Brodie’s Report

Brodie's ReportBrodie’s Report by Jorge Luis Borges
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m underlining books thanks to Borges, and contemplating why he was so into mazes. Even doing more traditional hand-me-down sort of stories there is still this obsession of his, that life is comparable to a labyrinth where the secret is to get the middle before you die. A puzzle to be discovered, a feeling that he’s chasing an unknowable perfection. And I’m underlining now, which I’ve never done before, and I’m not very good at it.

“There have been times when the only thing without mystery is happiness, because happiness is an end in itself.” (pg27)

“As is well known, most things originate in other countries and only in time find their way into Argentina.” (pg33)

“Remarking that between the traditional and the new, or between order and adventure, no real opposition exists.” (pg35)

These are quite macabre stories, maybe because Borges was contemplating the end for himself as he moved in to old age. But he’s also reminiscing about the Argentina that existed when he was born. Stories of the street, a fascination with a heroic criminality (which I usually hate but it’s Borges so the problem is mine) and the idea of whether there is ever honour in death.

I’m more comfortable with his style now, of similar starting points and unfamiliar endings. Two stories will begin with the same theme, a rivalry say, and in one case it will only strengthen those involved, in the other it will lead to their demise. Each story has potentially multiple endings, why pick just one when you have what if?

He gives the impression these tales have been related to him by others who maybe heard it somewhere else. They’re part myth and detached from him the moment they exist, is this true? I don’t know, and so begins my obsession with Borges.

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The Savage Detectives

The Savage DetectivesThe Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I came across Roberto Bolano almost by accident. Bored and trying to avoid more important matters I read an interview where he talked about novels being an imperfect art and that the longer a book the more imperfections it would reveal. This seemed like an interesting approach and then I discovered that The Savage Detectives was 600 pages long! So much scope for imperfection, this was literature as an act of defiance.

Bolano was a punk, I’m convinced of that. The spirit of this novel is full of its ideology; youth in rebellion, anti- authoritarianism, overthrowing the system and revolution through art. There is a real passion for the idea that you can change the world but also a recognition that each new generation, thinking itself unique, merely repeats the path of its predecessors. This is coupled with a sadness at the demise of the leftist politics often associated with these movements, where is the opposition to the modern world? I love this quote which sums up the approach of the Visceral Realists (The poets determined to change the world in this novel)

“Backward, gazing at a point in the distance, but moving away from it, walking straight toward the unknown”

Backward – repeating steps already taken as they walk in to the future.

The funny thing is is that you don’t even find out if the Visceral Realists were any good -none of their poetry is here – it merely chronicles the life of its leaders and hangers on from adolescence through to their late fourties. Parts one and three are told by a narrator completely unknown to the multitude of characters who appear in part two (and one who seems completely at odds, character wise, with the people he’s supposedly been on his great adventure with). You’re not really sure who to believe, what events happened or didn’t or what’s been embellished amidst the real history of Mexico City during this period. I guess it’s up to you to decide.

In some ways it’s a search for loss as the poets search for a long forgotten author; lost loves, lost friends and the loss of idealism that many of us feel as we grow older. The most interesting part for me was in his attempt to resuscitate failed artists, those always on the fringes who never made it, or never had a chance to. Disassembling the myth that good artists are always found, that talent rises to the top as the nonsense it is – surely proved by how many bad artists do make it (Bolano made no secret of his contempt for contemporaries he didn’t like such as Isabella Allende and Paolo Coelho. I can only applaud his taste).

Bolano is a mezmerizing writer, truly beautiful to read. I actually finished this book two days ago but have been idly thinking in the meantime about the puzzle that it is. Not just how every character brings their own perspective on events, but also my nagging suspicion that the narrator of parts one and three is some sort of alter ego of one of the other characters.

One complaint? The similies. Surprisingly generic.

After Borges this is the second Latin American author of the past few months whose managed to get completely inside my head.

Reading more.

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Kolyma Tales

Kolyma TalesKolyma Tales by Varlam Shalamov
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At some point during this astonishing collection of short stories I endured a sort of mental wobble which can be summed up in the phrase ‘why am I reading this?’ There was clearly a conflict between myself and the author as to why I read (escapism) and why he wrote (preservation).

There was no way I could derive pleasure reading about some of the most horrendous human misery and subjugation of fellow beings, but at the same time I clearly enjoyed this book on some abstract level informing me about the true extent of the human condition. It was uncomfortable knowing just how good this book is as a work of literature, knowing that part of me wanted to finish with it as quickly as possible and also feeling like I must read this book again(and perhaps again and again) because it says so much worth hearing. In endless debates about the purpose of art this book is one of the clearest examples I’ve come across that at its best it is not about self expression, technique or a way for humanity to preserve its identity after death but is merely a form of communication.

The physical suffering that Shalamov suffers(although great) seems less important than the impact it has on his psyche. Dehumanized yet still human, devoid of feeling and concern for anybody and yet still capable of moments of conscience. He explains that the last emotion left to him was bitterness and disturbingly relates it to the sorry amount of flesh on his bones and yet, and yet, his desire to continue living when life had clearly given up on him is immense.

“We realised that life, even the worst life, consists of an alternation of joys and sorrows, successes and failures and there was no need to fear the failures more than the successes.” (pg33)

My god that the torments these people suffered became so normalized that life with all its petty squabbles and minor victories continued to exist. What struck me most was the intense feelings of loneliness which many inmates at Kolyma must have suffered despite the fact they were all going through roughly the same experience.

“Literary fairy tales tell of ‘difficult’ conditions which are an essential element in forming any friendship, but such conditions are simply not difficult enough. If tragedy and need brought people together and gave berth to their friendship then the need was not extreme and the tragedy not great. Tragedy is not deep and sharp if it can be shared with friends.”(pg43)

Seemingly all aspects of prison life in Siberia is related here. The work quotas, the attitude of the guards, how political prisoners were treated with absolute contempt when compared to common criminals (bitterly related in a story about how a child molester would be welcomed back in to his community once his sentence is over when compared to the shame of being a political prisoner), the customs and unspoken rules which developed between the inmates, the breakdown of language to its most basic elements, and perhaps most sadly the thought that family members simply had no idea how bad things were for those in the camps.

There is no shame in his relating how his will was broken by the beatings, the hunger, the cold and the tiredness it is merely a fact – no human being could endure such conditions and keep his former self in tact. Simple ‘human’ stories tell of the impact it has on his body, the desperate measures that frantic inmates would go to, the casual brutality which became so casual to barely be bothered by it, the frostbite, death, escape attempts, the treatment of women (which savagely destroys the more modern idea of a commonality between Communism and Feminism), characters flitting in and out or simply disappearing and how this lifestyle informs his relationship to food. Basic rations were so pathetic that devouring near invisible crumbs on your hand became a matter of life and death, taste becomes heightened and the thought of sharing any food you had with others is seen as ridiculous.

The irony is that during Stalin’s great purges when nobody was safe and anybody could end up in the Gulags the best profession became that of a common thief. Sure you might still end up in Kolyma or somewhere similar but you’d enjoy a a status denied to former heads of bureaus or politicians or anybody else deemed political. This glimpse at the absurdity of bureaucracy is repeated again and again and perhaps best summed up in a letter a camp guard sends to a superior telling of how an injector has become broken on a boiler. The reply suggests disciplining ‘convict injector’ and also reprimands the camp guard for not keeping up with production. Deeply cynical humorous touches like this are scattered throughout.

This book speaks for itself better than any review I can cobble together so I will finish with a couple of quotes, the first concerns memory and how tempting it must have been to erase everything he experienced from his mind.

“I realised I was ready to forget everything, to cross out twenty years of my life. And what years! And when I understood this, I conquered myself. I knew I would not permit my memory to forget everything I had seen.”(pg393)

The second concerns the struggle he must have felt, knowing that if he ever left Kolyma life would never be the same again and he would not be able to return to his family because they could never understand what he’s been through.

“You and I are beyond anything good and evil, we’re also beyond anything human. After all that I’ve seen, I don’t want to be obligated to anyone – not even my own wife.”(pg329)

Truly shocking and saddening book told in a very matter of fact way.

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Independent People

Independent PeopleIndependent People by Halldór Laxness
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ever found yourself grappling with a reindeer in the middle of a snowstorm and then realised you have to walk fifteen hours(!) through the deepening blizzard in order to find shelter? No, me neither. That was a bad day for Bjartur, but then at least something happened other than tending to his sheep or living the most precarious of existences balancing the demands for sixteen hour working days with feeding and raising a family in an isolated, inhospitable landscape. And he
doesn’t even tell anyone about it, crazy, I’d live off a story like that for months.

The first thing to grab me about this book was it’s description of a way of life which seemed entirely alien, subsistence farming for long hours and only ever so you have enough to eat, no entertainment, no luxuries, no people to talk to apart from your own family, and despite the toil there is so little hope for improvement. It doesn’t sound like much but there is an amazing amount of gut wrenching drama and sorrow sparked from the characters in this book. Every one is well rounded and deep and seems to genuinely interact and exchange conversation with each other in a very realistic way.

None more so than in the descriptions of Bjartur’s children. At certain points you see the world through their eyes, their hopes and dreams, disappointments and disillusionments, the imagination and imaginary friends, their viewpoint on the life they lead and it’s hard not to hope that life will eventually offer them more than what they have.

Bjartur is the main focus of this book. A guy who worked so hard to become free that he can never stop talking about it. His independence costs him in terms of his relationships with those around him who view him with either fear or love. An incredibly domineering patriarch, his freedom definitely comes at a price in terms of the insanely demanding lifestyle that allows no sentiment and no time for his family – his livestock always, always come first. A man who will never ask for help, even on the point of near extinction. A jealous, resentful man who asks for nothing but to do things his own way as he defiantly battles against nature(and thus despite his flaws he genuinely gained my sympathy). A poet, madly respected by his peers, full of wit, occasionally tender and incredibly boring (He’s a guy I would definitely not like to be stuck talking too, if he wasn’t lecturing me about how free he was he’d be judging my worth based on what I know about sheep).

It definitely asks you what you think true independence means. Is Bjartur free when his life is governed by the whims of nature or the people who rule the country? But it’s also worth comparing his freedom with the freedom we have now which seems markedly different. Our freedoms have been eroded in exchange for greater convenience and security and you wonder if that’s a bad thing when you see how hard life is to be truly free.

Bjartur and his family and its struggles are a tiny dot on the landscape. Occasionally the book zooms out to show you the changing landscape of Iceland, it’s political struggles, its growing acceptance of Christianity and how it became more modern on the back of the sweat and tears of its farmers. This is done so seemlessly that it gives the book great scope as you see the battles between merchants and the foundation of farming co-ops with Bjartur and people like him caught helplessly in the middle.

I felt this book really grew in to its own the longer it went on. The observations on the human condition or on nature are excellent, the tone is wry and humorous but also deeply cynical and despairing, it doesn’t patronize its readership or offer satisfying conclusions (and even a hard hearted cynic such as myself really, really wanted it to) The ending is an absolute testament to the unwavering vision the author clearly had for his story.

Man, and I haven’t even mentioned all the cool references to Iceland’s amazing literary history(The Sagas)

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Thinking, Fast and Slow

Thinking, Fast and SlowThinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Something stupid I read on the back cover.

“As Copernicus removed the Earth from the centre of the universe and Darwin knocked humans off their biological perch, Kahneman has….” The Economist

I hate blurbs in general since they either say nothing, or have little relation to the text you’re about to read but really, suggesting this book will revolutionize the way we think of the world in the way of Darwin? That’s a pretty big ask. If the good people at The Economist were that convinced in this book’s potency they’d surely have written something like this –

The most interesting thing about this book was the look at the CEO’s of major corporations, the guys who earn millions of dollars in “bonuses” and how studies have shown that the actual affect they have on the future performance of the companies they run is negligible at best, and mostly down to luck. Stock market investors who try to play the market and determine future prices fare no better and would actually be better off being blindfolded and throwing pennies out of their absurdly expensive cars to see who can hit a homeless guy first.

Economic forecasters whose whole pitch is based around presenting a confident front in a better tomorrow should just give up now, predicting future events on current information is near useless and what they are actually doing is predicting the present.

In fact, coupled with most economists ever growing dependence on abstract theories which view people as nothing more than superfluous statistics we, at The Economist, have decided that our profession has mostly become about preserving the economic status quo and validating entirely useless jobs and so we would therefore like to resign en masse. Praise the lord that this book has given us the courage to admit that ‘waste and inefficiency’ – the central tenets of popular economic speak – are far more prevalent at the top of the capitalist food chain than the bottom.

Which is probably a bit of a mouthful for a blurb but The Economist have unwittingly proven a point that Kahneman makes. On a number of occasions he suggests that he’s presented his findings to business leaders or economists and they’ve agreed with everything he’s said before promptly carrying on as usual. It seems that it’s not enough to challenge the status quo and point out the flaws, you have to convince people that your model will make it worthwhile to give up on what they already have – and you can see this with crap democratic Governments who everyone is sick of but they still somehow win because the opposition aren’t convincing enough.

This book looks at our irrationally. How very often the choices we make are not determined by clear and logical thought but by irrelevant details, or the way a question or statement is framed, or by how our memory might associate that choice with emotions we’ve felt in the past. It suggests that our decision making process is inconsistent, impulsive, lazy and simple and that we prefer ‘common sense’ answers that ‘feel’ right to us even if we don’t know all the facts. That our
judgement is impaired by our bias, and by how the reality we have in our heads is merely a model of what reality is.

Morality, something we underpin our notions of a good and progressive person on is merely an emotional reaction to stimuli and not really rational process at all, but instinctive. It looks at how we downplay the role luck and unknown factors play in our lives so we can feel confident that we are the masters of our own destiny, when anything is further from the truth. How we constantly invent causality in a meaningless universe. It backs this – and a hell of a lot more – up with some brilliant studies that Kahneman and his colleagues have created over the years.

My favourite parts saw Kahneman look at our desire to seek causality in
great detail – it’s amazing stuff – it seems that very often when we are asked a question which is difficult, we will substitute for an easier one in order to give ourselves an answer. A rough example might be, when thinking of the situation in the Middle East, far too many factors and influences need to be weighed up for a ‘proper’ answer, so our brains will relate this to easier questions such as how do I feel about violence, or injustice, or something else that allows us to
make sense of a huge, unpredictable thing we struggle to really grasp and suddenly we have a coherent, cause and effect ‘story’ which we can understand about the situation in the Middle East.

This book works brilliantly as an pedagogical tool, inviting you to answer the questions which challenge the supposedly rational way we think. I had lots of fun trying these questions out on people I
know, irritating the hell out of them when they fell victim to the same modes of lazy thinking which Kahneman suggests affect us all.

It reads a bit like an academic autobiography, detailing a lifetimes work in a style full of heavy sentences and points that are made over and over again. Despite the personal touch Kahneman tries to inject it still feels abstract. His difficulties at getting the way we think to change at policy level(and to be fair there have been some successes) can also be seen at a personal level. He never suggests otherwise but even after reading this you’re still going to be susceptible to all the crazy ways our brains work as before.

Imagine your partner asks you where you think you’ll be in five years, and, having taken on board some of the lessons you’ve learnt from this book you say –

“Well, that depends on the cumulative instances of good/bad behaviour we’ve so far shown towards each other, coupled with knowing the base rate average of couples our age staying together, and then factoring in the random uncertainty inherent in any human beings future, so erm, let me get my calculator.”

Not going to happen is it? Best just to lie.

Still, this book is one of the best of its kind.

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The Sound of the Mountain

The Sound of the MountainThe Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Two things about this book stood out for me with the first being euthanasia. Anybody elderly seems to contemplate it on the basis they feel themselves useless and that the life they live in old age is much diminished by the amount of suffering they must endure as life ebbs away – it’s seen as the correct choice of a proud person. This was particularly poignant knowing that the author himself had took his own life in old age, and it was hard not to speculate about his own demise and whether it was something he’d always considered. Often after I have a read a book I find myself browsing over a short biography of it’s author to see how much their life influenced their art. Common consent is that compared to other Japanese authors Kawabata didn’t speculate enough on suicide to read too much into what he wrote on the subject, but just knowing he’d committed suicide meant I couldn’t help but speculate and see signs everywhere of his later intentions – ghoulish to be sure.

My very limited and near wholly ignorant knowledge of Japanese customs extends to knowing that suicide is often thought of as a noble act, or at the very least it is not seen as shameful. Such a topic and the books frank meditations left me feeling uncomfortable and questioning how society views the elderly. In the Japan that Kawabata describes -(vaguely after the second world war) the young look after the old, and the elderly are venerated for the guidance they can offer. So why do the elderly in this book see themselves as a burden on society and their family? It was a very strange situation but perhaps an issue prevalent anywhere in the world.

The second thing was the authors obsession with breasts. OK, obsession is far too strong a word, but he describes his daughter in laws, his own daughters, his secretaries. I mean it probably is a bit weird for the sixty year old protagonist to muse on his own daughters breasts isn’t it? I don’t know, maybe I’m just a prude, but there was a broader point(non breast related) on how we view beauty and beautiful people with more attention than those not so lucky which was absolutely devastating considering the books focus on family.

Overall the psychology of this book was pretty cool, people getting together out of expediency rather than love, there is deep introspection and constant interpretation of others actions. It’s a slow, subtle and quietly unravelling story in which the seismic shocks only hit you hours after you’ve read them. Devastating acts described with a lightness of touch and related in the same unconcerned manner as the one describing a cherry tree. And I really liked the descriptions of nature, it’s strongly felt within the story – the passing seasons, the branches of trees, there was a really nice poetic feel to these bits.

That poetic feel definitely extends to the style of the book – short sentences, short paragraphs and constant chapter breakdowns. It can be deceptive because a lot of surrounding detail can be described in a few words.

Books about family breakdowns and the minutiae of everyday life are not really for me but no doubt if they were I’d consider this a lovely book and its themes of love and loss, memory and time, family and obligation are exquisitely portrayed.

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Latin American Short Stories

The Penguin Book Of Latin American Short StoriesThe Penguin Book Of Latin American Short Stories by Thomas Colchie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Well rounded and varied set of short stories, covering authors from the well known (Garcia Marquez) to ones whose works are currently out of print. A nicely written introduction asks whether there is something intrinsically South American that unites them but that is hard to define – the influence of cinema being the most convincing. One thing they do have in common is the period into which they were born, most authors having been born at the very start of the 20th Century with the latest coming in at around 1940.

This would suggest some tentative common factors – most seem to have been influenced by Modernist European literature before taking it in a different direction, many will have written under dictatorships and all are well aware of the abiding influence of Imperialism. These factors do seem to have imprinted themselves on many of the stories, in the grim humour, the sense of macabre, the obsession with death, escapism through dreams and the blending of magical elements with the everyday. The only thing missing for me was any sense of history, it would have been quite cool to chuck in a few stories dealing with this continents fascinating ancient past.

Stories are divided into geographical entities – the River Plate region, Brazil, Mexico and the Caribbean. Oh yeah and Chile, represented only by Isabella Allende, whose story was the worst of the bunch by quite a distance. I suppose this gives testament to the strength of the others but really that story defined the term naff. Each author is introduced with a short biography of their life and works for a nice thumbnail portrait of their character. It was interesting to note how many struggled to publish, or had their work censored in their own country due to the mania of their own governments.

Best part of this book was discovering new authors whose work I will now seek to discover. I loved Murilo Rubiao’s brilliant story about a magician whose powers become a curse. Clarice Lispector whose protagonists life is the very definition of ordinary until a glimpse at how poverty affects people shakes her world. Joao Rosa’s strange story about a father who decides to live his life on a raft on a river whilst his son watches on and Reinaldo Arenas brutal and humourous magical realism tale. Penguin have published a fair few of these types of collections(short stories of America, of France, England and so on) and I’m minded to investigate them.

Good stuff.

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