After ditching Don Quixote in early October, I worked through three novels, all by decorated authors.
Old Man and the Sea– Ernest Hemingway
A story about a fishing trip and daydreams about baseball. An allegory about life. Well worth reading and a book that justifies my belief that Hemingway improved as a writer through his career. Much of the story is spent with the old man on his boat, accompanied only by the eponymous sea and the fish, so there isn’t a lot of Hemingway’s trademark staccato dialogue. At the same time there is no natural breaking point in the text, but I was able to find places to put the book down since there was still a natural, tidal rhythm to the text. The content of this story did not speak to me as much as some of the others did, but I could appreciate it for what it was and this simple fishing story is marvelously layered with meaning in such a way that it can provoke reaction on a variety of levels and none of them will be wrong.
Of the stand-alone, book-length stories of Hemingway’s, I’ve now read six, as well as Green Hills of Africa and A Moveable Feast. Unless I find a cheap copy of Across the River and into the Woods, the next on my list of Hemingways is Islands in the Stream
Waiting for the Barbarian -J.M. Coetzee
The Magistrate has spent most of his life governing a small border town, overseeing interactions between the barbarians, the marsh people, and the Empire, and conducting an ad hoc archeological dig in the ruins of a a lost civilization. The peaceful rhythm of this life is broken when the Empire learning of an impending invasion by newly-united tribes of nomadic barbarians and is determined to exterminate this threat. The Magistrate becomes entangled in this string of events when he becomes rapturously enthralled by a captured barbarian woman who he pities, lusts after, and is repulsed by. Though she is his focus, he sympathizes with all the captured barbarians, whose threat he is sure the Empire is inventing and manipulating.
Coetzee’s themes of otherness, bureaucracy, propaganda, exploitation, and brutality, usually attract me and they entirely dominate the novel–and the South African man won the 2003 Nobel Prize in literature for his treatment of these issues. The focus on the border town does distinguish Waiting for the Barbarian from other stories of this sort in that both external threats to living life provide their own measure of barbarity, but there was something about the bleakness that I found off-putting. I still don’t know what it was exactly about the book that left me feeling this way, but while the topics are critically important for the modern world, I just found it unfulfilling.
The White Tiger– Aravind Adiga
Adiga’s first novel, which won the 2008 Booker Prize and was easily my favorite of the three, delves into the inequalities of modern India, particularly between the rich and the poor, between the urban and the rural, and how both manifest themselves in the corruption of Indian politics. The novel unfolds as Balram Halwai, a self-described entrepreneur, writes a series of email communiques to Wen Jiabao, the Premier of China, who is about to visit India. Balram tells Mr. Jiabao that he needs to ignore the Indian politicians and visit him, a real businessman entrepreneur, the type of person who is going to be the future of India. Of course, Balram is also a murderer, an up-jumped peasant, and a White Tiger, a once-in-a-generation predator.
Adiga’s novel is darkly funny and powerful. It is driven by Balram’s self-effacing, almost-obsequious megalomania that he cultivates from his brief stint in school through his career as a servant to his former landlords to his acquisition of his start-up capitol. The letters expose heart-breaking conditions, depraved lifestyles, and the violence that the combination of the two engenders, all the while remaining unendingly optimistic about the prosperity that a white tiger can achieve in this state. It is clear that Balram is a madman, but that doesn’t mean he is wrong.
I wanted to write a full review of The White Tiger, but I dallied on picking the appropriate form to write it in and then got busy. It will appear on my updated (an expanded!) list of top novels that will appear in early January–six books have been added to the list so far this year, bringing the list up to 36 thus far.
November is looking like it will be more of the same in terms of pace since the end of the semester is nigh. I am, however, about two-thirds through Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ The General in his Labyrinth, which is a re-imagination of Simon Bolivar’s final journey after giving up power and is interspersed with his memories. It isn’t my favorite of Marquez’ books, but I am consistently amazed by his use of language.