Saturday, April 26, 2014

Book Review - "The Kill" ("La Curee") by Emile Zola

I read The Kill (La Curee) about three years ago and liked it so much as to have written a long review of it in my Asia Sentinel (an online magazine) blog. I’ve dug out that review and have shortened it a bit for sharing here.

The Kill (La Curee) is the second in Emile Zola’s twenty-volume Rougon-Macquart saga, which is a fictional historical account of a family under France’s Second Empire, a semi-despotic, semi-parliamentary kleptocracy of Louis Bonaparte Napoleon III. This novel aroused my interest in the author Emile Zola, whom, after deeper research into his life and works, I’ve come to like and respect.

As suggested by the title of the novel, the hunting spoils (the French term is “la curee”) are rewards for the hounds for killing the quarry. In allegorical interpretation, spoils of economic development are rewards for those callous enough to prey on the weak and vulnerable. This is the main theme of the novel.

The story of The Kill is set in Paris during the reign of the Second Empire, a city that was undergoing dramatic transformations highlighted by greed, graft and conspicuous consumption. The background setting features massive public works which include demolition of broad swaths of old Paris for the construction of spacious boulevards and widespread expansion of railroads. The social backdrop tells of how the middle-class rushes to embrace new-found gold-digging opportunities and how the government wades knee-deep in corruption and cronyism.

“From the very first days Aristide Saccard sensed the approach of this rising tide of speculation, whose spume would one day cover all of Paris. He followed its progress closely. He found himself smack in the middle of the torrential downpour of gold raining down on the city’s roofs. In his incessant turns around city hall, he had caught wind of the vast project to transform Paris, of the plans for demolition, of the new streets and hastily planned neighborhoods, and of the massive wheeling and dealing in land and buildings that had ignited a clash of interests across the capital and set off an unbridled pursuit of luxury…..”

Against this background, the main story line centers on Aristide Saccard’s rapacious graft at the government office and his coldhearted exploitation of his beautiful but soulless wife Renee, and simultaneously threads through a materially decadent and morally depraved period of her life, which culminates in her engagement in incest with her step-son Maxime. The story ends with an abrupt and cruel shattering of Renee’s self-indulgent delusions, her heartbreak caused by her discovery of her husband’s and Maxime’s heartless betrayal of her. Her tragic end has a dark symbolic ring to it.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Book Review - "Candide" by Voltaire

In reading this review, please be warned that I have only limited knowledge of philosophy and “Candide” is a reputed philosophical satire.

I'm just going to record what I was able to grasp. The moral of the story would appear to be that since there is a limitless amount of unpredictable chaos in life, much of which is catastrophic, evil and wretched, be it man-made (like rape, war, massacre, plague, religious intolerance) or from force majeure (like earthquake, shipwreck), that one can be easily tempted to give up all hope on mankind, but that despair is not the answer.

The author takes the protagonist Candide from place to place, putting him through the most horrible ordeals in order to make him see the falsity in the philosophical thinking mode of his teacher Dr. Pangloss, which is unadulterated optimism no matter how dire the life situation is. In the end, Candide has seen too much absurdity and pain in life and evil in people to still believe in Pangloss's theory. But neither does that mean life is not worth living. Candide has come to learn that humans by nature have a penchant for living, no matter how harrowing life is (as the old woman who has survived unspeakable atrocities says, 'A hundred times I wanted to kill myself, but still I loved life!').

So perhaps some measure of deprivation and evil is actually beneficial, because it gives purpose and contrast to life. Besides, too much comfort and complacency only breeds boredom and lethargy (like the rich Venetian nobleman Pococurante who has everything but shows no interest in anything). Candide finally comes to the conclusion that "we must cultivate our garden", meaning that despite all, we should all strive to develop our own individual talent for our own good and the good of society.

I rather like the uplifting conclusion. I just feel that in terms of philosophical notion, it sounds a bit like Albert Camus's absurdism and revolt.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Book Review - "The Kite Runner"

I have mixed feelings about “The Kite Runner”. There is no question that Khaled Hosseini is a talented and charming storyteller. He knows how to titillate readers’ sensibilities. Indeed, that the movie adaptation was as much a success as the novel bears evidence to that. Somehow the story reminds me of the hugely popular film “Slumdog Millionaire”. Maybe because both stories are great tear-jerkers.

“The Kite Runner” does touch my sensibilities. I am deeply saddened by what happens to Hassan. I can empathize with Amir for his burden of guilt. I am moved by the description of Hassan’s unquestioning loyalty towards Amir and of the father-son relationship between Amir and Baba. I am shocked at the human conditions in war-torn Afghanistan and I am appalled about the plight of Afghan children. But I can’t help feeling there’s still something amiss in the novel. Perhaps a precious chance to embed a deeper meaning to the novel was lost.

In my humble opinion, a great novel should have one or several strong moral messages besides being a fantastic read. In other words, there should be more than just the surface layer of a story which serves the superficial function of entertaining, touching, thrilling, shocking or in whatever other ways of catering to the stimulation of the reader’s senses. In “The Kite Runner”, one important theme would seem to be that of social dilemmas arising from class distinction – between the privileged class of the Pashtuns and the downtrodden servant class of the Hazaras. I’m just a little disappointed that the author didn’t leverage on this theme to deliver a universal ethical message – that of the necessity of eliminating class discrimination in all societies, that all humans should be treated as equals. If the message is already there, it may be a little too subtle for detection.

In the main storyline, where Hassan’s unreciprocated loyalty and affection towards Amir is implied as the chief cause for Amir’s guilty conscience, there is no mention that Amir is in any way angry about the social norm that pits his class against Hassan’s class. Inasmuch as Amir has genuine feelings of remorse for mistreating the pal he grew up with, it’s not the same as showing disgust for the unjust social norm of class distinction and discrimination. (The best Amir can do in this respect is to tell his father-in-law never to refer to Sohrab, Hassan’s son, as ‘that Hazara’, in his presence.) One would wonder whether the adult Amir would fight for equality in his society if there was no war and if he and Baba didn’t have to flee to America, or whether he would just wallow in his snug privileged position all his life.

And then there is so much hypocrisy in Baba, the one who is portrayed as the brave, self-righteous, loving and generous father. He would rather endure not acknowledging Hassan as his lawful son and take the secret to his grave than having his “good” name ruined because of the shame he felt for sleeping with his servant’s wife, a Hazara. For all the charitable deeds that Baba does and for his kind treatment of Ali, he is still someone who condones class distinction. What he could have done for Ali and Hassan is to help them stand on their own feet rather than keeping them as servants and taking care of them. Again, one is not sure whether Amir thinks that Baba is in the wrong here, as playing patron to someone is quite different from respecting him as an equal.

Having said all that, I do admit that I may be overly critical, because in times of great turmoil, who would give a damn to social equality when there are the wounded, the hungry, the homeless and the destitute to worry about? But then shouldn’t every opportunity be grasped to spread the important message to and educate societies about a basic value?

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Book Review: "The Painted Veil" by Somerset Maugham

I saw the 2006 movie “The Painted Veil” on TV some years ago and somehow couldn’t quite forget Edward Norton playing the always tense and melancholic Walter Fane, who actually has a sensitive and loving heart beneath what appears to be a cold and distant outer shell.

Recently in an online chat with other readers at Goodreads, I was asked to name my favorite movie which was adapted from a novel and I answered “The Painted Veil” just because I loved the movie very much as I remembered it. But I had never read the novel before. So I decided to read the novel. When I finished reading it, I felt the novel impresses me even more than the movie.

The novel moves me on several levels.

The most elementary, or shallow, layer, is in the theme of unrequited love. As hackneyed such a theme as it is, here within the storyline there still lurks something that disturbs the heart profoundly. Walter, being perfect as he is as a human being (although not in Kitty’s eyes, which makes it ironical), doesn’t mind giving without expecting return in his one-sided love relationship with Kitty. Well aware of Kitty’s shallowness of character, frivolity and fatuousness, he is willing to love and dote on her with all his heart. His love for Kitty is unconditional, until he finds out her infidelity, which shatters him with no hope for salvation. But because his fantasy of love is so pure and his devotion so unrestrained, he is, whether conscious of it or not, apt to meet with utter disappointment in the end. Sand castles are built to be erased. When he decides to go to cholera-stricken Mei-tan-fu in China, dragging Kitty along, he is determined to inflict on himself (and Kitty too, initially) the ultimate punishment.

As Kitty thought aloud in the novel, “Because he had dressed a doll in gorgeous robes and set her in a sanctuary to worship her, and then discovered that the doll was filled with sawdust, he could neither forgive himself nor her. His soul was lacerated. It was all make-believe that he had lived on, and when the truth shattered it, he thought reality itself was shattered. It was true enough, he would not forgive her because he could not forgive himself.”

What Walter stirs in me is not so much pity for him as sympathy with his helpless reliance on mirages of love for survival. It is his deadly weakness, to be sure. But isn’t there a part of us that tends to believe what we want to believe? The pathos of the story lies in Walter’s inability to free himself of his over-indulgence in fantasyland.

The second layer of the story is the gradual conversion process of Kitty Fane from the worthless, self-indulgent and frivolous woman to the independent-thinking and compassionate individual who is at last free from the values she was brought up to believe in. Indeed, Kitty is justified to blame her mother Mrs. Garstin for her tortuous learning curve in life. It was Mrs. Garstin who nudged her into marrying Walter just for the sake of material comfort and nothing else. In Mrs. Garstin’s mind, a woman would be foolish not to use her beauty as a bargaining chip in exchange for a qualified provider of means. This brings to mind Ruth, the supercilious mother of Rose, in the movie “Titanic”, who insists that Rose should marry into high society. In both cases, the mothers are too callous to even have a clue what disastrous consequences might result from their forcing their daughters into unhappy and loveless marriages.

In “The Painted Veil”, Kitty is lucky to come upon soul-cleansing encounters in Mei-tan-fu where she stares death in the face every day and witnesses the selfless kind acts of the French nuns, which at the same time moves her and shames her to the core about the worthless life she leads. Fortunate for her, her chance for salvation comes knocking on the door and her life is changed forever. Her only regret is the tragic loss of Walter to the pestilence.

The third layer, which is tied to the second, is the championing of the idea that women should strive to be free and independent individuals and learn not to rely on men, which idea, given the timeframe of the novel, is a bold concept. It is Kitty’s own painful life experiences that lead her to that awakening. She has come a long way indeed, after first being betrayed by the selfish and narcissistic Charlie Townsend, who she erroneously trusts to be the love of her life, then suffering the silent alienation by her husband Walter while adjusting to an isolated life in inhospitable Mei-tan-fu, then discovering that she’s with child, then losing Walter tragically to cholera and, lastly, subjecting herself once more to degradation at the seduction of Townsend.

In the last Chapter, Kitty said to her father: “Let me be frank just this once, father. I’ve been foolish and wicked and hateful. I’ve been terribly punished. I’m determined to save my daughter from all that. I want her to be fearless and frank. I want her to be a person independent of others because she is possessed of herself, and I want her to take life like a free man and make a better job of it than I have.”

We all make mistakes in our lives, sometimes serious ones. Everyone deserves a second chance. Kitty is no exception.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

My Latest Youtube Upload "Let It Be Me"

During the process of rediscovering my favorite English oldies (again thanks to the Radio HK Radio 5 music program that I mentioned in an earlier post for jogging my memory), I've found through more research on Youtube that a number of popular English oldies actually came from French originals. They include: "Autumn Leaves" ("Les Feuilles Mortes"), "I Will Follow Him" ("Chariot"), "My Way" ("Comme d'habitude"), "If You Go Away" ("Ne Me Quitte Pas"), "Yesterday When I Was Young" ("Hier Encore"), "All Over the World" ("Dans Le Monde Entier").

I've just uploaded to Youtube another popular song that also came from a French original: "Let It Be Me" ("Je t'appartiens"). Here's the video for sharing:-