* and The Handmaid's Tale was either being showered with awards and praise, or being pulled from library shelves and crossed off reading lists -- a scene straight out of Farenheit 451, another *dystopian* novel where we see that repression of any kind has a price. (Atwood didn't think her work was sci-fi and argued that this was not science fiction, but rather speculative fiction.) In '85 I thought this was chilling and very futuristic.
Dystopian? Future? Speculative? ... The world is struggling from the effects (or more accurately the consequences of) of pollution, chemicals, GMO's, and radiation; our government has been extinguished, world-wide war rages, religious conflicts a large part of the cause; disease and sterility are prevalent, conception and healthy live births atypical; many species have vanished, food is scarce and rationed along with water. The Republic of Gilead (a country established within the borders of the former USA) is a violent male dominated theocracy where women have no power, young women are owned for breeding purposes, sex is a disturbing biblical ritual, the Eyes watch constantly for heretics and dissenters (routinely put to death and openly displayed). ...*Dystopian* along the lines of Clockwork Orange,1984, (Stepford Wives?), but more like good *speculation* now in 2012, where burkas, honor killings, or young girls being married off to old coots in polygamist sects are weekly headlines.
The ending of this book is troublesome for those that want a destination, or a wrap-up, as it leaves the reader unsure--left to decide between hope and complete despair. Atwood is a master at interrogating society and having the reader then try to explain it. Definitely one you will think about. Ageless and still chilling in 2012; a wonderfully distrubing tale made even better by Danes' insightful dead-on interpretation. (Fantastic to have this as a selection--great choice Audible.)
Having read the book in the 80's, and just finished listening to this production, what do I think might be important to someone considering this for the first time? The long and the longer:
*[This is a complex book, but not a difficult book. Don't be intimidated or turned off by "metaphysical philosophies", "psychoanalytical and existential themes", "post modern period " blah blah--unless you are reading this for a philosophy class. (In which case--get the textbook, lots of pencils and paper.) The title simply refers to 2 conflicting main philosophies, and getting these out of the way makes this less imposing. Roughly posited: Nietzche's idea of eternal return - every life/action repeats itself throughout time, therefore our decisions have weight (or heaviness); and Parmenide's philosophy of each person lives one life instead of recurring forever (therefore lightness), with the Kunderian addendum that the insignificance of our decisions causes great suffering and makes our being unbearable.
Get that out of the way and proceed bravely, because you do not need a background in philosophy to understand this book--just patience. Kundera himself has no formal education in philosophy. The philosophies lay the ground work for Kundera to argue his own ideas about love, oppression, existence, and coincidence...which he does--both sides in fact--with dreamy-like lyricism and maxims enjoyable only if you are willing to take the time to ponder what you are reading; this is one of those "savor" books. Again, it is not difficult, but complex--like eating an artichoke compared to a carrot. But if you want difficulty, you can get into Kundera's lifestory, his politics and theories--and dig in very deeply.]
Not completely a political, theological, philosophical, or romantic treatise- -the book is full of interesting ideas and weighty commentaries on each of these subjects. Set during the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the story of four tumultuous relationships serves mostly as a stage for the narrator's (obviously Kundera) personal, and sometimes intrusive, philosophies, moving along without any linear plot, and with characters that remain largely undeveloped. It is hard to compare to anything else I've read, except very vaguely with Gabriel Garcia Marquez in feel.
The narration was good, and I enjoyed hearing the book performed, but I could not have appreciated the book completely without having read the text version before. As to why this book so often receives rave reviews, I offer (and share) Pulitzer Prize winner M. Kakutani's appraisal: "The best books grow with us. Rather than presenting the same experience each time we reread them, they offer us newer, deeper, broader rewards that connect to many different aspects of the life we have been leading while we were away from them." Your appreciation of this book might be relative to where you are in life and your own personal struggles. I see it very differently than I did 20 years ago, but I still gain insight.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being isn't in my top ten, and I don't recommend this to every reader for reasons I hope I've made clear, but with rephrased and often quoted passages like these, you can understand its literary value and appeal:
"When the heart speaks, the mind finds it indecent to object."
"Love is the longing for the half of ourselves we have lost."
"What can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself?"
"True human goodness, in all its purity and freedom, can come to the fore only when its recipient has no power."