Dan Sandman

Archive for December, 2013|Monthly archive page

52: Nostromo by Joseph Conrad

In Adventure, Books, Fiction on 27/12/2013 at 12:00 pm

Nostromo by Joseph ConradBook 52, this year, is a 1975 Penguin Modern classics edition of Nostromo by Joseph Conrad. It has four hundred and sixty-three pages, several infrequent page folds (I’ve always preferred a bookmark), and is water stained across its golden sides. I therefore can deduce that this book has had a long shelf life and its previous owner is or was over the age of sixty. I like playing Sherlock Holmes with secondhand books – it keeps my imagination revolving.

Speaking of revolutions, there were a disproportionate amount of them during the nineteenth century, especially in South America. And where there are revolutions, there are stories; where there are stories, there are novelists.

Written in 1904, Conrad’s novel, a complex study of how human beings react to social and natural environments, is one such work. Loosely based on a story Conrad heard as a seafaring teenager and a secondhand biography the writer had come across, it takes place in the fictitious republic of Costaguana. The story explores revolutionary politics alongside the corrupting effect of valuable natural resources. During its course, characters grapple with their passions and desires amid grandiose scenery. Ambitious and exciting, Nostromo is clearly the work of a brilliant writer, panoramic in style and beautiful as art.

But it is a serious book and not for the casual reader. It requires a great deal of patience and concentration to fully enjoy. The plot is hard to follow and much is merely implied or insinuated using long tracts of dialogue. Yet, this reader enjoyed being plunged into a fluidly presented revolutionary chaos. However, readers be advised, prepare your skills or run the risk of turning back pages in frustration. Find a quiet room without distractions and a comfortable chair to sit in.

Worth the effort.

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51: The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

In Books, Fiction, Spy on 20/12/2013 at 12:00 pm

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto EcoHistory is a story, based around grand events, focusing on great men. The History of The Decline And Fall of the Roman Empire is a narrative, Julius Caesar is a character in a play, William Shakespeare is a myth. Everything that has ever been written, put into a book and sold was not written in isolation. Texts intermingle with texts, offering glimpses into things that have happened, are happening, and may happen. The thoughts of intellectuals mingle together in a melting pot of ideas: a cauldron full of every kind of writing – historic, journalistic, novel – that has been recorded, published or posted on the internet. This process of mixing together texts to form something new has been referred to as intertextuality.

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco is a novel about textual relationships. Eco uses his expert knowledge of history, literature and semiotics (the study of how we communicate using signs, such as language or clothing) to create an inspired work of profound originality. The Italian writer craftily and skillfully transforms historic fact into fiction. In a way that is both thrilling and humorous, a cynical light is cast upon some of the nineteenth century’s most shady corners. And in their shadowy darkness, lies the shady protagonist Simone Simonini, brilliantly evil, and – it must be added – strangely appealing.

Wherever there is trouble, there is Simonini: Orchestrating anti-Semitic propaganda leading to the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion; rallying bomb experts for blowing up ships whilst working for the Carbonari (the Italian secret society, whose influence paved the way to unification in 1861); forging the notorious documents connected with the Dreyfus Affair – the dastardly and cunning Simonini is always there, lurking in the shadows. He is xenophobic, schizophrenic, Machiavellian, and representative of a distilled and strong evil. It would be appropriate to compare him to another villain, Shakespeare’s Iago, whose malevolent presence still continues to capture audiences on stage. Like Iago, Simonini is great fun to follow and can be enjoyed best when taken with a pinch of salt. This disturbed fictional character is, in addition, a great device for creating a few conspiracy theories along the way.

To conclude, Umberto Eco’s latest novel plays with language in an ambitious way, which highlights the intertextual nature of stories, and stresses the fallibility of grand historical narratives. It gives to the world a marvelously murderous protagonist whose sinister exploits are a joy to peruse. This book will stimulate the mind, exercise the imagination, lead to enlightenment, and give approximately twelve hours of pleasure.

In other words, it’s a very good book.

50: Invictus by John Carlin

In Biography, Books, History, Non-Fiction on 13/12/2013 at 12:00 pm

Invictus by John CarlinIf you happen to be in Johannesburg, I recommend a visit to the apartheid museum, in the city’s centre. There, upon my visit, I was given a randomly assigned identity and asked to enter through one of two entrances. One entrance is for white people and one entrance is for non-white people.

In fact, the actaul identity cards, the documents that enforced the racist Population Registration Act in South Africa, separated the population into four categories: Whites, Coloureds, Indians and Blacks. Under the laws of apartheid, the colour of a person’s skin would effect their position in society. For example, only white people would be given the right to vote in national elections, white people traveled on separate buses to non-white people, and there were “white only” public toilets. In 1952, during the ANC’s Defiance Campaign, Nelson Mandela was photographed burning his identity card, the first of many to do so. After spending twenty-seven years in prison, for fighting against apartheid, Mandela was released and became South Africa’s first black president on May the 10th, 1994.

One year later, on June the 24th, 1995, Mandela would help the South African rugby union team, known as the Springboks, to win the Rugby World Cup. Prior to this point, the green and gold Springbok t-shirt had been seen as a symbol of apartheid. Through a series of shrewd political moves, wielding the power of sport, towards reconciliation, Mandela was able to unite the South African nation in support of the Springboks.

This story, about the politics of the time, as framed by a rugby game, following the key events of 1990’s South African politics, was skillfully turned into a non-fiction book by British journalist John Carlin. The biography starts with Mandela’s release from prison, on February the 11th, 1990, and gives a concise account of his five years as president from 1994 to 1999. Originally published as Playing The Enemy, but changed to Invictus, following a movie adaption starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon, the history is well researched and well balanced. The overall tone is informative, the general content significant, and the end product emotive.

A gripping read.

49: The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

In Books, Fiction on 06/12/2013 at 12:00 pm

The Golden Notebook by Doris LessingIt is possible to divide our lives up under different headings. But what if you divided your life up into four notebooks to write about four areas of your life? For example, personally speaking, I could write about the following five areas of my life: –

  1. Work (guitar teacher devoted to my students)
  2. Artist (composing music and writing lyrics)
  3. Family and Society (social interactions with the wider world)
  4. Emotions (something mysterious within the wider universe)
  5. Life (all of the above)

This could form a book that if well written, would draw a portrait of my life as a three dimensional human being. This is what Doris Lessing did with her character Anna Wulf in two stages. Firstly, Lessing presented Anna’s story as a short novel of around sixty thousand words. And secondly, she composed a series of diary like notebooks, each with a different topic and style like so: –

  1. Black (young woman living in Africa before and during WWII)
  2. Red (member of the communist party during the cold war)
  3. Yellow (a story Anna has written about a woman called Ella)
  4. Blue (experiences with psychoanalysis and newspaper cuttings)
  5. Golden (an attempt to bring everything together)

By forming Anna’s story in such a manner, Lessing brings to the forefront of the book – from what I can deduce – three major themes: what Lessing has referred to, in the book’s introduction, as ‘the artistic sensibility’; a strong critique of the politics of the time; and a focus on 1950’s sexual relationships. Essentially, by breaking up the traditional form of the novel, I think Lessing was able to highlight both the personal and political problems of a generation.

During the course of the long novel, Anna suffers from bad mental health and has problems integrating with society in a positive way. Although she is a brilliant and intelligent woman, Anna struggles with anxiety and – as Lessing has said – what Marxist refer to as ‘alienation’. Writing the notebooks is a way for Anna to ‘find herself’ again and to reinvent herself as an artist. By transforming her world into words, Anna is able to look at herself clearly in the mirror and come to terms with her place in the wider world.

But this important book is far more than ‘writing as therapy’ or simply an experiment with form in order to prevent writer’s block. It is a deeply layered, challenging (in the best possibly way), Nobel Prize winning (not that prizes are always fairly given) book that encourages its readers to think deeply about what it means to be alive.

This year Doris Lessing died: her work lives on.