2010 in review

The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads This blog is doing awesome!.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 1,900 times in 2010. That’s about 5 full 747s.

In 2010, there were 4 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 23 posts.

The busiest day of the year was January 20th with 52 views. The most popular post that day was Roberto Bolaño: The Savage Detectives (pub. 1998, eng. trans. 2007).

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were stumbleupon.com, en.wordpress.com, WordPress Dashboard, mail.yahoo.com, and whitesnails.com.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for the savage detectives analysis, robert walser, michel houellebecq, savage detectives analysis, and herztier.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.

1

Roberto Bolaño: The Savage Detectives (pub. 1998, eng. trans. 2007) April 2009
3 comments and 1 Like on WordPress.com,

2

Herta Müller: The Land of Green Plums/Herztier (1994) February 2010
8 comments

3

Arundhati Roy: The God of Small Things (1997) vs. Raymond Chandler: Farewell, My Lovely (1940) June 2009
6 comments

4

George Orwell: 1984 (1949) September 2009
1 comment

5

Michel Houellebecq: The Elementary Particles (1998) July 2009
3 comments

Roberto Bolaño: Last Evenings on Earth (2006)

Reading Roberto Bolaño’s book of 14 short stories helped me understand the fascination I felt when I read 2666 and Savage Detectives (see below for my comments on these books.) Even now, quite some after having read those two books, I continue to think about his writing and to compare practically ever writer I come across to Roberto Bolaño. It is a bit like being in love, only better. For someone as skeptical as I am (at least when it comes to writing) such lasting admiration for a contemporary author is unusual. That was the reason I wrote a lot on those two previous books – I was trying to understand what it is that makes him so good. His short stories helped me advance my thinking.

The core of his brilliance is simplicity. His stories exist for the sake of themselves, and not only does the author renounce trying to spice them up, but he also doesn’t even try to make the plots interesting by adding twists or turns or tension. In 2666 he has some amazing scenes and characters, and this led me to believe that he had led an eventful life that gave him this material. He did indeed have an eventful life, but that is not enough. In this collection, his characters and situations are neither interesting nor exotic, and still he is great. They are common episodes from lives of common people: son and father going on a vacation, a poet traveling to some school in the middle of nowhere to give a few classes, a writer who just sold a book and decided to travel around France for a week, a guy visiting a childhood friend. They are entirely unassuming plots written in an even less assuming style.

Characters in his stories and books are mostly writers and poets. I found this slightly annoying at first, I considered it a sign of weakness and inability to write about a milieu other than his own, but I learned that your characters profession is not that relevant. A master like that writes about life, and his writing is life – weather the characters are writers or boxers or priests by profession is a secondary issue.

What he achieved is the complete disappearance of borders between life and writing. He perfected observation of things that revolve around him, and he perfected such a simple style that it can hardly be called a style at all. Only a person to whom writing comes as natural as breathing can write like that. In this perfect style he wrote about what he lived, saw, heard, and read. Another point is that he cares about his characters. He is not arrogant towards people, he does not place them beneath him and try to explain their actions like some superior being (a common occurence with writers). He observes people with respect regardless of how little they and their problems might be in the eyes of someone else. He is sincere in doing this, and that is why we cannot stop reading his texts – because we start to care as well and we want to see what happened with these people.

He must have been a man of great patience and strength. We are lucky to have several of his books – judging by the way he led his life it was not impossible that he could have renounced publishing altogether.

Mikhail Afanasyevich Bulgakov: The Master and Margarita (1969)

This is one of the finest novels known to me. Plenty has been written about this classic work, so all that is left for me is to offer a few random thoughts that I observed upon my second reading of the book.

What strikes me as remarkable is that it is a predominantly visual novel. Dr. Bulgakov writes like a movie scriptwriter. It seems important for him that the cities in question (Jerusalem in time of Pilates and Moscow in the 1930ies) are conveyed graphically and that the plethora of characters is just as vivid to us. Many scenes feel more like scenes from a play translated to prose than scenes of a novel. It is understandable that parts of the novel took shape in the author’s head as theatre pieces, since Dr. Bulgakov was an active dramatist. At the same time and in spite of all these descriptions, The Master and Margarita is easily the fastest-paced book I had read in a while, and this is saying a lot for a book written in the 1930ies. A reader can go through its 400 plus pages in a few days, feeling refreshed after every reading.

Satan’s adventures in Moscow are hugely entertaining and imaginative. Several scenes, most notably the Satan’s bal, remind me of paintings by Hieronymus Bosch. The story of Pilates and the execution of the ragged Ha-Nofri (Jesus) are beautiful. The supposed author of the story of Pilates, The Master, and his love affair with Margarita, is just as pretty and romantic. The stories do not intertwine in regular intervals, they intertwine exactly as they should to keep the reader stuck in Bulgakov’s world.

As hard as I tried I could not come up with a single objection to the style and the delivery of the novel – so I ended up wondered a bit about the meaning, or the thoughts that could’ve driven the writer. In a way, it seems it is a religious novel. It opens with the conversation between the poet and his editor, who are both hard-core atheists. Not only do they deny the existence of God, they also deny the historical existence of Jesus. After only a page or so, Satan presents himself and joins their conversation. After another page or so the editor is decapitated by a streetcar and the whirlwind that is this novel begins. The rest of the novel seems to serve as a response to their opening conversation. However, I do not get the feeling that Dr. Bulgakov is religious. Firstly, his main protagonist is Satan, and he is the almighty. He interacts with the ‘other side,’ with Jesus and his gang, by means of messengers, and they exchange information and decide together on what to do. Not only does he, his entourage, Jesus, and the rest of the usual deities have eternal lives, but also a bunch of other people including Pilates. At the end of the book, The Master and the Margarita are also awarded immortality. Margarita’s maid is, upon her own request, also given powers and made into a which. All of this gives me the feeling of someone who is playfully using some motives from the history of Christian religion, rather than being pious and respectful about religion.

One can imagine Bulgakov having a similar conversation about atheism himself, and at some point having a thought enter his mind and ask him: ‘What if Satan come here and proved us wrong?”

What followed such an unfortunate (for him, fortunate for us) thought was 11 years of hard work on his masterpiece, and the harsh destiny of being sanctioned by the regime and not living to see one’s work published.

Salman Rushdie: The Satanic Verses (1988)

This is probably the most difficult review I attempted so far. Before I get lost in the convoluted reality of the Satanic Verses, several remarks: overall, this is an excellent book; my knowledge of Islam and Koran is far from sufficient for its full comprehension; and I intend to refrain from commenting on the aftermath of its publication (however interesting it might be), i.e. the fatwa on Rushdie’s life, the killings of people connected with its distribution, etc. I’m only discussing writing here.
A synopsis is difficult. Two Indian actors, one a huge star in Bombay and the other less famous and working in London, travel to London from Bombay on a plane which gets taken by terrorists and blown to bits over the English channels. In a very weird scene involving exuberant singing and flapping of hands, the two survive the fall and are flushed out on the shores of England. As they try to continue with their lives, one of them grows horns, hoofs, hair (turns into a goat-resembling incarnation of Satan) and the other (the big star) develops a less substantial, but equally powerful attribute – a halo. Parallel to this, we follow an ancient-history prophet, Mahound, trying to convert people to his religion, and a modern-day Indian village that has been persuaded to follow an epileptic girl on a marching pilgrimage to Mekka, through the Arabic sea.
Mr. Rushdie’s writing has been dubbed ‘magical realism.’ I would say, if we take G.G. Márquez as a definition of magical realism, that what we have here is rather realistic magic, or some kind of religious fantasy with drops of realism. The realistic parts are excellent (and by realistic I mean each part that does not involve an Indian movie star running around London blowing a second-hand horn that breeds fire), including the historical part on Mahound (Muhhamad, obviously) and the unfortunate Hajj of the (perhaps) bewitched village. I have nothing against a bit of magic in literature, but here it tends to be too much. I reckoned it might be a matter of taste. I know I said that there is only good taste and bad taste, but this might be an exception – I’m not used to Indian arts and I have difficulty digesting rare Indian films and music that I get to see. For me they always seem “too much”, too ornate and too colorful, and that was the feeling I had reading The Satanic Verses. I could never fathom why a person, falling from an exploded airplane into certain death, would sing. Or why actors have to dance in a film that is supposed to be an action thriller. I mean, imagine Al Pacino, Marlon Brando and Robert Duvall laying down whiskey glasses and cigarettes, getting up from leather armchairs and dancing to a tune.
Furthermore, I am baffled by the metamorphosis of the protagonists. I like the idea, but I’m not sure I understand the meaning behind it. It didn’t seem to be a clash between good and evil, nor did these two guys really do anything with their newfound powers. Saladin turned into a goat-devil and by the middle of the book he was re-transformed to his old self. Why? I don’t get it. Everything revolving around the two that referred to their normal lives, their families, jobs, relationships, and their characters, was brilliant – alive, vivid, interesting, believable. Mr. Rushdie’s humor is excellent. By why the metamorphosis?
The story of Mahound, that almost got the author killed, offers indeed many reasons for religious people to want to kill the author. Luckily, I’m not such a person and I enjoyed it immensely. I did not even consider it disrespectful to Islam – it is a believable account on how Muhhamad’s (and Jesus’ and other persons of the prophetic vocation during those times) toil really might have looked like. Sure, one might claim that the scene where Mahound gets drunk and sleeps on the street, after failing the negotiations with the city’s chieftain about introducing his religion, or the scene where he, the prophet, ascends the mountain and goes to beg the Archangel for advice and the Archangel thinks: ‘oh not him again… can’t he see I have nothing to say to him?’ are somewhat disrespectful. Still, with a bit of healthy humor it can be accepted as a humorous, truthful, account of those ancient times.
The story of the village, Titlipur, that follows and epileptic girl, believing she will part the Arabic sea on their way to Mecca, and drowning themselves like cattle, is marvelous. It’s my favorite part. And here the touch of magic is in perfect consonance – the girl, the epileptic prophetess, has butterflies flying around her at all times and she feeds on them.
I was convinced at all times by Mr. Rushdie’s writing, perfect English, his scope and the sheer energy of narration that this is a remarkable book. However, if I had been in his shoes by the time he had completed the manuscript, I would have given it to someone who is not versed in Quran and Indian pop-culture for a review, and I would have edited the book according to that person’s suggestions. Maybe it would have been a better, more compact, more accessible book of some 400 pages, instead of its current 600.

Herta Müller: The Land of Green Plums/Herztier (1994)

Last year’s Nobel prize winner’s (whom I come to write about somewhat belatedly, unfortunately) book is even worse than Le Clézio’s (2008 Nobel winner) Fever, that I tried reading and did not review on this blog. I emphasize the titles of the books because I have not read their new laureates’ other works, I have no intention of doing so, and there is a theoretical possibility they might be better. I have not heard of either of the two authors prior to their Swedish triumphs, and I don’t feel exceptionally enriched by hearing about them. But, all is not bad, reading them helped me shape an opinion on the Nobel prize in literature.

So, what is Hezrtier? I was reading it in original German. Ms. Müller is an author of Romanian descent. Similar to Franz Kafka (forgive me for mentioning these two people in the same sentence), she was brought up in a German environment and her mother tongue is German. Ms. Müller was oppressed by the Ceauşescu regime, she emigrated to Germany where she married and where she became (so we are told) a successful author. Herztier is about a woman oppressed by the regime in Romania and who, at the end of the book, flees to Germany. How is the story told? It is told in a series of details, rarely do we get to see the big picture. For example: the writer, when her characters and brought to Securitate offices for questioning, doesn’t write about the reasons for this, or what exactly transpires during the questioning, or what effect it had on her characters. She writes about the police commissioner’s dog and his bold head. This  approach needn’t necessarily be that bad, in itself. Unfortunately – it is. Surely, rarely does something big happen in life. Life is a series of more or less significant details that shape us, what we do and who we are. Accordingly, if we accept this, we can go on to claim that it is a great gift to actively look for these details, like a detective, and to store these little symptoms of different conditions for later use in writing. A person, situation, feeling, just about anything, can be described more vividly with a single well-observed and well-placed detail than with many paragraphs of trying to contain the illusive. Great masters of effective usage of details are Raymond Chandler and John Le Carré. If you’ve read them, you know what I mean.

But to narrate a whole book in such observations, many of which are failed, incomprehensible, meaningless, tedious… Even if they weren’t one should not deprive a book of its layers. Details are details. They are not the story, not the dialogues, not the psychology, not the political-historical background. What better example than the title itself: Herztier. Herztier translates as ‘Heart animal’ or perhaps ‘animal’s heart.’ ‘Heart of an animal?’ Anyway, in reading the book, one wonders what this signifies. Every now and then the author mentions, as her main character interacts with her grandmother or mother that her Herztier is found, or lost, or something like that. But what does this mean? Reading such passages, and there are many and not only confined to odd neologisms, I was genuinely physically repulsed. For God’s sake, this means nothing! It’s some random thing some woman is saying to make herself  interesting and insightful. But the line between being a mastermind detective of life (again: Chandler, Le Carré, Roth) and bored person saying random things in not a thin one, and it should be easy to separate the two. Ms. Müller’s sentences are ultra-short, just like her paragraphs. I have no strong standing on this. Her sentences seem too short but it hard not to be biased,  considering how strongly I dislike her entire approach. Some good stuff has been written with simplistic means (McCarthy). The book is short, which made it possible for me to finish it.

Now, someone here is seriously wrong. Either it’s me or the Nobel committee. I don’t think it’s me.

Robert Walser: The Assistant/Der Gehülfe (1908)

This cute novel is more Swiss than Switzerland: it is simple, down-to-earth, unpretentious and not ambitious. It is a story with strong autobiographical elements, about a young man who starts working as an assistant to an independent inventor, Tobler, who is trying to make a name for himself in business. The dynamics in the book are based on the relation of the young man with the family Tobler, which is progressing, and the work of Mr. Tobler, which is regressing. We follow this for about 5 months. It is a book that takes on such a rhythm, that it become perfectly normal that every now and then more than a full page is dedicated to describing how wonderful the summer (or autumn, or winter) day in question is, and how beautiful the nature is. The simplest things – the everyday afternoon cup of coffee in the garden – are described as pinnacles of joie de vivre, and are lauded in baroque language. Mentioning the language brings me to a point I did not get. Namely, all the characters in the book speak in a very exalted Hochdeutsch, or high German. At the same time they are relatively common people – the assistant himself (his name is Joseph Marti, just for the record) has no education at all, Tobler is an engineer and as such the only educated person in the book, but at the same time the only one that speaks ‘normal’ German, Tobler’s wife is a housewife and she speaks as a character from Jane Austen. In addition, the period in question is the beginning of twentieth century. If we know how Swiss people speak today, it is hard to imagine that Swiss lower middle classes spoke such elevated German a hundred years ago. Perhaps I’m missing some important point here.

All in all, a every enjoyable work. Its philosophy is also enjoyable and worth thinking about. In Walser’s own words, it is a ‘cut-out’ of Swiss everyday life – and this is exactly how it is. By no means is it a trivial work. It is a worthwhile testament to the time, and to the mentality of the people, which takes more than a century to change. The lack of happy ending adds to its weight, in my view.

A wonderfully written book with many warm moments. Sounds like a collection of events and stories that your grandfather might have told you. If possible, as always, it should be read in the original language. Walser’s short short stories are also worth looking at!

George Orwell: 1984 (1949)

Thanks to SAZ for this review!

Writing a review on 1984 is no easy task, and would require the write-up of a whole book in itself. In fact, Mr. Orwell covers so many pertinent topics that each one of them, in relation to the novel itself, would require a book to be written on it. The issues can all be found in philosophy textbooks: State, War, Peace, Language, Thought, Love, Hate, Knowledge, Consciousness, Unconsciousness, Power, Weakness, Work, Human Nature, Nature, Freedom, Alienation, Slavery, Torture, to name only a few.

It would do the book no justice to write a general review on it. Some of the abovementioned topics would find themselves lost and unaddressed, which would be aberrant. That is the reason why this piece focuses on an interesting question that can be formulated in several ways: “does thought need language?” or “does language shape thought?” or “could Newspeak succeed in suppressing certain thoughts or feelings that could be detrimental to the Party?”

Newspeak as a language is probably the only language that does not evolve, but gets reduced to fewer words every time a new dictionary is put together. The aim of the Party in that effort, is not only to restrict language, but also to restrain thought, and alienate the people Oceania to a point where certain thoughts become impossible because ‘inexpressible’.

The notion of linguistic determinism as defined by B. Lee Whorf around 1956, the idea that thought is determined by language, seems to be the basis on which Mr. Orwell designed Newspeak and its principles in 1984. But can it truly be that everything we think is shaped by the language we speak?

It might be, if we restrain language to what the French call la langue. That is, the Newspeak language, the English language, the French language, etc. In that sense, if the meaning of the words in a certain language is restricted, then it becomes difficult to express anything outside the meaning of those words. Therefore, if the word ‘free’ in Newspeak can only be used in a sentence like ‘this dog is free of lice’ (as mentioned in the principles of Newspeak), then freedom cannot be expressed with the abstract connotations that Oldspeak allowed.

On the other hand however, if we consider language in its other form, meaning the ability, through one medium or another, to express oneself, then Newspeak, English, French, Sign Language, become mere media of communication. If we follow this idea, it then becomes possible for two people in Oceania to develop a ‘language’ (understood only by the two of them) that would allow them to express ideas, feelings, or thoughts that are real, but not ‘externalizable’ if one limits him/herself to Newspeak. Language expresses thoughts or feelings, but does not shape them. That is the reason why Oceania needs a Thought Police to make sure that language laws are enforced, and to use different means such as torture and constant watching, to make sure that the people of Oceania are, and remain alien to certain feelings. If we study the meaning of torture, alienation, and power in relation to 1984, we will find that this makes perfect sense, but it would require several other essays.