Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Dry White Season by Andre Brink

 A fantastic book by an author I have never read before. I was trying to find authors similar to J.M. Coetzee and Andre Brink showed up. The book is set in apartheid Africa and describes the injustice of the times.

In that silence, behind the events of the afternoon and the uncommitted light of the sun, lay the memory of Gordon, small and maimed in his coffin in the cool bare room, his grey claws folded on his narrow chest. The rest seemed interchangeable, transferable, unessential: but that remained. And, with it, the aching awareness of something stirred into sluggish but ineluctable motion.

From a very early age one accepts, or believes or it told, that certain things exist in a certain manner. For example: that society is based on order, on reason, on justice. And that, whenever anything goes wrong, one can appeal to an innate decency, or commonsense, or a notion of legality in people to rectify the error and offer redress. Then, without warning you discover that what you accepted as premises and basic conditions - what you had no choice to accept if you wanted to survive at all - simply does not exist. Where you expected something solid there turns out to be just nothing.

Everything one used to take for granted, with so much certainty that one never bothered to enquire about it, now turns out to be an illusion. Your certainties are proven lies. And what happens if you start probing? Must you learn a wholly new language first?

It has begun. A pure, elemental motion: something happened - I reacted - something opposed me. A vast, clumsy, shapeless thing has stirred. Is that the reason of my dazed state? Let's try to be reasonable, objective: am I not totally helpless, in fact irrelevant, in a movement so vast and intricate? Isn't the mere thought of an individual trying to intervene preposterous?

But who are "my people" today? To whom do I owe my loyalty? There must someone, something. Or is one totally alone on that bare veld beside the name of a non-existent station?

What happened before that drought has never been particularly vivid or significant to me: that was where I first discovered myself and the world. And it seems to me I'm finding myself on the edge of yet another dry white season, perhaps worse than the one I knew as a child.

Eras like those of Pericles or the Medici lay in the fact that a whole society, in fact a whole civilization, seemed to be moving in the same gear and in the same direction. In such an era there is almost no need to make your own decisions: your society does it for you and you find yourself in complete harmony with it. On the other hand there are times like ours, when history hasn't settled on a firm new course yet. then every man is on his own. Each has to find his own definitions, and each man's freedom threatens that of all the others. What is the result? Terrorism. And I'm not referring only to the actions of the trained terrorist but also those of an organized state whose institutions endanger one's essential humanity.

There are only two kinds of madness one should guard against. One is the belief that we can do everything. The other is the belief that we can do nothing.

When one person unexpectedly finds himself on the edge of another - don't you think that's the most dangerous thing that could happen to anyone?

On the other hand: what can I do but what I have done? I cannot choose not to intervene: that would be a denial and a mockery not only of everything I believe in, but of the hope that compassion may survive among men.

At the very most we are like two strangers meeting in the white wintry veld and sitting down together for a while to smoke a pipe before proceeding on their separate ways.

In the beginning there is turmoil. Then it subsides, leaving a silence: but it is a silence of confusion and incomprehension, not true stillness but an inability to hear properly, a turbulent silence.

The disturbing truth is that even as I prepare to finish it off I know that he will ot let go of me again. I cannot grasp him: neither can I rid myself of him. There is no absolution from the guilt of having tried. I am left with a sense of hopelessness. In my efforts to do justice to him, I may have achieved the opposite. We belong to different dimensions: one man lived, another wrote; one looked forward, the other back; he was there, and I am here. Perhaps all one can really hope for, all I am entitled to, is no more than this to write it down. To report what I know. So that it will not be possible for any man ever to say again:
I knew nothing about it.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Slave by Isaac Bashevis Singer

This amazing book by an author I regret never having read before, has a similar feel to Orhan Pamuk's books. The struggle with faith, of believing but not knowing whether belief lead to anything. Set in Poland in the seventeenth century at a time when war and massacres were routine, the book is a beautiful story about a man who becomes a slave but even after achieving freedom, realizes he can never be free again. He continues to believe but his belief is shaken by all that he sees around him.

Ceaselessly he prayed for death; he had even contemplated self-destruction. But now that mood had passed, and he had become inured to living among strangers, distant from his home, doing hard labour. It was difficult to believe in God's mercy when murderers buried children alive.

In Jacob's case the normal order of things had been reversed. It was God who spoke in simplest language while evil overflowed with learned quotations. How long did one live in this world? How long was one young? Was it worth while to destroy this existence and the one that would follow for a few moments of pleasure?

Yesterday everything had been bright; now it was gray. Distances had shrunk; the skies had collapsed like the canvas of a tent; the tangible had lost substance. If so much could vanish from the physical eye, how much more could elude the spirit.

The explanation he had given that free will could not exist without evil nor mercy without sorrow now sounded too pat, indeed almost blasphemous. Did the Creator require the assistance of Cossacks to reveal his nature? Was this a sufficient cause to bury infants alive? Even if these souls rose to the most splendid mansion and were given the finest rewards, would that cancel out the agony and horror? Through forgetfulness, he had also been guilty of murder.

But Jacob had no peace. Everywhere he heard people asserting things that their eyes denied. Piety was the cloak for envy and avarice. They had learned nothing from their ordeal; rather suffering had pushed them lower.

But he realized with astonishment, what was so new for him was stale for everyone else. As for the Almighty, He maintained his usual silence. Jacob saw that must follow God's example, seal his lips, and forget the fool within, with his fruitless questions.

As a boy he pitied the watchman in the cemetery whose life had been passed near the cleansing house, but now the whole of Poland had become one vast cemetery. The people around him accommodated themselves to this, but he found it impossible to come to terms with. The best he could do was stop thinking and desiring. He was determined to question no longer. How could one conceivably justify the torments of another?

One day seated alone in the study house, Jacob said to God, "I have no doubt that you are the Almighty and that whatever you do is for the best, but it is impossible for me to obey the commandment, Thou Shalt Love Thy God. No, I cannot, Father, not in this life."

Yes, the day Jacob had left Josefov for the village where he had been a slave for five years, he had picked up a burden which became heavier with the passage of time. His years of enforced slavery had been succeeded by a slavery that would last as long as he lived.

Jacob's body died, but he was already so busy greeting those who had come back to meet him that he did not look back. His dark cabin with his rags and refuse was left behind on the ship. The voyagers would clean it out, those who must still continue to journey on the stormy seas. He, Jacob, had arrived.