Thursday, January 29, 2015

THE NARROW ROAD TO THE DEEP NORTH by Richard Flanagan (fic)

Richard Flanagan was born in Tasmania as is Dorrigo Evans, the hero of his new book.  Flanagan's father survived the notorious Death Railway as a prisoner of the Japanese in World War II.  The building of this railway through Thailand and into Burma, to facilitate a Japanese invasion of India, forms the setting of this novel.  The title comes from a 17th century classic of Japanese literature about a long journey on foot, told in a mixture of prose and haiku.

Dorrigo Evans is a medical officer in the Austrailian army when he is captured by the Japanese and made to tend to his fellow captives who have been pressed into slave labor cutting through the jungles of Thailand and building the railroad.  It was called the Death Railway because it killed nearly 100,00 allied troops, 9000 of them Aussies.  This harrowing subject is penned with care by Flanagan.  The book is beautifully constructed with occasional poetic quotes which stand in contrast to the stark and frightening conditions the prisoners endured.  Flanagan weaves several stories through the bildungsroman of Dorrigo's life, from his childhood in Tasmania, to his love affair with the fascinating and beautiful Amy.  The centerpiece of the book is the Prisoner of War Camp where Dorrigo attempts to maintain as much civility as he can, for the men he is responsible for saving.  When the war is over those men who make it through are forever scarred, and this includes Evans who becomes a hero in his country, but not much of a father or husband.

After the war has ended, the reader also follows the fate of Marjor Nakamura the protagonist of the prison camp.  Flanagan does an admirable job of expressing the confusion of Nakamua who has to work out the dichotomy of blind obedience to the Emperor and his desire to be thought of as a good man.  He spends his life trying to work out this puzzle.

The theme of the novel is life's journey and meaning for all the men, Austrailian and Japanese.  It seems to elude these men damaged by war.  For Dorrigo Evans it is connected with his attachment to Tennyson's poem "Ulysses" who finds life's meaning always just beyond his grasp.  Also Evans looks for meaning in the dark Haiku poems of  Shisui who at his death had nothing to say that wasn't contained in his final brush painting of a perfect circle.

Flanagan has written a story based on truth that will stay with the reader long after the final page is read.  It is well-deserving of the Booker Prize which it won in 2014.  Though it deals with man's dehumanizing brutality to man, it also shows us the consequences of the aftermath of war and the hope of rehabilitation.  I highly recommend this book to all readers.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

DEATH OF THE ADVERSARY by Hans Keilson (fic)

Hans Keilson was born in 1909 and died at age 101 in Amsterdam where he lived and worked.  He is considered by many to be one of the world's greatest writers.  By the nature of its subject matter, his books are dark and not easily absorbed.  Keilson's parents died in Auschwitz, and he managed to escape to Holland in 1936 where he joined the underground. After he emigrated, he continued his study of medicine and pioneered the use of psychoanalysis in treating war trauma in children.

 A few years back I read his "Comedy in Minor Key" which equally affected me.  Keilson grew up with the rise of National Socialism in Germany, and this book is semi-autobiographical.  He deals with the dangers and finality of National Socialism in a very different manner than most books which cover this subject.
"Death of the Adversary" was not published in America until 1962 and was recently reissued. In this book, he delves deeply into the mind and motives of a man he calls his "enemy" and "B" but he never mentions him by name.  Eventually the reader realizes he is referring to Hitler. He also never mentions the words Nazi and Jewish. He fights the battle with his enemy in the secret recesses of his mind. He illustrates a mutual deadly attraction the main character has with his enemy by incorporating into the story a Russian fable of the strange attraction between deer and the wolves which hunt them.  As for his own experience he says, "I could not give him up;  I needed him. His existence meant my destruction in the near future, that much was certain.  But his sudden death, or some other event that would have robbed me of his threatening presence, would equally have destroyed me.  Between us two, ties and obligations had come into being, perceptible only to those whose share in the things of this world lies in suffering. A strange and questionable share, perhaps; but who can break the community that secretly establishes itself between the persecutors and their victims?"

Self-deception is the theme of the book, and the contradictory thoughts brought on by denial. Why do people stay in dangerous situations when they know the inevitability of the ending that awaits them? At another point in the novel, the main character states, "Self-deception is the pleasantest form of lying.  It is a panacea for all personal ills and injuries, it can heal even metaphysical wounds."

"Death of the Adversary" is an exceptional work by a great writer.  Because of its dark subject-matter and its delving into the deepest recesses of the main character's mind, it is a book that will not interest a number of readers.  If you are fascinated by the workings of the psyche, it most likely will be of value to you.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr (fic)

Doerr is a mesmerizing story teller and he had my attention after the first chapter.  The book was impossible to put down after that.  His sentences are economical and his chapters short.  With this book, it is a blessing because it is so engrossing, that should you need to attend to other things, the end of a chapter is just a few pages away.

I loved this story which was chosen as one of the 10 best books of 2014 by The New York Times.  The story which begins in 1934 is told mostly in the present tense until we near the end which takes place in 1974. It is essentially the tale of two young children, one German, one French who grow up during the war years.  The chapters alternate between the two until their lives intersect during the German bombing of St. Malo.

We first meet the six year old blind girl, Marie-Laure Le Blanc who lives in Paris with her father, Daniel, who is a locksmith and works in Paris's Natural History Museum. Daniel is an accomplished wood worker and has built a miniature replica of the their neighborhood which helps Marie-Laure find her away around.  Marie-Laure and her father manage to escape Paris when the Germans occupy the city and begin their pillage of valuable paintings and museum collections. The reader soon suspects that a famous diamond called the Sea of Flame has been entrusted to Daniel by the museum director who knows the Germans will be searching for it.

The parallel story is that of Werner Pfennig a young German orphan who lives near the Essen coal mines which claimed the life of his father.  He and his sister Jutta are being brought up in an orphanage run by a kindly french woman.  Werner shows an early ability to repair radios and as a young engineering prodigy is awarded a scholarship to a famous military school called Schulpforta. Conditions at the school are brutal as these young boys are being trained to obey without question and ultimately become the elite of Hitler's army. Here Werner makes two lifelong friendships, but here he also questions the morality of what he is being trained to do.

Eventually Marie-Laure and her father safely make their way to St. Malo where her great uncle, Etienne lives with his fearless housekeeper, Madame Manec, a wonderfully drawn character who runs the household and is involved with the French Resistance.  Daniel quickly goes to work making a scale model of St. Malo for Marie-Laure, and one day when he is taking measurements of the neighborhood, he is captured by the Germans who suspect he is a spy. Not long after this, Marie-Laure and Etienne join the resistance and begin making clandestine radio transmissions to British and Americans.

As the story develops, it is inevitable that the lives of Werner and Marie-Laure will diverge, and the diamond plays a large part in moving this along.  Doerr may not be the most masterful writer one has read, but his ability to spin a tale is indeed masterful.  While reading, I was aware that the writer's style and word choices were American rather than those a French or German character might use, but the story was so very good, that I hardly noticed until later when I reflected on the book.  I highly recommend this book to all readers who love a good well-written yarn that is impossible to set down.  Happy reading.