Monday, 17 March 2014


I have to apologize for the delay in posting this review as I actually finished this book back in mid-January. I read it in its original German (Im Westen Nichts Neues), having been a Christmas present from my mother.
I had wanted to read this book for decades and at the same time avoided it for decades. The narrative of the book, told in the first person perspective of a regular German soldier about the fighting in northern France along a meandering line of fortified trenches, stretching from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier, known as World War One's Western Front, is quite haunting. 

While not an autobiography, Erick Maria Remarque drew from his own experiences and impressions about the war. Born 1898 in the town of Osnabrueck, he was drafted in 1916 and moved to the western front near Flanders, where he was suffered injuries from grenade splinters and a shot to the neck. After recovering in an army hospital, he got lucky as the war ended before he could be sent back.

Ten years after the war ended, he published his classic, describing the ordinary German soldiers' extreme physical and mental stress during the war, and the detachment from civilian life felt by many of these soldiers upon returning home from the front. Though other books had explored the violence and brutality of war in a realistic light, the literary tradition of war stories still tended overwhelmingly toward romanticized ideals of glory, adventure, and honor. In presenting his grimly realistic version of a soldier’s experience, Remarque stripped the typical romanticism from the war narrative in his staunchly antiwar novel. It sold 2.5 million copies in 22 languages in its first eighteen months in print. Not surprisingly, his book, regarded by Hitler as unpatriotic, was banned and burnt in Nazi Germany in 1933.  Having lived in Berlin since 1924, Remarque fled to Switzerland in 1932 and later moved to the USA. He died 1970 in Tessin, Switzerland.

The overriding theme of All Quiet on the Western Front is the terrible brutality of war, portraying war as it was actually experienced. The novel is narrated by Paul Bäumer, a young man of nineteen who fights in the German army on the French front in World War I. Paul and several of his friends from school joined the army voluntarily after listening to the stirring patriotic speeches of their teacher. But after experiencing the unimaginable brutality of life on the front, Paul and his friends realized that the ideals of nationalism and patriotism for which they enlisted are simply empty clichés. They no longer believe that war is glorious or honorable, and they live in constant physical terror.

As one example of the many horrifying stories, the soldiers experience is a night, where the men go on a harrowing mission to lay barbed wire at the front. Pounded by artillery, they hide in a graveyard, where the force of the shelling causes the buried corpses to emerge from their graves, as groups of living men fall dead around them. Men are blown apart, limbs are severed from torsos, and giant rats pick at the dead and the wounded. After this gruesome event, the surviving soldiers return to their camp, where they kill lice and think about what they will do at the end of the war. Some of the men have tentative plans, but all of them seem to feel that the war will never end. Paul fears that if the war did end, he wouldn’t know what to do with himself. In October 1918, on a day with very little fighting, Paul is killed - the last to die of all his friends. The army report for that day reads simply: “All quiet on the Western Front.” Paul’s corpse wears a calm expression, as though relieved that the end has come at last.

World War I demanded this depiction more than any war before it—it completely altered mankind’s conception of military conflict with its catastrophic levels of carnage and violence. Whereas war battles before could be construed as chivalrous engagement of noble warriors, the battles of WW1 lasted for months, and its gruesome new technological advancements (e.g., machine guns, poison gas, trenches) made killing easier and more impersonal than ever before. In fact, total casualties from
the major battles at the Western Front ranged from 3,619,838 to 4,077,838 for the Allies and 3,370,731 to 3,684,025 for Germany (in comparison German military casualties in all of World War 2 were around 3,500,000 and that of the WW1-Allies (UK, France, US) were about 1,000,000).

Remarque especially focuses on the ruinous effect that war has on the soldiers who fight it, which he describes as as a crippling overload of panic and despair. He concludes that the only way for soldiers to survive is to disconnect themselves from their feelings, suppressing their emotions and accepting the conditions of their lives. In its depiction of this horror, Remarque presents a scathing critique of the ideals of nationalism and patriotism, showing it to be a hollow, hypocritical ideology, a tool used by those in power to control a nation’s populace. Remarque illustrates that soldiers on the front fight not for the glory of their nation but rather for their own survival. Additionally, Paul and his friends do not consider the opposing armies to be their real enemies; in their view, their real enemies are the men in power in their own nation, who they believe have sacrificed them to the war simply to increase their own power and glory. No wonder, Hitler and the Nazis did not approve of his book.

While the book can be pretty depressing, I was glad in the end that I got to read it. I always felt that WW1 was the turning point in the way soldiers experience fighting. And, given that massive carnage, Remarque helps us to question reasons why countries go to war in the first place as through the eyes of the novel's characters we cannot help but ask ourselves what exactly an enemy is. While Remarque lost his citizenship under the Nazis, I consider him one of the great German authors of the 20th century and agree with the NYT Book Review that wrote, "The world has a great writer in Erich Maria Remarque. He is a craftsman of unquestionably first rank, a man who can bend language to his will. Whether he writes of men or of inanimate nature, his touch is sensitive, firm, and sure."

Friday, 17 January 2014

DRACULA by Bram Stoker

The 1897 Gothic horror novel Dracula by Irish author Bram Stoker is my first review for 2014. It was the perfect read for the holiday break trip to the family.

It seems superfluous to introduce the characters and plots as it seems that most are quite familiar with this tale, even though - depending on what adaptation one remembers - not all characters will be known. That said, the story of the vampire count Dracula's attempt to move from Transylvania to England, and the battle between Dracula and a small group of men and women led by Professor Abraham Van Helsing (or any lose derivation thereof) has been made into a film an estimated 217 times as of 2009.

So, I will limit myself to a very brief synopsis and then focus on two aspects that intrigued me: (1) Who was the Dracula character modeled on? (2) What leads a business manager for the world-famous Lyceum Theatre in London to write such a story, where did he get it from, and how was it interpreted in its time?

The novel, told as a series of letters, diary entries, ships' log entries, and so forth, begins with Jonathan Harker, a young English lawyer, traveling to Castle Dracula in the Eastern European country of Transylvania to conclude a real estate transaction with a nobleman named Count Dracula. First intrigued by Dracula's manners, he soon realizes that he is a prisoner and that that the count possesses supernatural powers and diabolical ambitions. Meanwhile, in England, Harker’s fiancée, Mina Murray, corresponds with her friend Lucy Westenra. Lucy has received marriage proposals from three men—Dr. John Seward, Arthur Holmwood, and an American named Quincey Morris. Though saddened by the fact that she must reject two of these suitors, Lucy accepts Holmwood’s proposal.
Soon thereafter, a Russian ship, carrying fifty boxes of earth shipped from Castle Dracula, is wrecked on the English shore near the town where Lucy lives. Not long after, the visiting Mina finds Lucy in the town cemetery and believes she sees a dark form with glowing red eyes bending over Lucy. Lucy becomes pale and ill, and she bears two tiny red marks at her throat. Unable to arrive at a satisfactory diagnosis, Dr. Seward sends for his old mentor, Professor Van Helsing.
Harker reappears in the city of Buda-Pest, where Mina goes to join him. Van Helsing arrives and, after his initial examination of Lucy, orders that her chambers be covered with garlic—a traditional charm against vampires but their efforts ultimately come to nothing. After Lucy’s death, Van Helsing convinces the other men that Lucy belongs to the “Un-Dead”. They pledge to destroy Dracula himself and Mina and Jonathan return and join forces with the others. They track down the boxes of earth that the count uses as a sanctuary but Dracula himself starts preying on Mina at the same time.
As Mina begins the slow change into a vampire, the men manage to force Dracula to flee to the safety of his native Transylvania. They pursue the count, dividing their forces and tracking him across land and sea. They catch up with the count just as he is about to reach his castle, and Jonathan and Quincey use knives to destroy him.

So who was Count Dracula really? Pure imagination by Stoker? To achieve accuracy and creative depth, Stoker actually spent seven years researching European folklore and stories of vampires and and up until a few weeks before publication, the manuscript was titled simply The Un-Dead. Some aspects of the character are believed to have been inspired by the 15th-century Romanian general and Wallachian Prince Vlad Țepeș or Vlad the Impaler. The name "Dracula" is the given name of Vlad Ṭepeș' family, a name derived from a secret fraternal order of knights called the Order of the Dragons to uphold Christianity and defend the Empire against the Ottoman Turks. Vlad II, father of Vlad III, was admitted to the order around 1431 as a result of his bravery in fighting the Turks and was dubbed Dracul (Dragon), thus his son became Dracula (son of the dragon). Stoker came across the name Dracula in his reading on Romanian history, and chose this to replace the name (Count Wampyr) that he had originally intended to use for his villain.  While Vlad was not a gentle soul (estimates of the number of the victims of this sadistic tyrant range from 40,000 to 100,000), similarities with the character end there. Ironically, Stoker uses the name of a defender of Christianity to paint a character that is the archetype of the paranormal, evil, and devil worship.

In the late 19th century, invasion literature was also at its peak in Victorian England with many of Stoker's now famous contemporaries, such as Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle and H.G. Wells inventing tales, in which fantastic creatures threatened the British Empire. What all of these novels share is a concern with themes that occupied the Empire, such as the role of women/sexual conventions, immigration, colonialism/post-colonialism, and the growing importance of science as a sign of modernity and in opposition to religion and tradition.

For one, the end of the nineteenth century brought drastic developments that forced English society to question the systems of belief that had governed it for centuries. Darwin’s theory of evolution, for instance, called the validity of long-held sacred religious doctrines into question. Likewise, the Industrial Revolution brought profound economic and social change to the previously agrarian England. Not coincidentally, Count Dracula beats and outwits all modern attempts to understand his evil magic and beat ot and is only stopped by ancient ritual wisdom.

In addition, most critics agreed that Dracula is, as much as anything else, a novel that indulges the Victorian male imagination, particularly regarding the topic of female sexuality. This is illustrated by the stark contrast between the pure, chaste lead female characters of Mina and Lucy and the voluptuous and over-sexed vampire women as well as Lucy's fall from grace (she not only turns into a vampire but also loses in the process all of her cherished female Victorian qualities of purity and innocence to become a vampire vixen with open sexual desires). She is subsequently saved by being destroyed in order to return her to a purer, more socially respectable state.

The fight against Dracula, Stoker invokes symbols of good that take the form of the icons of Christian faith, such as the crucifix. Aside from the idea of garlic smell as a repellant for being bitten by a vampire, Stoker's Dracula highlights Christian icons (besides the crucifix, he lists holy water and communion wavers) as the best antidotes against vampires. The novel is not only heavily invested in the strength and power of these Christian symbols as a promise of salvation but Stoker presents in general quite a liberal vision of salvation whereby the saved need not necessarily be believers. In Dracula, all of the dead are granted the unparalleled peace of salvation—only the “Un-Dead” are barred from it.

Lastly, Dracula's existence in-between two popular genres made it interesting from both aspects. As part of the Gothic fiction, it feeds on a pleasing sort of terror, an extension of Romantic literary pleasures that were relatively new at the time. As part of invasion literature, it also tapped into English fears of foreign forces arriving unopposed on its shores. Especially the latter genre was influential in Britain in shaping politics, national policies and popular perceptions in the years leading up to the First World War.

While I hadn't seen or read all 200+ versions of Dracula, I was sufficiently familiar with the story before I read the book, which ironically was among the versions I hadn't read before. Despite its "strange" epistolary style, which at times makes the plot appear to jump around, and its more antiquated language, it is a quite engrossing read. Having read a book that is most certainly a classic but among the ones one sort-of, kind-of knows about offered me the freedom though to think early about its meaning and ideas.
Why should you read it? If for no other reason, then to know how to defend yourself should you wonder upon an un-dead (I suppose they come more n the form of brainless, sloppy zombies these days rather than elegant aristocratic vampires). If you don't, then listen to Count Dracula's prophesy: "Your girls that you all love are mine already; and through them you and others shall yet be mine.”

Friday, 29 November 2013

THE TRIAL by Franz Kafka

There is probably no better way to understand the term 'Kafkaesque' than reading a book by the genius himself. Defined as "a nightmarish situation which most people can somehow relate to, although strongly surreal, with an ethereal, "evil", omnipotent power floating just beyond the senses," it describes quite well the plot of this book. I am still deliberating how it became my last read for 2013 and what it all means.

In a nutshell, The Trial tells the terrifying tale of Joseph K, a respectable functionary in a bank, who is arrested the morning of his 30th birthday and prosecuted by a remote, inaccessible authority, with the nature of his crime revealed to neither him nor the reader. At his 31st birthday, he is executed in the name of the Law without him nor the reader having gotten any closer to an answer. The book as such chronicles the intervening year of K.'s case, his struggles and encounters with the invisible Law and the untouchable Court. It is an account, ultimately, of state-induced self-destruction. Yet, the "meaning" is far from clear.

To illustrate the "theater of the absurd" feeling that weaves its way throughout the book (and what I have meanwhile learned all of Kafka's books), I provide a synopsis of Chapter Two, and early chapter that discusses K's (his last name is never revealed beyond the initial although other characters' last names are) original dealing with the Court:
K. is summoned to court via phone call on a Sunday. No time is set, but the address is given to him. The address turns out to be a huge tenement building. K. has to explore the various floors what look like residential apartments to find the court, which turns out to be in the attic. The room is airless, shabby, and crowded, and although he has no idea what he is charged with, or what authorizes the process, K. makes a long speech denigrating the whole process, including the agents who arrested him. During this speech an attendant's wife and a man engage in sexual activities. K. then returns home.

It is interesting to note that while Kafka (a German-speaking Czech) wrote the book in 1914-1915, while working as an official in the Workmen's Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia, it was not published until after his untimely death in 1925. And we actually have to thank one of Kafka's peer in law school and later literary executor, Max Brod, who became a lifelong devoted friend and was ultimately responsible for preserving much of what exists of Kafka's writing. This is even more remarkable as Kafka in his last will had asked Brod to destroy most of his writings including the yet unfinished The Trial.

So, how do we interpret and make sense of The Trial? In a 2010 paper, Reza Banakar, a Professor of Socio-Legal Studies in London, points out that "many of Kafka’s descriptions of law and legality are often treated as metaphors for things other than law, but also are worthy of examination as a particular concept of law and legality which operates paradoxically as an integral part of the human condition under modernity." Others argued that K.'s arrest and his attempts to extricate himself from an aging, totalitarian bureaucratic system tells the story of the Christian idea of the fallen man and his deep sense of guilt. Lastly, psychological or psychoanalytical approaches held that the story is a reflection of his lifelong tension between bachelorhood and marriage or, on another level, between his skepticism and his religious nature.

However each reader or critique leans in her/his interpretation, many agree that his novel is at times as suffocating to read as the airless rooms of the Court that it describes. What I personally found interesting is that its German title, Der Prozess, connotes both a "trial" and a "process," and - as it was summarized very succinctly elsewhere - it is "perhaps this maddening feeling of inevitability that leaves a lasting visceral impression: the machinery has been set in motion, and the process will grind toward conclusion despite our most desperate exhortations."

Given that you often say to yourself 'this makes no sense' while reading the book, it is perhaps one of the stranger classics on my list or that I even have ever read. But I had always wanted to read 'a Kafka' and in all its maddening weirdness (and ultimate sad ending that so contradicts our Hollywood-movie tuned minds) had a magnetic hold over me to finish it, hoping until the end that at least I (if not K himself) will get to some answer or clarity.
In the end, I can not help myself but recommend this book as it makes you think throughout the book and then afterwards. If that's not your "poison," read it to understand where the term Kafkaesque really comes from.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zuzak

This is my second Australian novel in my 50 classics list but it actually plays in Germany; Nazi Germany to be precise. I have a small personal comment about this book at the end but first things first.

The book tells a carefully worded story that follows four years (1939-1943) in the life of young Liesel Meminger, a poor German girl, who loses her entire family due to circumstances at the time (mother and father being taken away by the Nazis for being communists, her younger ailing brother succumbing to his illness on the train to her foster home) and is then "adopted" by Rosa and Hans Hubermann, a poor couple in fictive Molching, a small town between Munich and Dachau, who live on a street named Himmel (Heaven).

One of the early surprises in this book is the narrator of the story, Death himself, who comes across more introspective than the hooded scythe-carrying Grim Reaper in our Halloween plays but, being who he is, is able to inject black humor into sad situations he encounters. By using Death as the narrator, Zuzak is able to offer a unique perspective on all the death and dying occurring during this historical period and fill in events that occurred far away from the small town, where the story plays, but that nonetheless provide an important context (the Holocaust, Stalingrad, etc.).

I feel a bit conflicted actually giving too many details away from this beautifully crafted story, as I think it is one of those moving narrations that everyone should experience for her/himself. So, I resort to provide some chronological story plot overview:

When Liesel arrives at her foster home, she can't read. She realizes how powerless she is without words, and so her foster father Hans, a painter and accordion player, teaches her how to read during midnight lessons in the basement. Being a gentle and kind man, he gains Liesel's trust as she grows close to him and comes to associate his presence with safety. She also becomes good friends with the son of the Hubermann's neighbors, Rudy Steiner.

The Nazi Party's presence becomes increasingly apparent in Molching.  Liesel and Rudy are required to join the Bund Deutscher Maedchen (Band of German Girls) and Hitler Youth, respectively. To celebrate the "Führer's" birthday, the people of Molching gather for a bonfire during which they burn books. This is where Liesel steals her first book but also where she begins a sort of kinship with the mayor's wife (Ilsa Hermann), who saw her theft but shares her passion for books - and has a library!

As the story unfolds, the Hubermanns hide Max Vandenburg, a Jew and the son of a WW1 army friend of Hans' who once saved his life, in their basement. Liesel becomes interested in him and realises that they share an interest in stories. But Max, who also understands the power of words, "teaches" that aspect to Liesel via a book, he makes for her.

One night, Liesel takes Rudy to the mayor's house and earns her title of book thief when she sneaks in through the window and takes her first book from Ilsa Hermann's library. In due sequence, the air raids begin. Liesel and her family, along with Rudy and his family, take shelter in another neighbor's basement because they've been told their basement is not deep enough to protect them from the bombings. They must leave Max behind. Around that time, parades of Jews start appearing in Molching on their way to Dachau, where Liesel witnesses their suffering. Because of an unwise humanitarian act of Hans, they must send Max away because they are afraid the Gestapo will come to search their house.

During the time her father and many other men are sent to serve with an air raid unit (or other outfits) towards the end of the war, Liesel reads a book, Max left her, in which he describes a girl who is able to use words like some of Hitler's most skilled propagandists, but she uses her words for good, not for evil. During the continuous parade of Jews, Liesel sees Max but attempting to enter the parade, she is whipped. Soon thereafter, she is encouraged to write the words of her own story. In October 1943, bombs fall on Himmel Street while everyone sleeps...

The Book Thief was first published in Australia in 2005 and in the US in 2006. It emerged on the scene, when Zusak was only thirty years old. The story is actually partially inspired by the stories of the author's parents, who grew up in Germany during World War 2. According to a review in the Guardian:
"Zusak mentioned that writing the book was inspired by two real-life events related to him by his German parents: the bombing of Munich, and a teenage boy offering bread to an emaciated Jew being marched through the streets, ending with both boy and Jewish prisoner being whipped by a soldier."

Normally, I would end this review with the summary statement found on bookseller synopses and reviews that says: "This is just a small story really, about among other things: a girl, some words, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist-fighter, and quite a lot of thievery. . . . but it is also an unforgettable story about the ability of books to feed the soul."

However,  given that I am German (admittedly born much later than that time but with family who also lived though this time), this book has touched me on a quite personal level.  I had always been interested in finding out more what life was like for ordinary people (like my own family), who were not at all close to Nazi politics but somehow had to carve out a normal life amongst the many, who had bought into this radical fanaticism, and ultimately suffered the same - if not worse - fate than those, who started it all, during the bombing raids in the early 1940s. Besides the key message above, showing the nuances and differentiated spirits of people in Germany was a refreshing deviation from the stereotypical goose-stepping Nazis you see in so many Hollywood reincarnations of the time. Because I can honestly say that some of these characters could have been my grandmother, father, or grand-uncle, this book is still with me days after I finished it. Damn you and thank you, Markus Zuzak.

PS> This book has been made into a movie that is about to be released in October/November 2013.

Sunday, 13 October 2013


Let me begin this with a caution: Anyone, who expects fast-paced action sequences, explosions, body counts, and a clear idea of good and bad - along the lines of James Bond or Jason Bourne spy thrillers  - will be disappointed. John le Carré's Cold War novels feature unheroic political functionaries aware of the moral ambiguity of their work, and engaged in psychological more than physical drama, where much of the conflict they are involved in is internal, rather than external and visible.

While I had read The Spy Who Came in from the Coldle Carré's third and  best-known novel, many years ago and remember having been fascinated by the intricate plot, the author wove, I had somehow missed to read this thriller, written in 1974 and made into a movie in 2011, starring Gary Oldman. Since I remembered that his stories unravel slowly, I was looking forward to another plot that creates a battle of wits or mental melee. I can honestly say upfront that with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy John le Carré expertly created a total vision of a secret world that guides us through George Smiley's chess match of wills and wits with Karla, his Soviet counterpart.

In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, George Smiley, the novel's protagonist, a taciturn, middle-aged intelligence officer in the British Secret Intelligence Service, who had previously been forced into retirement, is recalled to hunt down a Soviet mole in the highest echelon of the Secret Intelligence Service, called the "Circus." While the previous head of British Intelligence (only known by his code name "Control") had suspected this and had sent an agent (Jim Prideaux) to Czechoslovakia in 1972 to gather intelligence about this from an allegedly defecting Czech general, this operation had been blown not the least because of this mole and had cost many at the Circus their jobs, including Control and George Smiley.

Meanwhile, Control had died, taking his fears of betrayal to the grave. Now the murmured possibility of a mole has emerged once more, and the list of suspects has been narrowed to four senior intelligence officers, who all benefited from Control's dismissal years ago, and who each had received a code name culled from a nursery rhyme: Percy Alleline = Tinker; Bill Haydon = Tailor; Roy Bland = Soldier; and Toby Esterhase, = Poorman. Smiley himself was once the fifth man—labelled Beggarman, but for obvious reasons was no longer suspect. As an ex-spy, he is in the clear, and ideally placed to come in from the cold, at the invitation of the Cabinet Office, and find the culprit. Smiley and his small gang of trusted friends have little time to find the double-agent. And, then there is also the agent Jim Prideaux, a broken man, after being shot, arrested by the Russians, tortured, sent back to England, and dismissed from the Circus.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is not an easy novel to read. While it slowly but surely builds suspense and the dialogue is smooth, it has a complex plot, which requires a fair amount of patience and attention to follow. In addition, the characters use a great deal of spy jargon which is presented as the authentic insider-speak of British Intelligence, but Le Carré admitted that this was invented by him. Nonetheless, their ongoing use require even greater attention from the reader to stay with the story plot.

In closing, I seriously enjoyed the book and can only recommend Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. While I realize that it may not be the kind of espionage story that everyone will like, I found it to be a challenging, thoughtful, and engrossing novel. Coincidentally, I actually happened to watch the 2011 movie while being 2/3 through the book, and - as you may have guessed - the book is better.

As The Guardian newspaper book review so eloquently summarized: "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is fluently written; it is full of vivid character sketches of secret agents and bureaucrats from all levels of British society, and the dialogue catches their voices well. The social and physical details of English life and the day to day activities of the intelligence service at home and abroad are convincing. Unlike many writers Le Carré is at his best showing men hard at work; he is fascinated by the office politics of the agency since the war." 

Thursday, 26 September 2013


This is my first of the Australian classics that I had added to my reading list. I am happy I randomly chose this one because besides being a great read, it also played in my new hometown of Sydney.

The Harp in the South was published in 1948, and is actually part of a trilogy that includes A Poor Man's Orange and Missus, the latter one being the pre-story to Harp, the former one the successor story - both actually having been published years later. Having moved to Sydney and the inner city slum of Surry Hills in 1942, Park's setting for her story was realistically based on her observations of life in the area while living there herself.

The novel traces the lives of the Darcy family, a Catholic Irish immigrant family, in the aftermath of WW2. Hugh and Margaret (Mumma) Darcy raise their two daughters, Rowena (Roie) and Dolour amid the brothels, grog shops and run-down boarding houses of Surry Hills, an inner-city suburb of Sydney. While following the Darcy’s over a period of about a year, the book is actually more a series of vignettes rather than a cohesive narrative, as it uses the omnipresent narrator style (like in To Kill a Mockingbird) to recount the activities and feelings of the various colorful characters that inhabit this novel. In that, The Harp in the South is as much a social commentary and brutally honest examination of the times as a novel.

The Darcy's live in 12-1/2 Plymouth Street in a damp, flea-infested row house and are working class battlers struggling to survive. Mumma does the best she can with the little she has while her husband Hughie is more of a resigned dreamer and drinks away much of what he earns (e.g., in a tragic twist, he seemed to have won the lottery jackpot of $5 and started to initimate to his family how all will change, only to realise that a different person with the name of Darcy was the winner).

The sweet and naive older daughter Roie longs for romance and gets pregnant out of wedlock by her first boy friend, loses the child as the victim of a street brawl, but then meets and gets married to her husband, the biracial (Irish-Aborigional) Charlie.  The younger and quick witted daughter Dolour dreams of escape from the slums but is too young to fully understand all that goes on around her.

To supplement their meager income the Darcy’s rent two rooms, one to the irascible Miss Sheily and her illegitimate disabled son, the other to the lonely bachelor Patrick Diamond, a protestant, who baits the family each St Patrick’s Day but wants to convert to Catholicism late in the book.

Midway through the book, they take in Grandma (Mumma's mother), when she needs extra care, a lively character who knows and speaks her own mind and even in her old age likes to drink her brandy. The fake fight between Grandma and Hughie about who will make the family-recipe Christmas desert is a comical highlight. Grandma eventually succumbs to old age and passes away.

Minor characters are their Chinese neighbour-grocer, Mr Lick, the local madam of the largest brothel, who financially assists them in time of need, and the clergy and nun-teachers of the local church and elementary school that they attend on Sundays and that Dolour goes to school to.

As a fellow book review blogger put it well, "The Darcy’s are resigned to the grinding poverty and immune to the violence, finding joy where are able – a New Year’s bonfire, a school trip to the seaside. They face heartbreak with stoicism and though their home is often chaotic, there is plenty of love within it’s peeling walls." Park's novel shows how tough a place Surry Hills was during those years and how little people in those conditions seemed to want,  and knew about the larger world.

The Harp in the South caused a stir when published in 1948 because New South Wales authorities insisted there were no slums in Sydney. However, the state government ended up demolishing the run-down Victorian terraces and moved their residents to housing commission flats. And indeed, the principle street, the plot plays on (12-1/2 Plymouth Street, the Darcy's home) does no longer exist in Surry Hills.

The Australian's chief literary critic, Geordie Williamson, described Park as "Sydney's Dickens - a human Dictaphone when it came to the mean yet vibrant lives of the struggling, striving denizens of Surry Hills". Ruth Park, born in New Zealand, died in December 2010 at the age of 93, a great Australian author and chronicler of Depression-era Australia. I can only highly recommend this book, especially to everyone, who likes a heart-warming story but also is interested in some historical documentary of a by-gone era.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

THINGS FALL APART by Chinua Achebe

I have to confess that I didn't know much about this book or the author, although he has been described as a father of modern African literature. And it was a real shame because this is a really engrossing book to read - a mixture of an ethnographic documentary and a narrative working to an inevitable climax and ending.

The title, "borrowed" from Yeats' poem, 'The Second Coming,' effectively summarizes the tragic saga of both the main character and the African tribal villages (and their traditions) in the 1890s upon the arrival of white (British) missionaries and soldiers.

The story begins with Okonkwo, the main character, as a wealthy and respected warrior of the Umuofia clan in one of the nine neighboring villages in Nigeria, Wets Africa, and provides flashbacks of his youth with a drunk and indebted father and his wrestling skills and hard labor that got him into fame and fortune.

It then follows the main character and many other people he interacts with in a in the third person, by an omniscient figure who focuses on Okonkwo but switches from character to character to detail the thoughts and motives of various individuals. Okonkwo's life begins to unravel when he accidentally kills a clansman and has to go to exile for seven years according to clan rules. It is during his exile, when missionaries and colonial governors arrive and impose their laws and religion onto the tribes. When he returns to his tribe, Okonkwo - always the fierce warrior haunted by the memories of his father - is dismayed to find that many tribesman do not put forth much resistance to these changes. In the end, his world is thrown so much off-course that he kills in a fit of rage during a tribal meeting one of the colonial court messengers, who attempt to break up this meeting. Seeing that no one else is willing to fight for their traditions, he resorts to committing suicide.

This book, by and large, recounts two levels of conflict and change. On a larger level, it is the conflict  between the traditional society of Umuofia and the new customs brought by the white colonists. On a more personal level, it tells the inner struggle within the main character to be as different from his deceased father as possible and, with it, the varying interpretations of masculinity.

As other commentaries have noted,  Things Fall Apart is a story about a culture on the verge of change that focuses on how the prospect and reality of change affect various characters. The tension about whether change should be privileged over tradition often involves questions of personal status in this book. I find it particularly significant that when Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart in 1958, he chose to write it in English, clearly intending it to be read by the West (he also sent it out to a British publisher). His goal was to critique and emend the portrait of Africa as the silent and  incomprehensible continent that was provided by many writers of the colonial period, e.g., Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness.

This is a manageable book with 150 pages but I actually finished it in just 2 days as it is somewhat hard to put down despite its lack of major suspense or action plots. It is simply a beautifully written account of traditional collapse in the face of change - and also introduces us to the richness and diversity of the culture of one tribe in Nigeria. Thinking about it in hindsight, I can't help myself but think that the larger story of the African clan was probably not too different from every culture, Western society altered dramatically in the name of progress and righteousness.