zaterdag 24 januari 2015

The Thousand Autumns of David Mitchell

Total immersion in 18th century Japan from the perspective of Dutch VOC traders? A distinct possibility when you are reading 'The Thousands Autumns of Jacob de Zoet'. David Mitchell's tale of love, friendship, betrayal and mystery on Dejima and mainland Japan will leave you breathless and thoroughly impressed. The descriptions create a vivid world separated from your reading chair by only the thinnest of a paper veil.

Dejima (now a heritage site) was an artificial island that could be used by the Dutch VOC traders as a base of operations for profitable business with the Japanese. Rarely were the Dutch admitted on the mainland however, because Japan was off limits for 'aliens'. But because a shogun had decreed that trade with the Dutch was allowed under certain conditions the Dutch were preferred trade partners for a long period in history. This period, rich with exotic customs, possibilities for private gain, temporary Japanese wives for the upper echelons of the Dutch VOC employees, typhoons, slaves, strange and wonderful happenings and obsessive traditions, is now available to us through the literary prowess of one David Mitchell. The characters are memorable: from the troupe of clerks and translators, captains, and samurai's to the sweet heros of the tale: Orito, a Japanse midwife with a strong sense of honour and Jacob de Zoet, a lonely clerk burdened with a moral compass in the midst of less savoury and trustworthy individuals.

After I enjoyed the Bone Clocks and Cloud Atlas last year, I decided to read everything David Mitchell had ever written, so just recently I finished 'The Thousands Autumns of Jacob de Zoet' or as it is called in Dutch: 'De niet verhoorde gebeden van Jacob de Zoet'. I read it in Dutch and I wholeheartedly recommend everyone who knows the language to do likewise. I usually try to read books in their original language, but here I made an exception. The translators Harm Damsma and Niek Miedema (Dutch names, if ever..) really added an extra dimension to the story by rendering the tale in the rich and succulent language actually spoken by the Dutch protagonists. Now the characters truly jump off the page. Their language is vibrant, baroque at times, often funny and dripping with delightful mutterings. No wonder Damsma and Miedema were nominated for the European Literature Prize for their work.

I highly recommend this book. Mitchell is firing on all cilinders here with this trademark storytelling, delicate prose and deft descriptions. And because you are in the Mitchellverse, don't be surprised if halfway through the story you suddenly feel yourself catapulted into another book. 'The Thousands Autumns' is another part of Mitchell's Uber-book, so be ready to meet some characters that also make appearances in other works. But it all comes together in the end and the book is therefor more of a narrative unit than Cloud Atlas and the Bone Clocks. But many birds again. (What's with the birds anyway? He really should explain this sometimes, or then again perhaps not...)

Here is an interesting and recent talk from the very likeable Mr Mitchell. Enjoy!

zondag 26 oktober 2014

Who's the Zombie here? The Girl with All the Gifts - a review.

Zombies again!? Is there anything new left to tell? It seems so. 'The Girl with All the Gifts' by M.R. Carey succeeds in using the dystopian zombie backdrop as a moral arena where characters are faced with hard choices and must struggle to keep their humanity, all in the face of inevitable defeat.
There's horror in this novel, but it is not the horror of the relentless machine-like zombie, hungry for your flesh. It is the horror of man losing his moral center, the horror of man without ambiguity, his subjectivity erased, unthinking and deprived of ethical autonomy.

(If some parts of this review seem a bit obsucre that is because I didn't want to spoil the reading experience too much. But still, there are some minor spoilers ahead.)

The plot is basic and straightforward. Humanity is on the brink of being wiped out by a fungus that turns infected people into 'hungries'. On an army base, situated in infected territory, scientist Catherine Caldwell is looking for a cure, sometimes performing tests on live subjects caught by Sergeant Parks and his men.  Helen Justineau - a teacher at the base - strongly opposes these tests and while Justineau and Caldwell are having a fierce brawl over the subject of Carolines next intended vivisection, the base is overrun by survivalists called 'junkers'. Our protagonists are forced to flee and followed by hungries, feral children and junkers they now must try to find their way back to 'Beacon', a guarded non-infected zone. The road is fraught with danger, Caldwell continuous to try to solve the riddle of the infection but eventually they must perform their last stand. Inevitably, the fate of humanity is decided in the process. 

This is however, not a story about survival. Yes, there is gore and blood. Yes, there are graphic depictions but these elements are mostly used to set a scene or to sketch the serious predicament of the leftover survivors. Once this is established, the story flows naturally from the interesting characters who play out serious moral dilemma's. 

In essence, this is a love story. It's about the love of Melany, a young girl, for her school teacher. It's about her dream of keeping Miss Justineau safe from harm. And it's about Miss Justineau's strong conviction that the scientist, Caldwell, is wrong in performing tests on her pupils. A conviction she is willing to fight for, whatever the consequences, like Sophocles's Antigone in ancient Thebes. Caldwell the scientist sees the children as test-objects. They are animals, to be tested, dissected and put under a microscope. Or to be tested in the classroom by psychologists and teachers. They are the real dehumanising forces at work here. Reducing the children to mere statistics and raw material for research. Because they are not human, right? So we are free use them. Because, let's face it, the destiny of humanity is at stake here.  But Justineau sees things differently. She has seen - as Levinas, the french philosopher puts it - the face of the Other. She cannot any longer deny the demand of the Other, or deny its manifest call out for a subjective response. It is the ethical reflex that is the foundation of our subjectivity and not the other way around. Looked at it from that perspective, Caldwell is as much a Zombie as a flesh eating hungry. In denying the faces of her test subjects she puts wisdom before love and hides her subjectivity behind numbers and chemical formulas. And as the other protagonists - like sergeant Parks and private Gallager -  also begin to see the 'face' of Melany, they too are confronted with these issues and questions. Consequently they start to display more elements of their subjectivity hitherto obscured by their military uniform. And once agin the question turns. Is this a good thing? Does this not make them more vulnerable as soldiers? And so these issues are continually acted out in the protagonists many interactions, confounded by doubts, responsibilities and perils.

The combination of these well drawn characters, a fast paced plot and a satisfying ending makes this a very recommendable book. It is about zombies, but it could just as well be about the zombie in each of us. I listened to the audio version, beautifully read by Finty Williams. I gave this book three stars on Goodreads. It just missed its fourth star because of a slightly rushed ending and the fact that the junkers could have been used to better effect, especially later on in the story (from which they are absent).

woensdag 24 september 2014

It’s Fantasy, but not as we know it.

The sixth chapter in David Mitchell’s expanding meta-novel - The Bone Clocks - is that rare combination of deft writing, a compelling story and razor-sharp vision. Mitchell knows what he’s up against. Here is a writer at the peak of his power fighting against mediocrity and the onslaught of mind numbing and dehumanizing forces, revealing man as the true and sole redeeming factor in the universe. High praise for a fantasy story!

But is it really a fantasy story? At first glance, one might think that with this book, Mitchell has finally departed mainstream literature and set up shop ‘where there be dragons’. The story starts with teenager Holly Sykes, running away from home in 1984 and getting caught in a battle between two factions of ‘immortals’: the Anchorites and the Horologists. It’s a battle between good and bad, between compassion and exploitation, between life and death. The story is told from different points of view and covers a period of 60 years, ending with Holly as an ageing grandmother, caring for her two grandchildren in a world that has gone completely of the rails. Although the fantasy elements keep the story going at a nice pace, the battle between the factions is not the heart of the book. Whatever you call it, mainstream, fantasy or supernatural thriller, the book really is about what it means to be human and to be mortal.

 At the core of the book is the old philosophical question of mortality. How it defines us as human, how we struggle with death and how the inevitability of our lives ending, shapes our thoughts and actions. In fact, Philosophy can be seen as the continuing attempt at making sense of all this. Our mortality generates metaphysical and ethical questions that resonate through time and confronts each generation anew with hard questions. Are we really just ‘bone clocks’, measuring time until, battered by disease, distress and decay, we dissolve into dust? Or are we the true measure of the universe, capable of replacing the vast incomprehensible world-beyond-our-control (and it’s resulting nihilism) with simple human sized compassionate actions. Do we have a soul? And what can that soul be? Story-wise, Mitchell adheres to the dualistic and platonic notion of the soul as separate from the body, migrating after dead towards some kind of destination - what that destination may be is of course left unclear. And there is a strong metaphysical vibe running through the book in that there is a world beyond this world, there is a veil that we can punch through to arrive at the other side of this life. This metaphysical notion is of course the source of a lot of suffering in the world, a fact Mitchell recognises in the last part of the book where a religious zealot is running for mayor and human rationality seems to go down the drain as a result. But let’s not treat ‘The Bone Clocks’ as a philosophical treatise. It is a good story that makes you think. And isn’t that one of the goals of literature?

Through the life of Holly Sykes we experience these questions in very sharp relief. Make no mistake. Holly is the centre of the book. Not all of it is narrated through her eyes and in some parts she is even relegated to a side character, but it is still all about her. And she is beautifully written. From rebellious teen to caring grandmother she is the canvas upon which Mitchell paints his ideas. Racked by guilt about the disappearance of her kid brother, devastated by the loss of loved ones, she remains capable of human compassion, seeing her life as connected to others. This connectedness is a main theme with Mitchell. Actions reverberate across time and across people. What we do has an impact, whether we acknowledge it or not. But all the characters in the book, even the most villainous ones, are capable of some degree of human kindness. There are more than 50 shades of grey at play here. This ambiguity of the human condition is best personified in Hugo Lamb. He starts of as a misogynistic egocentric who betrays his friends, and goes on to greater deeds of evil from there, but not before he has helped Holly shed some of her crippling guilt. Another great character, the writer Crispin Hershey, takes revenge on a literary critic, condemning him to rot in a columbian cell for three years, but then realises what he has done and tries to make amends.

Time moves fast in this novel. If your age is near Holly’s (16 in 1984) you will enjoy the references to the time when a microwave was a novelty, the internet was non-existent and things moved a lot slower. At certain times in the story the novel jumps ahead for a number of years. Rather than being jarring you just know - and I don’t know how Mitchell does this - that there is a kind of overshadowing story going on and you just follow him along the path. Although the jumps are not as severe as in ‘Cloud Atlas’ you still need to have a degree of trust in the writer that he will resolve all the issues. And Mitchell delivers. But not in the way you expect. There is a final showdown with explosions, betrayals and sacrifice but the book is not about the resolution of the war between the Anchorites and the Horologists. There is a whole chapter after the final battle is played out. A final chapter that is brutal in its portrayal of a near future world collapsing under the greed of our generation. There is a disturbing parallel that can be drawn between the way we age and the way the world ages. If we just could extend our human gracefulness into ever broadening circles. Questions of guilt arise. Fortunately there is a sparkle of hope at the end. But not for all. There is severe tragedy here. This book will keep on doing its work, long after you flipped the final page.

It is a very satisfying read. What Mr Mitchell has achieved with this book is momentous. I give it a full 5 star rating. I cannot believe he has been overlooked for the Man Booker prize this year. (small spoilers ahead) I would just like to end on a small observation. Just as is ‘Cloud Atlas’ (another major narrative achievement) relief seems to come from over the sea. A boat, a ship with a promise of a better world, to escape our trials and tribulations, to set of like Bilbo for a last destination…It’s an enduring theme and it seems to resonate within us on a deep level. There are other observations to make along this line…Holly providing ‘asylum’ in exchange for a refreshing drink, the golden apple…It just proves that Mr Mitchell is a great writer and that he - as every other great and perceptive artist - is deeply and intricately plugged into our human (un)consciousness. But I have no explanation for the multitude of birds that warble, gurgle, whistle, sing or tweet throughout the pages…

zondag 1 augustus 2010

Deze blog gaat even op non-actief...

Beste Boppers,

Deze blog gaat even op non-actief. Ik had gedacht na mijn vakantie terug wat te kunnen bloggen maar een combinatie van stijgende werkdruk en andere projecten maakt dat ik deze blog even laat rusten. Een mens moet keuzes maken. Ik ben altijd gestart met de idee om een jaar te bloggen en heb dit objectief mooi bereikt. Mogelijks komt hier later een vervolg op of niet? Wie weet. Keep on rocking and reading !!

dinsdag 29 juni 2010

Vakantie natuurlijk....

De beste boppers die op hun portie besprekingen zitten te wachten kan ik geruststellen. We zijn net terug uit vakantie en nemen vanaf volgende week de draad opnieuw op. We waren in Frankrijk waar we de schande van de 'bleus' van dichtbij hebben meegemaakt. Je hoorde of las niets anders meer. Ik kan me ook geen ander land voorstellen waar een actualiteitenprogramma op de radio eerst vrij woord geeft aan een filosoof die omstandig mag het morele en socio-culturele kader schetsen waarbinnen dit 'd├ębacle' en '├ęchec' zich heeft afgespeeld, daarbij teruggrijpt naar historische filsofische discussies, er ook een weerspiegeling van het moreel verval van de huidige maatschappij inziet en in een beweging ook de verstrengeling van het grote geld en de topsport aan de kaak stelt, vooraleer de moderator de discussie laat beginnen. Knap!

In alle geval, stay tuned voor uw wekelijkse vertrouwde portie leeservaringen.