Friday, July 25, 2014

Book Review: "Stone in a Landslide" by Maria Barbal




A powerful, heart-rending story told in Conxa's humble and impassive voice. Conxa is a simple Catalan peasant woman who accepts her crosses with grace, humility and stoicism.

The story is set in Catalonia, Spain in the early 1900s. There is no drama in her life. There is only simple everyday living in a farming community, sometimes pleasant, but at most times trying, until one day a fatal blow from above snatches her husband away. Even after the ordeal of being oppressed by those wielding power, Conxa knows she has no alternative but to go on living for her family's sake, and she does, with unfazed calmness. Life just goes on without drama.

Yet it is exactly the lack of drama and the tantalizing calmness that takes your breath away.




Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Book Review: "Pereira Declares: A Testimony" by Antonio Tabucchi




This has been a totally enthralling read!

The narrative is simple and the tone of the narrator is calm, if a little tongue-in-cheek. But the story grabs you from the first page right through the end. This is not a thriller though. It is just the story of a certain period in an ordinary middle-aged widower’s life, set in authoritarian Portugal in the 30s (circa the Spanish Civil War period). It so happens that during that period he meets two idealistic anarchist youngsters, and his life and his worldview are turned upside down.

What makes the novel so compelling is that it is a stinging reminder of the egregiousness of a police state and government censorship and oppression. It sends a loud message that we, whatever our nationality, must all be vigilant, lest history repeats itself. After all, what civilized human would want to be in Pereira’s shoes, living like a zombie and blighting an instinctive sense of right and wrong?

It is not that long ago that Portugal finally came out of the devilish shadows of a corporatist authoritarian regime, which lasted for 48 years and ended with the 1974 Carnation Revolution. Who knows, had there been a greater number of "converted Pereiras", perhaps the Salazar police state would have ended much quicker.

I would highly recommend this book to all who truly love Hong Kong!

Friday, July 18, 2014

Book Review - "Homage to Catalonia" by George Orwell




This is George Orwell's vivid account of his six-month (from December 1936 to June 1937) direct involvement in the Spanish Civil War. Other than recounting action-packed combative episodes on the war frontier and treacherous street-fighting scenes in Barcelona, the author also gives a clear-eyed analysis of the mind-boggling multi-faction political strife that prevailed. This essentially boils down to a three-sided struggle between the pro-Franco Fascists (prone to feudalism), the Russian-commissar-controlled Republican government (with bourgeois tendencies) and the revolutionary working-class organizations. He also explains candidly why he thought that the surreptitious manoeuvres of the capitalistic European powers were at least part of the cause for the predictable failure of the Spanish democratic revolution.

This factual non-fiction account reads much like gripping fiction, thanks to Orwell's fluid style of writing. It is as educational as it is informative.

The one thing that sticks with me is the compliment that Orwell pays to the Spanish people. It makes me want to visit Spain and learn more about Spanish culture.

"I have the most evil memories of Spain, but I have very few bad memories of Spaniards..... They have, there is no doubt, a generosity, a species of nobility that do not really belong to the twentieth century."

The ultimate lesson that can be drawn from the book is that the perpetual war is always between the haves and the have-nots, whatever fancy political ideological terms are attributed to opposing factions.



 

Friday, July 11, 2014

Book Review - "Anna Karenina" by Leo Tolstoy



I saw the 1997 movie adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” starring Sophie Marceau and Sean Bean and was quite smitten with it.

But reading the epic novel has been a “value-added” experience. It feels like I have been given a three-dimensional picture of each of the main characters which simply come alive as flesh and blood with feelings, thoughts and beliefs – just like real people, who are from a historical era. This is not to say that Marceau’s and Bean’s and others’ acting wasn’t perfect, which it was. It’s just that the novelist has the advantage of going right into the characters’ mind and soul and through adroit writing craft, of laying it bare to the audience. The emotional turmoil and mental processes that go on beneath their appearances, facial expressions, gestures and actions couldn’t be conveyed as convincingly if it weren’t for the author’s sensitive insight into the human psyche and his skilful use of words. Well, yes, you may say that this is a roundabout way of saying that I love Tolstoy’s writing, and I do.

The story, though with an emphasis on Anna’s poignant love affair and ill fate, is in fact about the vicissitudes of three households: a happy one (Kitty and Levin), an unhappy one (Dolly and Oblonsky) and a tragic one (Anna and Karenin), painted on a canvas of transitioning Russian social and political norms. Social mores about love and marital bonds are beginning to tend towards a less dogmatic norm but upper-class society in general still takes a hypocritically conservative attitude. Politically, aristocratic Russia is waking up to the calls for democratic reforms to its administrative structure and economic organization of resources. I like the way Tolstoy blends the storyline with such a richly woven backdrop.

I believe Tolstoy’s own worldview finds its mirror in Levin’s mental struggles between morality and temptation and between social justice and self preservation, which conclude in the belief that good deeds are necessary for the sake of one’s soul. Perhaps Tolstoy’s own interpretation of a happy household is also reflected through Levin’s household after his marriage to Kitty.

“Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” There are two unhappy families, each with its own grievances. Oblonsky’s womanizing and irresponsible attitude towards finances is shown to cause great anguish to Dolly and their children, while Karenin, a self-centered and rigid bureaucrat and insensitive husband, blames his unfaithful wife Anna for wrecking his honor and happiness and drives her to despair out of pettiness.

Lastly, there is something to be said about Anna’s sufferings and her ultimate failure to overcome her deep insecurities. Apart from her painful dilemma between choosing her lover and her beloved son and her inimical hardship in living like a social outcast, her constant mental anguish arises, ironically, from her exquisite beauty and her power to attract men, of which she is only too conscious, and her apparent knowledge that beauty doesn’t last. Her debilitating fear that Vronsky will love her less and less and will finally leave her is pitiable but not unreasonable. If only she could find a way to building up confidence in her inner beauty (her intellect and nurturing talent)! But self-confidence is not a female trait condoned by society then. Thus, her tragedy could not conceivably be averted! This is the pathos of the story.


Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Book Review: The Wives of Henry VIII by Antonia Fraser




This is a work of elaborate research into and objective recount of the lives and fates of the six queens of Henry VIII. Although I had to struggle with the innumerable and often confusing names and titles of the gargantuan cast in the presentation, this didn't thwart my desire to get to the end.

The stories of the women themselves are poignant, if not upsetting (upsetting because they are not fictitious but real people). Their fates are a direct result of the times they lived in, which was probably one of the bloodiest reigns in English history, not to mention their ill luck of being tied in marital bond with, to say the least, a volatile and self-indulgent monarch who was obsessed with the issue of a male heir.

The author did a good job in explaining in detail the intricacies of European politics in that era: the unending strife between the Catholic and Protestant factions, the in-court rivalry between the consort-related nobility and the use of royal marriages for political ends. Highlighting such labyrinthine political background are the calculating and often deadly machinations by stakeholders behind a masquerade of civility and honor.

One gruesome detail of the narrative is the description of those monstrous capital punishments and tortures permitted under sixteenth century English law, which rival in cruelty with China's penal system in the Yuan and Ming Dynasties.

Overall, the moral lesson that can be drawn from this historical account is perhaps that a ruler or political leader (man or woman) can never be trusted with having absolute, unchecked power over others.