Replace farmers from Oklahoma with migrant workers from Mexico and I doubt you'd be able to tell that this novel was written back in 1939. And that's what really stuck me about this novel - how relevant it still is - in some ways even more now than then.
The first similarity is economic. As I write this we are still either going through a 'great recession' or are slowly emerging from an economic downturn. The causes are different, of course, here in the novel it was bad farming techniques mixed with new technology that drove the farmers from their land. Today it's an over-saturated housing market - people banking all their futures on the bubble of hope that perhaps the value of their own home will increase enough for them to make a tidy profit. And just like land that's been worked too hard, people worked the housing market too hard and it collapsed. Banks came to take the farms in the novel and banks came to take the homes in our own time.
And both examples were of people running as fast as they could just to stay a little ahead of disaster. The farmers grew crops that destroyed the soil because they had no choice - they couldn't compete with the new farms, the corporate farms and machine efficiency. A family can't compete with a fleet of harvesters and tractors - working the land by hand can't keep up with a tractor. And the same goes for the people with houses these days. Everybody borrowed on cheap credit from the bank to hopefully 'buy low' and then 'sell high', but when everyone does it then there isn't no value in any of it and it all falls apart and everyone still owes the banks. And all they wanted was a piece of a dream, a chance to stay afloat economically, to send their kids to a good college, to make the car payments, put food on the table.
In the novel the Californian's hated the Oakies, called them lazy, called them animals, called them thieves; in today's world we call the homeowners who lost it all idiots, greedy, lazy. But we also hate the banks. Call the banks greedy, inhumane, a great machine that's too big to die and too big to fail and everybody has to keep feeding it because nobody is really too sure how to control it anymore.
But there is one difference, and that's the work. When the people lost the value on their homes, when the banks realized that the amount of money in the economy was based on a weak speculation and that there was actually a lot less money than there really was, when that caused credit to dry up, and when that caused smaller businesses to close up because they couldn't run the businesses with no credit, which in turn caused people to lose their jobs, and that caused the economy to drag down deeper and created a vicious cycle that made it worse and worse - after all that, the people had nowhere to go because all the 'poor jobs', the type of work Steinbeck writes about in the novel had all been taken by the immigrants.
And that cussed more issues. The poor American middle-class blamed the Mexican's and now militia patrol the borders to kick the Mexican's out or do worse things in the desert at night when nobody is looking. A man like Casey in the novel is no different than a immigrant getting killed by some militia border patrol.
And that causes resentment on all sides and the center can't hold.
And that's just the economic similarity between the novel and today's times. Politically it's the same too. A conservative will say the poor just gotta work, but the conservative will also be on the side of the businessman and when everyone needs work, the businessman can keep wages down and in turn keep the poor really poor. But that's supposed to be ok because the conservative will say the poor can take help from a charity or a church - but that's easy to tell someone else when it's not you having to beg and take charity, easy to tell another man to beg. But the conservative man is holding on by a thread as thin as can be too and he's causing his own demise because soon the corporation will put him out of work too, his job will be lost and he'll have to go begging and he won't be so mean and conservative anymore. He'll see the value of sticking by your fellow man instead of blaming him for his troubles.
And that's what the book is about - about family, about sticking together, about helping, about not letting the fruit on the vine rot when others go in need. And that's why it's an even more radical novel today than when it was written because it 'smells' of Communism or of Socialism. And the conservative man doesn't want to hear about that, he doesn't want a union because union men are lazy and he doesn't want socialism because the government will tell him what to do and he doesn't want communism because he can take care of his own family.
That is until he can't, then he'll be singing a different tune or he'll be turning on his own people like some of the people in the novel who turned against their own just to put food on the table; the great selfishness.
That's the saddest thing about the book - how spot on Steinbeck was about human nature. And for as beautiful as the novel is, as well written as it is, nothing can compare to how true it is. And maybe that's the thing that makes people still so angry about it - that it reveals a truth we don't want to accept about ourselves, that deep down we know that they way we live, that the American dream is not working, that it never really worked and that we either side with the people who will toss us on the heap of irrelevance or we fight the powers that be. And maybe if we worried a little more about if their neighbor has enough in his bowl and a little less about if we have enough in our own then maybe things would be better.
The novel is a microcosm of American, then and now. And that's quite an achievement because how many novels ring this true 75 years after they were written? And the novel is a damning indictment too, and that's why it still scares people.
And that ending. What an ending too. It's both hopeful and sad. It's religious and it turns religion on it's head too. It's bleak and yet it's also comforting.
Now I didn't realize it at first, but this is the third in a series of books I've been reading that deal explicitly with society - 'The Seven Pillars of Wisdom' talked about a people fighting for their independence in the deserts of Arabia, '100 Years of Solitude' about a village coping with modernity, and now this novel about a country having to find a new direction. And they are also about the poor, about people who have been taken advantage of by a government or an economy and have been cast aside. And that's been a struggle since man understood ownership and it will continue to be a struggle as long as some men side with the very forces that could steamroll everyone in the end.
'Don't turn on your own kind', Tom says. Well I hope Tom is still somewhere out there keeping an eye on everyone, helping where he can, beat up and bloody but still fighting. The world needs more Tom's and more Ma's. Someone's gotta keep the family together.
Anyway, brilliant novel. Pure genius.
For someone to sit down and write a novel they have to have a reason for doing so, be it to explore something in life that has troubled them, for financial gain or political motivations, for entertainment, or any number of reasons. A book does not just happen, at least some thought and effort goes into even the most current, vapid, ghost-written celebrity expose. And so what is the purpose of The Painted Bird? Why was this book written?What is its purpose?
In the afterword, Jerzy Kosiński goes into great detail to explain the point of his book and to defend his writing of it and the contents of its pages. He believes many people have misinterpreted his intentions and his words and that people with political motives have actively tried to harm him. He goes on to say that the terrors he writes about in his book are not even a fraction of the true events that went on in Eastern Europe during WW2. He implies he could have written an even more brutal, horrific, and savage description of what people did during that conflict. He believes he held back and others believe he went to far.
In the mini-series Band Of Brothers there is an episode which focuses on the medic of Easy Company. This medic, during his trip into town for rest and supplies, meets a young nurse who is treating the wounded and with whom he immediately forms a bond. Their relationship, though brief, is obviously deeper than an - infatuation they are two common souls who we can easily believe will spend the rest of their lives together. And she dies. And in that death, amid all the other deaths we have seen, the real tragedy of war is felt, the loss of someone who we cannot replace in our hearts and our lives, the loss of a unique and beautiful and important human being. A loss that is in part noble because of the work she was doing and also part pointless because of the whole reason why she would have to be there in the first place: a war.
I bring up this scene in Band of Brothers because that one scene, I believe, does a better job of showing us the tragedy of war than all the pages of Jerzy Kosiński's book. No amount of the brutal descriptions of torture, and rape, and cruelty going on for pages and pages and chapters and hours of reading can capture just the single image of a nurse's headscarf amid the rubble of a bombed church.
And so I have to put this book in the same category as Bastard Out Of Carolina, a disingenuous telling of a real tragedy, a book that explores real pain with dishonesty. Yes, every event Jerzy Kosiński writes about may have actually happened to any number of people during the war - I do not dispute the brutality he writes about, especially during a conflict which ultimately saw the extermination of millions of Jews and millions of others both during and then after the war in other countries. But what is disingenuous is the way he went about telling us this story.
When the book was first published it was believed to be basically a memoir, a true account of the author's actual experiences. Later it came out the book was a work of fiction whose goal was only to explore the brutality of the war and that the author was only writing about what he had heard or been told or, perhaps, imagined.
Does it matter if the book is true or not? Is that an important distinction?
Jerzy Kosiński goes to great lengths to show cruelty, especially the cruelty done to the main character at the hands of simple and uneducated peasants. They beat him, they torture him, they rape each other, they engage in the most incestuous and animalistic behaviors. To be blunt, he makes them all look like animals. In his afterword he's on the record as saying it was not his intention to be racist or discriminatory towards Eastern European peasants, that he was only showing what actually happened. And there is no denying that people who are superstitious, ignorant, fearful, oppressed, and uneducated allowed (or turned their backs to) the persecution of Jews and gypsies. History has shown, time and again, people of all races and cultures are more than capable of being tremendously cruel to each other, and the Eastern European peasants are no exception and their simple ignorance does not excuse them from terrible behavior.
But the detail Jerzy Kosiński goes into, the amount of savagery he writes about is so overwhelming, so gory, so awful that after a while it loses its potency and it just turns the very real human beings who are also Eastern European peasants into the most vile, wicked, and most horrible person's on earth. Every time we meet a new peasant for the boy to interact with we just start to wonder what sort of savagery will be unleashed on the boy and us as a reader. We are so beaten down time after time with how horrible the main character will be treated we no longer see anyone here as human.
In a way, through all this hammering of brutality, we start to understand how people can begin to look on a whole other race of people as animals, as less than humans who can be easily loaded onto trains and sent to concentration camps to be gassed. And if that was what the author was going for then I suppose he succeeded.
But he did so at the expense of turning every Eastern European peasant into the very thing he had been persecuted for. He only turned that hate and fear and ignorance back onto someone else. He solves nothing and he implies his own people have never been guilty of anything, that he belongs to a race of people who are only ever persecuted, but always righteous. Add in the line of the main character remembering his family had servants (class distinction) and it's easy to believe the author was making a class judgment all around.
Now perhaps had the main character became a murderer, had he engaged in the most heinous evil himself, had he, unlike his fellow mute orphan friend, switched the railroad tracks and committed the crime himself, had he actually descended into the depths of cruelty, then maybe we would have been given at least a semblance of a character study of how all this hate and violence can turn a person to hate an violence.
Yet as a work of fiction (which is what Jerzy Kosiński insists this is), then we have to follow the rules of fiction and ask how much does the character change? Well, he changes very little. He's been through a lot, but other than being withdrawn and mistrustful, he's a paper thin character (surrounded by stereotypes) who is a victim from start to finish, a righteous whipping post at the hands of cruel, ignorant savages. His character teaches us nothing and he shows us nothing insightful.
Personally I think Jerzy Kosiński took advantage of many of the horrific true accounts from the war and thought he could turn them into a sensationalist book that would sell a lot of copies because of the sheer tremendous amount of savage brutality he could describe. I could never shake the feeling he reveled in the gory details and that he allowed his imagination to run with a morbid frenzy all the way across Eastern Europe. I never felt like I believed all this cruelty happened to just one little boy. Could it have happened to many different people cumulatively? No doubt, unfortunately. People can be awfully cruel. But for this one boy to have gone through trial after terrible trial, to have been through all he went through is just too much to accept in a work of fiction.
Had the book been true, well, then the book would have been genuine and maybe we would have learned something different because, after all, had it really happened to Jerzy Kosiński, then he would have had something different to say and think about those events because he would have lived through them. But not having lived through them means he can't actually know how that savage cruelty can actually effect a person.
He can't know what the real horror the real people who suffered during WW2 actually went through, and it's those people, the Jews, and the gypsies, and all the others who he does a disservice to. He can't know their agony and he can't teach it to us. Only an actual survivor who actually went through those events could know that. And my instinct tells me their stories, though also cruel, would have more moments similar to the nurse in Band Of Brothers: the personal losses, than anything the author here writes about.
And let's not let him off the hook by saying since it's just a work of fiction that none of this matters, that he has no responsibility to the truth, that he's all within his rights to turn an entire race and population of Eastern European peasants into the most base savages just for morbid entertainment sake. Sure, maybe in one hundred years a person could write a book like this and not have it reflect at all on the people in it, but to write this book just 20 years after the war when it is still fresh means he has to have known that even if the book had been called "The Totally Made Up Fictitious Account of Horrible Things That Did In No Way Happen To Me, The Author", it would still have affected people's perceptions of the people in the book because there really are Eastern European peasants. You can't have it both ways. You just can't write a book that claims to be a tool to show people who horrible the war was and then also say it's all made up and the bad people in it are not actually bad people.
So, to sum up, the book is disingenuous. It teaches us nothing because it is not true and since it is a work of fiction it has to be held to the standards of fiction. And those standards show us the book is just an endless series of brutalisms over and over and with paper-thin characters who do not change and that gives us hardly any insight into the human character the author hopes to explore.
This is a bad book. The people who committed the crimes against the Jews and gypsies and all the others were human beings, not some vision of Dante's Infernal Monsters. But the truth is human beings did this to other human beings. The actual brutality Jerzy Kosiński tells us that really happened to people during this period in history is just a set piece for paper monsters and it lets the truly awful people who committed these crimes off the moral hook, so-to-speak, by turning them into something that is not obligated to be moral. We have to accept that human beings are cruel, that the worst crimes in our society are committed by people just like us. To soften the blow, to shift the blame by saying these people are not actually human in some vapid attempt to comfort ourselves, to keep us from looking into the darkness of our hearts, means these crimes will continue to happen because they will never be addressed and understood. If we keep blaming monsters for our own actions, if we refuse to accept responsibility, then we are doomed as a species.
When the main character of a story has little to no say in the events happening to them - when they are just swept along the with the story - it makes for a boring character. And a boring book.
And this is a very boring book.
Here's the problem: Claudius can only watch as events unfold around him, he rarely gets to participate in anything that is interesting and when he does it's usually to beg for mercy or play the fool. The people around him are interesting - or they would be had they been written better, anyway but he is not. He can only watch (and so we too can only watch) as we are told how one thing happened and how another thing happened.
What I don't get is Graves wanted to write a realistic story of what happened during Claudius' lifetime, he wanted to explore what life in Rome was really like and try to figure out how events really happened, yet he gives everyone the most wooden and stilted dialogue and has everyone running around making absolute statements. Everyone is certain of their actions and nobody ever stops to think that some issues might not be black or white. Nobody struggles with morality here and how someone could write an entire novel about the beginnings of the Roman Empire without giving us at least one character who spends more than an afterthought wondering if all this is a good idea isn't just a missed opportunity, it's just dumb.
I'll give Graves credit for creativity and for taking the old Roman stories and looking at them in a fresh light. He has some fun ideas here, but it's just poorly put together.
The biggest problem is a problem almost all stories like this run into : they have the wrong main character. Claudius is unable to really influence the events happening around him and to him so he's a terrible character to spend an entire book with. I get that he's a historian and that he's telling us this story, but you can't have it both ways, you can't update the stories of Rome to show modern audiences that people even 2000 years ago were just like us but then write the whole book as if everyone is stiff and antique and mimicking an old Roman history book. If the whole point of this book was to show us how Rome was a vibrant, modern place, then why make everything feel stuffy and have everyone act wooden? The whole purpose of this book is baffling.
Anyway, my biggest problem with stories like this, such as biopics, are that you should never make the character at the center of your interest the main character. In the film Amadeus Mozart isn't the main character, Salieri is. Salieri is much more interesting because he's much more like us - he's filled with rage and jealousy and he doesn't possess the genius that Mozart does. We can understand Mozart's brilliance better by looking at him through the flawed Salieri. In the film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford the main character isn't Jesse James, it's (the coward) Robert Ford. Ford is far more interesting and we learn about both men by following Ford around. Even The Last King of Scotland gets this right by not making Idi Amin the main character, but making the fictional Nicholas Garrigan our eyes to the brutality of that dictator.
Now to be fair, Claudius isn't the center of Rome through most of the book; he's telling the stories of Augustus, his wife Livia, Tiberius, and Caligula, as well as a few other historical figures because he wants us to know how he wound up finally becoming Emperor, but we have to look at the first problem I brought up and that is Claudius is just telling us things he had no control over and played almost no part in.
Maybe it really was dumb luck that Claudius became Emperor, however, that makes for boring fiction. And besides I doubt the real Claudius had no influence and I'm sure he was more political than this book makes him out to be. Nobody is just handed the absolute rule of all of Rome just because a few senators are afraid of a few more Germans. I just don't buy any of it.
Anyway, like I said, I give Graves credit for undertaking an interesting project, and there are some interesting moments, especially anything with Livia or Caligula, but the overall book is stiff and Claudius is one of the most boring main characters I've ever come across. He's like little kid Anakin Skywalker in the terrible The Phantom Menace where he has no idea what's going on around him, and no power to do anything about what happening. He's boring, undeveloped, and the whole thing feels like a waste of time.
Oh, and do I feel like I understand Rome better now than when I started? No. Graves gives us some possible insight into how a few well-to-do Romans lives and some insight into the crimes and lavish festivals of the times, but none of the people here jump off the page as real human beings and Rome just feels like a collection of wooden sheep whose only function is to cheer at the games.
Poor Clau-Clau-Claudius? Poor us.
"The person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals, and you know it!" - Agent K, Men In Black
But let's face it, we're all, at one time or another, selfish, dangerous idiots. When we drive too fast on the highway we shake our head at all the idiots driving too slow as we pass them and then shake our fists at the lunatics passing us in turn. We give ourselves up to every degree of cognitive dissonance when we say, for example, we believe in nuclear energy ... but not in my backyard (remember Carlin's NIMBY?); let some other idiots deal with the mess. When we lose it's because someone else cheated but when we win it's because of our skill. Our children are perfect saints; your kids are spoiled brats incapable of even rudimentary biological functions. We might think everyone should pass a test to vote in an election, except us, of course, because we are reasonably informed and capable of rational decisions in all weighty matters.
We're idiots, every one, and this book makes the case for it.
There's a scene near the end of the book where they come upon the dead body of a woman whom, we learn, has killed herself because she has no prospects in life and cannot hope to provide for her child. All her friends and family have turned her out (why exactly we do not know) and so she drowns herself in the very same river our three idiot heroes drift along with not a care in the world. The scene serves as a stark reminder of our own callousness, even if we have no idea we are being cruel. Shūsaku Endō, in his novel Silence tells us “Sin, he reflected, is not what it is usually thought to be; it is not to steal and tell lies. Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another and to be quite oblivious of the wounds he has left behind.”
The climax of the novel (if you could call it a climax in the traditional sense), is the literal shattering of a lie, in this case a trophy fish hanging on the wall that everyone claims was their miraculous catch. In the end we learn it wasn't even a fish at all, just a piece of plaster art.
Yet the novel, funny as it is (and it's very funny) is not just trying to make a point that lying is bad, either. Lying is good, too. Lying is good because it makes a story better, it makes life more enjoyable, more fun. If I told you I caught one fish that would not be an interesting story, however, if I say I caught 20 fish, and each one I battled with for over an hour upon a stormy sea, and they were all Sturgeons, then that's a story. Even if you know I'm lying, it really only matters how well I tell the story. Without a good story life would be boring, there would probably be no real art, no comedy, no fun.
So how do we reconcile the two: lying vs. fun?
Well, we can't really, at least not when we think about too much. We have to pick our battles, we have to be our own, as Einstein theorized, relativistic observer upon which everything else orbits. If we start looking at our lives through another person's eyes then we might see what total idiots we are, see how callous we are, how rude and hostile, too. But how can we possibly go through life self analyzing ourselves through other people's perception of us? We might as well toss ourselves in the nearest river!
The whole argument reminds me of what our parents always told us when we were eating dinner and hand't finished, "There are starving children in Africa; don't you know how lucky you are!"
Well of course I don't know how lucky I am because I've never been a starving African child. How could I ever hope to relate! How could that child possible relate the other way back to me living in a world where we have so much food in the refrigerator that it blocks our view of more food in the back that we forget it's there and it all goes bad. We have so much food it blocks our view of our food! It's absurd all the way around.
Now I'm not suggesting the author had all this immediately in mind when he wrote this wonderful book, however, it does answer why the book feels so contemporary because even though it's over a hundred years old, it speaks to that part of human nature that will never change, a selfishness we can't really help and an absurdity in all of modern life.
My God, this is a depressing novel. Every word Faulkner writes, every memory that is explored, every action in the novel is distilled into a lingering, oppressive, sadness that is as omnipresent as the honeysuckle Quentin so hated.
I started off enjoying the novel; I liked the experimental way Faulkner tries to convey the confused mind of Benjy. As someone who grew up with and spent years working with severely mentally disabled adults, I felt Faulkner honestly captured the state of mind of someone who is almost totally unable to experience rational and unselfish thought.
The second chapter, too, was quite beautiful but at times was nearly impenetrable. Pretty much only the scene with the little girl, when his mind stops wandering and he focuses only on finding her home, really seemed to have much of an impact for me. Everything else - the broken watch, his drunken father's philosophical ramblings, his time with Caddy - seemed ... distant. Distant is the best way I can describe it from a reader's point of view. I never felt like I was part of Quentin's experiences even though we spend so much time in his mind. He was no Bloom.
The final two chapters were straightforward enough. We learn many of the previously mysterious details that Benjy's and Quentin's minds could not clearly articulate (or were unwilling to articulate). And Jason was a wonderful character - the best in the book. Faulkner certainly has created one of the great characters in literature with Jason.
But what does this all add up to? Yes, the novel is about the south and the south's decline, but what South? Was there a time when people did not behave badly, were devious, cheats, liars, manipulators, and every other sin you can imagine? Maybe there were times in the Compson family when they were more outwardly respectable, but how do we really know those "better" people were actually any better? Is Faulkner so nostalgic for a long forgotten time that he actually believes we've all degenerated in our time?
I doubt Faulkner was so naive or sentimental. He write a book in which the main characters are all flawed and fallen ne'er–do–wells, who all long for a time when things were better and resent the present because it didn't turn out the way they wanted it too. Adults who haven't really ever grown up. In a way he wrote a warning against sentimentality, against seeing the past with thick rose colored glasses because if you keep trying to compare yourself against an impossible standard you will only disappoint yourself or, if you're smart, just run away from your entire family.
From that point of view, then, this isn't a "southern" novel bemoaning the end of one specific time and culture of Faulkner's love that will unfortunately never return, he's trying to warn us from falling into the cycle of always going back to the past. If your mind is always full of how things were and how things used to be then you will miss every opportunity to better yourself tomorrow. The Compson's totally fell apart because they could not come to terms with reality.
Yet even with such an analysis, I just could not get into this novel. I really wanted to, but you have to approach every work of art from the perspective of how it effects you personally and this novel just made me feel sad after having witnessed so much misery on every page.
I never was able to shake the feeling that there was something missing in this novel. Maybe it was a soul or heart it lacked? Hard to say because it was, at times, quite beautiful and the ending along the river was very well done, but I felt empty after I was done with the book.
One of the biggest problems I had with the book was that the characters felt very thin. Even Moon, who was written as a 'complicated man' never jumped off of the page and no amount of discussion between Wolf and Andy at the end about his mysteriousness was going to change that. And Moon was probably the biggest issue I had here; he seemed just too damn convenient as a character. His Plains Indian background never felt like more than an excuse to talk about how bad the native peoples of the Americas have been treated and how poorly we ever understood their cultures.
I would have been much more interested had the book been about his back story only.
I did, however, like Wolf, though I have to admit to always imagining him in my mind as played by Tom Waits from the film. Still, he was the only real character in the book and I really felt for him. He really was a very lonely man who acted tough (and could be tough, too) but he loved the people he let in.
Hazel would have been a great character, too but she was a serious missed opportunity. I could almost feel Matthiessen's hatred and judgment of a certain type of American mid-western Christian woman. She got off to a great start and seemed like she was going to be worth exploring, but she nearly ruined the entire book. The only thing I enjoyed her doing was when she hated her husband for being so good, for being so much like Jesus. That was a great thing for a missionary to say.
As for everyone else: Martin was painfully dull and boring, Leslie was thinner than water, and while Andy had the most potential, she never went anywhere. Even Matthiessen just leaves her sitting at a table staring into nothing at the end. Uyuyu, I'll admit was rather good, but he wasn't used enough and Father Xantes was just never tied down to anything I felt was relevant beyond an allegory for the Catholic Church in this part of the world.
The novel is well written and some passages are very beautiful - the opening scene of the airplane is stunning - but it never adds up to much more than a story that is supposed to be sad but just winds up being sort of flat.
And it's a shame, too because there was a real opportunity to explore some very interesting ideas, but perhaps this is material only Joseph Conrad would have known what to do with. And this novel does feel very often as if Conrad is standing over Matthiessen as he wrote it - the subject matter, the rough men as outlaws, the (sometimes here) very beautiful language, though Matthiessen's language never reaches the same depth as Conrad; he's no master wordsmith, but rather just a good putter-togetherer-of-words.
In the end I do not feel as if I learned anything insightful about Christian missionaries, about native Amazon Indians, about South American politics (the parallel story of Guzman reads like a bad Hollywood movie), nor about the larger issues of faith and acceptance. I felt like we never really left that plane in the beginning and we only ever saw glimpses through the jungle canopy.
Samurai films are my favorite genre pictures. Mainly what attracts me to them isn't so much that I love Japanese history or ever wanted to be a samurai, it's that I love how a good, proper samurai film teases out the action until the finale. Samurai films are about patience; the slow burn. Shots might linger on the rain, or cherry blossoms, or footprints in the snow, or the sounds of cicadas in the summer heat but the 'action' isn't until after two hours of build up.
For me anticipation is what I love, perhaps more than the resolution itself. I love waiting for something to happen but I never really was that excited for the thing itself. I suppose I just like having something to look forward to. Expectation and imagination is, typically, far more interesting than reality.
A samurai would spend his entire life training for battle yet, like the samurai in Kurosawa's 'Seven Samurai' not be victorious even once. There would be very little glory in a war; only the young and inexperienced would find it romantic while the old veterans would know there is never really any winning a war.
And that is what Moby Dick is for me: a samurai film set at sea where the warriors are all Nantucket whalers and the villain is a fish.
Melville, too, must have felt similar about anticipation as I do. His whole novel - though this is not a novel, it's really an epic poem - is imagination and anticipation and beautiful images of the sea and of death and of the whaling life. Yet in the end it's all so futile.
"Great God, where is the ship?"
One thing I hadn't counted on about Moby Dick is how even though everyone who hasn't read the novel is well aware of it and the events within, it's not a book you can really know anything about without reading. This is a book, like Ulysses, you have to experience. You have to live through this novel; it has to happen to you. This isn't a story to be told in the normal sense - in fact the book is almost everything but a normal novel after we set sail - this is a book whose art is in forcing you to live the events of the book as if you are on that cursed ship.
Something that really struck me is that our narrator who is so famously introduced to us in one of the great first lines in a book - 'Call me Ishmael' - slowly ghosts away as the novel goes on. What starts as a book about Ishmael's experience getting on the ship and learning about whaling (and the entire science of whales), he lets go of our hand and we begin floating about the Pequod like a disembodied spirit. We overhear everyone's conversations, even their private mutterings, and the point of view expands out to be in all places at all times. It's an unsettling sensation because Melville is physically enlisting onto that ship as a shipmate and after our initial training we are forced to watch the events unfold to their conclusion.
I also had no idea that the novel is not really a novel - not in the traditional sense. Moby Dick is, basically, postmodern but from the 1850's. I had expected a somewhat straightforward novel about the grappling with a whale, not 209,117 pages of epic poetry. I had not expected the novel to still feel so fresh as it must have been when it was written nearing on 200 years ago.
One last thing that I have to confess is that I don't believe Ahab was mad. Obsessed? yes, but not insane. He was a salty captain with 40 years of experience at sea and he knew what he was doing. I don't even think he had a death wish, I just think he saw an opportunity to be truly great and flew at it with everything he had. He was already a great whaler (how else would he have lasted so long?) so he knew he could defeat that fish if he really tried. And I don't see anything wrong with that, too. All those men knew what they were in for and if Starbuck was more of a man he might have stopped Ahab, but Ahab is the sort of person who winds up wither being great or being killed; he is no ordinary person.
He's very American in that way - he'll damn everything to get what he wants.
Overall and beyond all the great themes of the novel is just how damn well it's written. There is nothing like this book. The language is so seductive, the imagery so vivid, everything on that ship and the sea so perfectly realized that there were times I had to pinch myself that this was real. Some of the writing is so good that it almost doesn't even seem possible, as if it were written by some God.
Now that I'm done with the book I'm sad. I've now read Moby Dick and there are only so many great novels in the world worth throwing a harpoon at. But what a voyage getting there!
This novel introduces a disturbing paradox: there are many people in this world who, at the very least deserve our empathy yet to actually understand them would actually cause us despise them because how disturbed they are.
I kept thinking of people who commit mass violence, such as school shooters while reading this book. Typically the range of emotion from learning such a tragedy has occurred is first outrage, "Who would do such a thing? Why did they do it? What has the world come to?". When we learn who the culprit was we can then put a face to the crime and we say the person is sick and evil and they should be put to death. We don't see them as human, we see them as monsters who are sick.
But are they monsters? What if we were truly empathetic and tried to get to know these people. What would we discover then?
Unfortunately, I don't think the answer is an easy one because while religious morality tells us to empathize with even the worst people, if we actually could know the minds of such disturbed people we would be even more disgusted and confused. All we might discover is this person who committed such a terrible act is, in fact, a terrible person.
And so how do you empathize for and with a person who is so totally far removed from the rest of humanity, who is so wrapped up in their own delusions, whose point of view on the world is so fractured that you just can't even force yourself to want to care about them?
That's the paradox I discovered because of this book and with the main character Mizoguchi. Mizoguchi is, putting aside his skewed interpretation of humanity, an otherwise rational person. Yet all of his otherwise normal thought processes stems totally from a decayed root that infects the entire tree. His actions, his motives, his opinions seem to make a sort of sense, but only in the context that he is basically a sick person. And everything he decides to do, all his planning and his final actions are because he is sick, because he doesn't care one shred for humanity.
Mizoguchi does not love or does't care about anyone. And so how do we empathize with him? That's a real problem here because it makes for a very difficult novel. On the one hand Yukio Mishima, the author, is giving us an insight into the mind of a person beyond redemption but because Mizoguchi is beyond redemption we have a hard time even liking the novel. This novel is basically a physical manifestation of the character Mizoguchi, or to broaden the scope, the novel is the manifestation of all such people who commit these terrible crimes. And so how can we ever hope to like the book if we hate what the book is showing us? The book shows us true ugliness and so how do we respond to that?
This is a very difficult novel but it is fascinating in that it confronts head on the reality of empathy for another human being and how difficult it really is, or if it's even possible with a person like Mizoguchi.
The most important thing a science fiction novel must be is believable, if it can do that then it can get away with anything else and The Windup Girl pulls this off wonderfully. Paolo Bacigalupi has created a future world, Thailand, so dense and teeming with life, with heat, and with mystery that you can almost smell this imagined city, feel the sweat on your body, hear the noise of the over-cramped city. This is a fully realized world that never once loses its internal consistency; everything that happens is a natural extension of the world Bacigalupi has created.
What most stuck me about this novel was how terrifying the actual possibility of this world he creates is. While we imagine we have total control over genetically modified seeds and crops, or no matter how certain we are that cloning is perfectly safe, Bacigalupi taps into that uneasy feeling we all have deep down that we're not totally convinced we are masters of science. How do we know for certain that we aren't creating something that could go horribly, horribly wrong? Whose to say that a real company like Monsanto won't accidentally produce a strain of genetically modified wheat that winds up killing all the natural strains or infects some beetle that begins a plague? How can we really know all the possible consequences of our actions?
And this book is all about consequences and how each action effects another, seemingly unrelated action, how what one character does in an act of self defense can actually send an entire city into civil war. It's a valid point to think about because it speaks of responsibility.
One of Bacigalupi's great skills is in how he presents information in this world he has created. The names he's given to the various blights, diseases, companies, and people feel absolutely genuine: blister rust, cibiscosis, calorie-men, yellow cards, white shirts, kink springs; Bacigalupi gets the feel of this future just right. He also draws on a lot of recognizable themes from other great science fiction stories: I could sense he was inspired a lot from 'Blade Runner', 'Ghost In The Shell', and the brilliant but little seen 'Texhnolyze', but that he's also part of a new trend in science fiction to get away from urban American settings and make it a more global genre - District 9, Halo, and Junot Díaz's short story 'Monstro'.
This book is also part of another trend in science fiction where it takes its themes seriously to tell a story worth paying attention to: Ishiguro's "Never Let Me Go' and McCarthy's 'The Road' both come to mind as stories that are warnings about our own future and, like any good sci-fi story, what it means to be human. And the final scene of this novel, the epilogue scene, is a wonderful scene where old meets new amid total devastation.
And though I am by no means an alarmist concerning the advancement of science, Paolo Bacigalupi makes a strong case for always siding with caution because you can never be to sure what trouble you might get yourself into. In that way this book is somewhat similar to Lovecraft's 'At The Mountains of Madness' in that you better be careful about messing with a nature you do not fully understand or else you might unleash something so terrible as to never be able to go back.
This is a fantastic novel full of great ideas, beautiful imagery (Bacigalupi is a helluva writer in that regard), and terrifying possibilities. The book is a tad too long, but never dull and no opportunity is wasted to continue building the Thailand in this story.
As someone who is not religious, this was an incredibly insightful book into the complexity of Christian faith. Particularly of note is Shūsaku Endō's restraint from taking sides on the issue even though he was a believer. This is quite remarkable since most religious books tend towards extreme bias, but Endō takes the advice of his own novel and does not fall prey to being blinded by his own beliefs.
While the most obvious theme of the book deals with the silence of God in the face of the most terrible suffering, there is another theme: pride. This pride of Christianity has been a troubling issue through much of history as it relates to other cultures, be it in the middle east, the far east, or the new world. Pride has meant missionaries full of blind zeal have traveled all over the world and forced their faith on other people without the slightest idea of the pain they are causing.
In this novel, Sebastian continually compares his missionary work in Japan to that of Christ - he even envisions a martyrdom of himself just as glorious as Christ. And it is the Japanese, Inoue specifically, who recognizes this lack of humility in the missionaries and uses it against them. He forces them to renounce their faith, to be cast out of the church like a Judas, in order to save the lives of the miserable peasants.
Yet it isn't quite so simple, either. Inoue may think he has won, but Sebastian, even with his pride broken, knows that only Christ can be a martyr for the faith. Sebastian must trample on the face of Christ (the Fumie) and though he believes that damns him, in a way it also reinforces the power of his savior to forgive and protect the meek by offering up himself. In the end Sebastian is still able to hear the confession of Kichijiro, but the roles have almost reversed in that Sebastian is humbled far below the weakness of the strange Kichijiro.
Of course the title of the book, Silence, is the most important theme of the book and all through the book I kept thinking of all the periods in history when there was terrible suffering and yet nothing was done about it - for example the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Yet while God, in the novel, does seem totally silent, he does not seem absent either because Shūsaku Endō fills the novel with sound: we hear the rain, the children singing, footsteps, the sound of a sword killing a man, the moaning of the torture victims. And that sound is not for a God to hear, but for us to hear. Shūsaku Endō seems to be saying that only we can alleviate the suffering of each other.
But how do we alleviate the suffering of our fellow man while not making more trouble than we hope to solve? That's the dilemma here. Had Sebastian (and Garrpe)never come to Japan how many people would have been spared? Inoue even says near the end that there are still Christians living and practicing in Japan unmolested because he knows the seed of the religion will soon die out on its own. Yet had a monk traveled to those regions then the story would have played out all over again.
But then what do you do when you know people are suffering? How can you save them? Should you save them? At what cost? How many Kichijiro's would you make - wretched, tortured souls who wander around totally broken hearted because they are too weak to stand up for themselves and half wishing they were dead but also too cowardly to die?
There are no answers here, only very thorny issues. And that's what makes this novel so brilliant because Shūsaku Endō does not try to answer them for you; you have to figure it out for yourself.
Stylistically this novel is very interesting. The novel begins as a series of letters written by Sebastian and then switches to a third person limited (of Sebastian) and then shifts again to a series of official log entries first from the Dutch and then from a Japanese official where we learn the fate of Sebastian. This final shift is very confusing at first because a lot of it does not seem pertinent to the story and I had to think a long time about why it was written this way. What I think Shūsaku Endō was trying to do was place the context of Sebastian's (and also Kichijiro's) life into a larger frame - the frame of all humanity.
The novel begins very personal and gradually becomes less personal until we get almost a list of very foreign sounding names. Shūsaku Endō seems to be connecting all these lives together in a very subtle attempt to remind us we are all connected as human beings. And by doing so, by connecting a Portuguese monk with that of a wretched Japanese peasant, we are forced to see the humanity in each of us, to take away the pridefullness of our faith and our position in life and only see the common humanity on each person. And it goes both way - it's not just about Christians needing to see the error of their pride, but also the Japanese.
The Japanese are more than cruel to their own people. They keep nearly the entire population in servitude and the entire countryside is destitute and desperate. No wonder the peasants were so eager to latch into the religious idea of a paradise in the after life for the meek. Yet had the Japanese treated their people as, well, people, then their never would have been monks coming to their country to try and "save" them - and, of course, making more trouble than they realized.
In short, had their been respect for humanity, had the monks and the Japanese not thrown the rock, their hand would not have withered away (as the song goes at the end of the book "Oh lantern bye, bye, bye./ If you throw a stone at it, your hand withers away". That song in not about throwing a stone at faith, but at your fellow man and how that hurts everyone.
This is a beautiful novel in every way, and perhaps one of the greatest novels ever written. It is complex, difficult, has no answers, and it forces you to come to terms with your own beliefs and the beliefs of other people. This is a very necessary book and were more people to read it, to really read it and take it to heart, could do the world a lot of good. Too bad the novel is so obscure; more people should read it.
There's no getting around the issue of talking about this book and not mentioning the film There Will Be Blood, so let's just get all that out of the way: they have very little in common and the film is far, far superior to the book.
Anderson, who directed the film, has gone on the record saying he only really adapted about the first 150 pages of the novel before taking the story in his own, darker, more realistic direction. Anderson wisely focused his attention not on the son but on the oil baron father and not on the older brother Paul, but on the preacher boy Eli. Basically he fixes everything that is wrong with the book but manages to tell very much the same story but injects nuance and rejects the politics of Sinclair.
And the politics really are the issue and date this book so terribly. We live in a post-communist world and so all the naive ideals of Bunny, all the agonizing contortions of Paul at the end -mimicking the holy-rollers with his own language (Russian) and "shivers" - has been proven to be no better than the capitalism they were fighting against. Communism fell apart because it was just as corrupt as capitalism - capitalism has lasted only because it's managed to "own" so much of the world.
Yet how Sinclair couldn't see that another form of government was just as bad as any other, why he thought the Russians were onto some grand experiment destined to change the world for the better is just beyond me. Why he didn't apply a rational, critical analysis of the Russian system, or even the socialist system that he applies to capitalism is the one (and major) bit of laziness in an otherwise very well researched and thought out book.
Sinclair does do a lot right in this book, however. He knows how the oil business works from the ground (literally) on up to the banks and on to Congress. He understands every handshake between oilman and banker, between every banker and political boss, between every political boss and campaigner, between every campaigner and newsman, between every newsman and socialite ... and so on. No relationship in capitalism is left unexplored and all the ugly, dirty warts are examined. And while the book is horribly outdated concerning communism, that's about the only thing out of place because nearly everything else he talks about here is a problem we still deal with in America.
The biggest issue that hasn't changed since the book was written is the relationship between labor and management. Yes the Unions are nearly all gone thanks to the relationship between church and the republican party (a theme fully explored here in the book written 80 (yes, that's right, 80!) years ago. Yet people are still struggling to make a decent living at the hands of rich big business - today we call them the 1% and the protesters are occupying Wall Street.
And I could go on about what hasn't changed but that brings up an interesting dilemma: things haven't really changed. The system is still pretty much the same and though it hasn't gotten any better, it really hasn't gotten any worse, either. While capitalist watched as communism rose and then fell, they kept on keeping on. Yes there is a helluva lot of inequity, a lot that isn't fair, a lot of good people who should be doing better, a lot of corruption, but it hasn't in the intervening 80 years fallen apart.
Now I'm not apologizing for capitalism, but it is an interesting issue to think about nonetheless because of this book that goes into such detail, drills so far down into the problems, but actually works as a better history lesson looking back on how the world was compared to now than it does as a book trying to tell a story.
And as a book, well, it's not that good. It gets off to a great start but it falls apart at just about the point Anderson stopped adapting it for his brilliant film about greed and at what cost greed takes on a man. First of all the characters are flimsy - they exist just to get to the next journalistic expose masquerading as fiction. Ross Sr., is a nice guy and is all-together too nice to have ever been a successful oilman who can ruthlessly "play the game". Bunny is so thin as to be transparent - he has no personality because Sinclair is too busy writing his as being objective long enough to become a good, pure, and honest socialist of the bright future for mankind and all civilization. Paul exists just for convenience sake and keeps showing up at just the right time to move the story along and teach us how terrible we are to the workers and the Russians.
In fact, Sinclair does a disservice to very important issues by writing such a flimsy book full of preaching and slanted points of view. There Will Be Blood does a far better job of showing us how greed infects a man and ruins his soul and even if that isn't a financially satisfactory comeuppance, it's at least realistic and might actually make a very wealthy man rethink his own life in a more contemplative manner than this book which would just cause a wealthy man to dig into his trenches deeper and fight against the working man harder.
But Sinclair wanted to bring to light EVERY issue and so the book had to suffer between laughable scenes so contrived and silly as to make you laugh between cringes and other scenes which are quite insightful and interesting. And I won't fault Sinclair for at least trying to uncover all the problems because he does expose everything wrong with our system of economics and politics, it's just too bad he couldn't have been more artful about it because he only manages to make the characters he sympathizes with look weak and foolish and naive. In short, he hurts the very cause he believes in and wants to fight for.
This could have been a great book if he trusted his characters, if he didn't lead them around the plot by the nose, if he trusted we the audience to get through to the deeper meaning by digging between the lines. Yet he treats us as uneducated boobs who know no better than to fall for a swindler preacher and don't know any better to take care of ourselves under the thumb of a corporate oppressor.
Yet there is a lot of good going on here in the ideas of the book. Just because it's bad art does not mean the ideas are all bad or what he exposes as corruption is false or invalid. Sinclair knew there was (and still is) great injustice and that our system is far from perfect. In a way his book is as flawed as our system.
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