Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Book Review - "Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman" by Robert K. Massie

This engaging and well-researched historical tome about one of Russia’s greatest rulers merits 4 full stars. Apart from painting a memorable and respectable portrait of the dramatic life of Catherine the Great, the book also accounts succinctly for the labyrinth of European/Eurasian politics at play in the 18th century, and depicts Russia’s participation in the Seven Years’ War, its carving up of Poland, its two major Wars with Turkey and its putting down the Pugachev Rebellion.

As a child German princess, Catherine II was inspired by her Huguenot Frenchwoman tutor to develop a “permanent love of the French language, with all its possibilities for logic, subtlety, wit and liveliness in writing and conversation”. As a Russian grand duchess and later Empress, she came under the influence of great French philosophers and writers like Bayle, Voltaire, Diderot and Montesquieu, and became the life-long friend of Friedrich Melchior Grimm. Hence her guiding rules for governance were fundamentally based on Enlightenment principles, although she always kept up the appearance of being a devout Orthodox Christian since her conversion from Lutheranism at the time of her marriage to Peter III at the age of fifteen.

Despite her sincere attempt to end centuries-old serfdom in Russia, stiff opposition from the deeply entrenched landed nobility, especially those who had a hand in putting her on the throne, meant that her hands were tied. But her summoning the Legislative Commission in 1767 to debate on social issues raised in her carefully crafted “Nakaz” (a political treatise) showed that she was truly willing to listen to opinions of her subjects about social reforms.

Her personal life was marked by frustration and misery in the first nine years of her marriage. Then after the death of Empress Elizabeth, a twist of fate catapulted her to the zenithal position. Delight, love and career pursuits, success and material opulence decorated her mid-life. After the death of the love of her life, her trusted partner and best friend – Gregory Potemkin – in 1791, she never quite recovered from her grief.

It is interesting to note that the term “Potemkin village”, with its sarcastic undertone which is meant to mock something that’s sham or fraudulent, is actually unjustly attributed to Gregory Potemkin and ungrounded in truth in its common usage. As Massie points out, when Potemkin showed Catherine his great achievements in the form of newly built ports, villages and naval bases in the Crimean peninsula, there were other eyewitnesses – the ambassadors from England and France – who were just as amazed as Catherine on seeing the spectacular new buildings and infrastructure, which couldn’t have been cardboard displays.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Book Review - "Crime and Punishment" by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

After an intriguing start, this novel leads you into a tunnel of darkness, desolation and despair, where you will see no light until you reach the final Part. Once you are there, you will get your cathartic relief with the denouement of a simple but suspenseful plot. I am so glad that my Goodreads friends encouraged me to keep going when, at one point, I was on the verge of quitting, as some parts were particularly difficult for me to read. Indeed, it was definitely worth reading to the end. I’m giving the novel 3.5 stars.

It is in the main a story of an abjectly deprived, 23-year-old student’s agonizing psychological journey from the moment he commits two murders based on a wild theory that he divines, right through to the time of his confession to police. Through his internal debate, the reader is made to ponder the philosophical questions raised: do geniuses like Napoleon have the right to destroy things or people they consider as obstacles? Do such extraordinary individuals have the right to make laws for the rest of mankind, that is, ordinary folks, for the greater good? Even in the early days of imprisonment, the protagonist still obstinately believes that his theory has nothing wrong. We, as readers, can’t help but wonder too.

“Of course, many of the benefactors of mankind who snatched power for themselves instead of inheriting it ought to have been punished at their first steps. But those men succeeded and so they were right, and I didn’t, and so I had no right to have taken that step.”

Throughout the novel, the reader is made aware of the fact that the protagonist is by nature a kind-hearted and compassionate man who loves his family and friends and who cares for the destitute and the weak. He is also made out to be a learned intellectual who has an acute sense of right and wrong. The reader is thus constantly put through the dilemma of whether to sympathize with him or condemn him outright for the cold-blooded crime. The author’s skill at characterization is quite beyond question, although personally I would’ve have liked the long-winded dialogues cut short a tad. But the emotional ending more than makes up for that little flaw.

My final verdict: Do I think Dostoyevsky is a brilliant author? Yes, definitely. Did I enjoy reading this novel? It’s not exactly my cup of tea.