Monday, November 14, 2011

Stalin's Ghost by Martin Cruz Smith

Another good novel by Martin Cruz Smith. Read "Gorky Park" and "Nightwing" before. The novel begins with a homicide to which Arkady Renko arrives that is already being investigated by Nikolai Isaakov and Marat Urman. In parallel, Arkady finds himself assigned to a case of people claiming to see Stalin at a railway station. Both of them are connected because the sightings of Stalin are just a publicity stunt for a political party called "Russian Patriots" with Isaakov as their main candidate. The homicide on the other hand is Isaakov trying to wipe out references to his rather shady past in the military while serving in Chechenya.
Arkady's father was a General in the Army during Stalin's time. References to his father are not particularly affectionate and probably are the origins of Arkady's disillusionment with the Soviet system. Maybe that is also a reason why drifts towards Eva. Eva was a doctor who served during Chechenya and tended to both the Russians and the Chechens. The author creates an interesting twist with Eva being in Chechenya with none other than Isaakov as her guardian angel. So as the story unfolds, Eva resumes her affair with Isaakov and leaves Arkady to go to the city of Tver with Isaakov where he is campaigning for the upcoming elections.
The novel mixes a superb detective thriller with a cynical view of the state of Russia and its history. An interesting find is that the novel is entirely written as seen by Arkady but is not written in the first person. Another interesting fact is Arkady's coma at a later half of the novel is in keeping with similar happening to the main character in the author's other books like "Gorky Park" and "Nightwing". Almost as if the author wishes to use these as interludes for introspection.

The apartment house had been built for the party and military elite, who were proud of their address, although during Stalin's time it was also where most people were taken away at night never to be seen again for years , if ever. Residents had listened with dread for the knock on the door or even the ascent of the elevator. What Arkady found surprising was that even knowing the building was a chopping block, no one dared decline the honour of living in it.

Eva didn't need his ghosts, she had her own. She had been a schoolgirl in Kiev, marching in the May Day parade four days after the meltdown at the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl because the authorities had assured the public that the situation was under control. A hundred thousand children walked into an invisible rain of plutonium, potassium, strontium, cessium-137. No one in the parade curled up and died on the spot, but she was labeled as a survivor, it being generally understood that survivors, especially women were barren and contagious.

What was the etiquette of cuckoldry? Should he leave them to their privacy, allowed himself to be chased out of his own bivouac? It wasn't as if he and Eva were married. It was clear that she could act as if they were lovers, and from time to time, banter cheerfully enough to raise his hopes, as least until tonight, but the performances took more effort all the time. It was rare that their work shifts coincided because she scheduled her hours more to avoid Arkady that to see him. Betrayal was exhausting, weighing every word with double meaning. Even when they made love he would spend the rest of the night examining everything Eva had said or done, watching her as if she was going to slip away and watching every word he said so as not to jar the mutually constructed house of cards. It had collapsed now, of course.

"The army is everything!" Arkady's father used to say until he was denied the field marshall's baton, then it was "The army is shit," Arkady wished he had such clarity of vision.

There were two approaches: attach Isaakov or pursue Eva. Both were shameless but in different ways. Since he didn't have the evidence or the authority to go after the detective in any official manner, he would have to provoke Isaakov into a misstep. Or he could forget Isaakov and justice and concentrate on Eva. She had slept with another man? At his age that meant less and less. People had histories.
He could keep his dignity or her.
His choice.

"Everyone worshipped Nikolai."
"What about you?"
"Yes," she said.
Arkady felt his heart race with hers. Well, they were working at something both perverse and difficult, the killing of love. That could raise a sweat.

It occurred to Arkady that when he had so abruptly left Moscow for Tver, Zhenya may have felt abandoned. All the conversations on the phone about monsters may have been a boy hanging for an invitation that was never issued. Arkady hadn't even said when he was coming back. And when Zhenya came to Tver was he appreciated or treated like excess baggage? Valuable insights but a little late.

Snow settled. Snow settled on a hero at a gate in Sovietskaya Street, immobilized, still thinking of his next move. Snow settled on bones that had come out of hiding. It settled on Tanya and Russian brides. It settled on Sofia Andreyeva's panache.
He thought the doctor had it wrong about the miracle. The real miracle was that the people of Tver should wake to city transformed into something pure and white.
And for ghosts, they filled the street.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

My first novel by Murakami and I am blown to pieces. The portrayal of characters, events and the emotions weaving them together is just too fantastic. The main character is Toru Watanabe who remembers his college days in Tokyo after hearing the song "Norwegian Wood" by Beatles. The entire book revolves around suicide and about how Watanabe struggles to overcome his grief.

The beginning of the book:

Even so, my memory has grown increasingly dim, and I have already forgotten any number of things. Writing from memory like this, I often feel a pang of dread. What if I've forgotten the most important thing? What if somewhere inside me there is a dark limbo where all the truly important memories are heaped and slowly turning into mud?
Be as it may, it's all I have to work with. Clutching these faded, fading, imperfect memories to my breast, I go on writing this book with all the desperate intensity of a starving man sucking on bones. This is the only way I know to keep my promise to Naoko.
Once, long ago, when I was still young, when the memories were far more vivid than they are now, I often tried to write about her. But I couldn't produce a line. I knew that if the first line would come, the rest would pour itself out on the page, but I could never make it happen. Everything was too sharp and clear, so that I could never tell where to start - the way a map that shows too much can sometimes be useless. Now, though, I realize that all I can place in the imperfect vessel of writing are imperfect memories and imperfect thoughts. The more the memories of Naoko inside me fade, the more deeply I am able to understand her. I know, too, why she asked me not to forget her. Naoko knew herself, of course. She knew that my memories of her would fade. Which is why she begged me never to forget her, to remember that she had existed.
The thoughts fill me with an unbearable sorrow. Because Naoko never loved me.

The beginning of the book throws Naoko right into the center of it. The title of the book arises from Naoko's favorite song. About how the song was played again and again on memorable events that bind Naoko to Watanabe. With characters that border on the surreal, the book brings the bizarre into normal life questioning what is even normal. The characters seem almost to portray different aspects of any given human being's personality - from sheer hedonism to hopeless submissiveness. The worst part is after examining the characters deeply, I begin to see the people around me in a different light. Feels like the dashing cars that we used to drive as children at amusement parks, crashing into each other as if it was the objective of the game. So many different types of people around all of us, and did we ever stop to think how they all affected us? Is there some little event like the song "Norwegian Wood" for each one of us that we could use to unravel our lives like pulling a knitted garment apart? Or maybe to unravel our lives and recreate it the way we want, we need to find those essential threads that bind our lives together? A deep surgery to remove a tumour that had embedded itself deep into one of the inner organs? Such a surgery could kill or could save. Care to undertake one?

Kizuki had left no suicide note, and had no motive that anyone could think of. Because I had been the last one to see him, I was called in for questioning by the police. A small article in the paper brought the affair to a close. Kizuki's parents got rid of his red N-360. For a time, a white flower marked his school desk.
The night Kizuki died, however, I lost the ability to see death (and life) in such simple terms. Death was not the opposite of life. It was already here, within my being, it had always been there, and no struggle would permit me to forget that. When it took the 17-year-old Kizuki that night in May, death took me as well.
And so I went from 18 to 19. Each day the sun would rise and set, the flag would be raised and lowered. Every Sunday I would have a date with my dead friend's girl. I had no idea what I was doing or what I was going to do. I made no friends at the lectures and hardly knew anyone in the dorm. The others in the dorm thought I wanted to be a writer because I was always alone with a book, but I had no such ambition. There was nothing I wanted to be.

I suppose every one of us has lost someone near and dear to us as we grew up. What marks us differently is the part they had played in our lives. And when that someone took his or her own life, the mildest thought is how could I have stopped it? The worst thought is did he think of me before he died? Watanabe lost his best friend Kizuki on the same day they had skipped classes to play pool in the afternoon. Maybe Kizuki just wanted to spend a last afternoon with his best friend. The best way to say goodbye? Not leaving a suicide note - he had said everything he needed to say, and to whom? Was Watanabe thinking that something that might have been said to him that afternoon would have stopped Kizuki from killing himself? He wanted to get away from the city, from the school, from the memory of white roses on his dead friend's school desk. How many people break away from everyone they grew up with and what must it take to want to achieve that state of detachment? The saying goes that the essence of what we are is decided by what we never chose - the family we were born in, the city we grew up, the streets we played in and the schools we went to. So could someone erase the essence or was the essence something that could be redefined? If it could be redefined, what would it take? A childhood may be a burden but it was offered to us on a platter. To throw away that platter without creating a huge void would be possible if there were a major turning point in one's life at a later stage that created a similar platter. What would that turning point be - one fantastic result in an examination, superstardom, a win in a lottery?

Hey, Kizuki, I thought, you're not missing a damn thing. This world is a piece of shit. The arseholes are getting good marks and helping to create a society in their own disgusting image.
For a while I attended lectures but refused to answer when they took the register. I knew it was a pointless gesture, but I felt so bad I had no choice. All I managed to do was isolate myself more than ever from the other students. By remaining silent when my name was called, I made everyone uncomfortable for a few seconds. None of the other students spoke to me, and I spoke to none of them.

The scene is set following the end of a students' strike at the university and the students who led the strike - the arseholes - were the first to be found attending lectures. So what made them arseholes? Leading the strike or returning to normalcy after the strike was dismantled by the police? Or were they arseholes to have given in to the police in the first place? So what does Watanabe think here? He is disillusioned with the "system" that let Kizuki die. He stopped caring about anything and that included the strike or the university for that matter. But in a way it did matter to him because he refused to answer the attendance call. What was he trying to prove here? He was not in the same boat with the arseholes who were now diligently answering the roll call or that he didn't want to respond to a roll call by a university that took these arseholes back? Begins to make me wonder how one should react in a system that behaved arbitrarily. Go about one's business, get what you wanted, may it be a degree, a contract, piles of money or protest against it? Would it be possible to go against it without becoming a part of it? A perpetrator at a later stage? Maybe that's how the system survives, because the ranks are continuously filled by diligent supporters. Would rebelling against a system do any good? One could always argue that the system would survive anyway so what have I accomplished? What had Watanabe achieved by not answering the roll call? Absolutely nothing. So what would be sensible way to get what we want and at the same time maintain our own identity?

"So why are you trying to join the Foreign Ministry?" (Watanabe)
"All kinds of reasons," said Nagasawa. "I like the idea of working overseas, for one. But mainly I want to test my abilities. If I'm going to test myself, I want to do it in the biggest field there is - the nation. I want to see how high I can climb, how much power I can exercise in this insanely huge bureaucratic system."
"Sounds like a game" (Wanatabe)
"It is a game. I don't give a damn about power and money per se. Really, I don't. I may be a selfish bastard, but I'm incredibly cool about shit like that. I could be a Zen saint. The one thing I do have is curiosity. I want to see what I can do out there in the big, tough world. Don't feel sorry for yourself. Only arseholes do that."

Is Nagasawa a career climber or indeed a Zen saint? Nagasawa lived in the same dorm as Watanabe and a taste in similar books brought them together. Chosen a career based on an essential quality. Sounds like Zen. We need to ask ourselves, what do we desire and take that desire to its most abstract form. Step back and look at the big picture. I like something, but why do I like it, what is in it that makes me like it, what would it be that if I take away it would cease to interest me? Then again could we have everything? Would the path that would appear the most enchanted lead us to happiness or would we have to make sacrifices whatever we chose? So what would be a sensible choice? A worthwhile goal to attain which we would have to give up a few luxuries along the way? So would you have to be like a Zen saint to truly pursue your goal? Not care about sacrifices and just pursue that which interests you? At the end of the day, it was only you to judge yourself. There is no greater honour than in struggling for what you believe in, there is no greater satisfaction than in achieving what you struggled for and no greater pleasure than in celebrating what you achieved. The toughest part is always the part where you have to take decisions.

In the midst of this overwhelming sunset, the image of Hatsumi flashed into my mind, and in that moment I understood what that tremor of the heart had been. It was a kind of childhood longing that had always remained - and would ever remain unfulfilled. I had forgotten the existence of such innocent, almost burnt-in longing: forgotten for years that such feelings had ever existed inside me. What Hatsumi had stirred in me was a part of my very self that had long lain dormant. And when the realization struck me, it aroused such sorrow I almost burst into tears. She had been an absolutely special woman. Someone should have done something - anything - to save her.
But neither Nagasawa not I could have managed that. As so many of those I knew had done, Hatsumi reached a certain stage in life and decided - almost on the spur of the moment - to end it. Two years after Nagasawa left for Germany, she married, and two years after that she slashed her wrists with a razor blade.
It was Nagasawa, of course, who told me what had happened . His letter from Bonn said this: "Hatsumi's death has extinguished something. This is unbearably sad and painful even to me." I ripped the letter to shreds and threw it away. I never wrote to him again.

Hatsumi was Nagasawa's girlfriend. Extremely rich, good looking, she seemed to have all the elements of a good life. For some mysterious reason she had chosen Nagasawa and despite the fact that he slept with numerous women, she thought he would come around some day. Ridiculous how some intelligent people make some of the most idiotic decisions in their personal lives. What made her think Nagasawa who would change his self-indulgent ways? Did she want what all those around her wanted or had? Same question again. What is that we want and how do we decide that? Had Nagasawa deceived her? Not really. He had told her right in the beginning that he had no intention to marry. She wanted a married life, and so she chose somebody, just somebody. Finding it wasn't the life she wanted and that she couldn't reverse it, she decided to end it. Seems so understandable when thought out this way, almost vulgar. Do you hate society for forcing a young life to an end? Or was society responsible? Positive thinkers would say, an individual can always persevere and achieve the impossible. But how many would go to that lengths to survive the way they want? How many would buckle and fold? What had Watanabe felt for Hatsumi? He was an only child and she was the elder sister he would have liked to have but never had. He wished her to leave Nagasawa and be happy. "Someone should have done something - anything - to save her." Was he the one that should have done something? If so what would that be? When we remember someone who we admire but quit, could we still admire those qualities in anyone again? What if it were all a sham? What if they were just weak people putting up strong exteriors?

Hey, there, Kizuki, I thought. Unlike you, I've chosen to live - and to live the best I know how. Sure, it was hard for you. What the hell, it's hard for me. Really hard. And all because you killed yourself and left Naoko behind. But that's something I will never do. I will never, ever, turn my back on her. First of all, because I love her, and because I'm stronger than she is. And I'm just going to keep on getting stronger. I'm going to mature. I'm going to be an adult. Because that's what I have to do. I always think I'd like to stay 17 or 18 if I could. But not any more. I'm not a teenager anymore. I've got a sense of responsibility now. I'm not the same person I was when we used to hang out together. I'm 20 now. And I have to pay the price to go on living.

Reminds me of the time I was sitting alone in the bar outside college sipping on my beer. A man sat on the table next to me and was facing me with a drink before him and a lost look on his face. I looked at him and he nodded at me. Asked me if I work at a particular company because I look familiar. I knew what that was. Just an introduction from a guy at a bar who wants to talk. He told me about how his friend just died leaving behind a pregnant wife. "Enjoy life max, man," was what he said that time and it seems like a pearl of wisdom now. The dead depart leaving the living to continue with their memories. What were the living to do? Grieve over their memories for ever and ever? Or "enjoy life max" and celebrate the life as the departed should have done.

"You made your decision long before Naoko died - that you could never leave Midori. Whether Naoko is alive or dead, it has nothing to do with your decision. You chose Midori. Naoko chose to die. You're all grown up now, so you have take responsibility for your choices. If you feel some kind of pain with regard to Naoko's death, I would advise you to keep on feeling that pain for the rest of your life. And if there's something you can learn from it, you should do that, too. But quite aside from that you should be happy with Midori."

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Mission Song - John Le Carre

The book is about Bruno Salvador (Salvo) who has an Irish father and a Congolese mother. Born in Africa and later raised in England,  having mastered most of the African languages he serves as an interpreter. He is married to Penelope, a marriage which collapses as he meets Hannah. He is recruited on a secret mission for Britain as an interpreter in a negotiation of a coup in Congo involving Congolese tribes and an unnamed Syndicate with significant British interests. Following his return from the mission, he tries his best to meet concerned parties to avert the coup but fails on every attempt. Finally, he is captured and is awaiting deportment and his reunion with Hannah who has already been deported. A fantastic novel -  nice to see John Le Carre still going strong.

Remembering his father:

If there is a divine purpose to your conception, son, he confided to me on his deathbed, resorting to his lovely Irish brogue lest his fellow priests should hear him through the floorboards, it is to found in the stinking prison hut and at a whipping post. The thought that I might die without knowing the consolation of a woman's body was the one torture I could not bear.

A village headman's daughter, son, my father whispered through his tears, when I pressed him for details that might assist me in forming a mental picture of her to sustain me in my later years. I had taken shelter under his roof. She cooked our food and brought me the water to wash with. It was the generosity of her that overwhelmed me. He had eschewed the pulpit by then, and had no appetite for verbal pyrotechnics. Nevertheless, the memory rekindled the Irishman's smouldering rhetorical fires: As tall as you'll be one day son! As beautiful as all creation! How in God's name can they tell me you were born in sin? You were born in love, my son! There is no sin but hate!

Thereafter the half-caste bastard who was Salvo trailed after him in the care of servants chosen for their age and ugliness, first in the guise of offspring of a deceased uncle, later as acolyte and server, until that fateful night of my tenth birthday when, conscious of his mortality as my ripening, he poured out his very human heart to me as described above, which I regarded and still do, as the greatest compliment a father can pay to his accidental son.

The plight of Africa narrated on the bedside of a dying African man whom Salvo is translating since he volunteers at hospitals as an interpreter:

And he was still there the next evening, arms outstretched and knuckles jammed against the granite wall when, responding to an urgent request from the North London District Hospital, I presented myself at 7:45 p.m at the tropical diseases ward, for the purpose of interpreting a dying African man of unidentifiable age who is refusing to speak a word of any known language except his native-born Kinyarwanda.
On one side of it crouches Salvo, on the other side with only a pair of dying man's knees between us, this degree nurse. And this degree nurse whom I deduce to be of Central African origin has knowledge and responsibilities that exceed most doctors', ... with the unlikely first name of HANNAH on her left bosom, and a gold cross displayed on her throat ...
His name, he informs us after prolonged thought, is Jean-Pierre. And for good measure adds, with as much truculence as he can muster in his reduced circumstances, that he is a Tutsi and proud of it. "Ask him where he lives, please", she says  ... she is addressing me as a fellow African in Swahili. As if that wasn't enough she is speaking in the accents of a woman of the Eastern Congo! "Hannah", I go on, speaking English, perhaps in order to relieve the pressure slightly. "For goodness sake. Who are you? Where do you come from?"
To which, without the smallest hesitation, she declared her nationhood to me: "I am from the region of Goma in Northern Kivu, by tribe a Nande," she murmurs. "And this poor Rwandan man is the enemy of my people."
And I will tell you as a matter of unadorned truth that her half-drawn breath, the widening of her eyes, her urgent appeal for my understanding as she says this, declared to me in a single moment the plight of her beloved Congo as she perceives it: the emaciated corpses of her relatives and loved ones, the unsown fields and dead cattle and burned-out townships that had been her home, until the Rwandans swarmed across the border and, by appointing the Eastern Congo the battlefield for their civil war, heaped unspeakable horrors on a land already dying of neglect.
At first the invaders only wanted to hunt down the genocidaires who had hand-killed a million of their citizens in a hundred days. But what began as hot pursuit quickly became a free-for-all for Kivu's mineral resources , with the result that a country on the brink of anarchy went totally over the edge, which is what I strove and struggled to explain to Penelope, who as a conscientious British corporate journalist preferred her information to be the same as everybody else's. Darling, as I said, I know you're busy. I know your paper likes to stick within family guidelines. But please, on my knees, just this once, print something, anything, to tell the world what's happening to the Eastern Congo. Four million dead, I told her. Just in the last five years. People are calling it Africa's first world war, and you're not calling it anything. It's not a bang-bang war. It's not bullets and pangas and hand grenades that are doing the killing. It's cholera, malaria, diarrhoea, and good old-fashioned starvation, and most of the dead are less that five years old. And they're still dying now, as we speak, in their thousands, every month. So there must be a story in there somewhere, surely. And there was. On page twenty-nine, next to the quick crossword.
And where had I got this information from? Lying in bed in the small hours, waiting for her to come home. Listening to the World Service of the BBC and remote African radio stations while she met her late-night deadlines. Sitting alone in Internet cafes while she took her sources out to dinner. From African journals purchased on the sly. Standing at the back of outdoor rallies, clad in a bulky anorak and bobble cap while she attended a refresher course on whatever it was she needed to refresh.
Before us lies a dying Rwandan man who call himself Jean-Pierre. At his bedside sits a young Congolese woman called Hannah who has been brought to regard Jean-Pierre and those like him as the sole perpetrators of her country's misery. Yet does she turn her back on him? She does not. She calls him this poor Rwandan man and holds his hand.
Then I notice that not only is she holding our patient's hand but she's holding mine too. Yet there they are, my calf-brown half-Congolese hand and Hannah's authentic all-black version with its pinky-white palm, both of them entwined on an enemy Rwandan's bed. And it's not about sex - how can it be, with Jean-Pierre dying between us? it's about discovered kinship and consoling each other while we're giving our all to our shared patient. It's because she is deeply moved, and so am I. She is moved by the poor dying man, even though she sees such men all day and every day of her week. She is moved that we are caring for our perceived enemy and loving him according to the Gospel she's been brought up to, as I can tell by the gold cross. She is moved by my voice. Each time I interpret from Swahili to Kinyarwanda and back again, she lowers her eyes as in prayer. She is moved because, as I am trying to tell her with my eyes is only she will listen, we are the people we have been looking for all our lives.

The thoughts of Salvo as he leaves his wife:

Why does a newly anointed adulterer, who hours earlier has abandoned himself body, soul and origins to another woman for the first time in his five-year marriage, feel an irresistible urge to put his deceived wife on a pedestal? Is he trying to re-create the image of her that he has defiled? Is he re-creating an image of himself before he fell? Was my ever-present Catholic guilt catching up with me in the midst of my euphoria? Was praising Penelope to the skies the nearest I could get to praising Hannah without blowing my cover?
Pulling off the hated shoes, I was drawn to a blotched engraving of Tintagel Castle that for five years had hung unremarked in the gloomiest recess. Penelope's sister had given it to us for a wedding present. The sisters hated each other. Neither had any connection with Tintagel. They had never been there, didn't want to go. Some gifts say it all.
From the desk in the bay window I extracted a wax-sealed envelope marked BRUNO'S COPY containing the pre-nuptial agreement drafted by Penelope's far-sighted father to cover precisely this moment. I had always recognized that he had a more realistic view of our marriage than I did. As solemnly as I was laying a wreath at the Cenotaph, I set the twice-signed agreement on Penelope's pillow, removed the wedding ring from the third finger of my left hand and positioned it plumb centre. With this ring I thee unwed. If I felt anything, it was neither bitterness not anger but completion. An awakening that had begun long before the little gentleman's outburst in the trattoria had reached its only possible conclusion. I had married Penelope for the person she didn't want to be: a fearless champion of our great British press, my faithful and enduring lover forsaking all others, my lifestyle instructor and the mother of my future children and, in my lowest moments, my own white mother-substitute. Penelope for her part had married the exotic in me, only to discover the conformist, which must have been a major disappointment to her. In that regard she had my heartfelt sympathy. I left no note.
Snapping my Roller-Case shut and refusing to take a last look round, I set course down the passage towards the front door and freedom. As I did so I heard the lock turning without its usual impediment, and a pair of lightweight feet enter the hall. My immediate reaction was fear. Not of Penelope personally, because that was over. Fear of having to put into words what I had already put into action. Fear of delay, of loss of impetus, of precious time wasted in argument. Fear that Penelope's fling with Thorne had come to grief and she would be returning home in search of consolation, instead of which she was going to suffer another humiliating rejection, and from a quarter she regarded as incapable of resistance: me.

When the scales fall from the eyes of Salvo regarding Mwanganza who he regards as their savior:

In the same grim light of reality I take a second look at the Mwanganza. Is his halo blow-dried? Have they shoved a poker down his back? Is he dead already, and strapped into his saddle like El Cid? Hannah saw him in the rosy haze of her idealism, but now I am able to look at him clearly, the sad arc of his life is written all over his crunched-up face. Our Enlightener is a failed state of one. He has been brave - look at his record. He has been clever, diligent, loyal and resourceful throughout his life. He has done everything right, but the crown has always gone to the man next to him or the man below him. And that was because he wasn't ruthless enough, or corrupt enough, or two-faced enough. Well, now he will be. He will play their game, a thing he swore he'd never do. And the crown is within his grasp, except it isn't. Because if he ever gets to wear it, it will belong to the people he has sold himself to on the way up. Any dream he has is mortgaged ten times over. And that includes the dream that once he comes to power, he won't have to pay his debts.

The change in stature of mercenaries captured after a failed coup:

Men in shackles change size. Benny has shrunk. Anton is bulky. Spider has grown nine inches since he has passed out the plates in his improvised chef's hat. But the star of the show is neither the UN's Pakistani Commandant in his blue helmet, nor the colonel of the Congolese army with his swagger cane, but our skipper Maxie in fawn slacks with no belt and a sweat-soaked shirt minus one sleeve. The slacks are all that is left of the go-anywhere khaki suit last seen when he was pressing the envelope containing the seven thousand dollars' fee that, in the gallantry of his heart, he prised out of the Syndicate. His face deprived of Bogey's enlarging spectacles, lacks the charisma that had cast its spell over me, but in other respects has grown into the part, being formed in an expression of gritty endurance that refuses to acknowledge defeat, no matter how many days it spends at the whipping post. The bulletproof hands are manacled in front of him and folded over one another like a dog's paws. He has one desert boot on, and one bare foot to match the bare shoulder. But it isn't the missing boot that is slowing him down, its another set of shackles, short ones for a man his height, and by the look of them too tight. He is staring straight at me and to judge by his vituperative jaw action he is telling me to fuck myself, until it dawns on me that must be telling this to the person filming him, not me personally.
On Maxie's uneven heels come Anton and Benny, chained to one another and their skipper. Anton has some bruising on the left side of his face which I suspect has been caused by impertinence. The reason Benny looks smaller that actual size is that his chains hunch him downward in a mincing shuffle. His grey ponytail has been cropped to stubble by a single sweep of someone's panga, giving the impression that they have got him ready for the guillotine. After Benny comes Spider, improviser of cattle prods and my fellow sound-thief, chained but upright. He has been allowed to keep his cap, which gives him a certain pertness. Being the acrobat that he is, he doesn't have the same problem as his short-stepping mates. Together, the four of them resemble an incompetent conga-party, jerking back and forth to a beat they can't get the hang of.
After the white men come the footballers, some twenty of them in a receding line of miserable black shadows: veterans, no mevericks, best fighters in the world. But when I search nervously for a Dieudonne or Franco, on the off-chance that somehow, in the mayhem of the failed operation, they have been caught up in the main affray, I'm relieved to see neither the hulk of the crippled old warrior nor the spectre of the haggard Banyamulenge leader among the prisoners.

Extracted from a letter written by Haj to Salvo:

Question: If the State was a person, what would you do it? Answer: We would kill him. We have Black Awareness but every street hawker in town is selling skin-lightener guaranteed to give you cancer. Young Congolese talk of Europe as the promised land. So be aware: if you make it here, you're going to look like a rejected zebra. The elections won't deliver solutions but they're ours. We have a constitution. We have kids with polio and kids with the plague who are feeling richer by three million dirty dollars. One day, we may even have a future.

Salvo's last farewell to Britain as he awaits his being deported to Congo:

We are on the coast here too, Noah. Each morning my heart rises with the morning sun. Each evening it sinks. But if I bring my chair to the window, and there's a good moon shining, I can just make out a sliver of sea mile beyond the wire. And that's where their England ends and my Africa begins.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Les Miserables - Victor Hugo

Took a break from reading for a while and got back to it with this classic. A few of the parts need historical references and I'll need to do some reading in history in parallel.

Although we hold that it was not for a political function that God created Monseigneur Bienvenu, we could have understood and admired a protest in the name of right and liberty, a fierce opposition, a perilous and just resistance to Napolean when he was all-powerful. But what is pleasing to us towards those who are rising, is less pleasing towards those who are falling. We do not admire the combat when there is no danger; and in any case the combatants of the first hour have alone the right to be the exterminators in the last. He has not been a determined accuser during prosperity, ought to hold his peace in the presence of adversity. He only who denounces the successes at one time had the right to proclaim the justice of the downfall. As for ourselves, when providence intervened and struck the blow, we took no part; 1812 began to disarm us. In 1813, the cowardly breach of silence of the part of that Corps Legislatif; emboldened by catastrophe, was worthy only of indignation and it was base to applaud it; in 1814, from those traitorous marshals, from that senate passing from one baseness to another, insulting where they had denied, from that idolatry recoiling and spitting upon its idol, it was a duty to turn away in disgust; in 1815 when the air was filled with the final disasters, when France felt the thrill of their sinister approach, when Waterloo could already be dimly perceived opening before Napolean, the sorrowful acclamations of the army and to the people to the condemned of destiny, were no subjects of laughter; and making every reservation as to a despot, a heart like that of Bishop of D- aught not to have refused to see what was august and touching, on the brink of the abyss, in the last embrace of a great nation and a great man.

A touching tribute to Napolean Bonaparte.

Another superb dialogue between the Bishop of D- and a conventionist who took part in the French Revolution of 1793.

"Yes, the brutalities of progress are called revolutions. When they are over, this is recognised: that the human race has been harshly treated, but that it has advanced."
"Progress ought to believe in God. The good cannot have an impious servitor. An atheist is an evil leader of the human race."
"O thou! O ideal! thou alone dost exist! The infinite exists. It is there. If the infinite had not me, the me would be its limit; it would not be infinite; in other words it would not be. But it is. Then is has a me. This me of the infinite is God. Monsieur Bishop I have passed my life in meditation, study and contemplation. I was sixty years old when my country called me, and ordered me to take part in her affairs. I obeyed. There were abuses, I fought them; there were tyrannies, I destroyed them; there were rights and principles, I proclaimed and confessed them. The soil was invaded, I defended it;France was threatened, I offered her my breast. I was not rich; I am poor. I was one of the masters of the state, the vaults of the banks were piled high with specie, so that we had to strengthen the walls or they would have fallen under the weight of gold and silver; I dined in the Rue de l'Arbre-Sec at twenty sous a meal. I succoured the oppressed, I solaced the suffering. True, I tore the drapery from the altar; but it was to staunch the wounds of the country. I have always supported the forward march of the human race towards the light, and sometimes resisted a progress that was without pity. I have on occasion, protected my own adversaries, your friends. There is a Penteghem in Flanders, at the very place where the Merovignian kings had their summer palace, a monastery of Urbanists, the Abbey of Sainte Claire in Beaulieu, which I saved in 1793; I have done my duty according to my strength, and the good that I could. After which I was hunted, hounded, pursued, persecuted, slandered, railed at, spat upon, cursed, proscribed. For many years now, with my white hairs, I have perceived that many people believed they had a right to despise me, to the poor, ignorant crowd I have the face of the damned, and I accept, hating no man myself, the isolation of hatred. Now I am eighty-six years old; I am about to die. What have you come to ask of me?"

Unfortunately people forget the greatest wars their predecessors fought:

Baudin killed, Foy wounded, fire, slaughter, carnage, a brook made of English blood, of German blood, and of French blood, mingled in fury; a well filled with corpses, the regiment of Nassau and the regiment of Brunswick destroyed, Duplat killed, Blakmann killed, the English guard killed, twenty French battalions, out of the forty of Reille's corps, decimated, three thousand men, in this one ruin of Hougomont, sabred, slashed, slaughtered, shot, burned; and all this in order that today a peasant may say to a traveller: Monsieur, give me three francs; if you like, I will explain to you the affair of Waterloo.

The author's worship of Napolean seems as obvious as his submission to the defeat at Waterloo. He claims Waterloo to be decided by God rather than men. Has he placed Napolean just below God that only God can condemn him?

Was it possible that Napolean should win this battle? We answer no. Why? Because of Wellington? Because of Blucher? No. Because of God.
For Bonaparte to be conqueror at Waterloo was not in the law of the nineteenth century. Another series of facts were preparing in which Napolean had no place. The ill-will of events had long been announced.
It was time that this vast man should fall.
The excessive weight of this man in human destiny disturbed the equilibrium. This individual counted, of himself alone, more than the universe besides. These plethoras of all human vitality concentrated in a single head, the world mounting to the brain of one man, would be fatal to civilization if he should endure. The moment had come for incorruptible supreme equity to look into it. Probably the principles and elements upon which regular gravitations in the moral order as well as in the material depend, began to murmur. Reeking blood, overcrowded cemeteries, weeping mothers - these are formidable pleaders. When the earth is suffering from a surcharge, there are mysterious moanings from the deep which the heavens hear.
Napolean had been impeached from the Infinite, and his fall was decreed.
He vexed God.
Waterloo is not battle; it is a change in the front of the universe.

A tribute to some of the French soldiers:

Ney, desperate, great in the all the granduer of accepted death, braved himself to every blow in this tempest. He had his horse killed under him. Reeking with sweat, fire in his eyes, froth upon his lips, his uniform unbuttoned, one of epaulets half cut away by the sabre-stroke of a horse-guard, his badge of the grand eagle pierced by a ball, bloody, covered with blood, magnificent, a broken sword in his hand, he said: "Come and see how a marshal of France dies on the field of the battle!" But in vain, he did not die. He was haggard and exasperated. He flung this question at Drouet d'Erlon. "What! are you not going to die?" He cried out in the midst of all this artillery which was mowing down a handful of men. "Is there nothing, then, for me? Oh! would that all these English bullets were buried in my body!" Unhappy man! thou was reserved for French bullets!

(Ney was condemned to death after the fall of Napolean and executed on 7 December 1815.)

When this legion was reduced to a handful, when their flag was reduced to a shred, when their muskets exhausted of ammunition, were reduced to nothing but clubs, when the pile of corpses was greater than the group of living, there spread among the conquerors a sacred terror about these sublime martyrs, and the English artillery, stopping to take breath, was silent. It was a kind of respite. These combatants had about them, as it were, a swarm of spectres, the outlines of men on horseback, the black profile of the cannons, the white sky seen through the wheels and the gun-carriages; the colossal death's head which heroes always see in the smoke of the battle was advancing upon them, and glaring at them.They could hear in the gloom of the twilight the loading of the pieces, the lighted matches like tiger's eyes in the night made a circle about their heads; all the linstocks of English batteries approached the guns, when touched by their heroism, holding the death-moment suspended over these men, an English general, Colville, according to some, Maitland, according to others, cried to them: "Brave Frenchmen, surrender!" Cambronne answered: "Merde!"
To this word of Cambronne, the English voice replied: "Fire!" the batteries flamed, the hill trembled, from all those brazen throats went a final vomiting of grape, terrific; a vast smoke, dusty white in the light of the rising moon, rolled out, and when the smoke was dissipated, there was nothing left. That formidable remnant was annihiliated; the guard was dead. Te four walls of the living redoubt had fallen, hardly could a quivering be distinguished here and there among the corpses; and thus the French legions, expired on Mont Saint Jean on ground soaked in rain and blood, in the sombre wheatfields, at the spot where now, at four o'clock in the morning, whistling, and gaily whipping up his horse, Joseph passes, who drives the mail from Nivelles.

The conclusion of Waterloo:

Does taking away Waterloo from Wellington and from Blucher, detract anything from England and Germany? No. Neither illustrious nor august Germany is in question in the problem of Waterloo. Thank heaven, nations are great aside from the dismal chances of the sword. Neither Germany, nor England, nor France, is held in a scabbard. At this day when Waterloo is only a clicking of sabres, above Blucher, Germany has Goethe, and above Wellington, England has Byron. A vast uprising of ideas is peculiar to our century, and in this aurora England and Germany have a magnificent share. They are majestic because they think. The higher plane which they bring to civilization is intrinsic to them; it comes from themselves, and not from an accident. The advancement which they have made in the nineteenth century does not come from Waterloo. It is only barbarous nations that have a sudden growth after a victory. It is the fleeting vanity of the streamlet swelled by a storm. Civilises nations, especially in our times, are not exalted or abased by the good or bad fortune of a captain. Their specific gravity in the human race results from something more than a combat. Their honour, thank God, their dignity, their light, their genius, are not number that heroes or conquerors, those gamblers, can cast into the lottery of battles. Oftentimes a battle lost is progress attained. Less glory, more liberty. The drum is silent, reason speaks. It is the game at which he who loses, gains. Let us then speak coolly of Waterloo on both sides. Let us render into Fortune the things that are Fortune's, and unto God the things that are God's. What is Waterloo? A victory? No. A prize.
A prize won by Europe, paid by France.
It was not much to put a lion there.
Napolean and Wellington: they are not enemies, they are opposites. Never has God, who takes pleasure in antitheses, made a more striking contrast and a more extraordinary meeting. Wellington was the Barreme of war, Napolean was its Michaelangelo, and this time genius was vanquished by calculation.
On both sides they were expecting somebody. It was the exact calculator that succeeded. Napolean expected Grouchy; he did not come. Wellington expected Blucher; he came.
England has been to modest in regard to Wellington. To make Wellington so great is to belittle England. Wellington is a hero like the rest. For our part, all glorification goes to the English soldier, the English army, the English people. If trophy there be, to England the trophy is due. The Waterloo column would be more just if, instead of a figure of a man, it lifted to the clouds the statue of a nation.
But this great England will be offended at what we say here. She still has after her 1688 and our 1789, the feudal illusion. She believes in hereditary right, and in the hierarchy.
But what is that to the Infinite? All this tempest, all this cloud, this war, then this peace, all this darkness, disturb not for a moment the light of that infinite Eye, before which the least of insects leaping from one blade of grass to another equals the eagle flying from spire to spire among the towers of the Notre-Dame. 

A very forward thinking part on old age in modern society:

Moreover, what is called much too harshly, in certain case, the ingratitude of children is not as blameworthy a thing as is supposed. It is the ingratitude of nature. Nature, as we have said elsewhere, looks forward. Nature divides living beings into the coming and the going. The going are turned towards the shadow, the coming towards the light. Hence, a separation, which on the part of the old, is a fatality, and, on the part of the young, involuntary. This separation, at first insensible, gradually increases, like every separation of branches. The limbs without parting from the trunk, recede from it. It is not their fault. Youth goes where joy is, to festivals, to brilliant lights, to loves. Old age goes to its end. They do not lose sight of each other, but the ties are loosened. The affection of the young is chilled by life; that of the old by the grave. We must not blame these poor children.

At the end a masterpiece worth reading. All set in probably the most tumultuous era of modern France. A fiction embedded in history.