The Ministry of Fear – Graham Greene

Pity is a terrible thing. People talk about the passion of love. Pity is the worst passion of all: we don’t outlive it like sex.

Arthur Rowe is a murderer, having spent time in psychiatric care for the mercy killing of his wife, and newly released into wartime London he enters into charity auction that, by mistake, he wins. The organizers of the auction come looking for his prize, a cake, but a bomb destroys the house and the cake. Rowe hires a private detective and begins chasing shadows of an inchoate Ministry of Fear intending to reveal the secrets of public figures and destabilize the British government. However, his search is temporarily derailed when an assassination attempt on Rowe and Anna, the girl who he has fallen for, leaves him with amnesia and placed in a sanatorium run by Nazis. Chaos ensues in his attempt to escape and thwart the members of the ministry.

Like Greene’s other “entertainment” I have read, Stamboul Train, Ministry of Fear is a nonstop riot of happenstance and intrigue, but the premise doesn’t work quite as well when the plot mucks about in a general location as opposed to careening down a track. Published in 1943, the novel does try to capture the paranoia and constant anxiety during the blitz, but the larger themes concerning identity, mental anxiety, and what it takes to have a stable society never really carry through. Ultimately the plot is barely coherent and while there are some good observations and scenes, the novel as a whole did not work for me.

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I just finished reading Roberto Arlt’s The Seven Madmen a feverish, delirious novel of plots and delusions in 1920s Argentina. I haven’t picked out what I am going to read next, but am leaning toward either Dr. Futurity by Philip K. Dick or Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco.

December 2015 Reading Recap

PSA: I’ve been doing these monthly reading recaps for the last few years and it has been a good opportunity to give mini-reviews of anything for which I do not write out longer posts. That will still likely be true for such posts, but for the books I have reviewed, I will likely just give a link to the longer review and forego a more detailed summary. The blurbs that accompany the recap post will be used as a chance for further reflection, updating, amending, or otherwise adding tidbits not in the original post.

The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco

The one book from December that I did not review. (Actually, as I write this I am still trying to figure out how to write a review of Don Delillo’s White Noise, though I am going to finish that post before this one is published, so there.) The Name of the Rose is a book that I thought I read years and years ago, but I do not know that I ever finished it and yet it is so ingrained in culture that I consume, through references, through discussions, and through games, that it was as though I had read it. Adso, the apprentice of William of Baskerville, accompanies his master to a rich and esteemed monastery in Northern Italy to attend to a theological dispute, but a series of deaths derails the specific inquest and forces the visitors to dive into a series of other mysteries, including the labyrinthine (and forbidden) library, the inquisition, longstanding philosophical disagreements, heresy, and challenges of living on earth. William is tasked with unravelling the mysteries using the powers of logic that positions the story within the rich world of medieval philosophy. Eco’s work is deep and allusive, but this story is at some level an excellent mystery.

Stamboul Train, Graham Greene

Reviewed here, I don’t have much new to add about Greene’s entertainment, but am again thinking of the distinction between “serious” literature and “fluff.” To an extent there are structural differences, particularly when judging serious literature by the standards of the Nobel committee, which usually has a preference for books that make the Oscar voters’ choices of movies look downright optimistic. Non-serious literature, by contrast, is designed to be easily read. It is a caricature to suggest that easily read books can’t deal with important issues or profound topics hidden beneath the glitz and glam.

A Small Town Called Hibiscus, Gu Hua

Reviewed here, Hibiscus is Gu Hua’s critique of the Cultural Revolution in 1970s China. He idealizes capitalism and the success of small-businesses, who succeed through hard work and through the support of the town officials and town community. It is a deliberate choice (as often happens) to praise these virtues through the remote, anachronistic, and bucolic village. Nothing is ever perfect, of course, but it is possible to create a healthy and comfortable life if one works hard because the universe of the town is limited to the surrounding villages and the town is thus unpolluted by the wider, impersonal forces that cause people to become disconnected and then to turn on one another. There is probably a parallel story that could be told where the force that corrupts the town is a large retail establishment instead of the government.

Hyperion, Dan Simmons

Reviewed here, Hyperion is a beautiful and moving work of science fiction that, other than stories-within-story structure, stunning imagery, and suffering of nearly every character, is notable for a major reason: it has no real ending. It is as though Dorothy went with her companions to see the wizard, with the entire story consisting of how the Tin Man came to be without a heart*, etc, and then left off as they approached the Emerald City. There is a sequel to Hyperion, which suggests that this story is nothing but an extended prologue. Yet, I like that this is a story about the intersection of the characters both in the specific case of the pilgrimage and in wider events. In other words, the story is about the journeys, not the destination. I already wonder if the second book (which I have not yet read) will too dramatically shift these messages and leave me wishing that Hyperion existed as a standalone work that just ends without conclusion.

*According to Wikipedia, this story exists and the Wizard of Oz movie would have been even more horrifying had it been told in vivid technicolor.

White Noise, Don Delillo

Live Tweet and (short) review. The college that Jack Gladney works at in this novel is known as College-on-the-Hill, set, of course, in the midwest. Delillo shows that it is possible to flee the unbearable crush of the big city by going to the midwest, but that it is impossible to escape. However, the college (for all its faults) is still presented as aspiring to be a genuine refuge, presumably for both the students and the teachers. I suspect the name is meant ironically, particularly since it clearly does not save Gladney from his family, but I would like for the school to serve as more than just a foil for the rest of society because it perpetuates a vision of an ivory tower that really doesn’t exist.

Siam, or the woman who shot a man, Lily Tuck

Reviewed here, Siam was the only book I read last month that provoked an extremely negative response from me. The knee-jerk hostility has somewhat waned, though I stand by everything I said in the review. Claire’s relationship and situation does not work out in Southeast Asia and I was frustrated by how the story doesn’t much engage with the relationship between Claire and James, the latter of whom is frequently absent, which, in turn puts further strain on the relationship–i.e. I didn’t get a sense of why or how Claire cared a whit about James outside of the physical relationship. However, part of the problem with my frustration is that the story is a psychological study about Claire’s isolation, not a study about the failures of the relationship between Claire and James. I still did not like the book, but I think Tuck is more successful than I gave her credit for.


Favorite from December: Hyperion.
Currently reading: The Green House, one of the early books by Mario Vargas Llosa. After that I have a lengthy list, but no concrete plans. 2016 is a blank slate and I have some ambitions, but those are for another post.

Stamboul Train, Graham Greene

Written as an “entertainment” as distinguished from serious works, Graham Greene’s 1932 novel, and arguably his first major literary success–it was made into a movie in 1934–lives up to its billing.

Stamboul Train unfolds over the course of a trip from Ostend to Istanbul, with the action worked into the train’s course between major relays where additional protagonists leap onto the train of love, lust, obligation, revolution, and theft. Unwittingly at the center of these schemes is Coral Musker, a poor chorus girl who took a job in Istanbul and could only afford a third-class ticket for the three day trip and caught cold and faints. She is helped out by Dr. Richard Czinner, a communist returning to Belgrade, and catches the eye of Carleton Myatt, a Jewish businessman who buys her a first-class sleeping cabin, in return, of course, for favors. In Cologne this troika is joined by Janet Pardoe, and almost by accident by Janet’s (jealous) partner, the lesbian journalist Mabel Warren who is sure she recognizes Czinner, who the rest of the world thinks is dead. At Vienna they are joined by Josef Grünlich, a thief seeking to escape detection.

The first part of each section is dedicated to events surrounding the station, including the individuals coming and going from the train before it picks up and heads into the ever-snowier east. This is not a mystery like the more-famous Agatha Christie novel and the actions and ambitions of each character are laid out quite plainly. Instead, there is banter as the characters try to deceive one another and the intrigues swirl as they each try to determine what their obligations to each other actually are. For instance, what does Coral owe Myatt for having paid for her to have an expensive room? What does Myatt owe Coral for effectively promising to take her on as his mistress (she isn’t Jewish, so she cannot be one he takes on as a wife)? What do Janet and Mabel owe each other and is the partnership replaceable? Does Mabel owe Czinner anything or should she angle simply for her front-page by-line? Does Grünlich have any loyalties?

Issues of class and money loom large. The the passengers on the train are divided by class, but the roots run deeper. In particular, Czinner is a communist revolutionary indulging in expensive tickets on this journey and Myatt is a wealthy businessman who can afford to throw around money in order to draw women to him and yet he is subject to insult on the grounds that he is Jewish.

Stamboul Train was a pleasant and quick read, but, beneath the snappy exterior, the novel has a grim message. The conductors are totalitarian, the world is burning while the train hurtles along, the good and innocent are utterly at the mercy of those with money and largely without morals. It is an entertainment, but Greene sells it short by distinguishing it thusly.